7:1: “Seer of Cities” by Nicole Kornher-Stace

7:1: “Seer of Cities” by Nicole Kornher-Stace

A day in the life of Seer of Cities.

When Seer of Cities was eight, he fell out of the sky.

Not that he hadn’t planned his undertaking well: Seer of Cities was nothing if not a creature of foresight, insight, and reflection, and he had a long summer morning at his disposal. Armed with one of his mother’s notepads and his own collection of Crayolas, he drew diagrams based partly upon National Geographic photos of insane people scaling insane heights, partly upon one of his father’s illustrations involving aliens swarming up tall buildings, and partly upon his own idea of how such things ought to be done.

He drew a boy walking sideways straight up a tree with nails sticking out the soles of his sneakers; a boy shooting upward off the ground with the aid of a backpack that belched flame at his heels; a boy ratcheting himself up on a rope, arm over arm, with a carabiner on his belt loop and a grappling hook on a high branch and his feet stuck out perpendicular for purchase.

All these boys wore looks of selfless grim determination, as witnessed in the portraiture of explorers planting flags.

In the end, he’d gone to the kitchen for provisions (granola bars and juice boxes), to the bathroom for medical necessities (Band-Aids), to the garage for safety gear (his bike helmet), and reconnoitered the back yard for expedition supplies, of which to his dismay he found precious few. He pried up tent pegs from where they tethered the deer netting around the raspberries and hunted out a sharp stone he could use to gouge toeholds in case he met an impasse. These items were deposited in his backpack, which had been gathering dust in his closet since June.

Last of all, he unwrapped a granola bar, put on his most ambassadorial face, and with explorerly resolve approached the doghouse where Violet, the family’s half-mad Akita, lived.

Violet had been chosen at the animal shelter by Seer of Cities’ father not so much as a playmate for the children than as an instrument for their protection, and he’d chosen expertly. She was a far cry from a living toy, but a near miss from a juggernaut with legs and teeth and lashings of casual malevolence.

However, she was an easy bribe. Seer of Cities walked up to her, the granola bar held forth two-handed. She sat up, all big eyes and tilted head, demure as a middle daughter in a Victorian novel until he was within reach, whereupon she snatched the offering, downed it in one go, and sashayed away with infinite hauteur. Meantime, Seer of Cities had unclicked her tether from her collar, and now unhooked it from the doghouse wall.

Violet, unaware of her sudden manumission, curled up and went to sleep.

Seer of Cities shouldered his backpack and crossed the yard in order to assess his adversary. The tree was a huge old lonesome redwood, three hundred years if it was a day, and Seer of Cities had to bend backwards at the waist to see the top of it.

With one glance, he scrapped his carefully drawn plans. Instead, he took an end of Violet’s tether and tied it round his ankle. He coiled up the remainder and stuck it in his backpack. Then he went for a ladder. Propping it against the tree, he could just reach the lowest branch. From there, it was a question of clambering to what branches he could reach, and as for the ones he couldn’t, he’d throw the tether over them, and hoist himself that way.

In this fashion Seer of Cities progressed for twenty-odd feet into the air before he swung free at the full mercy of a rotten branch.

For a moment, he felt himself somersaulting in the air, head over heels, a warm wind rushing in his ears, stinging his eyes.

Then he stopped.

At the hospital, Seer of Cities flickered in and out, like a radio as a thunderstorm slides near. He flickered in, and his parents were talking over his head as if he weren’t there. They were both holding his hands, but gently, like any minute he might sit up and pull them back, and that would be okay. He heard them talking to someone else he couldn’t see, and flickered out; then he came back, and couldn’t feel his legs. He hung on to the voices, so he’d stay.

“I told you a dog was a good idea,” his father was saying. “He’d’ve been out there all day if she hadn’t started carrying on.”

“Hmm,” said his mother. Then, after a while: “I don’t know what possessed him.”

“What possesses any of them? Kids and trees. Kids and playing on the roof in lightning storms. Kids and skateboarding. They’d skydive if we let them. They’d volunteer for spaceflight. Let’s just be glad it didn’t end up worse than this. If his glasses hadn’t come off, and he had fallen facefirst on them, he’d really be a mess. He must have landed on his feet, like a cat.”

“He might have been showing off to that little Dawson girl. Milly? Missy?”

Mindy, Seer of Cities thought. He had nightmares about Mindy Dawson. His mother thought she was the sweetest thing, but as soon as her back was turned, Mindy threw pebbles at him, or tripped him at the bus stop so he’d drop his books and skin his palms and knees.

He couldn’t raise the energy to say he hadn’t fallen because he’d been showing off to Mindy Dawson. Or to anybody. He’d just wanted to see how high he could go.

The family of Seer of Cities.

Consisting of: one mother, one father, two sisters, occasional goldfish, and one half-mad Akita.

The mother of Seer of Cities: makes great cookies and lousy assumptions. She has gathered, for instance, that the child does not exist that does not love television and hate vegetables with an ardor tantamount to zealotry, a nugget of wisdom that informs the upbringing of her own son and daughters as well as the teaching of her kindergarten class. For his part, Seer of Cities happens to like vegetables. He happens to not like television. When at lunch at school, he swaps candy and chips for carrot sticks and celery. When plunked in front of the television, he pretends he is a Martian anthropologist, trying to learn the language of the natives by listening to them speak: he combs out words and sorts them, combs and matches, combs and reassembles, combs and speaks them back. The name Seer of Cities’ mother calls him in to dinner by, yells at him when he gets in trouble by, is a name for an unaging eight-year-old, a cute name, a name ending in a y. It is probable that she will never know what her child’s true name really is.

The father of Seer of Cities: sings along with the radio when he drives his kids to school. At seven a.m., this is not a habit much cherished by his passengers, but he shuts up if they ask nicely, and anyway he sings on the way back too. He works from home, illustrating children’s books, and has been known to reward (or bribe) with ice cream whichever of his own kids agrees to pose for preliminary sketches. “You’re riding the enchanted ostrich across the burning sands,” he’ll tell them, or “You’re playing chess against the tyrant of the glass city,” or “You humbly receive the key to the kingdom and the princess’s kiss on a cheek.” In his spare time he memorizes the answers to game show questions. Whenever the family has guests, he puts on his recordings of the shows he’s watched that week, and floors them with his encyclopedic knowledge of absolutely everything.

The eldest sister of Seer of Cities: writes love stories on looseleaf paper, and keeps them hidden in a box under her bed. Her dialogue is breathy and her sex scenes written in that special style unique to virgins, packed chockablock with euphemisms and a gentle luminescence. In the picture of herself she carries in her head she is writing romances in a penthouse apartment in the city, and on the front covers of her bestsellers there’s her name in big bright loopy script, and on the back covers there’s her photo, with a little flippy haircut and a look of pen-tapping wrinkle-browed abstraction, and in her pocketbook is a check for a fat advance, and she’s winking saucily as she tosses the keys for the Vette to the valet.

The youngest sister of Seer of Cities: is an accomplished muralist, her chosen medium being crayons and her chosen canvases her bedroom walls. She swipes Seer of Cities’ Crayolas by the fistful with malice aforethought and absolute impunity, being four and underestimated in her cunning. When she grows up, she wants to be a ballerina or an actress or a racecar driver or a besequined bareback rider in the circus. She practices for the latter two on the half-mad Akita, when said Akita’s whims permit.

The half-mad Akita: has two great passions in life; namely, chasing a tennis ball around the yard and eating what food accidentally falls off people’s plates. She is a holy terror to the mailman and the houseguests and the v-e-t, and she can spell, and understand basic commands in three languages, but she won’t chase the rabbits out of the garden, for she’s afraid of them. The rabbits hold town meetings in the spinach on a daily basis while Violet weighs valor against discretion and opts to cower in the doghouse, and Seer of Cities’ mother curses a blue streak from the kitchen window. In Violet’s dreams, she runs down whole parliaments of rabbits in the moonlight and smiles as she delicately gulps their little hearts.

The goldfish: are spiteful as hell. They wait until the moment they are named to die.

The true name of Seer of Cities.

In the hospital, both legs immobilized, sleeping the sleep of painkillers and fatigue, the consciousness of Seer of Cities whisked away from him and went back across town, to his darkened house, up his tree.

He was hanging from the branch again, but now it held; this time it was his grip that failed. He fell, but before he could scream, the rope around his ankle caught and the force of his momentum swung him back and forth before it calmed and he hung, dead weight, softly spinning.

From that branch he dangled from one foot like a hanged man in a tarot, too scared to move or cry or call for help. He looked up at the ground, looked down at the sky, guessed he must be at the halfway mark between them, and then, as in a film, the camera zoomed out fast, banked back around behind, and started panning.

He pried his eyes off of the starred abyss beneath his feet and forced them out over the town instead, At this height, he could just make out the sea in the far distance, a bright thin line of dazzle sandwiched in between black slabs of earth and air.

But the sea—he knew—was over a hundred miles from his town, a trip of hours while he’d sleep in the backseat.

And his town—he looked again and caught his breath—his town was gone.

In its place there was a great dark city, curled up like a sleeping animal just beside and beneath a vast lush stretch of rippling woodland, with a river running through the middle, bruise-colored and wide, which he could trace the whole way to the sea. His branch, his tree, stood high above that city, on a hillside black with lesser trees, a hillside among hillsides that sloped hard to the valley where the river glinted and the city twitched with dreams.

He looked back down and noticed the constellations were not quite familiar.

“The sky is wrong,” he whispered into nothing.

And then he felt the knot around his ankle start to slip.

When he came to, he was on his back, and the sky was now above him: not night, not now, but pale, and punctured by a sun. All around him, faces ringed his field of vision, leaning in. Branches laddered back and forth across the sky above him, tossing languidly in breeze.

A voice spoke to him, close, as though it whispered in his ear: a strange voice, like the wind in leaves, like unsourced movement at the eye’s edge, vanishing when looked at straight.

It spoke a phrase. A name.

He flickered out.

The trials of Seer of Cities.

When they brought him home it was in a wheelchair, and in his mother’s purse there was a whole bag of prescriptions for the pain. He did not miss the hospital. While he was there, he’d read comics his parents brought him, drew pictures, saw game shows when his father came to visit, and had difficulty sleeping: instead he watched the bellied moon sail every night across the window, swelling full then wasting down to nothing, and when it was a faint scrap like a paring from a fingernail he was discharged.

He was not allowed to walk. His mother told him to be a patient patient, he’d be better in no time, but that wasn’t what the doctors told her: when she’d asked about supplements, they prescribed painkillers; when she’d asked about recovery time, they said to keep him out of school; when she’d asked about physical therapy, they recommended a ramp beside the steps up to the house.

She wore a bright face in the presence of Seer of Cities. She made him drink lots of milk and made cookies to go with it. She gave him chalky calcium tablets, multivitamins, protein drinks. She moved his room downstairs. She cried sometimes, but quietly, unmawkishly, alone; and told him with a smile he was a damn brave kid, and on the mend.

At first, he slept a lot. He learned to sleep unmoving. Once, early on, he dreamed that he was falling, and woke up sudden, kicking, jarred, and almost fainted from the pain. It did not take him long to learn. During her lapses into sanity, Violet snuggled at his feet.

He never told anybody, not even his father, about the dream he’d had in the hospital, which turned out to be a recurring one. Every time, there was the climb, the slip, the swing. And the city below.

He came to recognize it by day as well as night, buried to its knees in snow, prone beneath a crouching thunderstorm, the bright frown of a rainbow, even a meteor shower, once, green tracers streaking down like rain against a window.

Sometimes the voice returned; more often, not. He never fell again. Occasionally he flew, or thought he did. A sidewise falling, aimed. But aimed at what?

What he also never said was that the dream followed him home.

Seer of Cities, witnessed scrabbling at the gate.

Once he woke up from the dream speaking gibberish. Once he woke up from it sitting bolt upright, reaching toward the ceiling. Once he woke up from it clutching a red marker, and when he turned on the lamp, he saw that the wall beside his bed was crammed with streets of red buildings, houses lined like teeth, and a broad red river running through. He put a notepad by his hand before he slept, and trained himself to fall asleep holding a pen.

It worked.

He asked his mother for sketchbooks. Big sketchbooks that he had to prop up on a kind of legless easel, which his father jury-rigged especially, and without being asked. Awake, he could barely manage stick figures, but by night he drew cities. A city. It was the same one every time, just from different angles, he had banking aerial views and views down slots of alley, views from rooftops and views from the riverside, views from the girdling hills beyond.

When he had filled the sketchbooks, he stopped drawing. He wouldn’t ask his mother to buy more, because she’d ask to see what he had drawn, and he wouldn’t want to show. He felt a knot snag in his chest whenever he thought about it. It was a secret-keeping knot. He slid the sketchbooks beneath his mattress and propped pillows up against the string of houses on the wall.

The morning after he ran out of sketchbooks, he woke up and wheeled himself over to the closet and dumped his good shoes out of the shoebox where his mother made him keep them. With the shoebox on his lap, he wheeled over to his desk and dug his old package of modelling clay out of the bottom of the drawer.

There were six colors in the package: red, blue, yellow, green, black, and white. It had gone a little crumbly, especially the blue, but if he worked it for a minute, it softened up okay. He tore off chunks of clay and cupped them in his palms one at a time, his fingers dovetailed round each other as though it were a salamander or a baby bird he held within their space. He breathed warm into a gap. He waited.

When the clay had softened, he went to work.

First he laid out the forest. The trees he formed one by one, little cones of green clay marked with a fingernail for leaves. He’d set a smooth stone in the shoebox, for the hills, and planted his woods on that. The river was black. The buildings themselves were particolored, patchworked, piecemeal: low waves of houses under high spires, minarets, a bell-tower looming vertiginous and verdigrised above a sprawl of church; bunker-looking things and cupolas, parks and ponds, two bridges to span the river; something turreted like a chessboard rook, and a cemetery that reminded him of one of his father’s recent illustrations, in which he’d had to pose in front of a laundry hamper that was supposed to be a gravestone and wear the look a kid might wear if he were watching the friendly ghost of a puppy wiggle up out of the ground at his feet.

The diorama took a week. It was the first he’d ever constructed because he wanted to, not because he had to for a book report or to show wildlife in its natural habitat. It drained him and exhilarated him. He felt the secret growing, spreading, as it pushed green shoots up through his heart.

After some deliberation, he put the city underneath his bed. It would help to keep monsters at bay.

Intermission.

“More clay?” his mother asked, eyeing him quizzically, sidelong. “How much more?”

Seer of Cities shrugged. “A lot.”

“As in two packages?” his father said. “Or are we talking tonnage here?”

“Tonn-age,” pronounced Jenny, the youngest, annexing to her word-hoard.

“What’re you so busy on in there?” his mother said. “Do I get to see it?”

“Sure,” Seer of Cities half-lied. “When it’s done.”

He suspected it would never really be done, just keep growing, growing, ’til it assimilated him into it, gulped him down whole. He did not say this. He just smiled and tried to look convincing when he shrugged again.

“I don’t know,” he said. “A few packages. The kind with different colors.”

“It’s not some summer project for school, is it?” his father asked.

Seer of Cities shook his head.

“I read this fairy tale,” said Amelia, the eldest, as she picked at her lasagna. “There was this girl who was lonely, so she made a man out of clay, and when he came to life, he was her lover, and she was never lonely anymore.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” said Seer of Cities.

“Stupidest thing,” echoed Jenny, who collected insults.

“I think it’s beautiful,” said Amelia. “You should take that clay and make yourself a girlfriend. Not that you’d know what to do with her if you did.”

“Shut up!” When you are eight, the very word girlfriend makes you twitch. He twitched.

“Shut up yourself, brat,” said Amelia.

“Brat!” Jenny crowed.

“Fight nicely,” said his mother. “Eat your dinner.”

But when she came home from work the next day, she had two shopping bags full of tubes of modelling clay, the expensive kind, primaries through tertiaries plus black and white and brown and grey, packaged like cookie dough with metal cinches on both ends. She marched straight to Seer of Cities’ room and scattered them dramatically on his bed, as though she were dumping a netful of fish.

He looked up from his desk, where he’d been pencilling an arched suspension bridge on his thumbnail, curves and straightaways, and a thick dark belt of water underneath. He adjusted his glasses, squinting a bit against the light.

“Got every color they had,” his mother said. “I think the girl at the register thought I was nuts.”

“You are,” said Seer of Cities.

“You know it,” his mother said. “But in a nice way.”

She came over to kiss him goodnight. Bending down to reach him, she tousled his hair, and even though she smiled, he thought her eyes were sad, and wondered why. He hadn’t noticed that Amelia never let her mother kiss her anymore, not now that she was thirteen and too grown up for it. So how could he know he was next?

Seer of Cities engages in reconnaissance.

It was pretty hard, he thought, clearing the stuff off his desk and actually finding room for it instead of sweeping it onto the floor. But he didn’t want to leave a mess for his mother, not after she went to the trouble of getting all that clay, so he suffered himself to wheel back and forth from the desk to the bookshelves and again, bearing lapfuls of paper and crayons and comics and partial puzzles and homeless toys, even the lamp and his lucky paperweight with the scorpion stuck in the amber-colored plastic.

He cleared that desk like he was clearing forest, claiming ground. Then he shaped a sweep of hills under his hands, and started dotting them with trees.

The city Seer of Cities saw.

In building his buildings, Seer of Cities knew he must ration his clay: it wouldn’t do to ask his mother to buy more, and so to make them what he did was this. He salvaged a few of Jenny’s old blocks, a pill bottle, a smooth strange-shaped stone, a whole array of odds and ends to use as forms. To build a house, a church, a hospital, a high-rise, a ruin in which children played, he’d roll the clay out thin and mold it round a form; then when it dried, he’d slide it off, like molting skin, a glove. A shell.

He detailed it, made windows, doors, roof, porch, chimney, but left the inside hollow, as a dollhouse is. Then, as if it were in fact a dollhouse, a tiny dollhouse, a dollhouse’s dollhouse, he furnished the inside too. He added floors and doors and corridors and stairs, then added people, shaped over hours out of crumbs of clay, meticulously textured with a pin, a paper’s edge: hands, feet.

The people of his city stood or sat or walked or slept, fished in the river, draped their legs off fire escapes, drove cars, picked blueberries into coatpockets on the margin of the wood, hunted for snacks during commercials, daydreamed out cramped windows, whatever they’d been doing when he saw them first, when he’d seen them in that dream, one of those dreams.

It reminded him of that story Amelia had told him once, about the princess who sticks herself on a spinning wheel and makes all the people of the palace fall asleep, flash-frozen like baby corn, all because the princess needs a kiss. (He’d rolled his eyes, thinking how like a dumb girl to be that selfish.)

He did stay home from school that year. His mother took him to a meeting in late August, and he had to sit in front of teachers and the principal, and they asked him questions. They had a manila folder full of printouts and photocopies, which they consulted periodically. They made him take a test. In summer. There was a great injustice there.

“Well, he’s certainly bright enough that he won’t lag behind,” they told his mother, peering over their bifocals at her, not him, rifling stacks of papers on their desks. They gave her a copy of that year’s curriculum and a stack of dated textbooks, and told her the teacher would mail his tests home.

The textbook stuff was easy, and he had no real homework. During the day, with his mother at work and his sisters at school, he had the house to himself with his father. Some mornings he got roped into posing for illustrations, then did his schoolwork in his father’s study. Sometimes he could do both at once. All he really had to do was read the books and not let the names and dates and formulas leak out of his head. When his father was between projects, or was stalling on one, he’d read the texts out loud in funny voices, and sketch little caricatures of the explorers and royalty and scientists and fictional heroes and villains, all waving props and wearing nametags, to help Seer of Cities remember. Then he’d make sandwiches, and they’d watch a Jeopardy rerun, and his father would thrash the living crap out of all three contestants without the faintest shadow of compunction.

School lasted till lunch. Afterwards he pieced his city.

By Christmas he had everything on one side of the river done, but it wasn’t till summer came round again and halfway disappeared that it was finished. He’d have to go back to school in September, he knew. They’d have to get some volunteer, some student teacher, somebody, to wheel him around the halls. He’d be given a key to the elevator, which kids in good health were not allowed to use, and have to take a special bus. He wouldn’t be assigned to a gym class. He’d stay home on field trip days. He’d be pitied by the teachers, who would will themselves toward objectivity, but find themselves nevertheless forgiving him his missing homework, curving test grades subtly in his favor. At recess, he’d watch the other kids play tag and basketball, and try to fly his mind back to the green-black hills, the blue-black river, the city backbent in a ring around itself like a snake biting at its tail, where he wandered up and down the streets on his own unwrecked legs and feet.

When it was still summer, though, and school was just a faint dread in the middle distance, he sat for hours at his desk, staring with some disbelief, some awe, almost some fear, at what he’d made. He did not know that this was the exact same look his parents had given him, and both his sisters, just after they’d been born.

He touched the houses, the river, the trees experimentally, half expecting them to feel like brick, water, wood. They didn’t.

By this point the buildings had long since dried, hard and tight as walnut-shells, cupping up their cargo the way a curled hand will cup coins; and he’d pick them up one at a time and peer inside, and if he took his glasses off and squinted, he could make the people move, a little bit.

What Seer of Cities didn’t see.

Near the end of summer, he woke up one day to Jenny’s voice, just a few feet from his head, saying, “Holy shit.”

“Five-year-old kids aren’t supposed to say shit,” he heard Amelia say.

“Why the shit not?” said Jenny.

He sat up. “You’re not allowed in here,” he said.

“It’s a free country,” said Jenny.

“Not in my room it isn’t. And what’re—get away from there!”

Both Jenny and Amelia were standing by his desk, staring down. They ignored him. “So that’s what you’ve been working on all this time,” said Amelia. “A dollhouse—what’s it? town?”

“City,” he said. “Out.”

“But why? I mean, this is crazy. It’s like—”

“And it’s not a dollhouse, anyway.”

“But I mean—my god, what a waste of time.” He looked, and she was holding up a townhouse, thumb-and-forefinger, at a distance, as if it’d bite. Where it had been, there was now a gap, a sudden alley between houses, a front walk leading nowhere. A yardful of nobody’s garden: chrysanthemums like fireworks, swelled spires of gladioli, orchids and sweet jessamine. A bank of twilight-colored roses, hedging nothing.

She gave the house a shake and he could hear things rattling around inside. He pictured the clay people, tumbling end over end, twirling like leaves down a stream, but in air. Earthquake, they’d be thinking, dodging flying nightstands, sofas, bunk beds, bookshelves, kitchen chairs; they’d flail star-shaped, cartwheeling.

He started pulling himself up out of bed, laboriously, groping for the chair. Usually his mother or his father helped with this, but where were they? He had no clue.

Amelia looked back at him. Her eyes were twisted into sideways commas, the quirk of her eyebrows recalling him to bridges on the black river: arcs and hollows. Coy. Still rattling away. In his mind he saw a ragbag jumble, a snowglobe rain of this and that, parts of people and of furniture, all shaken loose of wholes, undone.

Intrigued, Jenny reached to uproot trees—and stopped. “Weird,” she said, as her eyes went to slits.

“What is?” asked Amelia, and Jenny pointed at something near the apex of a hill above the city. Amelia squinted. “Where?”

By now he was in the chair. His legs hurt from the jarring, but that would pass, it always passed. He wheeled himself over to the desk and interposed himself between his sisters and his city. “Get out,” he snarled, as imposing as he could manage, which was not very. “Now.”

Amelia laughed. “Of course, your highness,” she said, and curtsied at him, scornful. “We shall leave you to your dolls, milord.”

With that, she let the townhouse fall, and it went down in a small scattering of shards: a door, a crust of roof, a jagged spine of stairs. “Oops,” she said, and left, with Jenny at her heels.

As soon as they were gone, he rushed over to the door and slammed and locked it, then began the painful process of trying to pick up the bits of clay left on the carpeting. He stretched and strained, managed to brush a few with fingertips, could not quite reach.

Leaning down to that height, though, about waist-high for Amelia, about eye-level for Jenny, he noticed something he had never seen before. It was just on the verge of his sight, and at first he thought for sure he had imagined it, but when he looked at it in full, he stopped what he was doing and slowly, almost timidly, approached the city on his desk.

Just beneath the summit of the highest rise of hills, around a jut of earth and unseen from a headlong view, invisible if he were in his customary place before the desk, there was a spike of greenness rearing taller than the sea of other green below. He neared it, knuckling sleep out of his eyes, and it resolved into a massive tree, nearly twice the span of all the others, which were basically uniform in size: he had standardized them by design, lightly textured inch-high cones of green, so as to conserve clay and sanity. It was as if one had taken root and grown up of its own accord, and by lamplight and by riverwater sprouted branches, shining fish-scaled cones, needles far thinner than an eyelash. It was either striped longways with slow pale leaks of resin, else the light waylaid his eyes. It was nothing he had made.

He felt an abrupt chill, but just a small one, and leaned further in.

Up in the tree, close but not quite to the halfway point, there was a tiny plash of not-green color, formless till he squinted; then it became an outstretched form, a person, then a child climbing. It tiptoed on a branch a toothpick’s width and wore a backpack the size of a poppyseed and had tied round its ankle a rope no thicker than a thread, the other end of which was looped around a higher branch. By its posture, it looked ready to jump free.

He looked up at that higher branch, and there he saw a second form belayed, a second child, dangling inverted by one foot from which a second threadlike rope caught, held. At a breath this figure swayed as if in wind, back and forth, then stilling in a dizzy spin; but always it reached out, both arms extended upward toward the earth, toward the figure caught mid-climb, mid-leap, mid-plunge or mid-ascent, depending.

Seer of Cities settled in to wait. Any minute they might move, and he would know.


Nicole Kornher-Stace was born in Philadelphia in 1983, moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again by the time she was five, and currently lives in New Paltz, NY, with one husband, three ferrets, a brand-new baby boy, and many many books. Her short fiction has appeared in Best American Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, Zahir and Rhapsoidia, is forthcoming in a yet-to-be-named anthology from Prime Books, and was nominated for the 2007 Pushcart Prize. Her first novel is due out in Summer 2008 from Prime Books. She can be found online here and here.

This story was inspired partly by a recurring dream I’ve had for twelve or thirteen years, and partly by memories of the year I was about six years old: I used to get in trouble playing explorers with neighborhood kids (“Someone could have gotten hurt!”) and for a couple of scary months the doctors all thought I’d be partly paralyzed for life due to illness, which kept me out of school and prevented me from doing much of anything short of quietly bedridden daydreaming.



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