Sample chapter: The City that Walked Away

1

The moon was behind the clouds. The houses round the square were black shapes in the darkness. In the middle of the square was the silhouette of a thin bony cat with its forepaw raised. The upright tail of the thin bony cat waved slowly. The upright tail of the thin bony cat was a fern in the undergrowth.

The night wind lifted the dust from the dry fields along the river. The dust from the dry fields settled finely on the stones of the square. The dust from the dry fields settled on the reeds of the rooftops. The dust from the dry fields settled on the ceramic acroterion at the end of the roof. The dust from the dry fields further obscured the image of the God on the acroterion. The image of the God on the acroterion was already masked by the darkness.

To the side of the square there was a black shape. The black shape was tall. The black shape was somewhat irregular. The black shape appeared to be a column of some kind.

From behind the black shape a noise was coming. The noise was unmistakably the sound of copulation. Judging by their voices, the copulators were young.

The boy grunted. The boy’s grunts were regular. In close harmony – though not in unison – the girl gasped.

No-one was there to notice. The closed shutters of the houses round the square were invisible. The houses were black shapes. Behind the shutters of the houses nothing stirred. The square was empty.

There were many empty squares like this in the Old City in the years of its terminal decline.

The irregular black shape – the column of blackness – was tall. The irregular black shape was more than the height of a man. We could of course equally say – and this is I think by definition – that the irregular black shape was ‘more than the height of a woman’.

The equivalence is not conceptually difficult. The equivalence could easily be inferred by an individual of fairly limited reasoning power. We don’t in fact say ‘more than the height of a woman’.

As an individual whose powers of reasoning are thought by some to be far from limited, I could speculate quite convincingly as to why we don’t. But that would take us rather far from our theme. So I won’t.

The grunts and groans rose predictably to a frantic crescendo.

I say ‘crescendo’, though it is not quite accurate, because on the whole I prefer to avoid the word ‘climax’.

I think the word ‘climax’ is often over-used. I think also, and this is not unimportant, that the over-use frequently occurs in rather a vulgar context.

The grunts and groans subsided, as such things do. The grunts and groans were substituted by soft and intermittent moans.

The boy drew back his torso. The boy stood upright. The boy breathed heavily.

The girl gave one last gasp. The girl stretched. The girl raised both hands and pushed her hair back from her face. The boy still grasped her thighs.

The girl put both hands on the boy’s shoulders and unclasped her ankles from behind his back. Then, slowly, her mouth open as if her hips were painful, the girl began to lower her legs.

In the distance the voices of the guards echoed faintly. The guards were changing the watch.

In the desert beyond the fields a dog faintly howled.

The boy waited. The girl’s feet touched the ground. The boy stood back. The girl slipped her buttocks off the edge of the plinth. The girl had been rather precariously balanced.

The boy and the girl stepped away from each other and straightened their tunics. Underwear was apparently not in fashion at this precise historical moment or in that particular cultural epoch. Perhaps underwear was simply not available – as the small amenities of life so often are not – to members of the lower classes.

Far away a donkey brayed. Somewhere in the city revellers left a tavern.  They were briefly loud.

The boy turned. The boy began to walk towards one of the exits from the square. The exit was a dark gap in the opacity around the young people. The girl followed.

From the fact that the young woman followed the young man and not the other way around the alert reader will be able to make a simple deduction. We are very familiar with gendered relations in modern society. I think we may infer that gendered relations have deep roots in the civilisation of the ancient world.

The thin cat turned its head towards the footsteps. The thin cat’s paw was still raised and its tail was still waving. The thin cat stared.

There are difficulties of perception created among other factors by the surrounding darkness. It is tempting to say, nevertheless, that the cat’s stare was cold.

In the shadows of the gateway stood another columnar shape. This columnar shape was quite short. The columnar shape appeared to have a head. The columnar shape did not appear to have arms. What the columnar shape could be very clearly seen to have, even in the darkness, was a disproportionately large, and unmistakably erect, stone penis.

These images were common in the Old City, particularly in the popular quarters. The origins of the images and any knowledge of their precise spiritual function had long been lost in the mists of time, or possibly slightly before that. In the popular quarters the images were affectionately known as ‘Stones in the Passway’. Nobody knew what that meant.

There had of course been a great deal of academic speculation on the subject. As is the nature of such things, the academic speculation had eventually proved to be completely fruitless.

The young people slipped into the alley. Only the Gods knew where the young people were going. Even the Gods, despite their traditional claims to omniscience, may not have been quite sure about the exact destination of these particular young people at that precise time.

As they passed the Stone in the Passway, the girl – without turning her head or breaking her step – reached out her hand and wrapped her fingers neatly round the glans of the stone penis. The girl gave the stone penis a quick flick. The gesture implied a certain familiarity.

The cat turned. The cat set its paw deliberately to the ground. The cat slipped away. The cat’s tail was upright like an ensign.

You would have sworn that as the young people disappeared you heard from somewhere deep in the shadows of the gateway a sound resembling nothing so much as an abrupt grunt. The grunt would have reminded you of an echo in a cave. You would not have believed yourself.

From up above the square came a different sound. This sound was more credible. This sound was more natural. This sound came from the direction of the irregular column of blackness.

It was the sort of sound you hear in the forest from time to time.  The wind gets up. An old tree is about to fall. It groans.

Sensitive people are particularly likely to notice these sounds. When they hear them they think the trees are talking. They think the trees have a language.

I should perhaps acknowledge at this stage that I am myself a person of a rather sensitive disposition. In the past I have occasionally speculated, in quite a serious fashion, on the possibility of a language of trees. I have never reached a conclusion.

I wish to assure the reader that I shall endeavour to minimise the impact of this sensitivity – it being a trait that is by no means randomly distributed – on the narrative now ensuing.

The sound cleared its throat. The sound spoke.

‘Well, you would have fucking thought they could have fucking asked, wouldn’t you?’

The voice was deep, and masculine. The voice was rough. The speaker had suffered. The tone was plaintive.

‘I may have been marginalised within the pantheon by the course of intra-celestial events. My image may have been exiled to this badly-maintained quasi-suburban location as a consequence of temple intrigue.’

The speaker cleared his throat again. The speaker sounded on the verge of tears.

‘But I remain, however much my powers and faculties have been diminished by various factors – including, not least among them, traumatic head injuries – in a very real sense a divine entity. You would have thought those fornicating brats, despite their evident disinhibition, could have shown a bit of fucking respect.’

The voice choked with emotion. There was a complex creaking. The creaking might have made an observer think of a tall ship exercising a difficult manoeuvre in a high wind on the open sea.

There was of course no observer to draw the inference. If there had been an observer, it would have been clear to that person – always assuming that the observer was in fact a person – that the speaker was significantly stressed.

‘I don’t expect burnt fucking offerings. It’s aeons since I’ve smelt a bit of smoke. Neither do I expect blood fucking sacrifice. I have attained a certain level of acquired wisdom through the eternities of suffering. I have learned to keep my expectations low.

‘That notwithstanding, every day I am pissed on by dogs. I am shat upon by pigeons. I have ivy growing out of my left earhole. My backside is intermittently fucked up against by all the teenage tearaways of the banlieu. I am ignored by the respectable citizens who use this dilapidated square as a thoroughfare and a place of business. I am subjected to contemptuous glances and derisive comments by the idle and the witty. I am used to all that. I can handle it. But….’

The speaker was overcome by self-pity. From above the darkened square came the smothered sounds of sobs and sniffles. It was a display of the softer and weaker emotions that one does not habitually associate with the idea of a God.

The Wooden God mastered himself. The Wooden God continued. The rhythms of his speech were more insistent.

‘But what about some minimal acknowledgement of the presence of the numinous? A raised hand? A momentarily elevated gaze? Or even a mumbled formula learned and half-remembered from that whoring slag who gave you your incontestably illegitimate and almost certainly unrecorded birth? I wouldn’t mind. I really wouldn’t fucking mind.’

The Wooden God paused again.

‘After all,’ the Wooden God said, ‘it wouldn’t take much energy. Not compared to shagging her fucking arse off like that.’

If there had been an observer he – or of course she – might have heard breathing in the stillness and the darkness. And the same hypothetical observer, however gendered, might have noticed that the breathing was becoming slower and deeper, and – if reasonably, though not by any means exceptionally, intelligent – might have proceeded from the observed facts to a speculative, if well-founded, inference about increasing calm and greater emotional self-mastery.

The clouds rolled away for a moment from the face of the moon. It was full. It had that luminosity that takes your breath away. At the top of the dark irregular column in the square something moved. The something was definitely headgear. It was perched on what was incontestably a head. It was not, as one might have expected, a priest’s skullcap or a warrior’s helmet. One’s suspicions would have been, despite the anachronism, that the item of headgear in question was in fact a wide-brimmed hat.

However that may be, there could be no question that the God – literally as well as in the meaning of the more colloquial metaphor – was definitely looking up.

On the edge of a black roof a thin bony cat raised its head to match its erect tail.

The clouds rolled back. The moon disappeared. The God and the cat were back in the darkness.

The moon was laughing at them.