TWO WHO LEARNED TO FLY
Our town lies on a major convergence of thoroughfares, two great roads and a mighty river, which bring more interesting people to it than it deserves. That is, no doubt, how it came about that in a single year, we were blessed by the arrival of two amazing newcomers, R. and A., neither one of whom stood out immediately, although you could tell that R. thought highly of himself and, unless he was merely conceited, must have some extraordinary talent which he was keeping to himself. Some of my fellow townsfolk thought that he must be a famous writer who had written under a pseudonym and was utterly unknown by his real name. Perhaps he was fleeing from the burden of a pen that was dangerously ahead of its times, or an exotic imagination that would have offended simple people like us had we known the wild things it had conceived. Others, because of his accent, felt he might be some foreign dignitary forced to beat a hasty retreat from his troubled homeland: an exiled cabinet minister ousted by revolutionaries, or a member of some persecuted religion or ethnic minority. Many felt sympathy for him, as one does for a stray dog which no one recognizes who seems to be looking for his home.
As for A., he seemed to belong to our own land, and we felt his story must be far less romantic than that of R. He was overly modest, as are people who think little of themselves, and usually such people have a good reason for viewing themselves as they do. He seemed a bit puzzled, yet in no hurry to figure out whatever it was that was puzzling him. Something in his soul was like a ship at sea when the wind is calm and the sails are useless, and for hard-working people like us, to see such immobility in a man’s spirit is displeasing, like hearing the choir in a church singing out of tune. Mrs. L. suggested that perhaps he was at the point of changing directions in his life, and pondering which route he should take; and that if the choice he made right now might bind him for the rest of his life to a path from which there was no turning back, then surely, his hesitation was understandable if not laudatory. But then, Mrs. L. was always giving everyone the benefit of the doubt.
Both of our new arrivals made out well in the town, appearing to have some economic resources to sustain them through the long period of their inaction, in which rest and contemplation seemed to be their only objective. Obviously, A.’s finances were less impressive than R.’s, as A. eventually returned to working part-time at the shipping office’s maintenance department. He had, we heard, experience and skills as a craftsman, carried with him from some populous city in the East.
But the purpose of this story is not to dwell on the appearance of two non-descript strangers in our town, and their subsequent months of leisure. Our lives are not so miniscule that we must stoop to glorifying utterly ordinary men in order to amuse ourselves. No, both R. and A. shared an incredible ability which justifies the writing of this account. Why they took so long to reveal it is not absolutely clear, but the way in which their abilities were discovered is well-known.
With regard to R., I was standing out on the property beyond the warehouse, looking out towards the prairie, along with Mrs. L., Mr. and Mrs. H., and five young men from the warehouse, when, all of a sudden, we saw R. returning from his daily walk out on the prairie, where he could get away from us for a while. He cut a striking figure with his elegant, loose-fitting white shirt and stylish top hat, and the walking stick he carried with him, apparently only to mock it with his vigorous strides.
Mrs. H. was remarking on his intriguing and enigmatic presence, when, all of a sudden, we saw him leap off of the ground and soar gracefully, and practically vertically, straight up into the air. One of the workmen estimated that the angle of his ascent was well over 75 degrees, though it was certainly under 90, and another estimated that he attained a height of about seventy feet before he came to a stop, seemed to float for a moment in midair without moving, then, gently, but only because of the powerful and rhythmic flapping of his arms which acted as a counter to the force of gravity, fell back to the earth, on which he landed softly. Hardly had he touched down, but he was flying upwards again. We noted, this time, that he used a powerful downward thrust of his arms, to propel himself upward, and that two or three sufficed to raise him to an enormous height; many more beats were demanded of his arms in order to land safely.
"Is there anyone of us here," Mr. H. asked us, "who has not partaken of alcohol today?"
None of us, in fact, had resorted to the spirits.
"By God," Mrs. H. blurted out, "we are in the presence of a miracle!"
All of us stunned, our bodies tingling as though we had received an electric shock from one of the many new inventions that the world is churning out these days, we looked at each other in amazement, searching for an explanation.
"God’s work," said one of the witnesses.
"Or Satan’s," said another.
But another, more reasonable and in harmony with the times we lived in, said, "A new breakthrough in science. We must get to the bottom of it."
But as we stood there, trying to shake off the astonishment which held us in its grip and would not let us move from the spot where our view of life had changed, we saw the second stranger, A., passing by along another path, that which runs beside the field that often succumbs to wildflowers. To our utter amazement, we saw that he, too, was not walking as an ordinary man, but rather flying; only his way of flying was utterly different than that of R.’s. Rather than taking gigantic, nearly vertical leaps into the sky, he seemed to float no more than a foot or two above the ground, except that "floating" is a word that makes his mode of travel seem too effortless. You could see the determination, by means of the tightness of the muscles in his face and the single-mindedness of his gaze. He went by, his two arms stretched out to the side, not flapping, but rather, tensed and rigid, and rotating at a steady velocity.
"He’s not flying," Mr. H. speculated, or was it wished? For two men flying in but a single day, after thousands of years of human history in which not a single one had flown, seemed too much to bear, especially for a town like ours. "He’s only walking. What a peculiar fellow!"
But after a moment, as he came out of the high prairie grass and we could clearly see the relation of his feet to the ground along the dirt trail leading past the warehouse back into town, Mrs. L. exclaimed: "Take it back, Mr. H.! His feet aren’t touching the ground!"
And we all gasped, as though we had seen roses falling from the sky.
"Either it is the beginning of the end, and God’s angels have come to usher in the final days, or else science has made God as obsolete as the horse-and-buggy," said one of our number.
We determined at once to gather more of us together, and then to march upon the two new arrivals where they lived in the hotel by the east-west road, to demand an explanation.
A., who we cornered first, seemed surprised and somewhat alarmed by our excitement, in contrast to R., who when he found us knocking on his door with A. a virtual prisoner in our midst, only smiled, as though an agitated mob was but a trifle. "Cigars?" he asked, opening up a beautiful, foreign cigar box and offering a smoke to any who would share one. A few accepted, and this practically drove out all the women, who have less of a stake in enduring overpowering clouds of smoke than men. However, Mrs. L. and Mrs. H., strong women that they were and proud ambassadors of their kind, refused to be flushed out of the room where they expected the explanation of a miracle to be divulged.
"Are you servants of God, or the Devil?" one man who did not smoke asked the two fliers.
Another of our townsfolk, after letting out a mouthful of aromatic fumes, asked: "Is there a scientific explanation, some invention behind this feat?"
While A. seemed pale and at a loss for words, R. replied: "Dear friends: there is no gadget, nor is this a miracle, so far as I know. Thomas Edison is not behind this, nor is William Jennings Bryan. I have merely mastered the art of leaping high into the air and retarding the effects of gravity, for the brief moment needed by my flight. Call it athleticism, or call it art, as a form of ballet, it comes from the human body, and is but a subtle extension of our normal physical capabilities."
Everyone looked at him, bewildered.
At last, someone said: "That is too simple an explanation! How is it that you can fly, and we cannot?"
"But I am sure that you can," R. told them. "There is no great secret to it, as far as I know. I learned how to fly on my own, by trial and error. It is important to perfect the timing of the leap and the first flap of the arms, and important not to let the subsequent flapping of the arms during the ascent re-inject weight into the body, which must feel itself light in order to continue rising. When coming down, it is important not to panic. The use of the arms must increase dramatically."
"But every little boy who has tried to fly…" protested another of our townsfolk.
"Children play at flying," R. said. "They do not apply the discipline, the will, the methodicality, the powers of observation of grown men to the enterprise, which are needed to succeed. They are not serious! By the time they are finally men, they are so convinced by what they have heard and read that it is impossible to fly, that they no longer try. Who would respect a man who they saw spending hours in a field, leaping upwards, flapping his arms, running and jumping, trying to lift himself off the ground, to fly?"
"It is will," agreed A., finally daring to speak. "That is all. Will. Practice. The courage to try, to learn. Will," he said again.
Bewildered, the townsfolk regarded them.
"Will you teach us to fly?" someone asked them at last.
"Flying can’t be taught," replied R. "You have to feel it with your body. Your body will instruct you. All you have to do is try. Try, try, and try."
"Will you watch us try, then?" someone asked.
R. smiled, delighted by the aroma of his cigar. "I don’t see how I can help you," he insisted; "but if it pleases you, since you have been such hospitable neighbors, I will attend your efforts."
It hardly needs to be said that trying to fly became the principal pastime of our important but overlooked town. Soon the ball field to the east of the junction, and the prairie to the west of the warehouse, were filled with men, women, and children of all ages running, leaping, flapping their arms, and attempting to fly. In order to prevent them from becoming discouraged, both R. and A. would give periodic exhibitions of flying, the former thrilling audiences by leaping powerfully, yet almost delicately, from the ground, and hovering for a moment, high up in the air, in the manner of a balloon, before finally descending to the earth with a dancer’s grace; the latter more slowly and ponderously floating above the dirt with his feet dangling, sometimes only a few inches from the ground, the soles of his shoes in danger of scraping the earth. In spite of the fact that R. provided exhibitions only when compensated, for he felt that otherwise he might be taken advantage of and worn out by our enthusiasm, he was vastly the more popular of our two fliers, and the one who everyone wanted to learn from, even though he had already warned us vociferously that he could teach us nothing. The drama and decisiveness of his triumph over the limits that bound the rest of us, excited us beyond all measure; while A.’s laborious method of flying, which seemed more of a struggle than a liberation, seemed hardly to be flying of all. "He goes no faster than a man walking," someone complained, "and rises only inches from the ground."
Another said, "If one were in danger, being pursued by wild beasts, for example, or by bandits, such a means of flying would not serve one at all."
"I fly that way in my dreams," another complained. "I can’t go any higher, and usually I am being pursued by a pack of wolves; I cannot elude them and, in fact, they are merely excited by my dangling feet."
"WILL!" R. told the frustrated people gathered around him. "WILL! That is what it comes down to! How badly do you want to fly? Obviously, not badly enough!"
"I have will!" protested a man, nearly angry, except that being angry at a man who could fly did not seem right, and probably, neither, was it wise. "I was in the war, back in the days of cavalry, and I charged up the hill with bullets flying all around me."
"You’re that old?" someone joked.
"I have will!" the man insisted.
"You had will to ride a horse, and will to fight. But do you have will to fly?" demanded R. And he leapt back into the air, crushing the frustration with a new display of his prowess, which transformed feelings of impotence into renewed aspirations. A man who had once saved ten of us from a terrible flood when the river forgot its purpose for a week, rushed up to give R. the top hat that had fallen off his head as he flew above us.
I, admittedly, to my credit or eternal shame, was one of the first to give up trying to fly. I felt the world demanded too many ordinary things of me, which would, if neglected, soon become overwhelming, for me to lose valuable time attempting to bypass them by means of flight. My existence, as it was, offered me too many tangible forms of moderate satisfaction for me to risk euphoria. To live for all or nothing is a luxury of the rich, whose nothing is to merely live like the rest of us; or else, it is, perhaps, exclusively the domain of the brave. I felt myself to be in danger of losing the harvest of humility, which I knew I could depend on, by attempting to imitate these two, the only two men I know of, who ever mastered the power of human flight. I preferred to be reliable rather than glorious, since the one thing seemed sure, and the other ten-times as uncertain.
However, one thing I could not suppress, during the year my town was caught up in the throes of its flying craze, was the desire to know more about these two very different men who had learned how to fly. They were so absolutely different in temperament, and in the technique and style of their flying. How is it that each of them, in his own way and by his own method, had learned to do what the rest of us, try as we might, seemed unable to do? And so, I set out to interview them both before they left, for all of us began to suspect that they would not remain with us forever. We seemed to bore them, or merely to impose ourselves too adamantly upon them. I am afraid that the thought of flight upended our politeness. Surely, our minds and our amusements did not interest them; they had come only for the peace and quiet that attends mediocrity, and not for the mediocrity itself. Once the peace and quiet were gone, what could induce them to stay?
I interviewed R. first, after paying him what was the equivalent of two months of my salary for the imposition, and as I shared one of the last of his cigars (perhaps he had made up his mind to leave town after the last of them was smoked), he told me: "As I have said a hundred times, the secret of my mastery of flight was WILL. All the subtle movements of the body and techniques for focusing the mind which provide the basic mechanics for flight, came into being only because my will demanded it. I do not tell you this to mystify you, but because it really is that simple."
Not wishing to part with so dear a portion of my savings for so meager a scrap of information, I insisted: "Surely, R., there must be something more. Perhaps it is in what inspired you to have such a will. Here, for example, I feel that there are many of us who have a considerable amount of willpower, although you may feel that if we had, we would not be living in such a backwater. However, I have noticed that what motivates us to wish to fly is mainly the wish to fly. There is something beautiful and glorious in the idea. But perhaps you had a stronger motivation?"
At this prying question, a flash of light came to R.’s eyes, and his foreign origin became more obvious. He had a different kind of passion, a fierce romantic streak burning inside him, that is missing from our practical land, so much stronger than his, yet also so much drier. I imagine in his country that the people drink all night, dance until dawn, then shoot each other with pistols in the morning on account of some insult which such a lifestyle can hardly fail to provoke. They live in shabby, semi-civilized imitations of our cities, which are poor and cold, but write great novels. "Good for you!" R. exclaimed, enjoying me almost as much as his cigar. "You are the first one, in all this time, who has made an inch of progress!" And thinking for a moment, with eyes that darkened fearfully, then seemed to waver in purpose, then finally to rebel against fear and follow a wild impulse that might or might not be lethal, he told me: "Please promise me that what I tell you now you will tell to no one else, at least until after I have left your town. Even though there is no extradition treaty between your land and mine, I do not need the embarrassment."
Not certain if it was right to agree, I nonetheless did. "You have my word," I informed him.
Regarding me for a moment, with eyes that showed both hardness and cleverness - a frightening mix – he leaned forward, nearly as close to me as a lover, so that I could smell, besides the smoke, the alcohol on his breath, and he said to me: "Where I live, there is a large building on a hill, in which the wealthy live. It is like a fortress, ten stories high. On the level of the street, there are guards, and there is an iron gate through which no one who is not known can pass. But," he said, "above the second story, there lie all the other floors, with windows left open and unlocked in the summer time. And behind those windows, extraordinary wealth: safes filled with money, with jewelry, with gold, with bonds from the ancient days. For years," R. went on, "I looked up at those windows and I thought: ‘If only I could fly! If only I could make a mockery of that fence, those guards standing by the gate with their weapons, and simply fly straight up, over the fence, then again, up the side of the building – hover there, by a window – open it – crawl in – clean the place out, and get away!"
I looked at R. with horror. How perfectly molded was his way of flying to the task which had motivated him to fly, to the longing which had made his will billow, like a ship’s sail! "You were – you were poor," I suggested, not wishing to fear this man whose face was leaning next to mine.
"Not at all," replied R. "I belonged to the middle class, what there was of it. My father was hard-working and respected in his profession. We were able to live comfortably but not extravagantly. Do you know the difference between the women of workers, and the women of aristocrats? The face, the waist, the manners? Do you know how different the food of the rich tastes? While you are trudging through the winter snows which step on our cities like they were bugs, you think of those who are lying on some sunny beach, in another country, who will only return to their homeland when the sun returns. No, my friend, my life was good, but what is good next to better? Their windows were open!"
I did not know what to say. R. was boisterous, excited, jubilant and savage, all at once. "Do not tell anyone what I have said," he warned me. "I will be gone soon enough, anyhow, and then you will not have to feel you are keeping a secret from your friends."
I agreed, and feeling faint, whether from the smoke or the terrible force of the personality of our town’s hero, I staggered out to the street in search of air.
Two days later, fearing what I might hear, I proceeded to go through with the interview I had scheduled with A., in his hotel room, only one floor removed from R.’s. Somehow, I felt in mortal danger as I entered the building, but I knew it was unlikely that my trepidation would be validated, for R. was as intelligent as he was amoral.
A. did not at all provide me with the drama, nor did he speak with the flair, of R., but, nonetheless, we soon got to the bottom of his power of flight, which like R.’s, was driven by will, which had a very specific motivation. "Back East, I worked in a large shop," A. told me. "We worked at tables and did skilled manufactures that were not produced from a mold, but hand-cut to a standard. With work of this kind, we should have had a better boss, but he, always in mortal fear of going under, overlooked our skill, and treated us badly. Morale fell, and disrespect seeped into our hearts. We learned from him to be bad to others. Well, it so happens, that there was a cleaning lady in our shop, a Mrs. Kelly, and not being pretty enough to tease, nor imposing enough to fear, we afflicted her like a pack of dogs, mainly by walking over the floors which she had freshly mopped. True enough, her work and our sense of freedom often clashed, for we did not like to be bound to any one place by a wet floor that needed more time to dry. But it went beyond that, to the point where we would often leave our tables when we did not need to and find some excuse to walk over the floor she had just cleaned to make it dirty again; and for some reason, we found it amusing whenever our boss came by and chewed Mrs. Kelly out for not properly performing her duties. ‘Do you call this clean, Mrs. Kelly?’ he would demand, and we would snicker."
I regarded A. with curiosity, and a trace of disgust.
"Well," he said, "one day it happens, as I did my part to make Mrs. Kelly’s life utterly miserable, that she looked at me, with fury and despair in her eyes which she could not express, and finally said, what of it she could get out of her: ‘Mr., do you know I have little ones at home? Do you think it will be so funny if they cannot eat?’ And it hit me then, right then, how far I’d fallen from being a decent man, and how needless was this cruelty which I had been weak enough to let myself learn from others. And I decided, then and there, that I would learn something new – a way to be kind. And as I saw it, in the environment in which I was, that was to be done by not walking on Mrs. Kelly’s freshly-mopped floors until the water had dried. And so, that is how I learned to fly, and from that time on, I never tormented her again."
In amazement, I regarded A., wishing I had one of R.’s cigars in my hand to do something while I wondered what I ought to say, if anything. As R.’s manner of flying was exactly molded to the purpose to which he had developed his power, so was A.’s perfectly molded to the humble task of avoiding Mrs. Kelly’s floors!
"Will you be staying much longer?" I asked him at last.
"Not likely," he admitted. "I came here for peace, and because I was recovering from an illness and wished to surround myself with air that was pure. Out there on the prairie, the wind smells like flowers and the sky is everywhere… Perhaps I shall continue traveling west."
The days which our town had for retaining our two fliers were dwindling; as each had come to our town for his own reason, so, now, was each on the verge of leaving for his own reason. I spent the last days of their presence in our town, studying them as they flew, and watching my neighbors watch them.
I saw how eagerly my friends raced after R. as he leapt into the air and floated above us all. How excited they were by his impressive style of self-elevation, how ecstatic and fervent in their desire to emulate him. When he landed, he barely had a second to himself, before they were all over him, touching him, congratulating him, practically bowing down to him, although, in this country, we have not bowed down since, over a century ago, we applied our foot to the back of King George’s pants. In sharp contrast, as A. flew, barely getting off the ground and traveling at such a low speed that we could match it by walking, and easily outpace it by running, enthusiasm waned. No crowds followed him, no young girl begged him to run away with her, no married woman dreamt of dishonoring her husband on his account, he did not have to fear the buttons of his jacket being torn loose, or the hairs pulled from his head as though he were a saint. There was clearly, no comparison between the two means of flying, the one utterly melodramatic and the other mundane; the one splendid and defiant in the face of human limits, the one barely noticeable and in some ways inferior to our everyday modes of transportation; the one exhilarating, the other merely interesting. The difference was so great, in fact, that A.’s way of flying now, to us, hardly seemed to be flying at all.
I stood there, for many hours, watching the two men fly, and watching the people of my town reacting to their flying.
And for the first time in my life, I realized that I was no longer in agreement with those among whom I had been born and raised.
For to me, I saw less beauty in the high, majestic leaps of R. than in the struggling, low-level flying of A., who barely seemed able to get his feet off of the ground.
I saw less beauty in the flying itself, than in where the flying came from.
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