The Latin Cities

Translated by Fionn Petch

The following story originally appeared on Palabras Errantes. Visit the Palabras Errantes page where you can also read the original version in Spanish.

***

A, of the many entrances: its walls are made of doors and the inhabitants all have a window to the front – whether painted or not we do not know.

B, which is mounted on vast wooden platforms and pulled back and forth across the plain by beasts of burden.

C, whose scholars have learned how to control light: citizens can dress in white and shine like a supernova, blend with the shadows on the darkest night, or be a rainbow.

D: the dazzling, the devastated, the divided, the darkling, the durable, the desperate or, more likely, the disappeared.

I

Horatius Kustos came in search of “the famous Latin Cities”. We welcomed him at the town’s only lodgings. I say we, because someone had to go with Septimus, my brother. He is the mayor, following family tradition dating back to the tenth century, but we only chose him and nominated him because he is shy and always avoids getting involved with or indeed speaking to anyone.

As a result, I took charge of the conversation. We sat at the table where Grandma Flavia used to sit until last year, that is until she fell into the ditch and broke her neck: her long-suffering face gazed out at us from the portrait of her that Valerius, the innkeeper, had framed and hung on the wall following the accident. We all knew that the two had been – vainly – in love since the sixties but since they had never even kissed (Grandma’s various guards all agree on this) the family honour was never in doubt and no action was taken against him. Septimus looked at the portrait in order not to look Horatius Kustos in the eye.

Now, I have made enquiries and am given to understand that Kustos – who is thin, and wears a beard and a nervous air – usually presents himself just as he did with us: as an explorer or investigator, a man dedicated to finding and recording the strange, bizarre, and unusual, in order to tell others about it.

“I have been in Mexico and Ulan Bator, in Hollywood and Shangri-La (which is not at all what they say it is, but never mind), and everywhere I have discovered something new, and returned with tales to tell.”

All I could think was that this must be the most absurd job there is, and I told him so. He began to explain something about the value of his discoveries, but I paid no attention.

Then, instead of shutting up, Kustos started going on about the mystery (as he called it) of the Latin Cities, which obviously are thousands of miles away from Italy, and which nobody admits to having visited. In these cities, Latin is spoken, “though it is a dead language, at least in the rest of the world”, and their names all begin with a single letter.

“Every time I found out a bit more information about them, I had the same thought: what must such places be like?”

***

The brothel city of E is so called by consensus of its governing factions: they first considered Ecstasy, Erotica, Eden.

In the city of F, all the names – of people, places, objects – are random strings of numbers and letters: formulas (hence the name) that only the gods know how to decipher.

G (they say) would be the city of the gophers (the animals or the messengers), who would govern without the grandees of the great houses and the government buildings realizing.

The city of H has just one inhabitant, whom no one has ever seen or heard: it is said he exists because he “throws rubbish or furniture at visitors” from the roofs of empty buildings.

II

“The tales of these cities are as laconic as they come. They look like they were written by an aphorist. I saw them for the first time on the internet…”

I told him that we don’t have those kind of devices here. That we are a conservative community and proud of it.

“What devices?” he answered. “Well, anyway. I’m used to finding myself in far-away or little-known places but this, I thought, is absurd. It’s not possible that there is nothing but these brief texts. So I said to myself: I have to go.”

Outside of the inn, the children from the One School were performing their daily exercises, marching first from north to south in a phalanx formation, and then from south to north in a legion formation (naturally, these were scaled-down formations, since we don’t have the thousands of children required to create a phalanx or legion like those of ancient times).

It has always moved me to see the tall crests on the helmets and the steel-tipped spears. This time I felt more overwhelmed than ever by the memory of my own pitched battles, the cries of victory, the firmness of the military calls, the smell of blood. Distracted by these recollections I was unable to interrupt Kustos, who carried on talking:

“Curiously enough, as well as the lack of available information, there was the fact that a strange group of cities seemed of no surprise to anyone in the circles I move in. That is, none of my colleagues displayed much interest when I asked them if they knew anything about the matter. Cities like these are nothing special, they told me. Still, I couldn’t take my mind off them. There is something different about them, I thought. And well, it is true: to start with, I am talking to you in Latin…”

“Not very well”, I told him, because his declinations were terrible.

“Is there somewhere that offers Latin classes for foreigners? It would be a great experience. I love language classes and I’m no poor student: as well as the usual languages I know Esperanto, Volapük, Arahuá, Tokipona, Tasmanian, Xulsolar, Bora-witoto…

***

I is, in fact, a very tall tower: each inhabitant resides on a floor measuring two metres square, which they must leave with great care if they want to make a visit.

J is a city with streets that curve like knives, where so many die. No one knows if the streets came before the murders, or if, on the contrary, the murderers refined their habitat over the centuries.

Every new-born baby in K is taken to the Registry Office where a judge puts on the record the secret cause of their arrest when they grow up.

L takes its name from the appearance from a distance of the city’s sole construction, the Wall, and of the Eleanos who live in its shadow.

III

“Here there are no schools for foreigners”, I said. “The fact is, and please don’t be offended, we don’t like them.”

At this point Septimus said something inaudible. He is incapable of speaking above a murmur (another reason why he is an excellent mayor: my brothers and I, I must admit, add to the arrogance and egoism of the family with our tendency to argue out loud, and we can’t tolerate anyone interfering in our discussions or affairs).

“What did you say?” Kustos asked him.

“Talk properly,” I told him.

It took us a while to understand him, however: the second time Septimus spoke even lower, the third he turned red and couldn’t even open his mouth, and so it went on for ten or twelve attempts. He has never been able to express himself normally. When we were at the School we studied physics for several years, and we took to calling Septimus “The Suspended Particle”.

I had to threaten him, saying I would get our cousin Plautus (now our chief of police) to beat him up, as he did almost every day when we were young. Septimus rarely says anything interesting, but Kustos seemed to have taken an interest in him… and, even though I was not particularly interested in Kustos, the rules of hospitality among our people have existed since the Circasian-Melanesian Invasion, and they have not been changed by the plagues of 900, 1324, 1558, 1789, 1925, 1977 or 2004, or the Edgarian Uprising, or the invasions from the outside world we have suffered since before all this. I won’t be the one to fail to follow the rules that have empowered my family, may Jupiter and God deliver me.

“So if you’re going to behave like a faggot or a pussy”, I yelled at him while I grabbed his shirt – though at bottom I was being quite kind to him – “and you’re not going to express yourself like a man…”

“I said”, Septimus whispered at last in an intelligible manner, his face red and swollen, “don’t be so rude to our guest.”

I felt my own face swell and turn red.

“What’s more”, Septimus continued, “I think you should tell him the whole story.”

***

The founder of M, perpetrator of terrible crimes, gave his name to the city. It will be a refuge for others, he said, where they can live in peace and follow their dreams.

M, the city of constant screaming.

No one knows if the city of N really exists or if it is perhaps a different city with a different name, but in disguise.

The city of Ñ isn’t where they say it is: at such-and-such a distance down such-and-such a road. Some believe it doesn’t actually exist. Others, that only its inhabitants exist and only recognize each other by the language they speak.

The city of O is populated, naturally, by fat and thin people: what unites them is their circular lives, which they begin and end as babies.

IV

“So there is a story too!” Kustos cried joyfully, and his poor Latin sounded to me like the voice of Hannibal at the gates.

I began to yell even louder, criticizing Septimus’ indiscretion. Then I gave him a good shake, dragging him from one side of the room to the other and knocking everything out the way. Three boys emerged from the next room and started cheering me on: it was Donte, Natalius and Justinus, grandsons of the innkeeper, who only stroked his beard and the few hairs remaining to him.

After a moment I recalled the rules of hospitality among our people, which have existed since the Circasian-Melanesian Invasion, etcetera, and I let go of Septimus. Kustos came to help him to his feet. His manner was so solicitous that something very strange occurred to me: that my brother actually inspired pity in him. I asked myself if this might be a general characteristic of Kustos’s countrymen (I don’t know where he is from; it appears no one knows) or an affectation peculiar to him. And to think that his name is of Greek origin!

Valerius the innkeeper brought a first aid kit (and Kustos used the word kit, in the barbarian tongue!) to treat a couple of minor scratches Septimus had suffered.

“Doesn’t being mayor mean I should get treated with a bit of respect?”

What an absurd question, I thought, but what he said next – in a weak voice but clearer than ever before – surprised me still further:

“I only accepted because I’m fond of you all. I didn’t expect you to treat me the way you do. I had other ambitions in life, you know?”

What lay at the bottom of such complaints? When had he ever received anything but affection from the whole family, despite who he was? Septimus did not continue because Kustos was finishing a couple of stitches his wound had required, so I took the opportunity to say:

“Since my brother can’t hold his tongue and since it is neither here nor there whether you know about these matters…”

And so Kustos understood that we would tell him more:

“The first thing I need to know is how you came to be here. You are closer to Kuchisake-onna than to Paraxiphos. Did you emigrate from Europe? Did you learn Latin from people who came from there? Did you wipe yourselves off the maps or were you never on them? I refer, of course to the… “official” maps, that is… those used in the “known” world… If you know what I mean?”

***

P has different reputations: good (prizes) and bad (perversions). The Peeans refuse to reveal the truth behind their heavy doors.

Some call Q a superfluous city, built just because, and wholly dispensable. Its skies, its cafés and its nightmares are unique in the world.

Other cities fear the people of R: they think of their red raiment, their rabid dogs, their raucous laughter, and their love of war.

Was the city of S founded by snakes, as they say? Instead of a central square they have a reptile house, which the people enter when old, never to emerge.

V

It was some time before Kustos tired of asking questions. What an insatiable character! I have never understood curiosity.

“We don’t know everything that you wish to learn”, Septimus began to reply, while Valerius cleared up the mess from my brief attack of annoyance and his grandsons served us wine, bread and cheese. I had signalled them not to serve the best, because that evening we had an event planned and we would be left short. “But there is more that you should know. Did you bring with you the information you read and that led you here?”

Horatius Kustos opened his traveller’s knapsack – of poor-quality but strong leather – and took out a sheet of paper folded in four. He unfolded it and read.

“It is really so little!”

“In the internet everything tends to be this short.”

“Is the internet a place, then?” I interjected. “Didn’t you say it was a device?”

“It is a little more complicated than that?”

“Is it a beautiful place?” asked Septimus. “An interesting one?”

“We can talk about this later, I promise”, said Kustos, and smiled. His smile seemed forced. Septimus made a face that to this day I still don’t think I can describe and (I’m certain) winked at Kustos.

At the time I didn’t think much of all this, because I was still appalled by the course taken by this meeting (which should have been nothing but a formality) and naturally I had no inkling of what was soon to come.

“First of all”, said my brother, “you need to know something that this information does not say. Did you notice that all these cities begin with a letter of the Latin alphabet?”

“Of course.”

“The classic, fundamental…”

“Except for the Ñ.”

“Yes, except for the Ñ, which is from a different language, if I am not mistaken”, said Septimus.

“Spanish”, I said. “A hybrid of Latin and some barbarian language or other.”

They paid no attention.

“The thing is”, said Septimus, “that Ñ also exists, but somewhere else: unlike the other cities, it is not to be found along the road to the south, the one you can see from here…”

“That should be my route?”

“Yes, but do not be distracted. Listen. Beyond the road to the south there are others. And there are other cities along the way. One is Ñ. Another is Ç.”

“Which one?” I said, and again they paid no attention.

“Ç?” said Kustos.

And others too, still more distant: Ŵ, Ĭ, Æ, many more. Several of them have their own collective name: they are called the Cities of St. Cyril…And further away still are the cities that arise from different systems of signs altogether. The Chinese Cities. The Japanese Cities. The Egyptian Cities. Do you understand, Horatius? This is the land of human writing, we might say, and it is vast. I don’t even know the farthest-off cities and, most likely, I can’t even imagine what they are like…”

***

T can only be reached by train and the service is designed to ensure no one arrives there. Those who do make it are despised, and called “Enlightened ones”.

From U it is only possible to return. What a mystery.

V has been having a party since the fifth century: no one now remembers what triumph is being celebrated. Everyone wears a paper cap except for the tourists.

W was constructed inside a cave: people awake to electric light and the howling of the creatures of the deep, which no one has ever seen.

VI

Not only did they continue talking long after that. Not only did they begin to exchange travellers’ tales of curious places from this and other regions, and to grow enormously enthusiastic about it all. Not only did Valerius and his grandsons leave off working at some point to listen to them.

But also:

“It is a fairly lengthy undertaking, then”, said Kustos. “Travelling the road to the south and all those beyond it. Seeing each and every one of the cities.”

“But it is a journey that is worth taking for someone like you, is it not?” said Septimus.

“Undoubtedly. It will keep me occupied for a long time.”

“It must be a great life you lead, right?” asked Septimus.

“Well…” began Kustos.

“It must be interesting”, Valerius added. “Plenty of opportunities for fun. A woman in every port, like a sailor…”

“Listen”, I said. Once again they paid me no attention.

“It has its ups and its downs”, said Kustos. “But I wouldn’t swap it for anything.”

“You are a curious figure”, said Septimus. “You seem moved by the desire to see the things you spoke to us of earlier. You seem to have no other purpose, that you could do nothing else. Have you met people like this on your travels? People who suddenly discover they do not wish to be where they are, that they want to go out into the world…”

He paused for a moment but then continued:

“If you had a guide to accompany you, who could put you on the right path as you head south…”

“That would be of great use to me.”

“When you are done will you return to the places you came from? Will you visit once again Mexico, Ulan Bator, Hollywood, Internet?”

“Internet is not a place”, said Kustos, very slowly. “Not like the others. But I can explain it to you later, if you like…”

By this point I had understood that I was missing something, but the anxiety about what it was annoyed me. I looked out the window towards the road, realized it was getting dark, and interrupted the conversation. Kustos had obtained all the information he needed to continue his journey, I said, and it would be best for him to stop wasting our time with idle, and perhaps even improper, questions.

“Although this town is much smaller than the Latin Cities, it is just as old: since it was founded it has been known as Comma. It is a modest name, but one not lacking in dignity… And you come here with your tales of other places to tell us that the whole world is greater than our own lands, and I only put up with you because of our laws of hospitality. It is plain to see that you have come with the malicious intention to sow dissent with these stories…

What on Earth are you talking about, Theodorus?” Septimus interrupted.

I stopped short. I must admit I didn’t really know either and that made me angry. I told Valerius to find a room for Kustos and got up from the table. Septimus did likewise. I bad farewell and we left. Half an hour later we returned, since the party we had organized with our brothers, cousins and all the prostitutes of Full Stop was to be in the same inn. There was no sign of Kustos.

The next day, Septimus was missing. We waited for him at the town hall as usual, but he did not appear. Given we were all suffering from hangovers and didn’t arrive until after noon, we thought that perhaps Septimus was also feeling rough. However there was no sign of him all that afternoon and evening. We went to his house to look for him, but instead we found a letter from him in a sealed envelope. I will not cite it here.

Upon reading it we immediately ran to the inn, where Valerius told us that Horatius Kustos had made an early departure. For the road to the south, yes. With his knapsack and belongings, yes. In company, yes.

“He went on and on about these places with curious names”, Valerius said. “Internet and the others. And Kustos was smiling. The last thing I heard him say was that yes, he’d be glad to take him to one of them. When they returned.”

***

Some may find it strange, but X is the most famous of the monogrammatic cities. Tales of its variable towers and its Empty Square are ascribed to many other cities.

In Y, when someone chooses between two options he may opt for both at once. This causes the universe to bifurcate, at least in the vicinity of the city. Travellers who gaze upon it from afar describe the city – the collection of countless cities – as an immense and luminous tree.

Z lies at the edge of the Final Peninsula, before the Sea-that-Folds. Many people travel there to complete novels, or to die.

 [2013]

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