Sharma Shields’ “Residents of the Air” begins during the hottest summer on record, where wildfires force people stay indoors. In addition to this, houses begin to float. The first home to rise goes mostly unnoticed. After this, more and more houses congregate in the air, rising away from the ground and the smoke. People worry at first, but then are comforted as most of the resources they need join them up in the sky. People travel easily from building to building and their homes do not drift away. The fresh air has improved everyone’s health and they discover, by accident, if they fall they bounce right back up. For these reasons, the ‘residents of the air’ love their new lives, even if they still don’t know what caused them to ascend in the first place.
Below the floating homes, many people’s homes still have not risen. Naya Williams is one of those people, as she and her children are stuck on the surface. She doesn’t know the reason her house hasn’t risen, but she still feels guilty about it. Her friend advises her to stay positive, but Naya has difficulty doing that. Even so, she tries her best. She gets her children away from the defunct television, telling them to get creative. They begrudgingly comply, asking when their dad is coming home. Naya really can’t say, as his workplace rose with him in it. While he may not be living in paradise, Naya still would rather be up there than on the smoky, sulfurous surface. Her goal is to get her and her family out of danger, somehow. While her kids busy themselves with colors and cookies, Naya goes out for a walk. On her walk, she notices the many homes that have not risen either. She reaches the edge of a river and sits there for a while. Naya sees a stream of creatures fleeing from the forest and realizes the wildfire has reached her neighborhood. She runs back, warning people on the way. Naya, in the midst of her fear, is shocked at how many people were still stuck on the surface.
Up in the air, people are oblivious to the conditions below. The smoke of the wildfires obscures their view, so they can only hope that everything is alright. While a few people are unhappy, most get used to ignoring the goings on below them. They find it’s no use to worry about those on the surface, as the residents of the air can find they can’t return the way they came.
The chronic tension of this story is the ascension of select buildings and homes/Naya’s guilt and ‘negative thinking’. The acute tension is the impending danger of wildfires/Naya’s struggle to withstand & escape the surface.
I am fascinated by the rising of the houses, the absurdity of it as well as its strange selectiveness. It makes you wonder, as characters do in the story, why would someone not be able to rise too?
In this story, I first highlighted the descriptions of the two different living spaces: the floating haven and the wildfire-plagued surface. These two places are vastly different in appearance and in how they affect the characters, so it’s important to note the ways in which these locations differ. The floating haven, where the residents of the air live, is described as a place where “the air was fresh and everyone had everything they needed, and few people worried about the precariousness of the situation”—a place full of blue skies and bouncy clouds. This idyllic imagery is why this place could be compared to heaven. However, it is not without its flaws. Naya’s husband tells her that, just like her, he is suffering too. There is rationing of water and no way to escape, as one resident of the air finds out in the end. While this may not seem particularly awful, there is also the fact that “their homes rose higher everyday. The sun glowed stronger, the stars shone brighter.” This could be a hopeful line, but not if one remembers that items that ascended so much that “they disappeared, and the residents assumed they disintegrated in the heat of the atmosphere.” Yikes. So is the surface any better? Well…the surface is a place that is full of wildfires, making it “sepia tinted, reeking of burnt flesh”, full of “hollow concrete bones” and “sulfurous air.” A place that makes the reader understand why most residents of the air don’t resist their ascension too much. The only way to escape the surface is if one’s house rises, but there isn’t any more hope for that happening. Even if it did, how much safer would people be up in the air? Hm…
The second element I highlighted in this story are the similes because: 1) I think they’re great 2) they provide more perspective on the characters use them 3) they provide more details to make the two locations distinct. All of the similes in the beginning of the story are whimsical and joyful, as they describe the ascension of the houses and the place they arrive at. The houses are “like balloons released one after another during a parade”, which allows the children of the sky to “[bounce] through the sky now like trapeze artists, little plump gods all their own.” What fun! Now, the first ‘negative’ simile describes the surface, but it is said by the residents of the air:
Barely visible beneath the belt of heavy smoke, a few dozen houses remained locked to the earth, and it felt to the residents of the air like a death sentence.
This comparison is very fitting and gives insight into how grateful they must be that their houses rose. It also sets up how the surface is no place that ‘positivity’ can flourish. The surface (and what it holds) is not compared to anything pleasant. Naya’s children are not little happy gods, they have “coughed and sputtered and stopped asking to go outside. They hung crookedly in front of the television set like clothes pinned to a wire” and look at Naya “like large, angry crows.” Later on, as she runs home, Naya sees women who have “exploded from their dwellings, shouting, and unfolded alongside of her like paper dolls, fragile and identical in their own terror.” These are comparisons that Naya gives, which goes along with her pessimistic/’cautious pragmatist’ way of thinking. The story characterizes Naya through these similes, as it is clear she struggles with ‘thinking positively’—a method that is supposed to help her and her family get out of the smoky, burning surface but only serves to make her feel guiltier.
For my own writing, I could try and include similes or metaphors that really give the reader insight into what kind of person the narrator/character is.
My writing exercise is: Write a story in which you have a factor/event that creates a division, literal or more metaphorical, in the world. It’s up to you whether you specifically mention (or just hint to) the reason as to why this division happens. Does the factor/event happen gradually or all at once? Who or what does it affect?
- What does the story’s event (of houses rising and stuff) allow itself to be a metaphor for?
- Does the story specifically say/hint to the reason only some houses rise? (bonus: is Sue’s theory true?)
- According to the story, is either place really, absolutely better/safer than the other? (bonus: Which one do you think is a better place to be & why?)