City of NightAt the very edge of comprehension poets find common, if precarious, ground with the scientists, finding words for the awed exclamations over the sparkling vista of possibility which reveals itself before them. It is so everywhere.
It is also so, in every world whose parallel existence is revealed to the questing eye, that poets and scientists both have their critics, whose discrimination of sight is each time called into question only after their blind obedience falters.
In worlds where waves and particles have yet to coalesce under the sceptical eye, it is the gods who are blind, their sight scarred in some titanic accident of war, or given freely with the self-mutilation that hastens progress in the search for secrets. Either seems acceptable in the eyes of their priesthood.
It may have been such a god, misled in his search for knowledge, who stumbled over a simpler route and put it into practice. It may have been a quirk of the universe itself, in shaping this single shimmering bubble of possibility. It may simply have been the underlying need that every myth should spring from a gurgling source and proceed across time and dimensions to a fated end. For whatever reason, it is known that there was once a city of the blind, which is no more, though the memory of it has yet to fade.
It was called the City of Night, though nobody, even then, knew who had named it so. It lay like a scallop shell in the sandy plains, to the west of the great rivers encircling the land which other times and places might name Eden. Clay houses banked up from the sluggish river in shoddy, curved ridges which ended in a high tower, built of white stone hauled to the gentle rise from far quarries, long ago.
In daylight the city was silent, and the sun's lazy rays picked out slow-moving shadows in the curving patterns written into the yellow clay walls of the houses, and in bands along the sunlit sides of the streets. It was an ugly city, the colour of the trodden mud at the edges of drying waterholes, and the heat that the sun beat down on it daily was absorbed into its walls and streets until the people in the windowless houses shifted uneasily in their sleep.
At night the city was a place of shadows under the faint stars, its denizens, clothed in wool and fur against the night chill, hurrying along the level roads in single file, each trailing one hand along the carven pattern for guidance. In the open spaces people congregated to drink last season's wine for the price of a few intricately-shaped coins of silken soapstone, listening to rich rolling voices declaiming verses for the reward of the sussuration of noise as their audience discussed their creations in the quiet after. Behind them, in the streets and alleys, the air was filled with soft voices and the shuffling of feet against the dirt.
It was a city of poets, in the time before songs were discovered, and their words, the sound and taste of them, formed patterns behind the eyes of their listeners, which flowed and stirred with the disturbance of each new phrase. It was an ancient music, the rustling sibilants whispering into position alongside the moaning vowels, crooning like the constant winds which wailed about the city in winter. Theirs was a tapestry of words, a meld of sound and meaning which reinforced each other until the heart of the poem was like crystal in the hearts of the people. It was an art raised to perfection in the thousand years of its unbroken lineage, and when the eldest of the chanters spoke in the strange ringing echoes of the high tower the gods clustered around to listen, with tears in their eyes for the secrets so revealed. It was an art raised to perfection, and only so because all its audiences were blind.
His eyes were blue, in a place where all other eyes were white, and as a babe he stared wonderingly at the cautiously reaching hands which brought his head to his mother's teat.
Growing older he found himself frustrated by the lack of words, in this place of words, for the sensations that pressed themselves onto his eyes and danced before them. Waking at night he would run through the narrow streets where others walked, even in the alleys by the river where ridges and potholes lay in wait for unwary feet, failing to hear the anxious cries of his parents which rang in the keen ears behind him.
"What is that called?" he would ask his father, pointing upwards at the shimmering night sky.
His father felt along the pointing arm for the object at its tip and found empty air. "There is nothing there, son," he would tell him, and his son would turn away with tears of disappointment.
When he woke in the day he would leave the stifling darkness and go outside, the sun's rays on yellow brick gleaming in his dazzled night-eyes until the city was made of gold. Then he would walk through the city of the day, marvelling at the shapes, and that other thing he did not know the word for, reminiscent of the different tones of sound. Here the shapes and edges felt by his questing hands became clear to his eyes also, and sometimes he would squint up at the painful thing above which he could not touch and wonder if that, too, had a shape to be felt, but further away.
His eyes would hurt, in the night after, and deceive him with soft-edged blue and white shapes drifting through his world, overlaying the dark walls and cobbles his fingers and feet told him to be real.
In the hot season they would leave their homes before the heat had fully drained from the day and press close to the walls as they went, to be sometimes rewarded by an oasis of cooler air. The boy enjoyed such times, when the sensations in his eyes were still sharp and clear, like words from a fine speaker, but when he could look up without hurt, save at one side of the sky.
"What is that?" he asked, pointing up to the heat above, where despite a lack of definition, of edge, of shape, each part was subtly different, blending from one side where the heat was fading to the other side where the familiar tiny things which normally filled the sky were appearing.
"That is the Great Fire which rages above us, of which you know," his mother snapped irritably.
Familiar with her moods the boy was silent, but though the warmth was the same, there was nothing in the sky that reminded him of the smaller fires. He began to wonder if the poets, even the wise men, might not be wrong.
It was to the poets that he took his questions, when he was old enough to ask without embarrassment to his parents.
"What is it that lies in the nothing above us in the day?"
The poets whispered together and tapped their fingers, and said "That is the Great Fire, boy, whose heat you feel wherever you tread." But still it did not seem to him like a fire.
So he asked again, "What is it that lies above us now, in the night, where the Great Fire was?"
And the poets snapped their fingers at the boy's stubborn stupidity, and said "There is nothing. Do not bother us with what everyone knows."
And the boy, unsatisfied, went back to playing with his companions, though they were few, and as time went by they were fewer. For he ran when others walked, and frightened them, and spoke of things they could not understand. And he drew in the dirt patterns which felt like nothing meaningful, and said they were houses, or flowers, and then grew confused himself at how that which was so like in his eyes was not in his hands.
So he went to the wise men, wiser himself now, better knowing how to say what he asked.
"What is the shape of nightfall called?" And the wise men muttered to one another and at last said, "Can you touch the nightfall? There is no shape to it. Go to the poets, and cease disturbing us."
But the boy did not go back to the poets. And he stopped asking, though he did not stop turning his eyes up to the burning thing whose name, above others, he sought. But he slowed his running so that others could keep up, and he ceased writing strange things in the dirt, and he went creeping about like the others of the city, though still his strange ways drew unease from those of whom he sought company.
And there it might have ended, had it not been that the wise men thought long on what he had asked of them, until finally a thought stirred in the breast of the eldest.
Then they went, though shufflingly, following the walls, and not in procession as they might in another city, to the place where the boy sat outside his house, automatically reaching his hand towards the small points in the sky as he explored them with his other sense.
He heard the wise men and turned, and gasped in his surprise that they had come.
And the eldest of them felt his heart falter in his breast, though whether from joy or sorrow or uplifting he did not know.
"You knew who we were," he said quietly, "and yet you have not touched us, nor we spoken."
"I had not meant to." The boy was ashamed that he had again given way to his strangeness, most of all that he had done so in front of these men, who safeguarded the ways of the city. But the hands they laid on him were a benediction.
"Praise be to the gods who send us such a prophet!" the eldest intoned reverentially.
But the boy drew back in startlement. "How can I be a prophet?" he asked. "I know nothing, and that which I do know fills me with confusion! I only want to understand, and to play with friends in the courtyards by the river."
"There is no refusing the gifts of the gods," the wise man told him, his rich voice tolling like a bell, "and this precious thing you have must serve them as we do, or be lost."
"But I do refuse it!" The young voice, like a young wine lacking the complexity of its elders, yet rang in earnest. "I will have nothing of it! I am too young to be taken from the city to serve in the high tower!"
"That is one refusal," they told him. "We will come again."
The next night they came again, and asked him of his gift, and he told them of the patterns in his eyes. Then they muttered among themselves in a tone something like envy, and went away angry when he once more refused them.
On the third night he was restless, and left his friends shuffling behind when he ran, the few who had not recoiled from him in awe at the words the night whispered through the city. The poets silenced as he came by, sonorous voices faltering in time with the lone running footsteps, knowing that one passed who knew more than sound. In any case, their audiences hummed with inattention.
As the shapes of the city came clear to him he returned, and found one man waiting.
They came together, and spoke for some time as heat rose in the sky above them. And at last a question was asked, and a question was answered, for the final time.
Then the wise man gave a great shout, and the boy turned to run, but as he reached the corner of the house he found a line of people of the city shuffling towards him, their hands reaching out, blocking the street. He stopped and a hand reached falteringly from the doorway to catch his collar and pull him back. He struggled wildly, and the sound brought the others towards him, their hands on his chest and neck, reaching up in great claws towards his face.
Their nails found his eyes and dug into the hollows above them, and he screamed and flung his head up. A painfully bright line flashed across his swinging vision, resolving into the familiar burning wonder as the questing hands tangled in his hair to hold him still. The familiar touch of fingers pressed on his eyes, lighting up burning patterns as the pain began behind them, and then there was an intense agony of tearing, as lightning burst into his brain and scarred there. There was liquid on his cheeks, then in his mouth with a strange metallic taste. The hands were gone and he fell to the ground, his mouth sobbing though his eyes no longer could, in pain and in gratitude. The light was gone.
The boy who could once see lived out his life blind, in a city of night, never to know the words for the patterns in his eyes, nor for the sun that had provided him light. Blind, he shuffled with the others through the streets of the City of Night, touching the familiar carvings that echoed the shapes of flowers and men. Released from the distraction of sight, he listened to the words of the poets, to their sound and shape that built like patterns behind his eyes and burst like sunlight in his heart. It was an art perfected in the thousand years of its blind lineage. He found it very beautiful.