A New Above

A short piece of fiction from Madeline Cash.

Text Madeline Cash
illustrations YWGI
Published 27 Dec 2023

A tarp was laid over downtown Manhattan. It spanned from Houston, over Chinatown and to the edge of the river, covering the bodegas, the parkway, the projects. The tarp was a thick and durable canvas. It muted the sunlight. Between the buildings the tarp drooped, so low in places that we had to duck in order to avoid colliding with it. Birds nested on the tarp. Chinese women swept it from their fire escapes.

At first we were like, why is there a tarp over downtown Manhattan? We didn’t think this had happened before, though none of us were from the area originally, so we couldn’t say for certain. Perhaps they were going to fumigate. Maybe there would be a circus.

The authorities investigated the tarp. They sent aircrafts to photograph it from above. In the photographs the tarp looked like a snow fall, a crisp bed sheet, jutting in places, settling in others. The exterior tanned in the sun. Where it plateaued, the aircrafts could land. Their pilots could exit and traverse its surface, plant flags for their respective nations. This was all above the tarp. We were below the tarp.

Those irked by the tarp left, moved uptown or upstate. The news predicted chaos. It was a gateway to more sinister tarpaulin coverings. But most of us adjusted to life beneath the tarp. It was a fresh start—tarp blanche. The kids vandalized it with spray paint to let the other kids know where they had been. The artists who could not afford canvas of their own took advantage of its blank surface. The filmmakers projected their films upon it. The religious groups proselytized the tarp. They said it was an act of God. The fiction writers said the tarp itself was a character. The poets said the tarp was an allegory. The psychologists said it was just a tarp.

The tarp caught the rain and water pooled where it basined. The still puddles bred larva which grew into mosquitos which attracted spiders, which attracted bats, which attracted hawks, and so on. There was a nascent ecosystem above the tarp. Plants crept from the stagnant water. They produced strange blossoms. The government ordered samples of the plants. The government sent the samples to the scientists and the scientists determined that the plants were nontoxic which didn’t matter much because the plants were above the tarp. We were below the tarp.

The tarp provided insulation in the winter. We saved a fortune on heating. Those who lived in tents already went about their business as usual. We all lived in a tent now. We started identifying places by the nature of the tarp, its curvature, its lulls and coloring, where it sagged and where it was taut. Meet me where the tarp bunches against the billboard or where it’s singed from the streetlamp or where its folds resemble a laughing face, in the clandestine overhang where the tarp plunges and muffles sound and dapples light, nestle in its rough inlets and disappear altogether.

The rest of the island was like, why are you being so nonchalant about the tarp? Why don’t you call a removal service? Why don’t you have it dragged away by trucks? Lifted aerially by helicopter? Drawn and quartered? Set fire to the tarp? Hack at it with butcher knives? We did not want to hack at the tarp. We were at peace, the tarp and us. Those outside it couldn’t understand. One had to be there really.

When you got back to the city, I told you to meet me at the laughing face. “Sorry,” I said. “I mean Delancy and Essex.” The tarp had changed our vernacular. “You weren’t kidding on the phone,” you said. You were somewhat taken with the tarp—we all were.  It had such charisma. One could spend hours looking up. Its complex system of wrinkles and creases. It was our Sistine Chapel.

Even still, “We’ll have to leave this place eventually,” you said. It wasn’t a forever thing. With time the tarp was changing. It yellowed in places and had started to rot. Moths made holes in the canvas and the sun shone through in concentrated pillars. Little exit wounds. The seamstresses darned it where they could reach. The dry cleaners tried to launder it with stain-fighting solvents. We lit candles for it which actually made things worse, the smoke rising to further erode the cloth. We held hands and sang songs as the tarp came apart thread by thread. It was no longer a tarp so much as a network of string casting latticed shadows over the sidewalk. The pigeons perched on the sturdier pieces like telephone wire. We could see the sky again, something that the children who were born under the tarp had never seen. A new above. They were frightened by its volatility—how it changed from blue to red to black.

There were talks of buying a new tarp from China. But we knew that it wouldn’t be the same so, as the last of it fell away, we left. “How strange,” I said. You shrugged like these things happen. And I was like, “you have to admit this was pretty unprecedented, the whole tarp thing.” And you put your arm around me and held me close and looked ahead at the sunset which we could now see in its entirety.

With special thanks to Barthelme, Zora and Madison Street.

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