Story art by Adrijus Guscia.
From the author: Each month I'll be sharing an extract from a longer work; sometimes published, sometimes in progress. This is from an older novelette, but one that's still important to me. Persson Catao is making a map. A map of the city where he was born and where he spent his youth fighting against a brutal regime. A city that never existed.
Each month I'll be sharing an extract from a longer work; sometimes published, sometimes in progress. This is from an older novelette, but one that's still important to me.
Persson Catao is making a map. A map of the city where he was born and where he spent his youth fighting against a brutal regime.
A city that never existed.
Persson Catao is making a map.
He has spent, in one way or another, the past forty years making a map. Not this one, precisely, but all the maps have been building towards this one. A glance around the room reveals rolls of paper stacked on shelves and bunched like an unorthodox floral arrangement in what he supposes was originally an umbrella stand. Those forty years haven’t been ones of consistent cartography, either; he doesn’t want people to think he has some neurosis, that he engages in this pursuit to the exclusion of all else. There have been months, years even, when he barely put pen to paper; when his children were small, and later during his wife’s long illness. In those times, Petadan still caught his thoughts, but he had neither the concentration to recall its twisting multi-level streets, nor the time.
In the past few years, though, it’s become the focus of his days. It’s essentially a hobby, he tells himself. Some men take up fishing, wood-carving, gardening. He’s keeping his mind sharp, giving himself purpose in these twilight years. But deep down, he knows this is no hobby. Even deeper down, he suspects it may still be for nothing.
Sunlight streams through the open window, illuminating the stout wooden desk at which he drafts. He has considered downsizing from these spacious fifth-floor rooms, but he can’t face it. Instead he has a young woman who comes twice a week to clean for him, and he deals with a certain amount of chaos. It wasn’t so long ago that there were three children here. He’s used to chaos.
For Mid-Year, his eldest daughter bought him a set of drafting pens, those new ones with liquid ink in the centre. In some ways he prefers charcoal, the rough feel of the black sticks and the dust on his fingers reminding him of his continued existence. But he can’t deny that the mark these pens leave is so much thinner, their trail so much cleaner, so much more precise. And precision is what he’s aiming for here, an accurate record of something that never existed.
Persson has always despised Petadan’s beauty. In those brief few months when he could walk to the edge of Tualis and catch a faint glimpse of Petadan’s towers, he knew how people perceived it. The artists who set up camp at safe distance from its guarded gates. The poets for whom the stories of what happened within its walls only increased its intrigue. The acquaintances who, when he revealed his past, commented that they’d heard Petadan was very pretty, and hastily changed the topic.
He knows such comments arose from discomfort; they had likely never met anyone from Petadan before – few had – and they were hedging their bets. And yet each time he wanted them to know of the wounds he had suffered, to show them the burn marks still on his chest, to force them to see how they had broken him. He wanted them to rail at the reality that had caused such injuries, the reality that so many had sacrificed their lives to.
So now it’s over there’s a reason he focuses on maps, two-dimensional representations of a city more three-dimensional than most. For accuracy, certainly, and for ease, but mostly it’s because he couldn’t bear to paint the glimmering pastel shades of the towers clustered in the centre, the lush roof gardens, the intricate carving on the guard towers along the walls. He can barely think of the mosaics without nausea. There was always something threatening about the beauty. The colours and the art were a method of control, a message that every corner of the city was known. Here art may be largely confined to galleries – and truthfully he considers that a shame – but there are abandoned places where young people associate that don’t appear on any map, access ways created by the simple act of ripping a hole in a fence. He smiles slightly as he imagines how much easier it would be to organise a resistance here.
But that’s the whole point, he tells himself. It isn’t needed.
Every lunchtime, without fail, he finds himself at Tarruli’s. The two-block walk under leafy canopies formed by branches stretching to meet the wooden-façaded buildings constitutes most of the exercise he gets these days. The waiter serves him – and knows his order – a deep mug of chicory tea and some dark bread with cold, spiced meats, crisp chicken skin, and soft cheese. This is his main meal for the day and he always finds it satisfying. He has never needed to eat much, never quite understood why large meals are such a ritual here. When his children were at home he’d partake in the evening meal; when his wife was alive he still would, to make her happy; but now he does what he feels like. At seventy-two he has no reason to do anything else.
The waiter returns to check on his food as if this was an expensive restaurant, not a dark corner-café. Persson appreciates the brief moment of company. The solitude of his life does not distress him – in some ways he’s always been alone – but it’s nice to feel that if one day he fails to show up someone will at least notice. The few polite words about the weather and the price of grain are welcomed.
Less welcome is the woman who seats herself shamelessly at his table. She had been sitting at the counter, sipping a cup of hot lemon and ginger, complaining – in measured, genteel tones, but complaining nonetheless – about the misguidedness of Tualis’s Council.
She’s about his age. A little younger, he guesses, but once you reach such years these things are unimportant. Her hair is white but still relatively thick, tied in a ponytail as is the current fashion. She isn’t attempting to look youthful, though; it’s obvious little care has gone into her appearance – the very opposite of Persson’s wife, who always applied colour to her eyes and cheeks even when illness had rendered the skin beneath drained and ashen.
“You’re Persson Catao,” she says, holds out her hand. He presses his palm into hers, fingers upright, and then realises he shouldn’t have. Neither here, nor in Petadan, has it ever been usual for men and women to greet each other in such a way. It was a habit from the resistance, where women and men were comrades, where he would greet women in the same way one would other men. He has not done so since, would not have done so this time had she not initiated the gesture, had he not been caught by surprise. As he draws his hand away, he thinks she already knows. And he has a pretty good idea who she is.
“I’m Ellesor,” she says, though they both know that name tells him nothing. She wears a tunic, dark brown and thick, almost like leather, over a long-sleeved linen blouse. Persson can tell her gold necklace is expensive; it isn’t showy like the cheap ones. She’s comfortably rich and she feels no need to exhibit it. If she’s who he thinks she is, the last time they saw each other both of them still had the brittle hair and nails of years of malnutrition. And she would have worn slacks. Slacks and a green shirt, if he remembers rightly.
He’s wanted to see her again for so long. Not just because of who she is, how much he still cares for her, but because she confirms what he has been searching for. But he tells himself he doesn’t need her. Not now, no, not now.
“I’m making a map,” he says, pushing his chair out abruptly. He downs the rest of his mug of tea, folds the meat and cheese between the remaining bread and wraps it in a napkin. He walks out, as quickly as he can manage these days.
As he walks, his mouth turns dry. He remembers midsummer.
Midsummer. None of them have eaten in several days; the city’s food supplies have run low, and they know they are under suspicion. Persson thought up this plan several years ago, but they have had no chance to execute it before now. They looked for spaces for the construction, considered hollowing walls and replacing the mosaics afterwards, adding false floors to rooms in order to create compartments beneath, all impractical. This solution was both obvious and unthinkable.
But here they are now, eight men and women, mostly young, all exhausted and dehydrated, right under the noses of the administration, in a room belonging to one of the highest servants in the city.
Sanya’s deftness and grace have made her known as a dancer to the whole city – and as a pickpocket to her friends. Her charm and appearance of fragility have afforded her many an extra meal, saved at least one person from execution, and now gained them access to this space. The walls gleam with white, yellow, and orange. The room is airy, and, whilst not exactly spacious, much roomier than anywhere they’ve stayed in a while. Persson has the plans, drawn up with stolen lumps of charcoal. He has an engineer’s eye and a good part of the training, as does the woman who will later call herself Ellesor. Everything depends on what they do next.
Persson Catao is making a map. A map of the city where he was born and where he spent his youth fighting against a brutal regime. A city that never existed. After a daring escape, Persson built a new life for himself and raised a family. But unlike his comrades, he chose not to forget what had happened. And now one of them has come looking for him. Invisible City is a novelette about trauma, memory, and one last chance to change the future.
Note: Curious Fictions may receive a commission if you purchase through Amazon.