“Spleen felt like glass. Lung was molten stone, stomach was handfuls of sand, liver was wet cement. Intestines, whitewash. Heart, clay and dirt and straw. Blood was paint and water, tendons were nails, muscles were brick.”
“And the bones?” the young archeologist asks.
“The bones? Bones were only bones.” She takes a drag on her cigarette and lightly rubs her wrist. “Bones are only ever bones.”
And the desert will swallow them. And the hot air will grind their bones down until they are fine, fine sand and the sun will bake their skin until it is dry as clay. And they will not be able to walk on to a better place. And they will not be able to stay where they are. And they will go to the woman who leads them and whom they call mother, but they will not be able to speak, for their lips will be like sandpaper against their tongues. And they will be desperate, and the woman who leads them will be desperate too. And many will perish, and many will go back to the sand that gave their leader birth before she gave birth to them. A hundred children of hers will suffer and she herself will suffer a hundredfold. And then a soft wind will blow and she will know the desert’s rule: to lead means not always to move. To stay still means not to lack a leader.
“How did the idea come to you?”
“You are familiar with this expression, To know something in your bones? I imagine this is how it first came about. The wind blew and I just knew. My bones knew.”
Manapolis, Manapolis, the first city of all the cities in the deserts of the North, the people will chant as they build their new homes. As they mix clay with straw and water they will praise their mother’s name and as they stack brick on bone on brick they will praise their mother’s body. As they nail their window-frames to their homes and as they whitewash their walls and as they lay their roofs and floors, they will praise the greatest city to be born out of the sand. Manapolis, Manapolis, they will sing, and the bones in the walls will sing with them. Manapolis, Manapolis.
Only one son will not join in the singing. This one son will drag his knuckles on the bricks until the walls are painted with his blood as they were painted with that of his mother. Because a wall is not a mother, he’ll say, and clay and dirt and straw don’t make a mother’s heart. And he will bang his fists against the floors and he will cry the desert’s tears. Manapolis, he’ll curse. Manapolis, Manapolis.
But time will pass, and his pain will soon be dulled, as all pain dulls in time. And the son will grow to be a leader and to know the mother’s songs. He will find his way to new loves, as will the rest of his people, until the mother’s children have grown a hundredfold. Under her roofs and sheltered by her walls, they will live and prosper in the young city of Manapolis—the sun no longer on their naked skin, the rains no longer on their bare heads.
“I am a scientist. This isn’t possible. This shouldn’t be possible.” The archeologist wipes sweat from his forehead. He takes a bottle of water to drink, but offers it to her first. She declines.
“You saw my ruins in the desert. You saw my blueprint in the sand. A mother is a city is a mother, thanks to you,” she says.
He looks at her, the skin supple again, nothing like clay. The hair soft again, the muscles tense, the face clear, nothing like sand, like brick, like ruins.
“It shouldn’t be possible.”
And more time will pass, and the ones who built the city in the desert with clay of heart and paint of blood will grow old and die. And their children will grow up and they will re-paint the walls and re-plaster the roofs, but they will still sing along with the bones in the walls when the wind blows in the desert. Manapolis, they’ll sing, Manapolis, the greatest city of all the cities in the deserts of the North. But then they too will grow old and die, and their children will grow up, and then their children’s children, and more children after that, because time is like the desert and human lives are but grains of sand.
Until one day the children will no longer want to paint these old, crumbling walls. They will be tired of propping up the rotting roofs and they will no longer want to scrub the floors of dirt a hundred years old. And life will have become kinder, and the desert will have become milder—the sun not so hot, the rains not so hard, the winds not as frequent. And staying where they are will be easy, but moving on will have become even easier. Sand in the stomach will no longer be a thing they understand. And cities in the desert will no longer make as much sense.
“What did it feel like? Being like this? Left behind like this?”
She brings the cigarette to her lips, inhales deeply. Then she makes a wide sweeping movement with her arm, showing him what lies around them, beyond the tent. “Desert,” she says.
And when their children’s children’s children will be all grown and most of the winds will have died down and the desert will have turned green here and there, the mother’s people will move on. They will be led by new leaders who won’t know how to sing the desert songs. They will leave behind the bones in the walls, the roofs of clay and dirt and straw, the old tunes and the old words. They will go away to find new cities, build new homes. They will marry new people and raise more children who will never have heard the songs of the desert people of the North. And time will pass, and the greatest city of all the cities in the deserts of the North will be forgotten, as all things are forgotten in time. But sometimes, on those very hot summer nights, an old thirst will awake in them and make their lips scrape their tongues like sandpaper. A desert breeze will suddenly disturb their sleep and then, sometimes, an old word will resound in the caves of their mouths. And they’ll whisper: Manapolis. And again: Manapolis. But they will not know what it means.
“What are you going to do now? Are you going to look for your people?”
“Can they still be found?” she asks.
“It’s been hundreds of years. I’m not going to lie, most of them have moved to organized states. They’ve mingled with the local populations to such an extent that their lineages are now all but untraceable. But there are a few groups in the deserts even further north from here that still tell stories about you.”
“What do they say about me?”
“Songs. Poems. About your walls, your bricks, your hollow bones that sang in the night when the air passed through them, like flutes.”
She touches her wrist again, as if even she believes herself impossible. She smiles. “They did, didn’t they?”
The archeologist shudders despite himself. “Yes. They did.”
“Is that how you found me? From the stories?”
“My people, do they have houses? Are there roofs over their heads, floors under their feet, walls to hide and shelter them from the heat and the rain?”
“They do, yes. They are very comfortable.” He thinks about it for a few moments. “Manapolis, they called you. The mother city. For years I thought it was a variation on the notion of metropolis. Of their origins, of where they came from. A metaphor. We all did. How could we not?”
“They still speak the language I taught them, then.” There is no question in her voice, and so the archeologist doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have the heart to correct her.
They fall silent. The tent undulates lightly in the breeze.
“May I touch you?” the archeologist asks after a while.
She looks at him, her face relaxed, her eyes the only part of her that truly looks ancient. “I haven’t been touched in a very long time,” she says.
“Would you like to be?”
She rests her cigarette at the edge of the bench she’s sitting on and reaches out her hand. The archeologist takes it into his as gently as possible. He resists the urge to wear gloves, as he would when handling a precious and delicate artefact, though he has seen enough by now to know she is anything but fragile. He runs his fingers over her skin. Her hand feels like a normal, human hand. So normal that he doubts what he has witnessed. His discovery, her singing bones, the pulse in the clay, the woman in the walls.
After a few moments, she withdraws her hand and picks up her cigarette again.
“I would like to go for a walk now,” she says, exhaling a cloud of smoke.
“Are you sure it’s safe?”
She laughs. “I’m sure,” she says. Her gaze softens. “You remind me so much of my child,” she says.
“Your child? Weren’t they all your children?”
“Is that what they say in their stories?”
“Yes. That you were a mother to all of them.”
She stumps out her cigarette. “Then that’s the truth,” she says.
The archeologist does not understand what she means, but he believes her, the mother city and her flesh. How could he not?
They get up from their benches and he parts the curtain hanging at the tent’s entrance. She walks out, her bare feet sinking into the desert, her figure solid and viscous at the same time. He stares at her back as she walks away on the empty sand, where the ruins of a city used to be. The heat that is reflected off the dunes blurs her form the farther she gets. Where is she going, the archeologist wonders, when a breeze rises softly, turning her hair into a halo around her head. The wind blows a few grains of sand into the archeologist’s face. He lets the curtain fall, to protect himself from the desert. As he rubs his eyes, he hears the distant sound of flutes. Manapolis, Manapolis, they whisper, the greatest city of all the cities in the lonely deserts of the North.
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Story copyright © 2016 by Natalia Theodoridou
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Derek Newman-Stille
Natalia Theodoridou is a media and cultural studies scholar. They are also the dramaturge of Adrift Performance Makers (@AdriftPM) and a writer of strange stories. Their work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Interfictions, sub-Q, KROnline, and elsewhere. You can find them on Twitter @natalia_theodor. Come say hi; this always makes them happy.
Derek Newman-Stille has published art in Lackington’s and Postscripts to Darkness. They run the Aurora Award-winning website Speculating Canada, which has been nominated for an Aurora Award again this year. Derek has published non-fiction work in fora such as Quill & Quire as well as The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Lo Sguardo: Rivista di Filosofia, and The Treatment of Disabled Persons in Medieval Europe: Examining Disability in the Historical, Legal, Literary, Medical, and Religious Discourses of the Middle Ages. Derek wrote the Afterword for the spec fic collection Accessing the Future, forthcoming.