From the Archive: Jessica Bromley Bartram (CAROUSEL 39)
JESSICA BROMLEY BARTRAM
When the city sleeps, it emerges, unfurling cloudlike from a ravine and stepping carefully over grumbling streets. Bleary-eyed drivers blink it away, their brains filled with thoughts of home or the next city, naming it Bridge Shadow or Passing Tree. Its missteps leave cars covered in stormy grey streaks that refuse to fade, drivers whose peripheral vision is now filled with flickering shadows, almost-forms almost visible if only they could turn their heads a little more quickly.
It slips through laneways, startling rummaging raccoons and roosting pigeons, nighthawks flitting around its head and resting for a moment on its rolling shoulders before plucking shimmering hairs for their hidden nests. Its head brushes the undersides of low-hanging clouds and shreds of mist cling to it, unfurling into silver ribbons in the wake of its passage. It works its way downtown, tiptoeing through parks, each one smaller than the last, and the trees listen sleepily to its melodic mumbling, wind pulling the sound through rustling leaves as its hulking shape moves south, heading straight for the tallest towers.
Once it reaches the skyscrapers, it chooses one and begins to climb, peering in each window as it passes and marvelling at the lives within.
Sometimes the windows into which it looks are filled with purple shadow that drapes heavily over the room, pinning restless sleepers to their rumpled sheets. As it watches, the sleepers turn as if underwater, breathing slow, careful breaths of liquid dark. Some sleepers, feeling its gaze, dream of flying, bodies floating just off the mattress until it moves on, the sensation of weightlessness half remembered in the morning as clouds bloom in their coffee.
It peers more intently into the lit windows, drawn to the warm pools of light in which the insomniacs bathe. Those it watches sometimes hunch under the weight of its gaze, heavy eyes rolling to the window and catching a glimpse of, no, surely nothing, then turning back and away, blinking off the cobwebs of what might have been seen.
While it looks, longing fills it, pools around its guts and into its limbs, viscous and bloodlike. It wonders whether this is how those inside the towers feel, whether their bodies are always this heavy with their solid layers of skin, muscle, blood and bone. Streetlights shimmer through its own body, sending its molecules spinning into tiny storms, and wind snatches at its surface, blurring its body as it clings to the tower.
Watching the bodies inside the tower, it wonders what it feels like to be biologically certain, made from cells trained to follow predetermined paths. It imagines climbing inside a human body and feeling the pulsing weight of its organs, heavy ropes of intestine tethering it to the ground.
Once inside, it would curl delicately inside the ribcage, molding its body against the spine, claiming that gentle curve as its own. Once settled, it would read each electric message flitting past until it understood every nuance of the body’s language, or at least enough to begin stretching out from the core, slithering upwards to peer out of unfamiliar eyes and taste something other than the metallic sameness of city air.
Perhaps, after a while, it would stretch enough to sink through layers of muscle, its own vague form dissolving as it spread, comforted by the hush-shushing of its new heart. But in this time, on this night, it pulls its shadow-hand away from the glass and begins the long climb down, placing foot after foot until its toes touch pavement. As it goes it savours the imagined echo of blood rushing through its limbs, a rhythm that shushes more softly and flows less smoothly as it sweeps up through the city away from the skyscrapers and the vibrant bodies within, sputtering to a stop as it curls back into its rustling ravine to wait for the city to revolve back around into night.