Fiction

City of Metal and Lights

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Pantera looked forward and saw a flaming sky, but it wasn’t fire, it was like a bright cloud or, better still an expanse of fluorescent liquid sewage suspended in mid-air. From inside the bag, the nfumbe was sending him alarm signals. Below him the immense city sprawled towards the high unhealthy lights.

Pantera had never seen a sky without stars. Other than the lights from the city there came strident clanging and noises like the rumbling of thunder. Pantera looked in the telescope and saw that the city was a vast expanse of metal. The contorted metal clung everywhere and screamed. The city was alive. Maybe a scream of triumph, or perhaps of pain. Maybe it offered itself to the sky that hung over, or maybe it railed against it. The nfumbe also seemed to scream: saying to Pantera that this was a place of death.

An entire life of being palero rayado, priest of the Mayombe, had not prepared the Mexican for that sight. Over the valley a magic more powerful than his own loomed. From the hill, he directed a silent request to Ogun, god of the earth and of the metals, but the transmission was disturbed. Too much light.

In the preceding days and nights, travelling on horseback, Pantera had received a premonition from nature and had woken the prey of visions.

Two nights before arriving, he had seen a coppery beam of light emanating from beyond the horizon. It was the City.

His employers had said to him: a third of the illumination of the City was wasted to the sky. A huge waste of energy, sacrifice to the malign, like the sky above the valley was a nganga* nourished with blood. Every year, two billion dollars wasted to hide the stars. The equivalent of eight million tonnes of carbon. “And it always gets worse” Doctor Sladek had said, “Who knows what will have become of the city when we return…”

The following day, already only a few miles from the city, the horse’s hooves moved wearily through some kind of slime ten centimetres deep. Pantera had jumped off to check: millions of dead birds, rotting. Nocturnal birds, disorientated by the glare during their migration, and killed by something terrible.

Sladek had explained the situation to him, “The glare of the city threatens many species of animal, interfering with their biological rhythms. Nocturnal birds find their way thanks to the moon and stars. Sometimes, whole flocks smash themselves against the hyper-illuminated buildings, towers and commercial centres, or they fly round and around until they’re exhausted and fall to the ground… For marine birds it is even worse: the species that feed on bioluminescent plankton are facing extinction. The lights of the City hinder them in the search for their food. On the beaches where the marine turtles reproduce, the new born, rather than going to the sea, are attracted by the lights over their shoulders, which direct them towards the City and certain death. Every night, around each streetlight hundreds of insects die. Millions and millions of insects are attracted to the lights and burned alive, with enormous consequences for what remains of the ecosystem. The insectivores no longer find any food and they migrate to new territories. But the insectivores keep certain parasites of trees under control. Over a long period the domino effect is catastrophic. Without the trees the metal reproduces unimpeded. It extends and covers everything.”

Though Pantera had not taken the images literally, he understood that the City was a monster, a cruel, disfigured organism with malign power.

“Moreover” continued Sladek, “some research has demonstrated that excessive nocturnal illumination interferes with the secretion of melatonin, increasing the risk of breast cancer.”

Pantera knew nothing of melatonin, and didn’t give a shit about turtles, but he knew many things about the stars. Many of the rituals of the reglas had to take place under the vault of the sky. For his religion, to confiscate the sky was already an intolerable action.

Nevertheless he had a doubt: “I have heard that in many cities and regions of the world they are making laws against light pollution, and that there are always more people realising the problem. What need have they of my powers?”

An ironic sneer appeared on Sladek’s face, “When you see the City, Mr Pantera you will realise that the problem is beyond the scope of well-meaning legislation. In the City there is no longer law. We believe the intervention of a superior power is necessary.”

Did he perhaps need to invoke the spirit of the darkness, the endoki, to defeat the powers of the big orange glare? Or did he have to act in a different way? He asked the nfumbe, the dead skull of which was part of the Prenda, inside the leather bag. He asked and looked around. When he rested his eyes on the hooves of the horse, still dirty with the remains of the birds, the dead gave him a clear signal of hope. He had to add to the Prenda the bones of the animals killed by the lights. Reclaiming the spirits of those animals, thousands and thousands of spirits. Their corpses were all around.

Pantera crouched down and plunged his hands deep into the slime. With care he pulled out and cleaned the little bones and the skulls. He piled dozens and dozens of them on a flat rock. While he was working, the shriek of the metal rose, ever louder. Even a palero with the experience of Pantera could lose concentration. He asked for help from the nfumbe, which reassured him.

When he judged that he had sufficient number of the tiny bones, he ground them into a fine powder with a stone. He opened his bag, removed the nganga and supported it on the rock, moved some elements of the composition and around and between them he placed the dust. Then he rose and prayed to the orishas.

In an instant, the ground came alive, the slime jerked with the beating of thousands of wings. It formed like a wave that radiated out across ground, for miles and miles, until the expanse of rotten carcasses extended.

From the ground rose a colossal flock, the spirits of thousands of flyers that gathered on the City until they formed a cloak and completely covered it, obstructing the light in their ascent to the sky. Pantera heard the metal scream stronger still, the scream became a wheeze, an asthmatic breath, finally, it stopped.

The birds rose again and flew away, melting into the night.

The metal fell silent, immobile. The City seemed to breath with the caution of one surprised to still be alive. Above it, the sky turned black, splashed with stars once more. At the centre, the edge of the Milky Way was visible.

Pantera thought that it looked like cosmic mud, composed of the spirits of billions of birds.

***

Dedicated in tribute to the magister Valerio Evangelisti.

Pantera is the protagonist in the novels of Valerio Evangelisti, Screaming Metal (Einaudi 1998), Black Flag (Einaudi 2002) and Anthracite (Mondadori 2003). Valerio Evangelisti’s Website: http://www.eymerich.com

Published originally in the magazine Frame #3, November 2003 and in the magazine Robot (New Series), Year II, #5. Translated by Steven Paterson steven.paterson@gmail.com