The Forgotten City
If you wish to find the woman who sells dreams, go to the most run-down part of the city. In the common market, down a crowded alleyway you will find her selling dreams in glass bottles. She is a witch, she says, who remembers what no one else does. If you ask her about the past, she will tell you stories and lies. They are never the same stories twice.
"Sun Girna Ginar was a great city on the greatest of the islands of the Pacific," she might begin her tale or maybe she might say, "Only the sea remembers Sun Girna Ginar." Sometimes she will not use the name Sun Girna Ginar but a different name that will not stay in your memory.
She will tell you stories of the inhabitants of the city: of its soldiers, its beggars, its great Sultan, its priests, its magicians, its lovers. She will tell you of their lives and of their dreams and how the two met or did not meet. Other times she does not remember their names.
Go down to the market, past the fruit vendors, past the vendors of the old clothes, past the vendors of trinkets and baubles, she is there, dressed in rags, a mouth full of empty teeth, selling bottles which she says contain dreams that you can own. If you ask her, she will tell you of a city that no one else remembers but her, a city she swears existed hundreds of years ago -- the city where she was born.
No one believes her. Not even the children.
Once, this story begins as many others have, but no longer.
The old woman hacks and coughs, spits, begins again.
Once, in a time which may or may not have passed, there was a city which may or may not have been. It was a great city, unlike any other, whose name may or may not have been Sun Girna Ginar, an ancient name in no remembered tongue. The city was founded by gods.
We do not remember this city because it was before the coming of the Christians, and we remember little or nothing from that time. We remember none of our past greatness, none of the achievements of our ancestors. We do not even remember their names. Yet somehow the stories of this city live on from telling to telling, never written, nothing more than the whisperings of ghosts.
It is said that a river passed through Sun Girna Ginar and that this river led to the land of the dead, who have since and at the time of these events closed their doors to the living. On either side of this land was the sea.
It was a time after the volcano threw ash into the sky, blocking out the sun for an entire year. When the ash came down, it choked the fields, transforming them into a vast, gray desert ruled by a tyrant sun.
Demons, beasts, djinns and angels walked the streets of Sun Girna Ginar along with men and gods and ghosts. They lived, and some died. Others passed from living to dying and back to living with the ease of breathing. They fought, they loved. They dreamed, their dreams were broken.
In this city, they speak of gods who traveled in mortal shape, in disguises both fantastic and grotesque. They speak of men, protected and guided by their ancestors. They speak of efrits, great spirits of fire who roamed the land granting mortals wishes or death, depending on their whim. They speak of angels who kept silent watch over the city and of their fallen brethren, the demons, who traded in lies and seduction and bore a pleasing shape.
They speak of the angel who was said to have lived in the city, in a tower made of ivory. The tower had no doors. Inside the tower was the angel's harem, women he had kidnapped as children and raised on the nectar of heaven. He was known to love humans, which was strange for his kind, who were always distant and aloof.
They speak of Sun Girna Ginar's general, Lumawig, who was protected by powerful ancestors. He had never lost a battle, and was most famed for his victory against a thousand men -- he slaughtered them all with only forty juramentados on his side. He was a cruel and ruthless man, hated by as many as he was loved, and though there were many attempts on his life, it was said that no one could kill him.
They speak of the djinn Sulayman who was the djinn of the Sultan. He was imprisoned in a garnett for a thousand years and was freed by the Sultan's magic. Sulayman was the most powerful of all djinns and became the Sultan's assassin for a hundred years until he was imprisoned again by the Sultan's enemies.
They speak of the six-headed giant Gawigawen from the mountains of the north who declared war upon Sun Girna Ginar.
They speak of the Sultan who ruled over all in a palace with eighty-eight towers. In his palace in the center of Sun Girna Ginar, there were eleven great domes, hundreds of feet high, and enough stables to hold twelve armies. There were hanging gardens, marvelous stone fountains, and in the center of it all was the eighty-eighth tower where the Sultan lived. From here, he surveyed the stars, which told him of Sun Girna Ginar's destiny.
They speak also of a woman born of a demon and a witch. When the woman was young, her beauty was unrivaled by any. Men came from distant lands to love her, and in return, she devoured their souls one by one. When she was old, she sold dreams in the marketplace, they say. By luring the city into dreams, she destroyed the city, bringing it to its knees with hope.
This is the story I will tell you, the old woman says, but it begins not with sultans, or generals or giants, or in palaces or battlefields. It begins in the stink of the marketplace, with simple men with unremarkable ancestors, best forgotten.
He remembers. It has been years now since she left, but still he stops sometimes and thinks of her. It is not a conscious act of remembering and he barely realizes it each time he begins to think of her again. She weaves in and out of his waking hours, and she is in every dream.
He sits by the window, smoking silently. They would sit by the window on warm afternoons like this, he remembers. Sometimes they would make love in the precise spot where he sat, overlooking the street. Afterwards, they would lie in each other's arms as the light flooded the room and they would watch the dust particles turned to gold in their eternal descent.
He remembers her silence. Her beauty was a silent hymn. Wordlessly, she would reach out to him, kiss him sensually on the lips, bury her face in his shoulder and bite the flesh there. The only sound she would make would be a small playful laugh.
He remembers whispered promises and unmade vows. He remembers staring into her eyes and her staring back, unafraid, completely open. He thought that moment was forever.
He remembers Tamisa and all the reasons she gave for leaving.
He remembers her with moonlight in her hair.
In his hand he holds a small glass vial the shape of a woman's body. He had bought it from an old woman the day before. "A trinket," she had said. "A trinket with the power of dreams." He thought the woman was beautiful, could see through the years so cruelly etched on her face. He knew the woman was beautiful in her youth.
"How much is it?" he asked, and she replied, "Thirty silver pieces."
"A bargain for the power of dreams," he said. He bought the vial because Tamisa loved glass.
As the old woman handed him the vial he had chosen, she said, "Dreams come in through closed eyes. A drop in each eye closes the eyes and opens the dreaming eye to set your dream free. Now tell me what your dream is."
He smiled and said without thinking, "Just to see her again. Just once. Up close. Without her knowing." The old woman looked at him with a mix of admiration and sadness and held his hand tightly. He thanked her and walked away.
He remembers when Tamisa left. She wept like a child with too many tears to cry. Her tears could have watered the dry fields, he had joked and she cried even harder and held him close. Then she kissed him and he tasted salt. Their tongues danced in a final farewell. When he opened his eyes, she had pulled away and had begun walking away from him with one last apologetic look over her shoulder before she was gone forever.
Alone now, he remembers without tears, for the tears don't come anymore. He opens the glass vial shaped like a woman's body and the dusty room is filled with the fragrance of Tamisa's perfume. He smiles at the memory. With the cover of the vial, which is shaped like a knife, he puts a drop of the dream liquid into each eye, hoping it is a drug that will make him forget.
The liquid burns, and he is on fire. He closes his eyes and falls to the floor, for the pain is intense. The fire reaches from his eyes into the back of his head and down his spine. He thrashes on the floor and kicks over a chair, knocks the contents of a table onto the floor. He thinks of tearing out his eyes and instead tears at the skin on his face. He bites his tongue and tastes blood. He throws himself against a wall, hitting his head over and over to take his mind away from the terrible burning of his eyes. Inside, the fire gnaws at his spine, searing his flesh from the inside outwards. His brain feels as if it will explode from the pressure and his eyes continue to burn an itching fire to which there is no rest.
In an eternity, the burning is gone, and he opens his eyes to wake in a dream. In his vision, everything is burning with a holy light, full of magical blues and reds, and the most pure of whites. It is as if every object shone with the light of its soul. How bright would Tamisa burn?
From the depths of the dream, from the street below, he hears fanfare, and he looks outside the burning window to see what miracles there are to behold.
It is a caravan from the distant West. Great burning banners are unfurled in the wind, carried by standard bearers whose skin is the color of coal. In the front of the caravan are proud soldiers with burning swords and spears. Their armor is full of designs of fire. The captains are on great white fire mares impatient in their slow march towards the palace of the Sultan. And then there are creatures he has heard of but never seen until now, great grey beasts as large as houses with snakes protruding from their faces and burning eyes filled with the wisdom of ages. On one of these beasts rides their sultan, or their prince, a boy, no older than ten years.
He goes down to the street to get a closer look and curses the old woman, for everything he sees is full of fire. A crowd has gathered along the sides of the streets. Everywhere, the people point at the burning wonders.
Behind the boy-king comes the harem, each of the women upon a golden carriage carried by more of the coal-colored men (eunuchs, some in the crowd say). Each carriage is heaped with silk of the finest craftsmanship. Hidden somewhere within, the beautiful, untouched wives of the boy-sultan shelter themselves from the afternoon sun.
Carriage upon carriage passes, each one anonymous until one carriage stops in front of the house he once shared with Tamisa. A slender white hand reaches out and pulls aside one of the silk curtains. She is beautiful, the crowd murmurs, but imperially, she pays no attention to them. She pulls the curtains aside completely for all to see her, a simple motion so full of grace. She moves forward slightly to look outside the carriage and the sunlight falls upon her face.
It is Tamisa burning brightly in his vision. She looks no older than he remembers her, but her eyes show the passage of the years. Still, she is beautiful, more so now than ever.
Her body partly outside the carriage, Tamisa looks up. She looks up at the window that overlooks the street, almost hoping to see someone there, a ghost perhaps, but not expecting anyone. She smiles to herself, looks down almost sadly and pulls the curtain back into its place in that same slow graceful movement. And he almost calls out, "Tamisa!" but he stops himself.
Slowly, the caravan passes in front of him and it is night when the last camel enters the Sultan's palace. He beholds many wonders that day but remembers none. In his mind, there is only one memory that burns one silent name.
Slowly, the fire in his eyes passes away. Less than embers are left. He feels the stinging pain of the self-inflicted wounds on his head. Slowly, he climbs the steps of his house to the room with the window overlooking the street. Moonlight filters in, softly this time, silver, unlike the golden sun. Painfully, he sets the chair aright and sits down at the table. The wind still carries faint traces of her perfume. He remembers. He remembers Tamisa as the fire goes out.
On the burning day the sultan from the distant West arrived, a young man from an equally distant land chances upon an old woman selling bottles of dreams.
In the temple they are celebrating One Year Since the Memory of Rain, a festival of fire, a feast of the sun. An entire year of fire, they say, means untold good fortune for the next year for bountiful destruction completes the cycle of death. Yet the young man longs only for rain.
He remembers the land where he was born: a place that glowed a vibrant green. It seemed like the rain would never stop there. Night and day were filled with blessings from the sky.
"Blessed day," an old woman says to the young man. Like the rest of the city, she looks dry and tired.
"Blessed day," he returns the greeting. He picks up a bottle from the old woman's stall, admiring the fine craftsmanship. "What are these?" he asks.
"They are dreams," the old woman replies, "dreams in bottles."
Amused, the young man says, "Then do you have any bottles with rain in it?"
"Rain," she says to herself, rummaging among her bottles, "another dream for rain. Must have another one of those somewhere..."
After a few moments, the old woman pulls out a large glass flask full of a dark blue fluid. The young man takes the flask in his hands and perhaps it is a trick of the light, or a reflection of the glass, or magic, but he imagines he sees rainclouds inside. And he remembers home, the gray clouds of his childhood and all the different kinds of rain: the light spray that refreshed, the hard painful rain that fell in sheets and stung the skin, the monsoon that fell for weeks and did not stop, the warm shower that defied logic by co-existing with sunshine, the storm that uprooted trees, the typhoon that flooded the rivers. His mother tongue returns to him and he remembers their many words for rain.
He smiles at the tired, dry, old woman and buys the bottle without a second thought.
She says to him, "Throw the water in the bottle upon a wall, and you will have all the rain you could ever want."
The young man thanks the old woman, not knowing whether to believe her or not.
The next day, the sun beats down on the city without reprieve, with a tempest of fire. It is a day hotter than any in memory. The young man is at home. He is naked in the coolest room of his little apartment. Still, the heat is unbearable and sweat pours down his body. At the same time it is so humid that his sweat will not evaporate. He wipes at his face with a coarse towel and downs a glass of water. Both do little to help.
The heat possesses his body and he is unable to do anything. His limbs are heavy. His mind cannot function. His entire body is consumed by the fire, reduced to ashes, blown away by the scorching wind. He lies as if paralyzed on a wicker divan.
In the young man's hands, he holds the glass flask he brought from the old woman. It is cool to the touch and he presses his face against it, runs it over his neck, his arms, his chest. He sighs. It is the only relief he has received all day. He looks deep inside the flask and again sees rainclouds in the dark fluid. A smile touches the edge of his lips and perhaps still possessed by the heat, he stands up and does to the flask exactly what the old woman directed him to do. Without thinking, he uncaps the flask and in one fluid motion, throws the water inside upon an empty wall.
The young man is surrounded by the smell of the rain.
The dark fluid from the flask pours down the wall. It rolls down the wall, briskly becoming lighter as it does so. The fluid pools on the floor. It becomes clear, merely water. The young man looks at the pool and sees the wall reflected in it, but where the wall was supposed to be blank and empty wall, there was to his surprise, a wall with a window.
The young man's gaze shoots up to the wall, and indeed there is a window there. He knows it is not possible for a window to be there, for on the other side of the wall is another apartment. But there is no denying it: the window is there.
He walks up to the window and a cool breeze blows in his face. The young man sees his homeland in the window. Green trees are everywhere, and it is raining. He can smell the wet earth around five feet below him. He stretches out a hand, looking up at the gray skies. When he pulls his hand back, it is wet. He licks the rainwater from his hands, laughing. With the laughter still strong in his lungs, he leans as far as he can out the window. The rain soaks his hair, runs sensuously over his body. He lets out a shout of joy and it carries far in the valley before him.
The young man returns inside and looks outside the other windows of his home. He sees only clear blue skies, the city and the burning white eye of the sun.
Many days pass and the young man is content.
Every day he comes home an hour before the sun sets, tired of the city, tired from work, just tired. Still it has not rained. It doesn't matter to the young man. Nothing matters to the young man. Every day, once through the door, he heads straight for his window of rain. He sits on a chair facing the window and looks at the rain until the sun sets. Then everything is all right and he is able to go on.
Sometimes at night he smokes opium by the window. Sometimes he falls asleep to the sound of the rain.
Days pass and the young man's contentment evaporates in the heat of the sun. Upon coming home he discovers, to his disappointment, that the window of rain is no longer enough. He stands in front of the window all throughout the night and listens to the voice of the rain soothing his restless soul, speaking to him in his mother tongue, calling him by his childhood name. Morning comes and still he is in front of the window. As it becomes light, the agongs from the distance break the early morning silence, bearing news from distant lands. Soon, he knows, it will be time to leave his window of rain. But when the hour comes, instead of walking through his door, he climbs upon the sill of his window of rain. Then without hesitation, he steps through the window and makes a short jump to the earth below. Heralded by rain, his journey begins. He doesn't look back.
Since the drought, there have been no flowers. She sighs.
She was not born in this city. As a young bride, she followed her husband, the enterprising son of a successful merchant, to this place. He had promised her wealth and fame and the moon, and she had believed him. Since then, she has received only the moon.
She comes from a land of rain. Every year, the typhoons visit that land from the sea and destroy everything. With wind and rain, the typhoons carry away their houses, ruin the crops. And every year, they would rebuild everything.
Her husband took her away from all that. She went with him because she dreamt of being someone in a big city. Now all she wants is for her husband to return. Sometimes she dreams of even less.
She longs for him. It is a physical ache she feels in her gut all the way down to her sex. She longs to hold him and nuzzle the corner of his neck and shoulder, the place where he said she "fits." She wants to breathe in his smells, the smell of his skin, the smell of his hair, the smell of his sweat, and the musk smell where the beast dwells. She wants to feel his stubble in the palm of her hand, wants to rest in the warmth of his armpit. She always marvels at how warm it is there and how comforting. Eyes closed, imagining breathing his scent in, her fingertips travel over her breasts, the back of her arms, her tight stomach, the insides of her thighs.
She shakes her head to remove the memory of him from her brain. Again, she sighs. Then she dresses up as if she is in a hurry and goes outside to walk. She remembers how he courted her when they were still in that land of rain. Every day he would visit her with a bouquet of flowers -- in the course of their courtship, he had given her every conceivable kind of flower. When he would go away on business trips, the flowers would still appear on her doorstep everyday without fail.
She walks aimlessly through the market, past the alms-barkers, past the meat vendors, the poultry vendors, the fish vendors. They all shout the price of their goods to her. She walks on.
The vegetable dealers have little to sell and their prices are outrageously high. The crops have been poor and what little they have comes from far away, brought in by the great ships of the Merchant Kings. She walks on.
She passes the empty lane in the market where the flower vendors are meant to be. She remembers how the market used to look like during the festival of flowers. The place was transformed into a blossoming garden. All manner of cut flowers could be bought there just for that day: blood red roses, violets, lilies, white roses as big as your fist, orchids, jasmine, belladonna, sunflowers, gumamela, garlands of sampaguita. Now the lane is empty. She walks on.
She passes the place in the market where they sell all manner of things. They sell kitchenware and placemats, pottery, porcelain, books, guitars and sitars, sundials, perfumes and oils, knives, mirrors. An old woman calls out to her, "Dreams." She stops.
The old woman looks to her like a wilted flower: black, gray and purple with a heart full of maggots. "Dreams," the old woman says, offering her an assortment of glass trinkets, "dreams in bottles. For you, twenty silver pieces."
"What kind of dreams?" she asks.
"Anything," the old woman replies. "That's why they are dreams."
She smiles to herself and tells the old woman, "Flowers. I would like flowers." Like the ones he would give before.
The old woman rummages in her stall and produces a simple glass vase, elegant, fragile.
"Fill it with water, and the next morning your dream will come true."
She doesn't believe the old woman, but she buys the vase anyway. She goes home and fills the vase with water just like the old woman told her and goes to bed early.
The next morning she wakes up alone. She sighs. She goes about her morning tasks, prepares her breakfast, and as she passes by the table she left the vase on, she drops the plate she is holding and it shatters on the floor, for there is something there that should not be. There, in the vase in front of her, are a dozen of the reddest roses she has ever seen.
Her heart quivers. She holds her breath. She takes a step towards the flowers, feeling the pieces of the broken plate under her bare feet. They are so beautiful, she thinks. She touches the petals of one of the roses still wet with morning dew. She bends over the flower and breathes in its fragrance. She thinks of the past, of how love came and withered, of how alone she is. She weeps because she is so happy.
In a faraway land that knows only rain, they worship him as a god. He is god of the rain, bringer of life, god of the flood, and bringer of death. Here, they do not know him.
He walks the streets in the form of a cat. If he were to take his true form, the people would immediately recognize him as a god. Though they would not know what god he is, they would worship him anyway, as men do when they are faced with something greater than themselves. They would ask for gifts and try to fall in his favor, and in this dry land, their need for him is greater than any other. He does not want that. And so he passes in disguise, an alleycat with deep blue eyes like the sea.
For hundreds of years the god of rain has wondered about those who worship him. From afar, he watches their short lives, hears their prayers, accepts their offerings, and gives them what they want according to his whim. And always he has wondered why these mortals go about their lives with so much hope when the only thing they are certain about is death, why they live with so much passion and hate when they all return to the earth in the end.
Lately, the god of rain has taken to watching the mortals in their cities, to see up close what their lives are about, to smell, to feel, to taste. Always, he takes the form of an animal, for once he took the form of a man and they all wanted to know who he was and where he came from. They watched him when he was the one who wanted to watch.
The cat that is a god walks the narrow alleys of the market with an expression of stoic interest. He avoids the crush of passersby and walks close to the stalls, underneath the legs of tables, over heavy crates full of fruits, around barrels, through heaps of garbage already rotting. From below, he watches children running and playing, mothers smelling the produce on display, vendors haggling over the price of sandals, rough men carrying sacks of rice over their shoulders, pickpockets lurking around corners.
"Greetings, my lord Bagilat," an old voice says from behind the cat.
Rising to its feet, the cat turns around gracefully and sees an old crone, nothing but skin and bones in truth, on her knees, head bowed, palms open on the ground in supplication.
"Oh, it's you," the cat says, its face a mask. "This is a long way from hell."
The old woman raises her head, careful not to look the cat in the eye. "It is not so far," she says.
"Get up," the cat commands. "The mortals are starting to look."
The old woman does as she is told, holding onto a nearby stall for support, her bony knees shaking with the effort it takes to rise.
The cat jumps up onto the old woman's stall, landing in an empty space among the glass bottles. Not a single bottle falls.
"What brings you to this land?" the cat asks. It sniffs a bottle and licks the glass tentatively. "And what are these? Your stink is all over them."
"They are dreams, my lord," the old woman replies, "and I sell them to the mortals." She pauses as if thinking of what to say next. Finally, she says, "I am here to destroy the city."
The god looks at her and tilts its cat head to one side. The stoic cat mask lifts and rises at the corners, and the god laughs.
"Sun Girna Ginar was created by the gods, it is protected by the Sultan and his djinn, Sulayman, guarded by angels and the armies of the General Lumawig, and you, old crone, will destroy the greatest of all the cities of man?"
"No, my lord," the old woman says, eyes bowed, "not I. Men will destroy the city. I promise you."
End of Part One
"The Forgotten City" is the first part of an unfinished novel of the same name. It was previously published in the first issue of Story Philippines.
Vincent C. Sales has been meaning to finish The Forgotten City for years now but has since become busy with the tech magazine T3, where he is editor-in-chief, his recent marriage, and a new apartment, where he and his wife live together with two fat rabbits.