Our city was founded while under attack, our town lines drawn during a prolonged stand in a war fought so long ago its cause has been lost in the shadows of our prehistory. Even today, with all the information available in our research libraries, our online message boards, our historical preservation societies, even with the world’s digital encyclopedias accessible at the click of a mouse (or, more often, the swipe of a thumb) no one is certain in which war our ancestors fought. Ambitious doctoral students in our university’s history program occasionally offer theories, but even their well-researched papers are hopeful guesses at best. Our ancestors called this war “the siege.” They called their attackers “them.” For generations, this was enough.
The story of our city’s siege saves us all from obscurity. Those who call our city home never forget this, and the pride we take in cultivating our legends is one of necessity, of survival.
Stories from our siege skip down the generations like thrown stones bouncing across the surface of a lake. Our oldest grandparents and great-grandparents remember their own grandparents and great-grandparents reciting the same siege stories their grand and great-grandparents told to them. Attacks from the sky dominate our earliest written records; bombardments appear again and again in our creation myths.
One can still find images from these legends on the stone walls, ceilings, and floors of our oldest public buildings, the words and crude drawings fading under a patchwork of etched names, initials, and dates, of newer histories. Our legends tell of massive volleys of arrows, of boulders the size of small homes sent over the massive stone walls that protected us.. In these stories our city almost falls, our walls nearly topple, a great hero is almost buried forever under the missiles of our attackers, but always we triumph in the end. Today our city is large enough to surprise with new neighborhoods and unknown streets no matter how long one lives here, yet small enough that each citizen feels the pride of ownership. The siege stories we tell and retell take place in every quarter of every borough, from the most destitute slums to the old castle that sits both literally and figuratively at our city’s stout heart.
These stories were our ancestor’s prized possessions. Stories cannot be impaled by giant spears launched from our attacker’s ballista or crushed underneath stones slung from enormous trebuchets. Legends cannot be burnt by volleys of fire-lit arrows. So long as they are retold, stories cannot be destroyed, not until the last one of us falls, and for this reason we repeat them to our children as the truth.
Our oldest legends tell of a war raging across open lands, of battles fought under clear skies. Our armies marched wide deserts and endless plains, our warships sailed the world’s oceans like leaves scattered across a great river. But over time our armies faltered. Our navy sank to the bottom of the sea. We were pushed back. We retreated. We made our final stand, we built our great walls. In some tellings, this war was a great battle between the good and evil of the world, and if our city fell evil would win the Earth. We were cast as the holy defenders of God’s chosen land.
One fact is clear, even with the distance in time: Our city was squalid while under siege. Our war-torn fields, thin of topsoil and pockmarked with craters, scarcely grew enough crops to feed our people. The broad river that now divides our city north-to-south, fifty-feet across at its widest point, was little more than a tepid stream, the only supply of fresh water besides the skies. Our pale-skinned ancestors darted from building to building during the day and cried out in fear while asleep at night, their nerves shattered by the constant threat of assault. Some chose to spend their lives in underground shelters rather than walk aboveground with one eye always towards the sky. Our forbearers made their frightened love beneath the earth, in damp caverns. Our children were born in caves. Illness was their fast companion.
Our ancestors did not give much credence to the rumors of a holy land.
On good days one might have forgotten our city was under siege, that we were the subject of a timeless and constant hate. Oracles created elaborate systems to predict safe days, days when the conditions were too windy for projectiles, too wet for fire, when the date did not fall on the anniversary of a particularly successful attack, when the stars above did not align. On good days, one could walk above ground without fear of being smote. Children were permitted to play. These peaceful periods might last for weeks. Only small rocks were sent, the occasional arrow, and half-hearted taunts pierced our quite instead of the usual war chants, reminders the attackers were still there, still waiting.
On bad days our enemies’ attacks blotted out the sky. The distant snap of bowstrings and whip-crack of ballista sent those caught outside scrambling for the nearest entrance to underground shelters. Our ancestors huddled together beneath the earth, listening to the thunder of buildings collapsing above them. Loose dirt fell on bowed heads. Reinforced crossbeams groaned. The steady hail of rocks sounded like a heavy rain, and although the younger cowered and watched the ceiling for a divining blow, the elderly often slept. Lulled by the tumult above, they awoke abruptly, panicked, by the silence of a bombardment’s end.
By the end of the siege our ancestors had expanded their tunnels so thoroughly one could pass from the north end of our city to the southern border as easily below ground as above. In times of rain or cold or snow, one might have preferred to walk underground; the tunnels were as active as today’s busiest thoroughfares. If quieter. Loud noises were forbidden. Loud noises might have distracted the listeners, the men who avoided inscription into the wall brigade, the fire brigade, the police force, but were assigned to tunnel duty. They spent their days with one ear to the earth, trying to discern, amidst the natural music of the earth, the scratches of their enemy digging.
Many of our ancestors lived full lives without ever seeing an attacker, even at the siege’s height. Those born far from the walls and of high birth were spared inscription into our army’s many brigades. Direct contact was unnecessary. How many wars are fought this way even now, with entire nations absorbed in deep hatred, sworn as enemies, without once looking their foes in the eye?
The attackers became myths, tales told to frighten young children: Be good or an attacker will sneak into your home in the middle of the night and steal you from your bed. He has the body of a man but the head of a wolf, a bear, a boar. He only takes children who neglect their chores and homework. The attackers became ghosts of our imagination, a collective hallucination. For many, the relationship to attackers was one of dodging and ducking, of hiding away and waiting until the right time for retaliation, of evacuating entire blocks when an attack was predicted and returning to smashed homes. Every day was filled with imagined feints and bluffs. In this respect, although they did not meet, our ancestors came to know their enemies as well as their closest friends.
The legend of the siege’s end begins with an assault. As our city rebuilt itself following a particularly heavy bombardment on the residential district, a small girl found the man who ended our isolation. She screamed; her parents ran. The stranger lay unconscious among the refuse of splintered wood and thousands of white feathers, limp as a broken doll. He wore a metal helmet, and was dressed in sturdy padded leather. No one had seen him before.
The unconscious man was carried to the underground hospital, but even this was met with protest. Some thought he was a deserter from our own army; others thought him a spy sent from them. The more religious suggested he was a fallen angel, pointing to the feathers that surrounded him, remnants of his wings. All agreed he was different. He wore clothes of a pure white—a color seen only in the clouds. His skin was not pale like theirs, but deeply tanned. Even in the meager candle light permitted underground his hair shone bright as gold. He was by far the largest man anyone had ever seen. His arms and legs were not thin sticks, his face did not pull tight against his skull. One could not trace the network of veins beneath his skin, or easily picture what his skeleton would look like. Half who saw him remained in awe; half sought to end his life. His health was the worst insult thrown over the walls yet.
The discussion turned to argument, words became shouts, and so no one noticed when the stranger stirred. As our ancestors took to weighing the merits of sheltering another to learn about the enemies against the scant supply of stretched-thin resources, the stranger sat upright, a hand pressed to his head. It took moments to notice him watching.
"Have I made it?" he asked, blinking in the dim light. His voice was deep as a struck bell. His eyes were the blue of an open sky. No one breathed. Finally, someone brave asked, "Where were you trying to go?"
"Inside the walls," the visitor said. Frost gripped the hearts of all who heard this. He was from outside. "Yes," the spokesperson answered cautiously. "You are inside."
The visitor blinked again to clear his vision. He looked at the gaunt faces around him. He scanned the cavern walls, our thin ancestors, the malnourished children peeking out from behind parents' legs. He shook his head.
"It cannot be,” he said, “that this is Heaven."
As he recovered the visitor told of the world outside the walls. He described his country, its lush fields, wide rivers, twisting coastlines and jagged mountains. He spoke of their great cities, their busy ports. All the world was known, he said, everywhere had been explored except inside our walls. From time immemorial, his people had tried to break down the walls, to climb over, to tunnel inside. As their cities flourished, their ships sailing the furthest oceans, their explorers mapping distant corners of the world, our fort stood impregnable. Our walls were too steep and too high to climb, the defense was too fierce, the bedrock underneath us was too thick to penetrate. Surely we guarded a great secret inside. And so he, his people’s most accomplished inventor, built a device that would hold a person safe if launched up and over our walls. He volunteered to test it; he would be the first to reach inside. He would finally discover the truth behind the walls, if his people had reasoned correctly: the path to heaven we guarded.
The visitor’s story was received with a long silence.
Even those with the strongest morals agreed the stranger knew too much to live. He shared many secrets before he died, first voluntarily and then by pain. He told all he knew of the world outside. He told of his people’s history, their fears and their dreams. He told of distant cities, of continents so large they had yet to be measured. He told of the armies massing beyond the walls, the thousands uniting for a final assault if his journey proved unsuccessful. Our ancestors studied this information. They decided what needed to be done.
The massive drawbridge, the only entrance to our city, began to lower the following day. The battlements fell still. The pouring brigade stopped splashing hot oil over the walls; the archery brigade paused the volleys of recycled arrows used so often each had been crackled along its shaft from dozens of impacts, reused by both sides. All grew silent: the horns blowing commands to distant regiments, the drums keeping our soldiers in cadence, the shouts of those commanding. Each link in the chain holding the great door weighed over a ton; the gears inside the machinery that lowered the door were large as windmill wheels. Half a day passed before the door dropped. On the other side of great door our ancestors found an army as haggard as their own, but four times the size.
A group of representatives marched across the bridge, leaving our walls for the first time in known history.
The inventor died, our ancestors said regretfully. He was injured in his descent and his health gave out despite their best efforts. But before he passed he told of the world outside, and his stories warmed their hearts. He was a great man, they said looking sadly away. He convinced those inside of the error of living in isolation, of protecting their secret, a secret so valuable they had defended it for centuries, for all of recorded time. They were not ready to give up this treasure just yet, our ancestors said, but they were ready to end the fighting. Soon they would open the city. In one year, all who wished would be let inside.
Preparations began as soon as the great door was raised again. It is remarkable how much can be accomplished when industry is not directed only towards war. We unearthed the cobblestone streets lost under mud caked so thick one could mark, like the striated layers of the earth’s crust, the eras of our history, and polished until the dull grey stones shone as if lit from within. We removed the defensive reinforcements from the windows, doors, and roofs and fashioned new furniture for our restaurants, taverns, and homes. The windows of our great church were fitted with the stained glass that visitors marvel at to this day. Tailors turned torn clothes and ragged banners into brilliant garments. The music brigades, who before played their instruments only to direct troops and convey messages along the tall stone walls, practiced new songs late into the night, the laughter following each successful or failed attempt punctuating each song like the wild call of some new species of bird. For the first time, our ancestors painted their homes. Slowly, our city awakened from its deep sleep.
After a year of renovation, everything was ready.
The crowds outside the walls stretched over the horizon, covering every surface. Tents peppered the crowd, shelters for those who had slept overnight and would sleep many more nights outside while waiting admittance. Only the ponds that speckled the landscape were left open. A few looking on from our ramparts felt a surge of panic. They feared it had all been a ruse, and were certain the attackers would take our city with a final assault. Many feared this even after the first in line filed obediently across the lowered bridge. Some believed this was a new siege tactic, one of infiltration and subversion, a strategy destructive as any war. Some believed this even after the first guests left peacefully. Some kept believing for years. Some believe this still.
The dignitaries whom our ancestors had met a year earlier became our first tourists. An entire month was dedicated to escorting these men and women through our city in private coaches and entertaining them on elaborate tours. The following month another group was let inside. A month later, the third tier. In this way our streets were given over to citizens of every nation to wander and eat and drink and dance until they had their fill.
The crowds outside thinned as more outsiders were admitted into our city. Foreign currency was exchanged upon arrival, at a rate in our favor. While admission was free, everything inside was for sale. Despite the preparations there was nothing inside our city the tourists could not find in their own capitals, but as each enjoyed our city’s entertainments he was careful to keep an eye on the corners of each room, to train his ear for words he was not meant to overhear. All who came inside felt there was something hidden just beyond what was being shown, waiting to be revealed. One by one, each visitor drank, ate, spent, and left for home unsatisfied, sure he had been on the course to discovery. All felt they could uncover our secret if allowed just a little more time.
Years passed. Thousands of visitors came and went. Over time our novelty faded. The exchange rates were lowered. Our city was allowed into the union of our neighbor city-states. After several decades of open trade, our citizens voted to tear down our great stone walls. Those able to afford the steep prices were permitted to buy pieces of the walls that had defended us for so long. For a time one could find ordinary stones being sold as our own in markets across the globe: today entire websites are dedicated to exposing fake relics traded online. The moat was filled in several years after the walls came down, the new surface planted with fresh grass. In a few seasons’ time it was as if nothing had been there at all.
After many years of peace, we joined our neighbors in another war, a war with a distant enemy. We sent our young to the opposite side of the world. We cared for our soldiers when they returned to our city. A new government was installed and gave our city the name it is known by today. Soon we were indistinguishable from the coalition of small city states stitched together to form our new nation after the war ended.
People continued to come to our city, drawn by our history and the rumors of our secret. New families settled among us. Tourists filled the streets in the summer months; in the winter the empty city suited us well. Through weeks hurrying past each other bundled tightly against the cold, those who stayed gained a camaraderie visitors would never earn. Ours became a city like any other, and the history of our long and protracted siege diminished, told first by the elderly who lived through the final days, then retold by grandparents and great-grandparents until eventually, inevitably, these stories were buried under the rubble of time.
But while the history of the siege melted into legend, those who live in our city do not forget. Rumors of the secret we protect persist. New evidence unearthed by a scholar or erstwhile student occasionally makes the national cable news, and for a moment our forgotten history is important again. It becomes a kind of madness for some, this search for a secret that has never been defined. The obsessed look everywhere: the old castle, now open for tourists only on Sundays; the tunnels that run underneath our feet, leftover from when the siege was at its height, that now serve as our sewage system; even in the old stone defenses that were never fully dismantled and now appear incongruous among our modern architecture like the tombstones of an old cemetery. The obsessed search for clues, find nothing concrete, promise to anyone who will listen to their theories that they are so, so close.
It does exist, though, our great secret, the prize we guard. Even now, we are sure of it. To our children, plugged into media twenty-four hours a day, rapidly forming a society of their own that stretches across the globe, this is just an old story that does not warrant even one page on Wikipedia. Those who move to our city late in life and settle to start families are too busy living their own lives and creating legends of their own, and do not have time to investigate.
The proof is everywhere, if one knows where to look. You might find our secret in the crowded pubs toasting at the high revelry’s peak on New Years’ Night. One certainly feels the secret is close on the first day of spring, when the cold air is no longer oppressive but exhilarating. In summer months, when our young gather to dance in the courtyard of the old castle, one might glimpse the secret as two dancers, alone for the first time, share a kiss. And in the fall, when the leaves curl and float to the ground, coating our city in a carpet of bright yellows, oranges, and reds, one feels certain something important is close to being revealed.
The oldest among us claim to remember the time when the walls still stood and people came from all over the world to marvel at our city and search for our secret. They promise they know the reason for our long stand, the object of our enemy’s assault. The young are skeptical, and argue that the old make the same claim everywhere, in every city and village. But when their grandparents recite our history, and their eyes cloud over with pleasant memories, and the past is no longer far away but very close, it is impossible to deny that they do indeed appear to know something we do not, a secret we ourselves hope to glimpse in the dusk of our lives.
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