Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The telegraphist (conclusion)

All was quiet the next morning. There were a few heavy clouds along the horizon that he thought might portend a storm, but the next time he looked in that direction, a few moments later, they had vanished without a trace and the air around him was as searing as ever. He didn't even bother to look in on the mule, of whose existence he had by now in any case forgotten. He had lost track of time and only occasionally remembered how he had come to be stranded in such an isolated, godforsaken place. The thought occurred to him that he might in fact be dead, but after trying to get his head around that notion for some time he decided that he couldn't form a conclusion one way or another and so put the matter out of his mind. He opened a fresh can of beans -- there weren't many left but he wasn't eating very much anymore -- mouthed a few spoonfuls, and set it aside. The telegraph bell rang now and then, but he paid no attention to it.

He passed two or three days in a state of intermittent delirium, shaking with fever and too weak to get up, until in a brief lucid moment he realized that he must soon drink something or die. Filling a bucket from the wooden barrel, he drank steadily for several minutes until he felt himself about to retch. He returned to his cot and almost immediately fell asleep.

When he awoke -- it could have been the next morning, or the day after, he wouldn't have been able to say -- he felt much better and his appetite had revived. He grabbed the same can of beans, brushing away the flies that had congregated around it, and sat up at his desk. As he was pushing the first spoonful through his cracked and blistering lips he heard the alarm ring. Seconds later the message came down:
Nesabap alaba barababaranap mana ba STOP Palaba banabarep arefep ber erabet geret nasefaterabat gret bara basarep
He carefully wrote the words down, then examined them at length. Their significance was as inscrutable as ever, and yet the longer he looked the more there seemed to be something in them -- some delicate gesture, some faint hint of tenderness -- that desperately longed to be conveyed. He read them backwards and forwards and out of order, anagrammatized them and spent at least an hour simply staring at the forms of the letters as if the shapes alone bore some critical message that had nothing to do with any language known to man, a message that arose from some other realm where nothing was arbitrary symbol, where every communication was a direct encounter with some truth so profound and absolute that it couldn't be expressed in anything as insignificant and arbitrary as language but only as itself. Before he even knew he was doing it, he began to tap out a response:
Qa balaqa STOP Barabasabaraq qaraq ablababap STOP Balap rabelaba perap salap balarepareb na nabap
The reply was almost instantaneous:
Gasap beragera aramerabap STOP Beragabaragap blagap gasa berarqaraba basaraba berap asanta nabep rebasapar raba berabasep
He sat back, contemplating the words. At that moment they seemed to him as soothing as the freshest spring rain, as deep as a desert well, as tender as a mother's love for the infant at her breast. Weeping with gratitude at their beauty, he stood up and spoke the message aloud, chanting it over and over as he circled the room, kissing the paper on which he had written it out. Trembling with joy, he leaned over the key and tapped out a response that he knew, with complete certainty, would be received and understood as his irreversible declaration of utter and undivided submission:
Garaqasap abamaba maserab berasseraber STOP Asarabageram merasapa aba basapa mergaraga berasaperaba STOP Meragerabarap birab qaru nagraba barasabar
With one motion he swept everything off the desk -- his books, his water jug, and his lamp, which shattered onto the floor -- and awaited the answer that he knew would soon be forthcoming.


When the relief party arrived at the oasis they found the mule still barely clinging to life in its stall. Out of mercy they shot it. The body of the telegraph operator was slumped over his desk, surrounded by page after page of incomprehensible scribbling. At the orders of the officer in command of the party they buried him just beyond the edge of town; then they gathered all of his papers in a pile and set them ablaze. After that they cut the telegraph wires and stripped them off the poles; the copper, at least, could be used again. When they were done, right before they left, they dynamited the command post, just to be sure.

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