Forthcoming from Dorothy, a publishing project
Crossing into the old city took the better part of the day when you were as hungry as we were, which was not a nutritional hunger but rather something deeply emotional. The iron of the bridge becoming stone, becoming ancient and rough as we moved along it, without having altered our course, but the world around us changing. “Eat before you leave,” was more like “forget where you have been,” because it was impossible to hold this crossing in your mind. The contemporary city did not align with this old one, which, in its preserved state, made a mess of our eyes. How could it just sit there, seven hundred years old? We clamored with our bodies to remain upright: Dar with her eyebrows, me with my pelvis, pointing at the sand-colored stone surrounding us. The bridge led to the Barabas wall, now only half-standing, the eastern side of the city exposed. It brought us to the much-celebrated threshold, where you are supposed to hold your breath, with a hand against the back of your neck as you walked through. It was not necessary to complete pareis with the customary speech about “the long and short of night,” as there were no residents here. Old Ravicka, the ancient city, was a museum.
We were alone. This was dramatic and strange. But, what was more odd was how hard we found it to take in the city visually. We walked through the gate and almost immediately came upon a wall. The back or side of a building. It was one of those situations where you could not step back to see the height of it. The sky was too low, or too far away, we could not determine. But the walls pulled you to them. Dar and I slid along the wall, looking for something. A door. A plaque. A window by which to see the vaulted chapels I had heard so much about. There were no openings, just this length of building, which Dar took to calling “The Alamai.” I did not pursue the reference. We stopped when we reached what looked like a street, perhaps an avenue that ran through the center of the dense city. It was not a street. I could not call it that. It was a side, a walkway. It could not have held traffic. The whole city was this one building, reproduced dozens of times, placed haphazardly into the ground, and what separated the one from the other were these narrow lanes. The city was a maze; it was cramped. I wanted to rub my face in it.
After a long time of sliding and squeezing ourselves between structures, we found Hos Centali, the mythologized first castle of the country. Except that it was not the actual castle we found but the exterior wall that encircled its former grounds; there was a deeper city inside, or so goes the story about castles. This meant that the labyrinth we had just navigated was once the castle’s moat. “This is not possible,” Dar argued. There were thin grooves dug into the wall that seemed to bear a message. I stepped back to grasp it, but something from the opposite building fell on my head. Dar stood to the side, trying to direct me. The space between the buildings was diminishing, the stone waking, closing in. The wall I had been reading was now inches from my face, the building behind me, against my back. I had to slither out. “I want to see the houses of genuflection,” Dar said, giving up on the wall. But getting to them would not be any easier. These houses—“cathedrals” would be the better name—had been constructed below ground; to reach them we had to find the famous staircase, which lay in the center of the stone park.
It was hard to imagine that a grass-covered clearing existed within the maze of these thirty-foot walls. The light of the day was falling. Our supply of produce was nearly exhausted, yet we were in search of this place. Something in the architecture had to give. One of the walls needed to turn away, become a courtyard, become a plaza. Lethargy began to dictate our turns; we hardly moved. We appeared to be circling the same block of streets. That feeling which attacks even the most seasoned travelers derailed our motivation. One of us went so far as to put it in words, “What am I doing here?” To which, in the case of being boxed in by dense, desolate streets, there was no answer.
Yet, the maze kept you turning until eventually you found that park, and sprinted through it beside yourselves. “Hello,” I shouted at the top of the stairs. “Hi,” I said, more calmly, as we descended into the depths.
The exquisitely woven banner of the Cathedral Sanní Almaniq hung like a painting before us. For a long time we studied it. It was real, tangible yet unmistakably older than anything we had ever seen. Touching stone is predictable, no matter how far in time it precedes you, but cloth—you cannot imagine cloth that is a hundred years older than the language you speak. Or this is how Dar convinced me, exhausted as I was, to go on standing there. “Older than these words?” I asked her repeatedly in the many dialects of the seven languages I spoke. And she answered “yes” in her mostly one. You stare at it, the cloth, hoping a breeze will lift it, but the scene produces nothing further.
“Dar,” I said some moments later.
The way that time indicates it is moving in a place where there is no sky is by the sound of the natural objects that inhabit it. Such as by the drawbridge expelling air we knew it was night.
A call came from the corner perpendicular. It went, “Gurantai!”
I answered immediately, “A ’rantai, my Cousin. Who’s there?” and turned to Dar as she opened her mouth to extend a greeting. “Achnee,” she seemed to have said.
A woman appeared in a cloak, carrying a small bell in her hand, which she tapped lightly in her approach. I had heard of this custom, but only seen it illustrated in books.
“Hep, hep,” I called as I had learned earlier.
“We couldn’t wait any longer,” she hailed in a thick accent, speaking Dar’s language. “I’m the emissary,” she continued, then clapped her hands. “No, I’m cooking,” she corrected.
“We’ve come from the outer yellow,” Dar declared in a voice far lower than usual. I elbowed her subtly. She cleared her throat and spoke again but in that same voice. She said, “Everybody talks about your depths where we’re from, but they never mention people. You know, you’re several meters below ground level, and just last year the Councils of City named . . .” And she turned to me for the Ravic. I said, “Dueles Delín.” She continued, “Named this place . . .”
The woman interrupted, “Yes. We know all of that,” and nodded compassionately. Then continued, more upbeat, “My name is (then gave a puff of air). Will you come with me?”
And that was what I had feared: she was not Ravickian and, what was worse, she used air instead of hard sound for speech.
There was an entire race of them, gathered in that cathedral. While clearly they had been there a long time, they were in no way medieval. They were moderns, if conclusively anything. Dressed in leathers and flared pants. They put a slant on the place. Talking in gaps and breaths, which Dar and I struggled to imitate. All the same, Sanní Almaniq belonged to them. In Ravicka, and apparently this place beneath, possession was gained through comprehension. We were a threat only if we knew more. Fortunately for them, the names of things that filled this cavern caused no light to turn on in me. And Dar seemed stuck in translation. They talked to us; we were fed.
The woman who had greeted us was not their leader as I had supposed but was their scout. They were trying to map the depths, which, they told us, was becoming more and more populated. From the bit of time we had spent in the square, Dar and I found this hard to believe. But the woman and some of the others (who could find their Ravic) argued passionately. They were not aliens, and this cathedral was not another planet, but remembering this took a great deal of discipline.
The food they served us did little to assist me. I would have sworn the bulky ingredient in most of the courses was shredded paper, which seemed to have been stewed in various dark and spicy sauces. The suspicious grinding during the cooking hour was the first thing to tip me off, but there were other signs, such as the minute scraps of letters that one found occasionally in the grated “cheese.” They did reside below ground; there was no sky. That their menu did not include meat or vegetables should not have surprised me, nor that the food was actually delicious and the ritual that organized our eating mystifying. That first night, they honored us by reading from “the great manuscript” written by someone whose name sounded like “Fooshu Uh Uh Ja(click),” and who, they insisted, was not their leader, but a friend they had long lost. The recitation was punctuated every minute or so with a round of backslaps and one person every ten minutes grabbing an empty plate from the center of the table, walking 180 degrees to the other side of the table, replacing the plate, then usurping the chair in front of her, requiring all in attendance to move over one. Going through the machinations brought out the athlete in us. We ate deep into the night.
By the end of our first week with the Esaleyons (I actually never learned to write their name) I had secured a space of my own in their upper studios. Though I had not come to Ravicka with any anthropological purpose—I studied languages, not people—I felt rather drawn to this clan. Yet, I did not want to turn the space they had given me into an office, where I would burrow in. They seemed to feel this way as well, for I was not left alone very often. Musicians roamed the halls of the cathedral, “taking requests,” they said, and were never far from my room. As soon as I would consider taking a moment to reflect, the drums would get going, followed by the strings. Even my travel companion colluded against me, bringing me trays of food at odd hours, sometimes minutes after the conclusion of our group meals.
The Esaleyons, we found out, were at one time Ravickians. There had been a rebellion many years ago, and a small group left its former race to become these new folks, the Esaleyons, speaking a language, Esaléye. This, of course, was not a first for human existence, but something in the way they lived, perhaps it was just how gymnastic they were—even the older people—something in how they occupied this space enthralled me. I could not control how much I stared, nor could I close my mouth. Events had found me, and I wanted someone, at the very least Simon, to know about it. However, bringing something back proved difficult. Listening to them was like gathering water without a pail. They never ceased explaining the shape and nature of things, but did so in too twisting a narrative to become memorable. Water gathered around my feet. I tried to capture it with my mind. I asked Dar to hold some. But it was water. Water you cannot hold. I looked around: everything filling that space shone magnificently, shining with this or that iconic power—old and extraordinary and arranged completely out of sync with time.
Yet, what words besides “old” and “extraordinary” can I use to describe life there? And were I to write the description in the language of these hidden people what symbol would I use to represent air? You would want to listen to this language. I am sure of this, because to hear a person speak in gaps and air—you watch him standing in front of you, using the recognizable gestures—opening the mouth, smiling, pushing up the eyebrows, shrugging the shoulders—and your mind becomes blank as you try to match this with the sounds you hear. An instinct says tune it out, but something deep within fastens your attention. Your mouth falls open. You taste the strangeness; you try to make the sound with your mouth. That is speech. Now, how do you do this in writing?
RENEE GLADMAN is the author of four works of prose, most recently To After That (TOAF), and one collection of poetry, A Picture-Feeling. She operates Leon Works and teaches in the Literary Arts Program at Brown University. Event Factory, her first novel, will be published this Fall by Dorothy, a publishing project.