by Vincent C. Sales
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
[yellow_box] “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. [/yellow_box]