Song of Cities

by Maggie Kast

For two days and a night the belly of a huge fish had been bloated and pulsing with pain. Now nausea pressed against the back of his throat and he opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He searched for a sheltering cavern, a calm pool where he could rest and nurse his misery. A grotto appeared just ahead and he swam in, then nestled in soft green seaweed, where he tried to succumb to the merciful ebb and flow of the current. Resting, he felt worse. Sharp stabs radiated from his belly to his back. He must have eaten something terrible. Yesterday, it would have to be yesterday. He ate so many things in a day there was no way he could remember them all, and memory often failed him.

He forced himself to think back, to catalogue each action, impression, and bit of nourishment. A deafening wind had blown in the upper world, then rain to rival the liquid density of the lower. He remembered breaking the surface and glimpsing a boat wobbling in a trough between waves five times its height. Then he dove to the tranquil, lower depths and returned to feeding, glad to avoid the clamor and struggle of the world of air. Think: what had he eaten? Creatures large and small had tickled his gullet with their struggles, then subsided into fullness inside. Perhaps there’d been one in particular, not bigger than the others but more angular. Yes, he remembered. He could still feel the small wounds etched in the membrane of his throat as it went down, flailing. He had been too greedy, eating without consideration, and now he was paying the price. He felt something stirring in his gut, and a high, thin wail penetrated his brain. He peered around the shadowy cave in search of the source, but saw nothing. The keening rose and fell, a drawn-out complaint, in time with the pangs in his belly. Spasms now rippled through his entire body, and he abandoned the cave, seeking to escape both pain and voice. Without thought he swam faster and faster, pursued by his belly’s bitterness and the terrifying ululation, for another day and a night. 

As he approached a rocky shore he paused, spent. Great waves of contraction pulsed from his tail past his gills to his mouth, until he vomited a small, dark man onto the shore. Disgusting, but he felt better. As relief relaxed him, he trilled and moaned his gratitude, and nearby fish took up the chorus, their squeals and growls assuring each other that the storm had abated and each could feed freely. The sea was once more a comforting home, and seagrasses rocked them to sleep.

The man sat dripping on a rocky shore, waves of salt water ebbing and flowing just beyond his feet. Harsh sunlight slowly dried his torn clothes, and he smelled of fish. A hated and familiar itch behind his eyes goaded him to get up and go, look and see. Ages had passed since his eyes had first opened to a scattershot blast of light, too bright, that made everything he saw invasive, as though the starving birds of a wintry woods were flying around his head, pecking for seed. He’d tried to run, but images of hunger and suffering left their residue incised on his eyelids, confronting him day and night. He gritted his teeth and asked himself: what sort of childish, resentful god would grip a man’s head and point it at everything wrong in the world?

He strung his weary bones together, stood upright and headed inland. For three days he strode through the streets of a walled and gated city on the banks of a great river, preaching repentance and threatening rains of fire from heaven and floods of mud from hell. Frightened, the king ordered the people to release their slaves and beasts of burden and sit down in sackcloth and ashes. Camels and cows, dogs, cats and rats roamed free and aimless, while everyone went hungry, from the king to the cockroaches.

Cattle stood in the narrow cobblestone alleys, lowing and blocking the way. Camels galloped among the pillars and porticoes of the main thoroughfare, trampling children in the dust. Cats sought shelter from the heat and drops of water in the underground precincts of the temple. Dogs snarled and fought. Rats gathered in the temple where no fires were lit, no tasty bits remained from sacrificial feasts. They prepared a petition, speaking for all the animals.

“We are hungry. We are thirsty,” they said. “How much longer must we starve? The king has discarded his robes and put on sackcloth, but we are not wearers of clothes. The king’s ministers fill their mouths with ashes for bread, but bread is not our food. We fear the madman’s threats, but what shall we repent of? Our masters weep, and we can only pace and scurry, restless and neglected.”

But the fire and the flood never came. Soon the people rose from the ashes, dressed and ate and returned to feeding the animals. Once again the camels felt the crack of the overseer’s whip as they trudged side by side with the slaves. Cats climbed up from the crypts to rub up against naked bodies tangling in cultic praise. Mothers returned to weeping over infants chosen for sacrificial burial beneath the city gates. The temple fires were lit, and rats resumed their collection of leftover scraps.

Fury filled the man’s mouth like wormwood, and he shook his fist at the god who had made him look and see. “First I threaten destruction,” said the man, “and then your relenting rolls in like fog. Why must I always look the fool, my threats as impotent as a whiny child?”

After who knows how many days and nights, towers and battlements replaced the crumbled stone pillars and porticoes, and the city fortified itself with a broad and turgid moat. The slaughter of witches replaced infant sacrifice, and temple prostitution gave way to the sale of indulgences. Once again, the man unfolded stiff limbs and stood on the rocky shore, resigned. His humiliation echoed back and forth through the ages, and his heart felt as old and hard as the rocks. Kneaded into obedience, he walked with a limp, one hand on his back and the other brushing gray hair from his eyes. 

As he approached the plague-ridden city, a parade of pilgrims passed, accompanied by thieves, pimps and pickpockets. People stumbled noisily through alleys and byways, like drunkards in search of home. Spirits of the upper world filled the air with flutter and quaver like gray clouds racing across the moon, while spirits of the lower lurked behind each door and corner.

The man walked into a church at the hour for confessions, where robbers of relics crept around in the dimness, making off with all they could carry. “You’ll be cursed,” he proclaimed, voice loud over whispered transactions. “You have changed so much for the worse. You call yourselves Christians. Your leaders are cynics. Repent or your city will burn.”

A seller of pardons left his wares and approached. “What makes you think you are better than I? Who are you to be threatening fire? As long as we live we are simply poor humans, who can’t tell our right from our left.”

As long as I live, thought the man. That’s my curse. I survived the darkness inside a fish only to face blinding light and the sight of everything wrong in the world. “You don’t see what I see,” he said.

“We each have blind spots.” The pardoner turned to a penitent and offered to sell absolution. The man looked at his hands, right and left equally helpless to repair the rents in the world. This city was clearly as bad as the worst but again, it would surely be spared. His heart sank to his well-worn boots, and he strode out, seeking peace in the woods.

In damp and rain, the man built himself a hut of logs, slim protection against wild boar and wolves that roamed right up to the moat. During the night, a seed sprouted, rootlets reached out and a vine climbed round and round his hut. By morning, a glossy tree with palmate leaves had transformed his bare shelter into a leafy, vaulted arbor. The shiny, purplish-green leaves offered him fruit covered with fuzzy prickles. The man broke the fruit open gently with his thumbs and caught the first drops of sweet juice in his mouth. He dug out three poisonous seeds that looked like ticks, sucked them dry, and put them in his pocket. Then he caressed the satiny, incised lobes and pressed his body against the yielding surface of the trunk. Finally no itch, no need for action. The arbor shaded and consoled him all day, and the knots of his face uncoiled. His cheeks turned pink in the night as he slept curled around the trunk.

The wild boar and the wolves smelled the sickly odor of human, curling from the hut like tendrils of smoke, polluting the green and pristine woods. Sharp teeth bared, the wolves prowled the perimeter of the hut, while the boar rooted under a rotten log and discovered a worm.

“We can’t stand the fetid human smell,” said the boar to the worm. “But you might like it. Come with me. I’ll show you a human nest with succulent green stems and leaves, much richer food than rotten wood.” Trusting and silent, the worm climbed onto the boar’s snout, and the boar charged through the woods, depositing the worm at the edge of the hut.

The worm made its way through the wet undergrowth, up and down grasses ten times its length in height, clinging to the hope of the promised juicy bite and following the stench that emanated from the man. Inside the hut he found a drooping leaf and inched his way up, his underbelly already soothed by the smooth and waxy stem. Arriving at the cozy juncture of the central trunk and its most graceful branch, the worm dissolved in pleasure and began to burrow and eat.

Sap spread around the wound, and the tree weakened, then collapsed to the ground, covering the man. Already the broad leaves were withering. What would shelter him now from the scorching sun, the icy rain? The man’s face lost its blush and tightened until his features were gathered together like a stitched tear. “I’d rather be dead,” he muttered, “than go on living.” He felt in his pocket for the poisonous seeds, then lay down to wrap himself at last in earth. The minute he closed his eyes, images of cities rose, and his limbs twitched with necessity.

Condemned to live, the man climbs up on rocks once more and sits there for a while, drying out. Is there no end to cities? From the looks of the skyline, this one is huge. The man makes his way up the shore and sets out on foot, eyes still clear but shoulders sagging. He strides away from the rising sun and the water and approaches great buildings made of black glass, hulks against blue sky. As he walks by, the glass becomes transparent, revealing internal structure: shafts and stairways. Cars honk. Pounding sounds above where steel girders stretch into the sky, men constructing buildings above the trees.

Soon the streets jostle with shoppers, women wearing high heels, hurrying and bumping against each other. Through a store window he sees mannequins in colorful dresses, a reflection of leafy trees camouflaging them with soft light and shade. Beggars wander in clothes as ragged as his. He stands on a corner and calls out, “You walk by the hungry to shop for fine clothes.” Then, grabbing an arm from which dangles a bag. “For the price of whatever you have in that bag, a person could eat for a week.”

“Leave me alone, crazy man!” The arm jerks and retreats. He looks up with a sigh and measures the distance between the gods of metal overhead and all the hungry people on the ground. He looks at his hands. Right, left, makes no difference. He wonders what he might be missing.

Garbage overflows cans, pouring from alleys onto the public way, and a woman picks through, searching with a stick. Holding her gleanings, she ducks and enters her cardboard shelter, then wraps herself in quilts, gray stuffing leaking out. She lights a small container of Sterno and heats half a T-bone, almost fresh. A skinny cat rubs back and forth along the woman’s haunches, and she pauses to stroke its head. She sings a drifting song about the cat, lining her dwelling with long strands of melody.

The cat wanders away from the woman to the nearby alley, where mice hustle among discarded boxes of food, and dogs worry the lids of garbage cans. She cat eyes a plump mouse, stops slinking, crouches, and lowers her head, her whole being organized to stalk. She pounces, then vanishes with her feast. Birds perch on wires overhead, adding their sharp notes to the sounds of pounding and honking, while their blurry shadows dance over the garbage in the mild, diffused sunlight. Wary of cats, they dive for crumbs, then fly back to safety. A raccoon scuttles by, and all the animals freeze, uncertain what to make of this unfamiliar creature. Finding a fish skeleton, the raccoon pulls it from a pile and drags it off to a dark space behind the cans.

All around the garbage cans, big rats discover a wealth of grains and rinds, piles of potato peelings, fresh fruits with barely a bite taken out and cheese turning green and cottony with mold. Ants maintain a steady line of march to and from the pile, keeping its edges trim. Flies swarm over the surface and alight to deposit their eggs. The warmth of decay sustains the hatching larvae, which come to life in a sea of nourishment. A small crop of mushrooms springs up in a corner.  Meanwhile, in the depths of the pile, in the custard filling of discarded doughnuts, in leftover pizza’s fragments of sausage; yeasts and fungi and flagellating bacteria sate themselves on the riches of the city and begin to sing.

Their wordless tune vibrates through the pile and fills the air, joining with the quilted cat-woman’s strands of melody, while high heels click counterpoint on the street. The flies add their buzz, and the ants step in time, while the rats scratch a rough punctuation. The cats purr a bass note. Mice squeak coloratura. From out of the depths the song of a fish once relieved of a burden echoes through ages from past to the present, while cats, dogs and camels, spared from a fire, join fungi, flagellates, and one well-fed worm. Diverse voices rise past the trees and the girders, harmonies filling the air to the skies, as each tells a story and all sing the glory of an ageless and merciful god.

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