He left his home to get away from the darkness - a chilling shadow that held his home in thrall, curling around individual corners like tendrils until suddenly the whole building was trapped. He followed stories of the bright sun and shining rocks that came from the earth as if gifts, setting fortune in the paths of the determined and the worthy.
Everywhere he goes, he sees the darkness; it twists and folds into the spaces between and behind, but here it cannot hold sway. It is as if it has been beaten back and only knows how to lurk, to be found rather than to seek out a new hold and search on.
There are traces of those who came before him, other faceless, nameless people who looked for light; they are the ones who left the path from which the darkness hides. He doesn't see them; he can't know who they are, for they have moved on, perhaps inland, to the fields and the realm of endless sand, or spread out along the coast, making room for him to take their place. What they left for him, though, is enough; he knows he isn't alone, isn't the first. Not even the people he sailed with are known to him, they slept shoulder to shoulder under blankets, and as if to make up for the closeness, they parted on the dock and never looked back. Some of them had places to go; he is filling a space made for him by someone who moved on, doing the very thing he himself is aiming to do.
That space doesn't fit him, somehow; it feels too big and too small at the same time, and he is alone within it. Things are the same and yet different - the mouse in his room is friendly, and accepts crumbs in exchange for not sitting on the bed; the cat lies sleek and thin in the sun, barely receptive to touch unless it knows you, and it does not trust him. The buildings seem to be tall enough to touch the sky, and when the sun is just right, they seem to blend in until it seems they reach up past the clouds and into another world entirely. Around him the world seems bright and open, though the crowd that hurries through the streets around him can easily sweep him along. With his dark suit and only hat, gradually wearing, he feels he stands out; he feels people watching him, though if he looks over his shoulder, there's only a shadow, being eaten by the light. He moves through the streets as if he doesn't know how to live in this new, bright, busy place, as if it chooses who it favours and who it spits back out.
There are places which are safe for him, but they are in shades of brown, filled with people like him; still, the signs don't make sense, barely forming words that make sense for what they mean, and still, he is almost good enough but not quite. They are apart from the wide open spaces filled with light, away from the bubbly chaos, far from the buildings that come from the sky. He doesn't fit there either, for there are no families, and he misses home more when he is there. It is easier to not fit in around the people who aren't almost the same as he is; their kindnesses feel larger, somehow, and when he finds work, it feels more satisfying than the labouring, from the digging.
The person before him left more than a room, more than a few people willing to take a chance on another seeker, more than the glimmer of hope that the very fact he moved on meant that it was possible. He finds it, one day, when he's writing to his daughter. It's a special letter, for she is just learning to read, and he wishes to tell her about his mouse; as if the very nature of that simple story, the thought of her in his heart, is the thing that brings it, the last of the light catches on the windowsill, glittering briefly. He refills the lamp and lights it by the starlight, and glimmer is back; he finds it tucked between the wood and the stone, a letter outlined with gold, a page discarded from some larger project, perhaps, or carefully crafted. It is not a long letter, but it is formed with the first words in his language since he stepped onto the dock and into line.
He folds it for his daughter, and sends it home; if it gave him hope, it can do the same for her.
He reminds himself not to have the foolish hope that the gold is lucky and will bring his family to him, but he kisses the envelope before he drops it in the post box, in case that can be sent too.
That is when it changes; he doesn't change, the city doesn't change, not so much, but as the sun stays longer, it feels like there is more energy, as if the city was asleep and is waking up. He doesn't see the shadows so much, and finds himself having forgotten to look for them. It isn't that he understands the words now, but they don't sound so harsh to him, too slow and hard; he still uses half the paper he buys to draw on, to talk with, but he is known now, as if the city itself has accepted him now that he has passed an unknown test. He pays for his lodgings and his landlady gives him a hot meal, saving him from a night of bread and cheese; there is always a still-warm loaf for him on the first and fourth days of the week, and sometimes he can afford to search out a small slab of meat.
It is on one of those days it happens, when he's been told there's no more work and he's walking back to his lodgings; it is one of those days he remembers to look for the shadows. He looks down as he walks, avoiding soft ground and spills, and in that he fails to wonder at the city as it grows, skeletal at first then covering itself with white, growing into a sprawling metropolis as if to prevent him being confident in knowing his way around.
It's not a piece of the fabled gold but a man, speaking in words that he understands. At first, he doesn't even realise, for he is so used to the other tongue that it doesn't occur to him that he didn't need to guess; it's a man who looks just like him, the hat and the suit and the worry lines around his eyes, the recent wear from hard labour on his hands.
The man has a daughter and a wife; he leaves them for a moment and they wait for him, the wife's hand on the daughter's shoulder.
"I have been looking for you," the man says. There are not enough of them to be nameless to each other, now that some have moved on, but he does not know this man; he does not know anyone, he is still alone in that. "I have work," the man says. "There is too much for me alone now."
A piece of paper passes between them in a handshake and the man is gone, his wife and daughter are gone, before the darkness sees them together and comes. The paper has the same gold leaf, but much more carefully applied, forming only a thin line around the edge. For a moment, he wonders if it was the same man who had his room before.
The man was an artist, before he left home; and now he cries, because there is an address and a number, the symbol for money. There will be enough to bring his family, if only he goes there.
He is careful with his words; he keeps the gold paper for himself, to be treasured, but his letter to the man after him he folds into a bird, so that man would know that he could fly.