by J. Michael Melican

Down through the twisting alleys and the narrow streets, down past scrawled and fading graffiti and piled refuse, down between the cracks… something grew.

In its beginning it was asomatous, a discarnate self, experiencing first the qualia of time, and then of place. It felt the passing of moments. It extended itself into a niche where people rarely went, and in that corner of the city which few knew, which even fewer cared to visit – amidst the marginalia of five million stories – it became.

Among the damp and dripping stones, away from the rumble of engines and the buzzing of neon, deep down in the dark urban recesses, cautious parts of it went prying, tendril thin, beyond the safety of its refuge. It explored the shapes and surfaces that surrounded it. It examined the extrinsic world it had begun to inhabit. It discovered the wind in stiff breezes and quiet zephyrs. It embraced the drizzling rain and the pounding storms. Torrents of water washed the streets, running along the alleys and through the gutters and eventually over, around and through it. The waters brought the flotsam of the city to it: crackling plastic, soggy paper, discarded matter; colours and surfaces and textures. It spread more of itself, growing confident now, across each of these serendipitous gifts, and knew them too. Silently, slowly, gently… it learnt.

A carton of flavoured milk came to it, crumpled and broken, split at the seams, streaked within by chocolate syrup, marked by the footfall that had crushed it. The wrapper of a lollipop, sticky still and torn ragged by the enthusiasm of a child’s hands. The lid of a takeaway coffee, burgundy lipstick staining at the rim, branded with a professional woman’s ambition. A pen-lid chewed at the end by the nervous homesickness of a foreign student. A pamphlet of Christ, its text proclaiming the salvation and redemption of a risen messiah, its paper scrunched and beaten in the battle between a devotee’s fervour and a sceptic’s derision. A VIP pass to a strip club, emblazoned with explicit promise, dirtied by a buck’s confusion and fear and lust and pity and frustration. All these things and more came to it, the detritus of civilisation, an armada of the discarded, carried on the waterways that had been carved into the bedrock of the city.

The opinion pages of a tabloid came from above, tumbling, snatched and thrown along the currents and eddies of the air, cart-wheeling down the alleyway, slapping against ancient stone, seized up and dropped again and again upon the cobbles until arriving sodden, tattered and water-streaked. It accepted the pages and all that came with them: the pious posturing, the arrogant swagger, the blustering fury, the anger – feigned and genuine, the vitriol, the facts, the lies, the misquotes, the half-truths.

All these things were taken in and used to feed its growth. It wrapped itself around them and insinuated itself within them. It created from them an anatomy: size and shape, planes and vertices, texture and substance. It took those traces of emotion and the marks of the personalities that had been left on them. And though it took, it gave as well. It entered and enveloped the new things which were brought to it. A discarded shopping bag became a membrane, was swollen with nutritious stormwater, enfolding all these things within: an abiotic amnion.

Enwombed within, it made itself a part of those discarded treasures which the city had brought, and in turn they were each made a part of it, until the distinctions were meaningless and there was no them, there was no it. It ceased, and it became. The plastic split and the stormwaters broke, and from them a corpus emerged, newly vivified.

This nascent entity waited until the time was right. It tested its amalgam physicality, shook out its limbs of polystyrene, blinked its plastic eyelids. Its cardboard claws raked the stone around it. A flap of paper skin, sodden and wrinkled, stained with the ink of old newsprint, was stretched between chopstick fingers, stretched like bat-leather.

It rolled, and the world pitched and lurched around it. It felt its own mass against the vectors of gravity and inertia, fought them, ceded to them, compromised with them until it was in a slightly new place: the right place. There it waited.

When the next storm came it knew the time was close. It felt the water wash around it. Felt the water rise and lift its new body from the cobbles of the alley. It kept the water separate from itself, maintained somehow some empty interstitial space between, and rose upon the surface. It did not allow itself to be washed along by the uncertain currents. It observed. It felt around for the moment when the gutter-tide was high enough, when the current was racing strong enough, and when it found that moment, just the right moment, it let itself go free of its birthplace.

The world rushed past it at dizzying speed. Still it observed, assessed.

The alley bucked to the left and emptied onto a larger road. There the thin stream poured into a larger gutter, running more swiftly down-hill, channelled against a sheer wall of gray stone mere inches high. In a moment indiscernible from any other it thrust itself from the alley and into that gutter. It rode the scaturient waters – carried along by forces it was only beginning to understand – away from its secret place in that dark, forgotten niche of the city and into the thoroughfares and shining metropolitan lights.

The inhabitants of the city hid from nature’s tempestuous power. They clustered tightly in pubs and restaurants. They huddled in groups or alone, within their overcoats, in doorways and under eaves. They ran, squealing and squelching, for islands and coves of shelter, for any protection from the squall, for ports in the storm. Their cars sped past, spraying filth through the air, crushing rubbish beneath their wheels, bright and loud and fearsome. Buses lumbered, taxis dashed, the occasional bicyclist laboured, forlorn.

It felt the city move around it. The world was so much larger than it had known, so much less finite than it had ever dared to believe. The false horizons of its birthplace had given it a naif confidence which was quickly lost.

Ahead of it a maelstrom awaited, sluicing the water between iron bars and away into darkness beneath the streets. It learnt fear. It had been aware that fear existed even in the alley, but it had been mere awareness: recognition of a state in others. It had never before known fear, not truly. It had never experienced the icy frisson, the clenching terror, which it now felt come upon it as it considered that darkness.

The fear made it leap, and it spread the flaps of paper beneath its arms, and it felt the air of the city rise beneath it and lift it up like it was riding an exhaled breath. It flew then, away from the water, away from the drain, away from the streets and into the air, into a moment of glorious freedom… before it was snatched.

The wind roared between an architect’s canyon of steel and glass, took it full in the side, and punched a great hole in its wing. It tumbled then, but the wind was not finished with it. It pitched and plummeted and twisted through the angry air, was buffeted again and blown aside, pushed helplessly into the dry foyer of a train station, swirled in a full circle high up near the roof, and dashed finally against a wall. It fell, broken, its body shedding ruins of urban litter. The paper flapped helplessly. The chopsticks were splintered. A great crack ran through its plastic torso. The cardboard claws scrambled uselessly for something to grip, but they only bent, and then it struck the ground.

Someone looked around at the noise its landing made, looked right at it. It lay huddled in a corner, parts of itself spread out beyond the grip of life and rolling away now, returning to the lifeless rubbish they had been before they had come to it. It felt the loss of physicality, felt its own withdrawal from the world.

The man who had heard its fall came closer: old, leaning heavily on a cane, sheltering here from the rain outside. It shuddered, drew together the sheer, stubborn force of will to hold itself together for one brief final moment, and then it was gone.

Its corpse settled into a disorganised pile.

The man poked at the rubbish with his cane. The wind blew all sorts of garbage in here: coffee lids and chip packets, fast-food wrappers and half-drunk plastic Coke bottles.

‘Disgusting mess.’ He shook his head. The PA announcer’s accented voice rang garbled through the terminal. His train was arriving. He shuffled off. ‘Someone really should clean this city up.’

The End