The City, My Love’, Alexandra Seidel

Illustrations © 2021 Carmen Moran

 [ City, © 2021 Carmen Moran ]

I am the city you will fall in love with, and I am the city you will never forget. It is every single part of me that makes it so. My love is in the smell of salt from the sea, carried over my Heart River on a summer breeze or a whip of winter wind. Those who come to me for the first time notice it, those who are born here miss it should they ever leave. Since the first lonely wanderer, my wanderer, settled down by my Heart River and called her hut a home, it has been the savory-sweet salt that defined me.

In the same way that people only share their salt with close friends, I consider my love a private thing. Perhaps that is why there is little ostentatiousness in the way my bricks were laid, tidy-sturdy and with care, perhaps it is why the way the sun peaks my roofs and scratches arches and window panes is more important to me than gilded domes and stained glass windows.

The endearments of a city, the details you will never forget, are hidden within sacred treasure troves. My Gallery is one such place. In 1887, work on her was begun. I remember the construction, every day of stone fit upon stone or another pillar erected. The architect loved me. I helped him dream the corners of each room in his sleep, and when he took lunch by the river in the café that had been the meeting place of wild-haired poets fifty years prior, he drew doodles of the vaulted roof and of the columns upon which it would rest. The lines were steady, and he spilled tea on them only once.

“She must have marble and mosaics,” he said, stirring his cup. He had taken to calling the Gallery ‘she,’ just like he did me. Wind from the sea brushed his hair, and the gulls who shared with me the sight of their eyes circled above. The architect never noticed, not even when one came down to peer at the remainder of his lunch from the lichen-spangled balustrade right next to him. The architect’s vision of the Gallery drowned out all other sounds and sights. That is how he loved.

My Gallery was completed, and it was a fabulous thing, dream-born and stone-delivered. By the time her mosaics were laid, she was already part of me. It was the only thing the architect ever built, but it was a masterpiece.

In 1997, a child ran down one of the Gallery’s tightly winding hallways and lost her stuffed bunny. The girl’s hair was a mass of red curls, and it reminded me of one particular mosaic, one the architect had hand drawn on a napkin and carried for days close to his heart. The child’s father walked for hours, holding his daughter’s hand in his. Finding the stuffed bunny had become their shared quest.

“I remember these polished floor tiles, the mosaics, the windless birds, the soundless leaves, the way the echoes of our footfalls carried. I remember the dim lights creeping up the walls and getting caught in these richly carved and painted picture frames. When we found my stuffed bunny, I knew I wanted to become an artist. I still have the stuffed bunny,” she confessed in an interview, her hair more tidy with adulthood, but still wild under all those years. The little girl only ever painted me.

In one of my oldest parts, there is an alleyway that ends at a well. The well is nestled between the houses that have gathered there over the years, and grass and moss have conquered its walls. In winter, the houses around the well keep the sunlight off its water, but in summer, the sun hits the bottom, spills a sharp shadow that points back to my Heart River.

Ages ago, in 1123, that well had been there already for many generations. Those who had the kenning knew to drop something of value in and make a wish. I always heard them. When I could, I made their wish come true. A young kenning woman came to the well one night, and she dropped in a little figurine her dead grandfather had carved for her. It was a rabbit, ears flat to her back, all the lines left by the carving tools smoothed by the kenning woman’s hands. “Bring my love to me, the one that will always cherish and respect me, will never hurt but defend me. Make our love last forever.”

Her love was a cattle herder. He came to me to sell yearling cows, and with wind and pavement stones catching his feet at the right angle, I made sure he found her, tripped, and almost fell right into the kenning woman’s arms. Their first kiss was in the alleyway that led to the well, and when their lips met, a full moon struck the silver surface where my well water watched.

The child who lost her stuffed bunny in my Gallery and became a painter painted the alleyway and the well, and I loved her for it, brushed her curls out of her eyes with a salty breeze and held her easel steady between my pavement stones. She couldn’t know that the kenning woman was her ancestress, that her line had never left me, and yet she had found the well; the kenning woman had asked for forever.

The architect died childless, and all I have of him is my Gallery. I was his truest love, but there was a lover. He was a haberdasher’s accountant, and knew he could never compete with me in the architect’s affections.

The accountant had come to me in his journeyman years, and it had taken him weeks to learn the map of me, even if he learned the measure of my citizens more easily. I believe the architect’s eyes, blue as my Heart River close to sunset, caught the accountant first. I know he never grew to love me as much as he did the architect. I cared for him as I do for every citizen, but I never grew love for him either, perhaps because there were nights when his salty skin was close to the architect, and all I could do was watch with bird eyes through the French windows. After the architect died—too soon—the accountant took to visiting the Gallery every day. We shared our grief there, he and I, and when he moved away from me, I wished him well, wished he’d find a place where his heart could rest. I never missed him.

The kenning woman was descended from a shield maiden. The shield maiden was here when people from a different land tried to conquer me, conquer my people and drown my language like kittens in a pail of water. She had the kenning too, but unlike that other daughter of her line, the shield maiden was a warrior through and through. Thus she walked my walls and gave me her guarding eyes. Those who would tear my gates and tear my people had no love for me, and I had none at all for them. They twisted my name with their strange tongue, threw curses at my citizens, those citizens that loved me enough to cry their salt and bleed their life, all to defend me.

So, when the conquerors came, I made my gates strong as my shield maiden’s arms, and when the arrows from my walls left carnage outside of my gates, I called all my ravens to savor that feast and leave nothing but dull bones. There was fire, too, when we were so besieged, and some of my citizens died in the arms of my walls. Yet in the end, those who survived and I, we stood unbroken.

In 2304, an archaeologist found my maiden’s shield. He was digging after old buildings had been demolished. The plan to build new buildings there was abandoned. Instead, the old walls, the graves, and my maiden’s shield were displayed in a Museum that was erected there for that singular purpose.

I loved the Museum, and it grew into me easily. The archaeologist was new, had no blood that tied him to me, but after he had birthed the shield from the earth, the shield which had been hidden there for hundreds of years, he fell for me; how could he not? He was always careful when he spoke of who might have owned the shield. He dreamed of the patterns marked on it though, dreamed how the nick in its edge might have been a blade aimed for the maiden’s head, dreamed—with the minutest nudge from me—her face under dream’s veil.

The archaeologist left me for conferences sometimes, but he would always return. His son and his husband placed flowers on his grave each year on the day he had lifted the shield from the ground. I was there with them, every year, until I welcomed their bones as I had welcomed the archaeologist’s. They rest together, the three of them, and my birds bring flowers, once a year.

In 2241, when my maiden’s shield still lay sleeping, new people came to me. I heard in their voices the flowers that had blossomed from the language of the conquerors that I had once fed to my ravens. But these people, they were not here to take. Their eyes were dull as my Heart River sometimes gets in winter, and I understood that all had been taken from them, even their home. I recalled how the kenning woman offered her house to the cattle herd she loved, and just like she had, I opened myself to these strangers.

They found my salty winds soothing on their bruised skin and all my streets smoothed themselves under their blistered feet. I welcomed them in every way a city can a stranger, and my citizens did as well. A woman who had lost her love in the war that had taken the land she was born in gave birth to a child, not too far away from where the shield rested under the earth. I was not surprised when that child’s descendant built his family here, with the archaeologist who had raised the shield in memory, not in defense. By the time their son was born, the two languages that now spun the song of my streets had become interwoven, just like the patterns on the shield maiden’s shield.

My growth was not always easy, and it was not always brought on by the love of my people. When they built the launching area, it didn’t grow into me well. I did not care for it, at all. The rocket engineer however had argued that I would be the perfect home for it, that her rockets could only be launched from the shore near my Heart River. I was not surprised, because the rocket engineer’s ancestress had defended me with her shield, and another daughter of their blood had known the kenning and passed it down her line like love.

However, the rocket engineer loved me only second best, the way the architect had only loved the accountant second best. I have never been conquered, but the rejection of this daughter’s daughter’s daughter hurt. In my pain, I hardly noticed the way traffic had stopped its smooth flow, failed to see the loose stones that caught pedestrians’ feet and made them fall, even though it was my pain—the hurt of love that isn’t given in turn—that caused these things. But when a stone in the mosaic of my Gallery broke—the mosaic that so reminded me of the child that had once lost her stuffed bunny there, the child from whom the rocket engineer was also descended—I saw that I was hurting, I, the city that was ever loved, and I had turned that hurt to my citizens.

I recalled my shield maiden then, the way that she had never wavered, even when a blade almost took her head. The conquerors had not loved me; what they had wanted wasn’t love. But when their descendants came, I gave them love, and they returned it, thousandfold. Each of my citizens deserved to be loved as they did me.

My rocket engineer needed me to love her, like any chick needs her mother’s caring wing. And I am the city that is mother to all her children. My traffic flowed again, and all my stones settled smoothly once more. My birds draped flowers over three graves resting side by side, the archaeologist’s family, and when the rocket engineer came to say goodbye to her great-great-great-grandfathers, she wondered who had put those flowers there.

“We will give our new home this city’s name,” she whispered to the dead, and I heard. “So we don’t ever forget where we came from.”

That day, my winds were loud, and they carried water heavy with salt from my Heart River. Through rain, I cried, and all my birds sang a bitter-sweet melody. Of course my rocket engineer loved me, but she loved me differently than anyone else ever had. I owed it to her to let her go.

The morning of the launch, it was her the cameras focused on. I made sure there was a ray of sunlight in her eyes when she smiled. That is how I wanted the world to remember her, her eyes bright as well water and polished mosaics, and her face serene. When she turned and climbed up into her rocket, I caressed her neck with a wisp of wind to say goodbye. A tear left a trail of salt down her cheek, and I knew that I would miss her, forever. The emblem on the right arm of her flight suit was the weave on the shield maiden’s shield; I knew it would protect her.

The grave of the wanderer that settled here and called me home lies unmarked close by the Heart River, a little ways away from the launching area that is now part of me. When she died, her family built a mound, and they remembered her for a long time thereafter. But I grew so fast that eventually the people forgot her, even if I never did. Her bones are smoothed with my earth’s caresses. They lie perfectly in the shape of her, just like all my roads and buildings, like the Gallery and the Museum lie perfectly in the shape of me. It was my love for the wanderer that began the lesson of what it means to care for another that is not like you.

My rocket engineer was the very last daughter of my wanderer’s line. Only when she left for the unknown did I consider that my wanderer, too, had lived somewhere before she lived here. Does that place still miss her, that woman that sang her daughters lullabies where I began, lullabies like the weave on a shield or the brushstrokes on a canvas?

The wanderer and I, we share a name. After all, before I was me, I was her place. Even after all these years, I am still hers and hers alone. And yet, my rocket engineer will give the wanderer’s name another home, an echo-home. Her name will ring along the stars like the sound of prayer beads and silver bells. This is the love that was built here, that is what grew here and took to the sky like dandelion seeds. I hope that the wanderer who sleeps beneath knows, and knows how she was loved. I know her last daughter will build another home worthy of her name.

© 2021 Alexandra Seidel

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