One night, I woke to the sound of my mother’s voice, as I did when I was a child. The words were familiar to my ear, they matched the voice that formed them, but it was not until I had opened my eyes to the dark of my room and my husband’s snoring that I remembered the words were calling me away from my warm bed and the steady breathing of my children, both asleep in their own rooms across the hall. “Because I could not stop for death,” my mother used to tell me, “he kindly stopped for me.” They were Dickinson’s words, of course, not my mother’s, but she said them as if they were hers, and because of that, they were hers, and because of that, they are now mine, passed down with every other object my mother gave me before I left for what I hoped would be a better world. “Here, take this candy dish.” Her hands pushing the red knobbed glass into my hands. “Here, take this sweater.” Her hands folding it, a made thing, pulled together by her hands, so that I could lift it and lay it on the seat as my car pulled me away. Her hand lifted into the air above her cloud of white hair behind me. The smoke of that other city enveloping her, putting it behind me, trying to put it behind me, until I had the words in my mouth again, like a bit, and then the way opened up beneath me, a fissure through which I slipped, down through the bed sheets, no matter how I grasped at them, down through the mattress, down through the floorboards, down, down, down, through the mud and earth and gravel, leaving my snoring husband and my steadily breathing children above, in that better place, until I was floating, once more, along the swiftly flowing current of the Fourth River.
When I rose up, gasping for air, and blinked the water from my eyes, I saw the familiar cavern lit by lanterns that lined the walls, orange fires burning behind smoked glass. And, not far downstream, his shadow stood along the water’s edge, a lantern held out over the slug and tow of the current, waiting, as he was always waiting for me, there, in that place beneath the three rivers, there in the Fourth River’s tunnel that leads to Smoke City.
It was time again, I understood, to attend to my obligations.
History always exacts a price from those who have climbed out to live in the world above. There is never a way to fully outrun our beginnings. And here was mine, and he was mine here. I smiled, happy to see him again, the sharp bones of his face gold-leafed by the light of his lantern.
He put out his hand to fish me from the river, and pulled me up to stand beside him. “It is good to see you again, wife,” he said, and I wrapped my arms around him.
“It is good to smell you again, husband,” I said, my face pressed against his thick chest. They are large down here, the men of Smoke City. Their labor makes them into giants.
We walked along the Fourth River’s edge, our hands linked between us, until we came to the mouth of the tunnel, where the city tipped into sight below, cupped as it is within the hands of a valley, strung together by the many bridges crossing the rivers that wind round its perimeter. The smoke obscured all but the dark mirrored glass of city towers, which gleamed by the light of the mill-fired skies down in the financial district, where the captains sit around long, polished tables throughout the hours and commit their business.
It did not take the fumes long to find me, the scent of the mills and the sweaty, grease-faced laborers, so that when my husband pulled me toward the carriage at the top of the Incline Passage, a moment passed in which my heart flickered like the flame climbing the wick of his lantern. I inhaled sharply, trying to catch my breath. Already what nostalgia for home I possessed had begun to evaporate as I began to remember, to piece together what I had worked so hard to obscure.
I hesitated at the door of the Incline carriage, looking back at the cavern opening, where the Fourth River spilled over the edge, down into the valley, but my husband placed two fingers on my chin and turned my face back up to his. “We must go now,” he said, and I nodded at his eyes like chips of coal, his mustached upper lip, the sweat on his brow, as if he were working, even now, as in the mill, among the glowing rolls of steel.
The Incline rattled into gear, and soon we were creaking down the valley wall, rickety-click, the chains lowering us to the bottom, slowly, slowly. I watched out the window as the city grew close and the smoke began to thicken, holding a hand over my mouth and nose. An Incline car on the track opposite passed us, taking a man and a woman up to the Fourth River overlook. She, like me, peered out her window, a hand covering her mouth and nose as they ascended the tracks. We stared at each other, but it was she who first broke our gaze to look up at the opening to the cavern with great expectations, almost a panicked smile on her face, teeth gritted, willing herself upward. She was on her return journey, I could tell. I had worn that face myself. She had spent a long year here, and was glad to be leaving.
They are long here, the years in Smoke City, even though they are finished within the passing of a night.
At the bottom, my husband handed me down from the Incline car, then up again into our carriage, which was waiting by the curb, the horses nickering and snorting in the dark. Then off he sent us, jostling down the cobbled lane, with one flick of his wrist and a strong word.
Down many wide and narrow streets we rode, some mud, some brick, some stone, passing through the long rows of narrow workers’ houses, all lined up and lean like soldiers, until we arrived at our own, in the Lost Neighborhood, down in Junction Hollow, where Eliza, the furnace, blocks the view of the river with her black bulk and her belching smoke. They are all female, always. They have unassuming names like Jeanette, Edith, Carrie. All night long, every night, they fill the sky with their fires.
Outside, on the front stoop of our narrow house, my children from the last time were waiting, arms folded over their skinny chests or hanging limply at their sides. When I stepped down from the carriage onto the street, they ran down the stairs, their arms thrown wide, the word “Mother!” spilling from their eager mouths.
They had grown since I’d last seen them. They had grown so much that none of them had retained the names I’d given them at birth. Shauna, the youngest, had become Anis. Alexander was Shoeshine. Paul, the oldest, said to simply call him Ayu. “Quite lovely,” I said to Anis. “Very good then,” I told Shoeshine. And to Ayu, I said nothing, only nodded, showing the respect due an imagination that had turned so particularly into itself during my absence. He had a glint in his eyes. He reminded me of myself a little, willing to cast off anything we’d been told.
When we went through the door, the scent of boiled cabbage and potatoes filled the front room. They had cooked dinner for me, and quite proudly Anis and Shoeshine took hold of either elbow and led me to the scratched and corner-worn table, where we sat and shared their offering, not saying anything when our eyes met one another’s. It was not from shame, our silence, but from an understanding that to express too much joy at my homecoming would be absurd. We knew that soon they would have no names at all, and I would never again see them.
We sipped our potato soup and finely chewed our noodles and cabbage.
Later, after the children had gone to bed, my husband led me up the creaking stairs to our own room, where we made love, fitting into one another on the gritty, soot-stained sheets. Old friends, always. Afterward, his arms wrapped around my sweaty stomach, holding me to him from behind, he said, “I die a little more each time you are away.”
I did not reply immediately, but stared out the grimy window at the rooftops across the street. A crow had perched on the sill of the window opposite, casting about for the glint of something, anything, in the dark streets below. It cawed at me, as if it had noticed me staring, and ruffled its feathers. Finally, without turning to my husband, I said, “We all die,” and closed my eyes to the night.
The days in the city of my birth are differentiated from the nights by small degrees of shade and color. The streetlamps continue burning during the day, since the sun cannot reach beyond the smoke that moves through the valley like a storm that will never abate. So it always appears to be night, and you can only tell it is day by the sound of shift whistles and church bells ringing the hours, announcing when it is time to return to work or to kneel and pray.
No growing things grew in Smoke City, due to the lack of sunlight. On no stoops or windowsills did a fern or a flower add their shapes and colors to the square and rectangular stone backdrops of the workers’ houses. Only fine dusty coatings of soot, in which children drew pictures with the tips of their fingers, and upon which adults would occasionally scrawl strange messages:
Do Not Believe Anything They Tell You.
Your Rewards Await You In Heaven.
It Is Better That Others Possess What I Need But Do Not Understand.
I walked my children down the road, past these cryptic depictions of stick men and women on the sides of houses and words whose meanings I could not fathom, until we came to the gates of the furnace Eliza, whose stacks sent thick plumes of smoke into the air. There, holding the hands of my two youngest, I knelt down in the street to meet their faces. “You must do what you are told,” I instructed them, my heart squeezing even as I said the words. “You must work very hard, and never be of trouble to anyone, understand?”
The little ones, Anis and Shoeshine, nodded. They had all been prepared for this day over the short years of their lives. But Ayu, my oldest, narrowed his eyes to a squint and folded his arms over his chest, as if he understood more than I was saying. Those eyes were mine looking back at me, calling me a liar. “Do you understand, Ayu?” I asked him directly, to stop him from making that look. When he refused to answer, I asked, “Paul, do you understand me?” and he looked down at his feet, the head of a flower wilting.
I stood again, took up their small hands again, and lead them to Eliza’s gates, the top of which was decorated with a flourish of coiled barbed wire. A small, square window in the door opened as we stood waiting, and a man’s eye looked out at us. “Are they ready?” he said.
The window snapped shut, then the gate doors began to separate, widening as they opened. Inside, we could see many people working, sparks flying, carts of coal going back and forth, the rumble of the mill distorting the voices of the workers. The man who had opened the gate window came from around the corner to greet us. He was small, stocky, with oily skin and a round face. He smiled, but I could not manage to be anything but straight-faced and stoic. He held his hands out to the little ones, who went to him, giving him their hands as they’d been instructed, and my heart filled my mouth, suffocating me, so that I fell to my knees and buried my face in my hands.
“Stupid cow,” the gateman said, and as soon as I took my hands away to look up, I saw Ayu running away, his feet kicking up dust behind him. “See what you’ve done?” Do not look back, I told Ayu with my mind, hoping he could somehow hear me. Do not look back or you will be detained here forever.
Then the gates shut with a metallic bang, and my small ones were gone from me, gone to Eliza.
The first month of my year in the city of my birth passed slowly, painfully, like the after effects of a night of drunkenness. For a while I had wondered if Ayu would return to the house at some point, to gather what few possessions he had made or acquired over his short lifetime, but he stayed away, smartly. My husband would have only taken him back to Eliza if he found him. That is the way, what is proper, and my husband here was nothing if not proper.
We made love every night, after he returned from the mill, his arms heavy around my waist, around my shoulders. But something had occurred on the day I’d given up the last ones: My womb had withered, and now refused to take our love and make something from its materials.
Still, we tried. Or I should say, my husband tried. Perhaps that was the reason for my body’s reluctance. Whenever his breath fell against my neck, or his mouth on my breasts, I would look out the window and see Eliza’s fires scouring the sky across the mountaintops, and what children we may have made, the idea of them, would burn to cinders.
“You do not love me anymore,” my husband said one night, in my second month in the city; and though I wanted to, badly, I could not deny this.
I tried to explain. “It is not you, it is not me, it is this place,” I told him. “Why don’t you come with me, why don’t we leave here together?”
“You forget so easily,” my husband said, looking down into his mug of cold coffee.
“What?” I said. “What do I forget?”
“You have people there, in the place you would take me.”
I looked down into my own mug and did not nod.
“It is what allows you to forget me, to forget our children, our life,” said my husband.
“What is?” I asked, looking up again. Rarely did my husband tell me things about myself.
“Your bad memory,” said my husband. “It is your blessing.”
If my memory were truly as bad as my husband thought, I would not have been returned to the city of my birth. He was incorrect in his judgment. What he should have said was, Your memory is too strong to accomplish what you desire, for I would not have been able to dismiss that. It is true, I wanted nothing more than to eradicate, to be born into a new world without the shackles of longing, and the guilt that embitters longing fulfilled.
But he had said his truth, flawed as it was, and because he had spoken this truth we could no longer look at each other without it hovering between us, a ghost of every child we had ever had together, every child I had taken, as a proper wife and mother, to the gates. They stared at me for him, and I would turn away to cook, clean, mend, to keep the walls of the house together.
Another month passed in this way, and then another. I washed my husband’s clothes each day in a tub of scalding water. The skin on my hands began to redden, then to peel away. I began to avoid mirrors. My hair had gone lank and hung about my face like coils of old rope, no matter how I tried to arrange it. I could no longer see my own pupils, for there was no white left in the corners. My eyes had turned dark with coal dust and smoke.
One day a knock at the front door pulled me away from the dinner I was making for my husband’s return from another sixteen-hour shift. When I opened the door, a man from the mill, a manager I vaguely recognized, was standing on my stoop. He held a hat against his protruding stomach, as if he had taken it off to recite a pledge or a piece of poetry. “Excuse me,” he said, “for interrupting your day. But I come with sad news.”
Before he could finish, I knew what he would say. Few reasons exist for a mill manager to visit a worker’s wife.
“Your husband,” he said, and I could not hear the rest of his words, only saw the images they carried within them: my husband, a slab of meat on the floor of the mill, burned by Eliza. My husband, a slab of meat on the floor of the mill, dragged away to be replaced by another body, another man, so that Eliza could continue her labors.
“You will need time to rest, of course,” the manager said. “I’m sure it is quite a shock, but these things happen.”
I nodded, dumbly, and stood there, waiting for something.
“We will be in touch, of course,” said the manager as he stepped off my stoop back onto the cobbled street.
If I would have had any sense left in me, I would have done what Ayu had done, I would have run away as fast as possible, I would have done what I had done before, a long time ago, when I’d left the first time, with my mother’s hand raised in the air above her cloud of white hair, waving behind me.
Instead, I sank down into my husband’s chair in the front room and wept. For him, for our children, wept selfishly for myself. What would I do without him? I could feel him all around me, his big body having pressed its shape into the armchair, holding me in its embrace.
Within a week, a mass of suitors arranged themselves in a queue outside my door. They knocked. I answered. One was always waiting to speak to me, big and hulking like my husband had been, a little younger in some cases, a little older in others. Used up men and men in the process of being used. They wanted me to cook, clean, and make love to them. I turned them away, all of them. “No thank you,” I said to each knock, glancing over their shoulders to see if the line of suitors had shortened. It stretched down the street and around the corner, no matter how many men I turned away.
There was a shortage of women, one of the suitors finally informed me, trying to make his case as a rational man, to explain himself as suitable for someone like me. There were many men in need of a good wife.
“I am not a good wife,” I told him. “You must go to another house of mourning,” I told him. “You must find a different wife.”
The suitors disappeared then. One by one they began to walk away from the queue they had formed, and for a while my front stoop was empty. I went back to sitting in my husband’s chair, grieving.
My memory was bad, he had told me, but he was wrong. My memory kept him walking the halls and the staircase, my memory refused to let go of him completely, as it had refused to let go each time I left. I die a little more each time you are away, he had said the first night of my return to the city. Now he was dead, I thought, there would be no more dying. Upon realizing this, I stood up from his chair.
Before I could take a step in any direction of my own choosing, though, a knock arrived at the front door, pulling me toward it. How quickly we resume routine, how quickly we do what is expected: A child cries out, we run to it; something falls in another room, we turn corners to see what has fallen; a knock lands upon a door, we answer.
Outside stood three men, all in dark suits with the gold chains of pocket watches drooping from their pockets. They wore top hats, and long waxed mustaches. They wore round spectacles in thin wire frames. I recognized them for what they were immediately: captains of industry. But what could they be doing here, I wondered, on the front stoop of a widow at a forgettable address in the Lost Neighborhood, down in Junction Hollow.
“Forgive us for intruding,” they said. “We do not mean to startle you.”
They introduced themselves, each one tipping his hat as he delivered his name: A.W., H.C., R.B. All captains’ names are initials. It is their badge of honor.
“We understand,” they said, “that you have recently lost your husband.”
I nodded, slow and stupid.
“And we understand that you have turned away all of the many suitors who have come requesting your hand in marriage,” they continued.
I nodded again.
“We are here to inquire as to your plans, madame, for the future,” they said, and took their pocket watches out to check the time, to see if the future had arrived yet. “Do you mean to marry again?” they asked. “Do you plan to provide us with more children?”
I shook my head this time, and opened my mouth to ask the purpose of their visit. But before I could form one word, they tapped at my chest with their white-gloved hands.
“Now, now,” they said, slipping their watches back into their pockets. “No need for any of that.”
Then they took hold of my arms and pushed me back into my house, closing the door behind them.
Within the passing of a night I became sick with their children; within a week, the front of my housedress began to tighten; and within a month, I gave birth: three in all. One by one, their children ripped away from me and grew to the size of the children I had walked to the gates of Eliza.
I did not need to feed them. They grew from the nourishment of my tears and rages. They knew how to walk and talk instinctively, and began to make bargains with one another, trading clothes and toys and whole tracts of land.
Soon their fathers returned to claim them. “Thank you very much,” said the captains, as they presented each child with a pocket watch, a pair of white gloves, a top hat. Then they looked at me. “In return for your troubles, we have built you a library.”
They swept their arms in wide arcs to the opposite side of the street. Where once a row of houses stood shoulder to shoulder, now a three-story library parked its bulk along the sidewalk. “Where are my neighbors?” I asked. “Where are my friends?”
“We have moved them to another part of the city,” said the captains. “Do not worry. We are in the midst of building them their own library at this very moment. We do not take, you see, without giving back.”
Then they clapped their hands and curled their index fingers over and over, motioning for their top-hatted, white-gloved children to follow, checking the time on their new pocket watches as they walked toward the financial district.
A dark rumor soon began to circulate throughout the back rooms in pubs and in the common rooms of the libraries of Smoke City. The captains’ children were growing faster than their fathers could manage, it was said. The captains themselves, it was said, were having difficulties with their wives, who remained in their stone mansions on top of the mountains ringing the city, above the strata of smoke. One wife had committed suicide and another had snuck out of her mansion in the middle of the night, grew wings, and flew across the ocean to her home country, where her captain had found her many years ago sitting by a river, strumming a stringed instrument and singing a ballad of lost love. Those of us who lived below their homes above the point where the wind blew smoke away from the captains’ houses had never seen these women, but we knew they were aching with beauty.
I could see it all now, what lay behind that terrible evening, and the plans the captains’ children had been making as they’d left with their fathers, opening the backs of their pocket watches to examine the gears clicking inside, taking them out to hold up to the non-existent light.
Indeed, the future spread out before me, a horizon appearing where the captains’ sons were building machines out of the gears of their pocket watches, and more men lumbered away from the mills every day to sit on porches and frustrate their wives who did not know how to take care of them while they were in their presence.
A future will always reveal itself, even in places like Smoke City.
But smoke nor soot nor the teeth of gears as they turned what arms once turned, as they ground time to chafe and splinters, could not provide the future I desired. I had seen something else—a long time ago, it seemed now, or a long time to come—and though it came with the price of unshakable memory, I began the journey that would return me to it.
Through the streets I trudged to the Incline platform, where I waited for my car wearing nothing but my worn-out housedress, my old shoes covered in mud and the stinking feces of horses. No one looked at me. I was not unnatural.
When the car arrived, I climbed in. And when the car began to lift, rickety-click, I breathed a small sigh. This time, though, as I turned to peer out the back window, my mother was not there, waving her hand in the air. Only the city. Only the city and its rooftops spread out behind me. This time, I was leaving without the cobwebs of the past clinging to me.
On the way up, a car went by in the opposite direction, carrying a woman with her man inside it. I stared at her for a moment, staring at me through her window, a frightened look on her face, before I broke our gaze to look up at the mouth of the Fourth River’s cavern, and the water spilling from it.
When the car reached the top, I exited to wander through the lantern-lit cavern, the river beside me, until the walls were bare and no lanterns lit the way any longer, and the roar of the river was in my ears and the dark of the cave filled my eyes.
At some point, I felt the chill of rising water surround me. It trickled over my toes at first, then lifted me off my feet. I began to swim upward, pulling my arms through the current, kicking my legs furiously. Up and up and up I swam, until I opened my eyes to sunlight, blue skies that hurt to look at, yellow bridges, vast hills of green, and somewhere on the other side of this city my husband in this place would be waking up to find I had left him in the middle of the night again. He would wake the children next, the children I would never give over, and together they would walk to the place where I found myself surfacing. They have come across me here before. My husband will take my hand, say, “Early riser,” and I would bring his hand to my lips to kiss it.
I gasped, taking the blue air into my lungs, the light into my eyes. The city, the city of my refuge, spread out before me, the rivers on either side of me spangled with light, a fountain spraying into the air, the towers of downtown gleaming. The smoke of that other city was gone now, the fires in that other sky were nowhere on this horizon. The smoke and the fires were in some other world, and I found that I could only weep now, selfishly grateful that it was no longer mine.
© 2011 Christopher Barzak.
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.