fiction by Sam Becker
My eyes were covered in razor wire just before I threw myself against the pavement. My hands are already bound with parchment. The India ink sticks firmly to my wrists and some is in my lungs as well. I will meet no one here. I have watched many men and women walk up and down these streets before. But they would never meet one another. I designed the city too well. They will follow the streets in the paths I have set. The paths may overlap spatially, but never temporally. I can’t imagine what would happen if they did. I didn’t think that it would be possible to imagine, let alone to happen. At this point, it will never happen.
I remember the first one that I put in. She might have been the most important, or maybe I romanticize her because she was the first. But in all probability, she was the most important. It felt so good. I would build the most exquisite paths for her. I would give her marked crossroads. I knew which direction she would take, but—O God—to watch her choose the path that was right for her… She got to be herself like she never had before. Still completely herself, but more so. After the first time, I didn’t even put anything at the end of the street I knew she wouldn’t take. It was the streetlights. That’s all it was. Just different streetlights. She was Deco. I knew that just a little cornice would do the trick. Little things like that worked every time.
I would talk to her. I would build little nooks where she could never find me and then scream things at her. It would scare her, but she would eventually stammer a thank-you (I would usually just yell compliments) and sometimes respond with information I already knew. My mistake was that I once asked her a personal question. I wanted to scream and cover my ears so that I would not hear her answer, but I froze from shock and was not able to do it in time. That was the last time I would ever walk on the same street as her. From then on, I would only ever observe her from my tower in the middle of the city. I would occasionally place letters for her to find, but I would never be close enough to see her reaction.
The event also spurred me to do more. I needed more citizens. They weren’t like her, though. They could never be like her, so I wouldn’t treat them like her. They didn’t deserve a world made just for them. I may have been playing with them, but maybe I was also fixing them. I put Michael in a few weeks after the incident. I initially left him alone to roam. I didn’t make novelty crossroads or leave him personal letters or scream compliments at him. There was no reason to celebrate Michael for the person that he was. But, that was why I had put him there. The purpose of my city had changed. First, I eliminated all of the doors in his path. When I saw him change in an even greater capacity than I had anticipated, I continued with a greater vigor than I had thought possible. I began to care about Michael’s path even more than hers. I filled in the spaces between every stair that he would come across. I softened every corner of every wall of every building into an arc with the greatest radii that it could support. He would hop and leap and spin everywhere he went. He needed to wrinkle the purifying vision that I had given him.
Sometimes I would see him outside the city. I found it funny, but also horrifying—in a very embarrassing way—that he wasn’t acting like the madman that I had come to know him as. Once, when we were talking about literature, as we often would, we came to Borges’s “Library of Babel.” I tried to guide him. I tried to provoke him into speaking on the lunacy of the fact that there was a limited set of characters at all; how it was silly to think that everything could be contained within the library, when there was a definite and atomic set of which everything was composed. But he didn’t see a problem. He thought that the boundary that the figures created was necessary. Everything had to be fixed down and born out of a single source. Without being able to tie everything to that single source, it was not everything, but only a mass of things. I’m not sure if I bought his argument; it made the definition of everything far too human. Neither were unassailable positions, but we understood each other as pseudo-intellects even on our best days.
My dissatisfaction with the conversation led me to increase the intensity of his path within the city. I had the surface of every wall polished: the reflections would creep around their curves. I had every tooth smoothed off of the margin of every leaf. I had the air filled with a fine silicon dust, so that light would refract and reflect and disperse itself all around him. He was constantly exposed to the totality of the world around him. All detented chromaticism had been removed from his life.
And I won. In several months, he did all that he could to keep his eyes open. He would fear sleep, as it would cause a rupture of his world. He no longer spoke in any language, but would utter nothing but sound devoid of any linguistic structure—only emotion. As a final test, I had a library placed in his path. From the outside, it was clearly finite in size, however massive. But from the inside, illusions that my devils had conjured made it resemble Borges’s in its infinity. After spending no more than fifteen minute inside it, Michael decided to burn it to the ground. That was enough for me. I had no more need for him. I would check on him every few months. He never left that pile of ash. He would sift for anything that wasn’t completely burned and would smash it to powder. I assume that his plan was to further liquefy and then vaporize and then rarefy the ash into an impercievable form of matter or energy.
Even though I was uneasy with what had happened to Michael, I continued. I filled the city with more citizens, but never reduced them to the point that Michael had got to. I would try to treat them like the first girl, but they were never the same. I would have to fix them through accenting and adorning them on their way through the city. I would always fail. When I tried to undo Will’s misanthropy and distrust, he ended up searching for his lost son that he never had. Trying to undo Beatrice’s traditionalism and her outward focus resulted in her being fixated on digging a single hole deeper and deeper—so that she could see dirt that no one had ever seen before. There were more. Probably less than fifty, but probably not by very much.
I couldn’t celebrate them like I could celebrate her. They weren’t good enough on their own. And after I had guided them, they were disgusting.
Finally, there was Paul. Everything I did with Paul was wrong. I had no plan. Outside the city, he intrigued me, almost as much as the first girl. In his path, I had placed signs and books written in a made up language. The language itself was of little importance. I couldn’t understand it. I don’t even know if it actually was a language. I just created the series of serpentine glyphs. I don’t know if they were ever arranged with any method. But regardless of whether it was there or not, Paul was able to find a method and a message. As he identified (or created) the language of the glyphs, he began to behave unpredictably. Outside of the city, he was a proper materialist, well versed in Democritus through Marx through Quine. But after understanding—or at least experiencing—the language, he seemed to become what could be considered as devoutly religious. He would pray and perform rituals in his strange new language. But, what was more troubling was his ability to deviate from his path. He would scream like one of the mad prophets at the sky or the ground or at anything as he covered his face with his hands. He tore through my city with complete disregard for my signs, as if his cries were being answered by a being that had even more control over the city than I had. I was overcome with terror. I didn’t care that he was breaking the rules. I didn’t care that he might meet Michael or Beatrice or any of the other names that I couldn’t remember. I was terrified that he might meet her.
For weeks, I would do nothing but have obstacles built in Paul’s path, but I was never able to stop him for any consequential amount of time. When he was within a day’s walk from her, I became hysterical. I begged the power that Paul seemed to prophet—it was far greater than the devils that I communed with—to stop him before I got any further. To stop him in order to protect her from whatever he would infect her with. To stop him out of pity for me.
Then when Paul was less than a block from her, he stopped. He went inside of a nearby building and opened a cupboard. A torrent of locusts poured out of it and engulfed him. When they had dispersed, he was no longer there. While I had had the building and the cupboard placed at those locations, I had not filled it with the locusts. It seemed incongruous with the actions of Paul’s god—which is what I had come to call whatever it was that imbued him with such a knowledge of my creation—to alter the city. It was incongruous to the point of being impossible. However, it was just as impossible that my devils had acted without me. One of the locusts landed on a bench beside her. She looked at it for a moment before she stroked its antenna and smiled. I had been saved, but realized that I must turn my back on the city.
I would still see them outside of the city occasionally. I never paid meeting them much mind. I even forgot which ones were still there and why. Except for her. She still transfixed me. She felt almost the same as she did when I would watch her walk down streets that were tailored for her, as if the entire world had been acting as I had. I would never need the city as long as I had her.
We were at a party. I wasn’t watching from afar. I was comfortable being close to her. We would drink and talk and laugh with each other. She was drunk and kissed him. She had before, when I could run to my city. I nearly screamed. I searched for a pencil and paper to write her a letter. I left and walked for a block before I started running. I was not a god here; I could not be a god anywhere. If I were subject to whims and fates, I could not purge them from myself; it would be like purging the perfection from her.
I stood outside the gates of my city and shrieked for my devils to blind and constrict me. They left me languishing on a street I had forgotten about. The only thing I knew of it was that she would never walk by.