I know simply that this sky will last longer than I.
—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
A translator who has been frustrated with the fact that no one reads the beautiful novels she translates fetches her mail one morning and finds a package that contains a book. The book is thin and the fabric cover is green and the title is embossed on the front and beneath it the author is listed: Anonymous. It happens to be written in one of the four languages she knows and so that evening she decides to read the book.
The reading of this slim volume changes her. She is haunted, feels herself morphing into another kind of person with each flip of the page. When she closes the cover and tries to think about what the book contains, she feels overwhelmed and amplified at the same time. Somehow—she cannot determine just how—the plot of the book is simply the weather.
She spends a year translating it into English and this act inaugurates in her a recalibration of how she engages with the world.
But no one will publish her translation.
About this fact, the woman is deeply bitter. She thinks at first that she has failed in translating. Though she had completed the work with great care, perhaps she had not done the thin volume justice, she thinks. The small and independent publishing houses tell her that the book is too esoteric and also too sad.
But you, she says to them, are the small and independent presses. You are the last line of defense, the champions of language.
You are not hearing us, they respond. Funding crises. Fewer donors. Downsizing and budget cuts.
The woman gets angry and then she gets forlorn. Then the woman becomes resolved.
She tries something new, something she has never done, out of spite: the woman writes her own book. It holds none of the beauty of the book by Anonymous, the turns of phrase and visceral power, the scene work both specific and also speaking to universal truths. It is nothing like the way the green book insists subtly that causality is both a fiction and the basis on which we structure our lives—the stories we tell about ourselves, the stories we tell about the past. The way the green book is about everything human—lifelong, ongoing, unending agon—and also, somehow, a story about the sky.
The book the translator writes is the opposite, composed of small observations and reflections on the good told through prose that is digestible, the stuff she knows people will enjoy. It was a lesser book in every way. This she knows. This she does on purpose.
She ensures when the book is published that the cover is red and she uses a pseudonym.
All this, by the way, is during The Era of Rain, the days suddenly coated in sheets of water, the sky refusing to let up. At dusk the headlights of cars look glossy and smeared through the windows of the woman’s garden-level apartment as she watches the wet world behind her safe glass.
Of course the book she writes—the lesser book, the book about nothing—becomes a popular text, one that readers adore. When they ask her what she will write next, she says she is going to write the book over. Over? they ask her.
Again, she says. She isn’t really a writer, she tells them, she’s a transcriber. She transcribes stories.
Across languages? they ask.
No, she says. That would be translation. I used to do that but stopped, she says. Now I transcribe. I take texts and transcribe them into another version of the same language.
So you rewrite, they say.
No, she says. You’ll see.
She transcribes the text she composed into another version. She substitutes metaphors and turns of phrase and imagery and syntax for different metaphors and turns of phrase and imagery and syntax that evoke a different but related set of visceral responses when compared to the first book. She transcribes the book she composed from one form into its twin form. It is still the same text but also it is not. The second version gets published and the commercial response is overwhelming. It is a bestseller, though it gets no critical acclaim. The second iteration, the public says, is the same as the first but somehow more potent and breathtaking. People rave. And while this second version is a stunning stand-alone text, it also asks one to rethink the first, to revisit the first version in light of its transcription, its movement from one state to the next. People are in awe, are beside themselves with the simplicity and accessibility of the project. The critics think it’s lousy, that it speaks directly to what our world simply does not need. They say it satisfies instead of challenges, entertains instead of provokes. The woman reads the critical reviews unsurprised. This she knew. That is why she did it.
Still it rains. This is The Era of Rain, after all. Her favorite days are those when it mists so lightly it feels like she is walking through a heavy cloud. Still it rains and she is haunted by the novel written by Anonymous. It is such a better book.
When they ask her about her next project, she sighs loudly.
You do not seem to understand, she says. I am a transcriber. This is my life’s work.
She frowns now, much more often than when she was translating. She gets the advance for the third version and it becomes more popular than the first two. Because pattern is dependent on threes, it is this version that crystallizes in the mind of the public the brilliance of the project. It becomes clear that each new translation requires that the reader read the previous versions in order to fully understand any single version of the text. In this way, her venture feels to the public like she is creating a world. But the transcriber knows what she has created and that is this: capital.
It keeps raining but one day, when she looks out her garden-level apartment window, what she sees is something new: there is a mime on the street, facing her way. He has set up his stage against the side of the building directly across from her view. He has crafted a fort of umbrellas, in all different shades of black. From what she can tell they are each broken but collaboratively they work to keep the mime dry from the rain.
The mime strikes her as beautiful. The mime both embraces old conventions and resists them. He is a twenty-first-century mime. He has no makeup, no suspenders over a striped shirt. Rather, he is dressed in a glossy black bodysuit with a human mask over his face. There is a small box in front of him in which people put coins and cash. The box has a label that she can read from across the street. The label says: He/Him.
The transcriber does not know that the mask he dons is a mask of the face beneath the mask. Only the mime knows this. And, of course, the rain.
Years pass. The Era of Rain continues. Everyone is sad and sorry, but no one does anything. The transcriber transcribes. And as she does, the reading public continues to adhere to her project like a life raft. What is interesting to her is the way each iteration leaves them speechless, despite the fact that they knew what was coming the whole time. It is this fact of the project that they love, they say. That they know the ending and thus crave it.
She knows the project isn’t good, but she executes it anyway. She is still spiteful. And too, she has to pay the bills.
While she wins no awards, prizes, or critical recognition, her sales are off the charts and for this reason she is deemed a commercial success. Still it rains. Still she is haunted by the fact that the book she has sold and keeps selling is a lesser book than the breathtaking thin, green volume. She tries to use her power—now she has power, of course—to tell the world about this beautiful, haunting, ephemeral book written by Anonymous. But no one will publish it. Too challenging, too difficult, too reflective of woe and plight. What they want is the new version of her book, the ongoing project. Her project succeeds, she is told, because it says nothing, makes one forget about the turmoil. Makes one forget about The Era of Rain. It says nothing and then says it again and again. She is ashamed when she looks at her bank account. She feels she is a failure and the rain keeps falling down.
She catches people on the bus speaking about her project.
“Which do you prefer?” they ask each other, not knowing the author is standing next to them.
“They’re all great, but for me, it’s probably version nine. It reminds me of twenty-three, but a bit less stoic. It has a warmer tone.”
“I know what you are saying. For me it’s number forty-eight. There is something about the language that feels gentler, almost muted, compared to the others. Like the person who made the book was struggling then.”
It was the mime, the translator thinks, holding onto the bar of the bus as it takes a wide left turn. She watches him now daily, his chaotic collection of broken umbrellas above him coagulating to create a tent, the stories he plays out with stunning narrative arcs, all plots that relate—figuratively or literally—to the status of the contemporary moment, the contemporary moment being The Era of Rain.
Meanwhile, the rain looks on and over all of this. It falls heavy and then light, its own cadence to the chaos of the human world. It watches the mime tell his stories quietly, the transcriber tell her stories loudly. It wonders when it can rest, when it can cease.
I, the rain thinks, am fucking exhausted.
Each night the transcriber makes her meals and looks out the window at the mime conducting his work and collecting his cash and bowing. Sometimes the rain falls hard and she can only see the vague outside of his shape, like he is not coming in fully on a pixelated screen. Other times when the rain is lighter, she can see the delicate, minor parts of his performance that she hadn’t noticed before, the flick of a wrist or the way a hip juts one way, the careful curve of the toe out and down. She no longer reads books—she gave up reading books long ago—but she watches him in the evenings from the window of her garden-level apartment, trying to discern what tale he tells. Usually it is revealed rather quickly but there is always a bit of suspense at the beginning as she tries to read his body to understand what aspect of The Era of Rain he is conveying today. Decades pass this way, her reading the mime through the falling rain and transcribing the same story to her demanding public.
On the bus, she hears what they say about her project.
“I think why I like it,” a man says, “is because it’s so relatable. And so easy to comprehend. It doesn’t feel like work. You know, the way fiction often feels?”
“Right, right. It’s like the thing I go to when I don’t want to think.”
The transcriber drops her gaze to the floor. Then she raises her eyes to the sky, which is really the ceiling of the bus. Someone has written up there in thick black marker two words: Chin up.
Did you know, she wants to ask them, that a single drop of rain coming from a cloud falls differently than a drop from the faucet? It falls like a parachute, the thick end up and the point down. It has to do with the relationship between gravity and buoyancy. Did you know there is evidence to suggest that worldviews echo rainfall? That for places of drought that are ultraconscious of death, theology looked to lines and endings whereas places of rich rainfall in which a cycle of life was ever evolving, theology imagined rebirths? Or that before it was outlawed, cloud seeding was used as a weapon of war? Or that rainmaking was once a sacred ritual, a practice linked with prayer before it became the work of con artists and eventually corporate lingo for bringing in the cash?
Did they know, she wanted to ask them, how to stop the rain?
Because all of this they could learn if they only read the thin, green volume. All of this they could learn if they listened to Anonymous, who knew—who clearly knew—what it is to live during an Era of Rain.
The rain listens to the thoughts of the transcriber and while it does not change the rate at which it falls, the rain allows itself to grow cooler, so that vapor begins to appear rising from the warm concrete and asphalt. The streets and sidewalks grow foggy. The rain thinks about the time when it will be permitted to end. The rain desires one thing and that thing is rest.
The people on the bus continue to talk about her project and the woman looks out the window of the bus as the tires kick water up and onto the sidewalk. She is nowhere near her garden-level apartment and she has no umbrella, but still she pulls the string to get let off.
Years pass and people grow familiar with the rain, with the transcriber’s tale. Both become sort of yoked into the fabric of the age, so that weather and art and politics and history collide and merge. Years pass and what happens is that people grow acclimated to the rain. There is no longer a feeling that it will cease and so it becomes folded into the sense of what is normal and accepted and thus true. People look back with nostalgia on the time when they thought the rain could end because they realize they now face a new reality. The transcriber tells and retells her story, the mime narrates his tales from the street. The rain—it continues to fall.
One evening at the end of her life, six months after completing the most recent volume of the project—Volume 113—the transcriber admits to herself a fact that has slowly begun to creep into her consciousness: her eyesight is failing. She is distraught about this discovery but she knows she has been lucky to live this long with nothing to stop her so far. She knows that she occupies an entropic form, that bodies break down and break apart and this end has always—since her birth—been coming. The rain rages on outside her apartment and the transcriber looks outside at the mime in the street. This is when she decides that before she can no longer see, she wants to read the texts she has spent her life transcribing. All the volumes of her story live on the shelf of her garden-level apartment. She warms up some old coffee on the stove top, pours it into a mug, and begins reading in reverse, plucking from her shelf Volume 113.
Eventually, she reaches the first volume. But as she lets her failing eyes fall over the lines of the words, the experience feels uncanny. It’s the metaphors and turns of phrase and imagery and syntax. It sounds to her like something that she knows.
She feels her heartbeat quicken and she rises from her seat near the window, glances briefly outside to catch a glimpse of the mime. Then she walks to the wall, to the bookshelf, and pulls from that shelf Volume 113. She opens the book and reads what lives there, what she put there just last spring. This is when she realizes that she has transcribed the book back to its origins. Every word, every image is the same. The first volume is precisely and exactly a replica of the last.
The transcriber sits in her chair. There is a moment when she feels disgusted with herself, feels she has done nothing with the life she had hoped to live. Feels she has in fact made of this life a silly loop, at last arriving to a place that is really a return to the past. She grows further upset when she comes to understand that no one else—not one reader—picked up on her indiscretion. The book has been in print for four months, is selling well, and not a single member of the reading public has come to understand that Volume 1 is precisely the same as Volume 113.
She sighs loudly. She shakes her head. She thinks of how bad her book is, how she made a life’s worth of capital rewriting the same tale while the book that reordered her sense of the possibilities of the world—the book she translated into English that no one would publish—is left on a drawer in her bedroom.
She looks outside at the rain. She looks outside through the rain, at the mime. My God, she thinks. This world. She looks at the mime and laughs. He is better than her, she thinks. He is truer and realer than her, even in his mask. And yet: her eyesight is failing, she thinks. The project will come to an end.
And there is also this, she thinks as she watches the performance of the mime through the window and through the rain: she has had the chance to be in this world.
Outside, the rain falls hard; the transcriber can hear it hitting the windows and the street. Then the rain falls harder. It is exhausted but it knows that the transcriber is coming to an important revelation and the rain is a patient force.
The transcriber thinks then that she has had a chance to live, to be part of this failing, ugly, exquisite, majestic world. There is The Era of Rain raging outside and yet she has made a world in this warm shell of an apartment, transcribing. She has engaged in an act of transcription that has lasted her whole life.
She wraps herself in her black raincoat and exits her garden-level home. She walks across the street and approaches the mime. The rain falls harder. The black umbrellas that coagulate to protect him from the rain are less black and more green, she thinks as she approaches. She realizes there is mold and moss that coats them, grown from the rain. The collection of overlapping umbrellas looks like a work of art all their own. But what lies beneath that, a kind of reverse stage, is the real artwork and that is this: the mime’s body. He continues his narrative and she takes her place next to three other spectators. She puts up the hood of her coat. When it is finished, all four of his audience members clap and the others place into the open box before him various dominations of cash. She curses herself for forgetting her money but then realizes she hasn’t touched a bill or a coin in decades. All her money is liquid, but all her money only exists as an idea in a digital space or on a plastic card. This is the twenty-first century, she thinks. She wants to turn around and leave then but something makes sure that she does not. It is the rain, growing harder so she resists running back across the street, so she says put. But the transcriber thinks it is all in her power, that she is letting her heart lead just as she leads the language’s placement on the page. Instead of turning around she stays when the others leave. Then she sits on the wet ground before the mime.
She looks up at him, the rain wetting her bangs and nose, her eyelids and chin.
He nods and for the first time she wonders what is behind his mask.
“My life,” she says aloud and it is as though she has never heard her voice before. “My life,” she says. “I have arrived at the end only to discover that is also the place where I began,” she tells the mime.
The mime bows then and pulls open what looks like a curtain, then makes his body look like it is exerting the effort of pushing a boulder up a hill. The rain falls harder. It is yearning, pleading. It is begging her to listen to his silent tale.
At first she sees no plot—it is all just pushing and exerting, just a bunch of effort. And then the click of understanding and she gets it: it’s the story of Sisyphus.
The rain lets up a bit, grows lighter.
The translator rises and reaches for the mime’s hand. He breaks character then and takes it, pulls her under his cacophony of broken umbrellas.
And then they are out of the rain. And this is when the mime takes the hand that had been extended and opens it and then opens his own. And he places that hand so that the palm touches the palm of the transcriber’s hand. And then—then the hands clasp around each other and move up and down and the transcriber realizes they are shaking. They are meeting. They are echoing each other in this tiny gesture, two human forms that move their limbs in harmony in order to say hello.
It is raining and the mime leads the transcriber deeper into the safe space of his umbrella cave and there is a door there that she has never noticed before. The canopy of the umbrellas has hidden a door leading into the building against which the stage is built. The mime gestures for the transcriber to enter and the transcriber nods and goes in first. They enter a studio apartment that is, the transcriber realizes now, garden level just like hers. Everything in the room is green—the floors, the walls, the furniture and cabinetry, the glassware on the shelves, the clothing on the racks. The mime gestures for the transcriber to sit down and she does and then he does something she had not seen coming—he removes his mask.
Beneath the mask of the face is a face that is precisely a replica of the face on the mask. But somehow, the transcriber thinks, the face beneath the mask is different. Somehow, the face beneath the mask makes both the mask and the face beneath it—well, both, together, they become something more.
The transcriber starts to say something and then the mime shakes his head left to right and the transcriber wants to object but the mime insists on silence and that is the way they decide not to speak.
The sun is beginning to set and the cool breeze of night wafts through the open window. The sound of the rain moves in waves through the room that is green.
It takes the mime all night to convey each of the transcriber’s 113 volumes and when at long last it is complete, she wipes her eyes, which are wet with tears from laughing and crying, from responding to the sorrow and passion of the tale. The mime’s translation from language to silent performance is breathtaking. She had never known her story in this way, had been newly introduced to it. It needed his soft arcs for her to understand. But more than that, the mime had shown her that the story she felt was so useless and empty and void meant something when it was translated, when it moved through him. It needed his translation for her to understand that the transcription of this book was an act of construction, an act of building a portal between the person she was when she composed the first iteration and the person she was when she composed the last. The book was not a mask as she’d feared but a bridge between the way the world was before the rain and during. Perhaps even the way the world might be after. Rain is water that is also ice, is also vapor, he had taught her. Same story, different language, she thinks then.
The mime bows and she nods to him and she stands. They stare at each other for a while then and it is the first time either has truly looked at another person—into their core, into the region that people aim to keep hidden when someone looks too hard—they look at each other like that and a subtle transformation unfolds inside the minds and hearts of both the mime and the transcriber.
The mime hands her a thin, green volume then and all of the skin on her body instantly constricts. She knows the title and runs her fingers over the byline: Anonymous. This is when the mime points to himself.
The next day, it does not rain.
This story appears in our spring 2023 issue, Conjunctions:80, Ways of Water.