This page contains:
- Domestic violence / domestic abuse
Long before you came along, I was myself just a seed in Raffa’s pocket, something she fumbled with as she stepped on the plane, her other hand clutching her mother’s. Small as I was, I sensed her fear. I tried to hum reassuringly. Above the ocean, I helped her fall asleep.
She planted me soon after landing, behind the park by a graffitied wall hidden from view by maple trees. She seemed half ashamed, yet she came every day to water me and sit beside me. We can’t grow without stories, and she made sure I never went hungry. At first, they were stories from home, full of her aunt’s golden yeast pastries and hand-knitted dolls. Later they were made-up tales of dragons that came to whisk her away from the cramped walk-up apartment, or fairies that did her mother’s work while she slept, or spells that made you speak every language in the world. I loved all the stories, even those that made Raffa sad. Little by little, I bloomed: a single clocktower (there is a tower at the heart of every living city), no bigger than a blade of grass, with little dirt roads radiating from it; then tiny red-roofed houses and a neoclassical theatre and kiosks on every corner and markets and packs of stray dogs.
At first, Raffa had to bring a magnifying glass to look at me; then I grew large enough that she could count my windows with the naked eye. She worried about rain and raccoons. She brought a big glass bowl from home and set it over me like a dome. “I’m going to be in so much trouble,” she said, and I found it funny how she switched to English mid-sentence, as though she couldn’t remember the words.
When school started, she stopped coming so often. She only dropped by on Sunday mornings and crouched beside me, checking for new buildings. I didn’t fit under the bowl anymore; the clocktower came up to her chest. Her stories changed. She told me about the boys she didn’t like and about Mae, who she maybe liked too much and who lived in a big house in the suburbs with a garden and a barbecue and a garage.
One day I saw Raffa from a distance, walking hand in hand with a girl. She’d grown tall, but I was taller. She looked at me sideways and turned away, pulling the girl with her. It stung a little. I didn’t mean to grow the abandoned five-story garage by the river; it sprung up like a pimple after they left.
I had no room to sprawl, so I grew inwards, roads knotting and twisting, buildings folding in unexpected places. I waited for Raffa to walk through my gates. I hung baskets of flowers on the lampposts and put up banners and a festival stage; I filled the streets with smells of honey-soaked pastry, of summer days and river picnics. Every house brimmed with Raffa’s memories.
It took a long time for her to come back, and she wasn’t alone. She stopped at a distance, whispering in the girl’s ear. Even though I wasn’t pleased she’d brought someone else, I made myself as welcoming as I could, gates thrown open, road laid out like a carpet for them. They walked in holding hands, chuckling together. I made the sunlight bounce off windows and rooftops, so that Raffa marveled looking up, and I could tell she remembered everything.
“It’s strange,” the girl said. “This is your hometown?”
Raffa mumbled, “Sort of,” and I was so happy she’d come, I let it slide.
I carried them deeper inside, and Raffa marveled at how large I’d grown. “We could actually live here,” she said uncertainly, walking past the white-columned theatre where she’d spent Saturday nights with her aunt. In the market, she tried a peach and gave one to the girl. “It’s just like I remember.”
“It’s a little creepy,” the girl said.
I brought them to the clocktower, the plaza around it bathed in golden light, and they sat on the crescent steps. The girl had found some chalk and was playing with it.
“Let’s write our initials on this wall,” she said.
Raffa asked, “Really?” and I didn’t think she’d let her do it, but she did. She watched her friend draw the M and R across the bricks, and the sun went down suddenly. That was my fault; it’s hard to shine a summer sun when I’m angry. The girl looked a little scared.
“Let’s go back,” she said, putting her arm through Raffa’s.
I didn’t stop them getting out but didn’t help them, either, so they wandered for a while until they found the gates. Raffa looked back for a moment before the girl pulled her away.
After that, I didn’t see Raffa for a long time, longer than ever before. I almost forgot her; at least part of me tried, opening cracks in facades and digging potholes into roads, and breaking windows so all the memories would drift out of houses. I grew wild. I grew chipped paint, sagging walls, glowing signs with letters missing, slippery things scurrying down dark alleys, ivy creeping up the theatre’s columns. Bony dogs howled in the night. There was a fire, and it left piles of rubble on street corners and black smears across the clock tower.
When Raffa came back, I didn’t see her arrive. You mustn’t judge; I’d closed my eyes to the outside world by then and looked only inwards (perhaps hoping if I grew deep enough, I might emerge home again, on the other side of the world). The gate was overgrown with brambles, and Raffa squeezed through it with her clothes torn and arms scratched. I didn’t know what to do. One of my roads had started unrolling at her feet, eager to welcome her, but I pulled it back. It had been so long, I barely knew her.
She made her way through narrow alleys, over fallen lampposts, around piles of bricks. I thought she’d give up, go back. But she kept going, even when I put the sun down and lengthened the night; even when I sent dogs to trail her in low-growling packs; even when I filled the streets with rotting smells. She kept walking until she found the clock tower and collapsed on its time-eaten steps and the pigeons gathered around her.
In a low voice, with her head in her hands, she told me a new story. The words fell like bitter rain after drought. Halfway through, I tried not to listen anymore, but couldn’t—I wasn’t built that way. So I learned all about Mae, about the bruises Raffa hid under long-sleeved jumpers; about Raffa’s mother, and how she’d died in the small apartment, thousands of miles away from home. “I came to see if I could bury her here,” Raffa said. “But this isn’t home either.”
If she’d have looked up just then, she’d have seen a crack zig-zag across the clockface on the tower, splitting it in two.
When she started walking again, I didn’t let go. Roads spiraled tight under her feet and rowhouses duplicated turn after turn, until she grew dizzy, stumbling back into the shadow of the clocktower. She slumped down on the steps and cried.
She said, between sobs, “I can’t find my way in here, just like I can’t find it out there.”
Something thawed in that hard, charred heart of mine, then. I grew ashamed. Did part of me still want to keep her, spinning her around so she’d never find the way out? Perhaps, but I’d been lonely for a long time. Let us not speak of it any longer.
I unrolled the road at Raffa’s feet and opened the gates for her. She thought it a trick, at first, but eventually, she rose and walked away swaying, unsteady on her feet. She mumbled, “Thank you.”
I didn’t think I’d see her again. To be honest, I didn’t think I deserved it. But a year hadn’t yet passed when she came back with a woman, someone new. They stopped at a distance, and Raffa showed her the city she’d grown from seed. Though I opened the gates, they didn’t come in. They looked at me for a long time, and the woman squeezed Raffa’s shoulders, and Raffa leaned her head against the woman’s.
“I’ll be back soon,” Raffa said to me before leaving.
Waiting wasn’t so hard after that. For the first time, I let some of the spring come in from outside, sweeping fresh air through the winding alleys. I repainted houses, weeded gardens, cleared out rubble, chased away rats.
Raffa kept her promise. She came back and wandered the streets and told me about Lucia, how she made Raffa’s chest feel lighter, with more room to breathe. The next time they came together. They walked hand in hand to the tower, stared up at the cracked clockface.
“It’s beautiful,” Lucia said. She looked at Raffa looking up. “We could live here a while if you want.”
I shivered down to my roots. Before Raffa answered, “I’d like that,” I had found the house, her childhood house, yellow, single-storied, a lime tree by the door. I opened the windows, let the sun warm the walls. On the back of a chair, I hung a half-finished blanket Raffa’s aunt had been knitting the day before the move.
When Raffa and Lucia came to stay for the first time, a summer storm had been brewing outside. The downpour caught them at the gates, and they ran inside holding hands. The rain didn’t stop; it smelled so fresh and made them laugh so hard, I couldn’t help letting it in. I lit streetlight after streetlight like a trail of breadcrumbs to the yellow house, and the women walked inside, into the warm dry dimness, and breathed in relief. I breathed in relief, and the rain swept my streets hard and deep, and it was as if at last I had a place in this world.
I didn’t listen at their door. Suffice it to say that the house had a content air in the morning, curled up on its street corner like a well-fed cat, and the street stretched playfully at the women’s feet when they walked out.
While Raffa chattered and counted all the buildings she remembered, Lucia fingered something in her coat pocket. At the clocktower, she pulled Raffa down onto the steps and showed her something in her palm: a seed, the seed of you. (Can you believe you were ever that small?)
Lucia whispered something and Raffa jumped up. “Of course! You can plant it right here. There’s a garden right around the corner.”
Lucia hesitated. “My city is different, and I didn’t live there long enough to grow to like it. It’s big and dusty and gray and fast, it’s noisy and overflowing, it’s –”
“It’s just what we need,” Raffa said.
She pulled Lucia by the hand into the small garden behind the clocktower, and they planted you there, between roses, in a patch of ground warmed by the morning sun. They watered you and marked the place with stones.
“We’ll need to get a glass bowl,” Raffa said.
They sat on the ground together—this part you remember—and Lucia started telling stories. She spoke about long-ago wars and long ship crossings and family grown strange, and I listened too. I listened and watched a tower sprout from seed, gray concrete pointing at the sky.
Raffa and Lucia watched over you. The outside sun seeped into my stones and from there into yours, and your new heart beat in time with mine. Your roots tangled with mine under the world. I felt you grow inside me, and myself expand around you, city around city, seed inside seed.
Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson
First Reader: Aigner Loren Wilson
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors