Cloud Dweller

Issue #199

“Saw you out there.”

At the familiar contralto voice of Grand Duchess Maria Romanov, who was neither a duchess nor a Romanov, Vasily Agranovsky lifted his gaze from his triangles of cold buttered toast and sat a little straighter. In the St. Cloud Hotel’s bustling Starlite Dining Room, the duchess joined him at the table uninvited. Her loose kaftan, embroidered with gold and ivory, combined with her imposing circumference to swallow the chair on which she perched. She appeared a fluffed owl upon a branch, not the reigning fat lady of Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade.

“Out where, Your Grace?” Vasily knew quite well where he had spent his morning but asked because he had not noticed Maria while on his walk and perhaps she was mistaken in who she had seen.

“The gorge.”

She was not mistaken, and he regretted having taken a room at the hotel, such that others might become familiar with his schedule. But the St. Cloud Hotel was vastly interesting to him, the building having been moved brick by brick from its original location forty-one years prior. Townsfolk said it was filled to the brim with ghosts, that sometimes people vanished when they turned corners, that the hotel had been moved incomplete and carried with it the people of another time and place. Vasily wanted to stay beneath the very roof he would later walk off of. He wanted to walk without wires and disappear.

He picked up a slice of his cold toast, regarding the partially blackened triangle before biting its corner off. He walked to Colorado’s Royal Gorge in the mornings because no one was there, and because the sky lines were more visible to him then. In the rising or setting sun, the innumerable lines that crisscrossed the vast space glowed like webbing. Town officials had plans to bridge the gorge, and Vasily laughed at the notion; the space was surely too large to bridge by any normal means.

He chewed his cold toast. Maria watched him all the while, and he waited for her to say more, to lay the trap she wished him to fall into. But Vasily Agranovsky would never fall so easily; he was well-accustomed to walking upon high wires without a pole or umbrella to balance himself.

Maria greeted the waitress who approached—a woman whose own daughter had vanished in the hotel’s halls—and submitted her breakfast order, the nature of which surprised Vasily. Perhaps it should not have, given that the hotel was providing rooms and meals as part of the entertainment contract between circus and city. The circus never lacked for interesting foods upon the train, but it was something of a treat to sit in a dining room and give an order to a server; to see them vanish and later return with china plates bearing one’s food. But where one might have thought Maria would order sides of fat-beribboned bacon and two dozen eggs, it was fresh fruit she requested. Being late summer, they brought her four peaches, startlingly sweet in Vasily’s mouth when she bade him have one.

“Crates of these have been taken to Beth,” Maria murmured as she took her pocket knife to one globe, slicing paper-thin pieces of the sweetness from the stone in its center. “But the gorge.” She pointed at Vasily with the knife, peach juice brightening its sharp edge. “I saw you, walking the sky. Who knows you do this?”

Again, Vasily said nothing. He wondered if Beth could make her customary marmalade with peaches, but he did not ask Maria. He watched the juice run along the knife’s edge, gather in a drop, and plummet to the tablecloth. A pale orange drop of rain against the white.

“No one, I see.”

He couldn’t deny her conclusion—no one knew, and he hoped no one ever would.

Wherever he traveled, Vasily saw vast networks of lines—across the ground, stretching into the sky. It was the sky-bound lines that pulled at him most, that beckoned him to try his feet upon them. He had always strung ropes and wires to climb, between poles, trees, and buildings, but the lines that he had not strung—lines that existed of their own accord—were a challenge he never expected. In the Colorado west, he had found a place he had never imagined before, a deep stony gorge within the world, a gorge that held a river and a rail for the train but also held countless lines to walk.

Vasily had learned that no one else could see these lines. The first time he had asked about them, he had appeared such a fool they’d thought him mad—so he was careful in a way most people would never have to be.

“What do you think you saw, Your Grace?” Vasily asked, around the wad of cold toast in his cheek. He reached for his coffee, also cold, and forced himself to swallow both.

Maria sliced another crescent of peach and curled it into her mouth. “You walked without wire, Vasily. You walked in the sky. Foolish man.”

Vasily leaned into his chair, the wood creaking beneath him as though it meant to give way. With a practiced laugh, he discarded the rest of his toast triangle and brushed his hand over the linen napkin covering his lean lap. “This morning,” he said, “I was determining where to place the guylines for the weekend’s roof walk, if I mean to use them at all.” This was absolute truth, though it had happened after his jaunt to the gorge. “Perhaps you saw someone else.” He allowed his brow to crease with a frown, to appear concerned. “Someone local? Someone who should speak to Jackson about employment—someone who could unseat me from my own?”

This idea was not as frightening as it had once been. His path to Jackson’s circus had not been a straight one; Vasily had always believed that his future rested within the realm of Olympians. His family had long joked of the way he would walk upon every ledge he encountered, rather than the steady, true ground. But the war had taken his family and his Olympic dreams. Fleeing the pogroms that consumed the only world he had known—running on distant ledges undreamed of—had given him a new sense of balance entirely.

“You don’t wish anyone to know?” Maria asked. The question was tentative, more softly spoken than anything she had said before. It was almost not a question. Her fingers stilled upon the peach she held, the cut into its sweet belly much like the gorge outside the city. Edged with color, running black at its heart.

“There is nothing to know, Your Grace,” Vasily said. He discarded his napkin across his now-empty plate—in the course of their conversation, he had eaten every scrap of toast, no matter how cold or blackened, and had swallowed every drop of coffee, for to leave any such luxury behind remained outlandish to him.

Maria graciously did not question him as he stood from the table. He supposed that she, more so than others within the troupe, might understand his inclination toward silence and secrets. She kept her own company and rarely sought that of others, and Vasily only registered this as he took leave of her. She had sought him out. Maria had joined him of her own accord—and what vast distance had she bridged to do so? Regret was a close friend, and it flooded him as he stepped into the dusty street outside the St. Cloud Hotel to once again survey the rooflines. He did not see the precise ledges, only the stretches of emptiness from one ledge to the next. Emptinesses a man could vanish into.

He should not have returned so soon, but he could not resist going.

Sunset turned the land to liquescent gold, the valley a momentary basin that would empty when the sun rolled below the jagged edge of the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Where the dark gorge split the ground, Vasily saw not the yawning black mouth untouched by sunset but the thousand strands of silver that traversed the opening and caught the day’s remaining sunlight. A spider’s web finely wrought by a keen-eyed jeweler, the strands were innumerable, but Vasily knew how to see the strongest among them, those that led with certainty from the edge of one world and perhaps into the next.

He had never been a poet—he thought the war had carved out whatever sentiment remained within his heart—but here, at the edge of the world, something tugged at him. Something held its hand out and bade him come. Vasily placed his slippered foot against the strongest line and walked. Beneath his foot, the line hummed. It was like nothing he had experienced through the lines he had strung, a distinct vibration beneath his foot. Rope and wire had never sung for him, but these lines sent a small song through his entire being. He knew that if anyone was to see him, they would think he was walking unsupported through the sunset air. Maria had said so herself. Even so, his feet were unable to refuse the invitation.

With each step, he grew certain that he felt beneath him the steps of another, the pressure of a foot rolling from ball to heel and back. He did not look down in an effort to determine if there was another set of feet braced against his own. He never looked down, for to look down was to doubt. Beyond that, the idea was impossible—the existence of another walker—for beneath him was the gorge alone, more than one thousand feet of tumbling granite split by the mighty Arkansas River. Vasily looked only ahead, so that it was his beloved Sarit he saw.

The ghost of his Sarit was not entirely unknown at these heights, blue eyes still simmering with affection; Vasily always brought her with him in his thoughts, though in her life she had never joined him upon the wire. She stood without moving, unaffected by the wind, her eyes on him the way his own studied the wires. As if his slim figure were the only thing visible at this height and that beyond opened a vast nothingness she could not fill.

Quick-fingered Sarit had not seen the lobsters of the cold east nor the sunsets of the warmer west, for she had been lost long before Vasily had known these American pleasures. But her toes, curling bare against the sunlit wire as they once had into blankets still warm with sleep, were achingly familiar to him. His breath caught in his throat.

“Sarit,” he said, and the world shifted.

It was as though speaking her name erased the sky’s phantom lines; as if the two ghostly constructs could not occupy the same space. He was certain it was in truth the final slip of the sun behind the mountain’s sharp edge that made the sky lines vanish, for he had witnessed this before. He could no longer feel the hum beneath his feet. Though the lines were unseen, he did not fall.

The far end of the line whipped up, into the glow of sunset overhead, to enfold Sarit. He found the idea strange, that the line was embracing her, but it pulled her through the last bits of sunset, into the gorge, into the dark.

Beneath his feet, the unseen line moved. He pictured it as ripples in a lake, growing larger and slower from the center of the initial disturbance. He knew, as well as he knew anything, that the wires he walked upon did not move in such a fashion, that what he now felt could not be explained by ordinary means. The line should have collapsed, should not have borne his weight a second longer, but he did not fall. He tensed and looked down. This was no wire; this was a strange sky line, a thing he did not fully understand. He called himself foolish as he beheld his own feet. His mind could not believe what his body knew, that he stood upon a line, for his eyes told him the line was gone, erased with the setting of the sun. Even though it had rippled, seemingly broken from its distant anchor, he felt the line’s support, but then he glimpsed the strange wonder of the figure—another walker—balanced beneath his own feet.

Vasily stared, and so too did the other walker. How like me he looks, Vasily thought, and for a moment he believed that another him walked upon another line in a world he did not know. Within the other’s eyes, Vasily saw that he did not understand what had happened either. The other’s mouth moved in words Vasily could not hear, and as the line wobbled again, they moved for the firm ground of the gorge’s lip together. Vasily tumbled to the ground, half expecting the other to be at his side, but there was no one else there. Was the other sprawling upon a similar stretch of ground in his own world?

In the high clouds, the last sun of the day still played, but below the mountains, darkness was gathering. The lines that crossed the gorge appeared as little more than chalk marks in the fading light, and Vasily did not trust himself to try them again.

The walk back to the city took him past the dust-shrouded prison yards with their rough-cut stone buildings. In the dust clouds, Vasily thought he saw figures wandering, translucent and pale. Jackson had asked that the circus be allowed to perform within the yards, but city officials had denied him, given a potential and likely overexcitement among the prisoners at the very idea of a circus.

(But would the prisoners not glimpse the wonders between the bars of their windows, no matter where the circus assembled, Jackson had asked. He pressed, his heart set upon the prison yard, but the warden said no, sir, we cannot, for it would be unkind to perform such feats in their own yard without inviting them— Oh, but we would invite them, sirs, Jackson insisted and the warden flushed red as rooster feathers. No sir, for these are jewel thieves and bank robbers and takers of innocents— Innocence? Jackson asked with a crooked smile, and yes said the warden, they would not cater to them.)

Still, Vasily let his mind consider each roofline, the angles, and the spaces between. The buildings framed sections of sky that had begun to fill up with pinprick stars Vasily could not name but knew all the same. By the time he reached City Hall and moved onto proper city streets, he knew exactly how he would place his wires so as to escape, were he ever imprisoned. It would be unfair to any other prisoners, and he chuckled at the idea of them leaping onto his wires in an effort to leave. The prisoners were cartoonish figures in his mind, oversized hands clawing at the wire, clownish feet pressing into the face of the fellow who dared follow behind.

(The reality was more difficult to consider, for it pulled Vasily backward in time; took him by the shoulders and turned him around, so that he was looking—truly looking—at what had been made of his home, his family. He had fled these things, by ledge and wire, but when he turned around they were still there, skeletons in the debris, and so he did not turn around (he did not look down, oh he did not look down). He did not consider the prisoners and every single thing each had left behind. He could not.)

Further up the river, where a groomed trail wandered, sprawled the empty lot Jackson’s circus had been given domain over. Not so far from the prison that its residents wouldn’t be able to see the curve of the Ferris wheel against the sky or the jut of striped tents behind the river’s neat line of trees. The circus train herself rested on a spur line near the river, still home to those performers who had not taken the hotel up on its offer of free lodgings.

The circus had not officially opened—that would be kept for the glory of the weekend—but townsfolk approached the lot to watch the crews set up. Even after sunset, many assembled outside the colorful triangular bunting strung around the lot—a makeshift fence that wouldn’t keep an infant out if one really wanted in. In the warm summer evening, they sweated and pointed, speculating on the nature of the tents, listening for the roar of the rumored lions, and perhaps hoped to glimpse the sequined leotards of the trapeze artists.

Vasily slipped onto the grounds unnoticed; he did not normally garner attention unless he was upon a wire, above all else. On the ground, he was but another man hurrying from here to there. He threaded his way through tents and crates, and above him in the sky, Agnessa flew high and sure. He envied the circus’s siren; she could reach higher than even he could, and as she now skimmed the cloud tops in the very last sunlight, he wondered if she could see the lines crisscrossing the world. He had never asked her, for fear perhaps that she would say yes. What then?

“Vasily.”

Silas, Lawrence, and Foster ringed a low burning fire, some holding cups of coffee, others tin plates bearing half-eaten pocket pies and bowls of steaming beans. With the workers, Jackson stood beside a rounder man Vasily did not know; he looked like Grand Duchess Maria’s matching half, and Vasily wondered if the circus was to gain a fat man. The man sported a crisp gold vest and a belt with a buckle that winked in the firelight; his boots were scuffed deeply enough that Vasily had no trouble imagining the man traveling with a cattle drive.

“Cookie,” Jackson said to the fat man even as he extended a hand toward Vasily, “this is my sky walker, Agranovsky, I was telling you about. He can walk any line, real or imagined.”

At the description, Vasily’s heart leaped hot into his throat. Had Maria told Jackson what she believed she had seen? Vasily could not believe she would have, yet fear convinced him otherwise. Why else would he say such a thing? Nothing in Jackson’s eyes answered the question; Jackson’s expressions were notoriously aloof for those who did not know him well, and Vasily did not. He had travelled with Jackson for years, but this had not made the men good friends.

“Vasily, this is Cookie—he’s treating us tonight.”

Jackson lifted his own plate, heavy with beans, cornbread, and roasted chicken that shone gold in the firelight. When Cookie pushed a loaded plate into Vasily’s hands, Vasily nodded in thanks.

“Looks like you could use a few of these,” Cookie said. He slapped Vasily’s arm and laughed joyously, as if feeding people was what he lived for, and here, in the firelight with some of the exhausted circus crew, he had found his element. “Suppose walking the sky keeps you slender like a thread though.”

“Needs must,” Vasily said, yet he took a generous bite of the cornbread and followed it with a heaping spoon of beans. They were spiced in a way unknown to Vasily, pricking his tongue with heat and sweet at the same time.

“Jackson says you walk without a pole.” Cookie shook his head and bent to retrieve a battered coffee pot from the fire. He poured steaming coffee into a cup and offered it. “How is it you balance up there, in the sky?”

Vasily took the coffee and swallowed, though the liquid was entirely too hot to drink. It burned his tongue, but he had no good answer for the cook.

Sarit had asked him once how he did it. How he walked where no man should reasonably walk when the earth was vast and solid, and when Vasily had been unable to explain, Sarit had walked away in anger, believing she did not merit an answer. Vasily had tried all day but had failed to explain himself at all. I simply do had not sat well with her, but the next day as twilight stole the sun away, he had approached Sarit on their balcony, watching her add another layer to the sunset that took form in oils upon her canvas. This, he said, this is how I walk the sky; the way you create something from nothing upon this canvas. Sarit frowned, but for only a breath; she seemed to know then that it was something a person either knew or did not. It was a thing within the bones, and it might be taught, but it could not be entirely known to anyone who did not already know.

“How is it you make these beans of heaven and hell in the same mouthful?” Vasily asked with his burned tongue.

The cook’s brow creased with a frown, as if he meant to say he didn’t understand, but then he laughed again and everyone around the fire joined in, as if Vasily had explained the mysteries of the world entire and not dodged a question he had no other way of answering. Cookie settled the coffee pot back into the fire.

“Fair enough. Just like that there johnnycake, I learned from my momma, but I cannot make it the way she did, no matter how I may try. My hands are not her own, may she rest in peace.”

Every man dipped his head in a moment of silence, Vasily slow to follow. In the quiet broken only by the crack of logs in flame, Vasily thought of his own mother. Standing skeleton-thin in the wreck of their home, rotten fabric held in her bony hands. Vasily looked and upon the fabric was a six-pointed star, burning at the edges. The star seared his mother’s own flesh, into her bones, and Vasily startled at her shriek, dropping his plate into the fire.

“There, there, just the canyon maggot.”

Before Vasily could ask Cookie what he meant, a sound he had not registered rose around them again, a low moan that sounded like the earth was being pried open to unleash a horde of fresh dead. Vasily shuddered, and it was as though he stood on a boat’s deck and not the solid ground; everything pitched, the ground threatening to fall out from under them.

“It’s just talk, the sheep in the gorge.” Cookie flung a hand in that direction, Jackson watching him with sharp eyes all the while. “Having been out there, I say it’s only the wind, rattlin’ all the rock. Better than all them local myths about fire birds cracklin’ the air. Here. Give over.” He gestured for the plates the men had eaten empty, and stacked them together before tossing them into a basin.

Having dumped his plate into the fire, Vasily held only the still too-hot coffee. The metal cup was growing hot in its handle, and he set it onto the log Foster occupied; Foster never seemed to mind metal, quick with coins and silverwear alike. Foster didn’t pay much attention to him now, and for that Vasily was grateful; he didn’t want a reason to linger. He thanked Cookie for the meal, however abbreviated, and nodded to Jackson, pretending to not notice the way Jackson was looking at him. There was a new interest in his eyes, a thing Vasily hadn’t seen before, and as he moved through the circus lot, he wondered what it meant.

He didn’t see Maria as he crossed the lot; she wasn’t at the train and he didn’t find her at the hotel. Vasily lingered in his own open doorway, but neither did any ghosts whisper down the hotel’s hall. He closed the door to the room he had been given and went to the window, opening it to look not on the night but on the emptiness that reached from the hotel roof to the edge of the building across the road.

The “canyon maggot” sounded again—a sound Vasily could not ascribe to the wind or sheep. It pulled at something inside of him, called to mind the eyes of the other walker he had seen at the gorge. When the moan rolled through the night, the faint lines that traced the world flickered. As if someone had blown on a small flame, they wavered, and only recovered when the moan ceased—when the night grew still as it ever had been. Deeper in the unmoving night, coyotes began to howl.

Stringing wire was not the work Vasily loved best, but he trusted it to no other. He often allowed Silas and Lawrence, who rigged the circus’s many tents, to help him—they understood wires and cloth and the necessary tension between both, but today he worked alone, in the hours before the sun had even risen. The street was perfectly empty, the air cool, and Vasily climbed the fire escape to the roof in relative silence. Late summer, and the birds were slow to wake.

He did not mind the quiet, even his slippers hushed against each metal rung as he climbed. At the roof’s edge, he pulled himself up and over, to eye the arrow he’d shot. People generally did not believe it, which only added to the magic of the work: a wire strong enough to hold a man, shot with a bow and arrow, tension controlled with a reel just as you might a fishing line? Vasily believed it. He secured the wire in full and looked down its strong length spooling from this roof back toward the St. Cloud Hotel.

The St. Cloud appeared a chalk outline, gray and ghostly even as the rising sunlight touched it. The normally red bricks were washed to ash, refusing to solidify. The hotel looked much the way the ephemeral lines in the air did to Vasily; half-real. Within the ghostly walls moved even more ghostly figures, including that of a young girl. She skipped a rope down a long hallway.

The lack of birdsong. The softness of every step he had taken up the fire escape.

Crouched on the roof, Vasily didn’t know where his wire had anchored. The roof felt solid enough, but he didn’t look down, for fear that his wire wouldn’t exist at all. Instead, he only reached for his wire, where it should have been and mercifully felt it there. The wire was cool in the morning air yet as solid as he had ever known it. But the roof—

A brief glance down showed him no roof, and Vasily reeled. The wire was seemingly the only real thing, and he moved onto it, abandoning the there-not-there roof for the wire’s surety. It held him as it always had, but the further along it that he walked, he discovered it did not give with his weight or the wind. This line was solid in ways his own never were, and only when the sun rose high enough above the craggy horizon to spark against it did Vasily realize exactly upon what he walked. A silver line, like those of the gorge, a line not lain by human hands.

He could not explain it and did not stop to try. He walked, eyes on the St. Cloud Hotel ashen and not red. His throat tightened, and every hair on his arms stood at attention. He did not understand what he had done. Then up from the street came the call—his name in Jackson’s mouth.

Vasily still did not look down. He stopped walking, though, which drew another gasp from the street. If he were upon one of the sky-bound lines, he knew exactly what Jackson would see beneath his feet: nothing. A man walking on the summer air itself as the sun rose to color the day.

The St. Cloud Hotel regained its color the closer Vasily came to it, a teabag sucking up water. He worried the sky line would snap beneath him but felt again the press of other feet beneath his own. He did not look, clenching teeth together in the effort to keep his eyes forward, on the wavering façade of the hotel. By the time Vasily reached the roof, it was the color he remembered: red and flushed with life, and he trembled as though he had taken his first wire walk.

“Vasily!” Jackson hurried across the roof, arms flailing in excitement.

Vasily looked from Jackson, over his own shoulder—do not look back do not—and saw what he did not want to see, that he had anchored his wire into a normal, everyday building, within what he was coming to think of as this world, not that world. But the building was overlaid with the ghost chalk lines of another building. Beside the sky line paralleling his own wire, he saw the other walker. The other walker watched him, and Vasily’s heart pounded like it meant to burst out of him.

“Tell me how.”

Jackson’s bent hand curled into Vasily’s arm, turning his attention from the walker to himself. But looking at Jackson was no better—the man had an expression Vasily could not help but understand now: pure, unfiltered joy. Vasily shook his head, hoping his expression was as unreadable as Jackson’s usually was.

“The wire,” Vasily said.

“There was no wire,” Jackson said. “You walked the air.”

Jackson moved to the wire Vasily had strung that very morning. Vasily looked, knowing that this was easily explained. His wire ran nearly atop the sky line.

“Do you see?” Vasily walked on legs that had grown steady once more and joined Jackson at the wire. He curled a hand around his high wire and encouraged Jackson to do the same. “It is only wire.”

Jackson took the wire into his hand, stiff fingers closing around it. He weighed it for a long while, eyes traveling its length and back again. “Could have sworn... From the street, it looked like...” He didn’t finish either thought, releasing the wire to step back.

Vasily looked again to the opposite roof, where the other wire walker still stood. Watching. Vasily could almost believe him a ghost, a thing separate from this world (the real world, Vasily insisted), until the other began to speak. Vasily could not hear anything he said but watched the other’s mouth moving—from normal spoken words, to shouts as the walker’s frustration increased.

“Hmm,” Jackson said. “Might not matter?” Jackson asked.

Vasily turned to look at him, knowing Jackson could not see the man just as he could not see the other lines in the sky.

“People watch from the street, Agranovsky, not the sky. If they cannot see your wire from below...” Jackson nodded, having gone silent. Then, he gently patted Vasily’s arm and headed off the roof.

Vasily looked again to the other walker; he was still shouting, holding onto the wire and giving it a good shake. Vasily’s hand rested yet on his own wire, and he felt the arrival of the ripple. It was so astonishing that he released the wire as if it were on fire and had to look at his hand to be sure the wire’s myriad strands had not been seared into his flesh.

He staggered back from it, trying to dislodge the motion of it from his memory—impossible, he thought, that the other walker should be able to move his line, his own line—but what he could not shake was the word that traveled within the ripple—like a telegraph down a distant line. Help, it said. Help.

“Saw you out there.”

Grand Duchess Maria Romanov, neither a duchess nor a Romanov, looked up from her plate laden with bacon, mountain oysters, biscuits, and steaming black beans. Vasily noted the dollop of cream melting its way into the beans and the way butter gleamed its way across the biscuits. She was not eating any of the things anyone in the room thought she should have been eating. He offered her the peach he had brought, warm from his palm.

“Out where, Your Grace?” she asked, words edged in amusement.

Vasily smiled to think she remembered the way he called her that, and he sank onto the chair beside her own. She took the peach he offered, her cheeks mirroring its own sunrise colors.

Maria looked every inch a duchess today, mahogany hair coiled into an elaborate crown atop her head, laden with paste jewels fashioned into birds and fish. Her kaftan was blue silk—Sarit’s eyes, remembered—edged in gold braid and ribbon that weaved its way into birds and fish, branches of tree and coral, rendering Maria into the world entire, sky and sea both, round and glowing as the sun reached through the dining room’s windows. Vasily felt quite like a shadow, in his black leotard and slippers.

“The prison yard.”

She sat a little straighter at that, withdrawing her knife to cut into the peach. Juice sluiced down its blade once more, dripping into her biscuit butter.

Vasily had left his hotel room early (and were the halls strangely cold, pricking with winter’s chill, or had he imagined it?), meaning to check his wires. The day of the circus’s grand opening had arrived, but upon the hotel’s roof, he was faced again with the other walker on the other roof, who shouted the instant he saw Vasily. Had the man been standing there all night? The idea was a swift barb in Vasily’s gut.

Vasily had turned from his well-anchored wire and instead looked down the street to where he’d caught sight of bright Maria in the distance. Maria wrapped in burgeoning orange silk and dancing barefoot outside the prison fences. Vasily imagined prisoners pressed to barred windows to watch her. Smiles creasing faces that had almost otherwise forgotten how to smile.

“Who knows you do that?” he asked. He asked it the way she had asked him about the gorge—kindly, not accusing—and her blush deepened. The other morning, she had likely seen him walking toward the gorge while she danced outside the fences. “No one, I see.”

She cut a slice of peach free and offered it to Vasily. He took it, his fingers slipping wetly against her own. The peach was sweet in his mouth, but not as sweet as Maria’s own laugh.

“The prisoners surely know,” she said, “but you, Vasily... Are you trying to tell me something, sky walker?” She knifed another sliver of peach into her mouth and watched him, her hazel eyes calm and unjudging.

“There is a place I need to go,” Vasily said. The words came almost before he could consider them, and he knew them for truth. Whatever the other walker represented, it was possible that no other person in this world could see him. If Vasily refused to see and did not acknowledge the other’s desperation, what would that mean?

“And yet?”

Vasily cupped his hands in his lap. “It is a place I have not been, Your Grace,” he said. “It is a place where... Well, I cannot say, not having been, but I suspect there are spirits—ghosts.” And what if his own Sarit should await beyond the wire’s edge?

Maria offered him another peach slice and took one more for herself as well. “Have you been to see Beth?” she asked. “She has turned these peaches into an unbelievable jam—I did not think it possible, and yet there is nothing she cannot capture the heart of.”

Vasily made to stand, irrationally upset that Maria would speak to him of Beth’s talents as he strove to unload his own worries. What did Maria mean, by changing the subject—but as he sat back down, he realized she had not. Beth’s talent lay in capturing moments that could not otherwise be caught; she could preserve something that would otherwise be lost—the smallest memory from a person’s life could be contained within one of her many jars, just as she would preserve a peach, an orange. A sliver of a day. The whole of a year. A whole world?

If Vasily were the only one able to see the other walker and his world, might not the same be true of him? He, perhaps, had the ability to capture that world. He had only walk as he had always walked, with courage and conviction, across the lines, wherever they might lead. He exhaled and sagged against the chair, watching Maria, ever calm as she sliced pieces of peach for them both. Vasily ate and did not question what was to come—he knew the line would be there, and knew it would hold him.

As the crowds gathered in the streets for the grand opening parade and wire walking, Vasily stood upon the St. Cloud Hotel’s roof and did not see the other walker. But neither did he see the sky lines of the world, not with the sun shining straight down upon them. He moved off the roof, onto his wire, and the peace that always came over him came yet again; it had been thus from the first time he had stepped upon a narrow ledge—he had known his place, and it had known him in return.

His world narrowed: there was only the wire, a taut black branch running beneath Vasily’s slippered feet in a flawless straight line. It stretched endless, and Vasily believed he might walk to the very edge of the cracked and crumbling Colorado earth this way. At the edge of the world, as precise as an edge of paper, there would be an anchor, rusted and ancient, around which the unneeded wire coiled, at last serpentine. Over the earth’s edge, a vast nothingness.

Vasily could not picture the world beyond that exact edge, for the future was not a thing he imagined—not now and not then. The wire ran ever into what would come, but the wire also crossed over the present, stretching vast emptinesses that were in need of crossing before he could ever hope to reach anything beyond. He slid one foot along it, extending the small blot of himself against the afternoon sky; he opened his hands to the wide, cloudless blue and balanced between past and future, ground and firmament.

In the sky, the world below dwindled and hushed. The eager crowd was no concern, faces turned upward as flowers to sun to observe his journey from building edge to building edge. Up here, it was the wind that held court, moving the wire with a whisper. The wire questioned the wind, then compensated, tremors rolling down its length. The wire listened, so Vasily in turn listened. Bent his knee as it gave; dipped one leg down, balancing with arms spread. If there was a gasp below, he did not hear; he listened for the wire again and it sang, bearing up and onward.

At this height, Vasily could pretend the world was a painting, though he never looked down at its brushstrokes. Looking down only welcomed bad luck, only drew a person into the past instead of across the present. The wire was ever the wire, and he trusted in its conversation with the wind, moving as it moved.

The reappearance of the other walker, however, startled him and his balance. Behind the walker, Sarit, tall and true against the sky. Vasily spread his hands, seeking the center point of himself once more, but the other walker approached him—seeming to walk toward him, upon Vasily’s own wire!

“Stay,” Vasily bade him, lifting a hand.

And the walker? Stayed.

Vasily exhaled. He could not feel the other’s weight upon his wire, only the wind, but he did become aware of the crowd below, of the murmurs that rose when his balance on the wire shifted. Beneath him, between wire and street, Agnessa stretched her ruby-black wings across the sky, serving as a distraction meant to take the crowd’s attention from him, should he be close to falling.

He was not close to falling—Vasily had never fallen from any wire or rope he placed his feet to—so he skipped, toward the walker and Sarit but also the end of the wire. For brief breaths, he was as airborne as Agnessa, above the wire and moving ever forward, and when the crowd caught sight of him again, they roared in approval.

At the far end of the wire, the other walker moved again. Toward Vasily, though Vasily had bade him stay. And now, Vasily did feel the weight of him upon the wire—impossible, his mind told him, but the wire dipped, the walker slipped—his own feet unaccustomed to this wire, strung in a world not his own, and Vasily lunged toward him.

In the afternoon sky, clouds obscured the sun, and in the new shafts of light, Vasily saw more of the sky-bound lines. He saw more of the world than he ever had, and he moved through it as he had only imagined before. It wasn’t the turning of a corner he had dreamed of, so much as it was discovering a new compass point he could navigate toward. He reached for this point and moved as a bird might, gliding through the shafted light until the other man came into sharp relief. Vasily saw the terror in the eyes, heard the scream through parted lips, and though he did not believe he could touch ghosts felt the man’s hand notching into his own. Vasily was jolted out of time, reaching beyond the realm of any clock to save the man before any on the ground had blinked.

Vasily pulled the man with him, as agile as any trapeze artist might, bounding from thin sky-bound line to thick, aiming for the chalk-line roof he knew was not in his own world. His own world had withdrawn; he felt it retreat and knew himself to be elsewhere, a city eclipsed by the one that overlay it like a coat of snow. He pulled the other walker up all the sky-bound lines until they fell onto a roof, cold and clouded in dust.

The other man was as thin as Vasily, shaking as he looked at his own hand. Vasily looked too, saw no mark but wondered that they had been able to touch.

“It has been ages,” the man whispered.

“Forty-one years,” Vasily guessed. “Since the hotel was moved?”

He pushed himself up, to survey the world beyond the line of the roof. In this ghost world, all was fogged in dust and cloud, the sunlight refusing or unable to penetrate the layers. The trees were stunted here, held within eternal autumn and winter. Most had shed their finery, though some desiccated leaves yet remained. They did not tremble, for there was no wind to stir the clouded air; everything waited.

“Come,” the man told Vasily.

Vasily followed where the other led, down through the building’s hollowed guts via a staircase that creaked and shuddered with their passage. It was like walking the bones of some great creature, chancing a collapse at every turn. Once on the ground, the world felt no more steady; the street was thin as pastry, crackling and brown.

They walked in silence, Vasily aware of others as they went. The people were somehow removed—not as whole as the man he followed—perhaps in yet another fragmented reality. Vasily tried to touch the arm of a passing woman but she shied away, shivering as if cold. He could not say what this world was—that of the living or the dead. Perhaps it was some in-between place, a place none should ever know.

“Here.”

The man brought Vasily to the edge of the gorge. In this world, the gorge was filled with clouds of soot and flame, so thick that Vasily saw no river nor railroad below. The sky-bound lines crossed the canyon still; they did not glow but were as blackened burns across the gorge and sky. Soot plumed into the air and ribbons of fire after it, hot wind whipping Vasily’s cheeks. His eyes watered, and it was then in the gorge below he saw—

Was that a mouth? And this creature, Cookie’s canyon maggot? It was no sheep nor breath of angry wind but a towering bird made of cinder and flame. It was unlike anything Vasily had seen, as wide as the gorge, writhing in the clouds of soot. Or was the soot its rotund body? Flames rushed from a stone-beaked mouth, setting the river to boil.

“See there, within its grasp.”

Vasily saw. It was small when compared to the beast, a burning, red brick caught within a wing of fire. A red brick like those of St. Cloud Hotel.

“The hotel was taken incomplete,” Vasily whispered. The rumors had been true? He did not look at the man beside him but found himself studying the sky-bound lines that crossed the gorge. They appeared solid, despite the monster in their midst.

“We can walk these lines together. Reclaim your world’s stone. Free one city from the shroud of the other.”

Vasily recalled the press of the other’s feet beneath his own every other time he had tried to walk the sky-bound lines. Was it possible, that together they could repair the damage? He remembered, too, that they had fallen.

“Did we not fall?” he whispered.

But even though he asked the question, he did not hesitate. The need to walk the lines was greater than the idea that he might fall. So what if he fell? He knew the lines as well as he knew those within his own palm. There was surely no other reason he had come into this world. You simply do, he heard Sarit say from somewhere far away.

The gorge beckoned, the lines of the sky spreading like a map into the clouds, and so he walked. He put foot to line, and though the lines shuddered with every motion of the canyon’s fiery bird below, Vasily’s feet were steady and true as they had always been.

He and the other walked toward the bird, circling the monster to approach from opposite rims of gorge. Vasily did not look down. He expected Sarit on his line, but she did not appear. Perhaps it was the nature of this world, perhaps it was something else, but Vasily did not consider it. He walked toward only what he could see, the brick spinning in an updraft of flame. He had no idea how he might claim the brick but again refused to question it. You simply do. He walked.

And when close enough, reached for the brick.

It burned cold in his hands, ghostly, ghastly, and he wanted to drop it, but from the other end of the line, the other walker balanced him. The bird, trapped between both worlds, could not claim anything entire. From within the brick, a thousand tiny lines writhed, and within each of the lines, Vasily felt the hum of a ghostly life. Two worlds, imperfectly bound, the fire bird trapped in the in-between, sucking lives from each when it could.

Through the heat mirage, Vasily saw the other’s hands upon the brick, and together they pulled until it broke free. Beneath them, the fire bird howled in fresh fury, and fists of soot robbed Vasily of his sight. He felt himself tumbling from the line like a weed. All around him, the world was flame and ash, and he knew neither up nor down.

The other walker was lost to him in the furor, but Vasily held to the burning brick. When he felt a stable thread beneath his feet (for never looked down), he pushed off. He kept moving, propelling himself up through clouds that bled from eternal black into thunderstorm gray as the fire—as the maggoty bird—was silenced. Within the gray mass, Vasily tasted rain and knew air that was not singed and saw the steady mark of his own line against the sky.

But he saw it from below for he still tumbled, and the crowd shrieked to see him falling from the clouds. Vasily released the brick, and it landed with a thud in the dirt road. Below him, the shroud of one city lifted from the other and ghosts like snow were freed from the spaces between. The warm summer afternoon became as winter, ghosts no longer trapped and crying, blowing to where they belonged.

Vasily pushed off of a line no other could see, vaulting himself into the sky. He did not touch the ground but walked the sky as though born to it. The crowd cried again—how graceful, how marvelous, how amazing that a man could walk the sky. Jackson beamed his triumph. Cookie stared.

Vasily walked and did not care who saw. Did not care that the higher he went, he was leaving them behind. Jackson and the train, Maria and her peaches, Beth and her countless jars. He walked and did not care, looking ahead, looking—for the first time—beyond the end of his line. It was not blackness eternal he saw beyond the precise edge of the world but Sarit against the sky, bright and shining. Quick-fingered and painting him a golden, clouded sunset. Vasily reached for the new and beckoning compass point—and walked into the sky.


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E. Catherine Tobler knows something about walking tightropes, working as both an editor and writer. Her fiction has appeared in in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including four stories set in her traveling circus universe. In June, The Kraken Sea, a novella set in this circus universe, will be available from Apex Book Company. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, www.ecatherine.com.

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