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Read an exclusive excerpt from N.K. Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became.

N.K. Jemisin

March 24, 2020, 10:34am

N.K. Jemisin’s novel The City We Became is available now.

The apartment building is only a few blocks from Inwood Hill Park. The park is gigantic, Manny remembers seeing on a map somewhere. (He seems to have no trouble remembering general facts, he notes clinically. Only things specific to his own life elude him.) It’s also the last untouched bit of an old-growth forest that once covered the entire island of Manhattan. It mostly looks like any other park on first impression—paved pathways, ironwork fences, benches, tennis courts, and the occasional dog walker complete with leashed, yapping coterie. Surprisingly empty, although that’s likely a factor of it being the middle of the day on a weekday, when most people are at work or school. Past the manicured bit of mowed lawn and decorative trees, Manny beholds a forested hill rising above all, covered in a dense tangle of trees and shrubs that clearly have never seen a backhoe or road grader. He stares at this, astounded that it exists less than five miles from the lights and bluster of Broadway, while Bel inhales, his eyes shut in palpable bliss.

“Ah, this is why I wanted to live up here—well, that and the fact that I couldn’t afford anywhere else on the island.” He grins at Manny and resumes walking down the path; Manny does, too, turning to take in the sights. “Worse than London proper, this place. But then I read about this, a forest in the middle of the bloody city, and knew it was right for me. Spent a couple of summers up at Hackfall Wood in North Yorkshire back when I was a sprog. Near my grandmother’s house.” His face falls a little, and something in his tone flattens. “Course, she disowned me when I turned out to be a bloke-in-progress instead of a girl, so I haven’t been back for ages.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Manny says, and then he registers more than the pain in the words. He blinks at Bel in his surprise. He’s got the sense not to say anything, but Bel catches the glance, and his expression immediately goes neutral.

“Forgot that, too, then? This where you suddenly recall you don’t really want to live with a trans fellow after all?”

“I—” Then Manny realizes how his amnesia story must sound. He can’t think of anything to offer except honesty. “I did forget. But if I wanted out, I’d have made up a better lie than this one.”

Well, way to impress his roommate with his pathological tendencies. But the statement surprises Bel into a laugh, though there’s still a bitter edge to it. He does relax, just a little. “Suppose that’s true enough. And you do seem different, somehow, from the chap I met on Skype last month.”

Manny tries not to tense. He focuses on the asphalt beneath their feet as they walk. “Oh?”

“Yeah. Hard to say how.” Bel shrugs. “To be honest, I was a bit worried about you. You seemed nice enough, but there was, hmm, an edge to you. Back home, a lot of queer cis blokes are just as ready to kick my arse as the straights, yeah? And something about you felt like an arse-kicker extraordinaire. But you said we weren’t going to have a problem, and I wasn’t spoiled for choice, so…” He sighs.

Oh. “We aren’t going to have a problem,” Manny says again, as reassuringly as he can. “At least, not about that. You put dirty socks in the fridge, though, and all bets are off.”

Bel laughs again, and just like that the air is cleared. “I’ll take care with my socks, then. No promises on the hats.”

They both fall silent as ambulances race past the entrance of the park. They’re pretty far along the walking path by now, but three ambulances in full siren aren’t going to be ignorable no matter how thick the blanket of trees surrounding them. It’s still Manhattan, after all. Bel grimaces in their wake. “Heard they were calling in emergency personnel from the whole, what do you call it? Tri-state area? for this mess. God, I can’t wait to see which entire ethnic group they’re going to scapegoat in the wake of this one.”

“Maybe it’s a white guy. Again.”

“A ‘lone wolf’ with mental health issues, right!” Bel sigh-laughs. “Maybe. Hopefully, so they won’t use it as an excuse for more hate crimes or new wars or any of that. Fuck, what a thing to hope for.”

Manny nods, and there’s nothing good either of them can think of to say after this, so they fall into a companionable silence thereafter. It’s a soothing walk, Manny finds, though just about anything would be soothing after the past couple of hours. More significantly, the park feels right—like the Checker cab, like the people who helped him at Penn Station, like his own inexplicable sense of belonging within this city that feels so strange and alive. His memory loss is weirdly selective. He remembers going to cities that have this same weird vibrancy before. Paris, Cairo, Tokyo. None of them, however, felt made for him. It is as if every other place he’s visited or lived has been a vacation, and only now has he come home.

At one juncture of paths, there’s a map. Manny’s marveling at the sheer size of the park when his gaze catches on the words Inwood Park tulip tree. In the same moment, Bel steps forward and puts a finger to the icon, leaning close to read the nigh-microscopic text nearby. “‘According to legend,’” he reads, “‘on this site of the principal Manhattan Indian village, Peter Minuit in 1626 purchased Manhattan Island for trinkets and beads then worth about 60 guilders.’ And apparently a big tree grew there, too, but it died in 1932. Ah, so this is where your ancestors began the whole business of stealing the country.” He chuckles and imitates Eddie Izzard. “‘Do you have a flag? No? That’ll be one island, then, keep the change, and we’ll kick in some free smallpox and syphilis.’”

Manny’s skin is a-prickle all over. Why? He doesn’t know, but he speaks automatically, unable to take his eyes off the map icon. “I think the apocalyptic plagues actually started a couple of centuries earlier. Columbus.”

“Right, right, 1492, sailing the ocean blue.” Bel steps back and stretches. “Seems a good break point. Want to go look at this extremely important rock, then head back?”

“Sure,” Manny says. He has a feeling it’s more important than it sounds.

The extremely important rock isn’t far from the park entrance, over near where a vast meadow edges Spuyten Duyvil Creek. As monuments go, it’s unassuming, Manny notes as they approach it: just a boulder that’s about waist-high, surrounded by a circle of bare dirt and a ring of grimy concrete. It’s positioned at a juncture of several paved paths, with a nice view of the creek and a high, narrow bridge that probably leads to the Bronx, or maybe that’s Queens. There are a few people around; he can see an old man in the distance, feeding pigeons as he sits on a park bench, and a young couple having a romantic picnic on the overgrown lawn, a good ways off. Otherwise, though, they’re alone.

He and Bel stop by the rock for a while, reading the plaque that names the spot Shorakkopoch, after the name of the village that was displaced. Or maybe that’s the name of the long-gone tree; the plaque isn’t clear. Bel sits on the rock and clowns for a moment by trying to cross his legs and meditate on the “energies,” while Manny laughs. The laugh is a little forced because there are definite energies here, strange and palpable as the umbrella became on FDR Drive, and he really has no idea what that means.

Then again, he recalls, the umbrella wasn’t the source of the strange power he used—or, at least, not the sole source. The power had come into the umbrella because it was everywhere, floating through the air and flowing along the asphalt of the city, and Manny just used the right combination of things? ideas? to summon it forth. A car, in that place of choking exhaust and whipping curves and potholes; that had been utterly necessary. Movement, too, that had been part of what made the power come. In the city that never sleeps, FDR is the highway that never stops, except for occasional accidents and traffic jams. Is the power dependent on context, then? Manny folds his arms, staring at the rock and wondering what secrets it holds.

“Ow,” Bel says as he gets off the rock. “History hurts. Whose bloody idea was it to put a rock on this spot? How’s that supposed to commemorate anything? Americans like statues. What’s wrong with a statue? Someone was being cheap.”

Cheap. Manny blinks. There is something in that word, a tickle of a thought. He nods absently when Bel says something about getting dinner, trying to tease out that tickle. But then he catches a sudden sharp note in Bel’s voice. “What’s this, now?”

It pulls Manny out of introspection, and he turns to see that a woman is walking toward them. She’s portly, short, white with a florid complexion, and dressed for office work. Nondescript. There’s no reason for Manny or Bel to pay attention to her, in fact, except that she’s got a cell phone in one hand, upraised toward them. Its camera light is on.

The woman stops, still filming them. “Gross,” she says. “I can’t believe you two. Right out in the open. I’m calling the cops.”

Bel glances at Manny, who shakes his head in confusion; he has no idea what she’s talking about, either. “Oi,” Bel says. His accent has shifted, a little less BBC generic and a little more South London—somehow Manny knows this—and his expression has gone hard. “You recording us, love? Without asking? That’s a bit rude, innit?”

“‘Rude’ is people being perverts in public,” the woman replies, doing something on her phone that looks like zooming in. It’s pointed at Manny’s face as she does this, and he doesn’t like it one bit. He resists the urge to turn away or reach for her phone, however, since that seems likely to only incite further rudeness on her part.

He does step forward. “What exactly do you think—”

She reacts as if his single step forward was a full-on bull charge, gasping and mincing back several steps. “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me! If you lay a finger on me, I’ll scream and the cops will shoot you! You druggies! Druggie perverts!”

“Pervert I’ll own, maybe, but druggie?” Bel has shifted to put a hand on his hip, expression skeptical. “I’ll have you know I’m straight-edge. You sure you haven’t been overindulging on the Percocet, yourself, love? You’re definitely seeing things.” He waves a hand in front of her phone. She jerks it back and dances off to one side.

At which point Manny begins to wonder if he’s seeing things. Because as the woman turns her back toward Manny, he notices that there is something jutting up from the back of her neck through the tangle of her loose bun. It’s long and thin, somewhere between the thickness of a hair and a pencil, and as he stares, it moves just a little. Its tip flicks once, fitfully, when there is no wind. Toward Manny, then back up into the air. He narrows his eyes, and it trembles as if the force of his gaze has disturbed it. It flicks again, toward him and away.

Manny goes still, overwhelmed by an epiphany of familiarity. His thoughts are startled word salad, but those words are: Cordycepspuppet stringsdrinking straw, and more coherently, That thing on FDR Drive!

He drags his gaze from the white thing sticking out of the woman’s neck, to her face. “That’s not who you really are,” he says. “Show yourself.” Bel frowns at him.

The woman turns to him, inhaling and opening her mouth to complain again—and then she goes still. It’s the stillness of a bad freeze-frame, catching her mid-inhalation and before the expression on her face can settle into either contempt or anger, leaving it interstitially vacant for the moment. She hasn’t put down the camera, but her thumb must have gone slack; the recording light flicks off.

“The fuck,” Bel says, now staring at her.

Manny blinks—and in the nanosecond that his eyes are shut, the woman’s clothing turns entirely white. The suit, the shoes, even the pantyhose. Her hair, too, which abruptly makes her look like a cross between a church lady and a female Colonel Sanders. She starts moving again, chuckling at Manny and Bel’s obvious discomfiture and then raising her free hand to waggle in a ta-daaaaa gesture.

“What a relief!” she declares. Her voice has changed. It’s lower now, alto rather than soprano. Around this voice, her smile is all teeth and nearly manic. “It’s hard enough to act like one of you people already, but pretending that I didn’t know you was getting old. It’s good to see you again, São Paulo. Every place feels the same in this universe, your directions twist in and out like holes through cheese, but aren’t you a little out of place? I remember the taste of your blood being a little farther south.”

She’s looking at Bel. “What?” Bel says. He looks at Manny. Manny shakes his head—in denial, not confusion. He gets what’s happening, though he doesn’t want to get it. That white thing sticking out of her head. Antenna is another of the words that have risen to the top of his mind. The white thing is like a receiver, channeling someone else’s voice and thoughts and image from elsewhere.

(How do I know this? he thinks in a momentary not-quite-panic. I am Manhattan, comes the answer, which has its own questionish baggage. He’ll ponder it later.)

The woman, meanwhile, is peering narrowly at Bel, as if she’s having trouble seeing him, even though he’s right there. She glances at the camera as if to confirm what her eyes are seeing, then lowers the camera. “Are you”—and her head tilts—“not who I think you are? Are you something else, underneath that covering?”

Bel stiffens perceptibly. “Who I am is none of your fucking business, woman. You want to move along, or shall I move you?”

“Oh!” The woman inhales. “You’re just human. Pardon me, I mistook you for fifteen million other people. You, though.” She turns her gaze on Manny, and he sees then that her eyes have changed color, too. They were brown, but something has faded them to a brown so pale that they verge on yellow. It’s difficult to stare at those eyes and not think of predators like wolves or raptors, but Manny makes himself do so, because predators attack when one shows weakness.

You definitely aren’t human,” she says to him. Manny manages not to flinch, but she laughs as if she’s sensed the aborted nerve impulse. “Well, I knew you had to go to ground somewhere after our battle. Here, though? A forest? Trying to air out the reek of the trash you’ve slept under?”

“What?” Manny frowns in confusion. The woman blinks, then frowns back, her eyes narrowing.

“Hnh,” she murmurs. “I was pretty sure I’d hurt you. Broken some bones. But you seem intact, to the degree that your species can be. And—” Abruptly her head tilts, belligerence giving way to confusion. “You’re cleaner than you should be. Even your smell is…” She trails off.

She’s crazy. But Manny knows, because of that awful white thing jutting from the back of her neck, that “crazy” is an inappropriate, incomplete word for what he’s witnessing. It’s impossible not to see that thing and understand that, somehow, this woman is affiliated with the giant mass of tendrils on FDR Drive. Maybe this is what happens to the people whose cars picked up tendrils in passing: if they touch a person, that person is then compromised in some fundamental, metaphysical, infectious way. Whatever’s speaking to Manny right now, through this woman, is not present—but that means there’s something out there broadcasting Tentacle Monster TV, and this woman’s got her own direct high-speed cable connection to it.

“So what are you?” Manny decides to ask.

She snorts, though she keeps staring at him. Without blinking; it’s creepy. “No small talk, just right to business. No wonder everyone thinks New Yorkers are rude. But no bluster, either, this time? Where has all of your—” She looks away for an instant, her eyes flickering as if scanning some invisible dictionary, and then her gaze returns. “—shit-talking. Yes. Where has your shit-talking gone?”

Manny tries not to use profanity if he can help it. “We’ve never met.”

“Untrue! Untrue!” She raises a hand and points at him, her eyes wide. He has a momentary flashback to his childhood, seeing syndicated repeats of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Donald Sutherland, and it is entirely too easy to envision this woman with staring, alien eyes, screaming at him. But then she frowns again. “You aren’t injured, though. Has your shape changed? I didn’t think your species could do that, except slowly, growing old and such.”

“Manny, mate,” Bel murmurs, having stepped closer to him while the woman babbled, “this lady is clearly thirteen short of a baker’s dozen, and I’m a little freaked out by the instant bleach job—”

“Manny?” the woman blurts before Manny can reply. She looks from Bel to him and back to Bel. “His name is Manny?”

“Shit,” Bel says. “Sorry, shouldn’t have used your name—”

“Don’t worry about it.” Manny keeps his gaze on the woman, so he sees it when she inhales—and all at once her face distorts. For an instant she is very not human, her eyes flashing from yellowy brown into glaring white and her cheekbones seeming to shift and multiply under the skin of her face—and then her expression settles into a bright, manic-eyed grin.

Manhattan,” she breathes. He shivers with the pull of it. There is power in the way she speaks his name, power that she seems to know how to use in ways that he does not yet, and this frightens him. So does the avid, greedy malice in her unstable eyes. “You are Manhattan, where money talks and bullshit walks! Do you never sleep, young man? I see you aren’t wearing silk and satin.”

Manny tries not to let the nonsense confuse him. What matters is he faces an adversary who radiates danger. How does one fight spectral alien sea-tentacles in human form? He has no umbrella here, no antique cab… nothing but the Shorakkopoch rock, which he doesn’t know how to use.

On FDR, he followed his instincts, and they eventually led him to the solution. Keep her talking, his instincts say now, so he obeys again.

“On FDR,” he says, meeting the woman’s bright-eyed gaze, “I killed your creature with an umbrella. Or…” He amends himself as intuition flutters at the back of his mind. “No, not your creature. You?”

“Just a little bit of me. A toe, to hold.” She lifts a foot, which is clad in a simple white-leather ballet flat, and waggles the toe. Her ankles are swollen; too much time sitting at a desk, Manny guesses, and apparently being possessed by monsters from the beyond does nothing for the circulation.

“I’d expected to lose that toehold,” the woman continues, with a long-suffering sigh. She turns and starts pacing, clutching the cell phone to her breast with a melodramatic sigh. “We usually do, when you entities actualize, or mature, or whatever you call it—and we did lose it, later. Someone came along and stubbed our toe, damn it. Such a vicious little thing he was. Positively thuggish. But after he was done with me and I lay bleeding and hating in the cold depths between, I found that my toe still held. Just a little. Just one toe, in just one place.”

“FDR Drive,” Manny says. His skin prickles with chill.

“FDR Drive. Until you tore even that toehold loose. That was you, wasn’t it? You people all look alike to me, but I smell it now. Like him, but not.” Her head tilts from one side to the other as she says this. It is a gesture that feels both contemplative and contemptuous. “Too late, of course. Before you ever got there, I’d infected quite a few cars. Now we have hundreds of toes, all over the Tri-state area.” She bounces a little on the balls of her feet, then frowns down at herself as if annoyed by her momentary paucity of toes.

In Manny’s mind, fountains of tentacles are erupting on highways and bridges throughout a hundred-mile radius. He tries not to let her see how much this idea frightens him. What does it mean? What are they doing? What will they do, once they’ve infected enough cars and people and—

“What the fuck are you talking about?” asks Bel.

She rolls her eyes. “The politics of spacetime fractionality and superpositioning,” she snaps, before dismissing Bel again and sighing at Manny. Bel just stares at her. “Well. You’re obviously part of that other one, which means that you have four more bodies out there somewhere. Four more, oh… what do you people call those? Organs?” She stops abruptly, frowning to herself, then rounds on Bel and points west. “You! Human! What is that?”

After a deeply worried glance at Manny, Bel follows her gesture to Spuyten Duyvil Creek. She’s pointing past it, actually, at a dramatic-looking cliff beyond which is dotted with houses and condo buildings. “Westchester?” Bel suggests. “Or maybe the Bronx. I wouldn’t know, I’ve only been here a couple of weeks.”

The Bronx.” The woman’s lip curls. “Yes. That’s one. Manhattan is another. The one I fought, he is the heart, but you others are the head and limbs and such. He was strong enough to fight us even without you, but not strong enough to stand, after. Not strong enough to push me out now. Thus does the toehold become an entire foot.”

In spite of everything, Manny is actually beginning to understand. “Boroughs,” he murmurs in wonder. I am Manhattan. “You’re talking about the boroughs of the city. You’re saying I really am Manhattan. And”—he inhales—“and you’re saying there are others.”

The woman stops pacing and turns, too slowly, to study him again. “You didn’t know that until just now,” she says, her gaze narrowing.

Manny goes still. He knows he’s made a mistake by showing his hand, but only time will reveal how bad a mistake it was.

“Five of you,” says the woman in white, in satisfaction. (Like that, something in Manny’s brain adjusts the designation into capital-letter status. The Woman in White.) She’s smiling, and it’s cold. “Five of you, and only poor São Paulo to look after you all! He’s with the one I fought. You’re alone. And you don’t know what you’re doing at all, do you?”

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N.K. Jemisin’s novel The City We Became is available now.

Also:

Read Jemisin on craft, advocacy, and ignoring the naysayers.Read our editor’s take on Jemisin’s debut (one of the best of the decade). • Read Jemisin in conversation with Neil Gaiman.

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