“But there are some who declare that such creatures of two sexes are monstrosities, and coming rarely into the world as they do they have the quality of presaging the future, sometimes for evil and sometimes for good.”
― Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, 1st century BC.
“Suppose someone were to say: ‘Imagine this butterfly exactly as it is, but ugly instead of beautiful’?!”
― Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, 1889-1951
We were swallowed whole and there we were, warm and inside, with the breath of that creature reaching over everything.
Our city was captured, a crash site covered in skin.
There was no exit or escape, every echo was an earthquake about to erupt, each exhale was a heat wave waiting for us.
The outcome was over already, we were the creature’s city now.
We woke up to stomachfuls of wrecking balls, wet food, worn debris. One storm after another, scattering against our shingles and gathering gray hair on the ground.
The city called it the creature’s rain, they collected it in their cellars and their stairwells, they carved their names into the cement it made.
You watched me there, collecting what remains I could, keeping myself unkilled in the creature’s cartilage.
Your eyes were on strings, swinging from a ceiling I couldn’t see. Your eyes were wide as white flags, watching me.
This city here, the one we’ve been left in, it’s a residual collapse, a heavy gasp. In the distance, the shape of it seems dimly scribbled against the inside of the creature, like the sketch of a spent explosive, it sprawls and then it shivers and then it sprawls some more.
The most of us that survived stuck to the center of the city, in small rooms in short skyscrapers, we searched for shelf lives that stayed just out reach.
Beneath the buildings, the creature’s ground was cold, coffee-colored, full of fault lines that caught fire whenever the fevers came.
You kept matchbooks in your pockets and I copied you. I rubbed gunpowder on my palms to get them pale like yours. I untrapped my hands as close to you as I could.
You told me maybe there were enough fault lines here to find us again. You said sooner or later the motion sickness might miss us both.
We spent the first season scavenging the creature for a skeleton key.
I searched in shrapnel piles and stolen terrain, I said over and over there had to be a way out of there.
Day after day, the creature’s rain wouldn’t stop painting us the way we truly were.
Each time I looked at you and your hair was heavier and darker. The build-ups in your breath came and went like birds stealing bread.
Your skin stayed sheet-white and still hid the stage whispers from me.
I was your hang-wire, your hiding place. I was your charade of ways to count backwards from the couple we didn’t become.
Our city stayed a knot in the creature’s stomach, a choke hold you couldn’t stop choosing over me. If there ever was a key, it couldn’t keep me from remembering it all too well.
This was what I knew about you: you grew up without a favorite cease fire.
Your mother was a pushcart, a towel rack, your father was the same. By the time you were five, every eavesdrop knew your name. By the time your flashback fell into mine, your face was still a fitting room you were trying to find.
We were living in a summer creature, one that had emptied out its echoes long before the leftovers fell in. The erosion was exposed, cloth wasn’t always an obstacle.
I found you in the back fields, burning bones in an old paper bag. They looked like black candles buried in there.
I remember your face was ragged, bruised under the eyes and bluish on the blind sides. I remember what you told me first, “the big wars are over, and the small ones never end.”
The creature was in complete control and some of them knew it and didn’t seem to care. I watched them holding hurricanes in their hands, like they were hoping one day the creature would give in and kill them for good, like they wanted the walls to come down for a while now.
When the city slept, I heard them confessing in their beds. They held each other close and recited the creature’s prayer:
“You are our creature and you will always be our creature. Whatever opens from your mouth, we will worship first. We have been swallowed by you and wish only to have you hold us here.
Our city is sheltered under your skin and softened by the sky inside you. Forgive us if we trespass in this body you have lent us.
If we can help you as you walk this earth, we will. If we can keep the pit of your prey from you, we will.
Carry us with you and let your hunger be our hunger, let your thirst be our thirst. We are your city and we will always be your city.
Now and forever, stay alive and with a small past.”
You told me the creature would never claim us as its own.
We were knee deep in cartilage and parentheses. It wasn’t night, but the creature had its stars up already. From down below, they looked like baby teeth, bright and clear and barely there.
You drew deadlines on my legs and dared me to leave them. You said the good warnings were gone and I knew you were with them, ready to run too.
You said “look around you, it doesn’t want us here.”
There were those who listened for a limit to the creature. They collected indexes of crippled proteins and practice rain, they tried to tell us there was a pulse under the city, a pulse that pointed to another outcome entirely.
We watched them take their mason jars and make tracks to the creature’s core. They wore thick coats and carried sketchbooks, backpacks, signaling equipment. They told us they would bring back a catalog of the creature’s currents, and a way to kill it too.
They were gone long enough for you to bleach a letter to me and leave a blindfold I could find. I wore it until your handwriting was too weak to read. I wore it until it wrapped a past around the whole of me.
Have I told you this before? Not all creatures have been cruel to us. There are those I miss too.
Do you remember our creature before, the one that was clawless, careful, covered in quiet colors?
We were children then, or less. The blinds were balled up on the floor. The wind was thin under our eyelids.
I spent the second season scarring a calendar into my skin. It was the only thing that kept me warm as the weeks weathered away, it was the campfire I carved into each arm.
The season was simple, the creature kept its pulse off or indifferent. The kites were on crutches under the clouds. I watched the city soften into still lifes, smudged lines, sliding scales. I started to say maybe we were meant for this creature after all. Maybe this creature could be our creature too.
I built a shelter to measure us there. It didn’t happen all at once. I didn’t do it alone, I had help from occupied corpses who knew the creature in ways I never could. In the mornings, I listened to them, lines and lines of them, advancing like static in the grass, some holding cold sticks in their hands, some carrying branches behind them. Together we cut into the creature’s rust, we chipped away the symmetry of a shelter and an escape.
When it was over, they asked for their kindling back. I separated a rib and left a wreck for them instead.
I remember how it had happened, how the creature stood there and how its shadow sized up over us, and then how its cartilage closed up over us, and how it stood there, like we were the last of the littlest things.
Your jacket was clasped, your whispers were torn into open wounds.
There were those who tried to dig their way out of the city.
They used pick-axes, shovels, sharpened hammers. They started at the sidewalks and shivered their way towards the creature’s skin, slinking like sleepwalkers in the winter. They chiseled for weeks while the creature kept its traps out of reach. Their cheeks were pink and red when they told us how near they were, how they could see the creature’s surface shortening towards them.
They were further than they’d ever know. They were marching right to the creature’s command.
They got close enough, and then the creature let the cave-in come over them. First the avalanche, then the overkill, then the flood. It didn’t take a day, it was done before the night aches came.
Those that survived took the shape of sunken houses, their bodies drowned and detached, their faces cracked and scrap-heaped. Some of them tried to keep digging for another day or two, but it didn’t last. They were collapses in standing clothes.
The creature had made them its own.
Advice for young creatures to be:
Do your best to keep one foot facing what’s forgotten you. Tow the no-man’s lands off your back. Not every injury is judgment day. Never mind the willing plans, or how bittersweet your city might taste. Wish the best for us and all the cities that come after us.
Always remember we have made our homes inside you, we have hid our children within you. Watch us or keep us or kill us. Do what you have to do to break our reservations. Prove us wrong.
There was no third season, the creature was weak as a twig pile, a stick figure of itself. Scraps of electricity still circuited through the city, but they were rare, indistinct. The creature slept but you stayed awake, stacking wood in your spine, staking yourself for a fire.
You tried to tell me one last time. You said this creature was too outstretched for us, it was desperate, a wreck of erased territory. You said it wasn’t like our summer creature. It wasn’t the same, it wasn’t the same. It was a mistake.
You brought up everything I already knew. Sometimes the creature didn’t eat when we begged it to eat, sometimes it made a type of rain that sounded like a scream, sometimes it forgot to fall the stars before the floodlights came. You said either it was over already or patient in a way we would never understand.
Something had to change.
The sky was a cadaver cut apart, the creature rained throats and lungs, a loud blur of build-ups and push-aways. We kept our breaths hidden behind the back seat of our teeth, we didn’t say anything.
We let the season unskin the city. We took the creature’s ash and traced our accidents into the air. They didn’t last. The fallout was flesh and blooded and buried where we used to be.
My eyes were dressed in dead weights, deep underground. What I saw was stormed through, a stolen skeleton key. What I heard was a wrecking ball, the creature still whispering, waiting for me.