Eleventh in a monthly series of excerpts from The Book of All Cities.
On the plain of Myrkhyr, in the first year of the cycle, a million nomads cross the salt flats. They go as quickly as they can, though they are not used to traveling by pony. Everyone has taken too much with them, and the salt flats are soon littered with endless miles of abandoned things.
Few reach the mountain crevasses before the enormous shadows rush over them. Each behemoth that screams by overhead is a mile wide, blotting out the sky in all directions. The wind it drives before it shatters the ground and spawns sandstorms. Its tentacles, as long and wide as rivers, end in yawning mouths which sweep the ground, devouring the nomads and their ponies, hundreds at a gulp.
The next weeks are bitter. There is nothing to eat in the mountain crevasses. The behemoths prowl the skies, their high-pitched screaming filling the air. Some people go mad from hunger and grief and the deafening sound. Some climb out of the crevasses to meet the giant mouths.
After that the behemoths roam farther and farther from the mountains, and the people come out to hunt. By the tenth year of the cycle, the behemoths are seen no more; by the thirtieth, they are only a memory. The people build crude huts of mud and wattle; they plant the plateaus above the crevasses; their flocks increase. On clear nights, by the fireside, they recount their days of greatness.
Around the fiftieth year, the behemoths return. Soon there is no day, only a screaming night -- the sky is filled with huge, writhing bodies. Then the behemoths fly to the salt flats to die, burrowing deep into the ground, each bearing within it a child which eats its parent's body as it grows.
Soon the people outfit themselves and set out from the mountains. They are lean and rugged and ride gracefully. Descending the mountains, they can see the great expanse of the salt flats, where a hundred cities glitter, white and clean.
At first the cities are simple: a few large ivory halls with many rooms, a small park, perhaps with a pond, and always a well sunk deep into the earth. The first arrivals at each city claim its rooms; others camp nearby, their yurts surrounding the city walls.
By the seventieth year of the cycle, the cities of Myrkhyr have grown turrets, parapets, ramparts; great domes and amphitheaters; fountains and lampposts. The people discover again how to use the foundries, book binderies, breweries, and halls of government that slowly push up out of the ground. The salt disappears from the land around the city walls, and the soil yields a lush harvest.
After a hundred years, or a hundred and thirty, the signs appear. The roofs grow scales. The rooms begin subtly to breathe. An animal smell fills the streets. The water tastes like blood.
The people love their cities -- the concerts in the park in summer, the grand operas, the canals along the promenade where children sail gaily colored toy boats. Only a few leave for the mountains when the first signs appear. Not this year, most say. This year I will be appointed director of the commission. This year he will love me. Anyway, autumn will be soon enough. Let me just enjoy the summer.
Finally, when it is too late, the people pack their things and hurry for the mountains -- not looking back, or looking back in tears.
There are always a few who refuse to leave. They climb spires at the cities' edges. When the city-behemoths explode out of the ground and hurtle screaming across the salt flats, their riders hang on as best they can.
Copyright © 2001 Benjamin Rosenbaum
Image © 2000 Lee Moyer.
Benjamin Rosenbaum lives in Basel, Switzerland, with his wife and baby daughter, where in addition to scribbling fiction and poetry, he programs in Java (well) and plays rugby (not very well). He attended the Clarion West Writers' Workshop in 2001 (the Sarong-Wearing Clarion). His work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Writer Online. His previous appearances in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. For more about him, see his Web site.