The advert was in the exact centre of the daily display adjacent to Hawthorne Street. “Applications open for Citizen of the Year”. There was encode to scan for the details, and a picture of a tawny-haired man with an auburn tail, balanced on a narrow bridge. He had one leg outstretched and one hand reaching towards the screen. Kalpana wanted to reach back, but was rushed away in the work-fixated crowd. She cradled her tail-covering close to her body.
The prize this year was 100,000 transfers, more than enough for her mother to have a living space with a garden. The doctors wanted her to have more time with the green, the journey to the unit park exhausted her, the trees that lined every street were insufficient. Their allocation, their two bedroom cabin, was based on their family careers at the time of the greening, which tended to the inside. When her mother craved more oxygen, they’d improvised with hanging baskets and walks to the Chronicle. Kalpana had always preferred it there to trying to keep up with the other unit children.
Kalpana approached the Brunswick Street bridge. The bamboo sliver stretched in front of her, gently swaying, the engineering building on the other side. The subterrain underneath was shadowy and unlit. The smell of viengar inadequately masked the stench of urine. When the rivers dried, the people had decided to keep them, and build along and with them. There were always new plans, to bring the rivers back or repurpose their murky tracks. Meanwhile, she helped build the connections on the bridges above but she couldn’t use them. She studied the view around. No-one from the service was nearby. She adjusted her tail-covering, exhaled slowly and started on her customary long, circuitous walk that bypassed the bridge.
When she finally arrived, the others in her section had finished their morning tea. They had opened the windows and a breeze was rustling the cotton-draped recycled stone walls. Jose segmented a ruby grapefruit, eyes on his tablet. Simone was adjusting the section display to list their daily tasks by timing, rather than alphabectial order. They all agreed they prioritised more effectively that way. Her umber hair and tail had matching avocado-green ribbons.
“It’s still warm, it’s peach today. Wanna grapefruit from the south-west quadrent of my garden?”
Jose inherited his living space from his grand-parents, the revered acrobats. They had used the trapeze well. He’d inherited their strong shoulders, smooth gait, copper-coloured tail. He trained from a young age and had the balance but not the range of movements necessary to continue the tradition. He had found his own way to contibute. If he entered, his routine for the competition would be watchable.
Jose brought over the grapefruit segments. He cleared his throat. He was going to ask her to go to the climbing wall in Ash Square park again.
“I’m sorry I’m late. I was watching the downtown display, adjacent to Hawthorne Street and the Brusnwick Catalogue. What do you think about this year’s prize?”, she said hurriedly.
Simone tip-toed back to her desk, tail at vertical. She lengthened her spine and rolled her shoulders.
“Sorry, boarding was outside but brutal yesterday. I’m bruised all over. I’m thinking that’s a lot of transfers, they not getting the numbers?”
“Think its about people finding the inventions difficult. What else do we need?” Jose walked back to his station. “The routines got positional though. Remember that guy with the unicycle and the knives?”
The balance round had taken over the whole competition. People barely mentioned the presentation or the inventions. In the beginning, it was about improving yourself, making a difference. The man on the unicyle had tottered on a catwalk, amber tail almost horizontal. He’d been judged third most useful, and now presented the wind-surfing bulletins.
Kalpana shifted in her jute chair. The movement tugged at her tail-covering and the chair-fibre pulled the fastening on her back. She put a segment of grapefruit in her mouth and covertly anchored the cotton tube with her other hand. Simone unfailingly tended the plants in the section, helped her grandfather walk to the park. Jose brought in fruit from his garden every day. But they had innate balance and impeccable family histories. She didn’t know anyone else like her, they might know requirements and regulations she couldn’t access.
“This is really good, Jose. Thanks.” The citrus sting puckered her nose. “I was thinking of applying.”
Jose’s mouth pursed up, but Simone spread her arms wide. She was usually less obvious than Jose about wanting Kalpana to be more outside.
“Anything that gets you out of the Brunswick Street catalogue. We worry you’re going to move in.”
” Mum likes those old encodes, the dance and the gymnastics. We watch them together now she can’t outside so much, and she tells me about the inside. You remember her grandmother was a dancer?”
“You remember, the more outside, the better. You can dance more freely in the Ash Square park.”
There was always someone dancing in the park, rhythmically nimble. There was always someone romping on the high walkways and narrow bridges, carefree and assured. Before her tail stopped growing, Kalpana had relished climbing the tallest trees, faster than Jose. Then the stump withered and she’d cowered inside, until her mother took cotton and flax and covered her shame.
She shufffled through the rest of the day, sketching without inspiration and tidying filling cabinets. She waited until the others had left so she could circumvent the bridge. Mother was waiting, but her restlesness needed the soothing of the Catalogue. Ling was leaving as Kalpana pushed the button to enter, and smiled in greeting. She watched encodes of rivers and mountains with her grandmother and great-grandfather, as they passed down their secrets from decades of mapping unusual geology. Ivan was in his place in the far corner, picking up encodes from tidy stacks and inspecting them. The unit legend was that he’d been a champion skier until he had damaged his tail, but from surreptitious study it seemed unblemished. Kalpana drifted through the racks. Individual encode were anondyne and synthetic but collectively exuded hints of rain clouds and silk. She spotted an encode with a cracked cover that had slipped behind a rack. It was labelled ‘Championship’. She scanned it out, slipped it in her jute bag.
When she got back to their living space, her mother was asleep. She unfastened the cotton tube, placed it diagonally in the small cupboard beside the kitchen door, then undid her long black plait. She rubbed at the hard skin acoss her lower back, toughened by adhesive, and massaged her aching muscles. She linked the new encode to her tablet. The screen wavered and crackled, then a stocky, dark, unbalanced girl moved across a rubber mat. It was inside, light was filtered through square windows into stars on the floor. Music played, a thumping, steady beat. The girl held a length of ribbon, it flickered above her head and in front as she leapt and twirled. Always moving straight ahead. She was fearless.
Kalpana’s eyes hurt from focusing. She didn’t know there were ways of moving if you were unbalanced that were as graceful as climbing or trapeze. Mother coughed in her sleep. She took the tablet into her room, pushed back the chair and bed to make a space. The dark-skinned girl balanced on a thin oak beam. She was turning somersaults, her arms above her head, her tail-less bottom tucked in and her smile radiant. Kalpana raised her arms, straightened her back. The pull in her muscles eased. She stretched out her left leg, tried to twirl. Her top half wouldn’t stay steady and she lurched forward. She rested one hand on her rattan chair and started again.
Mother was often asleep now when she came back from service. She had re-issued the encode four times. No-one else seemed to want it. Jose had also entered the competition, and offered to help with her routine. He was going to climb a bamboo ladder using only his left hand and leg. He was making the ladder himself, as his invention. Most people were climbing trees from a young age and ladders were becoming inside, but there were a few places trees didn’t grow. Something light-weight might be useful. She’d changed the subject when he asked about her application, and he hadn’t pressed for details.
Kalpana was trying lunges when her mother walked in. Ashanti was tall, fragile-looking, her sandy tail was wound clockwise around her right wrist. She liked to tame it as she had kept out some of her grandmother’s small silver ornaments. Most people didn’t decorate inside, so needn’t fear the damage an unrestrained tail might cause. Kalpana composed herself, but her mother’s eyes were sharp. She’d been the best astronomer in the Brunswick Street unit. Her spatial awareness would have been more revered in the past, before the greening.
“You’re trying something new? You’ve not shown me any encode for a while. Is the catalogue closed.”
“I’m sorry, I entered the competition, I’m working on a routine. I wanted to surpise you.”
“Without your tail-covering? They won’t let you in, how will you balance?”
“I’ve found something, there are people like me. I think I can make my own balance. But I can’t do it yet, I keep falling down.”
Ashanti felt for the edge of the slatted pine bed and drooped onto the soft cotton mattress. She hunched her shoulders, smoothed the downy hairs of her tail, eyes on her fingers.
“Kalpana, I’m sorry. I don’t think there is anyone like you. We looked into the families when your… it happened.” She started to wind the tail-hairs around her fingers, tugging until white lines appeared on her beige skin. “Your father went to the mountains to ask his cousins. No-one knew what we were talking about. That’s why we went so often to the Catalogue after your father died, I thought there would be an encode to explain. To tell us what to do.”
“But that’s what I’ve found. There were others once, there must be still. And she’s unbalanced in public.”
She turned on her tablet. The dark-skinned girl leapt across the screen, chest out, arms wide. She didn’t fall. She was unafraid. Ashanti narrowed her eyes, as if she was calculating the angles, tracking the whirlwind on its complex path. The way she looked when she built Kalpana’s chair, or re-wrapped her tail-coverings.
“She’s strong. From her legs, from her core. You should try squats, and lift weights for your arms. How do you feel about press-ups?”
Kalpana replayed the leap. She studied the way the girl kicked out her legs, arched her back, and then landed on one foot.
“I can make your costume too. Give me something useful to do while I’m inside so much. Do you remember how we used to watch the stars?”
As they clasped hands, Kalpana felt her mother tremble. But now she knew what she must do.
On the day of the competition. Kalpana walked to the Ash Square park by herself. If this went badly, Mother couldn’t cope without the support of the unit. She carried her equipment in her jute bag. She waited in line with the other applicants, forty or so, double the people from last year. She couldn’t see Jose, watched Simone walk in through the audience door as she waited to have her name ticked off and her bag checked. Several cubicles were still free as she changed into her costume and gathered up her invention.
They took people by unit, she was fifth in batch three. Batch one had completed, were sitting on the pine audience benches set up especially around the arena. It was used for boarding, and they had kept the pipes and the rattan matting. Kalpana tried to watch the applicants in batch two as they explained their ideas or devices, but could only focus on the routines. The catwalks and the beams, the hand-springs and the upswings, all landing on their feet, tails raised.
Batch three began, she watched the unit children she had grown up with show what they could do. Ling’s presenation was about perserverance, the effect of water on stone. Her routine flowed like silk. Jose was strong and balanced on the ladder. He talked about the amount of trees, the benefits of bamboo, and climbing in the Ash Square park.
They finally called her name. Her own breathing was louder than the murmurs of the crowd. A man on a front bench crunched an apple. Simone was waving, maybe shouting something. Kalpana attained the centre of the arena, put her equipment down beside her left foot. She straightened her back. She smoothed her cyan costume, embroidered with tiny galaxies and nebulae.
Kalpana reached behind with her right hand and removed her cotton covered, flax stuffed tail-covering. She held her hand-made bamboo pole in her left. Her shoulders relaxed, her neck elongated. The man had dropped his apple, it was rolling under a bench, she couldn’t see Simone. Her voice was heavy over the silent crowd.
“This is my presentation and my invention. I am unbalanced. There are others like me I hope, but I think we hide. It’s not lying, I wanted to be the same, to be useful. But I am useful as I am. I help build your connections, but they are not made for me. My gravity is diffferent. I have made this support, so my arms can be my balance. I will show you how I cannot climb as fast as you all, or over the narrow spaces, but I can still move well.”
She stretched out her arms. She leapt and twirled, piroutted and span. She kept her chest out and her shoulders down, landed on her feet. There were rhythmic clappings and stampings surrounding her, but she was whirling to the steady beat from the encode. She’d memorised it, a thump-thump, thump-thump she moved to always. She finished with one last revolution, and raised her arms to be horizontal to her sides. The three judges hadn’t moved, didn’t clap. As she trudged back to the changing rooms, she replayed their frozen faces. They hadn’t moved a muscle after she had revealed herself to be tail-less.
She changed her clothes and re-packed her bag, then she sat in a corner, rubbed her chest. Thump-thump, thump-thump. She’d declared she was not the only one, but there might not be anyone else like her in the world. Ragged cheering forced her back to the side of the arena, where the judges were announcing the scores. Kalpana pressed her right hand under her diaphragm, to make sure she continued to breathe.
Her presentation gained full marks, and the lady announcer suggested any other unbalanced could make themselves known. No-one came forward, but some of the crowd nodded, a few whispered. Most looked away. Perhaps in avoidance, perhaps thinking of someone at home who was different. Kalpana’s cheeks glowed with the hope that she might have helped someone who was afraid.
Her invention was fifteeenth, interesting and decorative but not useful. The lady talked about bridges and subterrain, and how they were important to the landscape, and supports would give a different message. Boarders might use them to develop new tricks, but that had not been the inventor’s suggestion. Kalpana would have to score higher than anyone had before in the routine to win.
They always paused before they proclaimed those scores. She sank down to the floor, the strain she had put on her legs and back communicating itself. They read down the list alphabetically. Jose was fifth, tenth overall. His presentation had been unfocused. He would have tickets to the climbing or surfing. Ling was third overall. She won 1000 transfers, and a weekend in the mountains. Kalpana pressed harder on her chest, the thump-thump pushing at her fingers, replaying in her ears. They had gone past her name, she did not have a score. They announced there were two disqualifications for use or misue of balance against the rules. She had never seen any rules about moving without a tail.
As she left the arena, Simone and Jose waved at her. She patted the air by her thigh in response, unable to raise her arms higher. The judges were enclosing a short girl with a beige fluffy tail. She had triple-flipped onto a piece of cork. The winner would be on all the displays.
Jose put out his hand, “Wait. You can’t just go home now.”
Kalpana didn’t want to raise her head. Her stomach was roiling, her shoulders were stiff, her toes were inflamed. But she would have to find the words to tell her mother, this couldn’t be worse.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. I…I never knew what to say. “
“No, I get it. We can’t even begin to think about what you go through every day,” Simone said softly.
Kalpana watched Jose try to smile. “At least I know why you wouldn’t climb with me any more.” She winced at the implicit accusation.” I mean, I don’t know what I mean. But I have four tickets for the surfing, you gonna come with us?”
It was an overature, one she shouldn’t ignore. She’d worked too long though to let her dreams go easily.
“Can I let you know? I’d like to spend some time inside. For a little while.”
She felt their eyes on her as she drifted away. Kalpana meandered home, weighted by the bag. She found herself at the Brunswick Street bridge. There was no-one else nearby. The bamboo pole was sticking out of the jute. She reached behind, but she hadn’t replaced her tail-covering. She felt the thump-thump, thump-thump under her skin. She lifted her arms in front, grasping the bamboo, and raised her right foot.
ANITA GOVEAS is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Pocket Change, the Cabinet of Heed, Riggwelter Press, former cactus mag , Litro and Willow Lit. She tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer