A History of the Period
There is a range of mountains that spreads into Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Kyrgyzstan, a place Marco Polo once called the Roof of the World; from a particular shelf in the snow, all five countries can be seen at once. It is the place that gave birth to humanity as we know it, and that would be a fine place to dwell indeed if this narrative were concerned with people and how they came to be. However, this is the story of the creation of something else, a meager but mighty dot, a point that echoes through all our writings and readings, through our stories and letters, the simple mark that concludes this sentence and ends any composition that we assemble in language: the period.
That place in the mountains is called Pamir. It is a bestial place, where bulldozers are stationed on the roads to clear landslides and the Afghans train their sniper rifles on any headlight they see after sunset. There is a narrow band on the mountains, perhaps 300 m wide, where the humidity and temperature is optimal for the growth of crops; above this strip, all is dry, and below, all too shaded from the sun to bring fertility. Climate change will alter the outlook for this swath of land, stretching it up and down the mountain until the delighted farmers will be able to pass on ever larger patches of land to sons and daughters. But this is also not the story of Pamir, at least as it is now.
Four millennia ago, a young farmer of sheep sat in his home on the side of a Pamiri mountain, cramming patches of thatched grass into the cracks in the wood that let the snow of a storm into his house. The fire was burning low. Between his attempts to hold off the elements, he wrote on a sheaf of paper – for this was not a simple herder of sheep or a grower or hemp, no this man was a composer, a gentleman who relished the isolation of the deep snows; indeed, this man was a writer, a man whose thoughts raced day and night as they tried to express the meanings he had gleamed in the passes and the valleys. Alas, the poor sop, this unextraordinary farmer of sheep, never assembled a collection of words sufficiently memorable that someone chose to preserve them; we have no record of his writings. Though he sought to express his thoughts, he ended up merely punctuating them.
The farmers found him soon enough, frozen hands curled around his quill. They would have left him there to rest, but one, a stumpy coal miner, chanced to look upon the unremarkable words that had been built up on the sheaf, and there saw something astonishing adorning the last sentence. It was a mark, unexceptional, plain, even insipid perhaps, but powerful all the same in the way that it gave clarity to the words that preceded it. As the others began to ransack the home, this gentleman took the piece of paper and tucked it into his skins.
At the bottom of the mountain, he showed the paper to the erstwhile shaman of the tribe. At once, this behemoth of a man understood what he had in his possession, the meaning this thing would give to words, any words, a multitude of words – his words. “Mine!” he said, and took the thing from the miner. That night, the shaman lay an offering in his fire and inhaled the fumes, knowing that his ascension was finally at hand – after the cold and bone-breaking wind of forty years, he had his salvation. Little did he know that the coal miner had taken ill to this turn of events and gone to a neighboring tribe, to whom he described his incredible discovery. No sooner had that night set than did howls echo through the mountains of Pamir, as savages stormed the village of the shaman. Thus began the first battle of the period.