By Dan Micklethwaite
Runner-up in The Missing Slate’s inaugural New Voices writing competition.
Jorge stopped being Jorge the first day he went up to the roof.
Bounding up the stairs, long-legged for his age, two breezeblock chunks by two, his kite beneath his arm. A pure turquoise in colour, fashioned from a negligée his mother had outgrown when she got pregnant, and had been saving for just such a purpose, so she said. It was edged with his father’s used razor blades, reddened with rust and old blood.
He beat Sparrowhawk and Paradise that first day, cutting their lines cleanly and quick, and the Bird-God took one look at him and his long legs and his long arms and: Everyone, this is Condor. he said.
Days and weeks followed and merged into each other and the heat and the salty currents of the air were never-ending. He would come home late and his father would seize him by the shoulders and say: Where have you been? and then pause, raise a big bushy eyebrow and say: Did you win? How many? and ruffle his hair when his son pulled a fistful of downed victims from behind his back. That’s my boy! That’s my boy! Not as good as your old man yet, but maybe soon, eh? Maybe soon.
He would wake up so early the sun hadn’t risen and he wasn’t even sure on those nights if he’d slept. What did it matter? he was a Condor, his kills gave him energy. Nothing but the flight gave him joy and nowhere but the roof really existed.
One night, one very early morning, he crept out, kite beneath his arm, and bounded up the breezeblock steps, unable to wait for the time when the others would come. He would practise. He needed to practice. In the past however long it was since he had been a part of the fights, he had beaten everyone at least once, and only lost a few times, and only those when he’d been using kites that he’d taken from others. He was good, he was very good, and all of them knew it. Nevertheless, the Bird-God still hadn’t asked him to fly. You couldn’t challenge the Bird-God, you had to wait for him to ask you. But Condor felt that he would be asked soon. And he wanted to be ready.
The night-breeze lifted his kite, his turquoise beauty, high, so close to the moon that they almost collided, and the light that came through from behind made it look like a fragment of sea at midday.
As he tugged and turned the string gently, deftly, he let his gaze drift for a moment down towards the skyscrapers, the new city, the beach out beyond. There was a wedge of it visible in between two hotels, and there was a fire going, just a small one, only a barbecue, only a match-head from this distance, and dark dots danced around it.
There was a screech, a parrot that, like him, should have been sleeping. He jumped, nearly let the string slip, had to hoist it in quickly, feeling the burn between the first and second fingers on his right hand, where he pulled it back through.
The parrot flapped on. Had he been a few seconds later, the bird’s beak would have cut clean through the fabric. Perhaps it had seemed like some strange, inviting portal, a window to another world. Perhaps it just couldn’t see well in the dark.
He sucked at the join between his fingers, which had started to bleed.
When he turned to leave, there was the Bird-God, half-in and half-out of the shadows, playing with a lighter, blowing out smoke.
That morning proper, after a few more hours’ rest, they were back there, and the others along with them.
The Bird-God picked him out of the crowd, coming over to offer him a cigarette. He took it, maybe too quickly. He didn’t care. Didn’t care what it looked like to the others. Or, rather, he did. He wanted them to see he was favourite.
As he took the roll-up from the Bird-God, clamped it between his teeth, waited for a light, he could still taste last night’s, could still taste his insides, full of his father’s scent and the bright dot of fire that he’d seen on the beach. But it was fading, fading, and he didn’t want it to go.
Breathe in. Too hasty. A cough. Breathe again, don’t be a fool. Be smooth, that’s it, Jorge. Condor, that’s it. Smile. No, grin. You’re alive, you’re a flier, you’re on top of the world.
With the first full exhalation, he looked again through the smoke and down across the miles of stepped roofing that made up the slum. A quilt of corrugated iron in all different shades, a rainbow of burrows and squats and shanty-holes, pocked and somehow dignified by rogue fissures of rust. Calls and sirens rising up from the thin streets as an answer to the sirens and calls from the jungle, from the mountains that stood heavy, above and behind.
And beyond that quilt, beyond, it seemed today, its comfort and warmth, were the shiny white spines of the hotels and skyscrapers, and beyond them, between them, the shiny white milky-way space of the sand.
You want to go, don’t you? the Bird-God said.
They were a little away from the rest of the group, two of whom were just in the process of launching their kites, with another couple already unwinding their strings.
I guess, he said. Have you ever been? What’s it like?
My father took me once, when I was young, real young, and he was still living. It was beautiful, and the sea was warm, warmer than any bath or shower you’ve ever had in your life. And the sand is so smooth it’s like skin. It was like my mother’s skin, I could tell, even though I’d only known her for a second. I rolled around in it, I hugged it, I wept into it, when I was still young enough to weep.
The Bird-God paused to exhale, and Condor, remembering himself, exhaled as well, coughing a little bit after. Then, to recover himself, gesturing to his leader, go on.
That’s all there is to tell, really. Except that I have a plan to go back.
I can’t tell you yet. It’s not ready. Another cigarette?
Condor didn’t know what to make of this.
The Bird-God was a notorious teller of stories, tales that seemed at once nursery-rhymes, childish, yet bursting also at the seams with the harshness of truth. The first few weeks, when he’d been only ever on the edge of the circle when such stories were told, he hadn’t been quite sure what was happening, or why the others were listening so intently. But as time passed and the Bird-God drew him closer, closer, until he was so close he was at his right-hand, perched there beside him on the rim of the roof, almost the highest roof in all of the slum, he began to believe.
Even, and perhaps especially, the parts that were nursery-rhymed, the parts that relied upon magic.
But the Bird-God talked of it openly and often and almost proudly. He wasn’t a sorrowful thing, his wings tucked in close and not daring to soar. He almost smiled, even, as he talked of his mother, and how she had been a prostitute, the best prostitute in all of the country, so his father had said, and that’s why he’d married her. They had come from the north to seek fame and fortune in this city, and she had gotten work at a small whorehouse that pretty soon came to be regarded as the best whorehouse in town. People would come from all over to seek her out, his father said, and some of them even wanted to take her away, but his father was a gangster, and so nobody dared. She was so beautiful, though. Had hair red as the reddest of roofs, the reddest of sunsets. But she died giving birth to me. My father should have hated me after that, should have beaten me, should maybe even have left me for the wild dogs to take, but he didn’t. Because my mother came back. She lived again as a bright red cat who slept on the warm step in front of the whorehouse, and all the patrons who entered stroked her, and stroked her again when they left, and she purred, and they all felt better about life and the world and the slum seemed to them even better than the new city, it seemed like a paradise. And every day my father and I would walk down to see her, and he would talk to her, and she would curl up on his lap. Until one day I couldn’t find him, and I couldn’t find her. He had been shot by the police, on the first day the government sent them in. I tracked her down by the chalk outline that seemed all that was left of him. She was making sounds like no cat had ever made, nor ever will make again. It was the sound of a woman weeping, sobbing so hard it was as though she herself was dying again. And though she returned to the whorehouse, to sit on the step, none of the patrons dared stroke her anymore, and none of them felt better for leaving, and paradise vanished, and now the whorehouse has shut down. My father returned to her, though, after a time, as a pitbull. He came to find her on the step, and, instead of attacking her, he nuzzled her softly. They both returned to our home, and now it is my turn to feed them, every morning and night.
Though nobody had ever been to the Bird-God’s house, or even knew where he lived, all of them, and Condor most of all, took this to be gospel. The way that he told it didn’t give them much choice.
Perhaps this was why he was leader. It couldn’t have been simply his kite-skills, because, the past few weeks, he had been flying less and less, as though his mind was on something else. Whether with Condor or without, he would spend long minutes by himself, staring away to the sea, and then looking up to the mountains, at the planes that thundered, periodically, over them. At the hang gliders that swooped down and away towards the new city, standing out against the sun as prehistoric shapes, pterodactyls, racing from out the past of the stone and the jungle towards the future, the concrete, the rich flesh of the beach.
Condor kept flying. Kept winning as well, more often than not. Became, in the gap left by their leader’s reluctance, steadily, steadily, the flier to beat. With his long legs and his long arms, he began to tower above most of the competitor kids, and, as his stature grew further, it seemed they began to look up to him.
They watched the Bird-God with increasing nervousness and unease, with a fear, almost, the kind of fearful respect reserved for actual deities and semi-deities – those beings who trod the tightrope between this world and the world higher. He no longer occupied the central locus of their grouping. He would lean or sit or even stand on the rim of the room, staring either upwards at the hang gliders, at the planes, or downwards, towards the sand, and the new city before it. The feeling grew, unspoken, within all of them, even Condor, that he knew more than them, understood more than them, had a power beyond their grasping. But none of them, not even Condor, was brave enough to ask what it was.
When the two of them did talk, it was no longer about the beach, or his parents, or how the others were doing, or even about who would go down to buy or steal what food for their midday snack. And rarely did it concern flying, that thing which brought all of them up to that roof, nearly the highest in the whole of the slum. The thing which had been bringing them up here, it felt, since time immemorial.
In fact, the two of them barely talked at all any more. Just stood there, or sat there, or leaned there, against the rim of the roof, smoking, their insides tasting of the shadows of fathers, of the barbecue fires they saw some nights on the sand.
For weeks, about the only thing the Bird-God said to him was: How far do you reckon it is? Down there. Two miles? Five? Ten?
Condor hadn’t known how to answer, and the Bird-God hadn’t seemed as interested in him any more.
Not in him personally, anyway, though perhaps much more interested in his kite. Even on that first day, when he was given his new name, his only true name, he had noticed the leader of the gang eyeing up his turquoise beauty with what read to young Jorge as admiration. Now, though, those glare-narrowed eyes seemed to green and glow and stare after his kite with a quietly worrying envy. As he stood there, with his long legs planted firmly apart, knees bent just enough so that he could step back and forwards smoothly without losing altitude, could pivot and jump, if required, if there was a sharp enough rise in the wind-speed or a heavy enough drop; as he stood there with his long arms crooked in prime position, running the string out and reeling it back in between his first and second fingers, across the faint, tiny ridge of the scar left by his first night-practice; as he stood there, swaying his kite with its razor-blade edge through the strings of his competitors, sometimes two in the same movement, once even three, he would catch the Bird-God watching his turquoise beauty, and the way it seemed, even in the daytime, like a scrap of sea displaced in the sky.
Everyone else was watching the slow, swirling plummet of his victim’s wrecks onto the roof, onto other rooftops, cheering or raging, but the Bird-God was watching the one left in the air.
He was no longer like them. He was already somewhere else.