[Author’s note: Italo Calvino’s masterpiece “Invisible Cities” finds the explorer Marco Polo describing to Emperor Kublai Khan various fantastical cities he’s encountered in his travels. In “Zenith,” I describe the second of three fantastical cities I’ve encountered in my travels across this, my fantasy America.]
The city of Zenith is known for the hundreds of dirigibles floating cloudlike above the ground. Each more fantastic than the next, the airships hang five hundred feet in the air, with private bowling alleys, apiaries, giraffe enclosures, pinot noir vineyards, and a seven-level Whole Foods that never runs out of cashew butter.
Children go to school via an intricate system of pulleys, and those unfortunate enough to have an occasional commute to work do so by hanging on to the furry legs of a bumblebee-shaped Uber.
When billionaire platinum heiress Sabrina Sostenuto died aged one hundred and two, she was said to have ventured to the ground only once in her long life and that was only to retrieve an earring she dropped at a Saint Crispin’s Day brunch.
The people who live on the ground beneath the dirigibles — tersely called, when called anything at all, the Sub — also live in balloons of a sort. Unable to afford even a starter airship, they’ve fashioned their own, sewing flat sheets together and draping them over piles of scrap and then setting giant fans on their backs so that the sheets rise and billow and give the feeling — very, very dimly — of being up in the air.
The idea to construct the ground balloons was introduced to the people living in the Sub after several of them were discovered scaling the ropes tethering the dirigibles to their places in the sky. The fans provided to keep their flat sheets a-billow were quite noisy, far too noisy to permit introspection, or plotting, and certainly not procurement of arrows sharp enough to pierce polyester airship skin.
The noise inside the ground balloons is in fact so great that the people have grown to distrust human speech, preferring the mechanical buzz of the fans and the messages that go blip blip in greens and blues across their telephone screens.
The loneliness would overwhelm them if they could ever hear their own thoughts, but instead they pull their scraps tighter and look at the imperfect dome of their sheets and imagine they are weightless in a field of stars.
Far above in the dirigibles, children fall asleep to a steady hum coming from the ground, as reassuring as a mother’s heartbeat.