A Formulary of Lost Souls
by I.T. Bugshmebigolly
In my dream there were two cities: the City of Lies and the City of Souls. The City of Lies was centered around a shining tower of pearl, silver, gold, and jade. Jeweled skyways connected gleaming skyscrapers. On the street, sparkles of sapphire, and opalescent stands elevated the streetlights beneath which roamed men and women in spun silk and gold brocade—smiling, always, barely able to contain their joy.
Oud and myrrh scented the air, interspersed with the smell of rich dishes cooking in the many restaurants that faced each corner. A jade-colored river ran through the City of Lies, the city’s central tower on an island in the river. From the river, fishermen pulled fish with mirrored scales; markets bulged with these fish and with the plump fruits of the fertile land all around.
At dawn and sunset each day, the sun struck the central tower, which refracted its beams, flooding the city with rainbows from every angle, both greeting the day and celebrating its ending.
All slept soundly in the City of Lies.
Far to the south, past the fertile ground that fed the City of Lies, past the steppes blessed with rain and downy flocks, the land became parched, and the scrub brush faded to sand. Here, near a dry wash, between two spires of bare rock, I saw the City of Souls. Its structures were built of stone and earth, their color a uniform tan. Bereft of windows—for who would need them here?—some had wooden doors, ancient and rough, preserved in the arid air. Inside, the structures were mercifully cool, but the city’s few inhabitants were rarely seen, the streets being too hot to navigate for most of the day.
The City of Souls bore a few types of people. (“Classes” would imply more hierarchy than there was; types were hereditary, but for the priests and scholars, yet each held a tacit respect for the others.) Here, there were workers and cooks, shopkeepers, traders, and herders. The herders traded what they could for grains and other goods from beyond the desert, and they gathered what few fruits the desert could spare. A handful of priests preserved a handful of temples at which a handful of people arrived for worship a few times a week.
Connecting to these temples via spiraling stairs, and to the homes of the scholars, was a vast network of catacombs, a dark, charnel house of ashes and bones, where gray-turbaned workers labored steadily, sorting through cartloads of remains. Their eyes, trained by years of scanning the masses of discarded ashes, would spot not only the odd clump of melted gold, which they kept for themselves, but the cracks and striations of divination in the imperfectly burned bones. These they gathered, femurs and skulls, scapulae and the odd knuckle, and brought them to the houses of the scholars, whose occupation it was to interpret these marks and scars, these whorls and cracks, and to record them into massive vellum tomes. The books were then commented upon by other scholars, yet the scholars seldom met; even though the town itself was small, the tomes were sent through the catacombs during the day, the street by night.
Once the commentary was complete, the books were sent to the priests, who preached from them for their spare gatherings, eventually sending the books back to the scholars to be cataloged and placed again into the catacombs to settle forever with the bones of the dead.