The Oracle of Cities

I’m in Sydney to see Under Milk Wood tomor­row. I’m very excited! As Zoe said, there’s never going to be a time when we cease to be amazed by Dylan Thomas. Here’s a little thing inspired by snatches of many things (all of which are duti­fully ref­er­enced in the thing). I wrote it in a pub in The Rocks. Sydney­siders, for­give me my hap­less roman­ti­cising of your city, it’s so awfully pretty.



The Oracle of Cities


When I come to Sydney, I go to the Oracle of Cit­ies, who has a res­id­ence in all places where boats once came and streets were built and people drank and lived and died – she is old, the Oracle of Cit­ies, old as churches, old as sew­ers, and speaks only the truth, which churches and sew­ers do not.

The Oracle of Cit­ies leads me into a room made of archi­tec­ture and vel­vet. The seat where I sit down is worn – all who have come to a city have sat in this seat, and all have been told their for­tune, though of course, not all fol­lowed it.

She asks for my hand, but looks at it only fleet­ingly. The streets in her eyes unfold and fill with light.

For you,” she says, her voice a whis­per and a din, “I have four fortunes.”

Is three not a more reg­u­lar num­ber of for­tunes?” I ask, petu­lantly. I will not lie – I have been to fortune-tellers before, and I am well versed in their methods.

Yes,” she snaps. “So it’s your fault you get four. Look.”

She pulls a deck of cards from inside her shawls. There are many decks inside those shawls, just as there are many other shawls, which con­tain other decks, and so on, forever. Some say that the other shawls con­tain other Oracles – of other Cit­ies, per­haps, or of other things entirely. I have never tried to ask.

With a ringed and wrinkled hand, the Oracle of Cit­ies prof­fers me my first card.

The Des­cent into the Under­ground,” she says. A man swal­lowed by a creature which is half train, half sewer, some strange pipework-and-wheels thing. Or is the man part of the whole, already long sub­sumed? Third man, third train, third sewer, per­haps; the pic­ture is unclear, as are all such pictures.

The smell of dark­ness and tun­nels and false air,” the Oracle of Cit­ies con­tin­ues. “The nam­ing of places, fast travel, brief glimpses – if you are lucky, and none who go to for­tune tell­ers are lucky – of other worlds. Machinery and the night­mares of engin­eers, those things which have no names and are expressed only in angles. Strangers, trav­el­lers, war­ri­ors. The Des­cent into the Under­ground prom­ises an ascent, how­ever, espe­cially in cities.”

Is this a good for­tune?” I ask, fin­ger­ing the card.

No,” she says, start­ling me, “it is a for­tune of trav­el­lers, which only provides fur­ther pas­sage, and in your case, it provides the tracks and wheels to…” she pauses for effect, as all for­tune tell­ers do, even when they them­selves know it is gim­mickry, “the Read­ing of Sac­red Texts.”

This one I know myself,” I reply, quick to impress her. “Those who write not of cit­ies, not for cit­ies, but those who simply write cit­ies – the cre­at­ors, the shad­ows in a greater dark­ness, the prom­ises of some­thing lar­ger than the mere world provides.”

Yes,” says the Oracle of Cit­ies, nonplussed.

China Mieville,” I con­tinue, “Neil Gai­man, Cath­erynne M. Valente. These are my saints.”

You pick wisely,” says the Oracle, “but your for­tune leads you onwards, to the Dis­cov­ery of Rel­ics in Places You Have Been Before.”

Which places?” I ask.

In your case, cer­tain sub­urbs,” she says, point­ing a fin­ger like a street­lamp at the map on the card, ever-shifting, ever-changing, “New­town, per­haps, where you will search for The Per­fect Note­pad In Which Ideas Exist Already Formed, or the Com­fort­able Shoulder Bag For Car­ry­ing A Uni­verse And Pens; or per­haps The Rocks, where in time you will cer­tainly dis­cover The Per­fect Gift For Those Left At Home, or a Map Of a City Exist­ing Only in the Ima­gin­a­tion of a Drunk­ard Across the Street; or per­haps, and not per­haps, but cer­tainly and lastly, the Botanic Gar­dens, home to A Pefect Spot of Sun­shine Which Per­sists Even When All Other Spots of Sun­shine Van­ish, and rarely, A Jabiru Who Knows Your First Name and Can Help With Chal­len­ging Metaphors.”

I nod. “This is a good for­tune, then.”

Don’t be so hasty to judge. Con­sider the other rel­ics, not false but cer­tainly not meant for you, which you may find on your jour­ney: the Over­priced Train Fare Which it is Unavoid­able to Pay, the Shop Which Is Closed Due to Lack of Busi­ness, the Long Walk Over Rough Cobbles with No Sur­cease of Suf­fer­ing, the Mad Man Who Fol­lows You Down the Block Shout­ing Obscen­it­ies. These you must meet and defeat before you find the rel­ics meant for you, and you alone.”

I under­stand,” I say, “and I will, I promise.”

Don’t bother prom­ising me any­thing,” she replies primly. “But see – there is only one for­tune left.”

She draws the last card from her shawls – from a dif­fer­ent shawl, I notice, and a dif­fer­ent deck, and just maybe, a dif­fer­ent Oracle.

The Depar­ture from the City at Sun­set awaits you,” she says, and the archi­tec­ture of her room sighs and droops, whether for the words of the for­tune, or simply because it knows the for­tune is complete.

I am not to stay in the City?” I ask.

No,” she replies, “the last for­tune, like the first, is irre­vers­ible. You will travel back to whence you came, exist­ing in the City only as a vis­itor, a tran­si­ent thing, much like a for­tune teller’s word.”

So I can­not keep quest­ing for Rel­ics?” I ask. “There are so many sub­urbs I am yet to see!”

Every quest must come to an end,” the Oracle explains, not unkindly, but matter-of-factly, “and you can­not expect to con­tinue in your search until the City itself loses its gables and gut­ters to the North Wind, can you?”

I sup­pose not,” I say, look­ing at the baroque move­ments of the final card on the table, the golden dust of the sun­set, the dim and tall and dis­tant build­ings bid­ding the trav­el­ler farewell. “But shall I ever see the City again?”

The Oracle of Cit­ies shifts in her seat, and the room tenses once more.

Well,” she says at last, “you’ve received four for­tunes already, so I sup­pose another won’t hurt, but know-” and she grabs my wrist with a grid­lock grip – “that fifth for­tunes, like sev­enth sons, are strange things and immut­able, and may not be meant for their asker at all.”

She reaches into her shawls a fifth time, and this time I am sure it is not her hand which pulls out the final card – not a card, even, but a small brass token, engraved with the chi­meral head of a traffic light crossed with a gar­goyle, a chi­mera in its own right, and such is the nature of cit­ies – faces inside faces, a pal­impsest, an end­less overwriting.

I turn over the token.

A Return to the City,’ it says on the other side, in let­ters like streets, swal­lowed over with the same green pat­ina five mil­lion lives leave on the world when they are com­pressed into tene­ments and towers, tun­nels and bridges and parks.

Ah,” smiles the Oracle. “My fee.” She sweeps the token into the maze of her­self, and stands up, the room fold­ing up into the palm of her hand, where the life-line throbs with the even­ing com­mute and the death-line flashes blue and red. She van­ishes, slowly, as if reced­ing, and lifts a bony hand.

Until we meet again, per­haps, Trav­el­ler of Cities.”

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