You’ll see them someplace you’re going when you’re trying to make the most of your time. They’re standing at the top of the steps to the public library (the amazing branch where they do the photoshoots, not the squat concrete one you go to), or they’re on the balcony at a concert you overheard someone talking about. They’ll be at the greatest altitude you can reach while still seeming effortless; they like being able to look down.
You’ll notice them a long time before they notice you, though they seem to stutter in and out of sight. They’re dressed the way you’ve always wanted to dress. Sometimes you’ll glance back and not see them, but they’re nowhere else either, and a second later something catches your eye and it’s them anyway and you feel like an asshole. You never get a sense of what they look like.
If they smoke, they’ll barely keep hold of their limp-dick cigarettes, wrist angled hard enough to crack. If they laugh, it’s parted lips but teeth close together, two straight rows, a furrow between their eyebrows like they’re already finding reasons it’s not so funny after all. One of them touches the other one right at the small of the back, cigarette a cinder between their fingers, and you get the impression of pushing even though nobody’s moved.
They’re awful, they don’t even pretend otherwise, and when you look at them, the hair on your neck stands up, and the word Rotten unfurls inside of you. (You couldn’t say it if anyone asked, your mouth is too dry, but it sits there sharp-edged, like you swallowed a name tag.)
One of them peels away, finally, passes you on the way to the bar or around the bottom edge of the steps towards the street; shoulders pinched, the shadow of the other one already falling across both of you.
“Don’t look,” she says, so low that music or traffic swallows it up. When they disappear, you’re still standing right where you were, staring at your own shoes, and it’s fucking stupid, but as soon as the words were out your gaze dropped.
It wasn’t like you did it because you were embarrassed to have been caught out; it was the urgency, some terror in the snap after the T and the K, and you know a warning when you hear one.
• • • •
“Oh,” she says at the top of the bridge.
There’s little else worth saying—she’s gotten so tired of languages lately, which would feel like a defeat if she cared more about losing—but a sound of surprise still falls out of her sometimes, some gut punch of feeling that gets a death rattle.
The last time she vanished from this city it was a ruin and you couldn’t get within five miles of it, nothing left but a few plaster-roof islands and the last few wooden fingers of the pier. Appearing in it now is visiting a grave to find the departed eating an apple on their headstone.
She feels desperate already, so desperate as to be fully solid, and she grips the stone and waits for someone to run into her. No one does. No one can really see her for long; she’s been so many places she’s not really anywhere any more.
The stone’s at her hip. It’s quiet when she touches it, though she feels it all the time anyway, a phantom heat right through to her spine.
One of the vaporettos is sinking, nearer to the sea. But it’s early, only just dawn, and no one will realize in time for the alarm to do any good; half of them will drown. It won’t take long. She watches.
When it’s over, she walks through the smaller streets, catches half-sentences and the windows of shops where the things in the very front have gone a little dusty and it doesn’t matter because they’re only tourists. Someone is napping in a piazza, and after she touches his shoulder he has no more use for his camera. She takes three photographs: the slime easing up the edge of a canal, the curtains in a house where someone is very ill, the shadow of a flight of birds that looks like a monster underneath the water.
It’s a city of corpses, like every other city, and she walks across the bridges and thinks about drowning.
• • • •
He catches up with her under one of the abandoned billboards for Lunar Enterprises that looks out over a dark stretch of desert. She’s crossed her arms to keep from looking for a cigarette. Nobody makes them any more; there’s no point looking.
She’s carrying a camera, one of the instant ones that’s back in vogue. She’s holding the pictures like a hand of poker, five snapshots of the city at the edge of the valley as the lights went out and out and out.
“They came out nice,” his voice is a thousand years weary with telling her.
“They did.” They’re already fading, though; she only looked at them once. Soon they’ll start to disappear at the edges, and by the time they leave here, there won’t be anything left to take.
He used to tell her to give it up, but she’s not the only one who has hobbies, and he stopped asking a long time ago.
He reaches for the pack in his pocket, taps out two, lights the second one off the cherry from the first. They give off just enough flare to remind them how pitch dark it is. She can see the hollow above his top lip, that’s all.
“I don’t smoke any more,” she says.
He raises his eyebrows, smokes both cigarettes at the same time.
The last of the smoke feathers from his mouth as he drops the butts; they vanish before they ever hit the ground, and he grinds his boot into the dirt like he’s trying to spite them. Their kind leave no traces.
Still, hers just vanish; his all gathers somewhere, waiting for him, everything he touches, everything he does. He’s always going home.
“Been hoping to run into you,” he says.
She’s been in eight places since she saw him last, or ten. In a couple of places there was only a day. She spent a week in the mountains, staying clear of a black bear that got more agitated the longer she stayed—it could tell something was wrong, right up until it died. She hopes it’s all right now, but it’s the same way she hopes everyone who drowns in Venice centuries from now fought until the very last; you get cruel eventually.
Maybe she started out cruel. She suspects that the very first time she opened her eyes and was elsewhen, her sympathy had vanished. Something she was born to.
(She’s thought about it, that maybe anyone becomes like this if you give them long enough and show them what they’ve seen. Doesn’t bear much reflection.)
From the city, there’s a siren. The blast that comes in the dark will kill three hundred people, give or take.
He made friends all the time. Said they held on more fiercely, which she knows; said they loved more deeply, which she doesn’t doubt. But he loves them back, loves women and men and the sort of child who can actually see you, who stares you right in the eye and ignores you when you say, “Don’t look,” and then gets angry at all once as it realizes it’s been robbed and it’s looked too long at the thing that will kill it.
Lucky, she says when he tells her. He never asks her what she means.
“Good to see you,” she says.
The first of the rumblings begins. They look across the darkness, where the edge of the city is just beginning to separate from the dark with a layer of smoke and flame.
Her heart is a thousand stairs with nothing at the top, and she’s afraid all the way up.
• • • •
If everything worked as it was meant to, you were always there just before the worst of it, the birdsong before the bomb. But aberration doesn’t always listen, and she appeared too late, sometimes, or a year early, or a hundred years. Sometimes she’d shown up in the middle of a war, and when the stone in her pocket warmed and creaked and pushed her to wherever she was going next, it was the only sound on a field without graves, the ground swallowing blood as fast as it could.
Once, by some mistake, she’d been spat out before there were people at all, and she’d sat on a tree trunk and watched the sun stain the leaves, and the ferns at her feet rustle with animals that seemed like her: mammal at first glance, but reptile if you knew what you were looking for. She lifted her hands before she remembered she had no camera. It got colder eventually, warmer again. The ground underfoot stretched an inch or two. She wondered if she’d be sitting there for a hundred million years, waiting. She didn’t mind.
There was a white vulture, and as it tilted its head to her, black eyes in sickly-blue sockets, it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. She’s forgotten the thing that died.
She had no camera. When she appeared next (Morocco, maybe), her hands sat in her lap a long time, framed by nothing.
• • • •
Lens aberrations in a camera, in order of disaster:
Distortion: A warp across something you thought was holding steady. Tilt shift: makes your subject fall away from you, every house teetering on the verge of collapse. Bokeh: a cheat in the shape of light, turning light into spheres of nostalgia that hover behind whatever you’re trying to capture, a hostage of a good time. Chromatic: The edges of your colors burn into something they aren’t, and you can’t trust your colors any more, but that one is subtle, and you won’t know until it’s too late.
Curvature: The thing you want most is sharp and bright, and everything else slips out of focus by degrees. That one you can live with. It’s close enough to life. Can’t blame it for that.
None of it works, of course. If it did there would be chaos. You can take all the pictures you want. Their face will be gone—some lens flare that wasn’t there before, or a dove taking off in the foreground with two feathers spread over where they used to be, or obscured behind a cloud of someone’s cigarette, even if you’ve never smoked and they never have. If there’s no excuse that the frame can find, you’ll just see a vanished face where the picture’s been eaten away, someone lifting a disappearing glass to lips that don’t exist anymore.
• • • •
The invading army of a country that doesn’t yet exist piles the corpses of the vanquished outside the camp. The straggling forces of the occupied wait until deep night before they set the bodies on fire. Their attack on the camp comes in the middle of the chaos, and takes hundreds of enemy lives; the contagion that was already sickening the dead wafts equally across friend and foe. Both armies will be decimated soon, and the germ will crawl victoriously over the countryside for longer than anyone remembers the war.
He’s leaning against the tree trunk, barely touching her left shoulder; his hair makes a sound against the bark when he turns to look at her. “If you take the tragedy out of it, it’s pretty funny.”
This is why she gave up on languages. “If you take the tragedy out of anything, it’s funny.”
He smiles and rolls his stone across his knuckles, a skipping stone shaped like a coin. She’s seen it a hundred times. She’s never laid a finger on it.
A deserter staggers past them, close enough to death that when he looks up he’s startled to see them.
“Don’t look,” she says, and the soldier opens his mouth, drops his gaze to the ground. It’s too late for him, though, and he doesn’t even make it past the tree before he crashes to the ground. He’s facing them, eyes open; she looks away.
He looks back and forth between the corpse and her, and for a moment his face gets fond; it does that whenever something happens that he can take for her having some kind feeling.
She lets him think what he likes.
(He was the one who explained her aberration, the first time he ever found her, when she was occupying the last of her mind and he looked like he knew how thin that thread had gotten. He must have been looking for her; she wonders, sometimes.)
His trajectories seem like real journeys—every time she sees him, she knows he’s come from a place and is going to another, moving through the world and witnessing everything he can. Hers is a slow, suspended spiraling-down, and it’s possible to tell at which points he came back by clocking when things skidded violently to one side, a kite that’s been shot.
He watches her for a while, unblinking. She wonders if he’s descended from the vulture, the way she’s a child of that half-changed reptile.
• • • •
She’d seen the sun rise over the valley once. It hit the top of the mountains first in a line of gold, and crept over the fields in a dozen shades of green—there had been sheep, only a handful, someone had been careless and would lose them before the sun was fully up. Pines ringed them in now, a jagged mouth that cast long shadows. At the edge of the green was the drop, and the lake underneath dark as a pool of oil.
The hill she stood on was clumps of heather that smelled rotten despite the dried-out grass, and with every step she sank an inch, as if the hill was going to give. There was a village at the bottom of the valley, just at the horizon, but no lights were on at all; she was the only one awake, watching the sun as the lake hid from it, as the sheep moved closer to the fall.
I want to keep this, she thought. There was no reason, there was never a reason to keep one thing that passed over another thing that passed, but this she loved more than she could remember loving anything. She was breathing just looking at it, hard enough that she could feel ribs.
She took a dozen pictures with the box camera she’d stolen from the city she’d walked away from, knowing none of them would hold this, knowing she was losing the moment when the heather looked alive with light. When the first two sheep fell, she watched them go and had to sit down to keep from reaching forward over the edge of the drop to pull them back and try to catch it in the frame.
They made a noise as they fell, all of them, the same anguished cry that was more human than any sound a human made, but she’s forgotten it. It was a long time ago, and there are no pictures.
• • • •
“If I can affix myself, I will,” she tells him the next time she sees him, which if she averages out the time in between her moves forward and back, near as she can tell, is two hundred years before the last time she saw him.
He doesn’t have any cigarettes, and his thumbs twist at the edges of his pockets. His eyes are black, his skin is dark; she wonders what he looks like to the rest of them—a shadow, a hollow, the silhouette of someone they’d forgotten who will suddenly spring to mind just before terrible news comes in. He’d told her once that she’s the color of the clay everyone walks over, but they were fighting then. No way of knowing.
“This is a terrible time to make a decision that terrible,” he tells the bridge over the river. “Look at this place. Won’t be worth living in for another seven hundred years, and you can’t get anywhere else until they discover the waves.”
“I don’t want it now. I’ll wait for the right place.”
He looks at her from the corner of his eye. She wonders why she’s hard to look at.
“You’ll waste it,” he says, like he sympathizes. “You’ll throw yourself from the first tall thing you find. Staying anywhere turns into a circle of things that are never quite what you wanted. You like to see it and be finished.”
That seems cruel for someone who has a place he can return to. “I can’t keep hold of a camera,” she says. “I don’t like it to be finished. I just can’t bring anything back home.”
“You’d be wasted at home, too.” He smooths his hands over his chest pockets. Empty.
“I found the place I really wanted. I know I’ll never get back there, don’t worry, that’s all gone. But I’ve been looking.”
“That sounds exhausting.”
She thinks that’s a little rich, coming from him. She doesn’t say anything.
“So have you picked the lucky grave?”
She says, “I know what I’m waiting for.”
To feel anything, she thinks. As soon as I open my eyes and feel anything at all, I’m going to bury this rock in the ground and live out my days and die. Any magic has to fade if you bury it in the ground; it leeches out through the water and the air, it becomes a village of people who live a long time but can never stay put, it becomes a herd of deer who cross a continent.
Then there will be time enough to find a high place, if she wants one. There will be a hill with a lake like oil at the bottom, and a sheer drop that no one climbs out of.
“Don’t do something stupid just so I’ll miss you,” he says.
She turns to him. “Promise me you’ll find me and tell me if it works.”
I want you to know where I am, she doesn’t say. She doesn’t say, I want you to look at my grave just once.
“If it doesn’t work, I won’t have to find you. You’ll open your eyes and a locomotive will run you over and you’ll know, and when you open them again, you’ll know, without any help from me.”
“Promise me you’ll find me,” she says.
Her eyes sting, looking at him. Maybe that’s the first sign of something changing.
He meets her eye; her heart is a thousand stairs with nothing waiting at the top.
• • • •
To remember, someone had told her as they touched her hair, before she ever learned about a camera and what it could do for anyone who wasn’t her. To make you appreciate home, someone had told her as they pressed the stone into her hand—she’d been all night wandering, and it must have been an offense. They must have been afraid of her; she hopes she was frightening.
Don’t do this to her, he’d said.
She’s forgotten if he was always there or if he found the moment and tried to intervene; she only remembers his breath between her and the shadows the trees were casting. It was the last thing she ever heard, standing in that place.
She suspects it was meant to be a place she’d come back to, that her heart and the stone in her hand would draw her back there when the traveling was over, but the first time she opened her eyes all that was gone.
She doesn’t remember where or when, or anyone she left. The ground that could never be filled had taken them all in its mouth, and if she went back in time enough to meet them, she wouldn’t know their faces; she wouldn’t know where to stand to call it homecoming.
Maybe she’s stood there already, and all she saw was the little circle of the box camera, a field inverted, a picture that was going to be devoured any second.
When she closes her eyes and tries to conjure it back, she sees a drowned pier, and his face in a wreath of smoke, and a vulture’s eye, and a camera lens that was grasping to hold on.
• • • •
It takes sixteen moves before there’s a worthy place. (One of them had seemed beautiful, but she was only there an hour before the stone got warm and she grit her teeth and felt the sick-stomach lurch that reminded her she had a body. It had been an hour of red dust so bright the sky looked purple next to it; chromatic aberration.)
But this is a quiet town, big enough that she can steal a camera, near enough to a river that she can follow it into the meadows, and be alone just past the bend. There’s no high ground here, but the world is wide.
At the top of a sloping hill that’s as close as she can find, there’s a tree that reminds her of the place where they watched the beginning of the plague, and she presses her lips into a thin line, counts backwards carefully from ten as she gets closer. He never makes much noise. If she didn’t always expect him, she’d never know when he’d appeared.
She stands beside the tree for a long time as the sun crawls over everything. The branches look like a man smoking, they look like someone reaching out for her, they look like a map of Venice. Below her is the little town and the river, and she looks as far as she can for a ship that could be carrying him.
At sunset the branches look like the veins on the leaf she looked through once as the things that would become mammals skittered across her feet. In the dark, the branches make cracks in the sky as she looks up at the moon, asks it nothing, counts to a hundred thousand thousand.
It’s dawn when the stone begins to get warm around the edges. Panic clenches her tight for a moment, and she thinks about plagues and cities and deserts and no, it has to be here, she has to risk it, she’ll grow old waiting but she’ll wait, when he finds her he might laugh but she can’t stand the idea of ever again moving, she’s breathing like her chest will burst, she’s staying here.
She drags a few inches of earth off from the ground beneath the tree, shoves the stone into it, scrapes in her tears and breathes against it and spits for good measure, buries it in a single two-handed shove of dirt like a door slamming shut.
She closes her eyes, feels nothing, opens them. The bank of the river is shrinking; tide’s coming in.
This is the ground then, she thinks. Whenever he finds me, he’ll know where I’m buried.
It’s sunrise when the light hits low enough that she sees the place where the ground is risen, a little burial mound grown over with a hundred years of moss and little blue flowers she’s forgotten the name of.
It’s a small grave. It’s barely big enough for a small, flat rock she could roll between her fingers like a coin.
• • • •
You’ll see her when you go someplace trying to be alone—dramatically, romantically, the sheer hill that hangs over the bay, the kind of place where poets go. Somewhere you can look down on everything.
She’ll be standing near the edge of wherever it is, not close enough that you’d feel right about crying out, but close enough that you keep glancing out of the corner of your eye as you sit down, try to let the moment wash over you. She seems like she’s waiting for someone, though she’s not moving, her arms crossed tight over her chest, everything about her looking pinched in, stretched out.
You never quite catch her face, however long you look at her; when you try to get her attention, you just remember some dark unblinking eye and then something going fuzzy at the edges like a bad photograph. When you look out at the bay, you always forget she’s there until you move.
You’ll begin to think that poetry’s a bit much after all. It’s not like you went through anything so bad, and it’s awfully windy to be in a place so high. It’s too windy to be as close to the edge as she is.
You’ll stand up to reach her, start to move and then freeze, some prey instinct that holds you where you are.
“Be careful,” you’ll say.
She’ll say, “Don’t look.”
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