Caeli-Amur is a city-state where magic and technology are interchangeable; where minotaurs and sirens are real; where philosopher-assassins and seditionists are not the most dangerous elements in a city alive with threat. During the day, the ordinary citizens do what they must to get along. But at night, the spirit of the ancient city comes alive, to haunt the old places.
“Nighttime in Caeli-Amur” is not about minotaurs or sirens, but about a family whose lives in this place are fated in the ways of families everywhere . . . only not quite the same.
At night, the Arantine is the quietest quarter in Caeli-Amur. With its mansions set behind great walls covered with Toxicodendron didion and the carriages that rattle over the cobblestones and disappear through faraway archways, it is also the loneliest. Inside the mansions, families and their servants bustle around in warmth and light. But outside, the streets seem emptied of all promise, only the furnace trees emanating warmth in the winter.
My cab lurches to a halt before our modest town house. The horse shakes his head and neighs, the reins dancing briefly up and down against his dark hide. For a moment the air is filled with the scent of dung and the horse shifts its weight, its powerful haunches rippling. Then all is still.
As I do every night, I sit silent in the cab, looking out into the darkness. Used to this little performance, the driver, Martin, waits patiently on his sprung seat, high up behind the cabin.
In my mind I rehearse the coming scene. Tonight I am going to do it. I will say, “I’m leaving.” Already I see Olga’s face, like a cracked plate. Words will fall desperately from my mouth: “You’re everything anyone could want. It’s my fault. It’s nothing . . .” The horror of the moment will pin me to the floor. Olga will be crying, and our maid, Zara, will hurry the children away from us. A terrible leaden feeling fills my stomach.
Best to get it over with as soon as possible. Then, alone, I will leave for the Forum. The image of that spectral landscape rises in my mind, of me pacing on the edge of that liminal zone, of the wraithlike figures shifting and moving among the ruins, of the shaking man waiting for me on his platform. The shaking man: how he fills my dreams, how he calls me each night. The shaking man: each day I sit in my office looking blankly at the mind-numbing piles of paper, imagining his figure like some long-forgotten promise. Yes, I will end my marriage and walk to the Forum where the shaking man waits. From there, I will continue to the little apartment I have secretly rented in the Quaedian, near to where I attended the university, back when I was happy.
I step down onto the cobblestones, turn back to face Martin. He looks at me impassively. We keep an emotional distance between us, as is appropriate. Sometimes I would like to unburden myself, and I imagine that he would understand, give me the sage advice of a common man, share his own disappointments, offer me comfort.
Looking at me with his cold eyes, he says, “Good night Subofficiate Irkin. Until the morning.”
“You remember . . .”
“Yes sir, the Quaedian.”
He flicks the reins and the horse kicks away, the sound of his hooves slowly clattering into the distance.
I halt before the town house’s double doors and examine the grain of the wood, the faded red paint, as if I’ve never seen it before. Olga wanted a bright color. “Nice and cheerful,” she said. I love that about her: the way she wants everything to be “lovely,” and “lively.” But I love it from a distance, like something I am afraid to touch.
Our town house stands close to the road. It would not do to live outside the Arantine like some Technis or Marin official; with her usual resilience, Olga has made do with what we have.
I turn the handle and I’m inside. The warmth: the fires have been lit and each room has its furnace tree in an alcove. The light: thrown off by a hundred golden candle flowers that grow along the corridor’s walls and dangle from the roof. These beautiful plants, so famous in Arbor households, are difficult to keep. Olga faces a constant battle to stop them from turning unhealthy shades of gray or brown, shriveling up and dying. Their sweet scent drifts in little currents through the air.
Zara rushes toward me, takes my coat, hangs it on the coatrack. We let our other servant go, for we needed the money to build a new room for our little daughter, Delia.
Dinner is already on the table, steaming. The scent of lamb dumplings—a traditional dish from Olga’s home city of Varenis—hovers in the dining room. Each night I return, and each night offers up to me fine meals—hearty and wholesome, just like her. Luka and Perri, our eight-year-old twins, fight over the bowl of potatoes covered with oil, butter, thick clumps of dill. As I enter, they look up at me, wide-eyed and curious. What strange little boys they are; to them I must seem a distant and spectral shape myself, a man who leaves early in the morning, returns at night, only to slip out shortly afterward.
Perri reaches toward a clockwork bird that sits on the table beside him, its internal workings—a delightful construction of cogs and wheels, intertwined latticework—visible. Attached to its wings are brilliant purple and green feathers. It is one of the thousands of wondrous mechanical gadgets brought to Caeli-Amur by the New-Men, and the boys simply “had to have it,” just as they had to have a clockwork gladiator each. After all, the children of my superiors, the Arbor officiates, have many such toys: mechanical birds and soldiers, steam-driven miniature horses. When Perri touches the bird, it chirps, launches itself into the air, circles around the room, hovers.
“Not at dinnertime!” Olga yells from the kitchen. “I’ve told you, Perri!”
As the bird swoops through the doorway and disappears into the corridor, Perri smiles at me. When I don’t respond, he looks at his feet.
Olga walks into the room, brushing her hands against her apron. “You don’t look well. Are you all right?”
This is the chance. I search for the words, look at the floor, just as my son did moments before. “A long day.”
“Well, sit down before the food gets cold!”
The dinner is pleasant and I eat quietly, agitation bubbling beneath my surfaces. Olga chatters about Officiate Atarta’s wife, Belmarie, who is terrified of Atarta’s degenerative illness. His loss of memory and loss of physical control embarrass her in public. She cannot take him anywhere.
“It can’t be easy,” says Olga. “Him knocking things over and forgetting the names of his hosts. He shat himself the other day. Belmarie found him with his pants off in a side room, crying. Still, it’s hardly his fault. Praise the gods you’re not like that. I don’t know what I’d do.”
“You care too much for appearances,” I say. Face, tradition, status—these are the Arbor principles which Olga has accepted. They are the contours of her world.
She looks as if I’ve slapped her. “You’ll never become an officiate if you have an attitude like that.”
There was a time when I had hoped to be promoted. Then we could afford to move to one of the mansions where House Arbor’s officiates live. But you must be relentless to be promoted. Talent is not enough. My father, of course, made officiate. He would be disappointed in me now. He would look down his patrician nose and say, “No backbone, son. No thrill for the fight.” His death three years ago seemed to energize my mother, who now spends all her time in the salons and eateries around the Thousand Stairs with the other wives. In the evenings she returns home, her arms filled with imported silks, fire-fruits from Numeria, crystal-ware (which she will never use) to fill her ample cupboards.
I stand up and run my hands down the front of my pants as if brushing off crumbs. Now is the time. I brace myself to tell her that I’m destroying our marriage, that I plan to live in the Quaedian and visit theatres, galleries, and bars every night. That I would head out into the wintry darkness without guilt, to the shaking man—the one certainty I have.
Instead, I say, “I’m going for my walk.”
Olga doesn’t look at me. “Again?” When I don’t answer, she says, “I don’t understand why you don’t want to spend time with us. Delia’s already been put to sleep by the time you’re home. But the boys need a father around when they go to bed.”
“Tomorrow,” I say. “I’ll read to them tomorrow.”
The boys aren’t looking at me, either. Their little downturned faces are unmoved, as if it doesn’t matter whether I leave or not. I understand, though, that this is an act. They don’t want to show that they’re upset.
Already I’m in the hallway, reaching for my long coat. From a ledge, the clockwork bird looks down at me, its head cocking rapidly from side to side. It flutters its wings, folds them against its body again. One of the officiates directed Arbor’s thaumaturgists to charge the toys with uncanny energy. Where before it seemed only an automaton, a mechanical creation, now it is filled with disturbing life. As it twists its head, it seems to be eyeing me in judgment.
“Don’t go to the Forum, though, will you?” Olga calls out.
“Of course not,” I say.
“They say that spectres appear there more and more, that they’ve started to speak to people, that they’re full of dark visions and prophesies. They say people have disappeared there.”
“It’s very dangerous.” I’m glad to have something to agree with her about.
“Well, see you soon then.” Olga follows me into the hallway, businesslike, matronly. She kisses me perfunctorily.
Driven by some crazed impulse I grab her by the shoulders and the words fall out of me. “I don’t want this . . . anymore. I’m not cut out for all this.”
Again she looks as me as if she’s been slapped. She breaks into a high, shrill laughter as anguish fills her eyes. The laughter unnerves me, but she stops for a moment, breaks again into laughter, then says, “Go for your walk now. I’ll see you when you get back.” She then turns and rushes back toward the kitchen, as if she has something urgent to do.
As Zara pokes her head around the kitchen door, I wrap my coat tightly to me, button up the high collar—the latest fashion, which Olga insists on—and a second later I’m back on the street, heading from the Arantine to the Ancient Forum.
I step down the winding streets, which are quiet in the night. When I return, I will collect my belongings, though I am filled with uncertainty. Olga acted as if I hadn’t said anything, but I know she must have heard my words. Her anguished eyes understood. Thinking of this, I almost break into a run, for I am filled with unnerved energy. I slow myself, breathe.
Sounds occasionally float toward me, from the bars and cafés along Via Gracchia, which runs along the cliff overlooking the city. Students and agents of Arbor and Technis cram into the bars, gossiping and playing games, debating with philosopher-assassins, forging alliances by which they might improve their position. The atmosphere there is full of life and hope. Not so long ago, I numbered among them. How I dreamed! I yearned to act on the stage in one of the hundreds of little theatres in the Quaedian. Indeed, I had talent, I think. I played the joker-god Aya himself to strong reviews. But my father put an end to all that. The son of an Arbor officiate must know decorum. I bowed to his will and cleaved to a life of administration and organization for the House.
I don’t know where my driver, Martin, lives, but I imagine it to be a little place on the far side of Via Gracchia, before the slopes of the mountain become steep. There he has a little bachelor’s house. He makes red wine on the side, spending his free days stomping on grapes in a barrel, brought to the city from the vineyards to the south. He can tell you each species of grape, their individual flavors. If you ask him, his face lights up with passion and his words come quickly from his mouth. His friends are a group of boisterous men who each week join him to taste his latest batch. Later, they stumble to the bars. From balconies they look over the cliffs, to the necropolis and the Forum, across the sea. Together they sing songs, stagger home, arms around one another’s shoulders. So I imagine. Of course I don’t know anything about him at all.
As I pass the grand gladiator school, perched halfway down the escarpment, the sounds drift away. Two gladiators train on one of the fields, lone figures battling it out with wooden weapons, wrapped with padding.
Beyond the school, nestled in the arm formed by the southern headland and the cliffs, lies the Forum, once the great administrative area of the city, ruined when the god Alerion came down upon Aya, who was forced to retreat across the seas.
My heart quickens at the sight of it; a tingling sensation courses through my veins. A wasteland of long gray grass opens out to my left, beyond which lies piles of gray rubble like burial mounds, the disembodied limbs of marble statues like pieces of corpses on a battlefield, ruined porticos and still-standing walls, lone pillars jutting into the sky. Over the whole area drifts clumps of fog, now thick, obscuring everything, now wispy, like long ethereal arms reaching out.
The wasteland forms a natural barrier, a threshold between the living city and the dead, between the future and the past. Each night I see them emerge and disappear: ghostly figures moving among the ruins, as if searching for something that has long passed away. I am alive with the thrill of danger.
My path takes me along the broad street that circles the Forum. As I pace around that curve, to my right stand grand houses; many of them seem empty, as if they were abandoned by occupants who could no longer face the memories of the past opposite them, reminders of what we have lost.
Something scuttles in the wasteland. I step back involuntarily. A cat leaps onto the remains of a small wall nearby, its great eyes glowing like two little moons in the darkness. It blinks and the moons go out, then light up once more.
Farther among the ruins, a cloud of fog roils, twisting down into a vague shape which bends over, examining the earth as if it has lost something. It reaches up with an arm, which begins to spin. The arm dissolves into the night, the figure quickly following it. A quiver of terror runs through me.
Other forms, farther in, seem more corporeal, holding hands and walking along the ruined boulevards toward the Plaza of the Gods, deep in the center of the ruins. Strange plants grow around that central square: carnivorous orchids that push their way through the earth in the darkness, only to sink beneath the surface with the dawn, hallucinogenic spore-flowers said to increase intuition when ingested, moss which possesses an alien intelligence and communicates through shifting patterns of color. During the day, Arbor sends expeditions into the Forum to collect, catalogue, study. No one enters at night.
To my right, the houses give way to the high walls that surround the necropolis, so appropriately positioned beside the Forum.
Finally, as I am nearing the cliff ahead, I see him: the shaking man. My body quivers a little at the sight. A surge runs through me: fear, anticipation. My mouth is dry and I try to swallow.
Sometimes he stands on his small and faraway platform, which might be a small stage or the base of a statue. From a distance, he seems to be shaking, from side to side, as if cold. At other times he squats down and places his hands on his head.
Each night I look for him. Each time he is the one constant in an uncertain space that that seems to move and shift around itself.
At the moment he is standing. I stop and watch him as he shakes, from side to side. I imagine approaching him, but an image of Olga and the children flashes into my mind. Instead, I stand still. “No backbone,” my father would say.
As if he senses me, the shaking man turns, and I feel his eyes peering through the fog and the darkness, fixing me with his stare. He has never faced me before, and I freeze, charged with terror and elation. We stand like that, both of us motionless, twin stars locked in the gravity of the other.
Some cautious part of me falls away. No backbone, you say? I find myself stepping onto one of the broken paths that lead through the long grass. The shaking man is deep within the ruins, yet I forge on, sensing that here lies an opening that will not last long. I don’t know what I’ll discover, but something, perhaps that indeterminate clue to life I’ve been looking for.
The moon lights my way. Shreds of fog drift over me, so that briefly I am surrounded by a glowing light. Things seemed distorted in the Forum, the shadows thrown at odd angles. Here the ominous darkness beneath a pillar. There a patch of light that cuts across it impossibly. There is a bone-deep cold to the place. I do not look at the shaking man, but I’m aware of his looming presence, ahead and to my right. I can almost feel him, radiating his unearthly power.
Along an uneven pathway I pass. The earth has shifted beneath the marble stones, cracking some of them, forcing others out of alignment. I arrive at a crossroads; a boulevard leads away into the swirling fog in both directions. Running along the side of the cracked pavement, a line of shattered walls stand up like jagged knives.
The shaking man lies farther on, and so I continue beneath a row of five grand stone arches, each with three archways. Three still stand intact; the other two have been shorn by some terrible force so that only columns are left. It is said that Aya faced Alerion alone here in single combat, and that they tore the very stones from the buildings, shattered the symbols of ancient equality. What is left is blackened by heat and fire.
Another gust of fog engulfs me. It moves in strange ways, billowing into shapes, contracting into dense plumes, spiraling. Gaunt faces form within it. I almost lose my nerve: what madness has overtaken me that I should enter the Forum?
A pathway leads to my right; at its end stands the shaking man’s platform. Now I hear coming from his direction an unearthly keening sound that drives down my spine like a spike—a sound too high for any human voice.
Fear grips me. I feel like my very bones are being pressed by a vice, as if a serpent moved within my stomach. For a moment I want to turn and run, yet as I step back, the shaking man stands up and gestures toward me, calling me on.
Why I move forward, I can’t be sure. Somewhere deep inside I feel that this is a moment of significance. Some hidden meaning will be revealed.
Looking down at the path, I walk—one foot trepidatiously after the other—until the edge of the platform comes into my vision. The platform stands at waist height, and I look up hesitantly. The shaking man looms before me, staring out over the Forum as if I’m not there. He emits an incorporeal radiance; at times he dissolves at the edges, degenerates into tiny fragments of matter, which wisp away, like the fog.
His voice is deep and distorted, as if coming from a long empty hallway. “Even yesterday’s tomorrows are gone,” he says. An instant later he stands half a foot to the right, then half a foot to the left again, each time without moving his legs. Again he flitters to the right and to the left, as if he is blinking out of existence and remerging instantaneously in the other place. From a distance, this movement makes him appear as if he’s shaking.
He breaks into desolate laughter and grasps his head between his hands. “What have we done? We were meant to be playing. Then this. Lomia no! No Lomia! By Panadus Icari! By Lotus Icari!” He starts to cry, unaware that I am there. He is talking to someone I cannot see, though there is no one else here.
His eyes dart around, up, down, from side to side. They are wide and horrifying, cold and filled with despair. Resolving to go, I make to turn back down the path. The shaking man’s head jerks down, his eyes fix me, and I step backward.
“There is a death.” His voice echoes and warps. “A death that shall take your life and break it like everything we’ve known. Has it happened? Will it happen? Time is the same running forward and backward. The equations work just as well.”
Coldness runs through me, straight into my bones. I begin to shake my head.
“Yes you!” the shaking man yells. As he does so, his jaw opens too wide, revealing his teeth, just as shattered as the walls behind me. For a moment I think his mouth will open so wide it will turn itself inside out, but it closes once more under an aquiline nose that reminds me of my father’s. Suddenly his entire face resembles my father’s: the gaunt high cheekbones, the narrow jutting chin. He says, “We too thought we were safe. Now look at us.”
He begins to shake back and forth at unnatural pace, as if his grief drives the movement so rapidly that he becomes just a flicker. The keening sound comes from him now, high like the wail of an engine. Then he squats down and looks out into the distance, his face melting like wax.
The shaking man’s prophesies fill me with unnamable fears, lurking just at the edge of my consciousness. Is he speaking to me, or perhaps to the past or the present themselves? My mind races in new directions like a river that has burst its banks. It is filled with images of House Arbor’s Director Lefebvre, of Olga and the children, of myself and my place in it all.
“See how they cry? See them now, the little ones. Death doesn’t suit them,” the shaking man says. He looks at me momentarily again, speaks this time in soft tones. “It’s only the unknown. Walk into the night.”
Taking this as some kind of instruction, I turn away. The ruins loom over me like ghostly giants. The path turns at unusual angles. On the edge of my vision, I see a little spectral child walking off into the ruins, his hand clasping a tiny wooden rabbit. And then I am back on the street beside the necropolis. Now it is I who is shaking.
The walk home passes like I am in a trance. I am stunned, unable to think at all. This has happened to me before, in moments of shock, such as when the twins were born. Those hours of facing Olga’s agony with no recourse, then these little purplish creatures covered in white and red, bursting from Olga. For hours afterward, I could not think at all. The horror of it, its unnaturalness, was too much.
When I reach the red double doors, I hesitate once more. The red wood now looks different. I can see the decay, rotting it from inside. I place my forehead against the wood, close my eyes, rest.
When I open the doors, a gust of warmth rushes against my face.
“You’re home?” calls out Olga from the kitchen.
I unbutton my coat, hang it on the rack.
“I’ve made some sweet biscuits, you could have them with coffee.” I can hear the tension in her voice as she waits for me to speak.
The kitchen is light and warm, and Olga hurries around, cleaning the surfaces frantically. “Zara’s gone to bed. The children too. How was your walk?”
Looking at her rosy cheeks, middle-aged yet filled with life, I think of the shaking man’s words. A death that shall take your life and break it like everything we’ve known. Images of the twins come into my mind, of little Delia.
Olga looks up at me from her cleaning. “Well?”
“It was lovely,” I say. “I went to the Thousand Stairs. It was filled with people, sitting in the piazzas, climbing up and down the stairs. The night was filled with the smell of spice breads and meats. It’s full of life.”
Olga smiles. “Oh, the young and energetic. Just wait until they have children.”
Nodding, I step across to her and take her in my arms.
“I don’t mind if you are never promoted, you know,” Olga says. “We’re together, that’s what matters.”
“I know,” I say. “It’s my fault. It’s my fault.”
“What is?” Olga bends back, her hands still clasped to my waist. Her voice is filled with relief when she says, “Don’t be silly. Whatever it is, don’t worry yourself about it. We’re together, that’s what matters.”
With sudden intensity I pull her to me. “You’re my rock, you know.”
She laughs comfortingly, as she does when our children are upset. “Oh dear, oh dear.” High up on a shelf the clockwork bird looks down at us, but it doesn’t move. Perhaps it has exhausted itself. Now it looks like a little metal skeleton, frozen in one pose.
When we retire to bed, I hold on to Olga with a kind of desperation. She lies there, tense and awake next to me. In the morning I will be up early with the children, I tell myself. I’ll play with them. We can pretend that it’s games season and set their mechanical gladiators against each other.
I’ll rush down to the apartment in the Quaedian where Martin will be waiting for me. “Ah, Martin, how was your evening? Tell me about it. Tell me everything.” And he will. Eventually, he will toss the reins, the horse will kick away, and I’ll arrive at the Arbor Palace, where my little office waits, the papers stacked neatly in piles, the stamps ready for the new day. There will be problems to solve, people to talk to, agreements to reach.
Everything will be filled with that sense of possibility it used to have. I’ll be just as I was when I was young, won’t I? Wont I?
Desperately, I clasp Olga a little tighter and, still now half-asleep, she pushes against me with her broad back and big buttocks. The words come back to me again. Has it happened? Will it happen? Time is the same running forward and backward. The equations work just as well. I see him now, the shaking man, and I know that his aquiline nose, his gaunt cheekbones, resemble not my father’s, but mine. As I think of him, I see my own haunted eyes looking out into the Forum. I clamp my eyes shut; I clench my teeth. As I lie in bed, I think of the shaking man on his platform, talking of what has been, and what is to come.
“Nighttime in Caeli-Amur” copyright © 2014 by Rjurik Davidson
Art copyright © 2014 by Allen Williams