A Seer: Fiction from CG Inglis, Part 4
Sci-Fi-O-Rama presents the fourth installment of “A Colour Like Orange: Stories from a Broken World“, a series of interlocking stories from Toronto writer CG Inglis.
In this month’s story, a freelance photographer takes a job documenting the city’s homeless population. What she thought would be a simple gig turns complicated when she meets Maria, a homeless woman who can see what others can’t. In a world full of holes, it can be easy to fall in…
CG Inglis takes us along winding cracks and into dark spaces in “A Seer“.
The woman they brought in earlier is crying again. Seated in a plastic chair with her head in her hands, her shoulders move in short, trembling bursts. There’s no telling what’s upset her, what she might have lost, or is afraid of losing. Her sobs cut clear across the room.
“Is someone going to do something for her?”
The detective frowns.
Craning his neck, he turns to see where I’m looking.
“Her? She’s in here every other day.”
The man’s head is a massive, shining block. His angular jaw is edged by a trim beard, the black bristles dewy with sweat. Years of abuse have reduced a powerful frame to something heavy and rounded. The cheap fabric of his shirt strains against a swollen midsection. Only the look in his eyes is flat. To him I’m just another administrative hiccup, the promise of future paper work.
“You said you went looking for them?” he asks.
“That’s not what I said.”
Some frustration has entered my voice. The detective’s mouth curls.
“I was there on a job.”
He thumbs the tablet in front of him.
“That’s right. ‘Conducting a census of the city’s homeless population.’ Heartwarming stuff. That Institute of yours is a real pillar of the community.”
“It isn’t ‘my’ Institute. I’m a freelancer under contract.”
As the large man leans back, the discount office chair he’s been saddled with groans in protest.
“Tell me about the seer,” he says. A self-satisfied smile creeps onto his face. He must have been looking forward to this.
“I already explained all that.”
“Sure,” he says, nodding like he understands me, like the two of us go back a long time. “Sure you did. It’s all here in the report. But I’m a little slow. Got to hear something with my own ears to wrap my head around it. So enlighten me about this famous seer of yours. What’s she like?”
The woman in the back has stopped crying. Head tilted toward the ceiling, her empty gaze tracks the lazy whirling of a fan. The detective has his fingers interlaced over his belly. We swim in an ocean of details: woman staring at fan, detective’s blunt fingers threaded. How many of these things are predestined? When she spoke of my future, could Maria see this too?
I called myself a photographer. As I’d studied the subject in college and was paid to take pictures, technically that was true. Most of my income came from engagement and wedding photos, with the occasional glossy product shot thrown in for variety. I can’t say I hated the work, but I absolutely felt it was beneath me. Like a lot of people I knew in the business, I styled myself an artist. My advantage was that I never let those pretensions get in the way of a paycheck.
Most of my free time I spent shooting in the streets. After a job, I’d pick a direction and walk until my feet gave out. I shot everything: people’s faces, blurred headlights, rain-washed stretches of concrete. Amateur stuff really, and no one was buying, at least not from me, a girl with a bullshit degree and a foreign-sounding name. So when I saw the job posted for the survey, I figured it was a good chance to add to my portfolio while making a little extra cash.
The project aimed to document the city’s homeless population. Embarrassed by the number of street deaths over the past winter, the local government conceived of the plan as the first step in a coordinated response. They talked about it just like that, making use of a lot of suitably official-sounding words. I have my doubts as to whether anything will ever come of it; there’s no shortage of good intentions in the world, but how often does anything really change? It certainly didn’t inspire much confidence that the whole thing was outsourced to the Institute for Applied Research.
The Institute is like an itch you can’t scratch. Even the name seems calculated to annoy, hovering right on the edge of functional and meaningless. “Applied Research” could refer to anything, and research is the least of the Institute’s concerns. They hold any number patents, underwrite infrastructure projects, act as the de facto provider of various social services. Their private security forces are legendary. Besides the money and the exposure I’d get for taking part in the project, I guess I was intrigued by the chance to see some of their operation up close.
Maybe I even cared a little about the issue. Spending so much time on the streets, homelessness was impossible to ignore. I got used to seeing the same faces day after day. Some people were managing to scrape by, but many others were in serious pain. Walking past never failed to leave a sour taste in my mouth. The best I could do was to spare a little change and respect their privacy by leaving them out of my pictures. I knew street photographers who disagreed with that stance, believing their work helped draw attention to the problem, but for me the line between activism and exploitation was too fine. So the Institute’s project was a convenient salve for my conscience. I’d be able to document a segment of society that was all too often invisible, and then, patting myself on the back for being such a good person, I could happily get on with my life.
The orientation was held in a nondescript office about a block from Appin Station. I’d been expecting something more elaborate, but it turned out the Institute didn’t even own the building. They’d simply rented the 5th floor and brought in a trainer. A short man with a swiftly receding hairline, he pushed through the seminar in a low mumble. Besides myself, there were maybe twenty other recruits, most of them male. After briefly outlining the project’s goals, the trainer explained our duties and how to submit the data we’d be collecting. The gig seemed easy enough. Each of us would be assigned a partner and a ‘Zone’ in which to work. I drew Zone 10, and a younger-looking guy named Matt. He wore glasses, spoke softly, and barely made eye contact when I shook his hand.
We were to cover our Zones and make note of any distinguishing physical characteristics of the homeless people we encountered, as well as their names and ages whenever possible. Only after direct verbal confirmation had been given were we permitted to take pictures. This seemed to be a legal sticking point for the Institute, and the trainer returned to it several times throughout his presentation.
It was dry stuff. I noticed a few of the other recruits nodding off, but one thing the trainer said left an impression on me. A graph projected on the white board showed the number of deaths among the homeless population over a 20 year period. The numbers were consistently rising, and had peaked at a record 389 the previous winter.
“Obviously this isn’t a full or accurate count,” the trainer said. “These are official figures as provided by shelters and the police. Our own research has indicated there may be many more individuals who are never found or even reported missing in the first place. These people simply disappear.”
His voice trailed off, and he moved on to the next slide. A man sitting in the back had fallen asleep. Soon after, the session came to a close.
Before I could leave, the trainer approached me. A stale odor wafted from him, and I had to fight not to wrinkle my nose. There was a bright orange spot of some dried sauce or powder at his lower lip that distracted me immensely. His skin was sallow; he might have been sick. I stood as far back from him as the tight confines of the space would allow.
I was impressed with the steel in my voice. The man responded with a hesitant laugh.
“No, nothing. Just a small problem. I’m only now realizing that you and your partner have been assigned Zone 10.”
From where we stood, I could just make out Matt standing by the elevators.
“That’s what it says on the form you gave us,” I said.
“Yes, well, that was perhaps an error on our part. As you know, along with the canal, Zone 10 includes the Narrows.”
“I saw that, yes.”
“I know that you’re with us on a contract basis, but the Institute takes worker safety very seriously. If you’d feel more comfortable in another Zone…”
I smiled brightly.
“Why wouldn’t I feel comfortable?” I asked. The small man squirmed a little. Of course I knew what he was getting at. His tone dripped condescension, but I was curious to see if he’d actually come out and say it.
“Well, as I’m sure you’re aware, it isn’t the safest part of the city. You might not, that is… I could assign you somewhere else.”
“Oh, you mean because I’m a woman.”
He winced as if he’d bitten his own tongue.
“I didn’t mean to imply… I would just hate you to feel that we hadn’t done our best for you.”
“That’s nice, but I was happy with the assignment.”
“Absolutely. It’ll make the commute easier. I live in Zone 10.”
I left the trainer blinking. Corralling my partner, I practically shoved him into the elevator in front of me.
“So, you’re a photographer?” he asked, once the doors had closed.
“Matt, don’t even start.”
He swallowed, and for all I know he spent the remainder of the ride staring at his shoes. When we reached the ground floor I waved him off and headed in the direction of the station. I was already thinking about the best way to handle the assignment. What the Institute called Zone 10 was an area of several square kilometers centered around the great canal. The district was well-known for its homeless population, with some estimates of the number of illegal encampments pegged at over a hundred. Most of these were built under the numerous bridges that spanned the water.
Looking to save money on rent, my mother and I had moved into the area the previous winter. Sharing an apartment with her wasn’t my idea of an ideal living situation. The two of us didn’t see eye to eye on much. Innocent conversations had a tendency to wind up in shouting matches. There were days when it took all I had to stay, but a sudden infection and a botched surgery the year before had left her mobility impaired. She was unable to work, and it fell on me to support us. Maybe she wasn’t easy to get along with, but she was still my mother. Even if it broke me, I wasn’t going to leave her on her own.
The next morning she got up in time to see me off. I could feel her eyes on me as I sat in the hallway pulling on my boots.
“So now you’re some kind of activist,” she said. She stood in the doorway with the help of her walker.
“It’s a paying gig mom,” I muttered.
“Sure, sure, lots of money in the homeless these days.”
“They’re not the ones paying.”
“I don’t like the thought of you out there on your own with them. Crazies and murderers and who knows what else.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “And I’m not on my own. I have a partner. His name is Matt.”
The mention of a male name mollified her somewhat. I thought it best not to mention that Matt appeared useless. There are things a mother doesn’t need to hear. Instead I kissed her cheek; thin strands of her hair tickled the side of my neck. Her skin, as always, smelled of loose-leaf tobacco and herbal soap.
“I love you,” I said. She nodded, squeezing my arm. I went to the door and when I turned she was already hobbling back into the kitchen. Light from the window edged her night gown. I told myself that she was getting stronger all the time.
Outside, the streets were already crowded. Teenagers in loose packs were on their way to school, while older men sat taking coffee in front of shuttered storefronts. I bought a pastry and a milk tea from a street vendor and headed to the canal.
The Institute had recommended moving through our assigned Zones in a grid pattern, but there was no way I was sticking to that. Knowing the area, I’d instructed Matt to meet me at the Wine-Seller’s Bridge. The vibrant tourist and entertainment district on the east bank attracted a lot of panhandlers, and it just made sense to branch out from there. After making a half-hearted stab at protest, Matt gave up when it became clear I’d abandon him rather than compromise. I could have gone a little easier on him, but I was too used to following my own schedule. There was a good reason I worked freelance. No one else would put up with me.
I found Matt waiting at the bridge. He bobbed his head and made a brief attempt at a smile. A battered Vigil 200 hung from a leather strap at his neck. It was rare to meet anyone who still used film, and I gave his gear an appreciative nod.
“Nice camera,” I said. “Very old-school. The Institute paying your development costs?”
He grinned sheepishly.
“No,” he replied. “This one is just for me.”
He pulled a small point-and-click camera from his pocket.
“I’ll use this for the project. They didn’t seem all that concerned about quality.”
“That’s the spirit. You’re ready?”
He nodded and I led the way across the bridge. Despite my first impression, Matt turned out to be surprisingly good company. Quiet by nature, he started to open up once we got talking about cameras. He actually referred to himself as a photography buff, and I had to swallow a laugh when I realized he wasn’t being ironic. Although his knowledge of technical details was at least as good as mine, he seemed awed by the fact that I worked in the industry.
“I’m in data-entry,” he said. “It must be unreal to take pictures for a living.”
“Sure, getting ordered around by brides all day. Hit on by drunk groomsmen. Searching for that perfect angle where the light hits the wedding cake just right. It’s all so glamorous.”
“But you’re a real photographer,” he insisted. “It’s inspiring.”
“Well,” I said. “If a paying job is all it takes, I guess now you’re one too. Welcome to the sorority.”
He laughed, clearly pleased, and together we spent the morning surveying the blocks around the Wine Seller’s Bridge. All told, we met or came into contact with several dozen homeless people. Most had heard about the project, and the general attitude seemed to be tolerant amusement. The majority were open to having their pictures taken, and several of my shots turned out at least passably well.
One is a closeup of Max, 58. He is perched on the concrete embankment next to the canal. His right arm is extended, palm up, his fingers blackened with dirt, his long nails cracking. Waves of gray hair tumble from his head, and within an impressively matted beard his toothless mouth is split in a wide grin. Behind him are the multicoloured billboards of the entertainment blocks that line the canal.
Another shows a 22 year old woman named Kel. She is seated on a stretch of cardboard in front of a convenience store. The sides of her head are shaved, while the rest of her hair is pulled back and tied at the nape of her neck. She is dressed in dark, oversized cargos and a black hoodie that barely covers her plump abdomen. Written in large, block letters on another piece of cardboard are the words “HOMELESS AND PREGNANT.” She is winking, her pink tongue sticking out.
In another, Paul, 43, is standing next to a rough tent of blue tarp. He has a cap pulled low over heavy brows. His cheeks are clean shaven, and his left leg is missing below the knee. He supports himself on a battered pair of crutches adorned with all kinds of impractical objects: the torsos of plastic dolls, strings of fake flowers, bottle caps. He is not looking at the camera; his eyes are on the ground, his knuckles bone-white around the crutch grips.
Regular people down on their luck. Addicts and runaways and castoffs. The mentally ill, locked inside of invisible prisons. Twice we had to call the paramedics; once for an older man lying unconscious on the pavement, and then again for a guy in his 20s who we stumbled on bare-chested and trembling in a doorway, his pants spattered with blood. We did our best not to upset anyone, or to frighten them, but it was uncomfortable work. It felt like taking inventory. These were people with lives of their own, and we were reducing them to… what? Names and ages. Physical characteristics. Singling them out for study because the circumstances of their lives had led them to the street. Even if the aims of the project were good, it made me uneasy. Still, I don’t cut corners on a job. The Institute was paying us to document these people, and that’s exactly what we did. All except one.
She was born in the northern mines. At that time, people like her father could still afford houses in the heart of town, and she grew up in a big, red-brick affair with a porch and a wide yard. Her favourite place was the front window. As a child she enjoyed gazing outside with her forehead pressed to the glass. Watching was one of the few things she did well. Her eyes were keen, and she was sharp at catching details. She noticed, for example, that her father’s coat was fraying at the elbows, and that he walked stiffly, favoring his right knee where he’d been hurt in the accident (this happened before she was born, and had never been properly explained to her.) As he left for work on winter mornings she watched his breath exit his mouth in white puffs, knowing how it must smell: spiky and warm, like a rotten fruit, just the way it did when he kissed her goodnight. Long after he’d rounded the corner and disappeared, the girl would still be there, staring out the window into the empty street.
Her mother was tall, but a slight stoop and a quiet, submissive nature gave the impression of a much slighter woman. Her brown eyes were edged with flecks of coral yellow, and she had prematurely white hair that she wore in a loose bun at the back of her neck. If spoken to without warning she might start, as if surprised at being noticed, and she rarely strayed from the margins of their shared life. Even at a young age the girl could see that her mother was afraid, though it wasn’t until much later that she properly understood why.
The girl herself was slow. She knew because she was told this several times, both by her parents as well as her teachers. She had been slow to learn how to walk and talk, slow even to recognize her own name. Once she finally did find her voice, she never said the right thing, blurting out whatever strange idea came into her head. Twice she was held back in school. The problem was that she was so easily distracted. There was just too much to see, and the world was so full of details.
When she was no more than six or seven, her mother caught her staring at the ceiling in her bedroom. There was a large water stain there, and the girl liked running her eyes over the warped paint and the spidery network of cracking plaster. Poised in the door frame, her mother inhaled sharply when she realized what the girl was doing. In an instant she had crossed the room, her hand raised and brought down in one swift, savage motion; the pain of it was less than the shock. The little girl scrambled away, open-mouthed, gaping, as tears welled in her eyes.
“You were muttering to yourself Maria,” her mother said, no longer looking at her. “You mustn’t do that. It isn’t good.”
The next day her father set to work repairing the ceiling. This incident was never discussed, and her mother never hit the girl again. That duty was passed to her father, who did so frequently, and for the same reason. Maria was forbidden to talk to herself, and when threats and violence failed to curb the problem the girl was punished in other ways. Food might be taken away, or she was made to scrub the floor or beat the rugs, but this only made things worse, as she lost herself in a slippery collocation of soap bubbles or the symphonies of dust her broom sent swirling in the air.
Maria’s punishments grew routine, and were accompanied by a constant weight of shame. She didn’t mean to be disobedient, but she could not control herself, and her parents began to regard her as one might look at a thing rather than a person, a small, thin-limbed creature that had scurried out from under a rock. Nothing they tried had an impact. The girl was constantly muttering under her breath, caught in an odd, nearly dreamlike state in which any of a hundred different things might conspire to pull her mind in a new direction. Over time, the punishments grew less and less frequent, until at length her parents simply appeared to lose interest in her, accepting that nothing could be done, that their only offspring was irreparable, broken, and Maria was left alone to stare into odd corners, at dust or the cracks in a wall. Left to talk to herself in peace.
If that had been the end of it, her life might have turned out differently. Maybe, given enough time, she could have found a way to manage her condition. But she had run out of time. Once she reached puberty everything changed.
The cramping of her first period was violent. A horrible pain assaulted her insides. She felt someone had their hands in there, digging with blunt fingers. Maria was bedridden for more than a day. At times she was aware of her mother’s presence in the room, but she was alone when a wave of pain broke and crashed so violently it threatened to consume her; orange light sparked behind her eyes as a dull knife twisted in her stomach. Every muscle in her body seized. Her mouth was pried open in a silent cry.
Then, blinking back tears, it was over. The pain, the light, the clenched muscles – all of it was gone. Her body felt loose, her mind oddly clear. She had bled profusely, but that was not what interested her; in her agony she had wrenched the sheet free from under the mattress. Now it stretched out in a topography of wrinkles. Maria’s eyes traced a fold from her upraised knee to the foot of the bed. Undulating like the back of a snake, like a foreshortened dune in a faraway desert, the fold spoke a word:
The bedroom door swung open; her mother entered bearing a tray with a jug of water and a few towels. Meeting her daughter’s eyes, an understanding flowed between them. With unsteady hands, her mother set the tray on the nightstand.
“You knew I was coming?”
The girl nodded, transfixed. Her mother looked away, her lips compressed in a tight line.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper. “I never wanted this for you.”
At last Maria understood; the older woman had known what lay in wait in the cracks in the ceiling and the folds of her sheets. She knew because she saw the same things Maria did. The knowledge was choking her, but somehow she had found a way to live with it. The girl managed a weak smile; if her mother had learned that secret, maybe she could too.
Alcohol helped. She discovered this when she was still a teenager, sneaking glasses of whiskey from her father’s bottles. Everything was much easier after she was drunk. She talked to herself less frequently, and the overwhelming detail of the world was softened. What’s more, she enjoyed drinking. The burn of the alcohol at the back of her throat was a pleasure that never faded.
She had expected to be punished for drinking. Instead, a willful blindness settled over her parents. Maria guessed this was her mother’s doing, as a tenuous recognition had settled between them. They didn’t talk openly. Her mother never spoke about anything other than the most practical or commonplace things, the food on their table, or the chores to be done. To Maria, it appeared that her mother was living with a pair of invisible hands wrapped around her throat, but at least she saw what Maria could see, and heard the same voices. There was comfort in that, but no solution, and as the years passed the hope she’d buried in her chest that things might change began to fade.
As soon as she was old enough to quit school she took work as a cleaner in a hotel and later with several families. She never lasted anywhere long. The constant stream of speech that flowed from her mouth as she scrubbed the toilets or washed the windows was off-putting, and then she often arrived on the job smelling of liquor. She continued to live with her parents, occupying the same small room at the top of the house, staring out the front window and talking to herself. People started to call her crazy. In fact, they’d done so behind her back for years, but now they said it to her face. Maria was more confused by the label than stung. As far as she was concerned, they were the crazy ones, not her. Everywhere the world was broken, faded, cracking. There were holes out there big enough to swallow them up; one false step and they’d fall right in. Why couldn’t they see that? But they didn’t, or wouldn’t admit that they did, while Maria muttered under her breath, and got lost in small details, and drank. She had no friends to speak of, no social life. At times she thought about dying.
What other people called the future went on speaking to her from the cracks. She would be tracing a warped linoleum tile or shard of broken glass when a thought occurred that was disconnected from time. These were mostly useless things, fragmentary and inconsequential: the certainty of heavy rainfall, a whispered conversation between her employers, her father stumbling home drunk from work. To Maria, the future was just another crowd of details. It wasn’t until she began to eat powder that she could properly be called a seer.
It was a crack in the road in front of her house that told her where to find it.
Northside, it said.
It wasn’t a sound. What she heard was never a sound. Words entered her head, and she responded; turning around, she began walking north.
Northside was built on the bones of the original mining settlement. By the time Maria was born, most of the houses had already been torn down and were being converted into tenements. Several loomed above her now, massive blocks of concrete, unmarred and silent. It was the crumbling streets that did the talking, telling her about the people who would come to live there, describing their hopes and fears, the ghosts they would bring with them, their deaths. It was a cacophony, incessant, and she grit her teeth and pressed her hands to her temples. One word above the others was repeated most often:
River, it said, over and over again. Only when the road gave out at the edge of the tenements did the world at last grow silent.
Before her was a field overgrown with calf-high weeds. A wide strip of gray water churned in the distance. As Maria approached the river, her progress was observed by a raven perched on a large stone. The bird’s black eye flashed, and a light wind touched the back of Maria’s neck. She knelt by the water’s edge. Beneath the rippling current, dark weeds fluttered over hundreds of small stones. One of these caught her eye. It was as orange and brilliant as a sunset, and she reached out for it. The cold water was bracing against her skin, the small rock brittle in her fingers; even in her loose grip it began to break apart. Standing, Maria held it up to the light.
Spherical, imperfect, the stone’s rust-tinted contours were carved with such fine detail that Maria could have spent the rest of her life staring at them.
Taste, they told her.
The stone was slippery with river water. Loose bits were already flaking off and congealing against her skin. Maria put the stone in her mouth and chewed. The flavour was shocking, at once metallic and rotten, like an old piece of fruit doused in dried blood.
The wind took the ends of her hair, sent them trailing over her shoulders. Sunlight glanced on the river’s skin. The raven darted in the sky above her. Maria exhaled, calmly watching as the present moment rolled on and on into infinity.
Later she learned that many other such rocks were discovered in the mines. The miners would come to call the substance powder, and in time it became quite valuable, but Maria regarded the whole business as a ludicrous waste of time. Why bother digging for something when you could fish it out of the river? Maybe the miners didn’t know it was there, though the orange stones were always perfectly clear to her.
It was through powder that Maria was able to conceive of her abilities as a gift, and in time to turn that gift into a practice. Asking questions of the world, she learned to interpret its answers. Her parents were to die (first her father, of a heart attack that everyone but him had seen coming, and then her mother, of suffocation, Maria thought, though the doctors called it pneumonia.) She would see no money from the sale of their house, whatever income it generated siphoned off by an unscrupulous lawyer. Her remaining family, a pair of distant cousins who lived in the capital and whom she had never met, would offer no help. Maria was to be alone.
Powder granted her perception, but it offered no relief to her restless mind. She continued to spend a great deal of her time drunk. The coldest nights she spent at a local shelter, but those were experiences she would rather not recall. Most often she resided in an alley off 3rd Bridge. It wasn’t warm, but there was some protection from the rain and snow, and the brick walls were full of cracks. From these she asked many questions, and some of the answers she revealed to others.
She informed a passing girl, no more than 16 years old, that she was pregnant, and that her boyfriend would not stand by her, but that she should on no account panic, since her family loved her, and would never abandon her. All this the girl absorbed with her back turned, at first walking away, and then running. As a result the police were summoned, though no charges were laid.
Once, on an errand of her own, she came across a runaway. The little girl was terrified, lost in a part of town she had no business being in. Maria saw the girl’s path stretch to a grim future, and knew how it would end if she continued on her own. Her parents were little better, but at least with them she’d have a chance. Taking the girl’s small head in her hands, she spoke the words that sent her home.
Later she helped a man she met at a shelter to locate his estranged son. He was living at a certain address in the capital, but the man was not to call or arrive unannounced. Instead, Maria told him, he should leave a note on his son’s door, an invitation to meet at a neutral location, such as a park or cafe. Following this advice led to a reconciliation of sorts, and the grateful man began to spread the word about the homeless woman who could see the future in crumbling brick.
Despite her gift, other people, even those she worked to help, remained incomprehensible to her. At times she would seek out physical contact, but these were short, and often brutish affairs that did little to satiate the urges that had inspired them. More common were the unwanted advances or outright assaults that she avoided by following the patterns in broken glass or a stretch of peeling paint.
For her help she might accept payment in the form of food or other small, useful items, but never of money. She knew that to do so would be to invite disaster; her gift may have been practical, but it was by no means natural. Profiting from it would be a profound mistake. Instead, she used what she learned to heal what could be healed, and to make whole what could be mended. Among the homeless her name was spoken with the hushed reverence usually reserved for royalty or saints. She was different, they said, and saw what others could not. Only Maria knew how badly they’d misjudged her. Everything she saw was already there. In the most fundamental ways, in all the things that mattered, she was just like them. Another imperfect person living in a broken world.
She aged. Time flowed around her in a swift current, and inside it she saw her features erode, her flesh at first toughen, and then sag on her bones. Her wiry hair grayed, growing increasingly tangled. Her joints ached, and a bent spine tormented her.
The town aged with her. Work at the mines dried up as manufacturing shifted overseas. Northside crumbled at its edges, and the homeless population swelled. The alleys around 3rd Bridge filled with tents and cardboard dwellings and the complaints of local businesses grew louder. A program to “beautify” the downtown core gave police the authority to forcibly remove anyone found sleeping outside. There was a general exodus to the capital.
Maria was one of the last to leave. The fractured windshield of a parked police car told her it was time. A young officer glared at her from behind the glass, waving her off with an impatient brush of his hand. Maria nodded, cracking a deferential smile. Later that night she climbed aboard a freight train and watched as the lights of the only home she’d ever known receded into the distance. In the capital her strange celebrity would continue to grow. Sought after by the curious and the hopeful alike, and eventually by the authorities, no one reached her unless she willed it. For herself, Maria knew she would find no peace in the city, only wider cracks, and deeper wounds. All of this she saw coming, consoled by the knowledge that no matter how dark it might be, at least the future did not change.
We spent the morning surveying in the entertainment district along the east bank. In the afternoon we crossed back over the canal. Restaurant and entertainment towers continued to dominate the water’s edge, but at their backs the west bank was drab and working-class, its roads lined with apartment blocks and second-rate offices. It was also the only way into the Narrows.
Accessed by an arterial road about a block and a half from the bridge, the Narrows were a snarled collection of laneways and alleys that, through a combination of government incompetence and local opposition, had been left untouched by development. The twisting passages verged on the claustrophobic, offering just enough room for two people to pass one another without brushing against the walls. The buildings were a ramshackle corruption of corrugated sheet metal, exposed brick and whatever else was on hand. Power cables snaked along walls and sagged overhead like knotted hairs. The shadows were stalked by cats, while the gutters ran with foul-smelling water.
It was also a great place for a drink. Every laneway housed dozens of bars, most no larger than a walk-in closet. Inside, there might be space for a group of four to drink comfortably or a dozen to cram into a sweating mass, and the prices ensured there was always more than enough business. It was next to one of these bars, a place called Melatonin, that I met the seer.
She was squatting by the door, head bent low over the pavement. A smoky tangle of hair covered her arched shoulders. Long-limbed and thin, she mumbled to herself, swaying a little as she passed back and forth on the balls of her feet. Before I had a chance to speak, she turned to me. Her face was as wrinkled as a dry apple. An upwards glance wrenched a gasp from my throat; ringed in yellow, the woman’s calf-brown eyes were clear enough to pierce the heart.
“You took your time getting here,” she said, in a voice that trembled on the edge of breaking. “As if anything before this mattered.”
“I’m sorry,” I answered automatically.
“Been waiting all day, but you were too busy playing with your lens I expect.”
As I floundered through a response, Matt inserted himself between us.
“It’s good to meet you,” he said brightly. “We’re conducting a survey – ”
The old woman raised a hand, silencing him.
“Yes, your survey. The Institute. I know all this. Told me weeks ago. But it’s not you I talk to. It’s her.”
A yellowed fingernail was directed at me.
“Come here and learn something.”
She shifted a little to make room. A strong odor of cheap liquor and sweat came from her body. Her clothes were badly stained, and something dark and sticky was lodged in her hair at the crown of her head. She was older by far than anyone else we’d met on the street. Older than it seemed a woman living outside had any right to be.
The segmented rooftops allowed a shaft of pure light to fall in a square at our feet. Inside the square was a deep hole. Utterly black, the hole stood in hard contrast to the brilliant pavement. As I watched, the woman thrust in her right hand to the wrist. With the index finger of her left hand she traced one of the cracks that stemmed from the hole, confidently following as it branched and forked to a conclusion. All of this she did without looking down. Her eyes never left my own, and this close, I could see the flesh that housed them was puffy and inflamed. One might have been infected. A whitish discharge leaking from her tear duct coursed along a seam in her brown skin. I could have sworn that wrinkle was a mirror image of the crack she blindly traced in the pavement.
“You’re working to record us,” she said. It wasn’t a question. I nodded anyway, still finding it difficult to locate my voice.
“Call me Maria. You’ll find lots of us here in the Narrows. A few others down at the canal’s mouth.”
“I’m not going that far south,” I said at last. She brushed the words away with an impatient motion of her hand.
“Yes you are. That’s where you’ll find them. The lost ones.”
She was nodding, no longer looking at me. A series of low, meaningless syllables burbled from her lips. Hunched forward, she examined the crumbling edge of the hole. Inside it, her hand was swallowed, invisible. I was aware of Matt hovering at my side, hands on his camera. He must have been itching to get a shot of the two of us, but to his credit he controlled himself.
“I’ve been tracing your line,” the woman announced, suddenly articulate. She tapped at one of the cracks with her free hand. “You see, this is when we met, just now, and then there’s a forking. It goes its own way, and so do you. We all follow our course. Everyone does. The cracks are where life flows as it leaves us drop by drop.”
“Intense,” Matt breathed. I shot him a silencing glare.
“I’m sorry,” I said, turning back to the woman. “I don’t understand.”
As she scowled, the lines in her forehead dug trenches.
“Who said you had to understand? Think I have time to explain it? I’m not getting younger. Just look. Look right here.”
She pointed to the intersection of two cracks.
“One is you. The other is a man. He’ll offer you a choice between time and money. Choose the money.”
An exasperated growl escaped her.
“The money doesn’t matter. Finding them does.”
“Told you already. The lost ones. This world is ugly, right? Full of cracks and holes. Some people fall in, that’s all. They get lost, swallowed right out of time. Nothing new in that. Happens every day. Thing is, you have a chance to find them.”
“I don’t understand,” I said again, lamely. “If there are people in trouble and you know where they are, just tell us and we’ll do our best to help.”
The old woman sighed. Her breath was full of alcohol, but there was something else, a metallic edge mingled with the sharp aroma of rotting citrus.
“I don’t know where they are. I just know that you’ll find them. Feel the difference? Look for something red. Twice it will be in your eyes, but only once you’ll see it. Look back to catch it, not forward. But I’m not worried about you. You’re a seer too, no?”
She poked at the camera hanging from my neck, and laughed.
“Now you’ll want to get along.”
As a passing cloud covered the sun, the square of pavement went dim. No longer looking at me, the old woman pulled her hand from the hole. I was dismissed. On unsteady legs I rose and walked to the end of the alley. Matt followed. For a second I glanced back. The old woman was still bent over the ground. Her lips were moving as she went on tracing lines in the pavement.
Once we turned the corner Matt released a tight, explosive laugh.
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed, a wide grin stretched across his boyish face. “That was the seer! I mean, it had to be, right?”
“She was the seer,” I agreed. My insides were a tight mess. Luminous vibrations buzzed in the air around me. It seemed best to play things as cool as possible.
“We’ve still got a lot of ground to cover,” I found myself saying.
“Come on!” Matt insisted. “We’re not going to talk about what just happened?”
“No, we’re not. And you’re not. Let’s just get back to work alright?”
He shook his head, but he complied. At least for the first ten minutes. Then he brought it up again, and again twenty minutes after that, and I realized it was a lost cause. I kept my responses as noncommittal as I could. The fact was I didn’t know what to say. I’d just had my future told by the seer. How was I supposed to react? Rather than attempting to explain it, I focused on the job at hand. It was the same with my mother; when things got bad between us I turned to my camera and went for a walk. The streets were my constant. They gave so much, and demanded so little. It was managing everything else that was hard.
I pushed us for the remainder of the afternoon, poking into the narrowest alleys and darkest corners. Several times I insisted on doubling back in case we’d missed someone. As we worked, my mind kept wandering to the seer. I half-expected to find her around the next corner, squatting on the balls of her feet and working over some crack or imperfection in the ground. But she was gone. Either that, or she moved in our wake, following just behind as we made our twisting progress through the streets. It was hours before I finally allowed that we’d done enough. Visibly exhausted, Matt nevertheless offered to walk me home.
“I think I’ll stick around,” I said. “I could use a drink.”
“I’ll come with you,” he replied quickly.
“I’d rather be on my own.”
The disappointment showed in his face. I’d long since given up on sugarcoating things for the sake of a male ego, so it was a look I was familiar with. There was nothing personal about it. Matt was alright. Another time, it might have been good to talk shop with him over a beer, but I just didn’t have the energy. I was wrung out. I needed room to digest everything that had happened. I wished him luck and headed back in the direction of the closest bar. Before I’d reached the end of the block my cell rang. Something heavy dropped in the pit of my stomach. I put the phone to my ear.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Hello, am I speaking to Alina Saj- Sajah – ”
“Sajjadi,” I corrected him. It was the trainer from the Institute. I’d stopped walking. The thing in my gut was tightening.
“Hi Alina, sorry to bother you. We have a favour to ask.”
“I’m afraid there’s been an issue with a couple of our other recruits. Apparently some trouble with one of the homeless. I’m told there was a minor altercation and, well, the long and the short of it is they will no longer be participating in the survey.”
“Alright,” I said. “What’s the favour?”
The nervous laugh that slithered out of the phone caused my toes to curl.
“Well, all of this means that our survey of Zone 11 is unfinished. I thought you might want to earn a little extra by finishing things up for us there tomorrow. Of course, if you’d rather not I completely understand. We’ll find someone else.”
An afterimage of the old woman’s eyes hovered in the air in front of me like a pair of brown suns. A choice between money and time, she’d said.
“It’s not a problem,” I managed. “Remind me again about Zone 11?”
“Old Port,” the trainer said. “The mouth of the canal. I’m told the east bank is accounted for, so just focus your survey on the west.”
It took me a second to locate my voice.
“Leave it to us then.”
The man thanked me profusely. I hung up, and for a moment I debated going after Matt. There was a reason we’d been assigned partners, and Old Port was no place for a casual stroll. Still, I was the one the seer had spoken to. I wanted to see things through on my own, and there was no way I was leaving it until the morning; mind made up, I crossed the street and hailed the nearest cab.
“Old Port,” I instructed the driver. He was a big man, and the muscles in his neck strained as he twisted to get a look at me.
“What are you going down there for?”
I raised an eyebrow, and my camera.
“Work,” I answered dryly.
The man shrugged.
“You’re the boss,” he said, pulling away from the curb. I fixed my eyes on the streets through the window. The further south we went, the more the buildings aged. Apartment complexes gave way to warehouses and industrial sites. The sidewalks emptied of people, and by the time the cab pulled up at the mouth of the canal we were the only car on the road.
Old Port was abandoned. As the floods had worsened year after year, it became cheaper just to pack everything up than repair the levees. Now, the place was little more than a swamp. Deserted factories and gutted shipyards rusted in up to a meter of water. Migrating birds stopped there on their journey south, and in the summer mosquitoes bred in their millions; a soggy haven for gulls and illegal dumping, I was thankful I’d decided to wear boots.
The driver brought me as far as the end of an old service road. I paid and got out of the cab. From the open passenger window he spared me a worried glance.
“You’re sure you’re alright down here?”
“I’m fine,” I told him. He shook his head, and muttered something about it not being his problem. I watched as he performed a u-turn and disappeared around a corner at the top of the street. I was alone. The air was cut with brine and a hint of rancid oil. Nothing moved. The omnipresent crash and hum of the city was gone. The quiet left me feeling exposed, as if dozens of invisible eyes were fixed on me.
Across the road was a chain link fence and beyond that the parking lot of an old sugar factory. Wrenched from its hinges, the gate lay in a twisted heap on the concrete. On the far side, the downward slope of the parking lot formed a wide basin of water. Clouds drifted over the glassy surface. My limbs were heavy, and the muscles in my neck ached. I was exactly where Maria had placed me. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind about who or what she was; you spend enough time shooting on the streets in the capital you’re bound to hear stories about the seer. Even if they didn’t always make sense, the things Maria saw happened. There was no avoiding it, but I was too tired to be nervous or afraid. The sun hung low in the sky. My shadow stretched like an extended finger over the water. I forced myself to go on.
Each of my steps churned up a silent blossom of silt beneath the water. Now and then a minnow darted around my ankles. In the distance, a pair of gulls stood watch on what remained of a rusting crane. Out of long habit, I had my camera pressed to my eye. I shot everything, but aside from a pair of rough encampments set up in a row of shipping crates there was no sign of habitation.
The back end of the factory was demolished. Low hills of crumbling brick and metal pipes jutted from the water. Needing a break, I climbed to the top of tallest pile and stretched my legs over the rubble. Water ran from my boots to darken the bricks around my feet. A low wind had picked up. Tattered plastic bags caught in the surrounding fence whipped and crackled like a wash of static.
Idly, I swatted at a mosquito buzzing next to my ear. With my camera in my lap, I spent some time going back through the photos. There were dozens of high-contrast shots of the factory and its reflection on the water; several close-ups of the cracks that split its concrete walls; a bright slash of red. I frowned. Peering closer, the red belonged to a skirt, and beneath it was a single bare, brown leg.
I scrolled back. By the third photo I could make out the girl’s face.
She was young – no more than 8 or 9 years old. Her hair was cut short, but gracelessly, as if hacked blindly with a dull pair of scissors. She was framed in the shadow of some kind of gap or doorway. The shot’s angle made it hard to tell. I zoomed in. Even at the highest level of magnification the girl’s expression was clear. She was terrified.
How had I missed her? She was no more than a few pixels, her red dress just another part of the background noise, but even so I should have caught her. In a rush I scrambled down the pile of bricks and into the water. Within seconds my jeans were soaked. The camera banged and crashed against my chest. Now and then I paused to cross-reference my location with the pictures I’d taken. It wasn’t hard to find the place. Near the base of the factory wall was a black hole.
It was like a chunk had been torn out of the world. I found it almost impossible to focus. The angles were all wrong, the distance between my body and the fissure shifting at random intervals. Suddenly I found myself staring into the hole. Inside was the girl in a red dress. She was huddled with a group of others. There were maybe ten of them, men and women, young and old alike. Some were asleep. An old man was cradling a child in his arms. There was no floor beneath them, no walls. They were surrounded by darkness. In a hoarse shout, I called out to them. The girl in the red dress looked up. As I strained to reach into the hole, there was a rush of air and the murmur of a hundred whispered voices. The girl lifted her arm; her small, hot hand curled around my fingers. With a hard pull, I wrenched her into the light.
The detective scratches at the back of his ear.
“A black hole,” he says.
“That’s what it looked like.”
“And they were just sitting in there. Why didn’t they walk out?”
“I don’t think they could,” I tell him. “It was like they didn’t see the hole, or me. They were… Somewhere else.”
Pushing a deep breath through his nostrils, the detective leans back.
“I know it sounds crazy,” I say, immediately regretting the words. The detective’s face softens. Over his shoulder, the woman who’d been crying is looking at me. She has her legs pulled up on the edge of the chair, her arms wrapped around her bony knees. Tracks of black mascara stain her cheeks. The detective tosses his tablet onto the desk.
“Been through your camera,” he says. “There’s nothing on it.”
My forehead tightens.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, the factory is there. All those shots of water and clouds. Very artistic. But no red dress. No little girl. So why don’t you tell me how you really found them?”
My hands tighten into fists.
“I’m telling you the truth.”
“Some of these people have been missing for years. Most don’t even know what year it is. We asked them. They couldn’t tell us. But you stumble on them just like that.”
“It’s what happened.”
“Sure,” the detective says. The knots in my shoulders are throbbing. My eyes are sore. The shabby police station has the grainy cast of under-exposed film. Pressing my palms into the edge of the desk, I haul myself upright.
“Look,” I say. “It’s been a long day. I’m tired. You want to ask me something else, you know where to find me.”
The detective chews on this awhile. At length he nods his head. He enters something in the tablet.
“Alright. We’ll be in touch. You can claim your things at the front.”
I can feel his eyes on me as I pick my way through the rows of cluttered desks. The woman in the back flashes a tight smile.
“Cops, right?” I say.
She laughs. The sound is like a gun going off. I can still hear it from the lobby. Someone yells for her to shut up, but she goes right on laughing.
At a tall desk by the doors I sign to retrieve my camera. Just as the detective said, there are no shots of the girl in the red dress. That doesn’t mean anything. For all I know, the pictures were deleted. Evidence goes missing all the time. Doesn’t change the fact that I brought a young girl out of the dark. Her and all the others. They’re here now, and the hole is gone; one second it was there, and the next I was standing in front of the crumbling wall of an old factory, surrounded by people asking me a dozen questions at once. They were dazed, bewildered, shading their eyes as if they’d never before seen the sun. I didn’t know what to say, and by the time the police arrived I’d given up trying to explain. I was too tired to think straight, and I told the officer who took my statement that it was the seer who helped me find them. I watched as one of the other officers draped a blanket around the girl’s shoulders and led her away. It was the last I saw of her. I have no idea where she is now, whether she has any family to return to. No one bothered to tell me.
I push through the heavy doors and out of the station. It’s late, but the streets are still crowded. A line of cars is stalled at the intersection. A horn blares. I pass an old woman sitting in the mouth of an alley.
“Maria?” I ask, but the eyes that look up at me are blue. The woman raises a seamed hand.
I rummage around in my empty pockets.
She is already looking away. Her slight body casts a heavy shadow on the wall. From this angle, it could so easily be a hole. I try not to picture her falling.
Visit us again next month for “Masks“, the next installment in “A Colour Like Orange: Stories from a Broken World“, by CG Inglis.
Follow CG Inglis on Twitter: @viscereal