The Flying Man, Revisited

Reflecting on the myths we live by.

Once upon a time, there was a man who came walking from the land of fire, and he was badly burned. He sat on a rock by a cool stream and the woman of the river watched him with his shoulders stooped and she noticed how his eyes would blur so that he was not seeing the river, really, not seeing anything at all but his own broken reflection against the broken sky.


So, the woman of the river sunk her hands deep into the ancient silt of the riverbed and she pulled from this a pair of wings, and she released these into the river’s rush, and as she released the wings, she slowed the waters of the river by inhaling a deep breath, thick and musical with time, and she pulled it inside herself sharp at the edges like freezing air or smoke. She held it within her, resisting the urge to cough against the pressure.

The wings floated beneath the gaze of the man on the rock, and he bent at the banks of the river and reached one arm and then both, and then he entered the water: one leg, then both, and then he was up to his knees and then past the tops of his legs and then to the middle of his chest as he pulled on the wings. It takes more strength than anyone would think, to pull a pair of wide wings from a current, even when the current is slow. Eventually, he pulled the wings up the banks and set them on the rock where he had earlier been sitting. Panting and soaked, he had forgotten for a moment all about the land of fire from which he had escaped, and he sat and stared at the wings: large, black, and weathered, glistening beneath the dapples of sunlight pairing through the forest canopy above him. He stared at the wings as they dried and he dried as he stared at the wings, and then he fell asleep.

When the flying man woke, he picked the wings up and he noticed that they were attached to a harness that he could fit through each of his arms like a backpack, so that the wings were attached to his torso. Then, wings attached behind each step, he walked through the forest, beyond the last tree, to the base of a great mountain, and as the woman of the river watched him, he ascended the great mountains, carrying the full weight of his new wings on his back, and he walked three days and rested three nights until he reached a cliff, and there stood before a vast green valley, and as he breathed on that cliff he looked at the river running through the valley, catching sunlight. He stood, looking, and the woman of the river stood also, watching him, and after several long breaths, various cloud bands, and several movements during which he witnessed in the valley a retelling of all that he had seen before in the land of fire, and against this, a re-dreaming of all that was to come.

The woman of the river released the breath that she had been holding, and the man above her opened his winged arms, and he felt her breath through his feathers.

He felt his feet leaving the ledge and he leaned into the current of wind now lifting him above the valley, above the river, above all that he had ever known and all he had yet to see—and he flew.

***

This story was originally published in sections, embedded in a larger story, “Twilight at Blue Plate” which appeared in the August 2019 issue of Oyster River Pages. As I woke this morning, I noticed that this piece was demanding some reflection. I have recently been coming into awareness of certain understandings that appeared to me in this fairy tale before I was ready to consciously know them. It’s been my experience that stories often do this. I will be revisiting in tomorrow’s post and considering its role and possibilities in my own. It has been my experience (and I don’t think I’m unique here) that usually my reading and writing vision is a few years ahead of my conscious understanding.

I think this is true for many people. Has it ever occurred to you what stories are shaping your life? I never would have known precisely how central this flying man story was to me, except that I was in a class where we were challenged to spend fifteen minutes on the spot writing a fairy tale, and after my initial eyeroll, thinking “I don’t write fairy tales” this came out whole, in that one brief sitting. This is because it had been in me all along, as so many myths, legends and fairy tales are. In my notes this morning, I began to uncover some layers of understanding that I hadn’t been ready to see before. To share them here would make for an over-long post, so I’ll save these for tomorrow.

Perhaps you may find value in considering what myths and fairy tales are central to your life. As Joan Didion writes in The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Pigeon Spectrum

Ever notice them in the light? If you look really close, there’s a lot happening there. These feathers, you have to see what she does with them, zooming in.

You gotta come see this.

What?

These feathers. This artist makes these huge rainbow murals from the colors.

Oh, I love peacocks.

Who doesn’t, but this is about pigeons.

Flying rats!

No, but look close. Ever notice them in the light? If you look really close, there’s a lot happening there. These feathers, you have to see what she does with them, zooming in.

Where?

Sides of buildings, chimneys, warehouse walls, shipping containers. They started out more muted, but then it was the winter of sirens and another lockdown and everyone inside. That’s when they started getting really bright.

Huh, there’s a legend I heard once, about what the Cottonwood remembers about the pigeons.

Why people started calling them flying rats?

No, why they became the first birds eaten by another bird. It’s a Caddo story, I think.

Hawk get ‘em?

Owl. Legend has it that in the beginning, no bird killed another bird. All they ate was grass and leaves. Great Spirit didn’t like to see anything she made killed by another creature.

But the owl always hunted at night.

Not always. It used to see fine in the daytime. Matter of fact, that’s how it started. Owl laid eyes on a swan and fell hard in love. 

Always the swan. Great white ladybird. They’re mean, though.

So, owl goes every day to see the swan and then he proposes marriage. Swan’s like, “Come down here.” Now, usually owl knows better than to get near any water, but love makes you do crazy things. So, what do you think happens?

Wet feathers.

Yep, he falls in, can’t get out, and there’s a loon in the reeds cracking up, going, “Hah! Fool!” and Owl is humiliated, furious. Thing is, he can’t see the loon. What he sees instead are these two pigeons above him on a cottonwood branch. The pigeons are not paying the owl any mind. They’re lovers. One’s saying to the other, “Who do you love?” just as the raging owl below them is going, “What are you laughing at?” The other pigeon, addressing her love, says, “You, you.”

Uh-oh. I see where this is going.

Yep. Owl goes crazy and attacks her. Her feathers rain down, brush against Great Spirit’s cheek. Spirit wakes up, sees what’s happened, and punishes owl. And that’s why owl can only see at night now. 

Huh.

I know. 

Point being, you gotta see these feathers. 

Let’s go.

The artist is Adele Renault and I came across an article about her “Gutter Paradise” murals in My Modern Met. Here is a link to the article with images.

The story “The Cottonwood Remembers” can be found at When the Storm God Rides, by Florence Stratton, collected by Bessie M. Reid [1936], at sacred-texts.com

Juno to Jupiter

I am flying over you now. They warned me of your belts, threatening radiation, how you will blind me with them if I stay

On this day in 2016, NASA launched the Juno space probe, a twenty-month survey of the mysterious fifth planet in our solar system. The name was appropriately chosen in honor of the Roman goddess, Juno, wife of Jupiter and mother of Mars, the god of war. She is associated with may roles, including protection, pulling back the veil, and childbirth. 

To mark this day, an imagined conversation.

JUNO to JUPITER
What formed you, anyway? All these years, you’ve never mentioned it. Do you even have a solid center, or are you all atmosphere and wind, gravity and radiation? You’ve drawn these clouds around you, hiding, but I see you, Jove.

They know you for your sky, your thunder, your place on the throne, but I’m not here for any of that. I want to know what you’ve got hiding under those blankets of clouds, and about your waters. Can they be breathed, and what moves you? 

It’s taken me years to reach you. Eons before I left, I would wonder, watching, hearing tales of your thundering greatness. But I have to say, from a distance, you looked so small.

I am flying over you now. They warned me of your belts, threatening radiation, how you will blind me with them if I stay. That great red spot of yours, now like an eye, then a mouth. How easy to mistake that for a center, when it’s just your most dramatic atmospheric spectacle, nothing but a war of opposing winds,

a stage play for the battles that so impressed our son. I have to tell you, he has really gotten carried away. It’s all he can do, even when he calls it by another name––peace, containment, deterrence. Can you do something? Show him, it’s only a distraction, a relatively recent storm, a blemish on your surface and not the polestar of your magnitude.

Again with the thunder? Well, don’t say I didn’t tell you. Besides, they say it’s shrinking.

I’ve got to go soon. Before I do, I will take in your atmosphere, your magnetic field. You will cover me in dust again, answering as you always do, with nothing but weather and wind.

Before the Storm

Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been.

“Eclairs lointains” by jmbaud74 on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic License

Consider one beginning, how above the blue carpet of a grandmother’s living room, there had been a painting of a small boat in a storm, against a dark sky. 

Below this, on a stand, an oversized bible, the pages slightly gilded at the edges; what it meant to wonder, in this place, on a summer afternoon, back against the blue carpet, how it was that anything at all had started, how from this wonder a body might get up and walk to the book on display, turning to the beginning, and puzzling over the words, in awe of the poet’s certainty.

Only words and nothing else until a command came, and then it was Light,  and after that, the seas and the forests and the beasts and a man and after him, it is said, from a bone taken from the center of his breathing, a woman; consider learning, how she met him in the garden; consider wondering how they knew how to play, and imagining the horror of living ever after, dying to know it again, after they beheld in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge the limits of what they could know. Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been. In the beginning, knowing nothing but abundance, how can anyone look away when the very source is given, to taste? 

They say she bit first. Of course, she would have been the one among the branches, gathering fruit. Later she would be painted as a sinner, but how could she be anything but a child in these original days? Here, someone whispers: serpent, man, or God––in the beginning, does it matter, or is this a moment when it is possible to imagine a single hope, constant as a pulse? How it whispers, like the rustle of leaves at the edge of a branch at late afternoon, “Stay.”

Calypso’s Lament

She generally gets painted as the jilted, short-sighted lover, but I could never read her without thinking that she must have genuinely loved him to make such an offer, and it must have truly broken her heart when he left.

Let it be a song, then, and us inside its shattering wings — and you, when did I first know by your hand the letting of the blood of ancient wounds, unscheduled tears? If it began in this moment, where would you find me, if at all? In the space where we last slept, dream me dreaming you.

“Calypso” by Pinc Floit on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

My arms, so long beseeching some anchor, now find you, and the smooth plateau of your hungering back erupts in tremors above me; the aftershock a head before this altar, a whispered Amen. It is easy to learn new aches. New peace is something else, when the night undoes the day.

Let me be the simple task that is the most difficult to do; sketch filigreed complications on the stretched skin between these ribs, only bless and be blessed. “Shh,” someone says, don’t hurry, but I am faithful as the dog that holds on, because the desire to pray is a prayer.

If you will not heal my doubt, let me bear the unbelieving, about face, face this enemy facing consequence your face in my hands, I heard you calling, let me see.

In the beginning, the word; it was a god of open mouths, all breath and a promise. Take it, I say, here. I had only this imitation to give, and immortality. Blessed be this sin, teach me your new shame; to die is only difficult for the proud. If this kingdom we are holding is the only one, leave mine pillaged and let me know its glory only by what remains.

Let me give what I may not hold, dream an answer to the question I dare not speak aloud and pass it back, folded, in your hands. Do you fear the dead? I want to meet them in the olive grove before we find opposite sides of an invisible highway from which to sing our goodbyes. Let me know a patience to cook blood, freeze the earth against my cheek. 

Give us this day, taste. 

What is this mortal body? I want to study how it shudders around a heart. From this quiver pull a single arrow. Aim another card close to my chest; teach me new deliverance, then give me rest.

You had a secret and lost it. It was the expanse of your life. Look, I will open another to you. Call it forever. Come here. Let us be suddenly young and always, our monuments etched in Crayola hues, each touch conferring the ancient blessings of the rainbow that followed the flood.

What else did we ever do with our bodies, but offer them on altars, before the sun and the moon against drought and flood, against all the ways there were to die slowly we found new ways to sing, take me now and make it swift, so many candle flames roaring against the darkened hills?

Give me a sermon and I’ll sing you a psalm. Raise a hand, raise a glass, raise the dead. Take this body from this tomb where they left me in rags after the last breath I took alone. Brother, take my hand and do not move for it may pass. Hurry, it may get away. Are you tired? I am tired too, of waiting on this island, but how else do you take the measure of a beating heart?

*In Homer’s Odyssey, the goddess Calypso is a nymph on the island of Ogygia, where she detained the hero Odysseus for seven years, as he tried to get home. By the time he washed up on her shores, he had lost all his men and most of his hope. He found comfort and pleasure on the island, and was well cared for by the goddess, who was a match for his wit and a lover of music. His departure was an essential moment in his journey home, when she freed him reluctantly after receiving an order from Zeus, via Hermes, the messenger. She had offered the hero immortality if he stayed; he refused. She generally gets painted as the jilted, short-sighted lover, but I could never read her without thinking that she must have genuinely loved him to make such an offer, and it must have truly broken her heart when he left. As the story goes, there was no one like him. As I do with women of antiquity (including goddesses, nymphs, and gorgons), I sometimes wonder about what parts of her have been erased in order to fit the perspectives of the men who wrote her history for her.