As One Listens to the Rain

They say the City was once the largest in the world.

They say its buildings stretched across the valley and crept up the hills and peaks until every inch of land was covered in concrete from mountain range to mountain range. They say the sky was always grey and at night you couldn’t see the stars, but the City had no use for stars, because it was itself a carpet of light that cut through the darkness.

They say the City had been built over a lake, of which only a whisper remained once all the water had turned to vapor and all the rivers had been piped. But the land had remembered the water, and cried out for its ghost.

The storm came in spring.

It rained every day and every night, it rained for months and months, for years and years, and when finally the rain had passed, there was once again a lake where the City had been. Where there had been light, there was now only darkness, and all the people had fled.

Some believe the rain came to purify the City; others claim it fell as punishment. Still others say the why is not important—what matters is that water could not stop humanity. The people on the shore constructed boats and chinampas and re-conquered the lake, and now, they celebrate with music and food whenever there’s a rare dry day. Dry nights are rarer still, and they say the darkness of a dry night is full of hidden possibility.

Axóchitl has been waiting three months for just such a night, and now it’s here. Tonight, finally, she will bring Nesmi to the heart of the lake.

Nesmi and Axóchitl meet during a dry day party.

It’s noon, but classes have been cancelled because the forecast said it wouldn’t begin raining again until five, and the students have wasted no time. Music blasts from a floating overhead speaker and people pass around hundreds of basket-steamed tacos, while beer, pulque, and aguas locas flow freely. The word is out and the chinampa’s pier is already too crowded for any more boats, so teenagers surge up and over the reedy banks.

Axóchitl finds herself under the palapa, eating pork-skin tacos and half-listening to her friends’ conversation. They’re all halfway through their senior year and she would have thought they’d have exhausted this topic by now, but no: here they are again, debating whether to leave the City after high school, or stay behind.

“Everyone knows the universities here are a joke,” says Richo García, the host of the party. “Even the UNAM. If you want a real education, you’ll get out of here.”

Richo is clever, cute, and cocky; just the type of guy Axóchitl usually loves to antagonize, but today, though she’s got plenty to say about the importance of staying put to reconstruct the City, she keeps quiet. She’s long-since decided to stick around and enroll in the School of Engineering, but she’s tired of defending her plans to classmates who aren’t nearly as certain of their own.

Instead, she takes a cold beer and leaves the palapa to go explore the rest of the García family chinampa. The sun shines warm on her skin, and her tattoo—a vine etched up her back— seethes along her spine and shoulders, the ink moving down through her right arm to her wrist, like a real plant seeking the light. Lawnmowing only happens on dry days, so everything smells like freshly cut grass. The thumping loudspeaker passes above her head and Axóchitl turns to follow it, wondering about its algorithm. Could it be programmed to float over the waters of the lake?

The loudspeaker leads her back towards the party and begins circling the revelers, chords of salsa trailing in its wake before it pauses above a group of dancers and Axóchitl loses interest. She resumes her exploration, and a girl near the bank of the chinampa catches her eye; she must go to a different school, because Axóchitl’s never seen her before. She’s sitting and staring at the lily pads.

Curious, Axóchitl draws nearer. The girl has dark, chin-length hair and is built on slimmer lines than Axóchitl, but more intriguing than her appearance is the fact that she’s completely absorbed in drawing a frog perched on one of the stakes surrounding the chinampa.

Who comes to a party to sit around and draw?

“Can I help you?” the girl asks, in a voice much deeper than Axóchitl was expecting from her delicate frame. She glances up with small, brown eyes.

“Sorry,” says Axóchitl, flushing. “I didn’t mean to interrupt, I was just looking at your drawing.” The vine on her back shrivels with embarrassment. She’s only had the tattoo for a few months, since she turned eighteen, and she’s still hyper-aware at all times of its position on her body. The other girl notices the vine’s movement, too.

“I’ve heard about those,” she says. “But yours is the first I’ve seen in real life. Oh no!”

Axóchitl follows her gaze to find that the frog has vanished. “Another one’ll come along soon,” she says. “They always hop out to sunbathe on dry days. I’m Axóchitl, by the way. And you are…?”

The girl closes her notebook and puts her pencil behind her ear before responding. “Nesmi. Do you go to school with Richo?”

“We’re in the same class. How do you know him?”

“He’s my cousin,” says Nesmi. “I live over on the banks. I almost never come out to the chinampas.”

Interesting. Axóchitl lives on a small chinampa in the south sector and has a hard time understanding why someone who’s grown up surrounded by water wouldn’t want to explore the lake, but if this girl’s from the outer banks, it means her parents probably believe the future of the city lies only on solid ground.

Axóchitl believes they’re wrong.

Reviving the use of chinampas has been the most important advancement in the past decades, and it represents the very future Axóchitl’s always defending: the use of an Aztec design that, via modern technology, can be integrated into the physical environment. These floating islands, constructed on moveable platforms out of layers of rock and rich soil, have allowed people to both live on and cultivate land away from actual solid land. Axóchitl’s family, like so many others, grow the vegetables that feed the people on the shore.

“So—do you like them?” Axóchitl says, and there’s an uncomfortable pause. “The chinampas, I mean.”

“I do,” says Nesmi. “Whenever I come see Richo, I try to sketch as much as possible.”

“If you’re looking for a good place to draw,” says Axóchitl, who isn’t ready for the conversation to end, “you should try the heart of the lake.”

Behind them, the music changes. Someone’s singing karaoke. Nesmi says, “What’s the heart of the lake?”

“It’s where the City’s main square used to be,” says Axóchitl. “The Zócalo. Some of the taller buildings are still visible above the water, and you can go all the way to the Palace.”

“I thought the Zócalo wasn’t safe. Aren’t there whirlpools?”

“That’s just a story to scare people off—it’s only dangerous if it’s pouring rain. The trick is to go on a dry night, though you’d be fine in a drizzle.” She pauses and says, “I’ve been planning to go on the next dry night, actually. I have to take some measurements for a final project. Do you want to come?”

Axóchitl can’t explain exactly why she makes this offer. The heart of the lake is her place, after all: special, secret. She found it years ago, when a thunderstorm caught her off-guard out on the water and she was forced to take refuge on one of the Centro’s old half-submerged buildings; and realized, after the rain had eased, that she was on the Palace itself. She learned then that the heart of the lake was most beautiful at sunrise. A detail she doesn’t mention now, to Nesmi.

“If you’re curious, I mean,” she says, when Nesmi doesn’t answer. Along her shoulder blades, the vine twists and tickles. The heart of the lake is something special and if Nesmi says no, she’ll truly be missing out—but that truth alone can’t explain why Axóchitl is suddenly so eager to convince her. Sure, she likes being right, but it was easy enough to leave Richo to his one-sided debate; leaving this challenge, on the other hand, feels impossible.

“Well…” Nesmi pauses, and Axóchitl knows she’s won. “It’s really that beautiful?”

“It’s more than beautiful,” Axóchitl says. “It’s transcendent.”

When Nesmi smiles, it brings all her features into sudden focus, so vivid and present it’s as if her face has been tailor-made to do exactly this: to smile. Something flips in Axóchitl’s belly.

“So,” she says, because more than anything else she wants to keep this conversation going. “Are you a senior, too?”

It works. They spend the next hour trading stories: about Axóchitl’s trips around the lake and Nesmi’s life on the outer banks, about Axóchitl’s dreams of engineering and Nesmi’s dreams of studying art, about their friends and their different schools. When she runs out of things to say, Axóchitl asks the first question that comes into her head: “What’s that thing you were drawing with?”

Nesmi looks surprised, but she takes the strange pencil from behind her ear and passes it over. It turns out to be less like a pencil and more like a stylus for a screen, made of metal, with a plastic nib and a little LED light on the other end.

“It’s a colorator,” says Nesmi. “It has a sensor that can scan and save any color you see, so you can draw with them.”

“How does it work?” asks Axóchitl, turning it over in her fingers, trying to understand the mechanisms at play.

Nesmi reaches out and guides the colorator towards the grass. With a little buzz, the LED turns green, and Axóchitl grins. She takes Nesmi’s hand in her own, and with that grass-green ink, writes her usernumber on Nesmi’s palm. Nesmi’s blushing, but she takes the colorator back with a smile.

Richo chooses that moment to interrupt, of course.

He’s come to tell Nesmi her parents are there to take her home, and Axóchitl thinks about offering up a ride, but something holds her back. She’s not sure if it’s the fact of Richo’s presence, or the curious look he’s giving them, or something else. With a quick hug, a kiss on the cheek, and a murmured “I’ll write you soon” that thrills in Axóchitl’s ear, Nesmi is gone.

Later, when the storm is once again raging above the City and Axóchitl is safe at home, she gets a new message. She holds her breath as she opens it and when she sees it’s from Nesmi, she drafts and re-drafts her reply before sending.

After that, and for the next three months, they speak every single evening; but neither of them mention the heart of the lake. Not until the very end of March, when the forecast predicts that a dry night is coming.

Axóchitl’s boat is by no means new, made for stability rather than speed, but its curved, cradlelike shape is plenty comfortable for two. In this moment, Axóchitl wouldn’t mind if it were even a little bit smaller, because then she’d have an excuse to sit closer to Nesmi, who’s perched in front of her on the bow. Nesmi seems nervous, glancing again and again at her watch to check the weather report.

Axóchitl would like to reassure her, to tell her the report always exaggerates the chance of rain, but she, too, is on edge. Not because of the forecast itself, but because she can feel that the air’s grown chilly and humid. She’s not sure if she should offer to turn around before they leave the canals, offer to take Nesmi home to have hot chocolate in the plaza by her house, instead; they don’t need to take this trip tonight.

Except it’s one o’clock in the morning and they’ve both lied to their parents to be here. Axóchitl said she was staying over a friend’s house after a party, and she doesn’t know what lie Nesmi told, but she’s pretty sure this might be their only opportunity and she doesn’t want to waste it.

They’re moving slowly, the motor barely a hum as they zig-zag through the canals, walled-in by the reedy, cattailed banks of the chinampas. Nesmi hasn’t said much since she climbed aboard, and Axóchitl figured this was due to nerves about the weather; but with every passing moment she’s less sure. Silences like this one, silences that Axóchitl can neither interpret nor control, have filled her with doubt these past three months. She doesn’t know if what she’s feeling is all in her head, or if Nesmi feels it too. The first time they had coffee together after school, Axóchitl kept wanting to reach for her hand, but whenever she managed to work up to it Nesmi would start fiddling with her colorator or doodling on the napkins. She’s sworn to herself that tonight she’ll take a risk, because she can’t pretend anymore that a message from Nesmi doesn’t make her happier than anything else in the world.

“You’re pretty quiet,” she says. “Are you feeling okay? Do you want to go back?” She’s praying the answer is no. After all those midnight conversations and the long walks after school, this is finally their chance to be alone.

Nesmi glances again at her watch. Axóchitl’s pink hair is braided in a crown, but Nesmi’s is loose, and the wind whips it across her face when she turns to speak.

“No,” she says. “I said I’d go to the heart of the lake. I’m not backing out now.”

Something inside Axóchitl relaxes, and she smiles. It won’t rain. It will all work out. She’s here with Nesmi in the early hours of the morning; what better sign could she ask for? She steers the boat towards the mouth of a canal, this one much wider than the others, and suddenly there’s nothing around them. In all the darkness, they’re the only light.

“This is awesome during daytime, too,” she says. She’s not so nervous now. “You can see through the water, down onto the buildings and the streets. Everything’s preserved. Have you seen photographs of how the City used to look at night?”

“Yes, my parents had a book when I was little. I couldn’t believe it—all those lights!”

“I know!” says Axóchitl. “I can’t stop thinking about them.” When she’s excited her voice speeds up, each word tumbling out on the heels of the last. “That will be my first big project, making lights you can turn on underwater so the whole City will be illuminated beneath us again.” She grew up on stories of the old City and it isn’t just the glowing image that thrills her imagination, but rather the challenge it presents—rebuilding something so complex.

“How can you tell where we’re going?” Nesmi says, squinting out into the darkness.

“Oh, don’t you worry,” says Axóchitl. The exit she’s looking for is getting close and she speeds up little by little, trying not to frighten Nesmi, then steers the boat so that the lights along the gunnel illuminate the entrance to another canal on their right. She counts under her breath until the third exit, then executes an abrupt turn, calculating the exact moment they’re spat from the mouth of the canal into the open water. Once they’re free she accelerates without warning and Nesmi shrieks, a sound halfway between joy and terror, while Axóchitl laughs in wild delight. She weaves the boat back and forth as the first buildings begin to loom. The lake covers the ancient avenues and streets, but any building over five stories rises up from the surface of the water. From ashore they look like dark figures, abandoned and silent.

“Are you seeing all this?” Axóchitl asks Nesmi’s back. But if there’s a response, Axóchitl can’t hear it over the motor, and she begins to slow, hoping Nesmi’s eyes are open for what comes next—the moment the tall buildings light up. Here and there, the cracked windows are beginning to glow far above them, and Axóchitl stares up, trying to guess the heights of the massive silhouettes surrounding their boat.

“How…?” says Nesmi, turning to look at her. Her small brown eyes are alert, amazed. The cold wind blows her hair across her face but she doesn’t move to fix it, and Axóchitl knows exactly how she feels. She felt the same the first time she came here all those years ago. A new world had opened itself in front of her, and with that world came a desire to know it—to know it so deeply she could call it her own. Her heart pounds to think she’s sharing this feeling now with Nesmi.

“There are people who can’t afford to live on the shore, so they live out on whatever the lake doesn’t cover. There’s a ton of them, and the majority are here, on Insurgentes. It used to be the longest street in the world. We’re passing over it right now.”

The lights shine down on the water, glancing off the boat’s wake as it passes, and Nesmi takes out her colorator to try and capture that brilliant gold. Axóchitl slows even further so the rumble of the motor won’t overpower the sounds of music and conversation that drift down from the windows.

“So?” she asks, struck by sudden doubt. “What do you think?”

She isn’t used to being this nervous, but she can’t read Nesmi like she can read other people, and she’s been going over this plan in her head ever since Nesmi agreed to come, imagining and re-imagining which path they’d take to the heart of the lake, what sights she’d show Nesmi along the way. And when Nesmi turns, with her brilliant smile and her shining eyes, Axóchitl is almost certain that she understands what Axóchitl is trying to show her: that sharing the secrets of the lake means sharing something between the two of them, as well.

“You were right,” says Nesmi. “It was worth the trip.”

The vine on Axóchitl’s back twists and blooms with pleasure. Does Nesmi realize that Axóchitl changed her outfit three times that night? That she asked her mother to braid her hair because she wanted so badly to look pretty? Maybe she hasn’t made her feelings clear enough, but Nesmi’s smile gives her courage.

“I was surprised when you said you’d come.”

Nesmi looks out at the buildings, quiet again, and Axóchitl manages to contain herself instead of blurting out the questions that burn in her stomach. Does Nesmi know what this trip means to her? Why all these sudden silences, why do Nesmi’s smiles keep fading? Axóchitl keeps feeling like she’s missed a step.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she says hastily. “I’m really happy you’re here.”

“So am I,” says Nesmi. “Plus, you were driving me crazy, heart of the lake this, heart of the lake that…I had to shut you up somehow, and this was the only way.”

Axóchitl’s laugh rises above the sound of the motor. “Not the only way,” she says, and is grateful for the darkness covering the fact that she’s flushed to her ears.

Between the conversation and the sight-seeing, it’s been some time since Nesmi checked the weather, and the sound of the storm alarm shocks them both.

“Shit,” says Axóchitl. “How much time do we have?”

“They’re saying fifteen minutes.”

“So, more like ten. Stupid forecast. You want to try and turn back? We’ll get a little rained-on, but I’ve been out in worse.” Her heart thumps faster. “Or we could find shelter nearby and wait for it to pass.”

Axóchitl knows what she herself wants: she wants time with Nesmi, as much of it as possible, she wants to spend the night out on the lake with her so they can reach the Palace as dawn breaks over the water. But if Nesmi wants to go back, Axóchitl will turn around without a second thought, even if it breaks something inside her.

Nesmi says, “I don’t want to go back.”

The flowers on Axóchitl’s vine unfurl their petals at her neck and she changes course. They’re going faster than before: Nesmi clings to the side of the boat and Axóchitl doesn’t tell her there are moments when she, too, is afraid. The current always gets stronger when the wind picks up like this before a rain, and once or twice she feels the tug of a whirlpool. She stays quiet and focuses on navigating between the waves, picturing the axes of the centrifugal forces surrounding them so she can react whenever she feels the boat veer out of her control. Her heart is pounding in her ears by the time she finally pulls up in front of one of the abandoned buildings. The windows have shattered, so they’ll be able to get inside.

Axóchitl tells Nesmi to climb up onto the ledge and help pull the boat closer, then passes her a string of lights and two blankets. Between the two of them they manage to drag the boat into the depths of what was once an office building, and by the time they’re far enough from the windows that the storm won’t touch them, it’s started raining. They climb onto a leftover conference table where the lake’s tide can’t reach them, and dry themselves off with one of the blankets. Safe in their little nest, they watch the water lap across the floor.

The storm rolls in with a fury, as it always does after a dry period. The wind howls and intermittent lightning illuminates the corners of the abandoned room. Axóchitl looks at her watch, the green light shining back on her face.

“We’ll be here a while,” she says. “I hope you’re comfortable.”

They’re huddled together under a single blanket, surrounded by the string of lights.

“Too bad we don’t like talking to each other or anything,” says Nesmi.

“Such a shame,” agrees Axóchitl. Then, “Did I tell you what my mother did the other day?”

She’s surprised at how easy this feels, how familiar, and she settles back, her shoulder pressed against Nesmi’s arm. They’ve never been this close. Even so, the same old questions seethe beneath the words of her anecdote: What does this mean to you? What’s going on in your head? Are you trembling, like I am? Instead of giving voice to all her doubts, Axóchitl snuggles closer, and for the first time in her life, the prospect of hours of rain feels like a gift.

When she thinks back, Axóchitl won’t be able to pinpoint the exact moment the air changes between them. They’re so close, so quiet. Nesmi’s head is resting on Axóchitl’s shoulder, the blanket wrapped warm and tight around them. When Axóchitl takes Nesmi’s hand, the vine coils down her wrist, and for a second she thinks the tattoo will continue on its path, flowing over her hand and through Nesmi’s own fingers, connecting them. Instead, the ink grows hot between their linked palms. She looks up.

For an instant, they’re just two pairs of warm eyes meeting in cold space. Then the air goes electric, the hot and cold fronts colliding, that crackling tension like the seconds before thunder, a wave, a charge coursing across their skin.

They kiss.

Around them the silence shatters. They’re flooded, the water surging from the underbelly of the drowned City, rushing through the buildings and covering the streets, filling every empty corner. Can Tláloc summon storms inside a body? Can he summon storms between the two of them?

Nesmi is the first to pull away for long enough to take a breath, her eyes closed and her forehead resting against Axóchitl’s.

She doesn’t want to open her eyes, or move, or do anything to break this moment. She wants to stay right here, breathing in the air Axóchitl breathes out. Just a few seconds more, though she knows it can’t last. Nesmi has kept her secret all these months, avoiding any talk of the future, telling herself it didn’t matter, they were just friends, no need to say anything; but now, after such a kiss, she can’t hide anymore.

“I have to tell you something.” She keeps her eyes closed but her voice shakes. “I’m moving to the United States in September.”

Nesmi feels Axóchitl drop her hand. In one movement they’re no longer touching, and when Nesmi opens her eyes, it’s to Axóchitl’s expression of pure hurt and confusion. She’s suddenly very cold. Her temperature has never fallen so quickly.

When the rain stops, dawn is nearing.

Nesmi has explained herself as best as possible, she’s told Axóchitl about the art school in Colorado, what an incredible opportunity it is and how she’s planning to come back someday. She’s explained how she only got word of her acceptance a week ago, which is why she didn’t mention her plans earlier, because nothing was certain, nothing was fixed, but now it is. Axóchitl listens to her, but afterwards she rises and silently begins loading everything back into the boat. The blankets, the lights.

“We should probably go,” she says.

This is why Nesmi was afraid to tell her. She knows Axóchitl won’t understand why she wants to leave; or rather, why her parents want her to leave, why they want her to look for a better future, far from this dying City. Before meeting Axóchitl, the idea of moving abroad had filled her with excitement—but now, after spending the last few months listening to stories about the lake, learning its history, she longs to better know the City of her birth, and she can no longer imagine herself leaving without plans to return.

“Do we have to go back?” she asks, her voice soft.

New leaves begin to peek from the collar of Axóchitl’s sweater. Maybe it’s silly, but this isn’t the first time Nesmi’s tried to read Axóchitl’s feelings in her tattoo, and when the leaves shrink as Axóchitl stows the blankets and puts away the string of lights, it seems like a bad sign. Nesmi remembers how the pink and purple flowers felt as they bloomed beneath her fingers. She’d have liked to study them, to take the colorator and capture their precise shade.

“Axó…” she tries.

“It’s going to rain again in a few hours.” Axóchitl turns to her, arms crossed, face unreadable. “We can’t stay here.”

“I know, but…I’m sorry. I made it weird between us.”

There’s a small pause, nothing but the sound of the waves lapping against the boat, one after another, and Nesmi counts them, trying to distract herself from the silence.

Axóchitl breaks it. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

She sounds so resigned, as if nothing Nesmi says could possibly fix this.

“I don’t know. You’re always saying how important it is to stay, and…I wanted to see the heart of the lake with you before I left. I was scared if I told you, you wouldn’t take me.”

Axóchitl looks at her for a moment, then turns to finish packing up the lights. Nesmi doesn’t offer to help. There’s a pressure in her chest. She knows how this will end. Ever since she met Axóchitl at Richo’s party, she understood it was a mistake to get so close when she was leaving so soon—but she convinced herself she could keep it friendly, nothing more. She ought to just let Axóchitl go home now, spare her any more pain, but after all the weeks of talking, after all the hours spent in darkness, she can’t bear to let it end so abruptly.

“I’m not leaving until August,” she says. “I know it’s not much time, but…”

The pressure in her chest grows. Likely it will keep growing, month after month, until, when she’s finally at the airport, it will explode. But the idea of never seeing Axóchitl again, of leaving the City unexplored in the little time remaining to her, is worse. She doesn’t know if Axóchitl will be able to forgive her—or, even if she does, if she’ll want to spend these last few months together.

Axóchitl looks through the cracked windows, to the south. To the shore, to their homes. Then she looks north. The clouds are beginning to thin.

“What do you want to do?” she says, eyes still fixed on the horizon.

Nesmi’s pretty sure this is a test. What Axóchitl is asking is if she’s willing to risk another storm, willing to risk the danger of navigating through the rain; she’s asking if Nesmi trusts Axóchitl to keep her safe, if she trusts her that the heart of the lake will be worth the journey.

“I want to go to the heart of the lake.”

She thinks she sees the hint of a purple flower on Axóchitl’s collarbone as she turns to meet her eyes.

“Are you sure?”

Nesmi glances at her watch. The probability of rain is high and getting higher, it’s not unlikely they’ll get caught in another storm, but she says, “I’m sure.”

They arrive at the heart of the lake just as the sky is clearing. Nesmi’s trying to stay calm, trying not to regret her rash decision. Axóchitl guides the boat up to an old building that has three floors above the water. She ties the boat to a pillar and leaps out onto a metal staircase that quivers beneath her weight.

“The best view is up here,” she says.

They climb the stairs and go inside, passing through hallways that appear to have belonged to an old department store. It’s empty save for a few abandoned mannequins, and there’s enough light coming in through the eastern windows to let them see where they’re going. Axóchitl turns a corner and—suddenly they’re outside, on a terrace. A low roof covers nearly a third of it, and metal chairs and benches are still neatly arranged along the floor—but the skeletons of umbrellas, the cloth rotted from their tines, gives the place an air of neglect.

Axóchitl leads her to one of the benches overlooking the lake, and suddenly there it is, right before Nesmi’s eyes: the Palace. Only the upper portion is visible, its walls made of white stone with the shadowed curve of an archway half-hidden beneath the water. The three domes of the roof are made of a stained glass that changes color from the base upwards, going from white to yellow to orange to red. Atop the highest dome sits a dark angel. The Palace was once known as Bellas Artes, and people used to stand in line for hours, waiting to go inside and see exhibitions of the most important painters in the world. They’d roam its marble corridors and fill its concert halls to hear an orchestra or see a ballet.

Axóchitl’s voice is quiet as she describes this, but the images are so vivid that Nesmi swears she can see it unfolding before her. Through the water she sees the rest of the Palace, the windows, the arches, the columns, the plaza, everything flickering below the reflection of the green-brown mountains that rise in the distance. Silhouettes of half-flooded buildings are dark against their bright peaks.

“It’s beautiful,” says Nesmi, her arm resting across Axóchitl’s shoulders.

Axóchitl smiles and then looks around. “We should leave our mark,” she says.

She takes the colorator from behind Nesmi’s ear and aims it at one of the purple flowers on her own arm. She turns to write their names in purple on the back of the bench and when she’s finished, she climbs to her feet and offers Nesmi her hand, like she’s ready to leave. The sun is warm and comforting against their skin, but the forecast says rain in half an hour, rain that likely won’t let up for days. Nesmi knows this, but though she takes Axóchitl’s hand, she doesn’t move to leave.

“I think we can stay a few minutes more,” she says, and the vine curls down Axóchitl’s wrist until it’s touching her hand. Nesmi’s sure she can feel it pulse beneath her fingers. “I heard a rumor you like being out in a drizzle.”

The dome and its reflection are huge and shimmering before them, and Nesmi doesn’t want to go. Not yet. Axóchitl smiles, and the vine blossoms into pink and purple flowers.

“Ten minutes,” she says, and puts her head on Nesmi’s shoulder. “Tell me more about this art school.”

They say that with the end of spring comes longer dry periods, so spring is the best time to visit the City. In spring the rain subsides and the lake begins to show its secrets. Tourists come from every part of the world to see the mysteries of the flooded streets. They take out glass-bottomed boats and leave the shore for the heart of the lake, staring down into submerged buildings that glow with a network of underwater lights. They try to imagine what the City looked like before the lake, when it was so bright it outshone the stars.

The tours linger over old houses and the remains of monuments, and the guides explain the local legends: the biggest city in the world, the rain that didn’t stop for years, the chinampas that retook the lake. When they arrive at the last stop, in front of Bellas Artes, dawn breaks. The tourists sit on the terrace to drink coffee and warm up before they make the trip back. Along with the view, they can take in the drawings of young artists that cover the walls of the café: a swimming axolotl, a pink and purple bougainvillea growing above the threshold of a door, a mural of the City by night. The terrace’s benches and floors are covered with graffiti left by visitors who’ve scrawled their names across every available surface.

They say dry nights are full of possibility, and those whose names are written here will meet again.


Andrea Chapela

Andrea Chapela (Mexico City, 1990) has a degree in chemistry from the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) and an MFA in Spanish Creative Writing from the University of Iowa. She is the author of a fantasy YA series, two books of short stories, and a book of essays. She is part of Mexicona, the Mexicanx Initiative and a member of the 2017 class of Clarion West. In English translation, her publications include poems in The Brooklyn Rail InTranslation, an essay in Tupelo Quarterly, and short stories in Lightspeed and Samovar. Andrea was named one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists in 2021. She lives in Mexico City with her cat Pandemia. Her essay collection The Visible Unseen is forthcoming with Restless Books in the Fall of 2022.

Emma Törzs

Emma Törzs is a writer and teacher based in Minneapolis. Her short fiction has been published in journals such as Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lightspeed, and honored with a 2020 NEA fellowship, a 2019 World Fantasy Award, and a 2015 O. Henry Prize. She’s grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts, the Loft Literary Center, the Jerome Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the MRAC, the MSAB, and Norwescon for financial support through the years, and she’s an enthusiastic member of the Clarion West class of 2017. Her debut novel is forthcoming in 2023 with William Morrow.

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