I set out for Velaya as a young man, having only just pledged to wed. I was to marry Belqis, flower of our village and light of my eyes, in whose father’s orchards I had played since my childhood. Our marriage should have been enough for a lifetime of happiness. But I believed then—as so many young fools do—that dreams were the currency of happiness, and I carried with me dreams as yet unredeemed. And though I tried to conceal it, Belqis, my betrothed, sensed my dissatisfaction and, knowing its source, spoke to me, saying:
“Always you have shared with me your dreams of Velaya. You have whispered to me of silver domes and white carved stone, of miraculous waters which run in aqueducts through strolling parks, of red and gold kites which fly from the cliffs and gild the sky, and of so many other wonders that for me the Dreaming City lives in the sound of your voice. Always it has been your dream to visit far-off Velaya and know its mysteries.
“And yet, once we are married, it is possible that duties to our fields and orchards and to family and to our as yet unborn children—think of our beautiful children, my love!—may keep you from ever travelling to such dreamed-of distant lands. I am selfish and do not wish to bear that disappointment. Therefore, though each day apart will be a trial, I say: go now to Velaya and return to me with eyes brim full of silver and green and red and gold, eyes that have beheld the Dreaming City. For though I love you now and with all I know of my heart, it may be that I will love the man who returns to me from Velaya even more.”
Thus—as ever—did Belqis amaze me with her generosity.
Of course, I protested.
I said, “The duties you speak of are to me nothing but joys.”
And also, “Our full and happy lives could admit of no regrets.”
And also, “My dreams of Velaya are a child’s dreams, but my dreams of the coming together of our lives are the dreams of the man I wish to become.”
But Belqis knew my heart, and she overcame my protestations. And truthfully—young and foolish though I was—I knew myself blessed even then to be understood so well and trusted so completely.
And so Velaya rose up triumphant in my mind’s eye.
I set out by cart and was soon come to lands beyond any I had known. I traveled by overgrown tracks through fields cultivated with grain and by wide highways that the legionnaires had of old hewn through the impassable forests between cities. Coming over rocky wastes and through orchards of olives, I had my first sight of the sea and felt myself remade in its grandeur and its sadness.
And though I was clumsy with the language of the dock-hands in that first port, I was able by signs and nodding to book passage over the sea and to come finally to the yellow shores of that great desert land of which Velaya is the very jewel and heart and center. From there, caravans of camels in long trains came and went daily. Here were found traders, journeymen, diplomats, shepherds, but also pilgrims, and these were my true kin—the pilgrims—those that had been granted visions of Velaya in dreams.
When I had replenished my stores and purchased a blanket and hired a camel-puller, I too joined a caravan and left at dawn for the last four days of my pilgrimage.
That first night in the desert was cold; a cold of open spaces like none I had known. As the drivers settled their camels into corrals, I huddled with three pilgrims around the remnants of our cooking fire, and we drank the clear local liquor called raktash and each of us was fired by the raktash with bright longing for Velaya.
And out of this bright longing, the woman who had traveled from distant lands far to the West spoke, saying:
“It is said of the gods of Velaya that they are fierce but also generous, that their dreams dwell often along the white and shining cliffs, and that in their dreams, miracles are worked. For it is within the power of their miraculous dreams to grant the gift of flight.
“Aspirants travel great distances to petition this gift of the gods. Settling in the squatter’s quarter known as the Aerie, aspirants build themselves the nests of sticks and mud which will be their homes for at least the next season and often much longer. During the days they lie in their uncovered nests, absorbing the rays of the sun, taking the lightness of the sun into them, willing themselves to lighten. Then in the cool spring evenings, they descend in their white robes to the taverns and meeting places of the city, and there recite the light-filled ‘cloud poems’ for which Velaya is justly renowned.
“As the sun fills their bodies with lightness, so aspirants fill with a floating feeling, and in the summer they are often seen wearing lead weights around arms and ankles as ballast. Much of their poetry in this season eulogizes the peculiar sensation of untying the weights from their limbs in the evening, of experiencing that weightlessness which presages the hoped-for gift. In this season too they begin work on the red and gold paper constructions which they will fly from the lower cliffs with such drama during the kite festival.
“It is in the autumn that aspirants often decide to petition the gods. It is not a decision shared or discussed, but must be reached alone, known by the lightness in the heart, by the tense spreading of invisible wings. Many, through doubt or humility, never decide. But on a clear morning in the first cool days after summer, a small white-robed figure may be seen climbing alone the Dawn Stair and mounting to the heights of Veliara, tallest of the white cliffs, though it does not face Velaya as the others do, but is hidden and turned away behind a great knee of limestone rubble.
“And what happens then numbers among the great mysteries of Velaya. For it is not known if there is some right phrasing or secret password or if perhaps the heart of the aspirant is weighed against that of a feather or if it is purity or yearning or some inborn talent or simply the dream of gods whose dreams must of necessity be ineffable. The aspirant makes his petition and steps from the cliff. The gods dream and judge. And some aspirants—most, it is said—end there at the base of Veliara, and their bleached bones remain uncounted, for the base of the cliff of Veliara is sacred ground and to visit there is forbidden.
“But there are some—a few? one a year? a decade? a generation?—who are caught in the cupped hands of the gods’ dreaming and who fly.”
The woman from the distant West paused then and drank. We all drank, each in turn—the raktash like hot sand that singes the throat and afterwards consoles it—before she continued.
“And there are those who say that long since passed are the days in which the gods of Velaya heard petitions. The city fills with white-robed aspirants, yet fewer and fewer climb the Dawn Stair each year. Where are these chosen flyers, they say, aloft on god-dreams? And in the dark corners of taverns there are others who whisper that the gods’ interest is only with the pile of aspirant bones at the base of Veliara and not with those that would fly above it.
“But as for me, I am unwavering. From my youngest days have I dreamed of flying and known those dreams to be the best part of myself and true.
“And one day I will take my place among the flyers above Velaya.”
We stared into what embers of the fire remained then, each of us inhabiting the image of the city that our minds conjured glowing there in the coals, and I sensed the others drift one by one into sleep.
But I lay awake, I know not how long after, with my mind in the jaws of frightful premonitions. A veil seemed pulled aside, and all was revealed and inverted and churning. The city is a trap, I thought, and my thoughts were like jaws that closed and closed again. I saw a procession of young men and women with broken wings, sun-blind, their limbs contorted. The city is a trap. It calls to the gullible, to the pilgrims, to the dreamers like myself, and it eats their dreams.
I saw the pile of bones at the base of Veliara, felt myself pressed beneath them.
In the morning was a great hubbub of packers and camel-pullers and coffee wallahs calling across the expanse of cold, spent fires. I stood, wrapped in my blanket. In the noise and the smell of the coffee and the gray light of the new day, my last night’s imaginings paled. I thought of Velaya and Belqis, the dreamed-of city and my beautiful wife. Both awaited me, and by this I knew myself a pilgrim twice blessed, who followed two stars. Gathering my few belongings, I thought, And what if the allure of Velaya eclipses that of Belqis? What if its red and gold kites, its white walls, its taverns full of poetry, what if these seduce me and make me forget my heart? Yet—after one month, after two—I would return to my Belqis and tell her what I had felt and seen, for the tale of such beauty must have an audience, and always Belqis had been that audience for me. I believed that I knew myself; that I would return to her. For though Velaya filled my mind with imagined colors, Belqis still filled my heart.
Velaya might be a trap for some, but not for me.
All that sweltering day I sat and swayed on the princely hump of my camel as the great caravan spread out around me and advanced. And at end of day, we came again to a camp in the desert where the day’s caravan heading northward from Velaya met our southward-heading caravan, and again there was the chaos of stocks and tents and animals and cooking fires scattered like a wide mirror of the stars which are themselves scattered in a band across the night sky. And again that evening my three companions and I reclined together around our small fire and ate and passed the local liquor raktash that so opens the hearts of travellers, one to another.
Then into that tranquility that descends upon the desert at day’s end, the young man from the distant North spoke, saying:
“I have heard it said of the gods of Velaya that they are loving but shy. That they love their people is certain, evidenced by the many miracles they have wrought in their city, chiefest among these the Miracle of the Waters, which rise up in the desert city in green pools and playful fountains to delight and succor its people. Yet the gods of Velaya are also shy, timid of applicants, unwilling to reveal themselves except to the most pure and the most devout. But in their love, they have left stones hidden in and below the city which the pure and devout may find and with which they may commune with the gods. For it is thus that the gods find the miracles they bestow upon Velaya: by mining in the hearts of men.
“There was a man stranded at the base of a cliff deep in the desert, lost, dying of thirst; this was the first applicant. How he came to be there, how he came by such purity of heart and devotion of spirit, these things are not known. But there in his distress he found a stone, and this was the first of the Dreaming Stones. It was a sand-smoothed oblong of jade, and through it, clasping it to him, the man communed with a god; this was the first of the gods of Velaya, who is called simply Vel, and who mined in the heart of the man through the Dreaming Stone and found there Velaya’s first miracle: the Miracle of the Waters.
“He was the first applicant; since then, there have been many. Successive generations of applicants have come and striven and searched and some—the pure, the devout—have found the stone they sought, and the miracles they carried in their hearts have transformed Velaya into the jewel of the desert. The massive statues of the First Dreamers, the tiered Night Gardens, the filigreed temple of Vel-Abir—all these were miracles wrought by stone-finders of old. The Dawn Stair itself was among the earliest miracles: the heart-wish of a father whose daughter loved above all else the flying of kites; his plain river stone appeared to him one evening at the bottom of a humble pot of soup.
“Many applicants are miners or prospectors or vendors in the gemstone markets for which Velaya is renowned, where they daily handle seraphinite, jade, epidote, chrysoprase, beryl. Others work in infrastructure, shoring up stone work, re-routing water systems, sculpting architectural ornament, or simply cleaning the floors of palaces and homes. Always and at every hour, applicants search for their Dreaming Stone, listening for its distinct call, opening their hearts in purity and devotion. An applicant serves the city and his dearest wish is to have the next great miracle—the cliff statues, the gardens, the stairs—called forth from his heart through the stone of his dreams, and thus to live on forever as a part of the city itself.
“And, yes, there are those who say that many years have come and gone since Velaya was re-fashioned by miracle-stones. They say that the city is too big now, too impure with commerce, or that the last Dreaming Stone has long since been found. Or in darker moods, some mutter that perhaps the gods find their nourishment no longer with the pure and their stones, but with the suffering of the applicant who goes blind cutting gemstones or who is crushed in the mines beneath the city or who is worked to death cleaning, every day, year upon year, the palaces, the walls, the sewers.”
The young man paused, and drank as if to rid his mouth of a disagreeable taste.
“But as for me, I am undeterred. Since earliest memory have I dreamed of holding a green stone to my breast, holding it and calling forth wonders. And I believe that one day, when I have hallowed the city in my eye and in my heart—with purity, with devotion, with humility—then shall I find my place among the miracle-workers of Velaya.
“For this was I made.”
We lay then silent around the dying fire, each of us awed and entranced by the Northern man’s story. The Dreaming City shone before my mind’s eye—as I knew it must before the others’—wonderful, exotic, like a child’s glass marble given by a parent returning from long travels, alight with possibility.
And yet, as the others drifted into sleep, the image of the city tilted in my mind. I saw it as from below, up from the blackness of the mines that coil through its foundations, and there I saw old men and women, frail and blind, who struggled through those tunnels ceaselessly and in vain. And I saw that those tunnels were the entrails of the city, its very intestines, and all those zealous seekers no more than digesting meat trapped in a horrible peristalsis. The city is a trap, I repeated to myself.
The words echoed, the coils tightened. The city is a trap.
Somehow I slept.
The next morning broke with the same confusion of activity as before, and yet I felt it overlain with a new sense of urgency and reverence. The Dreaming City waited only two days ride to the South. We pilgrims rode lost in thought as brides to a distant wedding who in their thoughts take leave of their former lives and prepare as best they can to be transformed. And all that sun-bleached day I meditated on what it might mean to be disappointed by Velaya. What if I found its streets dirty, its vistas uninspiring, its palaces gaudy, its gardens wasted, its denizens petty, its meeting places unwelcoming, its waters untended and unclean, and all my many dreams, mirages? What if I found more truth in the eyes of its beggars, than in the hauteur of its gods? These thoughts were terrible. I would be broken. And would I then return to Belqis and ask her to fulfil her vows to a broken man?
And thinking thus I remembered Belqis, my other pilgrim’s star. I remembered her not as simply an audience or a symbol of home, but as she truly was—generous and understanding and kind. I knew that she would accept and remake me, that I might be dispirited for a time but that I would be remade in our lives together and in the lives of our children, and that one day we might all smile together at the dreams of my earnest youth. A weight lifted from me, like a fever breaking. I believed I knew myself. I believed I knew Belqis. And as we arrived at the final camp and the porters flew about their accustomed tasks, I thought, I shall see what there is to be seen of Velaya, whatever that may be, and I shall return to my beloved and tell of it.
The city might be a trap for some, but not for the man for whom Belqis waits.
And as the preparations for the night’s camp began, there were pilgrims who said they could see already the white cliffs of Velaya off to the South, but I could make out only what seemed a sand storm, a shimmering white smudge on the horizon.
Just as in earlier nights, my companions and I built a small fire, spread blankets, and shared out dried apricots and patties of lentils. We passed the local liquor raktash in a small gourd between us, hand-to-hand and solemnly: a libation. It would be our last night as a company, and our hearts were so full with the awesome nearness of the Dreaming City that I expected no one to break the thoughtful trance which had come upon us with the cold and the dark. Thus were we all surprised when the silent woman—a woman from far to the East by her clothes, whom I, for one, had assumed spoke none of our common tongues—began to tell of her dreams in a clear and quiet voice, saying:
“Among my people we have an idiom: wary as the gods of Velaya. We say this of the baker who will not share his recipe with his apprentice, or of the midwife who will teach no one the secrets of her trade. That the gods of Velaya keep secrets is known. Of the secrets of flight and of communion we have had eulogies already; but they keep also secrets for changing lead to gold, and making broken things whole, and living eternally young. And why are these secrets kept so dear? Are the gods given to spite or jealousy? Or might they perhaps be wise to allow only the few and the dedicated to learn the working of such miracles as might undo less worthy supplicants?
“The madrasas of the Dreaming City are built on this simple faith: that both wary and wise are the gods of Velaya.
“Students flock to the madrasas from all the lands that we know, and from the moment they step through the East Gate, their lives are bounded by ceremony and study. During their first years, most complement their research by taking apprenticeship with the glassblowers or the metalsmiths or in the guild of the nurses. After graduation, many may take up the mantle of professorship or medical practice, but the final stage in the lives of the scholars of Velaya is always solitary and secret study, for it is in mimicking the gods themselves—wary and wise—that they hope to discern that which their dreams have intimated: the recipes, formulas, incantations, codes, and mechanisms of the miraculous.
“Of the great madrasas, two dominate: the alchemists’ university and the hospital. At the lower levels, these institutions operate as schools, as wards, as laboratories and libraries; they buzz with students, patients, and journeymen, all moving about their labors. But as scholars attain the higher levels, treading spiral stairs into the towers that sprout from these centers of learning like shoots in spring seeking upward for a purer air, so their silence deepens. In the highest rooms—within the very domes which so distinguish the city—the most learnéd study in deep solitude where the only sound is the turning of pages and the scritching of pen against parchment. And even above that, it is said, there are floating rooms hidden by art of magic in the upper air where adepts neither read, nor write, nor discourse at all, but simply stare into the secret mysteries of the universe.
“Of course, such institutions must have their detractors: students embittered by failed examinations or families dissatisfied with the care given a loved one. The scholars of Velaya, they say, neglect the world around them for the sky above and lose their way in mazes of their own making. In seeking the miraculous, the scholars wish to be gods themselves and so must fail.
“And perhaps, whisper the spiteful to one another, the whole towering hierarchy of study and sacrifice is as a honeypot laid by the gods—oh so wise and wary, the gods—who would lay a honeypot to feed off the best and brightest, their would-be usurpers.
“But as for me, I am undaunted.”
Here, the Eastern woman paused and raised the gourd of raktash to each of us in turn, looking steadily into each pair of eyes from beneath the folds of her hood before continuing.
“In my dreams, I stand below the silver domes with a balm in my hand, a miraculous balm to heal the sick and make whole the maimed. And in that dream, the sick and the maimed come to me, and I heal them and, by my hand, I make them whole.
“Be it prophecy or be it illusion, I shall follow whither such a dream leads, because it is a good dream, and because it is mine.”
Silence settled on us then, and we lay staring into the last lit embers of our fire. The Eastern woman’s tale had been so eloquent, her dream so noble, we each of us felt that a grace had been laid upon our little camp and a blessing upon our dreams. I felt certain that the premonitions which had haunted me on previous nights would not recur.
But as the others closed their eyes and the dim fire gave way entirely to the dimmer light of cold desert stars, I began to think of Velaya in the abstract. Of what does it dream?—Velaya—for it is called the Dreaming City, and not the City of Dreams. Are the dreams of the city and of its gods one? And what if the city’s dreams are of men that never leave, but circle endlessly its siren streets, seeking but never finding dreams of their own?
Then, of a sudden, the image of Velaya—that image which had been in my mind since my earliest memories and which had grown in these final days of my pilgrimage to fill every corner of my inner sky—that image tilted again. Now I saw it not from belowground, where its mines twisted and turned, but from above, where countless layered labyrinths made of naught but wind and vapor ornamented the air between the domes and radiated outward and upward in towers and coronae. And through these labyrinths, hidden in the air, crawled old men and women, scholars, always alone, always seeking but never finding, their robes too threadbare to keep out the cold. And I saw that if the mines were the digestive tracts of Velaya, then these insubstantial mazes above the city were its brain matter, and the scholars lost there were as its very neurons. And I saw that this beast of a city nourished itself on a steady stream of pilgrims but shat out only bones. And I saw that the great breathing of this parasitic beast, squatting there one day’s ride through the desert, was the nightly going out and gathering in of its dreams, dreams like lures, like siren song, like golden netting, and these dream-lures were made in the crucible of its inhabitants’ desperation and longing, made under great pressure and flung out in invisible waves from its trembling need.
The city is a trap, I thought, but not for me. I am neither flyer nor miner nor scholar, and I have Belqis. I would pass through unharmed, like a white egret that flies over the swamp and returns, unsullied.
My mind calmed. I shifted beneath my blanket and turned on my side and thought that now I would finally rest. A pleasant silence of sleepers and cold stars spread out around me. Tomorrow, all the colors of Velaya awaited.
And with that I came fully awake. Another scenario visited me—a possibility I had not before considered—and it set me shivering, for it had the halo of truth about it. What if Velaya seemed at first a disappointment and, after a week of seeing its uninspired sights, I was ready to depart and prepare what disappointing words I would say to Belqis, but then I spied there something colorful and vibrant, something truly of the city of my many dreams? Of course, I would have to stay and explore it—a café where poets gathered or a crumbling temple in the gardens, a place where something unfolded which was worthy of being described to my Belqis. And after I had learned enough of the vain poets or the maudlin temple and was preparing to leave once again, what if I should stumble across some other image or experience which seemed to speak more to the heart of the mystery of the Velaya for which I had first set out? A little girl building a kite with her grandfather perhaps, or a green-robed monk planting a yellow flower, or the great cliffs glowing from a certain perspective in a certain light. Would I not then stay and explore a while longer, if only so that my tales for Belqis would be that much more captivating?
And with each new delay, my absence from Belqis would grow. The longer I was away, the more amazing my stories would have to be on my return. Otherwise, how could I explain to her why I had stayed away so long? I imagined myself desperate—after six months, after a year, after five years—struggling to find something, always just around the corner in Velaya, worthy of telling my Belqis. Something amazing enough to heal the wound of our long separation. After five years, what could possibly be amazing enough? A miraculous balm? A god-stone? A pair of god-gifted wings?
Now was I frozen in fear, feverish, trapped in the coils of my own premonitions. I saw the pile of bones, the mines like intestines, the mazes pulsing in the air, and I saw myself following a trail of glittering clues through the streets, pacing out mandalas, the true Velaya always just ahead, and I, desperate and in despair. And what then would become of my Belqis?
No. Sometime well before dawn, I made a decision. I would not say goodbye. I would not face the disbelief and disappointment of my companions.
I arose and padded through the camp and found my indignant camel-puller and informed him of my change of plans.
I would not venture on to Velaya.
And that is the story of my life. The central story, the story on which the rest teeters. A coward’s less-than-heroic story about a long journey and an abandoned dream. That is how I viewed it for many years: an abandoned dream.
I returned to my village and married Belqis. At first I lied to everyone: I told fanciful but brief tales of the wonders I had seen. To those who asked why I hadn’t stayed longer, I said that the time away from my beloved had been too painful, that I had been eager to start our lives together. This was half true, and Belqis, caught up in the excitement of the wedding, allowed me these half-truths for a time.
But my wife is an observant woman. After we had been living together for some months, she began very delicately to probe my stories, and I broke down almost at once. In real torment of soul, I told how three nights of terrible premonitions in the desert had defeated a lifetime of dreams. I recall how we sat at our little table long after the village slept, drinking the tart early cider our orchards produce in that season and speaking in low tones by the light of a single candle. And how she did not reproach me but looked at me all through our conversation with tender compassion. Yet still I felt myself a failure.
“I failed the first and simplest test of Velaya, a test of the resilience of my dreams. I am revealed a coward.”
“My beloved, you were made to choose between the city and me. It is not cowardly to choose love. I honor you.”
“And I honor you and love you … yet I cannot help but feel unworthy now of that love.”
And Belqis held my hand and, from that night, she seemed to love me as much as ever she had or even more.
And in the years that followed, our fields were fruitful and our flock thrived and our village prospered. We were blessed with three children, two girls and a boy, all beautiful and full of life. In motherhood, Belqis grew in beauty and wisdom. We were blessed. And yet at times—in truth, often—I seemed to see our blessings as through a veil, a veil that separated me from my feelings and from other people. A veil that filtered color from the world. At these times, I felt myself a hollow husband, a hollow father.
Rarely in those years did we mention my journey, and never once did Belqis reproach me for my failures. Never, at least, until the naming of our tavern.
For some time, she had talked of opening a tavern such as our village lacked, a proper place for travelers to eat and pass the evening, and for village meetings and dances in the colder months. I supported her, and when the structure was complete and the first fire was lit in the barroom hearth, Belqis showed me the signboard that would hang above the front door. The board was carved and colored wood, white cliffs against a blue sky, with the words, The Dreaming City, engraved across them in painted silver.
It had been so long since those once magical words had passed my lips; I felt stung, mocked. I hesitated, then spoke carefully.
“I did not know you had decided on a name.”
Belqis did not look at me, but smiled at the floor. “It is a beautiful name for a tavern,” she said. “Travelers will recognize it, and the village will find it exotic and exciting… Do you like it?”
I sensed that she was tense, that maybe the whole project for this tavern had been leading to this moment, to this sign and this name—that now was the time to show my gratitude for her years of forbearance—but I didn’t trust myself to speak. Coward that I am, I made an ambivalent “mmm” sound and nodded.
The tavern was a success. Belqis took some pride in preparing the days’ meals and the nights’ rooms, in welcoming travelers and introducing them to our local cider. She seemed in her element there, a fish in good water. I spent more time in the fields or teaching the children to tend the flock and the garden and the orchards. Of course, I visited the barroom some nights, though I was uncomfortable with the travelers and their talk.
But one cool autumn evening with the fire’s warm glow burnishing the few faces in the room, a young man traveling alone began to talk of Velaya, and it was as if his voice spoke to me across space and time, from another fire in the desert far away and years ago, but immediate, present. He said he loved birds and had dreamed as a child that he could speak to them. Later, he had heard that the secret to the language of birds could be found in a distant city far to the South. Many had scoffed, insisting that the birds had no language or that the stories of men who spoke with birds were only legends, but he remained true to his dreams.
I was transfixed.
When he had finished, Belqis looked at me and away—subtly and quick—and then she offered a glass of cider to the young man who loved birds.
To the room, she said, “A glass of cider and a bowl of stew on the house for any traveler who tells a story of the Dreaming City!”
There were no more storytellers that night, but word spread, and eventually our tavern became known throughout the countryside and beyond as a trading post for the lore of Velaya. Pilgrims would travel many miles off their routes to spend an evening or two at The Dreaming City and to share a story. We heard from warriors who dreamed of invincible swords, and lovers who dreamed of fairy brides, and would-be wizards who dreamed of taming fiery dragons. And sometimes—as the months became years—if the night was slow or the weather was bad, I might volunteer a story of my own journey. Never of the city itself, but of the dock-hands I had encountered and the sailing ship, or of the sounds and smells of the great caravans.
And am I now content? Am I healed? I am still ashamed of my brush with the city. And yet also I am haunted by a kind of wary nostalgia for the road and its mysteries. I am not entirely content, but neither am I the hollow man I was for a time. There is color again.
And tonight after a late evening of stories in the tavern, as I helped Belqis into bed and lay down beside her—wise Belqis, clever Belqis, flower of our village and light of my eyes—she turned to me and spoke to me softly.
She said, “Our flocks and our orchards do well. The tavern prospers.”
“Yes, my love,” I said and touched her gray hair.
She said, “Our children are grown and married and have children of their own. You have taught them to tend the farm and I have taught them to tend the tavern, and our children and our grandchildren do these things well and with love.”
“Yes, my love,” I said and touched her shoulder.
She said, “All these things we have done with love and now we have time.”
“Yes, my love,” I said and took her hand, though I did not yet know what she meant.
And she said, “We can go to Velaya together.”
I am Belqis and the dream of Belqis and I am old.
I was old already when we set out. Old and dying, if truth be known, though it had been my constant concern in those last few months to hide my growing infirmity from my husband and my children.
They were not so very difficult to deceive. My children worried about their own children, not about me, and this relieved and comforted me, for it is as things should be between the generations. As for my husband, I believe he saw me still as a young maid—the dream of Belqis he had returned to all those years ago—and I loved him for this harmless delusion and indulged him.
But I could not deceive myself. What had at first seemed the common ache and stiffness of age revealed itself over the course of some months to be a creeping paralysis. I could no longer turn my hips or unbend my back to reach the shelves in the pantry, my ankles would not flex, and my right hand was perfectly wooden, like the false claw of an amputee, so that I poured cider now only with my left. I was become an old fire-ravaged tree. I succumbed branch by branch, the sap hardened, the xylem and cambium no longer coursed with living water: I knew that soon I would be only pith, only dead wood.
And so I determined that we should travel as aged pilgrims to Velaya, to the Dreaming City, where my husband could at last complete the great interrupted arc of his life, and I, like a canny cat that when its time has come slinks away from family and friends, I could go there to die.
We left with fanfare and the blessings of the whole village, and I, swaddled in quilts, waved from our hired carriage and smiled and wept and knew that I was dying and never to see my children again. And that was hard—very hard—but I have always endeavored to live gracefully, and I chose to die gracefully as well.
After only two days, we had traveled farther than I had ever traveled before. After two weeks, nothing at all was recognizable to me: not the language men spoke, not the trees, not the very color of the earth. In the mornings, birds I did not know sang songs I had never before heard. My body continued to stiffen, but through the apertures of my ears and eyes, a new lightness entered me, made of awe and surprise and a comforting sense of our smallness when considered against the expanse of the wide world.
And still I did not speak to my husband of dying. Not until at last I beheld the sea—the true, storied sea, wide, steel gray, implacable, against which all human conceit is but loose sand—only then did my unwillingness to speak of dying fall away from me at last. We booked passage, and there on deck, amid the strange back-and-forth calls of the sailors as they clambered through the rigging and the sharp smell of sea wrack, I pressed my husband’s hand.
“Now that we have left the road for the sea and can no more turn back, we must speak of difficult things.”
“You know that my body is failing, that I walk only with great difficulty, that my hands have stiffened to such a degree that I can no longer feed myself. You take my arm and you guide me, you put the spoon in my mouth, and you do these things lovingly. I am made to feel young and loved and I am grateful. But we must speak the truth of these things.” I held his eyes. “My husband, I am dying.”
“Of course you are not… Or we are dying together, yes, and will do so for many happy years. My love, let us not talk of such things, but enjoy the sea breeze and the sun. Here, I will adjust your chair to better catch the light.”
I said, “I have a disease. A paralysis is moving through my body, slowly, stilling my hands, my legs, my back. It will reach my lungs or my heart soon. Sooner than you have imagined… I am sorry.”
He looked at me, amazed, but I would not look away, though tears started from my eyes. “Then we will turn back,” he said. “If it is as you say, I will speak to the captain immediately and we will turn back. I must bear the blame for encouraging this pilgrimage. We will go home where you can rest and you can mend.”
And my husband made as if to stand and go, but I spoke softly, so that he bent to hear me.
“I will not mend and there is not time. I am sorry. It has been a good life with you and our families and our children and the orchards and the tavern—a life full of love—but it is ending. And now I wish to see Velaya.”
Then he sank before me and held my knees and wept.
We said much more to one another, that day and in the days that followed, but we did not turn around, and gradually my husband came to support my resolve. And though my condition worsened, so that I was more like a bent plank of wood than a woman when finally we made port, he bathed me and cared for me and passed the evenings of our sea voyage with descriptions of the great caravans he had known of old.
But the port town, when we alighted, seemed diminished from the bustling center he had described, and the wide caravanserai with its many stables and markets was pitifully empty. I saw disappointment on my husband’s face and also confusion, and I, in my debility, could do little to help. Eventually we found someone in the dusty market who would take us the four days to Velaya on camelback, though our guide’s fare was exorbitant and his camel seemed skinny and old, even to one who had never seen a camel before.
We set out the next day, and the going was hard for me. We rode together on the one camel, my husband and I, because I was so light and because I was too stiff to sit without falling, so that my husband had to tie me to him atop that strange fleshy hump. The heat of the day was punishing and the cold of night, bitter. I spoke almost not at all, for my breathing had become shallow and short. I feared that the paralysis had come to my lungs at last, that I might not make it to the city.
On the third morning, we woke alone in the desert with no water—camel and guide gone—and all but one coin stolen from us.
I could not walk. I could barely breathe. But far on the horizon, my husband said he could see white cliffs, and so he hoisted me into the air, as a bridegroom crossing the threshold with his bride, and began to walk. All that day he walked through the broken desert carrying his wife before him like a cord of wood and the sun beating down. And all that night with the cold stars staring. And more than once he stumbled, but never did he let me fall, and I could do nothing to help but to coax my laboring lungs on, and each breath a trial.
At dawn we came to Velaya.
And having never seen the Dreaming City myself, I could not know with certainty that it had fallen, that it was a husk of its former glory. I had heard only stories of Velaya, and who can say what is fantasy and what is real in a story, no matter how earnest the teller.
But the city was certainly a husk. The Northern Gate was pockmarked; its arches had fallen where their keystones no longer held. The domes of the madrasas which had not collapsed had been stripped of their silver. The streets were dusty and steep and uneven and empty of inhabitants except for a few market-folk in colorless rags selling trinkets and dried nuts from the shadow of low doors.
But my husband entered with his head held high in the dawn light and his eyes stern and his dying bride in his arms.
“We are come to Velaya, my love,” he whispered.
And on the blanket of a sun-wizened old rag-picker, from among dirty sandstone idols and chipped crockery, my husband chose a small earthenware jar the size of a hen’s egg and traded for it our last coin. And squatting there in the street with myself in his lap—never putting me down—he opened the jar, and with his two fingers scooped from it a gray ointment, and opening my thin black robes, he rubbed the ointment onto my chest.
“A balm of Velaya, my love,” he whispered.
And at first I felt only a tingle, but then air rushed into my lungs and I breathed as deeply as a child breathes who wakes from a long and untroubled sleep.
And I would have lain there in his lap breathing and praying and giving thanks—for I had surely been touched by a miracle—but my husband stood with me in his arms, and continued walking up the broken street and in his eyes was a burning intensity. The rag-picker called after us, and some children, ragged also and all skinny, came from the doorways out of curiosity or wonder and followed us on up the street, and more joined, until we were leading some dozens of street urchins in a motley parade. And we wound through the abandoned city until we came, all of us, to a wide plaza with a shallow pool at its center, the pool dry and half-filled with wind-blown sand and its tiles all cracked. Then my husband reached down and grasped a pebble that two of the boys had been kicking and raised it to the light for me to see—a piece of broken cobble with green flecks in its clay—and then he held it to my chest and held me close to his chest.
“A stone of Velaya, my love,” he whispered.
And as he held me to him, water burst forth in a great arcing spray from the center of the pool and the children all screamed and the mist from the spray of water soaked into our robes and into the rags of the children as they ran and jumped and splashed into the pool. But my husband held me and rubbed more of the ointment into my hands, and as he rubbed the sore useless tendons and the stiff little bones, my fingers returned to life and ached and flexed and clutched his fingers in desperate gratitude. We drank from the pool together, cupping our hands, the clear cold water running down our chins and necks, and rainbows danced in the arcing mist.
There were more shouts as the city-folk came running into the plaza, clapping and ululating and wading in. But my husband lifted me again in his arms, though he did not need to do so for the miracle of the ointment was spreading through my body and I felt my knees tingle and my shoulders and my neck, and a great relaxation came over me, like a fist that has been too long clenched finally unclenching. He walked with me up into the city, through abandoned alleys, past temples, past the eroded faces of old stone gods and the disjoint columns of palaces, and as we walked higher and higher, the wind blew across our wet clothes and the sun warmed us and our skins felt magical. And we climbed up into the cliffs above the city by a long white stair cut from the living rock.
“The Dawn Stair of Veliara, my love,” he whispered.
Far below us, from the shoulders of the great cliff, we could see the water from the pool as it shimmered in the sun, and the water overflowed into ancient canals and along aqueducts that had run of old throughout the maze-like city, and the spreading of the new water through the city was as the veins of a leaf held to the sky, except that the veins of Velaya were silver and shining. Then my husband set me carefully down, and though my feet had not felt the ground for some days, I was suffused with a curious lightness, as if I floated like a cork on water. We continued on up the stair, hand-in-hand, always higher, and we were not tired, and we climbed until at last we came to the very summit of Veliara and stood at the cliff-edge looking down into the shining maze of the Dreaming City.
And there was no terror and there was no trial. My husband bent and placed upon that high ground the stone and the small jar of balm and then he took up my hand again. We were not judged. We felt no fear and no uncertainty. We felt no need to leap into the unknown, for we rose from that place on wings we had always known we had.