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Damo Mázeric leans against a metal railing and watches the ships in the harbor of the City at the Crossroads of the World. When he was young they called it Groznagrad at home, but that only meant big city or great city or, perhaps, terrible city. That makes more sense after three decades living here. Everyone has a name like that for the place, and the natives only call it “the City”—hardly better. Even now, he misses names with history, names of queens and outlaws and holy hermits hung on the little spots of ground, the stones and streams and forests that they lived and died among. Damo has grown old here, but he is not a native. His history is there across the sea, and the city itself has none, or too much to be spoken.

The harbor in the hour after dawn is worth watching. Golden light rakes down from the east to color the foam, making no impression on the implausibly deep blue of the water in the half-moon bay. Beyond, gold and pink and every shade of almost-white, the ever-present walls of cloud rise, tall and opaque as frozen thunderheads, dividing the eternal City from the world that shifts and wheels like the heavens while Groznagrad changes only which luxuries and foreign styles are most in fashion on its docks. The painted hulls and shipping containers on decks and the flags flown from bow and stern shine like over-saturated jewels.

Damo smokes sweet black tobacco while he watches. It’s better than anything he ever knew existed before he came here, but it turns bitter in his mouth when he sees that the next ship to break the clouds and slide across the bay flies the twined serpents of the Commonwealth, blue and white on crimson.

They will have news and music, hymns for church and temple, new recitations of the holy book for the mosque, sheepskins and fine wool and climbing boots from the Ustici mountains, timber and coal from the forests and mines, barley and pork and sweet hot peppers, dried cherries and fine cherry brandy the like of which Damo has never tasted. The crew will smile and joke with the longshoremen, and then go into the city and eat foreign food and drink the honeyed resin-wine of Groznagrad.

Damo finishes his cigarette in bad humor, smoking fast, then spits into the sea and leaves before the ship can dock and he is forced to speak with anyone from the almost-home he has not seen in more than thirty years.

He passes three large bistros advertising Commonwealth cuisine on the main street leading out of the harbor, each regionally slanted, signed with the languages and scripts he grew up reading, gaudy with gold and the colors of the flag. Plenty of Commonwealth sailors pass through Groznagrad to sustain all three, even as local fads for the food come and go, but Damo will not eat a thing they serve. Instead, he turns down Constanz Street, among the grimy tenements screened from the water by the fences and warehouses of the commercial dock, and opens a scarred door into the barely-signed familiarity of Zlademic’s café.

Metal chairs with cracking leather cushions betray the age not shown by the polished steel bar and tables. There are only a few regulars huddling in corners so early in the morning. The white wall tiles are painted with abstract curls and four-pointed stars in a bright cobalt blue, and Zlademic keeps them scrubbed and shining. The old man leans on his own counter, just as much a part of the décor as the oily, pitch-black olives beside his elbow or the moonshine brandy in unmarked bottles behind the bar. With his iron-grey hair and thick mustache pasted to a head square and solid as a hunk of timber, he looks just like the posters of Timéstic that Damo graffitied over in his misspent youth.

Damo sits at the bar and does not have to speak before Zlademic puts a burek in front of him, the folded pastry triangle studded with caraway and yellow mustard seeds, full of sheep’s cheese and dried sour cherries. The first bite bursts with the memory, not faded in three decades’ exile, of wolfing one just like it down as he lay hidden in the bottom of a boat. It had been his first food in two days, since he had run from the police breaking down his apartment door. The scent of diesel from the complaining outboard motor had mixed with the sour sharpness of the burek and made the cherries burst like copper or blood as the boat slipped out to a ship already passed through customs and steaming slowly into open water.

That burek had been the last thing Damo ate in the real Commonwealth, and only in this café can he get one like it. At the gaudy bistros, the bureks are historical exhibits, sprinkled with white sesame, pastry yellow with the saffron that could not be gotten during the war or after, under Timéstic and the Secularists.

Damo is still coughing a little from cold and creeping age and smoking fast to escape the sailors. Hearing the cough or maybe because Damo’s foul mood is written on his face, Zlademic presses a bowl of pepper soup on him, full of tiny salt pork dumplings. Damo knows from experience that the wrapper will be twice as thick as the kernel of filling, just a little burst of salt and fennel at the heart. The broth is red and spicy with the smoky heat of so much dried pepper, and tiny golden bubbles of pork fat glitter on the surface. It slides down his throat like oil and fire. Damo has somewhere to be soon, but he can’t refuse the dish, not this one. Fortunately, his editor is close to the harbor, so he will not be late for whatever new work came on the boat, or for the other stop he has resolved to make this morning.

Pepper soup was the first thing he ate at Zlademic’s, and the first food from home he tried to eat in Groznagrad. He had been only two days out of detention and a few hours from the refugee office, with his resettlement allowance in his pocket and no idea how anything in this strange place worked. Travel literature was not encouraged under the Secularists.

He had wandered unfamiliar streets, drifting with the crowds toward the tourist district near the public waterfront, and there it had been: Golden Table, the name spelled out in the angular typeface Groznagrad associated with the Commonwealth, in the common language of the city and below that in Poznici. The Poznici, in the easily misread type, could easily be read as either “golden table” or “fat hog.” The bold golden lettering of the sign felt wrong, but the Poznici had been a promise he couldn’t ignore, not alone in an unknown city that seemed to hold more people and more streets than the whole of the Commonwealth.

Things had gone wrong as soon as he went inside. The host who whisked him to a table, and most of the waiters, wore caricature moustaches and answered him in broken Poznici with thick Bogolin accents. Still, he told himself that was just a show the management put on for tourists. The menu looked correct, and he had ordered the most homely and solid dish he could find, pepper soup, to calm his nerves and soothe his homesickness.

They had brought him a monstrosity. Fresh ground pork, fat as meatballs, wrapped in a bare suggestion of a dumpling skin, floating in clear broth alongside fennel greens and fresh peppers. Who in Timéstic’s Commonwealth had ever seen a fresh pepper? He had tried it, hoping it would be close enough, but it had tasted wrong, too much flavor and too little, delicately complex instead of strong, nothing like the pepper soup his mother had revived him with on winter mornings when their tenement’s heat refused to work and there was frost inside the windowpanes.

He had leapt up from the table and demanded an explanation, and when the manager appeared and had convinced Damo to try and articulate the problem in his own faltering Tragomi, the sailors’ language that was the City’s universal argot, the man had offered him a glass of Commonwealth brandy as compensation.

Damo could remember, then and now, his father rhapsodizing about the taste of real twenty-year brandy, burnt caramel and almonds and the sweet echo of the cherrywood barrels it was aged in. When Father was young, real brandy was not only for Party men. The idea that it could be gotten here, cheap enough to waste on quieting a vagrant customer, had been the last snapping cord to convince Damo he was in some nightmare and not the real world at all.

He had overturned the awful soup and run without another word to the manager. He has regretted more than once that he did not accept the drink before he ran.

A waiter had stopped him in the entryway and pulled him into a coat closet for a private word. The older man had used two words of very bad Poznici to ask if Damo spoke Herez, the main southeastern language of the Commonwealth. He did. He had been a student in languages and literature until two days before his one-way voyage. The waiter had smiled sadly and put a hand on Damo’s heaving shoulder.

“It’s not your fault, what’s gone wrong for you. I understand, but I don’t know how to tell it. You want Zlademic’s, on Constanz Street, in the dockside quarter. He’ll sort you out, and explain what’s happened.”

As he was leaving, the waiter added: “Don’t worry, poor boy, you’re in a better place now. We all are.”

He hadn’t understood, had stumbled through the half-lit streets, raucous with Tragomi arguments and the scents of unfamiliar liquor, until he found the café, half-closed and empty. But Zlademic had welcomed him, listened as Damo half-cried through an explanation of everything, the protest, the police, the restaurant and waiter and everything wrong with the pepper soup.

At least that much had been coherent. The old man had put a bowl in front of Damo just like this morning’s offering, and it had been perfect. He had explained as Damo ate and put his tears away in shaking breaths and tightness in his chest.

“Here’s your trouble, son, Groznagrad’s the same for everyone, yes? Everyone knows it, trades with it, has their stories. It’s always been here, always been what it is. But outside the cloud walls, where you and I come from—there’s more than one of that. More than one Commonwealth, Bogoli, Attike, everything. I came here from your Commonwealth, Timéstic and the Secularists, churches smashed and national self-sufficiency and all of it.”

Damo wouldn’t spit inside, so he had made the upside-down salute good revolutionaries used when the dictator’s name was mentioned and they thought no informers would be watching. Zlademic waved it away.

“Don’t bother. There’s no revolution here, not for you. Not anymore. Listen. That used to be the only Commonwealth that sent ships here, but about ten years ago, it all changed.

“All the ships are from a nice democracy now, with freedom of worship and no clan feuds or church burnings, at least not that they let on in books or newspapers; free trade, tourism, money. Most of my friends from home left on the first ships returning there. They didn’t understand, thought it had been a new revolution.

“I stayed, and I watched the city forget Timéstic and his party, and now it’s always been that other place. All we get are a few refugees like you, and the occasional shipment of coal or timber on ships that stay buttoned up tight and won’t let anyone off for shore leave or defection. They don’t take passengers, and no one else sails back to where you left. You can’t get back, no one can, and barely anyone here knows what you left. Get used to it.”

That had explained the confused looks Damo had gotten when he pleaded for asylum and said he would be a political prisoner if he returned to the Commonwealth, and despite the gruffness of his explanation, the old man let Damo sit for a long time and try to wrap his mind around all he had lost, how different this exile was from the one he had expected.

The pepper soup hardens Damo against the morning chill more effectively than it did against the baffling disconnection that Zlademic’s story had left him with that night. The old man had been right, though. In Groznagrad, the Commonwealth was like nothing he’d ever dreamed of, and even if a ship from the real one would take a letter back, there was never any answer.

The old man will not let him back out into the cold without tea. Zlademic’s brew is a testament to the proverb that you can buy anything you can imagine in Groznagrad, even black caravan tea that crumbles so fine it escapes the strainer and coats your teeth with bitter grit as you drink.

Damo drank tea like that, overboiled and milky, the morning before his abject failure of a protest. There had been less than two dozen of them, all students, protesting the suppression of minority languages and traditional culture, the homogenization the Secularist Party demanded. They had believed the people were ready. That their spark would fill the streets with fire and begin a new movement for freedom, reform, democracy, virtue, a rebirth of the nations. Instead, the police had outnumbered them three to one and they’d sprinted along alleys and prayed that no one recognized their faces. He didn’t know if any of the others had made it out of the Commonwealth. He had never met one in the City. It had been such a pathetic effort.

At least his parents’ generation had fought the army for a week before they broke, thrown petrol bombs from temple porticos and fired sniper’s bullets from minarets and damned the Secularists until they ran out of ammunition; or, in the lying smile of that other Commonwealth, the army had refused to burn them out of church and mosque or fight citizens street to street, and instead those wide-eyed idealists had toppled Timéstic eighteen months after he began, had built a new Commonwealth with the best dreams of its history, where everyone was free to worship and speak and trade with the wide world.

Damo has made his living learning their proud history for decades now. They write without ceasing, on good new electric typewriters, likely, and there is always work for a good student of Commonwealth languages in the City.

The smugly smiling tourists from that Commonwealth do not drink caravan tea, and they prefer the subtle flavor of Attike brined olives, not the oily midnight explosions of salt from Zlademic’s counter. They write poetry that trumpets with the brassy self-satisfaction of a nation like a cream-fed cat, and have never learned the subtleties of oblique reference and triple obfuscation by chains of rhyme and kenned reference and enjambed acrostics that the best poets of his youth used to slip their acid words past every censor board.

 


 

That night, Damo presides over a celebration in Zlademic’s. The ship he saw in the morning had three new manuscripts, poetic novels in the modern Cratavec heroic mode. The City is always hungry for literature from the happy Commonwealth, and no one has the same touch with Cratavi poetry that he does, so Damo is flush with an advance on his translation income. He had expected it, and rushed to the editor when he left the café, and then to his other appointment with advance in hand.

The other exiles of his own home join him: little Rámec, Zrania, Cirilec the mathematician, and Zlademic himself. He met them all in Zlademic’s orbit, trying to cope with their exile from a place that barely exists in the memory of the city. Cirilec teaches and doesn’t mention his past to students. Rámec works with Zlademic on the kind of grey-market dealing that everyone had to become adept in at home. Zrania does an even better job than Damo at aping the culture of the new Commonwealth. She runs a little tearoom for tourists and ship’s officers, then leaves them to their rich cosmopolitan cuisine and drinks moonshine and caravan tea at Zlademic’s. There are dozens from Damo’s Commonwealth in the City, but the rest choose not to remember. They embrace the smiling lie and talk of going home and eat in gaudy restaurants on the main street. Only Damo and these other four hold to the unforgiving truth of what they left behind.

No one else is in the café, and a laden table has been pulled into the center. Zlademic has provided a full basket of donut braids soaked in cherry-pit and fennel syrup, thin cured sausages that taste of salt and smoke and blood, and a whole leg of lamb in pepper-cream sauce. The Golden Table would serve it over pearled barley, but Zlademic uses boiled potatoes, like every good Secularist household. To drink, they have beer, and potato vodka, and a bottle of Zlademic’s homemade cherry brandy.

The other exiles shower him with thanks and congratulations, as they always do when one of their number finds a little fortune, and Damo accepts with as much grace as he can muster, but there is a bitter aftertaste to all of it, thinking of the work ahead, of spending hours immersed in the careless, triumphant joy of novels written by young people who cannot understand the choice between safety and belonging, cannot imagine what it feels like to become a ghost in a city that cannot see you, because you chose exile instead of ending as a corpse against the pockmarked wall used for public executions.

He does what is expected at the party and drinks more than he should. They sing old songs, the really old folk songs, and the newer underground protest music that only they remember. They commiserate that at least the mountains and the pines and the blue waves on the sand and shingle are the same in the false Commonwealth, and he will be allowed to spend some time with them as he translates these books.

He doesn’t bother to correct the others. They deserve a little false hope to get them through the dreary City winter, where the cold comes as incessant rain and biting wind and never the solidness of real snow that can be kept out with a good coat and a stiff drink.

Later, in his apartment, drunk and maudlin, he spends a long time sitting with his manuscript. Twenty Years Inside the Serpent’s Throat is his poetic memoir, and a call to action he knew the Commonwealth, his Commonwealth, needed. He wrote it in a fever the first year of his exile, but it would do just as much good now as then, if the place he left could receive anything from him.

He’s learned, through careful study of the little that leaks, shouted conversations with sailors, interrogating the refugees who came to the City after him, before they chose to forget, that the Commonwealth he left is more than deprecated in the City’s memory. It is frozen. If a paper or escapee from his real home came to the city today, they would report Timéstic still in power, though he would be more than one hundred now. A refugee today would never have seen an electric typewriter, an air-conditioner, a plastic bag. The place he left is caught in amber, unreal as a dream, or lost to history as well as to its exiles. It has no future, no present to return to. Sometimes he must imagine that the ships which come and testify to its continuation are only ghosts, pulled from his memory and Zlademic’s and those of the few others who once believed they came from there.

Watching him as he rereads is the day’s secret shame, still in its paper bag. Even before he announced his good fortune to Zlademic and called for the feast, he bought it from the warehouse foreman, outracing wholesalers and restaurant buyers. He unwraps it. A genuine bottle of Commonwealth thirty-year brandy. Thirty years. Laid down to age two years after he left, in a country he has never known, that he would never have had cause to leave.

He pulls it open and pours into a snifter liberated from Zlademic’s. He sips and contemplates. It is better than his father ever could have conveyed. Darkly roasted almonds wrapped in perfect caramel. The smoke of sweet wood burning. The tongue-coating sharpness of a cherry pit.

It is perfect and rich and it means nothing. Somehow he had hoped that it would speak to something in his soul, to a connection with the soil and the trees of his homeland, and make him sure it still existed somehow; that it would affirm his loss or be the rail-switch setting his soul onto the proper course, aligned with the happy Commonwealth.

But there is no rush or transformation.

This is the taste of a real history, a place with past, present, and glorious future that remembers the same stories, sits on the same land as his once home, but his home has none of that, it is a memory unlatched from the world, tasting of caraway and potato and moonshine brewed by people who knew nothing finer. The sweet fire of the brandy on his tongue does nothing to relieve the bitter memory of his failure and exile. The Commonwealth he dreamed of making remains a static story that hope cannot recall to life, a place that cannot be returned to. Despair, dully medicinal, is the true flavor of his memory.



R. K. Duncan is a fat queer polyamorous wizard and author of fantasy, horror, and occasional sci-fi. He writes from a few rooms of a venerable West Philadelphia row home, where he dreams of travel and the demise of capitalism. In the shocking absence of any cats, he lavishes spare attention on cast iron cookware and his long-suffering and supportive partner. Before settling on writing, he studied linguistics and philosophy at Haverford College. He attended Viable Paradise 23 in 2019. His occasional musings and links to other work can be found at rkduncan-author.com.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
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In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
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