McSweeney’s Issue 59 brings with it the conclusions to three thrilling cliffhanger stories, the first halves of which were published in Issue 57. In case you missed that now out-of-print issue, here’s the first half of one of these stories by Brian Evenson. After you read it, grab a copy of Issue 59 to read its breathtaking conclusions.
For Jeffrey Alan Love
To breathe the air of the high city I was given a strange mask. It had another face on it, by which I mean a face different from my own. Mostly it looked clearly like a mask, but if I stood before a mirror and stared at myself, at my mask, I sometimes forgot momentarily what my face looked like beneath. And sometimes, if I turned my head very slowly indeed, there would come a brief moment in the turning when the angle was such that it no longer seemed like a mask to me, but a flesh and blood face.
I felt it was dangerous to wear and yet I wore it anyway. What choice did I have if I cared to breathe?
My initial foray into the high city was discouraging, for it seemed little different from the domed city I had left below and which, on the long funicular journey up, I could still see shimmering at the base of the mountain. The high city was more refined, perhaps, a little more rarefied, with the citizens slightly taller than those I was accustomed to below, and all possessed of a swaying and precarious gait, as if the act of walking on two legs did not come naturally to them. For each of these citizens there were a dozen visitors: people like myself, who came from the lower city for a glimpse of the high city, each of our faces encased in those masks that doubled as breathing apparatuses, our own scuttling movements rapid and furtive as vermin.
And yet apart from these slight differences in the nature of the citizens, besides the difference in the air, there was little to set the high city apart from the low city, or so at least it seemed to me. It was not as my father had suggested it would be, and I could not help but be disappointed. In this I differed from my fellow visitors, if I were to judge by the gesticulations of pleasure they inflicted upon the air as they wandered through the central square. They seemed delighted, but not long after I arrived I began to wonder if it had been worth my while to come at all. Unless the high city was hiding part of itself from me, I would be unable to accomplish what my father, before he died, had entrusted me to do. “You will fail,” my father had said. “But in failing you will succeed.” Before he could explain the riddle of this to me, he was dead.
Was killed, really—though this fact was something my mother taught me never to say aloud, fearing that one of the citizens might overhear.
As the other masked visitors milled about, entering the vaulted shops, attending to the changing shadows cast by the famous irregular spires, importuning the citizens, watching the bats flit through the air above the square, I found myself drawing back from the press of bodies. I abstracted myself into the warren of streets that wound away from the square.
Soon I was alone and encased not only in my mask but in silence as well, exploring bare and dismal back ways that had been laminated with that smooth, porcelain-like substance that coated the houses and buildings here. In the more public gathering places, this substance had been pristine, but here it was discolored, filamented with a webbing of cracks. I felt as though I were wandering among stage props that had fallen into disrepair and been pushed into the wings.
The alleys were too narrow to allow me to see far, the sides of the jagged houses set flush against one another. I turned and turned and turned again, getting nowhere at all. Soon I was lost.
Uncertain, I approached the door of the nearest house and knocked. For a long moment nothing happened, and then from above came a creaking sound and a shifting of light.
I stepped back and peered up to see a set of shutters that, taken together, spanned nearly the width of the house. A tall man, a citizen, held them spread open with the enormous, long fingers at the end of his outstretched arms. He stared down at me.
“What is wanted?” he asked, using the ritual expression that I was accustomed to the citizens employing in the low city.
“I seem to have become lost,” I admitted.
The man gave a curt nod. He peered down, simply watching me, as if curious, but said nothing.
“Can you direct me?” I finally asked.
He nodded. He straightened and began to release the shutters and withdraw into the house. But before the shutters had swung shut, he pushed them open again.
“Are you disappointed?” he asked.
“Disappointed? In what?” I asked.
“Why, in all this,” he said, as if it were obvious.
I don’t know what came over me. Normally my tendency is to avoid honestly answering such a question when it is posed by a citizen, out of prudence, if nothing else. My father taught me that the citizens were not to be trusted but also not to be antagonized. In most cases, I would demur or simply lie if I could do so without arousing suspicion. But in this case, under the fellow’s unblinking gaze, I felt incapable of telling anything but the truth.
“I expected it to be… something altogether different from the lower city,” I admitted.
He nodded again. “No one comes as far as my door unless the spectacle has rung false for them. I will lead you back,” he said, and allowed the shutters to swing all the way shut.
“Should we not fight against them?” I once asked my father.
He did not look up from his plans. I came nearer and peered at them. A tiny schematic, depicting a series of circuits, one marked with an interruption. He would soon teach me how to read this schematic and even to draw it, just as his father had done for him, before he, like my father later, was taken. He was making this drawing for me.
“Against who?” he asked, slowly.
“Against the citizens.”
He put down his drafting tool, looked at me. “What happens to those who fight against them?”
“Do they survive?” my father prompted.
“No,” I said. “They do not.”
“We must defeat them,” he said. “We must free ourselves from them. But how are we to do so if we cannot fight against them? At least not openly?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I said.
“And there,” said my father, “lies the heart of our dilemma.”
In the street he proved even taller than he had seemed, framed in the window of the house, a good meter taller than me. His face was like no face I had ever seen, even on the other citizens, and at first I thought he wore a mask—though I knew that the citizens would need no mask to breathe here. Where they wore breathing masks we did not, and vice versa. Perhaps it was a mask for something other than breathing, simply for concealment or adornment. But if it was a mask, it was fitted so closely to the skin beneath and had such flexibility that the slightest movement was mirrored on its surface. Possibly it was no mask at all, but if this was the case, it was hard for me to believe he was the same sort of creature as the other citizens.
He led me through a sequence of alleyways, not uttering a word. In less time than I would have thought possible, I found myself at the mouth of a larger street that led straight into the central square. The sun had become enveloped in a layer of cloud, and was now an orange blur. The tips of the spires were lost in this layer, as if they had been ground off. The bats were gone, or flitting above the layer of cloud.
The citizen bowed to me and gestured to the square.
I thanked him for his help, but for some reason I hesitated to leave his side. When I looked up, I found him keenly regarding me, eyes bright.
He again gestured to the square, to the smaller beings who looked like me, to the way they were rushing and streaming around the few citizens scattered through it.
“You see them,” he said. “They think they are having an experience. This does not ring false for them at all. Why does it ring false for you?”
“I… don’t know,” I said.
“Because it is false,” he answered. He looked again at me, with the same mildly curious expression. “But how could you know this?”
I hesitated, then shrugged. I said nothing about my father.
He bowed slightly. “Rejoin your fellows in the square. Pretend to them that you are having an experience. If you pretend long enough, perhaps eventually an experience shall come your way.”
They came for me sometime after midnight. I do not know how they got into my room, why I did not hear them, but I did not. Perhaps this was due to my mask, which the owner of the guesthouse had been careful to counsel me to affix with supplemental straps before retiring. “So many of your kind die here in their sleep,” he warned, “not knowing they haven’t enough air to breathe, until it is too late.”
When I awoke, they were surrounding me: a circle of tall citizens in dark garments with faces of hideous appearance, being as they were—it took me a moment to realize—not faces at all but, like my own, masks.
At least, so I believed at the time.
I attempted to rise from the bed, but they placed the flats of their left hands on my chest and shoulders and pushed me back down, holding me there as they waited for my struggling to stop. I counted six arms sprouting up from my chest, each terminating in one of those six silent bodies.
One of the heads inclined itself toward me, drawing very close indeed. In a voice barely above a whisper, I heard it utter my name. I do not know how he knew it.
“Here I am,” I said, following the socially prescribed formula, and whispering as well. “What is wanted?”
“We have come for you,” he whispered. “To take you to the high city.”
“But I am already in the high city,” I protested.
“The higher city, then,” he said. And now I could smell his breath, the dustiness of it, as if he had been hollowed out and cured and stuffed. “The true high city,” he said. “So be it?”
“So be it,” I said, fighting to keep the excitement from my voice.
I thought my response merely another formula, a ritualized expression, but upon hearing it he straightened. As one, all the figures offered a single unified nod. Then they reached in with their free hands and grasped one edge or another of my mask. For a moment they just held on to the mask and then, suddenly, they tore it away from my face.
I gasped for breath and tried again to rise. Still they held me down. I opened my mouth to cry out, but they allowed the mask to clatter to the floor and covered my mouth with their hands. I heard the air rushing in and out through my nostrils without sustaining me. They kept me there as I struggled, my vision growing dim and finally fading altogether. For a moment I could still hear the sound of my limbs thrashing, the panic of air whistling in and out of my nostrils, the dim hint of my muffled cries. A moment later all this, too, was gone, snuffed like a candle, and I along with it.
I do not know what happened to me while I was unconscious. I am not sure I care to know. There was a brief moment when either I was awake or I was dreaming, but all I can recall of that moment are fractured pieces: looming faces, a sense of vertiginous movement, nausea, a brief great burst of pain that etiolated rapidly into a thin line of light. Some hours passed with me insensate: how long, I cannot say. In time, I became aware that my eyes were open and I was leaning over the side of a bed and vomiting into a rusty bucket. Someone helped hold me, to keep me from falling onto the floor. As they did so, they made soothing sounds in my ear to calm me, as if I were a pet or a child.
When my stomach was empty, I fell back onto the bed and closed my eyes. Perhaps I passed out. In any case, when my eyes opened again, there above me was the same citizen I had met when lost in the streets, the one who had led me back to the square of the false high city.
“Welcome,” he said.
I looked around me. I was in a place I did not recognize, a room that would have been square except that one side of it rounded slightly inward as it climbed, as if it were, in fact, the inner surface of the wall of a dome. But rather than having the transparency of the dome wall of my city below, that wall—and indeed all the others—was opaque. A single window was set in the middle of it, round and rimmed with brushed steel, the glass within it exceptionally thick.
“My mask,” I said.
“You are wearing it,” he claimed, but when I reached with trembling fingers to touch it, I encountered only the warm flesh of my face. And yet I could breathe.
“Beneath the skin,” he clarified. “We have made some improvements, installed a permanent apparatus to convert the air for you. You are wearing it beneath your skin.”
As soon as he said this, my fingers began to sense the seam on the side of my face where the skin and flesh had been peeled up to insert something underneath. I could feel, if I pressed my fingers deeply enough into my cheeks, a new hardness that had not been there before. My throat, too, had been split open and encased inside and out with a smooth substance that I would later discover was the same substance of which both this high city and the false one were composed.
“You wear one beneath too?” I asked, and again wondered at his hideous face.
He shook his head. “Not me,” he said. “I have one above now, true, but it is just for show, a mark of esteem. It isn’t for breathing.” Carefully he reached up and affixed his fingers to what I had thought to be his face. He quickly tore it off—a mask, after all, I thought, momentarily relieved—only to reveal a face beneath that was even more hideous, even less human.
I was several days in that room, my body struggling to adapt to its new condition. At first, I was lightheaded and dizzy as my lungs struggled with this thinner and differently composed air. If my citizen was to be believed, without the implanted mask I would not survive for even a minute. Were it not for the apparatus that had been inserted into my throat, I would have been long dead.
“But you have no difficulty,” I said to him.
He gestured to his body. “Look at me,” he said. “I am a citizen, not a guest. I am not like you at all. We do not breathe the same air.”
We knew the citizens were different from us, but in the low city it was considered impolite to acknowledge this. Here, apparently, it was different.
At first there was a dryness in my throat and the feeling that I was being slowly suffocated. My head ached. It felt as if a needle were sewing its slow way across my brainpan, leaving in its wake a burning furrow. But, gradually, the pain began to subside. I began to feel almost like myself again. By the third day I found I could stand.
When the citizen visited me that afternoon, I had made my way from the bed to a small embroidered tabouret just beside it and was slumped there, out of breath.
“Ah,” he said upon seeing me. “It seems you will survive.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that I had been in danger of dying, but as he told me now, there were many whose lungs, even with the aid of the encased throat, never sufficiently adapted, who suffered violent hallucinations followed by apoxia and death. Two of his most recent charges, as he called them, had been discovered collapsed on the floor, limbs twisted, staring up at the ceiling. One he had managed with great effort to revive, but the fellow’s brain function had been impaired and he had had to be returned to the lower city. For the other, it was too late even for that. There was nothing to be done but incinerate the body.
“I am glad I shall not have to do either with you,” he said, though all in all he did not strike me as particularly glad.
That day he left me just as I was, on the tabouret, returning as evening approached to help me back into the bed. My sleep a few hours later was fitful and disturbed, and at times there seemed to be creatures flitting through my room. Bats, I thought at first, but, no, the movements were incorrect for bats and the shapes were wrong as well. Perhaps ghosts, I thought. In the end I was not sure what they were or, indeed, if there was anything there at all.
When I told my citizen about them the following day, he said nothing, only went to the wall and opened a recessed drawer I had not noticed before. He removed from it a silvered metal stylus, one end pointed, the other flat. To write something, I at first supposed, but instead he held it to my face and pointed it first at one eye, then at the other, shining a light from the flat end. He frowned. When I asked what he was doing, he simply shook his head.
“Your eyes are dilated, but not unusually so for your kind. You shouldn’t be seeing things.”
“Unless things are there to see,” I said.
He hesitated, finally nodded. “Unless things are there to see,” he conceded.
On the fifth day, he inquired, as if casually, if I had seen them again, the shapes that flitted through my room as I tried to sleep. I told him I had not, though this was not the truth. Not only had I seen them, I had heard them whispering, the volume just a little too low for me to interpret their words. But it would be better, I felt, to keep this to myself, at least until I knew what it was they wanted to say to me.
He gave me a telescoping metal rod that would serve as a cane and led me from my room for the first time. I walked only slowly and was often short of breath. Several times I felt my vision begin to darken and had to stop and wait for the dizziness to pass.
“Are you enjoying your stay?” he asked, during one of those waits.
I nodded. Enjoy was not remotely the word, but it was the word he had offered me and so I gave it back to him.
After a moment of rest, we continued. The hall was deserted except for us. He led me to a door that opened out onto a balcony of sorts. The balustrade, made of thin strips of very strong metal, came to my waist but was low for my citizen, which was the first hint that my father had been right: that the high city had been constructed not for his people but for my own.
He led me to the balustrade and bade me lean against it and look out. The air was very cold, and the wind, though not strong, never stopped.
“What do you see?” he asked.
What did I see? Clouds above, but not far above, much closer than I was accustomed to. Just below that, a band of pale sky. I started to describe this to him, but he shook his head.
“Down,” he said.
I looked down. There was nothing for a long way and then, far below, a white layer that I realized after a moment must also be clouds. There was something glinting within it.
“What is it?” I asked.
He did not answer except to extend to me a sort of magnifying lens. I took it and pressed it against my eye. Suddenly the object sprang closer: the very tips of the irregular spires.
“On a cloudless day you can see the totality of the city below,” he said. “The false high city. Though things have been engineered to make it difficult for them to see us in return.”
I was, I realized, clutching the balustrade tightly with my free hand. My head had begun to whirl.
“What holds us up?” I managed.
“Nothing,” he said. And then, “We hold ourselves up.”
He shrugged. “How shall I explain it to you? Shall we say that there is a device that tricks the air into thinking we weigh nothing at all?”
I tried, and failed, to rethink this according to what my father had taught me. The citizen was either lying to me or telling me so little of the truth, I could make no sense of it. For a moment the citizen let me ponder, then took me by the shoulders and steered me back from the parapet, allowing me to catch my breath.
“Where are we?” I asked him, once I felt more like myself.
“We call it the high city,” he said, “but technically it is not a city at all. It is more of a… I do not know what exactly I should call it for you to understand. It used to be a sort of boat as big as a city that traveled through the sky, but now it can do nothing but stay here, exactly where it is, floating, sustaining its place in the air.”
“I see,” I said, though I didn’t exactly. “Who brought it here?” I asked.
“You did,” he said.
“Your people, I mean.”
“It can’t be us,” I said. I tapped on my throat. “We can’t breathe within this city.”
He hesitated. “Things have… changed,” he said. “Machinery has broken down. There was a device that once scrubbed the air, not unlike the apparatus you now wear under your skin, but it is broken.” He shrugged. “Perhaps my people broke it,” he admitted, “or rather changed how it worked so we could breathe here.”
He drew me back inside. “But it is not all broken,” he said. He gestured to the illuminated panels studding the ceiling. “The artificial lighting still works,” he said. “And we still float, though who knows how long that will last.”
He started to lead me back to my room, but when he saw I was too tired to continue, he bent far down and gathered me in his arms as if I were a child. Perhaps to him I was. He carried me back to my room.
“Where did it come from?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Only you know.”
“My people, you mean.”
“Your people,” he assented. With great care he set me down on the bed. “Sleep now,” he said.
“Tomorrow we will speak at length about what you might do for us now that you are here in the true high city. How we might help one another.”
Once he was gone, my exhaustion receded and I lay awake thinking.
I thought about when I had first heard of the high city, the tales that had circulated when I was a boy, the stories I had thought to be mere fictions. I thought about my father, in the low city, the domed city in which we could breathe unaided, crouched at the edge of the pallet he had made for me out of cloth stuffed with straw.
“Hush,” he would say. “Time to sleep.”
“Tell me a story,” I would say.
“All right,” he would say. “A quick one. Should it be about the high city?”
And then he would tell me a story about a city that had come from another world, a city that was—in ways either he could not explain or I could not understand—sentient. The beings in this city, so he told me, had once been like us. But they knew things we did not know, and what they knew allowed them to travel from world to world.
“They were not citizens?”
“No. They were our people.”
Where we were, in the low city, there were citizens, more unlike us than like us. Taller, more knowledgeable, more powerful, holding us in thrall. To breathe the air of the low city, they had to wear masks, just as we did in the high city—or, indeed, anytime we left the dome of the low city to explore the land surrounding it.
“The citizens are not evil,” my father told me once. “Not exactly. But they do not have our interest at heart.”
“Are we not citizens too?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “No, we’re not.”
“What are we, then?”
“My grandfather always claimed we were guests,” he said. “We do not belong here.”
“If they’re the citizens, why can’t they breathe and we can?”
“They can breathe everywhere but the low city. If we did not have our domed city, though, we would not survive.”
I thought about this. “And what about the others in the high city?” I asked. “The ones like us?”
“They are gone from the high city now,” he said.
“Where did they go?” I asked.
“They became us.”
In the middle of the night, I awoke. I was feeling better, stronger—ready. I could see what I must do. My citizen had left the telescoping rod leaning against the wall beside the bed. I took it and used it to hobble my way to the hidden drawer from which my citizen had taken the stylus. The wall at first appeared smooth, but as I ran my hand over it, I found at last the slightest lump. When I pressed my fingers against the lump, the wall popped open and the drawer slid out.
The stylus that lit up on one end was there, and I took it. There was a sheaf of papers, the writing on them in a language I could not begin to read. These papers I left as they were. Under them, however, was a set of calipers, such as my father used to use in his profession, before he was killed.
Well, I am not being entirely accurate. I am too well trained in hiding the truth from the citizens: my father did not use the calipers in his profession, but privately, on his own time, as he drew plans, the nature of which I did not fully understand except that he was designing something intended to transport him secretly to the high city. At the time I thought he meant the high city we could see, on the mountain peak above us. But perhaps I was wrong.
“Why not just go to the high city in the way the citizens advise and sponsor? By funicular?” I asked, back when he was still alive.
He just shook his head. Perhaps he knew what I did not know, that what was presented to us as the high city was a hollow front, a false high city. If he did know, he never told me.
“Should we not fight against them?” I asked my father, as he bent over his plans. Soon he would graduate from sketching on paper to building a miniature prototype of the thing he hoped would carry him to the high city. It would be this, his seemingly discreet requests for particular and peculiar materials, that would bring him to the attention of the citizens and lead to his subsequent disappearance, followed by the return of his mutilated corpse, a few days later, to my mother and me. His face was mostly torn off. His throat, open at the side, had been coated inside with what looked to be porcelain, just as my own would be. At the time, I believed these to be the gruesome methods of punishment of the citizens of the lower city, the least refined of the citizens.
My citizen had found me by different means. Or, rather, he had not found me at all. Instead, he had bided his time and waited for me to find him. This made him at once more humane and far more dangerous. I should not forget that he seemed to have a certain power over me, a way of regarding me, a sway I found difficult to resist. Probably, in the end, once he figured out he couldn’t use me, he would kill me.
I knew what my citizen intended to ask of me, or at least suspected I did from what my father had said to me. I knew, too, that I could not help him—not because I didn’t want to help him, though there was that as well, but because I did not possess the information he wanted to know. What I knew was something quite different.
Turning out the light, I slid the sharp-edged calipers into my pocket and groped my way back to the bed. They were not identical by any means to my father’s calipers, I now realized, as I removed them from my pocket and felt out their shape beneath the blanket. I wondered if they were, properly speaking, calipers at all.
I brought up in my mind the schematic my father had drawn for me over and over and forced me to memorize. In the years since his death, I had often, when I had a free moment, scratched the figure into the dirt with a stick and then rubbed it out, and had even drawn it on a piece of paper myself and afterward chewed up the paper or thrown it into the fire.
“Remember,” my father had said to me, “you must never seem too eager to please, nor too hostile either. The citizens are, in a manner of speaking, as trapped as we are. They did not ask for us to come to this world, and yet we are here. In some ways, we are fortunate that they let us continue to exist at all. They did not do so with the creatures who were here before all of us, and from whom they took this world.
“But we are not their friends,” he continued. “Above all, we cannot give them what they will ask us for. We must protect our people, even if it means our own death.”
I thought again and again of the schematic. I lay in the dark, and once I was exhausted and could imagine it no more, I let my mind go and began, instead of the schematic, to see again that strange fluttering back and forth, those half-formed shapes. Perhaps it was the result of some slight anoxia, perhaps I had already faded into dream, but I like to think I was actually seeing what I was seeing, actually hearing what I was hearing. The shapes I was seeing struck me more and more as being the shapes of men—not men like the citizens, but men like me: smaller, from elsewhere. In this vision, if that was what it was, they came to me and whirled around me, and one bowed very low to me and whispered my name.
“What is wanted?” I asked, but to this way of speaking, required of us by the citizens, he did not respond, merely whispered my name again.
“Yes,” I said. “That is my name.”
Are you prepared? he asked.
“As prepared as I can be,” I said. “I have learned from my father, who learned from his father, who learned, in turn, from the fathers who came before. I am as prepared as I can be.”
We were prepared as well, he said. Some of us better than others, but all of us to some measure. And yet look at us now.
“Yes,” I said, looking through his insubstantial body. “Look at you now.”
You have deceived him so far. Perhaps you will continue to do so.
You know, chances are that you will end up dead.
“I know,” I said. “But I am not dead yet.”
Even if you succeed, you will almost certainly end up dead.
“I know,” I said.
He bowed very low again, as did all his fellows. And then, as suddenly as they had come, they were gone.
My citizen comes to see me, suspecting nothing. He offers to take me somewhere. Lying in bed, I whisper something in response that he cannot quite hear. When he bends down, I stab him in the temple with the calipers. He staggers, cries out. I strike again and he falls to his knees, then again, then again. And then, alone, I make my way into the high city.
If I can imagine it, I can make it so. He will come and I will kill him, I think. There: in the dark, my hand is tight on the calipers, waiting.
TO BE CONTINUED…