[blue rare]—In the Cities of the Night

Far more than just an absence of sunlight, the nighttime is a whole different country; its borders between waking and dreams notoriously porous and uncontrolled.  In the cities of the night, winding backstreets are charged with strange energies and apparitions, more threatening than the daytime, but also more filled with the promise of mystery and surprise.

This evening, in the wee small hours of the morning, I find myself, as so often before, standing on the shadow-filled street outside the Blue Rare Café.  This establishment is never more than spitting distance from appears-on-no-map.  No reference to it will be found on any tourist website, nor will any GPS search guide you here.  You can only find it by means of memory and desire.  Still, like so many other things beneath the light of the moon, it has been standing long before you or I were born, from before the ancient revels of Babylon, and will remain long, long after we are gone.

During the daytime, the tables outside are often filled with old men and women, drinking coffee and wine, gambling on games of cards and dice, reminiscing about past adventures.  Early in the evening, there are throngs of travelers and lovers, enjoying the music spilling out from the opened doorways.  Sometimes there is a jazz band playing, or a song has been summoned from the jukebox; always some elusive, half-remembered refrain.  On these romantic premises, so many glasses, promises, and hearts have been filled, drained, and broken.

“In these hours before dawn, though,” I say to myself, “the tables are all empty.  Unless you believe in ghosts.”

“Not quite so,” says a melodic, velvet-dark voice behind me.  I turn around to find, not unexpectedly, my old traveling companion, the Devil.  That venerable gentleman of the road.  He is seated at one of the tables, with a gleaming chess set spread before him.

I recognize this set immediately, as it is far from the first time he and I have played a high stakes match in the middle of the night.  Still, with an offhanded but strikingly elegant gesture, he beckons me to take a seat, and once again explains its provenance.

“A priceless artifact!” he always claims, that had been crafted as a gift for Selim III, the penultimate sultan of the Ottoman empire.  Its armies cast in ivory and gold, embellished with mother-of-pearl and priceless rubies.  He is a terrible liar, but knows I have a weakness for good stories and for shiny things.  More likely, it has been conjured up from burnt matchsticks, tinfoil, and broken glass.

I don’t bother contradicting him, though.  I just drink the red wine that has magically appeared at my elbow, tasting of black cherries, tobacco, music, laughter, and tears.

As ever, he insists on playing white, and makes his opening move.  I see he has chosen to go with the dangerous Nocturnal Gambit.  Not that it makes much difference, mind you, because the outcome is foreordained: I have always been a mediocre strategist, and he has had many years to perfect his attack.

Time and again, I have wagered and lost my soul in these lopsided battles of wit.  Why, I wonder, am I allowed to go on gambling for what I have long-ago surrendered?  Is the Devil really that forgetful?  Does the human soul regenerate itself again and again?  Or, like me, does this fallen angel simply never get tired of playing these elaborate games, in the cities of the night?