When the disaster happened, or the event, or whatever it was—I still don’t know to this day—I hadn’t yet noticed how much yellow there is in the lower city.
There’s not a lot of yellow where I come from—except for light and that’s different—but here, in the lower city, it seems to be everywhere.
Maybe I’m from here now. After a year, maybe I’m from Los Angeles.
I’ll say that to myself, sometimes aloud as I stare at the silent, solid bathroom mirror.
As I try to stare into the mirror.
Home used to be that close. I stepped through a mirror and I was in Los Angeles. And I was supposed to step through a mirror and be right back home again.
But now there’s nothing to see but my own reflection.
And home may as well be a galaxy away.
In the first few days of my vacation, whenever I would see yellow, I would shut my eyes, avert my face, and wait until it went away. (I’ve since discovered that this is a rare—if maybe nonexistent—phobia in the lower city. Even back home it was somewhat uncommon, but as I’ve mentioned, there’s not much yellow to worry about there.)
But that all changed when the thing happened. I discovered the hard way what happened when I shut my eyes in front of the humans of Los Angeles. I’d hear gasps and curses. Some wouldn’t believe their own eyes. Why would they? It’s not typical for a person to vanish into thin air. A strange phrase, but fitting. The air truly is thin down here. I’ve adjusted. It’s one of the things I worry about when it comes to returning home. Will I still be able to breathe the air there? Or will it be too thick?
I would have to keep my eyes shut if I didn’t want to cause an even bigger commotion. Because whenever I opened them, I would reappear. Luckily the first time it happened, there was someone around who proclaimed that I was a street magician trying to get publicity. And luckily it wasn’t something that happened every time I blinked.
They say that those of us from the upper city possess different qualities in the lower. But I had never thought much or deeply about that. I’d been visiting the lower city for two days and nothing strange had happened. But I understand now that I was shielded in ways I didn’t know about, ways that few people knew about. Those seemingly arbitrary rules that tourists had to follow—wearing at least one article of clothing or accessory that was striped for example—those rules had something to do with keeping us upper city citizens safely unnoticeable. I’d always thought it had something to do with alchemy, but maybe it was more fundamental. When I received the booklet of necessary conduct along with my tourism pass and mirror ticket, I thought they were just archaic meaningless rules that remained on the books because they were too harmless for someone to go to the trouble of removing.
I don’t know if wearing stripes makes a difference now. They do still seem to work. So maybe there’s some residual alchemy in the ether. I do it anyway, just in case, along with the rest of the disguise that I devised when I realized that I would have to fend for myself in a city both keenly familiar and utterly alien.
Sometimes I wonder if I’d have an easier time accepting that I may not make it back home if I were human. Or at least if I looked human, or more human. People—the human people—still don’t seem to notice my ears, or the undertones and overtones of my complexion, though if they see the shimmer, they likely attribute it to a cosmetic effect. They don’t notice so long as I have stripes on that I have a slightly different number of digits on my forelimb—or as I mention it—that I sometimes walk on all fours.
But the other thing, they always notice now. The invisibility. No one warned me about that. Someone must have known. But then, maybe it’s one of those things that don’t end up in official brochures. Maybe it’s one of those things I would have learned from a friend or acquaintance, if I had any in the lower city. It’s the kind of thing a regular person doesn’t have the ability to do. I’d wager that even an alchemist wouldn’t be able to do it. With potions maybe but…not just by shutting their eyes.
Now, after a year, I’ve come to learn that that invisibility may be the key to my finding a way home.
Now…after a year, I’ve come to learn how the mirror portals affected my…my qualities, rending me visible at all times. And without their interference, my quality manifested. I shut my eyes and I vanish from the sight of those who have the sense of sight. I open my eyes and I reappear.
This might be a talent that could come in handy for someone who could navigate the world without visual sight. But I was not such a one. I couldn’t even find my way through my own empty apartment with my eyes closed.
It was my roommate who suggested the solution to me. My human roommate, Parni, who was born and raised in the lower world. She whom I’d thought was oblivious to who and what I was. She whom I’d had no choice but to stay with after realizing that I did not have the means to keep my own apartment. (I would have been able to if I’d had access to my means back home. I have struggled in my life. But never for the necessities. No one ever struggles for necessities back home. I had not known that people did so in the lower world, not just Los Angeles, but most of the lower cities. Maybe even all of them.)
My roommate does not claim to be an alchemist, and she doesn’t seem to be—at least not the kind I’m familiar with. She doesn’t use potions, and she doesn’t use inks. But she has shown me the equations. The bending and arcing of light that would open a way, a way leading upward.
But I’m afraid to even try it. I’m afraid it might be too late.
There’s a ticking clock for those of us who descend from an upper city to a lower one. For the most part, we can all adapt to the air in the lower cities. And for those who have long stays, all they need to do is return home for a short while before descending again.
But those who stay too long without ever returning home…their qualities begin to change and adapt to life in the lower world.
That’s what I’d heard anyway, and what I’d believed.
But after a year without a single breath of the sweet heavy air from my home, I still felt unchanged. Didn’t the fact that I could still turn invisible by shutting my eyes prove that my being—my body, mind, heart, and soul—had not adapted completely to the lower world? Wasn’t that proof that I could return home and still belong there?
If only I could find a way, a path, a road that wasn’t broken.
In the days after the incident that destroyed my path to home, the people in charge sent out official emergency notices and requests to all tourists, work visitors, business travelers—any and all active citizens registered with them—to check in so that they could assist anyone who was supposed to go back. In those early days, before I began to truly panic, I figured—like everyone else—that I could get back home by taking mirrors up from New York or Chicago or some other lower city. My problem is that I only had authorization to visit Los Angeles.
Parni didn’t understand that when she interviewed me a couple of months later for the spot in her unit left vacant by a friend who’d moved back home.
“Must be some new category of visa,” she’d said. Then she shrugged, and her skepticism quickly gave way to a list of rules that if I followed would mean that she would not pry into my business.
So I followed all her relatively reasonable rules while I waited for someone else to help me, even though I’d already told myself that I could only count on myself.
In the beginning, the people in charge were working to issue emergency authorizations for tourists to travel to other lower cities that had functioning roads. But the people in charge were cut off too, and there seemed to be some confusion on their end. They gave no time estimates. And after a while, they stopped giving regular updates. Citizen aid organizations started reaching out to stranded tourists to find them places to stay. vBut everyone was desperate to return home before they adapted to the lower city air.
I made my applications. I followed up. My vacation was originally scheduled to last two weeks. And when I’d still been within the safety of those two weeks, I’d acted calmly. I didn’t rush. I was polite and understanding when I made my inquiries. On the last two days of what was no longer a vacation, I couldn’t get through to anyone. Already I felt myself slipping, slipping through the cracks in the shattered mirror that was supposed to take me home.
I extended my stay in the hotel room that I’d seen far too much of already. But I saw my few resources depleting far too quickly.
I tried to offer my services to my own people at first. But I wasn’t the first to have that idea. No one was hiring. Every business, organization, and agency from the upper city that had settled an office in the lower city was also cut off. They were also struggling to hold on to the only resources they had.
In those first few days, like everyone else, all I could do was try to find out what happened back home. Was there a natural disaster? Was there some sort of attack? Was the city damaged or was it just cut off? Was there any way inside? Was there any news of the citizens and residents? My friends…my family…
Reflective surfaces provided the way home, the best and only official ways being mirrors, and only authorized mirrors. To use alchemy on an unauthorized mirror was tricky enough. But people were trying to get back home through window glasses, pools of water…none of it worked. The ways were blocked or broken, or maybe altogether gone.
It felt callous but necessary for me to start looking to my own needs first.
That’s when I decided to try and find work at a human establishment in the lower city. And I succeeded, only because of luck and the kindness of a diner owner who was moved by my story of being stranded because of some unknown trouble back home.
Added to what I already had, my earnings would only afford me a place to stay if I shared it with someone else. It was a risk, but one worth taking if I could find the right roommate.
And it seemed I had.
With food and shelter in place, I could look to fulfilling my sharpest need and truest longing. I could take my time and look for some way home.
But I never did find a way home.
The more time passed, the bleaker the prospects. The people in charge seemed to have vanished, as surely as I vanished when I shut my eyes.
The people I’d contacted in those first days and weeks became unreachable. The places where upper city citizens could go to register for aid and news became shuttered.
I trudged to my work every day with a hollow in the pit of my stomach.
I walked around the city one night, not wearing any stripes, and ready to shut my eyes and slide along a wall to escape if I got into any trouble.
I went searching for underground elements. I’d find only rumors. I knew that. But I was hungry for any word from home, even if it was rumor…even if it was made up.
I heard of those with fortunes on both sides of the mirror, who had found a way to buy their own passage back home. I heard of alchemists trying to build a new pathway to home. They’d been building for a year and were only the tiniest fraction of the way there.
I heard of other ways, wild and winding ways that might lead back home, and might also lead into dreams or death, or might coil upon themselves for eternity.
If anyone had managed to return to the upper city—to any upper city, not just our own—they weren’t sending word down to those of us who were still trying.
It was that same night that I walked into my apartment and caught sight of a canary yellow throw draped over the couch.
Among the most vital reasons that I had chosen to stay with my roommate after she chose me is that I noted her color preferences fell safely in the cool and dark part of the spectrum. I had never seen red or orange, certainly not yellow.
I shut my eyes and turned away by instinct.
“I’ll be damned,” I heard a voice say.
My roommate’s voice.
Again by instinct, I opened my eyes and saw her sitting in a chair across from the couch, with a magazine open on her lap.
And she…saw me.
She saw me vanish.
She saw me reappear.
She saw me without stripes on.
She saw my fluted ears peaking from under my indigo hair.
She saw the copper shimmer and the green gleam of my skin.
She saw my irises, round but spinning slowly, almost imperceptibly, like the minute hand of a clock.
It was a reckless night for me.
I told her the truth about myself, half expecting her to kick me out, half expecting her to make me tell her more, tell her everything.
Both halves were wrong.
She asked if I wanted tea. I thought she would make a terrible pot as weak and ineffective as my efforts to return home.
But the tea she made was strong and fragrant, black and blood orange.
She had devised the test with the yellow throw after noticing a few things that I never knew she’d noticed.
She hadn’t meant to upset me. She vowed not to tell anyone about me.
And she vowed to help me get home.
I knew she meant what she said. But I just smiled politely at what I thought was her naiveté. After all, if the people in charge hadn’t found some way to get me back home, how would a lower city human do it?
Los Angeles is a nice place to visit, but even though it’s identical to home, it’s not home. And after a year away, I was still eager and ready to go home.
I was ready to try the way that my roommate, that Parni, has found for me.
Being invisible is a strange state. The only proof I have that I can’t be seen is the reactions of others. By her reaction—or actually lack of reaction—I had thought I was invisible to my roommate too, in a different way.
But she’d been paying attention the whole time. She just didn’t say anything because she didn’t think she could help. She didn’t say anything until she found something she thought could help, something about invisibility and mirrors.
Some could travel between upper and lower cities without a constructed path. In the way that birds could fly because they had wings.
But if birds didn’t have to use their wings to fly, they might soon forget how to use those wings. In time, they might even forget they had wings at all.
Parni and I spent a few months trying to help me remember how to use my “wings.” It was as terrifying as I imagine it must be for a baby bird that’s dropped from the nest and challenged to just start flapping and hoping they don’t hit the ground.
There was indeed a risk of my dying even if I harnessed myself to some safe anchor. And when I say “dying,” I mean the risk wasn’t just to my corporeal form. The risk was to my physical self, my metaphysical self, my any other self. The risk was in disassembling my very being so that nothing was left of me but memories that would fade and pass, ultimately leaving nothing at all.
Nothing would be left of me to travel onward.
Parni asked me delicately if going home was worth disappearing from existence forevermore.
In those first weeks of my unexpected extended residency in Los Angeles, the lower city called by a name both familiar and strange, I would have said that I’d do anything to get home.
But now that I knew what anything truly meant, I truly wasn’t sure.
“We’ll go slow,” Parni said when we began. “And if we even smell a whiff of danger, we’ll stop and we’ll find another way. Better you arrive home later but in one piece.”
Maybe she was just saying the words to comfort me. If there had been another safer way, we surely would have found it by then.
I thought it would be painful, especially with my eyes closed, trying to reach into and through the incomprehensible and variable void.
The sensation I felt wasn’t pain. But it was unpleasant. It felt like slipping, continuous slipping and catching myself, and slipping and making it just a bit further, and slipping and feeling the winds of that swirling void I might fall into and never climb out of.
I was glad I had to keep my eyes closed, and scared about keeping them closed.
But Parni warned me that if I opened them, if my quality changed from invisible to visible while I was passing through the chasm between worlds…
The best we could hope for was physical damage, for my body to be thrown back so violently that I’d end up in the hospital, but I would still be alive, I would still exist.
We didn’t know what the worst to happen could be. We could only imagine.
I imagined a fate even worse than non-existence. I imagined a twisting of my mind and perceptions so far and so brutally that I would leave whatever semblance of a path I traveled and float endlessly between worlds, never to be found or perceived by anyone or anything again.
It had been a year, but only a year.
Was it worth the risk for me to go home?
Was there even a home for me to return to?
Did those few who loved me still wait for me there?
That night I told Parni that I’d decided to stay in Los Angeles long enough to make the money I needed to travel to another lower city and travel upward from there. It would take time, but Parni was right. I had to arrive in one piece.
And that same night she told me that she had finally a book she’d been waiting to receive for several months, long before she revealed herself to me and I revealed myself to her. She’d told me about this book, of course. It was the longest of long shots that it still existed, if it ever existed in the first place. Supposedly, there were as many copies of the book as there were people who wanted a copy. The trick was in obtaining that copy. When I asked, Parni only gave me one of her mock diabolical smirks and said that she had her ways.
And she showed me what she’d found in the book. She showed me that there was a way for me to get back home. She didn’t understand it fully, and neither did I…yet. But I would.
Or at least she thought so.
“But I’m not even an alchemist,” I argued, recoiling from the book as she offered it to me. “And you’d have to be a full-on mage to do what that books describes.”
“How long would that take?” Parni asked.
Seven more years…
…and I didn’t become a mage. I’m not sure if those even exist in the upper world, much less the lower.
But it’s taken seven years for me to master the quality of invisibility. And “master” might be too strong of a word.
Seven years is a long time in a human life. I worried that Parni was holding herself back from her own journey just so she could help me with mine.
Occasionally, I tried to convince her that I had the means to live on my own and I’d be fine without her, so long as we remained friends.
I had made other friends, but none who knew me without my stripes on.
Parni was my only true friend.
So on the morning of my first true attempt to return home, she was with me.
She would serve as witness.
I had heard some hopeful news about my city. Or hopeful rumors maybe. Rumors of rebuilding and resurrection. The city and the paths leading to it were healing.
Maybe I wasn’t too late to help it.
Maybe there could be some truth to those late-night fantasies that Parni and I concocted about her coming to visit me. She wouldn’t be able to stay for long. Per the laws that we couldn’t bend no matter how we tried. The laws of existence. But she could visit.
I felt hopeful but I also felt worried as I stood in the soft morning sunlight with Parni taking stock of my one bag of belongings. She handed me a bottle of water.
Her eyes were full of tears, but I had to keep mine clear, even though they would be shut.
Off I go, I thought, in the great journey of the spirit, whose end no one truly knows.
I closed my eyes, and I stepped through a mirror of my own making.
Like Los Angeles, the city I stepped into was identical to home.
But it wasn’t home.
I could tell that even though I saw a familiar face strolling toward me on the same path where I’d been standing with my best friend a moment ago.
“Welcome home,” my brother said.
I smiled and we embraced. I had words to say, but somehow I couldn’t say them. I had feelings to feel, but they hadn’t caught up to me yet.
“It’ll take you some time to adjust,” he explained. I should have been weeping. I thought I’d lost him. And everyone else.
The rarefied air was already getting easier to breath. I managed a few words, as I glanced around. “This isn’t…”
“No,” he said. His eyes glittered as he gestured down a path that looked like cobblestone. But when we started walking along, it felt like a plush carpet. As we walked, he talked and I listened.
I found Parni standing out on our tiny balcony, staring up at the half-moon. It was chilly that night, so her tea was losing steam fast.
I was afraid I would startle her, but she turned to me as if I’d just come out to fetch her inside for dinner when it was my night to cook.
She beamed at me. “I had a feeling,” she said. But her smile dropped away when she saw my face.
“I just came to let you know that I’m okay,” I said.
“Did you make it home?”
I didn’t want her to worry about me. But it was fresh for me, still bittersweet.
“Where did you go?” she asked. She could tell that I had gone somewhere. And she could tell that wherever I’d gone she wouldn’t be able to visit.
But I told her anyway, letting those tears fall now that I’d held back before.
“I’m sorry, Parni. You won’t be able to visit me after all. And I won’t be able to come back here all that much. This might be the last time actually.”
Parni looked away from my eyes and studied the rest of me. I wasn’t wearing stripes. She could see me, my ears, my skin, my everything.
“What happened?” she asked. “Can you tell me?”
“What used to be home is gone,” I said. “What will be home is ahead. Parni, I came to say goodbye and do something I should have done long ago and realized that I hadn’t.”
Parni started to smile again, as if she could tell what my unfinished business was.
“Thank you,” I said, “for giving me a home.”
Her eyes began to glisten. “How much yellow is there in the home that’s ahead of you?”
“None at all,” I said, laughing and sniffing, “except for the light.”
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel