Sylvia and her friend Jonathan, a young gay man, live in Vienna. They work for the same NGO: Jonathan has recently finished a placement in Brazil, while Sylvia is a street fundraiser. Both outsiders, they are happiest when hanging out at a local drag club, Heavenbound. There are two further crucial details: Jonathan, who sometimes smells of chicken, is beginning to sprout wings, and Sylvia is actually a fox in disguise.
She notices he’s walking differently. More stiffly, holding himself differently. Avoiding leaning against the backrest on the metro. And he doesn’t like stretching his arms up high. Inside her flat, he sets his kitbag down, removes his T-shirt slowly, gingerly, breathing deeply all the while. He lies down on his stomach, letting Sylvia sit beside him on the bed and scrutinise his back, but when she attacks him there, he flinches.
‘Bit less pressure?’ she asks.
He nods, his face in the pillow.
So she strokes as lightly as possible over his skin. First he twitches again, then relaxes under her touch.
It doesn’t look so very different. Only because she knows his back so well can she spot the two bumps between spine and shoulder blades. The patches are still hot. Still seething. She bends over him, sniffing. Chicken.
‘Have you always been human?’ she asks. ‘You can tell me.’
‘Yeah, always have,’ he says, then: ‘Unfortunately.’
No need to regret it, Sylvia thinks. I don’t really think you’d have wanted my life. Or that you’d have survived. Least of all factory farming.
When she turns to him in bed on wakening, he’s still quite heavy, motionless, even when she fondles him; she leaves the patches beside his shoulder blades alone. They’re so hot.
His ear is exposed, and she thinks what she always thinks on spotting ears that she might actually be allowed to grasp, like now. If she were permitted to remove his ear, she thinks, she’d like to pull the ironing board out from between the wardrobe and the wall and set it up. She’d just have to shove the rest of the clobber aside with her foot. But it would be good to set up the ironing board, with its tight-fitting, unwrinkled cloth cover, crimped underneath where the elastic draws it together. The cover that crackles when you run your fingers over its smooth surface. Then put the ear on the board and plug the iron in. She’d fill the iron up properly, let the water heat up till steam came out. And then she’d manoeuvre the iron into all the folds and curves of his ear, until that too was pressed quite flat, ironed smooth.
One of the perks of her new life – making things flat and smooth, hot and steamy.
She’s not allowed to.
She’s not allowed to do so many things she’d like to do with him, so by way of compensation he sometimes lets her put her arms around him at night. Like now – and it’s good to have him back. She’s been without his smell or the touch of his little ears for so many months, but now his weight is beside her in bed again and she wants to press against it, as always. Jonathan with his human body that’s been a human body forever, moving with a sureness she still doesn’t quite comprehend.
But now he’s grown more rigid.
She runs her finger along the curve of his ear, into the hollow within, along the inside. Grime gathers here, so, making use of her thumb because she has one now, she bends the curved part upwards. At that he breathes out, long and deeply, curls up against her, then flinches as his upper back brushes against her.
Cat bounds onto the bed, stepping between and over Sylvia’s legs.
That, too, is something Sylvia barely understands – that she, of all people, has a cat. She bends Jonathan’s ear up, bends it up till she’s almost got a flat surface, but as soon as she lets go it flips back into its accustomed shape. And she likes feeling the cat’s ears too: again and again she runs her fingers over the delicate point right at the tip, squeezing it between her fingers, with a purr as the only response. Just a purr when she runs her fingers under the ear cartilage, moving the ear back and forth, folding the cat’s ears over, though Cat isn’t too fond of that. Sylvia wasn’t too fond of it either in the past. But Cat purrs rather than running away from Sylvia in accordance with her instinct, which must surely be able to scent who’s hiding beneath the false skin. Cat has decided to believe the lie in return for food, fondling fingers, warmth.
And Sylvia gives her these things: food, fondling fingers, warmth.
Why, come to think of it?
She hears Cat purring, and as she shoves her off the bed with her leg there’s a dull thud.
Not just now when he’s pressing against her, when she’s giving his ear a little upward tug,
opening up its folds, scratching him in a place where he always itches. But she knows that if she persists for too long it’ll hurt. Where’s the limit?
In the cat’s case, the limit is where Sylvia would snap her tail if she continued. Because the very tip of her tail is slightly crooked, the last vertebra, and can’t be straightened without breaking it. Each time it’s a temptation. Straightening things. The tail would probably just grow back even more crooked anyway.
My cat – because I feed her. And how about you, Jonathan?
Mostly you feed me.
She edges nearer till she’s quite close to his ear, runs her tongue over it cautiously. He grunts, brushing his ear with his fingers as if trying to shoo an insect off. She waits until his hand is lying still on the linen sheet again, then she bites. She likes the way he cries out, suddenly awake – then the pillow lands in her face. She giggles, even when he rolls onto her, his eyes still wide with sleep.
Waits till he recognises her.
‘You might have known that was coming,’ Sylvia says.
He gives her a look.
‘Go and make some coffee,’ he says.
Cat winds in and out of Sylvia’s legs. With the window onto the inside courtyard open, she sniffs the air, but today you can’t really smell the dustbins, it’s the wrong weather. Stretching, she takes the coffee down from the bookshelf: the espresso percolator is on the stove, still half full from yesterday. So she empties it, unscrews it and knocks the powder out, as Jonathan wants fresh coffee; she shoves the empty crisp packet on the stove into the sink. Jonathan is moving around on the bed behind her; she hears the duvet being shifted here and there. Cat miaows. Sylvia fills one of the jars in the sink with water, sets it out for her, finds some fruit yogurt left in the fridge, tears it open, and puts it next to the water. The two mugs are on the coffee table beside the bed: Jonathan wants them washed, and she must have some washing-up liquid left, she just doesn’t know where.
‘You shouldn’t give your cat fruit yogurt so often,’ Jonathan’s saying now. She turns towards him: he’s raised himself to a sitting position, legs wide apart and feet on the floor, watching Cat, who’s already knocked over the fruit yogurt and is licking it up swiftly and meticulously as it oozes out over the parquet. ‘All that sugar isn’t good for her.’
‘Never did me any harm.’ And now the coffee’s on the boil too.
‘You’re not a cat. Never have been.’
Shrugging, Sylvia pours the coffee into the mugs. She’s never grasped why she’s supposed to keep tabs on what Cat feels like eating.
‘No milk left?’ he asks when she hands him the mug. Shaking her head, she sits beside him on the bed, pushes the sugar bowl over to him, takes a few gulps, lays her head first on his shoulder, then pushes his arm aside and lays her head in his lap.
He ruffles her hair.
‘You might be a bit less unkempt,’ he says.
Then he bends forward, his stomach presses down on her briefly, and she sighs, stretching. He reaches for the ashtray on the coffee table. She pinched it last night from Heavenbound, and now he’s turning it in his fingers.
‘Don’t you have enough of those already?’ he asks. ‘It’s not even very attractive, and anyway, it’s dirty.’
But Jonathan’s never understood why she steals what she steals. She can’t explain it either. It’s just that some things jump out at her. They have a nice feel to them, they glitter, or they’re covered in dirty ash that forms patterns.
Humans produce so many things she wants to have.
He puts the ashtray back.
‘I’ll be off this afternoon, don’t worry,’ he says, pulling out his mobile. ‘I just need to arrange my next sofa. I’m looking for flats too, it’s just that … well, it’s not that easy right now.’
‘Or you could stay here,’ says Sylvia.
‘Longer – as long as you want.’
Jonathan looks around the room. ‘You’ve only got this one room. There’s not enough space for two of us and a cat.’
Sylvia looks around the room too, to see what he means.
‘No,’ she answers simply.
Everyone always thinks her flat’s too small. But what more does she need? Ground floor: she can escape through the window any time. Dustbins in the inner courtyard: reassuring when she’s in bed at night. Even though she can control that urge now, it’s good to have them there as a food reserve for emergencies. It gives her security.
But Jonathan’s trying to catch her eye, frowning, she doesn’t know why: then it dawns on her what he might have on his mind.
‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to have sex with you any more,’ she says. ‘And definitely not when you’re asleep. I won’t ask any more either. I promise.’
He makes a noise something like a laugh, then shakes his head.
‘What? Have I said something wrong?’
He’d been so furious with her that time. His whole body had trembled with anger.
‘No, no,’ he says, turning his smartphone over in his hand. ‘Okay, great, till I find something else. Thank you.’
‘That’s all right.’
‘No, really, thank you. You’ve no idea what a grind it is to go off somewhere different to sleep each day, to try and avoid disturbing a different set of people every day, to beg for a place to stay each day, without knowing who’s going to take you in this time.’
‘I do, actually,’ she says.
She’d lived like that for months at the beginning. She’d just approached people; it was mostly men that took her home. She’d soon grasped what condoms were for. She’d soon learned how essential it is to have a smartphone, and where you can get free WiFi or charge your battery. Learned to survive, to adapt. So it goes.
Now she has her lair. On the ground floor, with dustbins in the yard. With a door that locks.
‘Yeah,’ he says, his shoulders rising. ‘Sorry.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Will you come for a walk now?’
Jonathan’s footsteps are heavy on the asphalt, and he lies down again as soon as they get back. He stays in bed when she sets off to work the next day, and he’s still lying there when she comes home. He eats whatever she puts out for him, even if it’s only cold crème fraîche and boiled eggs.
‘Talk to me!’ she says on Thursday. He’s been almost silent for a week, and it hasn’t been an easy week for her. She’s hardly managed to persuade anyone to make a donation, and then two drunks started fighting in front of the museum district when there happened to be a squad car nearby. She can’t afford to be picked up by the police, even if only by mistake. Her lie is thin, and it’s easy to rip open the skin under her false sleeves.
‘Come on down to Heavenbound, or talk to me!’
She nudges his arm.
‘What am I supposed to talk to you about?’
‘I don’t know, what’s up with your tumour?’
‘What do you want me to say? I’ve got an appointment sometime for a CT scan or a biopsy or something. I’ve forgotten what they’re going to do.’
‘Brazil then, tell me about Brazil. What’s Feo doing?’
‘Feo?’ asks Jonathan, pulling his arms in close to his sides. ‘What makes you think of him now?’
‘Wasn’t it because of him you went there?’
He pulls his legs in. ‘No. Maybe. I’ve been wondering how she’s doing.’
‘He. I meant him.’
‘Then why didn’t you say so?’
He shakes his head, but it doesn’t work too well, as he’s on his side. He pulls a face.
‘It’s complicated, he’s trans.’
‘So …’ He curls up even more. ‘So nothing, it’s just that it made everything so confusing in Altamira. At first I got what was going on, in Rio I mean, and then, in Altamira, it was all so weird, so wrong, and I’ve been in a muddle ever since. That’s all. It’s not complicated really, it’s just that I’m … well, I’m totally useless. I just can’t manage to do anything right.’
Jonathan cries. That’s another of the perks of being human. Being able to cry. It’s just she never knows how to react. It remains alien to her, and she’s never brought it off herself.
‘Stop that and come out dancing with me,’ she says.
Jonathan shakes his head against the mattress.
‘Dancing’s good for you, it helps you forget everything.’
‘It hurts everywhere, Sylvia. I don’t even want to get up.’
‘I think Adin’s going to be there today.’
She can usually tempt Jonathan with Adin, Adin with his blue plastic wings and his neat bum. She likes watching him move too. He’s got the knack. The wings make him look as if he could fly away at any moment. Not that he’d get far in Heavenbound. The ceiling’s too low.
And Jonathan thinks it over, doesn’t answer immediately. Nods then, just once. Lets her pull him to his feet, pulls on the T-shirt she pinched for him because it’s covered in sequins – something stirs deep inside her when she shifts them back and forth, altering the pattern of colours. He goes along with her when she takes his hand.
But then Jonathan scarcely looks at Adin for more than a moment. Soon he sits down and she goes off to the dancefloor. Later she sees Ronaldo sitting with him, talking to him.
‘You can’t say anything this evening, Ronaldo’s made an effort this time,’ Sylvia yells to Adin over the top of the music; she knows Adin has a list of rules for how a drag queen should look and that Ronaldo has obeyed them all tonight – makeup, eyelashes, wig, no stubble, stomach held in, falsies, nails, shaved legs, what else was there?
Adin glances at the bar, then grins at her. ‘Not half bad,’ he says, giving her a wink.
‘You’ve got to let him know!’ yells Sylvia.
‘I thought I wasn’t supposed to!’ Adin yells back, laughing.
Excerpted from Elisabeth Klar, Himmelwärts © 2020 Residenz Verlag GmbH, Salzburg – Wien