Fantastic Metropolis


Colin Brush

Lebensraum is the city of burnt out lives and expired dreams, where those who have exhausted reality go to imagine a better one. It therefore has some justification in calling itself the last place on earth.

— Hastille Cologne, Biographer to the City


Unrelenting, unforgiving light burns through eyelids like dawn of Apocalypse.

Squeeze tight defective flaps of skin. Turn away from white fury.

Light still on face, eye shields still pink and hot. Taste dust in mouth.

Something wrong.

Open eyes.

Heinous discovery — shelter gone, stolen, leaving self bare to morning sun. Skin itching hot.

Blink in yellow alien world. Sea of wood, chicken wire, canvas and dust; hutches pressed one against another like corpses in paupers’ grave. Self now homeless among homeless. Who has done this? Who has visited indignity on self? Scabs to left and right do not answer, keep to hutches and pretend not to hear questions. Confirms own suspicions: scabs not to be trusted. Silence no doubt bought by servants of enemy. Anger comes but must control, must not play enemy’s game.

Dust thick and dry in mouth.

Stumble down to river, through debris and rubble fashioned into beggar homes. Wash face and private area in thick, brown water; careful not to wet wound of wronged hand. Don’t shit where eat adage unknown to Babble folk. Swill out mouth and spit into sun-spotted surface. Dirty river water like tarnished mirror — emptyof reflection. Could be anyone washing face.

Vexed on returning to hutch-space. Takes many minutes to find patch. Blood grows hot with understanding — space filled by new hutch. Squatter occupying space is fat man, scavenger; bigger than self. Forces self away; calls self scab in voice raw with anger. Babble is scum washed up against walls of city; living on fear and hate — predatory. Curse all scabs (and neighbours) and abandon home to squatter. Belly is needful, adds own insistent voice to terrible clamour.

Join stooped fellows shuffling on road alongside wagons heading for gate in outer wall. Pass vendors’ stalls offering vermin for breakfast; better to drink river water than eat sale carrion. Will fill belly in city with fresh scran. Nosewards, defensive walls shimmer in morning heat haze, leaning away from beggar settlement in disgust, in horror. Too late. Rot spread clear to all: cracks in masonry ruin proud battlement lines. Upper wall like broken and rotting teeth of beggar men. Black-wings rise from holes in guard tower roofs, catching swells of hot city air or swooping low for scraps in Hobbleton. Others soar above city, rising above dark structure at heart. Sight of enemy brings back memory of outrage; force eyeballs down. Follow dusty track, side by side with beggarkind, keeping pace with sluggish river. Onwards.

At walls wagons and carts — engines hot and noisy — pass unhindered under rusty-toothed portcullis, carrying cargo to market, oil for gears of city.

Men in uniform eyeball Babble folk suspiciously. Self made to join line of hopeful no-hopes, half-delirious from empty bellies and opium-jacked blood. All scabs, all damned in search of soul. Watchman at head of line carries metal stick. Watchman asks questions and, prodding with stick, sends each back. Watch too fearful to touch rags of outcasts. Fellow guards sit on fat arses and scratch bellies, already tired by heat of day; disgusted by queue, by job. Bellamy once said watchmen’s piggy eyes show fear that one day Babble will rise up and claim city, drowning rulers and servants alike. Self disagreed, watch too piggy-eyed to see beyond lunch.

Stick pokes chest, arresting and painful.

Hold it, boy, says watchman, What’s your business in the city?

Shrug shoulders. Visiting father, speaks tongue, birthday.

Smiles at self, showing fat, yellow teeth sticky with saliva. Says, You wouldn’t be thinking of doing any begging now would you — not from your father or anyone?

Smile back, raise hand and flip coin into air. Watchman catches coin in palm of gloved hand.

Stick drops away, breathe easy again. You can go, says watchman. Step under arch, under blunted portcullis teeth. Prickly heat of sun doused by city wall.

Walk under grey arches into shadows; past decayed, long-unused machines, past wooden crates destined for merchants. Watchmen examine goods of traders, money changes hands, crates pass unopened into marketplace.

Pass into light, into Lebensraum.

Bustle. Activity. Life.

Daren’t stop and eyeball — watch eager to move stragglers along with sticks. Run across granite flagstones, avoiding trams and carriages, keeping head down, minding own business. Smell of roses thick in air — gentry of Galleon burn incense in street to perfume air when wind blows from west. Pass Galleon’s villas on way to breakfast. Cross plazas crawling with greenery, tended by legions of gardeners. Wealthy and titled dine with artists and poets, throwing promises of money or fame into conversation, buying portraits or sonnets by yard. Aristocrats exchange greetings greased by etiquette of class: clothes, gestures, language.

Keep to quiet back streets where gaming houses mopping up from night before, but often must cross open avenues or crescents that separate villas and mansions. Mindful that heading towards blood-red stain in sky, blotting out eastern horizon; but little option — all roads lead to Rome.

Arms itch and burn, urge to scratch unbearable. Keep walking.

Get grip on self and pass Taliesyn Fair. Locked and empty; too early for couples to play at love, to share fantasies. Turn back on fair as belly still grumbling and cut through Wax Street Market. Frantic with shouts of traders and customers bartering over goods. Pass stalls selling spices by bag, fruit, meat, household wares, vegetables, textiles, fish, books, maps, pets, all for sale at competitive prices. Help self to apples when back of coster turned: juicy and crisp; belly rumbles in appreciation.

Eyeball POET coming in opposite direction with young woman dressed like gypsy. Recognise black hair and velvet suit; all smiles, trying to impress lady friend. Painful reminder of loss; rub finger nail over stump; six months on scab not yet healed.

POET eyeballs self and calls out name of old, beckons anxiously with perfect hands. Turn away, push through crowd. Much agitated by coincidence. Forget POET. Don’t remember name. Matters not to self; only to Quill. And Quill gone; betrayed and lost.

Press on, will soon reach patch. Above self, domes, towers, jumbles of tall, slope-roofed buildings jostle for space, crowding out blue of sky.

At last, eyeball flaming chimneys of Chemytown, alchemists’ quarter. Stacks thin as needles pierce air, bleeding dark smears of smoke across sky. Air thick and hot, lungs churn in protest. Circle abomination called The Pit and settle in patch on Boyle’s Law. Patch free from competition, no Babble folk found here. Lay coat in shadows where old man Bellamy sat before illness filled lungs with black fluid. Last words spoken lost in fit of coughing.

Remember first words Bellamy spoke to self; first friendly words heard upon inglorious arrival in city: Take out your tin cup and place it at your feet. Stare only at the ground. Do not look up. Nod your head once for each coin dropped in the cup. Keep your eyeballs peeled for the watch and be ready to scarper at any moment.

Wise words kept safely in head of self, only one who remembers Bellamy. Wizards and soothsayers pass every day, drop coins but give not a fig for beggars. Give out of secret guilt for dark arts practised.

Bellamy was philosopher of street. Said that giving money to beggars is sacrament. Donated coins like Ave Maria of confession — atonement for sins committed. By accepting money (nodding of head is part of rite) street people absolve sins, perform spiritual service. Funny man, Bellamy.

Miss him.

Wizards always lost in thought, forever plotting new experiments. Wear dark glasses to cover shrunken eyes, whites eaten up; hide pasty bodies in folds of heavy cloaks. Eyeball wizards across street, scuttling from shop to shop, buying vials or sacks, before back to laboratories to perform dark rituals. All black arts found in Chemytown. Rattle metal cup; good for business.

Pass day without incident until shadows lengthen across street, shops display closed signs in windows and passers-by dwindle to trickle. No more money to be had for today; no more penance given. Pick up coat and tin cup, heavy with change. Three silver and seven copper coins. Four dollars. Save one silver coin for bribe tomorrow. By length of shadows still too early for final appointment. Decide to stroll along river embankment like any common citizen after good day at work.

High tide, and Lebe has risen on swell, lapping two feet below embankment. Boats moored along river bank bob contentedly as water flows by. Working boats outnumbered by evening pleasure barges carelessly steaming up and down stream.

Three Arches Bridge bathed in red glow of sun. Join merrymakers parading themselves above green-brown water below. Eyeball old man Rustblood sketching ornamentation of bridge underside from moored rowboat, tongue stuck out in concentration, oblivious of bright, young people above.

Sun lowers searing belly behind city walls and will soon sink beneath horizon of Babble. Almost time for last stop. Final punctuation of day before wend way home and find new place to lie among beggarkind.

Self not only one to end day with pilgrimage. Many, many citizens maintain hopeless delusion that lottery will choose them.

Buildings grow taller, more imposing, reeking more of officialdom as climb gentle hill. Avenues widen and traffic dies; pedestrians, all walking in one direction. Climb wide flight of steps and suddenly vast edifice towers over hopeful masses. Self stops, but hopeful rush forward, desperate to cheat chance.

Face of enemy unchanged. Does not age or decay, or suffer in sun or rain, heat or cold. Just is. Blister on landscape that blights city, that destroyed Quill for empty dream, pale reflection. Hope. Bulbous central dome swells with ancient, angry pride above all, looking down on city and inhabitants. Dome squeezed on four sides by press of antechambers, supported by smaller buildings tottering inwards — flanks falling away from ugly mountain. Four turrets stand sentinel above. In fading light vast, blood-red edifice casts great shadow over city. Dark shadow over lives of citizens.

Stands taller and bloodier in sunset light; black windows do not reflect light of sun, just absorb warmth and light, like fragments of void. Library takes and does not give in return.

Masses crowd around gates; not admitted without tickets. Armed guards hold back. Time approaches, dark murmurs fill air.

What beguiles minds of men so? Are not myths of world enough? Why look for false idols? Library of Souls sits in square alien and vast, bigger than idea of itself, bigger than sum of all those, like Quill, who seek glory inside walls. Seek, and yet do not find.

Door opens in wall and frocked librarian emerges. All is now silence. Guards see expectant faces of crowd and finger weapons nervously. Librarian, masked and cowled, steps forward, carrying wooden box carved with words of ancient, forgotten language.

Quill wanted this, gave life to this, tried to make dream become reality. Made ultimate sacrifice. Babble folk beg for living, beg to get by day after day. Richly dressed members of crowd, winners in lottery of life and unused to begging, play lottery of library. Wealth is never enough.

Lid of box is opened and bony hand feels inside for handful of red, numbered papers. Crowd shuffles feet expectantly; expectation is everything.

Feel silver dollars in pocket of robes, sharp-edged and heavy. Slip through gap in closed fingers of wronged hand. Money to buy entrance at city gates tomorrow. Bribe grows heavier as Babble grows. Access granted to fittest, wealthiest beggars. Wealthy beggars. Laugh at thought. Self poorer than Quill but richer in knowledge. Quill deluded by Library of Souls, by stories of books inside, by aeons of lives written up in ink.

Librarian holds handful of tickets high in air and shout rises up from crowd at bounty held in hand, a gasp as though one body, one pair of lungs, rises up above central dome of library, to join with hopeful, expectant sky dreams that brought them here.

Entrance. That is dream of outcasts. Tickets to roam corridors for one day only, to join ranks of privileged council of library deem worthy of entrance to vast store of knowledge. Privileged use knowledge like aristocracy use veneer of etiquette to keep themselves elevated, to suppress those like Babble folk. Keep all for selves.

Tickets are hurled into air. Caught in evening breeze and drift across crowd. Red confetti cloud looks like scabs of ochre paint chipped from Library walls; snatched at and fought over. Masked face smiles at riot created, at hopes and dreams kept alive by fake act of generosity. By such gestures do powers that be suppress weak and empty-minded.

Turn away from fury. Show back to enemy and servants of enemy. Time will come when Library will fall, when store of knowledge will be open to all — or kept from all, destroyed in great conflagration to rival white heat of God’s creation. Self knows. Quill will be avenged.

Time will come. Soon.

Copyright © 2001 by Colin Brush.