Author’s Note: The City of Self is a self-exploratory series (it just became a series by virtue of this second installment, as it were). You can see the first installment here if you so wish.
This post has seen some revisions since its initial publishing, but this is the final version of it. So, if you have read it in the past days, give it another go and see if you like it.
This is dedicated to a woman whom I love dearly – great understatement, that. I hope that one day she is happy and fulfilled, and that she knows she is always welcome in my city. If luck would have it, I would, too.
“Oh, Beauregard, must we really do this now?” said Nancy to herself, speaking to no one at all but to the voices inside her own mind; no one, indeed. It was busywork, this tidying up of a city after the passing of such a momentous event. Busywork, menial, but not banal. It was wrought with feeling, with meaning, with emotion.
Wearing a neon pink hazmat suit was no way to offset the nigh-unbearable discomfort of the cumbersome indumentary, well-intentioned though the gesture was; the heat, the sweat, the limited movement, the humid micro-environment that was Nancy’s body, these were all an extension of how she felt within. It was sloppy, it was disgusting, and it was even painful.
Rais showed up to help after a few minutes. His company was very welcome, but it wasn’t enough to lessen the brunt of the work ahead. Rais was short for Raisonnement, and his name was as fitting as any name could be. Where Nancy lacked in clarity and scope of vision, Rais was able to extrapolate and wind through strands of thought where she would have been lost. Curiously, however, he could easily get so deep into such fugues that it had to be Nancy – or Loge, who had yet to show up today – who would need to throw Rais a life-line and bring him back to the moment.
“Hey there, Nan. How’re we holding up?” he effected a wan smile that belied the worry in his eyes.
“Well, I’ve been worse, I think,” she replied with a sigh. “There’s just so much to clean up… How the hell did it get so messy so fast?” they were fucked and they both knew it.
“It’s the Heart,” he said with a disdainful shrug. “The City, it knows not how to filter. But that’s why we’re here, right?”
Nancy repeated but that’s why we’re here in a high-pitched, mocking voice, screwing her face up in a grimace. She knew Rais was right, but she didn’t have to like it. Rais seemed to smile genuinely for the first time in a good while, moved to get his own hazmat suit on from the pile a few meters away, and joined Nancy in spraying the area.
It seemed desolate, the City’s central plaza. For all its verdant, surrounding foresta, it appeared to be submerged in a gossamer gloom. A grave, austere foreboding hung in the air and it reeked of despondency. Nancy kept spraying the area with her thin hose, which was connected to a large cistern truck about 50 meters away, on the edge of the plaza. She really wished they had tools like a fire hose rather than the paltry garden hose thing in her hands. At this pace they wouldn’t be finished for weeks, at least. And that was just thinking about the center’s edges. They still had to work their way into the City of Self’s core, the Heart, and they could only do it by finding the veins and arteries that had been filled with the guest’s influence.
The guest, in this case, had been the lovely Siqvaruli – pronounced seekooahroolee – and she had been a wonderful guest, at that. She had come in, insistent at first despite Nancy’s reluctance to welcome another ambassador into the City, and had eased Nancy’s fears and misgivings – for the most part. She had come into the City of Self, an honored guest, and tenderly laid bare every single bit of the City that Nancy had curated and maintained. Every nook and cranny. Every secret area. Every shortcut…
It had been a wonderful change, despite the tell-tale signs of patterns that pointed southward, those in the City and in this ambassador. And Nancy had been wooed and charmed and decided this was the guest that should remain, the one that should be a permanent fixture of the City of Self. She really had.
Well, at least this time they didn’t have to remove an infection. One couldn’t call this type of invasion – and invasion only by the loosest of definitions – something as pejorative, as derogatory as an infection. It had been a mythical event, something that had to be experienced or it would otherwise not be believed. Its effects, the residual patina and changes to the infrastructure, were nevertheless as difficult to quantify, contain, and manage.
The previous invasion, from infamous guest Ai – persona non grata, most definitely – had nearly killed all three of them. It had been a bloody affair…
Where the hell was Loge, she thought, cutting her reverie short. It wasn’t like her to be late. “Rais, when was the last time you saw Loge?”
Rais stopped spraying for a moment and frowned, clearly considering her question. “You know, I don’t think I’ve seen her in a while,” he said, looking at her with dawning worry on his face. After minute’s contemplation, Nancy dropped her hose and ran out of the plaza, in the direction of the core. It was the Heart. It had to be the Heart.
She ran like the devil’s own wind. She ran until her lungs burned, her legs felt nearly numb, and her heart threatened to burst out of her chest.
When she reached the inner sanctum of the core, Loge was doing something she had never seen her do. Loge was caressing the Heart, crooning to it in a low bass voice. Nancy was struck by a memory, as if from a parental figure singing to her in that exact same manner. The croon was an earthly, warm drone that set her at ease.
Rais caught up to her a couple of minutes later, sweating, breathing heavily, and after cursing a few times under his belabored breath, remarked about Loge’s strange behavior. Nancy didn’t answer. She just looked on and let the scene playing out before them be the eloquence she lacked to describe the odd beauty of Loge tending with care to the Heart.
There were tears streaming down Loge’s face. Logique was her full name, and she had never once shed a tear, never once sung, and not even once caressed anything. She had always been cold, calculating, efficient and direct. Yet now, before them, in the most uncharacteristic display of empathy and compassion, she was the polar opposite, or so Nancy thought.
The rivulets cascaded down Loge’s face, flowing freely down her neck and her collarbones, pooling in her suprasternal notch, that alluring hollow of the throat as it vibrated visibly with the power of her oddly subtle voice. There had been a movie where that particular oddity of anatomy had played an important role… The English Patient, Nancy recalled, with a lump forming in her own throat.
Loge suddenly collapsed onto her knees, hands down on the ground, and Nancy ran to her. She put a hand lightly on the middle of Loge’s back and asked her in a whisper, as if speaking any louder would break the poignancy of that divine moment. “What is it?”
“It doesn’t want to heal, it won’t let me,” Loge replied, her voice unexpectedly hoarse and tense with frustration. “It doesn’t want to.”
“What?” said Rais far louder than expected, startling Nancy. She looked back at him reproachfully. “Why?” Rais went on regardless.
Loge lowered her head, shaking it in slow denial. “Because it wants the scars… because it feels that if it heals completely it will lose what is left of Siqvaruli’s presence.”
Nancy stared at her in silence, caressing her back slowly, gently. Rais’ eyes were now open wide, almost exaggeratedly so, as he looked at the Heart of the City of Self. Nancy knew then that he was lost in one of his incredible fugue states, going down ramifications and pathways, scenarios and situations, the future unfolding before his inscrutable mindscape. She had an inkling, however, of what the panoramas he was envisioning held.
She understood, and in her comprehension she could not fault the Heart. They were the keepers of it, responsible for its well-being. In a way, they had failed it by letting all of what had transpired happen, but then, hadn’t it all been so beautiful and wonderful and worth every ounce of pain and discomfort that came in the wake of its crumbling?
Siqvaruli had been a boon to the City, but in the latter days of her stay she had appeared forlorn, lost in activities that appeared to be centered elsewhere, as if planning her move but not wanting to go ahead for fear of damaging the City of Self, of hurting Nancy, even.
In the end, Nancy had recognized these changes, the patterns, the age-old routines, and had found herself not knowing how to proceed. She had found herself a stranger in her own City, in her own world. As if walking through molasses, a fish in coagulating gel, she had eventually managed to reach Siqvaruli and spoken with her. They negotiated the terms of her departure, with Nancy, as the City’s representative, conceding all but what little dignity she might still hold. No terse words were spoken, only truths with underlying love.
Nancy could see that there was pain in her eyes, and she felt regret that her City was not the home she thought it could be for Siqvaruli. She deeply, profoundly regretted it. A part of her even now thought – hoped – that perhaps one day it would be. That Siqvaruli would find some long, winding road back to her City, and that the City in turn would be a better host then to receive her. She knew this hope could be the cause of deep pain for many years to come, but she dared not stop hoping for fear of losing the memory all together. In this, she understood the Heart. In this, she knew the Heart was not completely foolish. Perhaps it was foolish, but Nancy didn’t know how else to cope.
She knew things would eventually heal for the Heart, even if the scars grew calloused and keloid. There would be healing and strength because of them, but callous tissue isn’t ideal, and the City had already scarred so many times…
It dawned on her, that Loge was being as cold as ever, but that for the sake of the survival of the City’s Heart, and their own in turn, the logical thing to do was to attempt to heal the Heart by any means possible.
It felt like an exercise in futility. It felt like the very foundations of the City had been compromised and that only catastrophe could follow.
She considered an appeal to Siqvaruli, a call for her to return… But no, that very notion, that of her presence becoming a pillar of the City had been one of the causes of her departure. The City had already been weakened, product of Nancy, Loge, and Rais’ underperforming upkeep. It was then utter stupidity to consider depending unfairly on Siqvaruli to somehow stave off what must surely happen now. The City would either succumb and be rebuilt anew, or it would remain nothing more than debris.
As Nancy knelt beside Loge, and Rais simply looked on in near-catatonic, purposeless eye movement, she resolved not to let the City fall. She vowed to keep it alive even if it took everything that she was. Her fate appeared dire, but hadn’t the City withstood so much only to come this far?
She earnestly hoped she could rebuild as she envisioned, and would even allow herself the conceit of leaving Siqvaruli’s abode in the Heart’s chamber, the place she had made her home during her stay, exactly as the guest had left it. It mattered not if the Siqvaruli ever returned… In a way, Siqvaruli had never left.