Image by Charis Ooms
Alexander stared out beyond the twisted iron spindles, rising from the rugged rooftop edge. The gaps between the bars were blue in evening starlight. In the valley, illuminated windows glimmered in the city’s silhouette, like diamond-shine, as people wandered by soft lamps in small bedrooms, restless and without purpose.
“Load-bearing music allows another light,” said the architect, “fruitful like a sun throughout the passing night.”
He turned and looked at Alexander.
“Have you come to watch the garden grow?”
Alexander walked by, strumming his guitar softly and with respect.
“The lemon tree looks healthier,” he said, leaning against the bricked conservatory wall.
“Yes,” said the architect. “I moved it to a spot with better lighting. The halo on the greenhouse glass, stained by the sun, frames the tree excellently there.”
Ferns, twirling with golden geometry, unfurled behind brass bars, skeletal between the windows. Full and vibrant leaves pressed against every wall, some reaching as high as the vaulted ceiling and others out against the open air-shafts. Uncountable herbs and vegetables climbed from out of the soil, some with arms longer than the diameter of the conservatory floor. Tables with clay pots colored the stone interior with a touch of red Earth. Pitcher plants and orchids hung from hidden trellises. A sundial in the center told the time with a stark line of shadow, cutting through the clear bird-bath water ringed around.
“The glass is blue now with ancient age, but I remember when it was pure and transparent. I do prefer it this way, though. I can see all the years it’s seen, collected, and I’m very proud,” said the architect.
He turned, sitting with his legs over the parapet. He looked away from the conservatory, off the cliffside edge, and out over the city again. He stared over the flat-topped hills, where the river was lain like a broken mirror in the valley. “Can you see the massive lake?” he asked, puffing on his pipe. “Or how about the glacier that cut these plateaus so flat and level? All elevation, scraped away, like cream from a cake, into conformity. All so long ago.”
Alexander slowed the pace of his song, and rode the strings into another mode. Each fingerpicked vibration lived, left, and then lingered in his memory, thousands as a wave, and he savored every note.
“Before you came upstairs,” said the architect, “I was recalling days of worthwhile activity. I built this house, and the others on the ridgeline, in a state of ceaseless creative energy. I was a conduit for an unnamed muse. For years, I sketched new plans every morning, and directed sculptors and builders in the evenings and in the afternoons. When I felt extinguished, I’d turn the blueprints over, forgetting that I’d done so, and scribble poems on the back of them, poems about Cuypers and Thomas Cole.”
He tapped his pipe and held it out before him, the cherry burning in its well.
“I remember the poems verbatim, although I can’t find lines that I haven’t formed before. The fountain’s dried in me, while all I’ve ever made continues making more.”
Alexander pinched the outer strings and slid into a comfortable chord. The houses, and their aspects adjoined, were in the song, and all forbade the architect from withering away with time. The architect was in the houses. He was in their aging character, the greening copper, the flaking shutters. He was in the resilient columns and the fleur-de-lis ironwork. He was in the oaken mantel, and the armchair beside. He was in the roaring flames of the fireplace. He was in the floorboards, and in the rusty kitchen pipes. He was in frames of pictures, and in the cracks inside the oil arranged like faces in the frames. He was in the cobwebs in the corners. He was in the riverstone foundations, down below the basement stairs. He was in the rooms that people passed through, and he was in the rooms where people stopped to rest. His human descendants didn’t know of him, but any sidewalk admirer enjoyed the equivalent of an evening in his presence, sipping on a cup of mulled cider, by the royal emerald hearth.
“It’s possible to achieve a tireless and intended immortality,” said the architect, “but on this side, I’m a captive in the work I’ve left behind. My heart’s continued beating in this house, under its lumber ribcage bones.”
Figures in the pediment all began to walk around. The prick of time and motion snapped in Alexander’s brain. He bowed his head and dropped to minor mixtures, buried in the weight of a memory deeper than his own. Escape came only in changing the subject, of not addressing the thought. But this thought was too big to him, and encompassed anything he imagined he could say.
“Every time I see you, I think you’re an intruder at first,” said Alexander. “Then, I remember that I’m the intruder here.”
“You are welcome to stay, of course. I intended for someone to live in this place.
“The plan,” said the architect, “is very old.”
A shine in sound and sight calmed the riot of the world. Although she was blocked from view, Alexander saw her in the window. He saw her through a type of mental peripheral. Her shape was metallically sensate, as she waited in a space that he’d soon inhabit too. He excused himself with a distracted nod and left the architect.
The architect placed the pipe in his mouth and drew in a warm river. “You’ll descend a narrow flight of stairs,” he said. “They’ll lead a level lower, to a nest of a western wing. Overhead, above the stairs, a rounded archway merges with a steepled chimney wall. Once you pass under it, you’ll enter her direct line of sight. Her window looks out onto this wing, so if there was a bridge, she could cross without changing elevation. But, as each idea is its own, I’ve divided the houses by a thin cobblestone alleyway.
“At first, the houses seem like most in lower Clifton, like others I’ve built along the ridgeline. The set are Italianate, they feature a flat façade, painted corbels, a narrow crown, an assault of right angles— but these two houses are unique siblings in design, looking more like two halves of a castle, utilizing large blocks of black sandstone.
“A turret rises on the east-facing side of this house and the west-facing side of the neighboring. The turrets round off the corners in unnatural defiance, disrupting the expected order. White oaken arches support leaf-shaped alcoves, where the edges splash with stonework waves. I’ve situated stained glass windows, depicting saints and shields, at every appropriate opportunity, and effectively keep the interiors dim and solemn.
“Tangled patterns, carved with mathematical precision, line every surface made of brick or stone, perplexing the eyes in a pleasing way, occupying any brain caught following the circuit’s path. And, often the lines run to unexpected nooks, revealing hidden cherubs or miniature owl-shaped forms, ancient minds I set in place, who’ve watched the city in secret for a hundred years or more.
“Back-lit in blue, she’ll advance to her attic window. You’ll approach the worn and weathered alley-edge. No barrier blocks you from falling here, but you’re accustomed Alexander, to coming as close as you can to her, and you’re comfortable with all but the ball of your heel hanging freely from the floor.
“She places her palm against the pane, and in her, I can sense a cocktail of pleasure and sadness. Love stirs inside her chest, but when you aren’t around, she feels the crisis of the candle flame, a body burning down in a room with no eyes to use its light.
“This evening, she is, as she always is, framed in a floral oval, wearing out-dated clothes of mourning. Her black hair is cut evenly at the neckline, stopping above her shoulders. A lace collar underlines her portrait in an elegant sequence of half-circles, trimmed into the common rind of child-drawn clouds. Lamplights glow like fireflies behind you, and as you two explore infinite iris aurorae, I can hear your fingers find their favorite melody and speed along the nylon strings.”
Her mouth moved in fricative response, her tongue tapped on her teeth. But, he couldn’t hear a sound. Her voice went no farther than the gleaming glass.
She settled into a sullen, un-vocalized futility, and they transmitted their message mentally, with a hope that the other could feel their internal force. “Little do you know, Alexander, that all of nature feels your longing, and Nabu notes your separately spoken words in a record written down in divine, cuneiform calligraphy, illegible to all who never learned his language, a tongue older now than the Earth and sky.”
Alexander closed his eyes and surrendered to the song. The music emerged from him, natural and unerring, free from his control. He delivered the personal meaning of his life with every strike of the strings, and the memorized environment around him bled onto the back of his closed eyelids through every pulse. Pale pinks and yellows ran in afterimage, writing out the roof’s perimeter in a detailed pen-work, using biological lightning-ink to cover over the colorless cosmic black. Below, Alexander knew the placement of every brick of every building, and the mazelike path of caulking between them. He knew the position of every bird on the landscape, of every leaf and stone.
Her hands slid through the grains in the glass, and by feeling-out every fiber, she stepped through without cutting her skin. She hovered over the alleyway, standing sturdy where there was no floor to hold her. The ankle end of her black dress whipped around wild in the wind, and with his eyes still closed, Alexander saw her face alight with astonishment. She stepped forward, and the speed of his song increased to the brink of his control. He broke through the border without concern for care or order. Her hands reached and found his wrists and caressed his arms, but her hands did not feel to him like hands. Instead, he felt the nudge of a thousand butterfly wings, a touch too delicate to be made by real, human skin.
Without a fixed center of gravity, her weightless body began to twirl. She snatched his sleeve to stay secure and oriented. Her eyes, awake and unblinking, looked through his eyelids, devouring all interpretable information. Fire-color filled her sacred aura, and in dreamflight, the overgrown Eden rolled, a rippling forest green. Majolica stories told in blue.
Over the horizon, Alexander heard the coyotes call, and with a prismatic wash of snaking whistles, the ghostly shriek of halting trains fixed them to a thousand distant memories, as if they were one memory, threaded by a needle through the fabric of their lifelines.
“Do you remember,” she whispered in his ear, “when we watched the woman climb out from the well? You told me that she lived outside of movement, and that she was born of the sea.
“Look now, and you’ll know her again.”
She touched his face with twinkling star-made hands, and she turned his head with an airy, wind-swept suggestion.
In the old town, a woman rose from the rocky pit, swaddled in a shroud. Her closed hands held the ocean in their shells, and everyone who knew this came to her with buckets and pots of dry soil. People scrambled over the arid Earth. They came with soot-covered faces and abraded throats, out of the blood-smeared bottoms of Front Street. They scrabbled from the tavern at Yeatman’s Cove. Grown men led horses and hounds by their necks with splintered rope, but groveled like loyal animals before her. United by want and need, they climbed and tumbled over each other, spitting and biting, tugging hair. They called her Angel, and they called her Nereid, and they claimed that they had never once known the touch of water on their tongues.
“I’m no angel,” she said. “And, I’m no goddess. I’m one of you, and nothing more.”
She extended her arms and opened her hands, and a cascade of endless water surged from her supine palms. The thick drops left rivers on the children’s cheeks, clearing away all trace of scarring smoke. Plumes of white mist filled the square and obscured the gathering crowd. When the cloud rose in the wind, it spread over the orchards of Mount Auburn and over the vineyards of Mount Ida in the east. Blindly in the brume, youths rode on turtleback, dipping headfirst into the well, while others swam off on tiny dolphins or stayed behind to wrangle gargling geese. Bearded ferrymen rowed parties past uncaring barges and around the chopping wheels of the tall-stack steamers, deep into the Licking, inside the wooded Kentucky wild. Above them, women growing drought-bred corn clambered for a place on the pedestal, where the shrouded lady stood unmovable, where she would forever remain at work, cast in bronze and giving.
A stone fell from the hand of The Genius of Water and dropped into the ice-bath pool. The ripples ran to the ridge-base and over. Their expanding rings rushed southward to Rockcastle and northward over the Till Planes. The forests bowed in liquid motion to Wheeling, West Virginia, and over Cuyahoga to the frigid Erie coast. Night fell, and in the darkness, everyone was scattered by circumstance on the rippling wake, reaching for the ring’s end, all around.
Alexander opened his eyes. The woman was behind the glass, her head tilted like the wilted wisteria vine. A current riding up through the alleyway, moist in the summer heat, gripped and pulled at his sleeves. A light draft caught a cross-wind and blew against his cheeks. His heart clenched and froze with vertigo, and in this new-felt fear of falling, he backed away from the house’s edge. Her face obscured with every step he took, until all he noticed was the slant of her head, a line continuing diagonally into her body. Monitoring a memorized distance between their houses, he backed into the solid gable, and watched the black smoke of night waft over her, dividing them again.
“Throat full of grease and grey, you’ll lean against the inclined plane, which I covered in octagonal shingles. Every few were a faded crimson or violet, but most are weathered now in moss. You’ll say, ‘Washed over the long land, she and I. Caught, for no reason, on Klotter’s clustered hillside,’ and then you’ll curl over your instrument, a hermit crab shifting sound-hole shells, your form ensconced within the yellow crescent moon.”
Alexander dove, with grace, to the top of the neck, where it was easier to mix harmonics into the melody. Behind him, beyond the towering iron bars, the city slept without lamplight lit, darkening now under the shade of gathering clouds.
“You remind me,” said Horace, “of a time I never lived in. When you walk the Metropolitan galleries and sense the million ways the world was. Your notes are like pre-war Montmartre.”
In the Catawba breeze, Alexander crossed the bridge into the chorus. The song, ‘Le histoire de coeur,’ was a tune that he played only in the evening, part of his unconscious, structured routine. A personal twilight raga.
Horace chuckled hoarsely and swept his palm over the round cork table, having in this way, ripped countless papers over the nights and days.
“If you can abuse it, they can abuse the price,” he said. “Therefore, I roll.”
He licked a stuffed paper, sealed it closed like an envelope, and then stuck it in his mouth, a bent, soggy stick of chalk.
“One day, as a parlor trick, I’d like to be able to make these with one hand,” he explained, striking a match against a bulky green book. “But, for now, the shag looks like pulled pork. Cigarette meat.
“Nothing enjoys this dismal weather. Materials don’t comply with unsuitable conditions, no.”
He slunk into a deep slouch and propped his feet up on the table, unable to waste any degree of pleasure he might lose in the act of putting on airs, in the act of sitting up straight. He released rings from the open caldera of his froglike mouth, and he withdrew his cigarette before gravity won-out over his lip’s adhesive force. Dangling the frail smoke from his chopstick fingers, he ashed over the balustrade onto the triangular portico.
“We’ve all been washed asunder. All of us over this long land. Who knows why we’re born where we are, who we are. You and I were born here, and perhaps that binds us, despite our differences. But, don’t believe I’ll defend you forever, Alexander.”
A fat drop of rain fell onto the table, staining it a dark, smoldered, brown. Horace looked over the cliffside, at the fluorescent streetlights below. His phantom hand, acting without his control, rolled a perfect specimen, but he didn’t take notice. A meteorite snipped a golden slit across the sky, the fire-bird, dropping molted embers down.
“If I had this rooftop, with this vista, I’d spend my days and nights up here too. I don’t blame you. Blessed is he, who far from the cares of business, lives like mankind’s ancient race.
“Modernity is cruel, and if given the chance, many of us would retreat, and do. But, you’re losing them, Alexander. It’s rare that people discuss you anymore in town, and when they do it isn’t in a positive light. They reflect on your errors, your defects and debts. In private, I believe they miss you, but when they’re together, I often have to change the subject.
“Pat Conroy recently moved around the corner, here on the hill, and he says he sees you on this roof, day and night, in every sort of weather, pacing like a lynx in the cat-house. I’ve seen you too, myself, but I don’t talk about you with people. You’re free to do what you want on your own property, supposedly. Some, like Conroy, may not care to see you so active at nothing, but I care only for your own happiness and well-being.”
“Am I a threat to them?” asked Alexander, more concern applied to his song than to his words. His friend’s fingers played invisible piano keys on the table, searching for the proper progression.
“This has been a season of monsoon proportions,” said Horace. “You have a house to hide yourself away in, but you don’t ever go. I know you’ve spent entire weeks up here, sometimes on days as hot as Mercury. God invented air conditioning for a reason, you know? But, you don’t use it. You don’t use the resources that you have. I’m afraid for your health, physical and mental. You’re extracting extra years from the total of your lifetime and placing them pre-maturely in the grave.”
“Am I a threat to them?” repeated Alexander.
“You don’t act in a way they expect you to act,” Horace said. “You’ve changed your character. And yes, that means you’re a threat to them all. Any shake-up in their world will make them question what they do, and questioning one’s fundamental idea of reality is never pleasurable, and rarely necessary in times of great progress.”
Alexander paused his song long enough to hoist the guitar closer to his heart and tighten the strap. Then, he continued playing while he spoke, not caring about whether or not this was annoying to his guest.
“Ours is a chameleon humanity,” said Alexander. “Everyone blends into the zeitgeist, the styles and opinions of those around them, to become other people that they want to be, those who they believe contain qualities useful to their survival, or in the most basic Darwinian terms, to improve their chances of attracting a mate. They select and apply qualities that create the conditions for their expected life-narrative, based off television shows they grew up watching. They blend until they extinguish any notion of selfhood. By being everyone, they become nothing definite at all. But, they’ll push and push for you to change yourself like they have, to mold and adapt to their homogenized perspective, to validate their own suicide of ego.
“Society is a game that I’m sick of playing. I can predict every move, every word that anyone will say in a given situation. Even the unpredictable people are predictable in their unpredictability.
“And I don’t think the trend is changing anytime soon, so until then, I’ll stay where I am.”
“How lofty and pretentious,” said Horace.
“Is this what you think about all day?”
“The possibilities of our lives are not restricted to the direction that our culture’s built,” said Alexander. “My time is too precious, and I will not be like they are.”
“Then, you’ll wind up alone,” said Horace. “You were lucky enough to inherit a house, and eradicate the bulk of financial worry that plagues most of us, but that doesn’t make your experience better than our own, we who are forced to conform to society out of necessity. You may believe you’re separate from the rest of human culture, but your main source of influence is this city, as you often say, and this city is the main extension of that culture which you claim to have escaped from, the one you want nothing to do with. In fact, this city– my heart as it is– is a slow city, and has only seemed to put up a single skyscraper per decade for the last century, and for each skyscraper, the architecture has been safe, a culmination of the national norm. Very little significance has been emphasized here in the realm of radical forward-thinking, as you suggest you’re practicing up here, ruminating over the skyline. Complete individuality appears in this town in small doses, contained well within walls, and you cannot know its radiance from this distance. If you want to create this new world for your culture, design a building, and have it built right there along the water. Create the unique world that you see.
“Or, Alexander, are you afraid that once a thing is built, you’ll see it for how it really is? Nothing special at all? In fact, dull, and normal. Material. You’ll realize that your genius isn’t genius after all, but typical. Your shot at transcendence will prove your normality. Your creation will be a failure amongst your contemporaries, it won’t age well, and then it will be demolished in thirty years for another parking lot, like we’ve done with so many other interesting structures. No, if your idea of progress is not in-line with the national ideal, you will fall to the wayside. If you’re unable to blend with the rest of them, to become a part of their machine, you will create nothing lasting, and your soul will die with the obscurity of your creation, just another notebook of prints washed away in the water, over the long land, saturated with tidal time, and ripped apart by past and future contenders.”
Alexander turned away and put his foot on the stairs to the split-level floor. A string of white bulbs blurred in his headache vision, and their usual charm was lost on him. He’d hung them in the days he’d hosted parties here. Estelle had shaken the champagne bottle and popped the spraying liquid free. She’d covered all of them in sticky crystal foam. There’d been music and laughter, slippage, a party to make people jealous by, a party to remember, now forgotten in a twirl of a thousand other parties, in the crowd of a thousand distant, familiar faces.
“We’re bottles on the sandy shore,” said Horace, “randomly dispersed. Dispersed like stars from the initial explosion. We’re unsure if we’re meant to collapse back in toward the center or if we’re meant to fling forever outward, tearing apart the fabric of our world. Your privilege has made you believe you’re made of something more than this, but you aren’t. You must come back. You must find some kind of work. While millions are struggling, you’re struggling by your own accord, choking on inconsequential philosophical tangles.”
“And, you reek of self-induced cancer,” said Alexander, catching a scent of Horace’s burning cigarette tip. “That’s why I always keep my distance from you. I can feel your sickness asking me to relate.”
“I can hardly breathe without the cigarettes, sinister as that is,” Horace agreed. “If your current choice of detrimental medication is asceticism, this is mine. You decide which is better or which is worse.”
Alexander climbed the stairs, up to the higher story of the eastward wing. As he rose, the full view came to him, unobstructed. The river carved itself through the Pleistocene plateaus, disrupting the flatland, and all around, all the way down to the banks, there were different altitudes of flora, and different degrees of slope. At the flattest point beneath him was Atlas Alley, which he could see if he felt daring enough to lean out over the side, searching for the abandoned Titan, where the backyards were crushed by collapsed trees and fallen stones, the torn roofs protecting only squatters now, and probably people poorer than these squatters in the earliest days of its incarnation, as the poor always live in the run-off from the wealthy and powerful, the waste of the gods on Olympic hills.
But, outward and on, the elevation smoothed into a steady platform, the common forum, and the collected rush from all the land emptied into the river, the initial life-source, irrigating skyscrapers and stadia. The city looked small to him now, even though he admired it daily, and had never thought it large or small. The limits were apparent to him, the boxes of the buildings were anthills under the high domed atmosphere, encased within encircling cliffsides like natural prison walls. His home was a dot on the long land, an arbitrary point out of a million points where pioneers had settled and stayed. And, had they yet mastered this land? Had they created the paradise they sought to make when crossing the open ocean? He could see divisions cutting like forest-fire trails, where racist red-lining had corralled everyone who didn’t fit the planners’ mold. The west-end, which he remembered well, was flattened now, a force of hand to build a highway, to clear out overcrowded conditions, to further rupture the spirit of the thousands who’d flocked north for freedom, over the frozen Ohio.
“It doesn’t help that, from here, you can almost see the bacterial culture of civilization fester. You can see the plight of our species’ flailing social effort. It’s the most clear image I can conjure,” said Horace, illustrating with his hands, “the failure of mankind’s struggle to work together, to overtake the natural world. Look at all those lost halls, those alleyways buried by Earth and time. The forest is returning and almost everyone who lived here has left. All the efforts of our ancestors were fruitless. It’s as if the Earth were applying medical attention to its scar, and the wound is healing itself through the means of human psychology, to rid us all, and the Earth is winning in this endeavor.
“Why enhance this outcome? Why hide yourself away? Confirm with us Alexander, that together, we’re alive.”
Alexander listened to the rail yard whistling on the breeze, a tune that catches you from another room, implanting in him the unmistakable feeling of home. But, despite the wholeness it offered, the pleasure he would experience in riding it’s sensation to the full, he cut the current short, resisting.
“Long ago, she made me see, that the inclined railroads took people to the top of these five points, all spread out like distant fingers on a hand. But now, there aren’t any inclines, just overgrowth, jungles where people thought it was worth it to build something useful.
“Am I thinking this because you’re here, Horace? I’ve never noticed the city as negative in any light. You’ve made it different now. Different than how I want it to be.”
Constant streams spouted endlessly over the gutter, out of the mouths of the nameless granite gargoyles. The rain had been falling for some time, but Alexander didn’t feel chilled or changed from earlier. His body had adjusted to the temperature before his brain noticed that an adjustment should be made.
“What’s this?” he asked the architect.
But, the architect was nodding with his eyes closed now, lost in some reverie, like a dying monk in prayer.
A glint of light swung between his house and the neighboring house, and its sheen held his attention tighter than the rhythm of the rain. Alexander left to investigate, and as he came down the stairs, he saw that the cork table had toppled over in the wind, and Horace was under the cover of the eave, over by the attic door.
“You’re insane, Alexander,” he shouted. “You’re getting soaked! Come on, let’s get inside.”
The rain tapped on the fat, round bulbs of the stranded lights like intentional percussion, webbed and casting festive shadows of memory. The wind tossed ragged newspapers from the streets as high as the roof, and sent loose bits of leaves and litter over the railing. Mulberry trees bent slantwise all along the sidewalk, dancing with undulating arms. Alexander stopped on the stairs, undeterred, and unconscious of the storm.
“Did you notice that, Horace?” he asked. He clutched his body tighter over his guitar, concentrating on the constant river of song. His music was faint under the pounding rain, but Horace heard it like weak watercolor on the rooftop, draining off the cotton page. When Alexander’s fingers moved quickly, the rain sped up. And, when Alexander slowed his pace, the rain slowed too.
Behind black curtains clearing, the woman returned, back-lit in her window in green, and Alexander came closer to her, signaling his discovery, his mastery over nature, creating surging spouts of rainfall. He stopped at his usual, memorized distance, and put all his weight onto the balls of his heels, but looking at his feet, he saw that he still had space to move forward. He inched closer, and when the alleyway came into view, he saw that cables were randomly strung between their houses, like Indian telephone wires.
Alexander saw the system in her pupils, and she showed him how the wires worked. Buckets hung from pulleys, and the weight of the rainwater dragged the buckets slowly toward the ground. Alexander lunged forward, giving a rip along the strings, and the rain crashed in a tremendous jolt. The excess force bounced the buckets, and with a staccato tremor, the houses squeezed together closer.
A blaze, like green comets, shot out of her eyes, and blood from his open knuckles filled the hollow body of his guitar, splashing over red rings in the rosewood.
The heat of the morning began to boil. Color returned to the gray garland around her window. A faded etiolated green lightened over the dark shape of the asimina tree, growing from a crag behind her cracking chimney. In the reflection of her window, he saw the red sun rise. Alexander turned to look, and the sun leapt over his head, disappearing behind a cloud.
And the rain rained on forever. Clouds replaced diminished clouds. The sun escaped behind the western horizon, behind the eggshell terminal, beyond the forest in Mount Airy. The catalpa carried calm pools, and water overflowed from the hands of their heart-shaped leaves. The architect pointed his finger out toward the valley. Orbital light changed the color of his face. The celestial appeared and vanished, the Earth in seeming hyper-motion, but his eyes always retained their fiery sapphire blue.
In the building summer heat, Alexander watched the vines and flowers grow, sometimes in coils around the skyscrapers, and sometimes in blossoms through broken windows. Solar energy powered latent workers, sleepers waking into steady action, peaking every zenith of July. Old tinderboxes were torn down to make room for corporate gymnasiums. Tall white towers rose from toppled roots. The elevation of the city rose in rectangular blocks. Sunflowers sprouted on Dayton Street, achieving twice their average size, and then doubled over onto Naeher. Winter came and went. Summer again. Hedera dangled from wide Ionian columns, gaps out of Halicarnassus, elevated thirty stories-plus. Alexander increased the intensity of his song, and quakes in the sidewalks became caked with pillows of spongy moss. Manholes were pushed out of the streets by spicebush, and by thin twirling red rose branches, armed with thorns. Wildflowers blanketed the floor of Washington Park, encasing the gazebo and the lonely potter’s field. Petunias sprouted from the Romanesque windowsills of City Hall, and the umbrella of an enormous weeping willow shaded the clean, white Synagogue beneath. The Klinkhammer house chinked with visceral productivity and Sangerfest sounded from a deathless Music Hall. In the old firehouse, a towering red cedar twisted up the elevator shaft, taking all the dreaming artists up along with it, to the open roof above.
The city transformed from a tangled nest of streets into a mathematical grove of corporate towers. Neon replaced the gaslight flames, canceling out the stars, defying the night. In bouts of doubt, neighborhoods sought progress with demolition, to erect tangles, cyclic processes of rebirth, all. Alexander could not differentiate these nights from the violet-dim nights of his youth, and he often thought he could hear the common call of drunkards singing his old songs down on the corner of Vine and Elder. He flung his arm and a wave of wild forest washed. The avenues were his arteries, and the power-grid was his brain. Each neighborhood was an appendage, and every apartment was a memory cell, containing instances that he lived and re-lived again.
For solace from the barrage of ceaseless transformation, Alexander thought of Goose Alley, as it was when the Slotkin family lived in a little red house behind a grocery there, and how he used to run around in a small garden of bergamot with their daughter, and how they were children then, watching the icemen drag blocks of water through the daylight.
The sun, amebic over the horizon, wobbled over Cheviot and the further Indianan plains. Alexander watched it vanish in a wisp of red mirage, and standing firm, remembering the solidity of stone, he held himself in time, taking no notice of the state of the city around them, only the awareness that their houses were as they always were, and there was nowhere else he needed to be. She pressed her fingertips against the glass, and her breath frosted the pane.
“We’ve chosen to sing a song to the gods, have we, we who have shown their love to the seven hills? O kindly sun, in your shining chariot, who herald the day then hide it, to be born again, new yet the same, you will never know anything…”
Horace took his friend by the shoulders, stopping his song, ending it with an abrupt chord, the wrong one.
“Have you seen yourself?” he asked. “What’s happened to you, Alexander? You belong on the curb! I shouldn’t have left you up here when I did. I should have brought you down. Oh, what have you been doing? Have you taken a bath? Have you even left the rooftop at all?
“What a waste you are! What a shame!”
Without music, Alexander heard the rain and the blaring of the horns on the highway.
The guitar was soggy and dripping, hardly in tune anymore, and he looked at his reflection in the window over the alleyway. It was standing in the attic with her, and they were like two animals trapped in a cage at the zoo. The ghost of Alexander stood beside her now, as always, if it wasn’t standing above her, or over-lapping her form. The reflection taunted him, and smiled while he frowned, playing its own song with wet strings, warm inside her house. And, while she looked prim, at worst, a little ill, his reflection looked haggard and mangy, with deep bags under his indigo eyes.
The hard chill of the still glass reinforced the impossibility of touch. He felt an inward tear, a deep unfairness, and Alexander wished he could at least see her face unobstructed by a sheen of white, the tiger’s concealing stripe. His reflection was harsh and weathered, the antipode of how he felt. He saw a rugged, unclean brute, someone he’d avoid conversation with on the street. His hair was frizzed out in all directions like the beaten lion’s mane. His face was caked in tar and shingle dust. His beard was long and patched with thinning holes.
“Whether you know it or not, what you’re looking for up here is silence,” said Horace. “And once you find it, what the hell comes from it?”
Alexander leaned in forward toward his friend. He spoke with a dried and ruined voice, a voice he never used.
“Are love and death pre-destined? Are we free to choose ourselves as we believe we’re free to choose?”
Horace looked at Alexander without hope.
“None of it ever mattered,” he said. “Live your life, don’t think too much, and die. It’s all you need to do, and it’s the only thing you can do.”
He turned to leave, and Alexander reached out to stop him. The strap came loose and the guitar fell to the ground. Alexander’s foot went through the back. The strings broke and curled, and the ripping wood crashed to splinters in the rain.
Horace stopped again and turned, looking at his friend.
“You’ve made me feel pathetic now,” said Alexander, disregarding the broken instrument. “I need your understanding. How can I show you?”
He almost dropped to his knees to beg, but Horace stood tall and offered what help he could, and this encouraged Alexander to stand taller too, straightening the tight bend of his back.
“I understand,” said Horace, “why people would go to sickly lengths to feel again the painful mystery, coupled with the divine. But, their brains work in circles, and my brain works in squares. I’d rather build something than repeat myself over and over, producing nothing new.”
Horace left the roof, and without the music, Alexander felt the rainfall chill.
Water ran in rivers through his beard, and at dawn, Alexander sang to the rising sun, or he played a horn dripping with gemstone droplets, as hunters used to do on horseback, chasing foxes through the forest.
She came to the window, but he didn’t go to meet her. The houses were close enough to reach, but when Alexander watched the buckets fill, he shut himself away, and she disappeared, and the wires no longer worked.
Absence caught up with the cornerstone, and the back wall gave. A row of bricks, stacked by who knows who, dipped diagonally down the center of the wall.
“A hundred years of slippage,” he said, “and the end comes in one swift movement.”
His house slanted edgeward in the smoke-black storm. The rock foundation crumbled apart, gradually, into pieces. A river of mud washed around his home and off the highlands, down into the Rhine.
A seismic jolt dislodged the house, and the structure rotated clockwise in the mud, a tooth tethered on a single cord.
“As worry takes up time, what’s worried on takes up none.”
But, she stood by the window, and Alexander saw her from the corner of his eye, and the house remained beside the asimina tree. Time passed, and living with the danger long, the threat of collapse dissipated from his mind. Alexander thought of the water as water again. Silence returned to the rain. The house remained afloat over the dangling green fruit, growing off the cliff-face. And, on an unnoticed day, while watching the sun appear through wafts of grey humidity, he forgot the crisis completely. Death went silent with the shower. Alexander let his hair grow long again. His voice warmed and became smooth and pure, natural and unerring.
She was close against the window now, and he closed his eyes, and she put her hands again through the glass.
Blue and purple winds blew Aeolian by cafes, with windows always open. Arms resting on red awnings relaxed above the third floor view, and everyone was nestled cozily on stacks of tall record-keeping drawers among the veins of vines pulsing over old coffeehouse walls, deep sighs exhaling everything evil that had been held in, all at once, onto the streets and away. Keys and bellows cultivated apathy and ennui, until all fear subsided. Everywhere he looked, the trembling subsided, and there was old fashioned, cinematic, storybook love. It had been made real. And as Alexander watched all the ancient couples dance, sometimes on rooftops like his own, and sometimes on steamboats lit by strings of white Christmas lights, the couples kissed in the smoke-filled air, cruising gently by uncaring barges, sailing to the old amusement park, kept around the river’s bend.
“I rode here on my oyster-shell, over the long black ocean,” she said. “The swells reached a hundred meters high, and I rose up slowly wave by wave, and dropped gently back into the crests. My sails were makeshift, fashioned of frozen newspapers and held up by a baby juniper tree that I’d planted in a cove. The drops of rain seeped into the sea with acidic bursts, dispelling compass-perfect circles in the froth and foam. Underneath me, sharks with razor teeth revolved around the staghorn coral, and a great blue whale opened wide his jaws below. But, somehow still, I made it here, and I rode into the river delta, oaring upstream into the wilder lands.”
“I sensed from you,” he said, “the spirit of the sea in all its mystery. Infinite like the raining water’s pull.”
“Alexander,” she said, “I don’t know why we’re born where we are, who we are. I’m afraid the way I feel for you is designed, without my control or input, like we’re puppets who all want the same things, crawling over the long land. Love is sudden, and it makes no sense. I forget where the border of you ends and where the border of me begins, and even still, I only know you by your looks and sounds. They conjure something more, and that is what I love, that is who I know. It’s something wider than the Earth, older than the shifting plates.”
“You never told me your name,” he said.
“They used to call me Dreaming Maggie,” she said, “but a name is only something else they give you. More looks and sounds.”
She took his hands and he grasped them then, but before opening his eyes, he understood. Holding nothing but the breeze, he released her hands, and listened to everything around them that music was made to mimic.
Alexander twisted the diamond knob and he entered the old conservatory. A guardian statue was situated by the entrance, displaying an elfin figurine, a dancer in pirouette. The creek-stone floor led his eyes all around the circumference edge, where the foliage crept in like a carpet, existing everywhere on the walls, to the ceiling and around. Orange and yellow fruits, shaped like eights and orbs, hung with water re-arranged, sweet and dripping, limes and gourds. On the other end of the bare walkway circle stood a stool, and beside it, the architect had placed a cello on the ground. Alexander walked over and picked up the cello. He examined its build, sat on the stool, and began to bow.
A streak of lightning pumped out into the room, its own color and language, comingling with vibrating waves of air. Alexander closed his eyes and forgot that he was playing. Instead, he dreamt the melody, and was encapsulated in its mood. He stood, swinging with the song, and when he opened his eyes, he saw himself sitting on the stool, bearded and bowing, eyes closed, feeling his soul bleed out.
“This Alexander, although at peace, is a man who’s given everything, received nothing, and surrendered all conception of desire. He is a note in the composition of my life, reverberating through until the end, but he does not define the score.”
Leaving him to play, Alexander walked over to the bird bath in the center and looked at his reflection in the pool. Staring back, was another man, a simpler Alexander.
A violin tore over the cello in perfect harmony, and then he heard the heavy hum of an upright bass drone beneath. “Two other Alexanders, showing on the creek-stone circle, one of days long passed, and one of recently-lived days, days of uncertainty. Two more ways to live, and two more ways to fail. Shame and shyness.”
The monstera rustled, and crawling out of the brush, from a pile of empty bottles jingling, a broken Alexander came and took up the rustic viola, tattered with character. Sitting at his proper place, he joined the circle in their song, and the incomplete Alexanders did their part to give what they lacked. “You strived to create an ideal feeling for the world with every thought and movement, unconsciously, and nobody heard you, and all you did was ruin yourself more and more.”
Outside, Alexander saw the architect, sitting near the weathervane on the turret’s inclined roof. He whispered poetry with voiceless words, like a priest on his rosary, and looking out over the horizon, vines stretched and grew below, squeezing and rotating like a singular living organism, while buildings made of natural material rose, shrinking, and warping, and filling the landscape whole.
With the surging song, Alexander watched the centuries pass. The city rushed around his house, and he took a deep breath, in and out, listening to the rail yard squeal. It was night-time now, and the town became an ancient dream, a place of paradise. Alexander walked outside and down the stairs, and her window was glowing brightly like a shining star. She stood as she always stood, waiting for him to feel his perfection, all in order. The skies were clear, and the stars were bright, and the water fell into the alley from a cloud without a source. He felt the phantom reach of Atlantic waves engulf his feet, and he inched closer to the edge, close enough to press his arms through the glass now. All of the ocean reached for the point where it would meet the shoreline, the genius of endless momentum.
The system of buckets and wires worked slowly, but they worked all along without disruption. Rain filled the buckets, and the weight of the water made them descend into the alley, pulling wires set in wheel-tracks around a belt between their windows. And once the walls were so close that the buckets could no longer fit between the houses, Alexander saw the buckets pass ghostlike and translucent through the walls, still collecting rainwater when there was no room for the buckets, and even when there was no room for the rain. The city must have swept like a blanket around them, because Alexander noticed that they were surrounded on all sides by brilliant light. And, just as the walls overlapped the buckets, and the walls overlapped the walls, the wires overlapped the wires, and they overlapped each other, he and her. And the rain continued to fall.