I am young still, and my father has not yet started me working at the bodega. Neither has my mother yet begun drinking in earnest, but neither are far off. I creep past my father, snoring in the bedroom, and my mother, asleep at the table. Down the dingy halls and under a loose flap of chain link, too young to be afraid. The street outside is empty except for a stoop across from mine, where two girls older than me, but not by much, share a cigarette in the dark.
The bird is alive when I find it. Broken and tangled in vines at the base of the apartment. It flutters like an artery, quick and erratic, feathers sticking out at strange angles. When I pick it up, it trembles, one wing twisted behind it. I touch its soft head, feel the curves of its beak. Its proud, puffy chest, its curled claws. The only sharp edge on the whole creature is the crook of that wing.
My mother tells a story about her mother. I have heard it many times. In it, my mother has a pet mouse that she hides in the walls—a tiny thing she can fit in the cup of her hand. She keeps it secret for many weeks. But one night, it doesn’t appear at its usual feeding time. My mother’s mother finds it caught in a trap. Struggling to stand and squealing in pain. Back broken and barely alive. My mother’s mother puts both trap and mouse into her child’s hands and tells her it’s cruel to allow a thing you love to suffer. My mother’s mother watches her daughter put the mouse on the table and crush it flat and still with an old milk jug.
In the middle of the lot, the Mouth gapes. Quivering in the weeds, all sharp teeth and darkness. Its edges twitch, belching hot vapor.
I remember being surprised by its warmth as I go its edge, the sick-sweet breath of it like old pickles and compost, ruffling my hair. Even the warm air makes the bird shiver, its wing radiating pain, fluttering uselessly behind it.
I hush the small thing. Stroke its tiny head. The Mouth is open and quiet, as dark below me as the sky above.
I let go my cupped hands, and the bird falls down.
It doesn’t make a sound. It never hits the bottom. Or it does, but somewhere deep down in the Stomach, too far for me to hear. Above, there’s only quiet. Stillness. A sudden absence of suffering.
I stand there watching. Wondering, maybe, if the bird might fly back up after all. Then the Mouth yawns. Trembles. And I swear for a moment it folds itself, finally, into a gaping, toothless grin.
Some things I know are true: this Mouth is one of many in the Swimming City; the City is its own beast and we are none of us loved by it; what goes in the mouth will never come out.
I do not tell anyone about the smile. I cannot understand it alongside these other immutable truths. But I return to my citymouth after that, time and again. I don’t know what I’m looking for. But when I find it, I think, I will know it in my bones.
At the bodega, my father teaches me to smile and look trustworthy to people who buy things. He sits me on a phone book behind the too-tall counter and shows me the register, the scanners, the prices, until I know them all by heart. I sell milk and gillwine to harried women with babies on their hips, tram tickets and sandwiches to men on their way to work.
My father teaches me never to take a single thing from the shelf unless I can buy it myself, no matter how hungry I am. He teaches me that there’s no such thing as “only once.” A choice becomes a habit becomes a vice, just like that. He refuses to stock his own cigarette brand. Walks all the way across the neighborhood for every pack he wants to buy. The only thing I’m allowed to take is medicine for my mother’s headaches, which he places the money for into the register each afternoon before sending me home for lunch. She is rarely awake in the day, and so I leave her pills in their shiny bottle on the table and bring salty cans of Cityflesh to the Mouth for my meal.
I am not supposed to hang around the Mouth. No one is. In most parts of the City, the Mouths are surrounded by high walls. Guarded and gated so no one stumbles in. Ours has only limp chain link, loose at all the corners. A lock on the gate hangs like a collar on a dead dog, which men in coveralls open once a week to deliver garbage. Dump things that we have no use for, but that the City might use to keep us swimming. But in the bright afternoons and chill evenings when the bodega is closed, I dig through the flotsam the trash men leave behind. Shining adiplastics in all shapes and colors. Bright foil that reflects the Dorsal and the stars. Containers of metal and shrapnel of Citybone. I find new shapes for them all. A bottle seal twists into a round little mother. Old chip bags become crinkling, scarecrow fathers. I make houses from my empty cans of Cityflesh, windows and doors scored into the label.
My mother does not like me playing there, where people can see. She thinks they will think less of us, to have a child who entertains herself with garbage. As if anyone who lives here has any right to judge. But my father agrees. He works hard to make the bodega a place of pride. He says it’s for our customers, so I try my best to look presentable, even as I come back to the lot again and again. The window from our kitchen is right above my citymouth, so I must take care not to be seen. And I do—though I always feel eyes on me from above.
Only once am I careless enough to get caught. It is late, and I think my mother is asleep. My father is halfway to the Ventrals to get his cigarettes. I come inside, my knees dark with grit and my pockets bulging with shiny things. The slap my mother gives me turns my vision inside out.
She strips my coat off, full of treasures, and opens the window. Turns it upside down so the figures all rain out—the fathers, the mothers, the daughters, the houses—into the space where the citymouth waits below. I weep, and she says if she sees me at it again, she’ll throw me in too.
The next day I return to the Mouth to see if anything can be scavenged. Or to find new treasures. Or to spit back at my mother in what little way I can. I’m sure it’s no use. It all would have fallen straight from the window into the citymouth. Gulped into oblivion. But when I arrive at its lip, the Mouth looks smaller. Half-closed. As if frozen before a great yawn.
Balancing at its precarious edge is a City of my making. Homes and families of trash, all upturned across the City’s lip. I pick them up. And as soon I step back, the citymouth opens again and lets out a sigh. Like it had been holding a deep, deep breath.
Though the Stomach knows all kinds of delicacies, this Mouth tastes only the worst of what the City has to offer. So, I feed it when I can, with what can be spared: a squirming rat from the cellar of the bodega; a cat with a torn ear who no one will miss; a broken bird in the middle of the night.
Even when we’re hungry at home, it is important that my citymouth eats well. Nothing can be loved that cannot be fed, after all. And that cannot be eaten.
I shirk my duties and spend time in the heart of the Swimming City.
Not the Heart, where all is dark and the factories turn its beating kinetic energy into power, but the Midcity. The heart where things shine. Where the Dorsal is bright, and there are shops with beautiful things, and tight veins of trams to take you anywhere, and girls who school together down the streets. My father is waiting, and I do not come. Instead, I board the single, rickety tram that stops at the edge of the neighborhood to watch girls from worlds I can only imagine.
Clean girls in bright clothes going to classes. Small, sturdy girls with coveralls heading toward quarries. Roving gangs in tiny skirts, staring haughtily from street corners. I imagine myself as one of them, these girls with skirts or smocks or shimmering eye makeup. I imagine what it must be like to walk to school in the morning and sit in a classroom with other children. To wake early and spend days mining marrow and tapping oil from deep in the guts of the City. To sleep all day and rise as the Dorsal falls, turning tricks and getting drunk on gillwine. I watch the girls, pretending to be each of them, one by one.
There is a girl who is especially clean and especially shiny, and I cannot stop watching her as she walks with her clean and shiny friends. I imagine that she goes to classes. That she knows things, reads things. That she is loved. Around her neck is something that shines—a little pale curl, a little shape that I cannot decipher, but that is beautiful all the same. The trinket rests in the cup of the girl’s collarbones and I think if I had something like that, there isn’t a soul who could tell the difference between me and her.
As I walk and she walks and her friends walk in formation around her, I pretend I do not see her. I bump my shoulder into hers, and when she turns to say something—perhaps to give an apology, perhaps to demand I give one to her—I reach out and snap the chain from around her neck.
The necklace digs into my sweaty fist as I run toward the tram. I do not know if anyone is chasing me. I do not stop until the doors of the tramcar shut behind me and I am rattling back home, this relic in my pocket. I don’t dare look at it. But I do touch it. I turn it over in my pocket, let the chain slide through my fingers like water. I think of the girl’s soft, shocked face.
I don’t stop at the bodega on my way home, though the light is on, and my father must still be waiting for me there. I go to the Mouth instead. Safe behind chain link, in the kelpweed and broken scales, I finally look at my prize.
The charm is a fine filament of bone, carved into the shape of a tail fin. Maybe the girl had visited the Far Tail with her family and brought it back as a souvenir. Maybe someone had gotten it for her. Maybe it was a promise, or a hope—a reminder of a place she might never see, but that she could think on, dream of from time to time. And now it is in my hands, with no meaning at all but the girl who had worn it.
My legs burn from running, and my citymouth yawns at my feet, and I imagine the girl in the next tram, police at her side and pointing my direction. I let the necklace slide between my fingers, and the citymouth swallows it like it had never been there at all.
There is a boy who brings me gifts in the rare summertime.
He works netting remora out on the Ventrals, but the Swimming City has wriggled through the belt of a great gas giant so large it’s almost a sun. The Ventrals are too hot and the remora (those that have survived) are sheltering in the City’s distant slipstream. Fishers have all come home to wait out the season. The scales beneath us are hot to the touch.
We meet at the bodega when he buys a case of beer, and he comes back every day after for weeks. He has a loud voice and a wide smile. I leave the bodega early sometimes to spend time with him. My father is unhappy when he finds out, though he has never been the kind to show it. He looks at me with sharp eyes when I apologize and promise it won’t happen again, like he already knows it will. And it does.
The boy is tall and strong. Quick to smile and quick to shout. I like the feel of his hands on my legs, his lips on the soft skin of my neck. My mother, at the edge of a bottle, sees him once as he says goodbye at the doorstep and tells me she can smell a bottom feeder from a mile away. I’m glad not to have inherited the ability. I’m not sure I could bear the stench.
There is nowhere to be alone at home, and the boy stays in a dormitory, a temporary room teeming with other displaced men, so we make a place for ourselves. Perched on the chain link or tangled up in the kelpweed of the lot, drinking yeasty Ventral beer. Sweating under the bright bands of the planet overhead, which outshine the Dorsal by degrees. We avoid my parents’ eyes and the busy street.
The long, hot summer lasts until the momentum of the planet’s gravity slingshots us through. And then we’re leaving the bands behind. The volcanic moons, the gaseous storms that take up the whole sky. And suddenly it’s cool again. Suddenly the remora are back, swimming and tucked safely under the Ventrals where they belong. And when, laying in the grass of the lot out back, he tells me he is leaving, he asks me to come too. The boy will take care of me, so he says. He needs me. He loves me.
I could go with him. There’s nothing to stop me. What do I have here? My mother, her mind half-gone and hating me? The store, dusty with food I cannot eat? My father I would miss. But he will do fine without me. He always has.
But I know already it is not enough. The boy, though warm and sturdy and soft, will never be a home. He talks and laughs, he touches and leads. But he knows nothing of me. He has not asked, and I have not offered. How can I leave this place that knows everything I am, to be cared for and never known?
We are hidden in the kelpweed, laying in the shadow of my home when I tell him I won’t go. He is no longer warm and soft, then.
He sits up and will not look at me, and I can feel him boiling. He makes a hissed accusation, then another. I have taken advantage. I have led him astray. Made promises that I never intended to keep. And maybe I have. Maybe I wanted what he felt like more than what he was. But if that’s true, then he has done the same.
I try to go, but he stops me. He catches my ankle and pulls me to the ground so my hands split open and my knees bleed. I shove him, and he shoves back. I try to run, but he catches me again. I kick and pull and dig my nails into trash and chipped scales, clawing myself. I shout, but the noise of the street, the buildings, the day, drowns me out. I’m not far below the window of our kitchen, in the shade behind the building, and I call for my mother. The boy stands above me, the lovely planes of his body in shadow.
And then I do not see him. His voice screams from somewhere far away, and I am awash in the hot, humid smell of compost.
When I get up, the citymouth is blown wide. Its mouth stretched open, loose bottles and torn papers tumbling over the edge. The lip reaches from the building to the gate, straining, gulping, and the boy is nowhere to be seen. The citymouth groans low and deep, gurgling as it begins to retake its shape.
I stumble. I look around. Searching for the boy, maybe, or someone who has also seen what I have seen. When I look up, I think I see someone at the window four stories up, with the shape of a bottle in their hand.
My father is sick, and then he is dead. It happens quickly. I do not cry, even when my mother drinks and sobs through the service.
Like the rest of the dead, he is committed to a Mouth. Not mine—a nice one, deep in Midcity, tucked under the Dorsal where it’s nearly always bright. There are high, pale walls around it, and City men don’t bring garbage there. Still, everything it eats goes to the Stomach just the same. All turned into the same soup that keeps the Dorsal lit, the Ventspawn healthy, the Gills churning vacuum into air. I would have just as soon taken him to my own citymouth where at least he would be close to home.
I work and sleep, work and sleep, and my mother, it feels, has drunk up every tear I might have shed, though she spared no love for my father when he was alive. When my father has been dead a month, I break his rules for the first time and take a pack of cigarettes off the bodega shelf. I close the shop early and go to the Mouth before home.
The night is loud as I smoke there at the lip of it. The distant trams screech through the Veins. Someone shouts in another complex across the road. A couple announces themselves noisily in a room nearby, and there is music pouring out of a window above.
I shout, just once, just to see how it would feel. I shout and the scrape of a shapeless noise in my throat is a surprising delight. I shout again and it thrills.
I shout myself raw. I scream and no one hears over their own noise. I drop my cigarette and scream until I can’t scream anymore, and I stamp my feet and tear at my hair. I rip up the grass and kick at the scales under my feet until they trip me. I hit the ground and my knees are bleeding, and my hands too, and I scream some more. I scream into the Mouth of the city, and the fresh blood drips between my fingers and into its maw. I hear it rumble, deep below, as if in agreement.
My mother is screaming and stumbling between me and the doorway. She reeks of ethanol, and I don’t know whether she’s telling me now to stay or go. She has demanded both in equal measure, but whatever she says now, I know I cannot live here another day.
She demands I tell her how she will support herself, how the bodega, my father’s legacy, will remain open, and I tell her that’s up to her now. And I feel sick to think of the place I have loved and lived in for so long as the husk she will soon let it become. But it is not mine, really. It never was. I pack everything I cannot live without into a duffel and leave without looking back.
I have eaten her food, I have slept in the embrace of her four walls, and I am going to leave her now? I’m a monster, a bitch. I am as good as fish bait to the world out there, and I will die in the gutter alone. Serves me right. I would let my own mother starve. If I go now, I had better stay gone and not ever come back.
You bitch you bitch you bitch—
She follows me out the door and down the stairs. When we reach the sidewalk, I don’t stop. I don’t tell her who really owes who. But she grabs at me anyway. She is not strong, but she does not need strength to draw blood. Her nails bite into my flesh like teeth, her hand a hungry jaw. And then the ground beneath us groans.
It’s loud. So loud it stops my mother where she stands. The ground heaves hard enough to shake me free of her. It roils again until she is on her knees, but I have kept my footing.
The sound of the citymouth is the sound of rending metal, of snapping bone. It is a bellow of nothing but sound and motion. There is no stopping it until it is done.
The ground beneath my mother quakes, trembles away beneath her each time she tries to rise. I tell her I’m going now, and I do. I clutch the chain link beside me for strength, like holding a lover’s hand. The citymouth has gone wide and wailing, and I wish I had a bird to toss inside in thanks. I hold the fence until I reach the bodega. Its windows rattle, and the inside is dusty and dark. I say a silent goodbye, both to the Mouth and the place that feeds it.
And then I’m gone..
I like to believe the City has come to know us, we who live on its back.
Like anything, its many Mouths want food. Its Heart wants blood. Its Vent produces young. I wonder if, like anything, its flesh wants tenderness. I wonder if a body, any body, can survive on only what the mouth eats. Or if, like mine, it really can make do with what it must.
It has been only a few years, but the inside of my old home looks worse than I remember. Fingerfuls of dust come up wherever I touch, and my mother’s jetsam piles high enough to bury me. Until now, I had kept my word. I had gone, and I had not come back to her. But she’s the one who is gone now, and she can no longer make a liar out of me.
I have been living at the Heart, working the power plants, making the electricity my mother stopped paying for long before drink swallowed her. The house has been scrubbed clean of me. The room that was once mine is full of boxes and nothing else. In each box is a pile of invoices, unopened bills, dead moths, old shipments of crisps and sandwiches meant for the bodega, instead left to rot. Looking at them, I feel more an orphan than when I received the letter informing me of her death. I gather up the boxes, lift what I can carry, and go downstairs.
The citymouth lot next door is unchanged. Chain link loose enough for anyone to get through. Dry, untended grass. Trash littering the overgrowth of weeds. And my citymouth, breathing its sweet breath.
It yawns wide as I approach. It swells, edges trembling, as if reaching for me. As if knowing I cannot bear to carry this thing a moment longer.
I throw the box in from the Mouth’s quivering edge. And in a blink, a gulp, it’s gone. It’s gone, and I’m lighter than I have ever felt. I give silent thanks, and the citymouth burps contentedly in response, like a baby settling in to sleep.
I go back inside for another box, and another, dumping everything my mother has ever touched into the Mouth. When it’s done, I stand inside the empty walls that once were home. It’s not so bad like this, I think. With everything stripped away.
I’ve saved some money from working long hours and buying only food and a place to sleep. The bodega is empty now and unowned. I could buy it back. I could make a home here, or make something, at least. In my old bedroom, empty now of everything, I lay down and sleep. The citymouth snores in the street below.
There is a girl, and the first time we wake entwined, there is an uncertain halo of light through the window of my childhood bedroom. She is tall and moves slow. Her eyes smile when her mouth does, and she kisses me like I am something sweet to savor. Her body is warm and she, I think, is home. We had met on the tram between the Dorsal side of the city and mine, when I was early to work one morning. After that first meeting, I took the early tram every day just to see her, until I finally took her home and asked her to stay.
We move easily through my mother’s house, which is mine now. It feels strange, sometimes, to find love within these walls. I expect my mother to be sitting at the window. Sometimes I open the door and think I see her there, red eyes and a half-finished bottle. But then the girl takes my hand and kisses me, tasting of warm bread and salt.
She runs the bodega with me. I take the register while she works in the back, stocking cooking oil and milk. Before and after, in the brackets of our day, we eat together and read out loud to one another. She likes stories about imagined places, planets far away. I like ones that could take place here, on this very block. She takes my hand, and our callouses fit together like the discs on a suckerfish.
On our free days, I make things with my hands. Little wooden spoons and houses for birds. She bakes, takes tinned fruit from the shelf of the bodega and makes the best pies I have ever eaten. She lures me away from paperwork and backstock, and feeds me pieces from her sticky fingers.
She teaches me to play games too—games of cards, games of chance, games of her own invention. She grew up with games. With neighbors and fun. It’s been a long time, she tells me. She doesn’t remember all the rules. But even when she forgets, her body takes over and plays the way it always has. My body lacks those memories. But when I lose, she takes the cards or the dice or the puzzle piece from my hand and kisses my fingers. Shows me how to try again.
On warm evenings, we lay in the grass between work and home and count stars. We play games, we sing songs, we make love like teenagers in obsession. She teaches me hopscotch. There’s a rope to skip and a stone to toss, and you have to keep steady as you hop to the place the stone lands. I fall sometimes, and the thick grasses forgive me when I do. She is so light on her feet, always landing where she is meant to be. I play at being frustrated just to watch her face go soft and gentle. I reel her in and kiss her, then I toss the stone as far as I can. Tell her to show me how it’s done if she’s so good. Tell her to skip all the way there and all the way back to me.
She laughs and skips the rope, and I watch the way the evening light makes her hair glow. Her face in the soft light of the Dorsal makes me ache for all the things I am afraid I will never be for her but want to.
She picks up the stone. “Are you ready?” she asks, and she swings the curve of the rope high over her head and kicks off the ground.
She’s gone before the rope comes back down.
Where she had stood, there is nothing. I say her name and she does not reply. I move toward the spot where I last saw her, where I swear I can see her outline still, stamped against the sky and the grass and the fence and the shade.
And there is the citymouth, wide and hungry, maw gaping as wide as when it took the boy, so many years ago. A rumble echoes deep inside its belly.
I am on my knees and gasping her name and staring into the citymouth. Telling it she’s different. Willing it to spit her back out. And in the window above, I feel someone else watching us, looking into the citymouth as it swallows.
Copyright © 2023 Erin Strubbe