Short Story The Living Structures
Suddenly a heart beat inside its concrete shell. It was a murmur, a light and irregular thing, so faint that I wondered if it was real.
O ften we forget that our buildings and bridges, our monuments and sidewalks, are all living structures that could kill us. On any given day a building might constrict its brick walls like a snake tightens its throat; break our chairs, our desks, the elaborate piping of the toilets only we need, hurl it all outside howling windowpanes. To build anything at all creates a new kind of life, one that breathes air just as we do, complete with audible inhale and exhale, however concealed by highway traffic and police sirens. We’ve known this about structures since the dawn of construction, yet scientists long ago gave up trying to understand exactly how they live. It is a natural phenomena that defies the tools of direct observation, not explained away by a series of chemical reactions like the rest of nature, but likely born from a magic we will never truly understand. Since our living structures keep still for those who build and destroy inside them, most are content with their mystery.
One night the two of us walked into a vast spiral-shaped fountain. It was the centerpiece of the city park complex, now woefully out of season: grey grass, shuffling orange construction tarps, the candy stripes of emptied popcorn stands. Neither of us could make out the fountain’s full shape from the darkness. There was no clear way down to the bottom, just the slightest shape of a spiral giving us direction. From our vantage point at surface level, it looked like a concave wrap of concrete, with a spherical orb containing many spigots at its center. These were shut off. There was something you wanted to show me down there, something I couldn’t see. A darkened blotch, apparently, an indication of the spigots being on recently.
So we ambled down each and every sleeve of this concrete form, this young couple going down invisible steps, careful not to trip one another in the dark. With every step, we heard noise neither of us could explain. Not the breath of the fountain, but what sounded like the music in a hospital waiting room. Then you heard words, something I couldn’t hear. Try as we did to talk, kiss over these sounds, the questions of what they exactly were and who was making them kept lifting us off each other’s faces. A few steps away from the surface, our impressions of melody backing these sounds stopped. This was recognizably a language, albeit one where you only knew the meaning through external cues, not an understanding of the words themselves. The spigots had turned back on. There was not only a black spot, but elaborate patterns now rapidly forming at the bottom of the staircase, like letters drawn upon sand or snow.
The spiral fountain now tried speaking to us directly, its voice coming from the gurgle and spray of its many spigots. We looked at its orb like one would the mouth of a face. The spiral fountain articulated how it felt. It grimaced, cursed, coughed its water up like blood. It felt the two forms prickling deep within its concrete frame, digested our bodies, our clothes, their ticket stubs and tubes of chapstick. Ultimately, we did hear two words, spoken in a plain strangled English. For a short time, they were a secret with us and the fountain.
At our jobs the next day we wrote to each other from separate hardbound cubicles on aluminum-bound laptops with firing plastic circuitry inside. None of these things came to life. We texted a bit about work. Today was digitizing archival audio recordings from cassette tapes. Mostly, we couldn’t stop talking about the spiral fountain. How we found it; how strange it was when we went down there; and how hard it tried to speak to us, how its message got through.
We typed out the two words the spiral fountain told us. We read them again and again on our computer screens, so that each flickering word lost its meaning, took the form of something brand-new. While we understood the two words, it wasn’t clear what the spiral fountain wanted us to do. What it described was impossible, except in the myths of our childhood; stories our parents read us at bedtime again and again at our request, even though we had long known what happened next.
We got up from our chairs at the opposite ends of the office and looked briefly for each other’s eyes. With new management, our office space had just been “reorganized”; this included new decoration. The herringbone carpeting had been peeled off to reveal a stained wood floor that let us hear conversations of the tenants below. A mural of our city, deeply overpaid for by our new superiors, replaced our flower crusted wallpaper. This reorganization plan extended to cubicle placement, which made it difficult to find each other without getting distracted by all things new. So we sat back down again, without seeing each other, and kept texting. We concluded that the words meant that the spiral fountain wanted our help.
You visited this office building as a kid on a field trip, when it was a warehouse for the hulls of commercial shipping boats. The school group walked down the very halls that would ultimately house cubicles and personal-sized refrigerators with catered food. In their place lay the unfinished frame of a boat, a massive steel lattice-work that reminded you of many held hands. The kids could not touch the hulls because of the risk that their skin might get discolored, even burn straight off from the noxious chemicals used in construction. There were robots in the building even then, lifeless yellow things made of pistons and crackling tubes; ‘robots’ unrecognizable to the self-sufficient ones we have now. Naïve, directionless within thirty seconds of being left alone by a human. Everyone in the building—perhaps even the building itself—feared them intensely.
Before the field trip, you had only seen the boats slung in line at the nearby marina. These were smaller. Made for people. Each one had a name written in cursive lettering on its stern. You gave a personality to each one, decided what it liked and disliked from how it moved within a docked position. The kids could not see that the frame in the warehouse was also a boat, like the friendly ones with names. The kids only saw an emerging structure inside there. And given the right instructions, that structure becomes something else entirely. Something that seemed even now to scare you. Afterward, the only proof of being there was a scent that permeated the kids’ clothes long after they’d left. You said it was that iron smell, from the metal being punctured and roasted right before their faces. A smell of blood.
After work, you showed me a few of their initials, those kids on that elementary class trip, etched on a sidewalk near the office. We traced the old letters, found the names you remember, wondered about the ones you don’t, those who have grown up and gone away. All are strangers to me.
It is still unclear to scientists if our living constructions feel anything when we write into them. Our most thorough microscopes aimed at bricks, stones, elegant slashes of metal conjured up by celebrity architects, reveal a beguiling conclusion. On a molecular level these materials appear to have no nervous system, let alone the basis for respiratory function. They should feel no pain, no love, no attachment nor resentment. All we have is their breath, that soft insistent rhythm of their keeping on. I always thought there was a categorical error in our measurements of living structures; that is, we were looking at structures we should be listening to. Even then, at the initials drawn into the concrete, I was scanning for any evidence of a body repairing from physical trauma. I saw no letters in the concrete, only scarring tissue.
All we have is their breath, that soft insistent rhythm of their keeping on.
You held me tight, pulled us together close, away from the letters etched on the ground, the bones of names I would never know as you do. Our eyes were useless then. Everything around us looked flat, its depth of field shallow and unreal. Every other person nearby was a decompressing shape, a balloon sculpture losing its air. We shut them off, got ever closer. Felt our faces, the shapes of the features; bespoke pairs of cheeks, noses, lips. Till there was only the sound of my breath, the sound of yours. Mine, deep and unrelenting, barely covering a rapid heartbeat. Yours, for you and you alone to describe.
We should have been together completely, when our eyes were closed together. We should have been sharing that blindness, without names or words at all, no consciousness, no witnesses, in the dark tract where brick touches mortar. Yet in that moment, I wasn’t there with you. I am only listening for the sound that concrete makes. I heard nothing.
So I interrupted you then, trying to kiss me. We weren’t far away from the spiral fountain, I said. You didn’t want to really go tonight. You wanted me. And I you, but inside there. That’s not what it’s for, you said. I told you that it needed us, we had proof, those two words it told us. I begin to say them before you cut me off. That’s not what they mean. You told me that as if you knew what they really meant. As if they could happen.
We heard the same two words that night. We presumably understood them the same. We knew each other well enough to know how the other was doing at a given moment. We had the same expectations. Still it was there, that night by the sidewalk, where I first realized that I was missing something.
And here we stared at each other for what felt like a long while. To be clear, you stared at me. And I you. Saying nothing. I watched for a certain smile, a certain frown, any vector of recognition that revealed you as you. You told me we couldn’t do that in the spiral fountain. It was violating. But if I trusted you, we could go back there. You would show me what you know, why it talked to us, well, really to you alone. All I ever wanted was to know, to know you, to know everything about you, to know everything about everything. So I agreed.
We walked back in silence to the park complex, retraced our invisible steps down the spiral fountain from the night before. The spigots were once more shut off. There were no letters being drawn on the floor, no sounds that could be called words. When we reached the bottom, I began to test my lifelong assumption. Took out a tiny sledgehammer from my jacket’s pocket, the one I’d bought before work at an off-brand hardware store. Tried and tried to inscribe the words we’d heard that night into the bottom of the fountain. My hands grew white from my grip; their veins with blue blood. Nothing I drew stuck. You didn’t try to stop me. I paused, cursed in frustration, you laughed instead. I asked you earnestly if I was strong enough. If I was the right person to do this. If anything I ever said, or anything I ever did, would stick to anything else. You told me this was the problem. We had gone down here so you could tell me what you knew about the fountain, not confirm what I assumed about living structures. I asked why you didn’t stop me from hammering anyhow. Because, you said, whatever I said, you would have tried your way regardless.
Into my ear you whispered what you know about the fountain. How when you were younger, you and your friends went to this park promenade when it was green. You would feed the ducks, float paper boats made from old Sunday newspapers. This is when the spiral fountain began speaking to you. It wanted your coins, leftover bread, perhaps the sports section. And you’d give and give, asking for nothing back in return. Which is why the spiral fountain spoke with you, you believed now, in the first place. You never gave it a name.
I could truly pay attention to what was happening. Or, I could be everyone else, keep on digging by myself. You told me that you could hear the spiral fountain breathing now. And I could, too, if I was willing to accept a truth difficult to comprehend.
I did what you did. Put my body, my hands, my ears close to a concrete slice of the fountain. Nothing happened for a minute or two. I wanted to stop, to criticize your method, to complain at you, to say that this was the wrong way of approaching this. Then I remembered that I knew nothing, and neither did most anyone else.
Suddenly a heart beat inside its concrete shell. It was a murmur, a light and irregular thing, so faint that at times I wondered if what I was hearing was real. The breathing we’d heard that night began in earnest. Loud like a fire engine’s siren unfurling down a sidewalk. A breathing like yours or mine.
We heard the spiral fountain say the two words again. We did not say them out loud or mouth them to each other. I looked at you, watched a pair of lips lovingly graze the concrete, and did the same with mine. I said the two words into the concrete itself. As did you.
The living structure rumbled. We left there, ran block after block after block away from what we had just done. From a few neighborhoods down, by this time across the city’s lake, we saw its final form. Its concrete was no longer in the shape of a spiral fountain, but that of a massive human being, some hundred feet in height.
A living structure can’t give life to other buildings like it.
The structure gingerly began walking towards us. Its steps were not confident, only its huge strides gave off the impression of something destructive. Aside from this, the being obeyed traffic and didn’t try to hurt anyone. For all of its impressive size, it made no physical impact. Its spiral-shaped eyes were intently focused on the other structures like it: the city’s houses, carparks, highway exits, statues, bus terminals. All kept still, indifferent to the living structure’s grand march down the street. No person noticed it either. The creature moseyed alongside the traffic of cars, the conversations traveling out of bars, the tinny hum of new music and podcasts leaking out from headphones. It was as if these people had seen this all happen many times before, with many living structures just like ours.
Our living structure stopped in its tracks at the shore, right where the city hits its body of water. It entered the water carefully, as if not to disturb anyone or anything. Then it curled up its concrete fists, as if to strike something. And I got afraid, yet you did not. With those very hands it touched the roof of a small skyscraper. Pressed its concrete mouth upon the other’s surface, began to say the words. Moving its lips as we did, to give life.
I see your lips move, striking to say the words the structure said to us out loud. Knowing full well what would happen, from what our myths from childhood told us all along. A living structure can’t give life to other buildings like it. A couple can’t be together, once a living structure they brought to life touches another. If every structure were to live like ours, there would eventually be no more structures for us people, no reason to build anything at all. Hearing my breath, you could no longer ignore the fairy-tale plot.
When you say the words, the living structure will collapse into a thousand pieces. They are a fail-safe code for the structures, our way to keep the stuff of life only breathing, wanting nothing more. And ours was no different from every other structure before it, precisely because no structure is quite the same. The living structure would no longer live, would no longer be a fountain, would be nothing more than rubble at the bottom of this city’s shore. A discovery for a future couple to reconfigure, wonder how all that fine concrete ended up underwater.
You said the words and I braced for our new form.