This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
The day after the oracles announce that Spire’s Ledge is doomed, Keth takes the long way to her shop, walking to her favorite spots in the city, passing five decades worth of life in a single morning. There are few people on the stone paths into the city center, and the very air hangs heavy around her. Keth almost thinks that she could reach out and see the history of her city suspended in the air.
When she finally gets to it, the line to Keth’s shop stretches out to cover the entrance to the shop next door. There are more people standing on the pathway than she usually sees in a day, and she’s been transferring memories for thirty years. It’s the last confirmation for her: the oracles are right; the ripples are coming. The city will be undone.
Most of the customers have bulky, heavy things carried low on their hips or trailing behind them in a cart. These are the ones with airship tickets already in hand, readying themselves for the journey ahead, making sure they can take everything they treasure with them. They are well-dressed and calm. They knew it would happen in their lifetimes. They had the money to prepare.
Only one of Keth’s customers that morning stands out.
He’s very young, around twenty by Keth’s estimate, and he’s got the lean build and bright clothes of an herb-hunter. Not much money, then, but he’s holding an old clock to his chest and smiling at her with confidence.
“This is lovely,” Keth tells him. She tells almost everyone that, but this time she means it. The clock is nearly the size of the young man’s torso, made of dark wood panels with a glossy face. It’s scratched and nicked, and the second hand hangs loose toward the six, but when Keth touches it, its memory blooms strong and blue.
“It was your grandfather’s,” she murmurs. “He loved you so much.” Keth tries not to pry into people’s objects too much, but the memories on this clock rush toward her fingertips―this boy, a curly-headed child running around the knees of its previous owner. Trips to the top of the easiest, lowest herb spires and cool barley tea and games of clackers in the summer.
He flushes. “Yes. I wish I could take it with me, but it’s too big for an airship.”
Keth blinks. She wants to ask him how he got an airship ticket, when they’re more expensive than a year’s rent on her shop. Instead, she places the clock gently on the table in front of her and asks him what he’d like the memories transferred to.
“Uh, this.” He holds out a small whittled wooden figure. Keth has to examine it for a moment before she realizes that it’s a dog. It has a hole in the center of its head to slip a cord through.
“He taught me how to whittle,” the boy says nervously. “I always wanted a dog, but obviously we can’t have them up here. I don’t know … I thought it might be appropriate.”
“The memories won’t be exactly the same,” she warns him. “The affection will remain, but the shape of the associations often bend to better fit the object. And the memories on the dog will be lost. You might not remember that you even came to me.” She gives him a moment for the words to sink in. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
He nods and drops the wooden figure in her hand. Its memories are herb-green and weak, lonely afternoons on top of a spire, waiting for the sap on herb stems to dry so they could be safely transported back down to town.
Keth coaxes the memory of the clock away from the beautiful old wood, gathering it into a glowing, weightless ball in the palm of one hand. With the other hand, she waves away the memories on the dog, making sure they’re dispersed into fragments too small to stick to something in the shop. Then she smooths the blue clock memories over the figurine, making sure even its paws and snout are coated in the memories of grandfatherly love.
“There,” Keth says, smiling at the boy. She pushes both the dog and the clock across the table toward him and watches as he clutches at the dog and ties it onto the leather strap around his neck, behind a flattened copper coin, before he even looks at the clock.
He pays her in small change, and she undercharges him, seeing the line of people stretching behind him. She hopes his ticket is for the first airship off Spire’s Ledge. She hopes she never sees him again.
The airships start coming the day after that. The docks, used to lean, compact cargo ships, fill up quickly. The spare airships dock wherever they can and bob around in the breeze, large and brightly colored and temporary. The flow of future passengers keeps Keth busy, and she often finds herself closing the shop after dark and walking home past guards standing watch over the anchors and rope ladders that lead up to safety.
Keth wishes she had more time for herself in these last weeks and days. She walks through the city in the early mornings, admiring all the little things she has forgotten to notice―the hexagonal fountain in the center of the city; a marble statue of a celestial herb stem in the center, leaves rounded and worn with the pressure of curious hands; the colorful curtains in shop windows and the brightly painted signs that hang above them; the way the clouds settle over the spires in the distance.
The entire city is a miracle―the city that floats, the only land that grows the celestial herbs that power the magic of the world―and it is going to be unmade. The stones will rise and fall; the fountain will crack and crumble; the shops will collapse; the curtains and signs will turn grey with dust. The spires that grow the herbs will re-form somewhere above the clouds. The stone beneath them will grow into a base that will be found and settled again, somewhere, but everything the people of Spire’s Ledge have built will be no more. Keth knows there was another floating city before the spires created Spire’s Ledge, hundreds of years ago, but she doesn’t even remember its name from her history lessons.
Keth wonders how many people from that city made it down safe. She wonders how many of them stayed until the end. Keth has always been proud to belong to the floating city. She doesn’t want to leave it.
Customers come, hurried, worried, rushing, and she has none of their urgency. Instead, she feels only a longing for what they’re leaving, a wish to draw out these last moments for a lifetime.
Every night, Keth dreams of the floating stone beneath her feet moving, cracking, falling apart. In the dream, she grabs at the stone, and the memories of the city rush over her, the fragments of everyone’s insignificant lives. These are her anchors, but the stone keeps breaking up, until her home is nothing but sand and dust through her fingers, tiny meaningless snippets of meaning and memory, and she is spinning, spinning, spinning on the long way down.
There are only two ways out of the floating city: airships and parachutes. Airships are safe, crowded, and expensive. They take a long time to load and unload, and the trip from the nearest city that can dock them is five days. The oracles gave Spire’s Ledge about two weeks. It’s not enough time for everyone to make it out. Parachutes are easier to get ahold of, but they’re dangerous―they break, or tangle, or get caught on trees below. If the wind takes them the wrong way, they can deposit people in the middle of the desert, days from civilization and water. But when the ripples come―and they will come soon―they’ll be the last best hope for the majority of the people of Spire’s Ledge.
Keth has a parachute tucked away. She bought it a decade ago, has checked it for rips and strain every year since. She has a pack ready with money and water and a knife. She hopes she’ll make it to the plains when she jumps, if she jumps.
Keth’s customers start asking her to take items instead of money. They’re desperate, and Keth is not cruel. She amasses a little hoard: a pair of silver ear-chains, a bird-bone comb, a hexagon candle-holder with seven thick wax candles. A middle-aged man with a crooked eyebrow gives her a parachute after his daughter, who lives in a city on the plains, secures him a ticket on an airship.
Keth tucks the extra parachute into the secret drawer on the right side of her desk. She’ll give it to someone, when she can.
She sees the boy again. He’s pacing in front of a group of guards, stealing longing looks at the rope ladders beyond them. Keth stops for a moment and watches him run a hand through his curly hair. His eyes are on the ground, and she can see him pause at one point and consider turning back again for another lap. She prevents him from doing so by calling out to him from across the path.
“You there!” she says. “You came to my shop recently, didn’t you?”
His face brightens when he sees her, which is nonsensical but charming. It strengthens whatever this urge is that Keth has, to make sure he’s safe.
“Yes! You helped me with … something.” His hand goes to the dog figurine on the strap around his neck; he rubs at the dog’s back without seeming to notice. “You fixed something for me, I believe.”
She smiles. “I’m a memory mover. If my work is done well, you won’t remember what I moved or why.”
“Oh,” he says. “Well, you must be good, then.”
“No luck with the airships?” she asks.
He twists his lips. “No,” he says. “But it will work out. My friend works on one of the airships; he’ll come back for me.”
Keth watches his thumb slip from the dog to the flattened copper coin behind it, a much more familiar motion for the boy ― the body remembering what the mind has forgotten. She can’t be sure of anything without touching it, of course, but the coin must be from his friend.
“I’m Keth,” she says. “Do you have a parachute?”
“Metthian,” he tells her. “I don’t need a parachute.” His thumb still rubs absent circles around the edge of the coin at his collarbone.
“It’s better to be prepared,” she says. “We don’t know when the ripples will come. I’m sure your friend will try to help you, but he may not come in time.” Or, she thinks, he may have forgotten Metthian by now. It happens often enough when people leave Spire’s Ledge.
“He’ll come,” he says. He hesitates, then holds out the coin as far as it’ll go, a finger’s length from his chin. “Here, see for yourself.”
Keth touches the edge of the coin with a fingertip and nearly staggers back on contact. She takes a deep, steadying breath, and looks at it properly. The coin is small, of course, but its associations billow out into an orange-gold cloud that completely envelops Metthian. The absolute quantity of love in it is overwhelming. There’s so much that she only catches fragments of individual moments rushing past her―two boys scrambling up a low-hanging spire in low, golden light; splitting a loaf of bread in the schoolyard; lying on their stomachs at the edge of the stones, feet and shoulders brushing, trying to catch glimpses of the land below the clouds. Then they’re older, gangly and uncomfortable in their skin, and Metthian’s friend is at the rope ladder of an airship, throwing his arms around Metthian, pressing a kiss to his cheek. He’s wearing an earring that matches Metthian’s, and he presses a flattened coin into Metthian’s hand, whispering promises. That he’ll make enough money at this job to get them both out. That the coin will serve him in case of emergency, will be a reminder of his promise to always come back, come home. In the memory, Metthian’s hand curls around the coin, rough edges to be worn smooth in his hand, and promises to wait for him, and reaches a hand out and―
And Keth pulls her hand back, fingers curling into her palm. Her breaths echo in her head; she feels shaky on her feet. If she doubted Metthian’s friend before, she can’t now. She looks again at the coin and sees certainty and promise and faith.
Metthian tucks the coin and dog back under the collar of his shirt, avoiding her eyes. “Like I said, he’ll come back.”
Time starts to crawl and rush by all at once. Every few days, the stone center of the city shakes with delicate, anticipatory little tremors. Keth’s customers begin to bring her whatever they have from their cupboards in payment. Food is valuable enough these days. The customers are packing light, readying their parachutes if they have them, tearing their clothes apart to fashion them if they don’t. There are no curtains in the windows when Keth walks down the streets anymore.
The airships come less frequently, perhaps one a day; some days none. The airships that were near flocked to Spire's Ledge when they heard the news, but there weren’t many. There won’t be people to dock them, soon, and every pre-shock ripple makes their anchors less stable.
Keth gives a woman with two boys the silk dress her mother gave her to be married in. It doesn’t pain her to think of them tearing it apart at the seams and sewing it into a patchwork parachute. She doesn’t suppose she’ll ever marry. Keth doesn’t give the woman the extra parachute, though she knows she should.
She eats flat cakes of cornmeal and water and the honey she scrapes from the jar, and if a customer brings her a vegetable, she eats that too.
Some of them give her celestial herbs, dried in loose bundles or packed tight in oil in thin metal packets. These she adds to her pack, which she keeps with her at all times.
The ripples will come any day.
There’s an informal leave-taking spot near the edge nearest the plains. People start gathering there before they jump. Keth walks there sometimes in the evening to offer her services to people who are staring down the leap with cloth on their backs and something wild in their eyes. She is surprised to find that most of them recognize her, less surprised that only a handful of them have anything with them there, at the ledge.
One woman asks her to transfer memories from a nearby building to her armband, explaining that she used to meet her husband behind one corner of it. Keth can’t take the associations from the whole building, and she hesitates at the thought of taking memories that belong to the whole town and giving them to one woman. Then she remembers the building won’t be there in a week. She takes the memories from the corner of the building and seals them into the blue band around the woman’s arm. She wonders what shape the memories will have, in an armband. Whatever they are, however warped they may be, she supposes they will be better than nothing.
The last of the airships comes and goes.
The streets are nearly empty. Keth leaves a note on her shop window ― “still here, find me” ― and roams as she pleases, always keeping in sight of an edge of the floating city.
She should just make the jump. No one here needs her anymore.
But she can’t make herself do it. Not yet. There’s something she’s waiting for.
On the last day the city will stand, Keth wakes when a ripple throws her out of bed. She sits on her stone floor and waits for the shaking to subside, keeping a hand on her parachute the whole time. When the city holds, Keth puts on her favorite and most practical dress and ties her hair back in neat silver braids. Whatever she decides, it will be done by the time the sun sets on the land below.
Keth wanders with purpose. She trails her fingers over stone walls and gathers the associations to her hands and heart, colors budding and blooming and dying in a single moment as she lives the memories of her neighbors. When she looks at them, her hands are surrounded by a brownish cloud with rainbows at the edges.
Keth lingers near the leaving spot for half an hour, watching from behind a building as a group of three people gather bunches of fabric around them, hold each other’s hands, and jump. She can’t be sure from where she is, but she doesn’t think there was enough cloth there to call what they had parachutes. She doesn’t want to go to the ledge to confirm.
When another pair of stragglers approaches the leaving spot, Keth turns away to walk around the edge of the city, unwilling to attach herself to more people before they fall to likely death. She is beginning to wish she was less easily attached to everyone and everything.
Keth walks and walks until she sees Metthian at a spot where the edge of the city juts out, a vantage point. He stands, looking out, with the ease of an herb hunter, confident on his feet even so near the edge.
She clears her throat when she gets within speaking distance.
“Did you get a parachute, then?” She knows he didn’t. There’s nothing on his back. If a ripple came now, even a small pre-shock, he might be thrown completely, helpless.
Metthian turns when he hears her. He looks exhausted and thin, but he still smiles at her.
“I don’t need a parachute. He’s coming for me.”
“Metthian,” she says, “honey. Let an old lady convince you that sometimes the best way forward is to help yourself.”
“I don’t doubt it, but there’s no time.”
He shrugs away from her, looks back out to the endless expanse of sky. “Why’re you still here, then?”
Keth swallows. She doesn’t tell him that when her bare feet touch the stone, a purple cloud surrounds the entire city like so much dust. They are her life’s memories here―and everyone else’s. She does not know how she can leave them. She does not think she can contain them in anything small enough to take with her.
“I needed to find someone to take my extra parachute,” she says instead. “And here you are.”
“I can’t.” Metthian’s hand has migrated to the strap at his neck again. “I promised I’d wait for him to come back.”
“There won’t be anywhere for him to come back to,” she tells him. “There aren’t even dockers to help the airships land anymore. They’ve all gone. So should you.”
He doesn’t answer. Keth turns away and lets him stew.
The city already haunts her. From where they are on the edge, Keth can see the rounded dome of the school, the straight, regal stone path to the courthouse, the green mist that hangs outside the herb cannery even now, days after packing has shut down. Beyond that, the stone of the city slopes up into a thousand treacherous peaks, the spires, upon which the herbs wind and climb their way toward ever-increasing heights. It’s not a cloudy day; Keth can see some of the spires from where she stands, grey stone impossibly beautiful against the bright blue sky.
How is she supposed to leave this behind?
Keth sits and very carefully presses a hand to the stone.
The memories surge over her, a stampede of sensation. An herb hunter in red and purple kneels at the fountain before his first solo climb; a woman with long brown hair links arms with her friend on their way to buy bread; a dockhand ties tight the rope anchoring an airship and reaches a steadying hand to the first person down the rope ladder. Keth catches a glimpse of herself in a memory, a smiling face handing a beloved watch to its owner. And she sees her own memories, too―standing in the courtyard around the fountain holding the hands of strangers after someone fell, running wild and barefooted around the base of a spire in the off-season, collapsing into giggles when a long-gone friend whispered a joke when the teacher’s back was turned.
Keth knows that memories linger in more places than objects, that her mind will carry what her hands cannot. But this is the only place she’s ever belonged.
She’s not going to let this boy be another thing she left behind.
Keth reaches for her extra parachute.
“Give me that thing around your neck,” she says.
Metthian turns to her, confused, hand still on the coin. “What, this?”
Keth holds out her hand and tries to look trustworthy. “Yes. I just need it for a minute.”
She doesn’t flinch when her hands touch the coin this time, just lets the weight of it settle in her hand. Metthian watches her for a long moment, so she looks down at the coin and pretends she can see past the orange-gold glow to the coin’s face.
When he looks back to the sky, she scoops the memory from the coin and deposits it onto the parachute in her other hand.
Keth lets out a breath and smooths the memories onto the edge of the parachute. Her hands are shaking. She’s never betrayed somebody before. For a dizzying moment, all she can think about is all the ways what she’s done could go wrong―before the friend sees the parachute, their associations won’t match up. The transfer may affect Metthian more than it does him. There may be confusion, miscommunication, loss.
Keth inhales, and the sting of air brings her back. There will be no loss worse than death. And she remembers the love on that coin―that parachute. She doesn’t think anything she can do could separate Metthian from his friend. Neither of them would allow it.
“Here,” she says, and Metthian turns back to her. Keth holds out the leather strap with the dog figure and coin in one hand and the parachute in the other.
For a moment, his eyes move between the parachute and the coin rapidly, staying on neither. Keth holds perfectly still and waits to see what he will do next. The memories she saw were full of promises, of absolute conviction bolstered by love. Her hope is that, transferred to the parachute, those memories will look like another kind of promise―to meet wherever they can, to stay alive long enough to do so.
His head snaps up. “What did you … ?” He looks at the objects in her hands, frantic and confused. “Give those back. It’s … they’re important.”
Keth steps toward him, still holding the parachute and the leather strap in front of her. “Gladly. Take them.”
When Metthian grabs the parachute, relief writes itself across his face. He clutches it to his chest, a hitch in his breath, before he takes the leather strap, the dog, and the coin. Keth finally lets herself exhale.
“I have to go,” he mutters to himself. “I promised I’d meet him again.”
Keth smiles at him. She feels giddy with relief, now that the moment is over. There is guilt, too, still, and worry. But he’ll live. He’ll live long enough for her to find him again, or so she tells herself. She’ll put the memories back on the coin, if he wants her to. She’ll explain it all, if he lets her.
“Come here,” Keth says, gesturing at the parachute. “I’ll remind you how to use it.”
Keth sits on the edge of the celestial city, legs dangling over, palms flat against the stone, until long after Metthian and his parachute are out of sight.
There’s purple all around her, memories overlaid on the sky. Keth was a happy child here, and a solitary but no less happy woman. She liked her sideline life, observing the joys and the pains, doing what she could to help those for whom memory was the best solace.
Part of her still wants to stay until the ripples come, to hold onto the stone until it bucks and breaks beneath her fingers. She has saved Metthian, probably―is it so bad to do what she wouldn’t let him do? To stay for love of a place, for attachment to a web of memory?
She knows it is.
Metthian stayed―and left―for his faith in and love of his friend. Keth has no faith, and no one has asked for her promise to meet them below. Possibly nobody will ever notice the lack of her. Still, Keth remembers the relief she felt, seeing Metthian clutch the parachute to his chest, taking that last step off the ledge. She thinks of the many opportunities she had to give her spare parachute to someone eager, desperate even, the fact that she felt her parachute was destined for him, that she was the solution to his problem.
Perhaps the solution to his problem is the solution to hers as well.
The ground trembles, a warning. Keth scoots back from the ledge. She takes the parachute off her back and spreads it around her, a sprawl of blue fabric on the grey stone. Breathless, Keth reaches to the stone itself―to the memories there―and pulls and pulls and pulls. She gathers armfuls of purple memory and smooths it all into the soft fabric of the parachute. She does this until there are no more memories within reach, until the fabric of the parachute shimmers purple-blue in her vision.
It is not nearly enough. It is all she has. In the stone, the memories tell her of the life she has had here; in the parachute, perhaps they will tell her of the life she can yet build.
Nobody has asked Keth for any promises, but she can make her own, to and for the people she loves, however obliquely. The people of Spire’s Ledge will gather somewhere, with time. They will have a corner of a neighborhood or a new-sprung town on the plains. Wherever they go, Keth will follow. She will bring them these memories, will press them with careful fingers into the center of new fountains and the walls of new buildings.
It is not nearly enough, but it is something only she can do.
Keth gathers the parachute back into its pack, hands trembling. She stands and walks to the edge of the city she knows she loves, and the purple grip of her fingers on the strap of her parachute reminds her: she is taking home with her.
She takes a deep breath and steps off the ledge.