Copyright is held by the author.
UNDER A wafer-thin sky Jurfal Mcdermid carefully cultivated his plot of land. The sun was mirrored in the reflected light of skyscrapers as condensation rolled off the glass cliffs into a moat ringing his property. During his childhood, the buildings had sprouted up almost overnight and now abutted the entire perimeter of his land.
The megalopolis called Quondam bore down with insistent gravity. The city had arisen in a checkerboard pattern like a rampant fungus, blotting out the sky until land and sky became anomalies and myths. Beneath the cloud layer hover cars whizzed like streaks of molten light. In the uniform concrete expanse, only one block was missing. — A square hole in the center, as if a single tower had been drawn out by a cosmic magnet.
The little field Jurfal called his own was a hodgepodge of pumpkins and wheat, corn and rice, squash and potatoes, and something he called merlon that seemed vaguely edible. The soil was rich with manure scooped out of the sewer main.
As he clomped through the weeds with his hoe he glanced up at the gleaming walls around him. Murky things plopped in the moat-water, and the clawed footprints of kappa in the mud were filled with glowing mushrooms.
Glancing up from his work, he saw a child lying on the edge of the quiet stream. At the base of one of the nearby buildings was a splintered painter’s platform. Its lines had snapped and it had slid down the Plexiglas façade, leaving a long streak.
The wood panels would serve well to patch the holes in his barn, but they were coated with the lichen that grew on the lower stratum of the city. Methodically, Jurfal held match-flames under the leeches on the boy’s shins and forearms. After checking for broken bones, he picked up the mud-soaked child carefully.
Drawing a bath, he tested the water with a finger. Pulling the plug, he worked hurriedly to clear the muck at the bottom and then turned the handle to unleash a trickle of cloudy water. As he gently lowered the slumbering boy into the warmth, fully clothed, the limp boy stirred and thrashed as if he were drowning. Jurfal’s wife peeked in curiously.
“What the Hell you doin’?” the boy yelled.
“My name’s Jurfal, and this is my wife Tabitha.”
“She looks like your twin,” the boy said, spitting sludge into the bath and standing up sopping.
“I found you unconscious in my yard,” Jurfal said.
“Why’d you take me back?”
“What do you mean?”
“I wanted to go to the bottom of the well and disappear. I didn’t want to go back inside ever again.”
“That’s what they call it, the well. It’s the place where there’s a building missing. The only place you can see natural ground if you use binoculars.”
“I never thought of it as a well. But I guess it is one, since it’s dank and full of amphibians.”
“What else could it be?” the boy asked. “Say, this bathwater smells awful. Is it clean?”
“Clean enough,” Jurfal said.
“Where’s it from?”
“It’s pumped from the groundwater, which is just the runoff from the buildings.”
“What are you saying, Grandpa? You mean you live at the bottom of the well? And we’re there right now? I thought it’d be darker . . .”
“Why don’t you come out when you’re washed and we’ll talk about it? What should I call you, anyway?”
The two of them sat on the trunk of the dead fig tree where they could watch the corn teeter in the little currents of air that whistled from the inch-wide alleyways between the buildings surrounding them.
A two-tailed cat crawled vertically up the nearest edifice toward a cooing kit of pigeons perched where they could gaze upon their reflections in the tinted glass.
“That’s my building there,” Geoff said. “But I reckon you can’t see my room. Too high up. Say, you think anyone’ll believe I made it to the bottom?”
“I don’t know. You’re the first live person to visit.”
“A lot of people suicide nowadays. Two of my friends’ parents did it. I expected to land in a pile of old bones and treasure.”
“Some people that leap to their deaths, but they never make it to the ground.”
“The suicide-spiders usually catch them. A jumper falls in the webs and then gets devoured. It’s a slow death and sometimes the screaming goes on for days.”
“Are you on the level, Geezer?”
“I’m telling the truth. There’s nothing much left after the spiders finish draining the fluid out of them. The empty husks flutter down between the buildings.”
“How long you been down here, Old Man?”
“It’s hard to say. But my whole life.”
“Don’t they know you’re down here?”
“Of course, they send letters every week. And shouldn’t I ask you the same thing?”
“I didn’t know anyone still used letters. What kind?”
“Offers to buy my land — threats saying I have no right to live on such valuable real estate. But my folks bought this farm with the sweat of their brow. When I was your age the buildings weren’t any higher than fifty feet, most of them.”
“Is that the sky or a roof?” Geoff looked up and squinted.
“That’s the only patch of sky I have left, and if they could take it away from me they would.”
“You wouldn’t make me go back, would you?”
“Why’d you come down in the first place? Don’t you have a family?”
“They think I’m dead. Another suicide. I made sure to leave a note saying how much I hated them.”
“Why do you hate them?”
“Well, I wrote a whole list in the note. Don’t feel much like talking about it. You know how it is, you have to go to school and church and you have to go to karate class. What’s it all for? I’m just doing the things everybody does. Doesn’t anyone know why we do it?”
“Life is different down here. It takes a lot of work to keep the farm alive.”
“I’m sick of class and homework. Life is like a rerun of a boring show. I want to do different stuff.”
“Being adventurous is okay, but you need to know your limits. So, you don’t plan to go back?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll stay down here with you Old Geezers forever.”
“I don’t even know how you’d get back.”
“What’s that?” Geoff pointed.
“Where? Oh, that’s a ghost.”
“Looks like a Peeping Tom. I got caught for that once. Not my fault the girls’ exercise room was across from my window.”
“The ghosts like to hover in peoples’ windows, trying to remember what it was like when they were alive. Didn’t you see any when you were living up there?”
“No. But I was pretty high up. My mom had a government job. Plus, you can’t see out most windows, because the walls are so close together. Some people put bricks in them. Or paintings. So, they don’t get pigeons.”
“It seems like we can both teach each other a lot.”
Geoff scoffed. “So, you got giant spiders. Pervert ghosts. What else you got down here?”
“There’s also the kappa.”
“I heard about the kappa. Fairy tale stuff.”
“There’s actually a whole ecosystem in the lower levels.”
“I’ll tell you one thing I know. There ain’t nobody crazy enough to live in the lower levels. No one I know lives under sector 120. Below that you don’t know what you’re libel to find. Probably where they put the dead people. Don’t you know that, Old man?”
“Why don’t you call me Jurfal?”
“I’m not sure I like that name. Say, do you have anything to eat?”
“Take a gander at my crops. Grew everything myself.”
“What, you mean that giant mold out there?”
“Where do you keep all the lamps?”
Jurfal pointed to the postage-stamp sized patch of sky. “It’s sunlight.”
“You mean this light comes from that microscopic hole up there?”
“Yeah, but it’ll get dark soon, around two.”
“You have electricity, right?”
“Yeah. I connected a wire to the box on the side of that titanium building.”
The boy spooned steaming gruel into his mouth and then let it dribble back into the bowl with a grimace. “Ugh. What’s wrong with this food?” he said.
“Mind your manners, Young Man,” Tabitha said sternly.
“How do you two tell each other apart?” Geoff said contemptuously, glancing at them back and forth. “This stuff is like what my mom feeds the pigs. We have two potbellied pigs and their food smells exactly the same.”
“It’s good for you.”
“Don’t you have pizza?”
“I’ve heard of pizza,” Jurfal said. “But we don’t have any. I’ve eaten this gruel for longer than you’ve been alive and I guarantee you it has everything a body needs.”
“Well, I guess I could get used to it if I tried hard enough.”
“Why don’t you tell us about your family?” Tabitha asked.
“I already gave Mr. Jurpal the sob story. No need to go over it again.”
“Yes,” said Jurfal. “The past doesn’t matter. We should focus on the present.”
“I was just trying to make conversation,” Tabitha sighed.
“Listen,” said Geoff, picking out a chunk of corn floating in his bowl. “I’m sorry I came out of nowhere and started criticizing you. Maybe I’m wrong. Alls I know is I’m kind of thankful you took me away from that hellhole I was living in and now I get to see something new for once.”
“Why,” said Jurfal. “That might be the first nice thing you’ve said.”
“I wasn’t raised right. Why do you think I always get detention? I try and tell them it’s cause I wasn’t raised right but they don’t take no excuses from me anymore.”
In the distance a high wail sounded.
“Whazzat?” Geoff asked, jumping out of his chair. “Werewolves?”
“That’s a jumper,” said Tabitha. “Tell him about the jumpers.”
“I know what a jumper is,” Geoff said. “My only concern is how often do I got to listen to that screaming?”
“It depends,” she said. “Usually once or twice a week.”
“You think the spiders got her?”
“They always do,” Jurfal said.
“Isn’t there any meat in this?” Geoff asked, fiddling with his stew.
“Just beans,” Jurfal said. “Which are just as good.”
“If you say so. Don’t you have a television or something?”
Tabitha said, chuckling, “We don’t own one.”
“You’ve got an awful lot of stuff and no television? What about an old non-holographic TV?”
“It’s like a museum in here. I mean how old is this bowl? What’s it even made of?”
“Lacquer,” Jurfal said. “It’s a Japanese antique.”
“Antique. That means really old. You guys must be really really old. Why don’t you have any people here helping you grow food and make things out of lacquer? I mean it can’t be easy living alone, being so old like you are.”
Tabitha sighed. “We can’t have children. A long time ago maybe but…”
“You two? You sure you ain’t just brother and sister?”
“That’s enough for now, Geoff,” Jurfal said uneasily. “After you’re through eating I’ll show you around the farm.”
A wandering spirit absorbed the fading twilight in the ectoplasm of its bodiless form. It was propelled through the air by a zephyr blasted out of the valley between the swaying walls through the play of the earthquake dampeners. If you held your eye to the crack and peered into the deep, gleaming chasm you could feel the heat of a living thing from the skyscrapers – like enormous trees in an unsteady wind.
The spider webs were full of stars. Dangling threads glistened. The spiders worked in darkness, stitching the city together.
He took the boy to the edge of the moat next to a drooping willow and set down two fishing rods.
“It feels weird to be outside,” Geoff said.
“I think it feels weird to be inside,” Jurfal said.
“Why’re we holding these sticks?”
“It’s called fishing.”
“Oh. Right. I feel like I’m acting in a play.”
Jurfal was silent, contemplative.
“You don’t actually eat the fish, do you?” Geoff asked.
“No. But I trade the kappa for them.”
“The kappa, you say? You think we’ll get to see any of them?”
“There’s one right there.” Jurfal pointed.
In the shadows, something reclined. A long thin strip of a body, looking like a log covered in moss.
“That thing’s alive?” Geoff asked.
“It’s smoking a cigarette,” Jurfal said. “They like to lay on their backs.”
A thin cloud of vapor lingered above the kappa’s concave head. Its belly was covered in dirty rills of shell and if you listened closely, you could hear the hissing breath squeaking out of its beak.
“Is there any place outside the city?” Geoff asked suddenly.
“I suppose there is,” Jurfal said. “It can’t go on forever, can it?”
“Tell me what it was like before Quondam.”
“I’ll tell you what it was like when I was a boy, but the city always existed. It just used to be a lot smaller than it is now. There was grass everywhere…”
“It’s like those weeds you see by the water, except softer and nicer, and green.”
“Well, most people lived in small houses. Not as small as mine, but pretty small. And things were spread out, and people still drove cars.”
“You mean you had to fly the car without autopilot?”
“Well, most cars didn’t fly. There were roads everywhere.”
“Oh, like in the old TV shows.”
“And there were types of birds beside pigeons. And a few times I went to the seashore and sailed a boat.”
“You think the sea still exists?”
“It must. You’re probably just too young to know about it.”
“Let’s go back inside. You can tell me the rest later.”
Tabitha hummed nervously as she cleaned the kitchen.
After a while Jurfal and Geoff came in out of the dusk. The seat of the boy’s pants was filthy, so she patted him and he scowled at her.
Jurfal asked her to show Geoff some books he would understand while he went out and threshed the wheat. Geoff took her hand begrudgingly and she led him through the cramped little house. Over the years they had accumulated many wonderful things.
While Geoff perused a stack of dusty books, she sorted a stack of letters the mail drone had dropped on their roof. Among the brightly colored advertisements, there was a plain envelope containing an offer letter to purchase their two acres for eighty billion yen. She tore it to bits and flung it into the furnace.
Sometimes Jurfel’s field was the quietest place imaginable. And as the tiny sky blackened, silence descended until the nocturnal creatures awoke. Perhaps a quarter of a mile up Jurfal could faintly see a sheet flapping. He lifted pocket binoculars and peered at what looked like a geometrical tumor midway up one of the buildings.
Then it dawned on him. They were constructing a bridge. Most likely they’d simply find a way to bridge the gap above him, shutting out the sun one layer at a time. He glanced up. Interlocking contrails still glowed with reflected rays of sunset. How long would it take? Three months? A year?
The days passed quickly. Pigeons gathered to impede the metallic arm that the hovering probes were fusing to the side of the skyscraper.
Jurfal taught Geoff how to work the pressbar to imprint enigmatic designs in the tall stalks of wheat for the gawkers above. They’d have to enjoy the pastime while it lasted. Soon enough the crop circles would disappear beneath the bridges.
They spent the brief daylight hours talking by the moat or harvesting their meager fare. Geoff’s petulant anger cooled and he settled into a simple life of reading and manual labor. Jurfal demonstrated how to deal with the kappa. Some of them understood sign language and you had to know what your trade was worth to avoid angering them. They never forgot an insult, and setting foot onto their territory meant certain death.
Tabitha experienced a long sickness and Geoff fed her with a spoon. A beautiful thankfulness seemed to blossom as the boy grew. Through fading eyes Tabitha watched his white teeth yellow and his thin arms grow lanky and tan as he visited her in her deathbed. Slowly, she observed the portentous shadows lengthening in the yard, like colossal tree limbs swallowing the sky.
One quiet evening she felt her heart beat irregularly and she beat at the bed breathlessly until she died. The tears that fell from her lifeless eyes as she stifled her choking gasps made little pools in her hollow cheeks. When they peeled back the covers to look, the fingernails that had raked the mattress were detached, like brown shells jutting from the sand.
Jurfal buried her next to their parents beneath the crooked banyan tree. That night ghosts moaned in the hollow column of their chimney and Jurfal locked himself in his bedroom to weep.
Geoff let the old man alone for many days, cooking up a gray stew and leaving the bowl next to his door. From the yard, he could see a gray face watching him through the upstairs window.
Picking a giant snail off the side of the wall, Geoff cracked it against the rock as he’d seen the kappa do. With uncertainty, he scraped the dried bits of moss from its slimy flesh using a dull knife and licked the slime that welled up. Instantly, his tongue went numb. Revolted, he tossed the creature into the stream.
For the first fifty feet, slow-moving tentacled beasts adhered to the buildings. Unslinging the ancient rifle from his shoulder, he aimed at 60 feet up. With massive claws, it clutched at the cement façade. He didn’t have to hit it. All he had to do was make it fall, he thought. But he did hit it, and it did fall, except it landed on its feet unharmed and charged at him. He swung the butt of the rifle into its ravenous jaws and heard the tinkle of teeth landing in a bed of pebbles. When he opened his eyes the cat had fled.
Later, following a trail of mushrooms like a rash upon the surface of the dirt, the path of the kappa led him into the lower levels of the buildings where he had been told not to go. It smelled like a sewer and he had to use the Night Vision goggles he kept in his pouch to peer through the darkness. It looked like a garage, where hover cars were stored until they shot up through tubes to the landing pads for waiting passengers.
In the cold echoing chasms, beneath rumbling unfathomable machinery, he disappeared into the depths of another world. By the time he realized how far he’d walked the path he’d followed was gone. In fact, the walls shifted, expanded and compressed to accommodate the continual movement of vehicles.
Jurfal felt hopelessly alone. He had the boy, but the boy wouldn’t stay forever. Already there was hardly any arable land and visible sky left to him. Soon enough he’d join the puttering ghosts that roamed the silent corridors of the city, leaving ectoplasm in the tapestries of spider webs.
The moon rose from the towering walls that enclosed him and still the boy did not return.
With much weariness Jurfal strapped on his boots and lumbered around the perimeter of the moat. A small group of kappa lounged beneath a misting sewer pipe. He hailed them in the argot they used and they scurried as if threatened.
After a thorough search he was certain Geoff had encroached on kappa territory. He found some loose animal teeth alongside the stream and entered the nearby mouth of the sewers from which a volcanic draft of fumes wafted. By placing a handkerchief over his nose and paying no mind to the oily droplets that condensed on his flesh he slid on his belly into the tunnel.
After following the network of metal pathways, clutching a flickering flashlight, he called the boy’s name a few times and heard faint snickers and feet splashing through puddles.
Finally, he was assaulted by three strong creatures and dragged through vibrant pools of iridescent muck until he was kneeling before a bloated bullfrog-like kappa. The kappa king wore electric robes composed of strings of colored Christmas lights.
Jurfal spoke a few words of their language but they understood little of it. Finally, he pleaded, “Where’s Geoff? Where have you taken my boy?”
The king looked at him with glowing eyes.
The lesser kappa tittered amongst each other.
“Did you… eat him?” Jurfal asked.
After some cryptic commands were uttered, a long-haired kappa appeared beside the king.
Then, in a heavy accent, the creature asked him: “wherefore have you come here, foul human?”
Jurfal said, “I’m looking for my friend, Geoff. Do you know where he is?”
The kappa interpreter stroked its braids with a webbed hand. “The hideous human has befouled our domains. The Great Lord contemplates the forms of torture we shall levy upon him.”
“Please, let him go. I’ll do anything you say.”
“What price will you offer for his life?”
“Take me instead.”
The English-speaking kappa laughed shrilly. “Your flesh is wrinkled. No longer succulent. His flesh is strong, supple, exquisite.”
“I’ll forfeit my lands too. Just let him go.”
The king was consulted.
“We have respected you,” the kappa interpreter said. “You have yielded us many treasures. Your possessions in total you shall forfeit. Grateful servitude shall be your sole occupation. Then the boy we will allow him to ascend to the sky-lands from whence he originated.”
“Will he be safe?”
“There is only one method of escape from the dungeons he has entered. We shall convey him to the land of evil clouds.”
With infinite sadness, Jurfal bowed to the grinning king. In the next instant, several of them seized his flashlight and stripped off his clothes and struck him over the head.
The next day, almost delirious, Geoff emerged from a hover car on the windy taxi platform. Evil beasts had pounced upon him and dragged him through cramped passageways and finally dumped him onto the cushions of an idling vehicle.
A young couple waiting at the taxi gate screamed as he crawled out into the blinding glare of the florescent lights. The air flowing in from the outside made him cough and he was too weak to fight off the astonished policemen that dragged him away.
Geoff spent some time in a hospital bed and after a few hours his sister came to identify him. His parents were fined heavily for processing fees and when his father showed up to chastise him he was intimidated by the new depth in the eyes of his son. He hardly recognized the tanned face and the calm expression. Wearily, Geoff ignored the questions and accusations and immediately left his family to find a job.
As he sat in a crowded office, going through the ceaseless motions of his work, every once in a while he glanced out the window at the drones that worked continuously to seal the empty space in the skyline with a stack of platforms and bridges suspended over the black pit that would soon only exist in his memories.