Just hours before Mary Margaret died, the rain that had battered the city for weeks stopped and the sun burned alone in a brilliant summer sky. The nurse took great care to describe the scene to me later. Mary Margaret had asked the nurse to bring her to the window. With the sun on her face, she closed her eyes and listened to the birds. She drew deep, contented breaths and tapped her fingers to a song only she could hear. The nurse went away and when she returned Mary Margaret was unresponsive. A short while after the doctor declared her dead the rains began again and hadn’t stopped since.
Sing to me, Muse, of the anger of Daniela, and how she raged in the dark at her alarm clock, which did not sit upon the sacred throne of her nightstand but was instead held captive in exile on the dresser all the way on the other side of the room, the first misstep in an ill-conceived plan to seize the day and get out of bed before the sun came up, instead of waiting until she desperately needed to use the bathroom, get a drink, or both.
Tell me, Goddess, how she cursed Zeus and Thor and Ra and the whole pantheon of gods and heroes as she sprinted barefoot across the cold floor because at that moment she would do anything, bear any pain, pay any price, to stop that obnoxious beeping. “Super loud alarm sound for heavy sleepers!” the box said. It didn’t say, “Worst noise in the world! Perfect for early morning!”
Bartolomeo Evangelio de Garzas y Torreo arrived in Cartagena after a journey across the sea that most men would have recalled as the adventure of a lifetime. Bartolomeo put it out of mind almost the moment he stepped on dry land, so that years later the entire chapter was covered thusly: “We sailed from Almeria on a Sunday and arrived in Cartagena before the start of Lent.”
The fortress city of Cartagena overflowed with the fabled riches of the New World. Gold dangled from every earlobe and around every neck. Even the rudest citizens seemed weighted down with jewels. The city’s taverns filled the night air with the sound of men spending fortunes on fleeting pleasure, and the churches glistened with the generosity of their shame.
Bartolomeo had been warned not to be seduced by the city. “What you see there is barely a taste of what lies at El Dorado.” In Cordoba he had met a man with an incredible tale, a man who had been captured by Indians and taken to their capital deep in the jungle. It was a city made entirely of gold, from the dizzying heights of its ziggurats to the earth beneath their feet. The man claimed to have lived there for years, to have married a pagan and sired four children before he became homesick and asked to returned to the white men on the coast. He returned to Spain, but along the way became overcome with regret. Now he was too old to return, and begged for help retrieving his lost family. “I wish for them to be brought her, to become Christians and live in the glory of His salvation.” In exchange he offered directions to the golden city.
Bartolomeo heard his tale and dismissed him at first, but the man’s sincerity touched him, and Bartolomeo took a little time to investigate his circumstances. Much of his story could be corroborated, and interviews with others who had gone to the New World convinced Bartolomeo that the old man’s claim were worth investigating. He offered to find the man’s pagan children, and the man gave him a detailed account of how to find the city of gold.
The Blue Line was one of only two things known to connect Thurman University with Kannady Chicken on North Third Street. The line’s University stop had an entrance directly at the front gates of the university. The stairwell was actually integrated into the design of the marble gates, from which attractive wings stretched out to surround and perhaps partly conceal the stairs. Most students actually used the back entrance to the subway, which spilled out in front of the larger but less attractive west gate and closer to College Hill’s commercial strip, but the main gate was symbolic of the university as a whole.
The Kellerman Avenue stop (which was actually on Ann Street, one block west of Kellerman) had a single entrance, which was in front of Kannady Chicken. Generally speaking, the less said of Kannady Chicken the better. Not so much a neighborhood institution as it was merely a thing that inexplicably existed in a neighborhood that itself only barely existed, Kannady served up edible fried foods, mostly but not exclusively chicken-based. The business depended on the fact that sometimes people came out of the subway hungry, and since the food at Kannady wasn’t any worse than anything else in this part of town it was just as good a choice as any. But make no mistake, nobody ever in the business’s history made a special trip to go to Kannady. It was just there, and so people went. Often enough that it stayed in business.
The other thing that connected Thurman University and Kannady Chicken is that Antonette Charles was a sophomore at Thurman, studying anthropology, and lived with her mother in the apartment two stories above Kannady. (Not, blessedly, the apartment directly above–everything she owned would smell like poorly-fried chicken if she had. She knew this for a fact because her neighbors, who invariably broke their leases every few months and were replaced, always sooner or later smelled like chicken.)
Too old for this. Same mistakes. Tell her again. And again.
The ceiling fan only blows the heat around. Pillow too flat. Sheets all a mess.
Too old and too stupid.
It got to the point where he couldn’t breathe anymore and there was no use staying in bed. She was tossing in bed, too, and he wanted to ask her if she was mad at him, but he didn’t want to to acknowledge that she had a reason for being angry. She clearly was, but wasn’t saying it, so maybe he could hope that she wasn’t.
It was all so stupid, and he couldn’t believe that he was here, tossing in his bed, over the same stupid shit yet again.
Every step of the way could be justified, but the end result was always the same, and somehow it was only he who ended up here so he had to face that it was him, entirely him.
He wanted to die. But not quite. Death would leave grieving, accusation, disappointment. Wounds that would fester in his children. It would make her wonder if she had been wrong to be so angry, and she didn’t deserve that doubt. She was right to be angry. Again.
He didn’t want to die but he wanted to stop living. To stop being. Cast a spell and erase himself from the world and from everyone.
Impossibilities, he knew. Peter got out of bed. He used the bathroom for the fifth time that evening, had a glass of water, took an Advil for a headache he wasn’t sure he had. Instead of going back to bed he went to the couch and turned the fan directly onto himself. When he couldn’t cool down he knew it wasn’t the heat. It wasn’t that hot tonight.
The idea came to him that he needed a walk, and so after debating it in his head for an hour or so–now well past midnight, with his alarm set to wake him in just over four hours–he got up and got dressed.
He left his phone but took some cash–maybe he could get a coffee somewhere–and stepped out into the night.
During the height of the Mayan era a group of people who called themselves Snakes briefly overran the cities of the Yucatan and formed a powerful imperial state. Where they came from has been lost to history. How they built their empire, and how they lost it, is almost as much guessing as it is scholarship. Until the 1960s, actually, the fact that they had ever existed was mostly unknown.
When the Snakes fell, their rivals did their best to erase them from memory, and nearly succeeded. But today we can find what little remains of their monuments scattered throughout the Yucatan, identified by their imperial symbol, a stylized snake with an eerie grin. Archaeologists have pieced together a sketchy timeline for their rule, and shown how their society was organized.
Their cities, judging from the remnants that have survived, were amazing, and what we have learned of their history suggests that this may have been one of the most dazzling places on earth in the seventh century.
I imagine a young man growing up in the Snake capital, learning to walk along those streets, running his hands over stone buildings that, as far as he knew, had always been there, and would always be there. The myriad daily encounters that make up the bulk of life: cooking, shopping, meeting with friends, going to work. Love, children. Various worries that kept him up at night, the life-consuming tragedies that scarred him but left no imprint on the greater world.
I look at the towers of my own city, the ribbons of pavement that grid the ground beneath me, the long-term projects that take up all my time and energy, and the forgettable tasks and thoughts, innumerable as the stars. I understand that of the billions of us who walk the earth, very few are ever remembered beyond their own lifetimes. We are like grains of sand, not valuable in and of ourselves but in aggregate a wonder to behold. I personally will be forgotten but my time, my civilization, my world that I know will echo through the centuries.
I’m sure the Snake people felt the same way. How would it feel if by some accident one of them should step through time and find himself in his city today, overgrown with jungle and picked over with scholars? Would he point to places in a desperate effort to show that this field was where his children played, that this low wall had once been a house, that the people inside it were kind and generous and deserved to be remembered? Would he simply go mad? Or would he just stand there, unable to comprehend that his world that was all that there was could vanish so completely?
Angeline Carter flipped through the stack of mail on her desk. It was almost always junk, but odd and amusing things popped up regularly enough to make it worth her time. She sorted quickly, deciding what was worth opening and what was trash almost without conscious thought, sometimes judging little more than the feel on the paper on her fingertips. She spent a bit more time on the pieces she thought were worth a second look, but most of those ended up in the trash, too. The only keepers today were an invitation to a restaurant opening at the marina, and a flyer for the City Opera, reminding her that she wouldn’t be taking advantage of her subscription this season, either.
In her haste Angeline almost missed the package that had been delivered as well, a plain box not much bigger than a coffee mug. She didn’t see it until she had sat down, and when she picked it up she was surprised that it had been delivered at all. Some determined or very bored mail clerk had inexplicably decided to not just return it to sender. Perhaps the long jumble of letters on the label had caught his eye. Maybe somebody in the mail room was Polish and upon seeing the name “Grace Szczepaniak” decided that he had a sacred duty to deliver the mail. Although it wasn’t any kind of secret, very few people her outside of HR or the Legal department knew who Grace Szczepaniak was, and almost nobody who knew Grace would ever think to find her here.
Angeline used a letter opener to cut the wrapping tape and open the box. Inside it was mostly bubble wrap, which she unspooled to reveal a small figurine of a ballerina. The figure itself was cheap ceramic, perhaps even just plaster, unglazed and mostly unpainted except for the faded pink tutu. The ballerina balanced on one foot, which connected her to the wooden base and the hidden mechanics inside. There was a slot on the side for a small key which, when turned, would make it play a tinny ten-second snippet of The Nutcracker, and slowly spin the little ballerina. The key was missing, but Angeline found that if she turned the ballerina herself the gears still moved, and the song still played, albeit at the wrong speed.
She checked the box. There was no return address but the postmark showed it was mailed from Sweetwater, and Angeline felt a tremble crawl through her hands. She put the figurine down and stood. It was an odd intrusion into her day, and although the tremble went away already she didn’t want to sit down. Her office, her home-away-from-home for nearly seven years now, felt alien and unwelcoming to her, and the need to get out was impossible to ignore.
Which was madness, after all. And infuriating. She had gone through this already, and over the past few weeks settled whatever it was that needed to be settled–which wasn’t much, she found. It was both ridiculous and unfair that this little figurine should insist otherwise.
And yet there it was. The slot for the missing key was a quiet accusation, and the muted song that wouldn’t play right tried stubbornly to remind her of Crystal and, inevitably, Grace.