As time went by, words began to replace objects and gestures in Marco's tales: first exclamations, isolated nouns, dry verbs, then phrases, ramified and leafy discourses, metaphors and tropes. The foreigner had learned to speak the emperor's language or the emperor to understand the language of the foreigner.
But you would have said communication between them was less happy than in the past: to be sure, words are more useful than objects and gestures in listing the most important things of every province and city – monuments, markets, costumes, fauna and flora – and yet when Polo began to talk about how life must be in those places, day after day, evening after evening, words failed him, and little by little, he went back to relying on gestures, grimaces, glances.
-Invisible Cities, pp 38-39.
Cities & the dead. 0.
I became aware of the city of Kethya long before my eyes were granted the sight of its walls, for Kethya is a city of music.
His hand goes to his ear.
As I rode across the plain I sought it, cocking my head this way and that the better to catch the faint thread of the sound, my eyes tracing the dark, distant shapes of the hills in search of that certain orderly shape that indicates the work of man rather than nature.
Marco's eyes look past the Khan's, as if he is searching even now.
Then suddenly there was a gust of wind, and at last I heard it. To each traveler I am told it is different – perhaps a fanfare of brass horns, distant but pure, the sound gleaming in the air, perhaps the stirring rattle of the naqara drum, sharp, carrying across the plain, perhaps the hollow, haunting notes of the urghun, weaving through the endless mazes of grass.
He makes no attempt to imitate these sounds, but still Kublai hears them and more besides – an irregular crash of cymbals, the strummed notes of the yatga, the reedy whistle of the chuur.
I followed it. Sometimes the music lost itself among the shush of the wind, the screech of a raptor as its dive for prey was thwarted, but always it reappeared, and I rode onward, drawn inexorably to the city's siren melodies.
The buildings at the outskirts of the city were low and square, grey brick and ugly, but the wide streets between them were filled with music. Below every eave hung copper bells to clink and clonk, and on every corner stood tall wooden boxes filled with taut strings, sweetly moaning in the changing air.
Long, rectangular shapes are drawn in the air, invisible strings plucked by fingertips.
The people of Kethya are dancers. As I rode through the outskirts of the city I saw them – lithe maidens who waltzed as they carried washing to the river, their slim legs moving neatly beneath bright skirts, men of trade in intricately woven robes who stepped in ritual patterns, feet moving forward-side-forward-side, children playing in the grass, circling each other as they chanted rhymes of silver buttons and pigs and steamboats and the moon.
Marco does not dance like a maiden; the Khan laughs quietly to himself at the thought of it. Still, the symbolic vocabulary they have established allows a pointed foot to indicate the lilting step of a lady, the clasp of hands to show a child's game.
Deeper into the city the streets became wider, edged by low platform built upon low platform the better to leap between. From open windows came the high, scraped notes of the sihu, the liquid scales of the lyre – a great cacophony of sound that eddies, circling back on itself, never ending. I found myself weaving from side to side in the saddle, my body moving in time with first one song and then another.
In the city squares, old men sat in sturdy chairs around rough wood tables, fingers moving pieces across black and white boards in the ancient dance of chess. At the inn, I dismounted my horse and the stable boy took the reins deferentially, his feet tapping out patterns in the dusty straw.
The longer I stayed in Kethya, the more I danced. At first I felt awkward, clumsy, my movements stilted when compared to the graceful dynamism of the natives there. I was not as you see me now, oh wise Khan, but youthful then, unsure.
With a pass of one sinewy hand over his face lines disappear and Marco is young again; this, Kublai knows, is his ambassador's greatest magic.
But soon I could not help myself, for everywhere was song, everywhere was music, in the day and in the night and in the dusky, luminous, interstitial places. "La," sang the maidens with their washing, and "Tro," sang the men of trade, and "Yah," sang the children, and "Hom," sang the old men. And, too, everywhere was movement, the sashay of hips, the swing of arms, the fluid arch of fingers as a man gave a blossom of delphinium to a woman with dark hair and flashing eyes.
By the third day of my visit I could no more be still than you, oh Khan, could slip free the reins of your great empire. I swayed in the market as I traded my small carvings and trinkets for pomegranates and casks of wine, pearls for a fine rug woven with the pattern of the estampie, and in the almost-silence of Kethya's vast libraries I danced the moresca to a faint, whispered melody. When it grew dark, I joined the tropotianka of the old men in the warm night air of the square, and added my shadow to those which danced across the crumbling brick below.
In the streets I asked the people, "Why do you sing, why do you dance?" and everywhere I was answered, "Because it is good to sing, and it is good to dance." I thought, 'This is so.'
Now Marco's fingers begin to twitch, and his mouth curls sideways into something not quite a grimace.
By the fifth day I could not still myself, even in sleep, and when I rose, weary and with sand-dusted eyes, it was as if I could see the city for the first time again, but now from within. I had become a dancer, and I had begun to sense the great joy and the great tragedy of that city. For the city of Kethya is naught but a dance, each step weaving amongst the others to form a great tarantella. A traveler may find a place in the pattern to step in for a short while, but for the inhabitants of the city there is no end to the music, no final sting of the viol. They must go on, whirling, stomping, careening, and always with the knowledge that they have created an enormity, a great, beautiful thing, and that the moment they stop, this thing will die.
When I left Kethya the sounds of the city followed me, and it was many days before I found stillness again.