When Cars Grew Taller
by Kallirroe Agelopoulou
part 1 of 2
At the thirty-third mile of the highway somewhere outside Trikala stood another toll station. Four cubes with mobile indoor heating, i.e. portable heaters for the winter and windows for the summer. Each small interior covered with daily programs, scattered family photos and advertising posters of movie stars and athletes.
But not my booth. Facing me, wherever I looked, empty walls. I didn’t have anyone or anything to remember. And yes — this was my booth. I had the most seniority on the job, I wouldn’t leave my perfect little room, at the left corner as you came in from Athens, to anyone else.
Everybody knew — and if they didn’t, they soon found out — that the left lane had less traffic. Drivers ran to pass through the right side, thinking they miraculously earned more space just because their eyes could wander far off to the fields and the animals grazing in the fields. Anything that brought them closer to the opposite lane, even with a two-storey concrete slab in between, caused fear of collision. It was statistically proven.
What didn’t need any statistical confirmation that another thing scaring every driver passing by this spot every day — what made my work comfortable — was the “tree.” Five years ago, it had appeared in a field on the opposite side of the road. On my side.
Despite the efforts of ecological organizations to find the responsible parties and have them demolish the structure, the tree remained at the same location while planes diverted their routes to avoid it and countless birds nested in its heights.
The government had considered it a bigger risk to try to demolish the abomination than merely to put barbed wire around it, as high as the cranes could possibly spread it. But what was it exactly? If anyone asked the locals, they’d just say that some idiot collected thousands and thousands of bits of scrap metal and various recycled junk and then abandoned them here; left them reaching thousands of feet above the ground, a horizontal merging of useless things. It was bizarre, they’d say, but it happened; people sometimes had shit for brains.
I couldn’t argue with that. But the tree was not a human construct. I knew, because I was there when it was born. I was there when that woman stopped her car, when she descended on the opposite side of the road to feed some stray, bony remnant of a dog that caught her eye. After she had closed the door behind her, just as she crouched down to caress mangled fur, there was a sound. It finally found the last piece of a puzzle, the answer to some weird riddle recorded only in its memory.
The car began to extend. How many things make up a machine? No matter how many, it still wouldn’t explain this kind of expansion. Huge exhaust pipes, unfolding, intertwining with wipers on top of windscreens, suspensions sustaining steering wheels, holding entire interiors and then more and more, even more pieces. Lights popping up to stand here and there like huge, yellow flowers in a mechanical garden.
The whole of it slowly rose, finding something more to propel it, to make it reach just a little bit further. For a moment, near the end, only the wheels were left keeping the thing on the ground — so that it wouldn’t fly, it wouldn’t take off like the slowest rocket anyone could ever imagine. Only for a moment, and then the space between them bloomed, backed up, filled with metal and plastic, pieces of brown suede seats... That’s it, the thing was complete.
The woman stayed silent, observing the unbelievable piling up while the dog in her lap trembled and whined pitifully. After the process ended, only then did she start looking around to find some other witness to the miracle.
And she spotted me, my eyes wide, drool running unashamedly from my slack-jawed mouth. Before I had the chance to close it and say something, she was already running back to where she had come from, dog at her heels. I could have followed her, but at that moment the only other employee in the tollbooths returned. Wipes in hand, he stood staring at the abomination that had appeared in the duration of a single crap.
“What the hell, how many bulldozers brought all this here?”
I replied without realizing it, my eyes inescapably drawn to those incredible metallic heights. “It was just a Seat Ibiza.”
The look he threw me was enough for me to keep my mouth shut. As always, I didn’t want any trouble, only my peace and quiet. I decided then and there, if the woman didn’t reappear, asking for witnesses to help her deal with the insurance company, I wouldn’t tell anyone a thing about the incident.
And seriously, what insurance company would ever pay for such a loss? I didn’t expect to see her again, but some time after I did see her. She was driving by on that same road. In an open convertible, for obvious reasons, despite the bitter winter cold. It was her, I’m sure.
Her eyes emphatically avoided the thing at the edge of the road, turning to look at me only for a moment before the car sped up and she disappeared over the horizon — her fluffy companion sticking out from the seat next to her.
And then only the tree remained, shading me in summer, stopping the rain in winter, driving the drivers far away from my cubicle. A million bird chirps to keep me company.
Until the moment when something other than bird poop fell from the sky.
* * *
Some time before noon, I was gazing at a cloud traveling behind the thing when I saw them. They descended gently, resting on the air with grace, becoming increasingly larger, until they touched the road like some magical carpet shimmering blindingly against the sun. I ran and picked them up before the cars had a chance to mess them up. Soon, everyone came to see.
“It’s bird feathers.”
“Probably. A pelican or something like it. Some huge pelican. Who knows what else exists, what else has been giving birth and growing up there all those years?”
“A bear could fall on our heads!”
“It’s not funny. Anything roaming up there is a potential brick on our heads. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday soon. We should ask the company to send somebody to look.”
“Yeah, right. You seriously expect them to pay for climbers?”
They continued to argue, but I refused to listen to them anymore. I just held the find in my hands, I felt its thick warmth. I didn’t want to say out loud what it reminded me of. Like a stuck record, an image repeated inside my head, over and over again.
A figure, that little porcelain thingy over the television set. My mother’s little winged angel. That’s how I imagined those fake wings to be in reality — that soft, that big. Big enough for someone to lie on them, to rest in peace.
Heh. I’d never been religious, not until then. It’d be kinda weird if this... thing I had found was all it took to change my mind. I abandoned the softness on a chair and didn’t look at it again until the end of the shift.
When I was back home and all alone, I slept on them.
Everyone had forgotten the incident by the next day. But I couldn’t take my eyes off the tree. I noticed everything, the ultralight movements agitating the crazy architecture at every stop, every height. There was life everywhere, it was hard to guess where the feathers had come from.
But my gaze kept escaping to the stratospheric heights of the peak. As impossible as it seemed, even though I knew that nothing could live so high up, I was sure. That was where they had come from.
At each break, I jumped the barbed wire, I approached the tree, I looked at it, touched it. I’d never climbed anything, but something inside me was convinced. I could climb this. Whatever it was that made up the thing’s trunk, the car parts, these countless metallic tentacles, it was strange, but they didn’t rust, they didn’t rot, they didn’t look like junk.
I could make out steps at every single part of the oddity, they seemed like stairs leading upward. I looked up to where the tip seemed to pierce the sky. I’d never thought of it before but yes, the whole structure resembled a giant staircase, each piece a giant step or a giant’s step to the top. Wherever that was.
I could climb it. And I would.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Kallirroe Agelopoulou