Fiction and Drama
I was of the museum generation
Excerpted from Houses of Ravicka, out fall 2017 from Dorothy, a publishing project.
I live here, and have done so for at least a decade, and have furnished brightly this spacious top-floor flat of seven rooms, this wall-less, invisible flat, and in all that time, I’ve gotten up, made coffee, dressed, and walked out the door. To leave an invisible structure is just as difficult as returning to one. I’d like to try to explain what it’s like: first, how you leave, and then, how you return. Probably, before all that, I should describe the events that led to my occupying 32 Bravashbinder, events belonging to an even larger system of events and weather that are so in situ it’s hard to gather them. But I do know that if I’m to tell a story about how I live, I’m also to tell about work and sex and how the city breathes, and this requires me to back all the way up to the Barbaras Wall, which long ago used to divide the upper and lower parts of the city on the east side, or back even further up to the emergence of the old city, unfolding, literally, beneath this one — born both of it and before it — and the new laws of motion it introduced into the science of the land (something always changing beneath you changes your chemistry, historians now say). No, perhaps I should begin by saying what it means to see or how measurements occur in time, because first you have to let go of the notion that sights enter the eyes, or merely the eyes. I like to travel far out of the city center, stand in some improbable place, and describe the things obstructed from my view. I try to see them even though they are behind me or are blocked by the buildings of ciut centali, cast in shadows by the trees atop cit Ramtala. You see something by calling its name and doing a pondü with the body. I go to the dirtiest part of the city, the old dilapidated docks, and I dream of the hafshahs; I see the grasses and tij. I stand against the north-side wall of the National Library and press my face into the grooved concrete of its facade and I write a letter about what people are reading inside. I send the letter to the building and try to erase it from my mind: I don’t read, I try to tell myself. Books don’t exist. I’m lying in the woods that run along the a5 with my face against the moist ground, reading the last book. Some hum extends from the city, and the walls of every home creak: a single electrical bend that divides time. Only a third of the residents bear a record of the break, only half of that third had actually heard it, only a third of that half of a third reflected on it, and just a few of these tired, still deeply dreaming souls, a sixteenth of the third of that half of a third, connect this minuscule eruption to those from previous nights and previous residences. I don’t see anything in the ground of the forest, but I hear pages turning in the book. The book, these creaks in the walls of houses, the hum of the city, the lines in the asphalt, have backed me up to the forest, my face against the ground. I was trying to tell you what it means to see a city that itself sees, that looks out of its structures toward some imagined place, some activating force. We have a whole science that says the buildings of Ravicka are on the move — the houses, the buildings — and although the science doesn’t say it’s because the houses see that they move, it’s clear that they move because they see. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be studying the migration of buildings but rather the behavior of some further exterior force. For example, if experts believed the migrations were due to wind or erosion, then we’d be looking more deeply at the properties of wind, the effects of erosion; and perhaps some group is studying one or the other of those things, because the Balsha winds are strong and erosion occurs wherever there is ground; but when it comes to what sets a house in motion, science seems to look primarily at the subjectivity of houses, not going so far as to say they have psychology but definitely allowing for instinct or bewilderment. Houses have creaked for a long time. Long before the first house got up and walked off, the walls of houses creaked, and not just in Ravicka. Nearly every ghostly tale has something that creaks. Wouldn’t it be logical to argue this as the first evidence of buildings seeing? As I said earlier, seeing does not extend foremost from the eyes. I get my face dirty in the forest, but I don’t come here when it rains. I don’t want any trouble with drowning or suffocating; I want to lie down and see what’s happening on my street. Understanding what’s happening in the houses that surround my house — noting the schedules people keep, which neighbors commingle, which keep to themselves, what books they read, whether or not they work, what the clocks on their walls say — helps me to define my own house, to give it shape, to know how to enter it today. To be clear, though, 32 Bravashbinder is not in motion. That is not one of its characteristics. It’s not off somewhere touring the city or the outskirts wreaking havoc on stationary structures; despite its invisibility, it is not a mystery. It doesn’t go on Brunza’s list; people are not talking about it behind closed doors. No. 32 bears the condition of many other houses in Ravicka; it exists on a degree nth parallel to some other house, usually on the opposite side of the city, and, for reasons laid out in The Book of Regulations — oblique to a layman like me — that other house relies on the invisibility of these houses in order to exist. But how do you know the place where you live is invisible, and how did you come to live there? It’s not only visitors from faraway countries who ask me these questions; some of my friends from the oldest families in Ravicka grow flustered when it comes to the question of Rah’s houses, many setting themselves up in the heavier homes (granite walls, deep foundations), hoping to stay grounded. However, I would argue: for any one house to be in motion every other house must be as well. It would be different were this open country, where miles separated one living structure from another; in that scenario, houses could do whatever they wanted — probably for centuries — before any other house knew about it. And that would be an entirely different science we’d be crafting, having no need to take propinquity into account. However, except for the forest, the grasses, and the outskirts, this is a densely built city; even bodies alter environments when they move through them. And for a long time, we seemed to understand how to read these changes. We knew how to adjust our thinking when we came upon a protest at the city’s center, a crowd of bodies standing in a U formation or bodies in a moving, furious cluster, pushing toward a gate or a door, a stage. There is a pareis for throngs; there’s a pareis for one body sprinting through the train station; a pareis for an excited family running up or down steps toward a park or carnival; a pareis for a couple in a fight, where one of the two storms away, or where they both storm away but in opposite directions; a pareis for when they make up and embrace and stay still for an hour (though stillness is another kind of movement; it affects the ground, even if not the wind). Most Ravickians are excited when the environment changes. The more awkward the situation one is observing, the more elaborate the response; but also, the more subtle its performance, the more public. Many people who seem to be in motion are most likely just in the middle of a response to something else. It’s hard to know: somehow the elders didn’t account for this. We exist in a society of complex gestures, all running along their own time; we are all interrupting, witnessing, performing simultaneously, and this was much easier to accept and discern when it was believed that all of our movement happened upon an unmoving ground, when it was believed that the ground itself was a dense impaction of dirt and sediment, when we didn’t think about the ground. Now as I move along the streets of Ravicka I think how odd it must have been to have this sort of geographic numbness I’m talking about, where your sense of the planet is on one hand a picture of a green and blue sphere rotating in a lonely vast darkness and on the other hand that indisputable flat, one-dimensional ground upon which we built our houses or took off in our planes. We have always acted as if we understood the space between the ground and sky, because this is primarily where we place our bodies, this was our living space, where we could most understand breath and language and light and contour. Someone at some point in our history said it was safe to walk across the ground, to walk without thinking about the ground; we were free to study the sky, to figure out how to build in empty space; birds were our mentors. We laughed at things that burrowed underground; we left them to the dark. Our understanding of space became implicit, complex, ornate, but always extending from the body, which began at our feet or at our crown and returned to the body. We would have sworn the environment was complete — not quite closed or sealed but unchanging enough that we all had access to the pattern: we shared memory, language; in the depths of our homes we shared our bodies; we touched our breasts to one another, we pulled our limbs through, we drank each other’s fluids. Living comprised all these movements, all these collectivities, and while it seemed to be transpiring on top of a silent, crystallized ground, among glued-down props, you could drop your books while you were running for the bus and I could jump back twice, then slowly forward in a somersault, and grab a leaf from a tree and a rock from my pocket (hand you the book you neglected to retrieve, the one under the tire of the parked car), and if we walked away from this scene without exchanging names or other means of contact, it would have seemed strange but not conspiratorial. I would have made a small notation later in my notebook, and that would have been the day. But the ground opened or lifted, and an ancient city began to carve itself beneath us, talking to our structures, setting them in motion — a city most of us can’t reach. I have never seen the door, which awaits the traveler many kilometers underground, nor have I found the vaunted gate at the bottom of the stairs inside Shadow of Courts Park. I have read about these portals in Amini novels; I’ve seen them drawn and mapped out and passed around at the Cartographer’s café, but I don’t know whether these stories and maps actually lead to the ancient city or whether they merely take one along the elaborate roads and sentences of fiction.