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. They scale walls and jump across rooftops in a single leap, with no need for a single rope. Centuries ago, they 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 them, 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 Li for the first time. According to a battered volume of folktales, they wandered the wilderness of Middle Kingdom long ago. They had no ties to family or land, no silver or heirlooms. Their lack of anything gave them 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.
Beneath you, on the ground, ant people scurry past one another without stopping. They intersect and diverge with surprising speed. You long to drop your rope all the way down and stop in front of each, ask where they’re from and where they’re going. No one has time to glance up at you, except for the photographer standing at the foot of the skyscraper, her telephoto lens raised in your direction.
When you first arrived in the city, you spent days job hunting without a single offer letter. All you needed was one guanxi, one connection, so you knocked on doors: the aunty who had also moved here from Luo Dai, the older alumnus-brother who attended your high school, the sworn sister of your cousin who drifted to Chongqing a year before you did. None of those doors led anywhere.
“If you find it too difficult in Chongqing, you can come home,” Mama said in a phone call. “I know how hard it is to build a life over there. Perhaps we’re just meant to lead difficult lives.” She always read your mood even when you didn’t tell her.
“I can’t give up,” you replied. “Not after coming all this way.”
Restaurant owners turned you down by saying you weren’t slim enough to be a waitress. Construction sites answered they only wanted muscular men able to lift fifty kilograms up a flight of stairs. Retail stores demanded you produce a high school diploma. You landed a temporary job as a dishwasher in a cafe, only to be laid off a month later without your final wages.
Eventually, after more weeks of temporary work, a guanxi called you with news. He knew a company that wanted to hire a permanent window cleaner. They struggled to find someone because they needed an employee who didn’t fear heights and was willing to risk their life for a paycheck.
You said you’d love it.
On your trial day, you bent over the edge of the skyscraper’s rooftop, stomach churning, knees trembling. Staring at the steep drop and the ant people below, your head spun with vertigo. Even Sparrow had to work to make a living in rougher days; besides robbing lords of silver, they worked as a mercenary, wielding a sword in exchange for copper coins and a bed in an inn. With them by your side, you grasped the ropes with the tightness of a rock climber and began your first descent.
The company hired you at the end of that day. To say thank you to your guanxi, you spent half of your first paycheck on the best baijou you could afford. Sweet savory rice wine, the kind recipients kept on a living room mantle for years, your ties of gratitude passed from one generation to the next.
Near the exit of the skyscraper, your hands cling to your harness and tool belt before handing them over to your boss. Now you’ll have to trade drifting down a skyscraper for another type of drifting, the same old days of job searching in Chongqing.
The boss puts a hand on your shoulder. “I’m very sorry. You should consider another line of work, an industry where automation isn’t so common. Good luck.”
“If the company can do this to me, they can do it to you.”
He turns away and walks for the elevator up to his office.
You head for the exit, the photographer dogging your footsteps. “Please let me take a few last photos of you.”
“Robots can take photos too. Drones can fly beyond your reach to take aerial images.”
“They can’t make art.”
“Japan invented a robot that wrote a novel,” you reply. “It won second place in a novel writing competition.”
Her hands shake, and she nearly drops her camera. “That’s not the same. Robots might be able to win chess competitions, but they can’t fully capture the depths of human emotions.”
She thinks back to the scenes of the Yangtze River that she always paints as she works. The vanishing boats and jellyfish, artwork for herself alone. “The window art I painted with my squeegee only can stay only a few seconds, before I have to wipe them away.”
The photographer shows you the photos taken today. You recognize the way you grin and frown, your limp figure dangling from ropes, a tiny ant lost among high-rises. In the folktales, Sparrow simply vanished in their final days, and no one knows their fate. Yet the photographer has managed to capture a trace of Sparrow in the photos. Perhaps, the two of you are one and the same, divided only by the gap of different lifetimes.
“Email me a link to the photos when you post them up,” you say, with newfound eagerness.
When you glance up at the windows of the skyscraper, you see the drone, a disk with six legs. It clings to your boss’ window like a spider, with no rope or harness in place. The photographer beside you stares at it too and raises her camera to snap photos. The drone slides across the building’s side with fearless efficiency, spraying water and soap, spinning quickly as it wipes the glass. As she snaps photos, you sneak away, heading for the underground train back to your overcrowded dorm.
Tonight, you’ll tiptoe out of your dorm to escape your roommates’ consolation and dial the number of the same guanxi who helped you land this job. After you ask whether she has eaten dinner, you’ll pose the question, “Do you know anyone else who needs a window cleaner?” She’ll sigh and ask you to try elsewhere. The harness and tools you once relied on have been stripped from you, leaving you without any safety ropes to hold onto. The only wings you have left are the tattered pages of Sparrow’s legends, their flight path fracturing with uncertainty, obscured by clouds.
Originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine.