“… because we know the weight of things so well.”
Perhaps three days’ journey south, southwest, across a salt desert leading to an ancient wood dense with black cypress and a strain of ivy so fierce its creeping roots are said to choke even the soil it feeds upon, lies Cieloso, city of floating men and women. In Cieloso, the whole adult population is so light they can be seen, daily, walking among the clouds, casually conducting the everyday rituals of commerce, domesticity, and leisure, as if—like their earthbound ancestors—their lives are still lived behind doors, between walls, under the rooftops of the buildings, houses, and vehicles left below, now and forever beyond their reach.
It is true that—especially after dusk—the weary, delayed, or novice traveler could mistake Pametin for Cieloso. Which, to begin, is merely a town from a myth and, purportedly, so drenched in the darkest color blue there is no telling the land from sea, a beast from its shadow, a puddle (of which Pametin has many) from the shallows of a loch (of which Pametin has many more). But this mistake would be a grave one. For the town of Pametin is a hellish, forgotten place: A colony of sad, misshapen beings—whiskered like cats, with the cold dead eyes of sharks, whose constant, inconsolable cries release a stench as poisonous to breathe as the flesh of lepers is to touch. Whereas, what welcomes you upon entering the city of Cieloso, in a sudden, joyous rush of laughter and play, are all the sweet-breathed children who have not yet grown light enough to join their families above; and so thirst and hunger to be held, and lifted, kissed and understood, counseled, guided, comforted—loved, finally—that they beg only half-jokingly even for discipline and punishment.
Why anyone would first journey across the salt desert—a wasteland of crusted mud and brackish marsh—then brave the labyrinthine cypress wood with its tangle of suffocating vines, only to risk the misstep of losing one’s way and stumbling into the unforgiving center of black Pametin, is clear enough to those of us who are barren, or sterile, or have together suffered the loss of a child. No one knows this better than the poor inhabitants of Pametin: Once travelers themselves, who searching for Cieloso lost their way long ago, and so many times thereafter, that pain is the final language they speak, death their sole wish for all the wandering, hopeful women and men who might someday find the city.
Night after night above all of this, the parents of Cieloso, who—it is said—never intended to grow so light, weep and watch, holding fast to the clouds beneath them.
A Family Story
“Can you keep that thing in your pants now?” my grandmother said—I am told—with an edge of disgust typically reserved for waiters who betrayed her with overcooked steak, waiters who betrayed her with under-baked potatoes, waiters who betrayed her with lukewarm, sweet martinis. My father’s third son was born that morning, my younger brother, Peter, and though our parents had planned on only three children, something curious and unexplainable followed my grandmother’s pronouncement. My mother gave birth to a daughter the very next day. And she gave birth to another daughter the day after that. And she continued to give birth to daughters for the rest of the week, the remainder of the month, the whole of the year until one day the doctors said no more, we cannot deliver any more babies. By this time the town hospital was full of my sisters, and the hospital in the town nearest ours, that had also dedicated its daily operations to the care of my sisters, also said no more, and began to readmit its displaced patients one by one as the babies grew large and strong enough to come home. Father didn’t like it, but Mother stopped giving birth. And my grandmother, whose attitude and tone had softened throughout the year, was saddened the day we all—Mother and Father, my older brother, Danny, who I have not mentioned, Peter our new brother, and his three hundred and forty-two younger sisters—boarded the buses that would take us far away from anyone and everything that could, and would, threaten our family.
Angry, meaning of course hurt, the magician challenged us to come on stage. “All you! Any one of you! Up!” he said thickly, a low Slavic growl I think was also a bit of sleight-of-hand. “Make the magic!”
I could see his top hat was bald around the brim, what had once been a fine felt now worn from years of doffing and seizing rabbits from the abyss. His cape, which he’d wrestled from his neck before storming off, lay in a heap in the spotlight, the red silk lining tattered but held together by safety pins. I had had a few drinks, maybe two more than the club’s minimum, and alcohol has never swayed me in one direction or the other, but the laughter from the crowd was growing unbearable. It rose to such a vicious, unified din that I found myself stepping onstage, taking the magician’s wand from his bag of tricks. With a wave I put a hole in myself. Then another, within the hole I’d made. And then another hole within that hole, until my body—what was left of my body—resembled a large O with limbs. The crowd grew silent. The magician, who’d been lurking backstage, leaned through the curtains then crept out to stand at my side. He passed his hand in front of me. He passed his hand behind me. And when I nodded yes, reached through me.
The uproar of applause was deafening, and seemed to last forever. But what I remember, to this day, is the magician turning to me as we bowed, eyes moist, lips trembling.