Granite City

Articol publicat in:English | Aparut in:Nr. 23 ( aprilie, 2012 )

Lily lived in a city of gray granite and populated by gray people with frowning looks and too few kind words hidden inside their thoughts. The teachers poured daily on the children an endless wave of additions and subtractions, multiplications and subdivisions, names of rivers, countries and microscopic creatures with complicated names, and stories about battles that had taken place a long time ago, the heroes of which had long become dust in the wind. People were sad and sulky. When they laughed it was full of meanness, just as their parents did, and their parents before that.

It was a large city stretched between a river with dirty waters and a row of small mountains covered by snow six months a year. It had fifteen streets and four boulevards, an old castle, a City Hall building made of glass and steel, movie houses, shops, and three parks where the grass and trees started to become as gray as the surroundings. The city stretched out for hundreds of years. It was an invading monster that swallowed the surrounding villages—full of toy-like dwellings and beautiful customs—one after another, as if they were mere fresh buns. The once merry and God-fearing locals slowly became as gloomy as city people. They didn’t tell children bedtime stories anymore, just silently watched the TV screens shining in the somber darkness of homes cold as refrigerators.

Each morning the gray people left their homes and headed like long rows of ants toward the three factories. These swallowed the people into roomy bellies, only to spit them out in the afternoon with dark circles around their eyes, a bit more hardened than they were the day before. Lily would look at them from the balcony of her two bedroom apartment on the seventh floor of a building on Fifth Street. They seemed like unhappy midgets under the spell of a wicked witch, unable to remember that their lives had been different once-upon-a-time.

Lily gave up speaking to them the day she noticed those aimless looks that reached through three thick layers of cotton wool and heard their voices that resembled the gurgle of one drowning in a bath tub. She had become terribly frightened: when had the disease overcome them, silent like a subtle thief in the dark? She stayed in bed for three days and three nights then, eyes wide open and chest pounding, body bathed in sweat.

A doctor showed up, a tall and gloomy man who smelled of mold. He asked her questions to which he received no answer, of course. His speech was gurgled and he too had the cotton wool-like gaze. He listened to her breathing and heart beat with a stethoscope, took her pulse and stretched out her eyelids to check the pupils. He knocked on her knees with a small rubber hammer. Lily endured silently. The doctor put a thermometer in her mouth for a few minutes then brought it close to his myopic eyes and took the reading.

“I don’t see any sort of problems,” he wheezed. “Maybe the young lady doesn’t feel like going to school.”

Lily’s mother stood at the edge of the bed, dressed in the flowery house robe she wore around the house regardless of the season. Sometimes in winter she wore a knitted vest over it. Lily’s father sat in an armchair next to the curtained window and was fidgeting nervously. Their names do not matter and will not be mentioned in our story, just as the other gray people with their wool-filled stares.

“She’s never acted up like this in the six years she’s been going to school,” said her mother. “She receives only good grades.”

The mother started to cry expressionlessly in a way that terrified the girl even more. Lily closed her eyelids tightly so as not to see anything of the world transforming before her eyes. The bed sheets seemed to burn her and then for the first time she thought—or rather, seemed to hear a voice tell her bluntly—she must leave. To where, she did not know, but she sensed it was very far away, a place no one had been to since people lost their color and became gray.

Before leaving the doctor scribbled something undecipherable on a recipe and requested payment, a cost the father would momentarily qualify as shameless and uncivilized.

Lily fell asleep while her parents whispered to each other in the dining room that was used as a bedroom during the night. The girl was their only child and they had vague, high expectations of her. The mother murmured something about Lily becoming a doctor someday; this frightened her.

By morning she’d made a decision: she would behave as if nothing had happened. She was going to ignore the cotton wool drawn over their eyes, and the gurgling—otherwise, she was sure to be taken to one of the three hospitals in town. They would give her shots, Lily thought, and worse than that, put her blood samples in glass vials handled by medical assistants in blue overcoats.

She was going to be stuffed with tubes that made sinister noises, connected to lugubrious machines, tortured with stupid questions, and forced to urinate in a plastic cup. She had seen the routine two years earlier, when her mother dragged her to accompany an ailing aunt who had since died. It had seemed to her then that the fat and whining woman was a great and luckless bug that ended up in the hands of cruel, imaginative children who tortured it to satisfy their morbid and pointless curiosity.

She wasn’t going to give in, not when her mother would attempt to question her pryingly, not when her father would raise his voice and again tell her the sacrifices both parents made on her account.

Then she started to observe other things.

Many people in the city cried. They cried while walking the street, climbing onto busses painted dark green, haggling in the marketplace, teaching the students information that would be forgotten in a few years’ time. They did not cry as people normally do, grimacing and sighing. They cried silently. Tears would run suddenly down their pallid cheeks like silvery rivulets that drifted to their chins. They seemed not to pay attention, continuing about their business, caught up like small insects in an amber nugget. Not one among them dried his tears; not one asked what had happened.

And they hid all sorts of things. The objects they secreted in their pockets had been gathered feverishly off the sidewalks, as if the people were nothing more than tiny, hungry jackdaws. Sometimes, they brought the objects from their homes: shapeless, useless objects treated as if they were important, as if they should be guarded from the others. These were hidden in the most unexpected places: in bus stations, on store shelves, in small cracks that appeared and closed off suddenly in the streets. Immediately after an object was hidden, a small glitter of relief would shine through each wool-stuffed gaze. Then the villagers would become plaid again, and lower their eyes to the ground.

“Probably,” Lily told herself, “there are millions of these objects here.” She wondered how they did not come to strangle the city long ago, and why tunnels were not built to bury everything.

Once at the Ploof Store she had been able to look more carefully at one of these objects, squeezed by its owner between two boxes of corn chips. She stared, rose on her tip toes, but could not figure out what was going on with the gelatinous, bluish-gray object the size of a tennis ball. She saw a few long strands of black hair stuck to the object and seemed to hear a woman’s cry. Then she realized her mother had snuck up from behind and was looking toward the object. But the mother saw only boxes of chips lined up like soldiers on review. Since then Lily lost interest in the objects the gray people hid. She also noticed that grownups hide more objects than children do.

She never spoke of all this. She only looked, frightened, at the city through the window of her apartment. There was a park in front of the building where babysitters sometimes brought small children to use the swings and slide on plastic toboggans.

She was waiting for what she knew would happen. Somewhere unseen in the bowels of the city a great clock ticked and would ring just for her.

Then the dream started.

A small ant wandered aimlessly on a desolate stage set: it was a city abandoned, as if destroyed by a merciless war. Buildings were skeletons, the streets filled with debris and glass shards, and not a soul could be seen among the phantom-like ruins. But there, in the dream, she knew that danger accompanied her every step and that a great and terrible creature hunted her. It hunted Lily and all those who had survived the disaster. In the covered sky the sun was but a ball of wool shining without warmth. Dust clouds blew about by cutting winds and even the last blade of grass was burned and dry.

Scared and careful, Lily gathered pebbles and other debris. She tried to improvise a mound where she could take shelter: she perceived that she must rebuild this entire, collapsed world, and did not believe for a moment that she would succeed.

She woke in the morning, aching and heavy, afraid to sleep again. The dream appeared over and over again, always exactly the same, and starting from where the last one left off. Sometimes, the semblance of ant-hill that she had been able to build would collapse, as if crushed by a giant hand. All sorts of unknown animal tracks could be seen imprinted in the yellow dust and dried mud. The dream world continued to unravel: something would take place when she was not there. At one point a skeleton of a building had disappeared. The beams were scattered over three hundred feet all around, as if the ghost of a building from times long past had exploded into a thousand pieces. Another time a large pond appeared. The bubbles that burst on the surface released a poignant sulfur smell and seemed to be the whispered voices of the damned begging for mercy and release.

The night before, she had received a sign while speaking with the Professor. The dream had barely started and she had not yet decided to start out with her chore of collecting stones when she saw a few blue glass shards glittering in the light of a painful sunset. It outlined a sort of road that led to something, a road that suddenly she understood she had to follow immediately. She tried to shake the unpleasant thought that a trap had been set by monsters that she suspected were hidden among the ruins, waiting for the right moment to attack and skill her, to destroy or transform her–one way or another—into a prisoner of this world.

She started out on the path indicated by the shards. It was longer than it at first seemed and must have required much labor to collect its colored bits. The road snaked among the ruins of what once were shops and banks, past rusted vans where once-upon-a-time children had gathered for cones of ice cream and sweets. These now resembled dead and dried crabs on a beach devastated by a great storm. It seemed to Lily that the road stopped sometimes, but then a pale flicker would draw her attention and keep her moving forward.

At last the road stopped right in front of a coin-operated vending machine. Miraculously, it seemed intact and brand new. It was free of the scratches and dents that people often inflict while torturing the objects around them. The gadget sat in the middle of the road, as though left there by some irresponsible traveling salesman gone out for a beer. The plastic-coated black wire ending in two copper prongs trailed from the back of the contraption and rested uselessly in the dust, and yet its lights were on and the show window was well-lit.

On the plastic shelves resided not only the usual plastic-wrapped cookie bars, but all sorts of miniature and poorly manufactured objects, as if the maker had been very much in a hurry and felt it was sufficient to suggest a shape only. There were so many objects it was hard to believe they could all fit in such a small space. At first glance there seemed to be hundreds if not thousands of them. There was furniture: dressers, vanities, four-post beds, sofas, armchairs; there were dozens of cars with their dead headlights looking ahead at a destroyed world; there were TVs, electric razors, microwave ovens and old-fashioned record players; there were weapons: swords, daggers, battle maces and axes; Lily saw a shower tub, a pump, and a tortoise shell.

In the vending tray rested an unfamiliar, large silver coin. Lily weighed it in her hand and turned it on all sides. The coin was unusually heavy. On the front it bore the profile of a woman with her hair gathered in a tall bun, wearing what seemed to be a delicate crown. The inscription read: “Only a beautiful head can bear the golden crown.” On the reverse there was a stylized castle with three towers, the tallest in the center boasting three entries. The inscription read: “Death is only the beginning of a new road.”

“I cannot choose anything,” Lily told herself, looking at the useless objects hung on view in the glass case of the machine, frosted by a sort of violet mist. “Perhaps just by chance, because maybe in the end there is fate and a road.”

She pushed a button randomly and the organs of the machine suddenly came to life. Wailings and gunshots could be heard, along with horse neighs and floods, car brakes screeching and above all, that usually unheard noise made when people’s thoughts hit against each other like colored balloons filled with helium.

When the noises ceased, a clink was heard in the metal slot and Lily collected from it a coin of the same size as the previous one, only this one was heavier and seemed to be made of gold. On one face was written: “You must defeat the world.” The inscription on the reverse read: “The world was defeated anyway.”

She met the Professor in an ashy park surrounded by tall building that almost suffocated the gloomy trees and dying grass.

“Who are you?” she asked, frightened, when the tall man sat on the bench next to her and smiled.

“I can be anyone you wish me to be,” he answered. His teeth were blindingly white. “But for now I will just be the Professor.”

“And you’re going to teach me something?” asked Lily.

“Just because I am a Professor does not mean I have to teach you something,” said the man. “There are teachers and that is that; they don’t have to teach anyone a thing. Those that try to teach things to others most of the time know nothing themselves, or at least nothing important, otherwise they would know that to try to teach another that which you yourself know is impossible. Do you still have the coin?”

“I left it in my dream,” Lily told him.

“You did not forget it. Maybe you just think you did,” the Professor reassured her. “It is the token that allows you to cross into another world. And it was gifted to you and you only.”

“Are there other worlds also?” asked Lily. It had started to get dark and the park was now empty. A cold wind blew from the hills nestled at the edge of the city and a fragment of the moon kept busy in the sky.

“You know there are others,” said the Professor, and Lily did not contradict him. “Worlds are like book leaves, one next to the other, and sometimes they touch. These places are called Gates.”

“And how is the world where we are going?” asked Lily, who now knew that she would never against see the house where she had been born, where she had lived.

“Different,” said the Professor. “I don’t know if it is better or worse, because this is all relative. I don’t know if that world is older or newer than this one, because time was invented by people. But it is a world that someone destroyed long ago and now someone else has to rebuild it. And you will be the one to do it.”

“So we will be some sort of boy scout?” asked Lily and the man with white teeth started to laugh. Only then did the girl realize that on one was about to come or go, that no bird sang among the trees. “It’s finished,” she told herself. She felt neither joy nor sadness.

The man got up and stretched out his hand. She noticed he wore a black suit.

“Shall we go?” he asked and Lily nodded.

After Lily left, accompanied by the Professor, the gray people spoke in all sorts of silly ways about the incident. Some said the girl was abducted by a child thief and taken to an unknown place. They spoke with gurgled voices about how a few hundred miles away a man had been arrested, that he had confessed to everything. Others were convinced that Lily put an end to her life and that her body had been swallowed by the dirty waters of the river that fawned like a stray dog at the south end of the city. Her parents moved to an even larger and grayer city, and after that, no one commented anymore.

Only the boy who secretly loved Lily and who lived in the same apartment building, two floors below, knew the truth. He dreamed it one night, immediately after Lily had departed for the other world. He saw her there, on the fresh green grass, under a magnificent blue sky, happy and at peace with herself. The boy wrote this story so that others would not believe the lies told by the gray people.

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