... He looked at his hands, turning them over and back, flexing his fingers.

"Have you ever wondered," he said, "why we have hands?" Fear stabbed through me: suddenly I was a hapless schoolchild again.

I spread my own hands as if to say, who knows?

He looked at me, then smiled gently, returning his gaze to the fire. There was a long silence.

"When I was a boy," he began, so softly I had to lean closer to hear him, "my master posed that problem to me — for it is a problem, yes? Discerning the purpose of things? Is not the first act of the newly born infant, even as it howls in horror, to open and close its tiny hands, reaching, reaching, deeper and deeper into this world, until at last it grips the giant index of the midwife? So we begin; so also we end, do we not? clutching at this world with all our failing strength, while all comfort, all peace, all wisdom, all joy, are pried from our grasp, finger by finger."

He sat back with a huffing laugh. "Forgive me. I did not come here to weary you with my broodings, but to bear you company."

I murmured my thanks.

"I have been mulling this old lesson of my master, which has returned after so many years." He paused, considering something.

"Last night I dreamed I was a fish, swimming with my brethren and companions through the vast, boundless ocean. No roof over our heads, no walls on any side, no ground beneath our feet — no feet! Neither had we hands. No tools, no weapons. No records. No history." He cocked an eye at me. "No artifacts, neither."

I smiled.

"No law, no crime, no punishment," he went on, enjoying himself now. "No armies, no government, no institutions to join or be kept out of."

Or banished from, I couldn't help but add.

"Yes!" he cried, clapping my forearm. "No oaths of allegiance, no excommunications, no vows, no promises — "

No text, I blurted, surprising us both.

He looked at me a long moment, then his eyes set. "Indeed," he said, turning back to the fire. Then, almost in a whisper, "No ghosts."

We said nothing more after that...