Heather Fowler

The City of Grandmothers

Around the City of Grandmothers is a high white fence made with metal stakes. Atop the fence, is barbed wire with electrical current. The fence cannot be climbed, for it is fifteen feet tall, with no crossbeams. A path and a moat surround the city, as well as a series of hills. Any woman can leave or arrive. It is men who are barred entry here, mainly due to past affiliations with current inhabitants. The city does not wish for conflict.

It is a recovery zone, many times permanent, a relative Mecca of security and safe zone from the commonalities of truly violent life. Gina has learned a lot since she moved in, mostly about how the place allows entries and exits. She knows, too, that those who would access the path around the city walls and could not walk on the private-entry bridge (men) must swim the moat. Mostly, it is the angry left husbands of companion guests who do this, or those whose desperate love compulsions know no bounds. If a man stands long enough on the outer path, dripping wet in winter, he often develops frostbite. He does not receive medic care. The City of Grandmothers will not help him. Many times, he says through shivering teeth, “Come back to me. P—please.”

In spring, "Come away with me!" one might hear him say, as if he were a gypsy, as if he could lure a woman with the soft touch of his hands on her hand through the tall, metal fence, or the unmerciful nature of stunning compliments… Sometimes, be he fat or tall, kind or mean, he will succeed.

Before she leaves, a companion guest is always subject to exit interviews. The Grandmother Council is not stupid. Many a lecher, a beater, a molester, an ass has learned the sweet ways of bewitching like winter wolves, and the grandmothers will form a mighty volley of resistance, often consulting the entry statement of the companion guest and her past medical history. It can be a team of harpies, made for retention, for the delivery or reminder of truth if the old women fear something’s amiss. This works similar to how, once, an unwed mother would be subject to tribunal during labor. “Who is the father of your unborn child? Who did this to you, sweet lamb?”

This is not to say the grandmothers are without kindness. There is a magic and mystery to them, a knowing. The companion guests are never alone. Each companion guest has a grandmother assigned. Though such guests often walk along the edges of the city where the contaminators are, for this is not forbidden, most look away from the fence towards the city. They do not want to see who stands outside, so turn inward, tilting young faces at their older friends and making conversation.

"Grandmother," one might say. "He's here again and I hate that."

"Dear," a grandmother might say. "He can't get in. Remember, child, what he did the last time you left the city."

Gina's grandmother would say no different, though sometimes, Gina thinks they’ve let her in by accident. Hers was no terrible history. But the grandmothers make companion guests happy and provide respect and warmth. For all, there is no need to work in a standard sense. The place is communal, a pitch-in. It is also privately subsidized. So here, in the City of Grandmothers, there is everything a woman alone could possibly want: Large libraries. Comfortable dwellings. Crafts centers. Theaters. Sex shops with inflatable dolls and any number of vibrating single-life tools. Art museums. Luxurious gardens, both with vegetation and flowers. If companion guests remain here, having won their lucky position with their application, each fiercely guards her place, and vows to join the others on the road of estrogen recovery. The City of Grandmothers is full of soft zealots and rife with internal promotions, just as the active Grandmothers now once applied to be grandmothers after years in the city, quoting how they would be sworn protect and heal those in their charge, many taking elevated posts after their own tours as companion guests.

They have all received extraordinary, daily training. Here, there are all ages of women. There was an argument for a while about whether to let the transgendered folks in again, but this, in the end, was abandoned except in the case where full operations and hormone treatments had been performed because it was found distracting to city harmony to have cocked folks walk around with impunity.

The lore, Gina's grandmother oft passed down, sometimes over a game of rummy and sometimes over Scrabble, was that the city had to be fully female to function or all good things fell apart. And each morning, her grandmother would say, "What can we do today to defeat your damage?"

Each morning, Gina replied variably: "An oil painting." "A tour of the gardens." "A cat! I would like a cat!"

She had no doubt, early on or later, that her grandmother would heal her, or that the lushly decorated rooms in which she stayed would give comfort as did the houses in this city, all Victorian numbers with pink and green paint. She could, she decided, ignore the men at the gates, those dressed like drenched telenovella stars with bare chests, pining and begging for other women. She could ignore the men on the hills, nude and dancing their lure dances each day with the first tickle of morning sun. She could ignore the ghosts of lovers in her past, for Grandmother Karen made it clear that this was a new life and any man who wanted her now, not that she was “not a perfect flower, so don't get offended, mi querida novia,” was not out for good reasons.

There was this advice, and the fact that Gina had no supplicants at the gate, so choice was a non-issue. It was beyond her control that she could not help but observe everyone inside as somewhat insidious, though such observation would not extract her from the city's matronly bosom. And she knew her special grandmother loved her via the late night stroking of her hair and the telling of fabulous stories.

Indeed, Gina came to know that any of the grandmothers would have loved her. For she overheard them praising her grandmother one day: “What a great charge you have! I wish mine were as docile and sweet! You are doing a great job with her, Grandmother Karen!”

“I am doing the best I can,” her grandmother admitted modestly. “I am making progress with mine,” another grandmother said. “So we shall see. Your uniform is torn, Grandmother Karen. Will you sew it?

“No,” Gina overheard her grandmother say. “I’ll ask my charge.”

Gina had sewn many a rent in Grandmother Karen’s uniforms and was getting quite skilled. And though choice of dress was open, as the city rules indicated, most grandmothers wore standard-issue grandmother garments like polyester slacks and blouses with pearl buttons, lanyards, wire specs, etcetera. Only the hair of the grandmothers was a rainbow of difference. They were not required to be clones, so the follicles of these aged ladies were colored blond, brown, red, grey, white—whatever they asked for at inner-city beauty parlors, which had the frequency, in this women’s town, of Bible belt churches.

 

As Gina knew, companion guests were treated like the preferred nieces of larger and relatively boisterous clans, but no pairing was blood-called. The city did not, could not, work based on blood-call, her grandmother said. Blood, they found, was cruel. Families were not safe, but more often in denial. “If more people had safety with their own families,” Grandmother Karen was known to say, “they would not need this city.” Gina, herself, began to doubt her need. It was during the eighth month of her stay, that she began to doubt she had any damage remaining at all. With so many women, there was plenty of food made daily, the aroma of which floated through the city—blintzes, egg rolls, braised veal, sourdough, canard au basil, rugula—but she began to grow bored of it all. Everything was too tasty, everyone too kind. There was arguing, but mainly about whose pie was better, whose dress was prettier, whose right it was to light the dinner candles...

Still, after a long while of such lovely safety, Gina began to reconsider her early application. Please state the specific nature of your damage, the paperwork said.

That first day she applied, she walked right up to the lady at the gate and laughed before saying, "You give me only one half of one page to state damage? I need more paper."

The lady handed her a ream with a gentle look and sighed, saying, "Our goal is not to bring it all back up for you, young lady, or hear it all again. This is why we ask you to summarize. Even in summary, there is damage-clarity. Most damage can be summed quickly. Listen: Husband-beaten for twenty years. Boyfriend left me, with venereal disease. Mother and father died, no husband. You see?"

 

Gina gave the woman back the ream. She used the half page she had, was admitted, and entered. From the start, she loved her grandmother, who was Mexican, though Gina was Polish. They had, as many noticed, a harmonic interaction. Her grandmother sometimes spoke to her in Spanish, which Gina didn't always understand, but she did understand the way Karen smelled of corn and sugar, sunshine, chorizo, and the delivery of babies. With Karen, Gina was happy. At first. Until she wondered if her damage she’d decided she carried before was all in her mind. In the mornings, she found herself staring at the nude men dancing on the hill, missing the idea of men if not their designs. She found herself watching the squabbles and torn folks at the gates, desperate with love for each other—and the watchful worried looks of the grandmothers... Too, she remembered the women who later left, those guilty, tearful, but engaged in passionate embraces through the gate until released back with their men, singing those men’s praises until the second they left the city—those women that sometimes returned, beaten, bruised, tortured, a few weeks after. Gina kept counts, watched such things compulsively.

"My damage is that no one has ever loved me and that I feel a constant sadness leaking from my pores," she had written. "My lover is gone; he left me. I am morbid and ill about stupid things. My damage is that I fear men and don't want to know them, or fear I can't. I am afraid they do not really have a soul."

She did not expand on the specifics of no one loving her, never claimed to have false abuse or the heavier issues some women had. She had been dumped. She had been cheated on. She had familial relations who despised her. Who hadn't paused in these mires? After a time, though, she came to feel increasingly drawn to perverse acts that hurt herself, like burning her own arm on the stove. "Oh, honey," Grandmother Karen said when this happened. "Stop hurting yourself! How did this happen? Let me soothe it!"

And Grandmother Karen wrapped her arm in bandages. And Grandmother Karen caressed her. Gina felt placated. For many months, all went peacefully in the City of Grandmothers, but often, Gina's eye was drawn outwards, past the white gate, past the moat, to the place where wet male skin shone like desert sunrise until no amount of self-satisfaction could remove her craving for something new, or something old and new—the flesh of someone hard.

One day, because she could, she told her grandmother she would walk outside the city. "Do you want company?" Grandmother Karen asked.

"No," Gina replied. To avoid the question’s repetition, she left first thing in the morning. She walked out over the bridge and past the first hills with no dwellings. She stood on the hill she had often regarded from the city. When the men began to arrive, they noticed her.

They flirted with and charmed her. They took off their garments and began their dance. "Are you from there?" they asked. "The place of the women we’re paid to dance for?"

"Yes," she admitted. “I’m out visiting.”

"Oh, well, we're the reminder group," they said. "The planet is failing and the species needs renewal. We all get commemorative pins if we lure a lady out! But none of us lured you out. You were here already."

And then they started to dance. She watched for a while, seated under an oak tree, and then stood and disrobed. From the fringe, she mimicked their dance as if part of their ensemble, for each person was spaced with five feet between him and the closest dancer. She wondered if her grandmother was watching. The men kept focus on the city until she caught the eye of the one beside her. He guided her one man closer to the center. This happened several times. She was passed hand to hand until she became the centered dancer. The sensation of rough hands on her body was thrilling.

She mistook this for sensation for limerence for an instant. For love. She loved all the dancing men! Because she danced at their center, she could see what they saw of the City of Grandmothers. It seemed so boring now! All those women wandering around, all those hard-up women!

She saw many at the gates gather to watch her with the men and could also see that along the gate an armada of grandmothers had gathered, gossiping. Was her grandmother there, red with shame? Grandmother Karen? Gina bet she was but felt uncharitable in her reaction: "Have you nothing better to do than watch my life happening, old woman?" she thought in an almost mean tone, near certain her tour as a perfectly perceived companion guest was over.

She joined these men five mornings in a row. Increasingly irritated at the looks she began to amass in the days afterwards, she stopped communicating with most women. Each time she danced with the men, they centered her. After the fifth day, she then suggested, for they had gotten bolder in how they addressed and touched her, "If your goal is to renew the mating urge and draw the women from the city, you must be a bit more reminiscent of what they lost by hiding. Perhaps a visual demonstration of passion."

She had a fantasy of drawing all women back out from that city. The men agreed. “Help us,” they said.

“I will,” she replied. Gina walked to one man and kissed him. She walked to another and kissed him, too. There was ever and always for these morning routines, an audience of grandmothers at the distant fence. Other women, too. Everyone watched. On the day it all changed, the dance had all started quite peacefully with light embraces until the blood pounded in the men's veins, their dances becoming decidedly aggressive, until all were enflamed to watch the few that could reach Gina, touching and caressing her in progressively more intimate fashions. One man stopped dancing with morning light and began beating a tribal drum. Then a brawl between the men ensued, over her. There was no dancing to happen next, but Gina had not been forgotten. There was passion at first, permission on her part, and then, there was not.

 

Order had been lost. The scene grew harried as the men she liked and trusted were swept away and the others, who before this had no perceptible interest, overpowered her. They slapped her and flipped her and took her in ways that gave her pain. The grandmothers, from the gate, watched. The grandmothers burned things behind the gate—sage, charms. The grandmothers prayed. “Oh mija,” she imagined her Grandmother Karen saying. But Gina had left the city.

She could gain no help from the exterior. She could not crawl away or out from these men’s clutches. They did this well into the afternoon. She thought of the potential of primal faces, how cruel they could be when twisted with ugly goals. From soft and sweet to merciless in a thrice. With each new assailant came surprise and then acceptance—acceptance that she would live on after this, no matter how she wanted to pass out. There were so many witnesses.

When she limped back to the City of Grandmothers, after the dancers took their leave, she was nude, bruised, and bleeding from many places. Spent tears lay on her cheeks like salt traces. Grandmother Karen fixed her bed, her tea, some hot compresses. "Do you need to go out again?" Grandmother Karen then said.

"No," Gina replied. "Never again. But why are you being so nice to me? I thought you'd be angry. I went with the men outside the walls, Grandmother Karen! I danced with them. They hurt me. Why didn't you tell me to stop the dancing?"

"All acts are choices," Grandmother Karen said, fixing the table beside Gina’s bed. "We are aware that girls are pulled away and come back. We are aware that they get hurt out there. You wanted to go out. Who was I to stop you?"

"But you let me seek something you knew would hurt me?" Gina asked. "I thought you were a healer."

"Healers address damage recovery, querida," Grandmother Karen said, yawning. She touched Gina's forehead with lavender scented hands, her palms warm and light. "No fever," she said. "Now, Gina, would you like a story? Some warm cake and a glass of milk? Maybe a small piece of fruit? I know! I can tell you about my travels to Mazatlan!"

Gina closed her eyes. The City of Grandmothers was a new and old harbor. She was thankful for it, and decided to look away from the exterior of the city in the future, where all the tempting things lurked. Her hips were sore. Her eyes were swollen. The men on the hill were a horror to her, a vision of a beautiful thing appearing to shift from an object of desire to one of incredible and paralyzing fear.

“Grandmother Karen?” Gina said. “I don’t want to go out anymore. Not again.”

"Yes, you finally understand,” her grandmother said, her tone filled with neither perceptible pleasure nor dismay. “You belong here now. Tomorrow, we shall begin your newer training. But tonight, you rest.”

Looking back only once, she gathered Gina’s extra robe in the crook of her waiting elbow, turned off the lights, smiled like a malevolent sphinx capable of great mercy, providing this, and shut the rose-embellished door.

 

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