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First you hear the rumour of a city that has eyes. It is one of the country’s wonders: an architectural feat, an aesthetic accident, not a spell, not a curse. Each roof bears windows that seem to watch you, wherever you go, whether you’re standing in the city square or high up the bell tower. They say it’s a means of ventilation, of keeping the city cool during summer. And you’ve been warned: the summers there are intolerably hot.
You think the city sounds interesting. When you plan your itinerary it’s a vague sense of intention that draws you there. There’s no grand plan or ultimate destination: two nights here, one night there. You have nothing but your backpack and a vague sense of curiosity. You arrive in the late morning, and cross a hot parking lot that could be anywhere. So many cities are like this, beyond their city walls: broad streets with no shade from trees, potholed pavements and no one else about when the sun is reaching its peak. The heat rises from the black tarmac. There’s not a breath of wind. You wipe the sweat from your brow and look forward to a shower. After ten minutes of walking that feel much longer, the city walls loom ahead. The walls contain the spirit of the city.
Every place holds place-bound spirits, but a city with walls usually holds within it a loud spirit, well-defined, and very much alive. A strange headiness comes over you. You walk faster. You want to know this spirit, for it to possess you for a few days. You forget you are tired and push on, a longer stride to your step. A flight of steps leads to an austere stone arch.
You pass through this arch and find yourself in the City of Eyes. Narrow streets criss-cross, each beckons you forth. You want to disappear down all at once. You pick one at random and the vitality of the city makes itself known. People sit outside restaurants, drinking beneath parasols. The women here are beautiful. You pass a fountain. Children play in the mist spray and anxiety makes itself known – what if you don’t have enough time to walk every street and cross every bridge and wander down every alley? The heat too is suffocating. It is still morning and you know it will get hotter yet. You sit beside a little patch of green in the shade of a willow tree. An old man shuffles along his bench for you without catching your eyes. And you nod and thank him and he says something you don’t understand. Pigeons glide to the floor and the man scatters breadcrumbs. You think there is a vitality to this city that there wasn’t in the last. The city is alive, its people the vital fluid that animates it. You want some of its vitality for yourself. And then the man sitting beside you touches your arm and gestures up. He speaks and you don’t understand it but at the same time you do because he is showing you the eyes staring down at you from the rooftops. The man has a lot to say and you can’t understand it anymore. You nod and smile and then you go on your way.
You buy a bottle of water at the kiosk and then make your way through the streets. You haven’t booked a hotel but you don’t worry, it’s not the high season. Most people in the height of summer go out to the mountains or the ocean. You look inside a hostel and a bed & breakfast, and both are surprisingly cool, like wine cellars. The first has a clean lobby, but the room is filthy. Ugly stains mark the sofa and the curtains, and there’s an odd stink of sewage disguised with bleach and incense. The second is beautiful with a balcony onto the main square, but a little outside your budget. You walk on past the square and take the steps into the lower city. Where the road curves sits a hostel. It too has those eye-like vents. The price is good for a private room. You’ve spent too much time in dormitories recently. You want a weekend alone.
After leaving your suitcase and freshening up, you set out into the city. Music sifts from another square to where you are. There are people, but not too many people. There is sound, but not too much sound. Windows have shutters. Each house is a different colour. There are old fashioned street lamps. And everywhere the same vitality, the one you want so desperately to repossess for yourself. And of course, you cannot help but see those eyes on every tiled roof. You stand at the fork in a path and look at your map and have the uncanny sense of being watched. You look up and there they are, the eyes of the city. You squint your own eyes and indeed these do seem like real eyes. In other moments they are but windows or air vents, no different from any other. If you look for something you’ll find it, you know this.
You sit in the central square and order a coffee beneath a parasol. There’s that hum of life lived, jazz trickles through the streets. A family near you is dragged along by a Maltese with pink ears. Two lovers walk hand in hand. You swallow something like tears. You feel for a moment part of the city’s makeup, part of its spirit, even if you don’t know what that means. And you swallow again and this fiction dims. You know you are not a part of this city’s fabric, but you so desperately wish to be.
And you don’t know what it is that tells you: someone is watching you. Your eyes meet those of a woman sitting at another table.
“Is it your first time here?” says the woman. There’s something familiar about her. You trace the map of her face for some understanding.
“Yes,” you say.
“And what do you think of the city?”
“I haven’t seen much,” you say. “But from what I have seen, it seems beautiful —there’s a lot going on.”
The woman smiles. “We pride ourselves in that. There’s always something going on here. It is never dead or quiet. And life is always witnessed.” Her eyes seem to widen ever so slightly as she says this and it troubles you.
“Hm?” you ask.
“You know, if a tree falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it really fall? Here yes. The city is always watching you.” She gestures to the roofs and you look about you and indeed there are eyes everywhere.
“Oh yes,” you laugh, but she looks dead serious. You straighten out your smile and nod.
“So, you mean they have cameras everywhere,” you ask, “it’s a surveillance state?”
“No,” she says. “The state doesn’t watch you. The city does.”
“No,” she says, shaking her head. At that, she stands up and brushes off her dress, and she looks you dead in the eye. It’s a stern look, you think, unnecessarily hostile. You blink and she is gone.
After drinking your coffee you take a walk. In the shade there is a little respite from the harsh sun. There’s more music. You follow it to a bandstand playing something that sounds like folk music blended with cumbia. You tap your feet to it and nod your head. You feel once again a thread in the city’s fabric. You think you have fallen in love with this city. Amid the static crowd there is a woman dancing. Her skin is tan and she is wearing a short dress. She is smiling but she doesn’t look happy. She notices your gaze and pushes through the crowd to you.
“Are you travelling?” she asks, in accented English. Faint sun spots mark her cheeks. She has the look of someone who has been on the road for a while.
“Yes,” you say. “I just arrived. And you?”
“I’ve been here for a few days. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
You feel a flutter in your body, the sense of time receding. “Want to grab a drink after?” you ask her.
She looks back at the bandstand, hesitant.
“Only if you want to,” you reassure. “I don’t know anyone here.”
“Sure,” she says, blushing for no reason at all.
You drink pálinka in the same cafe where you saw the woman and the little dog. The heat is such the alcohol goes to your head.
You and this woman laugh and share travel stories without knowing each other’s names. You tell her about the one-day train journey that became three days in 41 degrees Celsius heat, and how on the third day a party broke out where people cooked pancakes on a makeshift grill. You tell her about the time you almost got arrested and still don’t know why. She tells you about the time a mouse was living in her room and the hotel proprietor assured her it was god and you spit out your pálinka. Then after a third drink she tells you about her family life she is running away from and you nod and smile, looking into her deep blue eyes.
“Don’t you think sometimes,” she says, her face flushed, “that the world is so strange? We are moving from one place to another. Even when we aren’t travelling, I think it is kind of so. I think, sometimes, we barely know what we are doing, where we are, how it’s changing us, what we are running from, and what we are running towards. And we are all slowly dying.” She puts down her drink and looks at it, an unreadable expression there.
“Yes,” you say, shuffling in your seat. “I suppose we all do think something like that, in the moments when we sit down and sit still.” You make to put your hand on her hand and she pulls her hand away.
Alcohol-induced sadness passes and you ask her if she wants to go dancing. You dance in a room with a sticky floor and strobe lights. She drinks more and laughs, now clasping both your hands. She cannot take the drink. She vomits in a dark corner near the cloakroom and you put an arm behind her and lead her out of the club to the dark cobblestoned street. In the taxi, she leans her head on your shoulder. You run your hands through her hair, so fine it could snap, and once again you feel a part of the city’s fabric, a sense that its life-force is your life-force. Her body falls limp on your bed.
Still under the influence of this strange spirit, you shower, scrubbing off the sweat and grime from six hours in the train and two hours walking around this new city and two hours dancing. You think about what you are going to do to this body on the bed.
The water feels warm and good. And then you close your eyes and you see a million eyes before you. Wide yes, pupils dilated, ever watchful, ever vigilant. The eyes repeat like holes in a lotus seed, it sets off your trypophobia and you open your eyes. You see in the mirror your face with its enlarged pores and wish you could remove all of them, or iron them out with a soldering iron. You scratch at your skin until it bleeds. What anger you contain within you! You don’t know what to do with it anymore. You rinse your face with cold water. After you drink water and collapse into bed beside this stranger and you shiver and she draws her arms around you.
You dream of a city that is watching you. A city with eyes.
You tell the city what you have heard: the city doesn’t really watch.
“But did you know,” says a dream creature you cannot see, “that people don’t always know when they cast spells.”
You wake up drenched again in sweat. The other side of the bed is cold. Sobriety is trickling back. And you know the city sees everything.