Fiction – “Across the City’s Belly” by KB Lawrence
She was a Princess of dark things, veiled and cowled, beautiful in her love and confusion. She would have told you she didn’t believe in love – didn’t believe in anything at all. Except perhaps for the darkness. Except perhaps for me. She said her parents adopted her to be a sacrifice, not of life, but of service. She said she belonged to no one, but she had her mother’s nose. I was her Sidekick, the lesser – less strong, less compelling, less confused, but not less important. The blame for these times sits on me.
I remember walking the streets of the city, and the young ladies watched me, frozen in the pretty motions they were making, scowling in scorn, wonder, jealousy. Their hair was cut short like mine – darkness was in fashion. But they wore white dresses with hems moist where the gauzy fabric touched the water that always ran in the gutters of the side streets. Those streets sloped toward Main Street, which sloped downhill to the castle of my Dark Princess. Main Street – home of everything the city needed and haunt of the needful. I splashed through the oily water, the ladies tried to tip-toe around it, and the city rose around us and everything else that looked up from the bottom. The sun was setting behind the turrets and spires of the castles and high-rises. It was cut into planes by the swaying walkways strung above the streets, and sliced into strips that hung between the skyscrapers.
At dusk I left my day-self behind to work alongside my Princess, tending to the dark things of the city and its people. Everything needs attention. Everything needs care. My Dark Princess was a dedicated mistress swollen up like a mother bird protecting her charges. Now, at twilight, she would already be at work – tending to women who visited when their men didn’t come home, youths who limped in all hollow-eyed and yellow-toothed. They depended on us.
I approached the castle, looking down the hill onto the damp, soft stone of its towers, and saw that my Dark Princess was finishing up with the night’s first caller. The woman’s back was to me, her long hair oily and lank. She stood straight. It took everything in her, but after a visit to my Princess, the woman could stand.
My Princess came out of the castle several paces behind the woman who ducked away before she could be seen with us. My Princess ignored her and came up the street to where I stood by the car. We got in and the doors rattle-slammed shut and the car stunk and grumbled along with the on-coming night. She drove, guiding us to the work, searching through the bottom-streets and the people hunched and straight. But my eyes were drawn up, and up higher to where the dirty bottom melded with the shine of the top. I was tired of tending to cracks and scratches and sorrows.
That evening, the city was easy. Easy weather, easy needs, and we soon returned to sit on the curb on the hill above the castle, out from under the towers and creaking crunching metal of the crowded walkways, to wait for discord and the work it brought us. Or for the morning. The stars blinked at us like children on speed and we made up our own constellations – mailbox, scarecrow, jumper.
The water bubbled in the gutter around our boots, around the cobblestones and cracked blacktop and lined concrete – all of the layers failing. The ladies were still up the hill, still on tip-toe, paused now in front of a store that sold sunglasses set with rhinestones. They talked loud enough that we could hear their voices but not their words. From my seat in the dark, the light from the store window made the water seem to flow from their toes and down the hill, toward my Princess’s old castle. It shimmered rainbows along the grimy street. It was like magic.
But my Princess scoffed at the ladies. None of them had ever come knocking at her door, not even the back door. Denial, my Princess called it, ignorance. As if there were only white linen and spring rains, as if the cracks in the pavement drew pictures and told fortunes, as if the oily rainbow floating atop the water could make up for its filthy origins. My Princess ranted quietly with a wrinkled-up face. But I thought the sunny white fabric and the neon oil were more beautiful against the sooty backdrop of Main Street than they would have been in the flashing clean at the top of the city.
It was then that I lied to my Dark Princess. I didn’t even notice until well after the moment passed. I nodded while she complained, participating, acknowledging, and tried to push my subversive thoughts aside and watch the wading young women with pity. But I wondered what it felt like to let the gutter mud squish between my toes and the water make a circle around my calves.
My Dark Princess was no fan of beauty, and she said something there on the muddy hill with the rickety walkways creaking around us, after a day in the sun, living regular, squinting and smiling with just my teeth showing, down-playing and disappearing – obligations her position did not demand. She said something funny.
“Wouldn’t take much to tear it all down.”
I couldn’t stop myself. Maybe I didn’t really try. I laughed and our constellations scattered like marbles.
You think that if my Princess believed in evil, she must have believed in good. But she believed only in the ability of darkness to push and wheedle and slide its hurtful fingers into anything good left in anything at all. She was a hole in dry sand, collapsing toward a balance that could not be manifest. It was her gift.
Weeks passed, and my Dark Princess and I performed the required ceremonies. We rearranged the shadows in the city and mended the tattered people who waited by her door. We saw things in the dark that weren’t there but were. People of the Dark are not liars like those who learn cruel ways to duck into the shadows that Light makes. We are liars of omission. After the night on the hill, I held words tight to the roof of my mouth and willed my pupils to dilate in darkness as quickly as they once had.
Much could be done to hurt my Dark Princess, but she could not be fooled. She searched the freckled pattern on my face and the tiny lines around my eyes that did not yet exist. Her eyes sunk into her skull, the skin under them purple as bruises from the work of looking at me strangely, with focus and with worry. She wouldn’t ask. Questions and answers are for the light. Acceptance, existence are for the dark. She was full of mosquitoes and coyotes, things she was trying to bury for my sake, but she could more easily rid herself of breath or skin. It’s a slow thing to see someone struggle. It’s a painful thing, brimming with satisfaction.
One night my lie failed. The long line of customers strung itself up Main Street, past the seedy shops where, by day, the pavement dried in the sun. I sighed at their deep and constant want. The sigh was a quiet one, but she heard and finally she asked, pretending she didn’t care. I confessed to my Princess my thoughts, that even the Light has its shadows. That she, though charged with hurt’s care, had no monopoly.
“Fine,” she spat, “Show me. Explain it.” She picked at a scab on the back of her hand. Her eyes were veiled by long, dark bangs. Her cheeks were tight. I’d never seen my Dark Princess look sad.
After the sun rose, we let the castle door thump shut behind us and turned our path toward the city’s edge. She squinted and blinked while I led her to the cemetery, where for everyone, alive or dead, it was always night. The sun was respectful there, and shone orange and golden on her white skin. A crowd of mourners muttered and flowed as crowds do. The sunlight flashed on their jewelry and their wet faces and their hair.
She said to me, “So? Even still, you are not one of them. They love the sun and music that makes people smile.”
It was cruel of me to try. I am, at my deepest bone, selfish.
To me, even their suspicious glances were lovely and sharp; their scars evidenced strength. But my Dark Princess could see only the throb, the ache, the shattered heart. The cemetery was all green and lightness, the dirt heaped, the people gathered, the flowers bowed in the breeze. She saw the hole in the ground and fear, not that the crowd was less without the hole and the hole deeper without the crowd. I didn’t say that my breath, my chest, was now pulled tight between the black depths of her eyes and the bright green of the grass. That sort of thinking was, of course, improper, almost insolence – perhaps I brought these days upon all of us. A Sidekick cannot know, and a Princess will not tell.
I was ashamed to look at her, but didn’t want her to see me watching the people gathered on the damp, fragrant earth. I looked instead at her scuffed boots and the sprigs of grass poking out from beneath them. If she saw my eyes, she would know that I no longer reveled in the sharp stench of smoke or the cool and heavy touch of black air on my face. I could no longer revel in her. But she knew, as she knew about all things painful.
She said it not with anger, but as if she was marking the arrival of a disappointment seen coming from afar. I looked at her then and she was bleeding black, already overflowing. She couldn’t manage all of it without someone to walk a line between dark and light, to be courier up and down across the city’s belly. Without me, she bled out and the mess spread.
The blackness seeped from her eyes, over her face. It dripped down to flow in the lines around her mouth and into the cracks of her lips. It trickled over everything, over us all, and then disappeared like water on a hot plate. I love my Dark Princess, now as then. I will never be the same.
We left the cemetery, me glancing back, she hunched and silent. Later, I packed and left for brighter places, and, for some while, tried not to think about the castle or the work. After a time, I heard news. My Dark Princess had disappeared into the hills with a new fumbling Sidekick. I should have followed. Maybe her disappointment consumed her. I will never know.
The city struggles without its dark and hurtful shadows. Everything all light and smiles. Everything strained and frayed. People wake in the night and cry quietly so that no one hears them. I wake in the night and make myself remember when the bottom of the city flowed with oily water, and when dusk brought on a night cool and heavy and black. Now, with my sunburnt shoulders, it’s too easy to forget the cold.
About the Author
KB Lawrence moved from sunny California to scorching Texas to freeze-your-toes-off Minnesota and is loving it (as long as someone else shovels). She earned a degree in Physics, worked as an engineer, and now stays home drawing elaborate dinosaur vs. Darth Vader battles at the kitchen table with the kids (and is loving that too).