We followed the girl for two days – letting her lead us through the ruins of the city as she told us what had happened. She was a brown, little girl, with black hair that was cut to her shoulders. For those two days she wore the same pale green dress, a great, billowing dress with gold petals stitched around the small waist. She never offered her name, or much less hinted at a back-story that was of her own life – despite our repeated questions: first blunt, then coaxing, and then blunt once more. She would instead point at the rubble of twisted rebar and cement and shattered marble and tell us what had happened there. She smiled patiently every time we asked her to repeat a memory, and as she skipped out ahead of us, that dress lifted in the air and settled down around her. Her voice had a slight accent, and she spoke so quickly at times we had to ask her to repeat herself often. She would laugh and speak slower and carefully, but at times she would simply shrug and then skip off again. We would sigh and pace behind her, listening to her lull into a cadence of an unfamiliar song, the words foreign and lilting in the otherwise overwhelming stillness.
A photographer from Berlin whispered that she thought the girl was twelve or thirteen, but a writer from Mumbai said that a blogger who followed his column had reported a dental record affirming the girl was nine and that her name was Amira. But none of us really knew or felt any sense of reliability to these rumors. After the first day we did not let these rumors sway us – and we were even less prying in our questioning of her biography as we sat and watched the girl eat from the large bowl from the shared mess kit. There was a cook from Chicago and he had established a base camp of sorts near the half-empty hull of a bank. We would return from our tours of the city and sit together against the massive steel doors of the vault, eating our noodles or slices of chicken breast served on dry rolls as we stared up that tumblers and locks and teeth that no longer offered security but rather a respite from the rain. She would eat silently while we spoke amidst ourselves, but we noticed that she watched us, smiling like she always was. She would mimic the gestures of the Irish writer and use her spoon like the historian from Israel. We noticed that she would listen to us even after the meals were done, as we sat and smoked and drank from whatever meager rations we chose to reveal and share. We would lie in our sleeping bags and talk of the other cities and the other stories we had discovered or stumbled upon. After a while one of the soldiers would extinguish the fire and the bank would be struck by a great darkness. There would be a few more hushed conversations, the last recording by hand on a notepad by headlamp, and then the girl would fall asleep before us, lying there on her side, her black hair falling over her eyes, her lips opened slightly as we too, once more, followed her.
Early on the first day we discovered that the city had been built upon the ancient foundations and waterways of a bygone empire. Repeated detonations had opened up pits beneath the underground subways and gas lines to reveal cobblestone and then long terraces. These artifacts struck the archeologist from Brussels and his two students with immediate awe and fascination, and in the morning of the first day we left them behind with their canvas bags opened and spilled out against the tuff-colored dirt: spades and hammers and sifting pans gleaming in the dust.
"A small family once farmed sorghum in that field," the girl said. "There were two boys who helped their father till, and plant, and harvest each year. They would make sugar and sell it to the market that was just across the river. But it was their mother who would cook it down to a syrup and serve it atop dry bread that they all looked so forward to."
"And when did this happen?" the writer asked, nodding toward the open pit.
"A long time ago," she replied, smiling.
"Can you be more specific?" the photographer asked.
"Time is never ever ever specific," she answered, turning to head back down off the debris field. "We are from every time, all of us!" she shouted back. She twirled when she reached the bottom, her black shoes leaving a faint pattern in the dust. We sighed and followed her as she pointed off in the distance.
"There once were lions and bears in there," she explained. "My papa would take me there sometimes to eat cotton candy and watch the howler monkey throw fruit at the people. The last time we went together there was a man there standing on a stack of books shouting about the coming war. We didn't think much of it until now. On that day all we thought of were the animals. My favorites were the birds of paradise – the ones with the long red tail feathers – feathers like dresses," she remembered. She started waving her hands gently above her, letting them lift in the air as she once more skipped ahead of us.
"I heard they shot all of the animals in their cages after the first bombing," the historian whispered. "Word is that a leopard escaped the slaughter and was last seen prowling around city hall."
"I heard all the cats got out," the cook argued.
"What are you talking about?" the girl asked, pausing to wait for us to catch up. "The animals? You think those silly animals escaped? Well, you're wrong. Each and every one of them died in their cages alone. We would smell it if we were south of there. There was no hope of escape the day they were brought there from each corner of the world. Not then and not before this all happened. Once you are caged there is no hope of escape. You should all know that by now."
We glanced back at the forest of ashy trees, each stripped of leaves and greenery in the distance. It was difficult to imagine the parcels of savanna and the smaller air-conditioned glacial rooms each filled with rotting carcasses. The Israeli coughed uncomfortably and we moved on once more, the girl leading. Ahead there was a line of small shops along the west side of the avenue: a diamond jeweler, a small market, a narrow wine bar, a McDonald's and a watch repair business. Each had been surprisingly barely touched by the rubble. The window glass was dusty and streaked by the rain, but the displays and workbenches and long wooden bar and formed booths and neon signage remained intact. As we passed the Indian pointed at a McDonald's a tray where spilled fries and a container of ketchup sitting atop the paper slip was all the remained of a midday meal left abandoned. Across the avenue from where we passed the adjacent building had sagged under the heat and force of an explosion, and the whole ribcage of girders and cement and glass had submerged the lower shops in debris. As we continued on we hauntingly noticed that there were no signs of bodies, no traces of human injustices or even the scattering of fleeing footprints in the cement silt now wet with rain that covered the sidewalk. It was as though we were the only ones who had even been there – the only ones who had ever passed this way toward the center of the city now a hulk of barren wasteland.
In the center of the city there was very little left. The bombing had reduced the financial district to a hot slag that still steamed effusively from beneath drifts of ash and debris. The girl skipped along the edge of a steel beam anchored deep into the earth, and we stood below her, agape more at her daringness to play amidst the ruin than by the vacancy it now afforded. The writer from Mumbai helped lift the photographer from Berlin up onto a cement slab so he could properly capture an image of the girl racing down the beam as plumes of ash rose in the background. The cook and several of the contracted drivers, who all apparently arrived from the same small town in Nebraska, hung back where the structure of the upright library offered some sense of normalcy and protection, but the rest of us were drawn to the empty, vacuous beyond. The clouds of ash and soot formed a veil of gunmetal grays and gunpowder blacks that effectively fogged our view of the northern part of the city. The writer stumbled back down to the group and covered his mouth with his arm as he coughed.
"It's like another planet out there," he said. "I don't know if you can see it from here, but there's a nasty black lake out there of molten something."
"More like a black hole," the Irishman muttered.
"The whole of the city was here that day," the girl called down to us. "There were bankers and janitors and commissioners and children and mothers and dog-walkers and soldiers. All of them were there and it was sunny and warm and just right. And then it was all gone. Just like that," she said, clapping her hands together.
"Where were you?" the historian asked.
"The city underneath this one had less bankers and less commissioners," she continued. "There were more bakers and peasants and slaves and storytellers and priests. The city was also wider and fatter and it reached up along the coastline. The bakers would cook loaves of bread and bring them to the fisherman and the oystermen and the men who worked for them. In that city there was once a girl who was the daughter of one of the storytellers – maybe he was also a priest even - but he would tell her to go to the coast and tell the other girls and boys there about how the city had been built atop another and another and another."
"Like most things," the writer offered.
"Like all things," she said, nodding. "One day there will be a city built atop this one – except this city will have no slaves and no bankers and no commissioners and it will be made of glass and it will float in the sky instead of rest atop all of this."
"What makes you think that?" the Israeli asked, sitting down on his backpack, writing furiously in his notebook.
"I can see it, just out over there," she said, pointing. "There will be great towers and citadels and churches built of glass. All of this will be gone and there will be fields and streams and deer and bear like there once was."
"It sounds promising," the student said.
"It will be like that sooner than you think," the girl called down to us. "It will be like that before I am old." She sat down on the beam where it angled up and out through the air like a great foremast. Her bare legs dangled off and she let them swing freely. Above her the tumult of ash and soot tinged lavender and then red as the sun lighted it. It seemed atmospheric and beautiful in a way, that brief flame of color in the otherwise bleak monochrome. The photographer climbed back down and raised his lens toward the girl and the lingering glow, but then lowered his camera, unable to capture the moment.
At the bank we sat apart from the long table the cook had fashioned from a length of the warped teller counter. He was cooking a large pot of chowder, and one of the drivers was cutting bread that he buttered and heated in a frying pan. We compared notes and huddled around a small fire we had built out of bills and receipts and table legs. The stories seemed wilder and extravagant – but they were hopeful and insightful also. The girl played with a teddy bear missing its right arm near the cook as she told him about the park near the center of the city where the cook's grandparents had met and fallen in love. The cook nodded, choking back his questions as he stirred the soup and listened.
"She should not be here with us," the Irishman whispered. "She needs to be sent back with the others at the demilitarized zone."
"She seems strangely at home," the Indian said. "And she is always smiling or laughing too. It has to be shell-shock though."
"And her stories," one of the drivers said. "They are just as strange. She told me about my brother Connor who died in a car accident that same day – before all this happened I mean. She knew who he was and that he was a teacher and that he had a little girl in the car with him who survived. Now how in the hell could she have known that – let alone make the connection to me?"
"Maybe she reads the newspaper," the writer said, with a sad smile.
"What paper?" the driver retorted. "You think there was ever a printing after what happened? You think there was even a paper to report it? Pull it together, man."
"Someone must have told her," the Irishman rationed. "Who found her anyway? Wasn't she with you?" he asked, nodding toward the historian.
"Me?" he said, shaking his head. "I thought she was handed off to us by the army."
"She was here waiting for us," the archeologist said. "Right there by the bridge into the city. The army driver who led the convoy saw her standing beside the median, waving at us in that green dress."
"Jesus," the writer breathed. "And we've just let her tag along since then?"
"She said she had a story to tell us about what happened," the archeologist protested. "The army was threatening to send her off to the naval flotilla, but one of us said we'd take care of her and take her to her family on the other side of the city."
"That's absolute bollocks," the Irishman said. "How are we supposed to take care of a little girl?"
"She is the one taking care of us," the writer said, finally.
We were quiet then, turning to watch the girl beside the cook as he showed her how to test the doneness of the cubed potatoes. She was wearing his long khaki overcoat, which draped down past her knees. At the urging of the cook she tasted the chowder and we watched as she sprinkled more salt and more pepper into the pot. It was odd to watch this moment of domesticity in the otherwise bleak confines of the vault. The spotlights we had mounted to the ceiling cast everything in a harsh, metallic glow, but it was insulated and offered shelter from the steady rain that fell through the long crease in vaulted ceiling.
"She told me that there are two boys today who lost their parents in the bombing that will rebuild the city when they are old. She told me that these two boys will discover a method to mold glass from spindles and that it will be stronger than stone," the archeologist said. "You have to admit, she's got quite the imagination on her."
"She was right about the farmers, though," the student with the unkempt, curly brown hair said. "We did find urns of hardened syrup in the root cellar, just like she told us in her story."
"Hush," the archeologist said, wide-eyed as he ducked his head.
"Why in God's name didn't you tell us that before," the Irishman said.
"She knows everything," the student stammered.
"Bollocks," the Irishman said, again. "We're being fleeced by a little girl. She probably found the cellar and then took us there as part of her elaborate game. Aren't we the ones supposed to telling the stories? Isn't that why we made the slog out here in the first place?"
"I like to think we can do both," the Israeli offered. "A story is all things – past, present and future – and I can't help but think that she is really simply telling us her own rendition. And whether we each like it or not, it will become part of our own stories when we leave this place."
"I agree," the driver said.
We quieted as we noticed the girl bringing two bowls over toward us, carefully balancing each with her hands as she climbed over where the cement had breached the vault floor. She looked at each of us quietly, and then set the bowls down in between us. After a moment she opened her mouth as though she was going to be speak, but then closed it and skipped back to the cook, the long overcoat flapping behind her. The chowder was hot and filling, but we tasted the bitterness in the broth – the bitterness of our own making.
During the second night we awoke to the low rumble of an explosion in the distance – from somewhere across the river we thought. In the impeding darkness we could not place it exact origins, but we sat up in our sleeping bags and looked out from the vault wanting to see, to be able to place it and ourselves in the emptiness. A few of us turned on our headlamps, and we also heard one of those soldiers engage the engine of the armored vehicle parked at an angle above the marble compass inlaid in the lobby floor. That was when we noticed that the girl was gone – that her sleeping bag had been neatly rolled up and tied with a red string. We called out for her, searching the dark recesses of the bank with our lights. But she was nowhere to be found.
"Jesus," the cook muttered, wiping sweat from his brow. "How could this have happened?"
"I bet you ten quid she's just outside in the rain," the Irishman said, finally.
"She left us something here," the Indian called out, holding up a small book. "It was here under her bedroll."
"What is it?" a driver asked, angling his headlamp down as we crowded around.
"It looks like a relic from the museum," a student gasped. "I can't believe that she found one in such a state after the first wave of bombings."
"Let me see that, young lady," the archeologist said, handling it carefully.
The small book had a deeply tooled leather cover and had been bound by sinew. The ream of pages was curled shut by age and there was a gilding of gold that formed an intricate curlicue across the binding. The archeologist set it down atop the teller counter and one of the soldiers moved to position a floodlight overhead.
"Step back a little, for Christ's sake," the historian ordered.
"It'll just take a little bit," the archeologist said, tipping the cover back slowly. The first page was blank, but we could glimpse the intricate wood cut print on the next page through the thin paper. Turning it carefully we saw that it was a long panorama of a small village, a long line of huts extending out to where a sluice ran alongside the river. There were longboats and fishing stands jutting out of the riffles and we could see the commotion of activity and life in the shaded relief.
The next page seemed to show the same landscape, but it had transitioned to one of an industrious center, with the northernmost arbor cut down for fields. The river was now stocked with larger skiffs and there were stone paths that extended in toward a central square.
The third page showed a faded landscape overgrown with brush and the rubble of what little stone fences and slight depressions of roads remained in a blackened and deeply empty scar.
The next page depicted a single home that had been built up off the river – on a small knoll. Fields extended out into all directions and all traces of what had lain before was gone. There were wisps of clouds in the sky and the scene was pastoral and familiar.
"This is where the city was," the photographer realized, quietly. He reached down into his pocket and withdrew a tourist map, the print of the tour bus splitting as he unfolded it. He set it beside the book and we noticed the identical contour of the river – where that selfsame current plying at the banks over hundreds of years, rising and falling to deposit silt, smelt, waterlogged trees, a long staff, a deerskin cuff, a clay urn of honey, a Bible, the skeleton of a horse, a fishing net, the body of a young girl drowned, a bag of five-penny nails, an assortment of coins, a carving of wood, a torn wedding veil, an amethyst broach, the handle of a spade, an unopened can of black beans, cowries, a wagon wheel, a bag of marbles, bent hooks, an arrowhead, a length of pig-iron, a ransom, a key, a wooden spoon, a model sailboat, a verse of affection etched on steel, an unfired forty-five shell, a tee shirt, an unfilled coloring book, radioactive fallout, a wool vest, the bodies of two men gut shot, a dog collar, a turkey feather, Budweiser cans, dog-chains, flagged cement, medical waste, smooth glass, and all flotsam of memory. This was the same river – this was the same city – this was the same border between then and now.
"Look," the student said, turning the page.
The final page showed a city that seemed to glow and rise above the riffle. There was no dimension to the light in the print – but it seemed to radiate above the water, undisturbed and fixed. Even on the page it seemed to sparkle and gleam.
"A city of glass," the driver said.
"This doesn't explain her knowing all those things about these cities," the student stammered. "It doesn't explain anything at all."
When we returned to our bedrolls we were weary with questions and thoughts. All around us stood the testaments of war and strife – blackened by ash and soot and unseen in the darkness. But we could all feel that unseen burden there above us as much we could that of our memories of the city. We all knew that we would return the next day across the demilitarized zone to the remaining refuges and write our stories and tell our families and our friends our encounters of this place. We would share our photographs and our memories and talk about the great emptiness. We would keep to ourselves that of the dead beasts and of the black lake and of losing a little girl in pale green dress. We would keep those stories to ourselves. As we turned over in our sleeping bags to face the black tile we closed our eyes and dreamed. We dreamed that one day a small field was tilled above the alluvium the river would impart, and that a family told their daughter or son to venture across the leafy wood to emerge where a new city was being built – one that reached above the distant hills in an arc of newfound empire. In our dream we hoped that the daughter or son would tell their own stories about how they reached that city, and how they saw it for the first time, rising upward, unyielding into the light.