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6. Standstill

Updated: Dec 18, 2020



The desert and the crescent moon, so I have arrived home. There was a great city here once. This was in the times when the green was splashed on every stone and a large river ran down the valley. Today there is nothing. I stoop to pick up an ancient coin; time has worn away the picture on the back. It belongs, I suspect, to the era of the last ruler of the city. He was burned alive with his bride by the Marauders; his body’s fat slid down the pyre and infiltrated the graves of his ancestors. Worthy men watered by the very fluid of their weakened son. They burned him, so Chinese records show, in the temple; above the city’s great catacombs, above his very genealogy.

My tent is small, not much more than a bivouac; it envelops my sleeping bag, and a small hood covers my head. I can hear the wind on the plateau, caressing the rocks, and low mumbling that, in my dreams, I mistake for the hooves of the Marauders. When I sit up to listen more closely, I hear nothing. The Marauders, of course, are long departed; they were exterminated by the Moslems, though only after hard struggle. They say that the artists along the coast used human blood as paint for several years during the worst of it. The speciality art galleries in Berlin sell these artefacts at a great price on the Lumen; but my friend at the university, H, tells me that the redness is almost always an oxide compound, such is the artifice of blood and art.

The scorpion at my boots does not understand that he is walking over the same grand road that carried an army into the heart of Asia. Without history, he tumbles over pebbles and eroded paving stones alike. This road has bored a hundred thousand schoolboys: confined in the classroom, listening to a Latin master relate a story of hubris and catastrophe, they scrawl obscenities in textbooks and gaze at the coolness of the playing fields, so unlike the classroom’s glasshouse heat.

The army set out when the city was at her height, long before its last decadent ruler was debased to star-white bones. I climb a hill, doing so, foolishly, at midday. Holding a craggy rock as I am buffeted by waves of dizziness, I can see below me the outline of the grand road that carried an army to Asia. There is something peculiar about it being both a great age and so mundane, as if history should not allow the ordinary to survive. Cosmonauts report that the grand road is visible from their perch in the heavens; we are too used to such wonders: at home, my children flick through twenty treasures a day—.

A column marks the city’s absolute centre. The tradition here was for a holy man to stand aloft for 180 days; the number had, naturally, an occult significance understood only by the city’s astronomers. The most devout men proved their worthiness by standing upon the column without food or water for the entire period. Those who survived were said to have the power of prophecy. The column’s base, however, was surrounded by the bones of failed initiates. I have seen the archeological reports; each skeleton measured and cataloged, and the common fracture points identified. The most advanced modern cynics claim that no man withstood the test, except by cheating. There is, supposedly, a hidden stairway within the column, through which priests from the temple would access favourite adherents and save them with apples and water. I tried to find the access port to this passage before I left, but the column seems solid as the surrounding rock outcrops. This is a testimony to the banality of desk thinkers.

The sky turned violet on my last night by the city and a woman’s voice whispered in my ear; it did not belong to my wife, and I grow too old for sentiment.

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