destinations of loss
from the lost traveler's tour guide
BY ALEXANDER WEINSTEIN
The City of Uq
The City of Uq has a fifth season of fog. It’s a time of change, when the summer has passed its peak and the days are growing shorter and then, as if all at once, the fog materializes on the hills and descends upon the streets. Whole districts disappear as the fog seeps through floorboards, climbs stairs, and scales chimneys. One opens the window for fresh air and finds it impossible to tell whether the fog is seeping in or one’s own personal fog is seeping out. Without the external world to use as measure, there’s little to accomplish: no books to read, no films to watch, no furniture to arrange or sports to play; there are no houses to point to as one’s own, no streets from one’s childhood, no store to stop into after work; there is only the blind present and the knowledge of our basic necessities: now I am hungry, now I am tired, now I long for love.
There’s an old wives tale in Uq, that any love which begins in the fog will outlast even death—and there’s some truth to this. It’s as if the fog prepares couples to see each other without the need of eyes. One learns to love the softness of a partner’s touch, the warmth of their voice, the imprint of their body. And yet, the season of fog can be a trying time for relationships. Romances based solely on physical attraction deteriorate quickly. One hears the sharpness in a lover’s voice or bumps into the other and says no apologies. Even those loves born of the fog, full of romance and blind passion, have been known to evaporate. The face of one’s companion is never quite as imagined and, in the light of day, one forgets the softness with which they slept curled against you, their touch, so full of care, which kept you safe during the long white months of nothingness.
When the season ends, it’s with a sense of melancholy. Slowly but surely the fog lifts, people recognize where they are again, and they leave the beds they’ve grown used to and return home. They resume their jobs and their studies, reclaim their offices and apartments, and life returns to its clear routines, its precise schedules, and its unmistakable contours of love. Many say they prefer their other lives better; they long for the months of fog to return, their days once again filled with blindness and the beauty of the unknown.
The City of Bo
In Bo, the streets are piled with laundry. Brown socks and soiled underwear rise in tall hills on the horizon. Shirts with armpit stains, greasy trousers and dirty linens cover the parks and layer town squares. There are no stores in Bo, only laundromats; no music, only the slurping sound of hand-washed laundry and gutters running with the gray water of mildewed sheets. From each rooftop, drying handkerchiefs hang like prayer flags, from every window a clothesline is reeled in, and at all hours one sees the red taillights of laundry trucks arriving and departing. The workers pitchfork the clothes into the streets and the citizens take turns washing, sleeping, hang-drying, and eating.
How, you may ask, can anyone live in such filth? This is the complaint from the citizens of the neighboring lands of Aleeze, where the rivers are filled with salmon not greasy shorts. In Aleeze the hedges are trimmed and their stores sell sweets laid out behind polished glass. The citizens regard the inhabitants of Bo as a soggy lot who enjoy their damp lives to dryness.
But, dear traveler, don’t believe such lies. Find the faded postcards of Bo and search the musty history books. It wasn’t that long ago that Bo was one of the great cities. Its rivers were silver with moonlight, its forests green, its cobblestones cleaned every dawn, and its people were the finest dressed. It was the Alezian children who grew fat from pastries, smeared their sticky fingers on shirts, and shoved caramels deep in their pockets. Their mothers marked necklines with makeup and their fathers stained ties with gravy. And so it came to pass that the citizens of Aleeze began bringing their clothes to the laundromats of Bo and returning with white shirts and stainless dresses. And soon Alezian landlords and tenants, restaurateurs and hotel owners, all came seeking Bo’s cleanliness, until the streets of Bo began to disappear beneath the steaming piles, and the forests hung thick with the stench of socks.
Alas, there is nothing left to see in the city of Bo—no reason to visit or come near. The city no longer exists. Its citizens are refugees within their own borders. They dig through the piles of dirty laundry and load washing machines, constantly working to unearth a city which was once their home.
The Brickyard of Samal
If we are to understand Samal, we must ignore the destination it has become and speak instead of what the land was like before the brickyard. It wasn’t so long ago that Samal was nothing more than mountains, lush with fruit trees and cassava fields. Daily life consisted of herding animals, planting and harvesting, making love and raising the ensuring children. For entertainment a violin and drum were produced, and songs were sung, but mostly the days consisted of listening to the wind, the river and rain, the bleats of animals, and the barking of dogs.
There was little appeal to tourism back then, save the rare breed of traveler who sought quiet sunsets. The elders of Samal still speak of such a visitor. He arrived, and upon seeing the wattle and daub houses in need of repair, he built a small wood-fired kiln, shaped a brick of clay and placed it inside as the villagers watched. He sat up all night, stoking the kiln, and in the morning, revealed to the gathered community the first brick ready for the stacking.
There’s no need to belabor the rest of the story, though the villagers relate it with gusto—how the next bricks were formed, placed into the oven, the fire stoked, the bricks drawn and stacked, and so on—what is of importance is the immediate recognition the people of Samal had for the common brick. They set at once to forming more, firing and stacking them, while others worked to construct a larger kiln to fire dozens at a time, and later a larger one to fire hundreds, then thousands. Families formed the bricks, others fired them, and still others carried the cooled bricks in wheelbarrows to add to the rising houses, schools and playgrounds. The people of Samal created apartment buildings and factories, tunnels and overpasses, annexes and archways, and the great mountains shrunk as the brickyard grew, sending smoke from its ever-widening mouth.
If you sense any sorrow for the mountains, which have since disappeared, or the river which has become filled with sludge—this reveals only the bias of your guidebook writers. For the citizens of Samal couldn’t be happier with their city. As you enter through the city gates, you’ll see inhabitants climbing down stairwells and running beneath brick archways. Climbing over a brick wall, one finds yet another tenement of bricks filled with rooms where men and women sing and stack. Their children mature, pass through doorways, and disappear behind new walls, reappearing on distant rooftops where they carry bricks upon their backs. They wave to their parents before disappearing again, forever expanding the widening labyrinth of the city which separates them from their families.
Alexander Weinstein is the director of The Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. He is the author of the collection Children of the New World (Picador, 2016) and his short stories and translations have appeared in Cream City Review, Notre-Dame Review, Pleiades, PRISM International, World Literature Today, and other journals. He is the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his fiction has been awarded the Lamar York, Gail Crump, and New Millennium prizes.
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