Model of the City in an Instrumentarium

This weird, wonderfully atmospheric "dark city" tale leavens its fantastical Old World noir with disorienting, marvelously creepy paranoia. We love it, and know you will too. Translated from the Bulgarian by Peter Bachev.

The Shadow District, locked between four relatively broad streets, is like no other in the City. While there are a lot of shadows here, not one of them strikes me as unnatural — severed from the body that casts it, or moving against the sunlight. 

Yet the shadows are beautiful in their intensity and depth. A depth that doesn’t simply turn greys into blacks (nature is never that banal!), but creates the impression, just underneath the surface, of an endless, cavernous space you can get lost in — or have your searching gaze met. 

Sometimes the shadows (of people, trees, buildings, monuments) jitter gently, slow-dancing with the eye and unsettling the senses. It is easy for a conspirative mind to see an exit in the dark; wormholes leading Elsewhere. 

Naïfs are all around, and always full of hope. 

* * * 

I arrived here shortly before 6 p.m. The cafe that I had decided would be my headquarters for the duration of my stay was still open. It was called Journals, and boasted the most serene garden and biggest salon in the area. Its tables and parasols spilled out not only onto the street and the public park in the front, but also onto the unnaturally green lawn in the back, framed by bushes dotted with delicate purple flowers under large, smooth leaves, reflecting the light in deep violet. Inside, all but one wall, the one behind the bar, were mirrored, giving the illusion of more space and light than there ought to have been. 

I had written to the proprietor in advance, asking for a permanent reservation in my name, and that I would be able to receive mail there. My forethought was rewarded as soon as I sat down: Next to a metal plate with my name on it in magnetic letters lay an envelope. 

It was the first I’d heard from Leno in some time. It contained a single sentence, just as I expected: I know where you are

The rumored exits from the City were Leno’s one true passion. He dreamt of them, yearned for them, tirelessly searched for them and, sometimes, even tried to create them himself. 

All in vain, of course — he was just a poet and the only thing poets really know about are their own words. 

I once thought I was Leno’s greatest passion, and, later, that I could be Leno’s greatest passion if only I replaced the City in his heart, his mind, and on his pages. 

That too didn’t last long. I was quickly made to understand that those rumored exits, invisible and untouchable, were the focal points of his desire, and my body and mind were bare of them. 

Yet, inexplicably, Leno never gave up wanting me by his side. 

I didn’t waste much time on the letter, one of many since he had supposedly “disappeared.” His letters still found me everywhere, impeccably timed, as if he was following me, always a few steps behind, just a room or floor away, wherever I’d choose to stay. 

Then again, I didn’t exactly make it hard for him. 

* * * 

The local Instrumentarium was one of the last in the City, according to the Visitor’s Bureau leaflet I got from the hostel. It was poorly written, but the photographs were nice, of famous poets or artists who had passed through, stayed or lived in the District. The chapter dedicated to the Instrumentarium, the longest and most thorough, also contained a number of drawings, by artists of considerable renown, of the various tools and inventions in which the City’s citizens had placed their hopes of escape. 

I was most impressed by the photograph of a chariot pulled, the caption enthused, by demons from outside of the City. A smaller shot next to it, of the device’s interior, showed the pile of small bones, almost childlike, of the last person who took it for a ride. 

The Instrumentarium, when I finally made my way there, was a small, nondescript building on the outskirts of the Shadow District. I was greeted by an official dressed like an old-fashioned shopkeep (black trousers, short-sleeved white shirt, and black gloves covering his forearms) who either had a glass eye or the way his hair fell over his face created the impression of one. 

The chariot was in for restoration, he told me, but could they show me a collection of maps from almost 400 years ago? 

“Not a lot has changed about how maps are made, but the exhibits we keep contain the blood of young women of high birth, which was as rare then as it is now,” he said.

I had a look at the maps (nothing spectacular), as well as two tomes of poetry written by poets and amateurs alike who had tried leaving the City by consuming leprous flesh. There were a few gems scattered throughout the volumes, but most amounted to little more than vague recollections. 

I don’t believe disease can be a way out — of the City or anywhere else. (Maybe out of life, but even that’s inaccurate; I haven’t heard of anyone actually dying from leprosy.) It’s not a plague, in that sense, but its mythology of escape has plagued the dreams and fears of the City. If scholars are to be believed, Cities cannot exist without their own mythology; that’s what you’ll know a City by, if you ever were able to leave this one. 

Once there had been an Instrumentarium in almost every district of the City. The wealthy ordered copies of the more bizarre instruments and hoarded them in their homes, a meekly comforting gesture to an escape few dared to contemplate in earnest. One former mayor allegedly slept in a replica of Tamara’s Bed — the one she used to try to leave the City, cloaked in a see-through nightgown and opium vapors, convinced that delirium would be the key to its invisible doors. 

Nowadays, Instrumentaria are little more than museums, quiet and curious, entombing the fruits of restless minds long extinguished. Few ever enter them as potential escapees, but rather as tourists, their desperate longing for the impossible atrophying into mere historical curiosity. This always fills me with sadness. 

The Shadow District’s Instrumentarium held in its collection a unique model of the City, one of the most sophisticated devices (if several scientists, dozens of philosophers, and thousands of pilgrims are to be believed) ever built to attempt an escape with. I only saw it on my second visit there. 

I was out on a walk, admiring the streets at that particular time of day when the afternoon turns into evening; when the birds in the park (which I never got close enough to identify) start singing louder, driving up with them the volume of the City’s orchestra of other sounds — screams and laughter from the markets, conversations in the cafes, the hum of the traffic — before all suddenly grinding to a halt, as if extinguished by the night afoot. 

I didn’t think the Shadow District would be any different, but I needed to make sure. I needed to trace the lines of the urban soundscape, the particular metamorphosis of the noises of the City that charts the way to a place better than any map could. I needed the familiarity of it to soothe me. And it did — my walk went off without a hitch and the last calls of the market traders sounded as piercingly loud and clear through the creeping dusk here as anywhere else. 

I crossed the Instrumentarium’s threshold in an euphoric near-trance — I didn’t mean to actually visit, I just wanted a moment of silence. Sleepwalking through exhibition rooms and corridors lined with the dreams and desires of scientists and madmen locked in crystal sarcophagi, I finally found myself in a massive, suspiciously well-lit central hall. 

There, on an altar-like table of solid marble, lay the model of the City. 

And then the lights went out. 

To be sure, I remember being startled, peering through the sudden darkness, one of my hands in a fist, the other clutching my bag, but I wouldn’t say I was scared. In hindsight, it wasn’t fear that I felt, but rather the discomfort of trying to keep my confusion from growing into terror. 

When the light returned, this time flowing from the center of the model, I was less surprised than curious. 

The light started from what I believe was a tiny diorama of the Instrumentarium itself, snaked its way through the tiny streets of the replica Shadow District, filled up a random building, seeped through its windows, left through the front door, disappeared for a second, and then exploded from the belly of a large mansion a few streets away. A moment later, it darted to the edge of the model and went out as suddenly as it had appeared. 

I followed it all in complete silence, only realizing I’d forgotten to breathe when the hall lights came back on, bright as before. I closed my eyes and retraced the illuminated path that wound through the model City streets. I opened them again and it was gone from my memory. 

But there was something else in that reflection of the City that remained. I’ve spent countless days and nights since seeing the model trying to figure out what it was. I guess it will always stay just beyond the reach of my conscious memory — the presence that caught my gaze and allowed it to linger, for a second, a minute, a century, on the face of the simulacrum. 

My mind went blank, cognizant of my eyes moving through the streets, peeking through the tiny windows, circling the town squares, yet unable to read any sign. I remember the emptiness I felt then, staring at the model of the City, and I know it was something no ink could truly hold, not even for the briefest of moments. (A depressing thought, now that I’m finally writing all of it down: that emptiness was not unlike the white of a blank page. 

I must have blinked, because I remember opening my eyes. I took a few steps back, flapped my arms in the air, and then took a deep breath and left that place. 

* * * 

The dreams began several days after that second visit to the Instrumentarium, and there was nothing random about it. 

(Please don’t take this as an endorsement of those who think that the City is a living creature, a complex organism of buildings, dust and flesh, speaking only to a few chosen citizens and jealously refusing to let anyone, even His acolytes, leave. I don’t believe the City sent me the dreams or poured them into my head in order to communicate or to make a point. I am convinced, however, even though the clarity of the dream receded somewhat come morning, that I know something now about the City, something real, that I didn’t know before; that I’ve been chosen, or called to. But let me tell you about the dreams first, just a summary, without any of the details — colors or sensations — that I’m sure my memory, anyway, changes every time.) 

In the first dream I have a name — Aura. Or perhaps Laura, I am not sure. I am in a big house, a mansion by the looks of it, which is not my home. I am not alone: A boy and a man are in the room with me. I know there are servants all around the house, but I cannot see them. 

At some point I realize that I am there to be examined. No … I am there so someone else can escape. Maybe the man, because I can feel his constant presence. He wants to do something with my body … my blood, to be exact. My menstrual blood. 

I remember, vividly, lying on the floor, a map next to me which I cannot see but know all too well. It is a map of the City — streets, squares. Blood runs down the streets. The man follows the flow of it intently, with his eyes, his fingers and with something else, something inside his heart and soul. 

I also know that the boy is sick. It is the plague, the leprosy of the City, which is at best too sexualized and, at worst, venerated as the only way to leave it. 

In the second dream I do not have a name. I am a man and I am suffering. An affliction of some sort has left an enormous mark on my body. Huge. I think it covers my entire back, but I can neither see nor feel it. I just know it is there. In my dream I am walking through the City, looking for something, and I have a companion. I cannot see his face but I know he comes from the Desert. He’s a Bedouin. He touches me often. He tells me I am cold to the touch, especially my back. 

At some point we both find ourselves in a place that is neither the City, nor the Desert. The Bedouin says that this is Necropolis. I look down at my feet, at our feet, and see a hole, a giant hole, full of something that is neither dark nor light nor anything, but still enormous. 

In the third dream I am a writer, but I am not myself. I write fantastic stories, about alien worlds and distant planets. (This is strange, because in real life I have never been interested in theories about places other than the City.) In this dream, my universe is a simple one — it consists only of the City, the Desert, the Necropolis, and the Cosmos, which astronauts come back from zombified and covered in seeping wounds, if they come back at all. 

One such astronaut is home with me in the dream. He loves me or I love him. 

Both of us are sitting at my desk, I see us very clearly, and we’re both writing. No, I have written something — I can see the words on the white page, something about an alien planet, people, mutants, spaceships, and laser guns. 

Under the unfinished text, there is still some blank space left. And he spits on it — I can see him as if he’s standing before me right now! — the astronaut spits on it. It’s not derision. It’s not saliva either. It’s blood. The astronaut spits out a glob of blood, takes a pen and starts writing with it. I read over his shoulder and … 

* * * 

Every time I have to write about the City, I am reminded of that old nursery rhyme. You know the one I mean — it goes “something something, don’t ask me if the City has a name.” 

I try to imagine what such a name would sound like, but I can’t, it’s always beyond the reach of my imagination. 

It wasn’t in any of the dreams, but in the morning after the last oneI caught myself thinking again about the name of the City and, as soon as I did, a memory — or rather a pseudo-memory — planted its flag in my brain and glued the pieces of that day’s story together long enough for me to transfer it onto the page. It’s interesting how many fake memories are required to maintain the delusion of our own wholeness, our own sleek continuity, no pauses or cracks or missing bits to unsettle the reflection. 

Two days before leaving the District I received Leno’s second message: … But you still don’t know where I am. 

Reading it made me smile. I imagined him thinking we’re having a conversation, that this game matters to me, that I may even hope it’s not a game. 

The rest of the day was wonderful. 

* * *

My last day in the Shadow District ended with a cup of cold afternoon coffee and a meeting with a stranger. 

I had barely sat down at the table at Journals that I had come to think of as “mine” when the waiter — a thin man I had allowed myself to call “friend” a few times and for whom I always left a solid tip — waltzed up to me, right hand tightly gripping his left, lips stretched into a smile.

He let out a theatrical sigh (I couldn’t help but imagine him on a stage, blinding spotlights turning the audience below into a sea of brilliant darkness) and informed me that their coffee machine was broken — fully or partially I didn’t quite understand — so today they could only, regrettably, serve cold coffee. Not yesterday’s coffee, he was quick to add, but this morning’s, and they can warm it up with milk, since the stove’s burners did, of course, work, but they could only heat the milk, as the head chef did not believe in reheated coffee. 

That’s the word he used, believe. I smiled at him and ordered a cup, no milk, cold is fine. He hesitated for just a second, out of embarrassment or politeness, then gave a courteous nod and vanished into the kitchen. 

I turned to the street and saw a man approaching my table, tall and dressed all in black, a wide-brimmed hat casting a shadow over his face: the perfect stranger. 

‘May I?’ he asked, pointing to the empty chair opposite me. 

I nodded but didn’t smile. He was an actor, I was sure, one of those who roam around the City, performing short sketches for a private audience. My sister and I, together with Leno and a friend of his — Nari — had also hired one, a long time ago. We had asked him to approach the first white-haired woman he’d see, and start talking to her in a made-up language, gesturing wildly over a crude, crayon-drawn “map” of the City. When the poor woman finally has enough and tries to leave, he was to fall to the ground, fold himself into a fetal position, and start crying. 

It worked quite well, and was moderately entertaining, but we never did do it again. 

I looked around for my stranger’s audience, thinking that I’d be able to recognise the ill-conceived anticipation in the spectators’ faces, having been one myself: a pair of pursed lips, a long pause between breaths, knuckles white with tension, knees quivering, or just wide-open eyes and mouths, the witness oblivious to being seen. 

But this time the audience must’ve been made up of professionals, not enthusiastic novices, because I identified no one. No suspicious whispers, nobody looking our way, not even with their peripheral vision, and no curious heads turned in mischief. 

I decided to smile at the man; I wanted to see what his patrons had come up with. He did not return my smile.

“Are you enjoying your stay in the District?” he asked.  

I told him I was, that I liked it here, and was happy. I asked if it was that obvious that I’m not local. 

His face relaxed at this, but he said nothing. I let the silence grow: I had no intention of making the performance easier for him. 

“Maybe I should introduce myself. My name is of no consequence, really, but you can have it: it’s Flan—”

I nodded to indicate that that’s enough for me. 

“I work for an organization about which you have surely not heard,” he continued, “and which does not officially exist.” 

A secret service in the Shadow District? How original. 

“The knowledge of our existence is blood-borne. Hereditary, I mean. It is why most people haven’t heard of us, but I can assure you we work for the good of the City” 

I asked him what that means. 

“There’s always danger,” he said, and I liked how a single cloud passed in front of the sun at that very moment, desaturating the world around in time with his art. “We’ve been watching you for a while now. We sat in on some of your dreams and we are very interested. We would like to work with you some more, and we’d appreciate it if you didn’t mind.” 

I laughed at that; it felt like the right thing to do. He waited for me to finish, his eyes silently reiterating his words. I asked him what is so special about my “dreams” (he smiled at my air quotes). 

“They confirm our observations of certain people, other people,” he leaned in closer, “whom we believe want to leave the City.” 

So I’m … an oneiro-hound? Something like that? An unwitting surveillance device? I think that’s what I asked him. 

He didn’t reply, just reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and took out a business card. I didn’t take it from his extended hand, so he placed it on the table between us. It wasn’t a business card, but a blank piece of thick white paper. I didn’t give it a second thought. 

We parted with smiles befitting of the roles we had elected to play — mine understanding, his, enigmatic. 

I decided not to finish my coffee. There was still some packing left for me to do, and a very, very short trip home. 

The End 

Leno, I don’t know why I wrote this the way I did, or, for that matter, why I wrote it at all. A few of the City’s literary magazines and newspapers sent it back without any feedback; one — ‘CritiQue’ — enclosed the following line: 

We welcome any attempt to fictionalize the inexplicable experience of living in the City, but are tired, so tired now. 

Never mind them. I haven’t spoken to anyone since my return from the Shadow District. I must admit, the sarcasm permeating the text above, if you can sense it at all, is but my feeble resistance against everything that happened while I was writing it. Sometimes I wish I could believe them when they say the City has His own consciousness and will. But believing would mean giving in to fear. Because, if the City speaks, then you’d be able to recognize His words over where my rebellion should be. 

I can’t shake off the feeling, I keep wanting to push back even after I’m done laboring over the blank page, even after the text is finished. I walk down the street and He’s there; I look up to the rooftops or in the windows of the houses, He’s there; every blurry colorful abstraction that is supposed to be my reflection in a shop window suddenly morphs into the most natural thing in the world: the face of the City. 

I feel anger, my anger drives me mad at times. I start searching, I start digging, I start looking for other faces, other features. I never find any, but I did see a shadow, one particular shadow, the color of ebony, that looked like I could send something through it. So I tried: I shouted at the night and saw my words hit a wall on the other side of the street. I don’t think I need to tell you more, I know you understand. I also know I shouldn’t be writing, not a letter more, for every word is a threat and every sentence opens up space enough for another voice to form over the static. His voice. 

Don’t wait for my letter, go out and look for it. 

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Vladimir Poleganov

Vladimir Poleganov

Vladimir Poleganov (b. 1979, Sofia) is a Bulgarian writer, translator, and screenwriter. He is the author of one collection of short stories, The Deconstruction of Thomas S (published in 2013 by St. Kliment Ohridski University Press) and one novel, The Other Dream (2016, Colibri), which won the Helikon Award for Best Fiction Book of the Year in 2017. His short stories have appeared in various literary magazines in Bulgaria and abroad. “The Birds”, a short story, was featured in Dalkey Archive Press’ anthology Best European Fiction 2016. In 2016, he participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. This was followed by residencies in Shanghai and Sun Yat-sen University in China. He has translated novels by writers such as Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, Octavia E. Butler, and Peter Beagle into Bulgarian. In 2020, his translation of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo won the Association of Bulgarian Translators Prize. He is currently working on a PhD in Bulgarian literature at Sofia University where he also teaches courses on creative writing and fantastic literature.

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