Her grandma had once asked her how you could tell the difference between something that had disappeared and something that had escaped
Editor’s Note: Today’s short fiction is part of a notebook of Lullabies published by the Transpacific Literary Project. Each piece of the notebook is paired with a pencil drawing by the artist Trương Công Tùng. Read the other Lullabies in this notebook here.
Lastly, they discarded the perishables: tart green alliums; stalks of celtuce; shrimps defrosted and vein-blue; and cubed apples for grandma, who had lost her teeth so long ago nobody remembered how she had used them to crack open seeds. Outside, past their windows and down on the ground was a tableau vivant of all this foodstuff. Birds noisily descended on the compost of kitchen excess; a family of wild hoary boars congregated around the black-dotted bananas. From above, Frankie saw a pile of freshly shucked spam looking like pale, dismembered tongues. She watched as people started fires in metal cans, the heat giving the air a syrupy texture, making everything resemble an oil painting: scenes already worn out.
All day long people had been holding small funerals for their books, photographs, clothing. But Frankie’s family had already parsed their belongings to the bare minimum, having lived in a state of uncertainty for so long already. Better to do it ourselves than have it all disappear one day, grandma had said.
The volunteers said throwing the food out would help repopulate the inhospitable land with seeds and nutrients. The animals would help recreate a new biodiverse world, they explained, the wild flying ones especially, but also domesticated pets: cats, dogs, rabbits, chinchillas, hamsters, and even turtles and fish, if you could find a pond to release them into. Upon hearing this, Frankie had been grateful for once that their landlord did not accept pets and she did not, like so many of her friends, have to say yet another goodbye.
The sun was rising. A low-pitched siren began somewhere. Then each building began to emit the same noise as the clock shifted: a deep and alien wail.
Frankie had once read that music and voices with lower, deeper tones and minimal pitch variation were more comforting to the human ear. That was why lullabies played to babies and patients in palliative care were often indistinguishable, the ambient noise calling blood and flesh into deeper sleep states. A few years ago, she visited a new age store and noticed a set of tuning forks. The sales assistant tapped the silver once on a stone and then circled it lightly around her scalp, which hummed with the same comforting frequency. “This one is 432 hertz,” he said. “It’s great for relaxation and peace.”
Frankie thought about this as she felt these rumbling alarms, noting how her skin, her hair, murmured, how her body was reacting to something she didn’t know the meaning of yet. She looked at her mother, who nodded. It was time to go.
Over the wail of the alarm, there was the resounding instruction: “Please proceed to the square and begin the day’s activities of dance. Please, get out and dance!”
Management had disabled the lifts to avoid delays and so they walked down 28 flights, hemmed in along the tight corners of the stairwell. On the fifth floor, the apartment block split into ground-level restaurants and shops. Here, a volunteer with a tiny red sticker on their wrist—a sign that they were to be trusted—handed yellow slips to Frankie, her mother, and her grandmother. This indicated where they should go next: a secret destination far away from the square. The metallic clangs of industrial ventilation units covered the rattling in Frankie’s chest as they left the building and slipped into an alleyway, joining cats and dogs gingerly pawing the webs of food and searching for their owners.
The alarms were louder and deeper now, seeping into their bodies like light, calling them to another place. As they left, the apartment block silvered, as if veiled by a shimmering cloth. Frankie thought she saw a white dot puncturing the sky: burning, glistering. But when she looked again, it was gone.
That year, more and more buildings were disappearing, but nobody knew why or where they went. It was the beginning of the end, they suspected—soon the roads would vanish too, and the parks and ponds, and finally, the mountains.
Several activists had warned people about this after authorities implemented a central network system that tracked and classified everything. Back then, the warning seemed no more than a hoax. But then things began to disappear. Small, unnoticeable things at first: a handlebar on the bus, a strip of yellow on the road. Glitches, just glitches, the authorities told them. But how could one explain the disappearance of a single mahjong tile from thousands of sets across the city? Or the words on one specific page of a book?
An anonymous online group found leaked data reports that taxonomized the city and began crossing out items that they could no longer find. Black ink pens. An indigenous flower species. Mailboxes. Trains. Adding them up, they concluded that the disappearances were not random. Some preparation was needed.
After the very first building disappeared, many people settled in, claiming they had nothing to hide or fear. Some migrated quietly without telling others. A third, small group—which included Frankie, her mother, and grandmother—did not want to go to America, or to England, or to any of the neighboring island-states. Nor could they stay here.
Inhabiting a small area of the deep sea had been the idea of a young urban planning student. He identified a dry pocket, a bump on the seafloor. He drew up where apartment blocks could be built, a little park for the young children to run and play, schools for students to re-invent their futures. They would have to swim, quite far, and for a long time, but it was doable. After all, he said, our people came from the sea. His presentation contained slides of half-fish, half-human creatures depicted in parietal drawings or cloth patterns of early settlers. He believed there were still fish-children living in the water, and on quiet days you might hear their voices reeding through the waves, calling to their land-locked relatives. He said, the pearls you wear on your necks are their tears. The food you eat is their harvest. Their hair is what you boil into soups, soft and gossamer and black.
There was a bird’s-eye rendering of the dry pocket drawn on drafting paper. Around it, the student had patched the paper with indigo squares: a constellation of water, a sky under mountain. He said, “this is where we can go.”
A volunteer network of hacktivists determined exactly when many buildings would disappear, connecting the event to the first day of the lunar new year. On this day, authorities typically organized a mass parade and it was mandatory for everyone to appear and dance. Before, the dancing could take any form if it was patriotic and joyful in spirit, but recently that had changed. People were beaten or arrested for dancing in ways authorities deemed “seditious,” and so a standardized set of steps was devised, the choreography taught to everyone in the city.
On the tenth anniversary of the implementation of the central network system, there was due to be the biggest parade ever. The date was fortuitous: in the Almanac, it was considered “a good day for change.”
The sirens. “Please proceed to the square and begin the day’s activities of dance. Please, get out and dance!”
Frankie looked at her slip. The location of where she needed to go was somewhere up on the other side of the mountain. Better get moving.
The journey from their building to the departure point would take approximately five hours and along the way they would have to hide, weaving through foliage and rock. Only a few hundred people were present, which surprised Frankie, although she couldn’t tell if the others had already been caught.
There was water everywhere from a recent rainstorm, and the peaty smell reminded Frankie of past typhoons, boarding up their windows with her father, strapping down the washing machine to the roof’s railings. Living with windows was a luxury later in life; in her childhood flat, there were none, only bars, and so the water weeped in constantly. In the summer months, her grandfather took her to the local public gardens, where children stuck their fingers in gushing pools fetid with half-comatose fish. The sound of that artificial waterfall, the mechanisms of a false nature, jarred in her mind as they wended through the swampy organs of the outdoors.
She listened carefully now, but she could not hear the fish-children crying. The only sound came from a barrel of macaques who were biting the legs off a picnic bench, the wood wormed to stumps.
The group reached their halfway point, a small museum in the mountain ranges x-ed for demolition which featured a still-functional drinking fountain. They all took turns wetting their faces, water silvering on their foreheads and necks, grateful for this small, private moment.
The museum was one of the few buildings that appeared to be exempt from disappearance, and was now being reabsorbed by nature. Its exterior was clad in a thin sheet of metal that was furred with rust, and through the large atrium window Frankie saw a hanging sculpture slowly breeding with dust and fungi. Frankie’s mother and grandmother gossiped about the original owners, a wealthy artist-couple that had funded the space before it was annexed by the authorities.
“I heard they moved to Belgium,” said Frankie’s mother, somewhat wistfully.
“比利時? What’s there?”
“I don’t know. Art.”
“But I thought the husband is the son of some wealthy shipping guy. So, they took their money to Europe?”
“I don’t know, 媽. Rich people, they move easily.”
“Frankie! Don’t you know someone who worked there?”
An ex. She remembered how every morning he would shave for half an hour, so careful with the blade, the cream, so that his face would be shiny and smooth. And all to sit at reception; to direct people to the bathroom; to give out thick leaflets printed on paper that cost more than his daily salary. He had been one of the first to move, settling in a small suburban town in Virginia where his aunt lived. Frankie had heard that he was no longer involved in politics or arts, and that he now spent his time fixing the computers and electronic devices of rich white people. She imagined him shutting down and restarting laptops, desktops, the screens blinking and blackening endlessly.
“Yes,” she said, looking into the inscrutable thicket of trees ahead. “Used to.”
Things Frankie had thrown away a while ago: Her watch. A few pairs of shoes (inexpensive, primarily for sports). Shorts, t-shirts, a single blue dress worn at her graduation. A set of small notebooks, some cramped with looped writing, others with barely a glyph or mark in its pages. Passport photographs of her father when he was 15, in his early 20s, then in his 50s, just before he died. Her phone, which contained both an infinite amount of memories and none at all. She had deleted everything months ago, so that her screen only presented the date, time and weather.
When she looked at her phone for the last time, she remembered distantly the memory of silly photographs of herself and her friends, screenshots of conversations, data that tracked her health and sleep patterns and, less explicitly, where she went, how long she spent in coffee shops and public spaces, what she was buying and not buying. There had been an app that tracked her father’s glucose levels, and she looked at it often, as if the last molecular remnants of him were stored in that tiny blue square. But in the end, erasing it, along with everything else, was easier than she thought. Sentimentality was a privilege when things disappeared so often.
Back in the city, people danced colorlessly. Music streamed from every speaker. Somewhere in the crowd, a woman with a poster in her hands screamed and screamed, but nobody could hear what she was saying—the orchestra of sound was so loud—and then she was gone. How or where she went nobody knew, although the entire event was being filmed live and then played back to the dancing masses. Their feet flowed the same circular lines, their cheeks swollen as if bitten by mosquitoes, thousands of them stepping and hopping and arcing their limbs on the enormous flat screen, where everyone looked at themselves looking at each other.
Across the other side of the mountain, the group reached an abandoned theme park. Dozens of kiosks were out as if on stand-by, some cluttered with soft toys blistering in the sun. There was trash still in the bins, mulched with mold, flossy and grey. Inside, the animal enclosures—aviary cages that once held parrots and cockatoos, the faux bamboo grove that had housed two pandas—were empty, although Frankie couldn’t tell how long they had been vacant.
Much earlier, when the erasures began, Frankie’s grandma asked how one could tell the difference between something that had disappeared and something that had escaped. “If the escape plan was successful, hopefully you won’t be able to tell,” Frankie had replied.
Now, looking at the sealed cages, each one still carrying a heavy padlock, she thought about their apartment building, the photographs and books pulverized into ash, all the obvious evidence, how humans were so attached to memory and legacy. As they walked through the zoo, she hoped to see a trace of movement, of escape. But there was nothing but empty lots, one after another.
Soon they reached a tunnel: the final passage that would lead directly to their new home. The kitschy train that once ran back and forth on the tracks had vanished, and because they had been instructed to leave everything behind, there was nothing, not even a match, to guide their way in the dark. Their voices were the only way of navigation, bouncing off the algae-webbed walls, returning in a fractured seasong to tell them how high and wide the space was.
Because they knew there was no one listening—no electronics to record and analyze their speech, no signals in this deep bowel of earth—the people chattered freely, speaking in and around their bodies. Frankie listened to these conversations, the rumors of old movie stars, the abruptly cancelled television shows, the songs of their youths, the days in the sun that had seemed so endless once before. She heard children asking how much longer, as if they were on a boring car trip, and couples arguing in ways that didn’t sound like arguing, just words tersed out here and there. Two familiar voices wrapped around her: her mother’s, velvet like the skin of a peach, and her grandmother’s, sharper and edged with smoke. As she parsed through the sounds, she became aware of another voice in the tunnel, small and wet. It seemed to come from the walls, and she moved closer, the sound becoming tin-bright.
It was a song, and it was wordless, pulling into her body, filling her with an irreversible longing. In it, she recognized sounds that had always followed her: in the water rushing into their old flat as she played with toys of things that no longer existed; at the edges of an island she used to visit with her high school friends; in rainstorms that always came down unevenly onto the pavements, ribboned with wind; and in the water in her own body, the fluid that linked her skin to flesh to bone. It called to her with a voice that was both her own and the history of all that had come before her. She took one step, and another, and a few more, until she could no longer feel her feet but only the gravity holding her to the earth.
The first people out of the tunnel coughed, stumbled, adjusted their clothing, and then slowly unseamed their eyes to the light.
“It’s here,” they called back to the others. “It’s really here.”
As promised, there was a giant inflatable slide at least six storeys tall from the mountain cliffside down to the sea. A cluster of volunteers with small radars and measuring tapes stood around testing the area. Several people laughed as they ran toward it; some were more apprehensive, approaching its edges with caution, examining the almost vertical dropoff height from a distance.
Some children had walked or carried their pets up until the last possible moment and were now refusing to let them go. A girl, her face buried in fur, cried and cried, her throat choked in tears. Her parents were also crying, asking her to understand that the animal would be safer on land than in the water with them. She belongs to this world, they said. She can’t come with us. She will have so many other dogs to play with. She has all this food. She’ll be okay. Frankie felt some part of her dull with pain.
“I don’t want to go,” grandma said, suddenly. “No. No. I don’t want to go now. Sorry. I changed my mind. It’s okay. I’ll just go back. I forgot…I left some vegetables in the back of the fridge.”
“Ma, we talked about this,” Frankie’s mother said. “We already paid for your space. Look around you. There are other people going in too. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“I’ll just go back! You go ahead. I can’t, I can’t.”
“What is there to go back to? We burned everything. Everything! Do you remember? We threw out all my childhood photos. We got rid of all of Baba’s things, all his clothes, his books. We had to do it. We had to do it to come here. Everything, everything is gone, it’s gone.” Frankie’s mother had begun to cry.
“Two at a time only,” the volunteer called out. “Anyone?”
What if grandma stayed behind, Frankie thought? Would she disappear too? An old lady boiling vegetables alone in the kitchen, a crease of sunlight on her shoulder, the kettle singing, the lights all on—one day gone? Where did all these people go? And would it be worse than what they had to do now?
Relocating, moving, migrating, leaving, departing, new shores, fresh start. Frankie had heard every iteration of such goodbyes already. She thought of the people dancing in the square, how nobody had noticed yet that so many of them were absent. Bodies in the light. Bodies sweating. Innumerable bodies, replaceable bodies, drifting across land and sea.
One last memory. Frankie tried to recall an important one, something from all the months of protest and hiding and planning, or even when she saw that corner store blink into nothing, but all she could think about was how many Sunday dinners she had missed with her family, before everything had happened, because she had decided to go to the beach or see her friends. Even after her grandfather, and then her father, died, she still didn’t change; she would show up sometimes but rush through the food, rush through the conversation. “Ma, can you please hurry up,” she would say as her mother took yet another photograph of them at the table, of their plates of food, of the new serving spoon grandma had bought that day at the market.
“One day you’ll be grateful for these,” her mother replied, half-offended but putting her camera away.
Now, here, on the cliffside, Frankie whispered something to her grandma. A word to say she was sorry, to say that there was more to this life, to say that new photographs were being developed, that the light was blurring image into view, the shapes roping themselves into existence. To say that this all might be worth whatever came out of those pictures, even if the images were obscured, hidden from them—even if, in the end, they were barely visible.
It was time. Frankie’s mother and grandmother sat on the slide holding each other. The volunteer gave them a push and Frankie watched as the hair tie on her grandma’s head flew off and her long hair unbraided into a silver carpet. The fish-children sang deep underwater as the surface of the sea met the eye of the sun.
“You’re up next,” said the volunteer, gesturing at Frankie.
She took off her shoes and lay them neatly on the ground next to the slide, as if to say: I’ll be back for you, later. The sky was knife-bright, the grass soft and loose, the dirt underneath still wet from rain. She dug her fingers in—it was cool, so alive—and took two fistfuls of soil and grass. She would carry this into the sea; build a new mountain there.