The city began building itself when Lena was nine. It was a labor of love.
Construction started with a fountain, ornate and elaborate, full of leaping fish, out of whose mouths smaller fountains splashed, a tridented Poseidon proud at its apex. Lena liked how the bright sun turned the splashing water sharp and clear like diamonds, how the wind brought the spray to tingle, cool against her skin.
She closed her eyes, lifting her face to the warmth of the sky, and an afterimage of the fountain burned on the inside of her eyelids. She heard the wild laughter of her best friend, Catherine, the two girls so inseparable they appeared like twinned shadows, as a sudden gust dampened the front of her sundress. Lena smiled, and wished she could keep the place forever.
“Girls, let’s go! Come away from those steps before you fall. We’re going to be late.” Her mother’s voice, impatient.
Lena opened her eyes, and the sky blinked. She climbed down from the steps she had been sitting on – the grey, worn pedestal of an ancient memorial, so old it was crumbling into dust at the touch of the breeze.
Near the bottom, her foot caught. She fell, bloodying her knees.
“What did I tell you?” her mother asked, brushing grit and gravel from the scrapes. “Are you all right?”
Lena nodded, half–looking back over her shoulder, as if she might see what had tripped her. But the only thing behind her was an expanse of space – a cracked courtyard where idle pigeons strutted through.
“Catherine, how did your dress get wet? What have you girls gotten into?” Lena’s mother twitched Catherine’s dress straight and shook her head.
“There was water? Before?” Catherine, hesitant. Unremembering.
“Well, I don’t know where. Come on, girls.”
“There was water. Right?” Catherine whispered to Lena.
Lena nodded. She knew there had been. Splashing through the sun like diamonds. But she couldn’t call to mind what it had been or where it had gone.
Some where, an other where, the splash of a fountain with the faintest trace of red in its waters echoed through an empty square.
There are metaphors that could be made on cities as bodies.
One can discuss the life of a city, the way it grows, the way it develops, as if one were discussing the life of a person. One might consider arteries for traffic and whether they might be clogged, or ponder whether there is breathing space between places as they are built. We speak of the faded glory of a building with the same words we speak of a formerly beautiful woman, the cracks that show in the façade.
We can think about foundations as skeletons – does the place have good bones, the architect considers, when looking at a building. We talk about a body, with its architecture of muscle, of skin, hung on the bones beneath, like we might talk about a building.
Lena’s city, embryonic as it is, does not consider metaphor.
As yet, the city considers almost nothing. All it knows is it is hers, and it loves her.
As she dreams, Lena almost–remembers the fountain. It is there, locked behind a door in her self. She can feel it.
And though she doesn’t think of it as missing, there is a piece of her that has gone, too. The red scabs on her knees. The blood that was left behind on the ground, that might splash through a fountain like water. The tiniest missing piece of a self, wounds that she covers over with her hands.
Every city needs its foundation.
The fountain was the only occupant of Lena’s city for quite some time, long enough for its copper splendor to oxidize to a blue green patina. Long enough to feel like it had been alone forever. But it knew it was a city, and knew that name meant becoming more than a singular place. The air around it was made of time and memory, and so it waited, almost patiently, for the next inhabitant.
Then, later, the cathedral arrived.
“Did you know they used to grind the bones of saints into the mortar?” Catherine asked. “Something about making the space holy, sanctified. Some of the really old churches have whole bodies of saints buried in the cornerstones. Sometimes they weren’t even dead before they were immured.”
“You sound a little too excited about buildings with people built into them,” Lena said.
“Besides, you have to be dead before you can be a saint,” Lena said. “Otherwise the miracles don’t count.”
“They don’t happen?” Catherine asked.
“They happen. They’re just not miracles. Not officially.”
“I’m going to guess that distinction doesn’t mean much to the poor suckers who get walled up in buildings because someone thought they were holy,” Catherine said.
“Probably not.” Lena shuddered.
The setting sun made the shadows of the gargoyles’ wings bend and flex, as if their stone shapes might spring into the air, unmoored from the foundation made sacred by the presence of the bodies of the dead. They were so beautiful. The whole building was.
Lena closed her eyes in happiness; opened them.
A blink, a scraping of stone, and the two young women stood before a rattling chain–link fence, posted with signs warning caution, red–letter danger. Nothing behind it but a vacant lot. Catherine pinched the screen of her phone, swiped out. “I need to download the update. The map says the Cathedral should be right here.”
Lena winced, pressing her palm against a sudden ache in her side. “You are the only person I know who can get lost with a GPS in your hand.”
Some other where, strange air ran over a gargoyle’s wings, and a cathedral settled into place, a new sacred relic contained within it.
Lena’s illness began with feelings of exhaustion. The kind of tired even ten hours sleep and coffee doesn’t cure, the kind of tired that made Lena’s bones ache, made her skin seem ill–fitting.
There were doctors, then, and blood work and the thousands of small indignities and embarrassments that come with a body that is not quite doing what it should, that feels like it is missing some essential piece.
Which, it turned out, it was.
“An entire rib?” Lena asked.
The doctor shook her head. “Have you ever been X–rayed before? I’d feel better if I had results to compare these to.”
“No,” Lena said. “I was a healthy kid. No broken bones. I never even had stitches.”
Dr. Rhys flipped through Lena’s file again, her eyes sharp. “The thing is, the edges of the removal are smooth. Beyond surgical.”
“Are you saying I maybe never had that rib at all?”
“That’s certainly possible.” Dr. Rhys did not sound as if she particularly believed that option.
Lena pressed her hand against her side, against the absence she knew was recent. She said nothing.
Lena’s city went through a spate of rapid growth. Gathering place after place that she loved, collecting them all for her. A park, lush green grass and riotous flowers, trees old enough to give looping, shaded canopies. A library, small. The kind that was inside an old house, where you had to make an appointment to look at the collection, but you did, because it was filled with books of magic, descriptions of illusions that were hundreds of years old, with titles like Upon the Disappearance and Return of Objects and The Illusions of Other Spaces.
In the places the buildings had left behind on their way to this new, other city: scars. Shadows. Ruins. Blank spots on maps that hadn’t yet realized they were inaccurate.
Pleased with its efforts, Lena’s city stretched its bones, flexed its muscles, and waited. For her to notice it, the beauty it had made for her, and for another thing, too. As it grew, the city had learned. It had realized that it was missing a heart that didn’t yet beat, to know that while places in it had age, it did not yet have history. It needed something else for that.
Something or someone. The city wasn’t sure yet.
Lena began to feel depopulated, unpeopled. As if her body had gone traveling and her soul had yet to catch up. Too many tests, she told herself. Too many sterile rooms and needles sucking out bits of her. Too much inconclusive. Too many hushed voices, and maybes, and consultants.
“Of course you feel weird. No one could feel normal in a place like this,” Catherine said. “Let’s go. Let’s get you out of here.”
“You’re right,” Lena said, pulling electrodes from her skin, leaving behind sticky, raw patches and wailing machines. They weren’t telling anyone anything useful anyway. “Let’s go. Anywhere but here.”
They went. Away from hospitals and maybes and uncertainties. From shadows on screens that were not shadows of things that shouldn’t be resident in Lena’s body, but of things that should, that had somehow gone missing.
Not just a rib, now. Other bones. The iron in her blood. Some strange missing space that made Dr. Rhys turn pale and quiet, made her unable to quite meet Lena’s eyes.
From far away, from an other where, Lena’s city had found a way to connect to its foundation, to weave arteries to its heart. It could feel itself breathing. It was almost.
“Look,” Lena said, leaning over the edge of a bridge. “It’s like there’s an entire city under there.” She could see it, shining under the water. Not drowned, just beneath. Familiar somehow, like she had known it, once.
Catherine looked down at the surface of the water. She looked sideways at Lena. Her face was not the face of someone witnessing the appearance of the miracle of an underwater city. It had a different expression altogether. One of recognition, like Lena could walk those underwater streets from memory. “Maybe we should go inside,” Catherine said. “Get out of the sun.”
Lena looked back, searching, as they walked away.
That was the first place Lena saw her city. After, she saw it else where, other where, too. Behind her mirror, reflected in a window, always just on the other side. She thought maybe it was waiting; it seemed crouched, expectant.
She did not tell the doctors about this reflected, half–seen city shadowing her. It was not something she wanted to be cured of.
There were no clouds in the sky of Lena’s city, nor were there footprints in its streets. It was a city unghosted, newly forming. Still, it knew what it wanted, who it longed for, who it loved.
It was not enough for traces of blood to flow through its waters, for bone to seal its foundations. A city is a living thing, needing blood and a heartbeat. Needing the person it had built itself for.
The city had doors. It would open them.
More inconclusive, more tests. Inconclusive, Lena learned, was what you were told when the truth was too strange to fit in a scientist’s mouth. “You are disappearing, from the inside out,” was the kind of thing impossible to say, and so it wasn’t.
Lena was stripped of iron, like someone in a fairy tale, and passed through vibrating tubes, where series after series of ever more elaborate images were taken of her. Blueprints, she thought, when she saw the cross–sections of her self cast up on screens. The pictures looked like blueprints.
Inside those beige tubes, fire burning through her veins to make them visible, Lena imagined that she was in her city, the one she saw in mirrors and in water. The one she dreamt. She imagined the grass of its park beneath her head, spray from the fountain cool against her skin, the sacred shadows of the cathedral offering her refuge.
When she closed her eyes, she could almost remember these places. When she closed her eyes, she could visit them again.
She took herself to her city, while her body was in the hospital, while hands that weren’t hers rearranged her limbs, while tiny pieces of her were collected in glass tubes. She felt like she had come home.
The city trembled at her appearance. Lena glitched in and out of it like the rattle of broken celluloid, like a retro film negative, silvery and inverse.
Her feet bent no blade of grass, yet the city arched itself beneath them like a cat. Soon, it thought. She would see how beautiful it had made itself, full of places she loved, places that were part of her. It had made itself almost perfect enough.
“Are you sure you want me to keep reading this?” Catherine asked. “It seems like it might be kind of creepy, given the context.”
An overnight stay this time. For observation. As if things might change when seen in the dark. As if Lena’s missing pieces might crawl out of the shadows and return.
She shifted on stale, rough sheets. The floor was cracked linoleum, once white, now dinge. The walls a similar shade. The air reeked of various flavors of fear, acid and sweat and salt from weeping. Monitors beeped constantly.
“That’s exactly why I want to hear it,” Lena said. “Besides, it’s interesting.”
Catherine was reading from a book on medieval holy women. About their miraculous bodies – women who wept sacred tears, and virgin saints who lactated spontaneously and fed their villages from their breasts, or whose corpses exuded holy oil. About their relics, the bits and pieces of their bones, and vials of their blood, and locks of their hair, parceled out after their death, collected by those who thought that proximity to the holy would cause miracles to spontaneously generate around them.
“If you’re sure,” Catherine said. She continued reading the life of Christina the Astonishing, who—among other things—astounded her neighbors by grinding her own body in the village mill, without apparent damage.
“Do you think they missed them? The women, I mean. Do you think they missed their relics, the bones and things that were stolen from them?”
You had to be dead, to be a saint. Maybe you didn’t notice the missing pieces, then.
Catherine closed the book. “Do you miss yours?”
Lena turned her head towards the window. The night shone through, and she looked into darkness, into the half–reflected shapes that appeared in the glass.
“Not really,” she said. “I feel like I should, when I think about it, but I don’t. It’s more like I feel out of place. Homeless, almost. Like part of me has gone on ahead, and I don’t belong here anymore.
“And I worry,” she said quietly, “about what will happen when too much of me is gone.”
Catherine reached out and held Lena’s hand, hard, hard, as if by doing so she could keep Lena anchored, keep her pieces from disappearing.
The city had opened all of its doors in welcome. In anticipation. In desire. She had not walked through. She was there, and she was not there.
The city reached into itself. It slid through its streets and reached its vaulted roof to the sky. Its waters coursed through the fountain, her first presence. Her oldest.
It reached for all the pieces of her that it held, and then it knew.
There was one more door to open.
It was almost possible for Lena to ignore the disappearances, even though they were pieces of her self gone missing. They did not register when they occurred. The aches, the emptiness that was left behind, they felt like echoes.
But this. This shaking, this tearing, this sloughing of the inside of her self, this was unignorable. It was as if someone had reached inside her chest and was tearing out her heart.
Every piece of her that had gone elsewhere hurt. She knew now that the saints had felt the pain of, had missed, every scattered relic.
Reflected in a monitor – its alarm screaming now – was a city. A place she had almost been.
She could see the ghosts in its windows, in its streets, in the cathedral. Ghosts that she had been. Pieces of her that used to be.
A door opened.
She walked through.
Every monitor in the room shrieked. Catherine sprang up as Dr. Rhys burst through the door, then froze.
“Where is she?” Dr. Rhys asked, staring at the empty bed.
“I don’t know,” Catherine said. But she thought of cities, reflected and lost, of bodies taken to make places holy, and wondered if, perhaps, she did.
“Come back,” she whispered. “Come home.”
The pain disappeared as she entered the city. Lena felt her heart thud hard against her breastbone and then fall back into its regular pattern of unnoticeable beats.
She had never set foot on these streets before, and still, she knew them. All of the places – the buildings, the green of the park, the splash of the fountain – were hers. Lena felt them in her blood and in her bones. She felt them pull at the empty places inside her, offering comfort, welcome, a sort of home.
She walked towards the soaring lines of the cathedral. Up the steps and through the doors, carved with angels. Into the beeswax and incense–scented quiet. She walked through shadows and cold stone, past stern–faced saints bathed in stained–glass light.
The door to the tabernacle was open. It had been years since she had gone to Mass regularly, but Lena knew that was wrong. It should be closed, a border between the sacred and the profane.
The thing she found in it was wrong, too. Not the Eucharist. A rib bone. Smooth–edged and curved. Human.
Lena pressed her hand to her side, to the empty space.
The shadows in the cathedral trembled; the foundation of the city shook.
Lena picked up the bone, and pressed it against her side.
The cathedral shook hard enough to shatter, stained glass crashing around Lena in a broken kaleidoscope.
The bone disappeared. The relic, translated.
The ache in Lena’s side was gone, and beneath her hand, a rib.
She ran from the building as it collapsed in her wake. Stopped at the foot of what had been the cathedral steps, gathering her breath as the walls fell down.
The ground trembled beneath her feet, and the shaking increased as she walked to the next building, and the next, regathering pieces of herself, leaving a city of ruins behind her.
The city wept. It could not understand, and it could not tell her. It could only watch as she took herself back from it, could only mourn as she ripped out its heart.
It had given her everything she loved.
It had opened all its doors and she was slamming them shut.
The city lay crumbled at her feet. The ground no longer trembling beneath them, but heaving, weakly. Gasps for breath.
Lena stopped in front of the fountain.
There were scars, still, on her knees.
She felt the city’s sorrow like an ache. She knew what it was to be taken apart, piece by piece.
They were only scars.
Lena walked back through the empty streets of her city, the echo of a fountain splashing behind her.
She stepped across what had, this where, other where, been the threshold of a cathedral, and went home.
(Editors’ Note: “Transitio Corporis” is read by Amal El–Mohtar and Kat Howard is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in The Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 3A.)
© 2015 Kat Howard