The Eternal City

Written By: Cody Smith

The gates to the kingdom of heaven lay open before them, paid for by the lives of mortal men. A city protected by walls that stood proudly in front of them, made from solid stone and stretching up defiantly towards the sky, sheer, impossible to climb and even more impossible to reduce. The walls had mocked the men arrayed on the plains below, silently boasting of their strength. They would surely stand until the end of time, while nothing would remain of all who stood before them except bones and ash. Now, however, it was the men’s turn to boast of their own strength as the gate lay open before them, rendering the impressive defenses useless. The only thing that was more impressive than the great walls was the city that was cradled within their protective embrace.

The buildings of the city peaked up over the walls, reaching up towards the sky like giant man made trees, as densely packed as the ancient forests that used to surround the plain. The structures themselves were made from a variety of materials. Many were constructed from tile and timber, piled high and seemingly held together by magic, the structures themselves looked delicate like one heavy gust could send them toppling to the ground. Fewer of the structures were constructed from the same type of stone the wall was made of. Though few in number, these grand structures stood out on the skyline like stars in the night and could have been carved from the mountains themselves. What dominated ones attention however, were the illustrious buildings that sat high atop giant pillars carved from great slabs of marble. These awe inspiring buildings must be home to the divine because they surely could have only been crafted by the gods themselves.

The sun had just begun to make its sluggish journey across the sky and sat low on the horizon. The sunlight reflected magnificently off of the marble structures which caused the beams to dance before the eye. A gentle breeze tumbled across the vast plain, tugging at the grass and causing it to whisper in protest. Birds darted through the air, chasing one another and piercing the silence with their joyful songs, oblivious to the men below. The peaceful scene was a stark contrast to the chaos of the day before.

***

The sounds of battle had filled the air as the two armies clashed with one another. The metallic clang of the sword song rang out across the battlefield and reverberated across the plain. The dull thump of foot meeting ground, multiplied thousands of times over, could be felt more than it could be heard as the soldiers marched in unison. The happy bird songs were completely drown out by the harsh blare of trumpets as they issued wordless commands across the battlefield. The very worst of the sounds however came from the throats of men. Men who roared their battle cries at the enemy as they worked themselves into a killing frenzy; men howling in pain as they were bested by their foes and left to die in the dirt. Men, who had been wounded, cried out shrilly and begged for death and an end to their suffering. These helpless cries pierced ones soul and had the ability to melt ones courage the way fire melts wax.

***

Standing outside the city now were the fearless and the fortune favored: the men who had survived the battle of the day before. Each one a warrior forged in the fires of combat, they were imposing figures. Most were naked from the waist up displaying the scars that crisscrossed their torso, testaments to past battles fought. Thick cords of muscle snaked down the men’s arms, evidence of a lifetime of training with sword and spear. Their hair was the colour of straw and they wore it long and wild. All were armed. All looked dangerous. They stood in silence, trapped in emotional purgatory. Each man fighting his own personal battle with the demons that invade the soul, dulled to the point of numbness by the battle yet excited in what lay before them. None of the men had ever seen a city so grand and each was itching to see what kind of treasures lay within. 

The bugles of Brennus blare across the plain. The men advance towards the city.

Almost as one, the mass of men begin to trudge towards the open gate. The rhythmic “thud-thud-thud” of thousands of feet making contact with the ground dominates the quiet. The men grip their weapons tight, expecting the worst as they hope for the best in the face of what seems too good to be true. The first of the men reach the gate and begin to make their way through. They hold their breath through the darkness as the monster of imagination conjures up the foulest beasts awaiting them on the other side. They reach the other side and collectively release the breath they didn’t know they had been holding- Nothing. All is quiet in the eternal city.

As more and more men come pouring through the gate, silent commands are issued by the leaders among them. The men know their business and set to their work with grim obedience. Not a soul can be seen as the invaders begin to fracture off into smaller groups to search the numerous streets and alleyways. The narrow streets in combination with the tall buildings make the men seem small, like they are mere pieces in some grand game played by the gods. The tension is high as everyone proceeds with cation. Eyes dart left and right, ever warry of the possibility of enemies pouring out from the barred doors and boarded up windows.

The city of the seven hills is like nothing they have ever seen. It is an alien thing to them, built from marble and stone instead of wood and thatch. As they move deeper and deeper into the bowels of the city the grandeur continues to grow. There are buildings that are 4 and even 5 stories high. Outside many of these buildings, as if standing guard, there are incredibly life like stone people. At first they are startled by these lifeless effigies, but they quickly realize that they pose no real threat and that they are just that- lifeless people made of stone. Some recall the stories they were told as children about the creation of the first men. Could this be the place where the God’s reside? Have they in fact found the kingdom of heaven? The overwhelming stench of human filth quickly clears thoughts of such opulence from the mind. They push on deeper into the city. 

The narrow streets open up in front of the men giving way to a wide open space; a clearing in the forest of humanity. In the middle of the open space is the grandest, most impressive building any of the men have ever seen. Stretching high into the sky are giant marble pillars, each as thick as the thickest tree trunks, impossible to have been built by the hands of mortal men. Atop these marble columns sits a slanted roof top made, not from thatch, but from thousands upon thousands of clay roof tiles. The building is a daunting sight but the intricate carvings of the columns and roof top give it a delicate appearance, which is a stark contrast to its imposing size.    

Standing in a loose line across the entrance to this fantastic building are men. Real men, not the stone men they had previously seen back in the streets. They stand still and silent, calmly staring at the wild men who dare to intrude upon their orderly refuge. The only thing that moves on them is the heavy white cloth that they wear draped around their bodies. The folds of the material dance off to one side as the wind that is being funneled through the tall buildings whips them into a frenzy. It pulls at the men’s neatly trimmed hair which is the colour of wood, charcoal, and the mountains themselves. Some men stand proudly with hair that is as white as snow.

The two sides that now stare at each other across the open expanse are a pure contrast to one another. The one side is prim and proper with clothes washed, hair trimmed, and not a speck of dirt on their immaculate bodies. The other side is wild looking, with tangled hair and long beards, their brightly coloured checkered pants were grimy and more than one of the men sported bloodstains on arms or tunic. It was the very epitome of order, and chaos.

The two sides stare at each other as if frozen in time, each as unsure as the other on what will happen next.

A ripple makes its way through the crowd of wild men, like the wind that blows its way through the tall grass. Someone was making their way to the front. The men crane their necks to try and glimpse who is causing the commotion in the crowd. When they catch sight of the person, they quickly make room for him to pass.

Brennus stands in front of his men.

He looks like a shining war god come to earth standing in the place of honor at the head of his men. He wears a shirt of metal scales and an elaborate winged helmet made of bronze sits atop his head. The nose guard that reaches halfway down his face in combination with his thick golden beard and mustache make it so only his eyes are visible, this adds to his divine appearance. A thick golden mane spills out from beneath the helmet and reaches down to tickle the wolf pelt that he wears draped across his shoulders.

His eyes flick left, and then right as they scan the fundamental sum of order that stands in his way of conquest. A bestial growl bubbles up from somewhere deep inside of him as he observes these contemptuous creatures. Without uttering a single word, he strides forward with an aggravated step. It only takes two of these great strides before the rest of his men surge forward to follow their leader. The sound of thousands of men all moving at once, with jingling armor and weapons that clank against shield, is almost deafening as it echoes across the open space and reverberates from the buildings. Brennus’ heavy crimson cloak flares out behind him as he purposefully marches across the plaza. Each one of his steps, heavier than the last as his rage builds, threatens to shake the very earth beneath his feet.

 As he reaches the foot of the stairs that lead up to the great building, he does not pause. He grasps the hilt of his sword and, with a flourish, draws it from its resting place at his hip. A magnificent thing, it shimmers as it catches the last rays of the sun, made more magnificent by the man who brandished it. Again he does not pause as he reaches the top of the stairs. Sword held dangerously in one hand, he makes his way straight towards the line of men.

The line of men that stand beneath the great structure do not flinch as this monster of chaos comes barreling towards them sword in hand. In fact, beside the gentle rise and fall of their steady breath, they barely move at all. It was not fear that caused this paralysis. Brennus had experienced that many times before and knew what that looked like. This was a different kind of stillness; a stillness that oozed confidence and contempt, superiority even. Now that he was closer, Brennus could see that some even wore tiny smirks across their faces, like they knew something he did not. This strange confidence that emanated from the men in front of him made Brennus second guess himself. He slows his pace, almost to a casual saunter, as his head shoots every which way in search for signs of a trap. Confident that he sees nothing he stops a mere foot away from one of these men in the wall of enemies before him.

Brennus is a full head taller than the man he stands in front of. The man does not flinch as the giant that stands before him looks him square in the eye. The man’s dark hazel eyes are the only thing that betrays his humanity. As Brennus gazes through the window to the man’s most inner thoughts, he does not find fear there. Expecting to see a raging storm of terror lying just beneath the surface, he sees only an unyielding calm within the man’s eyes; an utter acceptance of death.

Maybe these men were gods. It would explain why they could stare into the face of death and destruction and almost welcome it upon themselves. How they almost seemed to laugh in the face of danger. How else could you explain their unbridled confidence while facing an armored foe, unarmed and wearing nothing more than a piece of cloth? Could it be possible that Brennus and his men had mistakenly laid siege to the birthplace of the divine? Had they mistakenly stumbled upon paradise but were too foolish to see? Were these deities about to bring down a fiery vengeance on him and his men that would be swift and absolute?

Brennus was unsure, but he was determined to find out. He walks up to the man in front of him, so close that he could feel the man’s breath on his face. His men wait silently behind him, ever vigilant for even the slightest threat to their leader. The two men silently stare at each other for what seems like a decade; both unyielding as they size the other up, both waiting for the other to make the first move. The other men present, on both sides, are as taut as the arms of a catapult just before they throw their heavy load skyward. They all wait on baited breath.

Brennus is the one who makes the first move. He slowly raises his hand towards the other man’s face, curiosity getting the better of him. His hand floats in between the two of them for a moment; the other man warily tracks its movement with his eyes.  Brennus reaches out and, looking for undisputed proof whether this man is even real or not, grabs him by the nose. The man reacts instantaneously and viciously to this invasion of his personal space. He drives the wooden staff that he is holding down onto Brennus’ foot. Brennus recoils, more from the shock of the action than the pain. He stares at the man with mouth agape, processing what had just taken place and surprised by the swiftness of one who had been so still just seconds before. The man continues to stare at Brennus, the slightest frown the only betrayer of what had just happened.

Rage finds its way onto Brennus’ face and courses throughout the rest of his body. He lets loose his war cry that splits through the silence like a blade through flesh. Brennus steps forward, long sword still in hand, and in one fluid motion he slashes upwards ripping it across the man’s chest. The man shrieks in pain as he falls back, blood pouring out from the gaping wound left by the vicious attack. The gods do bleed.

Like a rolling wave of thunder, the rest of the wild men roar their defiance and surge forward to cut down the men in front of them. The apparent divinity of these men was quickly being washed away in a stream of blood.

The kingdom of heaven was set ablaze that night. The Eternal City burned for the first time.     

         

 

       

Apartment 201

Written By: Danielle Ly

Her apartment is dusty. Not just on what little furniture decorates the room, but in the air, in the way it sits in my lungs. All the lights are off, except for her TV that glitches and flashes in the background of her living room. There’s a bit more light leaking in through the blinds from the street lamps below, but everything else is dark. I can’t see much. 

“Do you think...” I adjust my eyes to watch her speak in the blue light of her TV. Her voice sounds older. She pulls her cigarette to her lips. She breathes in smoke and blows out sadness. “...I could have been something?”

She lies half naked on her couch. Her skin is pale - had it always been this pale? And when I look at her through the darkness I see who she could have been. She was beautiful and mysterious and her smile felt like standing on the edge of a tall building with your arms out wide.

I think about how funny she was, how kind she had been. I think about what her laugh sounded like and what her mouth looked like when she spoke. I look into her washed out brown eyes. 

Yes. 

She could have been anything in the world. 

Now though, she lies with her scrawny legs dangling over the arms of her dirty couch. She is so tiny that the cushions seem to swallow her whole. Her hip bones jut forward and her rib cage, under her paper thin skin, look like speed bumps on a snowy white road in January. 

I look at her face, dotted with healing yellow bruises that look like spilled tea on pages of a book. Her hair is tangled and she keeps biting the skin of her lips - they’re only red because of the blood. She pulls more smoke into her lungs and I watch her body seem to sigh in relief. Or maybe it just caves in from the pressure. 

I force myself to look at her eyes now. They’re milky and bloodshot. Tears are streaming down her dry cheeks but she doesn’t seem to notice. Her chin is tucked in, as if her head is too heavy to hold up anymore. She lets the tears fall onto her chest and make tiny lakes on her collarbone. 

I look at the ground littered with needles and burnt spoons, empty clear bags with only specks of powder. 

I look back up at her, a skeleton playing pretend. She lifts her head, just barely, her cloudy eyes becoming dry and far away. Her chest is heaving in small bursts and I swear I can hear her heart beating, even at this distance. She takes a ragged breath in, and I hear the drop of the needle from her arm hitting the cracked hard wood floor beneath her. 

She smiles at me, and before I can even move, she’s left me. 

“You were already something.” I whisper into an empty room.

Initial

Written By: Danielle Ly

I trace my fingertip over the hollows of the tree, following the knots of bark. I press my cheek against it, hugging the tree close.

I miss you, often.

When there is a moment of silence in between the shouts of everyday life, I find myself far away. I see myself sitting with you, on the hood of your car, watching the stars. I can hear your voice sometimes, laughing on the train. I see your face in crowds of people.

And then in a rush, I am back to my life, running. After it all happened - not right away, but a many months later, when I was alright again - I still found myself taking days off to drive myself up to that hill, sit on the hood of my car, and close my eyes, pretending you’re still there.

I lean my back against the tree, pull my legs to me, and rest my chin on my knees.

I remember your funeral very well.

They dressed you up the way you hated. They placed white roses all over your much too big casket. I wanted to slip in with you before they lowered you into the ground - a life without you? I could never imagine.

I remember my eyes had been so tired from all the crying, I could barely see. Everything was strained and blurry. But your face was in such vivid detail. You looked like you were sleeping, and for a moment, I thought you were and I breathed a sigh of relief.

What a funny joke, I would have said when you opened your eyes. What a rude thing to do, I would have told you.

But you never opened your eyes again. You just lay there, silent and unmoving. And I cried more and more because I knew that you weren’t coming back to me.

No more late nights driving in your car, no more laughing until our ribs hurt, no more arguing over you being late to meet up, no more dinners at each other’s houses.

No more you.

I still cry, when I think a bit too much about what you would have been now, if you were still alive. You would have been so successful, and so happy. I just know it. I have to smile at that, that even without any proof - I feel it in my heart, the happiness you would have felt.

I hope you know, no matter how many years pass, you are always aching in my soul, a home away from home lies in my bones for you. You are my heart.

I face the tree again, running my finger tip over the indent that are your initials.

The loveliest name I would ever know.