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And when the sky was opened

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The city of Marina was born between smooth, deep oceans, perennial full moons, and unpredictable tides. It is a city of soft but harsh coastlines, of quiet, ancient magic, of whispered spells, handed down by word of mouth, of dreamy sigils one learns and remembers all night long, and then forgets in the morning.

With its black water and its slippery stone steps, Marina is a city that smells of tar and northern silences and tears, of cold and sadness and memories left behind. The rocks of its shadowed harbour are sturdy and wide, as if they wished to hold every single one of its secrets, its pasts, its futures, its departures and its returns.

When the tide is high, the people of Marina run out of their small homes to see the blue water of the sea, the dolphins and the octopi and the seashells and the birds, all sparkling in the morning sun. Like them, the people never cry—instead, they let their sadness go, flowing slowly with the tide, and back into the sea, like the ghosts of its fishermen, like the ghosts of its past.

When the low tide comes, everyone goes back inside, to tell stories, to sit with their thoughts and their dreams. The wild birds, however, remain on the sea shore. They stay there, laughing, singing, telling the story of the tides and the spells—the story everybody knows, the story of the magic within the sea and the city.

At night, the tide rises again, and Marina sleeps quietly, with the full moon in its arms. Under water, alive with stories within, Marina dreams, and its heart beats along with the heart of the wild birds.

Years from now, in one of the pages of a lost book by Darwin or Humboldt or Holmberg, there might be a found account of something like this: so blue and delicate, so wide and oceanic, so neverending and indescribable in its joy and its sadness and its hope. But the city of Marina has always known it—the loneliness of magic, the expanse of the wide, wide sea, the flight of birds, like a heartbeat, the lingering memory of unspoken (and yet fulfilling) love.

*

The stories and maps and atlases that mention Zomorba leave out one thing, which I shall now tell of. In this city, the people never look twice at the shooting stars that cross the sky at daytime, or at the singing deer, the cats with long memories, and the swans with pearls and flowers in their mouths. Here, wondrous things are daily, commonplace. Always appreciated, but never awed at. (Would you, I wonder, gape at the magic, or simply welcome it?)

In Zomorba, the people look up at the rain, and this is only because its taste changes with the season. In autumn, the cloudy skies and the shorter days are framed by rainfall that tastes a bit like copper, a bit like regret, but I am told that each inhabitant of the city has their own opinion about this. In winter, the rain covers the town with a white mantle, sharp but not cruel. It is too cold to go outside, but sometimes people do, and open their mouths to its jasmine and lavender taste. In spring, the rain falls softly, and tastes sweet, like birdsong, like blessings, like beauty newly awakened. In summer, the raindrops that fall on one's mouth feel like the touch of longing, very close to what the Portuguese call saudade. For each person in Zomorba, as the seasons roll on, the rain tastes like home, in whatever shape it may take.

*

Perhaps, great-hearted Kublai, I shall now tell you about the city of Arrumaca, the one that lies to the southeast (or, perhaps, to the northwest?), and only exists during wintertime (or is it summer?) among white sands and blue skies and shy memories. The buildings are low and gentle, as is the soft, tender light coming from within them. In the distance, one can see three mountains that, depending on how you look, have infinite colours (although the citizens of Arrumaca, ever matter-of-fact and modest, would say that there are only seven).

The people of Arrumaca are always cold, but they don't wish to be. So every night, they weave thick sand-coloured blankets, each stitch strong like a memory, gentle like a dream. They hide their secrets (like little golden coins) beneath their tongue, and speak only with their fingertips, and in their weaving, they never make mistakes. In the morning, when the soft winter sun comes out, the blankets are complete, and each memory is forever threaded into them, and into the heart of the city.

In Arrumaca (as a travelling merchant from Euphemia once told me), you have to choose your memories carefully, and then carry them, tightly tucked, in your own blanket (and, of course, in your own heart) forever, like fire, like infinite colours, as the city runs (or melts) away from you. And, at some point, you might forget, but this is no matter. Years later, you might wake up from a recurring dream, or hear a strange, yet familiar melody, or find a bundle of old postcards, or see a certain face in a crowded train during peak hour, or in a waiting room, or out in a midnight walk, and then, the strong, gentle threads around your heart will pull, just so, and you will remember.

*

And now, perhaps you might wish to hear all about how, when a traveller comes to the underground city of Luiana, it is always night time, and he only wishes to rest, to sleep—to forget. Sire, I could tell you all about how he yearns for Luiana's sweet, sweet wine (stored in underground barrels that create an unique, intoxicating blend), until he can drink from it at last! In Luiana, he is told, the cup always overflows, but it never goes empty. And he is allowed to drink his fill. And he is allowed to ask all the questions hiding within his heart. And he is allowed to sleep. And he is allowed to rest.

In the morning, he wakes up, and (even though he is underground) he can tell that it is still dark outside. There are small, gem-like lights, mysterious and not unlike cats' eyes, and he tries to follow them, but he can't find his way. But no matter! He looks, and he finds all the answers beneath his pillow. He can't take them with him, because they belong to the city, but he can borrow them if he makes photocopies (in the shop that's conveniently just outside, to the left, you can't miss it!), and carries them in his heart, like a memento of a fading dream. He is allowed to remember, but he is also allowed to forget, if he so chooses. He is allowed to stay underground. He is allowed to leave, too, and to go up. And he is allowed to come back, to meet the heart of this city with his own once again. And he hopes that, one day, he will.

*

I have been to a great number of cities. In time, sire, I will travel to a great deal more. And yet, I have still never seen (and will never see) so many of them. But I have been to Gaia, and I can say that it exists—and it does so in a perfect dream. I know that this is so, for I have dreamt of it last night.

In Gaia, the men have sad eyes and soft, welcoming hands and sweet voices. One hears them and imagines them, long before the city rises in the distance, in the light of a moon that rests upon the hills and the night sky. There are neverending stars and gardens in Gaia, and neverending paths to follow. It is a city of stairs exposed to the wind, high up on a half-moon bay. It is a veiled city, transparent as lace, light as feathers. It is a city of small messages, like leaves, like palm lines. And it is a city that grows within itself, upon its infinite, free space, and contains all the wonders and secrets and questions and answers within its heart. And it is a city that is always the same, yet always different.

I had never seen a city that resembled this one, or imagined a city like this could ever exist. And I thought that this was a dream—but I woke up, and I went outside, and I looked up, and the city of Gaia was still there, in the wide, open sky. It didn't fade. Perhaps, because I didn't want it to. Perhaps, because it reminded me of every dream of Venice I've ever had. Or, perhaps, because it was never a dream in the first place.