have never been to the Floating City. In my youth we traveled some. My mother’s
career took us quickly, and in a short span of time between when I was five
and when I was eight, to four different continents, twenty-seven different
countries, and four hundred different hotels.
I recall that once, as my mother negotiated the sale of a thousand tons of wheat to some South Pacific king, I was allowed to play in the garden of the villa. The villa, as I recall, was an aging and rumpled pastiche of Tahitian art, Romanesque arches and American conveniences. A crimson Coca-Cola cooler squatted next to the aerie of several delicate and many-hued island birds; a large radio antenna spiraled up and out of the courtyard, casting a long shadow across the red terracotta tiles of the roof. Blue spruce saplings grew, here in the warm and open air next to delicate, violet colored orchids, and amongst the bamboo shoots there were small piles of bottle caps and cigarette butts.
Sitting on a stool on the far side of the garden, spilling casually out of a traditional grass skirt and drinking Nehi from a green bottle, was an ancient islander himself, one eye milky with cataracts, the other squinched up and focused.
“Who are you,” he said to me, spitting a long nuclear stream of Nehi at a line of ants approaching his unshod foot.
“A little boy,” I said, peering at him from behind the bamboo.
“You’re the American,” he nodded at me and slurped on his Nehi.
I nodded back, slowly, unsure of what he meant by that. In Seoul, where we had just been, flying in on the same plane as Secretary McNammara, there was a huge festival at the airport waiting to greet us. But in a small town in Laos, where we were snuck in by men in black silk, people scowled at my red shirt and new shoes and they murmured angry gibberish under their breath as we entered rooms.
“s’Okay,” the man burped, “I’m not from around here either.”
I walked out from behind the bamboo and over to the Coke Cooler. The coin slot had been disengaged and I opened the cooler to retrieve a bottle. Even though I was very young, the casual forthrightness of travel had already trained my instincts.
“Where are you from, then?” I asked.
“Nowhere really, the same as you. But I was never an American, so I can’t fall back on that. So,” he continued as I squatted beside him in the hot dirt, both of us with our bottles of American Soda, bottled in Japan, “here we are. Two old travellers at a crossroads. You tell me your stories and I’ll tell you mine.”
And so I told him of the two daughters of Siam who had stuffed me in a bag with three cats, and how I escaped to exact my vengeance on them by hiding salamanders in their bath. I told him of the children of the Gobi who can sing in two voices, and the time that I spent with them learning nothing but a sore throat. And I told him of winters in Michigan that I could barely remember, and how snow is supposed to pile into airy mountains that I could not at that moment even imagine as I described it, the delicate clouds of white iced powder as exotic an image as anything I had ever encountered. And I told him of my feckless father, always one country behind my mother and I, too slow by half with all of his luggage and weariness.
And he nodded and smiled.
And he told me of worlds nested within worlds like Russian dolls, and of stars made of spun sugar, and of clockwork people that wrote clockwork poetry which, when it wound down could stop time. There was the time that two temptresses had seduced him and he awoke many days later stitched into the stomach of a giantess with three lions for company, and of his miraculous escape by ingenious use of the lions claws, and of his vengeance, wrought sweetly, with the aid of a thousand adders and dragons. He sang for me the three throated epic of D’ar-neya, the desert queen, lonely of spirit for she had no husband that she might pair with in bliss; no man as fleet of foot, as quick of wit, or as sharp of aim; and of the great sorrow this caused her to the end of her fiery days. And he told of ancient days when the world was encased in ice a thousand miles thick, and of the great cities carved out of the glaciers, the crystalline palaces and the blue tinged spires. And he told of a city trapped in the sky, both beautiful and mournful, that he had once heard of, that another traveler had hinted at, that whispers of sometimes catch on the breeze.
And he spoke of chains and of clouds and of hands.
And I am much older now. And my mother has finally gone.