Note: The following passage contains instances of adult language.
Read an excerpt from “The City We Became,” by four-time Hugo Award-winning author N. K. Jemisin
In N. K. Jemisin’s “The City We Became,” New York City has come alive. Facing supernatural trouble, the city’s avatars must find a way to overcome a force of evil that threatens destruction. Read an excerpt from the novel, which took root as the 2016 short story “The City Born Great,” below.
See, What Had Happened Was
I sing the city.
Fucking city. I stand on the rooftop of a building I don’t live in and spread my arms and tighten my middle and yell nonsense ululations at the construction site that blocks my view. I’m really singing to the cityscape beyond. The city’ll figure it out.
It’s dawn. The damp of it makes my jeans feel slimy, or maybe that’s ’cause they haven’t been washed in weeks. Got change for a wash-and-dry, just not another pair of pants to wear till they’re done. Maybe I’ll spend it on more pants at the Goodwill down the street instead… but not yet. Not till I’ve finished going AAAAaaaaAAAAaaaa (breath) aaaaAAAAaaaaaaa and listening to the syllable echo back at me from every nearby building face. In my head, there’s an orchestra playing “Ode to Joy” with a Busta Rhymes backbeat. My voice is just tying it all together.
Shut your fucking mouth! someone yells, so I take a bow and exit the stage.
But with my hand on the knob of the rooftop door, I stop and turn back and frown and listen, ’cause for a moment I hear something both distant and intimate singing back at me, basso-deep. Sort of coy.
And from even farther, I hear something else: a dissonant, gathering growl. Or maybe those are the rumblers of police sirens? Nothing I like the sound of, either way. I leave.
“There’s a way these things are supposed to work,” says Paulo. He’s smoking again, nasty bastard. I’ve never seen him eat. All he uses his mouth for is smoking, drinking coffee, and talking. Shame; it’s a nice mouth otherwise.
We’re sitting in a café. I’m sitting with him because he bought me breakfast. The people in the café are eyeballing him because he’s something not-white by their standards, but they can’t tell what. They’re eyeballing me because I’m definitively Black, and because the holes in my clothes aren’t the fashionable kind. I don’t stink, but these people can smell anybody without a trust fund from a mile away.
“Right,” I say, biting into the egg sandwich and damn near wetting myself. Actual egg! Swiss cheese! It’s so much better than that McDonald’s shit.
Guy likes hearing himself talk. I like his accent; it’s sort of nasal and sibilant, nothing like a Spanish speaker’s. His eyes are huge, and I think, I could get away with so much shit if I had permanent puppy eyes like that. But he seems older than he looks—way, way older. There’s only a tinge of gray at his temples, nice and distinguished, but he feels, like, a hundred.
He’s also eyeballing me, and not in the way I’m used to. “Are you listening?” he asks. “This is important.”
“Yeah,” I say, and take another bite of my sandwich.
He sits forward. “I didn’t believe it either, at first. Hong had to drag me to one of the sewers, down into the reeking dark, and show me the growing roots, the budding teeth. I’d been hearing breathing all my life. I thought everyone could.” He pauses. “Have you heard it yet?”
“Heard what?” I ask, which is the wrong answer. It isn’t that I’m not listening. I just don’t give a shit.
He sighs. “Listen.”
“I am listening!”
“No. I mean, listen, but not to me.” He gets up, tosses a twenty onto the table—which isn’t necessary, because he paid for the sandwich and the coffee at the counter, and this café doesn’t do table service. “Meet me back here on Thursday.”
I pick up the twenty, finger it, pocket it. Would’ve done him for the sandwich, or because I like his eyes, but whatever. “You got a place?”
He blinks, then actually looks annoyed. “Listen,” he commands again, and leaves.
I sit there for as long as I can, making the sandwich last, sipping his leftover coffee, savoring the fantasy of being normal. I people-watch, judge other patrons’ appearances; on the fly I make up a poem about being a rich white girl who notices a poor Black boy in her coffee shop and has an existential crisis. I imagine Paulo being impressed by my sophistication and admiring me, instead of thinking I’m just some dumb street kid who doesn’t listen. I visualize myself going back to a nice apartment with a soft bed, and a fridge stuffed full of food.
Then a cop comes in, fat florid guy buying hipster joe for himself and his partner in the car, and his flat eyes skim the shop. I imagine mirrors around my head, a rotating cylinder of them that causes his gaze to bounce away. There’s no real power in this—it’s just something I do to try to make myself less afraid when the monsters are near. For the first time, though, it sort of works: The cop looks around, but doesn’t ping on the lone Black face. Lucky. I escape.
I paint the city. Back when I was in school, there was an artist who came in on Fridays to give us free lessons in perspective and lighting and other shit that white people go to art school to learn. Except this guy had done that, and he was Black. I’d never seen a Black artist before. For a minute I thought I could maybe be one, too.
I can be, sometimes. Deep in the night, on a rooftop in Chinatown, with a spray can for each hand and a bucket of drywall paint that somebody left outside after doing up their living room in lilac, I move in scuttling, crablike swirls. The drywall stuff I can’t use too much of; it’ll start flaking off after a couple of rains. Spray paint’s better for everything, but I like the contrast of the two textures—liquid black on rough lilac, red edging the black. I’m painting a hole. It’s like a throat that doesn’t start with a mouth or end in lungs; a thing that breathes and swallows endlessly, never filling. No one will see it except people in planes angling toward LaGuardia from the southwest, a few tourists who take helicopter tours, and NYPD aerial surveillance. I don’t care what they see. It’s not for them.
It’s real late. I didn’t have anywhere to sleep for the night, so this is what I’m doing to stay awake. If it wasn’t the end of the month, I’d get on the subway, but the cops who haven’t met their quota would fuck with me. Gotta be careful here; there’s a lot of dumb-fuck Chinese kids west of Chrystie Street who wanna pretend to be a gang, protecting their territory, so I keep low. I’m skinny, dark; that helps, too. All I want to do is paint, man, because it’s in me and I need to get it out. I need to open up this throat. I need to, I need to… yeah. Yeah.
There’s a soft, strange sound as I lay down the last streak of black. I pause and look around, confused for a moment—and then the throat sighs behind me. A big, heavy gust of moist air tickles the hairs on my skin. I’m not scared. This is why I did it, though I didn’t realize that when I started. Not sure how I know now. But when I turn back, it’s still just paint on a rooftop.
Paulo wasn’t shitting me. Huh. Or maybe my mama was right, and I ain’t never been right in the head.
I jump into the air and whoop for joy, and I don’t even know why.
I spend the next two days going all over the city, drawing breathing-holes everywhere, till my paint runs out.
I’m so tired on the day I meet Paulo again that I stumble and nearly fall through the café’s plate-glass window. He catches my elbow and drags me over to a bench meant for customers. “You’re hearing it,” he says. He sounds pleased.
“I’m hearing coffee,” I suggest, not bothering to stifle a yawn. A cop car rolls by. I’m not too tired to imagine myself as nothing, beneath notice, not even worth beating for pleasure. It works again; they roll on.
Paulo ignores my suggestion. He sits down beside me and his gaze goes strange and unfocused for a moment. “Yes. The city is breathing easier,” he says. “You’re doing a good job, even without training.”
He looks amused. “I can’t tell if you don’t believe me, or if you just don’t care.”
I shrug. “I believe you.” I also don’t care, not much, because I’m hungry. My stomach growls. I’ve still got that twenty he gave me, but I’ll take it to that church-plate sale I heard about over on Prospect, get chicken and rice and greens and cornbread for less than the cost of a free-trade small-batch-roasted latte.
He glances down at my stomach when it growls. Huh. I pretend to stretch and scratch above my abs, making sure to pull up my shirt a little. The artist guy brought a model for us to draw once, and pointed to this little ridge of muscle above the hips called Apollo’s Belt. Paulo’s gaze goes right to it. Come on, come on, fishy fishy. I need somewhere to sleep.
Then his eyes narrow and focus on mine again. “I had forgotten,” he says, in a faint wondering tone. “I almost… It’s been so long. Once, though, I was a boy of the favelas.”
“Not a lot of Mexican food in New York,” I reply.
He blinks and looks amused again. Then he sobers. “This city will die,” he says. He doesn’t raise his voice, but he doesn’t have to. I’m paying attention now. Food, living: These things have meaning to me. “If you do not learn the things I have to teach you. If you do not help. The time will come and you will fail, and this city will join Pompeii and Atlantis and a dozen others whose names no one remembers, even though hundreds of thousands of people died with them. Or perhaps there will be a stillbirth—the shell of the city surviving to possibly grow again in the future but its vital spark snuffed for now, like New Orleans—but that will still kill you, either way. You are the catalyst, whether of strength or destruction.”
He’s been talking like this since he showed up—places that never were, things that can’t be, omens and portents. I figure it’s bullshit because he’s telling it to me, a kid whose own mama kicked him out and prays for him to die every day and probably hates me. God hates me. And I fucking hate God back, so why would he choose me for anything? But that’s really why I start paying attention: because of God. I don’t have to believe in something for it to fuck up my life.
“Tell me what to do,” I say.
Paulo nods, looking smug. Thinks he’s got my number. “Ah. You don’t want to die.”
I stand up, stretch, feel the streets around me grow longer and more pliable in the rising heat of day. (Is that really happening, or am I imagining it, or is it happening and I’m imagining that it’s connected to me somehow?) “Fuck you. That ain’t it.”
“Then you don’t even care about that.” He makes it a question with the tone of his voice.
“Ain’t about being alive.” I’ll starve to death someday, or freeze some winter night, or catch something that rots me away until the hospitals have to take me, even without money or an address. But I’ll sing and paint and dance and fuck and cry the city before I’m done, because it’s mine. It’s fucking mine. That’s why.
“It’s about living,” I finish. And then I turn to glare at him. He can kiss my ass if he doesn’t understand. “Tell me what to do.”
Something changes in Paulo’s face. He’s listening, now. To me. So he gets to his feet and leads me away for my first real lesson.
This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.
Duh, right? Everyone who’s visited a real city feels that, one way or another. All those rural people who hate cities are afraid of something legit; cities really are different. They make a weight on the world, a tear in the fabric of reality, like… like black holes, maybe. Yeah. (I go to museums sometimes. They’re cool inside, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is hot.) As more and more people come in and deposit their strangeness and leave and get replaced by others, the tear widens. Eventually it gets so deep that it forms a pocket, connected only by the thinnest thread of… something to… something. Whatever cities are made of.
But the separation starts a process, and in that pocket the many parts of the city begin to multiply and differentiate. Its sewers extend into places where there is no need for water. Its slums grow teeth; its art centers, claws. Ordinary things within it, traffic and construction and stuff like that, start to have a rhythm like a heartbeat, if you record their sounds and play them back fast. The city… quickens.
Not all cities make it this far. There used to be a couple of great cities on this continent, but that was before Columbus fucked the Indians’ shit up, so we had to start over. New Orleans failed, like Paulo said, but it survived, and that’s something. It can try again. Mexico City’s well on its way. But New York is the first American city to reach this point.
The gestation can take twenty years or two hundred or two thousand, but eventually the time will come. The cord is cut and the city becomes a thing of its own, able to stand on wobbly legs and do… well, whatever the fuck a living, thinking entity shaped like a big-ass city wants to do.
And just as in any other part of nature, there are things lying in wait for this moment, hoping to chase down the sweet new life and swallow its guts while it screams.
That’s why Paulo’s here to teach me. That’s why I can clear the city’s breathing and stretch and massage its asphalt limbs. I’m the midwife, see.
I run the city. I run it every fucking day.
Paulo takes me home. It’s just somebody’s summer sublet in the Lower East Side, but it feels like a home. I use his shower and eat some of the food in his fridge without asking, just to see what he’ll do. He doesn’t do shit except smoke a cigarette, I think to piss me off. I can hear sirens on the streets of the neighborhood—frequent, close. I wonder, for some reason, if they’re looking for me. I don’t say it aloud, but Paulo sees me twitching. He says, “The harbingers of the Enemy will hide among the city’s parasites. Beware of them.”
He’s always saying cryptic shit like this. Some of it makes sense, like when he speculates that maybe there’s a purpose to all of it, some reason for the great cities and the process that makes them. What the Enemy has been doing—attacking at the moment of vulnerability, crimes of opportunity—might just be the warm-up for something bigger. But Paulo’s full of shit, too, like when he says I should consider meditation to better attune myself to the city’s needs. Like I’mma get through this on white girl yoga.
“White girl yoga,” Paulo says, nodding. “Indian man yoga. Stockbroker racquetball and schoolboy handball, ballet and merengue, union halls and SoHo galleries. You will embody a city of millions. You need not be them, but know that they are part of you.”
I laugh. “Racquetball? That shit ain’t no part of me, chico.”
“The city chose you, out of all,” Paulo says. “Their lives depend on you.”
Maybe. But I’m still hungry and tired all the time, scared all the time, never safe. What good does it do to be valuable, if nobody values you?
He can tell I don’t wanna talk anymore, so he gets up and goes to bed. I flop on the couch and I’m dead to the world. Dead.
Dreaming, dead dreaming, of a dark place beneath heavy cold waves where something stirs with a slithery sound and uncoils and turns toward the mouth of the Hudson, where it empties into the sea. Toward me. And I am too weak, too helpless, too immobilized by fear, to do anything but twitch beneath its predatory gaze.
Something comes from far to the south, somehow. (None of this is quite real. Everything rides along the thin tether that connects the city’s reality to that of the world. The effect happens in the world, Paulo has said. The cause centers around me.) It moves between me, wherever I am, and the uncurling thing, wherever it is. An immensity protects me, just this once, just in this place—though from a great distance I feel others hemming and grumbling and raising themselves to readiness. Warning the Enemy that it must adhere to the rules of engagement that have always governed this ancient battle. It’s not allowed to come at me too soon.
My protector, in this unreal space of dream, is a sprawling jewel with filth-crusted facets, a thing that stinks of dark coffee and the bruised grass of a futebol pitch and traffic noise and familiar cigarette smoke. Its threat display of saber-shaped girders lasts for only a moment, but that is enough. The uncurling thing flinches back into its cold cave, resentfully. But it will be back. That, too, is tradition.
I wake with sunlight warming half my face. Just a dream? I stumble into the room where Paulo is sleeping. “São Paulo,” I whisper, but he does not wake. I wiggle under his covers. When he wakes, he doesn’t reach for me, but he doesn’t push me away either. I let him know I’m grateful and give him a reason to let me back in later. The rest’ll have to wait till I get condoms and he brushes his ashy-ass mouth. After that, I use his shower again, put on the clothes I washed in his sink, and head out while he’s still snoring.
Libraries are safe places. They’re warm in the winter. Nobody cares if you stay all day as long as you’re not eyeballing the kids’ corner or trying to hit up porn on the computers. The one at Forty-second—the one with the lions—isn’t that kind of library. It doesn’t lend out books. Still, it has a library’s safety, so I sit in a corner and read everything within reach: municipal tax law, Birds of the Hudson Valley, What to Expect When You’re Expecting a City Baby: NYC Edition. See, Paulo? I told you I was listening.
It gets close to noon and I head outside. People cover the steps, laughing, chatting, mugging with selfie sticks. There’re cops in body armor over by the subway entrance, showing off their guns to the tourists so they’ll feel safe from New York. I get a Polish sausage and eat it at the feet of one of the lions. Fortitude, not Patience. I know my strengths.
I’m full of meat and relaxed and thinking about stuff that ain’t actually important—like how long Paulo will let me stay and whether I can use his address to apply for stuff—so I’m not watching the street. Until cold prickles skitter over my side. I know what it is before I react, but I’m careless again because I turn to look… Stupid, stupid, I fucking know better; cops down in Baltimore broke a man’s spine for making eye contact. But as I spot these two on the corner opposite the library steps—short pale man and tall dark woman both in blue like black—I notice something that actually breaks my fear because it’s so strange.
It’s a bright, clear day, not a cloud in the sky. People walking past the cops leave short, stark afternoon shadows, barely there at all. But around these two, the shadows pool and curl as if they stand beneath their own private, roiling thundercloud. And as I watch, the shorter one begins to… stretch, sort of, his shape warping ever so slightly, until one eye is twice the circumference of the other. His right shoulder slowly develops a bulge that suggests a dislocated joint. His companion doesn’t seem to notice.
Yooooo, nope. I get up and start picking my way through the crowd on the steps. I’m doing that thing I do, trying to shunt off their gaze—but it feels different this time. Sticky, sort of, threads of cheap-shit gum fucking up my mirrors. I feel them start following me, something immense and wrong shifting in my direction.
Even then I’m not sure—a lot of real cops drip and pulse sadism in the same way—but I ain’t taking chances. My city is helpless, unborn as yet, and Paulo ain’t here to protect me. I gotta look out for self, same as always.
I play casual till I reach the corner and book it, or try. Fucking tourists! They idle along the wrong side of the sidewalk, stopping to look at maps and take pictures of shit nobody else gives a fuck about. I’m so busy cussing them out in my head that I forget they can also be dangerous: Somebody yells and grabs my arm as I Heisman past, and I hear a man yell out, “He tried to take her purse!” as I wrench away. Bitch, I ain’t took shit, I think, but it’s too late. I see another tourist reaching for her phone to call 911. Every cop in the area will be gunning for every Black male aged whatever now.
I gotta get out of the area.
Grand Central’s right there, sweet subway promise, but I see three cops hanging out in the entrance, so I swerve right to take Forty-first. The crowds thin out past Lex, but where can I go? I sprint across Third despite the traffic; there are enough gaps. But I’m getting tired, ’cause I’m a scrawny dude who doesn’t get enough to eat, not a track star.
I keep going, though, even through the burn in my side. I can feel those cops, the harbingers of the Enemy, not far behind me. The ground shakes with their lumpen footfalls.
I hear a siren about a block away, closing. Shit, the UN’s coming up; I don’t need the Secret Service or whatever on me, too. I jag left through an alley and trip over a wooden pallet. Lucky again—a cop car rolls by the alley entrance just as I go down, and they don’t see me. I stay down and try to catch my breath till I hear the car’s engine fading into the distance. Then, when I think it’s safe, I push up. Look back, because the city is squirming around me, the concrete is jittering and heaving, everything from the bedrock to the rooftop bars is trying its damnedest to tell me to go. Go. Go.
Crowding the alley behind me is… is… the shit? I don’t have words for it. Too many arms, too many legs, too many eyes, and all of them fixed on me. Somewhere in the mass I glimpse curls of dark hair and a scalp of pale blond, and I understand suddenly that these are—this is—my two cops. One real monstrosity. The walls of the alley crack as it oozes its way into the narrow space.
“Oh. Fuck. No,” I gasp.
I claw my way to my feet and haul ass. A patrol car comes around the corner from Second Avenue and I don’t see it in time to duck out of sight. The car’s loudspeaker blares something unintelligible, probably I’m gonna kill you, and I’m actually amazed. Do they not see the thing behind me? Or do they just not give a shit because they can’t shake it down for city revenue? Let them fucking shoot me. Better than whatever that thing will do.
I hook left onto Second Avenue. The cop car can’t come after me against the traffic, but it’s not like that’ll stop some doubled-cop monster. Forty-fifth. Forty-seventh and my legs are molten granite. Fiftieth and I think I’m going to die. Heart attack far too young; poor kid, should’ve eaten more organic; should’ve taken it easy and not been so angry; the world can’t hurt you if you just ignore everything that’s wrong with it; well, not until it kills you anyway.
I cross the street and risk a look back and see something roll onto the sidewalk on at least eight legs, using three or four arms to push itself off a building as it careens a little… before coming straight after me again. It’s the Mega Cop, and it’s gaining. Oh shit oh shit oh shit please no.
Only one choice.
Swing right. Fifty-third, against the traffic. An old folks’ home, a park, a promenade… fuck those. Pedestrian bridge? Fuck that. I head straight for the six lanes of utter batshittery and potholes that is FDR Drive, do not pass Go, do not try to cross on foot unless you want to be smeared halfway to Brooklyn. Beyond it? The East River, if I survive. I’m even freaked out enough to try swimming in that fucking sewage. But I’m probably gonna collapse in the third lane and get run over fifty times before anybody thinks to put on brakes.
Behind me, the Mega Cop utters a wet, tumid hough, like it’s clearing its throat for swallowing. I go
over the barrier and through the grass into fucking hell I go one lane silver car two lanes horns horns horns three lanes SEMI WHAT’S A FUCKING SEMI DOING ON THE FDR IT’S TOO TALL YOU STUPID UPSTATE HICK screaming four lanes GREEN TAXI screaming Smart Car hahaha cute five lanes moving truck six lanes and the blue Lexus actually brushes up against my clothes as it blares past screaming screaming screaming
screaming metal and tires as reality stretches, and nothing stops for the Mega Cop; it does not belong here and the FDR is an artery, vital with the movement of nutrients and strength and attitude and adrenaline, the cars are white blood cells and the thing is an irritant, an infection, an invader to whom the city gives no consideration and no quarter
screaming, as the Mega Cop is torn to pieces by the semi and the taxi and the Lexus and even that adorable Smart Car, which actually swerves a little to run over an extra-wiggly piece. I collapse onto a square of grass, breathless, shaking, wheezing, and can only stare as a dozen limbs are crushed, two dozen eyes squashed flat, a mouth that is mostly gums riven from jaw to palate. The pieces flicker like a monitor with an AV cable short, translucent to solid and back again—but FDR don’t stop for shit except a presidential motorcade or a Knicks game, and this thing sure as hell ain’t Carmelo Anthony. Pretty soon there’s nothing left of it but half-real smears on the asphalt.
I’m alive. Oh, God.
I cry for a little while. Mama’s boyfriend ain’t here to slap me and say I’m not a man for it. Daddy would’ve said it was okay—tears mean you’re alive—but Daddy’s dead. And I’m alive.
With limbs burning and weak, I drag myself up, then fall again. Everything hurts. Is this that heart attack? I feel sick. Everything is shaking, blurring. Maybe it’s a stroke. You don’t have to be old for that to happen, do you? I stumble over to a garbage can and think about throwing up into it. There’s an old guy lying on the bench—me in twenty years, if I make it that far. He opens one eye as I stand there gagging and purses his lips in a judgy way, like he could do better dry-heaves in his sleep.
He says, “It’s time,” and rolls over to put his back to me.
Time. Suddenly I have to move. Sick or not, exhausted or not, something is… pulling me. West, toward the city’s center. I push away from the can and hug myself as I shiver and stumble toward the pedestrian bridge. As I walk over the lanes I previously ran across, I look down onto flickering fragments of the dead Mega Cop, now ground into the asphalt by a hundred car wheels. Some globules of it are still twitching, and I don’t like that. Infection, intrusion. I want it gone.
We want it gone. Yes. It’s time.
Reproduced with permission of Hachette Book Group.
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Top Image: N. K. Jemisin's "The City We Became." Photo: Britt Stigler.