In Arcadia, we know that the night holds two kinds of sleep. The first is the lightest, and one wakes from it, in the still of the night, refreshed and thinking about the days before and the days to come, before falling into the second sleep, which is the sleep of dreams. Those two parts of sleep are like a smooth stone skimming across the surface of a clear lake, skipping across for the first part, then sinking to the bottom surrounded by dreams.
But in Megalopolis, sleep, when it comes—and there it comes only in fits and starts—is like a rock rolling down a cracked and dried-out riverbed, rolling down to a sea that receded long ago.
I could never sleep properly in Megalopolis, neither on the Ruined Surface nor on the False Moon. I would fall asleep as normal, as if I were back in my Tower Room in Arcadia, or in the Bower of Bliss with Joe, but within an hour, I would wake, clawing at the air, grief-stricken with nameless loss, calling out ‘No!’ while Leef shifted uneasily at my side.
More: I was aware of my lizard half there, as I had never been before. It hurt. My right thigh would throb at night with the pressure of my blood turning from warm to cold. My back cried out with the hardship of dragging a tail behind it. My leather feet pulled at my legs, my scales chafed, I could never truly settle. Night after night in Megalopolis it was always the same.
Then there was the breathing. The air was different there from anywhere else I had ever been. Thinner, with an undercurrent of a subtle poison I could sense faintly, just below the threshold of consciousness. A poison that made me fearful and uneasy as I breathed it in and out—and not just me, but Leef, too. Every night felt like a battle, a losing battle with a powerful enemy, a battle to keep myself and Leef safe.
Here was another oddity. In Megalopolis, on the Ruined Surface, I had such dreams as make me shudder now to remember them. Black dreams. Dreams of explosions killing innocents, of earthquakes, of enormous waves of water like the one that destroyed the Great City in the year of my own birth. I would wake gasping for breath, and a black thing, like some dark hand clutching my heart, would squeeze me inside, and I would feel it trying to drag my heart down, down, down. I grappled with it, confused, baffled—what was it? What did it mean?
Everything was so fragile there, in Megalopolis. It was as if in some kind of mass hysteria, the people there built and built and built, throwing a building up higher and higher, raising it continually closer to the sky, rather than putting any thought into securing its foundations. Until it was as high as the heavens, flashing lights and emitting loud, imperious noises far above the place from which it had sprung.
And yet—there had been joy, I would tell myself sternly in my days there. There could be joy again. Though that seemed impossible to me, that time I spent in the Great City and on the False Moon.
The terrible sadness I felt as we crossed the boundaries and made our way to the miserable settlements left at the outskirts of the Ruined Surface was not just a sadness, but also a sickness. I’d heard about this sickness. Its official name in the clinics of the Great City is Generalized Atmospheric Grief. But it was popularly known, among the straggling, struggling populace where I made my first home those days, as the Daily Despair. The symptoms of the Daily Despair are plain: on waking, one feels oneself pressed down upon by a curious weight, like a heavy load of wet feathers. These push against the torso of the sufferer, with special weight on the chest right above the heart. This feeling of pressure is accompanied by varying feelings of grief…varying according to the personality and history of the sufferer, making this a very difficult illness to treat.
Although the weight typically lifts throughout the waking day, the sense of loss, of grief, of mourning, commonly remains, interfering with the ability to feel commonplace pleasures. A meal, a drink with friends, the touch of a loved one, all become muted, dragged down by this dreaded and all-too-common virus.
A sufferer from Daily Despair doesn’t say, “I caught it.” More commonly they say, “It caught me.”
Leef and I entered Megalopolis. And the Daily Despair caught me, right away.
I felt it as we walked toward the smoky horizon where the settlements of the Ruined Surface began. We were walking through a scraggly copse of the kind that passes for a forest there. I felt a lack, and the creeping of an unfamiliar despair.
“The trees,” I said to Leef. “The trees here don’t talk.”
We both stopped and listened. Leef looked at me, concerned, and leapt lightly off my shoulder onto the stony ground. He ran from tree to tree, stopping for a moment beneath each one, gazing up into its branches.
These were all the same kind of tree, a type of evergreen, though straggly, sparse and sullen-looking. At one particularly misshapen specimen, Leef chattered in a low, hopeful tone. I heard nothing. But it was clearly different with him, for he paused as if listening, nodded, chattered again, listened again. Then he reached out gently and touched the tree’s bark, patting it once as if in farewell. And he came back sadly to me.
“What is it?” I said, alarmed.
“They’re all gone,” Leef said as he tugged at my leg to be picked up again. “The Nature Spirits. They’ve all gone away.”
Now, I have never seen nor heard a Nature Spirit, but I have heard the grasses, and the flowers, and the trees speak—beautiful dialects, of which one can only understand the kernel, rather than the words. The meaning. The content, rather than the form, as it were. Leef had always assured me that it was the Nature Spirits who spoke through them, and that he could hear them more clearly than I could, even seeing them in certain lights.
“Who was that you spoke with, then?”
We walked on. Leef sat mournfully curled on my shoulder.
“She wouldn’t say. All she told me was that when the others left, she was too sad to move on. So she stayed.”
“Will she die?” I asked, afraid.
He hesitated, and then gave a tiny shrug. “I don’t think a Nature Spirit can die. I think she’ll just fade away.” He brooded over this, and I asked no more. That was when I saw the smoke in the distance and knew we must be at the edge of a settlement—even though the city of Megalopolis had been cut to pieces by the Great Flood, on its outskirts inhabitants who survived and who had lacked the resources to flee to the False Moon gathered together into these casual slums on higher ground. It was one of those I searched for now. We were tired and lonely and hungry and wanted the companionship of our own kind.