You are reading Fiddleblack #4
In my thirty-ninth year, the thirty-ninth lived within the walls of the city, I came at last to the great misfortune which had always hovered over me, that I had courted or that had courted me. My crime was named, judgment was passed and my penalty meted out. I was sealed permanently into the city wall with only my face exposed to the light and air, there to serve as a warning of the consequences of transgression. When at last I died, the void that had held me would be filled with stone and capped with my bronzed skull’s face.
This immense market square has been my sole prospect for a sum of years that I can no longer reckon. The environs have changed so much since my sentence commenced that only I would recognize them. The row of warehouses that lay far off on the western margin is now a vast sand-choked heap of timbers; the meager strip of parkland to the right, that screened the market from the low white shapes of the homes of the poor, is a tangle of dust-grayed brambles backed only by sky. The broad boulevard that stretched away into the city haze is now a clogged track, its stone buildings hollow-eyed ruins. The vast slate flags, once blackened and greasy with ceaseless traffic, are now as wind-scoured and featureless as the wild desert floor beyond the wall.
We citizens were well accustomed to the faces in the wall that lived and spat curses, cajoled senselessly, or wept or stared blankly. The practice had survived while other antique mortifications had fallen out of use. As children we hid our fear of them by rudely speculating on the provision made for certain bodily requirements; as a prisoner myself, I cannot shed much light on the matter. I would no longer opine that the city walls are filled with shit, but I cannot say with certainty that this is not the case.
Indeed, though I had considered myself an expert in the secret codes and rituals of outsiders and criminals, I knew little about the faces in the wall. What was there to know? It was a mundane misery, a pathetic exile that lacked the hothouse appeal of the microcosms of prison-yard and cell and therefore failed to excite the idle imagination. (I will note here an exception that goes to prove the rule. Certain individuals of deviant desires imagine that they crave immobility and bodily confinement, and are strangely excited by the idea. Once, early in my confinement, I was approached by such a woman. The intimate conversation that ensued seemed for a time to gratify her; she drew her wrap tightly about her, even in the heat of the night. But then, after she had evidently reached the apotheosis she had been seeking, she cut the rendezvous short and departed with little ado, having perhaps seen something in my eyes that forestalled any further fancy.)
Naturally I suffered cruelties at the hands of churlish or righteous or bored citizens. But mostly I was ignored. My lorn visage peeped out from between the stones like a thoughtlessly placed and grotesque ornament, or a defacement or desultory graffito which no one bothered to clean away; at least those who spat or flicked cinders at me troubled to notice me.
The people were careless or cruel, but I will not deny that the city itself, when it could, honored its part in our arrangement: in exchange for my vivid moral example, it sustained my life.
The duty of caring for the meager needs of prisoners like myself fell to the city temples, and was discharged by the lowliest novices. Their service was prone to lapses in quality and frequency, and understandably so, since the recipients were often less than gracious to receive it. I inaugurated my sentence by clamping my eyes shut and refusing nourishment for days or perhaps weeks, only interrupting my self-mortification to heap abuse on the novice who served me.
My futile rebellion ended on the night the army returned from a new victory in the East. A great triumphal procession, generous with largesse, drew the entire populace to the Grand Concourse. Left alone, I lauded the heroes with insolent and disloyal songs and slogans shouted blindly to a vacant square. My voice reflected faintly from the empty pavement. Then a deep detonation roused me from my rant—for an instant, I thought a great calamity had come to swallow the city and me with it, and fear and sorrow and regret and relief overflowed the void in stone that I had become.
My eyes opened on a blue sunrise glow high in the sky above the Concourse. The parade was being crowned with a grand pyrotechnic display.
For the first time I beheld it, the last place I would ever see. Far rooflines and eaves were limned in attenuated lemon yellows and ghostly pinks. Burgeoning anemones and colossal cartwheels impinged upon the star-netted blackness of the sky. The strange illumination revealed secret and fantastic aspects of the dreary square. Cracked roof-tiles glittered jewel-like, columns threw rare shadows, and for a time I did not watch the air-bursts themselves but basked in the light reflected from the nocturnal paves as it coruscated and pulsed and bright motes sped along a thousand rain-filled cracks.
The spirit of the city was lifted by this great affirmation of our virtue, and for a few days after, the merchants acknowledged me with a nod. The night-commerce boomed as the soldiers squandered their pay. I had been bested by an involuntary will to witness and to be, and I desisted in my attempts at self-negation.
But the spirit of the great day soon faded. After a brief détente, the denizens of the square again avoided my gaze, and I again greeted the young initiate who fed me with petty abuse.
It was perhaps a year after the fireworks that he directly addressed me as I sullenly took my nourishment.
“They say by tonight all the gates will be closed, but no one says when they might open again.”
“I hadn’t heard,” I replied listlessly.
“They turned away the caravans from the marshes. But in the streets we serve, some are already ill. And it spreads quickly in such close quarters-”
“As long as you retain your health, I shall be safe. Close contact with the sick, or anyone else, is not a risk in which I partake,” I interrupted.
“Of course,” he said, eyes downcast. “I do pray that we retain our health, so that none we serve should go without.”
With the city closed, the stalls were soon shuttered and the wind sighed through an empty square. Skinny animals slunk past. My feedings ceased; hunger advanced and receded like a slow tide. But I remained free of the debilitating nausea, gleaming pustules, and dementia of the silver fever. The night-inhabitants of the square stayed outdoors and wandered until dawn, keeping well off from each other, fearful that close indoor air or physical contact would seal their doom. These too dwindled in number. Some became pale and shrunken, showing signs of the affliction or of the strain of living under its sentence, before disappearing into some alley or cellar to die.
For a time, patrols passed in canvas-covered wagons, the drivers hidden behind heavy screens. After the first of these, I no longer bothered to shout for help. The ravens multiplied. I watched them flock around the broken windows of tenements, gathering for some morbid repast. Perhaps when I could no longer offer resistance, they would come for me.
By night, lowering skies reflected the glow of rampant fires. Much later I would hear of mass burnings of plague-corpses in the Grand Concourse. After a time the fires died, and a shamed moon silvered the silent city.
I supposed that the city had perished. In the expanding silence the dust whispered to me of its long citizenship; from the stillness I learned much about the illusion that men move through space. Somewhere deep in my torpor, I was given the knowledge that the true corpus of the city was something entirely other than its inhabitants, or its stones, or even the space it occupied, something that might in fact never die. This knowledge deepened, broadened. The fine nerves of my useless face extended their paltry compass, sunk roots into the wall and strained tremblingly out into the light-stained air, palpating the solids and voids of the city’s plan. Sinking toward its center, I perceived the city as if I floated miles above it…
Before I could be given over completely to the wall, the spell was broken. Dusty disordered soldiers bearing the insignia of provincial regiments crept in first; then the mercenary-guarded wagons of their provisioners. Rustics and yokels streamed in to claim the houses of the dead.
Many months passed before a priest from the reoccupied temple came to serve me. I confess that I felt little gratitude. The city did not resume our pact out of compassion—it had gained enough distance on death to resume its contracts and retake its claims. I was an asset, however trifling, a part of the price of preserving order.
Only blind nostalgia could have glorified the memory of the market square as it had been before the plague. It had been an undistinguished corner of an ugly, cold, self-regarding city, and it was still that. Nevertheless, I found that the new misery compared unfavorably with the old. I viewed the newcomers, the merchants and beggars and trollops and swindlers, with supercilious contempt. The rude stalls and tents of colorless castoff canvas, provisional in the days after the plague, were barely improved, though a year stretched into five and then ten.
Somewhere in this era, another man was brought to a spot near mine to commence his sentence of enmuralment. But something went wrong—the preparation was executed without skill, or the stonemasons were sloppy—and as soon as he revived from his stupor, he began to wail piteously, complaining of the pain, of his shortness of breath, his hunger, his bowels, the itching of his feet.
I don’t know that I ever regretted my immobility as much as when I could not act on my desire to end his life. The man implored me for help, advice, and comfort in every waking moment. But there was very little that I could offer him.
By that time I had reached such a state of insensitivity regarding my own body that I sometimes imagined that it no longer existed, that the city’s punishers had left only my face and discarded the rest to molder to dust. (Another possibility was that the greater part of me had indeed been destroyed, but the remainder had been cruelly endowed with a false and useless sense of body.) But of course my meaningless body was still here, as the man’s miseries reminded me. To have been transformed into some kind of minor architectural monster, a poor version of a talking mirror in a children’s tale, would have been better than my actual fate.
One morning the man was silent. He had at last been killed in the night by a merchant or merchants who risked his same fate in order to eliminate the impediment to custom that he had become.
The consciousness of body that the man had reawakened in me faded in time. But it would be inaccurate to say that, in my years of imprisonment, I have had no bodily sensations at all. My face, of course, feels the sun and the cold. My body sends faint signals at rare intervals, but they could almost come from the wall itself. When the cold bites, deadening the mask of my face, I feel the stones settle in for the winter. When the sun and rains return, the swelling stonework constricts my forgotten frame and my gratitude for the warmth is tempered. I feel hoofbeats atop the walls. I feel the blows of chisels and mattocks, sometimes very far off, repairing, fortifying, walling up another penitent. Even the wind tugs at the wall, if one is sensitive enough to feel it.
Once, the earth quaked. On that occasion I saw the immense inner curve of the wall, that incontrovertible fact of my existence, waver like a heavy curtain stirred by action on the other side. The open stretch of the square rippled titanically. My heart pounded against its stone integument, and I was sure that the old nightmare, my true sentence, had arrived at last: the wall would collapse, but only enough to raggedly section or partially crush me.
However, though many buildings collapsed, the wall remained.
In time war came to shake the walls of the city again.
The siege was swift and cruel. Flap-limbed corpses of men and horses sailed over the walls, some aflame, some bloated with decay and disease. Our own dilapidated engines operated fitfully, scarcely heaving their projectiles over the wall. I saw defenders fall from the parapets, blasted from the line of fire and dumped unceremoniously at the foot of the wall.
During the siege I felt a confidence that was probably uncommon. After all, I knew how immovable the wall was. Heavy stones crashed against it, sappers mined beneath it, fires licked against it; in the lee of its immovability I sheltered and imagined the lurid struggles and deaths of those murderers, assassins, and stealers of children who were walled up on the wall’s outer face, those whose arms were left free along with their faces. I wondered if it was true that these violent penitents were given weapons in time of war (more to present a fearsome spectacle than an effective defense, certainly) and if so, how many of them fought and how many turned the weapons on themselves. I wondered what the enemy made of the sight.
Skirmishers made it over the wall and put the torch to what they could before they were driven away by the boys and old men of the militia. The fires raged uncontrolled; billowing forms like horses and men in mortal contention fled across the skies, and a haze wrapped the days in twilight. Yet the city still found the resources to keep me alive. My service as a symbol was needed.
The subject of punishment was very much on the minds of the besieged citizens. The square became a site of vigorous public justice. Cruelties long out of fashion were brought again into the open, engulfing deserters, traitors, thieves, black marketeers. In addition to the scaffolds, racks, and other devices that now lined the square, I saw a peculiar old mortification revived: driverless horse-drawn carts fitted with a mechanism that, impelled by the motion of the cart’s wheels, pistoned a multitude of needles in and out of the flesh of the prisoner shackled therein. In the past, clever horses who knew the streets would take these unwilling passengers on grand tours of the city, demonstrating to severy quarter the impartiality, inexorability and ubiquity of our city’s strictures. Now, with good animals in short supply, skinny and listless old nags were hitched to the rattling machines; these tended to stand about with bowed heads unless whipped. Once I watched the fantastic shadow of one of these strange chariots for an entire day; it swung completely about from West to East as the horse and cart stood motionless. The next day, the cart was gone.
One morning, I heard a distant uproar carried on the wind, in which notes of defeat and victory were blended. Somewhere the wall had been breached; the enemy poured in, heedless of our native justice or injustice. I thought first of the wall, pondered the method and consequences of its breaking. I did not mourn the city’s sovereignty or the plight of its citizens. My only thought was to beg a quick death from the newcomers.
The rout was quick and ugly. Resistance was paltry, as was the mercy of the conquerors. I was not granted the release I craved. The soldiers did not understand my pleas, or they pretended not to. In any case, they did not spare me the effort.
Their wrath was extensive and possibly just; my city had always been a fierce and unyielding foe and harsh master of its vassals. Ragged bands of citizens, defeated soldiers mixed with the recalcitrant pimps and thieves of the quarter, were flushed from the cellars and dispatched by sword and club in long days of work as strenuous as any the square had ever seen.
But the victors found themselves possessors of a poor prize. Perhaps they knew how far we had fallen, and struck while we were weak, or perhaps the high wall had hidden our decline. In any case, their vengeance was soon spent, and the greater part of the army departed, perhaps bound to their own fireworks display. Only a small garrison was left behind.
The square became a sordid site for infamous transactions. Hollow-eyed mothers with their huddled broods beckoned furtively to the occupiers. Skinny mongrels, cats, even the ravens fell victim to the hunger of the defeated; the rats were last.
Perhaps it was these vermin who carried the seeds of our empty vindication. After a few miserable months of occupation, the soldiers of the enemy garrison began to cough and stare and scratch at shining boils. The silver fever had returned after a hiatus of years to finish its work on the city.
Their prize turned horror, the remaining conquerors departed in haste, pausing only to set the torch to whatever was left to burn. For the last time, I watched the red reflections of the burning city dance on the low haze and the ruptured shells of tenements and warehouses. I’d had no sustenance in months and had already passed some mysterious marker into the zone I now inhabit.
Now, I no longer eat. If the rain does not fall, I do not drink. I cannot easily determine whether I am awake or asleep, as the gray visions of my arid dreams do not differ greatly from hallucinating wakefulness. When one has looked upon the same prospect for decades, when one cannot vary one’s vantage by the slightest fraction of an inch, the true poverty of the sense of sight, the pernicious illusion of variety at its very root becomes inescapable.
This flat expanse has a hold over me. I am so stupefied by its emptiness that I no longer fervently wish for death or freedom. Surfacing from a period of insensibility, I found that a portion of the wall had collapsed; even this did not rouse me. A season, then another, of emptiness, only triumphant dust…
Now there are no merchants, no temples, no patrol, no soldiers and no fires. But there is commerce in the square: silent nomads filter in through the gap to trade with the naked wild children of the dead city, food for scraps of metal or shards of glass. The older children do not acknowledge me except to express hatred. They deface the terrible and admonitory reliefs that surround me, that I’ve never seen but that were described to me long ago by the tight-wrapped woman as “twisted” and “ugly.” For the younger ones, I am no symbol of lost authority and vanished submission, but only a minor ugly wonder, a mystery of strange pain, another macabre but unthreatening spirit like the moon or the dust devil.
My calcifying features barely move at all; when I whisper to the children, they must press their ears to the wall to hear the ruin of my voice. For them, I am the wall—the shattered wall that no longer protects or defies or limits, but only functions as any other pile in the desert: a crossroads in nowhere, a marker to indicate that in this place, people gave up wandering to gather secrets and the stones with which to hide them.
I converse in silence with the last feral citizens, and I wonder if I will ever die, or if some flaw in my preparation took that capacity from me. Or perhaps, under the pressure of the stones, my substance has been fused into something more fundamental. I watch. And if the wild children ever claim their city again, my face and its wall will remain, in silence, to instruct, to threaten, and to judge.
Adam S. Cantwell is a writer, musician and father living in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author, most recently, of Orphans on Granite Tides (Ex Occidente Press, Bucharest). His stories have appeared in Fiddleblack and various anthologies including Ex Occidente’s tributes to Meyrink, Bulgakov, and Bruno Schulz.