"Through me the way to the suffering city;
Through me the everlasting pain;
Through me the way that runs among the Lost"
Dante. The Divine Comedy: Inferno.
Canto III, l 1-3
The city of his dreams is as familiar, after all these years, as the city in which he lives and works.
Each night he traces a new route through its stairs, and arcades and steeply rising stony streets, always on the verge of recognition, yet every corner, every courtyard, every gateway reveals a vista he knows he has not seen before.
Sometimes it is a city of the dead; sere yellow grass rattling between the cobbles, the bones of small birds and mammals and fragile snail shells crack beneath his step, and the doorways and windows open onto silent space, void of any life but his.
At other times, it rings with voices, bells, laughter, the song of birds, the sighing of cypresses, and then he glimpses the lives of others…
...an old man rocks in his bed, like a child, his prayers and regrets rising like smoke from a snuffed candle. A woman pauses at a window, pale and solemn, her hand resting on the second life swelling at her waist. Two friends embrace each other on a doorstep and exchange the kiss of peace. A boy holds his hand under cool running water, sluicing away a fine thread of red from a fresh cut. A doorkeeper washes away the traces of the day's labour with lazy damp flicks of a mop...
Robert Lewis passes among these citizens unseen, unheard, his tongue stuck fast within his skull.
He has crossed the city a thousand times in his restless dreams, yet has never reached its limits. He has searched its docks, seen warehouses piled with the trade of a thousand lands, glimpsed the masts of a thousand ships crowding over its rooftops, yet has never found the wharves, or seen the waves he can hear washing their stony sides. He has climbed endless staircases among the towers and domes and spires - but has never reached their summit.
And although the stones around him are warm, and sunlight spills across them like slow honey, he knows that if he looks upward he will see only blackness, and stars that crackle like frost, never thawing, or moving or fading to herald dawn.
And he also knows, that, among all these indifferent strangers and empty sepulchres, the one person he seeks breathes, lives, laughs, somewhere, separate from him, unseen, unheard, but perhaps only a few heartbeats away, on the far side of the next wall, passing in the street below, or on the creaking floorboards overhead. Always faceless, unfound, unknown, but there, waiting, in potential. He can hear their name in the breeze, in the conversations of the market-place, and know that he once knew it well...
...yet, every time he sense that he is close, that the next turn in his path will bring their separated paths back together, he fails, and falls, into the crumpled cotton darkness of his waking life, the alarm on his phone calling him back, hard, aching, alone...