The Blue City 

In the blue city, in the dawn-scraped awakening, Tomas the fish-monger is already stacking the day’s catch in the fish stalls of the great Cathderal-skied market. Tomas wears a shawl of the blue city. If you were to ask someone what is it like to work all day and sleep at night in the city of blue arches and passageways, Tomas could tell you with a child’s eyes. He could tell you with the eyes of a broken lover. He could tell you with the lips of a long married man. He could tell you with the weeping of a man who has lost his mother in the wards where they send the destitute, down into The Dark City beneath the city that is blue. Tomas was born in the blue city with his sister, that placenta-sized other who never opened her blue coin-small mouth. 

Tomas, in each fish you lift is a story. In each coin and call you offer to the morning is a song. Tomas can tell you the name of so many we pass on the street. There, Tomas says, do you see him in the black bowler hat? You would think he is a banker. But he belongs to the Black city, the city of night-song and insomnia. Why do we see him here in the Blue City sometimes? He never sleeps. He strolls from one city to the other, comes in here in his English-tailored suit, his hand-carved stick. How do I know this? Did I not tell you that my brother is from the Black City? My sister from the City of Broken Roses? My other brother from the Yellow City? Or my mother who is from the Oldest City, that city even older than us The First? That is another song.

See how he walks, how gentle he passes the stoop-shouldered widows with their hemp-weaved bags, how he dips and choreographs his hat, clicks his black-shoed heels. He is one of the few who asks for a bag, though once he appeared with a saxophone case lined with wax paper, and filled it with winter-salmon, with pomegranates shipped in from China, winter oranges shipped in from the Anadalusian groves, Sicilian blood red oranges, just baked Challah bread, gorgonzola from France, Feta from the Thracian Hills so rich you could hear the bones of Orpheus snap with every slice. How jealous we all were, tied to our stalls—us who are jealous of nothing, we of the Blue Marble sky, the twilight’s dim longing, the opening of all eyes. But the feast they must have had, those from the city which precedes ours, which ends the journey of all cities above ground. How it must have been for them—musicians, bartenders, artists, thick-framed intellectuals, to be in the yellow sun, to shift cities and eat oranges, slices of morning, before closing their eyes, wine spilled and shirts untucked, legs slung over couches, asleep on floors.

Tomas stacks the fish and offers me a cigarette. In all the cities everyone smokes, slim fireflies that glance the mouths of girls, men, workers, shop-keepers, subway patrol officers. A city of lights along the lips. Even here in the dusk-scraped dawn, the ships unload their cargo along the river. The crates from North Africa, India, America.
Maraqueesh. The great crane workers, hard muscled, knot-armed men in tight sweaters and tiny wool hats. The dock workers are all Sufis, Tomas says. They stayed when the Pope drove out the Turks, hiding in the Dark City, working—Tomas kneels to whisper—as fishermen. It was rumored they left for four hundred years, sailing smaller ships down to the Aegean and across the straits. After the revolution, and the great trade, they sailed back, one by one, in tiny boats so small in comparison to the great freighters, they looked like paper boats made by god. One by one, two by two, six by six, they appeared to haul the great cargo, pull out their prayer mats and pray three times each day. 

Why are they part of the Blue City?

Because god, Tomas said, is part of the Blue City. 

It was then I thought of the old women in the morning, scarves wrapped around their heads as they wove through the ghost mist rising off the blue river, this city of broken bones and shattered songs, where during the war They took the children down to cut their throats and toss them into the river. These women with their rosaries and their mourning, their slow-stepped shuffle, caning down to the cathedrals, where the oldest who can barely walk still kneel to pray. Mornings when we rise to pray, City of Ablutions. Ablutions. Blue City. How sometimes the mist will rise off the street and there they will be, in muted colors, and a slow trumpet will be heard and the smell of frankincense, jasmine, myrrh, the last yellow taxi pulling down the street. Here they can hear the Holy Father, donning the black cossack and preparing the bread for its blessing.

What is it that makes the Blue City the Blue City?

It is the light, the light which rises, Tomas tells me, from the eyes of the dead.

Do the eyes of the dead exist in the Blue City? Is the Blue City the City of the Dead?

The light from the dead rises from below The Blue City. The dead walk in the slow mist off the river, under the Bridge of Broken Sighs they come. They come like moonlight across black water, like a thought almost found and forgotten. They come quiet as a sound you thought you heard and turned to in the rain, in the quiet of a deep summer night they come. But once the sun rises, they return to the Catacombs the Romans carved from Stone, down to the deep Aqueducts some say you can follow all the way to the center of the world. 

Is this where Orpheus walked?

That was somewhere near but far away. The broken songs are part of another, behind the Blue City. Do not be fooled. In the Blue City the broken sunlight is like first light through stained glass. We in the Blue City are the ones—balanced between the Black and Yellow Light of the Cities we are between.

It’s the joy of the work song, the joy and the sorrow of men on their way to lift and tug, women donning Babushkas to walk to the Cathedrals, morning prayers at Synagogues, the long walk returning from the factories to eat bread and sleep. The harp-weaver’s spell, the flute-seller’s morning song. Sea birds opening their eyes and rustling their wings before the sun rises and they fill the sky with calls. Joy of dew on wild grass. Of the radiator that works. Of roots reaching their joy into the earth. The simple joy of sitting on the bed. The choreography of garbage men. The choreogaphy of showing up on time. Joy of arriving late and the clock is broken and the boss has disappeared. Joy of holding the iron handle and swaying on the first trams. The joy of buttoning your shirt, ironing your smock, the smell of coffee and the mist rising off the river. 

The joy of being mute. 

The thumbful of ocean sand that spills on the child’s desk: that is another city. The man slumped hard-fisted into his drink: that is another city. The woman sewn in the inside of his eyelids, that is another city. The dead live in another place.

But Tomas says, It will be a slow day with the cold so deep. The dead are walking slowly today.



Every city has its City of the Dead. Tomas says, This is what, to most of us, is most unknown.


 ~Sean Thomas Dougherty ~


Another excerpt from The Blue City appears in the print issue of Sleepingfish 0.9375.

Both excerpts are from the novella The Blue City, forthcoming from Marick Press in 2008.


the mellah in Essaouira

The Mellah in Essaouira, Morocco (photo by Derek White)

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