Sorry, I Was Distracted by that Colosseum Over There

Written by Esther Barth, Writer and Editor
Peer Reviewed: Richard Chetwynd, Kasteel Well faculty, Writing, Literature, and Publishing, Emerson College, Greater Boston

Being abandoned has never felt so advantageous.

Rome being a big city with much in it to see, my travel mates decided that they would leave our hostel without me and pursue their own agenda, leaving me to my own devices. Not that this bothered me very much, as aimlessly walking the streets of a city is not without its charms, but I wouldn’t have minded some company.

At this moment, though, I’m glad that I’m not listening to even to my iPod let alone having a conversation. I am on my way to the Vatican City, to see St. Peter’s Basilica in all its opulent glory and the Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo fame. At first my route—the straightest line I could make out from Roma Termini Train Station to the Vatican, which is on the complete other side of the city—took me down busy streets thronging with activity. Pedestrians boldly cross streets in front of formidable oncoming traffic and the drivers of motorbikes seem blind to signs and signals.

I’ve now wandered onto a thin thoroughfare that undulates up and down hills, the noise of the cars and busses and tourists blocked startlingly effectively by the plaster-fronted buildings. This hilly street is lined with shops of porcelain and glass, tiny grocery stores and pizzerias, and crossed by dozens of other streets just like it.

Being conditioned by big cities, I look left and right as I cross each intersection, despite the complete lack of moving vehicles in this area. But now, coming at me at full force, is a glimpse of the Colosseum itself, its unmistakable arches and impressive height imposing even with just this slice of a view.

Halting in my tracks, I turn at a right angle to follow this unexpected windfall of an opportunity. I had been resigned to saving the Colosseum for tomorrow, when I went on the walking tour offered by my hostel, intending to do the Vatican today and the rest of Rome tomorrow. But my solitude means that my plans can change in an instant, and I gaze at the monolith of history growing steadily huger as my feet carry me forward. I pass under a footbridge holding photo-snapping tourists, and as I emerge on the other side the noise and traffic resume.

The Colosseum, with its green yard extending only a few meters before it is cut off by a main street and a metro stop, is predictably surrounded by tourists and those who would love to have their money. Passing between all of them, I make my way down the wide steps to cross the street and take my own tourist pictures of the magnificent relic. I can’t get all of the edges of the building into the frame of any of my pictures. Its enormity is such that it’s all I can do to squeeze in a little sky. Putting my camera away, I can just about fool myself into imagining that the growling of the traffic behind me is the roar of crowds watching swordfights, that the stands selling miniatures of Michelangelo’s David and little keychain Colosseums are actually selling fruit and olives, and that everyone I can see is not wearing jeans and tee shirts but togas and sandals.

Under the cloudless blue sky and warm November sun, I can’t help but think that, if all roads lead to Rome, then, in my case, all roads lead to the heart of it.

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Urban Wildcat by Esther Barth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Le Coeur de Paris

Written by Esther Barth, Writer and Editor
Peer Reviewed: Richard Chetwynd, Kasteel Well faculty, Writing, Literature, and Publishing, Emerson College, Greater Boston

Paris: famed for romance, embedded in history, and a tourist favorite. The real Paris is just a few streets past the tourist shops with all of their signs in English and shiny rows of miniature Eiffel Towers. Streets of every size and angle shoot off in every direction under beige limestone façades, every window lined with a black wrought iron balcony. The further you get from the main streets, the easier it is to get lost.

The royal palace of Versailles is breathtaking, with its painted ceilings, ornate furniture, and thrilling history. The art is incredible, everything is gilded in gold, and you can walk through rooms that have seen kings and assassins, princes and spies. The gardens are like another palace unto themselves, stretching away for acres and studded with marble gods that eternally smile, frown, or engage in epic battle.

And missing the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, or the fantastic Sacre Cœur church on the top of the hill of Montmartre would be a crime. These three form a triangle of icons across both banks of the Seine River; when standing at one, you can see the other two. Paris’s legislated lack of skyscrapers sees to that.

But when you only visit to see the sites, you run a real risk of missing the sights. Getting lost in Paris is fun, especially because you can always, always find your way back. Métro subway stops are around every bend, some literally in sight of one another, and all of the lines connect in a webbed myriad. One little purple ticket can get you from one side of the city to the other. But before you descend those curiously clean steps to catch a train that runs every two minutes (Parisians get grouchy if they find they have to wait more than four minutes), take a look around the streets.

Try a Saturday. If it’s still morning, don’t expect much to be open except the bakeries, at least one on every street, with the buttery aroma of baguettes and croissants shifting through the mist like a cloud of deliciousness. All of the shops will be open by noon, but it would be a good idea to decide what your budget is before you step into a store. The closer you get to the bustling Gallerie de Lafayette on the right bank, the more attractive your credit card will look. For lunch, the best place to go would be a little hole-in-the-wall café with tables outside and only two waiters. The bigger restaurants are crowded with noise and crammed with tables from eleven o’clock on, but the smaller ones go by the natural flow of pedestrian hunger. If you find one early enough, and order crêpes and a glass of red wine, they’ll let you sit for an hour, just savoring, and savoring.

Keep walking around after lunch—French food may be delectable, but it is also heavy. Open air markets sell everything: Champagne grapes, fresh fish, handbags, hats, and more, while solicitors lie in wait around national monuments to pounce on unsuspecting tourists, declaiming in English of cheap trinkets, roasted chestnuts, and caricatures until you walk out of sight.

Late starts on weekends mean late ends. Everything is thrumming at night on Paris streets. Restaurants do swift business at eleven pm, record stores close their doors past midnight, and the traffic is even crazier than in the daylight hours. A beignet off a street vendor, a club pounding with music, and don’t go to bed before three am.

Creative Commons License
Urban Wildcat by Esther Barth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Incense Stick

Incense Stick  
Written by Esther Barth, Writer and Editor

Three-dimensional whorls of smoke

Curl and curve with my breath

Suggestive of mushrooms and manta rays and owls’ eyes

Vague tails of baby dragons spinning

Toward the window opened

To discourage the smoke detector.

I’ve turned the desk lamp

To highlight the ephemeral curlicues

Like a spotlight on a dancer

And I, the sole witness of the audition,

Wonder about breathing secondhand smoke

But relish the red scent.

Ash falls

It’s three in the morning

And the movement of the burning suggests

Another spirit present to balance

Out my loneliness.

It’s one of my favorite kinds of night

Ponderously rainy with drips

That sound orange because they’re falling on the first leaves of autumn

And brick sopping up moisture

I know the slugs must be moving outside

Slow creatures caught between the aimless and the deliberate

Roused from their cold sleep

By flooded homes and forced to flee in the night

As my mother was

As my sister was

Would I had been there

It took a year for the house to recover

The stick is burnt halfway down now

Funny, the things we come to fear.

Ash falls

If only the smoke would prophetize

Or at least point the way

Up is a way

And now well do I understand the bends and spreads and twists it takes to get there

All right;

I would say point taken but

You are only all the kinds of round.

Creative Commons License
Urban Wildcat by Esther Barth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Mine by Rights, a short story

Written by Esther Barth, Writer and Editor
Peer Reviewed: Jon Papernick, Senior Writer in Residence, Emerson College, Greater Boston

Mine by Rights

“Come on, Prima, give it back!” Secundus was standing on his tip-toes and he still couldn’t reach the banana Prima was holding above her head.

She stuck her tongue out at him and walked away with the banana still held high, putting her nose in the air so she could be even taller. A force slammed into her back and she hit the carpet hard, the banana flying out of her hand and landing a few feet away. Secundus was heavy where he had crashed onto her back. He kicked her in the ribs, clambering over her to get the banana.

“Secundus!” A Director came through the door while Prima was still getting up. “Fighting Is Wrong. Give the banana back to Prima.”

Prima smirked as Secundus trudged over and thrust the hand holding the fruit into her face, his eyes on his gray shoes, which were two sizes smaller than Prima’s. She took the banana—which had fingerprints on it now—and walked away from him, not saying Thank You on purpose. When she looked back over her shoulder, Secundus had already slunk back to Tertia and the others, knocking over Octavus’s blocks on purpose and making the little boy scream.

“Prima, come here please,” said the Director.

Hoping she wasn’t going to be scolded too, Prima obeyed, peeling her banana as she went. The Director took a leash and fastened it around Prima’s wrist, making her switch her snack to the other hand, and then led her out of the door.

Prima had been out of the door before once, a long while ago, to go to the doctor. He had lived down the hall in a room much smaller than the one that belonged to Prima and the other kids. But the Director walked right past the doctor’s door and kept going down the hall, tugging on the leash when Prima hesitated and making her stumble. Prima scowled at the Director’s back. Just because Directors Are Always Right didn’t mean she had to like what they did.

She and the Director turned down lots of different hallways full of completely new doors. She tried to count them as she munched on her banana, but got confused when they kept turning corners. Finally the Director stopped in front of one of them, tapped something on a keypad, and then the door opened. “In here,” she said, unclipping the leash from Prima’s wrist.

The new room was small like the doctor’s room, with one whole wall that was a mirror. Little green lights blinked on some kind of rectangular machine in the corner, and directly underneath the fluorescent light was a little table and a chair that Prima thought looked too small for her. Maybe Quinta would fit in it, or maybe even Quartus, but when Prima sat down her knees hit the underside of the table.

“Director Irene Calloway, with homunculus 1001: Prima Control, female, aged nine years, six months, zero days,” the Director said to the mirror. Prima put her banana peel on the floor under the table, since she couldn’t see a trashcan anywhere.

“Thank you, Director Calloway,” said the ceiling. Prima jumped and looked up, but all she could see was a little black box with little tiny holes in it stuck to the plaster. “Experiment 276.1: Music Reaction 1,” it continued. “Director Calloway, you may commence.”

The Director put a pencil and a multiplication test on the table in front of Prima. It looked easy. Prima had taken tons of these before. They only went up to 12×12 anyway. Prima could do a hundred of them in two minutes and only get one or two wrong.

“Director,” said the ceiling, “please prepare to play the first track. On my mark.”

The Director went over to the machine with the green lights and got ready to push a button. “Get ready to start, Prima, when the Administrator says ‘mark’.”

It was usually 8×7 that messed her up. She could never remember if it was 56 or 65…

“One, two, three, mark.”

A hideous cacophony filled the room, like wires being dragged against each other and plinking and banging and hooting and something that might have been yelling except it didn’t sound human. Prima flew out of the chair, hitting her knees on the table on the way and sending the pencil and the test flying. The racket changed and kept going as Prima ran for the door. The Director seized her around the waist as she scrambled at the wall, her flailing arms knocking against a switch. The room was plunged into darkness as the screeching and yelling went on.

“What happened? Control the homunculus, Director!” the ceiling shouted.

“I’m—trying—Administrator—argh!” Prima wriggled out of the Director’s hold and rushed back to the locked door.

Light sliced into the room as it burst open, three more Directors rushing in. Prima ducked out of the door behind them as they bustled past, one of them leveling something long and thin across his shoulder.

“Don’t shoot until you see the target!” another one shouted. The door swung shut behind them and Prima scuttled down the hallway as they fumbled around trying to find the light switch. She couldn’t find the room where Secundus and Tertia and the others still were no matter how many corners she hurtled around, her soft gray shoes making almost no noise on the tile floor. A Director was opening a door just as Prima was rounding another corner, and she slowed down to sneak behind him into the room beyond, keeping very close and crouching low.

Soundlessly she tucked herself behind a cabinet of drawers in the new room, trying not to let her sigh of relief come out loud as the Director placed a tray of food down on a desk. The other Director behind the desk was staring at a hundred TVs at once, all of them in black and white.

“Did they get it yet?” Director who’d brought the food leaned over the back of the other one’s chair, peering at the TVs too.

“No,” the one in the chair murmured, his eyes darting from screen to screen. “They can’t even find it; it got out of the room somehow when it was still dark. Can’t believe they didn’t un-install the light switch after that darkness experiment. You’d think they could wait a few days for remodeling before they absolutely have to use the room again.”

The door slammed open and Prima shoved herself further back behind the cabinet in panic until all she could see was a white-knuckled hand on the doorknob. “Intern Farrigan, we need all personnel on search for the homunculus! What are you doing?”

“I was just supposed to bring Guard Alman his lunch—”

“Forget lunch, get out there!” The younger Director scurried out past the hand on the doorknob, his white coat flapping behind him. “Alman, did you find it yet?”

“Not yet, Director, and I can’t if you’re talking to me. Whose idea was it to put a light switch in an experimentation room, anyway?”

“None of the other homunculi would be tall enough to reach it. I can’t believe this one was—”

“It’s a nine-year-old kid, it can reach a light switch!”

“It’s a homunculus! Just find it, Alman, and page us when you do.” The door banged shut again.

“Yeah, like I don’t know procedure,” Alman muttered as he went back to the screens.

Prima ducked her head around the cabinet to study the televisions too. What if they could see her on them right now? She had to be sure.

Some of the screens showed hallways with Directors running up and down them, but most of them were of different rooms. One had a boy maybe Quartus’s age sitting in the middle of the room all by himself, another showed a girl hugging a big stuffed doll that was standing next to a huge wire robot that was holding food. In between a screen showing a bunch of babies not even as old as Octavus that were alone in their own cribs and an image of a Director yelling at a girl was the screen showing Prima’s room. She edged out just a little closer, trying to make sure all seven of the others were still there and okay. Secundus was poking Quartus while Tertia yelled at him. Quinta was showing Sextus how to do a puzzle and Septima and Octavus were piling up a tower, their little chubby toddler hands just big enough to grasp the cardboard blocks. Prima sighed in relief. The Directors hadn’t bothered them. None of the other screens seemed to show the room Prima was in, although some of them had bizarre things like a boy surrounded by a bunch of creatures that looked like hairy children with tails and ugly faces, and another that had a different boy who looked like he was talking to the wall. Not one of the kids looked as old as Prima was, though, which made her feel secretly proud.

She was trying to find a pattern in the screens that might show her the path back to her room when the door burst open again and she had to fling herself back behind the cabinet.

Alman started to speak, not taking his eyes away from the screens. “Did you finally—”

“Hands on your head and back away from the monitors.”

Prima’s eyes went wide as four people dressed in clothes that weren’t white rushed inside the way the Directors had hurried into the room with the screeching noise. One of them had the same long and thin kind of thing leveled in front of his face. Alman stood and obeyed them. Were these people even more important than the Directors, then, that they could order them around even though Directors Are Always Right?

“Secure the room, make sure there’s no one else here.”

“Who the hell are you?” Alman growled at them.

“Homunculus Rights Group. We’re shutting down this hellhole of torture.”

A woman’s face appeared right in front of Prima, making her scream a little. “There’s one hiding right here, Bryan.” There was no way to get around the woman in black clothes; Prima’s escape was completely blocked. Sirens began going off in the hallway, a much less complicated blaring than the clamor of the test room.

“Good, bring her out, she’ll be the first rescue.”

“You idiots, you can’t do this, don’t you know how expensive these things are to make—”

Bryan hit Alman with the back of the long and thin thing, and the Director fell to the floor. “Shut up, these are lives we’re talking about.” If only this woman would move, Prima could zip right past them all, she knew she could!

“Room is secure, Bryan.”

“Good. Laney, grab the girl, the other teams should be keeping the feds busy enough that they won’t notice you getting her out.”

“Yes, sir.” The woman reached behind the cabinet, and Prima tried to grab her hand to twist her fingers. Even if Fighting Is Wrong, she didn’t want the woman to touch her. The woman shook Prima’s hands off and grabbed her by her white shirt, dragging her out and saying something about how it was “okay” while Prima tried in vain to pry the woman’s fingers open.

The alarms were still screaming in the hallways as the woman hauled Prima out of the room. When Prima’s flailing and kicking almost got her free, the woman scooped her up and flung her over her shoulder. The breath woofed out of Prima’s lungs as she was carried down the hallways, turning corners even quicker than Prima had, fleeing the terrible noise.

The woman smashed her other shoulder against a door and suddenly they were in a huge space. Prima gasped and clung to the woman’s black shirt against a wave of vertigo. There were no walls, only dusty floor as far as she could see. The ceiling was the highest Prima had ever seen, and had been painted a brighter blue than Quinta’s marbles. Even the air was different, lighter, like Prima would only have to take half as many breaths to get just as much oxygen.

Prima heard an echoing crack and then the woman holding her tripped and fell face down onto the floor, dust swirling up in clouds from where Prima was half-pinned under her shoulder.

Footsteps crunched up to where Prima was struggling to get out from under the woman’s unmoving body, a weird, metallic smell rising up around them. “Think we can still use it, Director?”

There was a Director here? Oh, good. The Directors would make everything right be-cause Directors Are Always Right. Prima stopped wiggling and squinted up against the light of the brightest lamp she’d ever seen.

“No, it’s going to be emotionally scarred beyond repair now. And even if we could repair it, it would take too much time.” The Director sighed. “This is the oldest one we’ve ever had. Shame to have to waste it.”

“Yeah, it’s a shame.”

There was another crack, and the room went black.

Creative Commons License
Urban Wildcat by Esther Barth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License