An Atlas in Sgraffito Style, by A.J. Fitzwater

It’s the third month after the cities collide when the women dance out of the walls.

They are the worthy women, the terrible, bright, ugly, and genius. Terrifying puppet vandals.

Taking time to appreciate the black-and-gray stencils that scream Bristol or the hyper colors that ooze Valparaiso would require playing tag with the street chasing me down. So, see Béla run. See Béla search desperately for a ninety-degree turn. But the Bricks are hard at war with anything resembling a gap, and there are no intersections.

Can’t keep this up much longer. Biceps and thighs burn. Taste of ozone, dust, ash, burned flesh, spray-paint everywhere. Run Béla, run.

Haven’t done anything to deserve dying, other than Be Here when the walls came down. But to live? I haven’t done anything worthy of that either. Not even seen The Edge. And nobody comes back from that. Nobody.

“Well, that’s new.” A voice startles me, coming from above and ahead.

Dodging a few pebbles that are crowding my heels, I glimpse a dark figure, a halo of black hair against a smoke-drenched sky. They have seconds to make a decision. If you’ve survived the cities this long, you’ve had plenty of practice at that.

“Take my hand. There’s an empty street back here.” The figure leaps onto the chattering teeth of a broken wall and leans out far in one sensual motion.

The dancing women keep pace, all spider-length legs and wide swooping arms, oozing scabettes of paint from elbow and knee. Despite their geographical differences, they all dance in time, a complicated hideous beat that threatens to break the foundations of the cities already retching with cannibalized capital punishment.

Stairs are untrustworthy, always the first to make their escape. I tic-tac wall to ledge, cat up to a window frame, and a callused, paint-sticky hand has me.

We roll in a jangle of nerves, elbows, and knees across the rooftop, slipping on tiles the hungry street is already sucking into its maw, and tumble into the front yard of something that was once very green and Laos.

Lie still, Béla. Test the ground with scorched fingertips; the tremors of wanderlust streets are constant, but this one is anchored for the moment.

The figure beside me groans and rolls out of a clinking backpack. “I swear the cities are getting smaller by the day.” With the langour only survival can afford, I hear the musky depths of her voice that hint at the corners it makes home.

“I thought New York City was the city with a story on every corner,” I say. Breathe deeply, Béla. One moment at a time. That’s how you survive The Last City Left in This World.

She grimaces at the long tear in a t-shirt held together by layers of dried paint. She is a she, if the functional bra is anything to go by. “This isn’t NYC. Or any other city. It’s all of them, fighting for what little space is left.”

She pulls a ratty canvas jacket out of her backpack, wraps it around her torso.

Heave and gulp, ease up onto a stinging elbow, point at the angular artistry soaked into the canvas of her backpack. “I’ve seen that particular tag around,” I say. “Some high up too. That’s pretty stupid. A street could make a runner at any moment.”

The woman crouches just far enough away, assessing me, the house, the sky. Nah, the stars are never coming back.

“Hmh.” She jerks an upnod, her afro puff shivering. “Name’s Affra. You?”

“Béla. Thanks for the save there.”

Her chin jerks again. “You a Brick?”

Snort. “No.”

“Sure? Those women weren’t trying to run a Brick down for sealing a sister in?” Like a pistol from a hip holster, a spray-paint cannon appears in her hand, shaking its monstrous tell.

“You ever see me on a mortar raid?” I provoke.

“Don’t tend to pay attention to those things.” Affra’s interest is diverted as she assesses the front of the Laotian house for vitality.

Quite suddenly, I am bereft. Conversation, let alone help, is an unusual kindness in a city where every moment is a play upon your life. That is, unless, you have the community of the Bricks to keep you whole. But theirs is a persistence that never quite reached me.

“How long you been here?” I ask.

“Since the beginning.”

Since The End, she means.

“Me too,” I say. “Three months. Been a good run.”

Affra snorts at the bad joke. The cannon hisses a snake-slither of paint, and an angular woman shapes herself on the wall.

No stencils here to quicken the job, though the Bricks have replaced the police as the authorities to dodge. They deem the graffiti women jutting from every wall “dirty and inferior” to their architectural godlets, and the clank-grind of their repurposed stone and mortar replaces car alarms, horns, and sirens as the warnings of the street.

“Pretty futile obsession with them Bricks, huh?” I say. “Wall up there one day, gone the next.”

“You could say the same of the graffiti.”

Smoke rises in my gullet as I read the lines of paint. So quick, simple, smooth, a thousand words in a few short strokes. Affra steps back to admire her work, and just as well she does. With a graunching tear, the graffiti woman leaps off the wall, rotates her pointed hips, mashes her arrow feet, one two one-two-one, then dashes in the direction I last saw the stomp of women heading. I only just roll out of the way in time to avoid her dust-whip.

Affra twirls her cannon, click-clack click. “I’d like to say I’m surprised, but nothing surprises me in these cities anymore.”

She reaches down a hand to help me up, a peace offering, and we sacrifice a few moments to stare after the retreating graffiti. How odd she is, running helter-skelter, two-dimensional, bearing the pits and thrust of the wall that birthed her.

“What do you think they want?” A terrible, childish question, but despite my having a good few inches on Affra, I feel like I’m looking up into her round face.

“What I suspect we all want.” She holsters the aerosol in a pocket of her cargo pants without looking. “To see this all through to the end, whatever that end may be.”

“To die well,” I add to the prayer, not wanting to believe it.

Affra salutes with a water bottle. “To dying well.”

She sips, offers, and I partake. The ubiquitous dust gets into everything. Swish, snort, spit, swallow.

“I bet I know why you were in that street when the tar was a dead giveaway,” Affra says. “You were looking for some of those women, weren’t’cha?”

Heat, rising up my neck.

“Here. If you wanna do that, take this. It’s dangerous out there.”

A half-empty cannon replaces the water bottle. Can’t be a full one, no; she has to be the one to blood them.

“Show me what you can do,” Affra says.

Smooth off the grit from a wall. Can’t use the canvas Affra already claimed, that viscera has been drained. A line wobbles out from my hand.

It does not dance. It doesn’t even twitch.

Affra grimaces, shrugs. “Well, it’s a start, I suppose.”

“I’m an art lover, not an artist,” I try to explain.

An exquisitely arched eyebrow cuts me to the quick, no greater wound have I suffered since the cities began their end.

“No wonder you don’t know my name,” she snorts.

Should I? Damn, I should.

“Hey, you wanna see something really cool?”

Just like that, Affra turns away, trigger finger twitching at her hip as if her hand can’t stand to be empty. With the flick of her head, she sets a rough pace. My muscles murmur disagreement after today’s rabid exercise in procrastination.

“Where we going?”

Affra points in the opposite direction the graffiti women took, the direction in which darkness is more real.

“The Edge.”

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Lord, this Béla chick tho. What is it she do? She all event horizon, sucking them walls in, they watching her, I feel it in my fingertips. That terrible grating sound be following her everywhere, that sound we don’t want to be remembering the sky is falling the sky is falling so we cover it with paint song so true.

Everyone need find what they do here in the cities to keep going. Even them Bricks know what they do.

But for what. For what. To see the end? To be the end? Damn, if I be the last, Imma gonna paint it. Them women deserve deliverance.

Affra I says, Affra that chick ain’t nothing but trouble being hunted down by that red brick monstrosity of four-bedroom two-bath, but it ain’t on me to see someone get eaten by that shitstorm.

But why this all about her? I’m the damn artist here. She nothing but white paper, all suggestion and promise but no followthrough. Her face it don’t change. She so real it unreal. One crease, she screwed. She strange tho. Not losing her rag like everyone else round these places (Lord, would you look at that red up in that sky, I gotta get me some of that) getting eaten by the streets. She calm strange. Like she expecting death at any moment, welcoming it, and it keep passing her by.

Now I be part of that. That’s what you get when you be helping people, Affra my girl.

So we walking, lots, coz this cities have only an end when they decide, hmh. But when I promise The Edge, I deliver. Ain’t seen it myself, but I felt it close by, smooth like fresh paint. And just when I about find it, bam, here come another city. Riding through casual-like, screwing up them nice lines I just been memorizing, messing up my pretty women who been holding up them walls and I gotta start all over again.

Me, I navigate by color and line. That woman over there, all gold and green of Mexico City, she mine. And that one holding on three stories up, all points and blue of Rio, she too. Tags and bombs curling from their fingers, their faces are pieces, heaven written behind their eyes. They entirely done with them bricks. Don’t blame them. Bricks ain’t no good place for a good woman. Go dance, chicas. Go find the beat that shakes this place to pieces.

You look at this Béla chick, go on, look at her sideways. Yeah, that’s the best angle you gonna get of her. She all stiff in two dimension, all dots and dashes, black white black, an S.O.S. She gazing like she never seen all these chewed-up and spit-out cities before.

She listening to me good tho, but it like she hearing me in a different language, seeing only in certain shades. She looking, but she ain’t seeing through that sick sodium lure of the streetlights left to burn themselves out, ain’t seeing the silver of the sewer-lid sun.

She talking like everyone dead gone, ‘cept them Bricks. She ain’t even thinking of us styling as survivalists, them who hole up in hope. But if you be painting your home, you gotta know the people who live in it.

Now Béla, you be looking out for art supply shops, paint stores, hardware, that sorta thing, before they decide they had enough of this place. Can only take what we can carry, tho. Caches no use here.

Hey watchit, there go some women again. Leaving all sorts of red-blue-pink-green paint chips in their wake, they calling cards. Yeah, some of them mine, most not. I get around but I ain’t everywhere.

Where they go? Where they wanna go.

Do I wanna see them dance? Hell yeah. But it ain’t reached critical mass tho. These women only just getting started. You ain’t seen the best of them Cairo women in they scarves and heels, or them Bogota women with the feathers from them eyes and jewelled faces. And you gotta see Buenos Aires; them women, they really know how to dance.

Stay with me. The anchor is paint holding these four walls together. Careful with that crimson tho; keep your cannon angled straight and low. That’s it. And when it’s done we bury it, a’ight? Any dead spray cans you see left in the gutter ain’t mine; they be rattlesnakes corralled into a dead end by a dead wind. One bite, and this cities will pull you below gritty waves.

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Inevitability starts the war between the Bricks and the Paint. We hear the first salvo from miles away underneath the gnashed grit silence and overtop the black-white tinnitus that’s a constant companion since the cities shoved themselves into a single 234.65 square miles of calving flesh. Yes, a very particular number. Affra says that despite the overwriting of our recent histories, the cities hold a distinctive mocking grid pattern reminiscent of something very Indo-Australian Plate.

A puff of dust above a newly inflated skyline has us scampering up a conjecture of dead billboards, reminiscent of Times Square or Tokyo. Possibly both. Not entirely the smartest move, since anything has the ability to turn to liquefaction without warning. It’s only been weeks of hours since we embarked on our traverse to The Edge, but clinging to Affra’s grimy jacket sleeve comes too easily.

We squint into the pout of the interminable sunset. Paint blooms in small mushroom clouds against the sky, but we can’t make out details.

“Those women don’t have time for walls now.” Another shift in tone, language. Hard to keep up with her.

And we’re down to ground zero again. A prestidigitated cannon hisses to warn off a nearby wall: We Waz Hair. The wall shrinks back into its lair, and we move on.

Affra finds a corner easy, sensing the Venetian canals even before they come sloshing past, reluctant gondola children bobbing in their wake. The mist of their passing surprises runnels into the ever present dust on our skin. Affra makes a squiggle of paint here and there; almost as if rising a map full unfathomable legend from the grit, layered over and over again with each new running of the streets.

Another boom of wall kissing ground. The graffiti women have won the first round, and the skitter-scatter of their feet rush farther on as they dance around the dark.

The mouth of a supermarket gapes wide, and we grab and stuff, moaning in eagerness at the first chocolate in months.

With enough warning—grumbling aftershocks of discontent and the bleat of a call to arms—we dive behind an architectural wonder of cans just in time to avoid a battalion of Bricks bursting out of a pub. Red and orange weapons are cocked and ready, and the barrow-girls and trowel-boys bring up the rear. They wear their dust and daub as badges of honour. The walls have brought people together. Some too close; extra arms, legs, and faces make a farce out of flesh. They work well together.

We chew our plunder in the shade of baked-bean cans before picking a high road. The Edge is out there, somewhere, an unctuous pressure of fingers squeezing ever tighter.

Affra performs a quick, precise shootout with a smooth wall. This woman, possessed of thick hips and small neck, claims the tree atop the wall, bare branches shivering into hair. Quite the sight, watching her bob between buildings.

“Why are you here?” Affra’s question settles like the weight of a thousand hands across mouth and nose.

“Why are any of us here? Fate. Wrong place, wrong time. Bad luck. Pick one.”

Turn away from Affra’s easy hand; it’s not fair. The women are all gorgeous. Affra has no one style, no one hand. She could be any artist, from any city.

“No no.” Slap of braids—the afro puff has melted into something more Nordic—slap of cannon back into the pack, slap of canvas shoe in sand. “Everyone here in the cities has a job. Them Bricks search for some semblance of normality, no matter how ridiculous. Paints hold the walls together. Graffiti women mark border. Scavengers…well, them just hold out for a good show at The End.”

We’re in something that could be Melbourne; the single-story ochre brick houses are quite lovely as they shed their last memory of sunshine.

Affra continues: “Them know what’s coming. They just the audience. But you—” She puts a sharp elbow to soft ribs. “—ain’t any of those things.”

Didn’t know this, but did. What kept one person alive over another?

“Art aficionado, gallery buyer, appreciator, whatever you say you are.” This Affra has become more brisk, tongue far less subtle than her trigger finger. “But how is that useful when the world is coming to an end?”

“Why does anyone have to be useful?” I plead.

“The cities find a use for everyone.”

A darkness filters round the edge of buildings, street corners: tentacles, fingers, breath of frigid luminosity. It is The Edge.

I’m desperate to understand, but also desperate not to look foolish. She is a goddess in khaki canvas.

Affra turns away. Not because anger is uncomfortable—exhaustion makes it barely present—but because a beautiful wall has made itself known. Concrete slides gently into place, a click of puzzle pieces, a bare shrug of London-ish glass and steel. Malnourished eyes busy themselves out of the windows. When they see us, they retreat.

Even they can’t stand to watch the change. It’s the grind of bones. The slap of paint on skin. Maceration of flesh into flesh.

Affra.

She becomes.

No.

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This wall, so pristine, so flat. ‘Most a shame to take that away. Attack, attack again the wall with paint. Distracts me from fractals of pain under my skin coming quicker. Can’t hide it from Béla any longer. Surely she must know, must’ve seen. Cut a glance; no. My change is writ large on her face, though she won’t admit it.

The weight of the lowering sky makes it hard to breathe, squeezes the meat of my brain. We all feel it; the cities wearing themselves inside out.

Even weightier? Béla doesn’t understand. Not yet. Disappoint. Expected better of her.

But poor mite. That’s gotta suck. What do the cities want with her? I’ll save her the face.

Oh hey look, my skin is brown again, my hair long, dark, and thick. Tu meke.

So I explain:

“Reduce, reuse, recycle. The cities eat us all, whole. We are its light. We nurture it, fall into its gravity well. Who knows if we come out the other side, or what we are there. Maybe an endless teeter back and forth between event horizons.

First it was just a few, here and there, proper blood sacrifices that kept it satiated. But The Edge is getting closer, and people are getting chewed up, caught in the cross fire as the streets come faster and faster.”

Careful. Don’t let the speech edge into the hysteria of a street sermon. Affra is not afraid, no. Frustrated, yes: by time, by ambition, by the limitations of limbs, the waning dexterity of hands. The Edge comes for us all.

But not Béla.

Painting fast now, the graffiti women more suggestion than solution the deeper into the tumbled streets we go.

Aue. Have to give Béla hope, if I’m to find absolution before a wall gets me.

“But—” The lizard-hiss of my cannon pauses. Béla holds up a hand; saintly benediction or defense, can’t tell. “The cities do give us a choice.”

Well into this line work. Working in simple black, but it’s the smoothest, roundest, squarest, sharpest, flattest, most womanly thing to come from all of my hands to date.

Béla demands: “And that is?”

A hot pink-and-green neon stutter from a sign aching at rest on a corner, like a muscle tic in the corner of the eye. Quite Amsterdam. A graffiti woman with wide eyes, tangled hair, and headphones peers around the corner and dashes past, syncopated to the noise in her head.

“What do we become at the end, and how well do we want to go?”

“That’s it?” Try not to choke on the bitter pill of laughter, Béla love. “The meaning of life? That’s ridiculous. That’s not what this is about at all. It’s about walls, and graffiti women, and potholes and…”

“And what? The universe doesn’t ask you if it’s okay to pack up and leave.” So simple, so hard to believe. Close the eyes against the yellow-brown sky. Imagine. Is there even space for imagination amongst these fragile bones?

Haki rā! A tendril of black coils across the ground, a bastardization of oil and smoke and water. It’s stroking our sneakers, licking languidly around our ankles.

Another far off crash of wall and shriek of metal.

“Look! There they are, comrades!” A child’s voice, full of righteous glee. “Told you there were Paints sneaking around behind us!”

Silence in the roar.

No more running. The Edge has found us.

And it’s all very civilized, non?

She even listening? That face. How she even keep that face when everything a-change.

Mon Dieu, here I go again.

Them Bricks, think they’re herding us towards the battleground, but who is doing the guiding? Twitch of les ponts de Lyon here, swing the trees of Valiasr round there, et voila. The perfect kettling effect.

Ahh, Affra can see it now. But we don’t see, non, the cities let us feel around any which way, fingers, tongue, smell. C’est miam. It’s got you, Béla. Your face same, but fingers they twitch. Choose your weapon. That’s it. You’ve always wanted to Paint, tattoo the skin of your cities, make them your own, but you’ve never felt worthy of those women.

Bringuer. No secret to it really. Just practise. Make them worthy of you.

A battle is coming. Must be ready.

These cannons are ready to fire their magenta, cobalt, citrine, violaceous, viridian, carve unholy three dimensions out of two. Oui, that’s it. Hurl them lines against the wall. Let them settle in and wait for their companions. I believe in you, just like someone believed in me, long ago. Affra got your back.

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Defeated by the night. The Bricks have brought us to This Place. It could be any square from any city, they’re all so thoroughly mashed-up together. Italian marble swallowed by Persian tiles, Russian brutalism chews the wings off Shanghai temples. The darkness is full.

The Edge, in all its empty glory, isn’t Out There. It’s In Here, right in the middle, a wall shooting straight up into what remains of the sky, just waiting for us, for the streets to crumble, the dancing to stop, the heartbeat to cease. Maybe it’s already too late. Affra and I trip on rubble that’s on the cusp of remembering it was once a wall, but cowers beneath the magnificence of The Edge.

Every graffiti woman in the cities has come to defend her patch, marking territory with deep slashes. They stumble in from all sides, some stepping high as the buildings they were birthed from, others crawling on the bones of their walls. The oldest ones are crumbling at the edges, battle scars worn proud.

The Bricks’ battle cries are lost in the crunch-roar of the moraine of streets, but their intentions are clear. The women have to be glued back on their walls, put back in their place, if there is any hope of the cities surviving another night.

The streets are coming too fast. Bricks and painted elbows are flying, tags and bombs and pieces exploding in splashes of paint. It’s chaos. Affra and I take shelter in the triangulation of walls until they slump exhausted and we scurry on. I cover my ears, squeeze my eyes shut, but it’s no use. The convulsions ache in my teeth, twists the base of my tongue, hums in my hip and breastbone. It could almost be pleasant if it wasn’t so…so…

I want to say many useless adjectives. But the word I want is “right.” This is right. This is how it should end. We can’t stop it. Let the cities work their frustrations out. We started it without their permission, we should let them go out the way they want.

Some of The Bricks are waving their arms, pointing, shoving; get those weapons into position. They mean us, Affra. But who are they kidding? They think we’ll just give in with a loaded brick pointed at our heads?

And who am I kidding? I’m just an apprentice to her greatness. I can barely understand her anymore. Every few words Affra’s switching languages, rushing through dialects, her faces shimmering. As the streets crash one atop the other, so too flesh can’t arrest the momentum.

“Paint!” She’s screaming. “Paint like your life depends on it!”

She’s dashing in and out of the brawl, pretending to do The Bricks’ bidding, but really she’s applying first aid to her graffiti women, patching them up to send them back into battle. It won’t take long for The Bricks to figure out what she’s doing, but she’ll keep going as long as she can. Her canvas jacket is a smash of khaki amidst the melee.

I want to help, I try, I do. Hiss-hiss-slash. A history of neglected amethyst, denim, piss; colors of a bruise. Does the cities even feel it? These last bastion walls just don’t seem willing.

None of the dancers move with any syncopation I can use to get in between, find the perfect canvas.

But wait. Wait long enough and a pattern kicks its way out, a subsonic weight in the chest below the howling and clank-shatter of solid against solid. Arms crack, heads thrust, hips jut. The dancers are making music with their sharp heels and shark skin.

There it is. The curtain of shins and thighs parts, and my wall cowers in the darkest corner, shielded from the women’s searchlight eyes. The Edge tongues it clean.

And there. Affra, my guard, my guide, has abandoned her post, created a piece in her perfect image. It rips off, big eyes and round cheeks, champagne halo dripping and taut. More Bricks descend on us, but Affra’s latest creation dashes them aside with claws and tongues.

My ear drums itch. I may be deaf from the bedlam, but my fingers shall not be mute. This shall be the appropriate memorial for the walls of this cities.

This is what I’ve wanted all along: to dance, before the weight of this place pounds us all into meal for the cities’ appetite. I better be quick. I can barely hold my head up.

Affra has seen, and she holds back the women so I am not speared by their elbows and heels. My body finds the keyhole.

A few quick lines, easy does it. I shall name it: Silhouette on Concrete, circa Neverwhere.

It is beautiful. But it’s still not enough. It won’t dance.

Yes, Affra, I feel the pressure of your warning on my cheek, my neck. I can also feel the rasp worming its way up from my heel bones to my throat; the great wall of The Edge is near, and it’s smashing everything in its path. It’s tickling my nostrils with its oil-sweet filth and bitter-chalk smoulder.

I need color the cities have never seen, a mask of reality.

Spit on my hands, rub around the edges of my painted shape, fingers scrabbling against the imitation of my own. The paint runs. Run, yes, run faster. No, the color isn’t there. Fall to my knees, torn nails working into the broken asphalt, the gravel, the dirt. Flesh parts. I pull back the ground, layer after layer, revealing the stratigraphy of wood and bone and ash perfect for grinding up into the finest of pigments with the medium of blood.

Handfuls of it, smeared on me, smeared on the walls. The rumble of The Edge is atop me, black vines of searing cold grasping at shoulders.

I turn, chunks of color still simmering in my palms, and I offer it up to the gelid night.

You can’t spell paint without pain.

A rushing smash, a tidal wave of concrete, bricks, mortar, the first volley from The Edge, the final battle. The Bricks fall, stripped of their ochre and clay weapons. They are nothing beneath the dark onslaught. Nothing.

Affra—small, large, everything, Affra—stares up at me, wonder tagging her eyes, envy twitching her trigger finger as The Edge snatches at this and that limb. She makes a fist of a cannon and chisels quickly into the remaining face of a wall.

The graffiti dancers didn’t pause for the barrage from The Edge, but they pause now if only for a breath. They hold their hands out, all porcelain knives and splintered promises, welcoming me to the dance.

The dank plasticity of The Edge trembles a smothering threat.

I paint myself so tall, all charcoal, blood clot, and venom.

Forget the skies.

The beat drops, and we riot.

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amandaAJ Fitzwater is a meat-suit wearing dragon who lives between the cracks of Christchurch, New Zealand. A graduate of Clarion 2014, they were awarded the Sir Julius Vogel Award 2015 for Best New Talent. Their work has appeared in such venues of repute as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Crossed Genres Magazine, Scigentasy, Betwixt, Lethe Press’ Heiresses of Russ 2014, Twelfth Planet Press’ Letters to Tiptree, and others. Daily brain fluff can be found on Twitter @AJFitzwater.

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