I. The Detective
The rabbit was dead. Was white. Was dead. Was six feet long. Supine. A trace of red against its mouth. A pocket watch half buried in the sand. Rubbery and indistinct, a blackish waistcoat curled across its midriff. While above us the mountain rose like a threat or a throat, unexpected.
I could smell the death in its matted fur. I could feel its death in the complete, the utter stillness of the body. The eyes stared out into a great nothing, a vast nowhere.
I was supposed to solve this.
Brown eyes, flecked with green. Fur around the mouth, stained green with grass. There was no grass anywhere around here. Bitter winds. Desiccated. Husk.
I stood up, fought the urge to sigh, fought the urge to fight against the gentle pressure on the nape of my neck.
Hush. Dusk. I had spent an hour staring at this apparition, with no insight forthcoming.
What makes death solvable or soluble? What might be considered a clue? The red hissing from the mouth like a long sleek ribbon of snake? The wound to the belly, spilling out like sawdust? The ticktock of the watch on my wrist, telling me to hurry? Should I solve the crime, I’d be much praised. Should I fail, none would care but me.
Behind me somewhere lay the city of teeth and blood and exhaustion and the cries of abandoned children, back alleys with their deeper wounds and the skies full of smoke and the streets at night lighted like strands of emeralds, the towers set to rise like knives cutting the underbelly of the blank sky.
Here, in the desert, the sky was a deep blue shot through with deeper cloud, masked by the mountain rearing out of the sand.
Out here, I had my familiar. In the city, my familiar could not always manifest himself, make himself known to me. No one could manifest in the city all the time. Out here, he could stretch, uncurl, spread his wings of manta ray black to their fullest extent. The desert glinted off of them, melting into a relaxation that seemed earned.
“Rabbit,” I said. It sounded like I just wanted to hear myself talk.
“Rabbit,” my familiar agreed.
I had no name for my familiar. I felt no need for names, even for myself. How could anyone mistake him for another? His shape formed a shadow across me, his breath a black spurling of memory, cloves, desire, and cinnamon. With the desert’s red dust around us, the mountain rising, it seemed I could be his familiar. His voice like a reflection of a star in a pool of still water, his flickering appearance like a piece of gold glimmering up to meet the reflection. In a courtyard in the city. Where a hundred thousand familiars…
“It’s not from here.”
My familiar rippled and coalesced behind me, over me.
“Not from there, either.”
Where a hundred thousand familiars gathered, the motion of their obsidian passage a mighty wave across a parched land…
Helplessness and shame overtook me, the emotions I always feel at the scene of a crime. The death that cannot be catalogued except by time. The death that cannot be avenged except by the deceased, the only person who cannot avenge…anything.
What could my familiar and I do? The taste of continual failure was like ash on my tongue. Yet I could not remember any of my other cases.
Sunset. Reds peeling off across the reds of the corpse, the fur flush with dust and dirt and sand.
I felt the tickle in my throat caused by the umbilical that hung between me and my familiar — this cloak, this being that spread out behind me through the celestial air. My familiar was feeding me, and I did not want to be fed.
I saw a children’s book. I saw a large white rabbit. I saw a girl in a dress. I saw a talking caterpillar. The familiar was feeding me what was not familiar. But the story seemed familiar somehow. As if I had pressed my face against a fogged up pane of glass, just barely able to see inside a house of marvels. I shuddered. Stop feeding me.
“You don’t recognize it.”
If a familiar can feel disappointment, I felt that emotion course through its undulating body and into mine. The itchiness in my throat became severe.
“This is not a real murder,” my familiar told me. “This is a dream of murder. It will fade, if you do not recognize it.”
I began to panic. I began to have memories from before the city. I really was a detective once. I knew this; it had not been fed to me. My blood crawled with the knowledge.
What I cannot solve may kill me.
The red desert dust, the clot of dust in the air, like a stroke about to claim me. I could feel the tube from its body to mine in the back of my head, my neck. I could feel it there, coiled like a question mark. The taste of lime on my tongue.
He should have had a real waistcoat. He should have been somewhere else, this rabbit. Not here.
“You will see,” my familiar said. And then said again, in another way: You will see. And you will be amazed.
For that was when the white rabbit shuddered. That’s when the white rabbit shivered. Shook, coughed, wiggled its ears. Sat up. Wiped the blood from its mouth.
“I thought you were broken,” I said to it. “I thought you were dead. I thought you did not know what you were.”
The creature turned to me, its eyes brown and deep: as deep as hazelnut in winter, by a fireplace, in a city, but not the city, except I should not have that memory. Was it fed to me? Was it me?
It turned to me, this creature, and said, “You are the broken one. I’ve been sent to solve you.”
“Solve me? But I’m not dead?”
“How do you know?”
II. The Accounts of Others
“Get out of my brain!” the man shouted while at some far-flung trading post. Dirty shantytown without enough water. Faded grass. A couple of horses looking close to gone. This place would not be here much longer. I had passed through selling knives, but no one needed knives.
“Get out of my brain!” he shouted again.
I didn’t know if he meant the city, or the familiar rising half invisible above him.
The familiar was dead white‚ just drifting in the breeze, in the pale sunlight. The umbilical was like a dry reed. The man could have pulled himself free at any time.
Was I the only one among them who could see it?
I met his wild stare.
“I’ve come to take you back to the city,” I said.
He ignored me. He was already there.
There was nothing to stop me from getting there. I had been walking for a long time, but there was still nothing to stop me. Why should there be? I could either walk or stop walking. There’s no real decision in that, is there?
The desert spread out ahead, the city where it had always been: in front of me. It never changed. It always seemed to be in the same place: a dark glitter, a black speck in the corner of my eye. A hint of a scent, taken by the wind. I never made any progress toward it. It never made any progress toward me. You could say we were equals in a way.
Sometimes I passed other people, most of them dead, their flesh flapping off of them like little flags. Sometimes I passed no one but the ever-wheeling hawks against the blue disease that was the sky. It did not matter. Walking mattered. Finding water mattered. Finding food mattered. Eventually reaching the city mattered. Not minding the mirages mattered.
The mirages could become intense. A mirage could kill you if you let it. You had to want to let it. You had to want to let it inhabit you. It could take any shape, any form.
Like a familiar. I had heard tales about the familiars. The city blossomed with them, all manifesting in different ways. Manta rays. White rabbits. I heard about a detective once. Just once. But never again.
People in the city had lost the thread of living without familiars. People there had just lost the thread, period. Deep wired into the spinal cord. Sucking into them. Sucking out of them. A city of spines. A city of familiars. A city of people. A city of not-people. Had it created them or had they created it?
Sometimes, as I walked, I didn’t think I ever wanted to reach it, though the blisters on my feet yearned for it. Sometimes, it seemed the promise of bliss.
Walking is good, but walking can get to you. Endless walking. When it first occurred to me that the city wasn’t getting closer, I wondered if perhaps I didn’t deserve the city. Sometimes, I thought it didn’t deserve me. Perhaps both were true. But, regardless, there was nothing else to see on the horizon. Nowhere else to head for. It really was the last there. The only there.
And sometimes I would scream at the city. I would drop to my knees and scream in wordless rage. How could it keep evading me? How could it make me keep on walking?
And it’s true. I admit it. Eventually, I begged the city to accept me. I stood there and begged for this dot at the corner of my vision to let me get close.
But by then it was too late. By then it had become a little bit too…familiar.
The tube of flesh is quite prophetic. The tube of flesh, the umbilical, is inserted at the base of the neck, although sometimes inserted by mistake toward the top of the head, which can result in unexpected visions. Anyway, the umbilical feeds into the central nervous system. The nerves of the familiar’s umbilical wind around the nerves in the person’s neck. Above the recipient, the manta ray, the familiar, rises and grows full with the knowledge of the host. It makes itself larger. It elongates. The subject goes into shock, convulses, and becomes limp. Motor control passes over to the familiar, creating a moving yet utilitarian symbiosis. The neck becomes numb. A tingling forms on the tongue, and a taste of lime. There is no release from this. There should be no release from this. Broken out from their slumber, hundreds are initiated at a time, the tubes glistening and churling in the lesion of the steam, the communal need. Thus fitted, all go forth in their splendid ranks. Thus filled, all go forth in their splendid ranks. The eye of the city opens and continues to open, wider and wider, until the eye is the world.
This is what I have been told. I have never witnessed it myself. I heard it from a walker. A man who told me that the city is a mote in his eye. I suppose it might not be true. I cannot verify it. I cannot deny it.
A city in her head that could not be true made her wince. A city that she had been searching for her entire life, all across the wastelands that often revealed more of their past than made her comfortable. A city that pulled her out of herself. Something that was more than a Thought but less than an Idea. A city that became so real to her, in its scraps and tatters, that her own life became the abstraction. She saw glistening spires and sudden terror, and an illumination that nearly blinded her. She saw great black shapes passing through the sky, attaching themselves to more mundane shapes. She saw causeways made of air that yet bore weight. A thousand images that could not be real, that would never be enough to sustain her in that vision, that delectation, forever on the tip of her tongue, the word she could not say: the name of the city.
I left my lover in the city because I found it too intense. Now all I had of her was memories. Rosebuds. Rose petals. Dried roses. Flowers found in parks and more dangerous places. The thought of the forests in the south of the city where you could always find the blood-soaked remains of a person for whom the familiar had become strange. The visitations in the north. The long palatial glide down the ramp above which gather the blindly searching umbilicals. The music of the city that permeates the air, reaches into the stones, the trees, the rich dirt. The fragrance as of a thousand perfumes, the air jagged with the musk of familiars. The clean, strong lines of buildings. The way everything is planned, so perfectly. One can hardly contain it in one’s mind. It’s like sunlight shining on marble that turns to water that ripples with light as seen through a mirror.
I had broken from the city as she could not. I had proved stronger than my familiar, and feasted on its memories. Now, exiled, I lie in her arms every night and make love to her. Although she is not here, in these tiny rooms in forgotten towns, she stares at me from the bed. This comforts me; she has become my familiar.
The city? I remember little of it now. It is like a long caravan disappearing into distance and time. Day by day, my lover conquers more and more of my memory. Perhaps, one day, it will seem as if I never lived in the city at all.
A joke, passed along in the wastelands:
Two men are fighting in the dust, in the sand, in the shadow of a mountain. One says the city exists. The other denies this truth. Neither has ever been there. They fight until they both die of exhaustion and thirst. Their bodies decay. Their bones reveal themselves. These bones fall in on each other until each man is the other. One day, the city rises over them like a new sun. But it is too late.
III. The Detective
“You are the broken one. I’ve been sent to solve you.”
It’s dusk now, when the rabbit tells me this. It’s dusk and there’s no light except the lights of the city at our back. An unimaginable sorrow comes over me. I cannot help it, even with my familiar pumping good thoughts, good images, into me through the umbilical, the cord, the chord, the knot, the fence, the gate, the conduit that reaches him into me.
“No, you’re not dead,” the rabbit says. “And there lies part of the problem. Who can love that which is not dead?”
“Familiar?” I query. Familiar?
But there is no answer. Just the rabbit. Staring me in the eyes. Trying to tell me something.
“Do you want to return to the city?” he asks me.
I turn away to look back at the city. It is as a mote in the corner of my eye.
I tell him, “No. Not really.”
“Then leave this behind.”
The rabbit stands over me. His fur is rough, his scent thick. He brings his arms around my head as if in an embrace. There is a slight sound, indescribable, as he detaches my familiar. My familiar detaches. The weight lifts. The tickle in my throat is gone. I cough, cough again.
Above me, in the dark, with no moon, just the afterglow of sunset, my familiar floats, his voice no longer in my head, my mouth, my guts, my guilt. He is taken on the breeze. He is taken from me. Away. Toward the city. I crane my neck to watch him go. I watch him go: a black manta ray drawn to the lights.
I am alone with the rabbit. I am alone. I was sure the rabbit had been created by my familiar, but now I am not so sure. I am frantically searching my memory for some prior experience, some glimmer, some fragment that will help me.
The rabbit takes my hand, his surprisingly human, and he whispers in my ear. The black waistcoat unwraps itself from his torso and rises until it exists, whole and glistening, above his head, plugged into his neck. His familiar’s tube is bifurcated. As he whispers, part of it coils around my own head. It connects. And there is no city. And there is no sand, no thirst. And I am weeping. I can see the girl and the rabbit and the caterpillar and the rest of it. It is no comfort. I am nowhere again, like the first time, walking with the rabbit into the desert, the familiar’s familiar.
By what right should I have achieved this state? By what right should I never solve my case, only to have it solve me?
Save me. Please.