(Giovanni Battista Piranesi- -1720-78, Italian etcher, archaeologist and architect: became famous for his hugely exaggerated and poeticised etchings of the ancient ruins of Rome, and his imaginary Interiors and Prisons, heavily influencing the neo-classical movement in Architecture, the gothic in literature and the Surrealists).
I was awoken, not by the singing of birds but by the sound of giant beetles passing beneath the window. The citizens of Scarabolis have tamed these threatening creatures, and take rides inside them, clinging to their gleaming armour. Every household has at least one, and a giant kennel where it can be restrained for the night. They feed them a foul-smelling brown elixir that they ferment over centuries in strange underground orchards. They make the beetles run along black ribbons that criss-cross their fields like woven threads. This ribbon material has a surprising texture, rough and yet almost soft like cushions, and they constantly dig parts of it up at random and bury treasure beneath it. I wondered if the ribbons were sacred to them, they bestow them with such significance. Perhaps therefore these diggings are to enable citizens to bury offerings to their Gods like votive prayers or rosaries.
My hosts ushered me to their bathroom, indicating that this was their ritual each morning; to be blown about by cannons of hot water spewing angily from pipes hidden insidiously beneath their walls. What alarmed me more however was the vast array of potions and distillations that the lady of the house had accumulated and stacked the bathroom high with on innumerable shelves. The bottles were in a myriad of different shapes and colours, and each labelled brightly in a dazzling diversity of designs; obtained from countless mystics and apothecaries scattered throughout their empire. Hypoexigesal Moisture-Rising Epidural-Enriching Nourishment Beauty Balm, with extract of Anthrax and Wasps Milk. Yellowcake UF6 and Aloevera Bunker Buster. Seratonile Bath Bombs with Hepatytis B Weapons-grade Plutomial Bath Salts. I became scared, in that locked room, that some of these volatile ingredients might combine and burn a hole in the universe.
For breakfast, they sat me down, not around a family table to discuss their dreams or their children’s futures, but in front of their favourite window; one whose ever-changing view held the constant attention of the whole family. I was horrified. Violating our privacy immediately, a smiling man and woman, complete strangers both of them, sat right outside the window and looked in at us and told us terrible things. I wanted to cover my ears, and I turned to my hosts expecting to see that they were in tears, or preparing to pack their bags and escape to the hills. But no, they were quite calm, and assured me that this was what happened every morning and that they were used to it. The smiling people in the window said that their empire was ending, their enemies were invading, that Scarabolis would be flooded soon, that the orchards and fields were all dying, that everyone would choke to death on the fumes from the accumulating excrement of the giant beetles. Are these people not reputable Seers? –I asked, are you not afraid that these curses will come to pass? Not at all they said, there is still time left before the end. I was impressed, I must say, by their stoicism. Their love of their Gods must have made them very devout and ready to meet them.
I should explain that the Scarabolins are not like us. The mother of the house resembled an ordinary Italian woman it is true, notwithstanding her outlandish local garb, but the father had the head of a dog. How long ago this scandalous mutation had occurred among their race was not known, but now it was quite common for citizens to be half-canine, and not frowned upon in any way. Their two children were half cast as you might expect: though pink-fleshed as their mother, their heads tapered seamlessly into wolf-like jaws and dripping tongues. They barked and snapped at each other as they rolled on the carpet fighting. Their mother fed them crows and sparrows on plates, which she fetched from an aviary in the hallway, discretely ringing their necks as she returned to the parlour.
My hosts insisted that I see how they live and work, that I should come with them to meet their Lords and Magistrates in the centre of their great city. I was honoured, but afraid when I realised that this would mean I had to ride with them on their beetle. The thing was passive until I approached, and then it began to growl and shake. I was sure this was because I was a stranger and that it didn’t like my smell. Frankly I was petrified, and secretly clutching my crucifix beneath my tunic and praying for protection from our saviour who seemed no less a stranger than I to these lands, so little had I heard his hallowed name. But the beetle seemed to calm however; once I was sat down between the two wolf-children, and at the crack of a whip from the father of the house; it roared obediently to life and scuttled down the road.
Now this was bewildering. Other beetles were scuttling everywhere, and fighting with each other, locking horns, ripping off claws and antennae. Once again, my remarkable hosts were strangely at peace however, assuring me that their beetle was a prize fighter and would see off all the lesser breeds. It was all like some huge race, like a Circus Maximus, and uniformed stewards appeared from time to time with burning torches that they used to scauld the beetles legs and keep them in check. How could everyone endure such drama and peril every day? As if all this wasn’t enough however, my hosts said they wanted to play me some music at the same time. I laughed incredulously, wondering where an entire band of minstrels could be concealed under the folds of the armour of a running beetle. But then some hideous rhythms began to pulse from out of the body of the creature itself, shaking us to the bones. I flinched, but my hosts seemed to enjoy it. It was nothing but a panicking drumbeat, charged and urgent like some buried memory of being born, over which a dying violin or trumpet would occasionally be allowed to fall like a forlorn flag of hope. The only vocalisations were in strange accents and an incomprehensible sub-language. This chanting, my hosts explained, was by a race of black slaves that the Scarabolins kept. They lived in poverty in walled ghettoes, trading lethal chemicals with each other, and were farmed like yeast by the white people: who creamed off the best of what they produced for them; music and drugs.
As we approached the centre of Scarabolis, I became astounded by the size and height of their buildings, and overwhelmed by the urge to make drawings and etchings of them to show to my countrymen upon my return home. Palaces and warehouses and cathedrals stretched into the sky. They did not have windows, they WERE windows. Everything was glass. Glass was like a skin, and stone was reserved for tenuous skeletons that hid beneath this surface. In other words, these buildings were alive, made like living things, blasphemously copying nature itself. Alive also literally, in that through the glass skins as I gazed up, I saw citizens scuttling everywhere like ants, all of them moving frenetically as if engaged in some common enterprise whose nature I would never discover.
Thus in a state of shock almost, I was helped down from the beetle’s back by the little paws of the laughing wolf-children, and their parents led me towards a vast glass cathedral that towered above us in the blue summer sky. Before we reached the entrance, I had time to turn and see the streets around us, and notice to my astonishment that all of these were also teaming with citizens, all running around and around as fast as they could, as if running from something or from each other. It seemed like a game whose rules I had not yet been told.
Words cannot describe the scale or grandeur of their glass cathedral. Which God it was dedicated to, I was not able to ascertain, as if perhaps he was a secret God, whose name was forbidden to be spoken lest this invoke his anger. First of all I was to witness the daily work of the father of the household; he took off his clothes and we saw that he was a bipedal greyhound; a lean and awe-inspiring physical specimen. Wearing only a bright identifying bib, his team colours perhaps, he jogged out into a vast arena in the basement of the cathedral, and we took our place among the spectators to see what happened next. The ritual was feverish and mystifying; he and many other greyhound-men of competing teams ran in circles while howling and barking, while other team members chalked up numbers on huge fiery blackboards which hung from the vaulted ceiling overhead. All the time, streams of paper fell from the ceiling endlessly, like confetti for an invisible wedding. I picked up a few and tried to read them, but they were like poems composed entirely of numbers, as if mathematics were the chosen music of this civilisation. Perhaps it was all a simple race that the spectators were betting on, but I never saw any winners nor any conclusion to the sport. In this respect, it was more like the activity of those pagan priests who strive each day to offer up the prayers without which they believe the sun will not be able to traverse the sky.
Then the mother of the household, signalled to me that we were to leave the arena, and to ascend into the vast upper storeys of the cathedral, where she would show me what her daily duties entailed. I became agitated as she ushered me into a large bucket of glass and metal: but then when some of the stewards starting hoisting the bucket skywards with us in it; I fell to the floor and wept in fear, sinking my teeth and fingernails into the carpet. But my hostess, caressed my head as if consoling a distressed pet, and urged me to open my eyes. After no little encouragement, this I did for a moment: and saw that the bucket with us in it was now hundreds of feet in the air and sailing ever higher by the second. Seasick in the extreme, when we finally came to rest, I crawled out on all fours, expecting to be laughed at. But instead, here I found another huge throng of people, all quite engaged and absorbed in their own obscure mental activities, who paced to and fro, shouting to each other and crowding around windows that showed only views of numbers, this strange mathematical poetry again.
Then I was brought to the centrepiece of this floor; Here under the tilting faces of the glass cathedral spire; were set up an array of large telescopes pointed down at the distant crowds below. Now the view from here was certainly beyond description. I could see the whole of the city of Scarabolis, its many other tall glass palaces and chuches, its labyrinth of streets, and beyond this distant fields and sea. But through the telescopes, as they showed me how to use them; I was able to observe the individual faces of any of the million strangers running and hurrying around the streets below. I could see their very expression, a bead of sweat upon a brow. But now events took an unexpectedly sinister turn. My hostess ushered me back towards the perimeter of the room so we could observe what happened next.
The telescopes were not just for this viewing function alone: but on the hour, a clock would sound a chime overhead, and an ice pellet, hard as a stone and as large as a fist would drop from a hole in the ceiling and land on a silver dish at the centre of all the devices, and spin there at random awhile, before losing energy and falling down into the neck of one of the telescopes. Then by some fiendish mechanism, with no living hand involved; the telescope would fire the ice pellet with terrible force and speed towards the distant moving crowds below. Silence reigned after the shocking event, and eagerly my hostess led me forward to look down the telescope through which the projectile had just fired. To my horror, I saw there an innocent citizen lying dead upon the pavement, blood and melted ice now trickling from a wound at his heart. Nobody stopped to attend him, all his fellows too panicked and hurried to risk slowing for a second. And then, before I could protest this injustice, I heard a great beating of wings above us; and there above the glass lantern, as if lifting off from a ledge or perch; a fiendish black Harpie flapped into life, with two masked Scarabolins clinging to its talons. The gruesome scavenger swung down across our view then down towards the streets below, from where it retrieved the limp body of the unfortunate victim of the ice pellet.
I was asked to follow my guide to the next floor up, a kind of gallery to which the dead mans body would be brought up to by the flapping Harpie. I climbed the stairs and here I saw what the ice pellets were made of: a great circular pool of human tears was gathered here night and day under the glass spire; topped up by cups and thimbles carried by the harpies and their henchmen, gathered from every weeping child or despairing destitute that they could find throughout the city. And now the doors above our head opened, and the body of the so recently-killed man was lowered in and hung from a silver rail; on which I now noticed there were perhaps 10 to 20 similar victims, in varying degrees of transfiguration; as if the rarefied air at this altitude were curing their flesh like fish or hams. But now as I looked closer, something astounding happened; the figure at the end of the rail, one presumably days old, began to stir, and was brought down from his hook by two masked attendants using long poles like fishing rods to manoeuvre him to the ground carefully. I was invited to look closer as they threw water over him to revive him; his face was now dirty and unshaven, his clothes soiled and torn. The attendants placed bottles of strange burning liquid in his coat pockets, and then the Harpies carried him off; down towards some distant pavement where they set him down to sit against a wall and babble incessantly. I watched through a telescope how the running crowds ignored him, except that occasionally metal coins were thrown at this feet.
I told my hostess that I did not understand what I had seen, and that I felt strangely sad, as we descended together to some of the lower floors of the Cathedral. She smiled kindly and gently laughed, and explained that these were their ancient customs here, that strangers were often perturbed or mystified, but that Scarabolins accepted that the ice pellets would hit a certain number of their flock each day, that therefore their loved ones might be taken from them at random, and transformed into the half-dead ghosts who haunt their gutters and back alleys. Moreover, they enjoyed the risk she said, and placed bets upon each other, on the possible outcomes of each day’s firing of the telescopes. Without this, she said, their lives would be unbearably dull.
I stood there deep in thought for a while, surrounded again by the moving throng of priests and actuaries all chattering and flitting between their number-windows. It occurred to me that they looked more often into these windows than they did out of the glass all around them to see the view of their vast city. But even at the very second that I had this thought, I noticed something strange in the distance, at the same height as us, but moving oddly. I presumed at first, that like so much else I had seen in Scarabolis since I arrived: this must be something normal to them to which I just lacked the necessary explanation. But as the threat loomed larger, my involuntary agitation overtook me, and I leant over to tap the shoulder of the functionary nearest to me and pointed towards the view of the city beyond, using my basic command of their language to say clumsily “look… big bird… coming…”
To my surprise, he stood up and screamed, and the whole floor began to copy him moments later, like a breath of wind breaking over a bank of dune grasses. Soon everyone was running, and sweeping me along with them. I lost sight of my hostess and her children, and before I entered that impossibly long well of stairs that would return us to the ground; I saw over my shoulder the vast white bird with its beak open, screeching towards us, twisting it neck to bite into the spire of that sacred place of worship.
When the bird bit, he plunged our stairs into terrible darkness, and wrapped us in the stench and heat of the flames of hell itself. Climbing down through all that, surrounded by sweating prisoners, was as difficult and frightening as any of the nightmare scenes in my famous "Prisons Of The Imagination" etchings. More than once I remembered those dark fantasies as I climbed downwards, wondering if I would survive, or if this was God’s punishment for me: to make my own devilish drawings come alive and entomb me in them.
Outside, I watched in horror, in sympathy with all the other citizens of Scarabolis, as more giant gulls came to devour their sacred temple, and beat it to the ground with their spiteful wings and beaks. When the awful dust clouds finally cleared, I stumbled forward, wiping my eyes, and sat at the edge of the ruins, dejected. Jagged shards of their spoiled masterpiece reached upwards to the disbelieving sky like anguished fingers. I was reminded of my beloved Roma, but I did not have the heart to draw it. For a moment I had the sense that some cosmic sorcery was at work, that history was repeating itself, or that time was flowing backwards and I had no idea whatsoever where it might finally come to rest.
(First published in The Drouth Magazine Issue 22: "Utopia").
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