The Gray City

Flight of the Cartographer

                As defense against the sewer, the Cartographer remembered her mother. Instead of the stench of the Gray City’s waste, she instead smelled her Mother’s kitchen, where she worked wonders with their meager rations of bean-curd, spices cobbled together from a variety of sources, and herbs pulled from A secret garden hidden in a nook on the roof of their tenement. Hunching through the curved ceilings, the dark, damp passages, she instead saw her Mother standing at the stove, humming as she made magic from a molehill. Instead of the cold sewage and dreck they tramped through, instead of the mysterious living things that bumped and scratched against their legs in the darkness, she felt her Mother’s gentle hands combing the tangles out of her hair. Instead of the chittering of said creatures, she heard her Mother’s soft voice, singing songs that were meant to be forgotten. The Cartographer remembered her Mother, and the dark, gray city faded away, and instead she remembered colors she had yet to see, the art she had yet to make.

                But she would, yes she would. That was a promise she made, and a promise she intended to keep.

                The next passage revealed itself to her, their path of egress reflected from her mind onto the page she read in the flashlight’s dying, flickering glow. Their shadows danced along the slime that hugged the walls, giving the impression they were hunted by monsters who took form only in darkness. The Cartographer felt their fears fanning, their spirits flagging and, though it was not her art, began to sing. It began as a murmur, a quiet sound of hope, but one by one the others joined in, adding their own wordless harmonies, and together they chased away the cold. The air trembled with the improvised song’s power. In the dark, the young women stood a little straighter, and held their heads a little higher.

                Soon, they heard it: the wind. They felt a gentle breeze. They smelled the fresh air that cut through the stench of the sewer like dish-soap through grease. They sang louder and louder as they drew closer to freedom. Then they saw it, light shining at the other end of a pipe just high and wide enough for them to crawl through one at a time, like newborns emerging into the world.

                They made their way toward freedom, on their hands and knees, led like always by the youngest, the Cartographer. Creeping away from the bondage of soul of mind and of body that the Gray City wrought, she thought again of her Mother. Of her words that fateful morning. Of the last time they spoke before she disappeared, when the Cartographer was an even younger girl than she was now.

Her mother had combed her hair that day, while silently weeping. Normally her movements were deft, her touch gentle, and she rarely ripped through any tangles or knots. On this morning, however, she was clearly distracted, and the ritual hurt more than usual. The Cartographer suffered this in silence, not wanting to add to her Mother’s burden, knowing she would share it if it became too great to bear.

After she finished, her mother spun her around so they sat facing each other in the small apartment. It was one room with a kitchenette and dining area encompassing one half, the other containing two small fold-down beds and a cubicle for bathing a privacy. For the two of them, it was normally enough, but that morning, for the first time, the Cartographer felt its smallness. Her mother sighed, looking around the room, like she might find the words she needed carved on the walls.

“Listen closely, Child,” she began. “And remember well what I say. Maybe it won’t make sense now, but… someday…”

She trailed off, tears dripping down her cheeks.

“Mom? What’s wrong?”

The older woman sniffed, drying her tears with the sleeve of the light orange shirt she wore, with blue, interlocking diamonds woven around the hem in a shimmering thread.

“This world, sweetie. This world is-” She stopped, again looking for the right words. “They want us to forget.”

“Forget what?”

“Art, my child, art.”

The young woman, no more than seven, wrinkled her nose at the unfamiliar word.

“A-rt,” She sounded it out.

“Art?” She said again, making it a question. It was a word she had never heard before, and yet…

“How to explain…? There is beauty in this world. So much beauty. And anguish, and loss and grief overflowing. And—it all needs to make itself known. It screams to be heard. Those screams make their way here-“

She pointed at her own head.

“-and here.”

She pointed to her heart.

“We used to freely express those feelings it inspired. We became conduits for the world’s art. But-” At this she glanced out the window, as if searching for… something. “-such expression is a forbidden thing. So many are asleep. So many die with the art they were destined to create unexpressed. Their stories are not told. Their songs unsung.”

Her mother absently stroked The Cartographer’s head as she spoke.

“At first, I didn’t want to burden you. It is so dangerous, this spark inside. But no, the greater tragedy would be that you had a flame and it remained unflamed.”

She kneeled down to better look her daughter in the eyes.

“Promise me. Promise me when that voice within you speaks, and your art is revealed. Promise me you’ll listen.”

Still not fully understanding, the Cartographer nodded, her bright brown eyes wide-open.

“I promise Mom. I do.”

When she came back from school that day, there were men and women dressed in black waiting at the door. They took her away, neighbors turning their banks at the sound of her screams. All they said, when she demanded to see her Mom, was that ‘there is nothing left to see’.

That conversation was the last time she saw her Mother, the last time they spoke. The Cartographer mused, if she still lived, perhaps she languished in a prison hidden beneath the very sewers they fled through. She swore, not for the first time, that when she was strong enough, when enough people work to the songs singing inside them, she would return and find her.

One by one, the woman left the pipe, and stood in the fog. Above the mist the sun shone so brightly, it pierced the murk. They squinted into a new world they could not see. The Cartographer looked down at her map, which, as always, drew her a path through terra incognita. And she set off, beckoning with a wave for the others to follow.

“I’ll come back for you. Soon.” The Cartographer thought to herself. “This, Mom, I swear.”

And, still singing, with tears of her own now streaming down her cheeks. The young, brown skinned girl, with a head of tight curls, led the women away from the artless city, deeper, deeper into the fog.

The Yellow Rose

                Dying winter dripped through the silence, ice became water that trickled down from the trees in a haphazard patter on their roof, a gentle flowing through gutters becoming a gentle hush as the stream within emptied out onto the concrete foundation surrounding their home. The old couple looked at each other, their typical night routine of dinner, trite conversation and the consumption of City Approved media disturbed by the new thing introduced to their home through the mail slot.

                “Well?”

                “Well what?”

                “Do… do we go, or…?”

                Looking each other in the eyes, their answers were clear from the glitter reflected the other’s gaze. Despite, or perhaps because of, their excitement, their hands trembled, holding the invitations that would change their lives forever. Dark, felt paper emblazoned with gold lettering: “COME” it said simply, with a time and address written beneath the command.

                They knew something dangerous appeared in their lives, a new door to forbidden things.

                And yet, despite the danger, they came.

                The following week, deep in the night, they stood hand in hand at the docks, at the end of an empty pier, shivering with the cold and with fear. Their breath, its steam barely visible in the low, flickering light of the pier disappeared with the wind, the vapors crystalized against faces. Any time expecting to hear the klaxons of City Authority, bearing down on them with guns and clubs, either beating them to death on the spot or dragging them to whatever bowels of the Gray City’s dungeons where those who dared to try defiance were taken. Their dreams of rebellion stripped from them, along with everything else that made them who they are.

But as they stood there, alone in the dark, no one came for them. The appointed time passed, and they were not arrested, but neither did those who made the mysterious entreaty. They waited, 30 minutes, an hour, unsure of what was to come next. Never in their 40 years together had they dreamed of defying the Gray City.

                And yet, there they stood.

One looked at the other, squeezing his lover’s hand. “Well?” he began, “How long do you want to st-?”

Then they heard it. Drifting across the waves, a song. A concert of voices straining through a foreign tune, growing louder as whatever approached drew closer to the docks. The song, more aptly the songs—each voice seemed to follow its own path—invented itself from note to note. The tunes dancing off one another in fascinating and disconcerting ways. The couple stood, no longer feeling the cold, trying to pick apart the different strands of music that pulled toward them in the darkness. As they did so, a column of light appeared on the horizon, carrying within it strains of color as varied as the music that teased their ears.

Looking at one another, the couple nodded. They would not turn away. They would not run. They would see this, whatever it was and wherever it led, through.

As the ship appeared, light erupted from its every crevice and nook, blinding the couple and preventing them from fully seeing its shape. All they knew was, from how far the column of light stretched into the sky, the structure had to be enormous. More of a floating city than a ship. The song crescendoed as the ship approached them on the pier. A tune of joy, of sadness, and of constant discovery. The many voices within each picked their own path through the night, and each had its own mood, representing the signer. Despite the different sounds, the disparate feelings, the couple felt they came together in an unexpected unity. Like the threads of life itself, so many different souls that somehow held together. Such a contrast from the Gray City, where each individual light was muted for the sake of community. Here was a community, aboard an impossible immensity, that celebrated its differences.

                Standing before the ship as it slowly, careful to not run aground or destroy the pier with its bulk, came toward them, the old men felt something awaken in their hearts, something long suppressed by the drab philosophies of their city. It washed away the fear, embraced the wonder. It was something long dead. Their own songs. By the time the ship lowered one of its gangplanks, and a woman with eyes as cold and blue as eyes walked down to meet them, singing her own song of winter, the two men wept music. Their songs grown together like two bushes in an unkempt garden, whose branches and leaves became intertwined, reflecting their long lives spent together, lives that slowly but surely transformed from two into one. A carol cultivated in secret. She smiled to hear it, knowing it would serve the Yellow Rose well.

                She extended both hands and bowed in greeting, wearing a dress that glittered, reflecting the wintry colors of her frigid song. She sang it unconsciously, and even as she spoke, her cold tune drifted behind her words. Her dress, woven from material that howled as loudly as it shined, raging like a winter storm, complemented the song perfectly.

                “Welcome to the Yellow Rose.”

                She turned, walking back up the gangplank, beckoning them to follow with a gesture.

                Hand in hand, they followed her up into the light.

                They followed her past the cabins of their fellow seekers. Men and women engaged in congress with creation and themselves, working on canvases as diverse as the colors and natures of their flesh. They painted with clay, drew on copper, sculpted with paper and light, wrote poems in marble and songs etched on bronze. Each room beheld another work of art, which stretched between mediums, and onto the artist’s bodies, onto the ship itself.

Everything was art; everyone sang.

The two old men were awestruck, and passing each wondrous creation, were reminded more and more of the young men they fell in love with when they met.

                The corridors weaved through the ship, round and around the immense structure like a maze. The lady led them inward, towards the center. Toward the Yellow Rose. Entering the cavernous room at the middle of the ship, the saw it. Their jaws slackened as they strained their necks upwards to take in the tower of light that reached out above and beyond the ship into infinity. The Rose was a light, a tower of yellow light. Its shape shifted, like a hundred different flowers painted over one another, each slightly off center from the one before it. Surrounding the shifting pinnacle, dozens of hooded figures swayed and sang, danced and explored one another, every one of them undulating with the tower’s rhythm.

                Unable to distinguish their voices from the river of song flowing from every room of the ship and into the Yellow Rose, they felt overcome by the beauty of creation, of all these souls assembled for one common purpose: the rediscovery of that which the Gray City had tried to obliterate. They turned to each other and felt something for each other they hadn’t felt for many years. Forgetting themselves, the many years of age that separated them from the young men they remembered, they came together and coupled before the altar of light.

                The lady left them, smiling to herself, and returned to the ship’s bridge. Nodding to her crew, they pulled away from the darkened pier and back to the depths of the sea, where they could sing and create and love uninterrupted. One again, music and light and art departed from the shores of the Gray City.

                Once again, two more souls found freedom from the dark.