Xiaodan had a beautiful name. It meant little dawn. But everybody called her Xi, which, when you said it, sounded like Shee, and meant rare. She didn’t feel it, though. Not at all.
Xi lived on the tenth floor of a 20 story apartment block, just like all the other apartment blocks. The sameness of it weighed her down. It was a horrible place to endure a national pandemic lockdown.
Xi would stare out her window, dreaming of other kids – on their farms, above brilliant coasts, in mountains. Life was hard in those places, but their yards were as big as horizons, they could still roam.
Mostly, Xi would watch the street below, trying to imagine what the few people walking through it were doing. Where were they going? Were they daredevils? Essential services? The lost and lonely? Rebels with a silly cause?
“Only politicians and garbage men are allowed outside,” her father grunted.
“And you, Dad,” Xi said, as her father got ready for his job at the meatworks and walked out their door.
Later, with nobody home, Xi heard the buzzer. Someone was out on the street! “Hello?” she said into the speaker.
“Hello, child,” came the crackly reply.
It was her grandmother’s voice!
“Nan! What are you doing!? You’re old, you’re at terrible risk!” Xi protested.
“I came to check on you,” Nan’s warm voice insisted. Xi could almost see her smile.
“But I’m not meant to let anyone up!” Xi stressed. “Why didn’t you call first?”
“I don’t need to come up, this is fine,” Nan’s voice said. “How are you, child?”
“Bored,” Xi confessed, slumping to the floor. “Bored, bored, bored, bored.”
“Heaven’s why?” Nan replied.
“Why?” said Xi.
“All things pass. When this is crisis is done, how may songs will you have written? How many stories? How many books will you have read? What will you have practiced, what will you have learned?”
“No school to go to, no friends to meet, no cinema… What will have you built with all this amazing, free time, child?”
Then, with a silence Xi knew was filled with another one of Nan’s smiles, her grandmother’s voice was gone. She was probably off to spread her word to more grandchildren. And to strangers, too, for all Xi knew.
Xi felt guilty, but also so alone. She wanted to connect with people. To feel earth under her feet, kick at dead leaves. She tore a piece of paper from Dad’s notebook, wrote a poem on it, shaped it into a plane, opened the window and cast it at the world.
I want to watch a bee
from just one foot away.
Head gently to grass,
while it toils the day.
So I can hear, exactly,
what its buzz might say.
Xi watched her plane sail through the air, framed by a sea of apartment blocks. No trees, no water, no waves, nothing to catch a breeze, except her poem, drifting, looking for a home.
She imagined all the dull, weird and amazing people that might find it, where it might land… On the back of a delivery truck? On a piece of wood that might drift to Africa? In to the hands of a crazy homeless man? Into the pocket of a poet? Imagine that! Him getting home, and finding a random poem in his jacket, cast by a little girl into the wind.
After that, Xi started sending poem after poem. Small ones, like;
When Dad is full, he is safe,
which, I know, means I am.
There’s a strength in his sigh.
And longer ones, such as;
When I think of all the ways I could drift –
through the air,
on a raft,
watching a kite –
the thought of sitting still, eyes closed,
listening to stories by a fire
warms me the most…
Sometimes I’m a puppet,
a thing of string and wood,
handled by the softest winds,
that make me dance just when I should…
The silence of the moon,
would be like the cupping
of an angel’s hands,
from myself and all I am.
Paper plane after paper plane, cast into the unknown.
Three weeks later, Xi was about to launch another poem out her window, when she spotted a piece of paper, spinning. Spinning, spinning, spinning, as it slowly descended.
“Dad, what’s that?” she squawked to her father.
“Wow, a paper helicopter,” he said, coming to the window.
“A what?” Xi squawked even higher.
“All the children made them when I was young. We were poor. All it took was a piece of paper, a pair of scissors and a paper clip.”
“I… Huh…? How did they work?” Xi blubbered.
She watcher her father talk. He had strong hands, strong fingers. They shifted and twisted, echoing his youth as they acted out his words.
“You get a long strip of paper, cut it longways, down the middle, until you’re almost half way, then bend the two pieces you just made into helicopter blades. The other end you don’t cut, you put a paper clip on. That’s it. The clip pulls it downward, but the other end keeps it spinning as it falls gently to earth.
“Oh…” said Xi.
“They only take a minute to make. Then, you climb a tree, spin and release,” her father said, lifting his hands like the end of a magic trick, then went back to the fridge. He had to go to work soon, and was really stuffing his face.
Xi watched the paper helicopter gently fall. It seemed to be made out of a magazine page, twirling, drifting down from above.
She was confused. Annoyed. Thrilled.
Who threw it? If her Dad was right, they might be old. What if her poems had inspired them? Did it have anything written on it? If so, what did it say?
It took ten paper helicopters passing her window over four days before Xi finally managed to capture one with her father’s butterfly net.
This was exciting!
Waiting was the worst. People told Xi the virus took up to three hours to die in open air.
Just in case it was on the paper helicopter, she placed the butterfly net on her window sill and bided her time by ringing her friends.
“Nothing on Netflix…” they complained.
“Have you seen this old television series…?”
“What about that music video…”
“My latest X-Box…”
Somehow, it just made her feel more lonely. So much so it hurt inside.
Finally, three hours passed. She flattened out the paper helicopter. It was just like her father had said; One strip of paper, the top half split down the middle to make two wings.
Down one side, the word IF was written in capitals, followed by;
IF there was a dragon on our roof
how would we know….?
The thought of it dazzled Xi! She flopped onto her bed with the flattened piece of paper. She swayed and bounced. Dragons, here… why not?
Suddenly, she didn’t feel so alone. Xi wrote her poem for the day…
I want to go outside,
and search for
the world’s smallest sound.
A breaking heart found in a pause,
maybe a butterfly’s wings
Catching the spinning notes was too hard. After a few days of trying, Xi started gathering those she could from the street. To do this she would wear gloves, run like crazy, dart back into her house and place them on her window sill. And wait… And read…
Every paper helicopter from above started with IF!
IF you and I could fly…
IF you could skim rocks better than me…
IF everybody had one wish…
Some were funny, others beautiful. They all made her think, they all made her imagine.
Xi ate dinner with her father. IF notes on the table, everywhere.
“It’s like, when I read them, this is an exciting place, Dad, full of adventure…!”
“Then, shouldn’t you release them again?” he said.
“Oh,” said Xi.
Xi knew she had only caught about half the IF helicopters, but her father was right. She folded each one up along its original creases, reattached the paper clips, and, one-by-one released them, to continue spinning on their way.
Then, as she was casting a poem of her own, the strangest thing happened. A helium balloon rose, slowly, across her window. Simple, yellow. On it, someone who lived below had written;
Is there a fox spirit near by?
Then, another balloon rose a few windows along from Xi. It read;
Where do fairies sleep in a city?
Xi followed the string down to the ground. Each balloon was tied to a light post out front when nobody was looking.
Every day, Xi’s paper plans flew out her window, joining IF notes from above. Every day balloons would be there, tied in secret, at night, waiting…
Unicorns are closer than you think.
Who else wants to meet a Cyclops?
One day I’ll hear the song of a mermaid trapped in a well…
Then, in different handwriting again, somebody else started slipping notes under people’s doors. Each note contained nothing more than lyrics to songs. Beautiful songs. The sort, indeed, a mermaid might sing if trapped in a well, that might carry up pipes into every sink. That might taint every dream.
The sort of songs that might help people in the real world.
Songs that were funny, songs that were gentle, songs that were cruel. Songs everybody could sing, songs you’d keep for yourself. Songs you might shout! Songs that made you happy, songs you might whisper, while hugging yourself in a quiet room.
“What’s this?” Dad said, scratching his head, as he found one under their door.
And he and Xi laughed and read and sang together, while listening to other muffled voices, singing other songs, up and down the hall.
Finally, once a night, somebody else started projecting short films onto the apartment block across the road. Action films, documentaries, cartoons. For a handful of seconds, or sometimes one minute, or three. Just enough to not get caught.
Everybody facing north got to see whales with tenants for eyes. Forty foot mouses running with comic book mallets across floors 3, 4 and 5. Giant kids laughing, doing Kung-Fu across building walls.
And, for those fleeting moments, feel free.
Xi was watching the projection of an eagle in flight. It glided gracefully across balconies, confused faces, windows, its wings bigger than houses, four stories tall! Oh, she just stared, for 30 long seconds, as if that moment might last forever! Xi did everything she could to stop time before the image was gone.
Xi’s father was leaving for work. She turned to the sound of his voice.
“Look daughter, isn’t this one of yours?”
Xi went to the hall. Sure enough, there one of her poems was, at her father’s feet, unfolded, slipped under the door.
The next day, she saw one of the IF notes drift past taped to a balloon. And the song lyrics turned into paper helicopters.
“Everybody’s sharing, Dad!” Xi smiled.
Suddenly, it felt to Xi like her building was magical, alive!
“Dad, there are no trees here. Not really. Could we ask the supervisor if we can start a roof garden?”
“I can’t see why not,” Dad replied.
If the building’s alive, Xi thought, it should have lungs.
The next morning Xi rushed down the stairs to catch an IF note. When she did she saw someone had spray-painted images of wheels on either side of the building. She stood back, watching the apartment block looming over her, imagining it rumbling down streets, through villages and towns, leaving poems and song lyrics and stories behind.
“It’s not fair!” she called.
The streets were so empty, her voice echoed for miles.
“What isn’t?” a voice from the third floor replied.
“One day this will end,” Xi called back.
“Then enjoy the moment,” another voice replied.
Today’s IF was beautiful.
IF we talked in whispers, would we listen more…
Xi watched the paper it was written on, wondering such things. She was in love with her building, and the faceless people that had made it come to life.
“I want to know who each one is,” she said to her father, bouncing with joy.
“Why?” he asked.
“So we can be friends!” she smiled.
“Isn’t how it is now better?” he said. “This way, any one of the people here could have magic in them. This way, every person that lives here is special.”
“I… oh. I guess…” said Xi.
“C’m’on,” her father gently scruffed her hair. “Share.”
Xi hugged her father. All these people in the city, yet until now she had always felt alone.
Eventually, the worse of the virus passed. When restrictions were eased, the first thing Xi did was run to check on her Nan. As she did she turned to look at the apartment block. Its graffiti wheels were now painted over by management, but to her they would always be there. Someone had complained about the projected movies, but to her, eagles would always be soaring. Paper IF helicopters would always be falling, balloons rising. There would always be a dragon sitting on the roof, watching over them all.
Even if everybody else returned to their everyday, the building would follow her, in her heart, wherever she roamed.
“Oh, Xi!” Nan exclaimed. “What brings you here?”
“I wanted to say thank you!” Xi smiled.
“Whatever for?” asked Nan.
“For telling me amazing things over the intercom. I did what you said, Nan, I used that time! I helped make something beautiful and alive”
“A few months ago.”
“I’m sorry, I have no idea what you’re talking about, child,” Nan insisted, a bit perturbed. “ I would never, ever leave my house with this nasty virus.”
“But…” Xi said, yet no other words came.
“Come in, and tell me all about this beautiful thing,” Nan smiled.
That night, Xi lay in bed, wondering, listening. In the silence of midnight, she could have sworn she heard a mermaid’s song rise through the plumbing. A thank you.
Or maybe it was just the wind, sounding like a building’s call…