Featured Story • April 2015
Sing the Crumbling City
The Völva steps through the universe fissure singing. One black-heeled pump hammers the nail of the rhythm down, down, down; the other, in the sucking hole of the void, pins the real to the road for the rest of the band. The brown halo of her natural hair bobs as her head sways, and the vibrato of her voice is a suture of the ancient city to itself over the spacetime wound. The Protégé edges around her onto broken cobblestones. Calluses bleed on the strings of his screaming guitar. Platinum hair paints the blood across a white sleeve and whips in the high wind with a toss of his head. He sings the counter-melody with a full and earnest mouth, ready to carry the song alone if his mentor succumbs. Behind them both, the Conservator is a paradox of here and not-here, bass pounding from an interstitial place, light from a faraway sanctuary golden against the dead, gray sky. It shines on the others while a low-octave line of music tethers them to safety, to home. Together, they are the Voice of What Should Have Been, of a great city that once rose like an evening star over the many worlds of humankind, of a universe broken on the knee of a bully’s ambition.
The flesh eyes of the Völva fix upon the frozen tower clock in the Gammel Quarter, but her spirit eyes watch the seconds hand tick above a bustle of shoppers in the Spacetime of Her Awakening. Evie will have heard us there first, she thinks, holding a seventh note like a scalpel raised, if the message we play her is powerful enough. The seventh resolves, the scalpel descends and the Völva splits the veil between now and then:
"What. We who raise the warning cry— summon the sleight of your seiðr-kenning! Mímir's well, might of the Maddener beckons; drink and know Níðhöggr gnaws at the root."
Evie blinks at the ticking tower clock behind a glare of summer sunlight, blinks again and turns toward peculiar music. Mist from a nearby fountain dampens her cheek. Children plash in the water. There, in front of the bakery, a veil parts the world, leaches color from blossomy trees and storefront displays, supplants it with twilight. A parcel slips from her fingers and lands with a crash on the cobblestones. A mother walks by with a double stroller, frowns at her, keeps walking. An old man with a cane totters behind.
“They don’t see it.” The words are a sub-vocal murmur. Her teeth clench around a cherry lozenge, crushing it. A woman fades in from the gray; coffee-skinned, navy dress suit, spiky heels and sings beside a pale guitarist with sapphires for eyes. Behind them, the belly-deep sound of a bass thrums from a body-shaped shimmer of yellow light. Their music is a clap of thunder before a storm, the wail of a young widow, birdsong. A pair of lovers amble past, arm-locked. “They don’t hear it either.” Evie swallows a shard of lozenge, unmelted in her dry mouth, and falls to her knees, shaking.
"Your universe is yielding to its teeth. The lore-lies in your learned father's mouth— obscure the spacetime schism he begets. Urðarbrunnr echoes with the ego of a tyrant."
The Völva’s voice softens as she watches Evie stand. Blond curls float about her face in a gust of wind and stick to tear-stained cheeks dotted with freckles. She is small, plain and forgettable, a creature accustomed to flinching, who flees as if she is always running away. Her dress billows at the hem like a flag of surrender.
A silvery jitter joins the veil at the split, separates a living past from a dying present. Here-now, the city is bleak and forbidding, its riven Gammel Quarter a foyer that opens to entropy. In the distance, a cluster of skyscrapers crumble inside a plexus of fragmented highways, and a pair of space elevators hang unconnected from moons in the sky. Universe fissures, ragged and wide, gape like ravenous grendels in the landscape.
The Conservator retreats into the void, and the Protégé follows, fingering a steady bridge between verses. The Völva crosses it with him, through the awful nothingness to the Spacetime of Her Liberation. Shattered solar panels clutter the wreck of the Capitol Square in the place where Evie’s father will have told of the thing he built. Concrete dust rises in a cloud and coats the tongue. The Völva swallows, gathers power into her throat and sounds a note so high it pierces time:
“His cruelty to the cosmos cries for reckoning; weaver of wyrd, we await you at the loom. Heal what the heart’s foe harrowed in his home, and sing of what we show you, Sverrir’s daughter.”
Sverrir’s daughter. Evie’s body quakes with adrenaline, and her bowels ache with a sudden need to evacuate. Snow flurries pass through a veil overlaid on the Walk of Worlds, where the flags of colony planets snap at the wintry sky. Raucous music rings in the square, but as before, in the summer, the crowd behind her is deaf to it. They’re singing to me.
“You’re singing to me,” she says aloud. A man with a video camera turns in response, arches an eyebrow, turns away. The woman beside him points a microphone at the capitol steps.
Across the gulf between the city and the city, a yellow light flickers. A guitar string breaks. The black-eyed singer chokes and fills her lungs.
Atop the steps, Evie’s father signals for silence. Watery daylight gleams on the signet ring he never removes, encoded to lock—among other things—her bedroom window and door. Even from several feet away, the spice of his aftershave is strong; a reminder of masculine sweat, a stick in a fist, the bruises under her jumper and coat. He smiles around perfect teeth, fingers a blond forelock into place and begins to speak.
“Quantum mechanics tells us that after two particles separate, whatever happens to one is mirrored in the other.” His index fingers connect, point and diverge, twirling in turn to illustrate his explanation. “For many hundreds of years, we’ve used this principle of physics to communicate with our sister colonies.” He pauses, charms with a knowing smile. “Beginning in the summer, we’ll use it to visit them.”
“Soon, star-farers will assail the astral cloth—”
Spittle flies from the singer’s mouth. Sweat cakes dust on the ancient recording device in her palm. She holds it forth like a talisman, and footage appears of travelers passing through opaline conduits over many millennia.
Evie slides between the cameraman and reporter to watch. Her gaze flits to her father and back again.
Sverrir waits for a babble of questions to ebb. Snow collects on the sleeves of his coat. He brushes it off and sweeps an arm across the horizon. “A second age of exploration is upon us, limited only by the boundaries of the universe!”
“—weakening the warp and weft until it sunders.”
The conduits darken and sag. Others open, but these are the maws of monsters that feed upon the city, the planet and its moons, the colony worlds and all of the cosmos.
Evie’s bruises ache with dread. She scowls at the man who raised them. You ruin everything you touch.
Sverrir frowns at her sudden fire, a private expression replete with terrible promise, and loses command of the crowd. Questions trickle into the silence again. “It’s absolutely safe,” he answers one. “I’ve traveled through it myself,” he answers another. “There is no danger whatsoever.”
“Who inflicts upon the future a fate well-known to him—”
A liquid quickening of sound brings the band back into focus. The guitarist is pouring his talent into a solo, high and desperate. Blood spatter dries on the fretboard, the strings, the backs of his hands.
He knows? Evie presses a fist to frozen lips. A memory replies, of an accident at the beta site. And another, of a whitewash painted over the many who died. Of course he does.
A nearby street vendor lays a row of sausages on a grill. Fat sizzles and pops under the din of guitar and discussion. Sverrir raises his voice with subtle distaste, as if the act of shouting were the province of lesser men. “Our sister colonies are completing construction now. In the summer, when you’re able to travel between them, you’ll see for yourselves what a wonder we’ve built for you!”
“—lies below the earth when the long night comes.”
The shimmer of yellow light dims to black. A being emerges from the darkness; eyes wholly amber in a face too wide, skin a mottled crimson and bronze. Long fingers dance over an elegant bass guitar strapped to a body that towers over the others. The slack set of its angular jaw is unreadable, but its companions are frightened now, and the music rattles with it.
Evie steps into the center of the square, toward the band only she can see, and begins to scream. The crowd quiets as she points a shaking finger at her father, and the torrent of sound evolves into a litany of his sins. Sverrir’s quick allegation of schizophrenia seethes with pity. Paramedics close in from the edge of the crowd. The cameraman and reporter intervene to hold them off, and the veil shuts as Evie’s tongue sharpens into a scourge.
Bone and cartilage crackle as the Protégé folds his hands, weeping with pain. The Völva disgorges a clot of gritty mucus and gathers him into her arms. They cannot travel the fissures now; the tether is broken. The Conservator is livid with failure; eyes and skin purpling like contusions, chemosignals reeking of sulfur and sorrow. So they walk the length of the city to the conduit hub, where Evie will have gone if she escaped the Capitol Square. The desolate boroughs along the way are pocked with paths to the void, and the Conservator plays when it passes them, teasing tendrils of light from the dark that never connect with the instrument calling them forth.
The Spacetime of Her Power sits on the shore of an empty ocean bed. A jigsaw puzzle missing pieces of building and beach, it remembers the sea like a departed wife, in the shimmer of her salt on its rusting girders and rising stones. If the Völva can sing now at all, it will be over a roar of wind that pulls from every direction into emptiness. They do not dare to approach, so the Voice of What Should Have Been sets up in the wreck of the street and steels itself to play over a ribbon cutting and speeches. The Conservator lays down a riff that is only a series of notes. The Protégé fills it in with a bar of triplets. The Völva opens her throat and hopes.
“Seiðkona! Sing the crumbling city to itself. Foretell the tale to travelers and witnesses. Remake the march of days; mend the starry plain, and bring oblivion to the blight Skuld forgot.”
In the city that was, a high tide bathes a half-moon beach in brine and sprays the glass-fronted conduit hub that frames it. Three colossal screens rise from a stage in front of the building, blocking the midsummer sun. Sverrir steps to a shaded podium, taps the microphone and scans the upturned faces of reporters and travelers, perhaps for his missing daughter.
Evie’s lips part in a lipstick sneer. Kohl-painted eyes fix on the center image of her father’s distant face. Between them, a murmuring multitude waits behind a red velvet rope that separates the rabble from the press and the fortunate few who will cross to the colonies today. She lifts a protest placard into the air. A handful of angry new friends do the same. Sverrir opens his mouth to speak, and the multitude quiets.
Faint music makes her turn and scan the street. In dreams, the singer there is a goddess of vengeance, the handsome guitarist a lover and the alien bassist a creature of light and strangeness. But in reality they are only pitiful people, stretched to the edges of their endurance, and the landscape they inhabit is only a watermark on the world.
Sing the crumbling city to itself. Poetry, like memory, permeates her mind, triggers epiphany. Foretell the tale to travelers and witnesses. She looks forward into the faces of the musicians, back at the giant images of the man about to speak and understands her place between them, at the center of all things. Remake the march of days; mend the starry plain. Power, raw and sudden, rises in her throat. Bring oblivion to the blight Skuld forgot. She reaches up, finds the whistle register at the top of her vocal range and hangs upon it like a limber acrobat without a net.
A gust of wind snatches the placard away. The watermark landscape resolves, and music begins to pour through the veil. The rabble turn like a herd on the hoof, startled by this intrusion of noise. Evie’s penetrating tone resolves into song:
“Look, and see the future I have seen—”
Beyond the red velvet rope, the fortunate few stir, their attention divided. Sverrir sputters, and the lines around his mouth are magnified on the screens behind him. The Völva watches them harden from across a chasm of centuries, her counterpoint a threnody implacable as the death it proclaims.
“Bruises on the blazing bodies of the stars!”
Shouldered cameras turn from the stage, part the crowd, advance. Evie follows a trill of lightning triplets on the guitar, and for a moment she and the Protégé are a single instrument, keening.
“—the city and the colonies crushed by a lie—”
The Conservator’s neck flares in a shimmer of ridges, and the rumble of its chord progression raises the key a third. Beside it, the Völva cedes the center of attention, falls in behind Evie and matches the sway of her hips.
“Worlds once blooming are withered and gray!”
Sverrir peers at the band, at the veil, recognizes his daughter and leaps onto the sand like a predatory cat. Evie bares her teeth in a battle grin, and her black boot hammers the nail of the rhythm down, down, down.
“—told by a monster who murders with his mind—”
Three new video feeds appear above the stage; a collage of audiences across the capitol and colonies. They are all watching now, the Völva thinks, her voice rising in the crescendo that precedes a final fall.
“The artifacts of intellect everywhere undone,”
Evie’s father rushes toward the girl who dares to defy him, skids to a stop, grips her denim jacket in a fist, rears back with the other. Shouts of protest rise from the rabble, but the creature accustomed to flinching fills her lungs instead and wields the song like a sonic weapon.
“—and doesn’t care if he leaves your kids to die!”
Strong men separate the tyrant from his daughter, who shines like a waxing moon in the wake of her words. The Protégé and the Conservator complete the coda together, and then the Völva offers a closing a cappella phrase to the past.
“and the silence of sentience stolen by greed.”
Black-clad police come to take Sverrir away and contain the crush of people pushing out into the street. Above the stage, the center screen is filled with Evie’s face tilted up at itself in wonderment. Billions of voices rise on either side from every world in witness. “Seiðkona!” they chant like a prayer. “Seiðkona!”
She turns toward the band, touches fingers to her lips and blows a girlish kiss across time. The Protégé sweeps a shaking hand into the air and catches it to press against his heart. Behind him, the crumbling city evanesces in a fog of unmaking; from frozen tower clocks to rusting girders and rising stones. Near the shore of an empty ocean bed, at the edge of a broken universe, the Voice of What Should Have Been bows at the waist with a weary flourish and fades, fades with the rest until it is gone.
C.S. MacCath is a writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Clockwork Phoenix: Tales of Beauty and Strangeness, Mythic Delirium, Murky Depths, Witches & Pagans and other publications. Her poetry has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award, her fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and it has also received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection. You can find her online at csmaccath.com.
She says, “‘Sing the Crumbling City’ is based on a dream I had several years ago. In it, a woman called the Völva (an Old Norse and Icelandic term for shamanic seeress) traveled through spacetime fissures with her band in an effort to play the multiverse back to the way it should have been. In one of these places, it was important that they save a girl named Evie, who was crucial to the restoration of her universe. Both the Völva and Evie are written just as I dreamed them, and there was a wicked hot guitarist, but most of the other details from my sleeping mind’s original tale are changed in the one my waking mind told.”
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