Monday, January 4, 2021

Garden City by Sumita Sami

When riots break out in the futuristic city of Erva Bereo, a diplomat turns to a secret garden and its mysterious curator for help; by Sumita Sami.

In the evenings, when I'd dispatched my diplomatic duties of the day, I'd change out of my professional attire and take long walks around the city. It never really felt like a single city to me, this Erva Bereo, and the more I wandered around its neighborhoods, the less it seemed like a city and more like a collection of communities that happened to co-exist.

I found little nooks that I could call my own, a necessary and pleasant operation that helped me acclimatize to every city I visited. Small cafés, friendly parks, large central locations where demonstrations usually occurred and which I could monitor in a passive fashion. I would know the layout of the city within the week, which helped me find lunch and, occasionally, safety when the gunfire started.

In general, the cities I visit lack a certain charm, a specific quality of individuality that isn't touristy hype or carefully constructed institutional vision. Erva Bereo, which both the suburban commuters and the locals quaintly called the Town, as if there was only one that mattered - Erva was different. Perhaps it was the fact that some of it was at least a couple of centuries old; at the same time it was utterly new, remaking itself with every brand name store, research institution and technology startup it birthed.

Walking around Old City I would see bright little tourist stations with headsets and augmented reality tours that led you around the historic sites of the neighborhood. There were massive cathedrals that in the AR headset were laced with labels and pop-ups, dates and historical figures. And, walking around Millennium City, I noticed storefronts for expensive brands with numbers carved into the stonework - 1886, By order of the King, in an ancient dialect.

I figured it out as I sat in the little café overlooking my hotel. It had recently changed its name to The Green Ribbon to reflect its political leanings, and now drew an appropriately loyalist clientele. Erva Bereo didn't hide its past, or dust it off and display it, sterilely reconditioned; it didn't deny it, or expose it to the world as desperate and decrepit in order to gain sympathy. It treated its past as a natural precursor to its present, like an old and beloved relative who, while technically irrelevant, still had marvelous stories to tell.

Against my will, I began to like Erva Bereo.

I knew how dangerous it was to become personally involved with a political situation. After all, my job demanded that I maintain objectivity. But it didn't feel as though I was taking sides, really, in this case. It was an abiding respect for the city itself, which didn't carry over to its citizens.

I frankly didn't care much for either side. The loyalists wanted, amongst other things, to preserve the city's architecture and revive the older, less secular laws that existed around the same period. Good for the aesthetics of the place, but bad for tolerance. The modernists, of course, wanted precisely the opposite. Considering the increasingly strained tensions between the parties in parliament, I was cynically pleased to see that the city retained any charm at all.

But the city would not tolerate my cynicism. I caught myself lingering at the edge of the Park, watching couples revolving slowly in a traditional dance, lost in a quaint old universe. Or I would sit an extra three stops on the railway as it rattled underground like an octogenarian's dying breath, simply so I could watch it emerge from the subterranean sphere into the twilight and into the central terminus.



I tried to combat this sentimentalism by walking around the seedier portions of Erva Bereo, like reminding myself of the flaws of someone I was infatuated with. Soon I found myself walking down a deserted street that seemed to cling to respectability by its fingertips - a few banks, some chain restaurants.

As I contemplated entering one of them to get an early dinner, I caught the small sign hanging off the upper storey: Garden City, it said, and in smaller letters, Open everyday from 8 to 5. It was 4.30. On sheer impulse, I abandoned food and found the stairs instead.

A simple glass door greeted me at the top of a precarious flight of stairs. When I pushed it open, I nearly stumbled back in shock. I'd been plunged, suddenly, into a lush, verdant space, not quite tropical, but not tame or temperate either. A stunted fillo tree stood in a corner, the kind you could see on every street corner. But here, its blocky crown of leaves aloof from neighboring plants in a space the size of an apartment, it was a surprise.

And then there was a stern, majestic lebiner in the center of the room, with its rigid spires of leaves and precisely placed flowering buds. Across from it, a luxurious elecanth ornately endowed with curlicues and tendrils of leaves.

"What the hell," I murmured to myself, stepping carefully. There was a path, dimly marked out on the floor with fluorescent light and peppered with Do not touch signs.

"Quite something, isn't it?" said a voice behind me, and I barely suppressed a shriek. I turned and glared at the man behind me, who seemed to be an extension of the bizarreness of the place. He was dressed in a traditional smock of the kind peasants a hundred years ago wore, with slits down the sides and a wide, colorful belt around his hips. But he wore jeans underneath them, faded and scuffed, not the tight pants that went with the rest of the outfit. When I looked up, I noticed he was watching me watching him with a faint smile.

I began to feel myself being gently detached from reality.

"What - I mean, why..." I started, windmilling my fingers in an attempt to convey a horde of questions simultaneously.

The man's smile widened. I noticed suddenly that the smile emphasized the glint of his eyes and the sharpness of his cheekbones. I couldn't tell what his ethnicity was; he had green doe eyes and a lush mouth, dark skin and oddly light hair that sat on his face in a trim beard.

"This is an exhibit," he said, in a voice that carried hints of caramel and gravel. "And it's a puzzle. Look around and see if you spot the pattern." He gave me a final smile and walked away, shoving his hands in his pockets.

All right, then.

I began to formulate theories as I wandered around the garden in the middle of the city. Some kind of conceit, maybe, I thought, a little touch of arrogance that even here in a concrete jungle of commerce they could create this lushness. On the other hand, they'd tucked it away in a corner. I was the only visitor. They couldn't have wanted to show off.

As the sun dipped beyond the horizon outside the windows of the garden/gallery, I brushed my way past the various plants, trying to identify and catalog them. This wasn't easy, as I was no botanist.

I'd reached the end of the space by closing time, back where the latticed windows curved outwards into a balcony. Even that space was crammed full of plants, but the bank of windows was relatively unencumbered. As I idled by the balcony, I saw the sun finally sink below the horizon, leaving the Central Tower outlined in scarlet and amber. Diagonally from it, I could just make out the Grand Cathedral, with its stern spires and precisely placed stained glass artwork, catching the dying sun in flaming gouts of color...

For a moment, I thought I was simply imagining things, assigning meanings where there were none. But then I remembered that the Temple, with its baroque flourishes of architecture, was at the same relative position as the elaborate elecanth was to the lebiner in the center of the room.

I turned and surveyed the puzzle again.

When you knew to look for it, the resemblances were gloriously apt. The paths I stepped on were streets, leading me onwards from the cluster of plants in Millennium City to the Old City, with its Central Tower, Temple and Cathedral. I traced the paths my feet had taken, leaping across neighborhoods and identifying landmarks with the thrill of recognition.

I wondered if I might point out to myself the exact street I was staying at, opposite the little Loyalist café.

I had just identified it - the café was a putti, the tendrils of the bush ripening from brown to green - when soft footfalls alerted me to the presence of the curator.

"You see the pattern?" he said, smiling gently at me. Suddenly I was very aware of my heartbeat. "I do," I answered, smiling back widely. "It's a perfect replica - did you time the putti's ripening, by the way? If not, it's an incredible coincidence."

But some spark had dimmed in his eyes. "A perfect replica, yes," he murmured politely, ignoring my second question altogether. "I'm afraid we're closing soon," he added, looking at me with what could've been regret.

"Yes, of course," I answered, glancing down at the little café-plant at my feet. That wasn't the answer to the puzzle, I thought, absent-mindedly pressing a fingernail to one lush leaf, crushing it to release its pungent smell. There was something else, something I'd have to find out another day when I came back. Because of course I was returning.

I carried the lingering fragrance of the putti's leaves with me the remainder of that evening. I fancied I could smell it even as I fell asleep in my hotel room.



The next morning, I woke to a riot.

Well, not precisely - I woke to the concierge ringing my doorbell like a madman, accompanied by the aide I had been assigned from the peacekeeping mission. I was still sitting up in my nightwear as the aide began dumping armfuls of clothing from my dresser into my suitcase.

The concierge at least had the grace to be embarrassed about all of it. "I'm afraid this isn't a safe situation anymore," he said apologetically. "The clashes across the street are threatening to turn into a full-scale riot. All peacekeepers will be evacuated and shuttled to our sister hotel for the remainder of their stay."

"All right, thank you," I said, busy trying to locate my clothing. The concierge made further regretful noises and bowed himself out of the room.

"What happened?" I added, pulling on a jacket and shoes. My aide was now loading up notebooks and electronic paraphernalia into my briefcase.

"It's the café across the street," he said. "It became a loyalist hotspot - changed its name."

"I know," I said, feeling a twinge of regret. "It's been collecting quite the following. A couple of patrons are under surveillance already."

"Well, this morning they found the facade vandalized, almost destroyed. Everyone assumed it was the modernists. They haven't had a ch-"

Two sharp cracks made us pause at the same moment. I went to the windows and nudged one open, letting the early morning chill seep in. There were two more gunshots; the babble of voices, barely discernible at this distance, swelled.

"It's two streets away," said my aide, gripping the briefcase with whitened knuckles. "It's getting worse." He hefted it, glanced around the room once, and shepherded me out.

I saw how bad it was only when we were safely tucked away in a non-marked government car. In a gap between the two buildings adjacent to the hotel, I caught my first glimpse of the violence in the streets - a melee of people and police in riot gear with chemical stunners. It wasn't the worst conflict I had seen, but my familiarity with the place and the sudden violence were sharp reminders that we weren't as safe as we'd thought.

Beside me, my aide drew in a breath and began to seal the car windows I'd cracked open. It looked almost as though someone had scythed through the front of the café in a gentle arc, bringing down the sign and smashing through most of the tables outside. As we passed the architectural carnage, I caught a whiff of something completely incongruous: the smell that comes from putti leaves as they are crushed.

I felt a yawning pit of horror and wonder open up in my belly.



It was six in the morning when I left the hotel, and eight in the evening by the time I had spoken to everyone I had needed to speak to. There was an uneasy truce in the city between the loyalists and the modernists and thankfully the government was still concerned with keeping the citizens safe. I'd talked them out of imposing a curfew for the time being, but peace was balanced on a knife edge.

It hadn't helped that I'd spent most of the day battling my disbelief and shock. There wasn't a chance in hell I could simply go back to my room and pretend nothing had happened.

So I left the Civic Center as soon as I ditched my aides and hailed an autocab. It was tough going for a while; the streets were crowded with people protesting or simply looking for an excuse to be angry. Groups with green bandanas wrapped around their faces, others with red. I considered taking the autocab into manual mode, then remembered I didn't know the roads well enough to take any shortcuts.

It was nearly eleven when I finally got there, but I was unsurprised to see a light on in the room on the second floor.

When I walked in, I followed the pungent scent of putti towards the center of the room, heart hammering, and found the curator crouched on the ground.

"It's not that bad," he said quietly, stroking the leaves with a single slender finger. "Although you could learn to follow instructions" - this last, with a nod towards the nearby Do not touch sign.

"I'm so sorry," I whispered. "This is - I've been trying to do exactly the opposite, to keep the peace..."

"I'm aware," he replied gently, looking up at me finally. "If not this, then something else would have started it. Surely you know that. It doesn't take much."

I stared at him helplessly. "How does this happen? Do they simply... begin rotting, or breaking?" I gestured around me at the abundance of greenery.

He shrugged. "I usually stay out of here if something is about to happen. You remember the earthquakes twenty years ago? I felt the beginnings of it and left as quickly as I could. When I could come back up here again, it was carnage."

I shivered a little. Those earthquakes had been vicious, tearing up bridges and sliding debris down steep streets. But he couldn't have been doing this twenty years ago, surely. He barely looked thirty himself.

I caught myself and smiled inwardly at my own astonishment. Here was a man tending to a garden that was the city, and it was his agelessness that I found too difficult to believe?

The man in question sighed and dusted his hands free of non-existent dirt. "So, really, you haven't done anything too terrible. If anything, this is simply bad timing."

"Surely there must be something we can do..." I said.

He looked hesitant, then pensive. "There's really only one thing I can think of, at times like this. If it's a natural disaster, then there's not much to be done but watch the weather forecasts, and we've become rather good at that. But if it's a man-made crisis, then..."

He spread his hands. "I can only warn whichever authorities are capable of dealing with it. Usually, it's an anonymous tip."

"Not anymore," I said, then blushed. That was presumptuous. "Not this time," I amended hastily. "They'll have to listen to me."

The curator looked at me, a tilt to his head and a smile threatening to show at his lips. "You really don't need to do any kind of penance," he murmured. "I've been caretaker for a while now."

"Then please allow me to assist," I said firmly. I can be very firm when I want to. My job requires it.

The curve at his lips grew into a proper smile. "All right, then. Shall we get to work?"

And he vanished amongst the foliage.



For the next three hours, we sat, the curator and I, fielding calls from ministry chiefs and anxious aides (mine) and minor contacts in the vast bureaucracy (his). His office was small but cozy, a little cocoon in a maelstrom of chilly weather and heated confrontation.

The first to suffer were the buildings at the business and research district of Millennium City - "Bileobars," said the curator absentmindedly, assessing the damage - where the loyalists had struck with predictable malice.

Slowly, we began to map out the path of violence through the garden, informing both the police and community leaders who would de-escalate the violence, and re-routing ambulances to the appropriate locations. At first, all we could do was stem the fury rising in Erva Bereo. I knew the city was highly interconnected, but it never quite hit me until I saw sporadic fighting break out in areas too far apart for riot police to quell quickly.

The situation could have rapidly spiralled out of control, especially given that the tensions within the government - to deal with the rioting, to take sides, to remain impartial, to call in the army - were rising. But we had the garden. As ludicrous as it seemed, we had the garden. We watched plants wither and roots crumble, and then opened communication channels to any agency capable of dealing with the mess.

It became difficult, after a while, to think of the curator as simply the curator. He tended his plants, first and foremost, but he communicated as effectively as any weatherworn diplomat, deftly handling calls and finding people to contact.

During lulls I would look over at him and smile a little, to see his eccentrically dressed form move amongst the plants or calmly explain a situation to the person on the other end of the call.

"Don't look so surprised," he said dryly, catching my eye during one of these moments. "I've been handling similar things for a long while."

But this wasn't quite the same, of course. He was lying to himself, and I saw it in the hardness in his face, the disappointment in his downturned mouth. This was no natural disaster, no man-made accident. The city was tearing itself apart.



As the sky shaded from pitch black to grey, the violence began to die down. We stared across the expanse of wilted leaves, broken tendrils and general organic carnage.

We weren't sure how long the calm would last, but at least this was an opportunity for people in power to begin saying the right things. I'd have to leave in a few minutes, to instruct and soothe and persuade.

"What is your name?" I asked the curator, before I could think about it.

He smiled a little lopsidedly. "I don't think that matters very much."

"I need to address you in some way, don't you think? Even if it's in my own head," I pointed out, stifling a yawn.

He only smiled a little wistfully and shook his head. "It's not that I'm averse to telling you what it is..."

I let the silence spool out a little and watched sunlight creep into the room. "You mean no one's ever asked you that before?" I said, finally.

The curator propped himself up against the door of his little cabin, looking more thoughtful than disturbed. "No, of course they have... very few. But I usually make something up. That seems far too deceitful, with you."

"Then what's the matter?" I asked. I knew what the answer was, but I wanted to hear him acknowledge it.

"It's been some time since I had to use my name," he said, shrugging. "I'm honestly not sure I can remember it anymore."

"How long has it been?" I said softly. "Since you came here, I mean." I'd have to leave soon, but I wanted something from him, some piece of information about him.

He paused. I think he was thinking about it, and that the answer surprised him. Finally, he said, "Longer than I imagined I could do it."



At the turn of the century - the previous century, I mean - Erva Bereo was just Erva, and it was simply a fishing port. Well, 'simply' is stretching the truth a little. It was one of the most important ports in the Western seaboard; fully half the seafood that was shipped to the coastal ports came from Erva. Maritime trading, that's what it was built for.

I'm sorry, I didn't mean for that to become a history lesson.

What I'm trying to say is, when I came here, I was originally a clerk on a large merchant vessel. On board a large ship whose workings I didn't understand - I could barely swim, to tell you the truth - in the company of large, coarse men who tolerated me with good humor because I kept their books in order.

It was a good life. No longer was I required to sit at desks facing the sea at my hometown a thousand miles away, watching the waves and the sun setting on yet another day I hadn't moved an inch. This way, the world could really come to me.

By the time I got to Erva, though, this was no longer a novelty. We did business as always, but this was just another port and the people were bound to be the same.
Then one day when we were stuck in port waiting for repairs, I went wandering.

I toiled up and down streets, looking for gaps between the buildings where I could see the sea and the mountains. I talked to the locals, whose main pride (whether they spoke it out loud or not) was that Erva was of their own making.

By the time we were ready to set sail, I realized I didn't want to leave. And I couldn't, anyway; the city had chosen me.


The first thing I noticed when I stepped out into the street below Garden City was the faint, acrid tinge of burning, of torched metal and plastic. The second was the silence, incongruous on a working day when autocabs and personal vehicles would be fighting for dominance on the roads. Now the only sound I could hear was the sporadic wailing of emergency vehicles.

I am not the first or only guardian; this is a line of work that's handed down through the centuries. While I stayed here at the port, scrounging for scraps of information about the city, I met the previous guardian. I spent much time here, listening to his stories and lending a hand with the plants.

Sometimes we had visitors: cities from far down south, once represented by a burly man with a gentle voice. Cities from across the ocean -- that was a woman, long blue-black hair and brown eyes and a collapsible spanner tucked into her pocket. Occasionally there are letters from them.

It's difficult now, different. I do not think the cities need us anymore, truly. Perhaps in five or ten years, we won't exist.


I found it hard, as I walked back to my hotel, to believe that we'd made any difference last night. The city I'd grown to love felt like a shell. The soul, for want of a better word, seemed to have departed. Then again, it was the people who contributed to that, and they were tired and sore of broken promises and betrayals, holed up inside after the disaster of the previous day. Not to mention the dozen deaths in the riots last night.

I rounded a corner to make the trek up to my hotel and felt the bile rise in my throat. In the middle of the street sat a smoking triad of wrecked cars. And in one of them I could just make out a slumped, broken body.

As the ambulance screeched around the corner, I staggered back up to my hotel. I had a team to debrief, after all.

I think it's down to technology. No longer are we guardians required to hold cities together at the top; the city itself is interconnected in one vast network of technology. Of people, messaging or calling, flinging threads of electricity across an entire nation.

When the first electric lights came to Erva, we were enthralled. At night, I would climb to the top of the Tower to look down on the city. It was magical. Even now, some of the promotional literature about Erva - I collect the brochures - features a dark splodge, criss-crossed with threads of light, a tapestry of knowledge.

A city that holds itself together.




Over the next few weeks, chaos gradually gave way to something approaching order. I helped organize roundtable conferences and cleanup efforts in equal measure. By degrees, the conferences evolved from screaming finger-pointing sessions to a more concerted effort to reconcile opposing points of view. Stocks began a slow upward climb.

I'd hoped for this. I could broker peace all I wanted, but it wouldn't work unless some factions within a government held on to vestiges of decency. I had proceeded with cautious optimism, but the relative calm one month later was still a mild surprise. I suspected that forces less bureaucratic and more supernatural may have been behind it all.

When I paid him my weekly visit, I found the curator standing at the windows at the back of Garden City. There was a full moon tonight, bathing the city below in ghostly oceanic colors.

"You know what I'm about to ask you," he said quietly.

I sighed. I had hoped the question wouldn't arise yet. But when I looked over at him, I didn't think I was imagining the deeper creases around his eyes and the minute slump of his shoulders.

"I can't," I told him, equally softly. "I really cannot stay."

"The city chooses," he reminded me, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out in a gusting sigh.

"Do you really think it's chosen me?" I asked him curiously. I hadn't felt anything... different, to be simplistic about it, but then again I was also exhausted. I didn't feel much of anything.

There was a long pause, and then a rueful smile crept over his face. "No, I quite honestly do not," he admitted. "I will carry on," he added, almost to himself.

I reached out and slid an arm around his shoulder. It seemed only right. He stiffened for a second, then relaxed and tentatively curled his arm around my waist.

"Besides," I couldn't help adding, "I'm rubbish at botany, you know."

His first startled laugh turned into a series of deep-throated chuckles before he pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, staring out of the window again.

We stood like this for a long time, gazing out at the moonlit city beneath us.



When it was time for me to leave a week later, I visited him in the morning. The curator seemed almost embarrassed as he straightened out from tending the roots of the lebiner. "Is the Tower all right?" I asked, partly because I was concerned and partly because I wanted to hide my own growing awkwardness at our parting.

"It's fine," he called, hastily disappearing into his little office. I heard the sound of running water as he washed the dirt off his hands. "Some tea?" he continued.

"No, thank you," I called back. "I have to leave soon... there's an autocab waiting downstairs with my luggage."

There was a moment of silence before he emerged from his office, clutching a small wooden box. The embarrassment was a little more evident now.

He almost thrust the box at me. "I would like you to have this. If you... want it."

I was a little amused. "Why on earth wouldn't I want a gift li- oh!" I gaped as the box hinged open. Nestled inside a worn bit of velvet was a single, whole, perfect lebiner leaf.

"Spoils of war," he said, smiling a little at my shock. "This one fell whole and intact. It's all right," he added when I stared at him. "The structure will be fine without it."

I was still staring at him. "You'd give this away?"

He laughed a little. "It's not as though this city is any more static than any other. People come and go and take away bits of it every time. The city's color and character changes. Look over there, at the icheles."

I turned to follow his finger and noticed it. The newly flowering buds of the plant, emerging after they'd withered away in the riots, were orange - not the light pink they were when I'd first seen them.

"So you see, I'm not overly worried about a leaf." The curator half-shrugged. Then he grinned. "In recognition of your contributions," he said, comically formal.

I had to laugh. "Thank you," I said, and then kissed him on the cheek. I left him with a hand halfway to his face and pinkness rising in his ears.



Airports are easier to traverse when one is a diplomatic envoy, but the process is still tedious and usually makes me irritable. So when the customs officer, frowning at the scans, came over to inspect my bags, I wasn't at my best.

"Excuse me, ambassador," he said, piquing me further. "I am required to ask if you have registered the gift item in your bag under the correct protocols."

"What gift item?" I said wearily. "Those are my clothes, and I assure you I bought all of them myself."

The poor man flushed. "I beg your pardon - the small engraved box is what caught our attention."

I stared at him blankly, and then understood. "Oh, yes, of course - organic material might be a problem, mightn't it?" I fished through my bag and extricated the curator's present.

"Organic?" said the customs officer, growing visibly perplexed. "But -"

And then I opened the box.

Something glowed, something with the translucence of glass and the fire and green depth of summer. It shimmered under the harsh white light of the airport, dimming everything around it.

It was a single, exquisite piece of stained glass.

2 comments:

  1. Quite an interesting and elegant story with many layers. The curator was particularly intriguing. It is indeed almost miraculous how cities hold together, for the most part. Averting problems is a major task.

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  2. Intriguing. Mesmerising. I guessed that mc would be required to stay as next curator but i was wrong. Great descriptions and lots of atmosphere. The city was like a character in itself.

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