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.”