We entered through the gates, passing the old crumbling structures. Behind these, a network of deserted streets fanned out before us, snaking in odd directions with little sense of structure or design. Dust littered each avenue, and debris crunched under our feet as we advanced further into the medina.
The height of the surrounding buildings seized me with a sensation of vertigo. The buildings pitched and weaved at peculiar angles, seeming to take the shape of the winding streets with their curved and convex facades.
The tan-colored stone glistened faintly in the afternoon light, reminding me of the rocks we had seen coming into the valley. Despite the afternoon heat, they were cool to the touch.
Further along, the buildings became noticeably more modern with windows, doorframes, and decorative features. Some of the ornamentation was quite beautiful. The engravings along the walls resembled a fine stone filigree reminiscent of the gothic stucco calligraphy and girih-like panels in Fes. A surreal silence permeated the streets with no tourists elbowing you for a view and no chattering voices intruding on the stillness. The isolation was complete.
It was paradise.
“Have you noticed the streets?” Ayman said, as though he whispered this in my ear, but when I turned around, he was crouched in the debris a good five meters behind me, examining an engraving running along the base of a building.
I shook my head, and he made a spiral shape in the air with his finger. “Not straight.”
A shadowy outline in the window of the building opposite me looked like a person slumped against the wall, although the shape didn’t stir when I called out.
Inside, we found a bare, cavernous room. Bits of broken rock covered the floor. A mannequin made of dusty rags and twigs was propped against the windowsill. The face was blank except for two crudely formed eye sockets and a stitched mouth. The angle of the body, however, gave the dummy an unnatural life-like quality—an idle spectator casually gazing out to the empty street.
“What is it?” I asked Ayman, prodding at the bundle of rags and sticks, half expecting it to leap at me.
Ayman stared at the thing in silence and shook his head.
I took a few photos of the mannequin, and we continued down the empty avenue.
On the next street, we discovered a second mannequin huddled in the corner of a gutted building.
A third and fourth turned up in the following two constructions we explored.
In each room or building we entered, the same grotesque sculptures greeted us. Although each was made of rags and sticks, none were identical. Evident care had been taken in positioning these objects in such a way as to give a semblance of life and movement. Limbs made of branches and husks bent at just the right angles; matted cloth bundled together to create the illusion of contrapedal balance and poise.
Wandering in and out of the demolished buildings, we were surrounded by these mute, inert creatures. We had entered their world. We were the strangers among them.
At various points in his life, Alistair Rey has been an author, rare book dealer and writer of political propaganda. His work has appeared in The Berkeley Fiction Review, The Lowestoft Chronicle and Juked, among other publications. He presently resides in the United Kingdom.