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THE SECRET CITY
IT'S HIGH AND FAR AND LONELY AND SECRET AND LOST ... around every corner a blank wall or a cliff, streets that end up against a rock face, or that curve and curve and come back on themselves. Trees grow from the middle of the avenues, and from the roofs of houses. They have to for camouflage. Every wall is covered with vines, every roof collapsed or covered with bushes. There are entrances, tall as three men and wide as six, that lead nowhere, or into narrow hallways that end in cul-de-sacs in which one may find a packrat's nest. Why make it as if thousands of years old, cover it with moss and vines, tumble it into ruins? Why build a park and playground in the center of the city where there's a jungle gym for the children, but one can't tell it from the jungle around it? Even standing right on the main square, you'd not guess there was a city here.
Deer and foxes walk down the streets more often than people and don't know they're streets. Wild goats jump from roof to roof, pediment to pediment, and see no difference here than jumping from their cliffs. Owls hoot all night or scream.
But the animals depicted over the doorways and along the pediments are none of these, they're of a kind never seen on this world. Birds that have no feet and look like fish with wings, feathered creatures with five eyes. There's an animal that's all mouth and hardly any body. There's an animal that looks like a flower but with teeth and six long leafy legs.
All this, not only so the young ones can see something of the world they're missing, but so they can grow up among their own kind and not be contaminated by the natives. Also so they can wait for rescue together and not be scattered over this whole primitive world.
The disadvantages of the city are, it's even more primitive than the natives' world, and you never see the sun except filtered through the leaves. The advantages are, you never feel the full force of hail or sleet of mountain storms and you're hidden so well not even a low flying helicopter would guess the city was here.
* * *
Back when we were children, the whole city was our playground. We still know every crook and cranny. We know where to avoid the bears and wild cats, where to hunt for deer.... My favorite spot is where the fox kits play. I sit, not stone still, just normal, moving if I want to, and the kits come right up to me. Mostly from the back. I make sure not to turn around. They don't like to be looked at. Funny, it's the runt that comes up and looks at me from the front. She's the boldest. Or maybe the stupidest. But she's my favorite. I love how they sound like cats and look like them, too. Odd how a canine can seem so much like a cat.
But domestic cats don't last a half hour up here and didn't even last on the way. We brought some with us when we first came. None of us kids wanted to come so our parents brought along our cats and dogs. By the first week out, coyotes got every single one. We'd brought mine. She was a calico. I found her the very first morning of our trek, with her stomach torn out. Why didn't our parents know that would happen? They should have known. I know our world is so much better that they didn't think it was worth while paying attention to this one, but they should have known.
We all thought we'd be gone back to Betasha, the real world, a long time ago. Most of us hate it up here, especially in the winter. It's boring and cold, and there's hardly any of us left anymore. Except I always like playing with animals and climbing trees, but I remember movies and TV and radio and books down there in the Down. Not that we don't have plenty of books. But I remember store-bought clothes and store-bought food—TV dinners all ready to eat. I was only eight when we left, but I could heat up my own supper.
When the old ones got up here they didn't have anything to do—of course they didn't and neither did we—so they built the city. They said, for us children, to show us the marvels of the homeworld but I think they were homesick. I wonder that they bothered, what with everything phony, and everything fake overgrown so it wouldn't be discovered.
Back in the early days here, every now and then they'd go back to the Down to get supplies, but they wouldn't let us kids come with them. They kept the way secret so we couldn't ever leave the Secret City without one of them.
I did try to run away one fall. A long time ago. I tried to get back to the Down before winter came. I was tired of this primitive living. I hiked for three days. I was determined. All I found was more mountains. I had to backtrack on my trail to find my way home.
But in the summer it was fun. We were free. There was no crime. Nothing to fear but falling out of a tree or mountain lions though mostly they kept away from our city. We made pets of whatever was around. Sometimes garter snakes. Sometimes horned toads. And there's my foxes.
Nobody's gone to the Down for a long time now and there's only Mollish of the old ones left to show the way. When she dies, nobody will know how to get back. But that's what the old ones wanted—for us to stay here with the locked-up homing beacons and wait for rescue.
Before we came here and built the city we lived, more or less, with the natives, always in poverty and always waiting to go home. The Secret City is harder and more primitive even than being poor in the Down, but the old ones kept saying, "Can't you stand it for a few years? Rescue will come. Our own people would never leave us stranded on such a backward world. As soon as they can, they'll pull us home."
They put all their beacons in a vault in the center of the city, locked up tight. Our people will home in on them and take us back. If we don't stay near, our people won't know how to find us.
Everything is better on our homeworld, the technology more advanced, also the views more beautiful, the flowers, the sky, the birds, the two moons.... "Oh, Oh," they said, "the two moons, one blue of ice, one iron-oxide red. Oh, the sun shining on the sky dust...."
But sometimes, when I go out from under the canopy or if I climb a tree all the way to the top, I see a sunrise that's so beautiful I think: What could be better? Even though I know on our world everything is. Everybody says so. I can't wait to get there. I wonder if there will be creatures like foxes and blue jays I can tame.
The old ones thought all these piles of mossy rocks, all these half-standing overgrown walls would make the town harder to find even if approached from the ground. They didn't think about archeologists. So far those are our only.... We call it eliminations. They thought they'd found a place a thousand years old and of a civilization never known before. They had a GPS. They were so excited they were shouting. Thank goodness cell phones don't work here in the mountains or they'd have phoned out right away. They were scraping at the lichen and pulling down vines. We didn't have time to think: Wrong or Right. We had to act fast before word got out that the city exists.
Youpas took care of all four of them by himself with bow and arrow. I was afraid of Youpas even before that. I suppose we're all wild up here—how could we not be, but Youpas is the wildest. He left the Down when he was only six. (I was only two years older.) But the old ones all said the natives were way worse than any of us could ever be. They said we were the civilized ones. If the natives are worse than Youpas, that scares me about being in the Down, but I liked life there more than here even though I know there are bad people and bad things that happen there all the time.
Now that we're so few left up here, we don't bother with lookouts anymore. That's how this man sneaked in without us knowing. He could have been here several days before I realized he was among us. That's the disadvantage of a place like this, we can hide out here easily, but so can anybody else.
This man must know how to get back to the Down. I hope he didn't just get lost and end up here by mistake. I wonder if he'd be willing to go back and take me with him or at least show me the way.
I lean close and examine him as he sleeps. How fascinating a whole new person is. I haven't seen somebody else for a long time. Makes me feel, even more, that I want to go back to the Down. Or, actually, anywhere else but here.
I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't one of us. He has the eyebrow ridges and the barrel chest, the ruddy complexion, the black hair with reddish streaks. But sometimes some of them do look a lot like us. That's why the old ones had no trouble coming here as tourists. I wish I could see if his eyes are that aluminum gray ours always are. I wish.... I hope.... But ... well, how could he not be us?
His clothes are machine-made. Only his shoes seem to be of leather but they're finely smoothed. We used to have clothes and shoes like that, but even our hiking boots are worn out by now. His shoes are just regular. They'll be ruined in no time. One of his heels and the sole, too, is raised on one side. He must be lopsided. And he has a cane.
He's been burned across one side of his face. It's raw and blistered. If not for that, he'd be a handsome example of one of us. Of course the natives wouldn't think him handsome, they like a smoother blander face. I used to think as they do, I didn't want to be one of us, but I like his looks. A lot.
I spend the night nearby, he on one side of the wall and I on the other. I listen to him snore. It's like sleeping with a bear. Even though I'm out in the open, I feel safe with that racket going on.
* * *
Though I was looking for it, the Secret City was so secret I came upon it inadvertently. I actually spent a night camped within its outskirts before I noticed it.
I had walked for days, always taking the paths less traveled. I was in pain from my burns. very time I crossed a stream I stopped and wet my burned shoulder and face with icy mountain water. Often I was tempted to stay right there and soak myself until I healed but I wanted to get well away from any natives. This time of year they'd be unlikely to be more than a few days out. The knapsack pulled at my burned shoulder so that it bled, but I kept on.
Once, in a grassy meadow, I followed browse trails by mistake—tracks that went back and forth aimlessly. Then I saw that some of the upper tracks converged into a single path and I followed that, over a high pass and then down into a sheltered valley. The path was difficult, one cliff after another. Sometimes I had to sit down and lower myself over boulders or turn around and crawl down backwards, yet it was a clear path. It looked to be used by elk and bears and such, to go from one valley to another when the seasons changed. Two valleys back, I had walked through a group of elk lying on a snowfield chewing their cud.
When, on the sixth day, I climb up and over yet another high pass and see yet another view of snowy peaks and below them, a cozy valley, several rivers rushing down, I think, If my kind wanted to build their secret town what a perfect, hidden spot. They'd have water and a place where planes couldn't come in low between the cliffs—on one side granite, pink tuff on the other, above that a cone, red with iron oxide, between them an alpine section, with a canopy that not even a low flying helicopter could see under.
But when I finally get down to the valley floor, there's no sign of my kind—or anybody. I'm disappointed. I had this daydream that the rumor of a secret city was true and this was where it had to be. I wanted to rest up with my own kind, the tourists stranded here. I wanted to be called by my real name for a change, and most of all I wanted somebody to cut away my implant so my kind couldn't find me and try to rescue me again. Now that they've finally found a way to snatch us home, it seems they want us all back and no questions asked.
I'm so tired the moment I'm all the way down into the valley and under the trees, I wrap up in the poncho and drop where I stand.
I dream my people did live here but they, and I also, are all snatched back to our world where we're strangers and none of us can remember the language or the writing. The air is dense and cloudy and tinged with a silvery mist and we have trouble breathing. I wake suffocating—shouting—jump up in a panic. It's dawn. I sit back down on a stone to catch my breath.
It's then I notice the stone I'm sitting on seems to be part of a wall and there's a symbol carved there, weathered away to almost nothing. I've forgotten my own language and writing, but I remember this. It's the syllable ath. An entrance marker. My people have been here. How can it be they were here so long ago as to have this sign almost completely worn away? Or is the symbol only half carved because my people were snatched home before they could finish it? Were they like me and didn't want to leave?
I follow the wall farther up and see another symbol. This one I've forgotten. The farther I go, the higher the wall, and I see more of my people's syllables.
Excited as I am, I'm too hungry to look farther. I roll up the poncho and hide it and the knapsack in a gap behind the wall and go in search of breakfast.
I find a patch of Solomon's seal, find a digging stick, and scrabble at them until I dig up the roots. I eat them raw and unwashed, crunching dirt. Then I follow the stream lower and find the elderberry bushes I'd seen as I came up the night before. It was getting dark and I was too tired to pick them. I eat some and then wet my shoulder and sit beside the stream where there's an overhanging bank. A good place for fish. I sit so quietly all sorts of little creatures come out right beside me, a chickadee, a pica, a marmot.... Not everything has gone south or lower down. Not everything is hibernating yet.
* * *
He wakes yelling. I almost jump out from behind the wall to see what's wrong, but I don't want him to see me until I find out more about him. And people from the Down have guns. (We do, too, but no bullets anymore.)
After he hides his things, I take them and hide them in a spot of my own, but first I examine them. The jacket is worn out and ugly. They call that corduroy. The sweater is worn out, too. It has different colors. It reminds me of when the old ones dressed as tourists. Our parents wore glasses even though they never needed them, and they always had field glasses and cameras and flowery shirts and bright sweaters like this one. I liked when we dressed like that. I used to have a flowery blouse my parents brought me from the Down. If I ever get back there, I'll get myself another one. You need money down there, though. I wonder if there's any somewhere up here or did the old ones use it all up. That's another way to make us have to stay here.
After I examine his things and hide them in a place of my own, I follow where he went, down towards the stream. He limps and leans on his cane. He is lopsided. I wince when he eats seal roots without washing them. After that, he heads straight to the elderberry bushes as if he knew they were there. He stuffs berries into his mouth.
Reaching is evidently painful to him. He doesn't use his left arm much. Probably that's also burned but I can't see under his shirt.
After gobbling berries ... it's got to be including stems, I've never seen anybody this hungry ... he stops by the stream, takes off his shirt, wets it and holds it to his face and shoulder. As he sits and soaks himself, he watches the fish that always rest under the ledge. I suppose he's thinking how to catch them. Then he sits so still in the shadows of the blowing leaves, I almost don't see him anymore. I sit still, too, (our second lesson) and watch.
Our first lesson was the freeze. How not to ever use it. I never understood why not. I don't think the stare that immobilizes is unknown here. Why is it forbidden? Also I wonder—if it's never practiced—can it still be there at all? I know I have it. I've tried it a few times—on animals that is, but never on people.
Excerpted from The Secret City by Carol Emshwiller. Copyright © 2007 Carol Emshwiller. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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