The stillness of the air told him he was indoors–perhaps underground. He sat with a brick wall at his back, cool and damp. There was an animal smell.
He wasn’t alone in the darkness. Rustling; breathing. Scraping–scraping of scales? Rattling of bars. Some large caged creature, heavy tail sweeping the straw.
As far as he could tell, he was not sharing the creature’s cage–a small relief.
The rattling of bars, the rough sweeping of the scales, had a kind of off-kilter rhythm. It was peaceful to listen–to contemplate the complexity of it.
Lizard stink, rotting meat, and rust–the thing in the cage was immense. Beneath that there was the smell of gas, of burning gone cold. Stale tobacco? The stones he sat on were littered with the scraps of old hand-rolled cigarettes. Gas–this part of the city was gaslit
Beneath the creature’s noises were the quiet sounds of distant traffic, hooves, and rattling iron-shod wheels. Distant echoes of market-traders shouting. No song . . . A man shouting rhythmic commands; a counterpoint of grumbling and groans. A single motorcar roared in the distance–an unequal place, then. Clanging metal and venting pipes. The hiss and groan of steam engines; the creak and sway of cranes and pylons and bridges. A distant panicked moan and bellow; beasts at market? From all over there was suddenly the shrill of whistles and the low mournful complaint of horns.
This is how a city is built. Bit by bit it all locks tight together. When the light comes back the visual world will force itself on him; in the dark he can build the city himself, from these familiar fragments. He closes his eyes tight.
Listen: this is how a city is built from music.
There is something missing in it
There was a new noise in the room with him. He pressed back against the wall, opening his eyes in the darkness.
A hoarse voice rumbled and hissed, in syllables he didn’t recognize. It spoke in short staccato monosyllables, then in grinding gutturals and long languid cadences. It was working through languages. Each one had a kind of lulling rhythm, until finally there was a language he understood. Then meaning drove out music– but all the voice said was: “It would be courteous if you were to introduce yourself.”
He asked, “Is it morning or evening here?”
“I do not know,” it said. “I hoped you might.”
“I’ll say good evening then, because it’s dark. I apologize if I
“I accept your apology.”
The voice was like glass and stones scraping together. A deeper bass and sharper sibilants than any human voice. “The local dialect,” it said, and it sighed like a rattling buzz saw. “Ugly. I’d hoped . . .” It fell silent for a while.
He was not sure what to say.
It spoke again: “May I ask how you came here?”
“I don’t recall. Where is the door?”
“You did not come through the door. You appear to have come down the chimney.”
He reached his arm out behind him and felt along the wall. A few feet to his left was a narrow hole, but . . . “It’s barred,” he said.
” the creature rumbled. “Hence my curiosity.”
“I don’t know how I came through.”
“I hoped you might know of a way out.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Ah.” The creature sighed.
“I think I was being chased,” he said. “Hunted.”
. “It is bad
to be chased and hunted.”
Growling: “It is worse to be trapped.”
“I expect so.”
“Who hunts you?”
“I don’t recall,” he said. “Two men. They chased me all across the city. There was no hiding from them.”
“Are you a criminal?”
He thought carefully. “I don’t think so.”
“You do not smell like a monster.”
“I hope not.”
The beast in the cage shifted and the bars rattled.
He asked, “May I ask your name?”
The beast exhaled deeply; its breath smelled of metals, weeds, the sea. “I have no name. My maker gave me none. He kept all the names for himself. May I ask yours?”
“You are a young man of average size and adequate health; there are many strange smells on you. I will call you Man
“If you like,” he said. “What may I call you?”
“I am in a cage. You may as well call me Beast
“Ah. What do you look like?”
The Beast took in a ragged snort of air. “I smell sulfide and
phosphor. You have matches on your person.”
He patted his clothes. He wore no jacket and his shirt was torn. He wore a silk tie loose around his neck. There were a number of things in his pockets, one of which was a crumpled and nearly empty book of matches. He struck one. (Quickly and deftly in the darkness–he had strong, dexterous musician’s fingers.)
He started and jerked back. A yellow eye the size of a man’s fist reflected the match’s yellow light. It was only a few feet away. The slit of black down the eye’s center clenched tight in the light like the narrow bars of the cage. The creature shifted its head, coyly presenting itself: a long snake-skull, crudely formed, green scales and dull ridges. Loose lizard jowls on its thick neck. Its body was long and ridge-backed. It scales were cracked and discolored, its hide was lumpy–scarred and stitched? A fat tail swept the cage and rattled the bars. It was the size of a bull, maybe? It opened its jaw to show yellow teeth. The match burned out.Rack your brain. What else did you see? Think
. But the visual world was never his strength. The light did not reach to the back of the room, but I think the ceiling was low. I think: no windows. A wooden door to my right. The cage had wheels on its base. The matchbook was red and from the WaneLight Hotel–that pretentious capital
L curving, priapic, subtly obscene. What else?
“You are a remarkably educated lizard,” he told it.
“Thank you. I do not frighten you?”
“I’ve seen stranger things than you. Or I think I have; I don’t know. You speak very plainly, for a monster.”
“You understand me very plainly, for a man. No one else left in these bitter days understands me. I shall have to be more obscure if I wish to awe you. I am the strangest thing on any street of the city for many miles.”
“I meant no offense. I’m sure you are. I’m well traveled but I have heard of nothing like you. Where in the city are we?”Was
he well traveled? He thought so. He felt tired; he carried scars. He remembered nothing.
“We are in the Fosdyke Museum of History and Natural Wonders. In its cellars, to be precise. I was an exhibit once, and now I am a prisoner, and soon perhaps they will kill me. There is nothing else like me left in these last days of the city. And I am in a cage, and you are not.”
“Where is this museum?”
“In Fosdyke, on Holcroft Square. The Museum has stood here for far longer than this Age of the city. Like me it has survived out of its time. We are far from any river or lake and near the lower
slopes of the Mountain.”
At the word Mountain
a fistful of images flashed in his mind, grey-toned flickers like the phantoms of the cinema. Two vague men in hats and shined shoes approaching implacably. A clock tower, the white face darkened by a complex and spiderish excess of hands. Eyes, half-light, pale faces, men stacked like cordwood in a cellar under a spitting bulb. A garden of grey roses. A silent square of ugly statues. Clouds inert in the sky, as if painted; the birds also still, perfect intricate little china models. (Wires? No.) A tram swaying into a rain-soaked station, shaking as if frightened to stop for him. Gears turning. Time as a trap. A dark basement, a thousand Hollow Men standing in the shadows under a dead bulb. A tarnished silver tray bearing sharp and twisted implements. An old, old man looking down from a high window and snarling thief
and twitching grey curtains spitefully closed.
“I have never left the city,” the creature said. “And perhaps I never will. But I have heard that there are places where madness is associated with the moon–that pointless white rock. There is a word: lunatic
. Here in Ararat madmen dream of the Mountain. Are you mad?”
“No. I don’t know. How would I know? Where–when
“These are the last days of the city,” the creature said. “This is where things stagnate. This is where things come to fail and end.
Man, are you a failure?”
“Very possibly. At what?”
The lizard shifted on its huge haunches and made a mechanical barking noise that might have been laughter. “I am not satisfied with calling you simply Man. It may offend. Will you permit me to name you?”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Gears of the City by Felix Gilman. Copyright © 2008 by Felix Gilman. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.