A wild slim alien


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Cities and signs

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‘Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something — who knows what? — has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star. Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given place (to enter the alley with wagons, to urinate behind the kiosk, to fish with your pole from the bridge) and what is allowed (watering zebras, playing bowls, burning relatives’ corpses). From the doors of the temples the gods’ statues are seen, each portrayed with his attributes — the cornucopia, the hourglass, the medusa — so that the worshipper can recognize them and address his prayers correctly. If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. The wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things: the embroidered headband stands for elegance; the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness. Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.’ ― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

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Cities and memory

‘As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.’ ― Italo Calvino, Invisible CitiesIMG_1612 IMG_1621 IMG_1643 IMG_1664 IMG_1678 IMG_1690 IMG_1830 IMG_1844 IMG_1849 IMG_1850 IMG_1854 IMG_1925


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The reader [u]

The writer can’t help imagining the reader of these words.  He hopes it’s not ill-mannered of him to poke his nose and the imagination which lies behind it into affairs which are none of his concern.  In his mind sirens call and he finds himself irresistibly drawn into another attempt to replicate a three-dimensional life from scratch, from nothing more than the cross a finely sharpened pencil might make on a map; a world from a grain of sand.

So he imagines her, or certainly alternately it might be a him… perhaps it might be safer in terms of not antagonising half his readership to think of this archetypal one as a non-gender-specific alien.  Yes, a race which doesn’t have sexes.  However, they do have sex; it’s the best of both worlds.  When they decide it’s time, they pass the calcified egg between them and go half and half on the rearing, like Emperor or King Aptenodytes.  In most other respects however they are like earthlings.  They enjoy a good breakfast, for example.  Poached eggs – they’re not averse to eating a reptile’s or bird’s – on wholemeal toast, with a pot of coffee.

So he imagines it in its kitchen.  Wait a moment; alien or otherwise, he doesn’t want to label his reader an ‘it’.  Perhaps it’s better after all if he says ‘she’.  Call it an attempt to redress the balance of the ages when it comes to denoting species as a whole by the male gender alone.  Earthlings and aliens in possession of the defining male characteristic will have to forgive him, and place their mind temporarily inside that of a female of the species.

So he imagines his reader first thing in the morning, scratching the scales of her nose with one set of highly developed fascicled toes, and with another clicking her way to this page on her technological device of choice; or perhaps if these stories ever find their way into a hard copy format she will simply take the bookmark from the book which at night resides on her bedside chest of drawers, and there at the kitchen table begin reading the next in the collection, namely this one.  Slowly, with the dawn, the realisation may arise that it concerns her, and the writer hopes that far from giving her a fright, this might make her smile.  As well as the poached eggs – which need exactly 180 seconds, as determined by the special perfect poached egg app on her technological device – she has the toast and coffee on the go, and these moments of waiting to sit at her kitchen table reading.  Really she only needs the app for its stopwatch; she’s cooked dozens and dozens of poached eggs in her time and knows to whisk the sea-salted, boiling water till it resembles a whirlpool before dropping the egg into the centre of the vortex, and that if it isn’t freshly laid, to crack the egg into a ramekin containing a drop of vinegar to aid the congealing process.

The coffee’s percolations travel in scented arabican loops to her nose as this very paragraph is scanned and despite the many tasks she has on the go, her mind’s eye feels it has settled into the rhythm of the writer’s prose.  At the ding of the app, however, she stops reading to plate and begolden the toast, fish the eggs (she’s having two) from the pan with a slotted spoon, and decant herself some coffee.  With the plate before her, she slits the two snowy ovals with her knife and watches with keen appreciation as gooey yolk pools on the toast.  Her tail swishes between the rods which form the back of the wooden chair on which she sits, spiralling one of them in what is evidently a characteristic expression of content.

As she wipes a smear of yellow from her reptilian lips, the writer imagines – especially if she is reading the story on the web where it may be less apparent that it is constrained than he imagines will be the case with a printed version – that the reader has been paying close attention and is in on the raison d’être of these stories.  She knows, for example, that as well as each story missing a letter, each takes its lead from the title, and attempts to tease as it skirts employing typically chosen words, preferring instead less common, lipogrammatically permissible forms.  Paradoxically he also hopes that at the same time as she is aware of it, she is also not noticing that the letter highlighted by brackets in the title has been temporarily excised from written English.  For he hopes that these stories work either way, with the knowledge or in its absence.

Having imagined it, the writer himself can smell the coffee now.  She likes it strong, and he wishes he might have even a thimble of it to keep his brain sharp as he strives to avoid the letter which it is necessary to avoid.  Idly he wonders if she has read anything of the sort before, broadly speaking.  He imagines she is a well-read alien, and will at least know of If on a winter’s night a traveller and Ella Minnow Pea and La disparition – translated as A void – even if she has not read all of them.

It’s a spring morning after a long winter, and the alien carries her device to the back door to keep on reading as she opens it to the day and lets light warm her scales.  Blooms are beginning to appear on the wisteria, and the tips of its stems are starting to seek something to hold onto.  Once again she will smile, he thinks, as she sits down with her second coffee on one of the ironwork chairs at the filigree garden table to carry on reading, over all this metafictional nonsense.  He allows himself to imagine that she likes writers who play with words, who love making them dance to their satisfaction and that of their readers.  However, now that his shaggy alien tale is nearly at an end, he stops to wonder whether she might in fact have preferred a good old-fashioned proper story, and in a flash decides to see if he can incorporate one.  Had he gone down that path rather than this, he might have written something with the title ‘The horseshoe’ and had the aim of transferring to his reader something of the felicity that went into the writing of it.  In the shire where the writer spent his formative years, it was traditional to position a horseshoe over the door of a dwelling place, so as to catch all goodness and keep evil at bay.  From this detail, he begins to fashion a fairy story, one which describes the mishaps which befall a careless farrier who pooh-poohs old wives’ tales and deliberately challenges the Fates, and that’s what part two of this lipogrammatic clash of postmodernism and traditional narrative is going to relate, a click or a leafing of the page away from here.