My legs dangle from a third-storey window. I have never sat on a window ledge before and this act seems frivolous enough without jumping to the street below. Perhaps the mere thought, the placement of my buttocks on the narrow ledge, is sufficient. Perhaps my future grandchildren will marvel at my daring, but we will all decide that tucking my feet back inside, back into the East, was for the best.
I feel the bricks scrape against my heels, wonder if I should stand on the window ledge and look at West Berlin as I propel myself forwards. This is the only way to get into the West now, my mother had said over breakfast. She told me I would go first, but I shook my head. You go first, I said. She shrugged, kissed my forehead. We’ll throw our suitcases out first, she said.
A cat sits on a window ledge across the street, eyes level with my own. He blinks slowly, licks his ginger paw. He looks left to right, flicks his tail, leaps across to the next ledge and slips inside through the open window. Cats always land on their feet, don’t they? Or so my friend, Bettina, used to say when, as children, we played with her litter of kittens. If I crane my neck, I can just about make out the roof of Bettina’s apartment building. She took my hand through the barbed wire a few days ago and said we’d see each other again. I bet she wouldn’t be able to imagine this moment, a leap from a third-storey window, if she tried.
I look down to the street below, to the faces turned up to me. A few women, clutching their shopping bags and the hands of small children. Several firemen shouting promises as they hold a net between them, but I can see the cobbles beneath. I watched my mother jump before me; her skirt puffed up like a hot air balloon, but her descent was not gentle: the net-holders’ knuckles whitened with the effort of protecting her limbs and skull from the ground. If I were to hit my head, break my back, what will this leap have been for? Isn’t it better to have a shot at life than not have one at all?
I breathe in, close my eyes. I think of my apartment, my job, my grandparents, of leaving them all behind. I think of knocking on Bettina’s door, inviting her to a dance. I think of my mother looking up at me from the West with our suitcases at her feet. I open my eyes and see her, arms waving in the manner of someone flooded with the sense of a job well done. Come on, Erika, she says. I lean backwards, wish myself to tumble into my room, onto my bed, but I don’t.
I can hear movement on the stairs. Has someone alerted the border guards? Did they need alerting or do they already know that I am sat here? People have been seeping from the buildings on this side of the street all week. They have already started boarding up doors and windows, blocking exits. I know I should let go, know if I get caught that I will be imprisoned, interrogated, but I feel as if my backside is glued to the window ledge.
I begin to think about how I was never athletic at school: never able to soar through the air, climb a rope, run as fast as the others. I was always the one the teacher harassed, tried to bully into better performances. I try to guess how many pounds heavier than my mother I am. They barely caught her; they will surely drop me. How can I pitch myself, my life, into the hands of these strangers and their net?
The ginger cat makes another appearance in the window across the street. He plants his front paws on the ledge, looks down and sniffs the air. He steps out, crouches, and jumps to the next ledge and the next one. I envy his ability to make choices, his dexterity as he leaps from ledge to ledge. I want to laugh at the absurdity of this, but then I look down at my mother once more: at her blanched face, at the scrunched-up handkerchief she holds. I can see in her face that she dreads each turn of my head, dreads not seeing me mid-air with my hair at sixes and sevens, dreads not being able to retrieve me from the net. She steps forwards, looks at the building as if I were a cat stuck in a tree and she were trying to find the best way to get to me. I stick my nose in the air, as if I were a cat stuck up a tree trying to demonstrate my independence, and shuffle forwards until I can’t feel the brickwork anymore, until my only destination is a net pulled taut across a Western road.
EMMA VENABLES’ short fiction has previously featured in The Gull, Litro Online, The Lampeter Review, Strix, The Fiction Pool, LossLit, Spelk, FlashBack Fiction, and Normal Deviation: A Weird Fiction Anthology. Her first novel will be published by Stirling Publishing in 2020.