The City & the Man; the Man & the City

By Joshua A. Dilk

“So you thought your inverse was the City?”

Seated in a small room overlooking an orangery, and without any memory of having arrived, a young man beheld his would-be interrogators: two androgynes of indeterminate height and weight with piscine hair that slowly mimicked their body movements. Mercury-colored light bled from their eyes and mouths as they stared at him.

“What do you mean? Why am I here? I, ah, don’t remember much of last night…”

The young man swallowed heavily and coughed, the act vaporizing the fluid in his throat like a gazogene. The cloying stench of metabolized alcohol, and something weirder, triggered sporadic moments from the previous night to materialize behind his eyes: The smell of red wine; the sound milk makes when people jump into a milk bath; the tap-tap of a hammer on something fleshy and moist; the sound light makes when it falls upwards from cracks in a wall.

“You’re obviously one of last night’s celebrants. Why did you think that the City was your inverse?” The androgyne speaking backed away, motioning for its colleague to take over.

The second androgyne smelled of orchards and hints of cinnamon, and identified itself as “Johingen.” It looked the man up and down and then sat on the air so that its eyes were level with the young man’s.

“First, let’s have your name. Then tell us your intentions for the Festival of the Transitive Form.” One of Johingen’s eyes ceased to bleed light, its brightness flowing into tenebrous sable as it encapsulated the moment for future review.

“My name is Delfft. I guess I’m a gardener—”

“Excuse me?” This was the other androgyne, not Johingen.

“Gardener. My parents grew up in the Orange Free State and came here just before I was born. I guess I’m nostalgic about their life before, where you had to grow food to eat.

Anyhow, if you look to Sebasteia Close, off the Viminal Market, you’ll see my garden. I mainly grow exotics that don’t fit our climate: asparagus, peppers, onion, that sort.”

“Fine.” This was Johingen again. “I work a Garden; growing is natural to me. Continue.”

Delfft looked at his interrogator more closely, anxiety growing within. Work a Garden. The distinction was obvious. These people were not dilettantes. “As to the Festival, I just really wanted to push the limit, you know, and make a night of it. So I had to get myself in the right state. I opened the night with some psychotropic drugs and lots of palm wine but, otherwise, I am not entirely clear I had any other plan; the rest of the night is pretty hazy, kind of dreamlike, you know.”

“You just wanted to ‘push the limit and make a night of it.’ Do you understand exactly what you did?” Johingen was standing now, ripples of movement blurring its outline. “Let me put it this way — what would you say if I told you that the best way to increase the spiciness of a pepper crop was to grind fish roe into its seedbed?”

Delfft stared, speechless. Those instructions formed his parents’ recipe for boosting pepper intensity and neither they nor he, himself, had ever shared it with anyone.

“A good tip, no? How about this? In Orange, one Ruuohm Silver-Ghissom was exiled for marrying an ochre-woman. They came here to Majosha and the rest, as they say, is history.”

The young man felt the blood rise to his ears, a dull roaring threatening to overcome his composure. What was happening? He managed to steady his voice, but only just. “What— how did you hear this?”

“Don’t you get it? Why you’re here. Why Thessaldon and I are not floating in our Garden? Think back to your ‘night.'”

Delfft stopped, then, and really tried to rebuild his shattered evening. The mescaline and palm wine he remembered. He’d eaten the buttons and began slurping the wine after a dinner with friends. They’d seen a street performance, some kind of interpretative mime set to zithers. But afterwards, as the colors and sounds began to blend together, he had wandered off alone.

As he wandered, his mind’s eye pulled him into itself. Down cobbled streets that between eye blinks flowed into marzipan, concocted and set by a flutist whose piping paved tangibly sonic stones. He traversed an alley, then flowed through a cul-de-sac until he found himself in a small roundabout, six lanes merging into a circle, with a small stone building at its center, which he had never seen before.

Subsumed by the recollection, Delfft surveyed the roundabout, noting the air, fecund and floral; the light, coming from no particular source, diffuse like candlelight through amber; the sky, an ambient porphura set with diadems. He saw a Garden float below the firmament, this one a lattice of pumice, encircling a mini-sun and at its heart, a hebdomad sitting enthroned on a toadstool. The moment’s clarity stretched in all directions — was the marzipan real or were the stones false?

Delfft saw his past self approach the building; saw himself step onto the aged basalt and slowly step past the smooth columns into the oracle’s — yes, that’s what it was — atrium; saw his past-eyes acknowledge the room’s emptiness, its lack of light, adornment, and color; saw the tiny lines marking the individual joins between the blocks; saw himself freeze in a moment of sobriety as he recognized dressed stone where the city had none.

Saw the moment the City spoke to him.

“The Festival of the Transitive Form, why is it?”

The words vibrated through his sinuses and filled his lungs. He smelled their content even as he saw their texture. It gripped him like a stroke. Slowly, as Delfft stared at his past self drooling on the floor, he heard himself speak.

“Uh, it celebrates variability, that life isn’t certain. There’s a historical element but I can’t remember what it is.”


“Ze see. The historical event always puzzled ze as its link to the current festival is tenuous: how else to understand the transmutation of a massacre into a celebration of life?”

Massacre? This, Delfft thought, is what the abrakes experience, communion with the City as its representatives. How did they stand it, this constant feeling of sublimation?

“So, then, the Transitive Form is an inversion of the existing order as a lived experience?”

Why was the City asking him the finer points about this festival? Surely the abrakes could explain it better then he could.

“I think so. I… I can’t think well now. I could, I could find someone who could explain it to you better?

A pause. Utter silence as Delfft watched an errant pigeon feather freeze in mid-air. “No. Your explanation is satisfactory. And now, ze would like to partake of this festival — with you. Do you accept?”

Delfft, like all citizens, had celebrated this festival numerous times. You spent an evening living as something else. He had spent an evening as a sandal-maker; a mercenary fighting a haunt-battle; even a scribe, copying and recopying pre-Oneiric manuscripts the oikumene wanted to preserve. Others had become abrakes or archontoi, though they were rarely the same afterwards; the strange and the errant, he had heard, had inverted themselves with vegetables, paper, a stone — all with weird side effects. Never had he heard of such a request: rare for the City to speak to anyone other than the masters of its asyndeton. But whether a combination of drugs or youth or something more profound, Delfft saw the moment his past self decided to accept.

“Yes. But…” An eye blink. A liminal shift, the ordinary perspective framed by eyes and ears and nose and brain subsumed by something numinous. A pulsing vibrato permeated the air smelling of roses and smoke and hope and fear and mangos and death. The chrysolite and basalt upon which his bones rested shimmered, a soft kaleidoscopic light emanating from their collective surfaces that muted and diffused the light in a way that sounded softly like rainfall. Voices called out of this disjointed experience — some terrified; some quizzical; others accepting; still others enraged. Content without form. The voices tugged on him and he felt parts of himself give way, speeding back along the corridors connecting him to the voices and the smells and the sounds and the sensations that crawled up, through, below, and within his body. He felt himself pulled along, as if by a herd, toward a distant, glowing horizon that smelled of faint promise. He could almost visualize that promise, not something halcyon, but rather a taste of something as yet unrealized. He faded to nothingness.

He awoke, or, rather, emerged from his introspection, to find himself back in the room by the orangery, facing a pair of irate androgynes.

“He sees it now, Thessaldon, or at least the broad outlines, don’t you? Somehow, though no one, not the abrakes, nor any of the archontoi, has any idea how this could have happened, especially with someone of such low synechdoche, but you somehow took the Festival of Transitive Form to its heretofore unexplored apotheosis: you switched places with the City.”

Silence filled the room. Johingen’s revelation stirred hazy memories from the quagmire of drugs, drink, and communion. Voices, names, feelings, thoughts, dreams, fragments of them all surfaced in Delfft’s mind only to sink slowly, making way for new bits and pieces of the City’s — for a time, his — lived experience. A thought came to him — one of his own.

“I’ve got… memories… pieces of the City in my head, but it’s hazy. What— What did the City retain of me while we were inverted?”

The androgynes smirked. “Show him.” Thessaldon pulled some of the light that bled from its eyes into an oval of burning light that cooled into a bright, reflective surface showing Delfft a crystalline version of himself.

Delfft recoiled as if slapped and the combination of hangover and surprise caused him to retch. When he recovered his gorge, he looked up to find Thessaldon doubled over with laughter, mercury tears pooling in the hollows below his eyes. Johingen, meanwhile, stared at Delfft, a tight smile linking ear to ear. The City-as-Delfft had gotten a tattoo while inverted, though a singularly unique one as far as Delfft was concerned. Tattoos were a common way for citizens to memorialize their inversions. They often took highly allegorical forms that informed the recipient’s subsequent life. In Delfft’s case, the tattoo memorialized himself. His entire head — his ears, his eyes, his teeth — was covered in a series of interlocking images of his own face, first one laughing, then one crying. Looking closer, he saw that the gaps between the faces were filled with still smaller ones in a recursive pattern that left nothing bare. His hair, just yesterday a source of pride, was nowhere to be found, perhaps to make the tattoo more visible. That he had not noticed the seeming weightlessness of his head surprised him, but after the previous night, the androgynes, and the City, it seemed the least strange part of recent events.

“It looks like the City has a rather perverse sense of humor, judging from that tattoo, and the fact that it shared your memories with the oikumene all evening. The City hit every bar on the Esconditryar.”

“It feels like ze did.”

“Was it worth it? I mean at this point we don’t have anything to say other than that we hope never to have your thoughts pushed into ours again — the oikumene simply needed an explanation.”

The androgynes looked at Delfft with honest curiosity. He looked back and had another thought.

“The City asked me ‘why is it?’ referring to the Festival. I don’t have any answers for myself, but it seemed that the City wanted what everyone else here wants: a new perspective, some new experiences, if only for a little while. That seems enough of a justification for both of us.”

The androgynes looked at him thoughtfully and then slowly walked out to their distant Garden. Delfft looked at himself in the mirror some more, then walked to the orangery. Amidst its cool shade, he ate an orange, not noticing, as he did, the pattern of tiny Delfft faces covering the peel and the pulp as he savored each bite, mashing the happy and the sad together into one sweet mass.

chicken breakThe City & the Man; the Man & the City © 2016 Joshua A. Dilk