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“The Dream of Agathopia”
from A Vision of the Author After the Apocalypse
Jordan built, but they did not come.
Content notes: none.

Two women sit cross-legged in the shadow of the gatehouse, one of them with a dog panting at her side. The low flatness of the mountain-ringed plain catches voices and runs them between the blades of tall grass like fingers carding hair, and their words are audible, though very small. They are playing at cards – all three of them, for there is a hand dealt and laying face-down in the dirt at the dog's feet. It seems the game is a variant of go-fish in which the winner has the least number of pairs. The dog is winning.

Your approach stirs them, and the woman with the dog puts her cards aside and stands. The other leans her weight back and peers at you with eyes like pips – snake eyes – set in a somber, dark face.

"Hello," says the dog's woman, and steps forward with her hand extended. When you shake it, the grip is firm – a test which you hesitantly answer. She grins, asks, "Soda, water, or lemonade? I can't say anything for the lemonade, it's a new batch made yesterday and I've got sores in my mouth and can't test it."

You are chary of the lemonade but accept her offer of water. When she is a stride away and you realize she means to say nothing more, you hesitantly offer your name.

She fumbles words, says, "Nice to meet you – of course – my name is Jordan." You can't decide if the tone coloring her voice is abashment or an egoistic amusement.

Either way, it's no threat. You follow her into the shade, which is a relief on the eyes more so than the skin. The sun here is bright but not hot.

Against the wall there is a cooler full of water, stray slivers of ice, and a dozen bottles; it is such a mundane sight that accepting one of the latter doesn't feel incautious. Anyway, the seal is intact. As you drink, you look furtively at the other woman, who is as yet mute; it startles you to see that her cheeks are rosy with blush and her eyelids painted ochre, eyelashes extended, lips reddened. It gives her the sort of beauty that men think is natural, though – because? – there are no others here. Or, you suspect as much, and ask if the town beyond the gates is as empty as it sounds.

"Oh." Jordan pulls a rueful face. "That. Let me give you the tour.”

She leads you down the crosshatching streets of a planned city in which the buildings are from a time that preceded the time before: round-edged, dun, their windows shielded by heavy drapes rather than glass or shutters.

“Straw bales and mud,” she says, “and linseed oil on the floors. Gorgeous, isn’t it?”

Why, you want to know, are there so many buildings and so few inhabitants?

“You mean why are we two ladies and a dog in a city that could hold...” She looks away. “Well, we thought more people would move in. We built this, you know. Everything but the streets.” She holds up her hands, but the palms are smooth-pale, without callus or scar. You do not know that you believe her. “You can stay in one of them – I can’t speak for the beds because they haven’t been turned in ages, but the mice left a long time ago, and the snakes with them.”

You think about another night under the stars, and like you have a thousand times, you remind yourself of how romantic that sounds – even now. Close inside you keep a candlelight and smooth jazz soul and at times like this it lets you say, no, you should move on.

Jordan levels a look of amiable disbelief. “Or you can join us in the gatehouse. We used to have airbeds but those deflated, so now we have deflated airbeds on top of beanbag chairs, on account of that being every kid’s dream and damned if anyone can stop us.” She leans in close and murmurs, “On bad days I make pillow forts.”

You lost the picnic basket a while ago, and the stars haven’t looked quite the same since. Yes, you say. If it’s all the same to her.

“Not the same, no.” She links her arm with yours, though you think she shudders when the sweaty skin at the crooks of your elbows touch. “I bet you’re waiting for me to introduce you to my friend back there. Sorry to disappoint, but she never has said a word to me. Mute, deaf, taciturn – I don’t know. She doesn’t even talk to the Mercenary. The dog. He kills pests for a fee, though ever since the rats left I’ve been keeping him on retainer. There’s not really enough work. Don’t mention it, though. He’s very proud.”

You ask in a reasonable tone if she is mad.

“It’s the end of the world and I choose to spend it in the middle of a nowhere – not absolutely nowhere, because there are still moles, but most certainly on the list of the top twenty most null places.” She strolls, her head cocked, her hips swaying, and it’s either a pose or – or maybe she’s one big playact, from crew-cut hair to bare feet.

You ask if her soles don’t get burnt.

“You’re punning,” she accuses. “You’re punning or god help us.”

You reach the gate, where you pause though Jordan tugs at you. The other woman still sits in consideration of the great emptiness, and only the lemonade in her hand shows that she has moved. You want to know how they bottle it.

Jordan taps the side of her nose. “I’ve only ever seen that gesture in movies. Now you can’t say that. From the look on your face I could have spared you that.” She tugs her arm free of yours – you didn’t even realize you were holding on – and opens a door set in the front of the gatehouse, which strikes you as wrongheaded. Inside it is a home: the previously described beds of strange make, a pot with a young segoe palm growing from rocky dirt, and through another doorway a crank-operated flashlight and a vanity, its shelves filled with evenly ranked toiletries and makeup.

Perhaps this isn’t somewhere that a stranger wants to be – less, even, than the empty homes where even the vermin won’t stay, and the beds that you think might be made, duvet and pillows all in place. You scratch the back of your neck and wonder how a person backs out of this, and finally you ask why they built the city at all.

“Agathopia,” she says, and sighs at your blank look. “It was in a few papers at the time – Chicago, Detroit, and a little place in Kansas called... Well, never mind. Those newspapermen knew that the people of those cities would want another place to be, and this seemed the best. It is the best.”

You sit on the hearth – amazed, a bit, that there is a hearth – and cross your legs and rest your hands limp on your knees, waiting.

“You think I’m going to tell you a story, do you?”

Do you expect it? Her inclinations have been erratic, and part of you questions her honesty. With a hand gesture you indicate perhaps, perhaps not.

She takes a coin from her pocket and flicks it inexpertly; it clatters across the floor and lands head-up. “Not today,” she says. “Come on, let’s get you one of the spare mattresses. I hope you don’t mind spending a while pumping air into it.” She spreads her arms, encompassing the room. “See those beautiful blank walls, nothing so gauche as a light socket interrupting their clean, clean lines? Yeah. In retrospect I might have sacrificed aesthetics just a bit in the name of convenience.”

The next day you wake up vomiting, much to the detriment of the palm. The face that bends in concern over you is the dog’s, and it turns out that the Mercenary just wants to sniff and see if you’ve added anything interesting. The mute woman looks in from her boudoir, her hands busy at cranking the flashlight – outside it’s not quite sunup, you see. You ask if they have poisoned you.

She shrugs, and though her expression is apologetic the nausea clogging your throat makes it very difficult to interpret that as anything other than indifference.

“Aw,” Jordan says from the doorway. “Dog, it’s not like you need to be let out if you’re going to be... oh.” She makes an uncertain, abortive motion towards you, asks, “Do you want help?”

You tell her, at length and with some profanity, that you haven’t been sick in years, and that you’re suspicious, and—

“So,” she asks, and gets you to your feet with a strength that scares you, some. “How many people have you been around in that time? Mmhm. I never have been healthy until I got here to Agathopia. Nothing new to pick up – but everything old to spread.” She pats you on the back, and you are mortified to belch biliously, but it does ease the pressured pain in your stomach. She helps you to get outside, where the air is soft and cooling on your cheeks, and there is water to cleanse your mouth and stomach.

You suspect that you will not die.

“No kidding.” She laughs at you. “If you feel like you’re going to hysterical yourself into puking again, or maybe hyperventilate yourself to death, give a little wheezing shout to let me know I need to come out and smack you around a little.” She taps her brow in a sardonic salute.

You tell her that someone who used to be ill ought to have sympathy for the sick.

“I have gobs,” she replies, and from the inside of the gatehouse calls, “so much sympathy that I can’t stand to let you see it. Next thing and you would be calling me a pitying asshole.”

You gargle water and spit, feeling terribly high-class.

For the next two weeks you are there – not quite under her care, a phrase that implies a consistent and comprehensive sort of attention, but in a sort of orbit. Sometimes she will leave for days and return filthy with dust of a color different from the local soil, or with a wildness in her eyes – at those times, she will press her face into the Mercenary’s ruff and breath deep, resurfacing with her more usual expression of—

It disturbs you, that you can never find the words to describe her. Disturbed or no, you stay another week, and then another, afraid at first of falling ill again in the great nothingness which goes on and on, the stuff that supports life only because no one is really living. It would be awful, bent double with cramps and nausea, petulant with your aloneness. It might be days before you found anything flavorful enough to get the taste of bile from the back of your tongue. Neither of the women object, and the Mercenary has taken to sleeping on your feet at night.

Loneliness does not ever mean what it says, and right now its ironic words are look at all this company. Sometimes you watch the nameless one as she paints her face in the morning, and she lets you. The sun that is cool on the ground becomes warm when you walk the walls and stare out over the gentle pitch of the roofs, looking for house sparrows and red-tails. You never see any birds, but you are always certain that you are just about to. Sometimes you tease yourself by quoting Nietzsche – incorrectly and pronouncing his name wrong – applying nonsense about abysses to this too-big too-empty place.

Other times you talk for hours with Jordan, pulling stories into the air that you know can’t be true, not because they aren’t possible but because of the looks she slants your way. “Still listening?” she asks, and, “Ever been there, seen that, felt it?”

You never express your lack of belief.

It is the time that is definitively not night but does not want to be morning yet when you are outside with her, watching the stars close their eyes. “You’ll run me out of the interesting stories and leave me mumbling about goat husbandry and what it means to have a family holiday.” She’s thrown back on the ground, arched and stretched and unnaturally stiff as a statue, trying to get the cricks out of her back. It never works, she has told you, but she keeps doing it. “Gimme a coin.”

She knows you don’t have money, and with deliberate, wide motions you reach over and pull a quarter from her pocket.

“How touching.” She palms it, straightens with a grunt of effort that is strange in juxtaposition with the muscles of her arms and the solidity of her body. “Here, then.” She flicks it into the air, tries to catch it, fails.

You say that it is heads again, and that you do not suppose you will get the story of Agathopia today, either.

“Not the story, no.” She worries at a red-sore crack on her bottom lip. “That’s too short for telling, and you won’t understand if you haven’t picked it up from the buildings yet. I don’t know how you can’t wander through them now and again. If it weren’t for the fact that I put in all the emergency radios and ding-dongs myself, I’d have to poke around, seeing what the creator of this place thought was important.”

It occurs to you, after a beat, that it might have meant learning something about her – not ranging out, since you don’t know what are her contributions to the city and which are others, but the fact that she picks those two details to mention. It disappoints you that it doesn’t come as a surprise to know that her preoccupations are with paranoia – at the land, in this case – and with sweet things. Her lemonade keeps you awake as if it’s jacked with amphetamines, the sugar is so heavy in it. You ask if you could add things to the buildings, not knowing why you do.

She breaks off tonguing at her further macerated lip – which has occupied her these last minutes and kept her from speaking on. “Nobody here is going to stop you. Do you want to know the thing about this place, the one that I told all the papers to put in bold print? They didn’t, by the way. Kansas compromised and peppered the interviews with italics, but to me, that’s a sort of whispery shout if it’s a shout at all, and that’s not what I said.”

You would like to know.

“Let me be pithy.” And she stands and walks away, footsteps stumbling like they sometimes do, catching her off-balance and jerking her straight again.

You shout after her that you don’t think there’s a hint of pith in her.

Love.” It is a whispery shout, but maybe back then she could say it in bold. “I said: anybody who knows that someone loves them, come to Agathopia.”

The world is full of vanity.

“Is it?” She spreads her arms as if she will embrace the open gates of her city. “If we take the population of Agathopia as representative of those prideful of their love, and we fiddle the numbers to take into account everyone who doesn’t have the means to get here, and then we compare that to all the people that could – I mean logistically – get here but aren’t... Looking at those statistics, I’d say no.” She strides back to you, brackets your stretched-out legs with her feet, big toes pressed against the underside of your knees. “I have my dog, and that one—” She flops her hand towards the gatehouse. “—she has herself, I think.”

You pull up a leg, and though it presses your calf against hers, she does not stir. If she were a man you might be afraid she meant to piss on you. Maybe, you tell her, just maybe you should leave tomorrow.

She holds her hands down to you, but if you accept the help up, your bodies will be very close. You are not certain that you want that. Patiently she waits, and because you have heard her complain about the pain in her joints when she holds them still too long, you at last let her help you up. Another person might press against you and demand, but she is silent and watchful.

It is you that kisses her, and asks if you have a place here.

“Don’t look at the other woman when we scuttle through the front room of the gatehouse.” She grins, holding your face. “Her expression is enough to make a person wilt and dry up – this blend of mockery and compassion, it’s awful. Sometimes I think about doing it in the houses, but it always feels like I’m screwing in somebody else’s home.”

She ushers you quick, but you still see the look on the other woman’s face, and it does take you a while to get into the mood.

After, she smokes a cigarette. When you look at her with disbelief, she says, "The stereotype is too funny not to play." Her eyes are heavy with satisfaction, but you don't know if it's you or the nicotine that put it there.

You ask if she loves you.

"You must think so," she replies, "if you're here."

It might mean she doesn't; but then, she often talks circles, and you catch her with the dog's head on her knee, her fingers curled in his ruff – insecure. You think it – now. Never before. It might ring like truth if it didn't come only when you wanted comfort. You tell her it might be time for you to leave – then that you can’t believe the contrition on her face.

“No? Well, can’t expect you to believe something you haven’t seen before, can I?” She laughs, pats your thigh. “I know what I am. This isn’t the first time this little story has run its arc. I suppose it would go better if I tried to steer it—”

Maybe you’ll stay, then.

She steeples her fingers and watches you. The posture pushes her breasts together, and if the world were kind the effect would be coquettish and insipid, but instead it makes your heart hurt, because you don’t think she means it to be like that.

Maybe, maybe not. You stand and go out of the room pretending you just have to urinate and it has nothing to do with wanting get away. It seems worth it to parade past the mute woman in the nude.

She rolls over and blinks up at you, and her face – it looks raw without makeup – changes into an essentially different thing when she smiles. You feel guilty to think that she would be prettier with some lipstick and a bit of blush. “She’s bagged another one, I see.” Her voice is raw, too, like she spends most of her time singing.

You want to ask if she catches all passersby, and then it occurs to you: were you poisoned, that first day? Is this a nonconsensual erotic role-playing game? Sicken the visitor, heal the visitor, then fuck them. It sounds like Jordan. Or maybe it doesn’t; it’s been so long since you made love or screwed or put tab A into slot B that you almost don’t know how to handle the aftermath, the cooling sweat and bodily fluids gone from sexy to gross, and you almost wonder if it’s just the lack of mood music and cuddles after that have you so disappointed. Maybe this isn’t fair of you.

You take a deep breath and ask the other woman what her name is.

She shakes her head, throwing back the covers; in passing, she pats you on the cheek.

You squat a while thinking – even though there aren’t bathrooms, quite, the rules of the toilet still apply, and excretion is the best time for formulating thoughts. When Jordan comes out stretching in the sun, you have been sitting a while looking out over the empty grasses with the wind in their hair, and the cold has not bitten even your most sensitive parts. She startles; it happens, most often when you have made a social gesture and reminded her that you expect one in return, and seeing her eyes widened out of that context is strange.

There’s a robe thrown over her nakedness, and bicycling shorts with both side seams pulling apart. “Sticking around?”

Look at you, is your first response, and you choke on a laugh when she does, spreading her arms so that her breasts are bared, nipples stiff to the air. Her chin tucks as she looks at her own collarbone, her belly, her toes.

“By god,” she says, “it’s a girl!”

You choke again because you don’t know how serious she is, and you tug on her hand in an attempt to make her sit beside you, but she will not kneel. You say that the city loves you.

“You never go into the city,” she argues, and catches up your other hand to haul you to your feet. “Don’t take that as an objection to your staying. That just means that I’m going to keep hounding you for the real reason.”

Last night, you would only touch her some ways, though she invited you to other acts. If she would be impressed, you might admit to a half-cocked idea of symbols – during intercourse, in your walking of the city walls. You are not certain she is like Agathopia, empty except for objects meant as kindness and utility for people that are not there. But you know that if the city does not love you, she does not either.

“You are pretty.” She does not fit comfortably against you, but her arm is around your waist and you walk together, hips bumping, an intolerable clumsiness were they in public. “I always meant to have more pretty things – more than all the buildings here, empty and clean and perfect. Greedy, I know.” She leans hard against you, and the fabric of her robe makes the gesture strange with smoothness. “If the city can love, and if it were you that it wanted – why?”

Your willingness to believe in things that most probably do not exist, is your reply. Your decision to stay here, guessing at affection.
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