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Pictures on a Cafe Wall

a short story
by Damian Kilby



Picture me in that absurdly oversized city. I'm up on a rooftop, standing on the very broad parapet beside my easel, slashing and then smudging my brushes against a canvas. Crisp light pours down from a purple-blue sky that has never known pollution.

I'm trying to capture, in gesture and color, something of the presence of the huge beast napping at the center of a courtyard, two buildings over. Down on its haunches, long neck curving round so that its massive lizard head rests on the tip of its coiled tail, I'm sure it reaches to at least the height of eight stories. Its scales glimmer with flecks of gold and green.

"What's this?"

I start. Brush hand twitches. There's a man standing behind me, speaking.

"I don't think I have ever seen anyone painting here, anywhere in the city. And I have lived here a long time."

The speaker is broad-shouldered and middle aged, wearing a simple brown robe. His long hair and full beard are a reddish-brown and his green-flecked, gray eyes are keen and appraising.

Can you picture me gaping at him? And then saying, "What else can I do, but paint these things?"

"What can you do? Well, people come to the city for tangible gain," he answers. "Magic and power and wealth. But, in your way, I suppose, you too attempt to gain something from our dragons."

He reaches out to shake hands.

He introduces himself as Vernor Beirelle. His confident manner makes him easy to talk to, so I show him other canvases, all acrylic studies of great lizards. His comments on my technique are appreciative and generous, which leads me to reveal that I've crossed over from my own world several times: "But haven't spoken to anyone. Barely noticed people really -- lurking about like a man in a dream. I'm used to being alone with my work."

I've painted dragons before. On the covers of paperback novels, the occasional role-playing game card. Just a few of the many, many jobs that have paid the rent. I love my work as an illustrator and am generally content with the long hours of solitude. There's pleasure in the feel of charcoal on paper, in the texture of acrylics or oils spread over the weave of canvas. I've never had special ambitions and the work of fine artists leaves me unmoved. It's the materials and the process I care about.

These days I'm especially glad to have the work fill my waking hours. Anything to avoid the endless, pitiful

self-examination over my wife Joan and our impending divorce.

Beirelle becomes even more enthusiastic upon learning that I'm visiting from another world. He gushes about gateways, portals, mighty finding spells. "Usually," he says, "these are attained at great cost to the conjurer."

"My way through," I say, "is less a gateway and more a crack -- in the foundation of the old warehouse where I rent studio space."

So picture me in the wizard's lair. My paintings are strapped to my back, folded-up easel under one arm. I step carefully: Beirelle's chambers are crowded with objects and artifacts. Am I eager, anxious, embarrassed? Do I even want to make a new friend right now?

The stairs, coming down, were narrow, roughly cut into the dense stone of the rooftop. One room leads to the next, like an old fashion railroad flat. This wall is constructed of intricate hand-carved wood panels, the next is a slapped together lattice of pole and plaster, painted over in a streaky yellow. There's the occasional small, round window built into the floor, providing murky views down into the depths of a dragon-sized chamber.

Beirelle pauses along the way to pick up different artifacts -- he just holds them for a second or two -- but never lets me touch anything. Most seem to incorporate bits of dragon scale, claw, or tooth. Some look like weapons, others feature quirky geometric structures, intriguing bits of abstract sculpture.

"I'm a successful collector and interpreter of what the city has to offer," he tells me.

We move through more storage chambers, a kitchen, sleeping quarters and on to the library where we settle into high-backed, stuffed chairs. An apprentice brings steaming mugs of a milky brew that smells like chestnuts. Beirelle tells me that the books, which overflow from the floor-to-ceiling shelves, contain the records, notes and theories of generations of adepts and scholars. One apprentice's entire job is to write out copies.

"Fascinating," I say. "The whole city is. For a visit.... But I wonder, why live here? The place isn't designed for humans. It's uncomfortable. It's like being an insect."

"You seem to see everything from the wrong angle. Consider ambition. We come to the city to make something of ourselves. As you see here, some of us are very successful."

He names the villages his apprentices hail from and then sketches in a picture of his own birthplace with its single dirt track and row of hovels.

"Seems to me that the only choice for an intelligent boy is to make the journey here. Learn what you can, take what you can. There are plenty who are content to snatch a little of the dragons' leftover magicks and then leave. They end up as village witch men or wise women. But how can you not get caught up in the mysteries of the city's titans?"

Many -- like my host -- spend their lives building up skills and knowledge, tracing out intricate maneuvers amongst themselves, while always trying to move on to the next level of power.

"The world outside holds nothing for me now," he explains. "Of course, few become adepts -- and even we can wield only the merest fraction of the magic that is the very stuff of the dragons' existence. The others, the rest of the humans here, simply survive, stumbling along day-to-day, understanding little."

"But -- ," I say, hardly able to connect with his vision of the city, struggling to formulate a perspective of my own.

Beirelle laughs at my difficulty in accepting the true nature of things. Laughs with the assurance of a man who understands and embraces life in all its ugly details and takes a practical kind of pleasure in squeezing what he can out of such a world. He's really enjoying his laugh.

"You still lack the correct point of view," he says. "Dragons are the center of everything that makes the world. We little creatures must make the best of the situation."

Once, he explains, they occupied every corner of the world; playing with the weather, causing mountains to rise, breathing life into forests, creating and recreating animal forms. Though the supply of dragon magic was staggering, it was finite. Slowly draining away, without chance of renewal. The dragons sensed their loss late into the process. Facing the fact of their impending extinction, they summoned up what would be their last animal creation -- humans. Tiny creatures with brains enough to sense the dragons' will and hands to carry out a multitude of tasks: most essentially the construction of the city. Over the millennia the dragon population shrank, their numbers a direct measure of the magic left in the world. In their wake the human population grew and spread out, grubbing a meager existence from land now leached of magic. The world is essentially dragon free, the last ten thousand or so having retreated behind the walls of their city. Someday, not too far off, the very last of the great creatures will collapse, magical essence gone, great bones petrified and melded into the earth.

"Then my friend -- true emptiness. Cause and essence absent. Then the world will make no sense."

Beirelle laughs again.

We sip quietly for a while.

Later, he says, "I'm interested in adding one of your paintings to my collection. Can I interest you in a trade?"

I accept a copy of one of the books on his shelves. An untitled volume, just the size of my hand, containing -- he claims -- notes on folklore gathered by a scholarly apprentice a few generations back.

Picture me at home, in bed, with my new book in my hands. Safe and secure in my own lair, my own familiar world, surrounded by all my own stuff. There's something pleasing about having the bed all to myself. Cozy and freeing at the same time, every moment just for me.

Then, of course, I feel the deep chill. The loneliness -- which had felt so grand a few seconds ago -- echoes around me and through all the well-ordered rooms of the apartment.

This is the way of it every night since she asked me to leave.

Open this book. It may keep my mind focused on that other place. The pages are slick and stiff. Not made from paper. I can't identify the material -- proof that this really is something I've brought back from another reality.

It's packed with short biographical entries, put down in no discernible order. I'd guess that these are notes for a larger work, drawn from numerous and contradictory sources.

Every entry I look at seems to embody the failure of love. Lonely, unfulfilled lives seem to pile up before me. The combination of human nature and the larger forces at work around the people in this book pretty much guarantees them a pointless, empty and brief existence.

I drag myself out from under the covers and tuck the book into the bottom drawer of my dresser, under the pile of sweaters. I'm not sure I should ever read from it again. And I'm not sure how I'm going to fall asleep tonight.



Johan Raison: Feared but overreaching adept. There are stories which claim he discovered magical pathways into the minds of dragons. They tell of dragons' thoughts resembling jagged mountain ranges. A single concept would take Raison days to traverse. Often he came skidding and tumbling down without having apprehended a single clear notion. Yet it appears that Raison did gain many unusual powers. He could cloak himself in total silence; he could lie in fire without being burned; he was able to fly when the moon was full. He is credited with the destruction of the Silver Circle band of witches. He is also credited with the once popular theory that the city is merely a construct within the mind of a dragon on a thousand year flight between the stars. Yet other sources emphasize how his conversation and public statements became extremely muddled and random, to the point where he gave the impression of being the embodiment of disassociation and chaos. In the end he burst into flame while in mid-flight, his shadow seared white into the side of a windowless tower.

Sevine Gohlach: Appears in some of the Johan Raison stories, usually as his lover. She is said to have been a direct creation of a dragon's mind; a dragon's idea of woman, brought forth into the world. One source explains that she was sent to live in the city to help draw humans back into the realm of pure thought. This may have been a kind of conversion of humanity into a source of fuel to power further dragon magic. She became passionately attached to Johan Raison and deserted her mission. Instead she worked to aid her lover in his dream of becoming the most powerful of adepts. She revealed to him an access way to the essential nature of the dragons, a doorway into dragon thought. This knowledge, it is believed, assured his ultimate doom. All versions of the story agree that after his death she lost the faculties of speech and sight. She wandered the streets trying to communicate by making signs with her hands; none could interpret these signals. In time a passing dragon stepped on her.



I venture down, below, to ground level. Here is a street wide enough for two dragons to walk abreast, made from huge flat stones, each as broad as a two lane road back in my world. The cracks between the stones are mud-filled ravines. I can't see how human hands ever put this together; though men and women do walk along these alleys and avenues. Human traffic presses close to the edges, brushing up against the sides of the buildings. There are lone travelers and groups, dressed in tunics and cloaks of varying degrees of finery and cleanliness. Human drawn carts pass more quickly, carrying large men dressed in scarlet or purple robes, busy consulting the scrolls and books balanced on their knees. I see a man creep into the center of the street and open a manhole cover and then drop down within. I see beggars: a blind girl, a man whose legs have been amputated below the knees, a child with a mud smeared face. Only once does a dragon stroll past. The air buzzes against the surrounding buildings, the stone shakes under my hiking boots. Great claws come down in front of me and I hold my breath during the intervals between each of its long footsteps.

My wife -- soon to be ex-wife -- Joan drops by my studio with an exhaustive list of odds and ends from the house, suggesting I make check marks by the items I'm interested in. This is only the second time I've seen her since our separation, and I'm anxious, wanting her to think well of me. But this list seems suspect, more a provocation to a fight than a helpful gesture. I resolve to not lay claim to any item she might conceivably want, to prove my noble spirit under duress. I'd always imagined that if our relationship were to end it would be me walking away, that she was clearly the needy, clinging one. Instead I have been rejected and now it is I who lingers over her every expression and intonation, worrying about what she thinks of me. So I show her the painting I'm working on. It's a brightly colored rendering of a pirate, to be used in an ad campaign for a certain brand of chewing tobacco. The pirate has broad shoulders, a bushy brownish-red beard and penetrating gray -- flecked with green -- eyes. She shrugs, then tries to murmur something polite. I quickly pull out three canvases from my series of dragon portraits. These are all close-in views of the great lizards, sleeping or staring into the sky. One even shows a dragon peering out from a doorway. She makes appreciative noises about the colors; says they're intriguing, a nice change from my commercial work; she thinks she sees an eye here, the line of a grinning mouth; she looks uncertain, half turns away from the pictures. My heart sinks a little. She doesn't see the awesome, terrifying creatures I've tried to capture. I'd hoped that in some indefinable way she could partake in my journey of the past few weeks.

I turn a corner and witness a dragon preparing to lift off into flight. It's in an intersection, three blocks ahead of me, unfurling membranous wings. Black wings, already reaching above the rooftops, seeming to drain the street of light. Wind rips down the broad avenue as if sucking in toward a vacuum. Humans scramble and grasp at the edges of bricks. A wizard's cart tumbles over. With neck and head stretching straight up, it rises, wings vibrating and humming, not flapping -- this is more a violent rending of reality than the stuff of aerodynamics and physical law. It takes command of the sky. I am frozen in place, unable to look away or think of anything else: this creature needs no explanation, no reason beyond the fact of its existence. Though it may be oblivious to my presence, the dragon owns me. High above, now, it spits out fire, a great stream, arcing toward the sun. After a moment the line of flame begins to fall, slowly breaking up, extinguishing in sections, the remaining fiery blobs raining down upon a distant section of the city.



Interview with a madwoman:

A: I do sleep outside. I live on the streets. I'm used to it. See, this is my bag. Look here. Here's my clock. This is my mirror. So I know what's going on. With myself. This is my favorite pair of shoes.

A: I beg. I can eat garbage. No one notices me. Except when I start screaming. Do you want to see how loud I can get? I used to think maybe even the dragons would notice me. Everyone wants the dragons to notice them. As if the dragons could love you. As if they would make you special and change your life forever.

A: No. I don't worry about that. You can feel them coming from blocks away. The vibrations. And up close they have those cold auras. Makes my skin prickle. You don't know much, do you. Only the stupid ones get caught under foot. You're not stupid are you? I don't think so...because I like this painting. You don't seem stupid. Now the fire is a different matter. If a bit of lizard fire is going to fall on you...there's nothing you can do to stop it. It gets every kind of person. Falls upon, I mean. A splash of the fire falls down from the sky and just like that it's over. No matter how important. No matter how busy you are.

A: I was not born here. Came of my own free will. Stupid girl. Like all the rest. Didn't want to live on the farm. Sharing bed with brothers and sisters, sheep and ducks. Then grow up, spend life getting pregnant, sharing bed with husband and children and goats and chickens.

A: I'll tell you. I will tell you -- the dragons come from right out of our own minds! We dreamed them up ourselves. And now we can't get rid of them. How could things like them be real? Doesn't make sense. But we want them. To chase after. Men want power, lots of sex, big bulges in their britches, magic at their fingertips, hundreds of ladies to love them. And the women, the ladies. Want beautiful nests, dragon palaces, magical pets, giant beds. I wanted a great big, very big, room of my own. Thousands of soft blankets. Maybe a little quiet music. So. We are trapped with the dragons. We drool over dragons. We can't get rid of them. They only seem in control. No one is in control.

A: I would like that picture, that painting, please. It reminds me of the first one I ever saw up-close. It was sleeping and I was very brave. I stood so close that I couldn't see its whole face. Then its eye opened. But it couldn't see me. I was too close, like a piece of dust. You know.



An email from the art director of a leading gaming company: "As you noted yourself, we don't have much need for close-ups of dragon faces. In the other images your proportions seem off. Such long necks, carrying such oversized heads. Those long tails, like whips in motion...interesting but it doesn't work. Can't really picture an elvish warrior trying to slay one of these things. Or a circle of dwarves dancing in its shadow. But do send me more stuff. Looking for ideas for alien soldiers. We've go a couple different interstellar wars brewing right now."



So. Once upon a time I'm down at the street level, working on a watercolor sketch of a series of towers, placed at the forking of two broad avenues, when this short, wiry guy struts up to me and says: "You need to paint spiders too!"

He's wearing dusty, stained gray clothes, trousers tucked into heavy leather boots. He has wild, thinning hair and a narrow face which scrunches up as he speaks.

"Only get the dragons, you only get half the picture."

I've been coming down here, to the streets over and over, driven by the need to put the reality of the dragons and their city into perspective. To make sense of it all visually. I have been scouting plazas and intersections, sketching promising locations, looking for telling juxtapositions. I don't like being down on this level of the city. It's a necessity to take each new step. To keep painting.

So, I shake hands with this guy. Apparently I'm still missing half the picture.

"The name's Aaron." He holds up a long sword with a saw-tooth edge and an extra hooked blade branching off near the tip. "Designed for battle with the spiders."

"Spiders? They must be big ones," I say.

"Not so big I can't kill them." He goes on about spider hunters and a war going on under our feet. It's like coming in on the middle of a very long story and I don't get most of the references. "Just come down with me into the sewers. You'll see stuff will open your eyes."

"What kind of stuff?"

"Seeing is believing. And understanding. Won't be so dangerous. It's a kind of danger I'm a master of. And you get to paint the spiders."

I pack up my stuff and follow this Aaron fellow through an open manhole and down a long ladder. So I feel reckless and stupid -- but I still feel like I must go on.

Underground, with a smoldering torch in each hand, my guide is busy bragging about his swordsmanship. He skips through odorous streams; rushes -- bent over double -- down mold-encrusted tunnels; finally hops and twirls out into a cavernous chamber where sweet-smelling fresh water flows.

"This level is all ours. Not a spider left."

I stand panting, trying to reach a cramped muscle in my lower back. He's swinging the torches to and fro -- I think he's recreating a particularly invigorating battle. These lower depths are constructed on a more human scale, which is a kind of relief: on the other hand I'm pretty sure that I've already lost all sense of direction.

"The magic wand guys, the adepts, don't think much of spider hunters. But what do they know about our position in the order of things? We work directly for the dragons. It's a special relationship and hunters lay claim to special rewards."

We plunge into another hole, then jog through tunnels that swoop and curve on down below the waterworks. Damp gusts of air blow through these passages. My clothes are sticking to my skin. And I've lost sight of Aaron around a bend. There's just a dull glow up ahead. I hurry forward till I'm right behind him again. Feeling jittery. But this level is where we are going to see what we came for. We've passed on into dry earthen barrows. Loose dirt slides out under my every step.

"There. Right over there."

He thrusts a torch into my hand and then takes off, waving his sword, skidding down a steep slope. Coming closer I see that Aaron has a hairy, black spider cornered. It stands about chest high and is as broad as three men. It's very ugly. When a bug is this large it's hard to look at. Even harder on the ears with it's incessant scratchy, chittering.

Aaron swings his blade in a wide arc and the spider dodges by squatting down low. It lunges at him and he manages to jump back out of reach. It spits out webbing, lashing his sword against his own leg, causing him to tumble. I rush forward: my moment of heroics. My legs feel numb.

And I drag him back from its next lunge. The spider isn't moving very fast, it seems to me. As if its heart isn't in going for the kill. Now it scuttles backward, compressing legs against body to squeeze itself through a narrow hole. Gone from sight.

Aaron struggles with the webbing for a moment and then gets his blade moving, rip-sawing through the layered strands.

"Shaking a little?" he asks. "It's good for you. The sight of the things gets on your nerves?"


"Don't worry. We're winning. Making history, level after level."

He leads me on. More dusty warrens, more damp, slimy passages. After some time we come upon a troop of men who've captured a dozen spiders in basket-like traps. They plunge blades into the creatures in a business-like fashion and then hook the stiff spider corpses with the curved part of their swords and drag them over to a pit, under a vertical air shaft, where they soak the bodies in oil and then burn them.

These spider hunters are caked in grime and they grin with tightly clenched jaws. They make a nod or two in our direction, but mostly ignore us.

"Only thing the old dragons fear are the spiders," Aaron says, backing up a step from the crackling flames. "They freak out at the sight of them. Some say spider magic short-circuits dragon magic. Makes them scream and spit fire out in random directions. It's the only thing they need our help with."

Now we trudge up to a higher level and come to an unmarked door in a stone wall. This is Aaron's personal quarters. "My hideaway."

Within is a series of circular rooms. There are heaps of aged furniture, a row of chipped and cracked stone carvings and stacks of oversized hand weapons. All is lit by flickering sparks coming from insects trapped in translucent boxes.

"Hunters get all the space we want. Access to lots of the old treasures," he says. "You might want to make some sketches in my trophy room."

I pull out a large pad of newsprint, some compressed charcoal and a white pastel crayon. He has me help him move the mummified corpse of a spider. This one is half-again as big as the one he battled earlier. One of its quill-like black hairs stabs my finger, drawing blood. I'm sucking on my finger while Aaron's striking poses by the spider.

"What you've got to know," he tells me, while I lay down some initial gesture lines, "is that a long time back the spiders were just as big as dragons. Half the world was choked with their webbing. Only dragon fire could break through it, back in those times. Even now-a-days a spider's bite can kill a dragon. Long, slow death.

"There were these mind-boggling wars, hundreds of years long. The dragons got tired of the fighting. They prefer more time for thinking, contemplating. So they built this city, with a spell condensed together from their collective magic. A giant walled fortress, easily defended. At least from above.

"Spiders were stymied for a while -- they live for conflict. Then they found a strategy, using their own kind of magic -- shrunk themselves down, smaller and smaller, so that they could dig their way under the city unnoticed. The shrinking was a tactical error, though. They lost most of their intelligence. The smaller, the dumber. Now they mostly run on instinct. Probably can't remember why they're trying to get into the city. Man, they get easier to kill all the time. I can't tell you how many hundreds I've personally exterminated."

Extermination or just assembly line butchering, I'm thinking. I've made some smudgy scribbles, but I'm finding I have no stomach for rendering the spider in great detail. Focusing on the man is much more compelling. I'd like to capture the kinetic intensity of his facial expressions, the passion -- and delusion -- with which he grips his sword.

An hour more of drawing passes. My concentration is lagging. I've done all I can. I set aside my pad and offer Aaron a densely rendered version of himself holding up the sword, gripping it intensely with both hands.

"I'm exhausted. Can you please get me back up to the surface," I beg.



In my mind's eye I carry around the idea of a self-portrait, one that's probably beyond my abilities. It would be of myself posed on one of the dragon city's rooftops. A painting that captures the look of a man who has wandered this city for days: he looks a bit dazzled, but overlaying that is the confidence of someone who has ventured into unknown territories and discovered he can cope with them. I'd like to be able to give a sense of the new man lifting out of the old. I've made some studies of the light I'd like to use in such a composition: shifting, subtly prismatic bands of sunlight, reflecting off various exotic materials in the ranks of giant buildings which stretch on out to the horizon.

I am impressed by one of my own portraits, made during my period of wandering, of a youngish woman named Renee.

She stands straight up, eight-month old baby daughter held against her hip. Renee is wide-boned but thinly muscled, wearing a dappled and faded green dress, long hair tied loosely behind her neck. In the background her seven year old son, Bram, peers out from behind a trunk. They are posed inside their nest-like home: a conglomeration of scraps of wood, logs and sticks, held together with rope and plaster, attached up under the eaves of a very large dragon meeting hall. (In fact her home vibrates steadily with the muffled rumble of dragon movements and low dragon voices.) Looking at this painting I am pleased to see how I captured some of her sadness, her lost-yet-stubbornly-carrying-on quality, all in the set of her facial muscles, her posture, the quality of the light reflected off her skin and her eyes. There was a moment, in the middle of painting, when I had the urge to embrace her and kiss her lips, her whole face, as if I could kiss away sadness. Instead I kept working.

She posed for me three different times, her payment was her choice from among my now considerable collection of dragon portraits. She was delighted with the one she picked out and considered herself to have gotten the better part of the bargain.

While I try to paint, and see her properly, she tells me her tale of coming to the dragon city for all the usual reasons. She hooked up with a small time wizard, learned a few magic tricks from him, got pregnant, bore him a son. He located this relatively private home for her. Not long after that he was killed, blasted by a dragon who caught him creeping too close.

Following that she spent years devoting herself solely to Bram, doing a little housework for the wealthier adepts, avoiding dragons and magic, and doing her best to ignore any interest from men. Less than two years ago, a persistent, ambitious and idealistic apprentice named Winnow broke through her barriers and she let herself fall in love. They had some brief moments of joy; but he ached with the belief that he had to succeed in a big way, to support her, to prove himself worthy. This need of his reached a breaking point when she became pregnant with his child.

He discovered records of a portal into the city's own future. With this and other information he devised a plan where he would be able to leap ahead into the future, steal away a fabulous instrument of magic, and return to Renee's side after only the passing of a few seconds in her relative time frame. She was three months pregnant when he plunged through the gateway. And she returned to that portal every day till she gave birth to Winnow's daughter. Surely he was lost for good. But there was no way anyone could know for sure. She still checks at the portal every few weeks.

"According to the books he read, dragons were once men, thousands of years ago. Men who passed through many magical portals; gathering greater and greater magical energies to themselves as they passed, heedless, from world to world -- and time to time. Finally they forgot their own names and lost all human ways of thinking, and became fully magical beings. Winnow found most of this in the tale of a traveler to the future: he described a time when the lines between human and dragon would begin to dissolve again. Magical energy would be discharged, and then reabsorbed into all kinds of objects and artifacts. A golden age of sorcerous materials."

Painting others seems to bring me back to myself.

Another self-portrait I can only wish I had the skill to paint would be of me on the phone, speaking with Joan, my face showing that I have unexpectedly seen into my own weakness and have discovered that I can't stop myself from feeling and saying certain things.

I start our conversation by saying: "The chewing tobacco people have decided to go with a nationwide campaign. Magazines, billboards, sweepstakes. They've commissioned a minimum of six more paintings. Going to be a sweet payday."

"Why do you keep calling me? What is this need to tell me this stuff?"

"I -- I only call about once a week. Is that so strange?" And I always wait to make my calls at a time when I'm feeling in an up mood. Make sure never to contact her during my moments of desperation.

"Is this turning into some kind of stalker situation? You know our relationship is completely over."

"Okay, so there's no relationship left. But you're still the person who knows me best in the whole world. Who I can talk to, who I know best. I don't want to lose every bit of the connection we had. There was lots of good..."

I feel my longing now -- can't stop my need -- desperate just to get her to say one little word without that icy tone in her voice.

"Look, you don't know anything about what I'm going through. These calls are about you. Maybe someday, when we both have new lives, successful relationships, we might want to sit down and talk, laugh over old memories. But right now I think we should not have any contact. I'm going to hang up. Now."

This composition would have to capture that late night lighting, that feeling of being a small thing among the shadows of your own apartment. The subject would look defeated, sure, like his heart has just dropped through the floor. But maybe he has gained a certain kind of knowledge. There's something inside of him that has taken a turn, though he wouldn't be able to put it into words.



For me, the easiest thing is to stay late in my studio every night, work on my commissions, avoid my apartment till I'm too exhausted to do anything but collapse into bed.

It's late and I've just finished a tableau of buccaneers watching a beautiful woman walk the plank. I'm full of restless energy, not at all ready to go home. I pick up a flashlight and head down to the basement.

I stand a while and stare at the huge triangular crack here in the back of the old furnace room.

It takes one step to travel across to the other side. I feel pretty much unchanged, but there is the different taste to the air. I know I'm somewhere else.

I've come out, as ever, through a raw gouge in the massive stone rampart on this great, flat-roofed fortress.

This is my first night-time visit. There's no moon and far fewer stars than I would have expected. The starlight is sharp though -- there's no light pollution here. It's quiet. I climb up onto the stout parapet and try to make out any lights in the city; I might even see the diffuse glow of a dragon exhaling. No. There's nothing. Not even the stirring of a breeze. I have to push away the idea that it's all empty, a deserted city. This is the way things should be with a city soundly asleep two or three hours before dawn.

So how would I paint this view? The sharp colors and busy layers of architecture are covered over in night's blankets of gray, but their presence would have to be indicated. I've half managed to distract myself, but I still wish I could hear a little noise, something to indicate the stirring of life.

I'm still for a minute or so. I do hear a slight rustling. I glance around, and then down, and discover that there's a lot of black shadows crawling up the side of the building. Whatever they are, it's their feet which rustle against the wall. They're moving steadily upward. I flick on my flashlight and play the beam down along the wall. I see spiders.

Bristling with black hairs, heads bobbing, many legs in movement. Dozens of them -- at least. It's a trick of perspective and deep nighttime shadows, I'm sure, that makes it seem like they're growing larger as they rush up into my light. And the light seems to bend and bounce around them.

I switch off the flashlight, skid down over the rampart's edge and begin running toward my exit. I hear their feet strike the roof behind me. It seems like they're coming at me from several directions. A strand of webbing slaps across my left calf and sticks. I throw myself down and roll across a patch of roof. Maybe the rough surface will scrape the webbing free. No: it's still sticks. I scramble on, desperate, panicked. A little hobbled -- but I can move.

I glance up. There are spider threads shooting out over my head. They cross each other at various angles, laying out a net above me, attached to the ramparts. Another strand slaps against my hip and sticks. It pulls against me. I'm screwed.

But I'm here; I made it to my gateway. I throw all my weight into a lunge toward the gap in the stone's surface. The pressure from the spider's thread feels weaker now.

Instant transition: I'm back. Low ceiling, plenty of dust.

I roll away toward the far end of the room. Then I stand to face the crack, switching my flashlight back on.

The light catches on faceted eyes and the rapid rowing movement of lots of spider legs. They move forward, yet seem to shrink in size. It's as if they're animations made by a cartoonist with an inverted understanding of perspective. The beam from my light begins to bend, refracting at an ever sharper angle, till it turns all the way back and flashes into my eyes.

Abruptly, faster than a door closing, the crack is just a crack, exposed iron rods and packed earth.

There's a faint tugging, a movement against my pants leg. It's a tiny black spider, less than inch long, hanging onto a very thick strand of webbing. I brush at it and shake it off. Following it with my flashlight beam, I see about ten more spiders scampering away. I chase after them for a minute, managing to crush a couple beneath my heel. It takes me a lot longer to peel away the thick webbing stuck to my clothes.



I am sitting in a cafe with no name. I like the light here. It's warm and clear. There's a high ceiling, a brightly painted concrete floor and rows of tall windows on two sides. To my illustrator's eye this is an expansive light, opening the space out toward the world and, at the same time, drawing the whole of world inside. The place has a homemade charm and a relaxed vibe which emanates from the deep, well worn comfy chairs, the bookshelf loaded with funky old paperbacks, and the murmur of unhurried conversation.

It seems I've become a regular. Sitting by myself, reading and making sketches of people when they're not looking. Spooning up the soup of the day or shuffling over to the counter to refill my coffee.

I know the manager, Terry. That is, I've spoken with her a little. Enough to find out that I'm more than welcome to hang some of my paintings on the back wall. She's about thirty, tall, and has long blondish hair which spreads out in waves over her shoulders. Maybe I'm at the stage where I'll develop a distant, unrealistic infatuation. I'm considering whether Terry makes an appropriate object of unrequited fascination. She has complimented me on the artwork. She thinks that I'm being ironic in titling my little show "Visits To The Dragon City."

The crack in the warehouse's foundation remains just a crack. I've checked a number of times. There is a bunch of spiders down there -- small ones -- and in one corner they've strung up a thick jungle of interlacing webs. It's curious the way spiders thrive in basements, since there doesn't seem to be many flies or other insects down there for them to feed on.

Mostly, I've painted pirates these past months. I have included figures such as the hungry-eyed beauty in the faded green dress and the wild-haired man in gray, brandishing a huge curved sword. There's plenty more out of my collection of sketches and memories to be worked into future pieces. Pirates keep me busy -- I've got a reputation for them now. I've done a lot of scenes for a new chain of Caribbean resorts and lots of design work for a new video game called Walk The Plank!

Since the closing of my basement gateway I take breaks from work by exploring my own home city. I take a pad and some watercolors and wander on foot or take a long bus ride. Sometimes I look for the empty places, the deserted shells of old industry; other times for signs of neighborhoods that feel especially real,with a life of their own, as yet untouched by the spreading cookie-cutter strips of Starbucks, Subway, Blockbusters and the like.

So far this cafe has been the end point, the best outcome, of all my wandering.

I get a kick out of seeing the sharpest of all my remaining images of that unreachable city together, up on the walls of a public space. Displayed this way they capture a larger view, a full journey into otherness. And it's fun to watch patrons of the cafe stop to take a second look, or push up close to examine a particular detail or dapple of color: caught up, without knowing it, in the city of my obsessions. This is a different aspect of the process of art than I'm used to experiencing. So far I can't get enough of it.

Three young women move slowly along the back wall, stopping to talk in front of each canvas. I'm listening, pretending to read the book review section from last week's paper.

One, with spiky, orange hair and skinny, bare arms covered with tattoos, says that she sees dragons. She gestures with her hands, arms rising with the gathering intensity in her voice. It's as if she's about to reach right into the painting in front of her.

"This one is peeking out of a doorway. Can you see it? It's waiting for someone -- waiting for something -- to happen? There's that story, you know. You guys ever hear it? A city full of dragons and all the humans are their slaves? It kind of sounds like a nursery rhyme. One of those grim ones. Stuff about blood and tears, captive children's hopes and cries. Doorways closing, bristling skies opening.... Everything sucks for the humans. Then one woman hops through a portal into another world. She finds a way to open a permanent pathway. And then the magical energy flows both ways, like an open circuit. Before that the magic was static, like the buildings in a city, unable to make any real change happen. Gates, portals, opening ways. Sky and ground and in-between. Magic comes flooding through. Everything and everyone begins to transform. Now people -- humans -- have lots of power. The walls and ground open up. Monsters in hand, minds at ease. Past, future, present, held in peace. It's like a golden age. Happy ever after. For a while, anyway."

Her friends shrug, as if to say no they haven't heard that story. They stare at the painting, their brows furrowed.

Now Terry approaches these girls and speaks to them. The cafe manager looks a touch Pre-Raphaelite compared to this group. She's all flow and gentle curves in her crinkled, batik print dress. The younger women are etched with sharp lines and splashed here and there with postmodern ideas of color. It would be a hard juxtaposition to make work in a single picture.

Terry says, "That's the artist right over there. He can probably tell you more stories of Dragon City."

The orange-haired girl turns and squints in my direction. I put my paper down and return her gaze. I can see the muscles in her bare arms tense and then relax again.

"Maybe he can," she says. Her lips part, form into a grin. "But I bet I know some stories that he hasn't heard yet."

© Damian Kilby 2004, 2006.
This story originally appeared in TTA #38, Summer 2004.
(The award-winning TTA is now called Black Static - see our subscription offer.)

Damian Kilby's stories have appear in TTA, Asimov's Science Fiction, Universe and Journal Wired. He and his wife Gretchen live in Portland, Oregon.

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