Thursday, 15 November 2012

Trinist (Fragment)

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Trinist bathes in the sun.
They say this city
Is something to everyone;
Oh! That you might be
Such a city to me.

James walked down Filmell Street, the little thoroughfare on which his flat was located. The smell of rotting carrion and plants assailed his nose like myriad twisted ribbons of miasmic scent, causing him to gag and hold his nose to ward off the smell. The stench of rotting offal and vegetables that assailed his nose, a smell so strong that he could taste it all over his tongue and down the back of his throat, was created by a bustling market that operated the entire length of the street during the day, and one could hear men and women bellow and shriek the price of their wares the entire length of the street, each person trying to outdo the one beside them in an effort to move their goods. Almost any type of food that you could imagine was on sale there, from apples to lettuce to pig trotters and everything in between; however, only the destitutely poor came here to buy food: the food itself tended to remain on the stalls for several weeks, and any obviously rotting food was left to putrefy on the streets, with the resulting miasma from the rotting and rotted food matter earning Filmell Street the endearing name of Shit-Smell Street. Most of the vegetables, moreover, were sourced either from farms with deplorable agricultural standards, where pesticides were never used and febrile animals with clear cases of disease were still slaughtered and brought to market, or were ‘removed’ (to use the language of those who supplied the food) from dubious sources. The police, reluctant at the best of times to annoy the downtrodden citizenry of the city’s poorer quarters, and even more reluctant to brave the mephitic air of the area, tended to avoid the market and looked the other way as black market activities operated under the open sky, and when huge piles of rotting matter were left on the sides of the street.

As he walked past a small pile of rotting vegetable matter that had only been half-heartedly swept into a sewer and now clung limply to the street like some tentacled monster that was struggling to escape from the  sewers, he looked into a puddle that had been only slightly stained by the effluvium of the streets; looking back at him was a young man with high, if sunken, cheekbones and blue-grey eyes with dark circles like ink-stains around them. It had been a while since he had eaten a good meal, given his poor salary and the tedious hours he worked, and his face showed clear signs of tiredness. The eyes glinted faintly, intelligently, but had lost the sparkle that had once been what he considered his strongest feature; if only his parents could see him now! His mother, who used to tousle his blonde hair lovingly as he gorged on the succulent, expensive food that only the elite in the city could afford, would be horrified to see his unwashed locks now, and would surely cluck at the faded, black trousers that housed his spoke-like legs. His grey overcoat fluttered slightly in the wind and, as he wrapped it around him tighter, he heard her voice again. 
—You’re just like your father, she constantly told him, tall and thin!
It would now be more correct to say that he was like his father had  been—tall and thin—because  the good life had finally caught up with his father, and the rich food that he so enjoyed had (inexplicably,in his father’s eyes) caused a rather marked extension of his belly past his belt, and an equally unusual inability to buckle his belt on even the loosest eyehole.

Not that I talk to those pricks anymore,  James thought, before shaking his head to rid himself of those bitter thoughts, and continuing towards his flat. He swerved to avoid another puddle and, in so doing, bumped into another pedestrian; mumbling his apologies, he stepped into the shadowed doorway of his apartment, and began to fumble in his pockets for his key.

James removed the bent and twisted old key to his apartment from a tattered coat-pocket and, brushing off the bits of lint and dirt that had accumulated on it, inserted it with a rattle  into the front door of his dilapidated apartment building. The flimsy red wooden door, rotted and stained with age, stormed  by police battering rams during various drug raids, swayed a little bit as James inserted the key. With a squeak, the key turned in  the lock and the rusted bolt slid back from the door,  and James shoved the door open; before stepping inside,  he  took a furtive look around Filmell Street to make sure that no one had followed him–you could never be too careful in this part of town.  In the  chiaroscuro of the evening, he could not make out any detail in dark doorways lining the street, but felt reasonably certain that no one would be waiting there to attack him. In fact, he was in no way certain that this was true but, in this part of town,  danger was an ever-imminent threat and one could not simply wait in a doorway all night until one felt safe.

Partially satisfied that no one had followed him, he stepped out of the approaching night and into the permanent night of the complex’s foyer and  up the stairs to the third floor. He walked down the dimly lit hallway towards his apartment, stumbling lightly as he tripped over a body that lay in the hallway. James thought he heard the rasping in and out of a shallow breath, but couldn’t be sure: he had no intention of finding out in any case, and moved swiftly along in order to avoid irritating the sleeper on the floor. Junkies that lived in the other apartments frequently crawled out of their nests and passed out in the hallway; and many of them died  there as the drugs that had consumed their bodies finally consumed their lives.  The ones that were still alive, groaning softly in the dark as though a demented spectre were conducting their moans and shrieks into a strangely unified infernal chorus, tended to have wicked tempers and could spring up  without warning or provocation, lashing out randomly at any passerby that was unfortunate enough to be in their path; whether they killed for pleasure, or money, or because the demons conjured up by their drug-addled minds told them to do so, James didn’t know: he wasn’t overly bothered in finding out either, the strength of desperation in their drug-fuelled muscles made them formidable opponents.  The stink of  the occasional rotting corpse  and shit from voided bowels was putrefying, and the sickly stench of rotting flesh clung to the inside of James’ nose. Luckily, the lighting in the hallway was almost non-existent—since almost all of the cheap gaslights, whose brass fittings made them look as though they had been lifted from a cheap hotel, had been broken—so that the distressing sight of so many ruined lives was slightly easier to stomach; in any case, James had become somewhat hardened to the awful conditions of this part
of town.

As he moved down the hallway,  the moaning of prostitutes plying their trade, the groans of dying junkies and the occasional sound of flesh hitting flesh as domestic disputes became violent filled the hallway,  followed by clamours that reached a tempestuous crescendo,  and lent it a wretched, gritty sort of atmosphere—the background music of a demented restaurant, perhaps. The walls of the hallway were painted a dull pink and occasional darker patches of pink loomed out of the darkness, indicating spots on the wall where pictures had hung, pictures that had long since been torn down by the desperate denizens of this awful abode as a source of money.

Suddenly out of the darkness, a hand scarred with track marks from years of intravenous drug use shot out and grabbed onto James’ leg; startled, he looked down  in the dim light  into a face devoid of any personality or intelligence—the junkie’s eyes were full of pain and glazed over by the numbing effects of whatever drug she was on. She opened her lips as though to say something, but all that came out was a moan that seemed to have to be forced out of her  dark pink ‘O’ of a mouth.  As panicked rose to a sickly wave in the back of his throat, the moan became more intense and the junkie’s hold on James’ leg tightened, whose heart was now pounding like a drum; the moan, rising in pitch to become a screech that  echoed  down the hallways, attracted the attention of even the junkies—those of them who weren’t dead or stoned beyond consciousness—who looked over in the dim light of the narrow corridor to see what was going on. The junkie’s hand shook with the intensity of her screeching, and her blonde, ragged hair fell back from her face as she craned her neck backwards to get a better look at James’ face; once, she might have been pretty, and the straightness of her teeth suggested a background of wealth.  Her hands shook his leg, causing him to rock slightly and forcing him to put a hand against the stained  pink  wall behind him in order to steady himself. His pupils, dilated in the darkness of the hall, drank in as much of the girl as the indistinct lighting of the hallway would allow.  Her blonde ragged hair had dark roots—a prostitute changing the colour of her hair to suit the clientele’s ever-changing tastes, perhaps?—and the distinct outline of a palm on  her pale sunken cheeks spoke of an abusive figure  in her life. Her body thinned quickly after her neck, drawn thin from years of subsisting on a diet of chemical cocktails alone, making her head look
freakishly large on top of her shrunken frame. Shredded  rags housed this desperate carcass, revealing large chunks of flesh to his eyes: flesh so wasted that James could count the ribs on her chest, and see her shinbone protruding; her skeletal feet, tensed so that tendons stood out like wires along her instep, were clenched in agony and her toes looked as though they might actually reach her heel—James heard a toe joint pop out of place as the junkie clenched her feet in spasmodic waves of agony.

The junkie’s screams suddenly cut off and, almost as though she were planting her face into the ground to take root, the junkie’s head slumped forward onto the shit -stained carpet, leaving James staring at the back of her head. A sigh that seemed to stretch from some hidden reserve of strength in her wasted frame exited  her lips and the junkie’s body went still. Disturbed, but only mildly horrified—these kinds of deaths happened an awful lot around here—James shook the hand off his leg and run-walked the rest of the way to his apartment. Inserting his key into the rusty lock, James shouldered open the creaky door, stepped into his apartment and slammed the door shut.
After a few minutes, the shaking in James’ hands stopped and he could breathe calmly again. This wasn’t the first time he had seen a Love-induced death, but the sheer horror of how Love junkies died could never fail to shake anyone. The carpet, stained with years of beer spills and blood, stuck slightly to his feet as he stepped across his small living  room  and into the tiny kitchen; he filled the rusty tin kettle with water and stroked the bottom of it, sending flickering gossamer tendrils of energy out of his fingers and across the surface of the kettle to heat it.  He tied a knot in the tiny flicker of energy, and left it floating under the  kettle. Despite never having been able to advance past even the first level of the  acclaimed occult school his parents had sent him to, he had still learned a few handy tricks that saved on bills. The ability to command the world through magic was becoming  rarer and rarer in the city, and James counted himself lucky to be among one of the few that could summon even a few joules of energy.

As he leaned against the countertop of his kitchen, sticky with grease from hundreds of previous meals, the screaming pink cavern of the junkie’s mouth flashed into his head. By far and away, metrotocin—the drug that the junkie was probably on—was the worst drug out there. The drug was  relatively  new on the black market,  it had arrived about a year ago,  and no researcher had  yet had the  time to determine its chemical make-up; metrotocin was known ironically on the streets as ‘Love’, or simply ‘L’, for the pain it caused in the heart, and its effects on the body were radically different from other drugs: it didn’t produce feelings of euphoria or relaxation, it didn’t alter perceptions of reality—rather, it produced an intense, shooting pain that enveloped the entire body. The drug was delivered intravenously and transported by veins to the heart, where it became activated by electrical pulses of the heart’s sinoatrial node; the pain then started in the heart and radiated  throughout the body, driven by the heart’s pulses, until it reached  the peripheries; when it hits the tips of the user’s fingers and toes, the pain sensations then begin to recede back into the heart, until they disappear.

There were only two times when a person could be convinced that taking Love was a good idea:  when they were coerced into trying the drug when stoned on another drug, or when the desperately poor were handed princely sums of money by perverted, wealthy industrialists to take the drug and entertain these wealthy people with their shrieks and spasms.  The places where the rich gathered and the poor congregated in order to allow these spectacles to  happen were known as ‘Love Nests’, and the act of paying someone to take Love was known as ‘courting’; these lurid Love Nests were among the most squalid, sordid and morally destitute areas in the city (but, appallingly, were not the worst areas).  The addictive nature of Love meant that seventy  per cent of users developed a crippling addiction from the first use—this figure was low enough that many poverty-stricken people, particularly mothers or fathers desperate to feed their famished children, could be convinced to run the risk of taking Love in return for enough money to feed their families for several months; rehab facilities were packed with young men and women who were addicted to Love, most of whom would die in those same beds. Those lucky enough to  be able to afford  these rehab facilities, however, could at least face the prospect of receiving a constant drip of power painkillers that counteracted the pain of Love. For the unfortunate ones who could not afford medical care—like the young girl in the  hallway—the only solution was to watch your body slowly waste away and spend night after night in crippling pain until, eventually, death arrived as a blessing and granted your emaciated carcass the final gift of release.
The shrieking of the boiled kettle dragged James out of his reverie, and he poured a cup of tea into a chipped mug. Moving across the room,  with the hot odour of the exotic tea-leaves rising into his nostrils and  the carpet sticking slightly to his feet, he stood in front of the living-room window and looked out over the city of Trinist: from here, he could see the university where he worked—he fancied that he could even see the dingy little room (shoebox was probably a more appropriate term) where he spent most of his days. 
The university itself was among the oldest buildings in the city, and the once-proud redbrick exterior of the original building was now crumbling, giving it an air of decaying royalty. The Trinist Reverentially Worshipful University—a stultified name, representing  a hangover from when the church in Trinist exerted much influence over the government—had, over the centuries, added complexes to the university’s original structure at random so that it now looked like a red flower with pullulating cancerous growths extending from it in kaleidoscopic bursts. The square red building of the original university construct contrasted sharply with a large blue dome which had been built touching the red-brick building; halfway up the giant blue dome, the latest complex, built for the literature  department, had been added and was constructed  using imported yellow bricks, in the shape of a dome—this one smaller than the blue dome;  together, the two round constructs looked like a toe and a giant wart. 

One could only imagine that the literature building was massively impractical since everything inside must be heavily slanted but, given the lack of space on the university campus, the  literature researchers were happy to receive anything, and made do with the dimensional challenges. Other times, when the university only needed space for one or two new staff, a single structure, which looked like as though an insane giant had cut off a single root from a tree and grafted it onto the side of the building, would be added to an already existing structure (usually one or two floors up), so that the entire Worshipful University structure looked as though it had random roots growing out of it.  The architecture of the university was, quite obviously, bizarre and owed its hideous appearance both  to the haphazard nature of the way it had been constructed—with bits added as they were needed—and the fact that many of Trinist’s greatest architects were, for some reason, of quite unsound mind.

Taking his eyes off the university, the only other landmark of note that could be seen from his window was Arthur’s Cathedral. The cathedral, built out of travertine, with enormous stained windows and a soaring bell tower, looked marmoreal from this distance and reared up out of its surrounding environs to dominate the landscape; lit up by gaslight, the cathedral seemed to glare like a stern mother into the crepuscular evening, disapproving of the squalor and moral decline of its Trinistian citizens. A few decades ago, during an uprising of Trinistians against a kleptocratic government, several of the cathedral’s magnificent stained glass windows, created by Tix’chan artisans, had been smashed in by disgruntled citizens frustrated at the cathedral’s display of wealth in the midst of the city’s extreme inequality, which rendered Arthur’s rather bathetic and robbed it of some of its glory. The windows were consequently filled in using cheap sandstone imported from a local quarry—the reigning bishop at the time, Bishop Malmeister, was greedy and preferred to spend the money on herself—and, so, the red sandstone made Arthur’s look as though its eyes had been gouged out and had subsequently scarred over.  The shards of the stained glass windows—whose red and green and blue panes depicted scenes from the mythical time when the Trinistian gods had walked among man—had been collected by a concerned priest; they were currently being reassembled at the university, and would be put on display at the Trinist Religious Museum when they were done. James’ personal favourite of  the stained-glass windows depicted the nurse god, Roya, bending down over an ailing patient—his touch was thought to heal any disease or wound, and those nurses in the city who were particularly gifted were known as the Favoured of Roya.

Outside his window, James could hear the raucous cawing of drunk -birds as they wheeled inebriatedly in the evening air. Drunk-birds, a species unique to the Trinist city, solely consumed a special fermentation of lager that is brewed only within the confines of the city walls—years ago, when their race fed on insects like other birds, a drunk-bird accidentally drank from a large vat of this unique lager and found it to its liking; it spread the word to other drunk-birds—a name only coined, after the birds’ drinking became a problem—until, eventually, the entire species had become hooked on the lager and neglected to eat any other kind of sustenance. Before drunk-birds had acquired their name, they had been employed around the city to deliver messages; their simple, honest nature made them trustworthy, and the fastest of them could command several silver pieces a day. Now, with their permanent inebriation, a few desperate factory-owners, or other people with equally scant resources, were the only ones who hired them; in order to earn the money to pay for their beloved lager, they frequently begged or stole from people, and had consequently become a major nuisance in the city. James wondered whether the drunk-bird outside his window had come to drunkenly attempt to beg or steal from him.

Drunk-birds were born as ordinary-looking animals that resembled large carrion crows but, since they were fed on the lager from an early age, most of them had succumbed to the crippling effects of the elixir on which they were hooked, and so they all looked the same. The alcohol had rotted away patches of their feathers, leaving them looking mangy, and had tinted the flesh where once feathers had been, a mottled bluish-gray; the tiny appendages which extended from underneath their wings, and which were mainly used for balance and attracting females, were now  heavily  scarred from years of drunkenly smashing into buildings and had become brittle from malnutrition. A circle of dark red flesh built up around their eyes, the result of a biochemical reaction to years of alcohol abuse; the drunk-birds, never a very intelligent race, couldn’t establish a link between their alcohol consumption and the corporeal decline of their species.  The numbers of drunk-birds living in Trinist was slowly declining, as the alcohol that they consumed in vast quantities both destroyed the females’ ability to carry children, and injured the young drunk-bird foetuses severely in the womb.

James started as the drunk-bird reeled into his window, almost knocking the fragile glass out of its frame. It hooked its claws onto the window ledge and stared unseeingly at James, seemingly imploring him to open the window; it teetered slightly on the ledge and seemed drunk beyond measure. James unhooked the window and opened  it slightly, almost reeling back from the combined stench of the alcohol on the bird’s breath and the odour of rotting vegetables and offal wafting up from the street. As he looked at the bird expectantly, wondering what it wanted, it tottered slowly up towards him, taking one step forward, half a step back, steadying itself, sometimes pressing its scarred hand against the window for a minute to allow it to retain its balance. It took the bird about a minute to cover the five inches from where it was to the  open window. Gazing up at James, its eyes struggling to focus on one spot for more than two seconds, the bird opened its beak and struggled to speak.

—I… I was… Asked…

Drunk-birds, a species which had only ever been capable of commanding a miniscule vocabulary, had become even more difficult to communicate with as alcohol caused them to slur their words. James leaned in, struggling to understand the bird, before stepping back hastily as the drunk-bird, overcome by its  inebriation, vomited profusely into his living-room window, disgorging the contents of its nutrition-starved stomach onto James’ already stained carpet. The bird, while vomiting, managed to shake its leg and dislodge a tiny cylinder of parchment onto the floor which, miraculously, only got a small amount of puke onto it. The drunk-bird gazed at James as though expecting praise or payment and, when none was forthcoming, cawed with annoyance and lurched off into the air again.

James stared after the bird, thinking that he only knew one person who  would hire a drunk-bird to deliver a message, given their infamous dipsomania and lack of intelligence; he stooped down and picked up the parchment, shaking the small amount of vomit onto the carpet with a sickly splat. Untying the tiny piece of string that stopped it from unfurling, he opened the message and read it quickly; it was brief.

“Come quickly. In office. Results of experiment exciting.”
The message, written in a scrawl that looked as though a tarantula had drunk a large amount of whisky, fallen into a well of ink and lurched across the page, was written by his co-researcher Achim. The two of them had been researchers since they met as undergraduates at an Introduction to Biochemistry lecture several years ago; they had graduated at the same time, and were both offered research positions at the university after they had completed their postgraduate studies. Their jobs, which were laughably underpaid because the university knew that there were very few research jobs in their field open in the city,  involved both teaching science undergraduates and conducting research on finding treatment for chemical dependency in adults. Thus far, their research had been met with muted applause from the academic s of the city—due mainly to the fact that most researchers in Trinist city had long ago given up trying to find solutions to chemical dependency; every time they found one, the underworld moved quickly to find another drug for which there was yet no cure. It was better, the researchers contended, to treat the  drug you knew rather than try and find a cure for it, and risk the underworld finding an even worse substitute for it.

James, although young and still somewhat idealistic, had sympathy with this thinking and was, therefore, understandably underwhelmed when  he read the message from Achim; their current research focused on the Love drug—James’ fear was that, if they were successful in finding a cure for the drug, something even worse than Love might crop up. Achim, on the other hand, was hopelessly romantic and idealistic, and argued that their research could improve lives and, if something worse did come out, they could always find a cure for that, too.

Throwing on his coat, James stepped back out into the hallway with its demented ambiance, stepped over the  dead body of the Love junkie who had just died on his leg and exited from the building into the now-dead streets of the city.

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