I see her everywhere. Always in the periphery, always stepping out of the picture or around a corner just as I cast my glance her way – thin, pale, much like myself or perhaps some fantasy version of myself. She wears dark clothes. Of course, many Citizens do the same since fabrics are all either black, navy or gray. But there’s always a splash of color somewhere on her. A magenta scarf, a teal beaded bracelet, a royal cap, a metallic brooch. It’s an allowed extravagence, an accepted boldness of expression that few partake in. I can never get a really good look at her, but somehow I’m usually able to take in her abstract form, the colors and shapes.
Nearly always I give pursuit. Each time I feel as though I am drawing nearer to her. Each time I fail to overtake my quarry. I’ve often walked the streets after her following an unexpected sighting. I’ve often set out looking for her and caught not the faintest glimpse. I’ve repeatedly run and climbed after her, fallen, scraped myself, ducked down alleyways, climbed up to rooftops, entered and exited stores and restaurants I’d not visit otherwise. But never do I see her make anything but the most nonchalant movements. Never have I seen her run or jump, duck under or climb over anything, never seen her hurry. But then again, I’ve never actually gotten a good, clear look at her doing anything. Always it’s a hunch that she’s turned around this corner, scaled that wall, descended those steps. Only that initial sidelong vision is there. It’s my only hint. But tonight there is a difference. Tonight I will meet her. Tonight. At last, tonight.
The streets are a pallid gray, dry, mortified. The walls and the sky are similarly colorless. Monolithic, cast-concrete reproductions of ancient classical sculptures (St. Sebastian and statues of Perseus slaying Medusa among the most common images) softly punctuate the right angles and lack of adornment seen on all the buildings. Almost everything is clean and spotless. Refuse is tossed into chutes which descend a confused web of tubing into the furnace below. The City is a maze of concrete, monochrome except for the daily splashes of blood when the body-armored Force baton the afternoon high tide of the Discontent, a crush of angry rabble, whipped into frenzy every weekday morning with dubious contrarian speech. This form of dissent is tolerated, encouraged even. Most Citizens stumble into the group at one time or another, their checked feelings funneled into an unfocused rage. They meet below the streets, within a complex system of tunnels and rooms that formed the City’s previous incarnation. In this labyrinth, moral strictures are loosed. Here is where the majority of the population is conceived – endless revels, loud music and conversation, violence, worship of idols, manufacture of useless things, all are practised with impunity. Here strong liquors are distilled; dangerous chemicals are combined to create mind altering drugs. A dazzling array of bladed weapons – knives, axes, swords – from the crude to the finely crafted, are brandished by young and old. Blood is frequently spilled. Some live in these halls, most venture there out of habit or desperation.
Except for this routine, controlled outpouring of emotive action, there’s little sound to be heard anywhere outside, the heavy concrete walls of all the City’s structures perfectly hiding the cacophonies within. The buildings quietly contain the full riotous breadth of human experience, from nurturing to torture, nursing to euthanasia, excess to austerity. Entire lifespans are played out inside, with a considerable percentage of the population never venturing out.
There is no bonifide government; whatever authority that once was has long since passed away into memory. Instead, Citizens are so conditioned to their roles in society that few ever step outside of these established, unspoken boundaries. Those that do are harshly punished by whoever witnesses their indiscretions. The life of the City seems to be instinctual, as though some unseen hand guides it, keeps it going, oiling the gears and winding them. Nonconformists are rare, but not unheard of, though most eventually change their ways or face ostacision or exile. Almost every detail of the City is thus nearly perfectly controlled, with the exception of a few white wolves which enter and wander the streets alone, savage, gaunt, feral, and the crows that haunt them, teasing and cajoling them, amiably playing with them, helping clean up the messes of their infrequent feasts. Fresh meat is all these animals are looking for, and they – without exception – attack people when no one else is around. Deserted streets are, therefore, cause for any lone Citizen to panic. Eradication programs have proven ineffective; not a single wolf or crow has been brought to justice for its crimes. They are the only sources of overt wildness that stalk the City’s streets. All other primeval forces are contained within the walls. Loitering and skylarking are unseen. The City’s streets are reserved for pedestrian traffic only. Although at times they subvert the many controls, children are generally kept indoors at all times, born and educated in the confines of their own homes until they reach the age of physical maturity. The rare outdoor conversation is laconic and quiet. Always there is a slight whispering breeze in the ear; occassionally it swells to a roar or a cry or a howl. This constant womb-like noise contributes to the generally placid atmosphere of the City, but its upward gradations produce unexpressed anxiety and fear.
Surrounding the City on all sides is the Wall – a 6 meter thick, 18 meter tall slab of reinforced concrete topped with razor wire. It effectively stops traffic to and from the City; the motto “None Enter, None Leave” is engraved on the arch above every gate, long since sealed. But there are cracks in the Wall, large enough only for children or animals to slip through. Two endless wilds border the City. To the north lies the Salty Sea, the waters of which are shark infested and hot. Rip currents and undertows also make it exceedingly treacherous. It is the City’s primary source of water, which Citizens desalinate through various methods. To the south lies the Forbidden Forest, a vast boreal stretch with crowded conifers, dim, rich with bears and wolves. Few ever chance the forest’s mossy walks; it exceeds the street wolves and the sea as primary source of Citizens’ anxiety.
I first saw her on one of my routine strolls through the forest in my early adolescence. I’d never feared the place as most did. My memories have oddly always seemed to stretch out beyond the early limits of birth, giving me the confidence that I had lived before, and would live again. I remembered many deaths – some peaceful, some otherwise. The thought of a bear rending me limb from limb could thus be shrugged off easily. I chased after her, wondering who else would dare attempt to slip unseen through one of the Wall’s child-sized cracks. Of course she had disappeared in who knows what direction, so my pursuit was fruitless. But from then on I was bound to her, and knew that I would never be able to truly rest until I found her. I would pursue her in any and every direction until she was mine – through the City’s streets and alleyways, through the forest’s shadows, into the sea even.
Years slipped by, but the only memories I stored were of the Hunt. I lay for long hours at night in my bed, sleep deprived, sometimes sweating hot, sometimes sweating cold, turning over in my mind a thousand fractured ideas of how I could attain her, what she would be like, how we would interact at that first meeting. Never did I see her face in these reveries. I created maps showing where I had spotted her, my paths of pursuit, looking for patterns or anything of note that may lead me to her. I filled notebooks with musings and whatever meager scraps of evidence I could find. Always I felt that I was closing in on her, although nothing had actually changed. Always my leg bounced up and down nervously when I was seated, or my fingers drummed on whatever surface my hand rested on. Concentration on anything else was difficult. At times thoughts came so heavily, oppressively, that I would find myself short of breath, sweating, fatigued even when sedentary. I had to find her. Or I would never find peace, my mind would never rest.
Tonight is when all this will change. Tonight I will find her. Tonight. . . My thoughts are interrupted by a knock at my bedroom door.
“Supper’s ready,” a low, smoke-ravaged female voice intones, implores.
I groan and get up from my desk, quietly fuming at this unwanted disturbance. I shuffle down the hall to the kitchen, where my grandmother has laid out a dinner for us – fried flat tortillas smothered in refried beans, topped with lettuce, tomato and sour cream. There’s cola to drink. I take a look around the kitchen. It’s small and cramped and cluttered, the walls yellowed with the grease of decades of cooking. Pots and pans hang on rusted old hooks behind the stove. The sink, at least, looks clean. I sit down and make the blessing over my meal.
“What’re you doing in that room of yours all day and all night?” she asks for the thousandth time; for the thousandth time I tell her “I’m writing.” “When’m I gonna read some of this writing of yours?” “When it’s done.” The conversation is always the same. My room locks with a combination deadbolt. From the inside I also have a chain, a bar, and a second deadbolt. It would take a battering ram to get in there. If she saw the state of my living space, she’d flip. The maps, the stacks of notebooks, the drawings, the dust. But I never let her in there. Never.
“Well, you’re gonna get out there and get a goddamn job tomorrow,” she continues. “My disability check can’t cover us both forever. It just ain’t right that someone as young and able-bodied as you should lay around here all day and all night and never contribute nothing. I told your mama I’d take care of you but that was when you was young and weren’t a good-for-nothing like you are now. You need to get a job. I don’t care if it’s at the grocery store or a filling station. Get a job!”
I shuffle back into my room and silently lock the door. I sigh as I lean back into the chair in front of my desk, its burgundy vinyl ripped in several places, the foam stuffing popping out and browned from exposure.
Maybe tonight’s not the night.