Every city has its secrets. A renowned English author writes that a fallen angel once lay imprisoned by magic and craft beneath London, and that certain doors there can take you underneath the streets, to fairy marketplaces where people peddle corpses and sea glass and cheap Indian food. An equally renowned writer claims that somewhere in Venice hides a carousel that turns adults back into children, and children into adults, in a simple ride. A rainbow serpent carved out the streets of Sydney, they say, and even now, sleeps beneath the Opera House. Ghosts walk Berlin in the guises of friendly Canadian tourists.
So what of Guelph? By the river, I met a green-headed duck who told me a story in exchange for the return of a gold ring he’d coughed up on the shore. There are, he claims, tunnels beneath some of the bridges that lead to white marble galleries where strange, scaly beasts sleep and type out research papers on electric typewriters, their eyes webbed with scarlet exhaustion, living off snowmelt that clings to the ceiling in long dripping icicles.
There are classes there, on cuneiform and unholy architecture; lectures by professors made of stone, who awaken from monolithic daytime routine and commute through the sewers. Their TA’s are beautiful, scuttling creatures, furred in shades of red and orange, who mark papers with paws soft and careful as dreams. There are papers on the secret lives of downtown sushi houses, and dissertations on the restorative power of Beethoven, when played in concert with the works of Thelonious Monk. Pixies hold public dances in caverns like buried cathedrals.
In a place not dissimilar to Johnston Green, a stage has been set up, the wires of dysfunctional amps trailing silver sparks across the purple grass. A band made up of grubby, bespectacled children hold court over a month-long festival in the spirit of the Roman stadium, except with less wild animals and more rock music, lemon cake, and gyros sold by a man I once met in Starbucks, who seems to have either ten identical siblings or the ability to teleport.
Yesterday, very abruptly, I realized that one of my professors, who I had believed for the entire semester to be some peculiar breed of emu, was in fact a dodo bird. I located her office and went to confront her.
“Hang on,” I said, “you’re supposed to be extinct. What are you doing teaching philosophy?”
“Nothing is ever extinct,” she told me, in a voice like two pieces of sandpaper running away in opposite directions. “The past is a distant land we have sailed away from. Life goes on there, happily enough, without us.”
“Okay, I guess that makes sense,” I said. “But you’ve given me 55 per cent on this paper on Hannah Arendt. Can we talk about that?”
After she refused to pass me, I took a lurid green lollipop from the jar on her desk and left. I didn’t look back.
On my way back from a party at East Residence in a peculiar November hailstorm, I passed a practice match for what I initially thought was Quidditch. I sat at the edge of the brightly lit stadium and watched for awhile. The team wore robes of pale emerald, and those with long hair appeared to have been possessed. Their locks wrapped around other players like boa constrictors while Bob Marley blared over the loudspeakers. The short haired people flew. If the coach is reading this, I want to know when tryouts are.
One night, unable to sleep, I left my dorm room and wandered barefoot down the steps, but found myself unable to find the lounge. Instead, I wandered deeper and deeper, into a land inhabited by pale denizens of the dormitory who spend their days masquerading as janitors, or students of the natural sciences. Their wind-like snoring blew like a desert wind about my nightgown-clad body, and I descended further, into a cavern so deep even the dinosaurs never walked its surface. There, I found him, asleep on his stone plinth, and I ran my fingers over his beak. Waking, he shuffled his wings open, and I climbed onto his back and tangled my fingers into his feathers.
We flew out of the cavern and into the sky above Lennox-Addington, where I saw that all the blue emergency lights had gone a soft shade of orange. Then the gryphon, who knows the meanings of things, whispered to me in Ancient Greek, or a language even older. And I listened.
As I write this, it is cold as a witch’s tit, and the ducks in the river are few and far between. I have left the window open in my room, and when I return there I will have to add blankets to my bed to make up for this mistake.
When summer comes again, I expect you will find me seated cross-legged under a tree on Johnston Green, playing Vivaldi on my dented fiddle, or beside the cannon, painted completely white and standing still as a plaster statue, with my arms open.
When that day comes, if you happen to have about you a snail shell, or a blue ribbon, or a penny gone green as jade, or a lost button you found under a bench in the Arboretum, you might place it in my top hat, and I will come to life.
And perhaps I will mime to you the secret that the gryphon told me; or perhaps I will only blow you a kiss, and take a bow, and turn to stone again, as if you are Medusa, and seeing you has petrified me.
I will not mind it. Better to have seen too much — to know the meanings of things — than to have stayed locked away, and never to have seen you at all.
Story by Miryam Haworth/Illustrations by Catherine Meng