Submission to Blank Space's annual Fairy Tales architecture storytelling competition. With Ashley Takacs and Kristine Ericson.
Where there is no common ground, take to the air
It must have been a spectacular sight – a wave so large it swept the tower off its footings, the steel frame straining, floors shifting and tipped. When the waters receded, all the common ground had been washed away. The tower, free of its foundation, had sunk and settled in the seabed at a sharp angle. Half the windows permanently peered into the sea, the other half forever fixed on the sky. Stranded in this tall island, tower residents knew only what they saw beyond their windows—blue and birds and the occasional debris.
Layla lived on Seaside. Her windows looked out over dark waters and nothing else, and for Seasiders it had been that way for generations. She spent most days lowering nets into the water and hoping for a good haul. Fabric, rope, and wood were reliable sellers, as were colorful cans and glass bottles. In the evenings she sifted through the day’s catch, repairing what she could and gathering the cast-offs for herself. She only encountered Skysiders at the Commons Market, where she sold them gear and bought their flowers and fruit.
For Skysiders, the sea was something they heard and smelled but never saw. They had the sky, though. They had sun in the day and fresh water when it rained. Plants flourished. Theirs was a world that could still yield new life. They studied the clouds and the constellations, and innately felt the vastness of the cosmos. At night they looked up and dreamt of a future beyond the tower.
Much like their precarious home, the Skysiders and Seasiders stood in uneasy equilibrium. Layla knew the sky existed. She read about it in books and heard stories about the different shapes of clouds and the pictures people saw in stars. She knew her sea was blue only because it reflected their sky. But faint starlight reflected in murky waters did little to spark her imagination. She preferred to collect the fragments caught up in ocean currents that passed by her window. If the sky was about the future, the sea was the past. For generations, the division between sea and sky, past and future, scavenger and stargazer, served the community well. No one thought to disrupt the ecosystem.
One day while tinkering with a mess of wire, Layla glanced down at something strange in the frothing waves. It was a patch of flat water—brighter, smoother, and more still than any water she'd seen before. She cast her net, hoping to corral the curious liquid. Now she saw that it wasn't water, but a thin sheet of mirrored cloth nearly 20 yards wide. White and grey clouds came into focus on its surface, crisp and clear. The blue was iridescent, and infinitely deep. For the first time in her life, she was looking at the sky. She pulled frantically at the ropes. But once the cloth was safely inside, all it reflected was Layla’s room—small, drab and cluttered next to the smooth shimmer and glow of the cloth. After that brief glimpse of the sky, she knew she needed to see it all.
The division between the two sides, which once had seemed so natural, suddenly felt like a cruel imposition. She now saw that the tower was not bent, but broken. Though it had kept the structure aloft for generations, the tower’s remarkable equilibrium was leaving Layla in shadow. She wanted no part of it. For days afterward, she wasn’t seen at the Commons Market. She spent her time pulling rope and cloth out of the water, building a patchwork of cotton and nylon, and then slowly stitching it together with the mirrored cloth. Weeks later it was done—a silver balloon with a basket for one.
Layla picked a time. The tide was rising and with it the day’s wash of debris. Seasiders were busy at work at their windows, just as the sun was setting and drawing Skysiders to look out at the clouds. As she saw the tide reach its peak, Layla readied herself, surveying her small slanted room, her makeshift desk and collection of sea glass. She heaved herself into the basket and pushed it out the window. It swept down the Seaside, reflecting the sun and clouds above it, and the Seasiders looked up from their nets and for the first time saw the flat blue of the sky. She stoked the flame and the balloon spiralled up and around the tower. Layla saw Skysiders peering up at her, the sea and sky together pictured in the sphere of the balloon. They marveled at the deepness and the movement of the dark waves that they now saw were below them. The balloon cleared the top of the tower, and for the first time Layla glimpsed the horizon ahead of her. And she floated away.