mjj (flemmings) wrote,

Fic- Invisible Cities

Don't think this has anywhere more to go. A series of vignettes started over three years ago after reading Calvino's Invisible Cities, and incorporating at least one long-ago prompt from an ad for Istanbul tourism.

Invisible Cities- Uwi no okuyama

1. The persistence of memory

Uwi has been the capital city for well over a millennium. Parts have fallen to earthquakes, parts to fire, parts to the invasion of the nomad Wan who destroyed great stretches of the city and razed the Imperial Palace itself. The citizens rebuild everything in exact facsimile, so that even now the city appears as it did a thousand years ago. There are no 'new' buildings in Uwi.

Equally, there are no new people. The faces you see on the street are those you find in wooden statues of medieval abbots, enshrined in temples, or picture scrolls of court nobles from a thousand years ago, preserved in museums. Everyone is a copy of some distant ancestor. Perhaps this is why the inhabitants seem to lack the individuality and selfness that is found in newer, rawer cities. Their expressions are serene, their emotions ordered and predictable; in all situations they react as the ancestors whose faces they wear reacted centuries ago. Emotion is indicated according to a silent code so innate that people can't describe it: full-scale rage by a tightening of certain facial muscles, overwhelming joy by the widening of an eye.

Amongst the oldest families, emotions need not be expressed at all. Everyone knows what a person must feel in any given situation, so the existence of that feeling is taken for granted.

2. The Grand Avenue

Though only the upstart capital of a small island country, vainglorious Uwi was built to be an exact copy of the magnificent imperial city of the continent. But to judge by the scale of streets and buildings, the mainlanders must have been giants: or possibly the builders of Uwi misread the figures of the court records. The Grand Avenue between the Phoenix Gate and the Imperial Palace was so wide it took the fourth part of a watch for an ox-drawn carriage to cross from one side to the other. (We won't mention the day's expedition needed to reach the palace from the lower streets near the Gate.) Thus Uwi was divided from itself by the very thing built to unite it. The east half of the city became the residence of nobles, whose palaces and gardens turned much of it into parkland. The west became the haunt of thieves and labourers and runaway slaves who, in contrast, built their homes huddled close together from fear of the dark, and wild beasts out of the hills, and each other. At one point crossing barriers were erected in the middle of the Grand Avenue and tolls exacted from those seeking to cross into the other city. These barriers, and much else, were destroyed when the barbarians came, riding their swift horses straight up this thoughtfully direct route to the royal treasures.

In our modern era the Grand Avenue is an eight lane thoroughfare with the first of the city's subways running beneath it. But the soil of the city is light and sandy: for centuries the nobles' palaces and imperial halls sank into the earth while newer storeys were raised upon them. A ground floor that was once three steps up from the street gradually became two steps down, then turned into a cellar with high windows, then became a wholly underground vault while the third and fourth floors were refurbished to become replicas of the original ground floor. Like many others, Uwi is a city built upon itself. The present subway tracks far underground are at the level that the Grand Avenue was when the Wan rode up it, firing their arrows from horseback. Ghostly nomads have sometimes been seen galloping through the trains, but only by tourists. The Uwians themselves do not exist sufficiently to see other phantoms.

3. Autumn in the City

In the western suburbs, the leaves turn brown and fall on the pale gravel of parks where silent well-bred children play with their hoops and sticks. The grass is bordered by dull green boxwood, the skies a uniform grey. Autumn in the west smells of sadness, and gives rise to poems of the evanescence of all things.

In the east the leaves turn brilliant yellow and stay on the trees almost to winter's end, making the heart glow even as the days grow colder. The second Tycoon ('great lord') was so enamoured of this golden light that he built a tea house with walls and ceiling covered in gold leaf, so that in the heat of summer he might remember the cool winter world.

In the southern part of the city the leaves stay green all year under dispirited grey skies. The people weave bright rugs of patterned red and yellow and lay them under the trees, to look like the fallen leaves of other places, and write poems of longing for their absent (or sometimes non-existent) beloved.

In the wooded north-western hills that ring the city the leaves of the persimmon tree fall, green, soon after summer's end. But the fruit stays on the empty branches until winter, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. It's the cold that brings ripeness, so persimmons don't reach perfection until the darkest month of the year. Poems liken the persimmon to the rolling orange ball of the setting winter sun, disappearing into the mists that rise from the hill valleys.

4. The Willow World

In the north-east quadrant of Uwi lie the artistic quarters, low brown buildings facing on narrow stone streets and backing onto the canals that carried goods through the old city of noblemen. Willows grow on each side of the canals, so the world is one of lapping green waves and shivering green walls. Here live the musicians and singers, the artists and ballad-makers, the wits and bon vivants of both sexes. They speak their own language which no one will teach to outsiders. Visitors, which also means customers, must proceed by intuition and repetition, and rarely understand the conversations they take part in until after an acquaintance of two or three decades.

Willow pollen fills the air, which is always dank from the encircling waterways. Summer is unbearable within walls so the inhabitants take to the water. Pleasure boats carry parties of bon vivants, dressed in thin silken garments and waving round white fans, up and down the canals, so that they may at least experience the illusion of coolness from the moving air. Winter on the other hand sees them crowded together in tea houses, gaining warmth from the press of bodies within small rooms, from heated wine and hilarious drunken dances.
Tags: fic, place

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