By now, we would be sitting in someone's flat, pushing drink toward day, and I would go to the window and part the heavy red curtains with one hand extended flat-palmed and flaglike into the cleft there, stepping out onto a balcony with a low iron railing jutting over the street, feeling at once the city's solidity, the time-killing gnarl of stone settled and grown into stone, and its precarious balance, the chance shift of a block over its fulcrum plunging one down into the gray rock night of the light-stained street--down which, having picked oneself up with aching bones, one half-expected to see advancing a hooded procession bearing torches and smelling of tar, sweat and blood, remnants of a lost order of dialect, clanking their weapons and boots under robes.
But I never really got to know the city, or wean myself from the map and the stutter, and never lost the sense that I was elsewhere.
We were exiles and seekers on a fringe, undertaking work that would come to nothing. If any one of us ever discovered the universal language, it would have spelled the end of our efforts. We wore the Esperantists' uniforms, which freed us from invisibility but made of us minor public spectacles. Both natives and foreigners sometimes mistook us for civil servants, or a special military unit. It was the first time I had worn a costume since my religious school days, and I was happy to dispose of the rest of my clothes. I didn't know where my blood had come from, but I had an idea where it might go.
My rebellion had come to nothing. Georgo had arranged it that way. We were excommunicated by the Esperantists, and Johano was drilled in the finger by a silver bullet from the pistol of a Gray Wolf, one simmering summer evening, on Independence Avenue. The metal hit the pavement and threw up a shower of stones and tar. We ran.
We spent three days drinking in Trakya. Johano wanted to go to Greece ... But Gaja, and my pact with Georgo, pulled me back.
We went to Dome. We brought a supply of tashbeni. The others joined us one by one. We trod the cobblestones, attending congresses, meeting with factions. We discovered to our surprise and relief and suspicion that knowledge of the terrain was secondary to a willingness to enter it, and that we could be taught anything necessary to support this or any other cause in a relatively short time. What the anti-Esperantists needed were warm bodies.
We did a little running around, and then we learned to dress ourselves in the native style, so as to glide instead, and we watched the sun setting behind a bridge or a dome and then rode our motorcyclettes home, half-drunk, through stone and ornamentation to meet our associates at a cafe.
And the evening would accelerate and Johano, grown bold with tashbeni, would glare expectantly around, sloshing the dregs in the bottle, rotating it in an hourglass motion. I would look through the glass into the pink fading day and the purple rising night, and feel very very far from home indeed.
The pace suited me. If we got something done, we got something done. If not--there was always the next day. The next day could turn into a string of days, a lost week or two or three or four, at the vanishing point of which Gaja and I, coming awake sitting on a long stairway somewhere or walking round and round in a square or standing on a bridge over the river, would shake the wax out of our ears and ask, What have we been doing? I'd purchased a second-hand camera, but dropped it into the river; we'd searched Dome for the perfect notebooks, then left them behind in cafes full of tourists and little old native ladies eating pastries alone. We purchased, abused, and abandoned many umbrellas, lived on bread and chicken, and drank all day sometimes or else slept until the sun sank behind one of the hills and it was time for a night crawl. And by the time we finally got going on the project, Georgo had sunk his fingernails into us and it was no use ...
We were to demonstrate how dialect poems recapitulated Dante's insistence on the eloquence of the vulgate, and concealed a friendly mania for universality. But we could barely get anywhere before Johano would fall in love with a passing woman who, blissfully unaware of her powers, would torture him with her receding form until he demanded that all thinking power present be refocused on, as he put it, problema mia. How was Johano to present himself to a human female? The obstacles were legion: sparse hair, funds, and knowledge of dialect; sartorial acumen that would barely acquit him in one of the northern countries; breath that sent the little street cats rippling out from in front of him in a calico wave; a habit of setting himself on fire when embarrassed or otherwise misunderstood. I, meanwhile, practiced dialect with Georgo, laying ground for my next move.
I wondered what happened to a speaker who never uttered the words "I love you." Every city I'd visited in my so far so long and short life was full of small cells containing people sitting alone on their beds. One's heart turned into a walnut after a while, which no amount of heating could ever swell out again. And all this running around, meeting, researching, congressing, talking, bomb-planting, gunning the engine through the day and night and stopping only for sleep and the odd meal, wasn't it just love's sublimation, designed to bring out a higher and purer love, to launch us across the border into then--yet there would be no then, and I thought we were squandering our middle age as we had all squandered our youth. For that was what had brought us all together. I longed for the days when contempt for effort was enough and surfing those waves of negative energy threw up a placard image all black and white and cool and tousle-haired and smoking and desperate and everyone went for its cultish death, everyone wanted to kiss the wild thing living in its heart.
I was still waiting for the world to come to me, I didn't want to have to chase it down. And Dome was a cake in which I was buried, and I didn't know which way to move, to grope my way out, and I was lulled by the sweetness, the warm coves and hollows of brandy-colored light in the damp stone streets, the ancient festival glow along the river at night.
We made new friends. They became inquisitive.
Johano, how'd you come to Dome? someone asked one night.
Oh, you know ... screwing up his face and tapping his ash. I woke up one day and I said to myself, Johano, du musst dein Leben andern.
Translation certificate at university. Tons of foreigners in Prague after the fall, teaching English, what use did I have for that. One thing led to another. I don't love my homeland any more than you love yours, you know.
Que sera sera ...
What about you, Oqo? What brings you to Dome?
Me? Heh heh, are we in Dome? I thought it was, you know ... Paradiso. Hey, let's have another round, eh?
And I made to signal our beleaguered garcon.
No I mean, you have an Italian name, don't you?
Yes, well, I don't know actually, in America you just pick any old name, I'm lucky it isn't Sky or Mosh Pit or Dostoevsky.
And I thought of childhood days and coming alive with that first sweet sorrow and of death striking me down ...
We were seven still: Johano, Luchjo, Pachjo, Pipra and Venka, Gaja and me. We drew closer together ...
Luchjo, once our fearless leader, had suffered amnesia on the flight over. We had to induct him all over again--the secret ways and the handshakes, the open sesames and street names and hiding places. I felt that I had aged ten years in the last two, and I envied Luchjo his recovered innocence; he really got into it, knocking on the door of headquarters three long, one short then bursting in grinning: It worked, heehee! Venka slapped him congratulations while Johano watched from behind his cigarette and Pipra squeezed his collarbone. Now you may come and go as you please, here is the combination ... We gave him his uniform, the open-necked shirt with trousers and a decent jacket and good shoes, and the mobile phone and pocket computer and a ceremonial fountain pen.
Okay kiddo, you're in the Hayvani now. And we whacked him on the shoulderblades with blunt kitchen knives. Luchjo puffed out his chest after that, when we went out, and started looking at Venka out of the corner of his eye, going rigid and alert if anyone complimented her, and praising her theories as the most lucid of all. Which they were ... He began tugging the shirt's collar and raising one eyebrow at her and smoking cigars that he bought in a fancy dress shop in a square where local rockers trolled the streets on long leashes with their happy fangs out looking for tourists. Hey, we said to Luchjo, that's not what your allowance is for.
Don't worry, he said, I've got something going on the side ...
Georgo beamed like a chimpanzee as he watched his new protege build himself up. Georgo's scalp creased when he grinned, which made him look crazy and charming.
And I was thinking of nights in Yeni York, coming out of a building with the heat lying dull and greasy over the avenue, the gnat of a plane bouncing from maw to maw of the developments across the Hudson, and all the treads I'd worn in the sidewalk there, memories sluicing along in lonelier days.
Mark my words, said Georgo, he'll grow into a fine young killer yet.
It was Pipra who made men of us all, arriving with her uncle's hair tonic, which left us all sprouting thick wiry whiskers in all directions and from all pores. In this part of the world, she said, we are made from equal parts Greek, Latin, and Arab. Georgo nodded sagely. You northerners would do well to blend in more.
The effect was astonishing: we grew carpets up to the backs of our necks and a black mask to the eyes, and my moustache became a kind of giant fern with velvety planes shagging out and back over my cheeks and flopping in the breeze. I looked ten or twenty years older, and very distinguished. I used it to conceal my hand when slipping an energy tablet into my mouth, as I found I increasingly needed to do. For work on the Manifesto proceeded apace--in secret, even from Gaja, because the very thought of saying its name threatened to kill it. Something had awakened in me, it was as though a circuit had closed and I was infused with the purpose of a true mortal, and I lived in the fear that I would be run over by a speeding taxi or fall down a long flight of stone steps somewhere before I completed a draft.
Would I succeed? I didn't know.
My dreams were about reptiles, and my teeth felt loose when I woke in the morning. And first sweet sorrow and death striking me down ... Then it was out into the streets, to the libraries and archives and museums and trains and maps and to the car I sometimes drove around in aimlessly, missing Yeni York ...
There was one night when my Gang really got to me, really got under my skin, though they didn't know it. We were sitting in Luchjo's flat passing a guitar and a bottle, singing and smoking and pretending to be a different kind of Gang, one that smiled more and argued and talked generally less. I thought this was a pointless form of escape, and it annoyed me to think that we were really only another rock band making the tribal finger-sign at atomized time. I realized for the first time that I wasn't just one of them, wasn't a follower, and that I had power ...
I remember leaving the flat, leaving those eyes that followed me without surprise, with a kind of confirmation, and thudding down the tiled stairs with the slippery marble lips worn down to pouts and troughs, and into the Dome night with my head buzzing and an unpleasant excitement all over me. I know that I walked around for a while through streets I didn't know, turning here and there and passing people walking, people standing by a wall, people talking or watching each other and glass street windows with lights on inside and things to buy or people sitting eating in them. I sat down at a little table outside a cafe in a patch of light and I drank tashbeni, one two three. I bought a road map from a shop selling postcards. And then I snuck back through the tunnelly ways and squares shrouded in darkness and I pulled my keys out of my pocket and got into the car and put them in the ignition. And I sat there for a while before I turned the key, but once the engine punted I was off and into the stream of other little black cars yelping and lurching through the little veins of Dome ... I knew something unusual was happening because I was driving with my eyes closed. And I suddenly understood the words of a song playing on the radio; it said This life, it is impossible ...
I drove through the outskirts of the city, the slums rising dark like a jawbone of rotten teeth on the hills above me and the road curving, curving through pools of light and under the black hat of an overpass and banging along under large green and white reflective international road signs yielding the names of next and final destinations. Everywhere on the dark side of the world people were driving on curving roads through pools of light. I passed a dead dog and a prostitute standing by the side of the road and three men with moustaches holding their shirts in their hands, newspaper and dust and bits of metal and junk whirling at the hems of their pants ... The city began to fall away, here were heavy trucks with huge sacks and crates and pallets of things roped and netted and caged, and city cars darting around them and the moon coming out as I opened my eyes and looked at the map and the sign and took the turn ...
I drove for a long time in the dark, suburbs and towns ebbing and flowing as I passed through like a bead drawn on a string. And open patches every now and then, a valley with a church or a derelict farmhouse or a dog bounding suddenly over the road, its doggy soul caught and pushed by the headbeams for a moment after it was gone. The sky settling down like a blanket over the power lines ... I flipped the radio, smoked, fidgeted with the gadgets and counted the miles. My phone trilled. It was Johano but I answered. Hey, what happened to you, he said.
Ah, nothing. Had to get out of there is all.
Yes ... My eyes were closing again, this wasn't a good sign. I could hear Johano licking his lips with his forked tongue.
Luchjo just fell off the balcony and into that restaurant. Venka is bandaging his head, he's in heaven ... Laughter.
A turn was coming up and I swerved, the tires singing a bit.
Hey, listen, where are you?
Having a drive ...
I gotta go ... Got something to do.
I plowed on through the satanic world alone, comfy in my pod with the airwaves and the zooming windows. I thought about things for a while, letting my mind go, and then I surprised myself by weeping, only for a minute but for the first time in years, since the very old days, back in Yeni York ... Soon there were signs again and I looked at the map and a town started to get to its feet around me, shacks and barrels and long low warehousing poking up first and then light poles, a tractor, a bank, dark shops, a closing-up cafe or two ... I was hearing things in my inner ear now, knocks and shuffles and rustling, like you hear with your head down on the desk or in the bathtub in a tall building, little stresses and bustlings everywhere.
I stopped and started again, drove twice through a traffic circle, looked at two soldiers on motorbikes, passed the cafes again, a little castle with strings of lights hung over the walls at the end of a little square faced with little apartments. There were no lights on and not many people around. I cruised around aimlessly for a while until the soldiers came up behind me and I had to show them my passport and tell them I was looking for an old cousin, I was from America, not out to cause trouble, no, I didn't know where he lived, and he's not answering his phone ... They didn't bother smelling my breath and let me go. I had a sudden craving for sausage and I looked around, no luck, so I parked in the lot of a darkened supermarket and walked around in a circle smoking. The sounds were getting stronger, I knew I was headed in the right direction. A woman walked out of a shadow near a dumpster and said something hostile and flirtatious in dialect. She was asking for a cigarette and we stood there looking out at the dewy asphalt and the gnat-pestered bulbs on their steel stalks and the blankness of the free green hills beyond. There was a clanking of cans or scrap metal from the dumpster and I said Bye and rolled up the window and pulled away slicing her long legs off with the yellow beams.
We shouldn't have to have homes, I thought. It's too much ... You have to be born somewhere on this devious earth, then you're stuck with it, you can never get free ... So many threads in a whirling world and each one sewed in there at one end and tugging maybe but never getting free. Yeah, it was easier to stay at home than to leave and ...
I set off into the darkness. What now? Back to the city and Luchjo getting his head bandaged, Georgo patching things up at the restaurant, charming them in his perfect dialect, please accept my young friend's apologies, allow me to make it up to you over dinner, at an indoor table of course, and the young couple whose table Luchjo had split down one side catapulting into the air a first course along with the dessert being enjoyed next door looking at each other and shrugging okay, and the rest of my friends looking down from the window, fangs retracted momentarily. But then blackness washed over me ...
When I opened my eyes again I was parked in front of a farmhouse. The singing in my head was gone. And someone was peering in at me. I got my passport ready again. But he was waving, beckoning, not officious at all, like an old friend. And--no uniform. Where was I? I wiggled around in the seat a bit and scratched my chin and made to get out. Thinking, This is a stupid thing to do.
He was quite old, smiling at me with one tooth gone in a creasy bristly friendly face. He said something in dialect that I couldn't understand. Before I went into the house behind him, walking in slow motion pulling my feet which felt like they were encased in lead or stuck in a bog, I looked up at the power lines crossing the sky and back at my minicar, which was settling on a patch of gravel like a little cat folding its arms. A red alarm pulsor winked on the dashboard, bathing the seats in waves of soft pink. My phone was making a soft crackling noise in my pocket, burbling long distance. A dog popped out of the house and barked cheerfully. It seemed like I'd had a nosebleed but I could breathe now.
Hey moon, hey stars, where're you taking me?