The rooftop is quiet except for the hum of a plane passing overhead, heading to a faraway elsewhere. The sharp stench of ammonia rises from the bucket hanging from your window-cleaning belt. Running your fingers across the safety harness and clips that encircle your chest and back, you triple check all the safeguards to ensure they are all locked in place. You pull yourself over the icy metal railing and lean back. Safety ropes and the padding of your wooden bosun’s chair hold your weight. Chongqing sprawls out beneath your dangling feet and the hazy pollution. It’s a muted miniature world of glass and steel, encircled by snaking rivers that divide the city center from the satellite cities and the blue mountains beyond.
After three years of drifting down Chongqing’s skylines, this will be your last descent.
On the grime-covered window in front of you, Sparrow Li’s face appears instead of your own. She scales walls and jumps across rooftops in a single leap, with no need for a single rope. Centuries ago, she stole silver taels from wealthy lords to give to beggars, slaves, and peasants, leaving only a folded paper sparrow to claim the deed. If you were her, you wouldn’t have to worry about buying enough rice to feed yourself, and could even aid others who need it.
Sparrow disappears as you wipe the window clean with a squeegee. Your bangs have grown long and unruly again despite your attempts to tame them with rusty scissors. The black eye bags beneath your scrawny angular face are so dark they look like gothic makeup. Carefully, you make your way down, cleaning each window until you reach the outside of your boss’s office.
The boss has with his back to you. He grips a machine shaped like a hexagonal ship’s wheel. You saw an image of it recently in a trade magazine in his office: a newly-invented window cleaning drone. Unlike he said days ago, he isn’t firing you because he found cheaper labor, but because he has decided that a robot is better than you.
You bang your squeegee loudly on the window until he cracks it open.
“Stop that,” he says. “You’re going to break the glass. Is something wrong?”
“What happened to firing me to save costs? The drone costs at least twice my salary.”
He places his drone down on a table. Awkward silence slips in among you like an uninvited uncle who refuses to leave. “I’m sorry. I’m sure you’ll find another job. This work is too dangerous anyways, for a young woman like you.”
Your profession has been crumbling over the past year; children once followed their parents into the business, but no more. Cleaning windows is too dangerous, too tiresome, too much labor for too little pay. Yet for drifters like you, it’s the best option you have.
He’s a migrant too, a fellow drifter from your shared hometown of Luo Dai. In his late twenties, only a few years older than you. When he landed his manager job weeks ago, he bragged that he had just graduated with a master’s degree from Beijing University, the dream school you wrote an essay about attending in grade four. When your teacher laughed at your paper and your parents told you to find a more realistic goal, you folded the pages into a paper boat and threw it into the Yangtze River.
“Come on, please, would you reconsider? You must understand how hard it is to find a job in Chongqing. Give me another chance.”
Seven years ago, a few months before high school graduation, you dropped out, taking a bus and train and another bus to move to Chongqing. All you carried were two bags and three crumbled one hundred renminbi bills. Barely enough for a month’s rent in the cheapest shared dorm.
Before you left Luo Dai, you glanced back from the bus. Mama was coughing up blood from an illness no doctor in town could identify. Baba could barely stand and leaned against his cane. If you stayed, you would only end up like them, your days weighted down by bricks of debt, unable to find well-paid work in the countryside.
“You don’t have to go,” Baba said. “You should stay and finish school, instead of going off to work.”
“My cousins went,” you replied. “I’ll settle down in a metropolis and send money. Eventually, I’ll be able to bring you to the city with me. All will be well.”
As the bus jostled off, past rice fields drying up from drought and huts crumbling from disrepair, you met Sparrow Lee the first time. According to a battered volume of folktales, she wandered the wilderness of Middle Kingdom long ago. She had no ties to family or land, no silver or heirlooms. Her lack of anything gave her the freedom to become anybody.
In Chongqing, you met countless others like you, a thousand migrants flocking here each day from towns with names you didn’t know. Everyone calls those like you the piaozhu, drifters. Some drifters, those in the tier-one megacities of Beijing and Shanghai, have nicknames with their city names incorporated: the ones in Beijing are bei-piaozhu, the ones in Shanghai are hai-piaozhu.
But here, you are only piaozhu. You find comfort in the enormity of the word, in the anonymity that comes with belonging to a group without a place name.
Simply to drift, unattached to a city, is enough.
In the makeshift dorm room that you still share with four other drifters, your roommates have offered you pumpkin seeds to snack on, tales of long train rides with standing-room tickets, photos of younger siblings left behind. The crowded lifestyle is called yiju, ant living, because so many of you gather like ants in a hill. Although small, ants can carry ten times their weight. When the paths of ants are blocked, they always find alternate routes.
The staring contest between you and your boss is interrupted by a young woman who leans into the doorway across the room. She waves her right hand. Her left hand holds her camera, and three heavy lenses poke out of her shoulder bag like ancient brass telescopes. You grip your safety ropes tighter, leaning into the open window.
The photographer has come to take photos for her “Drifters in Chongqing” page on New Waves, a social network site where she has three hundred thousand followers. She called your boss a week ago, on the day after you had received your layoff notice, asking him for permission to trail you for photos on the final day. Initially, you cringed at the request. When the photographer shared that she was alone in the city too, without any family, you relented.
“Smile and look cheerful in front of the photographer,” your boss says. “You’ll look terrible if you’re scowling.”
You glance at your reflection in the window again and run your hands through your tangled hair. “Try not to make me look too sad.”
“Look down and away. Show all your sadness and nostalgia and vulnerability. Don’t be shy, reveal all your buried feelings so that my followers can empathize with you.”
You move mutely in response to her requests, trying to hide your frown as she tries to make you put on a performance. She peers at you through her viewfinder. She tugs your limbs like a puppet master, directing you until your body seems no longer your own. Click, click, click.
“Are you sure this will help? I’m a window cleaner, not a model. All the posing feels so unnatural.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll write a note with my photo and tag you. Maybe another drifter will see your story and help you out.”
“I’ve got to start working. You’ll get much better pictures when I’m working, up in the air.”
Before she can reply, you pull your rope once and descend to the next window. You dip your largest squeegee into soap water. Sweep it across the window, a painter priming the first layer of your canvas. Switching your squeegee for a smaller one, you swirl it atop the foaming surface. As you wipe away bubbling soap, you paint a scene of a paper boat drifting down the banks of the Yangtze River, disappearing among riverboats and steamers, sinking down until it mingled with purple freshwater jellyfish. You touch the foam with your fingertips before obliterating it with another swipe of your squeegee, leaving the glass blank, sparkling clean. The window art you paint is fragile like Sparrow’s paper sparrows.
When you peer down, thousands of apartments tower over the city streets, identical boxes differentiated by colorful laundry hanging from lines and potted plants. Windows open and doors sway, offering brief glimpses into other lives. Bunk beds and tabletop stoves crowd claustrophobic rooms. Ancient radios stand on desks, their antennas extended in search of signals. […]
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Yilin Wang is a writer, editor, and Chinese-to-English translator who lives on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations (Vancouver, Canada). Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Clarkesworld, The Malahat Review, Grain, Arc Poetry Magazine, CV2, carte blanche, The Tyee, The Toronto Star, Business Insider, and elsewhere. Yilin has been shortlisted for The University of East Anglia’s David T.K. Fellowship as well other literary awards. She is a Creative Writing MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia and an assistant editor for Room Magazine.
“Sparrow” originally appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine and was runner-up in the 2019 Editor’s Reprint Award (fiction/nonfiction).