Short story: To Fly Like a Bird

I wished to fly like a bird. I spent many an hour sitting on a bench along the seafront, looking across the North Devon coastline to see Lundy Island floating along the horizon, watching seagulls. The beach was below and at high tide waves smashed up against the wall, toppling over on unsuspecting tourists. At low tide, the waves were a background growl and the rocks held tight to their treasures of limpets, winkles and crabs hidden in strands of seaweed. Seagulls drifted past, eye to eye with me, as they tried to pierce through the veils of weed in the pools for a betraying flicker of a shrimp. They would come close so I could watch their feathers ruffle in the breeze and see the rough scales on their webbed feet as they dropped them down, limp wrists, ready to land. The black pupil encircled within a yellow iris of their stony gaze rejected my interest with disdain. 

It wanted to reach out, hold on to a tail feather and lift up with them. I piggy-backed their spirals upwards, watching their swooping descents, imagining the wind rush past my ears and my insides lurch with the falling. Seagulls rarely flap their wings, like the pigeons or rooks, but calmly ride the invisible swirls of wind on open wings, superior to their less graceful fellow creatures of the sky. On a fine day with harmless white wispy clouds, the seagulls appeared to be part of the sky itself, calling out across the sea to echo the waves.

One morning I was sitting as usual the bench along the sea wall. An old man was perched on the other end. A seagull swooped past level with us, hovering momentarily, its wings at full span, quivering against the air as it scanned the beach. It tilted its wings and leaned forwards on the breeze, its chest dipping as if heavy and the bird sunk slowly downwards. It landed on the sea, its wings neatly folding away as it sat on the surging water twitching its tail. I felt that I could also fly like that, and such longing filled me.

The old man chuckled and I glanced across at him. 

“It is easy to fly, but harder to land afterwards.” He said to me as if we were already in the middle of a conversation. Startled, I muttered,

“Of course, I understand.” I didn’t.

“As long as you do.” He answered very matter of factly. 

I smiled at him politely but wondered if I should move further along the sea front to an unoccupied bench. But mid-thought, my eye caught the eye of another gull, a yearling, mottled with the juvenile pattern of brown-grey flecks. I felt even more certain that I could fly like this gull, a real conviction rose within me, and I felt myself open my arms to caress the breeze. I felt the top of the wing brace itself against the wind, while I curled the longer feathers to keen to the right over the incoming tide.

I was the gull. I lurched in the air starting to fall as I made the realisation, but immediately steadied myself by reaching my wings out to full stretch, and in response I slid upwards on a vent of air that I could sense rather than see. I soared high, so high on an invisible spiralling highway.

My wings reached high above my head, and for a split second I felt heavy and was falling, but instinctively I pushed downwards in a full arc, thrusting the dense wall of air downwards. I felt muscles pull taut across my chest. My feet and legs stretched out behind me like a ballet dancer pointing her toes. The muscles down my thighs throbbed taught to keep the pitch of the flight. I lifted up higher.

The village sprawled below and the bench with the old man was a black speck. I twisted higher, feeling the sensation of dizzying rawness, an acute sense of being.  My whole mind was filled with the present, the wind and the sky and me. Nothing else was there – I felt empty – and free. 

I followed a spiral of air downwards, controlling the speed with the tipping of my wings, fanning them like outstretched fingers. The sea rose up to meet me, gently surging under rolls of unbroken waves.

I steadied my descent, pulling backwards, arching my wings above my head, scooping air with my end feathers, while at the same time letting air stream through my wider feathers, keeping the balance between falling and lifting, a delicate juggling of air held and air let go to smooth the landing. I craned my neck downwards and let my legs fall forwards like a jumbo letting down its wheels ready for the runway.

I splashed gently to sit onto the back of an unbroken wave. My legs paddled, and sitting I felt, not wet, but soft – like sitting on a Lilo; on the water, but somehow, not in the water. I bobbed gently, but then a movement under the waves caught my attention, a flash and a blur of shadow and I pecked at it sharply. A mouthful of salt water and a wriggle, a swallow, a sense of satisfaction and completion. I just acted, in a silence and softness, as if clouds were in my head. 

I opened up my wings again and lurched upwards, the initial push being an effort, my legs kicked backwards, my neck stretched upwards, flapping fast to build momentum. I dragged and tired, fell back a little but kept reaching upwards. A warm stream of air lifted me out of my flapping and took the strain out of the flight, spinning me higher along its twisting path. I screeched out with pure joy and exhilaration as I traced the shoreline.

I was not conscious of thought, I just knew. I was just wing, feather, eye, beak, air and lightness of spirit. I flew low along the promenade, over the bench and the old man. I fanned out my wings for maximum speed keeping my body flat along the line of flight, circling the bay and coming around once more to follow the seawall. Speed was noise and lightness of heart.

Suddenly, with a thump, I was sitting back on the bench. I stared open mouthed at the man. He chuckled at my expression.

“It is a weird feeling isn’t it, the brain and ego trying to squeeze themselves back in…?” 

And that, was exactly what the sensation was like. I sat in my human form once more, but I seemed too small a vessel.  Feelings, emotions, thoughts and ideas, worries and concerns were trying to get back in, pushing each other out of the way to cram inside: I was being punched and elbowed in the frenzy. I resented the invasion. It suddenly seemed too busy, complicated and emotional to be human when a bird can fly so high on a silent wing and a breeze. 

I turned back to look at my strange companion. But he wasn’t there. Instead, perched on the back of the bench was a rook, eyeing me with his head on one side, his wide black eyes serious, staring down his fierce grey beak. He nodded in my direction and swooped off, flapping faster than a gull, but gaining height in crazy swoops. He called out hollowly. To me it sounded like a laugh. I watched him until he became a dot in the blue and vanished.