Friday, February 26, 2010


“The illusory emptiness ...” – K

The long, low ferry, illuminated only by a single lantern that rattled on its bow, slowly drew into shore, bumped heavily against the great timber pilings, and came to rest. From the deck a dark figure tossed a heavy rope across to a pair of waiting hands on the pier, and in a few deft motions the craft had been tied off and secured and was rocking gently in its own diminishing wake. The passengers began to disembark, in twos and threes. Among them was a tall man in a heavy overcoat and turned-up collar, who waited his turn, then climbed the rungs of the short ladder to stand on the surface of the pier. He joined the flow heading inland, off the wet planks and onto solid ground, then up a gradual incline into the shadowy beginnings of the water district. Lanterns shone from the salt-encrusted windows of a few low buildings, and figures beckoned from the doorways, but he ignored them and kept pace with the others. They ascended along a narrow street of shuttered and dilapidated warehouses, all of them dark and to all appearances abandoned. Here and there an alley broke off to the left or right, and small furtive creatures scuttled away at the sound of approaching footsteps.

The intermittent drizzle that had accompanied the ferry in its passage across the water was now turning to snow, though the heavy, wet flakes melted as soon as they met the pavement, or dissolved on the coats and faces of the advancing pedestrians. The street opened out into a little square of three-storey stone buildings. In a few, lights appeared in the windows and bits of muffled conversation broke from behind tavern doors, but the throng strode firmly onward, losing only a straggler now and then who turned aside from the flow and stood in place for a moment on the streetcorner, as if debating inwardly, before stepping away towards the flickering halos that emanated through the windowglass of storefronts.

A few blocks further and the narrow street intersected a great, bright boulevard, along which a thin but steady procession of citizens were promenading, wrapped in scarves and muffs and with hats angled down against the snow, which was falling steadily now and swirling into little eddies at their feet. The two perpendicular streams of traffic began to mingle and break apart until they were no longer distinguishable, but still the man kept to his course, passing streetcorner after busy streetcorner, always climbing, his back to the waterline. Eventually he came to a grand square, ringed by statues of heroes and columns of uniform but leafless trees whose branches arched over the crowd. A trio of acrobats were performing on the sidewalk, detaining at least for a moment the attention of a cluster of spellbound onlookers, and near them a man in a tattered leather coat was leafing through the pages of a windblown and half-soaked newspaper. From a bandshell beyond came a steady rhythm of brass and drumbeats that formed a kind of ostinato to the shouts and laughter that echoed around the square; the man slowed his step and cocked an ear to hear the music better, but only for a moment. Leaving the square behind, he continued through a prosperous mercantile district, passing elegant couples, in high spirits and wrapped in furs and astrakhans against the cold, who emerged from limousines parked along the curb and disappeared into the interiors of the nearest night spot at hand. The women eyed him warily but without altering their expressions; the men showed no sign of noticing him at all.

A few blocks beyond he reached the summit of the city. All around him stood immense, gray, unornamented towers, blindingly and coldly illuminated but empty and silent at that hour. The snow was collecting at their bases, an inch deep or more, and beginning to drift against the curbs and retaining walls. He turned for a moment to take a look behind him, down at the prospect of the city and the waterside that lay in the distance below, but they were mostly lost to view, hidden by the snow and the unforgiving columns. Block after block he walked, until the tallest towers began to give way to smaller but equally featureless structures, then all at once he was beyond the center of the city altogether and was descending towards an isolated, windswept knoll, a busy park during the day but utterly dark and abandoned after sundown. He strode along a concrete path, past cast iron benches that overlooked a steep declivity; before him, dotted here and there with tiny lights, lay the mist-shrouded hinterland of the city. He crossed a low, iron bridge to another small hill, then came to the uppermost of a long procession of steps that led down to the valley floor. He passed no one; his footing had become treacherous as the snow slowly mounted, and a bitter wind now rose up, driving the swirling flakes into his eyes. After a few moments, in the shelter of the hill above him, the wind dropped and he continued his descent in the absolute stillness of the falling snow.

At the base of the hill, as far as he could see in all directions, lay a warren of narrow streets lined with low houses and hovels packed tightly one against the other. Most were dark, but here and there a weak, solitary flame appeared through a window. There was no sound except, intermittently, the very distant barking of a dog. A solitary pedestrian, head bowed, emerged from a crossing alleyway and nodded at his approach; he nodded in return but spoke no greeting. The forlorn banlieu sprawled on; his exertions gave him warmth as he walked first one mile, than another. The snow was deep now, unbroken by footprints, and the wind once again picked up and stung his face, blowing drifts across his path as he trudged heavily from one grim corner to the next. There was no longer any illumination in the buildings he passed; either they were untenanted or their occupants had quenched their lamps and sought sleep, huddled in the chill, alone or with their companions as luck might have it. He heard the cracking of a branch from far off, and only then did he notice the cragged outline of the first tree, looming above a house as he passed. Soon the houses thinned out and the woods enveloped him, the street narrowed to a winding but well-trod path. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that the city had disappeared behind him; the snow had risen to his knees but all at once it ceased falling and the wind dropped altogether. He felt the blood return to his face as he approached the little cottage, its windows lit up by a strong warm glow, where his love lay drowsing, awaiting him, wrapped in her blanket of dreams.

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