Cities of the plain

November 2012

With every step, a memory of the city they were leaving behind: merchant trains passing through market squares, harpists, cafeterias, frescoed temples, streetlamps, lemon trees.

I can't do it, she said quietly.

Lot sighed, rolled his head and spat on the compacted surface of the road. Don't be stupid, he said.

Her husband was a different man when he first arrived, back when he was the stranger in town, finding his way around and grateful for a friendly conversation at her fast food stand. She told him all the secrets: the best places to buy meat and wine, where to get his hair cut, which taverns to avoid.

He in turn talked of his adventures in the south, herding beasts. He wasn't like the soft, city types. His skin was browned by years under the bare sun and there was a strength in him, a rhythm to his voice. When he searched through his pockets for loose change, shadows flickered on his forearms.

She showed him the real city, making fun of his country-boy awe at the windmills and clockwork laundries, his prudish disapproval of the young bodies spilling out of nightclubs. He paid for dinner in an expensive restaurant and they watched the crescent moon dividing the sky and he told her that in all the lands between the mountains and the sea, there was not a single woman with her grace and cleverness.

She discovered she was not immune to flatteries. For a single parent, a little past her prime, men like this didn't show their faces every day. Within the year, they were married.

She was surprised when he took advantage of his newly-conferred citizenship to stand in the elections; embarrassed when, taking his place on the council, he began to promote a radical agenda of reform. He argued for changes in the licencing laws and called for bans on prostitution, usury, street parties, gaming tables. He wanted to raise the age of consent and prohibit shopping on every seventh day. He wrote detailed monographs on the wickedness of fornication and opined on the luxuries of imported spice.

Then came the meetings with foreigners, visitors appearing at all times of the day and night. The invariably clean shaven young men with pale clothing and glazed expressions would be conducted through to the study where for hours they would catalogue the misdemeanours of the citizenry. When she asked to know more about their guests, he reprimanded her. They were messengers, he said, for the law he followed and that was all she needed to know.

She learned more through her daughters, with whom he shared his confidences. They let slip how her new husband was a missionary of sorts, acting on the instructions of a mysterious individual he had never seen, whose name he was not permitted to speak aloud. According to them, this creature lived in orbit, high above the clouds, silently monitoring the affairs of humans from afar and issuing orders via envoys despatched to the surface.

She began to think about simpler times, back when she sold her hot pepper flatbreads and pistachio shortcake and tried to make the best of things along with everyone else in the cities of the plain. Just because they liked nice clothing, sexual liberation and complicated financial instruments didn't make them bad people.

Her husband didn't see that it was a matter of time before they tired of his sermonising. Threats were posted through their letterbox, abuse shouted in the street and then, at the end of the dry season, a mob ambushed the house, slinging stones at their shutters and daubing slogans on the walls.

Their otherworldly advisors urged them to leave immediately and her husband agreed. Suddenly they were packing bags, scurrying down alleyways, passing checkpoints and border guards and then they were outside, on the wide, bare flatlands.

Her pace slowed to a halt. Her eyes were beginning to water.

Don't start, said her husband.

Her throat was dry.

I can't help it, she said, I've never even been outside the walls before, this is all wrong.

One of the men swore under his breath and dropped his pack on the ground. They were all watching now, their faces turned towards her: her husband and her daughters, their husbands, the pallid, androgynous strangers. Beyond them, the south road was a dead-straight line bisecting the plain and in the distance, the sharp outlines of the boundary stones stood against the dawn.

Whatever they've done, she pleaded with her husband, whatever you think of them, they're still my people.

He watched her, his eyes were black holes in the night. He pushed his thumbs under the straps of his backpack.

I knew you'd do something like this, he said. Sooner or later you have to decide: which side are you on?

His wife closed her eyes, caught on the turning point of an interior compass. She saw the city's white walls shining on the edge of the plain, the twisting shapes of its weathervanes, banners flying from its towers. In her body she held the map of its alleyways and terraces, the tracery of culverts and streets; in her hair, the dust of its weaving looms and silver mines; on her lips, the salt of tears.

Clouds hovered in the east and, high above their heads, the flames of a new age were burning the sky.