There is a city where the outer walls shift and entrances dance away, so that a passerby might think they are merely approaching from the wrong side. If you know about this city, if you are patient and cunning, you can find a way in, and what a city! Its interior is not flashy, not filled with magicians and trees burning with inner fire, but there is comfort there you can find with diligence and pursuit. People leave, as they will, and the inhabitants wait longingly for those travelers to return, for the simple joy of conversing with someone else who understands the city’s intricacies.
I can see my father forming the words, and it is not yet a struggle. His patchy steel-wool beard parts right before he says each phrase, like his own body knows what he is going to say. I haven’t heard of these cities in years and they’ve changed during my time away, they are different cities now. Maybe his purpose is less veiled. Maybe my understanding of what he speaks, his intent, has deepened, but either way tonight, I understand his meaning.
His hands shake. But his voice does not waver. It is strong, mellifluous, golden, and sweetened by the red-and-white-striped peppermint candies that clack against his teeth as he speaks, providing a counterpoint rhythm to his cadence. I had forgotten about the candy.
There is a city where the young people paint their teeth black so that it looks as if they have no teeth at all. They guffaw and toss bits of food at the elderly, taunting and smacking their lips. This practice continued until one child painted their teeth gold. Now they turn their faces, their mockery, to the sun. The very old lounge in the shade of tall trees while the faces of the young burn to a crisp, tongues wagging.
His words come slower, still clear but plodding. I pull the blanket up and tuck it beneath his beard. It is the same color, a rough steely wool, and it looks as if his beard extends to the floor, pooling there. I wonder how long he has sat in the chair by the fire, waiting for me. I wonder if he can see the darkening of foreign suns on my cheeks and forehead.
There is a city that moves, that picks up shop and will relocate to a new place on a whim. The inhabitants believe it is not the city that has moved, but the rest of the world. That the earth beneath their feet has shifted through no fault of their own. They come to believe in a conspiracy of geography and leave markers, carvings to indicate locations they know.
He believes that these places are real. You can tell by the tenor in his voice, his fervor, the way his cloudy eyes remain on my face. He knows these places. He thinks about the inhabitants. That girl who ran across the muddy lane wearing only one shoe. That couple who drifted in and out of traffic, oblivious to the sirens, to the honk and bustle of the city. That woman who painted her body to match the sky and stood frozen in the square, reduced to an outline, a shimmering against the clouds.
Maybe they are real, conjured by his retelling. Maybe they have always been real, and I have just been searching when I should have been understanding.
There is a city where the ghosts never leave. They stay. They linger. The city’s inhabitants push through transparent faces and fingers like a permanent fog. The living have become used to the lingering ghosts, and paint their houses with bright, vibrant colors to find their way. The living paint their faces in elaborate designs to see one another smile. The living laugh and move through life unencumbered by those that have come before them. In the ghost’s desire to stay, they have in fact, become invisible.
When he stops speaking I hold up my hand to his mouth. There is warmth there and breath still. He is afraid, but even now, he will only speak of cities. What can I say to assure him that I won’t forget? I form the words, but they feel flat, inadequate on my tongue. I stoke the fire and wait.
There is a city made and sustained only by songs sung by children and no one is ever left alone in silence.
There was a time when I would not have waited. There was a time when I was off visiting my own cities, searching to see if what he said was true. I wonder now whom he told of these places in my absence, or if they bottled inside of him, waiting for me and only me, to spill out when I returned.
There is a city where they only decorate in bleached bones of their fathers, a celebration, a homage.
Or if he has been speaking slowly, continually, trying to call me back.
There is a city where rain bursts from the ground and all the trees twist roots into the sky, where a person might walk right into the heavens.
There is a city that everyone visits, but never returns from.
There is a city…
There is a city…
There is a city…
This time when he stops, I know he is done. I hold my hand to his mouth and there is no movement. He is finally quiet. I linger for a moment, in the firelight his beard and his blanket shine like hammered metal.
When I get home, my daughter rushes into my arms. I am grateful for the rain to hide my tears, but she is too smart, too quick. But she doesn’t say anything when she lays her head on my chest. We sit by the fire and listen to it crackle. Did you know, little one, that there is a city where an old man grew a metal beard? He always sat by a fire that never dies. And the words he spoke were false, but he never lied. And when his time came, his son wrapped him up tight in the metal that grew from his face so he would be warm for his journey. Because he could no longer stay.
Why couldn’t he stay? she asks.
Because he had new cities to see, a hundred hundred new places to visit.
She is quiet, but her eyes grow wide, and in the light of my own fire, they shine like living ore.