Thursday
Oct142010

The Architect’s Apprentice

Ryan Call


 

I awoke to find piled upon the barren plains beyond our protective walls an assortment of fallen cloud bits and slabs of broken sky. A black hole in the firmament gaped above, seemed to dilate there like an enormous pupil upon the blue expanse of atmosphere, and from this hole there came the slight, distant woosh of moving air, sending up miniature whirlwinds of dust that spun across the plains. A brown haze issued steadily from the hole, canceling the weak sunrise at the horizon and casting a gloomy pall over our city. Seagulls wheeled confusedly through the chunky air before settling anxiously upon the ground, clots of soiled cloud clinging to their feathers.

With the toes of their heavy boots, the retrieval team nudged aside the exhausted birds so they could better access the pile of sky. The team had donned rubber gloves, mirrored goggles, oxygen regulators, and bright orange plastic suits to protect them as they set about dismantling the pile. The cloud bits disappeared at the slightest touch, but the slabs of sky remained intact despite their fragile nature. The team worked carefully, as our leaders wanted to preserve the integrity of the pieces as much as possible. They carried the smaller pieces by hammock-cradle, and the larger ones they set on soft fur-lined pallets for the forklift operators to move at their leisure. Contractors built a rudimentary scaffolding, and from it the sky technicians spot-drilled, glued, spackled, taped, and otherwise reinforced the edge of the hole to prevent any further damage from occurring. Using a series of vectored fans, members of the cleanup crew sought to contain the leaky haze in a corner of the sky so it could eventually be swabbed up and removed from the scene by the skysweepers.

 

As the architect's apprentice, I was obligated to sort the various slabs of sky by size, to polish them with a microfiber cloth until their viewing surfaces were nearly transparent, and then to bevel their edges so that they might snugly fit back together. I had to account for every single piece by way of an intricate numbering system: with a grease pencil I wrote upon the back of each slab its allotted number, took an instant picture, and then secured in the architect’s logbook the number, a brief description, and the image, so that the architect and I could repair the sky and stem the flow of haze.

Once I had categorized and sorted each slab, I prepared the work area for the architect’s arrival. I roped off an area slightly larger than the size of the hole above. I swept the earth clear of debris. I spread out an enormous cotton tarp upon which the architect could organize the many pieces. I set up his work cart and laid upon it his tools, ensuring they were in good repair. I erected a telescoping viewing tower atop which he could climb and rise higher should he choose to examine his work from afar. In a corner of the workspace, I dug a shallow pit, situated in the dirt some kindling and larger pieces of wood, struck a flame, and hung over it a small kettle of water for his tea. The architect very much enjoyed drinking tea as he puzzled over his reconstruction of the sky.

 

When the architect appeared on site, the activity beneath the hole momentarily ceased, and a murmur of appreciation swept through the workers. Some clapped and pointed, others chatted excitedly amongst themselves. A few of the women fainted. Even the foreman looked up from his clipboard to witness the architect’s arrival.

It was rare in those days to see an architect at his work, as we had not yet entered that alarming period of massive sky failure, so mystery still shrouded all that the architect represented.

The architect stepped down from his gyrocopter, nodded politely to the crowd. I hurried to his side, a teacup steaming at the ready. He took the cup and sipped its contents, swooshing the hot liquid thoughtfully about like a mouthwash. He had a very tiny, delicate mouth, the corner of which dipped slightly—he had recently suffered a stroke and was in declining health—and so he whispered most nearly everything he spoke.

"Have you double checked the measurements?" he said.

I nodded, took from him the empty teacup.

"Then let us begin," he said.

We each of us stepped into a set of light cotton body suits, donned our requisite headgear, our feathered gloves and moleskin booties, and thus I embarked upon the second path of my learning: the way of puzzling, of jigsolving, of fitting one part against another in the hopes that all might hold yet a while longer.

 

I had only recently completed my primary level coursework, and I was then assigned an ancient and unpopular sort of architect for my apprenticeship, a man who was rumored to have piloted massive cargo dirigibles in his younger days. When the instructor read aloud my lottery number, the class shifted, some sighed in relief and others openly mocked me, laughing at my unbuckled fate. I bid goodbye to my mother and father on the day of my graduation, shouldered my duffel, and left the countryside, traveling by rail to the city to meet my new master. He greeted me at the depot, an imposing figure amongst the rabble of the crowd, and immediately began to test my knowledge. As we walked to his quarters—he lived in a rundown ward south of downtown—the architect pointed to various parts of the sky, softly demanding that I name them, describe their features in technical terms, work through solutions for their repair should they fail one day. When an answer pleased him, he nodded his head. When I spoke poorly, he pinched the dead corner of his mouth, correcting me in his quiet way.

In those days, there occurred very few situations that demanded our expertise. The sky held up well for the most part, and the weather was often pleasant. When faults did appear above us, most citizens chose to make their own repairs, rather than rely upon the architect and his high fee. Others chose to ignore the flaking bits of brittle sky and oozing haze, pretended they did not see the glitter flurrying to the earth, and some went so far as to question this concern for all things skyward when what seemed to matter most existed beneath their feet.

The doubt of the people lasted for several years, that is, until the Great Southern Sky Fault, which destroyed countless acres of crops, decimated herds of cattle, and swallowed up whole neighborhoods of people. A haze began to spread across the country, and soon news of other faults worldwide appeared on the broadcasts, warnings of poor air quality, news of missing people, of vanishing cities, all manner of things swallowed up by the falling slabs of sky. Most alarming was the fate of the lost people, of the missing, for no one understood then the nature of these disappearances, how they had happened.

The intensity of this new era hardened across my skin as I threw myself doubly into my work, slept very little, consumed only one meal a day. I read voraciously as many of the incoming reports as I could, even though no amount of book-learning and mirror-practicing could prepare me for this new task.

It was not until our city suffered its own fault that I learned to handle the sky.

 

We worked incessantly but carefully, and the slab of sky slowly took shape, a massive puzzle there upon the tarp. Spectators came and went, standing beyond the velvet ropes to watch us at our work. The foreman checked our progress every shift, often clucking his tongue in approval and marking upon his clipboard his usual chicken scrawl. The workers stood idly about on their lunch breaks to watch as the architect shimmied a piece this way and that, applauding when it finally found purchase. I kneeled proudly beside him, teacup in my hand, occasionally wiping from his brow sweat, dirt, the chalk he used to mark out potential placements. When he grew tired, the architect napped on a small cot I had placed by the fire, while I stood watch behind a sign that asked for quiet, shooing away the rowdier of the onlookers.

Though we worked hard and were successful in our various tasks, we did encounter our share of setbacks, and often all progress ceased. We tore our feathered gloves upon the beveled edges. Occasionally a sky slab slipped from our grasp, breaking into smaller pieces upon the ground, pieces which I then had to repolish, rebevel, and resort into subcategories, recording these new pieces in my notebook beneath the original entry. Most frustrating of all was the amount of change the slabs underwent, for we had hundreds of skies to keep track of, and from these skies appeared all manner of phenomena, weather and otherwise: blinding sunlight beamed across their surfaces, storms sometimes spilled their rain upon our work area, snow flurried about our hands, and the occasional bird came flapping up into our faces, anxiously striking us with its wings. I dealt with it all as professionally as I could, employing umbrellas, warm clothing, protective nets. Still I grew despondent. The architect, however, took these troubles silently, easily. He retired to the cot by the firepit, draped a wet cloth over his face to calm himself, and soon snored peacefully, while above us the haze continued to spread from the hole, reminding me of the importance of our task.

 

By the glare of the floodlights trained upon the hole, I shuffled through my bag in search of my parents’ latest letter of five days ago, to which I had not had a chance to respond due to these extraordinary circumstances. We had kept up a weekly correspondence during my apprenticeship, and I worried that they might wonder about me. Surely they had heard news of the fault above my city and would understand the danger I faced, given how constantly I warned them to be vigilant in their own sector. I had often shared with them the reports I read, and I made it a habit to send them tips for identifying weak spots in the sky, the locations of potential fissures: slight puffs or tiny jets of brown haze, a multitude of daystars, traces of fallen cloud and sky, these comprised just a handful of warning signs I had been trained to identify, and I hoped my knowledge could help them as well.

The letter was marked by my father’s precise but tiny script, a habit from his days as a hurricane hunter noting coordinates with a grease pencil on the cockpit canopy of his airplane. He began with the usual reports of the weather in the area and the status of the sky. We old rural folks are still blessed with the deep blue of a strong atmosphere and the soft curve of the horizon, and we delight in the occasional interruption of cumulus cloud. He then gave me the latest news regarding the family wind farm: its current income and expenses, what turbines he had repaired, how my mother had happily discovered a kind of bird-and-bat-friendly netting that could be strung around the perimeter of the farm. Your mother insists that I install the netting this evening, but I have yet to receive a permit from the local courthouse. He closed the letter with assurances that all was well, that they had seen no sign of trouble overhead, and wished me luck and success in my current station.

Rereading the letter awoke in me a nostalgic longing for my parents, for my home, for the sky under which I had played as a young boy, a sky at odds with the diseased one now over my head. My mother had included in the envelope a series of pictures of the sky above the house, and as I scanned the slick photographs, the vibrant shades of blue, the line of soft clouds slowly encircling the roof, an idea came to mind. Surely one sky was not all that different from another, so what prevented me, then, from giving to the people of my city the makings of such a handsome one as that of my childhood?

 

When the architect awoke, I brewed him another cup of tea and told him about the sorting of temporary placements I had accomplished throughout the night. We walked the perimeter of the work area, and I showed him my chalk lines and one small corner of the slab that I had eagerly assembled on my own. So sure was I of my calculations that I’d gone the final step and locked each piece into place. I waited for the architect to congratulate me, but he only walked quietly at my side, the teacup shaking slightly between his thumb and forefinger. We rounded the final corner of the area and climbed aboard the platform. I cranked the handle to ratchet us high over the entire slab, and there we stood in the morning breeze, looking out over the plains. The morning work shift had arrived, and under the direction of the foreman they were installing the sky hook, a mysterious machine that hung from the sky of its own accord, with which we could hoist the eventual slab into its proper place and plug the hole in the firmament. From the city appeared a group of officials: the mayor, other members of the city board, the police chief. They planned to oversee the final piecing together of the slab and its reinstallation. They waved at us, each in their top hats, their ribbons and other finery flapping about them in the wind. They seemed cheerful after their march.

The architect pinched the side of his mouth.

"Do you see here," he said, "how the contour does not at all match that of what you have pieced together?" He held up a photograph of the city’s sky and pointed down at the earth.

I gazed at the photograph and then at my handiwork. Of course I could see the differences, for I had not worked from that particular original. When he looked up to examine the hole, I glanced at the photograph my mother had sent me, then at my slab, then at the photograph again, and felt pleased with the result. Yes, I had worked long under the artificial light of the floods, but I seemed to have done a good job to approximate the original.

"What is that?" he said, grabbing the photograph from my hand. "Where did you get this?"

"I thought I might improve upon it," I said, gesturing to the air above.

"You fool," he said. "You have no idea what you have done."

From the slab I had constructed appeared a handful of miniature storm clouds, which rose towards us, spitting into my face as if to mock me.

"Take us down," he said.

The architect explained to the city's contingent the error I had made, apologized for the delay, and said that we should be perhaps a few more hours at the longest. The officials nodded politely, said they did not mind waiting, explained that they rather enjoyed watching our activity. All but one seemed cheerful, happy to be a part of this momentous occasion in the history of the city. The sad one had with him a massive scissors, the kind used at ribbon-cutting ceremonies—he had lugged it all the way from the city gates—and had just discovered there were no ribbons here to be cut.

The architect bowed to the officials, and then snapped his fingers at me. We sized up the faulty slab, levered it from the ground, took a moment to rest, him on the skyside and me on the rearside. We tried to pivot it over to the worktable so that we could dismantle it, but it was so bulky that it dug a furrow into the dirt. I felt it tilting from my grasp, the edges slipped from my fingers, and it slowly fell away from me, a giant toppling artifact, and when it hit the ground, I feared the architect’s anger, but he had disappeared beneath the slab.

 

I had read of such catastrophes, but I had never before expected to face one without the architect cleverly leading me onward, nor did my training manual provide for such an emergency. Instead, I stood alone, the dust settling around me, the city officials blinking at me, the foreman frozen, his pen raised to his mouth. I discovered at my feet the architect’s teacup balanced precariously on the edge of a sliver of sky. It rocked slightly, perhaps a shifting of the leaves within its bowl, and then dropped, shrinking as it fell further away from me.

I realized then the danger we faced, the architect in his tumbling and I in my standing among countless slabs of broken sky, a pockmarked landscape of holes awaiting my loss of balance. For the architect to stand a chance at surviving his fall, I had to preserve my own grounding.

I beckoned to the foreman and explained to him the dilemma. Soon he had harnessed me onto a cable from the skyhook’s winch, and then he locked down the site, declaring it off-limits to all but the most important emergency personnel. The workers he dismissed, the onlookers he resituated behind a further, guarded boundary, and the officials he ushered into the mobile headquarters, where he explained to them my task.

I chalked a bright yellow outline around the suspect shards of sky: these were the skies into which I would have to go in order to look for the architect. I then recategorized them, carefully marking them down in a separate part of the notebook and double-checking my entries. I began my search with the smallest of the broken slabs, into some of which I could only reach elbow or shoulder deep. From these I withdrew a number of miniatures: handfuls of dying hummingbirds, broken balsa wood airplanes, a confused swarm of honey bees, a tiny oil bubble that rested momentarily upon my thumbnail. Perhaps it was best that I could not find the architect in one of these smaller skies, for I wonder what would have become of him had I pulled him free. Would I extract a little person of an architect? Or would he be a child again? Would my saving him from the fall then destroy him upon his reentering his own world? I shook from my head these doubts, marked in the notebook that each of the miniature pieces seemed clear of his presence.

Then came time to search the first sky slab into which I could fit my entire body. I steeled myself for the moment, instructed the foreman to allow the cable to play out until the very end, slowing it only the last hundred feet so as to minimize the force upon my body when it jerked to a stop. I waved to the officials, who waved back at me from the window of the headquarters, and then I stepped into the sky.

 

The first group of slabs seemed as normal as one could expect of skies forcibly removed from their rightful places; however, in each one I noticed slight errors, aberrations in their being that slightly shocked me as I dangled there at the end of the cable. One sky blinked the colors of mud, of turd and wood pulp, of raccoon skin. Another sky sent congested clouds towards me, which scraped at my body in their passage, leaving an oily residue clinging to my skin, beading upon my eyelids and lips. Lightning bolts punctuated the ruddy darkness in these skies and around me churned thunderstorms, hail and snow, whirls of heated, nearly angry air. I encountered skies full of twirling dandelion parachutes, clots of grass, ridiculous tufts of hair that clogged my breathing apparatus, rendered my goggles useless. In one sky, I found enormous gatherings of disrupted earth and granite, to which clung all manner of arachnids and stinging insects, and I emerged dazed, weak from the poison that had penetrated my suit and the rocks that had bludgeoned my helmeted head. Flocks of mutated birds, some flapping viciously, screeching through the fluted openings of their bifurcated beaks, battered my dangling body about like a play toy. Flying fish in one sky greeted me, tenderly nipping at my ankles, sucking at the blood dripping from my toes.

Upon my return from each sky, the medical personnel nourished me with intravenous fluids, replenished my oxygen, conducted psychological evaluations. One asked me if I had rather give up, leave the architect and instead save myself, to which I shook my head: I had sworn to serve out my apprenticeship, and therefore had to save him. The officials too spoke anxiously, but of the hole above, explained to me that in my absences, the haze had begun to overflow the containment fans, had quickened in its pouring forth and now threatened to seep into other parts of the sky. But I could not give up, could not stand to face the great task of repairing the hole on my own without the guidance of the architect, for I feared, then, that I could not do it, not after seeing the results of my own creation, its shattered remnants and all the errors it had revealed to me.

 

As I worked my way through one batch of slabs after another, I soon encountered here and there bits of people, and I realized that soon enough I would meet a living member of the disappeared. The bits I initially encountered were limbs, torsos, featureless heads, the bloodless parts that had, presumably, been severed by the falling slabs, swallowed away to these broken skies. I batted these away when I could, at first disgusted by their meaty particulars. Later I grew curious as to what had happened to the rest of them, saw them merely as specimens. Parts of buildings too began to appear, automobiles, chunks of pavement, road signs, stoplights, the empty half of a swimming pool and its attendant plumbing. In a bassinet I discovered a freakish baby, but could not grab a hold as it circled away. A school bus floated by, its young occupants wide-eyed and frightened, pressing themselves against the windows. In another sky, a crumbling city block appeared, rising slowly up to me, and I was able to stand momentarily upon its cracked pavement between the tottering buildings. I felt the bulk of it shifting, humming slightly in the wind. A man in a ragged poncho greeted me, begging for help, a teacup outstretched, a handful of coins tinkling against its porcelain, but before I could examine it, the block fell slowly away, the area of crumbling street and bits of earth passing again beneath my feet, the teacup now just a bright dot in the man’s dirty hand.

 

Topside, the city officials demanded that I give up. The haze had descended, then, onto the plain, and now encroached upon the city’s walls, soiling the stone and mortar. The construction camp had been protected by a series of hastily erected barriers of containment booms and other absorbent cloths, but even these had begun to fail. Many of the workers had fled, and those who remained walked lazily about, their protective gear fuzzy with gunk, dirty, weighed down. Even, it seemed, the scrubbers had lost their effectiveness upon the accumulating fog.

"You have one last chance," the mayor said. "Then we must plug the hole with whatever order of skies you can create."

"I found a sign of him," I said.

"It matters little now as long as we can stop the haze," he said.

"There’s hope," I said.

"You have until sundown," he said.

 

I saw it as I dangled there, the shadowy shape of my old house, rising out of a dark thundercloud, coming up to meet me. Some of the roof had torn off, the chimney had gone missing, but a good plot of land had still managed to cling to the foundation of the structure. An old dairy cow stood clumsily in the front yard, a rope secure around its collar so as to keep it from wandering too close to the edge.

The yard felt soft, fragile beneath my feet, and under my weight a portion collapsed, fell away. The cow skittered, and I tracked around it so as to give it a wide berth. I climbed the wooden steps to the porch and stood before the door. It gave at my touch, so I walked carefully through the front hallway, managing my cable behind me so that it would not mar the surface of the walls with its scraping. The house seemed out of sorts, dusty, parts unhinged and broken, but the lights still burned on and from the utility closet I could hear the sound of the clothes dryer, something bumping around in its metal cylinder, water running on the second floor. In the family room, I found the television on but muted, and tuned to that channel that only broadcasts weather reports against a blue screen, a favorite program of my family. Outside, the wind blew against the house, rocking it gently within the sky.

"Mom?" I called. "Dad?"

I walked through the dining room and found a pot of bubbling tomato sauce standing on the stove. In the sink steamed a pot of spaghetti noodles, and next to it, a plastic colander. I found a pair of oven mitts and drained the noodles, watched the vapor condense on the kitchen windows, obscuring the weather outside, which had become frightfully worse, slightly rocking the house in its clutches.

In the dining room, I found the table set for three, all of our usual places.

I unhooked my harness, the cable singing as it retracted through the front door, and sat in my chair. I imagined my parents, the joy in their eyes as they greet me from the kitchen doorway. They are younger, their faces unlined, my father muscular and no longer bald, my mother taller, thinner, not grey, her black hair down about her waist, and I too am younger, smaller, waiting for them to come to dinner.