The Man in the Slumbering City
The man’s footsteps refused to echo, even in the open heart of the city.
He walked in a straight line, following the curving sidewalk, the shadows thrown upon him by overhanging lights rising before him and toppling behind like clockwork so long as he moved.
This part of town was filled with shops of the creative kind, self-contained areas of culture and quiet ambitions. They were empty and well lit, their glass facades and windows displaying serene, untouched scenes.
Empty shops stretched far, far away, broken by older residences carved in granite and sandstone. All of man’s settings were here, arranged as they should be: the cars, the lights, the open store fronts. But there was nobody beside the man as far as the eye could see.
He walked unhurriedly, in a daze, passing neatly tucked taxi cabs with lit tops, silent engines and unoccupied seats. Overhead the icicles and snow dripped. The weather had turned warm and the snow had changed from hard and firm to heavy and dense, the perfect consistency for snowballs or a winter sculpture. His shoes emitted a wet squish with each step.
His eyes scanned his surroundings, looking for a sign of someone: the glimpse of a silhouette under a distant streetlamp, or the shifting fabric of a curtain disturbed by a passing form, or a figure seen for an instant between the frames of a high-rise window.
He stopped dutifully before the ruby lights guarding each desolate intersection and waited for them to turn emerald. The absurdity of this act escaped him, for his faculties had not gleamed the implications of his condition. His subconscious still believed itself in a world of action and movement, and thus populated by others, and all the old reasons, no longer valid in fact, remained dogma at heart: a car could come through, and drivers were crazy in this city; one did not walk when it was red; jaywalking tickets were expensive, and he couldn’t afford one right now. Imperceptibly these beliefs crumbled, were dissolved by the acid of desolation which undermined his foundations of conduct.
Several blocks down, he ignored the red eye, and paused in his traverse of the road, and stood in the middle and looked in each cardinal direction.
From on high the roads descended, stretching off in to the distance. Without moving obstructions, he could see very far down the empty road. At some point the laws of perspective crushed detail and smudged it together, but he hoped for movement – any movement. He longed for the sound of rubber on asphalt, or the ephemeral beams of distant headlights cutting through the mist. The boulevards, bordered by houses and sagging trees, stretched on in slumber.
He made his way past an open space, now snowed in, that served as a park in the summer. In the snow were the sunken footprints of boots, small and child-like, dancing and trampling over one another in playfulness. Where, he asked himself with rising anxiety, were these children now?
He made his way past the park, uneasy at the traces of a humanity he had yet to find. He came across a stylized apartment building. Through an expansive window he could see a brightly furnished room of red couches and orange curtains arranged around an inviting wooden table atop which lay an open laptop. He couldn’t make out the particular program or webpage, but he knew it was running, that it was on. It showed that somebody had, at some point, turned it on.
Like individual drops that add to overflow the largest container, each passing moment added to his dread. Walking through the slumbering void that was the city filled him with the disquiet of the solitary man whose distress was destined to remain unregistered, whose cries were endlessly in vain. The droplets of condensation in the swirling fog covered him. They infiltrated his clothing, put in a haste and inadequate; the spaces between his fingers; his eyes and ears and nose. They percolated to his bones, and brought with them a chill wholly separate from the external temperature, a spiritual rather than physical shuddering.
His eyes locked on a semicircular window at street level, a basement apartment’s access to the outside world. He paused before the kitchen scene. There was a stainless sink of two compartments, and both were filled high with water, though only one held dishes. There were soap bubbles collecting on the sides of the square sink like amphibian eggs in a pond, their outer form hugging the square edges, the inner surface forming a spherical frontier of containment against the water. Occasionally one would dissolve with a mute pop, sending barely perceptible ripples outwards. He strained to see the water, praying for steam, praying for something to tell him how much time had elapsed since the world had been taken away. Nothing disturbed the scene save for occasional pops. The secret remained safe, a laughing whisper mouthed but left unvoiced.
Barely a week had elapsed since the New Year, when the streets were flooded with revelers, and smokers huddled and hopped for warmth outside bars. Now only the unadorned, stiff forms – slowly browning but still mostly green – of Christmas trees jettisoned on the sidewalks gave hints of past revelry.
If the neighbourhood had been industrial and fabricated from hulking factories or a metropolis overshadowed by stately offices and skyscrapers, the man could have eked out a defense through the impersonal scene of grandiose, seemingly immortal architecture – so opposite to the small and insignificant individual – that surrounded him. The straight lines and unyielding facades, so unrelatable to the emotional mind, could have served as a temporary antidote to the creeping madness. But the rows of family homes and modest enterprises that stretched out did the exact opposite. These symbols of warmth and company and safety fired the cabin fever within him.
Take for example the wedding store before him. The great glass window, slightly curving outwardly, held displays at odds with the season: airy silks, breezy wedding dresses, jovial invitation calligraphy on still pieces of paper. A plastic bride reclined in the awkward pose of a mannequin, showing off a frilly gown of white matching the grey pallour of her skin. Her face was locked in an eternally indifferent expression, and it was differentiated from the rest of her body solely by her eyes, painted black, which stare out blindly and would never see. What was a man to do when he saw such a sight, except recede from this remnant of happier times, and look elsewhere for sanity?
The man continued in the light mist, surrounded by the windless night, weighed down and confused by the picturesque scenes of an abandoned world. The tranquility of it all maddened him. So why didn’t he scream and rail, or take to the windows with fists and bat, and defy the silence? Only the man knew.
He came across the bicycle without registering it at first – or perhaps the fog had hidden it until the near collision. It was apple red and lithe, a colour and style fit for a young, lighthearted woman, and it sat there unchained, kickstand extended, ostensibly poetic underneath a streetlight’s shining eye.
It couldn’t have been long, the man thought. It couldn’t have been long. The bike was here, and it was upright. Could someone have been riding it minutes before? Had he missed her by mere minutes? His hand felt the seat, searching for warmth. His eyes darted to the closed door at whose doorstep the bike stood. It was undoubtedly shut, the circular, submarine-style window leaking darkness.
He had seen empty cars and ornate, deserted apartments. He had seen the steps of people in rapidly melting snow and wondered if they had been happy, or angry, or neutral, before they were no more. He had peered inside homes and family shops and spied upon the amassed remnants of aspirations and dreams.
But it was this simple bike, arranged so innocently, which tipped his mind. Tears collected on the ledges of his eyes and tumbled to the sound of a quiet sob. Why did he hold back? Who could hear and judge him now?
Broken, he started for the mountain (in actuality a hill) that lay at the center of the city. He wished for one more confirmation to his suspicions yet simultaneously held out with a last hope. The mountain was wild, or as wild as it could be in the city, surrounded by bushes and bare branches painted snow white. His only companions uphill were the dreaming trees.
He climbed the wooden path, step by step, flight by flight, that took him to the tip of the geographical top, and when he was there a cold plaza, bounded by walls, waited in the night. He felt the stone walls with his fingers as he lifted himself. A substantial distance separated him from the forested slopes below. A plunge headfirst would almost certainly be lethal.
Purposefully he rose, in defiance of lethargy, keeping his face towards the lights emanating from the city. The pinpricks of streetlights and homes and factories, all amalgamated in to a melancholic glow, bathed his face in ghostly shades of yellow. They mirrored the distant stars caught above in the spiderweb of night. The city appeared vibrant and alive, each source of light an unfolding story. But it was a lie. All those lights were no different than the superficially lit sewers and deserted subway tunnels that lay underground. They were empty. Were there any people left here – or anywhere?
He waited on the edge of the precipice for the answer from anyone or anything. How long did he have before the silence dismembered his resolve?
With each passing second he neared closer to the ultimate act of courage and cowardice.