Whimper (working title)
She was transparent against the red sky, sunset bleeding its way into darkness as the day died. There was already darkness between the towers, as the sky-scraping giants collected night along the avenues like great mountains collected early dusk within their valleys.
Daddy? she called half-heartedly.
Daddy…addy…dy…echoed between the buildings like mirrors reflecting each other. A lonely wind blew her oversized sweater against her skin, and she extended her hand in an attempt to grab onto its fleeting company. Wait? Please.
Pigeon wings' flapping filled the air, though she didn't see them as she wandered the asphalt. In between two buildings, she found a pile of rags. Wondering if it was a homeless person, she kicked it; bits of cloth and newspaper scattered-it really was just a pile of rags. Next to the now-overturned pile was an empty brown cardboard box, tilted on its side so that the interior gathered shadows like a mouth. Crawling inside, she leaned against the back, tipping the whole thing and falling right-side-up.
Laughing a little bit, she watched the night fully fall. Some of the distant streetlamps flickered on, and high, high up in a tower, a single room was lit. But other than that the city had given itself completely over to the night. The unsleeping city finally closed its insomniac eyes.
The stars began to come out, the brightest ones first: big and little Dippers, Orion's Belt…and then he ones she didn't know, barely glimpsed between the towers. Leo chasing Virgo, Pegasus. The bright, soft glow of the Milky Way stretching across the sky like a cloud-arm of stars. Daddy had once said that no one saw stars in this city. Probably no one had seen this many in the past hundred years. So far away, they looked. Where are you? she asked them.
She lay in the pretense of sleep, watching the moon cast its pale glow across the glass towers, arcing up and away and down again on the nightly romp. She stared at the sky, wishing the thin padding below her would warm, even just a little bit, and pulled her arms in from the sleeves and wrapping them around herself inside the folds of her turtleneck. She unfolded the collar so that it rose up and covered her face. And so she lay.
Morning came with the sound of birds chirping as if the place was a forest. Maybe it was. Folding the collar back down past her chin, and pushing her arms back into the sleeves, she stood up in the box, and started walking again.
The sounds of cats came from near a dumpster, as if they were eating; in the dirt were their small, dainty paw prints. Then came the noise of growling, like coyotes or dogs, and then little puffs of dust erupted from the ground where their feet impacted as they ran, chasing away the feline competition; and the clang of metal where they jumped onto the lid of the dumpster. There was a hiss, and for the briefest instant, a flash of green eyes. Then there was only the canine ruckus of the feast on human leavings. The entire battle, invisible. Except for the cats. Sometimes she saw cats.
The early morning light washed her sweater orange, a whimsical departure from the sullen brown normality. She walked down Gay Street, because it had a funny name, then meandered her way down to Little West 12th, because it sounded lonely. Finally she came to the intersection of a 5 and a 42, because she wondered how those two numbers had anything to do with each other.
She forgot all about the numerical conundrum when she saw the staircase, the lions, and the library. Her smile was huge, showing all of her white teeth. Unruly red curls fanned out behind her like waves of dried blood as she ran, a stark contrast against her milky skin. She ran up the steps two at a time, and then down them again three at a time. Her footsteps clacked like tap shoes, and her laugh was a feral howl.
You. Making all of he noise.
She stopped mid-jump, hanging in the air. Someone had spoken. Daddy?
You're no kin of mine, running wild like that as a stray dog might.
The ginger girl twisted her shoulders. Who was speaking? Who is it?
I don't want to wait! she whined. She had waited long enough.
No, stupid child. I am named Patience.
She floated for a good minute more, silent, looking. She saw no one, and stifled a sob for her daddy, for her family, for loneliness. Letting herself fall back onto the stairway, she sat and called out again. Is anyone alive?
No, came the voice.
How can you be speaking if you aren't alive, she asked with the firm reasoning of all seven-year-olds.
You aren't alive either, as it were.
The retort found the fault in her logic, and so she faltered. Well I'm not dead! she yelled.
Yes you are. The voice sounded old, infallible.
Then you are too, she retorted.
No, I'm not.
Then what are you?
She snorted. You don't make any sense.
You just don't comprehend the sense I'm making.
She turned around, again trying to locate the source of the infuriating voice; the only semblance of life was the stone lions, carved to resemble breathing beasts. Deciding to ignore the voice, she went over to the statue and hopped up on the pedestal, running her fingers along its back and up its marble mane.
A blink of movement in her peripheral vision. She snapped her neck around, and watched in awe as the grey eye blinked its lid, and a blue pupil appeared within the stone iris. Are you apologizing, wild little girl?
She jumped backwards from the pedestal and the statue, frightened. You speak?
We have discussed this already, I believe. At length. Once more: I am Patience.
Do you normally speak?
Then why are you speaking to me?
I felt in need of a conversation. My brother doesn't speak much these days. His mind is elsewhere. In China, perhaps. Or Tucson.
My brother, yes. Fortitude. Then, amazingly, the marble neck of the statue lifted, the mane shifting like real hair, and the regal grey beast turned his head to the other stone lion across the stairs. The blue pupils then turned down to face the scared, open-mouthed child.
You know our names. Now you must tell me yours.
Yes, you must. It is common courtesy among my people.
Not knowing who 'my people' were, and not really wanting to find out, lest the statues of the city all suddenly spring to life and begin demanding things of her, she said: Vanessa.
Well then, Vanessa, what is it that you are doing?
I was just climbing the stairs.
And running down them, he added contemptuously.
And running down them, she agreed.
Why did you think I was your father? he asked.
I haven't heard anyone besides myself in a long time.
How long have you been wandering?
I don't know. A long time?
Twenty years, at least, I'd say. But that's just going by the smell of you. Most know that granite nostrils are rarely good for the job.
Where is everyone? She clasped her hands together, twisting them with worry.
Do you mean people?
Yeah, I think so…
Well, Patience said, tilting his head slightly to the side, all of the live ones are dead, and most of the dead ones have moved on. And the ones who are dead and who are here, well, you won't see them.
Her hands fell limply to her sides. Vanessa brought her hazel eyes up to meet the lion's. Dead? How?
The world ended, he said simply, almost with a laugh.
How? She asked again, more to herself.
With a bang and a boom, as such things go. No, actually it ended more the way Fortitude guessed it would; he won the bet. You see, I was always more in the opinion that when Man ended, he would blow himself up or some such. But he more or less slipped away…
Yes, he replied. Gone. Poof. He puckered his marble lips around the word "poof."
She started to cry, tears sliding down her chin and oddly evaporating before they touched the ground. As if they never existed at all.
What is wrong? Patience's voice pitched slightly upward, though it still rumbled deeply like grinding gravel. He was wise beyond the bounds of time, though not well versed in the emotions of twenty-seven year old little girls.
Vanessa shook her head, walking away. Unwillingly, the lion faded back into immobility, watching the girl's retreating back as her brown turtleneck flapped in the wind like wings, noting how the cuff of the sleeves hung well past the tips of her fingers. Brown and orange, like wood on fire. His blue pupils faded back into grey, and his mind slowed back down to the speed of stone.
When she looked up again, it was high noon. Happy Noon! she called. Mama used to say that all the time before she died. She liked it because it wasn't morning and it wasn't after-noon. It was the only time of day that you could shout it. Vanessa waved to her own reflection in the glass door of a building, before walking through it. For a moment it seemed as if she were melting into herself, but then she was inside.
She walked to the elevator bay, through the golden doors, and was soaring up through the dark shaft. All the way to the top. Through the ceiling, even. Finally, she came to a rest on top of the roof. Everything was spread before her, brilliantly lit, like it was offering itself up to her. The sparkling waters of the Hudson and East Rivers, the great spires spearing upwards like weapons, the streets so far below in their simplistic grid. The far-off green lady like a schoolgirl, book in one hand, the other lifted to wave to someone far, far away, beyond the sea.
She was the Queen of Everything. She was The Boss of You. All hail Empress Vanessa! Cheering rose up all around her, and she closed her eyes, happy.
When she opened her eyes, Piano Man was sitting in front of her, reclining on the empty air. You always were one for dramatics, weren't you? he laughed.
Her smile immediately reversed itself, a frown creasing her lips, cheeks and chin.
He shook his head. You aren't very happy to see me, are you?
You always yell at me. I'm supposed to like you? Vanessa crossed her arms defensively, angrily.
Piano Man stood, his front paws placed neatly together and his long tail erect. I never yell, he corrected her.
He shook his head and sat back down, the noon sun filling his completely white fur with a shining brilliance, and highlighting his whiskers so that they seemed to be covered in dew. When Piano Man had first appeared, it had been as a woman with brilliant red hair and great orange wings, like those of a bird. She had carried a scythe and the name Utheriel.
But now she came in the guise of Piano Man, her pet cat that had died a few months before she had.
Have you been speaking to the lions? he asked.
She wrapped her arms around her knees. How do you know about that?
You're my charge, he answered. There isn't much you do that I don't know about.
Vanessa looked into his yellow-amber eyes. Are you going to tell me that I have to 'hurry up into the light already'? Or are you going to give me the 'you don't belong here anymore' speech?
No, he said. Not this time.
Really? she asked, hopeful for the first time in quite a while.
Yeah, he said. How's your day been so far?
It's been alright. That mean lion said some bad things, so that made me a little mad. She was surprised when the wing-woman disguised as her cat rubbed his face against the side of her leg. He then settled down and crossed his paws.
Why don't you tell me about it?
So she did. It was odd, talking to this phantom of her childhood friend just like she used to, after a boy was mean to her at school or when she lost her shoe.
She scratched Piano Man along the spine, and he arched his back up to meet her hand. He lay there, rolled onto his back and purring deeply. Vanessa let her hand fall away then, to rest palm-first on the granite on which she sat.
Why are you being like this? she asked him.
Like what? He lifted his head too look at her, twitching his whiskers.
You know. All nice instead of high-and-mighty.
I thought you could use the break, he admitted.
You know you're not going to change my mind.
All right then…When she lifted her head, the day was gone, and so was the cat. She watched the darkness dawn and the moonlight cast its shadows over the water. She waved to the green lady and disappeared.
You should talk to my brother, Patience said.
He can show you things: places he's been, things he's imagined, thought. People he's met. I imagine you would find it…intriguing.
She turned her gaze over to the other lion across the stairs. How can a stone lion wander places? Wouldn't people notice him if they saw him?
Because it's impossible.
Why is it impossible for them to see him?
No, no Vanessa. It's not impossible for anyone to see him. They don't see him because it's impossible for a stone lion to be wandering around on its own. Allegedly, anyway.
That doesn't make very much sense.
When you have a few centuries to think about these things, they make all the sense in the world. Besides, I am not this stone lion. This stone lion is me. The stone I am of has seen much. The stone Fortitude is of has seen much more.
I still don't think it makes much sense. Vanessa turned away from Patience and made her way to the north side of the stairs, skipping along the length of one narrow stair.
Be slow. Give him time to respond. He has to bring his mind back from a very faraway place.
How do you know? she asked, but Patience's eyes were already fading, and he was growing still. Useless house-cat, she muttered.
Standing before Fortitude was different from standing beside his brother. For although they were identical, this lion gave the impression of being far-traveled, and very tired, whereas his brother was a solid, sedentary force. She rested both her hands on his pedestal and looked up into his blank, far-seeing eyes.
A small rumble; a shifting of stone, perhaps?
Anyone home? Wak-ey wak-ey sleepy-head…
Vanessa sat back down on the stairs, glancing over at Patience, immobile, unspeaking. A bit of help would be nice about now. How much "time to respond" did this statue need?
A few minutes more, and there came a cracking sound, like stone breaking away from stone. Yes? The voice that came was deep and slow and cultured. A small purple pupil appeared, and locked gazes with her.
You are Fortitude?
I know of no other stone lions named 'Fortitude' in the immediate vicinity, so yes, it must be I. And you are?
I'm Vanessa. She surprised herself at how easily she gave forth that information about herself.
That doesn't tell me very much, you know.
I'm a friend of your brother.
The whole of the rock of the earth is my brother.
Patience, I mean. Patience.
Oh, ah, yes. And what has Patience said to send you my way…
Vanessa, she supplied.
He said you could show me things. You know, places, people, ideas…I don't really get it, but he seemed keen on the idea.
What kind of seven-year-old girl uses words like 'keen'?
I'm kind of seven…but not really.
Fortitude nodded, as if he understood perfectly. Well, my good brother was correct in sending you over here to learn, for there is no other place where you could experience such a depth and breadth of knowledge! he smiled.
He seems kind of full of himself, Vanessa thought to herself.
Heard that, and am not, he said, voice oddly childlike for the briefest instant. Now, place your hand on my paw.
Students do not ask questions when they are given directions. They sit quietly, obey and learn. Now do so!
Okay, okay…she extended her small white hand, with its delicate, pearly pink fingernails to rest on his great stone paw. And suddenly, she was nowhere. Where am I? she tried to say, but nothing came out. She didn't exist; couldn't feel her body. Deep-set panic rose in her. This…this was what the final death was like, wasn't it? Beyond the light Piano Man kept talking about? I don't want this! she called, trying to struggle, but she couldn't feel her arms and legs. Primal terror ate at the edges of her mind-
Oh, don't get your britches in such a bunch! And then she was standing on a mountain. And there were people! They were talking about how to set up camp; she reached her hand out towards them, but some unseen force held her still. No, no, Fortitude's voice came again. I'm here to guide you through my memories. We can't have you mucking about in my mind, now can we?
And he took her away.
She saw countrysides, cities, suburbs, slums, forests, mountains, rivers and caves. She met rich men, poor men, fat men, thin men, and all sorts of women too. They had pinched faces, round faces, angular faces. They carried babies, they wore suits and went to work, they wore rags and worked the land. They told her stories, they complained, the chatted amicably about the weather.
There was one lady in particular: she was Asian, speaking Chinese or some such language, though Vanessa understood her perfectly. Somehow she knew that this woman had lived a thousand years ago, and yet her face was lit up with the vibrant flash of life, hands planted on her hips and a broken smile on her face, kept alive by the memory of stone.
You know, she said, back in the village there are no good listeners like you. She patted Vanessa on the head. The woman seemed as if she were on a brief escape from something. I can come here and talk as much as I want, and you aren't going to yell at me or demean me, now are you? the woman smiled her pained smile. She rose, and began to walk away; she felt the woman's footsteps vibrating through her; she felt part of something larger than herself, integrated into some vast unconscious.
You are in the stone.
She blinked and was neck-deep in a fast-flowing river, the waters curving around her, telling her all sorts of things. The snowmelt in the mountains is high this year. The sediment along that one tributary tastes very odd. The fishes will be spawning soon, and the waters will teem! It was not hard to breathe. She didn't have to breath. She was rock.
She saw falls, winters, springs, summers. Days and nights. Hopes and joys. And ever-present despair. The despair of a limping dog finally giving up, collapsing into the ground. The despair of a starving child forcing fistfuls of dirt into her mouth. Of a beaten woman's tears splashing on the floor. Of the mountain trembling and throwing its sides upon a village, crushing them all. Of the world. When she thought she could take no more, at the brink where she assumed madness would be, she was also shown the tiny spark of a miracle: the sheer wonder of existence, of being. She looked at it like a small quartz crystal buried deep at the heart of a lump of cold limestone.
And then she was in her own body, and everything was itself again.
There, little chicken. Did you learn much? Fortitude's purple pupils quivered with excitement, she felt that he had not shared so much with anyone for eons. Yet Vanessa also knew that she had seen but a microcosm of his true mind, and that the full extent of his memory ran back to the bubbling fire of when the Earth first began.
I would say. Somehow, miracle of miracles, her voice came off as casual.
Yet the old stone lion was not fooled, and laughed a little. So nonchalant, yet trembling in your innards. Poor little chicken. Come back when you are able to speak without chattering teeth, no?
Chicken? How did I achieve the nick-name 'chicken'? she wondered as she stumbled down the stairs and away. Looking up, she saw that the sun was at its apex. Happy noon! she yelled back to Patience and Fortitude, before regaining enough of her composure to jog steadily down Fifth Avenue.
She spent the night wandering the vacant subway tunnels, pausing occasionally at an empty train or two, and listening to the general squeakings and shufflings of the tunnel rats, though she never did see them. Sitting in one of the uncomfortable seats, she spied a ratty old newspaper. Bored, she picked it up, looking at the headline with disinterest. Death, it said. It was just another boring old paper on how the world just went and let itself die. And some quote, used over and over: This is the way the world ends / not with a bang but a whimper.
She threw it aside and moved on, and when morning came it found her on the roof of a building, deigning to watch the sun rise. Everything was sparkling, the sea, the glass and metal. And the white cat that appeared in the air before her at eye level.
His eyes were fierce with borrowed light. Hello Vanessa.
Hi, Piano Man. She didn't know if this session was going to be like the last one, or all the others.
You've been speaking with the lions again, so I hear. He sat and began to lick a paw.
Is there a problem with that?
No, not really. He was oddly distant.
Is something wrong?
No, not really, he repeated.
What do you want to talk about today? she asked, lying flat on her back, hands behind her head as a cushion.
Oh, I don't know. He began grooming his tail. What have you been up to? he said half-heartedly.
Well, she said, excited, yesterday I talked to Fortitude. You know, he's really more fun than his name lets on. It makes you think of some staunch old man who just sits in his chair all day and smokes a pipe. But that's not really him, see. I don't know how, but he took me in his mind like. You know? And…
And what? Piano Man prompted.
I saw everything he saw. I knew everything he knew. Well, almost everything. Okay, not even close to everything. But…but…
…? the cat had a patient look on his face.
I'm glad you got to do that, Vanessa, I really am. Seven years of life and twenty of wandering does not lend one a proper experience of the world. But experience or no, time is almost up.
I can only be your personal angel for so long. After a while, if the spirit shows no intention to move on, they must be abandoned so that the guardian can move on to another, more promising spirit. He sounded as if he were reciting a line from memory. You will have to find your way on your own, after this. I can't hold your hand. Twenty years, that is more than enough.
Wait, wait Piano Man, I think that…
But the cat was in his own mind, and was humming.
…hey son, can you play me a memory? I'm not really sure how it goes, but it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete when I wore a younger man's clothes…
…he says, 'Bill, I believe this is killing me,' as the smile ran away from his face. 'Well I'm sure that I could be a movie star if I could get out of this place…
…yes they're sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it's better than drinking alone…
…and they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar, and say 'Man, what are you doing here?'…
And he turned his back to her and began to walk away, turning once again into Utheriel, a scythe-wielding angel of death. She looked over her shoulder, then spread her wings and started to fade…oh, la la la, de de da…
No, please, no no no….Vanessa stood and started to run after her cat…la la, de de da da da…she threw herself after the angel, finally, after twenty-seven years, ready to die, falling with Utheriel into the light…