“And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Jonah, 3:4
Perhaps we’d strayed too soon from the great road bordered by signs and, determined as we were to explore the city’s outskirts on foot so as not to miss a thing, we began, without admitting it, to doubt the spot we’d reached was the best place to start. We pushed stubbornly forward over the cement, the view ahead hidden by a light fog. Two massive structures without openings flanked us—a good distance away yet—and seemed to rise from the ground as we grew closer. Suddenly the veil lifted, and a tunnel’s mouth appeared at a hundred paces. Seizing my partner’s hand, I pulled her away at a frantic pace; I’d just become aware of a danger lurking in the tunnel’s depths.
Once we were some distance away, the few glimpses I got into the waterworks convinced me it was no more a drainage sewer than the direct path to the city center we’d hoped. And yet the terrifying image of a mass of water surging forth, ready to swallow us, was exactly what had leapt from that black hole to my mind, causing me to panic.
This unfortunate experience made us wary of our own judgment, but no one turned up to set us back on the right path. No matter how marvelous, a big city’s outskirts are always choked with construction sites—idle that day, a holiday—and we navigated the debris and deserted materials with difficulty. However, an ancient brick tower of great beauty—slated, alas! for imminent demolition—encircled by a token palisade, brought the desolation of this chaotic landscape into momentary relief. Our obstinacy was rewarded at last: not far off, we saw a paved road, and at the same time the city’s skyline rose on the horizon, ablaze with sunlight. Of course, we had a whole borough to cross before we reached it, and the transition from tenements and pawn shops to bourgeois brownstones was not unwearying. Luckily the breeze was light and lukewarm, and by a square a bench offered us a respite all the more needed since the small cafés we’d passed en route seemed seedy or too grimy to stop at for refreshment. On the far side of the patchy green sat a poorly clothed man. We soon saw that he was staring at us with disturbing insistence, and that we could not look back at him without meeting a gaze gleaming with malice that nothing in our appearance or behavior seemed to justify. We were so upset we left our bench earlier than we’d wished.
Leaving our car on the outskirts—the better to explore neighborhoods the guide glossed over—had been a gamble, an idea that now smacked of well-intentioned sociological experiment. We’d reached the livelier avenues at last with nothing but great exhaustion and no memory of having learned a thing. My partner had feebly protested, in the name of simple good sense, and the responsibility for our forced march lay entirely at my feet; it was my job to make it up to her by finding a nice spot for a good lunch.
Nothing was easier at this intersection, the confluence of so many luxuries, where cutting-edge urbanism abutted the maze of old town alleys. Between a fortieth-floor panorama and the courtyard garden of a palazzo, my partner chose altitude. From this dizzying height, the city seemed enameled in a pearly substance. In the sunstruck noontime city, the modern Babels of our many Prometheii reined in their superiority?, making way for the antique harmonies of dome and campanile, to which the statues in their cornices made strangely foreshortened, barely perceptible gesture.
Two people were listening to my enthusiastic descriptions: the woman beside me, whose slight smile told me my lyrical flights were, far from exhausting their subject, perhaps obscuring an incommunicable secret. I spotted the second listener in a row of mirrors. For without a doubt, the bartender, in his immaculate white vest, dispensing ruby, topaz, and emerald liquids whose bottles sparkled behind him, was none other than the man from the square. My partner couldn’t see him from where she was sitting; I would’ve given much to hide him from her, but just as she was leaning towards me, she stopped, stunned: “It’s him! It’s him, isn’t it?” Their glances met; nothing I could say about the practical? impossibility of the fact could dispel her alarm.
The food, which was delightful; the wines; the enchanted expanse beneath our gaze—all these had lost their power. We could have changed seats to be outside his line of sight, but we no longer thought of anything but fleeing. We hurried the waiter as best we could; finally, I suggested we have coffee on the street/terrace.
To my great relief, a variety of passersby—from all four corners of the world, it seemed—soon took up all our attention. Stylish young women were scared off by beggars[change to active voice?], daring negligees mingled with modest saris; every race was to be found in this ambulatory rite, a spontaneous homage to luxury and the refinement of a civilization at its height.
From our observation post, a table at the corner of the terrace, we could make out the sumptuous residence beyond the brasserie—no doubt the townhouse of a rich and powerful lord—where splendid automobiles unendingly flocked, instantly set upon by uniformed valets. From one such car, more impressive than the rest, stepped a man so prestigious in his light gray morning coat that onlookers formed a hedge to let him by. Top hat in hand, he helped a woman from the car whose dress and jewelry attested to extreme decrepitude. “The Red Death!” I exclaimed. In fact the sockets of her eyes, the excess make-up, even the precious feathers—a final touch belittling her blondeness—all these irresistibly recalled that hallucinatory masterpiece I only had a faded copy of/of which I possessed only a faded copy. My partner remained silent; it wasn’t the human ruin that held her spellbound. In proof?, the noble knight had risen, and turned on us an ambiguous smile. I heard, like a lament: “Why, oh why does he pursue us?”
Both averse to the walking paths the tourism bureau prescribed, we struck off at random into the maze of alleyways in the old town, which offered up to eager eyes the most lavish architectural repertoire imaginable. Here the foundations of a Roman church brazenly incorporated mutilated limbs—capital volutes, column drums—from the temple of a god it had dethroned. Farther off, a Palladian façade stood beside a narrow, half-timbered, corbelled house. It all seemed laid out for a historical epic or a class at the Academy of Fine Arts. There were few pedestrians, as though the city’s heart beat only at a strenuous pace only in the newer neighborhoods.
By chance we came to a vast park, lively and enclosed by a double portico. Beyond, we glimpsed a ruined structure dressed in sandstone, fiery red in the setting sun. We were already feeling the rush of discovery when a skeletal being, barely dressed, crawled toward us on the sidewalk, holding out his hand. What did my partner think she saw in his burning gaze? She clung to my arm, and I had to support her to get us away. Thus thwarted, he tried to retaliate by crossing the park. No sooner had he stood up and taken a step than he turned and collapsed. Passersby rushed to his aid. Was my poor partner obsessed by the mystery which I myself tried so hard not to ponder that I glimpsed a trace of it in that wretched escapee from a Court of Miracles?
It took no less than a long walk through darkening, ever more secretive streets, where the tiniest turret, a statue still in its niche, a door open on a once-noble and now rabble-ridden courtyard, sparked a sudden burst of interest that, bit by bit, eased the horror of our last encounter. Our wandering ended before a huge wall where we thought at first to recognize traces of the fortifications that once marked an edge of the old town. We followed what we still believed the ancient ramparts, despite a height that seemed more the doing of a mad prince than a military architect.
The wall seemed to have no end/endless, and yet from its foundations now came the murmur of substantial machinery. Just as our guesses were going round in circles, we spotted a little old man wrapped up in furs on a stone bench, who motioned for us to sit down. I saw my partner recoil instinctively in fear, a reaction whose meaning I now recognized/knew well, whatever resistance my own reason put up. No doubt his age-ravaged features defused the violence of his stare and took me in. However it happened, we found ourselves seated beside the old gentleman. “You seemed intrigued by this titanic wall, but hasn’t the roar of the massive pumps relentlessly at work in its depths given you a hint?” And, as we didn’t know what to say, he continued: “Know that this structure, whose size fascinates as much as embarrasses you, is but a dike, a simple dike—of a colossal kind, of course, to match a pressure no less colossal. For—as your guidebook surely notes—our city is below, far below sea level. The important thing is this: the gods have decreed that only a stranger to the frenzy of this great city—like you, my beautiful young lady—can perceive in it a vague anguish, and foresee, I say (here he stifled an unpleasant laugh) foresee its annihilation.”