Take 4 parts physics, 2 parts marketing, 16 parts music, 11 parts writing, and what do you get? A whole lot of parts would be one answer. Omer Wahaj is an amalgamation of all these and more: an independent journalist/writer and a part-time musician currently living in Toronto. He has written several short stories and is currently working on a few humorous/satirical novels. Omer occasionally DJs and has produced an eclectic mix of music in various genres of electronica. He also enjoys being an illeist. Follow Omer on Twitter @omerwahaj
Neuropea Part II
Read Part I of this series here.
They look at me, their sharp blue irises focused on my brown fur, my eyes stuck in caution to the ground in front of me. I cower down unnecessarily. I know it’s all in my mind. None of them really care.
Except when I speak to them. I always assume differences; thinking they are the same somehow insults them. They smile at me their heavily accented fangs piercing and their whiskers twitching in the cloudy air.
Signs I can easily read. Understanding them is another matter. I feel amused. Can stories be written without words? Without language? Perhaps language is more than words. More than sentences, paragraphs and speeches.
I know these people are different, but they are also the very same.
Cultural pride is something no one can hide. One can feign it, but never too well. It has nothing to do with creating monuments but with creating pragmatism and control. Buildings from the wartime sixty years ago are not treated as relics; instead they have been restored and made fully functional. There is a lot of history on the streets, especially the town’s main attraction, a brick-road circle preserved for at least the past six hundred years. One of the hidden nooks behind the restaurants has a conserved embedded ancient Roman housing where masters would feast and slaves would bleed. It has now become a place for amusement. Various street acts, live moving statues covered in paint and in full costumes, plastic rubber bands shooting lights up in the sky, an out-of-place band playing some strange melody, all stand around the ancient fountain. An estranged ensemble plays pots and pans, one of its members producing a surprisingly diverse melody with nothing but a flatly rounded metal disc in front of him; in another corner a martial arts expert flaunts the mastery of his mind over his body by performing seemingly impossible tricks.
Yet, the colors of modernity lining the rustic area fail to take anything away from the scenery; rather, they add life to the antiquity of the locale, making a nexus where the past meets the present.
Just a little bit farther from the town circle is the city’s main river. Lined by old churches and cathedrals, markets, and houses on both sides, the river flows up into the main city, where tall buildings make up a modern skyline. Ferries go up and down the river. The river itself is muddy and grim; I’d never swim in it. It’s still a whole lot cleaner than the stream that runs through my city.
She eyes me through the smoke of the cigarette she holds in her paws as I sit on one of the tables by the side of the road, an empty notebook in front of me. She is only mildly attractive and I notice she does not look local. Her fur is slightly darker, her face much thinner with well-defined features. Her pointier ears quiver in the wind as she runs her paws over her neck, which is bright white, as if it has been bleached repeatedly over the years.
She smiles her snout at me. “Don’t worry, I don’t bite.”
Not understanding her, I just stare at her with a dumb look. She repeats herself, in English this time.
I smile back. She orders a glass of orange juice and lights up another cigarette. She offers me one. I refuse.
She tells me about the concert she is in town for; she is a violinist. We talk about music, traveling, writing, and different cities, including Faucs City, where she is from. We laugh, share drinks, eat and exchange numbers. I don’t think about her again the whole day.
The next time I think of Francoise, I am on a train out of Volphenberg. My notebook sits on my lap, still empty. The scenery outside the window keeps me interested. I step out at the next stop for lunch. I miss my train and take a bus.
People have been telling me all bad things about where I’m headed. That it is a dirty town, full of criminals and degenerates. As I approach the city, I realize that it is not as filthy as others might have you believe. It looks daunting, like a city in ruins. But I soon realize that everything in Wratown is underground.
The bus stops outside the train station and I make my way inside to get to the city. The inside of the station looks like a bombed out shelter, with abandoned windows and a broken round stairwell descending into the darkness in the middle. Some signs in a strange language point up ahead. I drag my prehensile tail over the marbled floor, as the path takes me further inside the station. The floor gives way to stairs and I keep going deeper under the ground.
The way down seems quite dubious but I have no choice but to follow the signs. I start thinking about turning back, when I take a turn and stop, fixated. The sudden lights and brilliance of the train station’s main terminal catch me off guard.
The whole place is alive with all sorts of international franchises, bookstores, bars, and cafes. Thousands of people run, shout, and walk around the area, some looking at the schedule boards for their trains, others running towards the platforms to find them. The roof of the underground station is extremely high, and looking ahead, I can clearly see the different levels that the station is built on. The building itself is quite old and I can tell that this station has been in business for many, many years. It is the ceiling that tells the real story.
Five large pillars arch up to meet at a single point in the center of the ceiling. The pillars are solid stone and seem to have been carved by hand. Pictures are engraved both on the pillars as well as the ceiling, completing a mural that is both picturesque and haunting at the same time. I do not know the history behind the images but I can tell that put together, they must have told an epic story. Some of the drawings still visible and recognizable show depictions of war and sometimes of people frolicking about in what seems like hedonistic festivals. The pillars are lined with carvings of flowers and vines that emanate from the form of a large vase atop each pillar. The concrete is chipped in places and many of the engravings are missing, a testimony to years and years of weathering away. Each crack, each imperfection seems to shout out a different story, but sadly I am unable to hear them. The sizzle of frying burgers and the dings of cash registers down below drown these stories. Even if I could hear them, I wouldn’t have understood; the fake modernity sprawling underneath the ceiling would have obscured their meaning.
After skulking about the station, trying to get my bearings, I finally make it out the other side and into the city. It reminds me a lot of my own city, only with people who were slightly richer, a bit more sophisticated and educated, and with a lot more civic sense. Even though the natives are not as rich as their neighbors, they are just as much cultured, and behaved much better than people did in my country. I feel a sense of kinship with them, even though we look nothing alike.
Their city is filled with old, historic buildings that have been restored to serve as tourist attractions. Most of the buildings are ancient but magnificently renovated and preserved. Others are in ruin, but somehow, they add to the antiquity and the beauty of the city instead of making it look unsightly and ugly. These people, admittedly not as resourceful as they could have been, are aware of their heritage and they do not miss any opportunity to flaunt it.
At night, the city really comes alive. Young, nubile girls walk about in the streets with pamphlets and fliers advertising the various bars and clubs located under the old buildings. They specifically target the foreigners, who presumably have more money than the locals and who would be willing to spend it on such idiosyncrasies as absinth, barbiturates, and cheap sex.
The next day in the city finds me sitting inside a nook of an old building. My ears, which would otherwise be pointing straight and up, droop low and the hair around my neck feels thick, stiff, and knotted. My notebook is open and lying on the table in front of me again, empty still. I try to describe what happened to me the night before, but I find that no one can really describe a night out in Wratown; one has to live it.
Sitting in this crevice, away from the street and surrounded by apartment buildings, I realize how much I like such hidden places that are so widespread in this region. These are the kind of places I am going to miss the most when I’d go back home. It also makes me realize how different my people are from the people that I have been visiting, not only in the way that we look physically but also in the way that we think, in the values we hold, and in the ideas that we entertain. Yet, animals, that’s what we all are, some slightly more civilized than others.
That’s when the first words of my story come to me. I begin scribbling in my notebook.
Bumpity bump, my new home goes.
It is on the train out to Kayneighnburg that I meet Malena, Jurgen, and Mahmut. Mahmut is the most talkative of the three. He is a native of Wratown and it shows in his beady red eyes. He is constantly chirping away, in a high-pitched voice and little bursts of squeaks and squeals, about how he is the son of one of the richest men in the city and how he has so many cars. He pokes his tongue out and runs it over his two front teeth that are quite big and stand out as one of his main facial features and his whiskers twitch excitedly as he talks.
Malena and Jurgen are also bored. “He has been talking non-stop for the past two hours,” Malena tells me. Jurgen agrees. I can tell that Jurgen is not from Volphenberg, even though his accent is the same. I try to figure out where he is from when he reads my mind and tells me he’s from Kayneighnburg, as his tongue drops and he wags his tail excitedly.
“You want to guess where I’m from?” Malena asks me with a smile, stretching her arms over her head. She reminds me of Francoise. I know where they both come from.
I have an acquired taste for those hard exterior shells with a soft filling.
My notebook is filling up nicely now. Malena tries to read it. I explain what I’m writing and why.
It takes up most of the night and the world whizzes past us outside; yet through blackened windows, we can hardly see anything.
Bumpity bump, my house still bumps.
Goodbyes are always difficult. We all part our ways in Kayneighnburg, some sooner and one later. I end up visiting a long-dead musical genius in an abandoned castle in the middle of the city.
All I can taste are feelings.
The next day, I’m in the city of Horaces. With its low flying clouds, small hunchbacked hills and crystal lakes, it truly feels like paradise on Earth.
It is here that I’d realize wishes and dreams do come true.
It is also here I’d realize that I would have no idea what to do when they did.
In the city, I find a vase. This is no ordinary vase. It is one that I loved but had broken many years ago. Not a replica and not a vase that looked like it, but the very same vase. I had broken it into a thousand pieces eight years ago and I suddenly found that it still existed in its complete form in the city of Horaces.
When I broke it, I felt terribly sad. I knew that it would never be whole again. I’d cry over it, time and time again. The sense of loss was too much, all hope eliminated by evidence. Yet, that didn’t stop me from wishing and dreaming. I would wish that it was whole again and I’d dreamt that I had it back.
And then, suddenly, now, I see it again, back all together, in the same form that I remember, the same form I had.
My most important dream and my most longed for wish, both come true.
But I immediately realize that I cannot keep the vase. I don’t have any place to put it anymore. It had meant the world to me, but now it has become a memory pushed into the deep recesses of my mind. I have learnt to live without it for so many years and I do not know what to do with it anymore.
It’s strange. But the sadness after finding the vase again is much deeper than the sadness I felt when I lost it first.
Soon, it is time for me to leave this city too.
Before leaving, I deliberately smash the vase on the side of the road.
I don’t know if that was in her dream or mine.
No use in keeping hope alive.
You never realize that you have been dreaming until you wake up. You become aware of your dream in that instant you regain consciousness from sleep. Makes you think if you were actually dreaming or just remembering the memories of your dreams. I wonder if my memories are like that as well, that they are only something that I remember and that they never actually happened.
Someone rightly said that life doesn’t change; you just become more comfortable with your core misery, which is just another form of being happy.
The way home is illuminating.
It is on the plane back to my city that I realize nothing has changed, except some new memories, some great, some horrible. But isn’t life just that: a series of memories that you remember in context of someone or something?
I remember losing my tail by the pond and now I find myself at the river again.