(Entry for Fairy Tales and Architecture 2015 competition)
“There once was and then there was not a little town that looked much like yours does now. Sun-bleached cotton, bricks and cobbles, stone and wood, grass, wildflowers. Parks that our universes and trees that our fortresses.”
At least that’s what my mother tells me.
Now, on the dark cold nights when the waxing moon reigned, a delicate slash of silver set in deep velvet, my mother would sigh. We would hear the crystals’ deep rumbles and moan, and she would and say, “I can’t even recognize our street anymore.”
For on this very spot, today, there is and is not a crystal city; my home looms tall and translucent, unflinchingly straight as if to stab the sky. My city reflects a spectacle of rainbows straight into our eyes, the multi-faceted surfaces mutating and twisting our reflections. We would at one moment be small as fairies, then crouched old men, then finally the types of giants who are truly fit to inhabit the grand formations.
(When we take on this final form, the crystals seem to glow a little pinker, as if they find us finally worthy of our home’s majestic scale.)
Ours is a city of smooth surfaces, so smooth, in fact, that we never leave a trace. When I was little I had a deep fear, that one day I would slip and fall, and I would fall and slip and slide right out of the city and into the burning sun, without a trace, without a footprint left behind. And with even my reflections gone, Mom and Dad would slowly forget me, that I would slip away from their memories as well, sliding right off, and then I would truly cease to exist.
One day, I stole my father’s army knife. I walked through the city of crystals that day carving my small name deep into the salty surfaces, over and over again, low so that only a child like me might notice, deep so that it would not wash away with time. Maude. Maude. Maude. I seemed to carve all over the city. In my childish mind, this assured me that should I accidentally slip off this city, that the city would not forget me.
But that was a long time ago. Now each day I walk through my city, this city of Crystal, dark glasses just like everyone else’s on my nose, heavy boots even in the heat of summer to protect my feet against any shark-toothed rocks growing out of the ground. My scarf whips about me as I enter a wind canal, and suddenly, the thing takes flight!
“Fuck,” I whisper under my breath, sound gets amplified in these tight streets. My throat feels constricted and my heart beats fast. I cannot afford another scarf. And so I run, reckless, after it.
It’s whipping about fast down an alley, a bright red streak ahead of me as I run after it. MAUDE! I hear someone call my name, but I don’t stop to answer, and the echoes follow me down the sharp, rainbow-hued alley Maude, Maude, Maude, as I chase after my scarf.
I turn a sharp right and duck to avoid a toppling formation. By the time I look up again my scarf is gone.
Ah, it was the tree! This tree, the only tree. I had forgotten it was here. When the city was still low we used to climb to the roof of my house, and we would watch the crown of the tree catch the sunlight, sprout green in the spring, turn orange in the fall. When I got older, I would venture out on adventures to try to find it, but by then the crystals were dense and tall, and it was: impossible.
My scarf waves at me as it slithers up the tree.
I begin to climb, and the world seems to turn upside down. The wind is blasting me so hard I can hardly breathe, and when I look down the height makes me dizzy.
I concentrate on the dancing red line ahead of me. It feel as though I’m crawling forward at a snail’s pace, hand over hand, on my knees, my limbs heavy as if I move through molasses.
And I suppose that I am, for amber liquid is all around me, sucking me under, pulling at my feet. Every few steps I must stop and rescue a boot, mired in the sticky syrup, and it’s absolutely exhausting.
I let myself sink into a particularly deep pool of sap, my eyes level with the shivering golden surface.
I wonder if I can even make it up this tree. And now I’ve gone too far to make it down. Maybe I’ll just become preserved in this amber, folded in and fossilized: to be found eons and eons later.
I heave a sigh and float where I am, watching the small creatures that live here bustle about.
A small four legged bird glides towards me, giving me a small nod.
“Hi Maude,” he chirps as he passes.
As far as I can tell the bird has no natural evolutionary improvement, he just seems to work with his environment, gliding as lightly as he can across the sap on his four tiny feet.
That’s it. I abandon my boots to the golden mire get up unsteadily to my feet. I feel lighter by half.
You never feel so exposed as to be barefoot. But this exposure is sending me distinct and direct information, electrifying synapses in my brain that had long forgotten how to touch and feel.
The little bird is a little ways off now, and I gingerly imitate his movements, imagining myself as light as I can, feeling the squish of sweet sap between my toes.
Smooth as silk. I begin to skate through the amber caves, glistening spheres that hang like fruits, passing inside an orb then sliding along the outside of a curve, always upward, or was it forward? Is this how ants must feel, defying gravity, so strong as to cling to such surfaces that we think slick and impermeable?
In what seems like no time at all I’ve reached the top of the last orb. The way up is an opening above my head. Little birds can fly, but what can I do?
Small creatures gather around me and begin to jiggle, and the amber quakes and flexes. Their frisson of energy is contagious, and I understand their meaning. I am suddenly tossed around, flying a little higher with each wave. I sync my muscles up with the rhythm of each bounce, and together we jump, going higher and higher.
The creatures titter, and with one final effort, I am through the hole. And what horror awaits me on the other side!
A giant man with blood-red eyes and a sharp, hungry beak cause the atmosphere around us to flex and flow. His movements conduct the claustrophobic space, shimmering white and closing in.
I try to fight off the invading strands, sticky and rough they surround me, engulfing me in heaving shadows and shades. Panic! Strands drop across my face and I scream and stumble: my protective goggles tumble from my face and is instantly buried in silk.
Suddenly, everything is still. I see without the filter of the dark lenses for the first time since I was a little girl, and the room seems to open up before my naked eyes, beautiful iridescent soft and dancing from a silk man. They caress my cheeks softly on their ways to the floor and ceiling where they tangle and harden into the heart of the tree.
Kind but tired red eyes look down at me, and the Silkman breaks into a warm smile.
“My eyes are red,” he whispers softly, “because I’m tired. And my nose is red…because I’m allergic to this fellow.”
He gestures with his head to his right shoulder, and the small four-legged bird flutters down to nestle against his cheek.
“Maude of the Crystal city,” he straightens up, “Why are you here?”
“What is all this? Did you make it?” I ask, sliding my hands along the drapes of silk, along the hardened exoskeletons of bark. There are creatures here too, resting in their little cocoon homes, playing and teaching amongst a garden of mushrooms.
“Stay, and I will show you how it’s all made.”
And I did, and the Silkman did more than show me, he taught me how it’s done. One morning as we watched the sunrise, I notice a nest, bright red. The little bird is snuggled in tight, and I slowly pet his soft head.
The Silkman taught me how to knit, and when I left, I left braver and gentler, soft and more powerful.
I look out from my tree now, taller than anything that surrounds me, but I have yet to glimpse that silk tree’s crown, somewhere in the Crystal city.