The man sat on the barge and watched the red-tinged mist about him. The water was very still, almost as if it were about to freeze. The birds, feeling the cold, had become silent. The man had propped himself on the edge of the barge to watch the sunset. He had an enamel mug of coffee cooling in his hand. His clothes were right for the weather and he had a blue bobble hat to keep him warm. He never felt the cold in the trunk of his body; he felt it on his ears and cheeks. If these were not protected, each began to burn under the cold heat. His body was cold enough that he felt each gulp of coffee as an illumination. At last, he finished the coffee and threw the dregs into the canal.
He retreated into the barge and drew a small bronze bolt on the door. The interior was hung with rich golden blankets and there was a dirty Persian rug under his feet. The man sat down before a little stove and fed it with wood. Outside, the Sun had almost been strangulated by the horizon. The man watched the fire. He was old now. Men do not like to say this. They will hold out that they are young at sixty or seventy or eighty—right up to the fatal moment, everyone seeks a delay. The man watched the fire. People do not watch fires anymore. They have central heating and thick windows and all sorts of contrivances to keep themselves warm. This was a sacrifice, thought the old man; a profane sacrifice. The people had lost the fire and they had lost the messages that can be found in the flames. Few men can look into a nuclear reactor and live: the message from that fire is too strong for man, only Prometheus could stand it. But a small fire—a fire in a living room or in a camp—always contains a message for man.
Outside, in the cities, the megacities, there was war and violence. It had been going on for about fifteen years now. The old man had seen it coming, seen it in the fire and seen it with the fire of his eyes. He had spoken at some meetings about it and even written a book. He had used the wrong words, since the war came anyway and though all his predictions came true there were no accolades. The fire told him of the decline and he had transcribed the message. Now the cities burned in a sporadic way; nobody was sure who was on whose side, it was always like that in these wars. The gangs changed sides and changed allegiance and there was only the war. Twenty bodies found in a shipping container, each drilled through the head. Who did it? Nobody knew. It was up for debate. No tribunal would convene. It was the mystery of this type of war.
The fire spat at the old man. The barge was snug and it was dark outside. He could hear the owls, heralds of the darkest knowledge, calling in the night. It could be that some gang from the cities would maraud out down the canals—bored or, perhaps, looking for something to loot—find his barge, one of only three on the network, kill him and take it. He always thought of that at night. He had no firearm; they would have machetes, since bullets were rare these days. The old man was indifferent. He drew the blanket around him and turned his eyes to the book, to the words of a Roman emperor. He began to read the words of sagacious comfort. His mind became one with the emperor and together they lamented the fall of empires. “It always had to be this way,” said the emperor. “I don’t know,” the old man replied; he was from a time that did not accept decay with grace and gladness.