Walters walked by a narrow canal at a slow pace, looking at his surroundings with interest, relaxed and content. He didn’t seem to notice the awfulness around him. The air was hot, heavy with humidity, mosquitoes were landing on him, and the sour putrefaction of a dead body hidden somewhere perdured in the air as he moved, but Walters didn’t rush, enjoying the gratifying calmness that followed each one of his steps. He didn’t mind the sensation of his overheated body dissolving into the mugginess, the discomfort of another sweltering August evening. He was alone, he felt safe, and that was relevant to him. Most relevant.
He had been walking along this narrow canal for a while now, not completely sure how he had gotten here. Lines of hanging clothes and larger pieces of white fabric were stretched between buildings on both sides of the canal, a fragmented roof that isolated him from the city and imbued him with a sustained serenity.
He still remembered leaving Dr. Pomme’s mansion not more than an hour ago. He was also convinced he had left his equipment bag in the mansion. Maybe it had been his idea or maybe someone else had suggested it, he wasn’t sure. Either way, it had been a good arrangement, as he had to return there tomorrow. He definitely appreciated not being loaded with his bag now.
Why was he in this particular street? He had never been here before.
He had exited the mansion on a boat, but he had not remained for too long on it. That he knew for sure. From his present sense of safety, he remembered very vividly having experienced a sudden urge to abandon the boat, a need to be away from that boat and its occupants. From Jameson. From someone else who had been piloting the boat. Someone he had already forgotten for the most part, gladly, only a few disconnected remnants in his memory stuck to the undefined shape of a man: dark and clammy hair, a greyish shirt, a religious tattoo on an arm.
Nothing happened on the boat, his main memory about the incident a mere sour remembrance centered around that burning need to be away from the resplendent boat, and away from Jameson and the other person, that need heating up his temples, making him dizzy, scared of fainting in front of strangers, possibly enemies. Walters also recalled very clearly Jameson‘s face reflecting relief when he said that he wanted to be dropped off right where they were. Jameson asked if he was sure and Walters lied, saying that he had businesses to attend in that particular area, and that he knew exactly how to find his way back home.
That was it, then, he was walking back home. Somehow he was confident he was heading in the right direction.
Walters stopped where the canal he had been following intersected a wider canal. One bridge with four arms gave him the option to continue in any direction. He could walk up to the center of the bridge, right over the confluence of the two canals, and then take any of the three new directions, or retrace his steps and go back the way he had come, or jump over the bridge and into the water and swim wherever his instinct took him. It didn’t matter which way he chose. Any option would eventually take him home. There were always several valid solutions to the Memphian labyrinth. He would meander and eventually, one way or another, find himself in the streets he recognized around his house.
He could have selected one particular street, ending up in a busy lane with street vendors behind improvised stands well serviced with produce, freshwater creatures, or imports from New Orleans or St Louis. He could stroll around the stalls without a goal, observing the details, avoiding meeting the eyes of strangers. A fishmonger, obese and sickly-looking, sitting down on an upturned bucket, flies prospecting his bald head and his sweaty back, could have remained as a fleshy statue. Or the fishmonger could have turned around and stared at an intricate portal, floral and animal motifs carved in strange combinations, the closed doors leading to a courtyard where a flight of stairs would conduct one to a corridor on the second floor, at the end of it a simple door and behind the door a room with one window and a large oval table crowded by nine agitated members of the upper-classes. The only woman in the room Walters might have recognized, as he had seen her photograph only a few hours before. Although instead of the plain stare printed on the paper, he would have been confronted by fury in her eyes. “We can either do it right and be done with all of this nonsense, or keep fighting like children for years and years,” she would have yelled with the cadence of a politician. “But you are proposing to kill lots of people,” a man across the table would argue without conviction, as if to feed her fire with new coals. “Eventually they will decide to do the same to us, when we cannot control it. We are now in a position in which we can resolve this for good and start living like we deserve.” They would play with their words, pretending that they were getting somewhere, when in reality they had all been in agreement for months.
Or Walters could take a different street, heading in another direction, passing by a group of men playing cards on the floor, later another group in deep discussion over the best fuel for a barbeque, and finishing in an alley submerged in the most utter silence. The smell of wet cardboard being consumed by fungi, and the air emanating from rusty wires and chains somehow prickling his palate, he would gravitate towards a wooden fence, and find a spot where to squeeze between two planks and find himself into a waste ground overgrown with grasses, walk around a mattress partially digested, and stand in front of the entrance to a den buried into the ground. Listening carefully he would have heard the arrhythmic shrieks of fox pups, suckling, patiently growing their blue fur and their blue eyes in the darkness, unaware of their conception, of their existence, of their destinies. Walters would have stared at the den, and experienced a wave of reassurance knowing that more blue foxes would roam the city. He would have knelt down on the ground and exude his fear to feed them.