Pictures on a Cafe Wall
a short story
Picture me in that absurdly oversized city. I'm up on a
rooftop, standing on the very broad parapet beside my easel, slashing
and then smudging my brushes against a canvas. Crisp light pours down
from a purple-blue sky that has never known pollution.
I'm trying to capture, in gesture and color, something of the presence
of the huge beast napping at the center of a courtyard, two buildings
over. Down on its haunches, long neck curving round so that its massive
lizard head rests on the tip of its coiled tail, I'm sure it reaches
to at least the height of eight stories. Its scales glimmer with flecks
of gold and green.
I start. Brush hand twitches. There's a man standing behind me, speaking.
"I don't think I have ever seen anyone painting here, anywhere in
the city. And I have lived here a long time."
The speaker is broad-shouldered and middle aged, wearing a simple
brown robe. His long hair and full beard are a reddish-brown and his
green-flecked, gray eyes are keen and appraising.
Can you picture me gaping at him? And then saying, "What else can
I do, but paint these things?"
"What can you do? Well, people come to the city for tangible gain,"
he answers. "Magic and power and wealth. But, in your way, I suppose,
you too attempt to gain something from our dragons."
He reaches out to shake hands.
He introduces himself as Vernor Beirelle. His confident manner makes
him easy to talk to, so I show him other canvases, all acrylic studies
of great lizards. His comments on my technique are appreciative and
generous, which leads me to reveal that I've crossed over from my own
world several times: "But haven't spoken to anyone. Barely noticed people
really -- lurking about like a man in a dream. I'm used to being alone
with my work."
I've painted dragons before. On the covers of paperback novels, the
occasional role-playing game card. Just a few of the many, many jobs
that have paid the rent. I love my work as an illustrator and am generally
content with the long hours of solitude. There's pleasure in the feel
of charcoal on paper, in the texture of acrylics or oils spread over
the weave of canvas. I've never had special ambitions and the work of
fine artists leaves me unmoved. It's the materials and the process I
These days I'm especially glad to have the work fill my waking hours.
Anything to avoid the endless, pitiful
self-examination over my wife Joan and our impending divorce.
Beirelle becomes even more enthusiastic upon learning that I'm visiting
from another world. He gushes about gateways, portals, mighty finding
spells. "Usually," he says, "these are attained at great cost to the
"My way through," I say, "is less a gateway and more a crack -- in
the foundation of the old warehouse where I rent studio space."
So picture me in the wizard's lair. My paintings are strapped
to my back, folded-up easel under one arm. I step carefully: Beirelle's
chambers are crowded with objects and artifacts. Am I eager, anxious,
embarrassed? Do I even want to make a new friend right now?
The stairs, coming down, were narrow, roughly cut into the dense stone
of the rooftop. One room leads to the next, like an old fashion railroad
flat. This wall is constructed of intricate hand-carved wood panels,
the next is a slapped together lattice of pole and plaster, painted
over in a streaky yellow. There's the occasional small, round window
built into the floor, providing murky views down into the depths of
a dragon-sized chamber.
Beirelle pauses along the way to pick up different artifacts -- he
just holds them for a second or two -- but never lets me touch anything.
Most seem to incorporate bits of dragon scale, claw, or tooth. Some
look like weapons, others feature quirky geometric structures, intriguing
bits of abstract sculpture.
"I'm a successful collector and interpreter of what the city has to
offer," he tells me.
We move through more storage chambers, a kitchen, sleeping quarters
and on to the library where we settle into high-backed, stuffed chairs.
An apprentice brings steaming mugs of a milky brew that smells like
chestnuts. Beirelle tells me that the books, which overflow from the
floor-to-ceiling shelves, contain the records, notes and theories of
generations of adepts and scholars. One apprentice's entire job is to
write out copies.
"Fascinating," I say. "The whole city is. For a visit.... But I wonder,
why live here? The place isn't designed for humans. It's uncomfortable.
It's like being an insect."
"You seem to see everything from the wrong angle. Consider ambition.
We come to the city to make something of ourselves. As you see here,
some of us are very successful."
He names the villages his apprentices hail from and then sketches
in a picture of his own birthplace with its single dirt track and row
"Seems to me that the only choice for an intelligent boy is to make
the journey here. Learn what you can, take what you can. There are plenty
who are content to snatch a little of the dragons' leftover magicks
and then leave. They end up as village witch men or wise women. But
how can you not get caught up in the mysteries of the city's titans?"
Many -- like my host -- spend their lives building up skills and knowledge,
tracing out intricate maneuvers amongst themselves, while always trying
to move on to the next level of power.
"The world outside holds nothing for me now," he explains. "Of course,
few become adepts -- and even we can wield only the merest fraction
of the magic that is the very stuff of the dragons' existence. The others,
the rest of the humans here, simply survive, stumbling along day-to-day,
"But -- ," I say, hardly able to connect with his vision of the city,
struggling to formulate a perspective of my own.
Beirelle laughs at my difficulty in accepting the true nature of things.
Laughs with the assurance of a man who understands and embraces life
in all its ugly details and takes a practical kind of pleasure in squeezing
what he can out of such a world. He's really enjoying his laugh.
"You still lack the correct point of view," he says. "Dragons are
the center of everything that makes the world. We little creatures must
make the best of the situation."
Once, he explains, they occupied every corner of the world; playing
with the weather, causing mountains to rise, breathing life into forests,
creating and recreating animal forms. Though the supply of dragon magic
was staggering, it was finite. Slowly draining away, without chance
of renewal. The dragons sensed their loss late into the process. Facing
the fact of their impending extinction, they summoned up what would
be their last animal creation -- humans. Tiny creatures with brains
enough to sense the dragons' will and hands to carry out a multitude
of tasks: most essentially the construction of the city. Over the millennia
the dragon population shrank, their numbers a direct measure of the
magic left in the world. In their wake the human population grew and
spread out, grubbing a meager existence from land now leached of magic.
The world is essentially dragon free, the last ten thousand or so having
retreated behind the walls of their city. Someday, not too far off,
the very last of the great creatures will collapse, magical essence
gone, great bones petrified and melded into the earth.
"Then my friend -- true emptiness. Cause and essence absent. Then
the world will make no sense."
Beirelle laughs again.
We sip quietly for a while.
Later, he says, "I'm interested in adding one of your paintings to
my collection. Can I interest you in a trade?"
I accept a copy of one of the books on his shelves. An untitled volume,
just the size of my hand, containing -- he claims -- notes on folklore
gathered by a scholarly apprentice a few generations back.
Picture me at home, in bed, with my new book in my hands.
Safe and secure in my own lair, my own familiar world, surrounded by
all my own stuff. There's something pleasing about having the bed all
to myself. Cozy and freeing at the same time, every moment just for
Then, of course, I feel the deep chill. The loneliness -- which had
felt so grand a few seconds ago -- echoes around me and through all
the well-ordered rooms of the apartment.
This is the way of it every night since she asked me to leave.
Open this book. It may keep my mind focused on that other place. The
pages are slick and stiff. Not made from paper. I can't identify the
material -- proof that this really is something I've brought back from
It's packed with short biographical entries, put down in no discernible
order. I'd guess that these are notes for a larger work, drawn from
numerous and contradictory sources.
Every entry I look at seems to embody the failure of love. Lonely,
unfulfilled lives seem to pile up before me. The combination of human
nature and the larger forces at work around the people in this book
pretty much guarantees them a pointless, empty and brief existence.
I drag myself out from under the covers and tuck the book into the
bottom drawer of my dresser, under the pile of sweaters. I'm not sure
I should ever read from it again. And I'm not sure how I'm going to
fall asleep tonight.
Johan Raison: Feared but overreaching adept. There
are stories which claim he discovered magical pathways into the minds
of dragons. They tell of dragons' thoughts resembling jagged mountain
ranges. A single concept would take Raison days to traverse. Often he
came skidding and tumbling down without having apprehended a single
clear notion. Yet it appears that Raison did gain many unusual powers.
He could cloak himself in total silence; he could lie in fire without
being burned; he was able to fly when the moon was full. He is credited
with the destruction of the Silver Circle band of witches. He is also
credited with the once popular theory that the city is merely a construct
within the mind of a dragon on a thousand year flight between the stars.
Yet other sources emphasize how his conversation and public statements
became extremely muddled and random, to the point where he gave the
impression of being the embodiment of disassociation and chaos. In the
end he burst into flame while in mid-flight, his shadow seared white
into the side of a windowless tower.
Sevine Gohlach: Appears in some of the Johan Raison
stories, usually as his lover. She is said to have been a direct creation
of a dragon's mind; a dragon's idea of woman, brought forth into the
world. One source explains that she was sent to live in the city to
help draw humans back into the realm of pure thought. This may have
been a kind of conversion of humanity into a source of fuel to power
further dragon magic. She became passionately attached to Johan Raison
and deserted her mission. Instead she worked to aid her lover in his
dream of becoming the most powerful of adepts. She revealed to him an
access way to the essential nature of the dragons, a doorway into dragon
thought. This knowledge, it is believed, assured his ultimate doom.
All versions of the story agree that after his death she lost the faculties
of speech and sight. She wandered the streets trying to communicate
by making signs with her hands; none could interpret these signals.
In time a passing dragon stepped on her.
I venture down, below, to ground level. Here is a street
wide enough for two dragons to walk abreast, made from huge flat stones,
each as broad as a two lane road back in my world. The cracks between
the stones are mud-filled ravines. I can't see how human hands ever
put this together; though men and women do walk along these alleys and
avenues. Human traffic presses close to the edges, brushing up against
the sides of the buildings. There are lone travelers and groups, dressed
in tunics and cloaks of varying degrees of finery and cleanliness. Human
drawn carts pass more quickly, carrying large men dressed in scarlet
or purple robes, busy consulting the scrolls and books balanced on their
knees. I see a man creep into the center of the street and open a manhole
cover and then drop down within. I see beggars: a blind girl, a man
whose legs have been amputated below the knees, a child with a mud smeared
face. Only once does a dragon stroll past. The air buzzes against the
surrounding buildings, the stone shakes under my hiking boots. Great
claws come down in front of me and I hold my breath during the intervals
between each of its long footsteps.
My wife -- soon to be ex-wife -- Joan drops by my studio
with an exhaustive list of odds and ends from the house, suggesting
I make check marks by the items I'm interested in. This is only the
second time I've seen her since our separation, and I'm anxious, wanting
her to think well of me. But this list seems suspect, more a provocation
to a fight than a helpful gesture. I resolve to not lay claim to any
item she might conceivably want, to prove my noble spirit under duress.
I'd always imagined that if our relationship were to end it would be
me walking away, that she was clearly the needy, clinging one. Instead
I have been rejected and now it is I who lingers over her every expression
and intonation, worrying about what she thinks of me. So I show her
the painting I'm working on. It's a brightly colored rendering of a
pirate, to be used in an ad campaign for a certain brand of chewing
tobacco. The pirate has broad shoulders, a bushy brownish-red beard
and penetrating gray -- flecked with green -- eyes. She shrugs, then
tries to murmur something polite. I quickly pull out three canvases
from my series of dragon portraits. These are all close-in views of
the great lizards, sleeping or staring into the sky. One even shows
a dragon peering out from a doorway. She makes appreciative noises about
the colors; says they're intriguing, a nice change from my commercial
work; she thinks she sees an eye here, the line of a grinning mouth;
she looks uncertain, half turns away from the pictures. My heart sinks
a little. She doesn't see the awesome, terrifying creatures I've tried
to capture. I'd hoped that in some indefinable way she could partake
in my journey of the past few weeks.
I turn a corner and witness a dragon preparing to lift
off into flight. It's in an intersection, three blocks ahead of me,
unfurling membranous wings. Black wings, already reaching above the
rooftops, seeming to drain the street of light. Wind rips down the broad
avenue as if sucking in toward a vacuum. Humans scramble and grasp at
the edges of bricks. A wizard's cart tumbles over. With neck and head
stretching straight up, it rises, wings vibrating and humming, not flapping
-- this is more a violent rending of reality than the stuff of aerodynamics
and physical law. It takes command of the sky. I am frozen in place,
unable to look away or think of anything else: this creature needs no
explanation, no reason beyond the fact of its existence. Though it may
be oblivious to my presence, the dragon owns me. High above, now, it
spits out fire, a great stream, arcing toward the sun. After a moment
the line of flame begins to fall, slowly breaking up, extinguishing
in sections, the remaining fiery blobs raining down upon a distant section
of the city.
Interview with a madwoman:
A: I do sleep outside. I live on the streets. I'm used to it.
See, this is my bag. Look here. Here's my clock. This is my mirror.
So I know what's going on. With myself. This is my favorite pair of
A: I beg. I can eat garbage. No one notices me. Except when
I start screaming. Do you want to see how loud I can get? I used to
think maybe even the dragons would notice me. Everyone wants the dragons
to notice them. As if the dragons could love you. As if they would make
you special and change your life forever.
A: No. I don't worry about that. You can feel them coming from
blocks away. The vibrations. And up close they have those cold auras.
Makes my skin prickle. You don't know much, do you. Only the stupid
ones get caught under foot. You're not stupid are you? I don't think
so...because I like this painting. You don't seem stupid. Now the fire
is a different matter. If a bit of lizard fire is going to fall on you...there's
nothing you can do to stop it. It gets every kind of person. Falls upon,
I mean. A splash of the fire falls down from the sky and just like that
it's over. No matter how important. No matter how busy you are.
A: I was not born here. Came of my own free will. Stupid girl.
Like all the rest. Didn't want to live on the farm. Sharing bed with
brothers and sisters, sheep and ducks. Then grow up, spend life getting
pregnant, sharing bed with husband and children and goats and chickens.
A: I'll tell you. I will tell you -- the dragons come from right
out of our own minds! We dreamed them up ourselves. And now we can't
get rid of them. How could things like them be real? Doesn't make sense.
But we want them. To chase after. Men want power, lots of sex, big bulges
in their britches, magic at their fingertips, hundreds of ladies to
love them. And the women, the ladies. Want beautiful nests, dragon palaces,
magical pets, giant beds. I wanted a great big, very big, room of my
own. Thousands of soft blankets. Maybe a little quiet music. So. We
are trapped with the dragons. We drool over dragons. We can't get rid
of them. They only seem in control. No one is in control.
A: I would like that picture, that painting, please. It reminds
me of the first one I ever saw up-close. It was sleeping and I was very
brave. I stood so close that I couldn't see its whole face. Then its
eye opened. But it couldn't see me. I was too close, like a piece of
dust. You know.
An email from the art director of a leading gaming company:
"As you noted yourself, we don't have much need for close-ups of dragon
faces. In the other images your proportions seem off. Such long necks,
carrying such oversized heads. Those long tails, like whips in motion...interesting
but it doesn't work. Can't really picture an elvish warrior trying to
slay one of these things. Or a circle of dwarves dancing in its shadow.
But do send me more stuff. Looking for ideas for alien soldiers. We've
go a couple different interstellar wars brewing right now."
So. Once upon a time I'm down at the street level, working
on a watercolor sketch of a series of towers, placed at the forking
of two broad avenues, when this short, wiry guy struts up to me and
says: "You need to paint spiders too!"
He's wearing dusty, stained gray clothes, trousers tucked into heavy
leather boots. He has wild, thinning hair and a narrow face which scrunches
up as he speaks.
"Only get the dragons, you only get half the picture."
I've been coming down here, to the streets over and over, driven by
the need to put the reality of the dragons and their city into perspective.
To make sense of it all visually. I have been scouting plazas and intersections,
sketching promising locations, looking for telling juxtapositions. I
don't like being down on this level of the city. It's a necessity to
take each new step. To keep painting.
So, I shake hands with this guy. Apparently I'm still missing half
"The name's Aaron." He holds up a long sword with a saw-tooth edge
and an extra hooked blade branching off near the tip. "Designed for
battle with the spiders."
"Spiders? They must be big ones," I say.
"Not so big I can't kill them." He goes on about spider hunters and
a war going on under our feet. It's like coming in on the middle of
a very long story and I don't get most of the references. "Just come
down with me into the sewers. You'll see stuff will open your eyes."
"What kind of stuff?"
"Seeing is believing. And understanding. Won't be so dangerous. It's
a kind of danger I'm a master of. And you get to paint the spiders."
I pack up my stuff and follow this Aaron fellow through an open manhole
and down a long ladder. So I feel reckless and stupid -- but I still
feel like I must go on.
Underground, with a smoldering torch in each hand, my guide is busy
bragging about his swordsmanship. He skips through odorous streams;
rushes -- bent over double -- down mold-encrusted tunnels; finally hops
and twirls out into a cavernous chamber where sweet-smelling fresh water
"This level is all ours. Not a spider left."
I stand panting, trying to reach a cramped muscle in my lower back.
He's swinging the torches to and fro -- I think he's recreating a particularly
invigorating battle. These lower depths are constructed on a more human
scale, which is a kind of relief: on the other hand I'm pretty sure
that I've already lost all sense of direction.
"The magic wand guys, the adepts, don't think much of spider hunters.
But what do they know about our position in the order of things? We
work directly for the dragons. It's a special relationship and hunters
lay claim to special rewards."
We plunge into another hole, then jog through tunnels that swoop and
curve on down below the waterworks. Damp gusts of air blow through these
passages. My clothes are sticking to my skin. And I've lost sight of
Aaron around a bend. There's just a dull glow up ahead. I hurry forward
till I'm right behind him again. Feeling jittery. But this level is
where we are going to see what we came for. We've passed on into dry
earthen barrows. Loose dirt slides out under my every step.
"There. Right over there."
He thrusts a torch into my hand and then takes off, waving his sword,
skidding down a steep slope. Coming closer I see that Aaron has a hairy,
black spider cornered. It stands about chest high and is as broad as
three men. It's very ugly. When a bug is this large it's hard to look
at. Even harder on the ears with it's incessant scratchy, chittering.
Aaron swings his blade in a wide arc and the spider dodges by squatting
down low. It lunges at him and he manages to jump back out of reach.
It spits out webbing, lashing his sword against his own leg, causing
him to tumble. I rush forward: my moment of heroics. My legs feel numb.
And I drag him back from its next lunge. The spider isn't moving very
fast, it seems to me. As if its heart isn't in going for the kill. Now
it scuttles backward, compressing legs against body to squeeze itself
through a narrow hole. Gone from sight.
Aaron struggles with the webbing for a moment and then gets his blade
moving, rip-sawing through the layered strands.
"Shaking a little?" he asks. "It's good for you. The sight of the
things gets on your nerves?"
"Don't worry. We're winning. Making history, level after level."
He leads me on. More dusty warrens, more damp, slimy passages. After
some time we come upon a troop of men who've captured a dozen spiders
in basket-like traps. They plunge blades into the creatures in a business-like
fashion and then hook the stiff spider corpses with the curved part
of their swords and drag them over to a pit, under a vertical air shaft,
where they soak the bodies in oil and then burn them.
These spider hunters are caked in grime and they grin with tightly
clenched jaws. They make a nod or two in our direction, but mostly ignore
"Only thing the old dragons fear are the spiders," Aaron says, backing
up a step from the crackling flames. "They freak out at the sight of
them. Some say spider magic short-circuits dragon magic. Makes them
scream and spit fire out in random directions. It's the only thing they
need our help with."
Now we trudge up to a higher level and come to an unmarked door in
a stone wall. This is Aaron's personal quarters. "My hideaway."
Within is a series of circular rooms. There are heaps of aged furniture,
a row of chipped and cracked stone carvings and stacks of oversized
hand weapons. All is lit by flickering sparks coming from insects trapped
in translucent boxes.
"Hunters get all the space we want. Access to lots of the old treasures,"
he says. "You might want to make some sketches in my trophy room."
I pull out a large pad of newsprint, some compressed charcoal and
a white pastel crayon. He has me help him move the mummified corpse
of a spider. This one is half-again as big as the one he battled earlier.
One of its quill-like black hairs stabs my finger, drawing blood. I'm
sucking on my finger while Aaron's striking poses by the spider.
"What you've got to know," he tells me, while I lay down some initial
gesture lines, "is that a long time back the spiders were just as big
as dragons. Half the world was choked with their webbing. Only dragon
fire could break through it, back in those times. Even now-a-days a
spider's bite can kill a dragon. Long, slow death.
"There were these mind-boggling wars, hundreds of years long. The
dragons got tired of the fighting. They prefer more time for thinking,
contemplating. So they built this city, with a spell condensed together
from their collective magic. A giant walled fortress, easily defended.
At least from above.
"Spiders were stymied for a while -- they live for conflict. Then
they found a strategy, using their own kind of magic -- shrunk themselves
down, smaller and smaller, so that they could dig their way under the
city unnoticed. The shrinking was a tactical error, though. They lost
most of their intelligence. The smaller, the dumber. Now they mostly
run on instinct. Probably can't remember why they're trying to get into
the city. Man, they get easier to kill all the time. I can't tell you
how many hundreds I've personally exterminated."
Extermination or just assembly line butchering, I'm thinking. I've
made some smudgy scribbles, but I'm finding I have no stomach for rendering
the spider in great detail. Focusing on the man is much more compelling.
I'd like to capture the kinetic intensity of his facial expressions,
the passion -- and delusion -- with which he grips his sword.
An hour more of drawing passes. My concentration is lagging. I've
done all I can. I set aside my pad and offer Aaron a densely rendered
version of himself holding up the sword, gripping it intensely with
"I'm exhausted. Can you please get me back up to the surface," I beg.
In my mind's eye I carry around the idea of a self-portrait,
one that's probably beyond my abilities. It would be of myself posed
on one of the dragon city's rooftops. A painting that captures the look
of a man who has wandered this city for days: he looks a bit dazzled,
but overlaying that is the confidence of someone who has ventured into
unknown territories and discovered he can cope with them. I'd like to
be able to give a sense of the new man lifting out of the old. I've
made some studies of the light I'd like to use in such a composition:
shifting, subtly prismatic bands of sunlight, reflecting off various
exotic materials in the ranks of giant buildings which stretch on out
to the horizon.
I am impressed by one of my own portraits, made during
my period of wandering, of a youngish woman named Renee.
She stands straight up, eight-month old baby daughter held against
her hip. Renee is wide-boned but thinly muscled, wearing a dappled and
faded green dress, long hair tied loosely behind her neck. In the background
her seven year old son, Bram, peers out from behind a trunk. They are
posed inside their nest-like home: a conglomeration of scraps of wood,
logs and sticks, held together with rope and plaster, attached up under
the eaves of a very large dragon meeting hall. (In fact her home vibrates
steadily with the muffled rumble of dragon movements and low dragon
voices.) Looking at this painting I am pleased to see how I captured
some of her sadness, her lost-yet-stubbornly-carrying-on quality, all
in the set of her facial muscles, her posture, the quality of the light
reflected off her skin and her eyes. There was a moment, in the middle
of painting, when I had the urge to embrace her and kiss her lips, her
whole face, as if I could kiss away sadness. Instead I kept working.
She posed for me three different times, her payment was her choice
from among my now considerable collection of dragon portraits. She was
delighted with the one she picked out and considered herself to have
gotten the better part of the bargain.
While I try to paint, and see her properly, she tells me her tale
of coming to the dragon city for all the usual reasons. She hooked up
with a small time wizard, learned a few magic tricks from him, got pregnant,
bore him a son. He located this relatively private home for her. Not
long after that he was killed, blasted by a dragon who caught him creeping
Following that she spent years devoting herself solely to Bram, doing
a little housework for the wealthier adepts, avoiding dragons and magic,
and doing her best to ignore any interest from men. Less than two years
ago, a persistent, ambitious and idealistic apprentice named Winnow
broke through her barriers and she let herself fall in love. They had
some brief moments of joy; but he ached with the belief that he had
to succeed in a big way, to support her, to prove himself worthy. This
need of his reached a breaking point when she became pregnant with his
He discovered records of a portal into the city's own future. With
this and other information he devised a plan where he would be able
to leap ahead into the future, steal away a fabulous instrument of magic,
and return to Renee's side after only the passing of a few seconds in
her relative time frame. She was three months pregnant when he plunged
through the gateway. And she returned to that portal every day till
she gave birth to Winnow's daughter. Surely he was lost for good. But
there was no way anyone could know for sure. She still checks at the
portal every few weeks.
"According to the books he read, dragons were once men, thousands
of years ago. Men who passed through many magical portals; gathering
greater and greater magical energies to themselves as they passed, heedless,
from world to world -- and time to time. Finally they forgot their own
names and lost all human ways of thinking, and became fully magical
beings. Winnow found most of this in the tale of a traveler to the future:
he described a time when the lines between human and dragon would begin
to dissolve again. Magical energy would be discharged, and then reabsorbed
into all kinds of objects and artifacts. A golden age of sorcerous materials."
Painting others seems to bring me back to myself.
Another self-portrait I can only wish I had the skill to paint would
be of me on the phone, speaking with Joan, my face showing that I have
unexpectedly seen into my own weakness and have discovered that I can't
stop myself from feeling and saying certain things.
I start our conversation by saying: "The chewing tobacco people have
decided to go with a nationwide campaign. Magazines, billboards, sweepstakes.
They've commissioned a minimum of six more paintings. Going to be a
"Why do you keep calling me? What is this need to tell me this stuff?"
"I -- I only call about once a week. Is that so strange?" And I always
wait to make my calls at a time when I'm feeling in an up mood. Make
sure never to contact her during my moments of desperation.
"Is this turning into some kind of stalker situation? You know our
relationship is completely over."
"Okay, so there's no relationship left. But you're still the person
who knows me best in the whole world. Who I can talk to, who I know
best. I don't want to lose every bit of the connection we had. There
was lots of good..."
I feel my longing now -- can't stop my need -- desperate just to get
her to say one little word without that icy tone in her voice.
"Look, you don't know anything about what I'm going through. These
calls are about you. Maybe someday, when we both have new lives,
successful relationships, we might want to sit down and talk, laugh
over old memories. But right now I think we should not have any contact.
I'm going to hang up. Now."
This composition would have to capture that late night lighting, that
feeling of being a small thing among the shadows of your own apartment.
The subject would look defeated, sure, like his heart has just dropped
through the floor. But maybe he has gained a certain kind of knowledge.
There's something inside of him that has taken a turn, though he wouldn't
be able to put it into words.
For me, the easiest thing is to stay late in my studio
every night, work on my commissions, avoid my apartment till I'm too
exhausted to do anything but collapse into bed.
It's late and I've just finished a tableau of buccaneers watching
a beautiful woman walk the plank. I'm full of restless energy, not at
all ready to go home. I pick up a flashlight and head down to the basement.
I stand a while and stare at the huge triangular crack here in the
back of the old furnace room.
It takes one step to travel across to the other side. I feel pretty
much unchanged, but there is the different taste to the air. I know
I'm somewhere else.
I've come out, as ever, through a raw gouge in the massive stone rampart
on this great, flat-roofed fortress.
This is my first night-time visit. There's no moon and far fewer stars
than I would have expected. The starlight is sharp though -- there's
no light pollution here. It's quiet. I climb up onto the stout parapet
and try to make out any lights in the city; I might even see the diffuse
glow of a dragon exhaling. No. There's nothing. Not even the stirring
of a breeze. I have to push away the idea that it's all empty, a deserted
city. This is the way things should be with a city soundly asleep two
or three hours before dawn.
So how would I paint this view? The sharp colors and busy layers of
architecture are covered over in night's blankets of gray, but their
presence would have to be indicated. I've half managed to distract myself,
but I still wish I could hear a little noise, something to indicate
the stirring of life.
I'm still for a minute or so. I do hear a slight rustling. I glance
around, and then down, and discover that there's a lot of black shadows
crawling up the side of the building. Whatever they are, it's their
feet which rustle against the wall. They're moving steadily upward.
I flick on my flashlight and play the beam down along the wall. I see
Bristling with black hairs, heads bobbing, many legs in movement.
Dozens of them -- at least. It's a trick of perspective and deep nighttime
shadows, I'm sure, that makes it seem like they're growing larger as
they rush up into my light. And the light seems to bend and bounce around
I switch off the flashlight, skid down over the rampart's edge and
begin running toward my exit. I hear their feet strike the roof behind
me. It seems like they're coming at me from several directions. A strand
of webbing slaps across my left calf and sticks. I throw myself down
and roll across a patch of roof. Maybe the rough surface will scrape
the webbing free. No: it's still sticks. I scramble on, desperate, panicked.
A little hobbled -- but I can move.
I glance up. There are spider threads shooting out over my head. They
cross each other at various angles, laying out a net above me, attached
to the ramparts. Another strand slaps against my hip and sticks. It
pulls against me. I'm screwed.
But I'm here; I made it to my gateway. I throw all my weight into
a lunge toward the gap in the stone's surface. The pressure from the
spider's thread feels weaker now.
Instant transition: I'm back. Low ceiling, plenty of dust.
I roll away toward the far end of the room. Then I stand to face the
crack, switching my flashlight back on.
The light catches on faceted eyes and the rapid rowing movement of
lots of spider legs. They move forward, yet seem to shrink in size.
It's as if they're animations made by a cartoonist with an inverted
understanding of perspective. The beam from my light begins to bend,
refracting at an ever sharper angle, till it turns all the way back
and flashes into my eyes.
Abruptly, faster than a door closing, the crack is just a crack, exposed
iron rods and packed earth.
There's a faint tugging, a movement against my pants leg. It's a tiny
black spider, less than inch long, hanging onto a very thick strand
of webbing. I brush at it and shake it off. Following it with my flashlight
beam, I see about ten more spiders scampering away. I chase after them
for a minute, managing to crush a couple beneath my heel. It takes me
a lot longer to peel away the thick webbing stuck to my clothes.
I am sitting in a cafe with no name. I like the light here.
It's warm and clear. There's a high ceiling, a brightly painted concrete
floor and rows of tall windows on two sides. To my illustrator's eye
this is an expansive light, opening the space out toward the world and,
at the same time, drawing the whole of world inside. The place has a
homemade charm and a relaxed vibe which emanates from the deep, well
worn comfy chairs, the bookshelf loaded with funky old paperbacks, and
the murmur of unhurried conversation.
It seems I've become a regular. Sitting by myself, reading and making
sketches of people when they're not looking. Spooning up the soup of
the day or shuffling over to the counter to refill my coffee.
I know the manager, Terry. That is, I've spoken with her a little.
Enough to find out that I'm more than welcome to hang some of my paintings
on the back wall. She's about thirty, tall, and has long blondish hair
which spreads out in waves over her shoulders. Maybe I'm at the stage
where I'll develop a distant, unrealistic infatuation. I'm considering
whether Terry makes an appropriate object of unrequited fascination.
She has complimented me on the artwork. She thinks that I'm being ironic
in titling my little show "Visits To The Dragon City."
The crack in the warehouse's foundation remains just a crack. I've
checked a number of times. There is a bunch of spiders down there --
small ones -- and in one corner they've strung up a thick jungle of
interlacing webs. It's curious the way spiders thrive in basements,
since there doesn't seem to be many flies or other insects down there
for them to feed on.
Mostly, I've painted pirates these past months. I have included figures
such as the hungry-eyed beauty in the faded green dress and the wild-haired
man in gray, brandishing a huge curved sword. There's plenty more out
of my collection of sketches and memories to be worked into future pieces.
Pirates keep me busy -- I've got a reputation for them now. I've done
a lot of scenes for a new chain of Caribbean resorts and lots of design
work for a new video game called Walk The Plank!
Since the closing of my basement gateway I take breaks from
work by exploring my own home city. I take a pad and some watercolors
and wander on foot or take a long bus ride. Sometimes I look for the
empty places, the deserted shells of old industry; other times for signs
of neighborhoods that feel especially real,with a life of their own,
as yet untouched by the spreading cookie-cutter strips of Starbucks,
Subway, Blockbusters and the like.
So far this cafe has been the end point, the best outcome, of all
I get a kick out of seeing the sharpest of all my remaining images
of that unreachable city together, up on the walls of a public space.
Displayed this way they capture a larger view, a full journey into otherness.
And it's fun to watch patrons of the cafe stop to take a second look,
or push up close to examine a particular detail or dapple of color:
caught up, without knowing it, in the city of my obsessions. This is
a different aspect of the process of art than I'm used to experiencing.
So far I can't get enough of it.
Three young women move slowly along the back wall, stopping to talk
in front of each canvas. I'm listening, pretending to read the book
review section from last week's paper.
One, with spiky, orange hair and skinny, bare arms covered with tattoos,
says that she sees dragons. She gestures with her hands, arms rising
with the gathering intensity in her voice. It's as if she's about to
reach right into the painting in front of her.
"This one is peeking out of a doorway. Can you see it? It's waiting
for someone -- waiting for something -- to happen? There's that story,
you know. You guys ever hear it? A city full of dragons and all the
humans are their slaves? It kind of sounds like a nursery rhyme. One
of those grim ones. Stuff about blood and tears, captive children's
hopes and cries. Doorways closing, bristling skies opening....
Everything sucks for the humans. Then one woman hops through a portal
into another world. She finds a way to open a permanent pathway. And
then the magical energy flows both ways, like an open circuit. Before
that the magic was static, like the buildings in a city, unable to make
any real change happen. Gates, portals, opening ways. Sky
and ground and in-between. Magic comes flooding through. Everything
and everyone begins to transform. Now people -- humans -- have lots
of power. The walls and ground open up. Monsters in hand, minds at
ease. Past, future, present, held in peace. It's like a golden
age. Happy ever after. For a while, anyway."
Her friends shrug, as if to say no they haven't heard that story.
They stare at the painting, their brows furrowed.
Now Terry approaches these girls and speaks to them. The cafe manager
looks a touch Pre-Raphaelite compared to this group. She's all flow
and gentle curves in her crinkled, batik print dress. The younger women
are etched with sharp lines and splashed here and there with postmodern
ideas of color. It would be a hard juxtaposition to make work in a single
Terry says, "That's the artist right over there. He can probably tell
you more stories of Dragon City."
The orange-haired girl turns and squints in my direction. I put my
paper down and return her gaze. I can see the muscles in her bare arms
tense and then relax again.
"Maybe he can," she says. Her lips part, form into a grin. "But I
bet I know some stories that he hasn't heard yet."
© Damian Kilby 2004, 2006.
This story originally appeared in TTA #38, Summer 2004.
(The award-winning TTA is now called Black Static
- see our subscription offer.)
Damian Kilby's stories have appear in TTA, Asimov's Science
Fiction, Universe and Journal Wired. He and his
wife Gretchen live in Portland, Oregon.
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