Artifact 14: The Magnificent Flying Road of Cirrus Cerebrus, Thoughtbuilder
(A legend found in the fragmented chronicles of the Ancient City. Attributed to Veritus, Second Scribe of the Classical Period. Translation from the original dialect by Joe Kapitan.)
I, a humble writer of words, witnessed these events as a child:
During that disastrous springtime, on the morning of the fourth day of rain, I awoke to another rivulet of water upon my face which had found its way through the branches and clay tiles of our roof. In the dim light I saw that my father had already risen from his bed. Before I was yet fully dressed, I heard the sound of a horse fast approaching, and Father appeared out of the wall of gray, drenched and caked in mud, shouting for us to gather our belongings. The river, he cried out, was rising above its banks.
I gathered our stores of grain and water, together with our implements, while my mother wrapped the baby in extra garments and hides. Father hitched our cart to the horse, and with great urgency we followed the trail down the valley, above the roiling waters, and we were joined by many others also descending toward the city, where we would surely turn east and take the ancient sheep path into the foothills and higher ground.
This powerful river beneath us had no name. Our people feared the power of names, believed the act of naming would presume a familiarity that could only anger the source. So the nameless river flowed in a mighty torrent, especially during the snowmelts of spring, and it rent the valley in two, and so divided our city from its sister on the distant banks. Both cities had grown in years and had prospered in craft and commerce, but did so as twins separated at birth. Only for several weeks each year, at the coming of the warmest days, did the river quiet enough to be forded by horses and carts. It had been at that very time of year, the Month of the Low Waters, during the previous summer, when Cirrus Cerebrus began to construct his flying road.
Cirrus Cerebrus was of middle-age, and bald, and small of stature – a man who possessed neither passion for women nor patience for children. Great industry took place within the confines of his skull, had burned the hairs from his scalp, and yet these same ideas withered when he attempted to reproduce them in air and sunlight. He was roundly mocked by all, even by my father, Ardemus Grainsower, when Cirrus suggested to Father that a massive cart pulled by twenty horses and bearing a rotating arrangement of iron blades could be built to harvest all of my father’s wheat fields in a single day. Father laughed, and rubbed Cirrus’s head, and told him that if he, Cirrus, were to rule the city, we should become a thoroughly bald and lazy society supported by the labors of exhausted machines. Cirrus found no humor in this.
Within days, Cirrus appeared in the middle of the riverbed with wagonloads of flat stones and timbers, and he erected a wooden framework full of small iron wheels and ropes, and soon after a pylon of stone arose in the center of the river. Crowds gathered on the banks and murmured. When Cirrus and his laborers finished the first pylon, they began a second, downstream, at a distance of two man-lengths from the first. When the second pylon was complete, Cirrus next began to construct a curious assemblage of timbers projecting outward from the pylons toward our riverbank. He sunk vertical supports to rest the frame upon until he was done arranging the timbers and lashing them into place, at which point he removed the supports, and the frame floated out over the riverbed as if weightless. This frame eventually reached all the way to our bank, and then he began a second, from the pylon toward the other city. The frames resembled ladders, but the sorts of ladders that might be devised by a tavern-full of drunkards obsessed with knots and triangles.
On the day that the second frame was finished, the Treecutter, Boreas, delivered several wagonloads of special timbers ordered by Cirrus, which had been planed flat on two opposing sides. These did Cirrus place flat across the frames, and when the people realized that Cirrus was building a street of wood across the river, they set aside their normal tasks and aided him. In this manner, the flying road was completed before the time of harvest.
At the placement of the last timber, there commenced a celebration of music and feasting in both cities which lasted three days and three nights. The flying road was filled at all hours with people crossing the river. Merchants increased their sales handily, lost loves were reunited, parents visited sons and daughters previously sent across the river in marriages, and thieves and swindlers doubled their successes. At dusk on the third day, Ignius Ironshaper, leader of the Crafts Guild, stood above the masses in a hay wagon and called for silence. He presented to Cirrus an ornate clay flask formed with twin handles, made by the hands of Thalia Claymolder herself, and filled with copper coins donated by the merchants from their newfound prosperity. Furthermore, said Ignius, the Guild had met that very day and was unanimous in its decision that Cirrus should be admitted into full membership, under the title of Cirrus Cerebrus, Thoughtbuilder. Ignius thereby proclaimed the river tamed, and such praise arose from the people that tears came into the eyes of Cirrus, and he held the flask tight to himself. But Ignius’s bold words haunted me, and I left the crowd feeling ill at ease.
These were my recollections as Father drove our cart ever onward, through the downpour and the rutted muck, onward toward the city.
As we crested the final ridge, and the great civic buildings came slowly into focus, we could see that multitudes had gathered at both ends of the flying road. With great difficulty I peered through the mist. Father pointed to the center, at the pylons, where the figure of Cirrus appeared, splayed across the midpoint of his own creation. His apprentices were lashing him to the timber frameworks, such that one arm and one leg were attached to each side of the structure, and his torso spanned the joint between them, along the top of the stone foundation, facing him upriver. The clay flask hung from his neck like the breastplate of a warrior. My father and other men dismounted and ran across the wooden road, shouting to the apprentices to untie him, but the apprentices were resolute in their obedience to their master’s instructions. They told Father that when Cirrus had heard of the river’s rising, he ran to find his calculations, his sheets upon sheets of mysterious numbers, and he studied them, and then threw them down in despair and fled back to the flying road screaming about laterals, reinforcing the laterals. The framework was strongest in the center for the vertical forces of people and horses, yet weakest there against lateral forces, the sideways weight of water. Cirrus had designed the entire structure to withstand only normal pressures of the river against it.
The apprentices had finished their explanation. The word “normal” hung in the air like a death sentence.
By that time, the surface of the water had reached the level of Cirrus’s knees.
The silence was broken by a great and general cry of alarm, and I looked upstream to where two enormous, uprooted oaks had rounded the bend in the river, their massive trunks submerging and emerging once again from the brown waves like twin sea serpents. Cirrus saw them, too, and he screamed in rage at them, and his structure groaned in rebellion, and he strained even harder against the ropes, against the water’s crush, until I was sure that the muscles and tendons of his limbs would tear through their envelopes of skin.
I heard my mother praying to the gods. I, however, hesitated. As a child, I had harbored a deep disappointment in the gods and their tendency to hide from us mortals so completely, and yet I reasoned that if there were indeed any of them lurking nearby, it would be the perfect opportunity for their redemption. I did not care to know their names, even then, but I silently begged them to lend their strength to this worthy, failing man, and to that monstrous yet magnificent offspring of his mind. I held a thin hope until the very end, until my mother covered my eyes with her hands, and I was able to look no more upon that tragedy.
Joe Kapitan is an architect in Cleveland, Ohio. His short fiction has appeared or will be appearing in Wigleaf, Smokelong Quarterly, Emprise Review, PANK, and Annalemma.