“What have you seen here differently since you got back from your trip to the West?,” Mariam asked, itching the side of her close-shaven head. “What’s changed in your eyes?”
“In my mind’s eyes?” Constine asserted the question as a correction.
“In your mind’s eyes, yes.” Mariam was sitting across a small, wooden table from Constine. She waited for her partner to produce a proper response.
“When I arrived back from the trip, the first thing I noticed was the strangeness of the Eastern night sky. How it’s either a milky purple or a faded orange here. No stars, nor moons, but a glow that seems faraway no matter where you are. . .” Constine’s words trailed off, following the path of their mind.
“It’s because of our cities, we’re lucky to live in such big cities out East. There’s always something to do, somewhere to go. Even an idealist like you knows that a civilization like ours gains much more than stars ever provided.” Mariam drew her breath, “The sky reflects all the lights we built to illuminate our nights.”
“But, Mariam, do you ever wonder why, in the East, we always see the sky aglow after the sun sets? Why it’s still bright outside even in the middle of the night, even when far removed from the glittery lights of Tofor Plaza or Avenue Zetat? Why a child born in the Eastern region shouldn’t expect to see a starry night once in their life?”
Mariam thought for a moment about the questions Constine posed, knowing they already had an answer for each one. She, in the usual style of their conversations, had to quickly develop ideas as well. Rhetorical expectations must be met. Of course, Constine was prodding for a more profound answer than simply the mass quantities of light needed to brighten the Eastern landscape. Since they returned from the West, Constine craved more. More answers, and better answers, to newfound questions.
“Yes, of course I do! We live so densely, there’s so many people in a relatively small area. The light allows us to get around at night, do our business, socialize, live our lives. The lights may drown out the stars, may create that glow you speak of, but it’s a simple result of our density. And with that, our destiny. As a people, Easterners owe much to the illuminating qualities of light — literally and figuratively!”
Almost interrupting Mariam, Constine reported, “It’s because of our population, yes, as well as our pollution. Pollution of environment and mind. Too much light infecting the sky, and there’s never not smog filling the Eastern basin — from the industrial Sen Highlands, along the Borrowed River, and straight into our city. We, as an Eastern Society, have corrupted our environment and become too corrupt, collectively, to even notice!” Constine switched from a lecturing tone to a more inquisitive one, “Or, we’ve become so corrupt because, in building our vibrant cities, we forgot that the night sky guided us for eons — with its stars and moons that shepherded our ancestors eastward in the Beginning, even before our people were settled in cities, or even before we knew East from West or how to read and write.”
Mariam squinted her eyes and produced an affirmative, though suspicious hum. “Surely we have changed as a people since those early times. This is undeniable.” Mariam now looked squarely are her partner. “But what you mean is that, in the West, no one pollutes, there’s no smog, and people there somehow have kept a purity of heart? Seems overly romantic, Constine.”
“Folks out West are no saints, just as we out East are no devils.” Constine paused. “In any case, I could look up and see the stars and our moons any given night — even in their biggest cities — and each time it felt like the first. Not enough light to outshine them, no smog to create the glow we know so well. . . And to think these same celestial bodies hover over us too, but we have no clue!”
The couple both sat in thought for a moment. Mariam looking at Constine while Constine energetically scribbled lines on a piece of translucent parchment paper. Mariam traced the rim of the empty porcelain cup on the table between her and Constine. The action of looking into the cup’s depths grew her thirst. Mariam rose and stepped away toward the stove to pour herself some more of the pink tea Constine smuggled back to the East for her as a gift. She did not ask if they wanted more.
While filling her cup, Mariam finally broke the silence. She asked, “After seeing a foreign region, a far off corner of our world that no Easterner has visited since partition, after surely meeting all sorts of strange and peculiar people and creatures, and seeing the fantastical landscapes of our ancestor’s folktales, you’re most affected by the sky?” The accusation rang with a sense of disbelief. An uncertain sense of awe hung in the air. “The sky, of all things! The same sky! Constine, you never cease to amaze.”
“And the light — both man-made and celestial,” Constine added, still looking down at the parchment.
“The sky and the light.” Mariam corrected. “Still.”
Constine put their pen down on the table and looked up at Mariam. “Come with me to the balcony commons. I want to show you something.”
Standing up and stepping away from the table, Constine walked toward Mariam and gently took her by the hand, leading her down the hallway from the room they regularly shared in the residential tower to the outdoor balcony, shared by all residents of the twenty-fifth floor. Stepping outside, they felt the strong breeze of the open air that chills a warm day — the breeze from being eighty meters above ground. A handful of their occasional neighbours hung out on the large balcony’s terrace, lit by rows of hanging lights of every imaginable colour. Opening the glass door onto the balcony, Constine let themself and Mariam into the space of bright technicolour and scattered chatter. They saluted the others on the terrace with slight bows of the head and thoughtful eye contact, and found a place by the railing, looking out to the rest of Gül City.
“Look up, Mariam, and tell me what it is that you see.”
Mariam looked closely at Constine for a second, again, with peering eyes, then lifted her chin toward the sky. She looked up, and spoke what first came to her mind. “There’s the towers lining the avenue to the north, and the elevated park where I see some people lingering probably in the tail end of a summertime picnic. There’s also the green train right there, entering Second Station, with all its television screens lining the building’s exterior, running messages from the district’s shops and unions. Behind all that, there’s the night sky, of course. And, obviously, you were right. As we all know, but don’t usually realize, it’s aglow in a familiar electric violet, with not a star or moon in sight.” When Mariam ended her inspired report, she held her gaze upward. Constine didn’t take their eyes off Mariam for one instant.
“There it is.” They affirmed, “Despite all our achievements and advancements in technology, socialism, and city-building, there isn’t one person who hasn’t thought about trading in our hustle and bustle, pollution and smog for the little known country to the west. And, if they haven’t thought about it consciously, the question sits there in the back of their minds: ‘Is it true that somewhere on our very own planet could be so different, so backward?,’” Constine said with the emphasis of disapproval one makes to interrogate common precepts. “‘Is it possible to have cities that run with no electric current?’” Constine held their breath in a calculated pause. “’What colour does the sky glow elsewhere?’”
“People are always dreaming about something new, somewhere different. Just because that place isn’t where we are doesn’t make this place a bad one.”
“No, not at all. I do not wish to say the East is bad or evil. You’re right,” Constine admitted. “For such an advanced society, maybe we should’ve found a way to better deal with our waste and act more harmoniously with the planet, but, in the end, between East and West, we are simply different. You see? Different societies, practically different worlds, sharing common ancestors and a single rock in Space.”
“I see. And, I for one, wouldn’t trade our rock for another. Nor Eastern civilization, for that matter.”
“Oh?” Constine was intrigued that, for all Mariam’s critique of Easternism and its shallow ideals of growth in her youth, she would express such a deep pride of their homeland.
“I much rather have our towers of cooperatives where millions of people have the right to inhabit freely, transit networks connecting every corner of the region and every neighbourhood in our cities, and the myriad of parks and people’s spaces — all well-lit, well-functioning, and with plenty of energy to share — than have a sky whose clarity betrays the stars and moons and a social organism with a sloth’s metabolism.”
Looking back out toward the city, Constine put their hand over Mariam’s. They stood there looking at Gül City — high enough to see the streets and canals below from afar, yet low enough to crane one’s neck to glimpse the tops of the tallest towers flickering in the evening fog-smog. They stood looking out straight ahead, together, down the avenue that their building anchored.
“I thought the same thing before, you know. But in a world without light, I could see much better.”