Tonight is a new moon, when the stars burn brightest. This, Plato tells us, is the best time for seeking angels in the night. I pack a cheap exercise book, two cans of rip-off cola and a battered biscuit tin full of mismatched chess pieces into my satchel and leave the burbling TV to mind my apartment.
Outside, belligerent taxicabs pour between the buildings. Brave people leap between the machines like salmon, swimming upstream to the safety of their homes. I make my way to the agreed lamppost and stand waiting, watching night falling, noting the birth rate of the stars.
Syrinx arrives around nine, dishevelled and bleary-eyed beneath the harsh fluorescent streetlights. She’s wearing several layers of clothing—each ascending hemline slightly less unkempt than the one beneath—and a bandana through her unwashed hair. The pedestrians channel around her; some give her pitying looks, assuming she is homeless. Syrinx goes seeking much more than me—almost every night—and as her vigils have increased, so has her disconnect from the daylight, and the denizens of the daylight world. ‘Being drawn up’, the other seekers call it.
“C’mon 2,” she mumbles, blinking heavily.
“You reckon they’d dim these Christ-Almighty Damn Lights,” she adds as we move off, heading against the current—towards the business district. Syrinx thinks in terms of capitalised nouns, ascribing all things—animate or inanimate—a unique title. Subconsciously, I add the appropriate flourishes to her sentences.
Syrinx’s long legs move fast, her feet stabbing their way across the concrete. Smokey breath rises above her head, fading into the winter night. She walks ten blocks straight then three to the right and stops in front of a fire escape halfway along an alley between blank-windowed offices. Vigils change location each night, but Syrinx always seems to know where they are.
We climb the fire escape, Syrinx first. Seekers never enter the buildings they hold vigil on. One of the Rules is to never leave any traces.
The roar of traffic lessens as we climb from level to level, snaking above the rooftops. The bright lights recede. Neither of us looks down. Looking down stops you dead at this height.
On the second-last level we pause for a moment to put on our masks. Syrinx’s mask is humanoid, with elf-like features. She told me that it embodies her namesake—the nymph from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
My mask is featureless black plastic from a $2 store. I haven’t earned an identity yet; I am a number, without a name. When the time comes, Syrinx will give me a name. I suspect it will be Atlas. She told me—between shifts at the coffee store where we first met—that I look like a man carrying the world on my back. I thought she was trying to get a tip. Not the first time I’ve been wrong about a woman.
Following Syrinx higher, studying her slim figure from below, I remember when she—a stranger then—suggested I meet her by the lamppost. I had entirely different expectations. Even then—caffeine migraine building in the dark shopfront, studying the contours of her face through the gloom—I was, in a sense, climbing after her, scrambling after her graceful body: the same as I do with every female that happens to smile at me.
Desperate for a second meeting. A third, less public. And a fourth—
And safety, warmth and beauty.
Syrinx climbs up the last flight of creaking stairs and disappears over the grey lip of the roof. She reaches her gloved hands down and pulls me the last few steps, raising me above the world. I glance behind and see the city spread out below: gold windows staring from black, monstrous shapes, bordered with fast-moving rivers of fire. I feel a sharp stab of vertigo—we are too high: much too high—and the feeling heightens the unreality, completing the sense of severance.
At least twenty seekers have joined the vigil. Their silhouettes are spread around the rooftop, between the metal piping and exhaust fans. They stand or sit in small groups or alone, as their motives dictate. Most wear masks—some matte black and some individuated like Syrinx’s.
Syrinx and I go our separate ways amidst the gathering. She initiated me, but she is not my keeper. Up here, we have no keepers.
I like to walk around for a bit when I arrive, enjoy the night sky and the distant sensation of like-minded company.
A tall man in a threadbare wool jumper comes over to me. He’s wearing a black mask as well, and by the way his large, blue eyes fill the sockets I can tell this is his first vigil. I raise a finger to the lips of my mask, take out my notepad and trace a line across the middle of a blank page. On the lower half, below the line, I write: Welcome. We do not speak at vigils.
He nods vigorously, assuring me he knows the Rules.
I write: Why did you come here?
I’ve been working a while he scrawls on his section of the paper. Feels like life is passing me by. He ponders, trying to articulate further. In the end he adds: They said I have no name yet. They told me I am 9?
All the new seekers receive numbers. Gradually, we progress upward as Plato identifies those who came before us. It can take a few months or more, depending on Plato’s whim.
I’m 2, I reply. I beckon brand new 9 to follow and lead him across the roof until we find Lenin, whose crisp new mask is a butterfly spreading its wings. Until a few weeks ago, Lenin was 2 and I was 3.
Lenin is shading one of his charcoal sketches: a combination of dimensions, containing an equal blend of beauty and atrocity, dredged from some depths in his soul that I am too afraid to ask about.
This is 9, I write, avoiding an accidental glance at the page Lenin is working on. He doesn’t know why he’s here. He sounds a lot like you once were.
9 stares at Lenin and the charcoal sketch, eyes almost overflowing. I was right: they are both true artists in their souls. Lenin is a bookkeeper.
I leave Lenin and 9 and search for my friend Dragon. I find him in the shadow of a humming seaweed clump of air-conditioning pipes. He’s waiting for me, motionless, a tattered chessboard spread before his crossed legs. His posture is structured for meditation, eyelids filling the blank eyeholes.
Dragon has a red mask with his namesake stencilled across the right hand side. From this and other clues, I assume that his homeland is China. But, as with all things concerning Dragon, I’m not certain. Seekers don’t usually know each other in a daylight sense. He’s never told me his homeland and I’ve never heard him speak—never heard his accent.
I sit down opposite Dragon, mirroring his pose. I write him a salutation in my notebook: A fine night for balance. I slide the book along the rough concrete until the paper touches his knee.
Dragon’s eyelids flicker. I imagine that, beneath the mask, a thin-pressed mouth turns upwards. Whilst I arrange the chess pieces on the board, Dragon writes on his half of the paper: A fine night for harmony. I read it upside-down, smile to myself and nod and we begin playing.
Dragon is Confucian, I think, so every time we play chess together I draw on my knowledge of Confucianism—a feeble caricature, gleaned from TV—and Dragon replies in the same pastiche. Chess is our only shared interest, and misappropriated stereotypes are our common language. These messages demonstrate the value of our imposed silence. The ignorance that would have separated Dragon and I in the everyday means nothing—is mercifully hidden—up here, above the world. We can commune as we wish, without confusing our desires with ourselves, or our pasts.
Dragon snaps his fingers, arresting my daydreaming. He points at the board. He thinks I think too much. I don’t know for sure, but I think that’s what’s on his mind.
Some time in the night my concentration is broken by the sound of glass shattering. The sudden noise startles me and I overbalance the bishop I was about to move. Dragon’s dark purple-brown eyes rise and fixate on a place over my head.
I turn and see that Nameless has arrived, and has begun his performance art by smashing a wine glass against the cinderblocks.
I give my apologies to Dragon, who nods consent, and leave him studying the board whilst I join the clutch of people around Nameless.
Nameless greets us with a smile and reaches into the rucksack he carefully carried up to the heights. Nameless wears no mask; he isn’t a Seeker, or anything else that I know of. He’s one of the many interlopers that we encounter during our vigils—groups and individuals, squatting or sharing or escaping to space above the world, many without an obvious purpose. Syrinx reckons most of them were frequenting the hidden places of this city long before they were compelled to climb towards the stars. It’s happening more and more, she reckons—the urge to escape, funnelling upward. It’s the only place left that feels like a refuge.
About once a month Nameless finds us—by chance, or perhaps on purpose, no one knows—and presents the latest instalment of his artistic vision. He abides by our silence, which seems to suit him, and he never stays longer than it takes for his art to reach a crescendo. I think—no, I know—he’d perform even if there were no one left in the world to see.
Nameless produces a tarnished silver object from his rucksack and holds it up in the dark, tempting us. He obscures its form with his body, trails his long fingers across the object, searching for the essence. That’s the magic of his act—his uncanny ability to find the centre, the ordering principle, of a thing. His performances fleetingly impart transcendence; his focus is so intense it draws us in, his momentary fascination burning bright enough to warm us. It could easily be a symptom of disorder—and at the very least, on a street corner, a public nuisance—but above the world we perceive them the same as their creator does: as a religious experience.
Most of the seekers stop to watch Nameless perform. A few are too absorbed in their own efforts: too embroiled in the sketching, too involved in their written conversations; too far submerged in their alcohol, too transported by their pills. But most focus on Nameless.
A sense of expectation expands beneath my breastbone as Nameless examines the soul of his new companion, turning it and prodding it, stretching and deconstructing and embellishing it.
Finally he balances the object on one palm and takes a flashlight from a pocket in his overcoat.
He’s backlit by the starless night sky, hazed from below by the gold reflection of the city. His finger hesitates on the torch button.
A narrow band of bright yellow flares from the torch muzzle, revealing a small, aged, rusted and unbranded pop-up toaster.
A few of us gasp. The revelation is always shock, dispelling the half-formed conclusions we conjured.
A moment after the reveal Nameless kills the torchlight and holds the toaster up close to his face, balanced on a palm, reminiscent of the skull in Othello. He runs a gloved finger over the forlorn object. Then he places it reverentially on the chest-high safety barrier that skirts the rooftop perimeter. Here comes the denouement. Dread twists me, my guts oblivious to the ridiculousness of the spectacle, of the situation.
But no. Nameless has evolved.
He flings his rucksack onto his shoulder and makes for the fire escape. He leaps, joyous, into the night, disappears without a backward glance, leaving us confounded. This ending is unprecedented.
I go to the ledge and watch the madman descend to the world of lights. The other spectators are abuzz. They revisit several theories as to his motivation, and his past, but none of us really know why he continues striding—ragged, shaven-headed and muffled by an overcoat—through the dark places of the city, on his mysterious performance circuit.
Plato arrives just before daylight touches the horizon. Syrinx and I are sitting close to each other, passing the notebook back and forth, arguing about Nameless and his toaster. Syrinx—characteristically—believes he is a Prophet of Our Time. Without forewarning Plato’s blonde head emerges above the safety barrier and Syrinx forgets everything about the riddle.
Plato always wears a white, featureless mask and styles her long, straight-brushed hair so that it flows down either side. The superficial effect, coupled with her slight build, is that an angel walks amongst us. She embodies her obsession.
Plato moves to the centre of the roof and gives us a sermon in her high, resonant voice. Only Plato is permitted to speak during the vigils. Recently, she re-wrote the Rules to allow her preaching. She believes that, like her, we are seeking proof that there is purity and holiness in this world. She imagines, I imagine, that she has created a new religion.
We listen politely. Except for Syrinx and the handful of first-identified seekers, I’m pretty sure most of us aren’t searching for angels—or, at least, not the angels Plato imagines. We understand the urge that drove her and we accept the Rules under which she admits us, even though they were formulated specifically to help her hear the angels: in silence, without the taint of earthly fear, without the judgement of strangers.
We listen out of respect: she gave us a community above the world. We listen because she has found a new place for freedom, an original chance to be unrestrained in whichever way we want.
When the sermon is done, I slip away from the others and return to Dragon. He is sitting as I left him—alone in the shadow of the chaotic, overhanging piping—still studying the board. I take my place opposite and offer him one of my cans of soft drink—with a straw, so he can sip it through the mask.
Dragon and I are similar. Not personally, or physically, or in any everyday sense. But we are similar, in the way 9 and Lenin are similar. Dragon thinks that if he can master this one game, completely, so he learns the art of mastery, then he can master other elements of his life. This is what we share, although I am much younger than Dragon, with much further to go. I console myself that at least I am further than 9 and look up at the blushing sky.
A star appears to be brightening in the grey, while the others fade. Perhaps, tonight, Plato will see her first angel. You never know—anything is possible, this far above the world.