He hopes to fly a giant helium balloon a record twenty-five miles into the earth’s atmosphere and parachute down. This is a moment worthy of fanfare. Six teenagers stand with their heads spinning. A farmer throws down his pillow, a quarry worker lets his shoulders go weak, a communist boss kneels down in the street and begs the man in the balloon to stop. The crowd calls out to him with weary arms, “Fly off to new realms,” they cry. This is what life has been like. Mothers make kites out of junk-mail leaflets searching for missing people. They fly them over houses that have fallen off the market. A lemon drops from the sky into the hands of the assistant who counts new shapes. She works for the chief. She is busy in his saddle. As he thrusts her the usual afternoon earthquake, tops spin, lakes threaten to flood, postmen ring doorbells with overwhelming force. Hunters drop their shotguns and explode with dreams of mounting their wives on walls. “This is no Sunday in the park,” thinks the assistant. She spent her school years studying maps of the chief’s insides, and now, as he approaches nuclear disarmament, she finds herself quietly lost, unequipped for the weapons of Europe. After twenty-five years of extraordinarily bad news about childhood obesity, the balloon inflates and floats away, leaving the gondola with the man inside, on the ground. In Moscow, when this sort of thing happens, it is not unusual for a man to throw his face in a barrel. Today, a bit breezy. Tonight, clear, light winds. Tomorrow, plentiful sunshine.
On an empty coast in the days of shock, the old queen bathes beneath a cloud of uncertainty. Here is a place known for its spectacular wildlife and robust children, hooligans, mosaics, a land of distress. Here is a queen as queens must be: parties, hotels, interviews, bloodbaths. “What shall I eat today?” she says to a minnow. “Which memory of which man, which country, which ocean.” There are spare professors and men who look through telescopes, gamy Gypsies, and tough-shouldered champions, veal boys from the streets who are tender as the night. Until Mr. Ten Percent arrives in his steamroller, holding a portrait of his mother and a sign that points east, a man still trying to skip to the next paragraph. He has the look of smooth rides across muggy shores, eyes that remember throwing rocks at one another. “This isn’t random,” says the queen, “we’ve been meeting here for a decade of beheaded Mondays.” Mr. Ten Percent scratches an X on a piece of church that lies between them. The queen understands that it is his heart. “In this country, symbols matter,” she says. “Let’s play a record,” says Mr. Ten Percent, and they dance on the water to the echoes of what other people are thinking. Miles away, a dress hangs on a bush in the clearing. It burns beside the footsteps of the wife who has set it on fire. Pilgrims search factories for shards of glass. They see their images in them, now just cubist sketches of ruined towns.
WHEN LANGUAGE IS GONE FROM BODIES
On the radio, a man tells the story of a mythical rabbit, who was beaten so badly, he split in two and became twins. The sailor tilts in his chair and listens to the legend, touching the patterns of animals he has killed and tattooed across his chest. His hands are graveled from wrestling anacondas. His boat sails through sunken rings of fog, passing lost thoughts of the pinching collar, or eyes transfixed by the watch on the wrist, and the shrinking of the spirit that can result. Long-gone relatives take off their corsets in the distance, realizing that the shadows of electrical wires are the same as winter branches that have let their leaves fall. The sailor’s table is set with a feast; the nightingale waits to land upon his shoulder. “Here we are truly in another world,” he says, collecting the feathers of his winged companion. “And look, I can still make a blanket of your anxiety.” The sailor picks up a postcard, each day left blank. His mind is swimming with fish, moving blindly toward a green light. The world is full of magnificent things. Ravishing dancers linger in costume, dinosaur skeletons emerge from boys’ heads, meadows lie punctuated with discarded glass. Oh to wander light-headed, through a gallery of faces, and be blown untraceably from one island to the next. There are many kinds of time that exist: the long, slow, repetitive cycle and the fleeting moments of bodily motion. One day, he may dock his boat in a desolate cove known for rare whales, and find no creatures. Instead, a rare woman will come out to greet him, a goddess among a forgotten population of five.
PAWNS TALK OF SCARS
A woman and a girl bake bread in the barren field of a stadium. Their voices are unusually soft today. Later, they will nap on stolen furniture. They will build cities with stacks of paper that have flown from office windows—recipes for disaster, catalogs of wounds to be filed away in coffins. Tonight they will lie there for a lifetime. Cows may triumph the fields, little things may die as they sleep. The skirts of fate wish to fly up and reveal something, but they are held down with cinder blocks, dreams of jammed highways that will never reach the future. Outside, crowds gather daily to peer at lists posted on high walls. They clench their jaws and point at empty houses. The famously slow clock ticks in the center of town: another never-ending moment of desire, another year of cars speeding away. The woman waits before her oven. Her arms are crossed; she stands like a Greek myth on a burning stage. “I care little for birds,” she says to the girl, “I am in the business of rhinoceros skin.” As time passes, the girl begins to paint on the stadium pillars, pictures of places where they enjoy science, and eulogies. She escapes through the legs of an overthrown chair and kicks an old trophy into the empty field. “Yoo hoo! Mother! I’ve left the house, like thousands have done!” Beyond the walls of the auditorium, abandoned cars go for short drives. A cabby waits with a scar on his face. The girl gets in. “You are the thing I have always wanted!” she says, as they take off for the north. It snows. The crowd laughs. History still breathes through dark houses in dry lands. The woman knows her bread will not be eaten.
The virgin stands at the edge of the Atlantic, unveiling herself before a million stars. She looks for something in the vessels before her—a flood, a call, some message of the irreparable beauty coloring each heart, each wave, blue. On the other end of the galaxy stars look like numbers, companies, pieces of advertisements, lost icons of a sluggish world. “I’m nothing unusual,” she calls out to passing lights. “What kind of business can we do each other?” If she dangles too low from the diving plane, will wings emerge from the small of her back, will fins grow from her green demising body, or will she sink with doubt in the dark oceans of youth? She could easily become that drowning passenger, fallen from the ambitious balloon; another crashed human imagination in search of a strange, uncompassed voyage. Battered or dead, she wonders what she will mourn for if, at the end of all this, all these dreams of romance and aviation, she fails to leap from the edge. At her feet, the caterpillar makes no move to advance his technology as he lies still and lets a descending moth gouge him in the shoulder. There it is: no exit either. Here is a game in which failure trumps death, and every frightened heart is a small stopping of history. There will be mountains of them ticking at the end of the world, treacherous and imaginary as the lost slopes of Atlantis.
A lone wolf strides through an ancient town. He is a slip of a thing, walking articulately with the grace of a dancer, standing in the wind at the edges of cliffs. But the lives of wolves haven’t lost their bloodiness. His upper body still casts a long, heroic shadow; his tail still ends in a daggerlike thrust. In town, he visits buildings waiting to be excavated, and bows to antique people too rare to behead. An old woman in a window is singing the blues. She is illuminated from afar as the only square of light. The wolf stops to listen and look up at her for a while, letting his mind run through the poppy fields patterned on her dress, calculating the sharpness of glass objects in her eyes. To be sure she has a beak for a face. Her hair blows across it like silver on the wind, and how her old songs are full of sad news. The wolf keeps walking, knowing that her light will go out like all the others. She will become a statue eroding on some beach in a dream, a silenced relic in an empty museum, a detail in a painting most people pass by. Up ahead, other animals scatter from the wolf’s path. Horses and beetles, even dangerous creatures in the marshes, envelope themselves or drown as he comes near. In a mirror lying on the ground, the wolf catches a glimpse of his own image, and for a moment knows what frightens the others: the eyes of eternity and the slow jaws of kings. But he will soon wander off from the mirror and the town, in search of another simple, absent, tragic adventure. Decades before, his face is found on a piece of fallen alabaster, from a map of the heavens painted on the ceiling.
PALACE OF RUBBLE
A breaking wave collapses on the bank before two half-naked women on white Arabian horses. The water moves with a pulse at the edge of the planet. It sucks in invisible creatures and spews them out again over the desert, a sick coast that never fully swallows anything. “The truth is, we don’t have enough liquor,” says the older woman. “We were promised jubilation,” says the younger. The two plain Americans are luxuriously undressed, but there is nothing in their pockets and no paintings growing in their heads. They’ve spent the day at the mansion, strewn over staircases that lead nowhere and men with rifles passing through for a slow dance. The king’s piano has died in the ballroom, crumbling like an elephant kneeling down to sleep. The air suggests bald men changing tires dripping with used oil, not roses. One day, these women will huddle inside trailers and teach six-year-olds how to make barbed-wire fences. But today, they will only watch foreign swans on a foreign marsh. The younger woman removes the last piece of cloth remaining on her body and puts on a helmet some soldier has left on the beach. “How beautiful it is,” shouts the other, looking up at her. “I love it,” the young one sings back. Here is a response like many others, immediate and makeshift. For the first time, they stop counting the days and wonder if they will grow old in this scorching, isolated, windowless place. The world is a widening palace of ruined freedom, but here at least there are no happy crowds to puff at in the dust.