IN THE CITY OF KITES AND CROWS
by Megan Arkenberg
When you breathe deeply, really push the air from your lungs and let the cold valley wind fill you again, you can smell the city’s ghosts. They smell like burning. Not like fire but like everything that comes with it: smoke, scorched hair, wet carbon, ash. This is a city that burns spasmodically, a city of gas lines and rail cars, coal dust and arson, a city with wooden roofs and narrow alleys. A city that is always shivering.
Forty or fifty years ago, this apartment building was the hotel where senators kept their mistresses and boy-toys, all blue velvet and gilt. Then a fire gutted it.
I tell this to Lisse, and she rubs at the burn scar on the back of her knee, at the tattoo that crawls up her thigh in a hatch of green and golden lines, like a map of a city, or a circuit board in fragments. Lisse just got out of federal prison for smashing the rearview mirrors off a police car. She has new scars now, the white tracks of some riot officer’s baton, one of which slices across her left nipple and makes her breast look punctured, deflated. She sits in her flannel bathrobe at the table in her living room, in the apartment that was a hotel room and still smells like the arsonist’s match, and she shakes her head with a slow, sad smile.
“Hythloday,” she says, as though my name were a dirge. “How can you, of all people, believe in ghosts?”
Outside the bay window behind her, three stories below us, a crush of posterboard and sweatshirted bodies is churning and chanting its way up 9th Street, towards the West Gate of the Senate. Lisse snaps photos on her phone. She edits an antigovernment webzine, contributes information to two anti-senatorial projects that I know of—both documenting police brutality and violations of prisoners’ rights—and surely several others that I don’t. Her thick hair is unoiled and still damp from the shower, smelling of grass and wood dust, smelling of her.
“Everyone I’m fucking is trying to overthrow the government,” I tell her. I’m spread out on her couch like the jammy sediment in the bottom of a wine glass, and I know that this observation, this trenchant précis of the last thirty-six months, is the closest that I will ever come to political analysis. Or to self-reflection. Lisse, who will not let me back into her bed until I’m sober, who still fucks me on the couch, does not look up from the photos of the protestors on her phone.
“Well, Hythloday,” she says, half word and half sigh. “Why do you think that is?”
Some evenings, when I’m sober enough to pull on a pair of trousers and an old suit coat, tie my hair back and wash the traces of eyeliner from my cheeks, I take the train down to the university. It’s quiet and damp so close to the river, the trees whispering to themselves in the fog, and all the public spaces roped off with yellow lines of caution tape.
If anyone were to ask me what I’m doing here tonight—anyone except for Lisse, who won’t ask me, who never asks—I’d say I came for the lecture on the Mnemosyne project, an answer both innocuous and vaguely suspect. Really, I’m here to see Jesse.
They check IDs at the door of the auditorium. I don’t know if “they” are the Mnemosyne developers looking for allies or a senatorial commission tallying enemies, or just the university, looking to cover its ass either way. Inside, the dim room flickers with tablet and laptop screens as people pull up the app. Mnemosyne, Jesse explained to me once as we lay on the floor of his bedroom, sipping coffee from wine glasses, is an augmented reality application. It checks your location with your device’s GPS and overlays your screen with location-sensitive news. Censored news, he meant, censored images, photographs you shouldn’t see, stories no one should be reporting. I know Lisse is providing data for the project, and Jesse helped with the programming.
Everyone I’m fucking wants to overthrow the government.
(Well, Hythloday, why do you think that is?)
A small gray woman in a gray suit reads off her PowerPoint slides at the front of the room, and I lean against the wall in back, scanning the crowd for Jesse. He’s sitting in the second-to-last row, the strands of silver in his dark brown hair showing dramatically in the liquid-crystal glow of his laptop. His face and lips look as blue as a drowning man’s. I like to watch him like this, when he doesn’t know I’m looking. When he knows he’s being watched, when he’s teaching or lecturing, he becomes brilliant, sparkling, animated. His dark eyes and his smile widen, light up, his gentle laugh drags parentheses around the corners of his mouth. But when he’s alone, when he thinks no one is watching, he shrinks into himself. The laugh lines settle. He looks lost, like a book that someone has misplaced.
At the end of the lecture, he snaps his laptop shut, slings his bag over his shoulder. He catches sight of me on his way to the exit. He smiles too widely, looking exhausted.
“You weren’t expecting me,” I say. “I know.”
“No, it’s fine.” He licks his lips, which still look dry and blue. “Did you like the talk?”
“Sure,” I lie.
He turns abruptly and strides out of the lecture hall. I follow down the glossy corridor, out into the parking lot, where the mist rolls in from the river, smelling of rot. Jesse stops, leans against the wall of the auditorium, and his hair catches on the rough brick. He grabs me around the waist and drags me in for a kiss.
(Nine people contributed material to the Mnemosyne project, he told me, leaning against the pillows. The marks of my teeth were pale and raised along his shoulders. Four of them are anonymous. Five of them are missing.)
He clings to me like a drowning man, fingers digging into my back, bruising, his mouth opening beneath mine as though I could give him breath. He tastes like mint chewing gum and cigarette smoke. He winces when my tongue brushes against his teeth, but when I start to pull back, he whispers, “Don’t.”
(He kicked a stack of books off the side of the bed, yanking off his jacket and tie, and he told me to fuck him. I took the harness and the strap-on from the nightstand. He spread out on the bed, watching impatiently over his shoulder as I adjusted the buckles and straps around my thighs. The headlights from a car across the street slipped through the slats in the window blinds, caught his eyes, flattened them to smooth disks of gold.)
I weave my fingers through his, and he grunts in pain.
“Jesse.” I pull back. His sleeve cuffs gap above the buttons, and I can see the shining red marks on his wrists, marks my hands could never have left. The neck of his undershirt has slipped down, damp with mist and sweat, and bruises show under his skin, black and yellow and blue.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Please. Just stay with me.”
(We fucked, and even though I was sober, it was the disjointed, disappointing sex of people who are drunk, and angry, and afraid.)
We take the train to his townhouse on the east side of the city. The streetlights around us glare like a hangover. Alone in the second-to-last compartment, he leans against my back, his cheek against my shoulder blade, his arms tight around my waist. “The dean wants to see me tomorrow,” he murmurs. I turn my head, looking for our reflection in the train window, but it’s too dark inside, too bright out.
(Afterward, he asked me to hold him. He curled around me, his head resting in the crook between my bicep and my breast, his arms around my hips. He didn’t say my name again. After a few minutes, his breathing settled. I kissed his cheek and tasted salt.)
This city burns so often that every fire has a name. Ships burning, churches burning, schools and factories and luxury hotels. The S. S. Virgil fire, the St. John’s fire. On a windy day, you can still smell the smoke rising from St. John’s Preparatory.
And when you aim the camera of your phone down at the sidewalk in front of the West Gate, down at the cracked cement with its tarry traces of chewing gum and bird shit, you can still see the outline of Mark Labelle’s blood, the smooth puddle that it left as he died on a cold Sunday afternoon in April, beaten to death by riot officers. The stain that was still there the next morning, when the body was packed away in a city morgue and the police surveillance video had disappeared. Gone, as they say, without a trace—except for this palimpsested slab of sidewalk, which someone snapped on their phone, which someone else uploaded to the Mnemosyne project, which now trickles through this elegant little app to the eyes of anyone who stands here beneath the wrought-iron gate. Your own private haunting, in the palms of your hands.
There are dozens of places like this throughout the city, thanks to Lisse and Jesse and all the rest of them. Haunted places. Revolutions are made out of hauntings, out of missing bodies and ghosts.
Did you know that? I can assure you that the government does.
Remedios and Gavin live above their gallery on Elliot Street, which has burned so many times that the new houses are all built out of concrete. Every surface north of 23rd is brightly painted: flag murals, forest scenes, mountain silhouettes, massive bare-breasted women with galaxies in their eyes. Walking up the sidewalks, listening to the cold reverberating echo of your footsteps, you get the feeling that this part of the city has transcended the organic. At least until you see the fast food wrappers caught in the grates of the pristine concrete sewers. Everything, even the wrappers, smells like stone and diesel.
Gavin is a sculptor, and he doesn’t mind this sort of thing. Remedios, though, rebels. Their back yard is full of tomatoes and bright yellow-flowered squash, and two fat hens cluck in the chicken coop beside the rusted bike rack.
The back stairs take you either into the gallery, through the second floor, or up to their apartment on the third. The gallery is always unlocked. I glance inside just long enough to see that Remedios’s Brutal exhibition is still on display, wall after wall of bare torsos with unspeakable scars. The gray, wine-stained carpet smells like dust, and there are fat black flies on the windowsills. A stray exhibition program flutters in the box by the fire escape, the title in red lower-case sans-serif: These are not the bodies we were born in. I let the door swing shut.
Upstairs, in the kitchen, Remedios is standing barefoot at the sink, washing cherry tomatoes and crying.
(You weren’t expecting to see me, I’d said, because none of them ever are.
No, he said, it’s fine.)
“Hythloday.” She drops the bowl into the sink, where it spins, clattering, spilling mottled red-and-yellow tomatoes across the gray ceramic. She flings her arms around my neck, stands on tiptoe, presses her flat chest against mine. Her hair is dark blue and shaved close to her head, and it smells like the gallery, like dry skin and abandonment.
(Please, just stay with me.)
She pulls me towards her on the bed, which is a low double-mattress in the front room, covered in shawls and old saris and stuffed animals. Her fingers are already undoing the buttons on my shirt. “Shouldn’t we wait for Gavin?” I ask, but she makes a sick squeaking sound.
“He isn’t here,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“He’s gone, Hythloday.”
She tugs at my sleeves, and I ease myself down beside her on the mattress. “What do you mean?”
She shakes her head, falls silent. I kiss her forehead, and she rolls me over, pushes me back against the pillows with the dead weight of her body.
(Four of them were anonymous, Jesse had told me. Five of them are missing.)
Afterward, she curls up with her back against my stomach, a little spoon, or a snail in its shell. It feels strange not to have Gavin’s arms crossing mine above her small body, Gavin’s heady juniper smell in my nostrils. Remedios’s breathing slows, hitches, then steadies, like a ship breaking into deep water.
“We were marching up Tribunal,” she says. “There was a gathering at the West Gate. He thought we should be there, say a few words. The police arrived and we were separated.”
Somewhere in the neighborhood, a siren begins to wail. I kiss the back of her neck, and she looks over her shoulder.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?”
(Everyone I’m fucking is trying to overthrow the government.
Well, Hythloday, why do you think that is?)
I kiss her nose, her eyelids. “I don’t know,” I lie.
“Hythloday?” Lisse crouches over me. Her fingers wind around the back of my neck, giving my hair a sharp tug. “In all seriousness. Why do all your lovers want to overthrow the government?”
“Guess I have a thing for rebels.”
“Mm-hm,” I say. Her face is unreadable. I close my eyes, lean back into her grip. “You’re all so electric, and so secretive. Meetings in dark alleys and warehouses, throwing bricks through Senate windows. It’s so sexy. And don’t get me started on the posters and the pamphlets and those long, lonely nights with a busted stapler in the back of the copy shop—”
She cuts me off with a kiss, dragging my head up to hers. Her mouth tastes like orange juice and almond chapstick, her lips bruisingly firm, her teeth sharp.
“Just for once,” she whispers, “I wish you would think.”
Think. As though I weren’t always thinking, too much for my own good. Thinking of her body, the scars I can see and the ones I can’t, the hipbones that jut prominently against my hands where they were once buried in flesh. Thinking of the marks shining on Jesse’s wrists and chest, of Remedios crying at her kitchen sink. Thinking about protestors and fire hoses, pepper spray, gunshots. Thinking of the history of this city, this apartment building and the fire that gutted it.
Thinking of being gutted. Being burned.
“All right, Lisse.” I rub my eyelids, smudging what’s left of yesterday’s liner. “Everyone I’m fucking realizes that this country is going to shit, and unlike me, they have the courage and integrity to do something about it. Fair?”
She doesn’t answer. I open my eyes. A flood of sunlight pours through the windows, sharp with afternoon. The living room is empty. When I look towards 9th and Tribunal, I see that the crowd of protestors has dispersed, leaving a single piece of wet posterboard in their wake.
Hythloday. I suppose you caught the reference. A traveler in no-place, a stranger in Nowhere. My mother kicked me out when I was fifteen, and ever since, my only reliable roof has been the sky. The city of kites and crows. It doesn’t burn as easily as the city of flesh and blood, I’ll give it that. And there have been friends’ couches, lovers’ bedrooms: roosts for a night, or for a season. I have this image of myself flying across the city, from nest to nest, like something from a children’s story.
Where do the birds go during a revolution? I read somewhere that every pigeon in Paris flew away during the summer of 1793. It was so hot, and every street in the city stank of blood. I have no idea if any of that is true. I have this recurring dream of a guillotine blade falling, the thud of it scattering crows, like a spray of embers from a collapsing roof. They don’t settle again. Whatever died wasn’t to their taste.
The fire at St. John’s Preparatory School began because a little girl stuck a match into a bird’s nest outside her dormitory window. Little girls are cruel, crueler by far than ravens or guillotine blades, and flames in a wooden building travel faster than cruelty. Within seven minutes, everyone who was going to make it out alive had already left the building. They stood on 23rd Street clutching their books, their dolls. Everyone else died. And some who got out died, too, later on, from the smoke.
I tell this story to Lisse, and she frowns. It is a story about all the things she loves: a story about home, about violence and brutality and revenge, about innocent bystanders.
But it is not a story about justice.
“Only ghost stories are about justice,” I say, and she shakes her head.
(How can you, of all people, believe in ghosts?)
When I return to the gallery, there are flies everywhere.
(Where did the bruises come from? I asked Jesse. But they weren’t just bruises, not merely bruises, although the purple stain on his chest showed the treads of a military boot. The white and red marks on his arms, the stiffness in his fingers came from being cuffed, being tied, and tightly. I knew the signs.)
Remedios and I go into the bedroom and fuck and don’t say a word about Gavin. She moves so stiffly that I’m afraid I’ve hurt her, but when I slow down, she twines her legs around me and hisses in my ear: “Don’t stop.” We fall asleep afterward, sore and exhausted.
Later still, I wake alone to the buzzing of the flies.
(The dean wants to see me tomorrow, he’d said, resting his cheek against my shoulder blade. And I couldn’t see our reflection in the window.)
And although it’s the last thing on earth that I want to do, although I can already smell the sour stink in the dusty carpet, I go down to the gallery. Down to the first floor, where the flies are thickest. Down to the back room.
(Jesse’s things are scattered across the bedroom floor. His books, cracked along the spine. His ties and jackets and dress shirts, torn from their hangers and crumpled, dirtied with the muddy prints of boots. The contents of the nightstand, small and obscene in the light of day.)
I see the folding chair first, collapsed in the center of the room beneath the light fixture. And she sways at the end of something that shows bright orange against her blue hair: an electric cord. She’s been here for a while now. Her limbs have gone stiff, her tongue black against her pale chin.
I stand on the chair to cut her down. When she lands in my arms, I lose my balance, fall to the floor with a solid, bruising thud.
On the train back to 9th Street, the woman in the seat across from me is reading something on her tablet. She looks up at me, suddenly. Without saying a word, she cries, and cries, and cries.
None of us has the body we were born in. Life leaves its traces, its teeth marks on our throats, its maps across our thighs and in our fingertips, its footprints on our chests. The body that I was born in didn’t have breasts, didn’t have hips, and I didn’t know it had a cunt until I was nine years old. Love leaves its traces on us, and hate.
I fill the antique tub in Lisse’s bathroom until the frigid water flows over the edge, splashing across the dark green tile floor. I close my eyes, plug my nose, plunge to the bottom. Even under water, I smell burning.
I’ve stopped binding recently, stood in front of the mirror on the back of the bathroom door and cupped my breasts the way I used to cup Lisse’s. It felt alien. Not wrong, just not mine. I think of Lisse’s tattoo, the marks on Jesse’s wrists and neck and chest. I think of the slight weight of Remedios, dangling from an electric cord noose. And I think damage is what teaches us to inhabit our bodies, and everyone I love has learned that long before me.
At last, I come up for air, and Lisse is waiting for me, sitting on the edge of the tub in her flannel robe. “What’s wrong, Hythloday?” she asks.
But nothing’s wrong. I’m unscathed.
“It’s my gift,” I say softly. “My own special talent. I don’t follow the crowd, and I never have. I don’t get caught up in things. The world is on fire and I don’t even feel the heat.”
I reach for her, and she isn’t there.
I get out of the tub, wrap a fraying towel around my waist, go into the hallway. The door to her room is on my right. I put my fingertips on the handle, hoping it will be locked, but it isn’t, it swings soundlessly open.
The smell of smoke and scorched hair and wet carbon rushes out. Inside, everything is covered in a layer of dust.
Megan Arkenberg’s work has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies, including Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Shimmer, and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. She has also edited the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance since 2008. She currently lives in Northern California, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature. Visit her online at http://www.meganarkenberg.com.