The City on the
A raven circled down to perch on a
withered tree, and surveyed the scene. A pebble clattered down the dusty
mountain path. A wild cat chased its tail in a weird dance. Clouds of
dust rose with the heat haze. The sun beat down on the mountain and
the path. Light from the same reflected from the golden walls of a city
that crowned the summit of the mountain. The golden glow shone as a
beacon for miles around, and (except for some particularly dark sections)
illuminated the path for those who travelled it.
Using hands almost as much as feet a figure hauled himself up a steep
section of the path, then sank to the ground to rest. Looking up he
saw the distance yet to be travelled and sighed. Then sitting back and
taking a sip from his water bottle he looked at how far he had come
and grinned. Phil took another sip of water, closing his eyes and savouring
it for a moment.
He remembered the man who had given him the bottle. He remembered the
sparkle in the man's eyes, the warmth in his embrace and the laughter
with which he faced every task. That meeting had been right at the start
of the journey, and the memory had kept him going as much as the water
had. He remembered his bashful question, "How can you be so warm
and friendly to a stranger?" and the answer:
"I've been to the city on the hill."
Phil stood again, and started up the path. At first the walking was
easy as he followed a contour round the hill for a while. Then he began
to climb again, and his pack straps began to rub on his shoulders. Sweat
trickled down his back making his shirt sticky and the sun relentlessly
baked his head. All the time though he was aware of the city, and when
he next stopped he sat on a tuft of grass and faced it.
As he sat and stretched his tired limbs he remembered Amy. He remembered
how she had been able to work the worry out of his shoulders and he
missed the touch of her fingers. He remembered how just sitting in the
same room as her would refresh his sense of being. He remembered their
closeness and how they could hold hands, kiss, or even work without
touching yet he could still feel at peace with her. "A desire-free
passion," he thought, and laughed richly at the memory of it. Again
he remembered the answer when he had asked her how she could be so wonderful:
"I've been to the city on the hill."
Dreamily he rose and set his feet to walking once more. As he walked
occasional brief memories of people he had met flashed through his mind.
Some he had been close to, some he had loved and some he had hated.
His face coloured at some images and others made him want to weep, but
all the while the golden light drew nearer and his feet carried him
up and on.
It began to grow cold as the sun turned its attention elsewhere, leaving
its station to the moon. Now the glow from the city lit the path. Phil
sat for a while amazed at how stones in the path reflected light from
the moon and the city, and his eye followed the glowing silver and gold
trail the remaining distance to his goal. Feeling the night chill now
he opened his bag and slowly drew a long patchwork coat from it. Each
square contained a different memory, just as each had been made by a
different person. The thought of the day when the whole group had given
him the coat filled his mind and gratitude burned strongly within him.
He had been lost, diverted from his path and wandering in darkness when
they had met him. Phil sighed as he remembered how they had accepted
him as one of their own. Gently they had supported him, first by giving
him space to heal then gradually more support and guidance, until finally
they had given him this coat to help him as he left. Warming up now
he laughed as he remembered how he had anticipated their answer when
he asked why they were so helpful to a stranger:
"We've been to the city on the hill."
He walked far and fast this time, spurred on by the last of his water
and the desire to see what such a wonderful city must be like. The cool
of the night air refreshed him after the heat of the day and he almost
ran through the velvet night air. As he drew closer to his goal he saw
the demon shapes of his enemies and dark memories form round the city.
They swirled and shrieked obscenities at it. He saw their hunger and
hatred as they tried to devour it, and gasped in fear as they turned
their attention his way.
But the city blazed strong in the night, and its glow spreading down
the path inspired Phil. He defied the darkness and his faith in the
city formed a shield around him. His path lay straight ahead now, and
he felt as one with the city in opposition to the dark. He walked carefully
down the light strewn path as if it were a bridge through a chaotic
dark hole till he reached the dawn outside the city gates.
With the rising sun the gates opened and Phil walked out of the night
and into the city. Hunger gnawed at his stomach and the once bright
patches of his coat were dulled by dust. His leaden feet dragged on
the flagstones and he fell to his knees with the weight of his pack.
But the light of the city filled his mind. Gold paved streets spread
out in front of him, trees lined the streets their boughs full of golden
oranges. Fountains of crystal clear water flowed from the sides of houses
with windows glazed with diamond.
Phil shrugged off his pack and wearily rose to his feet. Peeling of
his coat and leaving it where it fell he walked to the nearest fountain
to clean himself. He cupped his hand and caught the water to throw it
over his face. Suddenly he cried out in pain as the cold froze his hand!
Stunned he turned and fell against a tree. The force of him falling
shook an orange from the branches above, and it fell in his lap. Hunger
welled up again in his stomach and he struggled with his frozen hand,
trying to peel the fruit. Hard as it was with all sensation lost in
one hand, his desperation helped and he raised the sweet fruit to his
lips. But oh! Grief consumed him, for as he bit the fruit grated on
his teeth and became dust!
Coughing and nursing his wounded hand Phil struggled to stand, meaning
to go to a house and ask for help. As he did saw he saw the back of
a woman opening a nearby door. Her red hair curled down the deep blue
of her dress and suddenly the beauty of her form shamed him so he fell
onto the ground lest he be blinded by the sight of her face. "Help
me," he cried, "and forgive me if I have tasted forbidden
fruit, or let unclean lips sully the fountain of life." Not daring
to look up he waited while he heard her turn round. But when there was
no sound he glanced up, and she was gone through the door.
Confused he stood again and looked about the street. The people of the
city had started to rise and now the paved way was scattered with a
myriad of brightly costumed people. Phil staggered towards the nearest,
desperate now. Horror seized him, the man he looked at had no face.
Where eyes nose and mouth should be there was a visage of scarred grey
flesh. Reeling in shock, Phil bumped into another figure and saw that
she was the same. Very scared now, he fell to his knees in the centre
of the street and wailed a cry of despair.
No-one noticed. After what seemed like an age Phil stopped sobbing and,
nursing his hand, looked round again. The street was busy now, filled
with people of perfect beauty and attire, but faceless. They ignored
Phil, except when they walked into him, and then they would pause to
wipe their clothes absently before moving on. Phil watched with horror,
amazed that the city could be like this, and as he watched he realised
that they did, in fact, have faces. Slowly he began to notice a nose,
then a mouth, then a complete face. As he did so the people began to
notice him, and slowly they started to crowd around him where he knelt
on the street.
This did nothing to abate Phil's horror, and as his perception changed
he saw that the features were worse than before. Caricatured, unfeeling
expressions of pity and mannequin painted features of sympathy began
to surround him. He became aware of a babble of inhuman noise from the
people, and as the crowd began to circle round him the unearthly din
increased. Slowly the feeling of cold in his hand spread and the hunger
in his stomach began to eat him from within. His heart ached for the
city he had searched for and he began to pray, his doubts mixed with
his hopes and fears in an incomprehensible mix. His chest pounded with
the emotion of despair as he was buffeted on all sides by the whirlpool
of figures that surrounded him. Cries of pain mingled with his prayers
as he felt fingernails tear at his face as the crowd reach out to touch
Beginning to lose consciousness to the agony, he closed his eyes, but
in the blackness he was still surrounded by a weird dance of inanely
grinning faces. "Why!??" he screamed as unfeeling eyes spun
around him and mad grinning mouths mocked him with the words "I've
been to the city on the hill." "Why!??" he screamed as
blackness filled his mind and he slipped into chaos.
Phil felt warm. His cheek brushed against a soft silk cushion. Bird-song
filled the air and he opened his eyes to see the sun reflected off a
still blue pool of water. He sat up and looked around. He found himself
to be in the heart of an oasis, sitting on his coat with his pack by
his side. Before he had time to comprehend this he heard a noise behind
him. Turning round he saw a bedraggled figure crawl in from the desert
and collapse motionless by the first tree.
Phil jumped up and ran over. The man's clothes were torn and his skin
burned by sand and sun. As Phil turned him over his parched lips let
a soft moan escape and his eyes feebly opened a fraction. Phil saw fear
and worry on the man's face, and realised that without help he wouldn't
even manage to crawl to the pool.
Slowly Phil reached for his water bottle, and opening it he moistened
the now unconscious man's lips. Softly he worked cooling oil into the
man's skin, delighting in the feel of the texture of touch. With meticulous
care he built a shelter for the man to rest in, and then sat back to
wonder about the meaning of it all. As he sat though, he felt something
through his cushion. Slowly reaching under it he pulled out a golden
orange. Cautiously he peeled it, and with even greater caution he gently
tasted it. The sharp but sweet taste was heavenly.