From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

In This City

In this city, there are glass sculptures that catch the light from stars as yet unborn.

In this city, there are buildings made of woven silk and mirrorwood. They fold themselves around one another like lovers, and their passionate sighs are the wind in the subway.

In this city, there is a young man called Dargazhian, and a young woman called Neng. Dargazhian is an architect, or aspires to be. He squints, and his fingers are peppered with pinpricks from the delicate models he sews together. He makes towers and arches and enfolds perfect order out of chaos. He never leaves his own suite of rooms, for the architecture of his own mind cannot withstand the reality outside. Neng is a ghostwatcher, whose eyes are mirrors, not of her own soul, but of the souls of the lost who flit, frantic amongst the cloth walls, as if unable to find their way to their own worlds. She draws them, her slender fingers smudged with charcoal, so that someone might remember them. She has to do this, for they cannot remember themselves.

In this city, subway trains rattle on tracks of bone and ivory. In this city, the night is bright with the livid green of burning ectoplasm. In this city, darkness can be touched, and feels like heavy velvet.

In this city, the night breathes.

* * *

Neng is following one of the lost ghosts. It flits like a moth, drawn by the ectoplasmic streetlamps. She knows if it touches them, it will burn, and die, with an echo of a scream its only lamentation. She has seen a hundred lost ghosts do this. She grieves for every one, just a little. Her mirrored eyes flick one way and then another, as the ghost spirals and swoops in the monochrome light, and people stand and gaze in fear and wonder, and shrink away from its passing, even as they are drawn to it.

This ghost is not like the others she has seen. There is something in its movement; something, despite its erratic trail, of purpose. It has a destination.

She watches it, from behind mirrored corneas. She blinks. Her fingers toy with the stick of charcoal. Throughout the city, her ghost sketches decorate the stretched silk walls.

The city is full of captured ghosts, frozen in black on malachite.

This ghost does not want to be captured. This ghost is different. She realises it, as it pivots around a lamppost, ducks under a sweeping arch.

This ghost is leading her.

She wonders why. She catches a glimpse of her own face in a mirrorwood column, and her face is that of a stranger.

If it knows enough to have a purpose in its flight . . . Neng wonders what else it knows. The charcoal in her fingers brushes against silk and canvas and polished wood, leaving smudges to mark her trail. She wonders, if she plotted out the path the ghost is following, whether it would spell out some terrible secret.

She has never known where the ghosts come from.

* * *

Dargazhian shreds the model, tearing the precise needlework, snapping wood that is as thin as an eyelash. The balance is all wrong. He has created a thing of ugliness, when he desires only beauty.

He stands at the window and stares. Not out at the city, for the blinds are closed, as they are always closed. He stares at the material, his eyes focussing on the weave, on every tiny imperfection. He feels the anger rising up inside him. There should be no imperfections.

The city is so far from perfection. He has remade it in his mind a thousand times; razing its canted towers, levelling its belvederes and cupolas, filling its labyrinthine tunnels.

He knows the destination he has in his mind, and he knows that he cannot reach it from the place he stands. He must go back, must retreat from the now to a place from which purity can be achieved. A place from which he can plan, and shape, and build the city as it should be.

He can see the beauty of it in his mind. He cannot see anything else. He will not allow himself to see anything else.

There should only be beauty.

Something stirs, in the air. He feels it, momentarily hot on his skin. He turns. There is a ghost in the room. He stares at it, appalled, unable to turn its insubstantiality into structure. If it has no structure, it has no meaning. If it has no meaning, it cannot exist. He backs away from it, and presses against the blind, which presses against the window, which presses against the very air of the night.

Something yields; canvas, or glass, or the air itself. Something yields, and he feels himself falling. He clutches at the canvas of the blinds, and his fingers grip it, and then it shreds under his weight, just as the model had shredded. The map is the territory.

He falls.

* * *

Neng stands on a beautifully manicured lawn of chrysoprase grass and looks up uncertainly. This is where the ghost has led her; to an apartment building in the eastern quarter of the city. It is nothing special. If the building is nothing special, then she assumes that one of its occupants must be special.

She looks up, wondering whether she should place her palm upon the door and call to be admitted. And then she sees that she does not need to call upon the occupant of the apartment, for the occupant is coming to her. In a welter of torn cloth and broken glass, he is tumbling from the second floor window.

She does not think. Her limbs move as if she is a puppet (she wonders, for a moment, who is pulling her strings). She pays no heed to the flaying rain of glass. She moves to break the fall of the beautiful, scared young man.

He is slender, but his weight knocks her to the ground, steals her breath from her. There is a sharp pain in her arm and her shoulder and at first she fears she has broken something. Then she realises that it is, instead, something broken; glass, from the shattered window, shards of it embedded in her flesh. She stares at the blood, black in the ectoplasmic light.

The young man is scrambling off her, stammering incoherently, his eyes wild with panic. There is blood on him, too, from a dozen cuts and more. She realises the fall would not have been enough to kill him, even without her intervention. All instinct has done is to unite them in pain and incomprehension.

She plucks a piece of glass from her shoulder, marvelling at its asymmetry even as she winces with pain. More blood wells up, and she dabs uselessly at it.

He apologises, and his slender fingers touch her arm. His fingertips are callused and gentle and uncertain.

And then there is the ghost, whirling around them like a white storm.

* * *

Dargazhian does not know the young woman who breaks his fall. He lands on her, unable to do anything else. The air is cold on his skin. Fragments of glass are a diadem in his hair, make glittering scripts on his skin. Blood connects some of them, as if trying to turn chaos into meaning.

He pushes himself to his feet, relieved that his limbs are whole, that all his pain is on the surface. The surface is not the substance. Structure remains intact.

He sees the woman wince as she plucks a large, glittering piece of glass from her shoulder, and he moves, not knowing quite how to staunch the blood. And as he touches her, as he feels her skin cold under his fingertips, the ghost is there again. The ghost, spiralling around the pair of them. He sees her eyes widen and for a moment he assumes it is from fear. But then he sees the mirrors, sees the world reflected in them, and he knows why she is here.

He sees himself, for a moment, reflected in those eyes. He sees himself, as if he were a ghost. He steps back from her. He is not sure whether he is more afraid of the ghost, or of her, or of himself.

He realises he is outside; that he is exposed to all the imperfections of this city.

The ghost is whirling around them still, as if it is dancing, as if it is celebrating. Joy radiates from it. He can feel it, warring with his own fear. It is his fear; it is his joy.

If it is his joy, then the ghost is him.

He throws himself at the door, desperate to shut out the city, desperate for the safety of his apartment and the perfection that it contains.

* * *

Neng watches the ghost, her hurts forgotten in its joyful swirl. She has seen so many ghosts, and she has never seen one such as this. It is as if it has found something wonderful, as if it cannot contain its joy.

She does not understand why.

The young man tears himself away from her, suddenly. She does not understand this, either. Why does the ghost terrify him so? There have been ghosts in this city for so long, their nocturnal presence is a part of the city’s very fabric.

She reaches down, and touches a torn shred of canvas. What is it, that the ghost has found, that gives it such joy? And what is it, that has instilled such terror in the young man?

And then she realises.

They are the same question.

They are the same answer.

She moves to the wall of the building, and begins to draw.

* * *

His apartment should be sanctuary, but the blinds are torn and the window is broken and the night wind moves. The city has infected the controlled perfection of his own space. He wanted to impose his own will on the city, and instead its taint has encroached upon this, the last bastion of beauty in the world. He has failed, and he wants to weep; but no tears will come.

He looks down, at the broken model that he had been working on before the ghost came. He looks out, at the nightscape of the city he wanted to remake.

And he understands.

He understands that he would have succeeded. He would have driven his vision out from this apartment, out across the city. It would have been a palimpsest, and he would have swept it smooth and remade it in every detail. It would have been his perfect creation; ordered, precise, shorn of any blemish.

And it would have been unbearable.

The ghosts of this city are the ghosts of that future, ghosts fleeing from a perfection that made their existence meaningless. They are the people of the city he would have made, driven out of it because they could not live up to its impossible ideal.

And the ghost, tonight; the ghost tonight was the last of them all. His own ghost, that had finally realised what the cost of perfection had been, and had followed all the others, somehow rending time itself to try and change the past, to make him take a different path. To make him look on some other beauty.

His fingers are trembling. He breathes, long and deep, to calm himself.

He goes downstairs, again. He steps outside the door, tentatively. The young woman is there, standing at the wall. He stares; there, smudged in charcoal, he can see his own face.

She turns, and her eyes are mirrors, and he is not afraid of what he can see in them.

She smiles, and he realises she is smiling in reflection of his own smile.

He lifts his hand, to touch her, very gently.

* * *

In this city, the night is monochrome green and the dawn is colour, pouring back into the world, highlighting its asymmetry in soft shadows and subtle refractions. In this city, cable stays thrum softly in the zephyrs of spring. In this city, there is asymmetry and imbalance.

In this city, there is a young man named Dargazhian, and there is a young woman called Neng, and they will learn to love one another, despite their imperfections.

In this city, there is beauty to be found, if you know where to look.

In this city, there are no more ghosts. For they are no longer needed.

Brian Dolton’s fiction has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Flashing Swords, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Intergalactic Medicine Show, among others. He has been writing for many years, and will continue until they pry the keyboard from his cold, dead hands. PS–If any of you know who the “they” in question are, he’d love to hear from you, so he can make suitable preparations.

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