When Laurie found it, after a long search, the City of the Unborn was a deep disappointment. They said it was vast, “a vast residence”, but it wasn’t. He thought he could run across it in a minute, easy. They said it was different from the Cities of the Dead, but it looked very like. There were flagstones and low walls, and all around, against the enclosing wall, were niches and bays, medallions and small pedestals. They said it would be full of flowers, every flower the soul of a child waiting to be born, but there were no flowers. The flagstones were covered in moss and along by the low walls were clumps and stalks of sun-dried grass, but he saw no flowers.
Laudomia of the Unborn
He stood in the gateway in his T-shirt and shorts and sandals, one hand on the rusted iron of the gate the other holding up his bicycle. He felt a sob building up in his chest, but swallowed it down. No, he would not cry. But the disappointment was crushing. What did it mean that there were no flowers? Were there no children left to be born? Maybe it was the wrong season, but then… And he thought of his mother and the baby she was carrying in her belly. Would this be another miscarriage?
He stepped back through the gateway, wheeling back his bike and looked up at the arch, at the words carved there in complicated script. Of course he could read, but this was difficult. He thought the words read “Laudomia of the Unborn”, but perhaps they said something else. He looked down the sun-baked alleyway between high white walls up which he’d cycled minutes before. Cycled up from the main road. Back there, at the corner, the man he’d passed still sat in the shrinking shade against one wall. Perhaps he would know?
No way out but down
Laurie wheeled his bike down the alley back to the corner. The man looked rough and his clothes were torn. Beside him was a bottle. His legs and bare feet stuck out into the sun but his head was tilted back in the shade against the wall. His eyes were closed, but he opened them as Laurie came closer.
“Please,” said Laurie. “Is that the City of the Unborn?” Pointing back at the gates.
“Seen enough of the world of the living, have you,” said the man with a crooked smile. “You want to go back there, do you? Back before you was born? There’s no doing that, kid. You’re a grain of sand in the neck of the hourglass now. No way out but down. Down through life to the Cities of the Dead.”
Laurie didn’t understand. “But there,” he pointed again. “Is that the City of the Unborn?”
“Yes,” said the man. “Laudomia of the Unborn. Every flower the soul of a waiting child.”
“But there’re no flowers,” said Laurie.
The man laughed unpleasantly and reached for his bottle. “No flowers,” he said. “No souls.” Lifting the bottle to his mouth. “No children,” he said. “No future.” And drank.
The family plot
Laurie did not like the man or what he said. Maybe there were flowers. Perhaps there weren’t many, but maybe they were small flowers. Maybe they were hidden in the cracks between the flagstones or around behind some of the low walls. Someone had said every family in the living city of Laudomia had a place in the City of the Unborn, just as they had plots in the Cities of the Dead. He’d gone with his mother to visit the grave where her parents lay buried and he remembered the family name cut into the stone.
He pushed his bike back up the alleyway and through the gates. Propped it against the wall just inside the gateway. The sun was hot, nearly directly overhead, and the ground was warm too. He felt the heat rising up against his bare legs, his bare arms. There was a bottle of water in the wire basket that hung in front of the handlebars. Feeling like the man on the corner, he lifted the bottle to his mouth and took a drink. The water was warm.
He looked across the open space. It seemed larger now.
He set out across the flagstones, looking down, trying to decipher the names carved into the stone. The moss made it difficult to make out the letters. There was so much moss, all different sorts. Green and yellow, sometimes almost reddish brown. It grew thick on some of the stones, thin on others, but it made a carpet all across the space.
Between the flagstones and in among the sun-bleached grass he did find some small flowers. Little blue and white bells and tiny, five-petalled yellow stars. It was a relief to find them. To know there were at least some flowers here, at least some souls waiting to be born. But he couldn’t find a flagstone with his own family’s name. His head was heavy and the back of his neck was hot from the sun and from bending, bending to look down.
He went back to the bike and drank some more water. Perhaps he should look around the walls that enclosed the space? Perhaps he would find the family name in one of the niches, or around one of the medallions. He started again to search. It was easier to see the names engraved here, there was less moss and more of another scaly growth he didn’t know the name of. But now he was craning his neck up. The names were almost all above his head height, and the sun was in his eyes.
No flowers, no future
Laurie was getting tired and he felt he was getting a headache too. He drank more water but there was little left in the bottle now. He felt sad and hopeless. What were a few tiny, almost dried up flowers in the cracks around all these stones? Where were the gardens and bushes of blossoms? Was it really like the man had said: No flowers, no future.
The sun had moved now. It no longer shone directly down but at an angle. One wall of the City of the Unborn was shaded. Laurie was drawn to that wall and he sat down in the shade, on the moss-covered flagstones. His head was heavy and so were his eyelids. He lay down, stretched out in the shade on the warm mossy stone, and closed his eyes. Just for a little, he thought.
In his sleep Laurie dreamt that children thronged the place. They called him to come and play – play ball, play tag, dodging among the low walls, hopping over the flagstones. He laughed and chased after them, but he couldn’t catch them up.
He woke and the shadows had grown longer. The City of the Unborn was as empty as before, but he thought he still heard faintly the children in his dream. He rolled onto his front and looked for the first time at the moss close to his face. Now, suddenly, he could see them. Thousands upon thousands of tiny green moss flowers.
He had come looking for showy flowers, garden flowers, flower shop flowers. The sort of flowers people bought to lay in the Cities of the Dead. The sort of flowers people grew in their gardens, competing with one another. My roses are bigger than yours, my honeysuckle is sweeter. But the City of the Unborn was different, he realised. The flowers that grew here had a different purpose. They were not for show and they didn’t need to be large or colourful, there just needed to be room for many of them.
Moss for everyone
It didn’t matter that he had not found his family’s name on any wall or flagstone. He could see there was moss everywhere. More than enough flowers to go around. More than enough for the baby in his mother’s stomach.
His headache was gone and he felt cooler now. He got up and took his bicycle. He wheeled it out through the gateway and carefully shut the gate behind him. Then he cycled down the alley to the corner where the man had been sitting against the wall. Laurie wanted to tell him that there were flowers in the City of the Unborn. That there were souls, and children, and a future. But the man was no longer there.
This short story is inspired by “Cities & the Dead (5)” in Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. I first read this book some months ago, but I’ve been carrying it around with me ever since. It’s a good book to dip into, and inspirational for all the ideas packed into such a small space. (A bit like Laurie’s moss flowers perhaps.) There are a couple of direct quotes from Calvino in the story.
Although I’ve been turning this story over in my mind for more than a month, it wasn’t till this morning that I thought I had a way to tell it. So, here it is. Any good?
And before any botanists take me to task by pointing out that moss does not flower. Think about this: Laurie doesn’t know that moss is flowerless. What he sees are moss sporophytes and calyptra. This is good enough for him – so it should be good enough for you too!
I wrote this article for the #Blogg52 challenge.