If Condor was expecting to fill the gap left in their group, to ascend with ease to the number one spot, he was to be disappointed.
With their former leader, the one who’d never been beaten, gone, the flights became a free-for-all. Anyone could challenge anyone else, at any time, and did so.
In fact, though his record had hardly been striking in the weeks leading up to his battle with the Bird-God, many of the others chose to challenge him.
Reduced to an increasingly raggedy army of cast-offs and dregs, he struggled. His footwork was all over the place, his knees didn’t seem to want to stay bent at the proper angle, nor to have the right spring. The scar between the first and second fingers on his right hand was worn bloody on several occasions. His eyes had trouble focusing on the shapes he was supposed to be steering, were continually drawn away to the sea, or overhead to a glider, or the thick silhouette of a plane.
Down, down, down they came, his birds, one after the other.
Frantic, he asked his mother if she had any more negligées, preferably blue. She slapped him round the head, told him not to be so dirty. He’s getting more and more like you all the time, she said to his father, and he came and slapped Condor, too.
When he was down to a scarce handful of plastic bags, he asked her if she’d saved the sheets that had been on her bed when she’d given birth to him. Preferably with authentic drops and streaks of blood. He’d gotten more than a slap from his father for that.
Soon he was reduced even further, almost as low as he could be, to stealing plastic knives from street restaurants, to fasten to his plastic bags as blades. No matter how much he spiked and struck and sharpened them, they seemed incapable of cutting his opponents’ string, no matter how many times he managed to swoop and slice across into them.
But, no matter how many times he watched these plastic bags bow and balloon out, drift away on the stiff mountain breeze once they’d been severed, he kept on gathering more, chasing fresh ones like chickens through the thin streets down below.
It didn’t make any difference.
Without the Bird-God’s gravitational pull, he felt himself circling the group wider and wider, stretching the tether, moving more surely once again to the outer reach of their orbit. Out there, his plastic bags clattered around him like an asteroid belt, or shot off like escape shuttles from a planet marked for death.
His father had stopped smiling, stopped ruffling his hair when he came home late. His mother had stopped leaving his food out, had started to tell him to make it himself.
Yet, he had still been forcing himself out of bed, almost as soon as he lay down for the night. Because how else would the days pass?
Even with his long legs, he no longer bounded out the window, no longer shimmied down the drainpipe with consummate glee. He no longer felt capable of taking the breezeblock steps two by two. He struggled to take them one at a time. He was very near out of breath when he arrived at the top.
Nevertheless, the first thing he did was pull out his father’s cigarettes, his father’s matches, which he no longer felt any guilt about taking, and clamp a cigarette between his teeth, and light it, and breathe in and taste the wonderful, worldly harshness of smoke.
Then, and only then, would he begin to practice. Throwing the latest plastic bag, patched with gum, with still-sticky sweet-wrappers, up, up and away, as though he were giving a sick bird an extra push out over the sheer drop of a cliff. Waiting for it to catch the breeze, to sweep across the sky sluggishly, fatly, billowing horrifically, more a boat, really, than a bird or a plane. Nothing sacred about it. Nothing smooth.
Then he’d light another cigarette, go and sit on the rim of the roof, dangling his feet out into the dead space over the edge. He’d blow out the smoke and look down across the dark patchwork, out between the two tallest hotels, four miles away, searching for any sign of a barbecue fire. Some nights there weren’t any, this night there were.
There was, just the one. A swirling red dot. With even smaller black dots dancing across in partial eclipse.
Then it was back to trying to fly, to steer, to duck and to dive. To wincing at the itch of the string as it passed over the subtle scar between the first two fingers on his right hand. To cursing that itch, and the pace of the wind.
Only, this night, the pace of that wind carried something else along with it. His yellowed plastic bag finally found enough altitude to take it within reach of the moon, where it hovered for a moment, treading air, glowing like a thirty-watt bulb. He gave it more string, so it might get closer, glow stronger, but almost as soon as he did so, it went dull, it went black.
Some object, no small object, was crossing the sky.
He pulled his plastic bag lower, sharply, reopening the wound, in the hope he might see it more clearly. A further moment and there was a turquoise flash and he knew exactly what it was.
The Bird-God, soaring, gorgeous with life.
Wherever he’d gone to, wherever he’d hidden, he’d taken all of the wrecks he’d gathered over the years along with him. He’d stitched all of those wrecks into a kind of quilt, made it almost – with the moon shining through it, through all the disparate, dissonant glazes – a model of the slum city flipped round and given wings. Briefly, as he passed direct across the face of the moon, Condor could pick out the way the wind ruffled the fabric, hardening it, tempering it into corrugated iron all the shades of the old city’s rainbow.
And there was Condor’s kite, his turquoise beauty, right smack bang in the middle, showing from behind the Bird-God in two pizza-slice fragments, still seeming to him like the sea at midday. Or a swimming pool, maybe, that the Bird-God was somehow diving back into. Graceful, impossible, not like the rest.
That was his Bird-God.
He stood there, perched on the rim of the roof, smoking, waving, grinning, wishing him good luck with all of his heart. Must have been. He could feel his heart pounding as his long legs used to pound, running up here these first few weeks and months, as the blood used to pound in his fingers, sensitive to even the slightest of turns in the string. He could taste his Bird-God in the smoke, he could taste the barbecue fire down on the beach.
He could see that red dot down below, between those two tallest hotels, lightening the sand. He could tell that his Bird-God was navigating by that dot, was steering his makeshift hang glider towards it, aiming to set it down just before and then become one of those little black dots, dancing, whooping most likely with freedom and joy. And perhaps dropping down onto his hands and knees, then his belly, then rolling around, rolling around and remembering beyond any ordinary limits of memory the touch and the warmth and the texture of his mother’s skin. Recalling his first birth at the very moment he was reborn, starting a new life as a new citizen, as one of the fortunate, one of the rich.
Condor watched him and found it difficult to breathe, and tears were coming with the way the scraps of fabric caught the moonlight, rippled with it, and he knew right then why the Bird-God had been their leader. Because he hadn’t wanted to be, and because he wasn’t content to simply hold that role until somebody bigger and quicker and stronger turned up. Because he wanted more, and chased after it endlessly. Because what had been a way of life for the rest of them, the flying, the teasing and slicing and swooping of kites, had only and always been practice for him.
His grand disappearance, his getting away.
How long had he been planning it? Since that first night he saw Condor out there on the roof with his kite? Since the morning after, when he’d offered a cigarette? Since well before then? Since the first flight that he won?
And how had he done it? Condor looked up and away to the mountainside, to the mountaintop, where all of the professionals, all the regular thrill-seekers seemed to launch themselves from. Had the Bird-God somehow climbed up there, hoisting his hang glider along with him?
What did it matter?
He was there now, out in space, smooth and fast and holding it steady. Some moments, he swung and eddied and shook with the breeze, banking one side upwards before righting again, the way that a real bird would. Others, he divebombed a little, as though seeking out prey. But always he levelled. Always he held it true, his gaze, as Condor’s gaze, focused ultimately on that red dot, and the black dots dancing around it.
Condor stayed standing there, watching, chain-smoking.
In his other hand, the kite string bobbed and flexed freely.
He felt special, the chosen disciple. There were, so he’d heard, about five hundred thousand people in the slum. Out of all of them – out of all those shanty-holes and squats and burrows, out of all of the doors and windows and roofs – he was the only one standing here watching, the only one that the Bird-God had wanted to be here to see.
Then, he was also the only one who saw, and not clearly, what happened next.
It seemed routine, at first, the same type of banking manoeuver he’d been doing on and off all the way down. But then, all the way up there, on almost the highest roof, Condor felt the stronger wind reach him, felt the tug and the whorl of the kite-string in his hand. He squeezed that hand tighter as he stood still and watched. Tighter and tighter. Tighter still. The grubby nails digging into his palms. The knuckles going white with red streaks running through them.
The strong wind turned the left banking roll into a full spin, into a second spin, into a further wobble, but then the Bird-God seemed to regain control, right himself.
Then came the dip.
Just a small divebomb, at first, as he’d been doing on and off all the way down, but then the angle grew steeper, and the colours of the patchwork began travelling faster, blurring with motion against the rich blue of the night.
On the rim of the roof, Condor’s grubby fingernails drew blood. The cigarette burnt down to his lip and he yelped and spat it out, and it spilled and spun away over the edge in mimicry of how the makeshift hang glider spun, a crime-scene re-enactment of its chaos and tumble. As he watched, unable to pull away, unable even to blink, despite the charring and the sting of his lips, despite the pain in his palms, it seemed to him that the two different patchworks, the mirrors, big and small, were about to blend, come together. And then the small one stopped reflecting, stopped glowing. And then nothing else. Not down there.
And up here, only a screech and a sudden tightness in his chest and in the kite-string, and the wrenching of that string deeper into the scar, and then the string going slack, then a thud and a rattle, as the plastic bag landed somewhere behind him on the roof.
He turned around to find there was still some kind of movement inside it.
As he walked towards it, slowly, he sucked at the blood from between those two fingers, and tears ran into the fresh cuts on his palms.
Gently, he lifted the bird into his hand. It nipped at him with its beak, scratched at him with its claws; he felt, and then smelt, the warm wet of its shit. He looked down at it, stroked a finger across its feathered belly. Its heartbeat raced up through his fingertip like a sharp static shock, like the shonky trembling of walls when his parents made love. His own heartbeat still battered the inside of his ribs.
He wanted another cigarette, to help calm him down, but daren’t, didn’t think it’d be good for the bird.
Wrapping it back inside the carrier bag, repurposed once more into the shape its makers had intended, he cradled the broken parrot in his long arms. With his long legs, he descended the breezeblock steps three at a time. He scurried, sprinted through the darkness of the thin streets, nearly out of breath but not minding, not stopping. When he reached his house, the lights all off, the walls not trembling, he slung the hooped handles of the plastic bag over his shoulder, shimmied up the drainpipe, closed the shutters behind him, sat down on the bed.
He flicked on the thirty watt lamp that stood crooked by his bed. Beneath it, the bird’s wings shone turquoise, its belly pulsed white.
A parrot, a cat and a pitbull. This was the way the old gods survived now, the last holy things in the slum.
He’d never been much of a talker before. He’d traded jokes with Cockatoo and Paradise, sometimes, though theirs had always been filthier and funnier, and Cockatoo made a big deal of the fact that he’d already been with two girls. At such times, Condor had simply laughed, lightly, then looked down at his big feet to hide that he was blushing.
With the parrot on his shoulder, though, he could stand up in front of them all and tell them – again and again, because they didn’t seem to tire of it – the fantastic true story of the Bird-God’s last flight. He could stand on the rim of the roof, dance around, tightrope walk on it, without any terror of falling. And all the time, the bird balanced perfectly, didn’t once try to fly loose.
Its wing had almost healed, but it still hadn’t made another sound, and Condor felt as though its power of speech had been gifted to him.
At the close of each stirring recitation – which grew longer and longer, extra details produced through divine inspiration, extra textures discovered and described to the group – he would release his new favourite kite. The white plastic bag, stained with a few streaks and small arcs of his blood, floated teasingly skywards. When it reached the height of the sun, those marks ignited with a low-lying flame.
Then cheers. The excited beating of the parrot’s wings in his ear. The soundless clacking of its beak. Soaking up the adulation just as surely as Condor himself.
From then on, whenever he chose to fight, challenging newcomers and old boys alike, it seemed he couldn’t lose. Despite the bird on his shoulder, it seemed his balance had come back. He no longer needed to rouse himself after dark to go practice. For the first time in months, maybe almost a year, he slept soundly and still for six hours a night. The movement, the stepping forwards and back, the jumping, the tugging and twisting at the string, it came naturally, easily. He didn’t even mind the itch of that string at the scar anymore. More than that, he learnt to adore it.
So effective did he find himself, the first few days after his rising, that he could cut strings even with snapped plastic knives. Though, he soon swapped these again for old razor blades, when his father saw him bringing home armfuls of wrecks and trophies again. Didn’t quite know what to make of the parrot, but allowed it, even ruffled its small feathered head, too, and said: Who knows, you may become better than me yet!
His mother even laid out food for the young bird at mealtimes.
Some nights, he would still miss that mealtime, staying out late until the others had gone, then lighting a cigarette, and then another, and another, until his insides tasted like a barbecue fire. He would wait to see such a fire spring up down below on the sand.
Other nights, most nights, he would leave the group first, through a kind of triumphal arch they made for him, then release his kite again, and walk slowly away down the thin dark streets, the white plastic bag with its cross-frame of twigs bobbing and sailing above the stepped patchwork of roofs.
A fortnight into his time in charge, his era as the central locus of the group, the parrot’s wing seemed to have healed completely. At night, in his room, it began to flutter around, experimentally. Condor congratulated it, encouraged it, fed it extra scraps. On one occasion, he rewarded it with a clutch of pomegranate seeds he’d dug out of the bin behind a street vendor’s hut. He’d had a scare afterwards, when it opened its beak almost as though it was choking. But no, it was only trying to talk.
During the days, its experimenting grew more adventurous, it circled his head in ever wider orbit, it began to chase after and dive and swoop around and in between whichever kites were in combat, narrowly evading razor blades and flip-knives and needles and pins.
After such manoeuvers, rather than showing frustration or claiming the bird as a distraction or a jinx or just a reason for their defeat, even the losers cheered, waved, grinned, believed.
Condor just stood underneath it all, chain-smoking, watching. Thinking of more little stories to tell.
He gave a performance now after every contest, saluting the participants, before ensuring they remembered their former leader; remembered that, no matter how many times they won, or how good they felt themselves to be, nobody in history would ever outshine him.
And even the most headstrong and proud of them stood there and accepted this. More than that, they all chorused his name together: Bird-God! Bird-God! Bird-God! It echoed long and wide along the rooftops and down the streets, pushing the walls further back, throwing doors and shutters open. It rivalled the calls and sirens of the slums, the sirens and calls of the jungle.
But it also brought interest.
It shook the birds out of the nearest trees, and they swooped low to examine and they flew away, all together. It brought out the cats, who sometimes joined in the din with their screeching. It drew howls from dogs; low, bassy howls and high yelps equally.
It drew the adults.
At first, it was only people who lived nearby, unfortunate neighbours from even three or four levels straight down, shaking sticks, and even a knife, once, saying: We put up with you playing here, but you wake my baby again and I’ll cut you. It was a middle-aged woman, not too ugly, not too fat, and Cockatoo stepped forwards, told her as much, suggested they sort this out personally, and nearly got stabbed.
They laughed this off afterwards, but were still a bit shaken.
The next day, their chanting was certainly lower.