Here and There
From DivNull RPG
Once, when he was supposed to be cheering up his compatriots, Tanador told this story to Thorn while they resting in a city sewer, hiding from a serious threat of death. When it finished, one asked “Was that supposed to make me feel better?” Tanador replied: “No,” and went to sleep. The story is actually by Neil Gaiman and is used here without permission. It has also been edited slightly to fit the campaign better.
There once was a man who lived in a city, and he had lived there all his life. It was not that he had never left that city; he had holidayed by the sea, and, on the occasion of his parents death, he took his small inheritance and spent two weeks on a tropical island, on which he contracted a nasty case of sunburn.
He had a job in the city center, and between where he worked and where he lived, the city was divided by a wide river. The river was so wide, that no bridge could be built across it. Every half hour, the city provided a barge, which for a few coppers would take you across the river. The man would take this barge to work each morning and return home on it in the evening. In the barge, in the morning, he would wonder what would happen were the barge suddenly to be transported to a deserted isle: how long it would take before the passengers began to speak, one to another; who would make love to whom; who would be eaten should they run out of food.
He felt vaguely ashamed of these daydreams.
He worked all day at his desk, in a room with dozens of men and women who sat at desks like his and did jobs much like his. He neither liked nor disliked his job: he had taken the job because it was a job for life, because it provided stability and security. But on his lunch break, while his fellow workers ate lunches provided by the company and exchanged gossip, the man, whose name was Robert, would take a sandwich and, for an hour, explore the byways of the city. He would walk and he would stare at the city, and this made him happy. A carving on a wall above a door on a condemned house; a bright flash of sunlight reflecting off the railings of a park, making them serried spears to guard the green grass and running children; a gravestone in a churchyard, eroded by wind and rain and time until the words on the stone had been lost but the mosses and lichens still spelled out letters from forgotten alphabets… all these sights, and many others, he treasured and collected.
Robert saw the city as a huge jewel, and the tiny moments of reality he found in his lunch hours as facets, cut and glittering of the whole. Is there a person in the world who does not dream? Who does not contain within them worlds unimagined? It did not occur to Robert that each of his workmates had something that made them, also, unique; nor did it occur to him that his passion for the city was in itself out of the ordinary.
Sometimes Robert would walk alone in the city at night, when he could not sleep, to see the face the city presented after dark, which was not its daytime face. Once he shivered to hear, through a window, someone screaming-lost in a nightmare, perhaps, or waking from horrors they were unable to face.
During his night walks Robert would stare into the river, and watch the lights of the city reflected in the water. The next day at work he would be tired.
One morning he took the barge to work as he usually did, spent his toiling in the room of desks. On his lunch hour he walked through the shopping district. He passed streets and lanes and alleys he had passed a hundred times before; and then he saw the silver road.
It glittered and glimmered away beyond a street market. Robert ran through the market, but when he reached the end of the street he found only an alleyway, and the silver road was nowhere to be seen.
He returned to work, but found himself unable to concentrate. Two hours’ work stretched into three and four, and by the time he had finished he was alone in an empty office. The sun had set, and he had missed his usual barge home. Robert waited on an empty dock for the next barge; and daydreamed about the silver road through the city.
Perhaps he dozed, perhaps not; anyway, he was jerked out of his reverie by the arrival of the barge. It was unlike any barge he had ever seen before; the lines of it were sleek and strange. It arrived silently, and Robert got on.
There was only one other passenger in the barge. He was standing, solitary: a pale man, with wild, black hair, dressed in a long black coat. It took only a few minutes for Robert to realize something was wrong: the barge was not stopping when it should, instead sliding silently onward.
“Excuse me?” Robert said. “Is this barge going to stop? I’m afraid I got on the wrong one.” The stranger simply stared at him. Dark eyes, like pools of night. Robert took a step backward then, nervously, and, as he did, he felt the barge begin to slow. The lights of a dock glimmered at the side of the barge, and Robert stumbled off.
He did not recognize the dock. There was no sign indicating its name, and it was poorly lit. Robert was certain enough of his familiarity of the city, though, that once he looked a bit it would be a simple thing to orient himself. There was something more than familiar about the street he stood in. Something he found impossible to place; and he found himself unable to name the street. He turned; but the dock was gone. Buildings loomed around him, broad and lightless. Robert hurried through the city-if he was still in the city, for he was of two minds about this.
A cold wind blew down the thoroughfares and avenues, bringing with it familiar scents: the meat market at dawn; the smell of earth fresh-dug, and of burning tar, of sewers, and barges. Robert began to run, certain that, eventually, he would see a street or building he recognized.
He didn’t. Eventually, he collapsed, breathless against a stone wall. From time to time, Robert could feel eyes on him from the windows and doorways. But the faces he saw, when he saw faces, were lost and scared and distant, and no one ever came close enough for him to talk. There were also certain other people in the city, but the were brief, fleeting people who shimmered and vanished.
From time to time, the sky would lighten; at other times it went dark. But there were no stars or moon in the sky in the darkness, no sun by day.
The roads mixed him up, turned him around. Here, he would pass a cathedral or museum, there, a tall building or a fountain-always hauntingly familiar. But he never passed the same landmark twice, could never find the road to return him to the landmark again. Nor was ever able to find the dock from which he had entered this distorted echo of his city.
He had been in the city for days, or for weeks, or perhaps even months. He had no way of knowing. It was sunrise, although no sun rose, when Robert found the river. It shimmered and shivered like a silver ribbon. There was a great bridge above the river, and elegant curving arch made of stone and metal. He walked up the top of the bridge, and stared at the city.
He had taken what lay at his feet for a pile of rags; but it stirred and moved and stood upright. The old man walked over to Robert. “It is beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Robert. “It is.” They stood there, on the bridge together, looking out. “Where are we?” asked Robert.
“In the city,” said the old man.
Robert shook his head. “I have walked the city all of my life. This is not the city, although there are moments when I seem to recognize fragments of the city, in the manner of one recognizing a line from a familiar poem in a strange book.”
The old man took Robert by the shoulder. “It is the city,” he repeated.
“Then… where in the city are we?”
“I think….” The old man paused. There was a cold wind, up there on the bridge. “I have been here for many, many years. How many, I do not know. And in that time I have had much time for thinking. Perhaps a city is a living thing. Each city has its own personality, after all. Brukenbrod is not Bamphf. Anden is not Myrmidos. Shasta is not Sthiss Tor. Each city is a collection of lives and buildings and it has its own personality.”
“So?” Robert said.
“So, if a city has a personality, maybe it also has a soul. Maybe it dreams. That is where I believe we have come. We are in the dreams of the city. That’s why certain places hover on the brink of recognition; why we almost know where we are.”
“You mean we are asleep?”
“No. We are awake, or so I believe. I mean that the city is asleep. And that we are stumbling through the city’s dream.” Together the two men crossed the bridge and reentered the city.
“The flicker people-who are they?”
“Who knows? Perhaps they are waking people, flicking through our world. For one fractional moment they enter the city’s dream, and see the city the way we see it. Or perhaps they are people the city is dreaming of.”
Above them vast, cyclopean walls loomed and towered. Lights flickered on and off in distant buildings, as if they were spelling out messages in some uncertain code for a far-off observer.
“What will happen to me?” asked Robert.
The old man shrugged. “I have met many people in my time in the city,” he said. “But it is a big city and there are few of us. I do not know what will become of you. For myself, I am content to wander the streets. Perhaps one day I shall return to the waking world. I am searching for a road I knew in the real city-and when I find it, I shall walk down it and find myself in the real world once more. This is what I hope and pray for; it is, after all, preferable to the alternative.”
“And that is?”
But the man broke off, and pointed wildly. “Look! Do you not see it? That corner, there, between the wall and the old house? Is it not familiar?” Robert stared, puzzled. But already the old man was running across the street. “Wait! Wait for me!” the old man was shouting.
The old man darted across the street and into an alleyway and was gone. When Robert reached the entrance to the alleyway, he found it to be a dead end, and quite empty. He never saw the old man again. But now he had a purpose. He looked for something he knew: a path, or street or alley; he walked the city of dreams hunting for something he recognized: searching for the real. He would climb the stairs of buildings hunting for a doorway he had seen before. He would descend below the city, following imaginary trails down wet dank steps the led him nowhere. He walked tiny back streets, passing restaurants forever closed, or small stores that from all he could see through their windows, sold marvels, but which were never open for business.
He walked perhaps for months, speaking to no one, until the day he encountered a woman in the roof garden of a building that jutted up from the city like a black tooth. She was sitting by a small fountain, and looked up at him as she approached. “Sir-if you are real, and not a thing of figment and fantasy-where are we?” she asked him.
“How real I am I can no longer say,” he told her. But we are in the city, or so I have been assured.” There was something about the woman; the way she held her head, perhaps, or a certain color to her eyes, or the line a curl traced as it tumbled from her forehead onto her cheek. Robert stepped closer to her.
It was then, behind the flowers and potted plants (some prosaic, some possessing a strange and exotic quality that was almost alien), he noticed a doorway. It was a door of almost unbearable familiarity; he had passed it each day, on his way to work, in a life that now seemed distant and imaginary as the moon.
“What is your name?” she asked him.
The woman reached out a hand. Robert thought that she was going to touch him; and had she touched him he would have been lost forever. He ran headlong across the roof-garden, knocking plants over as he went, running headlong, pell-mell, without looking back. Through the doorway, then. And he was blinded.
“All you all right?” he heard.
Robert looked around him, blinking in the sunlight. “Thank you,” he said. “I am fine.”
I met Robert in a small village on the coast near the Gulf of Grald, some years after the events I have mentioned here. It was a very small village, only a few scattered houses and farms and one shop the served as the village store and an inn. Other than that there were only stunted sheep and blasted trees, and the constant susurrus of the sea. It was in that inn that he told me the tale I have told you. He was a most frightened man.
“Do you fear that one day you will return to the dreams of the city?” I asked him. “Is that why you live out here?” He shook his head and we walked outside. The mist hung low and white and thick and we might as well have been nowhere at all.
“If the city was dreaming,” he told me, “then the city is asleep. And I do not fear cities sleeping, stretched out unconscious around their rivers and estuaries, like cats in the moonlight. Sleeping cities are tame and harmless things. What I fear,” he said, “is that one day the cities will waken. That one day the cities will rise.”
I would like to believe it was only the cold that made me shiver, only a strand of fog in my throat that caused me to catch my breath.
Robert walked away and I never saw him again. Since that time, I have walked with less comfort in cities.