- Birthday, Fiction, Reading, Writing

From the Archives: Three Cities, by Dawn Raffel

Happy birthday, Dawn Raffel! Celebrate by reading this Raffel fiction we published in 2020! It was subsequently selected for inclusion in The Best Small Fictions 2021! And, one section of it, “The City of Serena,” was selected for inclusion in Best Microfiction 2021! Also celebrate by reading Raffel’s “The Weight of Lost Objects,” which we published this year. And by listening to our podcast interview with Raffel.


Three Cities

(with appreciation for Italo Calvino)


The City of Serena

In the beautiful city of Serena, every old woman wears a mask. The body may yet appear lithe in slacks, in silks, in exquisitely calculated jackets; the gait still steady in the cleverest shoes. The hair is calibrated to perfection, dyed, snipped. And yet the face—the face!—cannot be made to please the eye, by needle, by knife, emollient, unguent, pressure, laser, poison, paint. And so the old women of Serena go about in vivid masks: the poor in the primary colors; the wealthy in the jewel tones, garnet and sapphire, emerald, all of it fired in the city’s famous ovens. Time was, the old women removed their masks at night, in the dark, but now it is the law that they must wear them, even to sleep, even to die. The hands must be gloved. The toes must be sheathed. The old women of Serena may be sixty or ninety, or two-hundred and ten. Despite their wild hues, no one sees them at all.


The City of Infinite Names

Everyone is lost here, even the mice. The old folks wander alone or in groups, searching for home, but the streets have new names, have turned in different directions. The city itself changes name every hour. At one, it is Los Santos. At two, it is Poteryannyye Serdtsa. Each day is different. Each minute is the same. Every iron statue, every monument identical. The earth smells of salt or of mouse or of blood—but no, that’s not it. The women wear keys at their throats like a necklace, but all of the doors have been burned to the ground. Under the dirt lie the bones of the dead. They, too, are restless.


The City of Exits

Every edifice in the City of Exits has a door marked “out.” No one is out. No one is in. The houses are vacant, the churches, the synagogues, temples, mosques, the old market, the hospital, brothels, streets. Bones shrink on dishes, flesh stripped off. There are shoes lost in haste. The gates are stuck open. The clocks have all stopped, each marking a different hour of depletion. Birds’ nests are splintering cups holding nothing. Nobody knows where the souls of the City of Exits have gone. It is rumored they fled on a Tuesday, or maybe a Wednesday, or some other day. It is rumored they are living in the City of Infinite Names.


  • Dawn Raffel's most recent book, The Strange Case of Dr. Couney, was chosen as one of NPR’s best books of 2018. Previous books include a memoir, The Secret Life of Objects; a novel, Carrying the Body; and two story collections, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division. Her writing has been published in O, The Oprah Magazine, BOMB, New Philosopher, The San Francisco Chronicle, Conjunctions, Black Book, Open City, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Arts & Letters, The Quarterly, NOON, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies. She currently works as an independent editor for individuals and creative organizations, specializing in memoir, short stories, and narrative nonfiction. She is also a certified yoga instructor and teaches embodied creative writing.

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