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Fiction

Destinations of Beauty

It has become increasingly clear to your guidebook writers that the beauty of any destination should be measured not simply by the magnificence of its architecture or the lushness of its landscape, but by the splendor that its citizens collectively produce. In cities where mayors make sure flowers are planted every spring and the baker sends us off with a free roll, the streetlamps are bound to burn brightly with the warmth of welcome. In fact, the wonderful time we’ve had in any destination was due almost entirely to the kindness of those we encountered along the way: the hotel staff who greeted us, the chefs who cared about our meals, the shopkeepers who asked where we were from and listened to our stories. Such destinations are like extended families that welcome us to their homes, provide us with beds to sleep in, food to eat, cold drinks when we’re thirsty, and directions when we’re lost.

We acknowledge this phenomenon with a kind of awe. It’s miraculous that a location should work together so invisibly. And while each citizen may feel themselves separate in their daily duties—from opening flower shops to starting steamrollers—every individual is working in quiet unison to create the beauty of the destination where we arrive. Indeed, when our days are over, and we find ourselves back in our hometowns dismayed by our fellow countrymen, we need only remember that there are places in this world that were willing to welcome us to their lands, provide us with an extra blanket so we might sleep more peacefully, share their vintage bottles of wine, and pause on a city sidewalk to look at the scribbled directions we extended to them, saying “Of course, my friend. Come, it’s right this way.”

As we collected our destinations for this installment, we realized that while some of our guidebook writers were drawn to the natural beauty of the Eighth continent, many of us were taken by another kind of beauty—invisible but entirely essential. While not every destination we’ve chosen may be considered scenic, they are the destinations we think of again and again now that we’ve returned from our travels. So, for all of you who set out looking for splendor, we present to you: Destinations of Beauty.

The City of Persioa

The city of Persioa is, by far, one of the most exquisite destinations the new continent has to offer. Its architecture rises in gorgeous arches of carved sandstone and its buildings are sculpted with porticos of cut glass and the ornate faces of goddesses gazing down from above. There are domed arcades honeycombed by sacred geometry, lattice-work balustrades, and atop tall skyscrapers one finds sun filtering through the butterfly’s wing of stained glass mosaics, showering city dwellers below in rainbow light.

The city’s original architects believed that the construction of Persioa should reflect the mystery of the universe itself. And so, the cut-glass fractals that cast light upon the streets and the façades of a celestial pantheon are testaments to the unseen world. At almost any spot in the city, a pedestrian can look upward and contemplate the beauty of the tangerine light filtering down to the streets at dusk, or the deep blue of evening’s arrival, followed by the star-speckled purple of night.

Yet, despite the architects’ good intentions, most citizens never appreciate Persioa’s miraculous construction. For, alas, in Persioa, everyone is afraid of one another. And though the city was designed to be admired for its beauty, over the years, the inhabitants have forgotten to maintain its splendor. They let dust collect on the carved archways and soot deface the smiles of the gods; they erected billboards to advertise shaving cream and cigarettes; citizens took jobs in darkened skyscrapers, and they no longer pause to admire the sunlight when it hits the stained-glass pinnacles of the city. Instead they carry heavy briefcases and bags of groceries home in the evening light, their shoulders sagging from the weight, afraid to meet one another’s eyes lest they be taken advantage of. They return to apartments where they lock their doors and climb beneath blankets, comforting themselves with the latest television shows, which are always filled with explosions, gunfire, and bloodshed. Alas, even the news grows worse every day. There’s a new rash of diseases sweeping the country, an influx of murder and theft, endless war, eternal corruption. Safety is on the decline, addiction on the rise, and the crooked prime minister stands at a podium, yelling of imminent doom from the North and South. The citizens purchase more locks and guns, and they peer out from behind their blinds, their faces momentarily appearing beneath the carved smiles of goddesses. In fact, most days, one finds only this: streets filled with pedestrians eyeing one another suspiciously, shuttered blinds, and the blinking lights of alarm systems.

For this reason, travelers visiting the beautiful city of Persioa often miss its incredible feats of architecture or the way the light strikes the land in hues softer than anywhere else on the continent. Most tourists are simply concerned about the cautions issued by flight attendants, urging them to beware of pickpockets and thieves. Instead of admiring the incredible vaulted ceilings of the airport, they read its many warning signs that urge travelers to avoid street musicians, food vendors, and beggars. New arrivals scurry from the airport to awaiting taxis, afraid that the drivers are crooks and their valuables will be stolen at the next red light; and upon arriving safely to their hotel, they find themselves afraid to leave, guarding their wallets whenever they risk the streets outside.

What a shame. For the city is truly glorious, and for those few travelers who arrive at Persioa by mistake, or have never heard the warnings, or were too busy kissing to read the cautionary signs, they obtain a secret treasure. All around them, the city rises in its full majesty, its arches climbing in great semi-circles above the streets, the intricately carved faces of goddesses gazing down at them, the stained glass of the skyscrapers’ highest windows casting prisms of light. They completely miss the frightened faces of all the other tourists and locals around them. What they see instead are the long, beautiful, sandstone avenues, filled with people rushing past, everyone’s faces lit by rainbows.

The Bakery of Alee

If you find yourself alone in the alleyways of Alee, you may smell the cinnamon rolls whose scent will lead you through predawn streets to a small bakery with warm ovens and pastries being iced beneath dim lights. In the window are éclairs and crème horns, pecan swirls and chocolate twists. The wooden tables are dusted with flour, and an open window awaits your order.

It’s true that the bakers who work here have the most tragic stories. Last time we visited, a young woman, who had neither parents nor family, served us pastries. She lived in a trailer by the pond and had lost everything before her baby teeth. She placed the hot rolls on paper napkins and passed them to us along with the story of her life. Such are the tales of all the bakers who come to work in the kitchen. Their hearts have been emptied by lovers, and their lives are filled with lost parents or families so hideous it would’ve been a blessing had they died. It’s their misery that draws them to the bakery’s light where the croissants are proofing, and they arrive with a past so bitter that the bakers use their tears for sourdough starter. They’re given a roll to eat and a milk crate to sit on and welcomed into the bakery’s womb. This, the baker says, is how you fill pastries with sweetness. This is how to avoid burning from the heat. This is how you allow goodness to rise.

In the kitchen’s warmth, new arrivals recall dance steps while carrying sheet trays to ovens. Filling rolls with strawberry jam, they remember how they’d once wished to be a painter. Their arms arc as they dust pastries with powdered sugar, and they keep time with the moons of cookie cutters, their dreams rising with the bread. We all recognize the taste of hope on our tongues. Aren’t there wishes buried in the cellars of our own hearts? Dreams clenched so tightly in our fists that we fear opening our palms to reveal their broken wings? Why, after all, have we found ourselves here in these early morning hours if not for the bakery’s warm spirals of hope?

Standing at the small window, we sense the expanse of morning around us. The sun rises above the rooftops, a shuttered window opens, and the sound of children’s yawns can be heard from lit bedrooms. We wipe pastry flakes from our coats and purchase a bag of croissants to fill our breakfast table. It’s never too late to learn to sing, we think, or to open the doors of our lives as welcoming as the bakery opens its window.

Of course, morning must break. Soon the city groans with the exhaust of trucks, avenues clatter with footsteps, and the bakery extinguishes its ovens, turns off its hanging light bulb, and locks its doors. Come afternoon, there are no smells of spices, merely darkened tables. Looking through the glass, one sees the empty arms of a mixer and the cold steel of a dough hook hanging from the rafters. It’s possible to pass and never even notice its existence. Perhaps this is why most visitors remain oblivious to the bakery’s sweetness, until that moment when the stars have begun to arc toward the earth, and the ovens are relit, and the bakery opens its window, the city alive once again.

The Village of Cessane

There are those whose lives are filled with riches yet they never seem to lack something to complain about: the sun, which is too hot; the winter, which is too cold; their refrigerators, which are too full. Then there are those who have very little but surround themselves with words instead. Such is the case of the Northern village of Cessane, where every inhabitant is named after nature’s elements.

In Cessane, Dawn stretches her body across Earth’s bed while the Robins sing for the whole neighborhood to hear. The beautiful Morning Dew sits by a blushing Maple as Sunshine flashes through the market. A flock of Starlings gather for a birthday party. Summer appears and the Fields are alive with joy. Everyone agrees they’re tired of Winter. They’re thankful Daylight stays longer than expected, but eventually Dusk wraps her shawl around her and Evening kisses her goodbye. Night will soon be here, drunk with Moonlight, and the Owls will gather to drink the Stars’ wine. They’ll hoot so loud that, way down by the Woods’, the Bears will grumble about the noise. But eventually the Foxes will close their eyes for rest, and Moon will slip under the covers with Midnight, and the city of Cessane will go to bed.

To hear the people of Cessane speak about their village in this way helps one understand why they’ve chosen to name themselves as they have. For the village of Cessane is a run-down place, full of tenements and potholes. Fences have been graffitied and local swimming holes polluted by discarded shopping carts. By the outskirts of town, amid smog and constant rain, a massive garbage dump sends its stench over the entire village. Many say there’s no reason to mention the place at all.

The City of Shilo

Trapped between great glaciers to the North, craggy highlands to the West, and a seemingly endless stretch of mountains to the South, the city of Shilo is geographically imprisoned. Fitting, since in the early seventeenth century the area was used as a penal colony. Thieves, assassins, and incurable drunks were exiled to this land, but the prisoners survived its harsh winters, and over the next two centuries built the houses, schools, and restaurants that today adorn the city. Since then, Shilo has been rediscovered as one of the world’s most scenic destinations, with its beautiful Southern mountains, its Western plateaus, and one of the few remaining glaciers within driving distance from hotels. Yet despite its natural beauty, Shilo has retained the shadow of its history, for it quickly becomes apparent to all who visit that no one in the city really wants to be there.

The city is magnificent, in the same way all cities are magnificent—full of parks and museums, zoos and art galleries—but one senses the dismay of its inhabitants upon arrival. The baggage handlers are careless, tossing luggage heavily, their attention focused on the workday’s end or the cigarette they plan to smoke. Taxi drivers are no tour guides; they want nothing more than to deposit you at your destination and be off. If you attempt to engage them in conversation about the city’s attractions they’ll tell you about its faults instead: how poorly the roads are maintained, the endless traffic, the stupidity of city planners; they’ll speak of the difficulty of finding meaningful work, and of other cities where they hope to one day retire.

It seems that everyone in Shilo dreams of a better life elsewhere. The concierge always wished to be a pianist, the bellhop an Olympic swimmer, the waitress to pursue dancing. The only individuals content with Shilo are tourists, who enjoy its museums and public gardens, and dine at its many restaurants, but even they feel the pall. It’s visible in the steely-eyed glare of a train conductor who wanted to be a racecar driver; the cigarette smoke of a construction worker who dreamt of being an architect; the slouch of a teacher writing letters on a chalkboard; and the faces of students who wish they were anywhere but in school. And so, Shilo becomes repugnant even to us, its tourists, who have come with the desire to find a land different than our own.

As for Shilo’s citizens, few ever leave the country. Instead they grow old, lamenting a life of missed opportunities and unpursued dreams. Their funerals are bleak affairs and their obituaries uninspiring. There are, however, the few who make it out. One finds these expatriates in our cities pursuing their dreams of opening bistros, teaching at universities, and exhibiting their art in national galleries. They live, love, and grow old in our towns, and they search for others to talk to about their homeland. What they speak of most are those years when they lived in Shilo, the small apartment where they’d once slept, a cat who used to visit their door for milk, the children they used to teach, a land they’d shared with friends and family so long ago. Those were, they tell us, the best years of their lives.

The Café Taliche

The locals of Taliche say that the earth fell in love with the clouds and gathered rocks to write the heavens a love letter of mountain ranges. And for those who hike the Àlmecs, there’s certainly a sense of romantic wonder. The path brings you past sheep grazing in pastures and cows sending echoes of clanging bells up the mountainside. Many a trekker ascends the peak, breathes in the cold air, and lets out a long-held sigh before returning to the parking lot below.

Yet despite its beauty, every year a handful of travelers descend the mountain’s dark ravines rather than returning on the path they climbed. And while you may imagine they’re adventurers, it’s almost always despair that causes them to lose their way: a recent heartbreak, the death of a loved one, or some great loss that they cradle too closely. Down the thorny path they go, stumbling through brambles aimlessly.

For those unfortunate enough to get lost in the mountains, only a few reach the small hamlet far below. Along the village roads they search for a restaurant that might be open, a tavern serving iced drinks, a café with a chair in which to rest. And, lo and behold, there at the end of the road, like a poppy in full bloom, is the terrace of the Café Taliche. All around the patio’s perimeter, irises and bluebells nod and a table sits waiting. Here cold beers are poured straight from the tap, there’s local goat cheese for the tasting, and the bread is warm from the oven. Would you like some ice cream fresh from the churn, a young woman asks, her arms glistening with sunlight.

There are moments in life, rare as watching a butterfly emerge from a cocoon, when the machinery of the world comes to a halt. There are no errands to run, no missed opportunities to lament, no heartbreak too great to waste another sigh upon. There’s only this: a cold beer with its frothy head, the softness of goat cheese, and sunshine as sweet as local honey. And when it’s time to leave—always too early it seems—everyone sets off without keeping a single souvenir. No matchbook has ever fallen into a visitor’s pocket, no postcards have been bought or sent, and no pictures have been taken to remember its address.

We wish we could give you better directions—if we could, we’d be at the café right now. But even your guidebook writers have left in such a state of forgetfulness that we’ve failed to chart our way back. And so, for travelers lucky enough to discover the café (who may even be reading this description at the Café Taliche right now) we urge you to heed our advice: Roll up your sleeves and let the sun warm your body, savor each spoonful of ice cream as long as you can. Because soon the world will call to you with its alarm clocks and phone calls; your car cannot remain in the parking lot on the other side of the mountain all night; your flight leaves in the morning. Look, the sun is already beginning its descent.

The Museum of Forgotten Emotions

It’s altogether possible that the lack of historical records at the Museum of Forgotten Emotions was orchestrated by its founders, so that the possession of its growing gallery would be passed from curator to curator without notation. A key was placed in the new custodian’s palm, along with instructions for opening and closing the doors, and a welcome to the washroom and bedroom where they were to make their home. The last known key holder dates back to 1976, when a baker was given the keys. She added to its holdings, dusted its cases, changed light bulbs, and began to charge a small entry fee.

That the curator was chosen for her insignificance is indicative of the museum itself, which can be said to hold nothing spectacular. Among the museum’s holdings one finds: wrinkled baseball cards; a broken bottle; train tickets, glow-in-the-dark stickers; eggshells; a tarnished ring; a handful of dirt; a joy buzzer; sackcloth; ashtrays; worn sneakers; candy wrappers; faded newspapers; a withered tulip. And yet, the collection has an uncanny ability to remind us of memories we’d thought extinct. A small plastic top brings a vision of a cold winter’s day when we were six. The frost on the windows was beautiful in the morning light and we spun the toy against the windowpane over and over, watching the street for our father’s return. A tube of ChapStick reminds us of a woman we once loved who placed the balm by our bedside table. It’s not uncommon to find visitors weeping from the displays. We look at the item in front of them—a ragged stuffed toy, a bottle cap, a tissue—and shrug our shoulders. The display holds no ghosts of old lovers, childhoods, or fleeting friendships for us. It’s nothing more than one of the many items we pass in our daily travels, common in its insignificance. But then we come across a pair of shoelaces and recall our favorite sneakers in elementary school, or see the dog-eared copy of a paperback lent to us by a boy in college, and our heart comes to rest before the exhibit.

Those who visit the museum often find a different world upon exiting. A bus stop carries the outline of a man we once kissed; leaves scurrying along the sidewalk remind us of being pulled by our sister in a red wagon on an autumn day. It must be these realizations which lead us to package up our trinkets, unused coffee cups, chewed pencils, and spare pennies, and send them to the museum—where the curator spends most of her day unpacking boxes and finding new spaces for the smallest items we send her way. As for us, we’re all drawn back to the museum. We stand gazing at the new displays, discovering our own lives as if for the first time.

The Waterfalls of Chicowee

Life is short, dear traveler, and as the drunk in any tavern will tell you: Night doesn’t last long. For this reason alone, pack your bags, or leave them at home, and come at once to the Waterfalls of Chicowee. Here the heart is opened by waters that cascade for thousands of feet. In the sunshine are rainbows aplenty and moss grows green and lush. Does your tongue wish to sing songs? Then go to the rocks, open your mouth, taste the misty air, and sing with the sound of falling waters. Yes, when the sunshine breaks through the clouds what you’ll find is one after another rainbow playing off the mist. Put out your hand, you can almost catch them.

Can we admit that we’ve all been too busy? That the dishes can sit for a few hours longer; that the emails which have kept us tied to our desks can wait for another day; that there is no television series worth binging on when sky and sun and rocks and moss call to you? We’ll be gone tomorrow or the next day. All the more reason to venture out of the cities with their dance halls and discotheques, and seek the beauty of the falls of Chicowee where we can climb the mountainside to overlook the waters and leave with no trinkets or postcards, nothing but our sweet self returned to us. It’s as if that very part of our soul that we’ve always meant to make room for was, lo and behold, waiting at the foot of the waterfalls to welcome us.

We write of the falls, tell all we know to come and visit, all the while acknowledging that many readers will just nod. Yes, yes, they’ll say, it sounds quite nice. Someday, for sure, they plan to go. When the museums in town are closed, or when they have no dinner reservations or theater tickets; perhaps when there’s no work to catch up on, or when they don’t have to wake up early; or the weather is better; or when summer comes. We understand, we really do. We too promised ourselves for years to go. Decades passed and we grew older, and all the while we lamented how we really ought to visit the falls.

But, dear traveler, now that we’ve finally made it, we see our folly, and we vow never to leave again! Look how the ink on the page runs from the mist! See how we can barely bring ourselves to go back to the city! Look at our guidebook writers who right now are taking off their clothes and wading into the waters! Even at this moment you can hear their voices imploring us to put down the guidebook! Come join us, they call. The waterfalls of Chicowee are open to the public day and night; there are no fees to pay, no fences to climb, no guards to shoo you away—the falls are completely ready for your arrival! But, then again, they always were.

Alexander Weinstein

Alexander Weinstein is the author of the short story collections Universal Love (2020) and Children of the New World, which was named a notable book of the year by The New York Times, NPR and Electric Literature. He is a recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his stories and interviews have appeared in Rolling StoneWorld Literature TodayBest American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Best American Experimental Writing. He is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and a professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University.