City of joy

[S]he sold beer by the single bottle alone. She gave you a bottle, you gave her a shilling. She gave you another bottle, you gave her another shilling.

“What am I?” Only asking this question and letting go of the cycle of chasing after outside things means to cut off all our craving. When we do that, what happens?
Ditch the Raft

It was not immediately obvious – least of all to me – that I was a student. My immediate memories were of a bridge over a raging flood and the mountain beyond, which was and was not the mountain I return to every evening. The cliff face had turned to water; how would I get past it? And the man who walked beside me, whom I kept addressing as my friend – imagine my surprise when there in the middle of the bridge he asked for my money at knifepoint. Even as I refused, I felt the sadness and futility of it. Why couldn’t I just hand everything over – my wallet, the shirt off my back – down to my shoes and wristwatch? We tangled; it was no contest. But imagine, I thought, if I could just let the knife pierce and sever as it wished.

He seemed ready for another round, so I fled into the waterfall of glass. Ladders and catwalks, trapdoors and trapezes: up I went. It’s not that my fear of heights ever left me, but that, having escaped from a friend with a knife, it suddenly didn’t matter any more. If I fall, I thought, my bones will break – but wouldn’t that be interesting? There was a view from the top, about which I remember nothing. It was getting late. I should go back, or I’d miss the last bus of the evening.

The P.A. system crackled with my name, repeated once, as is the style with in-store announcements. I heard “Go to -” and the rest was unintelligible. Maybe over here?

I entered a small theater where ashen-faced young men sweated and groaned: a place, I quickly realized, where varying kinds of bodily pain were administered to the occupants of every seat, increasing in intensity as one gravitated toward the empty stage. It seemed odd that there weren’t any women; the room had the ambiance of a video arcade in hell.

I tried one seat after another, watching my limbs twitch with a detachment that surprised me. In one seat I felt myself frozen; in another I was scalded; in a third, currents of electricity made me seize up like an engine with sugar in its crankcase. I remembered how I used to enjoy the electric shock tank in the Japanese public baths, how I would move closer and closer to the metal panel in the side of the tub until, at six inches away, my body refused to obey the commands of my brain any longer. Now I had eliminated that last six inches. It wasn’t so bad, really.

But at length I realized this wasn’t getting me any closer to home. I wandered out into the street and someone wearing a police or military uniform immediately began speaking into his walkie-talkie. “Why did you go in there?” he accosted me. “You weren’t supposed to take that course!” I explained how I hadn’t understood the announcement, and besides, I really just wanted to catch a bus. “No time for that now,” he said.

As I started up a gentle flight of stairs, a strange creature sprouted from the ground behind me. It was humanoid, maybe eighteen inches tall, with bulging eyes and many sharp teeth. Without thinking, I grabbed a halberd from the wall and split it down the middle, then severed it at the waist for good measure. But as I watched, its severed parts rejoined each other and it stuck out its tongue. I stared in awe. Don’t you want to learn how to do this, it seemed to be saying. Well, yes, I did. Then keep moving.

I opened another door – or rather, it grew thin and disappeared as I drew near. Inside, it looked like a literal body shop, or a spare parts warehouse. Animated heads floated in space, legs danced, arms reached out to shake my hand. Over there was the Cheshire cat’s grin. A voice spoke, and for a moment I puzzled over which body or body part it belonged to, before realizing that all questions of belonging and identity were moot. “We’ve never had a student here who also passed the endurance course,” it said. “We had always thought that the two were mutually exclusive.”

“So I guess I get to be the guinea pig,” I heard myself say, realizing all of a sudden just what lay behind that common and innocent-sounding cliché. It would be a relief not to feel tied to one body any longer, I thought. I took a deep breath. The air still smelled of rain.

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