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 faded 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 gathered!”

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

The artists looked up. Eyes widened.

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

Following a Tortoise

Fascinating creatures can be observed on ordinary sidewalks: a green parrot riding atop a baseball cap, a spiny iguana clinging to human shoulders, a poodle with a purple mohawk.

But the morning I caught sight of a young man in a bathrobe and sandals inching down the sidewalk behind an enormous tortoise, I had to chuckle.

Both were moving very slowly.

I sat at a table outside Starbucks and downed my espresso and had a whole twelve minutes to kill before work. There was nothing else interesting to watch, so I watched.

The young man took one tiny footstep every eternity. In eight minutes he had moved perhaps three feet.

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out where he and his tortoise were going.

I had to jump up.

“He’s really big,” I said, stopping beside the young man.

She is.”

“Does she have a name?”

“Betsy,” replied the young man. As if my question were impertinent, he stared at me squarely in the eye. “What’s it to you?”

I almost flinched. “Nothing. I’m just curious, that’s all. I saw you both coming down the sidewalk. One doesn’t expect to see a huge tortoise in the middle of a city.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. It just strikes me as something that’s funny. At least you don’t need a leash! Don’t you get tired of moving so slowly?”

“Why would I?”

Now I was becoming annoyed. This unaccountable person was trying my patience. I managed to find polite words. “It seems like you would get really bored after awhile, staying in one spot, without much change of scenery.”

“Do you get bored?” asked the young man.

“Sometimes.”

The young man stared at me for a long while, his unblinking eyes peering directly into my own. “Maybe you get bored because you’re moving too fast.”

As an excuse to flee, I glanced at my watch.

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.

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 Dog’s Tail

Every Sunday afternoon a large dog accompanied an elderly woman to the park. The friendly dog would sprawl in some shade on the grass, sniffing the warm air or watching the birds flit from tree to tree, while the little old woman sat nearby on a bench. Sometimes I would peek over my book and secretly watch the two.

It was the dog’s tail that inevitably drew people. Swish, flop, swish, flop that ragged tail went, like a crazy outlandish spring. The unstoppable tail was a signal understood by everybody in the park to waltz on over.

Whenever a stranger came near, the tail would really start banging. Lying with its four legs stretched out, seeing the approach of a human smile, the dog would sometimes let loose with a joyful bark, but it never jumped up. When the stranger bent over to rub its belly, the tail moved so excitedly I thought it must defy the laws of physics.

The stranger, after a few more rubs, would glance up at the silent old woman. Her eyes were always down upon the dog. “A very big animal, isn’t it?” the stranger would ask. An almost imperceptible nod for reply.

The stranger would then turn and walk away.

Then the dog would rise beside the old woman. She would place a wrinkled hand atop the dog’s head and the tail would gradually slow.

When a small group of children came up to the dog one early afternoon they didn’t even look at the old woman. They were too enchanted. The dog’s tail thumped madly. Every young hand sought its soft, warm coat, accelerating the tail. Every hand transmitted love. The dog soaked it all up. Like a furry, vibrating battery. The old woman remained motionless.

The old woman never spoke. But I do know one thing about her. When strangers walked away, the dog rose. And her hand always sought the dog’s head.

And as the tail moved slower, slower, slower, the large dog would stare directly into her eyes.

It seemed to me that a strange, undefinable energy passed up her thin arm.

But I never saw her face.

How to Catch a Crab

While his sister flew a kite in the sunshine, skipping across the park’s green grass, Jason hunted a crab down in the dark rocks by the water.

With careful limbs Jason slowly descended the rocks. He kept his eyes on his prey. The tiny crab was motionless in the middle of one glistening slab just inside the spray of waves.

“You don’t know how to swim!” Jason’s mother called from a distant picnic table.

The young boy ignored her.

The dark, jagged rocks had been dumped at the harbor’s edge. They protected the grassy park from the eternal ocean. Traps containing rat poison had been placed among the rocks.

Above the churning water the rocks capped a labyrinth. From spaces beneath the rocks an odor of death rose. From small caves the crabs crept, moving slowly upon glistening slime near the restless water, feeding, extending strange claws.

Jason kept his eye on the tiny crab. Working his way even closer to the water, the boy placed his left foot on an edge of wet rock. A few missteps had already soaked his shoes.

Hardly daring to breathe, eyes down, Jason regarded the creature minutely.

How strange it appeared.

The crab, with its raised claws, seemed ancient. It resembled a mythical monster he’d seen in a picture book. A miniature monster, unconquerable, upon a mountain.

The crab’s body, its face-like shell, its bent spider legs and claws–formed a mask–from a lurking dream. It was a thing sensed in a nightmare. A shape. A shiver.

The jagged shape was that abomination penned as a warning at the borders of old maps. The shape was a nightmare upon which voyaging ships were wrecked.

Jason bent his knees, leaned slowly over, reached out his hand, keeping balance on the slippery rock as the crash of a small wave tickled his fingers.

The crab skittered into a space between rocks.

Jason leaned even lower.

The odor was repulsive.

He peered into the watery space. Possibly, possibly, the grinning mask lay within simple reach.

Unseen hungry claws waited inside that well of swirling blackness. A fatal Charybdis, squatting in her cave. Motionless and waiting.

The boy reached in.

“I caught it! I caught it” he shouted, lifting an arm high in triumph.

The tiny crab clung to the young boy’s finger.

Walking on Light

The crosswalk’s white rectangles shined in the sunlight. Crossing the intersection, Angel stepped on the reflected light.

A narrow band of sunlight brightened the edge of the sidewalk. Like a tightrope walker Angel walked along the brightness, balancing atop the light.

From time to time Angel had to skip over the shadows of people who plodded homeward.

A patch of darkness, cast by a building, could not be overstepped, so Angel once again crossed the street, continued along the edge of a parking lot, steadily moving toward the falling sun on a winding path of light.

To avoid the deepening shadows Angel had to make small leaping flights.

“Watch where you’re going, you idiot,” someone said.

Sprinklers made puddles beside a long hedge. The puddles were silver in the sunlight. Angel stepped onto them, walking on the light.

Angel started across the town park’s green grass. The sun had reached the horizon. Long slender tree shadows made easy hurdles. A small sunlit pond at the center of the park sparkled.

Angel came to the edge of the pond. A breeze stirred the water. Upon every little crest of every little wave a momentary glint of sunlight winked. Angel stepped onto the water and walked across glimmers of reflected light.

Angel stepped onto the coin-like reflection of the moon. The pond became dark as the sun set. The moon’s ghostly reflection formed a small island of celestial light.

The moon’s reflection inched very slowly across the water. Standing easily upon the moon’s light, Angel gazed up at the stars.

The brilliant stars were beyond count. Beyond knowledge. Their infinite light was present.

The air had calmed. A bird flew invisibly overhead.

Angel longed to be home.

Angel found the trail of the Milky Way reflected upon the black water. The jeweled path led across the pond to the opposite shore. Angel stepped off the moon and walked along the galaxy’s edge.

Angel stepped onto Hazel Street and walked beneath the wavering light of street lamps.

Angel’s porch light was on.

The front door swung open wide, flooding the sleeping world with radiance.

Angel was home.

The Child and the Koi

“What’s that, Mommy?”

“That is a koi.”

The child leaned over the still water to stare down at the beautiful koi. The water was perfectly clear, like crystal. The koi rose to the surface, mouth working.

“Hello,” said the fish. “Why are you looking at me?”

“Because you’re orange.”

“Is there something wrong with orange?” asked the fish.

“No. I like it.”

“I’m glad you like my color. But if there’s nothing wrong with orange, then why do so many of you people stand there and stare down at me?”

“I know why!” said the child.

“Then please tell me.”

“Because they think you look like fire.”

“I look like fire? What is fire?”

“Fire is a mouth that rises.

“Fire is always hungry, like you. It eats every little thing it sees.

“Fire eats houses.  Fire eats schools.  Fire swallows cities and sacred temples and palaces of adamant.

“And fire is very beautiful.”

“It is?”

“But fire quickly vanishes in clear water,” explained the child.

“Now I understand. So I must go.”

The koi swam away.

The Piano Player Sat Down

The piano player sat down. For a moment he paused. Then he opened his hands.

From his fingertips emerged a shining coin.

The pianist spread 88 playing cards smoothly in a row. Every listener picked one card. With a touch he found it.

A flower sprang from his sleeve.

Inescapable ropes were cast aside with the twist of his hand.

Handcuffs fell off.

Into the black cauldron his moving fingers stirred fallen tears, a sprinkle of stars, lost memory, alchemy.

A white rabbit leaped from the cabinet, vanishing.

Applause.

Final Real Magic

The Great Sampson was a magician without peer. Five thousand shows in a hundred grimy towns and he never complained. The stiffs working the carnival regarded him with a mixture of wonder and derision.

“And now,” the Great Sampson waved, “my final act!”

A few people in the dingy tent regarded the theatrical old man. They were thinking about home. In a few minutes night would fall. Other sideshow tents were already being hastily dismantled, folded up. The Great Sampson, in his black top hat, had picked up a thin book covered with gold lettering and had shakily climbed into an open black box that resembled a coffin.

The old man ran his fingers through an ebony beard, which he had obviously curled and dyed. He opened the shining book as he faced the audience: several bored adults and one boy.

“Until this very moment,” he announced grandly, “no magician in the entire history of the world has actually performed magic. Illusion and deception have been substituted for magic, and millions of believers have been told by deceitful entertainers that they are witnessing the effects of true supernatural power. You, my good friends, will be the first to ever witness real magic. You will remember this day for the remainder of your lives. So pay very close attention. Don’t blink!”

The Great Sampson took a deep breath. He hesitated. He visibly trembled. “And now, after years of struggle, after years of false starts and dead ends, after years and years of searching: my life’s greatest and only worthwhile achievement!”

He held up the shining book with gold lettering and read: “Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum!

The Great Sampson vanished.

The carnival sideshow audience stood with jaded expectation on the crushed dirt floor.

Nothing happened.

The people waited patiently for a minute, then two.

Nothing happened.

A man in back finally slipped out of the dark tent.

Nothing happened.

A couple near the black box shrugged, laughed and left.

Nothing happened.

Everyone left.

Everyone forsook the black box except the boy. In that shadow of doubt he didn’t dare move.

Something terrible–something extraordinary had happened. The boy could sense it. A shivering thrill fixed his feet in place.

Summoning courage, he inched forward, leaned slowly over, and peered into the box.

Skittering nervously at its bottom, a gray mouse was frantically trying to escape.

The boy’s heart pounded. His mind raced.

He jumped.

“Show’s over,” boomed a voice behind him. A carnival worker’s face was poking into the dark tent with a glare of impatience. “Time to go home kid.”

“But what about the Great Sampson?” the boy protested.

“What about who?”

The boy was indignant. “The Great Sampson is gone!”

“You need to be gone, too. Now get the hell out of here or someone might call the cops.” The worker shot him a exasperated look and left.

The boy hesitated. Nothing that had just happened–the magician’s strange speech–that split second when he had vanished–none of it seemed real.

The boy remained alone in the tent, looking down at the small helpless mouse. He had to decide. Quickly. He reached into the black box and took the mouse gently into his hand and slipped out of the tent into the twilight. The carnival was over. Indistinct lumps of canvas littered the ground.

The soft mouse in his hand had calmed down. The boy saw a man heaving plastic garbage bags onto a flatbed truck and hurried over.

“I think I know what happened to the Great Sampson!”

“What happened? What the hell are you talking about?”

“The Great Sampson disappeared about ten minutes ago! He was doing his very last magic show and I think he actually turned into a mouse. He said it was his final act! He said he would finally do real magic!”

“Get the fuck out of here. You’re crazy.”  The man turned back to the garbage.

. . .

As the boy walked rapidly home, he stared frequently through his fingers at the mouse. It seemed to be an ordinary gray mouse.

He slowed at the grassy park several blocks from his home, and he sat down on the bench in the lamp’s soft light. He opened his hand just enough to closely examine the mouse. It seemed perfectly ordinary. “Can you hear me?” the boy asked.

The nervous mouse looked about, seemingly at nothing.

“If you can hear me, let me know. Do something. Nod your head.”

The mouse’s head quivered. It looked up at the boy.

“I don’t know what to do. Are you really the Great Sampson? Can you turn back? Are you going to turn back?”

No answer. None was possible.

“If that was really your final act–” The boy looked at the mouse feeling puzzled, hopeless. “Why did you do it?

“So you wanted to do real magic? Why? To become something different?”

He leaned sideways to pull an object from his back pocket. It was the strange shining book with gold lettering. It had also remained at the bottom of the box.

The book appeared to be a journal. It was the type of cheap mass-produced journal that anybody can buy for a couple dollars at a store. The boy read elegant gold letters on the cover. They formed the words: Follow Your Dreams.

. . .

Sitting on the bed in his room, still holding the mouse in one hand, the boy opened the thin journal. Its few pages were handwritten in black ink, clearly and elegantly. Page after page after page, with an occasional word or sentence neatly crossed out. Page after page. It seemed to be the life’s work of one person.

With one hand he clumsily turned the pages until he reached the last, where his eyes froze on the final words: Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum. Those had been the final words spoken by the Great Sampson. The fatal incantation. The final words.

Were they really magic?

He mouthed a few of the dangerous words inaudibly, a shiver crawling up his back, then stopped.

He jumped.

A very loud knock on his bedroom door.

“What are you doing” demanded his mother. “I called you for dinner five minutes ago!”

“Just a second.”

“I’m running out of patience–you come out of there now!” His mother opened his door. “What on Earth have you been doing?”

“Nothing.” He turned and quickly placed the mouse in a drawer by his bed.

“Well, come on. You know how your father doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

Reluctantly, the boy stepped out of his room and headed for the stairs. Turning back, he saw his mother enter his room.

. . .

The mouse was gone.

Whether his mother had found it, or the mouse had escaped, the boy couldn’t know. It didn’t matter.

He lay on his bed, almost in tears. He didn’t know why.

Of course, it all was plain silly. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as real magic. The Great Sampson was gone, that was the only thing that mattered. The Great Sampson had performed his final act. And nobody really cares about an act. Everything in life is an act.

The boy picked up the thin book with glittery lettering.

He didn’t dare open it.

He placed it on his bookshelf, among other wise books he would probably never read.

Perhaps he’d read it one day.