Marie was halfway to the train station, contemplating how far she could get with what she had in her pockets, when she heard the giant coming over the mountain, rumbling and cracking like ice on a lake at winter’s end. Not a giant—no, it was bigger than that, a behemoth, a colosse—without a head, just a pair of lumpy shoulders she could barely tell were moving until they separated from the mountain, coming towards Saint-Michel at the rate of a cloud before wind. Its clubbed foot descended over the forest, where the spring came over the boulder and the Rossellinis took the kids they sat for hunting snails. After the rumble of its settling weight died against the mountainsides, only a corner of fir trees remained on the far side near town, then nothing but leg all the way to where the tracks curved east for Saint-Gaudens.
She dropped the little bag she’d packed and ran, craning her neck to follow its progress, sneakers pounding down the long, bare slope, back over the river causeway, up along the retaining wall past the furthest houses where the pavement turned to brick. By the sweet-smelling bins of the Patisserie Rue de Moulin where she’d dived for her breakfast, she dragged to a halt, legs wobbly, breath fiery raw in the morning cool.
The colosse wore houses crowded on its sides, streets, alleys, culs-de-sac, swaths of rubble where more houses might once have been. A skinny mutt of a dog ran along one street, keeping pace with Marie as the leg itself whooshed ponderously past, barking as if she were the horrible monster out of the sky.
Gray as a thunderhead, it descended over Saint-Michel, over her papa and maman, the Rossellinis, Valerie the boulanger, M. Couto and his cat, Voltaire, casting no shadow across the citadel tower or the spires because the sun had barely climbed above the Pyrenees. There was nothing to warn them but the sound.
If she kept running, it would crush her too.
Stumbling, Marie sprinted for her life back towards the river.
The world quaked, flinging up a wall of grit and dust that engulfed her. The faraway rumble became the thunder-crack of shattered stone, beams splintering, the screech of metal—then only ringing deafness. She pitched forward, the cold street cutting open the heels of her hands.
Pebbles skittered past, dragged by an invisible force. A bicycle chained to a rack pulled away from the ground—the rear wheel, then the front, then the whole rack tumbling end over end as though down the face of a cliff, but horizontal, uphill even, toward where her home had been. The home she’d run from. The ends of her hair curved outward, reaching.
Her footing slipped on brick no longer solid, and then she was flying. The snow-dusted Pyrenees turned sideways. Her stomach folded up into her throat.
A bent and headless light-post lurched up out of the cloud and struck her in the chest. Marie flung her arms around it and clung there, buffeted by wind and debris, until the storm of gravity abated. She slid to the base of the pole. Her belly heaved, digested day-old croissant coming up over her clothes.
Then the mangy dog was there, licking her, bounding, jumping, putting his crusted, broken-nailed paws all over her for joy. Marie caught at his forepaws, cringing from his tickling tongue. She pulled him close, strangling his barks into a yelp.
They sat that way, panting. His eyes were liquid. Blood rushed in her ears.
The street beneath her—cobble, not brick—was choked with debris, destroyed things once familiar: a school desk-chair, an empty picture-frame, a woman’s shoe, all hazed in dust. Crushed houses lined the street like wet leaves piled in gutters. She smeared grit from her eyelashes, turning her tears to mud. A smaller heap among the wreckage resolved into two people, hugging each other and trembling. None of it made sense. Nothing but the dog’s warm fur. Then a third figure, a huge man somehow vertical, lurched splay-footed out of the dust. He went to the couple. A hand to each of their shoulders, he pulled them up. They fell. He pulled them up again. The dog wriggled free from Marie’s deathgrip, barking.
“Come back!” she called, but her voice sounded far, far away.
The dog ran to the couple, nosing, licking, then to the man, who drew a plastic bag from his shoulder and set it open on the ground just in time for the dog to bury his whole head inside. Then he came to Marie.
She swallowed her stomach along with a mouthful of wet. “Is . . . is that your dog?”
“He’s his own dog.” The man pulled back his mask of rag. His whole face, pox scars, stubble and all, was shaped around a nose like a ship’s prow. “You’re new here.”
She almost laughed. “I’m . . . .”
“From there.” He gestured, beyond the dustcloud, past where the pigeons whirled at a loss for direction, at the vertical valley, green-gray frosted white, bearded in morning shadow. “Where does it walk now? What place do you come from?”
“Saint-Michel,” she said. “But it’s . . . .”
He nodded. None of this, it seemed, was new to him. “You’re here now. Best if you come with me.” And he lurched away up the shattered street.
A glass doorknob, scratched to dullness, rolled to a stop against her foot, rattling on its iron rod. She took it: familiar as her maman’s gloved hand.
Why had this happened? Because she’d run away?
The dog whined. His mangy body seemed to strain after the man, but his muzzle rooted so determinedly inside the plastic bag that he had to chase it in the other direction. Between ripped plastic and fast-moving jowls, Marie glimpsed the carcasses of birds, little ones, crunching and popping like popcorn.
Chicken bones were supposed to be dangerous for dogs. But if that was all you could get . . . .
You did what you had to. She clutched a last time at his fur, his warmth. His eyes rolled. “Thank you,” she said.
Then she followed the man’s receding shape.
After three steps, the ground changed direction beneath her, spilling her onto the two hunched figures: a man and a woman, battered, old enough to be her parents. Not her parents. But hands and arms found waists and shoulders, and they struggled up, all three together. The ground rolled.
More gray people appeared through the haze. Masked in tattered cloth, they picked through the rubble, piling what they found into carts: a skein of twisted metal, some torn bedding, a few squares of tile somehow whole, half a baker’s peel. Junk. They were scavengers.
The big man reappeared. “We must hurry to the Waist. For newcomers, it isn’t safe. Find your legs—see how I walk?”
Marie tried to match his lurching gait.
They walked, hands over their noses and mouths to keep out dust, through disparate places smashed one into the next. Cracked terracotta villas leaned askew against ruins of steel and shattered glass. Patchwork nets, tangled with branches and birds, rippled between wooden buildings half-demolished. Sinkholes gaped, the ground fighting to swallow itself. Brittle wheat poked through rubble. Rowboats loaded with junk toiled over uneven pavements on tricycle tires, pulled by gray people with hard, inquisitive eyes. Something pulled at the pit of her stomach like fear, but it wasn’t.
“Forgive my speech,” their guide said, when at last the dust began to clear. “My Basque is terrible, my French no better. They send me because most have even less.” He talked with his hands. “I am Zuperny.”
“Marie,” said Marie.
“We’re the Canneri-Loires,” the woman whispered.
“Pleased to meet you,” Marie said, remembering her manners. “Are you also from . . . .”
“L’isle Chaise,” said the Madame. Just over the river.
Marie thought she’d seen every face in the city so many times it bored her to tears. Madame’s, like everything else, was covered in dirt. “I lived on the Place des Capuchínes,” Marie said, “the door under the stair? My mother was headmistress at the school. Did you know the Rossellinis?”
Madame’s eyes lit momentarily with remembering. “The little children, foraging for mushrooms by the brook—Eduard, you remember?”
Eduard’s face was like clay.
Marie understood. I was one of those children, she thought. But those people, that past, that place . . . what was the point?
“We were returning home,” said Madame, her hand in her husband’s. “A night train from Marseilles, the walk from the station before sunrise. I was so happy to be spending tonight in our own bed. It’s always like that, when we travel. I think we only go away for the chance to miss home.”
Marie had never been away.
It was cold. The sun lurched up and down among ruined rooftops with each of the colosse’s strides, but gave no heat. There’d been a sweater in her little bag, the one she’d packed to run away. She thought of the dog’s warm fur.
They crested a hilltop that minutes before had been flat. “The Knee,” said Zuperny.
From its summit, the Leg curved behind them, a mountain ridge made of destruction, rising and falling like the sea. The dog was back there somewhere, waiting to lick life back into the next lost soul. Clouds bleached the skewed sky, sideways snow fell on strange mountains. The valley where she’d spent her life was behind them. She felt sick. She stumbled.
Zuperny’s hand closed around hers, rough as brick and steadying. Maybe people here learned to produce their own gravity. “We can rest past the bridge. Not much farther.”
Knots of scavengers converged, making a narrow, haggard crowd. They spoke, but she couldn’t understand. Where had they come from? Places the colosse had stepped on. Every tremor, every time a foot came down, that was someone’s home.
They walked. So did the colosse.
They reached a gorge, deep, black at its bottom. It seemed to pull them closer. “The Waist,” Zuperny said.
The bridge looked twisted up out of birds’ nests and wire. People climbed along it over darkness, threading in new bits of salvage with the old. “They must constantly repair it. Otherwise . . . .”
Where the cliff met the bridge, a man stood atop a junkpile, waving a bag, shouting in Greek. He pointed at someone in line, then shaped numbers with his fingers. People held up salvaged items: a locket, a hoe. He examined each, then counted something from the bag into the offerer’s palm.
“What’s going on?” she asked Zuperny.
He shoved his hands into his shabby coat and looked away. “They bring bad luck on themselves.”
The Greek thrust his finger at Marie, and a handful of people offered up their scavenged fruit for him to judge. Timidly, she raised her own: the glass doorknob.
The Greek scowled. He shook his head, made a gesture: Move on. There was laughter—not cruel, not really happy, just surprised. The offered objects were withdrawn.
Someone tugged at her sleeve. “You can’t bet on yourself,” said a tiny woman, masses of tattered bedding under her arms. She spoke Italian—Marie knew a little. “You lose, they can’t collect.”
“Lose what?” said Marie.
Before she could answer, Zuperny placed himself between them. She ducked away into the crowd.
The bartering proceeded, the Greek counting into each hand what Marie saw now were kernels of grain: green for some, burned dark for others. Next, he pointed to Eduard.
Madame clutched her husband protectively as the crowd clamored and fragments of memory went up by the dozen all around.
“It’s time,” said Zuperny abruptly, pressing forward to the chasm. “Hold the ropes. Don’t listen. Don’t look down.”
The weight at the pit of her stomach doubled as Marie stepped onto the bridge. The doorknob felt like lead, but she couldn’t let it go. It meant Saint-Michel: cutting school in the mornings, Maman’s eye at the window, ducking down streets after the cat.
The waiting crowd on both cliffs muttered, craning their necks. Zuperny’s prow nose aimed stolidly ahead. Marie tried not to think.
The bridge swayed. The chasm swelled and contracted with the colosse’s stride. The walls of the gorge descended by layers into darkness. And in that darkness—beneath all these dead places—what? Something heavy. So heavy it pulled everything else unto itself. People, forests, cities, streets, compressed down paper-thin stride after stride until it all was the same. Did that mean this giant was Saint-Michel? The Canneri-Loires only left home so they’d learn to miss it. Did that make home a place you could never escape?
The doorknob was too heavy. It slipped free of her grasp and plummeted.
Monsieur Canneri-Loires tipped after it over the rail.
“Eduard!” screamed Madame. The doorknob twinkled dully as it slipped into darkness.
Madame was dragged to the edge, hanging onto his wrist with both hands. The bridge rocked. Marie grabbed his sleeve, Zuperny his belt. They heaved. But thin as he was, Eduard pulled them down. The bridge creaked. The crowd roared.
Marie’s fingers slipped. But Zuperny grunted, knuckles white, his huge nostrils flaring, and Eduard came back up over the guard rope. Bits of salvaged junk changed hands among the crowd.
On the far side of the bridge, a white steeple aimed at the sideways horizon, paint peeling. The ground felt steadier. A few buildings were actually whole. “We can rest,” said Zuperny, with a breath.
They sat on the chapel stoop. Madame touched her husband’s temples, fanned him with her coat. People milled past, bartering, trading. Some stopped to pray. None went inside.
In the street, there was food: boiled mash ladled from battered vats, roast pigeon. A woman with a tray of honeycomb was mobbed, but refused all she was offered. Marie dug in her pockets. She had change, enough for train fare. What would they want with it here? She wondered whether her scarred sneakers might fetch a price, and how badly she needed them. There’d been so much of Saint-Michel strewn in the streets below the Knee. But how could she have known?
Zuperny took a stone medallion from his coat. It showed a man without a head. Holding it before him, he stepped into the crowd.
Marie heaved herself onto her aching feet and went after him, grabbing the grimy seams of his coat in her hands. “Please, you have to talk to us. You brought us this far. You have to.” She began to shout. She couldn’t stop herself. The Canneri-Loires crumpled into each other as she spoke. “Why is this happening? Where did all these people come from? Why are we here? Why haven’t you told us . . . anything? Why didn’t you just let him fall?” Zuperny’s pox scars stretched and reddened. “I don’t want anyone to fall. I only go to bring something to eat.”
Her stomach was a knot of iron; she’d never been so hungry. She let go. He went to the vats, returned with three hollow husks of bread filled with porridge.
“Forgive me,” he said. “New people come. Sometimes they fall. Too often. They can’t resist. I begin to expect it. Even though I don’t want them to fall, I expect it.”
Marie slurped gruel until it was gone, then chewed her heel of bread. Here they didn’t throw out day-old bread, even week-old. Stray dogs crunched pigeon bones, and nothing you could scrape together was worth a comb of honey. Back home it had been easy.
“None of us are wealthy. Many are selfish, as you see. Others, some of us, put blinders on. But we combine our strength, at least, in this: a meal for the newcomers. Someone to greet them, make them safe. After that, it’s up to them to live.”
“You mean . . . that’s all?” A meal, a guide to safety. “Is that all you can say? And now . . . we just have to survive. By scavenging discarded memories.”
He shrugged—not I don’t care, but That’s how it must be. “It’s not easy. You never forget. And the bridge—the pull—it’s always there. People make bets—but they feel it too.”
He shoved hands in his pockets. They were above the Pyrenees now, and the wind bit harder. It felt like snow. Marie had thought she’d hated home, the school, the newspaper hiding her father’s face, her maman’s gloved slap. Even the stupid cat. The lump of iron swelled up from her stomach to her throat. She’d never left—never even had a chance to miss it. Was this whole monster made of regrets, compacted down so dense and tight that like drew like? “Why does this colosse exist—do you even know that? Why did it have to step on Saint-Michel?”
A soft intake of breath from Eduard, and Madame hugged her husband closer. Zuperny seemed to shrink into his coat, his big nose thrust between the upturned collars. “Survive. Try to forget. That’s all.”
“How can I?” said Marie.
A line of empty-handed people moved, lurching, back across the bridge. More junk to harvest. Maybe they’d brought this on themselves.
A hand tugged at Zuperny’s sleeve: the tiny Italian woman from the far side of the bridge. Her harvest of torn linens gone, now she stooped under a sack of flour. “Tell her. Show her. That’s your job. Everyone deserves to see.”
Zuperny frowned behind his eagle nose. “The Shoulders are as far again as we have come. And colder. You won’t like it. No one does.”
“Please,” said Marie. She’d do anything not to have to to cross the gorge again and feel its pull, go down to the Feet and dig through the destroyed for something to survive on. She looked at the Canneri-Loires.
“Yes,” said Madame. “We’d like to see.”
Zuperny bowed his head.
A high, excited barking reached over the turmoil of the crowd. The dog stood at the edge of the chasm on the far side of the bridge, tail wagging. Marie’s legs turned to jelly.
She’d never had a dog, and she barely knew this one. There was something about him. “Can he come with us?”
“He never has—he likes the Legs, greeting new people when they come. But he does what he wants.”
Marie kept well back from the bridge, afraid of the pull. Did dogs regret? She waved. “Here we are! Come on!”
The dog hesitated, nose twitching. Then he launched himself across, nails scraping, ears flapping up and down like wings.
Marie hugged him tight.
“What do you call him?” she asked.
“Nothing,” said Zuperny.
The dog’s tail scrubbed the paving-stones. Bits of feather clung to his jowls. His breath was horrible. She scratched his ears. “I’ll call you Ruin.”
They walked, leaving the market and the gorge behind. The patchwork landscapes were older here, made uniform by time. Briars covered a cluster of domed clay huts. A row of city tenements stood surrounded by pines. How long had the colosse been walking?
Madame talked of home, pouring words into emptiness without filling it at all. “Our beautiful cottage in the firs, by the stream where the strawberries bloomed in summer—we meant to grow old there. He built it himself, you know, every nail. I’m sure that’s the reason. He loved it too much.”
Eduard hung his head and didn’t speak.
Marie didn’t know what she could say.
“How could you understand, child? You’re, what, thirteen? To lose a home made over a lifetime, forty years?”
The sun struggled, but died nonetheless. By the time they reached the Shoulders, there were stars. Wind gusted stinging snow along alleys, and the air felt thin. Rare fires glowed behind shutters. Zuperny let Marie wrap herself in his coat. It smelled stale, sour, but it warmed her. He clamped hands under his arms. He hadn’t wanted to come. He’d brought them food but taken nothing for himself. Marie worried she’d pushed him too hard.
There was no Neck, no Head. The Shoulders ended at a shallow hill surmounted by ancient foundations protruding from snow. Ruin broke from Marie’s grasp and ran. From the hilltop, he watched as they climbed, his eyes pale.
The dizziness persisted, faint. And the dark in her belly. She’d meant to be far from here, asleep against a train-car window.
Buffeted by wind, dry snow crunching under her sneakers, Marie realized the world was right-side-up again. The stars spread overhead, the earth below. The lights of villages traced spiderwebs over the black Pyrenees.
Turn, she thought suddenly, fiercely, Turn, willing the force beneath her, whatever it was that controlled the colosse, to shift its stride, make for those anonymous clusters of light one at a time and stomp them out. Why shouldn’t it happen to everyone else? It happened to me.
But there were lights ahead already, growing closer, square in the colosse’s path. How many strides? The shudder of a Footstep reached through her toes.
No. She didn’t want this on her conscience. Not this too. Sickness welled in her throat. She fought it. No telling when she’d eat again.
She made it to the hilltop, breathing hard. A black pit, darker than the fissure at the Waist, opened where the Head should have risen.
Zuperny struck a match and cupped it. Stairs stretched downward, spiraling. “The Heart,” he said. “I warned you.” Scrap wood lay heaped in an alcove. She recognized the pieces: table-legs, broken canes, ends coated in pitch. The scent as he set a hat-rack alight evoked the forest outside Saint-Michel, the sticky-sweetness of sap on her hands, the happy voices of other children before school turned them ugly.
Quietly, Madame began to whimper. “Must we? I—I’m afraid Eduard will fall.”
“You don’t have to go,” said Marie.
She held out a hand to Ruin, needing the reassurance of his fur. He didn’t move, jaws open in a dog’s expectant smile.
Madame took her hand instead.
The wind died as they descended, holding each other. The dog followed in the dark. His panting breaths echoed.
The walls changed, layer by layer: black earth, gray stone, red ochre, yellow sand. Then brick. Marie’s knees ached. Her ankles, swollen, wobbled in her battered sneakers, threatening to roll. Without Zuperny there, without Madame, she would fall. She gritted her teeth. Somewhere below them was the Heart. She had to be ready, not asleep on her feet.
To stop it, stab it through. The glass doorknob, that blind eyeball with its iron stem—she could have used it, plunged it deep into the Heart and twisted. If she hadn’t let it go. The whole colosse would topple where it stood, never to destroy another home not wanted nor enervate another soul with regret. Would they all die with it, the way they should have when it stepped on Saint-Michel? At least then they could forget.
Marie’s next plodding step came up short. Her hand slipped from Zuperny’s as she stumbled to her knees. In a rush of fur and scraping nails, Ruin bounded past her, barking. They’d reached the bottom step.
Zuperny swung the torch, revealing by parts a room egg-shaped, with a high, domed ceiling shrouded in darkness, walls and floor of brick, every centimetre covered in graffiti both ancient and new.
“They come to pray,” said Zuperny, “to ask favors, thinking they can change its path. Change his mind.”
He lifted the torch high.
From cracks between the bricks, things like ropes stretched upward and converged. A man hung suspended, harnessed to the colosse.
Madame gave a shriek. Ruin barked, in excitement or fear. Eduard’s face, for the first time since Marie had met him, changed—a flash of something, guilt, surprise—then lifelessness again. Heavily, Zuperny sat down on the stairs. Marie took the torch. She was shivering.
His beard and fingernails were long, his eyes closed, the eyelids twitching. But he was moving, walking, though his feet touched only air. The Heart’s soft, sleeping breath filled the chamber.
“Couldn’t we wake him?”
“Try, if you have the strength.”
Marie brushed tears from her dirty cheeks into the sleeves of Zuperny’s coat. She let out a yelp as Ruin’s hot tongue lapped her hand. His eyes were liquid.
She took one of the ropes and shook it, hard. “Hey!” she shouted.
He kept walking, his head on his chest. There were buckles in the harness, knots. Someone had secured him here, so long ago. “What if . . . what if someone were to let him free? To take his place?”
“Don’t,” said Zuperny.
He never wanted anyone to fall.
But wasn’t everything already lost?
She looked up at the man in the traces. She could climb out along the ropes. She was light enough. She thought she had the strength. She shrugged off Zuperny’s coat, gave back the torch. The bricks were smooth, fitted without mortar. Her fingers and her sneaker tips fit easily between the gaps. She pulled herself up among the ropes.
The Heart’s face wasn’t angry or sad, nor was it lifeless. He looked peaceful. His eyes moved behind his eyelids. It was just as well she’d lost the doorknob. She could never have done it.
“How can you be like this?” she asked him softly. “Did you lose a home, a family? Don’t you ever feel tired? Why don’t you stop? Why don’t you wake? How can you walk over so much and not see any of it? How can you bear to put your feet down?”
He wouldn’t answer, of course. She’d have to reach out for the straps, pull them loose from their buckles, let him fall. Then someone else would have to strap her in. Zuperny.
She wasn’t ready.
Her papa’s face obscured by the paper. Maman at the stove, demanding to know where she’d been.
“I was ready for the change,” said a voice then, hoarse and rasping, full of pain, though the Heart’s lips did not move. It seemed to come from everywhere at once.
Madame let out a gasp. Eduard—it was Eduard. A trick of the echoes. His rasping voice smoothed, grew gentler as the words came faster, though the pain remained. “I’m sorry, my dear. We came home, and I—I wished to be away. I had to escape the old age I saw waiting for us in that house. I know you loved it. You loved it because I had made it. I wanted more. A different life. I was afraid to tell you. And when the Foot came down, I thought I had done it. I had killed us, killed myself and our future, dragged you after me like some lost ghost. Julie, I’m so sorry—” Madame—Julie—stopped him, her hand to his lips. “It’s all right,” she said.
Marie was tired. Her fingers were slipping from the ropes. She didn’t think she could hold them much longer. She didn’t want to.
Papa and Maman, the Rossellinis and the cat, Voltaire. Maybe she needed to regret. She looked at the Heart, walking blindly in the traces. A crease fleeted across one corner of his mouth. Zuperny helped her climb down and set her on her feet. He draped the coat about her shoulders. The Canneri-Loires were still wrapped in their embrace. The dog was nowhere to be seen.
“I’m sorry,” said Marie.
“It’s all right,” Zuperny said. “We can wait.”