We set out when the last thrush took flight. I made a mark in the dirt with my toe.
We walked. We walked all day. There were three of us, five of us, sometimes nine.
The oldest of us would speak aloud, but his words bore no resemblance to what we saw.
Each of us brought along his own signs and his own body to interpret them.
Late on the second night, we made a fire.
One who had been with us since the beginning fell asleep beside me and started talking from the depths. The water comes through here, he said.
I couldn’t tell you where.
And he shifted and returned to his dream. I covered him with a blanket and watched the embers go dark, not speaking.
One carried a handful of coins. Another had a name hung around her neck. Another dragged a wooden crate across the gravel. I wanted to walk without bending my body, wanted to bear my own weight, to be vertical. We wanted to protect where we’d come from.
We brought pebbles in our shoes, grain for the birds, the most precious things we’d gathered under the firmament.
Those were the days of the Great Works. They called cavities construction.
Out there, a group of men were making the next century’s ruins.
They used steel spikes to split and crush the stones, blow by blow. That’s what we heard: that their nails were black from digging.
And someone else said that a well is the cast of our still-unbroken days.
Because there was more than one of us, because we’d quickened our steps so we wouldn’t fall behind the others, because we were searching, too, we gathered together.
We were from the north and the south, from the lowlands of the basin, from the east and the west, from cardinal points invisible on the maps. Because we all, somehow or other, had come from the horizon, we gathered together.
At dawn, a line of light appeared in the distance.
It wasn’t the first, but this light was different for us. As in the old books, it sundered what was united in darkness and gradually exposed its shapes. It separated above from below.
And we couldn’t see the water, but something fluttered on its surface.
The great firmament above and us below.
The inverse of the water above and us below.
It was on the morning of the fourth day that we could see where we were going. We had bread, sun, clarity.
We were the one who’s lost a key and holds it in his hand. The path was alive in us and it was good and gentle under our feet.
We kept walking. We were the words on their way.
What we loved moved forward, too—like us, with us. There was a tenderness in the weight of the light and in the tracks the animals had left behind. We yielded to the same strength that undoes the buttons of the medlar fruit, that bends and snaps the branches.
I repeated the sound of my own nine syllables and for a moment I felt like I could call the trees by their names.
Behind the mountain, the riverbed. The lights are lit behind the mountain, he said.
I remember a docile door in the last row on the left side of the alley. And he signaled to a point lost in the distance. Behind the mountain.
We wanted him to take us there, to lead us inside.
The table is probably served, he said.
Behind the mountain, the riverbed. Behind it, the lit lights. Behind, behind, as if on the other side of things, as if the missing piece were always hidden behind the face we see.
But behind the mountain, the mountain. And the riverbed was an empty bowl.
The water comes through here, he said. And gestured to a dry hollow like a clumsy god.
Landscapes don’t preserve what happens along the length of them. A riverbed doesn’t keep the river’s running water; the stones don’t retain their moss, don’t conserve the flight of passing birds, don’t gather shadows.
We want to reach the place that calls to us. But we’re following a path sketched in memories and our straight line is a spiral.
Our shoes heavy, our bodies a puncture, we followed the riverbed down.
And all we found were stones.
Raised stones, with names and dates, stones of different shapes and colors. It was a field ready for farming.
I drifted from the group and walked gingerly, trying not to tread on them. I wanted to find my grandfather’s stone.
And the nameless stones were there, too, piled on top of each other. The stones they built the walls with, the walls we raised our houses with.
But landscapes also preserve what happens along the length of them.
Stones also store fire and are polished with the strength of wind and water.
If animals sleep there, if a thistle grows or a fruit ripens, if a group of people crosses the mountain early in the morning, the land starts filling up like a vessel until it can hold no more and spills over.
We heard rumors that others were gathering in the darkness. That they had light but were using it to blind. That they had words and were using them to divide.
They were the ones who had obstructed the path, the ones who had locked the doors. They were the ones with red-stained hands, the century’s embittered, the wrathful breakers of bones.
And they were moving forward, too.
Like someone who suddenly turns his head and finds nothing when he turns back, or like someone who fixes his gaze on a distant point in the sky and watches it disappear. Like someone who loses sight of.
In this way, we were abandoned at dawn by what we’d thought was evident.
Or we don’t know if it quickened its pace, or lost its way, or if it’s traveling with them, or if they stole it for themselves. If we’ll ever see it again.
None of us knew where to find the red-stained ones, the brusque-skulled.
And one of our own said mournfully: We opened a door. We left it open all night long.
No. They were here before the doors were.
They were here at the same time as we were.
All hours are their hour.
But ours, too.
But what violent wind has moved them, what hurricane are they the children of.
What is their strength, deep, blunt, tutelary. What dark idea do they converge beneath. What is their sign’s dark metal.
We were very still as we pondered these questions, not knowing where to put our fear (in the rough wooden crates, or in the shoes we can’t wear).
And no one wanted to keep walking.
And one of us spoke:
They’re thirsty, too, she said. And they’re someone’s aching heart. Like hunting beasts, like ready claws, death is their way of being alive.
And this weighed heavily on our spirits, and it seemed like the birds flew more slowly and were now traveling in the opposite direction.
We spent that same evening circling a single point. We orbited around the gravity of what had come to be. Turning circles was our way of going.
Someone raised his voice and his words strayed as in the nervous hands of a mailman who can’t find an address.
Since we’re not an animal that lives low to the ground, its body hunkered in wait, we spent that evening turning circles.
The path disappeared and so did a certain sweetness in the eyes. Over a hundred thrushes disappeared and countless pigeons. The crate of candles disappeared. In contemplation the temple disappeared. In consideration the sky and stars disappeared. And one afternoon, Raúl disappeared, too. His stumbling and his flowers.
They disappeared or went somewhere else.
Tiny beetles appeared around the buds of a tree. A thorn appeared that was shaped like a fish. And we couldn’t explain how the scent of rain arrived in the morning. Calligraphy appeared on the stones and a hushed deer along the path. Thistles, thrushes, and nests among the trees.
They appeared or went somewhere else.
In the morning, someone from the mountains began to whistle as we walked.
The bird is called brown-backed solitaire. I heard it once around midday. There were other cages, too, and in the spaces between the wires, there were cardinals, finches, canaries, and parakeets, their throats serene.
And he kept whistling all the way down the San Juan slope. And I remembered his song in someone else’s mouth and I felt like shattering something made of clay.
It was going to rain. The clouds sank low. They were very heavy and it smelled like damp. I closed my eyes.
I can’t remember his name, but I recognize his voice and his body lurching as he walked, dragging his leg behind him.
He could read the birds and the ant-trails. We cared a great deal about the relationship between above and below.
Around midday, we sat in a circle in the shade of a tree. One who was called the Crow, and who hadn’t opened his mouth since we left, handed out ripe figs that we split in half with our fingertips.
And from the top of the hill we could see the ruins that rose in the distance like the backs of beasts. The city was a motionless stampede.
This is the place where the mountain ranges meet, this is the high place where they fasten together, this is the vessel of the waters that the animals come to drink.
And we’re the lit line in the valley, descending toward the basin like walking fireflies.