We make the mistake, when we are young, of thinking the city is a dead thing. A dragon who fell on top of the seven hills and never got up again.
In summer, we sun ourselves with the skinks on its giant bleached bones. We chase each other and our bare feet polish the scales covering its streets. Our hands hide treasures under its skin—secret messages, delicate bird skulls, ancient metal buttons, jeweled beetle wings—things that whisper and sing in the air.
There are some hints that the city is waking up, but we don’t notice them, of course—we’re kids. Wasps hatch from the jammy figs and crawl inside the pools of pale acacia blossoms to sting our bare feet. Wasps shouldn’t be this big but we don’t know any better. Clouds of insects swell over the fields. The smell of brush fires, blistering asphalt and pine sap mixing with the smell of roasting red peppers, warns us we’re about to be called in for dinner.
Some days when we go down to the river to cool off, there are the screams just beyond the bend. When we go look, the water is calm but if we watch carefully, we will notice a small ribbon of ripples flowing in the wrong direction. If we listen carefully, we’ll hear the things that live in the reeds laughing.
If we keep count, we will know that in a day or two, the murky green waters will release a body bruised by the mossy stones on the river bottom.
Summer, we live.
The rest of the year our bodies belong to others — those who wrap themselves with knitted scarves and battle the gusting winds, those who sit on desks and carve out messages in the scarred wood, those who are almost adults but sometimes in their excitement say things that make the actual adults freeze, and whisper, “shh, don’t talk about this. Do you want them to come and take us all away?”
This year our bodies lengthen and grow uncomfortable patches in their folds so when we get them back for summer they don’t fit so well. We are itchy and snarl at each other for no reason. We fight more than usual. We leave our shirts on when we jump in the river to cool off. When we hear screaming and soft, malicious laughter beyond the bend, we run with more excitement than fear. And on the way there, in the cover of the elderberry bushes that grow on the riverbanks, by accident, we grab at another’s hand and drop it quick, as if hit by lightning.
This summer is when we discover the words.
We have gathered to look for treasures. Past winter, one of us read a book about famous discoveries. During war, he told us, people would bury their valuables before running from the advancing armies. Nature made lasting, anonymous markers and that is why many of the city’s treasures are found near old trees. Others still wait to be discovered. The city has seen countless wars.
Armed with garden mattocks and shovels, we meet by the oldest tree on top of one of the hills and start digging at random spots.
Instead of treasure, we uncover some ugly tentacled creatures. Just the one at first. Its body is small and floppy, almost transparent — like a fleshy balloon filled with liquid. We don’t know what it is yet — we have never known words that were not bound in sound or paper.
It’s a strange little thing, the size of a baby fist. Two of the boys poke it with sticks and it flops around so pathetically that one of the girls yells at the boys to stop. She kneels to touch the poor thing.
It happens so suddenly that at first we don’t make the connection between action and reaction. As her finger touches the thing, her throat makes a sound—a battle yell halfway between a bellow and a hiccup, which raises the hairs on the backs of our necks. A yell that is more suited to brandishing your sword at an invading army than to crouching over to pet a mutant slug.
The soil around us begins to boil. We freeze, mattocks and shovels in hand. Thousands of small pale gray blades poke out of the ground. They bend like little fingers and probe the surface. They tickle the outlines of our bare feet and we jump out screaming and land on writhing ground. One of us, the youngest, begins to cry—a primal, baby’s howl—red face, snot, heaving and all. We look at him, embarrassed and envious. We want to cry like that too, easily and un-self-consciously, but we can’t anymore.
The first creature we found flops out of reach and is surrounded by its emerging brothers and sisters. They shake the black soil off their bodies and flood out in all directions.
The sun sets too early. The streets darken too quickly for a summer evening. The street lamps have stopped working years ago if they ever did. That never bothered us before—we’ve never needed to see our way. But tonight memory turns on us. Where the old corner shop with the frothy soda is supposed to be, we come across a monument of granite and marble instead. It’s a statue of a gold-clad goddess, so tall we can’t see her face, pointing at something behind us. Some of us turn left, some right, some run around the stone plinth and we all pour, tripping and wheezing into streets we’ve never walked before. Streets that shouldn’t be there. Streets that haven’t existed in centuries.
We don’t stop running until we are painfully out of breath.
Our vision brightens. The night retreats a little and hides into the quiet stone alleys and doorways we’ve only seen in history books.
In groups of two or three, we look at each other, lost, still half-embarrassed, wanting nothing more than to cry. But when we let go, we laugh instead, loudly, crassly, un-self-aware, shaking the goosebumps from our skin, disturbing the silence of the streets that shouldn’t be here. We call for each other across the empty squares, over the drinking fountains. We run, some still barefoot, towards each other and grab fervid hands under the moon.
We feel the city’s breath. Not the one that smells of sweet peppers, asphalt, and fire. An older one—of farm bread, worn leather, fresh blood, moss, and roasting meats. We duck into the dark alleys to trace it on each other. We smell it on the other’s pulsing skin; on the side of their neck, just there; inside the folds of their skin.
The youngest ones chase things outside in the moonlight, splashing water and screaming happily.
—This time, we hear the creatures before we see them. The play-screams in the streets warp into quarrels in languages we don’t recognize. The creatures pour out of the darkness—out of the hills, out of alleyways and doorways, out of the—
—out of the open eyes and mouths of what we thought were cobblestones under our feet. We run again, joining those already in flight. The creatures flood over us. Our teeth chatter uncontrollably. Our lungs burn. We choke. Our mouths open and words come out— words that haven’t been spoken for centuries.
The part of the city where we are now, the part where the river flooded the streets centuries before we were born, rumbles. A wave rises above us and crashes. In the dark we can’t tell if it’s water or a swell of millions of weird fleshy balloons. We sink and fight for the surface regardless. Something the size of the sky, a gold-clad sculpture, falls as if in slow motion, almost pinning some of us to the bottom of the river—to the mossy stones we now know have never been stones.
We swim around her. She points upward, to the surface, and we finally see her face. It is a testament to the skill of the sculptor who carved her, that behind the stone veil you can unmistakably see her empty eye sockets and her mummy grin.
Everyone in the city knows the story of the drowned children.
It happens one summer before a terrible war begins. No one knows which war it was but if you ask our teachers, traces of the story are found in works that are millennia old. It’s always told in second person and in future tense. It’s meant to be a warning.
The story goes like this: one night, late in summer, when even the stone walls radiate heat, you will hear a knock at your door. You will open it to see your child soaked through, shivering, looking up at you with wide pupils and open mouth dripping rancid water. It will try to speak but the words, half-audible in the water that won’t stop flowing out of its mouth, will make no sense.
You’ll grab a blanket or a towel. You’ll rub the cold water out of its clothes, its skin and hair, its nose and mouth. Even though sweat will be pouring down through your eyebrows and into your stinging eyes, you will fire up the stove or fireplace and sit them close by. Your child will sit there, shivering, watching everything you do with eyes that are wide and dark, and with nose and mouth that are still dribbling water.
Then, you will go into your child’s room to pick up a favorite toy for comfort. In the dark, a small figure will stir under the sweat-stained sheet on the bed. “What’s going on, mom?” “Is it morning, dad?” Your real, sleep-logged child will sit up and ask. Despite the heat, you will feel a sudden chill. You will turn around and there, behind you, will be the river thing you just let into your house.
Everyone knows this story. So, when our parents take some time before they let us in that night, we know they just went into our rooms to check if there was someone already there. We understand. But eventually they do let us in, rub us with towels, and cover us with blankets when we lay down to sleep, shivering. That’s what parents do.
And when we start dribbling ancient words half-drowned in rancid water, they turn us on our sides, so we don’t choke in our sleep.
They really try, our parents.
They try their best to act like everything is normal. They still call us to dinner, maybe a little more softly than before. They still lecture us: Stay away from the packs of stray dogs that have overrun the streets. Watch out for the wasps whose buzzing now drowns out the crickets at night. Don’t go near the river which has grown swollen and foul-smelling.
They keep busy trying to show they are afraid for us, so we don’t see that they are afraid of us. But we see it. We notice the sideways looks on the dinner table; the sharp smell of bleach on our clothes— now washed daily of the water dribbling down our chins; the way they follow us with bleach-soaked rags and thoroughly rub each wet footprint; how they leave the house to avoid being alone with us for too long; the hurried way they lock the door behind us when we go out to play.
We still meet outside on the bleached bones of our city but our play is different now. Instead of chasing each other, golden and laughing, we walk the streets, restless, dribbling water and gossiping in strange languages. Our sunlight is different, too, filled with shards of darkness that threaten to cut us if we’re not careful.
We are so changed that we almost don’t notice when some of us start disappearing. First the boy with the green pants, then the girl with the big organza flowers on her pigtails, then the quiet boy with all the books. We go to their homes and knock on their doors and ask their parents where they are but the adults still don’t seem to understand the words dribbling out from our mouths and noses. They just shake their heads and shut the doors in our faces. Once or twice, through the door we hear someone make a strange sobbing sound.
Soon, like a cat learning to hunt, the river begins to deliver the bodies.
Water still flows from his open mouth, even though he has been laid on the grass bank for hours. This isn’t what disturbs the crowd. They loom around his little body—and it’s the first time we notice how small he is—unnaturally quiet, listening. His jaw twitches, stretches wider and—the crowd gasps—a word comes out. “What did he say?” The crowd asks a woman who is writing every word down and translating some of them out loud. She shrugs.
His mother, the one who had saved for a year to buy his green pants, sits on the grass, sobbing, “Won’t stop talking. He won’t stop talking.” His father breaks through the crowd and pulls her up roughly by the shoulder without looking at the bruised body of his son.
“He won’t stop talking,” she yells. “You told me they’g make him stop. He’s still talking.” He drags her away through the crowd but we aren’t watching them. We are looking more carefully at the bruises on our friend’s body.
It’s noon but the sun has just set when we all get to our homes. The front doors are all locked. The adults are all inside. We knock and wait.
We knock again.
We sit down to wait on the porch, on stairs, on the grass in front of our homes and look up at the midday stars that shouldn’t be there. Small tentacles interlock our fingers and squeeze gently, like a friend’s hand. The ground starts boiling. The droning of giant wasps rises to a scream.
We knock again at the doors, urgently. We want to tell our parents to be wary of the thing that is in our beds; that all we wanted was to warn them that the city is waking up—it knows it’s time for war again. All the shushing and taking away of families and bruised bodies won’t stop it. We’re sorry, we want to tell them, but don’t worry about us—we’ll be fine without you.
The smell of brush fires, blistering asphalt and pine sap wafts from the inside making our eyes sting and water.
The doors of our homes unlock and swing open for us.
Daniela Tomova draws her inspiration from Balkan folklore, surrealist Russian science-fiction, the dreams of Ray Bradbury, and the everyday magic of people trying to live in the ruins of countless civilizations. She is a graduate of Clarion Writers’ Workshop and her work has been published in Apex Magazine. She works as an infosec consultant by day to finance her writing habit. She lives in an abandoned airport in Oslo, Norway with her partner and their cat.
Max Markowitz is a self taught Los Angeles based artist who tries to interpret his feelings about the complex simplicity of nature through abstract images made with lines and dots. He did not go to college for art, and up until recently he has kept his art private. Max has had two solo shows and participated in many group shows around the Los Angeles area. He likes making art on paper and wood, and he also really likes music.