Read The Secret City Online

Authors: Carol Emshwiller

The Secret City

Praise for Carol Emshwiller

“Ms. Emshwiller is so gifted …”

New York Times Book Review

“First and foremost, Emshwiller is a poet—with a poet’s sensibility, precision, and magic. She revels in the sheer taste and sound of words, she infuses them with an extraordinary vitality and sense of life.”


“Emshwiller’s readers know her to be a major fabulist, a marvelous magical realist, one of the strongest, most complex, most consistently feminist voices in fiction.”

—Ursula K. Le Guin

“The most inventive mind in science fiction.”

—Karen Joy Fowler, author of
The Jane Austen Book Club

“Carol’s stories turn the corner into another dimension.”

—Harlan Ellison

“The woman is a genius, period.”

—Gwenda Bond,
Shaken & Stirred

“Emshwiller consistently pokes holes through the fabrications of our lives and reminds me of the power literature has to change the way we think.”

—Pam Harcourt,
Books to Watch Out For

“Lord what a thankless thing it must be to produce such exquisiteness.”

—James Tiptree, Jr., author of
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

“Emshwiller’s sentences are transparent and elegant at the same time. Her vocabulary, though rich and flexible, is never arcane.”

The Women’s Review of Books

“Carol Emshwiller stories should come with warning labels: Do not operate heavy machinery while reading these stories. Avoid psychedelics when reading an Emshwiller story. Do not stay up all night, reading story after story by flashlight, under the covers.”

—Eileen Gunn, author of
Stable Strategies and Others

“Carol Emshwiller… has a dedicated cult following and has been an influence on a number of today’s top writers…. It is very easy to fall into the rhythm of Emshwiller’s poetic and smooth sentences.”

Review of Contemporary Fiction

Praise for
Live With You

“A collection that manages to remind us of great writers like George Saunders, Grace Paley and Harlan Ellison all at once, though Emshwiller is a unique and wonderful writer in her own right.”

Time Out
, a Top Ten Book of 2005

“Compassion and a sly sense of humor shape the insight-filled fiction…. Lyrical and resonant…”

Publishers Weekly

“Her eye for detail and ear for poetry allow her to create compact fables that resonate beyond their immediate settings.” —
San Francisco Chronicle

“Emshwiller’s strange, often sad, and beautiful stories linger, unfolding long after reading them.”


Works by Carol Emshwiller


Mr. Boots

The Mount

Leaping Man Hill


Venus Rising
(chapbook, 1992)

Carmen Dog


I Live with You
(Tachyon, 2005)

Report to the Men’s Club and Other Stories

The Start of the End of It All

Verging on the Pertinent

Joy in our Cause

Awards and Honors for Carol Emshwiller

MacDowell Colony Fellowship (1971)

New York State Creative Artists Public Service grant (1975)

National Endowment for the Arts grant (1979)

Pushcart Prize (1987)

New York State Foundation for the Arts grant (1988)

ACCENT/ASCENT fiction prize (1989)

World Fantasy Award for Best Collection (1991)

Gallun Award (1999)

Icon Award (1999)

Nebula Award for Best Short Story (2002)

Philip K. Dick Award (2003)

World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement (2005)

Nebula Award for Best Short Story (2006)

The Secret City

Copyright © 2007 by Carol Emshwiller

This is a work of fiction. All events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form without the express permission of the publisher.

Cover illustration by Ed Emshwiller

Cover design by Ann Monn

Interior design by Alligator Tree Graphics

Tachyon Publications

1459 18th Street #139

San Francisco CA 94107

(415) 285-5615

Series Editor: Jacob Weisman

ISBN 10: 1-892391-44-9
ISBN 13: 978-1-892391-44-5

Printed in the United States of America by Worzalla

First Edition: March 2007

0    9    8   7    6    5    4    3   2   1

To Eve, Susan, and Stoney,
and their spouses,
and to David, too


. I
. Home is … used to be … wherever I was. Wherever I put down my folding cup, wrung out my cap, turned it inside out and used it for a pillow. But that was yesterday.

When I was discovered, I panicked. They woke me out of a sound sleep. I fought. First without thinking at all, and then because they could be muggers, and after that, when I saw they were policemen, I knew I might be kept in one place and have to stay with the natives for longer than I could stand. Someplace with nothing but a little square of sky. And that’s exactly how it is.

They gagged me with a dirty rag. I suppose I was yelling. They tied my hands behind my back. I couldn’t get a handkerchief for my bloody nose. They let me bleed all over my shirt.

I did do damage. I don’t know how much but they had bloody noses, too. Maybe a few black eyes.

They washed me, shaved me including my head. I suppose they were worried about lice. I had a mustache. That’s gone. I hardly know myself. They did all this with my hands tied behind my back. I calmed myself with breathing. I tried to imagine a sky instead of a ceiling.

I should be glad for the chance to rest, I haven’t stopped traveling—not even for a day, but still I long to be moving. They took, not just the laces, but my shoes. I had added two extra heels on one for my bad foot. Even though they’re worn out, I’m lost without those particular shoes. That’s not the kind of lost I like to be.

there’s others of us hiding out somewhere. Mountains would be the most logical place. I was headed there. Mother and Dad implanted their own beacons under our arms, but did all the parents do that and was it the same lumpy red spot for all? And how could I ask somebody, “Lift your arms and let me peer into your armpits?” Even at the beach, I seldom see under anybody’s arm. I suppose that’s why they put it there in the first place.

I blend in. I never do anything that
wouldn’t do. I presume we all do that.

We hoped for rescue. We waited. At least Mother did. She never belonged. She was never comfortable here. Most of those of her generation waited and kept on acting as tourists until the money ran out. They thought that would be the best way to survive here until rescue. Unfortunately there was no central location. Now the old ones are all dead and most of the younger ones I knew are spread out, who knows where?

I no longer hope. Actually I never really did. I played Mother’s game in front of her … the game of wanting more than what we had here—Mother said we were rich back there—but I knew no other life. Actually no other life than poverty. I was used to it. As long as we had enough to eat, I was happy. Besides, I was born here. This is my land. I never look out at it without a thrill. Even as a child I secretly relished this world. I wondered if I’d have to leave if we ever were rescued. Would Mother insist that I go back with her?

Mother said, “We may look more or less like them, but we’re not them and don’t you ever forget it.” She said, “Keep wandering, wear tourist’s clothes and carry tourist things.” She said, “Just keep waiting. Don’t use the freeze, but don’t let it die. Don’t marry one of them. If you don’t marry one of us, it surely will.”

I waited. I didn’t marry. Now I fear there are no more of us left to marry, though one can’t be sure, we were spread all over. And who knows, maybe in some mountain range, some of us might have lasted disguised as campers. There’s the rumor of a secret city. I was on my way to try and find it.

They called themselves tourists. Our parents just wanted to see this place for a little while. It was a class in understanding aliens. Mother was one of the guides but empathy was hard for her. She tried but she always hated the natives. “Homo sapiens sapiens,” she’d say with a sneer. “Sapiens. That’s what
think. They took
sapiens for themselves, for heaven’s sake. “

I could never see that much difference, us or them.

Had I known we’d never be rescued, I’d have mated with one of them in spite of Mother’s warnings. She was sure I’d reveal myself in a fit of anger, but I don’t think so. (Though considering what I just did, maybe I would have if woken up suddenly.) I could have had a normal native life. But could I have asked one of them to follow me, a limping bum in a baseball cap and a flowery Hawaiian shirt, with camera, field glasses? Never lost but always lost? (Though I’d have settled down if I’d married. There must be some way to get an identity and then a decent job.)

After my parents knew we were abandoned here, they went from job to job. Nobody ever got to know us nor we them. Mother didn’t want us to know the natives. She didn’t want us contaminated. She said we were born for better things than houses with pictures on the walls and malls and coffee shops and grocery stores—better things than little plots of land with flowers in them…. Trouble was, that’s all we younger ones knew.

At first my family lived in a camper but then had to sell it. Our father got a broken-down pickup truck and a tent and we went from place to place. My parents looked at everything with the same interest they’d had in the beginning, and often laughed at the native’s ways, but they always felt set apart. They didn’t want to join this world. They home-schooled us so that we knew more about a distant world and its wars and landmasses than we knew of this one.

. N
North. At the time I was looking out the slit of a window that faces North. I don’t have papers. I don’t know how to get any. I don’t ever say my real name. I haven’t said it in so long I’d have a hard time pronouncing it. My fingerprints are probably in the network, but not for any crime and not, until now, for any violence. I don’t know what came over me. I may be too old for this kind of life.

“What were you doing sleeping in somebody’s back yard? Don’t you have anyplace to go?”

They’re sorry they hit me so hard but, after all, I was hitting them.

“You scared an old lady half to death with your snoring. She thought you were a bear.”

I know I look more like a bum than I used to: faded flowery shirt, tan … used to be tan pants, used to be fancy shoes with raised heel on left foot.

“Do you have a place to live?

“I want to get up into the mountains.”

“Do you have a place to go there?”

“I know people camping up there.”


“Family. More of us Norths.”

“You don’t have any camping gear. And look at your shoes. You’ll need boots.”

And so forth.

I ask, “Am I in for vagrancy?”

“We’re going to keep you for a day or two.”

When I say, “But I’m a tourist,” they laugh.

They not only don’t believe me, they don’t trust me either. They’ve left the handcuffs on all this time. I don’t blame them. One of the policemen who talks to me has a swollen jaw. I’m lucky he didn’t try to get even as they questioned me.

me be. I curl up on the bench. There’s a dirty blanket. I wrap up in it anyway.

I think of our kind of music. My mother’s songs in the homeworld language when she sang me to sleep. What little I knew of my language I’ve forgotten except for the words she made us memorize from the beginning. Our very first words. I still remember what they mean: “We are the people. We are the tourists left here in hundred eighty-nine. Take me home.”

At first we tried to stay in our travel groups, but that got to be too hard when the money ran out and each had a different idea of what the proper thing to do was. That was in the early days. My sister and I were toddlers. If stuck, as we are here, with no other mate, I was supposed to mate with my sister. But she was taken as a mate long ago by one of our others. Mother thought that was best, and that I should find myself another from one of our groups.

. H
. R
. Wonder if my sister’s still alive. I ask for paper and pencil. They say, yes, I wait, but they don’t bring any. I suppose I don’t deserve it anymore than I deserve better meals.

After a day or two locked up for vagrancy, I’m usually taken to the edge of town and watched as I walk away, but this time I’m kept. I suppose I’m considered dangerous. I find a place on the side of the bench to scratch off the days. I’ll have to use my fingernails.

I wonder if my camera, jacket and cap, and my extra shirt are still under that bush on the edge of town or have they brought all that here? If I behave myself will I get them back when …
, that is, they let me go?

For somebody always on the move, staying still four days is more than I can stand. I always walk as fast as my bad foot allows. Here, I walk to and fro all day. I didn’t at first. I lay on the bench until I realized that wasn’t doing anything for my depression. Not that depression isn’t my usual state. Moving makes me feel like myself. Being a tourist has become my nature.

I yearn for the mountains, not for themselves or their beauty, though that, too, but for the high hidden valleys where you could hide a whole town. (Some say Vilcabamba was never found.) My people would pick a beautiful spot. They loved how beautiful this land was. Before they knew they were stranded here, they talked of wanting to stay forever.

I’m going to get out of jail by any way I can though can I still freeze if I never practiced? Considering none of us were ever allowed to freeze a creature of any sort, I doubt if we could anymore. Our parents always told us we should die before we revealed ourselves because that was a promise they had made before they signed on for the trip. Yet it seems to me some of the creatures here have that same talent.

But we hardly need it. Here on this world with less gravity, we’re stronger. I wonder how many I fought that night? I almost won. So far I haven’t needed our “save yourself” talent.

than the others. He shared his sandwich and his coffee with me.

His name is Smith so they call him Jones and Jonesy. I like their sense of play. I call, “Jonesy.”

“You think I’ve got nothing to do but talk to you? I got paperwork up to here.”

“I could help if I had some paper.”

“I don’t think the chief would want me to give you any. You might kill yourself with the pencil. You rest up. You need to put on a little fat.”

An odd thing to say. I’m a wide, heavy man, all my people are, but I guess I look like a too-thin wide heavy man.

“Are they ever going to let me out? You must admit the food isn’t the greatest.”

“You gave six men a hard time. Now how did you do that?”

“But I didn’t win. I’m here aren’t I?”

“Were you a boxer? You look like you lift weights.”

What to say? I haven’t ever been anything.

“Something like that.”

“Try to hold out for another day or two. How about I bring you fried chicken?”

So I wait. I pace. Four steps one way, four steps the other. I imagine weeds—rabbitbrush in bloom, bright yellow along the edge of road. That’s how it was last I walked. I mark off another day. Jonesy must have said something because the food gets better.

At night everything is lit up bright as day. Another reason to get out of here. Plus there are mice. Bold as could be. I try not to spill anything but they’re here anyway. If I did have paper or a book they’d be chewing on that.

The three Fs: Flight, Fight, or Freeze. I hold one of the mice in my stare. He doesn’t move. I count to twenty, then I let him go. Or maybe he held
and let me go. Or maybe we just stared at each other, one creature to another, and then decided that was enough.

vagrancy and goodness knows what else. Finally, Jonesy takes me for a shower. (I’ve been washing in a basin for five days.) He sits at the door. I want out of here before they dress me in a red jumpsuit and take me off to a bigger, better prison. This is about the biggest jail I can stand.

I washed my flowery shirt and chinos, and I have my shoes back. The day of my trial there’s only three men to help me into the van. I won’t need to test the freeze. My strength is why I’ve never needed to try it.

blocks, turn off on a side street and ditch the van. I walk a few blocks and hotwire a car. Drive two blocks and pick up another. Walk again. It won’t take the owners long to find them.

I’m heading for the place where they first found me. I want to see if they left any of my things there. It’s on the edge of town and on the road towards the mountains. Not hard to find. It’s a messy place, that’s why I chose it. And next door to other messy places. The house needs paint (as the neighboring houses do) and the porch roof is about to fall down. Best of all there’s a big yard full of bushes and weeds—rabbitbrush, black brush, baby tumbleweed, and the big bushy good smelling sage that I slept under. If only I didn’t snore like a bear.

I go straight to the sage and check under it. My red jacket with the white stripe along the sleeves is gone and my extra shirt. My little kit with comb and razor, gone. Why didn’t they give it back to me in jail? I’ll look a mess without it.

I crawl out from under and stand up. I hear a sharp intake of breath. The old woman I scared … I presume it’s the same one … is on the porch looking right at me.

I wonder that she’s outside in this heat—someone as old as she looks to be should be inside keeping cool. I can see a swamp cooler on her roof but it’s not running.

She sits back down with a plop and then sags over as if in a faint. I should see if she’s all right. I should urge her to go inside. But I don’t want to scare her again. Of course my head is shaved and my little black mustache gone. Even if she had seen me hauled away she wouldn’t recognize me, but I’d scare her even so. Maybe all the more with this shaved head.

Other books

No Resting Place by William Humphrey
I Don't Want to Lose You by James-Fisher, Loreen
Warmth in Ice (A Find You in the Dark novella) by Walters, A. Meredith, 12 NA's of Christmas
Sexnip by Celia Kyle
Fear by Lauren Barnholdt, Aaron Gorvine
Every Dawn Forever by Butler, R. E. Copyright 2016 - 2020