A short story by Jess Richards, author of Snake Ropes, first published in The Grist Anthology of New Writing, edited by Michael Stewart
I run away the day they're going to push up the sky. Everyone's outside making plans. They don't usually want any mention of the sky because it's so low in some places they have to hunch over to walk. All my life it's been this unspeakable thing, this trouble all the adults have. The children and teenagers, like me, we've learnt to collect whispers. We've become spies, trading buttons, mirrors, toys, whatever we can find, for secrets.
For weeks the adults haven't talked about anything else; the floodgates have opened. All these thoughts they've kept hidden from us for years are spilling out through the whole community; we're caught in a torrent of words. How terrible it's been for them to live like this. How their world will be transformed once they can walk tall without fear of banging their heads, and the horrific after effects.
I've nearly stopped growing, but I'm still short and haven't hit my head on the sky yet. They say it feels as if there are a thousand needles which pierce the scalp. This lasts for days, and then the blue-white cloud shaped bruises appear across the face. We call them sky tattoos. They take weeks to fade away, longer if they're really deep ones.
My grandfather hit his head on the sky three times in one day and the sky tattoos spread across his head and all over his body. He slept for a month without being able to speak at all, and when he woke up, he could only say words to do with the weather. He rambled endlessly about rain and sunbeams, storms, fog and rainbows, cloud formations. It took months of listening to him closely to figure out if he'd got any proper thoughts any more, or if he'd gone simple.
The adults didn't notice I was there. I sat on the floor in the corner of his room, spying from behind his rocking chair. I wanted to understand what the sky had done to him. His language had completely changed. Rain descriptions, like squally, showers and torrential, meant things he didn't want, and the word 'no'. When he was enjoying something, usually thick soup or steamed pudding, he would laugh during spoonfuls and shout joyfully about sunshine, splattering food all over his duvet. Rainbows were used when he was pleased to see someone. He'd get lost in describing the colours in different ways, depending on who he was talking to. Red, he described as boiling point, scalding bathtubs, desire and lust. Green led to descriptions of the temperature required for the germination of seeds. Blue was ink, loss, persuasion. When he once saw me curled in the corner watching him, he started rambling about indigo runaways. I didn't know what he meant. When he was annoyed or confused he would mutter for hours about cloud formations. Cumulonimbus, altostratus, cirrus.... When he started talking storms, it meant that he was heading for a boom, and we all ran for shelter. He'd hurl anything within arm's reach. These were the only days he'd leave the house. One day he tore out five fir trees with his bare blue-white hands. I think that's where they got the idea about pushing up the sky from, though everyone is claiming the original plan as their own. He's left with permanent faded sky tattoos all over him, like a wooden table covered in blurred stains from spilled ink.
The sound of axes being sharpened slice the air like the wail of peacocks. I'm packing my bag alone in my room. The useful things go in first; blanket, knife, clothes, food. Outside my low window, in the distance I can see the fir trees which are about to be cut down. Somehow, they know. The trees have prepared themselves. Some of them have sucked in their roots, as if they're holding their breath. I always imagined their roots being as huge underground as the tree is above it, creating tunnels shaped like lungs under the earth. These trees stretch further than the sky, pierce right through it and disappear into whatever is above. The sky closes around their trunks, shutting the top of the tree away from us.
I once tried to climb a tree, and when I got to the place where the sky began I was too scared to touch it. The sky makes the strangest sounds. I sat in the tree for hours, smelling fresh growth in the branches. I watched the colours in the sky subtly change. My face was just an inch below its surface. No-one came looking for me. Here, no-one glances upwards.
The sky sounds like an instrument, like the wind, like bells. It collects all the sounds we make and keeps them inside it, changing them into weather conditions. Clouds, storms, snow, rain and sunshine. Underneath all these sounds, and the echoes of all the words we have ever said, there is a soft base, a beating pulse. The sky keeps all the tree sounds as well, creaks and snaps, the papery flutters of leaves. And a low slow drone which can only be the sound the tree makes when it's growing.
When I was little I burrowed holes into the roots of these trees, hiding places for the possessions I wanted to keep secret. My mum used to routinely find all my hiding places in my bedroom. I never knew what she expected to discover, but whatever it was, she wasn't going to.
Yesterday I ran my fingers over the cracked trunks when I dug my treasures out again. The book I read to my younger brother, Bill, about a chicken and the sky falling in. Now half rotten, damp, with the rich scent of soil. A rusted tin box full of pictures Bill drew of me, my mouth red and singing. Scrawled crayon lines of me and him crawling like cats. He drew the sky into all of his scribbles, till the adults took his crayons away. A small bent metal hoop, from where we rolled it along the ground so hard it ricocheted off a stone and hit the sky, falling down shimmering and twisted. Our collection of buttons in a blue glass jar.
I can't bear to part with these, though they've been buried as long as Bill. So they go in my bag as well. I don't want to see the adults cut down the trees. I don't want to hear them being pulled down out of the sky or sliced from the ground. My room is empty now: a mattress, a cracked empty vase and a drawing of my mum that she always insisted was kept on my mantelpiece. Her eyes have followed me round this room all this morning.
Mum never speaks. She uses her hands to talk to me. I don't know what happened to her. She's not spoken a word since I've been alive, and walks stooped lower than anyone else. She has just one permanent sky tattoo. In the drawing she's hunched over, trying to hide the sky tattoo that's on her lips. That mark has been there for years. Did she kiss the sky once? Now, I'll never know. She's gone with the others to cut out the trees which they'll use to push up the sky.
It's time to go.
I don't know what'll happen. The sky could fall down completely and kill us all. We could get stuck in it. Lost in the permanent pain of those needles, coloured entirely blue with sky tattoos. Surrounded by smelted colours and the intense sounds that came from us in the first place. We could hear all the words we'd ever said repeated back to us over and over again. We could become the weather. It could take away our language and give us a new one, like my grandfather.
Or it could work, their plan. The sky pushed so high I'll never again climb a tree and be able to hear what it sounds like. But I'm not going to see it happen. If I'm not killed because the sky falls down, or lost in it forever, I won't be coming back here, even though I've not said goodbye. I'm going to keep running.
© Jess Richards 2009