In the Catathon district, houses are often built tall and thin to elevate their occupants above the smokers’ yards; in winter the smoke often mingles with the weather and produces a thick smog that lines the streets, so most residential homes resemble towers or square chimney stacks. In modern times the smoking (of fish, meat, vegetables, mushrooms, barley for beer, tea, cheese and every other food or drink you can imagine) is restricted to three days a week, after many years of bargaining between the cooperatives who run the yards, the unions and the Municipal authorities, but on smoking days most travel in the district is via several wooden walkways suspended between these tower-like homes.
In order to route these walkways effectively and ensure their upkeep and safety, the district has very tight building regulations. Not only must each home have a small public balcony which the walkways are suspended between, the overall height of the building is restricted to ensure the walkways do not slope too steeply. This last measure was also successfully lobbied for by the Chastise Church, who wanted to ensure that their local church remained the tallest building in the district. Except in one notable case, the regulations have been very effective, and the tops of the district’s buildings undulate gently with the curves of the land beneath.
This ‘one notable case’ is the subject of today’s festival. Given that, unlike most Buentoilliçan celebrations, it only happens every four years, there will be quite the crowd gathered on the wooden walkways and streets, which ought to be smog-free today. Instead of working in the smokers’ yards, the workers will take the opportunity to sell their smoked goods on small carts in the street, by weaving their way through the crowds with baskets full of food, or by using their home’s balcony as a makeshift shop front. Given that the two buildings involved in the festivities are by far the tallest for several miles around spectators have a good view from across the district, although binoculars are advised to get a clearer view of proceedings.
The history of the festival is, as with many Buentoilliçan cultural institutions, down to the twin forces of interpersonal rivalry and inefficient bureaucracy. Laws have always varied across the City from district to district, and although some standardisation has taken effect since the Revolution, there are still holdovers, pockets of antiquity in the legal system. One of these has to do with the way that leap years are considered in the complex historical intersection between the rules of the City and the rules of the Chastise Church. Because of their association in the folk consciousness with the Grenin Waurst, leap years are not recognised by the Church. The Church does not simply skip onward to the first of March, as this would cause no end of problems in the long run. Instead, the day is declared ‘void’ by the Hierarchs; as far as the Church is concerned it never existed and never will.
For someone with a very particular legalistic mind, someone like Ricca Velone, this ‘void’ day presented an excellent opportunity. In 1936 the enterprising tax lawyer noticed a potential loophole in her district’s building height regulations, and set about building a simple vertical extension to her home on the leap day. Unsurprisingly, this rather upset her neighbours and the authorities, who collectively took her to the small claims court, arguing that the extension should be demolished immediately. However, it seemed that Velone’s defence was essentially watertight: she argued that as the height regulation was lobbied for by the Church, it should be considered a ‘Church By-Law’ in accordance with the Religious Seperation Act of 1916, and as such the Church should be responsible for its enforcement, not the municipal authorities. ‘I realised it then, as we were leaving the courthouse’ said Sidre Green, Velone’s nearest neighbour and the person responsible for organising the coalition of interests arrayed against her objectionable extension. ‘The others were saying, “never mind, we’ll petition the Church instead,” but I knew we’d lost, the Church wouldn’t listen.’ According to Church law, the extension didn’t exist because the day in which it was built didn’t exist either. To accept that it did to solve a minor property dispute would be exceedingly embarrassing and set a precedent they didn’t wish to follow.
Whilst quick to neighbourly anger, Green wasn’t one to act rashly. She considered hiring some local workers to perform a clandestine deconstruction of the extension, but didn’t want to give the lawyer an excuse to use the law against her. Instead, she wrote to Velone to ask her to take it down, now that the point was proven; this was partly what annoyed Green the most; the extension had no function but the testing of some dry academic thesis. It was just a wooden box constructed atop Velone’s house. The other thing about it that annoyed Green wasn’t that it spoiled her view, or overshadowed her (which it did not, as Velone was keen to point out in her reply), but because it displayed a sort of selfish exceptionalism which she found infuriating.
When it became clear that persuasion wouldn’t work (the extension was a symbol of pride, a spoil of war for the lawyer now), Green hatched another plan; she decided to emulate her neighbour when the next leap year finally came around, building a larger wooden extension on the roof of her own house, one which she had time to plan out and ensure it blocked the light in Velone’s home for as long as possible. From that point onwards, the gloves were off.
You wouldn’t expect to see such a large crowd turn out for what is, in essence, a construction site, but there are several reasons for the huge gathering today. Firstly, are the buildings themselves, which have become like industrial trees, great sheds of wood and corrugated iron sprouting off in all directions from tiny bases. Originally, the main aspect of competition between the two women and later their families was height: they tried to build quicker and higher than each other each day, nailing huge supportive struts onto the outside of their homes at haphazard angles and piling up floor upon floor, far beyond the boundaries of reasonable safety. It’s not clear what prompted the change in tack, but in 1964 the buildings began to grow extra limbs, to sprout outwards as well as up. Nowadays they are curled up around each other, wound together like a box of snakes where the snakes are made out of oak beams and metal sheeting. The builders, all younger family members of the original warring women, will make the buildings seem to dance across the course of the day, as they adjust their extension plans to respond to their rivals. The edificial limbs which bust forth from the tiny foundations weave around and sometimes even encircle one another in a snapshot-battle for dominance.
The second draw factor for the crowd, and perhaps the most important factor at keeping people hanging around in the cold all day watching a building site, is the acrobatics of the families of builders, who do their best to put on a good show. They stride around the precarious outside of the conjoined buildings, wielding welders and tossing tools to each other, sometimes pirouetting on their safety harnesses, sometimes taking those harnesses off altogether in death-defying stunts. Samozar Velone is well known for his graceful leaps between gaps in the buildings, and Untold Green gathers huge cheers when she hangs upside-down and walks the structure’s many undersides as is often necessary to complete her work. Some commentators in the local newspapers think that it reflects badly upon the City that there are great cheers of excitement when someone falls off and injures themselves (thankfully nobody has yet died), but as Tommy Dreitch from The Smokers’ Torch glibly replied, ‘who amongst us can say that they have watched a horse race and not secretly wished for one of the jockeys to be thrown off their mount?’
The acrobatic displays are of course a later addition to the festival, begun when Ricca Velone applied for festival status so they could continue building after responsibility for the height regulations were officially handed over from the Church to the district authorities in 1970. There is a dancelike quality to the acrobatics, and there are some who suspect that they are choreographed between the rivalrous families. These same sceptics will tell you of how there is actually no longer any rivalry, but a strong friendship between the intertwined houses and their large families who regularly pass each other in their mingled hallways. Like many of the hastily-constructed limbs of the houses, the families are said to lean on each other, to catch their rivals when they collapse or fall.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Grenin Waurst’s Day
- The Feast of February
- The Festival of Hidden Love