This is a continuation of earlier posts. Context is found in previous parts.
She is burning, my Alexandria. I can smell the smoke, long before I see it and know that the marauding plague has penetrated my precious city’s quake-weakened walls, seeping into the life-giving water, a black scum over the surface. I must hurry if I am to limit the damage; my salvaged city will not withstand much more attack.
I arrive to find the fire in the Lighthouse still burning, but with people fighting the fire in their midst none has thought to restock the fuel or clear out the ashes. I set to the task myself; the ships bringing supplies and the fresh troops I have requested will not land safely without it. It is dusk when I begin and by the time Selene has risen and Apollo has taken his mighty orb westward I am exhausted, yet I cannot sleep. There can be not even the smallest luxury if my city is to survive.
Seeking out my comrades I find them battling on several fronts, keeping the worst of the viscous slime at bay, but the dregs that still seep through the embattlements have been enough to start the fires. They are stretched, stretched to a limit in protecting the city that for each of us has its own precious quarter, each working to protect that wall or some structure that holds some sweet memory. My Great Library is at greatest risk, sitting at the junction point where the slime has reached, but not yet the fire. I rush to the sea for sand, hauling it back in my wagon, my belongings discarded in some darkened alleyway. They will be worthless anyway if my Alexandria is lost.
The menacing flames are scorching, the heat barely contained by my flimsy shirt. I want to roll up the sleeves, but I know that to do so would be to be burned. I throw sand on the slime that is not yet ignited in hopes that it will contain the approaching fires. As each cartload is emptied I return again to the shores to gather more sand, to throw more of Atlas’ grains on the plague. Be with me now, great Titan, if my comrade you truly be.
It is late, I am weary and I allow myself a moment to stop, the progress of the fires at least halted if not entirely smothered. My Alexandria still stands, the custodians of the Library as determined as I to protect that which is so valuable. I have gathered a little water from one of the jars in the nearby Temple of Asclepius and am sitting on the Library steps when I am attacked by one carrying the plague, a rebel within our own walls. The stench of the vile slime is overpowering. I am repulsed. I struggle to back away, to extricate myself, at the same time realizing that my Library is at immediate risk. I am unaware that I am not the only one being attacked; there are more rebels than I could have imagined. All across the city in what can only be a coordinated attack the people are fighting. Houses are being razed, granaries lost, banks looted. Each struggles for what seems an eternity, exhausted and fragile, trying to save the writings, the knowledge, the means to rebuild and repair, to save my Alexandria. By dawn, the attack has been foiled, but at a cost I could not have foreseen.
Great oozing welts mark my arms. I had rolled up the sleeves in the end, when the flames had abated. It matters not; the oily slime would have melted the fabric on contact anyway; the burns would have simply been melded to cloth. It is better this way, easier to clean. Noted, but knowing there are more urgent matters, I leave the wounds untended and dash about my city to inspect the damage. The devastation is total. Houses gone, their livelihoods ruined. The quake was bad enough; now there are not even four walls left standing. This is my ten of swords. I rush about my Alexandria and find that whilst my Great Library has withstood the attack, almost all else is razed.
I reach the harbour to find dawn’s light illuminating the visage I have so come to cherish, the Lighthouse still turning on the headland, but the light-keeper’s house smoldering at it’s side. The troops I had called to support my Alexandria did not come. Delayed? It matters not, they are too late.
I stand in the dawn’s light under a great pine, an old woman behind me wailing “Why?” beside the ashes of her once humble home, a younger couple standing ahead of me near the sand, staring dazed over the harbour. The cool morning breeze plays at my hair, pretending nothing has happened, that what Apollo promises will be a perfect autumn day is the truth, not the destruction surrounding me. I am detached, clinical; the pain has been burned from me.
The albatross are absent from the harbour, driven away by the fracas; only the crabs remain. Without the sound of wildlife, my Alexandria is a sullen, eerie place, all sound replaced by the voices of a broken people. They say that in years to come, when others asked what happened to my Alexandria, when they ask when this city of light and learning had changed, they will point to this day. I know it to be true. The scars on my arms will be the reminder of how all changed on this single day, how my Alexandria was attacked not just by those without, but by those within her very walls, by those I trusted.
A whisper on the wind, meant only for me comes from some unknown source: it can be restored. To believe the secret deity that speaks for only my mind’s ear now is to subscribe to yet more pain, I think. I waver, for the first time my resolve to save my Alexandria questioned. I look deep inside myself and wonder, but am met only by the silent depths of my own soul.
So, these burns do hurt. I had thought I had become inured to the sting of fire or the melt of acid. It’s a good thing; how else would I know I was alive, that I could care?
One of the custodians of the Library, himself injured in the battle, sent me back to the Temple of Asclepius, where the heat of the battle had seared my bare flesh, for healing. I resisted; the simple memory of the attack on the steps of one dedicated to healing brought intense fear. I wanted instead, to sit by my harbour, to bathe in my city’s sea-salt air and be soothed by the gentle swoosh of her waves. Away he said, away to the healer. These shores have been here a thousand years, they will be here a thousand years more, be you here or not. He knew I needed healing for more than just those visible injuries, but the flesh wounds needed more immediate attention. A thick unguent was applied to my wounds just once, enough to awaken the senses to the pain that lay beneath.
It has been some weeks since my Alexandria was so devastated. The pain of the burns to which I was once so detached has met its crescendo and now simpers to a gradual diminuendo. There is still a tenderness, but the biting, searing sting has gone.
I was forced to leave my Alexandria before much could be done in way of repairs. I gathered the pitiful remains of the few broken dreams that had remained intact after the quake and carried them back to Away & Beyond, unsure what I was going to be able do with pieces. I had never been the craftsman of these precious pieces of golden and silver light, only their custodian. All the way the pieces jangled in my wagon, not completely cleaned of the sea-salt or sand on which they had been broken. Their constant rattle sliced at my soul.
The calmness of Away & Beyond held no comfort. I wandered the streets and looked to the distance for any sense of peace. I shut myself away lest the burns send me mad, until such time as their pain had eased; I conversed with none. The last vestiges of my dreams I lay within the grounds of another temple dedicated to the gods of healing and left them there. There could be no greater loss if the pieces should remain as such and so I walked away, resolved to accept whatever outcome the gods saw fit. My soul, a broken and leaking vessel, was useless without these simple dreams.
I toiled despite my wounds, keeping them covered in the presence of my new acquaintances. No questions were asked, because none did know, what my Alexandria and I had suffered. At night, I prayed for Morpheus to spirit me to a place devoid of anything but blackness, taking a little of that sweet liquid the Christians strangely believe is magically the new god’s blood in order to buy a more restful night.
Finally, I was bade return to the temple and found the pieces of my dreams repaired. The damage was barely noticeable for some and I marveled at the skill of those who worked in the name of the healing gods. I was told the warmth of Apollo’s mighty orb would repair the remaining fractures and the brilliance would similarly return. The leaking vessel that was my soul they gave a salve and sent me back to the plains of Away & Beyond.
Now weeks hence, the fracture lines are almost healed. My soul no longer leaks and I am preparing to return again to my Alexandria. I have sent what supplies I could to help with the city’s repairs and have attempted to ensure that there remain no rebels within the confines of my Great Library, although I have no means of knowing if I have succeeded. Atlas, true to his word, has remained steady at my feet. The pieces of Egypt remain at my neck, the reminder that my Great Library still holds all its works and my Alexandria awaits my return. I count the days until I can sit on her shores, even briefly, once more.