City of the DeadA Story by Shiloh Black
The city can be a magical place, but only during the day.
The city during the day is a magical place. I grew up in a residential neighbourhood, so when I moved to the city I was overwhelmed by how much life the city could hold. It was filled up to the brim with it. On my way to class, the streets would always be filled with people: people driving to work, walking to school, going to the grocery store, all occupied with the daily acts important to living. One time, I just sat in the rocking chair with a loose arm that I had purchased at a yard sale, right beside the old antique lamp with naked brass cherubs (another yard sale purchase) -- I sat there, in the middle of the living room of the little two bedroom apartment on the 6th story I shared with a friend, and I laid my head back and closed my eyes. Closed my eyes and listened. Outside, I heard the cars rush by, up and down the road and in and out of the city. Rushes, in and out in and out. It was as though the city was breathing -- in and out, in and out -- like an old man sighing in his sleep.
But that was only during the day.
I never went out much at night, the fist year. I lived on campus at the time, and not being much for the university social life, there was no point. The second year, I moved off campus and began walking to class. It wasn’t a far walk. A stroll down one long, straight road and I was nearly there. However, as summer withered and fall rolled in, the days shortened, and soon I began to find myself walking to class in the dead of night. The first thing I discovered about the city at night was that it was bore no resemblance to the city during the daytime.
A busy street ran by the front of our apartment building. Every day, I would wait on the corner for the light to turn, to begin my trek to class and, later during the day, I would wait opposite that corner to return home.
One gloomy pre-dusk, as I stood across the street, adjacent apartment building, I witnessed something so fabulously normal, yet to me seemed something right out of an image of surrealist horror. A bus (I think perhaps it was the 32) glided down the street. Fair enough. Since the sky was beginning to darken, the lights inside the bus had been turned on. Again, nothing out of the usual. But as the bus passed by, and I gazed into the large, brightly lit windows, the people inside seemed to me as though they were made of wax. They were placed in their seats so perfectly still, faces so perfectly empty, that nothing about them seemed lifelike. It was as though I were staring into a moving exhibition of wax people. One woman on the bus, with blurry features and a second chin beneath the first, starred back at me. It was unnerving, as if a museum piece had all of a sudden begun to study me, judging I who judged. She might well have been a museum exhibition. I felt no more consciously connected to her than I did fossils or abstract art.
After bolting down some leftovers for supper, I headed out to my last class of the night. My friend, with whom I would normally walk to class with, was already at the university, so I was on my own. The street was quiet by the time I left; deserted, almost. It was only sixty thirty but already dark out.
Within the space of an hour, perhaps less, my familiar world had been transformed by night. It was a place of shadows and creeping anxiety. The familiarity of the busy street and students bustling about on long and straight road I took every day was ebbed away. I was not alone; far from it. University courses were still running that late at night, and so I still occasionally met with the occasional student, but they were… different, somehow. Changed. A man on a bike road towards me and pedaled up onto the sidewalk. It was a student’s town -- you could see bikes everywhere, but during the day, with car engines growling up and down the street, you never really hear the bikes. I could hear that bike then, when there were no cars around. The chains creak, the gears creaked, and the whole contraption squeaked like a rusty iron gate, like a dying animal, like metal on metal in empty air.
Not to say there weren’t any cars out at the hour at all -- there drove by here and again. I would mostly seem them whenever I was crossing one of the many streets that intersected the long road I traveled down. They would slow at the intersections and wait for me to cross. Between the darkness and the blinding headlights, I could never see the face of the driver. From my perspective, it seemed as though the cars were sentient beings all their own. Only, there was a strangeness to them as sentient things, a kind of mindless creatureness. It was as though they were things once living that had been killed and reanimated. Whenever a car stopped for me, I always jogged across the street. I worried that it would surge forward at any moment. Run me over and gobble me up. Sometimes, a car would drive by and its headlights would strike the trees in such a way that it would create shadows that moved across the sidewalk, like standing rows of straight and narrow shadow soldiers that followed me down the road.
There were people walking, too. When they were far off from me, they appeared as silhouettes under distant streetlamps. Even when they were right upon me, however, I saw nothing of their face. Sometimes there would be a flash of clothing, but for the most part the people were grey and shapeless blobs, blobs without faces. Blobs that seldom spoke, and when they did, said only indistinct and muffled words. I wondered if, when they looked at me, they saw only a grey blob too -- that is, if they even looked at me. We were like ghosts, drifting down a the roads of purgatory lit above by the streetlights, which seemed oddly magenta against the asphalt and concrete.
That was another thing that bothered me about the night -- the colors. I couldn’t trust them. For the past several years, I’ve worked with art, primarily digital. I know that, when painting a night scene, you can fool the eye into perceiving green or red or yellow by using various shades of blue. When I walked down the street that night, mind free to wander, I began to have this irrational feeling of distrust in my perception. Looking at the grass, I thought I perceived green -- but then my mind turned against itself, and I began to wonder if perhaps the grass was really blue or red or some other color that was playing tricks on my mind. Colors are so much simpler during the day.
I arrived to my class much like the fashion of one who wakes up from a dream: I was walking down the dark streets one minute, then standing in a brightly lit lobby the next without any recollection of how I got there.
Later, after walking home with a friend and failing to see any of the strangeness that had haunted me on my walk to class, I took the lift up to my floor. There was a man and a woman on the elevator, whose voices were low and heavy. They stood in the corner and I in the opposite corner, physically pressed as far away as I possibly could from them. The woman pressed her face into the man’s neck and growled, “Come ‘ere”. When the elevator doors opened I hurried out as fast as I could.
Once safe in my room, I sat by the window and studied the cityscape. It’s so strange, the city at night. You can’t see any people, only bleary amber lights that stand alone in the darkness like tiny islands. Lights that scream, “Come and drink and f**k”. The only places open so late are exactly the kinds of places no sensible person wants to go. The grocery stores, offices and schools are all closed at night. People who go out past midnight have no interest in living; they want to forget they’re alive in the first place.
Night back home in the small town is different. There are no people, but there are no lights with dubious meanings either. Only the stars. You hardly ever see the stars in the city.
Once, during the summer, I went across the street to the park with my brother and his new telescope. We starred at the moon for a while, but I grew tired of that soon enough. While my brother fiddled around with his lenses, I stepped aside and threw my head back and starred up at the twinkling firmament above. The wind rushes around me, tossing my hair aside and whistling through the trees. I felt the greatness of the wind against me, the weight of gravity beneath me and the mass of the night sky above me, and all at once I was small.
© 2012 Shiloh Black
Saint John, Canada
AboutI presently reside in Atlantic Canada. My interests, aside from writing include drawing, reading, and indulging in my love of all things British. I'm currently attending the University of Dalhousie, w.. more..