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This short story was first published in Global Dystopias and is featured in our new special project:
The center of the Earth is full of things the surface thinks it has discarded.
You called the year your explorers arrived in my country year 1. We called that year 10,077. You called us Utopians. We called you something else.
Every woman, I learned, later in my life than I should have, is someone’s imaginary kingdom.
All explorers, I also learned, are liars when it comes to the truth of what they’ve touched. If you’re the gap in the map, you know this much is true.
I was the kind of girl who would always be a child, you said. I should take pleasure in the simple things, and I should not learn to read or write. Too much knowledge, you told me, would destroy my sense of wonder. I dusted your books. I looked at the margins of the maps, the places marked with monsters.
All explorers are liars when it comes to the truth of what they’ve touched.
When I met you, I was thirteen, and I already knew I was too ugly to be loved. I was strong, and I was smart, but no girl was allowed to have everything. My sister was pretty, which meant that she also had to pretend to be weak. Together, we did all the work girls do, unnoticed. She listened to you. I scrubbed. She smiled at you. I plotted our course. We were invisible in different ways. My face and her mind, my teeth and her claws. You approved of us. We were your household. You could not see the fire at our edges. We were your girls.
I’m ahead of myself. Time works differently where I’m from. Our history is written in books that go backward as well as forward. Our time is measured in birds flying down through volcanoes, octopi contracting through cracks in our sky.
I hold my homeland inside my head. Burned books and misplaced ones, moth-eaten, mildewed.
A short accounting of expeditions into my country, and places like it, from the beginning of time to now: in come the white men, dressed in helmets protecting their soft skulls. They hold their cameras like guns, their guns like cameras, their cocks like fine teacups. Click, click, two clicks, maps moldy, zippers rusting. Men pissing from the flies of their chinos. Why are they called chinos? Because the fabric was made in China by girls like me. What were chinos originally? Pants worn by soldiers who killed girls like me. Call them also khakis, the Urdu word for “dust.” Call those soldiers white men who began their battles dressed in red, and shifted themselves into uniforms that better mimicked the terrain and the color of the people they were bloodletting.
Packets of sugar and caffeine in the explorers’ hands, all of that harvested by simple, innocent, go-lucky girls like me. They pick their way through the jungle or through the forest, lucking past our traps, shitting in our streets and wailing for assistance. In come the white men, dressed in suits that crumple, walking across the bottom of the ocean and over deserts filled with bones. They burst from their vehicles like sentient pus, and begin to dig for youth, oil, magic, buried treasure. These things are all things the world has promised them. They adventure, claim, and conquer. The mission of white men is to denature nature.
I was taught by men like these men. Look at how you civilized me.
It is 1785, and you are writing a book about two siblings who fall into the center of the Earth and there discover a race of rainbow-colored citizens eighteen inches tall, in a place that is otherwise much like Venice. You’re translating as you go, into French from your native Italian, to make the contents more delicious, and also to avoid trouble in your own country.
Everyone is androgynous, happy and innocent, full of wonder and potential, in this Utopia populated by sun-worshipping nudists. Everyone suckles at everyone else’s breasts, and all in all it’s a lovely and sustainable situation. It’s unusually peaceful. No one fights over jealousies. Everyone mates for life, and if other lovers are taken, it is done pleasantly. Children are hatched. Rules are obeyed. The people are a rainbow, but only the red ones have power. The rest are servants. They love being servants.
Your book is called Icosameron, or, the Story of Edward and Elisabeth, Who Spent Eighty-One Years in the Land of the Megamicres, Original Inhabitants of Protocosmos, in the Interior of Our Globe. A utopian narrative, written in French by Giacomo Casanova, a Venetian, published in Prague, 1787. Seventeen hundred pages long, and full to the margins with falsehoods. Bound in leather, nicely printed, complete with chapters on philosophy, theology, sexuality. Analysis of a noble though flawed culture untouched by the West. Birdsong sung by its citizens. Bravery done by its narrator. By the end of the book, the descendants of the two original explorers number twenty thousand sets of twins. They have taken over the hollow Utopia and taught its citizens about gunpowder, imaginary cars, firearms, fidelity, starvation—
You sold only a handful of copies. Readers lifted it and put it down again, wrinkling their noses as you looked on, Italian eagerness translated to French fury.
After all that, it was time to fill the bedchamber at the center of the Earth with your own glorious godly self, an autobiography of a brave man, exploring.
In some versions of your stories, Giacomo Casanova, I was your first love, and my name was Bettina. I met you when I was thirteen, a girl living in a house in Padua that took you in. You were a boy younger than I, and you fell through the ceiling of my life, and into the center of my family. I was forced into an exorcism to avoid your accusations of impropriety, into convulsions to prove my purity. All of this, you wrote, occurred because I was a vixen. I was married eventually to a shoemaker who beat me, and many years later, you sat at my deathbed and admired my ancient ugliness, wondering at how you yourself were still so vigorous and handsome. What wonderful memories you had of me, the curve of my hip as I pressed past you in a narrow hall, the way you could, at any moment, ask for breakfast and be fed everything I had.
In other versions, your name was Edward and I was your younger sister Elisabeth, birthing forty sets of twins for you in this country where tiny people worshipped a central sun, obeyed a pope, and sang instead of speaking. All of the residents of your Utopia had breasts, including me. You were the only one without. We took turns breastfeeding you so you wouldn’t starve. Some of us died because of your appetite. We were all tremendously interested in your penis. We called you a giant.
I hold my homeland inside my head. Burned books and misplaced ones, moth-eaten, mildewed.
Later, when we returned to the surface, I stood beside you while you explained why you’d married me. I had nothing to say about it, besides the occasional supportive murmur: “it only made sense.” We’d fallen through the sea floor together, and you were my older brother, and we were two humans surrounded by noble innocents. We returned with stories of how we civilized them into submission, and the rest of our story, that of siblings marrying and populating a world that was already populated, fell aside. We were fertile and generous with our opinions. We were explorers. We were making the world better.
Sometimes in your accounts, you revised me again. I was, in those stories, not human, but a yellow girl from that city in the center of the Earth. I was all over your cartography: at once the X-marked diamonds and gold, and the sectors etched with monsters. I was a discovery, newly set in moveable type, printed in Prague, and invented into a wilderness worthy of an audience. That is the closest version, if there’s a truth between your lines.
I am well aware of the world. The outside is a place that was once covered in green, and now the green places are brown. The reefs are quiet. The caves that held sleeping bears now contain only skeletons. People like you still live unsheltered, on the roof. Is it not obvious who is civilized?
There is a skillful hand-colored etching of you at the front of your book. You’re wearing expedition attire, though in your version this is a factual manuscript discovered in a library, a twenty-night tale of adventures had by someone other than you. In the illustration, you are rakish, periwigged, a loose brush rendering your face more handsome than it might have been in life, but who would judge that? You were, of course, the foremost expert on your own actions. No one other than another white man could possibly understand your mind.
This was your country.
You revised me repeatedly: a girl from a realm reachable only by fateful accident, her topography penciled, her thoughts pinned to paper like ethered insects. Your surveyors missed my volcanoes but found my caves. They filled them up to keep themselves from falling in.
• • •
My sister and I were looking up when the invaders fell out of the sky, into the center of one of our cities. Elisabeth arrived with sunken cheeks and wild eyes, and Edward with scurvy. The two of them had been traveling by ship to the North Pole. They were not without wealth, though they were in dire straits due to being caught in an embrace mid-voyage. They bribed another ship and, bent on escape, hid in a casket of resplendent clothing. They paid a sailor to throw them overboard, but they missed the raft and sank. They plummeted through a crevasse, dropping through our roof and into a river.
They were too heavy to float, and so they descended like wriggling rocks. From our observation point, we could see their thighs, worm pale, piss-ribboned. It was clear they were frightened of us. He had a knife and she had a rock, and they held their weapons tightly.
“More of them,” said my grandfather. “I thought we’d closed the hole. It’s been years.”
“Blame the stitcher,” said my grandmother, and went into the house.
Some of us were small, and therefore interested.
“They’re like animals,” said my mother, but we could hear the uncertainty in her voice. The last group had come in when she was only ten, and she hardly remembered them.
“Pets?” said my sister, her hand cupped to stroke. “Or meat?”
“No,” said my mother. “They bite. Keep your fingers to yourself.”
As we watched, they interlaced their own hands and nodded furiously, looking at us as though we might carry their bags in from out of the rain.
“We are explorers!” shouted the man.
“Brave explorers,” she whispered to him. “From the higher place!”
The children crept into their trunk to leaf through possessions as the explorers marched through our streets, planting flags with their faces drawn on the fabric.
“This is our country,” she said, and then looked at him. “It was made for us. No one will make us leave. Look at them. They can’t even speak. They’re awestruck.”
She wiggled her fingers as one might wiggle fingers at a puppy.
The children were standing in a circle watching the pests. We’d been set to keep them from moving through town.
‘This is our country. It was made for us. No one will make us leave.’
My sister held out her hand, though, and the man looked at her. She was beautiful, my sister, and she offered him a piece of bread. She could not help her kindness. My sister fed the starving, and these two were so stupid, so drenched, she assumed they were hungry.
“This is our country,” the man agreed, taking the bread and biting into it with teeth that were, yes, pointed. “These are our subjects. We’ll be the king and queen,” he said, looking around, his eyes bright. “They need parents. It’s our duty.”
“Sacred duty,” said the woman. “How will they know the rules, if we don’t rule them?”
I didn’t know their stories about the center of the Earth. One of them was that it would be an Eden, a place into which a man might tunnel, and take everything he ever wanted away with him when he went, all of it tucked into a kicking, shrieking sack and transported to Venice.
The words the people outside used for those actions included: forage, harvest, teach, discover, explore, civilize.
There were other words, if you ask me, and if you ask my sister.
“Oh!” said the woman from outside to her brother. “What a relief, Edward, to be free of the constraints of society! Oh, what joy to be amongst these dear little nobodies!”
“Oh!” said the man from outside to his sister. “What a haven we’ve discovered, Elisabeth, what a perfection!”
“They needed us,” she said.
“They prayed for us,” he replied.
“And we descended,” they said in unison.
• • •
It’s 1790, and Giacomo Casanova’s utopian novel has failed utterly. No one understands him. He is disconsolate, lamenting, locked in a room full of books, feeding on crusts and the occasional feast by librarians and patrons. He is tragic.
A young woman sends him a letter inspiring him to write his sexual history, at length and in detail. Well, then, he thinks, and begins a flattering account, humorous, wry, brazen, flirtatious.
Venice. Through it walks a brilliant young man who is sometimes a scholar and sometimes a gambler, and often nothing but a sprinting seat in sheepskin pants, sighted from a window as he leaps into the bush, pursued by hundreds, literally hundreds, of husbands. He is heroic.
He descends a rope made of bedsheets and clambers into a bathtub, the daughter of the house assigned to soaping him. She has never known a man before. Not that he is a man. He’s twelve. She’s thirteen. She has never heard of sin, and her body is a creation made of velvet and silk floss combined with just a little bit of cow, and she will let you have anything—truly anything—your heart desires. She is Utopia. Climb inside.
Paradise, he writes, is a girl on her back, her legs open, and inside her a mystery. If she were to be sliced down the center, civilization would pour out, the men of Earth, thumbkins, each one with a tiny voice and all of the reason found in the libraries of the ancient world. Men are born with reason. Women are windowless wombs, and they must be taught the rules. They are ribs and fibs, broken and expendable. They are lies meant for laying. That is not to say they aren’t wonderful. Some of them are witty. Others are wicked. Others are ugly but strangely skillful in the bedchamber, and who would imagine that?
He goes on this way for a while.
No, he revises the story. There are two girls. There are four. Oh! The glory! There are ten, and all of them bend to admire him, everyone in the story living in perfection, everyone astonished, joyful and terribly lucky.
• • •
I was the kind of girl who was born to do work, while the other kind was born for breeding, the people from outside told me. Those were the rules of civilized places, places such as the one they came from. While my sister was in the upstairs room in labor with her first set of twins, I boiled water and scrubbed a floor. This was how everything gleamed, how everything worked the way it should. Rules brought by rulers to the ooh-ahh innocents of elsewhere.
He descends a rope made of bedsheets and clambers into a bathtub, the daughter of the house assigned to soaping him.
The two explorers were naked in bed, by then, breakfasting on pastries I’d baked. The woman from outside had stood over me in the kitchen, instructing me on the finer points of dough. “I suppose you’re used to raw meat,” she whispered to me, and giggled, holding my hand.
Elisabeth had hair of no particular color, and a mouth full of bad teeth. She thought she’d brought fire to the inside, never noticing our chimneys spitting smoke. She herself liked to smoke a pipe carved in the shape of her own former face, which ten years into her time here had significantly expanded.
Edward was a man with a mouth that never stopped moving. He gave us names and counted us, though we already had names and families. He made a book of our history, which he did not know. He claimed he could see our thoughts by looking at us. He was a gun-bearing tooth of a tiger, and we did not like his look. We did not wish him to take us to the city. Some days he had notions of ships and chains and fireworks, and on other days he declared that he would pour us into tiny blown-glass bottles and use our sweat to scent the pale throats of the finest ladies of Venice.
“What a wonder,” he said. “You know nothing of sin. You are sugar grown in darkness.”
I looked up at the bright orb at the center of our sky.
“When the world was flat,” he told my sister, “there were stories about the people who lived in the dark. You people. When it stormed on the surface, all the blind creatures came up to taste the rain, but when it was dry, back down again they went. When the world curved into a sphere, and the edges were no longer places from which to plummet, the stories swelled to fill the spaces. You’re a story.”
“The world,” Elisabeth offered to me one morning, “is a cinnamon chocolate with a crispy shell, and an interior of cherry in syrup. The world is a black rubber ball wrapped in kid leather. The world is a snail, the shell a house and inside the shell, a sentient softness, pliant as a woman’s flesh. Watch as it uncurls, watch as it looks up in wonder at the man who has at last plumbed it.”
She stretched on her back, asking for a massage. “Do work out the knots,” she said. I considered a rope I’d tied about my waist.
“This is perfection,” said Elisabeth.
“We are perfection,” said Edward, and he took her hand in his, and with his other hand he touched my sister’s waist, and wiped butter onto her skirt.
• • •
You were always writing about the same kind of kingdom, whether it was your memoir of lovers or your novel about a wonderful world within a rocky womb. Milk-fed masqueraders and a boy in the middle, an innocent himself, this intelligent explorer who brings guns and poisons, who eats of the forbidden trees, who fucks his way through the center of a civilization and is worshipped for it.
You dreamed your way into my country, and with you came the creatures of your skull, each one a beast of bones and calligraphy.
I dreamed my way into your country, and with me came my sister and my parents, my grandparents, our fingers and hands, our knives. I was the center of the Earth, and you were the one who tunneled into me.
We knew that the people above us were speakers and breathers, diggers and bearers. We weren’t blind. We weren’t thirsty. We never rose up through the mud. Was our city made of glory? It was not. It was a city like any city, buildings with worms in the grout, rotten tubers, unjust laws. It was ours.
Shall we speak of you? You told your own story, and you never stopped telling it. You believed that there was silence in our country before you, and that yours was the first voice to bring us knowledge.
You thought you taught us to talk, but we had been speaking. You thought you taught us to live, but we had buildings and music, fire, books, and paintings. We were nowhere, you said, when you appeared in our universe.
You thought I wasn’t fit for fucking. I busied myself with other tasks. I learned your language. I learned your dreams. I came into the bathroom and soaped your back as you reclined, looking at the ceiling, writing a book about other women.
“You’re so tiny,” you told me, as though you were a giant. “Just look at you,” you said tenderly. “Like a child.”
What explorer has not longed to bring his guns to an undiscovered country, so that he might casually become king? In your bathtub, you crowned yourself, and looked at me, and raised your scepter. This was nothing new. I’d seen your kind before.
In the other version of your stories, the part you weren’t writing down, you put my sister in a sack. I leapt in with her. We were kept in the darkness, thrown over your shoulder, smuggled out of paradise and into hell. We traveled, whispering to the surface, and when we arrived in your city, you opened the sack and smiled, because you’d brought us to a better place. Or, perhaps, you had made your own place better by taking us from ours.
Call hands on someone else’s skin a kind of expedition. Call us the ground, and call yourselves a flag.
In the version you wrote, my sister and I were one person, constituted entirely of love. We opened our shirt to feed you from our breasts, though we were ourselves starving. We were awed at the sight of your sun, dazzled at the wonder of your world. You grieved when you thought we might die, though this would make your own journey less complicated. You’d been thinking of where to put us: a zoo, a museum?
You dumped us onto the floor and went to your library. I went to the kitchen. My sister went to the bedroom. You could not see our edges. We were your girls. You didn’t know our thoughts. You didn’t know what was beneath the mattress. You didn’t know what was in the pocket of my apron.
There are other versions of our stories, just as there are other versions of yours: in come the white men, and they get sick, which throws them on the mercy of the people they’re invading. We are in the trees watching as they arrive on stretchers, snake-bitten, feverish, starving, fighting furiously with one another, Pilgrims, fur trappers, journalists and geographers, millionaires, filmmakers, translators who speak nothing near our language, preachers who say they’ll teach us, teachers who say they’ll reach us. Untouched, they say, and touch us.
Call death a kind of exploration. Call hands on someone else’s skin a kind of expedition. Call us the ground, and call yourselves a flag.
And now see what we call you. You are the dragon we slay, the ship we wreck. Your safety is not our business.
This is not the story you wrote. This is the story we wrote.
I was the kind of girl who was born to serve, the people from outside told me, while I sharpened their knives. I was working in their kitchens. I was always mistaken for a cook, by you, by them, by everyone. I had the kind of face that looked kindly, the kind of body that looked built to enfold the hungry. I held a knife up to the firelight and tested the blade on my fingertip. It worked the way it should. I was no stranger to knives.
I had my sister with me, her twins nursing, and we were writing the battle plan, the two of us diagramming armor, inscribing knife hilts with names other than the ones they thought they’d given us. We could read and write. We had our own names, and our own language.
You thought you knew what we wanted, but we had wants of our own.
Here is something I learned in the hundreds of years I spent in the center of the Earth and later in the libraries and bedchambers, pressed between your pages, carving my way out of your stories with one of the knives you gave me to show your readers that I was a spitfire, a flame-breathing beauty with black hair and barbed bits.
Imaginary countries and imaginary cunts are in the same category. They are the same story.
Look at this volcano, the heat of the center of the Earth pouring out in flame. Look at the way the outside splits open and becomes the inside, the way that helmets are not enough to keep your soft skulls safe. Look at the catastrophe of birth.
My sister and I are coming up from beneath the ground, our fingers tipped in claws. We are springing through the soles of the feet of the men standing over our home. Your name is a synonym for swing, and my name is earthquake, taking your library and opening its contents to the elements, tearing your chinos thread by thread into nests for the birds whose eggs you’ve broken. The center of the Earth is not a windowless room, but a room with a long view to the sky, not a hollow object, but a goblet full to spilling.
Call it a skull. Call me a demon. Call me a disastrous expedition, a haunted pilgrimage. Know that I am still drinking from your bones.
You are the book I am writing. You are the story I am searing into the skin of the ones who come after me. I name you after myself. I call your country after my sister. I plant a flag in your heart and drive it in, claim your territory and tell the world that no one was here before I arrived.
Are you an old man now? You are. Are you wordless, your hand shaking as you write your adventures? You break into convents. You break into caverns. You are the best worst they ever had.
Listen to me tell your story. You’ve lost the ability to speak. You’re standing before all the men of your generation, trying to tell them that you’ve won, but your footage is forgotten. There is no one left for you to call to. You will have to call for me.
You think I’m the kind of girl who’d ask you to write the story of your life.
“Ti amo,” you say to me. I have not been brought to the surface to feed you milk. I traveled with you not because of love, but because of fury. My sister mothered your children. Our sense of wonder was intact. We wondered at your frailty.
“Je t’aime,” you try.
Call me a disastrous expedition, a haunted pilgrimage. Know that I am still drinking from your bones.
Am I the woman now, here at your crumpled bedside, holding a spoon? And here is my sister on the other side of the bed, holding a knife.
“Ich liebe dich,” you whisper.
Look at how we are young and you are ancient.
“Open your mouth,” I say to you, in a language you never learned. “Let me close your gaps. Let me fill you up.”
“Let me imagine your future,” says my sister.
Maria Dahvana Headley is the New York Times–bestselling author of seven books including The Mere Wife, a contemporary adaptation of Beowulf, named by the Washington Post as one of its Notable Works of Fiction in 2018. Her new translation of Beowulf is due from FSG in August 2020. Headley’s short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Shirley Jackson, Tiptree, and World Fantasy Awards and has been anthologized in many year’s bests; a collection will appear from FSG in the near future. Her essays on politics, propaganda, and mythology have been published in the New York Times, Daily Beast, Harvard’s Nieman Storyboard, and elsewhere. Her work has been supported by The MacDowell Colony, Arte Studio Ginestrelle, and the Sundance Institute’s Theatre Lab, among other organizations. She grew up in the high desert of Idaho on a survivalist sled dog ranch, where she spent summers plucking the winter coat from her father’s wolf.
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