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ISSUE #24

December 2013

FICTION

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by Rew X

Her Last Breath Before Waking

by A.C. Wise

 

She is a city haunted by a ghost.

When the architect dreams, her sinews are suspension bridges, her ribs vaulting arches, her bones steel I-beams, and her blood concrete. In her dreams, the city is pristine and perfect. She is perfect.

The architect has a lover who is afraid to sleep. At night, the lover lays her head against the architect’s chest. Instead of breath and pulse, she hears the rumble of high-speed trains.

• • •

The architect stands on the balcony of her close apartment looking over the city-that-is and seeing the city-that-might-be. She smokes thin cigarettes and mentally replaces the burnt-out factory and its blind-eye smashed windows with a row of gleaming, silver towers. Once she builds them, her towers will scrape the stars.

“The city is rotten,” she says; she doesn’t turn around.

“I like the city,” says the architect’s lover, so softly she might not be heard. “It’s where we met.”

But the architect isn’t listening. Her hands sketch forms on the air, rewriting the view with shimmering art deco buildings, glistening fountains, and wide, chilly plazas.

The architect’s lover creeps outside to stand beside the architect. She hates visiting the architect here; it’s too high. The wind plucks at her. She doesn’t like seeing the city spread out this way, reduced to brick and wood, stone and smudges of light. Her own apartment is close to the ground, where she can step out the door and feel worn cobblestones beneath her feet.

Sometimes, even though she knows the architect would disapprove, the architect’s lover goes outside barefoot. She stands in her doorway and breathes in the stench of factories, blanketing the city in smoke. She breathes in the crackling, golden scent of fresh bread from the bakery on the corner. She breathes in the rotting geraniums in her neighbor’s window box. But most of all, she breathes in the stink of the river, because once upon a time it smelled like the promise of a new world.

On those days, the architect’s lover curls her toes around the worn-smooth cobbles and drinks in the life of all the people who came before her — every horse’s hoof, every shoeless urchin, every factory-man and whore, every rainfall wearing the cobbles as round as they are now. It makes the city feel alive. It comforts her.

More than once, she has tried to show the architect her city, the one she sees with her feet curled around the cobblestones, but the architect only frowns. The architect has plans. The architect’s lover would re-write the city with new-forged memories; the architect would re-write it with glass and chrome.

The architect slides her arm around her lover’s waist, drawing her closer to the view, but she’s still looking at the city.

“One day this will be beautiful,” the architect says.

The architect’s lover looks at the architect instead of the city — the plane of her cheekbones, the sweeping lines of her neck and throat, the dark spiral of her hair.

“It’s beautiful now,” she says.

• • •

In the morning, the architect’s lover finds plans scattered throughout the apartment. She lay beside the architect all night, listening to the high-speed rumble of dreams moving under the architect’s skin. The architect couldn’t have drawn the plans. She must have shed them from her body in her sleep like unwanted skin.

In two weeks, a tower rises where the architect’s hands traced the air, even though there have been no work crews, no scaffolds, no sound of hammers and nails. Like the plans, the architect must have dreamed it, brought it into being by force of will.

The architect’s lover cannot remember what stood there before the tower, if anything at all. This makes her weep, sitting alone in a café near the river, where the architect will not see. The architect’s lover wants to remember everything about the city, imprint it on her bones: here is where she held the architect’s hand, there is where they watched long barges pole down the canal. If she can keep the city from changing, maybe she can keep the architect from changing as well.

People pass the café where the architect’s lover sits, but no one seems to notice the tower. It has always been there. They take it for granted; this is the way the city is meant to be. When she tries to ask about it, people merely shrug. They walk faster; they look at the architect’s lover with strange, indulgent smiles. They shake their heads before going about their days.

The next time the architect’s lover visits, the architect calls her out onto the balcony. She points to the tower that has always been there.

“You see?” the architect says, indicating the top of the tower, a pyramid of glass all lit up with giant spotlights and faceted like a jewel. “One day I’ll buy you a diamond bigger and brighter than that one. I’ll string stars around your waist and wrap moonlight around your throat. I’ll drape you in fur and put pearls and feathers in your hair. You’ll never want for anything.”

The architect’s lover shudders; she imagines drowning under all that weight.

• • •

The architect’s lover still longs to become the architect’s wife some day, even though she fears she will die of neglect if she does, so long as she doesn’t die of a broken heart first. She has tried not to love the architect every way she knows how, but her heart keeps circling back to the day they met. It is a fixed point in time, and for the architect’s lover, it will never change.

They were both strangers in the city, recognizing in each other someone else who had not yet learned to call it home. They discovered it together, exploring every street, every alley, every rooftop and doorway. As they did, the architect’s lover wrote each location on her heart, remembering the way the architect looked when she touched that lintel, this railing. The architect’s lover never saw the city until she saw it through the architect’s eyes, and now they are inextricably intertwined. After so long adrift, these twin points, architect and city, anchored her. In the secret places inside her skin and her bones, her name for both architect and city is home.

What secret name the architect has for her, the architect’s lover does not know. This, she does know: The architect never learned to name the city home and she will rewrite all the places they’ve ever been together — the smoky café where they first met, drinking absinthe and watching bloated corpses float down the river; the crumbling bridge where they shared their first kiss, the architect tasting of heady wine and the architect’s lover tasting of nothing at all; the factory where they first fucked, the rough brick against the architect’s lover’s back, and broken glass crunching under their boots. Even the rotten pier where the boats that brought them both from different places long before they knew each other first landed.

Even so, the architect’s lover cannot fall out of love.

All the places she has written on her heart will vanish. Her heart will remain. But when those places are gone, who will they be — the architect and the architect’s lover? Who will they be, separate and together? With no history, what hope can there be for their future?

The architect’s lover is afraid the architect will rewrite her if she falls asleep. So she stays awake, eating cold, tart plums the color of new bruises. She smokes cigarettes she can’t stand the taste of, and drinks coffee so thick the spoon stands on its own when she forgets it halfway through stirring.

She does all these things and tries not to think of the architect’s hands on her body when they fuck, placing causeways in the curve of her hip, a spiral staircase winding around her spine, a domed cathedral to replace her skull.

She can’t tell the architect of her fear. She can’t tell her she’s afraid, or she’ll lose the architect even sooner. She is losing her. Has lost her. Will lose her again and again. She wants to lose her, and yet the architect’s lover is afraid of coming unmoored again, losing the only place she can call home.

So instead she tries to imagine making herself vast enough to hold a city entire, her arms long enough to encompass bridges and canals, wrapped so tight nothing will ever crumble. Even in her dreams, in the rare moments she lets herself sleep, she fails.

• • •

These are the architect’s dreams.

One: She replaces her bones with scaffolding. Her eyes become window glass, shattering sunlight. Her jaw sings a bridge’s span, made musical by the tramping of a thousand feet. All through her are tunnels, connecting everything. Her veins are marble. Her foundation stone. Her heart a cavernous station thundering with countless trains. She is vast and contains multitudes. And she is beautiful.

Two: She is very young and playing on the river bank with her brother and her cousin. It is summer and they are barefoot, squishing mud between their toes, feeling the wet, green life of fish and frogs and stilt-legged birds. They break off reeds from the shore and whip-thin branches from the overhanging trees, weaving them into impossible, organic structures. She is not the architect yet, in these dreams, but hers are always the strongest buildings. Her brother and cousin are too impatient, their fingers too quick. They splinter the reeds, snap the wood, and throw the wrecks into the sun-glinting water. They don’t want it badly enough. Her constructions can withstand anything, bound by her force of will.

Three: She is very old, but ageless. Her skin, stretched taut over bone-that-is-not-bone, is so thin the light shines through it. There is metal everywhere she can fit it. She has carved away as many pieces of herself as she can and still walk, still breathe. She has cut windows in her flesh, replaced skin with glass so the delicate structures within, the winding catwalks and promenades, are visible. She is light, so light, but she abhors the body that remains, holding her down.

At night, she calls her children to her. They come creeping from the shadows, their fingers bloody from tearing her city apart by day and building it anew as dusk falls. Metal spines protrude through their skin. Electricity sparks in their bones, makes their eyes glow. They never speak, but they crackle. She has given them whips to hold, downed power lines with frayed copper ends. At her bidding, they flay her, drawing blood from her remaining skin. She closes her eyes, cries ecstasy from a throat clogged with emotion. They are so perfect, her beautiful children, but it is never enough.

She is never enough.

Four: In her house near the river, she lies snugged tight between her brother and cousin, breathing in their dreams. Elsewhere in the house, her mother, father, and uncle snore. The door bursts open, shatters, raining splinters. Her family, all of them, is dragged from their beds, pushed barefoot into the snow.

She can see her breath as they are marched, all in a line, to the river and forced out onto the frozen surface. Under the snow, the ice is impossibly blue, and under the blue, the water is impossibly black. She is separated from everyone but her mother, who grips her hand so tight their bones grind together, and refuses to let go. There are other families, nearly the whole village, teeth chattering, shivering, confused. One man protests, and a soldier in his warm coat and fur hat breaks the man’s nose with the butt of his gun. The man makes a choking noise. He spits blood on the ice, and one yellow-white tooth. He doesn’t protest again.

One of the soldiers wears a star on his hat. He barks a command in a language she doesn’t understand, and two of his men go to either end of the shivering line. They walk slowly, with their guns drawn, and shoot every third person they come upon.

One, two, three. Crack. One, two, three. Crack. Her father, uncle, and cousin are sixth, eighteenth, and twenty-first in line. Her mother is thirtieth, and she is thirty-first.

Each bullet is the sound of the ice cracking, her heart breaking, the feel of her mother’s cold-chapped hand grinding against her bones then letting go as the force of gravity and the terrible color of blood upon the snow pull her down.

Her brother survives. She survives. The solider with the star on his hat lays a heavy hand on her shoulder. He leans forward and breathes in her face, against her ear. His breath, the only hot thing on the frozen lake, smells of sausage and cheap whiskey.

“Go,” he says. “Go, and take your brother with you. I want you to remember. I want you to carry this moment with you wherever you go.”

There are tears on her lashes, freezing in place. She will never let them fall. They are perfect, inverted globes, holding the last image of her family. If they fall, they will shatter, and her family will be lost forever.

This is what the architect dreams.

• • •

The city changes. Weak and rotten flesh is scraped away to reveal shining bone. Towers rise. Bridges cross and re-cross the city. A train thunders from uptown to midtown and beyond, rattling windows paned in sparkling glass.

The architect recruits an army of children, urchins with dirty fingers. The architect’s lover sees them in the shadows of old bridges, chipping away fragments of old stone. She sees them in the streets, hurling those chunks of stone through dirt-streaked windows, exploding brick dust from ancient buildings, hastening decay. She sees them digging between the cobbles, pulling them like teeth, prying between ancient boards until they snap. Their fingers are everywhere.

She listens to the architect’s plans. She listens to the trains run beneath the architect’s skin when she sleeps. The city will never be finished, never be done. By night the children will build it up, by day the children will pull it down, and put new, shining structures in its place when the moon rises again.

The city will never be complete. The architect will never be complete.

• • •

Although they have never spoken of it, the architect and the architect’s lover disagree.

To the architect’s lover, the river smells of promise, a particular promise that smells of her mother’s skin — fried onions, boiled cabbage, and harsh soap.

To the architect, the river is the smell of sickness. It is the feel of her brother’s fevered skin under the palm of her hand. The river is the color of his eyes, glazed, muddy silt from its bottom occluding his sight. It is the sound of him parting blood-cracked lips at the end, rattling out one last breath, and calling her by her mother’s name. It is the memory of him surviving the ice, and dying — as so many others did — on the refugee-choked boat carrying them to a new life, a new shore.

The architect is determined she will stitch the river closed. Her thread will be iron and steel, binding up the city’s wounds, sealing her brother’s ghost underneath its skin like a bruise, where it needs must fade.

Sometimes the architect likes to imagine she never touched down on the city’s shore. When her brother died, she climbed up on the rail of the boat, crowded with so many stinking refugees, and let herself fall into the churned, muddy water. She sank, rag doll arms and legs drifting loose around her, hair trailing like weeds. She breathed out and out, silver bubbles rising toward the surface, the only bright and beautiful thing in all the muck. She did not jump, but sometimes she wishes she did. Sometimes, even though she knows it is not true, she convinces herself she did jump. The river swallowed her whole. Some other girl, a drowned girl, a ghost, entered the city in her place.

At her core, who the architect truly is, is different. She is still under water, still exhaling, watching those bubbles rise. She is waiting. And one day soon, she will breathe in, light, perfect, and stripped clean. She will breathe in. And wake.

She tries to tell her lover these things, but she knows her lover doesn’t hear them. Somewhere, somehow, they lost their way. They met in one city, and somewhere along the way, they diverged. They look at the city now, and they see different things. The architect wonders if she can ever build a bridge strong enough to pull her lover across. And if she can’t, what will happen to them, then?

• • •

The architect’s lover takes to drinking. She drinks in cafes and bars along the ever-changing river, which she scarcely recognizes anymore.

Is that the place where she met the architect? Or was it over there? What of the factory, the stone bridge? What of the taste of the architect’s skin, smoky with the factory’s ghosts, sweat-slick beneath her lover’s lips? What of absinthe cradled on the architect’s tongue, and their hands held palm to palm — so tight — bone to bone? So tight they will never let go. Where are the echoes of their heels cracking in rhythm, one, two, three, as they run from one place to the next, running wild into the future?

The architect’s lover doesn’t recognize herself anymore. She doesn’t know where she fits — not on the streets, where cobbles no longer rise to meet the arches of her feet; not against the architect, where sharp juts of bone meet her fingers in place of the soft hollow of a throat, the gentle curve of a hip, or the warm swell of a breast.

She drinks and she smokes until her memories blur, until their edges round and grow soft like the scarcely-remembered thousand-year cobble stones. The architect’s lover shouts at strangers, her words slurring as she tells them of factories and piers and bridges that never existed.

She tells them of home.

When she slips up and says she is the architecture’s lover, not the architect’s, no one corrects her.

She is a ghost, in love with a city.

And in time, because she is afraid and she doesn’t know how to fall out of love, the architect’s lover takes home a beautiful boy whose name she can’t be bothered to remember. She fucks him precisely because it means nothing. Smoking still more cigarettes, eating chilled and bruised plums, watching him sleep, she is terribly afraid she’ll marry him one day. Still never knowing his name, the architecture’s lover will use up her body bearing the beautiful boy’s children. Children who will become the monsters of the architecture’s dream.

• • •

The architect, the architecture, is all angles and planes now, the glint of steel, concrete skin. The architecture’s lover doesn’t recognize anything anymore. She is a stranger in a city she once loved, a city that held so much promise. A city she called home.

The architect’s lover remembers her mother putting her on a boat. There were so many boats in those days, all leaving from different places, but all traveling to the city — a place of promise, a place of dreams. She remembers clinging to her mother’s skirt, sobbing and not wanting to let go as her mother’s hands — red and blistered from washing — urged her up the wooden gangway.

“It’s a better life,” her mother told her. “You’ll have opportunities I never had, things I can’t give you. You’ll be happy there, in time. Promise me you’ll try.”

She remembers gripping the ship’s rail so hard her knuckles turned white, leaning out over the churning water, waving and straining her eyes until her mother was only a vanished speck on the horizon. Landing on the city’s shore didn’t take the pain away, but stepping from the boat’s swaying deck onto firm land once more, the architect’s lover straightened her spine, keeping her promise to try. Determined to make her mother proud.

This is not the city she once called home.

This city is hostile. It is like the place she came from, on a boat, so long ago, a place that pushed her out, not wanting her anymore. It does not love her. It barely knows she’s alive.

And yet, still, she cannot fall out of love.

The architecture’s lover looks at the beautiful boy whose name she doesn’t know, and tries to love him. Silent tears run down her cheeks; she doesn’t remember why.

• • •

The architect stands on her balcony high above the shining city. Her city. Towers stab defiant at the sky, bridges stitch old wounds closed, trains hum deep underground, and the winking glass that is everywhere catches the sun. Strong and true, it will never crack, never break, never crumble.

Her skin is planed clean, scraped thin. Still, it is too heavy for her bones. But there is time, she knows. This is only the beginning.

The architect shades her eyes, and looks toward what was once the river. People stride along what are no longer banks, small as ants from up here. They are laughing, smiling. Women, sleek in cool silk the color of her towers. Men, in crisp suits the color of ice cream that will never melt. Their teeth are impossible in the sun. They don’t remember a life other than this one. She has made it so.

Everyone should have the luxury of forgetting the times when they weren’t as happy as they must be now.

Still, something tugs at the edges of the architect’s mind. There is a ghost in the city. The shadow of towers, spewing smoke, and the memory of a kiss, and salt-tasting skin against her lips haunt her mind. Before her marble skin, before the columns of her spine, the tension bridge of her jaw, before the diamond pane windows of her eyes, wasn’t she someone else? Wasn’t there someone who knew her as she was, and loved her just the same?

There, amid the ant-bustle on the once-shores, is a lone girl. Her feet are bare and spattered with mud. She is looking straight at the architect, across all the distance, and the people part around her like water breaking around a stone. Like she isn’t there.

The architect wonders: Is that her? Or someone she used to know?

Even though she can’t see them from her balcony, the architect knows: The girl’s eyes are the color of stirred silt, and blue ice. There are weeds in her hair. She raises her hand — a drowned girl, waiting to breathe, waiting to rise from the river and come ashore — and waves to the architect, but she does not smile.

• • •

The architect’s lover leaves the café. She is utterly lost. She recognizes nothing here.

She goes toward the water, some vague memory pulling her. But the map written on her skin is muddled. The streets, everything she thinks she knows, has been re-written.

The architect’s lover is looking for someone, but she doesn’t know who. No one looks familiar here. Except…

Except there is a girl, standing and looking across the water. It is a girl the architecture’s lover almost knows. The girl has eyes like silt and ice. They remind the architect’s lover of home.

The architecture’s lover raises her hand, catching the girl’s attention. The girl looks at her, and the architect’s lover falls to her knees. A name catches in her throat and stalls. She can’t remember. She weeps, and doesn’t know why. In her mind, there is one word, echoing persistently and meaning nothing: Home.

• • •

The architect stands on her balcony, and looks at the girl and the water. For a moment, the architect thinks there is something she has forgotten. Then she puts the thought from her mind.

Soon the city will be perfect. She will tear it down and rebuild it until it is so.

The architect turns. She does not raise her hand to the girl on the shore. Or the weeping woman on her knees by the girl’s side.

The architect goes inside. And she does not say goodbye.

 

 


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A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online. Her fiction can be found in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4, among others. In addition to her writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story. For more information visit www.acwise.net.

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