“Gin, come away from those birds, won’t you? They’re just weird. Don’t you think? They certainly have terrible social skills,” Dorothy observes dryly, without looking up from her notebook. She is always scribbling in that notebook, working on an endless story she never lets Gin read. “They might be from a bad family.” Another one of those jokes that her little sister doesn’t get.
But the girl likes the birds so much! One bends its neck, just quickly, and pecks a keratiny kiss on Virginia’s cheek; she flushes, pleased. The birds once belonged to the zoo upstairs but, as one of them whispers to her, they grew tired of being pelted with scabs of bread. “Sorry, Dot,” she says, hurrying to catch up.
“Gin, really,” says Dot. “An ostrich? It’s so oafish. Can’t we at least say hello to the passenger pigeons, if we’re going to loiter in Birds?”
She shrugs, gives the bird’s neck a final pet, trots after Dot. After all, Dot is big; knows best. They have the whole afternoon plotted out: Passenger Pigeons, Indian Princesses, then Jennie, Houdini’s Disappeared Elephant. Down here in the archive, no one outlives their usefulness. It is enough just to exist, or rather, to not.
Dot and Gin meet in the middle of their lives, at the Department of Missing Girls, here in the underground Archive. They pair off, cleave together, occupy themselves with daily adventures in the subterranean city. Dot imagines herself to be quite worldly, having been a wealthy socialite who disappeared herself back in ’10 after setting off down 5th Avenue one fine day, arrayed in her best fur muff, languidly visiting shops, charging things to her father’s accounts. A humorous book here. A box of chocolates there. And then, calmly, without so much as a backward glance, descending the staircase to the downstairs world.
But Virginia was only a child when she toddled down in the spring of 1587, her colony having disbanded when the shore eroded and the food got scarce and the Indians took the grownup ladies and the Governor starting getting freaky. She can hardly remember that life outside. She finds it hard to believe she is famous in the old world, that upstairs her name is still known – Virginia Dare, the first colonial child born in the new world! – that her colony would have been so careless as to lose her, after all that fuss.
Dot on the other hand is pleased by attention, by the front-page stories in newspapers from coast to coast, by the country’s obsession with finding her, by the fact that her mystery was never solved; she would be sad to know she’d become somewhat obscure. To Gin, as Dot has nicknamed her, imperious in her big sister role—it all seems highly unlikely, the upstairs world a distant fever dream. They are so used to being archived. It is cozy down there. Noisy at times, stuffy at others, but – cozy. Dot is free to write her stories, which she worries over for decades at a time and then files immediately in the Department of Great Literature as soon as she’s pleased with a draft. Gin is free to whisper to all the animals, and the animals are free to whisper back. It is not a bad place to be.
Of course, it’s getting more crowded lately. The archivists, serious, sexless youths in white suits and gloves, are kept busy evaluating, preserving, tagging, filing. Once they could be found on break, lounging among the orchids. But no more! The whir of activity from the Intake Sector never seems to end. Insects, mosses, books, babies—escaping or being evicted from the upstairs world, one after another. Sometimes there’s a line going all the way up the stairs. Gin tries to peek as they pass, but Dot rushes her along. “Oh, don’t gawk,” she chides. “How unbecoming.”
Still. Dot isn’t always paying attention. Sometimes she gets distracted, particularly when she is sizing up the growing population of Missing Girls. “I just don’t know that I’d archive them all,” she will say under her breath, glowering at a traumatized bunch of Nigerian schoolgirls, snubbing the shivering kidnapped American Suburbanites. And then Gin sneaks away, wanders by herself, makes her own discoveries.
So Dot doesn’t know what Gin knows. The door Gin once stumbled upon during her rambles, a large, metal exit blocked with a bar, its plaque labeled: Unarchivable. Gin has stowed away nearby, waiting for the archivists. She has seen the imperfect specimens arrive on a hand truck, has seen the doors eke open, has seen the contents of the hand truck —artworks beyond repair, animals outside of the archivists’ taxonomy, people with damaged bodies or broken minds—emptied down the chute. She clamped her hands over her ears because that sound—no.
She won’t tell Dot about that. No. Gin knows that beneath all Dot’s bravado is a scared and sheltered child, and Gin feels responsible for that child. So they promenade along the catwalks, past door after door, and they talk about everything — Dot has a crush on a fellow in the Department of Explorers; Gin is worried about one of the Dodos, who seems depressed—everything except the awful unasked question of why it is suddenly getting so crowded. What is happening upstairs anyway? Nope. They discuss the addition of a Department of Thoughts and Notions, and their voices the only sound in the hallway.
Except. Except today as they await the pneumatic tube that leads to the Extinction Shelf, they hear sounds of great commotion. An earthquake — no, a stampede. No. Dot stiffens, looks at her but through her, as if remembering something she’d worked hard to forget. She feels nervous suddenly, says, “Dot, let’s go back to the Ostrich, right? Please?” Dot pops a chocolate in her mouth, as she does when she is nervous. Chews. Gin tries. “Shall we visit Explorers, maybe? Huh, Dot?” (Gin likes climbing into the lap of Amelia Earhart, who is a great storyteller and even better tickler.) “Or go bother the old Arctic Popsicles, maybe?” But even their silly nickname for lost explorers doesn’t make Dot smile. The sounds get louder, the vibrations more intense. Reminds Gin of — of what. Of before. Of upstairs. Of the waking world before disappearing. Right before Disappearing, when things were getting bad.
“It’s people,” says Dot mysteriously, eating another chocolate as dust sprinkles down onto her golden hair.
“People?” says the child.
Dot shrugs. “Sounds like” – she is quiet, cocks her head, assesses, as if counting One, Two, a Hundred, a Thousand — “All of them.”
Amy Shearn is the author of two novels, The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is The Ocean From Here. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Real Simple, and elsewhere, including the Underwater New York anthology Silent Beaches, Untold Stories and the Burnt Books anthology History of a Day. She is the assistant editor at JSTOR Daily, and lives in Brooklyn with her family.