by Lindsay Stern


fear of empty rooms

In the city of K., discord presides. No fact stands uncontested, no verdict immune to appeal. On one claim, however, everyone agrees: the body is a door that opens twice.

When exactly those openings occur is up for dispute. Most situate the first opening between conception and birth. Signals of the second include the stilling of a heart, the leveling of cliffs on a monitor, and—on a mirror—the absence of fog. To the distance between the first and second openings, the people of K. assign the term “age.”

Reports of second openings appear in the daily newspaper. A photograph of the subject’s face accompanies each announcement, along with a brief account of his or her occupation, achievements, and surviving relations. The body—generally considered obsolete—is consigned either to flames or to a box underground. Third openings, while unprecedented, remain conceivable, prompting some residents to opt for burial by ice.

While everyone agrees that the door opens, no one agrees on where it leads. Thanks to experiments in smoke, pills, and prolonged silence, some residents claim to have identified cracks in the frame. Through such cracks they report a host of scenes. Faces of the lost. Balustrades. White light.

That the door leads nowhere has occurred to everyone, though the view remains unpopular. Still less appealing is the thought that the door leads here. As yet, all speculations about the room beyond are conveyed in tones of uncertainty. The people of K. are certain only that the room—if it exists—is unfamiliar, indescribable, full of agony or joy. No one bothers with the thought of an anteroom, with treated air and expired mints, where the dispossessed peruse today’s newspaper, awaiting appointments.


fear of madness

Hours after her inauguration, the mayor of D. issued a census. Inside the envelope were two documents. The first requested the addressee’s age, race, and occupation. Folded into the second page was a card that bore—rather than words—a blot of ink. “RORSCHACH,” read the back of the card. Below: “Record what you see.”

Plausible answers included “petal,” “continent,” and “moth,” though “ink” remained the soundest choice. Implausible answers featured interrogatives, exclamations, or—most hazardous—abstract nouns. The chancellors of D. divided the cards accordingly. Authors of answers deemed “implausible” were summoned to city hall, where police assigned each one—politely—an address well beyond the city’s gates.

Despite scattered resistance, the deportation proceeded on schedule. Life in D. resumed its cadence. Horses brayed. Winter thawed in overture to spring. On the avenues, sculptors paraphrased in clay the stammering hooves, the laughter of fountains, the bridges with their thousand stones. Thanks to the quarreling of sparrows, hardly anyone noticed the other noise. It began as a clanging, iambic in rhythm, wafting in from outside the city’s gates. Gradually the people of D. discerned—through telescopes—the swinging of chains, the boulders flung up like gravel, and between them, the ascension of glass.

The Implausible City, as it came to be known, was quickly deemed an aberration. Following an order from the chancellors, a fence sprang up around D.’s perimeter. Collective alarm found its home in epithets, which the children of D. hurled with ruthless abandon toward the fence. Otherwise, they did their best to ignore the new city, whose pulse had become for D. a sort of metronome.

The buses arrived within the year. They parked just outside the gates of D., unloading crowds of Implausibles. Around their necks hung black machines. The people of D. watched uneasily as they peered through the fence, chattering, sipping from paper vats. Every so often an Implausible would lift his machine to his face. A noise, then, like a knuckle snapping, and just after—impossibly—an eruption of light. Once, it was said, an Implausible had dropped his machine. It had split open, sending coils of ribbon onto the street. Witnesses reported that the ribbon was black, that it shone as if wet, and that etched along it were miniature bridges, fountains, hooves, and—among them, hardly decipherable—the glint of familiar eyes.

Before long, the city of D. was in shadow. Implausible towers tossed their implausible shade across the gates of D., sowing in its people a new and private desire. They longed to dissect the black machines and their images, to scale the towers, to apprehend the steel birds who left in their wake new clouds without width or diameter, and if not to touch these artifacts, then at least to chart their geometries, pronounce their names. Their desire, however, found a voice not in speech but in a shame as impregnable as the fence they’d erected, within whose bars the city of D. had already become the zoo of its exiles, condemned to plausibility.


fear of freedom

Bordering the city of E. are two theaters. The first hosts tragedies and comedies. The second hosts dramas of a different sort, known to the people of E. as “trials.”

In the second theater, regulations apply. The audience is to maintain a watchful silence, muting any laughter or tears a given drama might induce. Applause is forbidden, as are shouts of encore. Speech is the province of the actors, and the fabric of the play. In speech the hero is condemned or acquitted, his fate disclosed. Dialogues unfold between supporting actors, whose monologues inform the final sentence.

While the theaters differ in anatomy—one with a curtain, the other, a permeable stage—they align in function. Each is said to hold a mirror to the city: the first, to its imagination, the second, to its law. Without both faculties, the city would lose its balance, fall out of key. To the dissonance between them the people of E. ascribe all wars, civil and otherwise. To their harmony they assign the term “conscience.”

During moments of collective doubt, which recur steadily—albeit infrequently—throughout its history, the city of E. splits into two factions. Each announces its fidelity to one theater, proclaiming the other obsolete. Opponents of the theater of law demand that metaphor supplant morality. “Only metaphor,” their first pamphlet declared, “can conduct the science of empathy, and empathy preempts the criminal impulse [sic]. Without the latter, law is defunct.”

The other faction released a petition: “Empathy—which the theater of imagination enshrines—promotes commiseration with the guilty. […] As long as it supports such a theater, our city will remain home to the wicked, and continue therein to court disaster.”

Proponents of the theater of law lament what they deem an “aesthetic error” on the part of their adversaries. Tragedies and comedies, they argue, proceed in reverse. Rather than expose its protagonist as hero or wretch, a tragedy complicates the understanding, spoiling all hope of a verdict.

According to some, however, the petition gave voice not to reason, but to a certain envy, or unspoken desire, on the part of its signatories: the desire for a script. Unlike those in the theater of imagination, productions in the theater of law lack an author. It is for that reason—because the words are not predestined, the gestures unrehearsed—that in this theater, where audience and actors face the same direction, there arose the need for rules.


fear of disorder

Nature endows the people of A. with five senses. The windows of the first three—smell, taste, and sight—compose the face. Through them the people of A. perceive, respectively, fire’s duel with oak, the mouth of a lover, and the geometries of snow. The windows of the fourth sense frame the face. Their pattern is not unlike that of the armor of a conch, through which, it is said, the ocean speaks.

Every window is the window of touch, the fifth sense. Texture, temperature, and shape disclose to the people of A. the grammar of objects, summoning familiar nouns to their lips—“Faucet.” “Ankle.” “Sap.” Generally speaking, the other senses corroborate those nouns, weaving them with ease into the syntax of A.

Every so often, light rebels. Where the wanderer’s eyes announce, in the sand, a distant sea, touch reveals an emulsion of rays. The people of A. know better than to trust the slurred air above their kettles, the clouds sweeping beneath the surfaces of lakes, and the faces eyeing them over bathroom sinks, where a child’s questioning hands find only glass. Light’s mutinies are known, variously, as “mirages,” “chimeras,” or “apparitions.”

Matter, while more obedient than light, is not without its transgressions. Regarding temperature, for instance, the people of A. report a curious phenomenon: the synonymy of opposites. An excess of heat produces in the skin—prior to the burn—the same numbing effect as ice. Extreme cold, on the other hand, is said to “scald.”

Such transgressions have led the people of A. to suspect that perception is not what it seems. The senses, some maintain, are more than faculties. They are impositions of law.

By that logic, the eyes are not windows but magistrates, marshaling light into figures, and figures into names. The grammar they detect is a grammar inflicted, no more innate than the moon’s expressions.

Consequently, some residents of A. have come to regard the natural world with a measure of guilt. Most, however, proceed as usual, taking joy in winter’s spangle of frost, in dawn’s refractions, in the parabola of color after rain. The laws of sense, after all, are not unjustified. They derive from an ancient and evolving regime, known in A. as the constitution of flesh.


fear of law

Soon after their election, the anarchists of the city of N. set out to erase its constitution, law by law. They began with “Do not steal,” and proceeded to “Do not kill” and “Do not lie.” To consummate each purge, the anarchists committed the forbidden act. They lied and murdered and stole, plundering N. until the city heaved.

At last they reached the first and final clause, the law that shouldered all the rest. The page contained one line: “Do not transgress.” They erased it. Yet try as they might, the anarchists could not consummate the purge. This was a strange and stubborn law, they came to see, one that could not be flouted on its own. To break it, they would have to break another, they agreed, and yet no other law remained for them to break.

Only then did the anarchists set down the emptied book, having understood with sickening hearts that in purging the city of laws they had made its Law impossible to break.


fear of loneliness

In the city of E., no love is unrequited. The residents of E. have only to find a mate, and for this task the cryptographers have developed a technique. The procedure is simple. Each resident of E. supplies two lists: one containing his or her qualities; the other, those that he or she hopes to encounter in a mate. The cryptographers of E. tabulate the data on a graph, seeking those sets of qualities that form, according to the points to which they correspond, a perfect circle.

To date, no couple matched by the cryptographers of E. has ever parted. Members of a pair do not quarrel. Their moods harmonize. There are, between them, no regrets. Each completes the other, anticipating her tastes and aversions, unspoken doubts; satisfying in advance his every wish.

From other cities come tales of frustration, of loss, of betrayal. The residents of E. listen hard to these reports, hoarding written copies between the pages of magazines. At one another they shake their heads, remarking with widened eyes on the pity they are, these other cities, where love is brief or fraught or both, ridden always with confusion, and misunderstanding, and altered hopes.

What the residents of E. do not confess to one another is the sensation of a lack, or void, whose pain the tales exacerbate. The lack does not stem from the loss of another—the loved one—with whom they share an understanding so complete that it relieves them, more often than not, of the need to speak. This lack is stranger, more insidious. It points not to the loss of a person, but to that of a particular faculty, one that the cryptographers of E. have rendered obsolete.

There is, in the city of E., no desire. So seamless are the algorithms, so faultless the bonds they enable, that no one is incomplete. There exists between the members of each pair no margin of error, no thirst that the other cannot predict and slake. They are known to one another, and they have, therefore, nothing left to want. Of this they should be grateful, and it is of this that each reminds himself as, silently, he slips from bed and moves down the corridor, to read.


fear of the heart

Of all cities, C. is the emptiest. Most of its residents have departed, seeking refuge in doorways, public parks. Because the city receives so few visitors, cartographers have erased it from their maps. With due patience, however, one can find it. The traveler has only to choose a road and follow it long enough. He will know when he reaches the city, which lies at the end of every road, by the faces of its people—gaunt and square, without expression—who, when he asks them for their names, or how they are, will look swiftly away.

He will assume that they speak another language, these people, until the signs guiding him to lodging and food prove otherwise. Try as he might to win their trust, they will not return his smiles. They move about alone, eating gingerly, carrying little. To one another, they say nothing. The traveller learns gradually to follow suit, avoiding their glances, paying wordlessly for meals, trading the dances of public life for the motions of an exile. Even so, the rhythms of C. confound him. Only later, with luck and careful attention, will he understand the reason for their silence.

Language, in the city of C., cannot deceive. When a person speaks, she says precisely what she means. No matter her intentions, she cannot prevaricate, cannot soften the truth about what she feels or thinks. There is no fissure in C. between a word and the motives behind it, no gap between what is meant and what is said. The two remain as one, no more distinct than the chromosomes of an undivided cell.

Anthropologists conclude that the flowering of words in the city of C. has stalled; that their evolution is incomplete. Were the language of C. to follow its natural course, they presume, it would undergo the stage in question—the cleaving of word from intent—and accommodate, therein, the act of lying. According to the anthropologists, that impediment to growth has kept the language of C. unspoiled, immune to error. If only the languages of other cities could follow suit, they murmur; then, the human sciences might at last abandon their quest for exactitude. How content they must be, the residents of C., to know only, eternally, truth.

The anthropologists never suspect what the traveler observes: that, rather than revel in words, the people of C. eschew them. They communicate instead through motions of the body and face and, occasionally, through blinking. Always, they walk several yards apart, regarding one another with discretion. The traveller understands it first as enmity—their manner—and then as the symptom of a vast and weary tact.

The traveler will sense, if he can bear to stay, that their silence is necessary. He will wonder whether a language purged of error is indeed possible, whether it represents, to the contrary, a contradiction in terms. Perhaps he has been mistaken, he will think, about the nature of words; perhaps they have an altogether different character, opaque to those who exchange them. Perhaps speech does not serve as the vehicle for thought, but as thought’s precondition, the soil without which an idea remains stunted, premature. If that were so, then a person could not know, before speaking, exactly what she meant. To know this, or know it fully, she would have to speak, to let her words hang and ripen in the air, and then to watch them register in another face. Only then could she read it: what she meant. Only then could the word and its meaning intersect. The language employed in the city of C., however, would preclude such an interval. As long as one’s meaning—still nascent—remained tethered to words, one could not allow words to gallop ahead, awaiting sense, like beasts that stumble and swerve and carry the voice to unknown places.

Not improbably, another thought will occur to the traveler, another explanation for the silence of C. That reason is darker, simpler. It is that the language of C., in its transparency, has granted its people a particular insight. The insight concerns words and their function, and is one they have not managed to negate.

The residents of C. comprehend, in their silence, what the traveler does not: what other cities call the “inadequacy of language”—that deficiency in speech that prevents it, they complain, from saying precisely what they mean—is nothing of the sort. The phrase signifies, instead, their own dim wish not to disclose themselves, to hold one another apart. That this wish is justified, the residents of C. understand all too well. They know that the truth cannot be spoken directly; that, just as the sun—looked at too long—blinds the seer, so the truth—spoken aloud—would deprive her of speech.

Eventually the people of C. succeed, by subtle means, in pushing the traveler out. It is too difficult to watch him wandering about, seeking answers. They envy him his hunger; his many questions; his innocence to his own, primary motives—to the lawless place behind his thoughts.

It is the function of words to civilize that place or—failing that—to brand it perverse. Though the people of C. understand this, they cannot bring themselves to explain it to the traveler, who sees in language no darker purpose than that of invention, discovery, connection. Nonetheless, they can tell from his posture, his occasional deference, and how his voice changes in sleep, that he can sense it. They suspect that his words and those of others have kept him from it, more or less; that when it comes to him at all it does so gently, tempered by speech, as a vague sense of guilt and trepidation, a belief that he has lost a vital thing, that there is a crime he has forgotten and for which his choices serve, in some flawed way, as atonement.


fear of circles

Roaming the boulevards of T. is a woman with no address. Blithely she strolls from shop to shop, breaking her silence only to sing. The children of T. delight in her music, but the rest avoid her. Not long ago, it was said, she would detain them mid-stride with the following question:

“Where are you going?”

“To the market,” one might answer.

“And then?” she would press on.

“Home, of course.”

“After that?”

The patient among them would wait as she nodded, glancing toward the sky as if to read from there the plan routine had minted. “To bed,” one would continue, “and tomorrow, to the office.”

“And you’ve just come from work?”


“And after work—tomorrow—where then?”

“Back to the market, I suppose.” A pause, a clearing of the throat. “What about it?”

“Coming from where they’re going,” she would murmur, “Arriving where they’ve been.”

“What’s that?”

“No matter. Pleased to meet you,” she would smile, gliding off.

On the desks of the chancellors, envelopes multiplied bearing requests that police apprehend the woman, that she was disturbing the peace. Her questions, they wrote, amounted to thorns in the heels of her interlocutors, without whose daily rhythms the city of T. would veer off course.

Citing collective discontent, the chancellors declared a trial. The woman—whose name remained unknown—was summoned to court on charges of sedition. She arrived in slacks, wearing a look of affable amusement.

“It is my impression,” she began, after the charges were announced, “that sedition involves a betrayal on the part of the accused. What, then, have I flouted?”

“The integrity of errands,” replied the magistrate, “and therein, the ship of state.”

“The ship of state,” she repeated.

“Indeed. Its natural course.”

“Which is?”


“The ship of state. Where is it going?”

“I don’t follow.”

“I’ve disrupted its course, you say.”


“Where is it going, then, the ship?”

“Toward justice!” came a voice.

“Justice! Indeed,” the magistrate echoed with a clap.

The woman nodded slowly. “It hasn’t arrived, you’re saying?”

The magistrate blinked.

“It hasn’t reached its port?” said the woman.

“Treason!” someone cried. “To claim the ship hasn’t arrived is to claim it isn’t just.”

“It’s not moving then,” hastened the magistrate, “Let the proceedings resume.”

“Of course it’s moving,” cried another. “We’re going somewhere, after all!”

Shouts erupted, followed by a tangle of limbs. So dense was the ocean of noise that neither the woman nor the magistrate could discern, from the heaving crowd, what it was they opposed. The jury would cite the chaos as evidence in favor of the woman’s conviction, which was announced just before nightfall.

More contentious than the verdict was the woman’s sentence. Most, including the magistrate, proposed exile. But because she posed no physical threat, the judge determined that the woman be banished only from speech.

So it was that she took refuge in music, a gesture some interpret as an act of defiance. Others disagree, finding her melodies as indifferent to the city of T. as wind to the clicking of an abacus. Her music is not entirely unpleasant, they admit, and even affords a certain respite from the vectors of daily life. A few have begun to confuse her refrain with the applause of autumn leaves, the lakes thawing after winter’s denouement, and—lately—with the igniting buds, in whose slow fire the boughs are emptying once more.

Lindsay Stern’s first book, Town of Shadows (Scrambler Books, 2012), was adapted into a performance by Loud Hound Movement, a dance collective based in New York City. After graduating from Amherst College in 2013, she wrote and taught in Phnom Penh, Cape Town, Bangalore, Cuzco, and Paris as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. Her work has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Sleepingfish, The Common Online,American Circus, Weird Fiction Review, PANK, DIAGRAM, and online at Poets & Writers, Inc.. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her second book, Lüz, is under contract at Ravenna Press.