THE DEMANDS OF AIR

Only wild men walk the western streets, so the story goes.

Wild but not ragged, those loose-limbed men in their stretched and wretched stark, dark coats. Silver buttons like fledgling stars, furious sparking in strange constellations. Towering like encroaching nightfall, these wild men rise with their starched silk hats, tall and dark as chimney stacks. They do not shuffle nor do they creep for sleek shiny shoes licked with steel, click like clocks when twilight walking, deep-night stalking the moonlit halls. Red ruffs at the neck and sleeves like mortal wounds, those wild men of the western streets.

Fierce beings, they say, with thorny hair. Not cruel but twisted, for wild they are. Lithe like water swelling on the moon-drawn tides they gather in the evening shallows to wade the limelight, ford the twilight, shoulder to shoulder, thick as thieves. Through glistening lips, cool breath curls, inviting spirals and beckoning swirls, its smooth enticement tense and thrilling. Yet turn away, the tyrants tell us, and cover your ears. For wild men words are poisonous vapour, lethal and loathsome as a siren's tears.

So then. Don't be fooled by their blue-eyed sincerity for earnest smiles make deadly distractions. A feint to expose you to the strangling fingers of blue-veined, tear-stained, deep-pained hands. And all must know how wild men whisper, through chiseled yellow teeth they hiss. But don't you listen to one weasel word if you care a whit for your salvation for it is well known that the wild men of the western street pray downwards.

Do not go there by night, they wailed. For those of us of the sacred south who strive with backs so straight and true, could not tolerate this brazen moon that sweeps unchecked into the most secret shadows. Its ruin upon you in a blink of the eye. There is no sanctuary from that argent swell. No hiding place for honest light. Take to your beds and hide your heads. Contain your fervour should temptation beckon, displaying her warm and urgent flesh. For there is no cleansing for moon-stained hearts.

If you arrive by day, so they say, no man will greet you. That fiends fear for their pallour is common known. Still you will hear their barbarous calls rumbling and rolling through dust-dry halls, then before you know it, the sun has betrayed you and the click-clack… tick-tock…on hard western stones will rattle around you like dry broken bones. Step carefully then, while the maroon darkness drips. Soon the western streets will stir to sunset's slip.

Wild men emerge, ticking and tocking through the waking of the winding paths. Twitching with anger and pinched with regret, they besiege the stranger in solemn poses like long ebony birds in judgement robes. Don't go there, they wept, neither dawn nor dusk, if for one moment you value your dust. For where the west wind blows, malice flows, in long fluid coats and stiff stern hats.

But the southern streets were such dry excursions, such dull and dreary lines. And we were young, the valiant young, choking on piety, the pedantry of parchment, a game of shells and the grime of old lies.

Those southern roads, in complacent white robes, control the thoughts and thoroughfares of the compliant with rigorous rage and a righteous rod. Officious sleeves flap like windswept sails, revealing fat pious fingers with bloodstained nails. Accusing and abusing then contusing and refusing, forever pointing out their inevitable displeasure. Stares and glares follow your footsteps while the welts of a hundred devout reminders criss-cross the backs of the irresolute like damned bloody scripture. These are the smug southern streets where wild is wicked and dreams fill the weak.

Stay still, is the message.

Do not aspire.

Your course is charted, your streets go no higher.

Have not a care for the demands of air.

The cloth is your cradle, the cloth is your shroud, feed on the word,

stray not from the crowd.

Turn your face from ambition's glare.

A dreaded mantra that was so far from reassurance that it sent us like arrows flaming high, hot and desperate into the western sky. Searching and seeking a wild, wild death. Just Lily and me and the hopes of a thousand, we seeped from the press of the southern squeeze into the feral embrace of the western breeze. Sliding in on an amber sunset, we waited, breathless and still, for the ticking streets and the moonlit kill.

Stealthy as heartbeats they came.

A percussion of distant flamenco that did not pinch us with its furtive tempo, but instead set our pulses stepping to the smooth rhythms of ancient dusk. Wild men, so the story goes, in lures of black and silver would soon rise like marching wraiths to apply and administer blue murder. Just Lily and me and the fears of a thousand, confronting the stars before their closing embrace.

But they had not told us of the music.

Their southern stories so laden with threats, so plump with alarm, were the tuneless vacuums of conceited throats laid on tongues as dead as dying. No concept had they of vitality or vigour, the staples of the western streets. Where wild men and women surfaced to express their vivacity in sinuous leaps and mellifluous sighs. To a sensuous drum and seductive strings they clicked and tapped in sweeping twirls, plunging and swooping like ancient birds in their black, flowing coats, red-winged and red-throated. Just Lily and me and the songs of a thousand, immersed in a whirlwind, the demands of air.

Then we were away, just Lily and me, dancing and laughing like giddy things under a wide and wonderful moon. We cavorted and capered in stiff-limbed stumbles like newborns abroad in an unsteady world. Our soft, quiet shoes produced no cadence, but the swell of our hearts was a fervent tattoo. To our delight as we spun, we rose and grew until the shells of shame and guilt around us burst like blisters about our feet.

Then we ascended, broke the surface and learned at last to truly breathe. Insistent air, sweet with promise, so full of urging there seemed no limit to the summoning sky. A lifetime of longing and the lure of liberty hung like hunger from the shimmering stars. We were mad and we were free, wide-eyed with wonder. As wild as tomorrow on the western streets.

And then the silver moon deceived us. Allowed the sobering sun to encroach. Yet no innocent morning could extinguish our spirits, not as surely as night follows day. In the first breaking flashes of dawn, we stood quite still, alone and unborn. Just Lily and me and the echoes of wild things. Of wild men who danced and wild women who'd sing. Of exotic vibrations that had shaken our limbs into exuberant shapes unknown in our time. Anathema to the geometry of the staid southern angles. Wandering restless on the empty cobbles, we held hands as tight and bright as night. Then, in that moment, we broke through the stillness, fleeing the sadness of the silent stones.

On the journey home through southern lands, just Lily and me and the eyes that beseeched us. So urgent and earnest that we filled them with tales of the wild men of the western streets. Of the cool winds, the new winds that would blow away the pain-lanced clouds. And they believed us for they are young, the valiant young. From beneath their chains they will rise and surge, simply reckless and full of eager virtue. No regrets or retreats will betray them for they know already the truth that awaits. They will run to join us at the edge of nightfall for who could deny the demands of air.