Do you fall in love with the city in Kat Howard’s new short story, or does it fall in love with you? ~ Julian and Fran, April 16, 2023
By Kat Howard
You don’t remember the precise moment you first slipped into that other city. You’ve thought about it since—how could you not?—but even with everything else you remember about that visit, you don’t remember how it began. You were walking through your own city, in a rush to catch the subway, and then you were just . . . there. The transition so seamless that you didn’t know it had happened until your eyes were caught by an unfamiliar skyline.
There are other things, now, that you don’t remember. Pieces of your life before that city took up residence in you. And memories that are there, but are flat, photonegatives of themselves. As if your life and your memories are reversed. As if you exist in fragments.
You never have learned its name, but that’s how you think of it.
The building is unlike the others in the city, with their modern lines and hard angles. It doesn’t have the same glass and chrome regularity that in your city once signaled modernity and now demonstrates unimaginative sameness.
Instead, it looks Gothic. A secular cathedral, stretched closer to the heavens than any of its medieval cousins could have imagined. Gargoyled and buttressed, its windows like paused kaleidoscopes, all color and shape.
The building has no obvious door.
It’s said, in that city, that if someone finds their way into that building, they will learn their possible future, but that this is the easy part—they must find their way out again before it will come true. Others say that the building only opens for those it recognizes, the ones who are supposed to be allowed in. Still others say that the building has no need of doors, that it is not a place designed to permit access, but a mausoleum, long abandoned. That the lights that illuminate its windows are only signs of hauntings.
You have tried to get close enough to the building to see for yourself if there is some hidden hinge or stone that—when pushed—will cause a door to reveal itself. But whenever you go looking for it, you always find yourself on the wrong street, or farther away than you thought you were, or exiting the subway car back in your own city.
You do remember the first time you saw the ghosts. You hadn’t been able to sleep, and so you had gone for a walk in the late summer night. You were crossing the street, and between one curb and the next, you stepped into the other city. The reason you noticed was the sound: no longer the muted hum of late-night traffic, but the high, clear reverberation of ringing bells.
The ghosts appear only when the bells ring. Black and white, flickering as if you see them on worn film running through a dying projector. They seem to you like film clips as well, more like memories of past happenings, imprints of emotions that replay themselves rather than hauntings. You’ve never seen them interact with anything except each other—they just play their parts, and then fade from sight when the bells go silent.
Here’s the thing: You’ve never seen any bells in the city. You should be able to find them. The bells that ring the ghosts into being are large, bell tower, cathedral sorts of bells. Their music comes from multiple directions. You have even seen what look like bell towers; stopped, once, to stare up at one. “They’re empty,” a woman next to you said. “The bells were taken out because they call the ghosts.” You must have looked dumbfounded, because then she shrugged and said, “I know.”
You wonder if it is the ghosts or the bells that is the true haunting.
The Fortune Teller
She tells you to pick a card and so you do, before you have even consciously registered the words, before you realize that you have once again slipped into the other city.
“The Drowned Man,” she says.
It is not a card you have ever seen before. A man is suspended, upside down, in water. His hair floats about him like sea wrack. It may be sea wrack, you think as you look closer. Those are pearls that were his eyes.
You ask, half-laughing, “Should I fear death by water?”
“Of course,” she says, “but that is not what this card means.”
You stop laughing after that.
“The card means that you are neither here nor there. You are between.” Her hand, the nails painted matte black, hovers over the card. “You are going to need to choose. Air, or drowning.”
You bump into a dog walker then, your feet tangling in leashes, and a chaos of paws and tails and barking and curses ensues. You are back in your own city. It is late spring, and it has been raining. You smell lilacs, somewhere.
You step across a puddle, then look back. Floating in the puddle is a set of three cards: the Ten of Pearls, the Bridge reversed, and the Queen of Doubles.
The grey in your hair happens all at once. When you leave in the morning, you have the usual amount—a few more hairs than you feel comfortable plucking out, but not enough to really bother you. When you come home that evening, you have streaks of silver. Your hands shake as they slide through the strands.
When you started slipping into the other city, you thought of it as an adventure. Like stepping through a wardrobe. It didn’t feel unsafe, not really, just strange enough to be interesting.
It didn’t, if you’re honest, feel quite real.
It feels real now, and—as you examine the further evidence of the passage of time on your face—you’re not sure if you like it anymore. It is not, perhaps, a good adventure.
You hear a clock strike the hour, its toll familiar, but not in this place.
You wonder, for the first time, why you. Why were you the person that city chose to pull into itself? Why does it bring you back, time and again? Is there something it wants? You touch, gently, the wrinkles around your eyes.
You had decided that if you could, you would fight the city’s pull. You would stay in your own place, forego any further adventures. But the city is subtle, and has never given you warning, never given you something to pull against or resist. And it doesn’t now, either: within the space of a distracted thought, you have gone from standing in line for coffee to a garden.
A garden in winter, snow falling, deepening the white blanket that lies atop everything. You shiver—you were dressed for mid-autumn temperance.
The snow cover makes it difficult to tell, but the garden feels like an abandoned place. There is something here that goes beyond seasonal falling away. Trees that are not just winter-dormant, but touched with rot. Late-fall blooms, dead now, but never pruned away. And then the statues.
Partial, unfinished, marble as pale and cold as the snow. There is a vague familiarity to them, as if you have seen glimpses of the models. Did you speak to that man once, as you were first finding your way here? Did you see that woman’s half-smile, as she read your future from a card?
You’re colder now. Cold enough that your shaking has stopped and there is a strange, prickling almost-numbness in your hands and feet.
A branch snaps, falling to the ground under the weight of winter. Behind it, another statue. You brush the snow away with a marble-cold hand.
The half-carved face is yours.
You begin the walk in your own city. It’s a bridge you return to often. You love the height of it, the way it allows you to see things you wouldn’t on the lower streets. You love the rush of water beneath it, the speed and power of the current, changing changing changing.
You pause, at its peak, to rest, and to watch. The river beneath, yes, and the fog, curling catlike, but also the people crossing. Faces in cars that pass in a blur. Parents pushing strollers. Lovers holding hands.
The fog is thicker now, obscuring. Cars are a noise preceded by lights. The other people walking on the bridge emerge as sudden snapshots. Black and white. Through the fog, you hear the ringing of the bells.
The Cathedral, Redux
You don’t remember the precise moment you were last in your city. Yet now here you are, standing in an empty hallway on a floor of polished concrete, streaked and smeared with color. You look up, and the walls, immensely high, are studded with stained-glass windows.
Your laughter echoes hollowly. Here you are, and yet, you still don’t know if there is a door to the outside. Or how you got in.
Or if you will be able to get out.
On the floor, there is a tarot card. It is the Fool of Doubles. Also, it is you—one of the images as you looked before your visits to this city, and one as you looked in the mirror this morning. You are barely recognizable as the same person. Your eyes, in the second image, are pearls.
You hold the card as you walk through the strangeness of this building. You find a winding staircase, and you walk up and up and up. When you come to the top, you can see out over the entire city. You are so fascinated with the view that you don’t immediately notice what is in the center of the room.
When you do, it is even more astonishing than what is outside.
It is your own city, in miniature. A model in extraordinary detail. The church bells even ring when you touch them.
It’s populated as well, people rushing here and there, in parks and cars and lines waiting for coffee. There is a figure in a familiar coat, running toward the subway.
Carefully, delicately, you turn back the hands of the clock. You reach down, and you pick yourself up.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Kat Howard is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror who lives and writes in Minnesota. Her next novel, A Sleight of Shadows, the sequel to An Unkindness of Magicians (named a best book of 2017 by NPR, and a 2018 Alex Award winner), is coming April 25, 2023. You can find her @KatwithSword on Twitter and on Instagram. She talks about books at Epigraph to Epilogue.
“Unreal City,” © Kat Howard, 2023.
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