I am a writer, and so I write.
I tell myself this—often—to explain why I persist in my scribbling. For I may fill sheet after sheet with hurried recollections, I may write volumes, a whole encyclopedia of notes—only to find that the stacks of unbound pages have vanished in the moment it took to adjust the lamp. Or to find that while I cooked a meal, the words somehow became tangled and unintelligible, made of a characters I do not recall, or perhaps have never seen.
I might find that the words are no longer words at all, but smears of bright color, lined up in word-sized bunches, like caterpillars arranged in sentences, and find later that, like caterpillars, those bunched-up words have crept off the pages altogether.
I might find the pages chewed by small teeth, with key paragraphs or irreplaceable diagrams missing. I have seen this process of destruction with my own eyes. I have seen the Rat seize a valued page and make off with it, to do its eating in private, its face sharp and white, its body vague and made of gray wind, its claws translucent grasping hooks.
Months may pass without any of these calamities occurring. There have been times when I have filled a whole cell with bales of writing, papered its walls with charts and maps and diagrams, only to find one day that the streets have twisted and re-knitted themselves, so that I never find my way back to that particular cell again.
And yet, I write.
I am not the only one here who does so. I often take up residence in an empty cell, after returning from travel, and find the notes of another who, like me, has struggled to trap their rushing, receding fish-schools of memory before they slip away. I find their sketchbooks, or a worn sheaf of memoirs tied up with a cord. Once I found a voice recording, made and stored on some sort of magnetic taping device. Perhaps these things belonged to another traveler, who’d been led away from their memoirs by sneaking roads and conspiring paths.
Or, perhaps these were things that had been pilfered by the Rat and stored here for future eating. One thing is certain. The traveler will never be reunited with the things that belonged to them.
That is the way things work here, and I know the way things work here, for I have been here a very long time.
I know that, just as whatever I discover has been stolen from a previous owner, so too will it inevitably be stolen from me. It will elude me as it did them. It will disappear. It will slip away into the vague paisley darkness and the fast-moving eddies of forgetfulness. Still—such finds are the highlights of my wanderings, though the writing blurs and dissolves and turns to dust, though the drawings grow obscure and indecipherable, though the voice on the magnetic tape quickly deteriorates into a flow of sound that no longer resembles a human voice at all.
These artifacts of strangers—found clothing and the peculiarities of its design; the mechanics of a certain artifact, the use of which is only speculation; the study of a simple utilitarian object that might be quite common on its own world but here seems a source of inexhaustible mystery—these things gain an indescribable magic, abandoned here, unexplained. They inspire many hours of delicious speculation. There can be a strange beauty to a moving tributary of words one does not understand, an enigmatic thrill to watching a portrait become as unspecific as the colored tiles of a mosaic. The act of hearing, or reading, becomes the bittersweet labor of deciphering a dream.
All of what I have written is gone today. Nor do I recall what I wrote. It is maddening. I will write no more.
There are many of us who live in the circled streets of this place, and the Nine Gates have seen more travelers come and go than any of us could count or imagine. But I have never had a conversation, or ever exchanged more than a greeting, with one of the other travelers. I see them walk in and out of the Gates, I watch the hem of their robes raise dust, as they stride to a cell or to a plaza; many nights I have seen the smoke from their pipes or their stoves curl out of the glassless windows and disappear into the warm night air. I walk beside them, close enough to touch them by extending my arm. I’ve watched the doors of the cells close behind them, after they return from the outside, their backs piled high with their belongings.
And yet, there has not been a single exchange of words or gestures that has amounted to anything. We have learned not to expect contact. We pass in the plazas with no acknowledgment. Sometimes we even seem to pass right through each other. We are ghosts, to everyone but ourselves.
It seems that the Habitation itself enforces this rule that keeps our thoughts private, and our ideas away from the examination of others. I sometimes speculate that the Habitation is a prison we share, and that this is some half-remembered form of punishment, a truly solitary confinement.
Our amnesia is maddening. We are plagued by questions and half-answers. We are always trying to pry apart the doors of our memory, thinking that answers may lie behind them. The strain I see on the faces of the others is the same strain that is on my face, when I try to remember.
And I see them writing, like I do.
There are many noble attempts at communication, through a great and persistent variety of means. I am certainly not the only one here who yearns to trade information and compare notes, on matters both inside and outside the Gates. It is not uncommon to see a traveler standing like a beggar in one of the plazas, trying to gain the attention of passersby. I used to try to respond to them. But, after so many failures, I no longer pay such travelers any attention.
Small amounts of contact between travelers are sometimes achieved . . . even the exchange of a few coherent sentences. But the conversation almost immediately gets garbled, and becomes more so as long as the attempt continues. Weird, unpleasant commotions follow. I remember watching two bearded travelers, who had the look of holy men. They made a most tenacious attempt at discussion. Their statements were total nonsense from the start, to each other and to me, but they gestured most pointedly with their hands, doggedly pursuing their breach of the Habitation’s imperative.
It was inspiring to watch, but also sad, for in the end, of course, they failed. It was only a moment or two before the feet of the shorter sage had left the dusty ground and he started turning slow, unintended somersaults in the air. At length the other speaker started spinning as well, but standing up, rotating at a mild speed, round and round, about a foot higher than the path. These effects did not cease until they’d abandoned their attempt at discourse.
Why is it like this?
Why this confounding of the work, this subversion of communication between the travelers, and why this imperative of transience? Outside the Habitation, with its Nine Towers and their Nine Gates, things are done. Books are written and read, thoughts are spoken and heard, messages are sent and received. Here, it is different.
Perhaps, this is meant to compel us all to use the Gates. For whatever discomforts we share in the Habitation, it is often hard to leave. We know it is often unpleasant on the Outside, and that our time there may well be painful.
I record all. Especially, these dreams. Most nights, my sleep is restless. I toss and turn as memories of what happened outside the Gates return to me. When I feel I am about to enter a phase of heavy remembering, I keep my worn and greasy notebook next to any bed I occupy. Half of its pages are full now. It has all turned to gobbledygook, but I persevere. I have the notion that my writing will cause a breakthrough someday; something that will cause my memories to stick in my head without the need to trap them on paper. That I will be rewarded with the return of my identity, unwavering and intact. And, with this, an understanding of my situation.
I find food and fuel in the cells, there for the taking, but no clues as to what hands have left them there. There is always just enough to meet my needs. No less, but certainly no more.
I sleep beneath orphaned blankets, and as I sleep I recall faces, and sometimes names, like Anasf Emxaata. A war . . . many wars. Forgotten smells reenter my dreaming nostrils, articles of clothing from far away ride my skin. Odd colored skies look down on me.
I toss and roll as I sleep. Dreaming blurs me, I waver and reshuffle like the thin curtains at the window. Faces roll like water over my own, changing it . . . My hand seeks out the warmth of my crotch. It closes over familiar hardness. Then, moments later, my hand finds only a small patch of hair there, and the vaginal cleft of a woman. Later in the night, I am different again. I lay on the cot, small beneath the blanket: a child.
I am a wanderer among the broken pieces of memories. Some memories suggest technologies far beyond any knowledge I hold in my fragile, slipping grip. Other times, I recall tools that seem quite primitive. I once found a hand-worn corn husker in my cell. I knew how to wear it and fit my fingers through it and I knew what it was for. But I have no recollection of ever husking corn.
I have memories too, at least at this moment of writing, of traveling between planets. I have words and figures in my head. They tell me the names of stars and the distances between them. I remember people carrying air and water into Space, and redesigning and colonizing distant worlds. Yet, I cannot even tell you what lies outside the walls of the Habitation. To my conscious mind, I have never left this place.
I know that when I leave the Gates, I live other lives, lives that are hidden from me upon my return. When I return, I make an account of my journey. Then the words mutate and divide and slip in fragments off the page, leaving only glimpses, tantalizing, pointless phrases . . . like a spotty haiku.
There—haiku. How do I know what a haiku is? As I write this I can tell you, with certainty, that it refers to a type of poem originated in Japan.
But where is Japan? And when?