by Yehezkiel Faoma
The Kowloon Walled City had no more place for dreams. Between a hundred blocks crushed together, narrow alleys and corridors snaked through what space was left. Here in the shadows people groped for a way out. Shop owners staked their hopes on the lower levels, waiting for that stroke of fortune to carry them to the mainland. Twenty stories above, in one-room houses linked by clotheslines, were those who gave up on childish dreams. And on the ground, far from the sun, Johnny looked up at the sky.
The familiar whistle of jet engines above grew into a hum and roared, reverberating in the pipes on the alley walls. In the narrow slit of sky beyond layers of power lines, an airplane was flying low, just out of Johnny’s reach. Glued in place, he followed it with his gaze, craning back as the plane soared past for Kai Tak Airport. He fell back to Earth, laying on the ground.
Johnny’s smile faded with the buzzing in his ears. The sky changed colors. Auntie must be getting angry.
The small shop he called home was the best his father could do before he left for the mainland. But Johnny didn’t mind the cramp or the smell of bird shit since it was so close to the roof level, so close to the sky where he could sit and watch the planes.
Through the hallway with dim lights and flaking walls, he finally found the rust-eaten sign that used to say “Birds of Paradise”. He ducked under the rolled-up shutter door. Inside, Auntie was tapping her nails on the counter, wearing a frown and a corona of bird cages hanging from the ceiling.
“Where have you been?” she said, raising her voice over the chirping. “Forgot your brain in school?”
“I saw another plane today, Auntie! It was flying so close and I could almost touch it.”
“Hai ya, this boy. Daydreaming all the time.”
The parrot squawked. Johnny pat him through the cage.
“Come give your Auntie a hug,” she said.
“It was an airline from America, I think. The pilot is really good. I think he could see me.”
“America? How do you know that?”
“I could tell from the wings, Auntie. Dad taught me to do it.”
“How about you do something useful for the store instead?”
Auntie surveyed the cages hanging around her. She unhooked one with a couple of songbirds, set it down on the counter, and covered it with a black cloth.
“Get changed, eat, then bring that to Mr. Liu right away. I need to do my rounds after this.” Auntie took the rest of the cages and stacked them in a small cart, uncovered. “Say hi to Faye for me.”
“We’re not gonna sell dad’s parrot, right?”
“That ugly thing?” she roared with laughter. The parrot flapped his wings in alarm. “He’s not going anywhere.”
Mr. Liu’s restaurant was on the edge of the city and faced the main street outside, but it was still a part of the walls. The bell chimed and Johnny stepped in with the cage under his arm. Fine dust floated in beams of sunlight that glinted off metal chairs and steel cups. The clatter of plates and Faye’s singing mixed in the air. Johnny squeezed his way to the counter.
“And why didn’t you wait for me after school?” said Faye, wiping a rooster bowl.
“Please, you know how Auntie gets. She said hi.”
Johnny set the cage on the countertop.
“Hey, I just cleaned— ah, cute!” Faye put her head under the cover. “What are they?”
“Church Sparrows just like your dad ordered. They’re kinda shy.”
As Faye listened to the birds, Johnny looked around at the patrons, all sallow-skinned and sunken-eyed. Their shadows were stretched under the rare sun as if the city was sucking them back into the cramped blocks they called home.
“I wanna go to the roof,” he said without realizing.
Faye pulled her head out of the cover.
“Okay let’s go! Oh, I can’t.”
“That’s alright, Faye,” Mr. Liu said, coming out of the kitchen. “Just come back before dark.”
She kissed him on the cheek then tied her apron around his waist.
He laughed before turning to Johnny.
“Give your auntie my thanks, will you?”
“Mou man tai,” he said, “no problem.”
The dusk sky was steeped in orange, vapor trails running through the clouds. The clattering of sheet metal roofing mixed with gasps and laughter. Under the blazing sky, Johnny and Faye were chasing each other like hummingbirds, dancing between antenna spikes, floating over wires and rubble. Cool air rushed over their skin and the concrete was warm under their feet.
The sunbathers shouted at them and the chess players laughed as they dashed past. A couple watched from their balcony. Sugar? asked the wife, as they around an old woman beating a mattress. The husband smiled as they escaped her scolding. Please, he said.
Johnny and Faye finally stopped to catch their breath in the usual spot — under the tall spire on the roof whose purpose nobody really knew. They sat on the floor and leaned against the metal beam as they waited for their sweat to dry and a plane to come. Johnny watched Faye untie her hair and let it fly in the breeze, like the windsocks in the airport not far below. From up here, the planes were only a bit larger than his thumb.
“What did you put in the worksheet?” Faye asked as a flock of birds whistled past.
“Why, you wanna copy my answers again?”
“No, dummy. The one about what you’re gonna be when you grow up.”
Johnny stopped counting the planes.
“School ends soon,” she said. “So is it a pilot? I bet it is.”
“Tell me yours first.”
Faye looked up at one of the clouds.
“I’ll go to the mainland and go overseas and be a famous singer.”
“Famous for making people deaf, maybe— ow!”
He was still rubbing his arm when a faint whistling came from behind and quickly grew into the familiar growl of jet engines. The spire shook and rattled, the pebbles around their feet jumped like fleas. The great belly of the airplane soared right above their heads, casting a huge shadow on their dirty faces, its strobe lights glinting in Johnny’s eyes. He reached out and could almost feel the smooth aluminium body sliding on his palm.
“What?” he asked back, ears still buzzing.
“What kind of plane is it?”
The plane was gliding down gracefully towards the runway. Deep purple began to seep in from the horizon. Guarding his eyes against the glaring sunset, Johnny studied the shape of its wings and the white flower stamped on its tail.
“It’s a Japanese airline,” he said.
“Sushi,” Faye said, toying with the sh’s on her tongue, “sashimi.”
“That’s my favorite.”
“No, the plane. It’s hard to land but Dad said it feels really good in the sky.”
They watched the airplane touch the tarmac.
“Do you miss your dad?” she asked.
“I’ll miss my dad too when I go abroad.”
“Like to Japan?”
“No way. Too many earthquakes there.”
“Are you scared?”
“Of course! Earthquakes are really scary.”
Johnny looked down at the walled city. It crept up and sprawled like a concrete hive, tied fast by power lines and held together by sheets of rust. The infinite blocks of human cages lit up one by one — some white, some yellow, some didn’t.
“Well,” he said, “I don’t really mind, as long as it’s somewhere.”
In the morning, Johnny woke up from hunger and the pounding of construction. The parrot was screaming. He stepped out of the bedroom behind the counter, filled up the grain cup and put a black cloth over the cage. The parrot started being scared of loud noises since Dad was gone — anything from Auntie’s loud voice to the crashing of the rolling door.
When the hammering died down, he rolled up the shutter door slowly and quietly. The air in the corridor was damp and stale. Flying termites swarmed around a flickering lamp. Pamphlets and government warnings covered the breaker boxes on the wall.
The shop was strangely quiet. Many of the cages were missing from their hooks, revealing the peeling paint and old calendars behind the counter. Auntie must be going on her rounds again. Sometimes she could sell one or two, but in the end, nobody had room for another one in the cage.
Johnny lifted the black cloth and found the parrot burying his face in grains. He was balding. A dirty grey feather fell onto the layer of shit at the bottom of the cage. He thought about the flocks soaring in the open sky yesterday, then he looked at the parrot’s eyes crusted with wax and cloudy with fear. How long do birds live? he thought, sitting by the cage.
“Are you still scared of jet engines?”
The parrot continued eating.
“But you have wings. You belong up there,” he said, stroking his thinning feathers.
The parrot shuddered. He pulled his hand away.
“I’ll take us up there. You’ll see it’s not scary. I memorized all the models already from the books, and I know what the cockpit is like. Dad said I got a good sense of balance, too.”
The parrot squawked and hopped away from him.
Squeaking wheels and subdued chirping echoed from the hallway. Auntie hit her head on the shutter door and cursed. The parrot shot a glance. She unloaded the cages from the cart onto the countertop.
“Did you boil water?” she asked, wiping sweat off her face.
Johnny realized he had forgotten.
“I’m… going to.”
“Sia, how am I supposed to bathe now?” she said, raising her voice. “One thing I asked you to do. One thing!”
Johnny stroked the parrot to calm him down.
“Can’t even do something basic and you daydream about flying planes. What a joker. Why don’t you take care of your grades first, hm?”
Auntie peered into the few cages that she had left hanging, and gasped.
He had forgotten their food and water. His heart began beating fast in his shirt.
“You let these birds die! What am I going to do?”
The parrot flapped his wings.
“I didn’t do it on—”
She stomped over, quickened with fury, and loomed over him.
“Listen here, you damn brat. I didn’t work my ass off every single day so you can let this store— look at me!”
“Of all things you inherited his stupid head. Chasing fantasies like a drunkard.”
“It’s not a fantasy,” Johnny said, murmuring.
“I’m going to the mainland. I memorized… I learned the cockpit, and I can see far—”
“Oh, and be like your father? Die like him too? Responsible for all those lives?”
He looked away to hide the indignation in his eyes.
“Do you know what they call him in the news? What they say behind my back when I try to sell these god damn birds so we can eat?”
He clenched his fists, trembling.
“Wake up, Johnny! Look around you. This store is the only thing he left for us.”
“You can keep this shitty store for yourself.”
Her hand flew and he was on the floor. The parrot screamed. Through blurry eyes, Johnny saw Faye peeking nervously from the hallway, holding the cage from yesterday. He picked up his glasses, grabbed the parrot’s cage and ran taking her hand, leaving Auntie frozen over the overturned chair.
The sun was high above them, setting the sky and concrete roof blazing white. They sat under the shortening shadow of the spire, alone in silence. Once in a while a breeze flapped wet laundry or whistled through an antenna. In his cage, the parrot looked up at the vast sky with cloudy eyes.
Faye hugged her empty cage with the black cloth folded neatly inside, occasionally stealing glances at Johnny. He looked away from her, towards the airport. A plane was waiting on the taxiway for its turn to take off. It looked like a Thai, or maybe local paint, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the walled city encroaching the airport.
Faye cleared her throat.
“Are you alright, Jay?”
A breeze caressed his cheek, wet and still stinging.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
“I just wanted to return this.”
“What does your dad do to the birds?”
He turned to her.
“What happens to your birds?”
“I don’t know,” she said, twisting her ponytail. “He just keeps them there. The customers like it when they sing.”
“They belong up there.”
“But if they live in a cage they can’t survive in the wild, right?”
The plane gained speed and took off from the tarmac. It climbed up, slowly turning towards their direction. A faint whistle began to fill the air.
“They can survive.”
Johnny picked up the parrot’s cage and fumbled with the bolt. The parrot turned to him with alarm.
“Are you sure? It’s really dangerous out there, you know.”
“Come on,” he said, opening the latch, “don’t be scared.”
The hum grew deeper as the plane loomed close, shaking the great spire and the concrete under their feet. His cage was wide open but the parrot clenched tight to his beam, panicking, wings flapping, screaming.
“He’s scared,” she said.
The roaring airplane quaked the entire roof and the air around them. Panic sent the cage thrashing violently. Hysteric screaming was drowned by the thundering jet engine, so close, ear-splitting, the blades slicing in the shadow of its great wings. He took him by force, tearing him away from the cage, screaming and flapping in a storm of beak and feathers, desperate to hold on.
The hissing of the engines died down in the distance. The parrot, trembling, clutched fast to his beam. His eyes were wide with fear. It was a local airline.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Faye said, almost shouting.
She took his hand out of the cage, riddled with shallow cuts, and wrapped it with the black cloth she was supposed to return. He waited for the sting to come.
“Are you really going to the mainland?” he asked.
“Of course not. I’m staying here. I have to help dad run the restaurant.”
The sting finally came. He clenched his wounded hand and held back the tears, but his glasses fogged up anyway.
“Does it hurt that bad?”
The sun hung right above them. There was no more shade around the spire.
“Come on,” Faye said, taking the empty cage, “let’s get Auntie to look at your hand.”
Johnny closed the latch, took off the black cloth from his wounded hand, and draped it over the parrot’s cage.
About the author
Yehezkiel Faoma grew up in Jakarta and its rusty skies grew on him. His work has appeared in Variant Literary Journal. At night, you can find him writing or learning Japanese.
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