by Anna MacNamara
Perched on the loneliest rooftop on the outskirts of the city, the wallpaper of their world was the finest cityscape. From such a perspective, Copenhagen’s church spires were surely not church spires but rather syringes, injecting and re-injecting ink into the abyss above, on a 12-hourly basis. The Skypeople elected their own names from a vast pool of all names that could be dreamed up. Seas of texts and images, and rivers of sound, were scoured for a virgin name that was unscarred and unhurt by former use. If it could be dreamed and imagined, then it was theirs for the keeping. Velvet Melbourne, Sam Copepod and Kurt Valvatida populated rooftops. Each name exuded an unparalleled originality, and in the process of naming oneself, one sought to breathe life into an emptied place that had once belonged to one’s previous self in a previous life, a Ground life. That is, one that you or I would live.
Skymen and Skywomen live their lives as close to the sky as is practical, as though consumed by some mad desire to scrape at the heavens, inhale clouds, and eat the sun like a white malteser. A little party of pacifists, outcast, pursuing the skies that are spilled out overhead.
Exposed rooftops, while sun they may greedily gulp, do not serve as glasshouses; any notion that one may live self-sufficiently there may be discounted. Consequently, the Skypeople developed a malnourished appearance, exacerbated by a resistance to hunger in pursuit of a separate life to Groundpeople. They mingled where necessary, but preferred minimal interacting. Skin clung tight to faces and limbs, like some distinguishing feature of a tribe. Kurt often looked at his hands and examined the tendons, muscles and blood vessels in operation under a thin, milky layer. All of the insidebodythings, interlocked in some perpetual jive.
It was the roof of a derelict house that stared out at the intersection of Lavendelstraede and Kattesundet. Kurt felt sure that Scandinavian streets were named by a person talking with their mouth full of cake. A staircase divided the two worlds. So, when Henriksen’s worn shoes clapped along the staircase and he stood, surveying the expansive rooftop, he was still a Groundman. A Groundman venturing into Skyman territory.
They had their own language too. Or perhaps it would be better described as the vernacular distorted by unusual quirks. If words belonged together then they were married. So they had new-old words like dreamedup. Sometimes they did this for practical purposes, and sometimes they did it so that the words would not sting as much. The Skypeople had snipped out the thinkingtime in the middle. Now such words would dance off their tongues with a renewed cheer, and lighter too. The words they didn’t like to contemplate had been turned into tiny dandelion seeds; they could tread the air, and they waltzed their way to listening ears.
Growing up with a Nirvana poster over his bed and a fascination with the Great Barrier Reef gave birth to Kurt Valvatida.
He was one of those born with too much heart. It was fat and bulging. It belonged to a skinny boy in Cyprus who wanted to save the songbirds and see them streak the skies. Little flecks of passion streaming overhead. They reached into his chest, and pulled his heart up, the way you’d pull up a foxglove from the roots, shaking off the earth that clings to it. And they wrote across it, in big, sprawling handwriting, claiming it for themselves. Somewhere inside his soul, the songbirds secured a vault for themselves, and perched inside cheerily. When silence smothered him like wax, he listened to hear their ceaseless chirping.
They had the most colourful names and the most vivid colours. The Blue-cheeked Bee Eater and Black-throated Blue Warbler. The Short-toed Treecreeper and Spanish Sparrow. Poetry dressed in feathers. Music from their beaks and in their names. He did not want them to flail and writhe, their small legs tangled in the Syrian Plum gum the hunters spread. He did not like being able to count the once bountiful flying treasures that belonged to the sky, and not to us.
So, when he could not save them, or save enough of them, he broke. Imagine you pick up the shimmering wings of a dead butterfly, the kind that could be ground down to make a powdery eyeshadow for fairies. The light wing you hold flakes apart, into a thousand little dusky fragments. A mere exhalation would scatter them. That is how Kurt broke. It was a silent kind of breaking, but a breaking nonetheless. It was a general dying out of voice, a general dying out of song.
And he left Cyprus and songbirds.
He swapped them for Copenhagen. It was organised and structured, and so too were the people. The pavements extended horizontally and vertically too. It seemed that gravity was the only thing that prevented the troops of people from striding up the walls of buildings, continuing their determined march. And there were lights, so many countless, needless, lights. It was another electricity city, the same as all the others.
But it had a madman’s skyline. There was no space on the ground for odd shapes and twisted things; instead they were expelled upwards into the air above the city, and stuck on big spikes. They could sit there, looking at each other and peering down curiously at amused foreigners in high hotel rooms.
In Cyprus, only the sour and mottled old faces that spied from the warped bark of olive trees had seen his brokenness. But now there were so many lights that everyone saw. Becoming a Skyman or Skywoman entailed peeling away the ignominy that had been painted onto him or her with the broadest of brushstrokes.
Sam Copepod was the most recent member of the Skypeople. He had walked into the middle of the road holding a gun so near to his head that it looked as though its round shiny lips were going to plant a kiss in his hair. Cars jerked and skidded to avoid him. But Sam didn’t see any of it, nor did he hear it. He saw instead twenty-two years of a bruised mother and an aggressive father. It tore him into two pieces; it pulled apart the Sam-strands. White skin with blueberry-coloured stains had formed a film over his eyes, and now he could not see anymore.
He spent three years in a very white building. It was the kind of place one would expect to produce ‘extra-white’ chewing gum and mouthwash, which was a most misleading appearance. The people there dreamed each night of discovering a conditioner for the human condition. In the event that such a product was indeed successfully manufactured, Kurt intended to buy it in vast quantities, and bottle it, for later use. Eventually it was decided that Sam no longer posed a threat to other Groundpeople.
Sam did not speak very often; he preferred to stand at a distance and observe interactions. And so that was exactly what he did when he became a Skyman. He would peer down at the Groundpeople, like an inquisitive child examining a chain of ants at work, Kurt thought. Sam had a gentle face, but his eyes did not seem to see what was before them.
The night-time enveloped Kurt; to him it was as irresistible as a heavy lock of honeysuckle in the eyes of a dying moth. Wading out into all that wonderful navy. All of the planets sit up there, or rather out there. Idle witnesses, motionless. The earth, a dizzying sphere of blue and green, and blue and green again. A big revolving head, tilted, after being struck long ago by a Godknowswhat. Twirling away the years, and insignificant. Distant and love-scarred. And Kurt liked to imagine he was one of those planets, and that the earth were some mere lunar imagining, dreamt up as a moonpuzzle to occupy the powdery moon, lodged in its world of perpetual stasis.
Some of the nights, he still felt like a Groundman. Sometimes it ate him up from the inside and the outside. At such times he was merely a layer of skin; there were no insidebodythings in him at all. Instead of them he would feel the skinny Cypriot boy pressing his skin outwards, leaking suppressed memories into him. He is more hands than boy and they feel all around in the dark of his insides, blind and feverish. When this happened the memories would sprout up and flourish, aching to stretch the bony confines of his skull.
Velvet Melbourne liked to sing very early in the morning, when night and day vie for ownership of it. But it is not to be owned. It is a half-waking time. A sweet and ephemeral creature that does not belong but rather flits between worlds. It is undefined, and ungoverned. And so too was Velvet. She overstepped the lines that determined where one category ended and another began. She overstepped the limiting lines the world had laid down.
The world itself was, to Velvet, a passing-through-place. Kurt thought of her as a nomad who had finally sunk stakes into the soil beside him, for company.
‘Blue Velvet’ was her favourite song to sing. Her deep voice rolled around the rooftops when she sang, with an energy that filled up the empty house beneath them, lifting it from its melancholic sleep. At such times, it forgot its desertedness; it was as though she planted a soul beneath its damp floorboards. The previous winter Kurt had seen a blue velvet ribbon in the Christmas market, and he had taken it back to her. Now it was a battered blue collar she wore around her broad neck.
In his youth, twice, Kurt had been taken to the ‘Rollin’ Diner’ in the city. It looked glossy and American, and it seemed to ooze success in a manner afforded only to things of American origin. Both times he ordered the same thing: the ‘Strike It Rich Hot Fudge Sundae Special,’ with chopped caramelised peanuts sprinkled over the top. Each time it arrived with a small jug of chocolate and black cherry sauce. That was the colour of her skin. He felt sure that if it were pierced it would spurt warm chocolate and black cherry sauce, of the deepest hue and the most marvellously rich taste.
And then there was Henriksen. If you stood close enough to read the pretty gold badge he wore you could see that it said “politi.” For the purposes of convenience, Groundpeople decided that Henriksen, and all the other police officers, would wear a badge that told everyone what they do. And, while Kurt had initially regarded him with suspicion, the Groundpeople were indeed quite prepared to accept that the little badge was an honest one without further examination. While Henriksen did not find the matter a perplexing one, Kurt let his thoughts swirl around it often. He thought about other possible entries to the Henriksen’s Badge Competition: lean, placid, worn, likes ice-cream in summer. There was an array of words that might have deserved a place on the badge, and Kurt wondered how anyone could reach into the big wordbag and pick out just one. And they chose the same word for all of the police officers, even the ones who were not like Henriksen.
His lips stuck out from the rest of his face in a kind of limp pout that made his mouth look soft and freshly punched.
Today, Henriksen did not look relaxed. His brow was furrowed and he wore a foreign expression, one that was reserved for adults at work. It was the kind of look that cut people’s eyes without them realising.
Behind Henriksen there were two other police officers, assuming they too wore honest badges. Henriksen looked as though he was arranging his words inside his mouth before he finally spoke.
“Out. They want you out,” he said.
His words were direct, and it seemed to Kurt that any of his former friendliness had been substituted by his two new colleagues.
“Now, Henriksen —” Kurt began steadily, calmly acknowledging that such polite interactions with Groundpeople were occasionally necessary, as a mark of respect.
“It’s not negotiable,” the tallest of the three said. His eyes were very dark, like dripping ink.
“They want to knock this place on Tuesday; we can’t have people like you up here when the contractors arrive.” Henriksen explained.
Kurt’s stamped-out groundlife rolled right up close and stared at him. It would wait until he responded. But this time it would not walk away empty-handed; he would not hear it pack up the memories it’d brought for him in old leather valises and plod wearily back down the stairs.
In the heat, Kurt imagined a stand-off like there would be in the times of the Wild, Wild West. He imagined a dusty wooden ranch he had seen on TV once. Sam would be a tassel-tangled cowboy, and Velvet — an American Indian with skin like the reddest earth in Africa — would have chalky shapes sprawled across her lean chest.
“We can negotiate, I’m sure, if you need to come up here and use this space from time to time, that’s fine; we can discuss it,” Kurt said, considering this to be a fair compromise/exchange for his own occasional journeys downstairs and into the surrounding streets.
His words hung in the air. Now his ground life was standing even closer than it had previously dared. It was not menacing; it was simply readying itself to bloom again, almost impatient to begin the process. Kurt could smell the cracked old leather of the valises in the dizzying heat. He would have liked to ask Henriksen if he too could see the figure grasping a valise in each hand.
Velvet looked at the men. Perhaps conflict had been woven into the strands of her life, and would never untangle from them. She turned away from them and looked over the rooftops with searching eyes. They settled on the horizon, where an orange ball sat and burned furiously.
Henriksen was not prepared to engage in any further polite conversation with Kurt; he was irritated by his treating a policeman as a businessman negotiating a contract. Kurt eyed each of the Groundpeople cautiously; unnerved by the notion that his daily activities were in fact fruitless efforts in pursuit of the air that sits a little way above our heads.
“I don’t have time for this, Kurt,” he said, in a sharp tone that was unfamiliar to Kurt’s ears. It startled him. Henriksen continued, “You don’t have any business up here; this building belongs to the council. And they want you out.” Kurt felt disorientated, the way a goldfish might feel if the tank in which he swam were lifted and tilted to one side.
Now he re-imagined the Wild, Wild West. A gold star sits on Henriksen’s chest. Kurt might be a cowboy, but he’s an outlaw too, and slowly the inky troubles of Groundpeople seep wearily into his world. They sifted down on him, in dulling, smoggy layers that only Kurt could see. It was sticking to him like Syrian Plum gum.
When the men left, Kurt re-walked their steps with his eyes. He felt like a birthday cake with pink buttercream icing piled on top, after somebody cuts out a fat slice.
When the daylight had scampered off again, hand in hand with the sun, he would question the skies. He would crane his neck and he would squint. He would look out into the navy as far as he could. He wanted to reach up and pull down the sky and everything else up there. It could be a papery map, or a big cheap poster. He would not peel it away gently; instead he would revel in the knowledge that the sky was scrunched between his palms, a crinkled ball of crepe paper. Then he could tear it into pieces or strips, so fragile in spite of its consuming nature.
Or maybe it would be wet, navy paint. Maybe he would press his cheek against it, and then peel his face away from it to reveal some kind of half-mask, or a sky-tattoo, cooling now, in the wind.
There was no distant, windswept planet, no lonely spinning star, immersed in its own sphere of isolation that gazed down attentively to guide him.
Eventually the sky drains of ink and daytime returns. The fleeting half-waking time that doesn’t belong to day or night has danced its way between the two and out of sight. Velvet did not sing. Instead she half-listened to the muffled city noises that floated up from Lavendelstraede. She knew what Kurt did not know. Skypeople and Groundpeople were not supposed to criss-cross shadows.
And so, when the sun perched proudly at the peak of its daily arc, Kurt decided that the Skypeople would not fade out like the last star and the next star.
The skies above unzip and spill out unrelenting rain. Listlessly. Rain without passion or direction. Rain that merely falls downwards because there is nothing else to do. And the Skymen and Skywomen rain too. Heavy in the air. Like sacks of sand, and falling. No noise after it all but the final passing of air from lonely throats.
The three of them lie, united in their motionlessness. Silence clings to them. Hot, liquid life leaks from their ears. It colours the pavement in bright spurts, better than ink. A woman checks to see if any of the insidebodythings are awake. They are silent. The perpetual jiving turned out to be a short-lived salsa.
The display is artistic. Limbs and love lie between them. Following their assessment of the events, the Groundpeople conclude that it was a suicide pact. “Poor souls.” Nobody saw the three colourful songbirds flying away.