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.
Following a few close calls, narrower victories that he’d become accustomed to, Condor started flying with some of those wrecks that he’d salvaged and had his mother stitch up, and which his father still welcomed so proudly when he brought them home, often by the armful. Still ruffled his hair and said: Look at him, my son, he may become even better than me yet! Gave him more used and blood-stained razor blades to fasten to the edges of these trophies.
Almost immediately as he adopted this strategy, started making use of these substitutes, he began to lose. They were not as good fabric as his blue beauty, many of them not being silk, or anything that might pass for silk, even from a distance. They were cotton or lycra or plastic, in some cases, and he didn’t take the time to practise with them, didn’t learn how to adapt his tugs and twists and his steps forwards and backwards and his pivots and jumps to their differing textures, their differing weights.
Now, when his wrecks went down, the Bird-God didn’t leave his eyes on the winner, but set them on Condor, staring for what felt like minutes before turning away, back to the beach.
Once, after a loss, Condor went over to him, asked for a cigarette. The Bird-God obliged, and lit it for him, and they both sat there with their legs dangling in the dead space over the edge of the roof.
I think it is four miles, he said.
He gestured upwards to a couple of hang gliders soaring overhead, vulture-swooping down towards the wedge of clear beach.
I have been watching them, he said, and I think I have worked out their speed and the distance from the time it takes for them to land.
He raised his wrist, and a watch glowed, far too big, around it, rattling and clinking, silver and gold. It used to be my father’s, he said.
I think we should fight, he said.
But you must use your best bird.
The date was set for the end of the week. Every night of the week, Condor had trouble sleeping. Had so much trouble, in fact, that he could never be certain afterwards, after all of this was over, that he actually had. The week was a dream. The next month was a dream.
No sooner had he come home, having lost another few kites, to the barely concealed disappointment of his father, and eaten, not even finishing his meals, pushing the rice and the black beans away with only a few forkfuls taken; no sooner had he climbed into bed than he was out again, springing silently out of his window, down the drainpipe, his turquoise beauty under his arm.
He had to renew, to refresh his confidence and his touch. He watched the kite glow against the full moon, saw it turn into a diamond of ocean, and looked down for any barbecue fires on the beach, but there were none. He tried to keep focused, to keep his knees bent but not too bent, to keep his grip loose but not too loose, to thrust and sweep and slice at the moon as though he might actually break it; as though he might crack the top off the egg and find its yolk like a galaxy burning inside.
Some nights that week, as he was leaving before sunrise, to hide from his opponent that he’d been practising, that he’d been worried, he had caught a whiff of smoke. His bare foot had crumpled something that might have been a match-head. But he never saw a face, a silhouette, never noticed the pulsating red of a cigarette tip.
When he got back home those nights, he was sure he didn’t sleep.
The Bird-God was back as the locus of the group. By the time Condor arrived for the contest, there he was, standing proudly, loudly, telling them all the story of how his own favourite kite had been made.
Though they must each have heard this story at least a few times, he still felt the need for a visual aid, and they didn’t begrudge him. Rather, they cheered as he held his kite aloft to illustrate the tale.
It was plain white cotton, expect for a couple of spots and a streak of rust-red, and, when he held it up, the sun came through and those spots and that streak seemed to burn with a low-lying flame.
The white, the cotton was all that remained of the sheet that had been on his mother’s bed in the whorehouse, the day she’d given birth. The spots and the streak were her blood, the dearest and truest memento of her that he had. Along with the lock of her hair that his father had saved and passed on to him, and which he had used to hem the sides into their pristine diamond shape.
And the edges, their sharpness was the sharpness of his father’s throwing knives, and of the two halves of his mother’s money clip, which had broken in two, she had made so much money, she had been such a famous and sought-after whore.
Another cheer at this point.
As the Bird-God lowered the kite, he set his eyes on Condor, and on his turquoise beauty, and grinned, and motioned to him to get started.
Never had he felt so nimble, so well-poised, so awake and so focused. The pull and release of the string over the subtle scar between his first and second fingers was just right, was always spot-on, so delicate, so quick. His kite ducked and swooped, slicing in towards the Bird-God’s line.
But the Bird-God was deft as well. Withdrew his kite from danger, danced backwards with bent knees, manoeuvred into a killing-strike dive of its own.
As they all milled around in the moments before take-off, the others all repeated the line he’d heard hundreds of times before, that: The Bird-God has never lost. That: We are so sorry for you. We are sorry already.
Condor stepped forwards, however, jumped out of range. Came to land awkwardly on the rim of the roof, but just about held his balance. Pivoted. Made another dive.
Missed by barely an inch.
The Bird-God shot him a glare. Looked up again, but not quite at the kites. He must be distracted, thought Condor. This was his chance.
He jumped back, back, then wrenched at the string, burning again at the scar between his fingers. His turquoise beauty arrowed down, cutting a direct diagonal for the Bird-God’s line.
Then all was shadow. He lost track of his kite, with the sun no longer coming through it, no longer transforming it into a bright scrap of sea. A hang glider was passing, low and close, and he felt his line veer and shake with the down-force. Then he felt it go slack.
When the sky cleared, there it was, tumbling, and the Bird-God was already off running, knowing before it did where it would land.
And then what? And then what? his grandkids might one day ask him. But he wouldn’t be able to tell them, not for certain, because he didn’t quite know.
None of them did. Not Paradise, not Sparrowhawk, not Eagle, not Phoenix, not Cockatoo.
He didn’t see entirely what happened next, because he couldn’t bear to look, first putting his hand over his eyes, then turning away.
There was a mirror of the pattern of cheering as he must have been coming back the other way, and then a gasp, a kind of collective wail, and then another cheer, as, presumably, he made it home safe.
It was only his own kite, drifting skywards, his most precious possession, his most treasured keepsake, drifting away on the breeze. Condor turned around just in time to see this, alerted by Cockatoo’s terrified cries. The sun came through from behind it, tinder-striking the dots and the streak into low-lying flame.
He rushed towards the rim of the roof, driven by instinct to the same spot at which they’d so often leaned or sat or stood to watch the white sand and the ocean. They were all lined up, peering over, squinting into the abyss.
There was no sign of his body. They could see vague shapes walking, hear the echo of the footsteps, but no screams, nothing that might indicate a body had been found.
A fearful murmur began at the back of the group that maybe he had really been sacred. Perhaps he had ceased to walk the tightrope, had simply vanished from this world, returned in triumph to the place of the gods.
At first, some of the older, taller kids wanted to laugh this off, say: No, he is dead, we will hear the screams soon. But the screams didn’t come, and talk soon started about his parents, the cat and the pitbull, and that talk became a conviction that they too had been gods.
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.
Still, it brought more visitors.
Two adults, a man and a woman. Strangers, whom none of them recognised from the immediate neighbourhood. The man with a bald head, a wide, heavy face. The woman with great, night-blue bags beneath her eyes, and scraggly red hair interrupted by thick, greasy lianas of grey.
They approached the group quietly. The group parted, allowed Condor to step forward to meet them. Cockatoo subtly shuffled his way to the safety of the back of the crowd.
What do you want? We don’t know you? Our calls couldn’t possibly have woken your baby, wherever you’re from.
My baby. the woman said.
My son. the man said. Where is my son?
Who is your son? We don’t know him. We are the only ones who come here, and none of us are missing. Condor said, though his fist tightened around the string of the kite, the nails starting, ever so slightly, to dig into the skin of his palm. The bird’s talons digging into his shoulder.
My son, the man said, My son is Manuelo. We have been searching all over the slums for a month, and nobody knew him, and he never said where he went. But you have been shouting him, we have heard you. My son is the Bird-God.
The man’s wide, heavy face fell as he said this. The big eyes were wet, and full of pupil, and dog-like. But not dog-like enough. Beside him, the woman’s eyes were bright green and cat-like. But not catlike enough. Hair wasn’t red enough. It couldn’t be them.
You are liars, said Condor. You have been sent by the police to trick us and ruin us.
There was a chorus of nervous agreement behind him.
This is the only Bird-God. This, right here.
He pointed up to the beast on his shoulder.
There is no other Bird-God. There never was.
My baby. the mother repeated.
My son. the man said. Did you kill him?
Condor stepped backwards, his fist tightening further, tugging the line. The parrot flapped in his ear. He could hear its beak clacking.
Did you kill my son? the man repeated.
My baby. the woman wailed.
Condor stepped backwards, once, twice more, and the group backed away further behind him. None of them breathed. None of them made a sound. They had all been beaten by this little kid, their latest leader. They knew what he was meaning to do.
And he did it, leaping high and then yanking hard on the string as he came back down to earth.
But the wide, heavy man was too quick for him, ducked, swung a wide, heavy fist into the little boy’s gut. The group started panicking, started to run. The mother started wailing. The parrot let go.
He let go of the kite.
He watched them both rising, intertwining together.
He could hardly breathe.
He heard the bird squawk.
The wide, heavy man was bent over him. Asking, again and again: Where is my son? Where is the Bird-God?
I don’t know, he said. I swear I don’t know.
Then: There isn’t a Bird-God. I don’t know what you mean.
Scurrying on hands and knees between the man’s wide, heavy legs, dodging his wildness, his stamps and his kicks. Standing up, tasting the smoke, the ashes of the man’s son. Tasting his blood.
Then Jorge ran, ran as fast as his long legs would carry him, bounding down the breezeblock steps two by two, three by three.
Chased by the weeping of the mother, like no sound he had ever heard a cat make, or a human make, either, he ran deeper and deeper into the maze of the streets, further and further away from the sky.
Dan Micklethwaite lives and writes in West Yorkshire, UK. His short fiction has featured in a range of publications, including ‘BULL’, ‘ink sweat & tears’, ‘3:AM’, and ‘Eunoia’. He’s currently building a shed in his garden, reading some John Berger, and working on a novel about coffee cups, evolution, fish & chips and tattoos.