The Bone Artists

Every day, in gardens throughout the city, new blossoms opened to their most beautiful, most glorious potential, and in bright clinics the elderly who refused to undergo youth treatments were euthanized.

Pietro was going on one hundred and fourteen and felt it. He had ceased his treatments. To avoid detection, he’d removed his master chip with a sharp scissors and whenever he ventured into the city he was careful to melt into darkness.

Pietro walked slowly at night with bent shoulders. He moved painfully, silently, face hidden in a scarf. He found his nourishment in the moonlight and trashcans. He gathered a few precious things that the extremely old need. Then, at the dawn of each day, he slipped through a secret door that welcomed vanishing souls to a black place beneath the city.

The underground refuge was the last free place that remained. It was a retreat where age was not shunned. The tug of time had drawn many into the ancient catacombs.

Pietro moved slowly down one long passage in the maze of candlelit catacombs and entered a chapel of bones. In the very dim light he could see dozens of leg bones and arm bones fastened to rock walls, forming crooked crosses. Skulls whose eye sockets flickered with small flames had been stacked high, almost to the roots of trees. It was a chapel without windows. Only fading eyes.

He entered a large stone chamber. The workplace of the bone artists.

The bone artists moved creakingly in that hollow of Earth, assembling dry bones that were sorted into piles. They didn’t see Pietro enter. The very old people hunched over their work, reaching with their meager fingers for raw material.

Half-formed in that obscure space was their vast Creation.

In that immense vault, where time was still sacred, bones had been assembled like unearthed fossils into visions that were sculpted from secret knowledge. Thousands of bones were fitted together into brittle, ponderous truths. The bones formed a subterranean world of gaunt trees, pale towers and skeletal fields . . . a world of bone horses, bone eagles, bone houses and a bleached city . . . a world beneath the world.

The bone artists worked silently, tying bone to bone, heads bowed. Their eyes were nearly shut. None saw Pietro enter.

“Look what I’ve brought!”

Cradled in the arms of Pietro were flowers that he had stolen in broad daylight.

The artists looked up. Eyes suddenly widened.

A few more candles were lit, and a crop of new flowers was soon sprinkled throughout Creation.

The Silver of Ice

Leslie’s open eyes were vulnerable. With one mittened hand she tugged the wool cap down over her eyebrows. With the other she held up the scarf, to smother her nose.

The bitter New Year’s wind drained the heat of every living thing.

Leslie could feel her eyes freezing. It was a peculiar feeling. She blinked rapidly, trying to summon warm tears.

Fragments of ice torn from the frozen world blew past her eyes. She flinched. The flakes seemed white ash from a dead fire.

Leslie hurried down the sidewalk–as fast as she could without slipping. The convenience store was only two blocks away.

The entire town had vanished in colorless snow. Nobody in their right mind would venture outside in such inhuman cold. Just a Ford pickup equipped with a scraping snow plow, and a few creeping cars behind it.

With relief she exploded through the store’s door.

“Cold enough for you?” asked Freddie. He was sitting on a stool gazing out the frosted window.

“I’m out of cough syrup. Jack can’t stop coughing, so I have to hurry back. I’m so tired. They said on the news it’s almost a record. Thirty five below, or something.”

“Yeah, everything’s dead. The cold has stopped everything.”

“Happy New Year,” he added as she departed.

Leslie rushed back into the white world, determined to be home and out of the wind’s teeth.

She almost slipped on the sidewalk, but miraculously regained her balance. She crossed the empty street, avoiding hard slush. Someone was scraping thick ice off a windshield. She didn’t turn her head to see who.

Leslie ran as best as she could against the cold.

She could feel her eyes beginning to freeze.

The mailbox.

It was frozen shut. With an icy rock from the ground she broke ice off.

She pulled out a letter.

She stood in the piercing cold, and with clumsy mittened hands opened the envelope.

A New Year’s card.

She paused, looked for a long minute upon a scene of carefree skaters on a silver lake, lost in a forest of bright silver trees. They skated under silver stars, in a world that was shining like unearthly heaven. Around the lake hovered a few snowflakes–perfectly formed snowflakes like silver dreams.

It was so beautiful.

A flake of snow landed on the card, melted.

Leslie despaired that the beautiful card would be ruined. She quickly opened her jacket and put the silver next to her heart. Shivering deeply, she turned about, hurried for the door.

A Secret Junkyard

Pender glared at his marvelous invention. No matter how hard he hammered, the critical gear refused to turn.

Which meant the pendulum could never swing. And the pulley could never pull. And the mainspring could never spring.

And the crystal wings that projected from either side of his shining golden hummingbird would remain lifeless, eternally.

Pender’s invention lay motionless at the center of his desk.

He couldn’t bear to look at it.

Reaching across of his desk, Pender pressed several keys of an antique black typewriter. A fatal click sounded in his private study. A bookcase swung open.

Pender jumped up, roughly grabbed one crystal wing and whisked his failure across the small study. With one lunging step he carried it through the bookcase . . .

Behind Pender’s books stretched a junkyard. An immense junkyard–his infinite, private, painful secret. His manifold failures littered a bewildering expanse. Scattered to the right and to the left, his wrecks had been thrown carelessly into chaotic nonexistence. Pender felt bitter revulsion for that junkyard. So many marvelous inventions, each aborted.

Pender tossed the shining hummingbird over a few broken things and it landed in a lifeless heap. He turned, determined not to see.

So many aborted dreams.

Every one wonderful.

An elegant baby grand piano, attached with baling wire to the top of a diesel locomotive. But the train was too loud.

A fifty-foot mechanical clown powered by the sonic energy of human laughter. But nobody laughed.

A glass carriage containing one thousand red roses and an Egyptian mummy. But the smell was horrific.

A flying saucer built with toilet paper tubes, tinfoil, rubber bands, white multi-purpose glue and three jet engines. But the rubber bands inevitably broke.

A magnificent hot air balloon of sewn-together silk stockings. A few stockings had holes.

A gigantic pirate ship carved out of Swiss cheese. The rats fled.

An upside down triangular house. That had a tendency to tip over.

A contraption consisting of a warped lawn chair, a pair of skis, one rubber tire, a bicycle chain, a mannequin, a cuckoo clock, a stove pipe hat, goose feathers, profuse sweat and shed tears.

Pender’s brightening eyes lingered on the contraption.

It had so much potential.

Impulsively, Pender grabbed hold of his preposterous creation, lifted it with all of his strength and carried it out of the secret junkyard into his small study. He placed the thing on his desk. He tested the bicycle chain and straightened the stove pipe hat.

Pender touched several keys of his black typewriter, closing the bookcase.

He feverishly went to work.

The Pistachio Rocket

High arches shaped like human bones had been erected in the city plaza. According to a sign it was a temporary installation. At night hundreds of suspended lights illuminated the space beneath the bones. The effect was fantastic. The bones vanished and the colored lights became a galaxy of stars.

During lunchtime many in the plaza paused to read the sign. It included the word: Earthbound. Finding the proper entrance, people proceeded to pass through unelectrified bones. When they exited they walked on as though nothing had happened.

I watched people move through the bones from a bench as I gobbled my sandwich.

People walked steadily through. I’m not sure what they expected to see.

A tiny girl with an ice cream cone came flying across the plaza. She darted straight into the bones. She sprinted wildly to the opposite end, twirled around, ran back out into the open. She jumped up and down excitedly, laughed, yammered something I didn’t understand, then dashed once again into the bones. Stopping halfway through, she began leaping up and down with abandon, swinging her arms with glee, sending the pistachio ice cream on her cone up through the air like a green rocket. I don’t believe she read the sign.

The Perfect Snowflake

Sanji was aware that he was dreaming.

He was walking through a silent white forest. Pine trees blanketed with snow rose on every side.

When Sanji was a young child, the lucid dreams had been frequent. That was a lifetime ago, when he spent his waking hours pretending to streak past a billion billion stars as he traveled in a spaceship to the far end of the universe.

As a middle-aged man he slept without dreams.

Until this night.

Sanji moved through the white forest deliberately and searched the snow with devouring eyes. He turned his feet in every direction, crushing fresh powder with every step, and at last halted on the bank of a frozen river. He could hear running water bubbling beneath the emerald ice.

Sanji had searched the unknown his entire adult life. Somehow, after many dreamless nights, he had become a leading theoretical physicist. He lived in a small world of unending numbers, odd symbols. Penning equations, scratching them out. Now he gazed down at the frozen river and knew for certain that he was asleep and dreaming, and that what he saw before him was absolutely real.

Looking up, he saw white particles floating from the trees. One drifted down, landed on his fingertip.

He held the snowflake next to one eye.

He stared at its shape.

The tiny snowflake was an infinity of jigsaw pieces fitted together into one seamless whole. Pieces of infinitesimal essence.

He caught his breath in the airless cold.

He had found something that he had never seen before. A perfect snowflake. The most simple of all possible truths.

The crystal snowflake was an unbidden, elegant revelation, like inspired strokes of chalk on a newly-cleaned chalkboard: a brilliant equation of white: a mathematical certainty that explained all things.

All Sanji’s life he’d grappled to unravel the truth. He had fought to weld together that desperate mathematical Theory of Everything.

Now it was on his finger.

In the perfect snowflake he saw the precise truth that was written at the beginning of all things. He saw the origin, the movement, the destiny of the universe. The final equation shimmered before him. He saw each finite number distinctly. It was simple. He’d found it.

Sanji heard a patter of rain.

He listened to the rain and was aware that it was dark. And that he was warm in bed.

Outside his bedroom window streaked dark ghostly rain.

Suddenly he remembered his dream.

Despair.

He had to write it down. That equation.

He knew there was a notepad on the desk by the window–and on top of the notepad a ballpoint pen. He jumped up.

The ghostly rain outside his room drew his eyes to the window. Softly glowing raindrops were coursing separately down the pane, like pulsing atoms or universes, flowing, colliding, combining, accelerating, vanishing. The raindrops followed defined courses, courses easily formulated, with destinies known. And yet each was a mystery. Each drop was birthed out of darkness–each was a vision beyond his reach.

Sanji blinked. He’d forgotten his dream.

A Ship Without Ghosts

Simon had felt curious about the century-old ferryboat. That’s why he sat for a few minutes in the center of the elegant passenger deck. Nobody else was present. Even on an early Saturday afternoon, the museum ship was dead.

As he rested on one of the many varnished wooden benches, Simon was touched with wonder. The eternal sun was beaming through the wide, open windows on the port side; it shined through panels of stained glass that crowned every window. Rays of bright colors made small rainbows in floating dust. Obviously, ordinary people had once traveled in high style. Light reflecting off the water outside twinkled on carved rosettes in the ivory-like ceiling. The spacious passenger deck seemed almost holy: perfect, light-filled, quiet.

Empty and quiet.

Simon tried to imagine passengers sitting all around him on those rows and rows of elegant benches. He tried to imagine what they might talk about, crumpled newspapers in hand. He tried to imagine what they wore, their facial expressions, their innumerable stories, their hardships and destinations.

He struggled to see it.

Simon did observe in a shadowed corner near the ceiling a place where the wood was rotted. He noted dust under the benches, mildew along window sills, missing tiles on the dirty turquoise and gold checkered floor.

“Do you have any questions?” a voice startled him.

He turned about to see a white-bearded museum docent. The gentleman in a ratty sea captain’s cap stood with a small smile, patiently awaiting a question.

To his own surprise, Simon’s mind was blank. So many vague questions–he really didn’t know what to say. None of it seemed to matter.

“Why does nobody come here?” Simon finally asked, ending an uncomfortable silence.

“People no longer care about ships,” came the smiling reply. “Ships are old news.”

“Old news?”

“Passengers don’t travel by ship anymore. Not the way they once did. People nowadays just see them in television or movies. Pirate ships, mostly.”

“But aren’t people even curious to see what it was like to ride on a vintage ferryboat? When I was a very young child I rode on an amazing old ferryboat. I still remember the shining ornamental brasswork. I remember that feeling of floating on the water, and gazing out a window at the sparkling bay. I remember my sister buying me a Hershey’s candy bar from a man in a uniform behind a polished counter. It wasn’t that long ago.”

“Look around at this big crowd. How curious do you think people are?”

“I see what you mean.”

The docent smiled. “Any more questions?”

“Yes. Wait–” Simon searched his mind. “I don’t get it. There are people who drive down the highway past this old ship almost every single day, going to and from work, or going somewhere else, but nobody even wants to stop and take a look inside? Do you think that’s because people are too busy?”

“Yes, everybody’s busy. But there’s no need to stop. See this?” The man pulled from his pocket a brand new smartphone. “Today every one of us carries a tiny universe in the palm of our hand. Everyone can see a nice picture of everything.”

“But it isn’t real!”

“Oh, yes it is.”

“But what about the sea breeze coming through the windows . . . and the ship’s roll . . . and the salty smell . . . and the wood’s shine? What about the piercing cries of gulls above . . . and the sparkling water below . . . and sunlight through stained glass? What about the faint echoes of those who lived . . . words spoken stranger to stranger over crumpled newspapers? The infinite stories that speak from the dust?”

“Only this ship’s ghosts can remember those things,” replied the white-bearded docent.

The old man waved his smartphone, jammed it back into his pocket. “And ghosts, as you know, don’t exist.”

“But you– And me–”

The man turned away.

A Bottle of Polish

A cashier at the hardware store scanned the small bottle of metal polish. “Be careful with this stuff,” she said. “I hope you realize it can be dangerous.”

A store employee watching from one aisle whispered to another: “Oh my god! What do you think that guy is going to do with a bottle of polish? I wonder if he’s going to drink it. He’s probably going to sniff it.”

Dirk took his purchase into the weeds near the freeway off-ramp. He settled into a spot that no one could see. He felt a little safe there. Just to be careful, he made a castle with his bulging plastic bags and hid himself.

He ate a several mouthfuls of hard pizza, drank some warm water. Then he began carefully searching through his bags.

Dirk suddenly realized what he sought was in one of his pockets.

Lying down, stretching out, he reached into the pocket, pulled out the small round brass medal. He held it up with a trembling hand and gazed at it.

The ribbon of the medal had disintegrated long ago. But the brass and the words stamped on the brass shined brightly in the sun. So brightly that he could almost see his own face.

Dirk slowly sat up. Carefully, he opened the small can of metal polish and put some on a rag.

“We know you’re there!”

Dirk shoved the medal back into his pocket.

Two people he knew came crashing through the weeds. One grabbed a plastic bag and picked it up and scattered its contents everywhere. “What are you doing?” asked the thin one with a sneer.

Dirk didn’t say anything. He turned his head, pretending to ignore them.

“I’m talking to you dumbass! What are you doing? You got any money?”

“No,” Dirk replied without looking up.

A hand came down and snatched the small open bottle of metal polish. “What’s this?”

“Don’t know.”

A foot kicked Dirk, then the two scrambled off through the weeds.

“Metal polish!” said one to the other as they followed the dry ditch under the freeway. “What can we do with this?”

“Nothing,” said the other.