Runaway City / Toby McCasker

A girl holds out her arms and says nothing.

A boy leaps through the streets shouting Put your hands together, brother!

Jessica wears her fingers as a silver noose.

“I feel hands on my neck that are my father’s hands and my lover’s hands and when I hear my voice recorded it is my sister’s voice I’ve played over and over as she hanged herself.”

Her cheap rings glitter with great expense at the hem of dusk, fooling the many and the moon.

“When I’m dissociating I cannot distinguish between sex I have for pleasure and sex I’ve had in the past for money and sex for obligation and rape.”

The city mourns the death of the sun with vigils in its windows still burning from last night. Her friend reaches for her shoulder, a bridge between two towers sagging by the edge of a river running away. The water whitens with the sparkling carnations thrown to it tonight. Too many stars drown at their feet.

“I don’t want to be touched tonight but I don’t want to be alone.”

Her friend’s hand falls away and Jessica’s hand finds the earthly rain and human grease meeting again for the first time in her scalp.

“I’ve got very little hair I need anyone to brush for me now.”

The streets are awake with footfalls chasing sighs mistaken for songs. Echo after echo after echo lifting above the napes of skyscrapers and inside those echoes,

Put your hands together, brother!

*

With a sore throat and a temperature of 38 or 100.4, Jessica explains her name:

“A ‘Jess’ is the term for a strip of leather used in falconry, tied around the ankle of the bird to prevent it from chasing what it should not.”

Every corner the summit of somewhere to be, nowhere to go and on every corner, hands that come together to pray or to choke. Jessica’s friend knew someone who’d woken up with marks around her neck. She dreamt in her dog chain and jewels, always, and felt a ghost had forced itself on her in her sleep. “People don’t know how to choke,” she’d said. “You have to push your thumb into their throat.” A girl, a girl, a girl holds out her arms and says nothing. When a miracle’s soft face slides away from mayhem’s hard bones, a sewerage of skin dries wet and jellies between whoever’s fingers. One lover plummets deep between the legs of another and lifts them up into a wall. The galaxy dribbles into their outlines. Their mouths hollow each other out from the inside. Jessica’s friend imagines their naked eyes behind their modest eyelids. The city’s veins bubble and when they pop, they whisper

What do you want?

What do you want?

What do you want?

The streets are on fire in the rain. Urgent reds and blues touch the slickness crying from beaten but unbroken roads, and even the brightest artificial grin is jaundiced by artificial light. Jessica prefers the honesty of yellowed teeth. The sound of everyone at once might be the sensation of every colour as one. Conductors of polite violence suture human hubbub into sonatas from radios in cars and on big screens in sports bars and so on and soon: Another human anaconda to swallow and regurgitate the ides of Holl-ee-wood, a man whose shoes could speak announces at the queue for the event. They look anywhere but him, finding fragile peace between themselves. Holy Wood. Laughter and a bottle breaking in a gutter. Waving its spell over you! He bows with his arms out. They become wings that carry him away on and from the winds of singing and shouting and sobbing and screaming. It will be midnight in one minute. Violence and sirens and sudden silence. It is midnight again. I want to answer back, someone tells someone else.

A wandering ovation as fireworks replace the stars, and a bursting hatchback flinches at a green light. Inside, six bearded and coiffed men resign from the roles of adults, just for tonight and every night like it, daring to fight the devil with their nursery rhymes. They look to each other from eye to eye and sing together in Turkish:

if i can’t have the one that i want death should come and claim her heart

The light turns red and the tires skid Jessica’s lip over her front teeth, the men applauding words that have lost their meaning to a shared melody. Our Lady of Mercy looms with bracken in the bars of its windows and vandal romance cut into its sandstone. Moonlight and pink neon flare before and beyond its peak and brand a cross between the eyebrows Jessica laughs at as dancing caterpillars. She tries to wipe it away.

“There are nastier stories in places like that,” and just outside a gurney gripped by weeds and a board that speaks in handmade letters: There is a way that appears right but leads to death.

Rain flecks from her long fingers and venoms into petrichor on the pavement. “Petrichor,” she had said. The smell of rain meeting the earth. “Of rain on concrete,” she insisted and the peopled columns and the animal rows widened for her weightless hand. “It is Greek,” she went on. “Petri for ‘stone’, and īchōr for the blood of the gods.” The slit wrists of better strangers. Nearby, some men and women dance in the street, throwing their heads back, bearing their necks. Drizzle snakes over their canines. Some men and women farther away try to sleep, hanging their heads, bearing their necks. They are warm enough together on benches under trees but kept awake by the chatter of their teeth. Rain drips from the tips of guffaws and duress.

Jessica Autumn Limb, she’d been known as for years. Sex worker with her wicked and massive thigh bruise she knew belonged on a canvas, surrounded by leaves. Jessica Hendriks now and these days, registered nurse. A Royal hospital’s Acute Medical Unit. The purgatory between Emergency and liturgy. When she wonders if she is making sense, she is making the most sense. A plane kicks up through the rain’s midnight sunset. The shape of the cross between her eyes smears into her mascara’s uncertain sorrow.

“I’m not a religious person but I get really tender around people who are clearly at the ends of their lives. It’s very selfish of me to feel so grounded by it but I like to think that they don’t mind.”

In the day she had watched a woman die. In the night she finishes her sixth Red Bull. Its last gasps fizz in her throat. She gags behind her hand, a vicious kiss against her palm. She shakes her head.

A message of fusion cuisine to the city streets: Tatemae’s. In the belly behind its big glass window, a round table of three knights at a square table. Its corners are blades to their navels. One squirrels himself against or into the wooden sword and claims he can’t get comfortable. The feeling is addictively unbearable and indescribably familiar and he tries to remember what it was like to be born. For the rope to be cut, and did it leak a fluid that would sicken him now though it sustained him then, and what happened to it, in half and hanging from her and in half, trailing from him? His earliest memory is not a memory but the warmth of wetting the bed, and how quickly it turned cold when he woke up. The knights meet in the middle. Their armour rustles, their weapons clink. Their great helms are inscribed with their first names in burnished bronze.

Sir Jack! one says. Sir Bob! two says. Sir Leland! three says.

The crumbs of porterhouse karaage tumble from their hidden lips. Sir Bob’s glass demands satisfaction from the table and its blood sizzles on the table’s clothes, his voice a choir boy hymn for any of their wives: You know you will get scurvy if you do not eat any fruits or vegetables.

Beyond the big glass window there is the city and its streets and a street, where the homeless don’t want any trouble from the fire in a barrel, only warm stigmata from the heat that stabs its way into the world through the holes in it they’ve made. The natural state of the planet, says one, is ice and lightless. Without the sun, she says, we are done. They nod their wishes for deep sleep and dying embers.

A short woman with short hair and skinny legs in perfect fishnets wears a men’s coat that was born expensive and grew up to be cheap. It lied and said it was too big for anyone so no one tried it on except for her friend and her friend had given it to Jessica earlier tonight. She stops and turns on both heels to look through the big glass window, eclipsing the glow from the barrel that was a bin, casting the natural state of the planet onto the linen plate mail of Sir Bob, Sir Jack, Sir Leland. Now a lantern and a hearth, she steps aside and so does her friend. They step apart with their hands together and held high, a doorway to a room to the longest view. Inside there is a truthful man in a suit that is too big. He must wear it anyway. It might have fit him before he shrank, small enough to be in people’s way. He turns his head and the flames play puppeteer on the grime and stubble of his cheek. Though all eyes glitter in the dark, only one side of his face can move, only one corner of his lips can rise. Old bricks for teeth intended as a smile but fallen into disrepair, the exterior a leer repainted with blood and rust and some kind of nameless, black, stuff.

“You see that?” says Sir Leland.

“Oh yeah,” says Sir Bob.

“Nice,” Sir Jack says.

A girl holds out her arms and says something.

Behind the glass, they cannot hear her. Jack lifts a finger to his new veneers and rubs them clean. Looking good, they all say. Beyond the glass, a man always in the way moves out of the way. Behind the glass, their smirks flicker in the newer light of the barrel and the barrel is the barbecue they surround on Sundays. Talking about the old days. Talking about the good old days. Bob’s bottle of beer broke in his hand one weekend. Jack’s central incisors cracked from smiling one weekend. Leland excused himself to the bathroom and the husbands and the friends and the wives and the children lifted their voices over his crying for six minutes, one weekend. Blood, sweat, tears and the fourth and final human element.

When Leland holds his second daughter’s hand he knows the night when he first let go, when all was overwhelming and so raw, when he rushed inside his fiancée and made Marie a mother. He’d cut the cord himself and was blind to where it went. Where it all went, and the nurses sat him outside while he cried louder and longer than Marie or the baby between her breasts. The baby that will grow into a girl that will legally change her name as a woman before she changes herself. Leland opened his eyes to more of his hair on the linoleum by the loafer of his left foot and the bare skin of his right. There’d been no time at the time. He tapped his feet to the rhythm of the analogue clock underneath the crucifix overhead. Until his footfalls were heavier than heaven with every passing second. Until they were big and something coming for him. Until they buried the clock’s ticking and when they tilled the end of time and it did not stop, he hid between his palms and a boy, a male nurse leaping down the halls shouted

Put your hands together, brother!

*

“Can you tell what people are wearing?”

Her friend’s nostrils whinny before the men beyond the glass and One Million, Jessica’s friend says. Its ghost haunts every train carriage by brunch.

“I know a woman who wears it! She’s Brazilian and I think she chose it before smelling it due to the name. And the bottle. Pretty sure they sell it everywhere. It’s not my thing. I wear Carnal Flower but that’s well known. During the day I wear a Serge Lutens perfume.”

Blazers buttoned over stomachs that will be their unbuttoning if they become bellies. Jessica’s nose never wrinkles, her face curdles. It is curdled now and she claims to be offended not just by the starch of their shirts, but the stiffness of them. The colours sting her eyes with Their lavender and ‘salmon’, riskless bids for freedom and The best children were never meant to be and “Everything is too correct to be right.” The way their slacks ride up over their socks when they sit, dressed so as to never be seated. Tight enough against their luncheon gym thighs that the white hairs left behind by last week’s wax find their way between the woolen blends. Impossibly tailored, she says, and her eyes hop between the men, high enough to graze the ceiling. Arching to avoid the voids, when she notices her friend’s eyes notice her eyes.

“I don’t know what anyone looks like,” she mentions.

Her friend tells her of a time he dressed in a suit and tie and did nice hair and stole from a department store. The My Little Pony inside her friend’s mother’s purse had set off an alarm on the way out that turned every passing head the same way. The girl on the checkout smiled Happens sometimes and waved it quiet, waving everyone away. It is minutes later and Jessica cannot remember any of the three men’s faces. Her vertebrae click down her back one step at a time and a white curtain drapes over eyes.

“The moon, an ugly face inside a beautiful, perfect frame. So pale. I’m so pale,” she says, “a guy once told me if he were to ejaculate on me, it would be impossible to tell where.”

A dirty circle gulls around a nun, or A woman in a nun’s habit. On a crate cradling paper babies that have soiled themselves in grease, she dangles their hot chips above the pit of reaching wrists. The hidden skin from sleeve to need is so clean it glows. Behind her and before them all, a wall more words than wall. Jessica mouths the first line: I miss you soo much but she cannot read the rest, there are too many empty hands in the air. Thursday’s story of a murdered family that rescued wolf pups from the snow and how those wolf pups grew into wolves passes between two men. Chicken purpled in places by age or abuse churns inside their mouths. Their teeth are honest.

*

When the earth and sky do not agree, a memory in each drop of wine or blood from the cups and wounds of gods above. They fall down to fade into invisible stains. In the same way, to the same place: Pavement salted with a smell that cannot be described, only named.

Jessica watches herself in a pool of holy open veins. Her friend laughs when her friend wonders, You ever get the feeling your reflection is trying to stop you from going where you shouldn’t?

Jessica complains her eyes are burning.

“The first mirrors were made of copper or bronze, and copper or bronze only reflects one-fifth of light, and was expensive. Everyone had to imagine themselves. In 1300, Venetian glassmakers came up with the convex glass mirror. These were still too expensive for most people, even later in the century. Only kings and merchants knew how they thought they looked.”

Beside herself, she is larger than she appears. A little finger has decided when u died so did i in the car window’s cold night sweat. In her coat pocket, the Devil card.

“Portraits, then, to make We into Me, and mirrors turned us into things to be perceived. I am my face. I am not Jessica,” she says, spittle thickened by sugar and taurine bulbing between her tongue and teeth, lowering itself gently into the moat of puddle and pale girl, “looking at Jessica.”

Ripples in the daydream at her feet and the city’s hide of windows ripples with it and Now everything is made of glass and Glass is never made to last.

*

Scarlet moods of lipstick slashed across her wrist hush its strawberry birthmark. The one that turns purple in the cold, “a lipstick sample from a god. A kiss from a roseate Leto.” The lipstick she’d settled on, she’d broken it just an hour ago. Leto? her friend wants to be sure, and Leto is a woman. The mother of Apollo and Artemis, among other things, though her name could be derived from the Greek for ‘hidden one’ or ‘wife’ and What would her blood smell like?

“I don’t know that she’d have any. Or just metal. Cloying. I think ‘cloying’ is the word, even though it’s not descriptive of a scent itself. Hangs in the air like a perfume. Tuberose absolute.” The bones of the city creak. “Tuberose absolute is me in two words.”

Jessica mentions she would abort a friend or lover’s baby through her naked and flaking lips before a cavalcade of names pours onto her fingers: Balthasar Louis Raphael, Hebe Elizabeth Victorine, Hero Ianthe Rosamund, Cordelia Beatrice Scheherazade…

“Stand beside the stiff white sheets of this bedside’s painful comfort, doctor. I am delivering my own child.”

*

By the light of their watches, two women play chess after midnight in the park. Their bodies are too big for their old clothes. Their eyes are too small for their older spectacles. When they speak they speak too simply to be understood and people walking past turn to stone. Pawn leaps forward. Knight charges forward. Pawn could take knight, and Jessica is about to call out through the megaphone of her hands. Pawn crawls forward. Knight charges forward. The chess board is carved in the likeness of the world, the sea blackened by the games of passer-bys and the land made of itself, painted to look like itself.

Its pieces are heavy and though no one saw them stolen, people have stolen some. Other people have made new ones from whatever was nearby and as best they could. The white king is an old doll. The black queen was a napkin, now an origami rose. This wasn’t here the last time I was here, Jessica says, and her friend asks when, when was she last there? The day before yesterday last year. Pawn reaches other side. Knight reaches edge. Both of the women clap. Their palms meet in the middle. Their fingers arch their backs. Her friend can hear what Jessica is listening to. Her hand is bloodied by its friendship with the ragged continent of mirror she calls Andrés. Andrés saws at the cord between her legs. What was a part of her is now a condemned snake thrashing human rain across her ankles and her feet. She’s followed it all night looking for the end, and this is where its ends meet.

A boy leaps through the streets shouting Put your hands together, brother!

“This is what you want,

A girl holds out her arms and says nothing. Kissed onto her skin:

What

this

have

is

you

what

done

you

for

get.”

others?



Toby McCasker is a writer, journalist and creative based in international waters. work has been translated to the French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch and Italian. winner of the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Prize. multi-instrumentalist sound designer.

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