Oxherding Pictures

– Prelude –

From every shore of our absurd island we could watch the storm roll in like a New Orleans funeral procession. No one said a word, for it was time to batten down the hatches. The birds already knew this and were gone. The dogs no longer roamed the streets but cowered under porches and cars. Here and there dark figures in damp cloaks hurried, fastened shutters, furled awnings, dragged into their swelling caches bottles and old bread. The children lay at home snug in prone beds. In the center square the city flag hung quietly in the apprehensive air. Except, one bare branch tapped at a window with a quickening rhythm.

On a corner, beneath the bust of a maritime saint and a plaque for the Lost at Sea, the local fool plucked his stringless lute and sang, — beckoning all tempests, all darkly gathering clouds. The superstitious among us tossed him coins to silence him.

The world in panic is my playground. I strolled about picking through the abandoned shops, tipping my hat to those who hastened past, searching for some book, or song, or butterfly thought I wasn’t certain even existed, — leaving my property to vanish in the storm.

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– Civilization –

Missing neither mouse nor locust, our eyes absorbed all movements of the burgeoning fields. In the Lord’s Sanctuary upon the stone relief the falcon’s wings had lifted slightly, its eyes shone with internal brightness. But commerce continued. The heavy barges went listing past with ballast of obsidian and gold — the boatmen calmly smoking in the twilight. And punishment still was dealt. The river lapped against the stands of rushes while the children cried out at the dying of day.

After mincing through eviscerated oxen and casting polished bones, our priests warned us that Persia’s armies would be upon us like swarms of locust, or that swarms of locust would be upon us like Persia’s armies.

Missing neither man nor beast, our eyes attended the reddening horizon, the stirrings of water and sky, the ripening wheatgrain bowing in the fields.

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– Ace of Spades –

Adrift on a spherical vessel, cultivating life; where the elemental desire of every breathing form is to have a different life; where one must argue the state of one’s soul to stones, walls, pots, anything that will listen; where intelligence gets one’s shoelaces tied to the desk; where everything ridicules and nothing listens.

When I used to travel this road everyone flung their windows wide. The world was flat then and circumscribed by gods; two sided like a coin; night and day, tragicomedy and comic death. Nothing kept ghosts from bursting through.

Snares where everywhere, trapdoors and nets. We quivered like a struck string at the shifting of stars. Superstition set fearsome limits to things, hinting at the beyond.

So much otherness surrounded us.

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– The Religious Bug –

From an expedition into the mountains.

We viewed valleys from those heights, rivers, seas, the edge of the earth.

We happened upon the stately temples of spiritual people, and besieged them. With little resistance they gave up their lives. Contemptuous of their passivity we inflicted polychromatic pain onto their eyes, ears and the soles of their feet. Then we moved on.

Climbing steps and walls and mountain faces into the rarefied air, my conscience began to throb. “What is this?” I asked a companion: I had never seen it before. Soon every mystic, monk, shaman, priest, medicine man, ascetic, scribe and gatekeeper I came across insisted I write out and submit to the Council of Psyche my deepest internal petition.

But all I really wanted was to lose myself in the basements of those stately temples.

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– The Joy of Weather Gods –

I have made the world my own and sucked its every sweetness. Mountains and caverns, lilies and lakes, rivers and trees: every one a monument never dying or ever renewed: innumerable years in preparation, now being in praise of me. The winds cry my greatness, and obscure the whispers of my cruelty.

For example, my throne: the standards are capped with gilt skulls of kings; the banners are woven from their armies’ hair; the wooden inlay has a fine filigree of bone; the cushions are stuffed skins; the embossments are the enamel of teeth — and all is smoothed and polished with the oil of a heavy human press.

Laughing, I have arrived at the noon of life and can attest: the higher one goes the wider one stands.

When I preside from this masterpiece a thousand watery moons rise amid the bloody tumult of a thousand setting suns. I write it with lightening on the wall.

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– On the Nursery Walls –

Too young yet to distinguish the wide spectrum of anguish, I still knew it was guilt I met beside the crossroads and the lake, leaning on his heavy stick.

His florid face, glowing like an ember, looked detached as I approached him through the fog. “I have a long time still to forget you,” I said without stopping, and took a bite from the apple in my pocket to chew and rinse my mouth.

Mutely he trudged into the shallows and, using his stick, pushed a few gruesome images to the surface. Which I ignored.

But then the fog began to shift, revealing a strange conclave gathered upon the lake: figures of various colors in a circle, leaning on their heavy sticks. And the massive, stooping, misshapen Guilt went out among his kind.

Then all those blues and sickly greens snapped shut and sank, like a lotus in reverse.

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– Mediterranean –

Scaling high sunpainted rocks (the roots of shattered sky-pillars), tripped up by scattered titans’ bones, we arrive at the source of the sea. The horizon bends heady around us like the rim of a wineglass. Ships pass on water dyed sullen and surly.

Eastward, the waves extend ten thousand years to lap against the wreaks of history and beat vermilion against its shores; no matter how ridiculous, everything is buoyed by spice and salt. Westward, the waters do not suffer unrealities; renewed tides find out the part’s smallest error, then crush the whole. Only Odysseus and thieves ever go that way.

But who are those people like abandoned lighthouses crowding the cliffs, forever watching, unmeddling, offering spent lanterns to lost ships?

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– Postlude –

I see more and still see nothing in it. Every color, every fiber. I see the delicacies of the fabric, and the void between the weave.

I hear everything, and hear no voice in it speak to me. Every breeze, every flutter of wings and leaves, every footfall and its echo, every animal or human groan and sigh, and the history of those exhalations, every stone that rests and its occasional millennial shifts. I hear the silence between the sounds, and in that expanding rift hear dissolve any meaning of sound or silence.

Because I feel the the pulse of the larger world without, I also feel the dry pulse of the intellectual conceit that holds my smaller world together. I bless it thrice and disdain the ever wakeful; and blessing dreams, I despise the awake.


2 Responses to “Oxherding Pictures”

  1. A work of epic precision and composure. Like a piece of classical music fashioned in prose. Magnificent, original, complex, the art of writing manifest. A kind of architecture in its structure and a complex weaving of threads of time. Brilliant.

  2. I can’t say it any better than Paul, probably not as well. Still, I shall remember this for awhile. Every single word contributed to the story’s totality. Could you possibly send me your email address, I have a request. broncobob4755@sbcglobal.net

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