The Power of Flight

by Robert Beerę


I met Rebecca learning to fly. We were both taking an introductory flying course, although neither one of us ever finished it. I found the navigation part of it interminable, and when I discovered the money involved in really getting a pilot's license, I decided to look for something a bit more cost- effective. I never did find out why Rebecca quit -- I assumed at the time that her reasons were similar to my own, but now I wonder. Now I think that she didn't want all that machinery surrounding her; she needed to feel exposed to the air.

For me, flying was an interest; for her, it was an all- consuming passion. I don't think she ever had any other attitude towards life. Some people are like stones skimming over the surface of a pond, while others dive deep, taking the water into their heart, even if the water sometimes overwhelms them.

I was always the skimming stone, until Rebecca.

We were only casual acquaintances during that flying course -- we had coffee a couple of times during breaks, but I was just coming off the collapse of a two-year common law relationship and, although I found her very attractive in a brooding sort of way, I didn't let myself get too interested. Besides, I quit after two classes.

The same reasoning didn't apply six months later when I saw her again. This time it was hang gliding -- a course put on through the local community college. I had regained much of my equilibrium and, having lost much of my distrust of the fairer sex, I spotted her right away. Her back was to me as I entered the makeshift classroom, and it was not very well lit, but I recognized her immediately. Her hair was raven, and swept back over one ear, exposing part of a profile.

I went right up and sat next to her. She seemed honestly delighted to see a familiar face.

"I should have known you'd be here," she said, leaning over to give me a quick hug. "It's Doug, right?"

"Uh, Dave. But that's okay. And you're Rebecca."

"You're right! Have you been thinking of me?" Her hair had fallen forward, and I couldn't tell if she smiled.

The question took me a bit offstride, until I considered it. I found with surprise that I had been thinking of her. Oh, not constantly -- I was much too practical for that -- but occasionally, and consistently, for the past six months.

She turned and looked at me briefly. "You have," she said. "I can see it. That's good."

Then the lecture began, and she simply turned back, leaving me adrift. It was a feeling I would come to know well during the next year.

#

We became almost inseparable. She occupied my every thought, waking and asleep. The course lasted two weeks, and ended with a small jump. A small jump was not what Rebecca had in mind, however, and she was not an easy woman to deny.

"That's all the course fee included," I protested when I heard her plan. "And, frankly, I don't think I'm ready to take on anything more." The initiation consisted of little more than a coast down a grassy hillside.

"Nonsense!" she said, shaking her head. "You're no more chicken than I am."

I bristled a little at that, as she no doubt figured I would. She always could read me, and I thought I knew her just as well. Just shows how wrong you can be. I believe I understand her motivations better now, but what good does that do me? In the end I agreed to join her, if she could convince the instructor to take us along on another jump.

I was convinced he'd never agree, but, sure enough, a few minutes later Rebecca came back and just smiled, saying, "Saturday, ten-thirty." I don't think a man ever could say 'no' to her -- I know I couldn't.

Then I couldn't back out, so I picked her up at nine that morning and we headed out to "The Hill". It was an escarpment two hundred feet high, overlooking lush farmland; an area that usually had good thermals in the morning. An experienced glider could stay aloft for an hour or more, riding the currents. An experienced glider, I was not. Neither was Rebecca, but she didn't seem too concerned.

Our instructor was already at the jump-off, inspecting several brightly colored gliders. His name was Jeff, and he had spent more time in the sun than I could ever hope to. I must admit that I felt a touch of jealousy seeing the attention he gave Rebecca, and I stayed close by. I needn't have worried, though. She only had eyes for the gliders.

We watched several people take off before it was our turn. Jeff gave us another run-down of the controls, and smiled -- a bit like a shark, I thought. "Who's first?"

I took a moment steeling myself to volunteer. I felt it was my duty to go first; why, I don't know. The whole thing had been Rebecca's idea. Machismo? Possibly, but why had I never suffered from it before? I took a walk over to the edge of the escarpment -- a mistake. I found myself imagining all the things I could crash into -- barns, highways, ponds...

By the time I had my nerve up, and turned around, Rebecca was all strapped in. I tried to protest, but she only ignored me. In truth, I was a bit relieved, but I still protested. I also watched very carefully. Her legs were free so she could launch herself over the edge; later she would place them in a woven cocoon to allow her to balance beneath the nylon wing.

There was a mild slope leading to the edge, and she took it in ten quick strides -- then she was gone. She dropped like a stone over the edge, and I yelled in alarm and ran forwards until I noticed that no one else seemed concerned. Then I saw her blue foil sliding away on the winds, heading out from the cliff. She had merely fallen far enough for the wing to catch the air.

I must have strayed, because a hand on my shoulder startled me back to reality. I could no longer see Rebecca's glider below me. "She's down okay. Your turn, bud. If you don't want to, I'll just tell her that we had problems with the last glider. No pressure."

Sure. No pressure. Easy for him to say.

It wasn't a classic flight. It wasn't a smooth landing. But I didn't hit a house, or anything else for that matter. I didn't soar on the thermals the way some of the others had, defying all laws of logic by ending up higher that I had begun. No, I just spiralled quickly and uneventfully towards the ground, picked a likely pasture to land in, then skidded to a stop three fields over from that one.

Fortunately, I had a little while to wait for the recovery team, with Rebecca, to reach me. Almost long enough for the shaking to stop.

That night we made love for the first time. It was delicious, exciting, every bit as I had fantasized it. Afterwards, I was laying there, catching my breath, when I noticed Rebecca was up on one elbow, smiling at me.

"Almost," she said, wistfully. "Almost."

I didn't know what she meant. For me, she was never almost.

#

It turned out that she had been parasailing, skydiving, bungee jumping -- anything that involved being in the air. She even lived on the twenty-third floor. I never appreciated the depth of her obsession. Not until it was too late, at least.

Our relationship was one-sided. Oh, I believe she loved me -- she thought that I shared her compulsion, but my only passion was for her. After all, hadn't I followed her off a cliff?

After nearly a year together, I was no closer to understanding Rebecca, but I thought I was closer to understanding myself. Her outlook seemed to have changed -- at least the constant desire to fly didn't seem to rule her as much.

It hadn't disappeared, however, just mutated. I thought that I wanted to marry her -- had even bought a ring, and was just trying to talk myself into proposing.

I was just about ready when it all blew apart. Rebecca came over for dinner -- to my three-story walk-up -- and, over dessert, informed me that she was going away.

"The Mountains of the Moon," she said, when I demanded to know where she was going.

My mind quit working. For a second, I thought that she had finagled her way onto a rocket. But that was impossible, even for her. What then?

"Animism."

"What?"

"A lot of African tribes believe that all things, even animals, mountains and the like, have souls."

"So?" I was adrift again. She was leaving?

"So, some tribes in Uganda believe that the soul is the only reality -- that it can be transferred, or that the body is mutable, malleable. The body can be changed without losing the soul. I want to find out if they're right."

I ranted, pleaded; all to no avail. She was off to Uganda, where -- well, it was too ridiculous for words. I threatened: "I might not be here when you get back."

She shrugged, and that told me more than I wanted to know.

"If you are, that will make me happy. I promise not to do anything without talking to you first."

And, that was that. Nothing I said would change her mind, so I promised to wait. She said she'd only be gone a month, two at the outside.

#

It was ten months before I heard from Rebecca again. I dropped her at the airport for her flight to Rome -- the first leg of a journey that would take her alone into the land that had spawned Idi Amin Dada. She cried when we parted, but even so, she seemed distracted, in a hurry to be away. I got a postcard from Nairobi two weeks later, then ... nothing.

But on one sweltering summer day I came home from the office a bit late, and the phone was flashing. A tiny, insignificant red light that simply determined the course of the rest of my life.

The message was from Rebecca.

"Come as soon as you can, David. Come right away."

#

She had kept her apartment -- "I'm only going to be gone a month, and I don't want to move" -- and I guess she'd given the landlords access to a bank account. Anyway, it was in the same place -- the twenty-third floor -- and I raced there in record time. The elevator seemed to take forever to creep up all those floors. Eight people got on and off, and still I climbed. In one sweaty hand I clutched a bouquet of carnations, purchased from a street vendor below.

When the light finally came on for Rebecca's floor, I was covered in sweat. It was a horribly hot day outside, but when the doors rolled back, a blast of even hotter air struck me a blow -- the air conditioning was broken. I thought that the furnace must be on, but heat rises, and this high up the building was stifling.

Across the hall a door was propped open, in a vain attempt to get some stray breeze through. A figure in a mesh shirt slouched in the doorway. As the lift doors banged shut, I headed for the end of the hall, and Rebecca, but I was stopped momentarily by a voice from behind me.

"You going to see her?" it demanded. "You won't get nowhere. I pounded on the door a while ago -- can't stand that reek, 'specially in this heat -- but she wouldn't answer."

I turned around, but he had summoned enough energy to drag himself inside. "She's in there, though," he said. Then the door closed.

Now, what the hell had that been all about? As I neared the end of the hall -- a bit slower now -- I became aware of a sickening sweet odor, made worse by the breathless heat. It entered the nostrils and made taking a deep breath impossible.

My hand didn't want to obey, but I forced it to rap on the door -- once...twice. Nothing. No response. But the smell was definitely stronger here. I tried to place the smell, but for the moment it eluded me.

I tried to summon up the excitement that I had felt when I had first heard her voice on my machine. This was, after all, the woman I had wanted to marry (Still wanted to?). Had she sounded upset, frightened on the tape? I hadn't really paid that much attention -- she was back! -- but I think she sounded elated, perhaps even overcome.

The door wasn't locked.

I pushed it open, making sure that the neighbor wasn't peering down the hall, and stepped inside. The stink hit me like the breath of an abattoir, and I think I nearly fell.

She was in the center of the living room floor, but she wasn't dead, as I was starting to fear. She was sitting cross-legged on the twill carpet -- where we had made love the last time before she left. In front of her was a small hibachi, where several chunks of something sizzled on skewers. That was the source of the smell. Her hair looked like it hadn't been washed in the whole ten months. The beautiful raven locks were a tangled mess which I wouldn't have touched without fumigating.

But my eyes were drawn to her face, the face of the woman who, God help me, I still loved. Her eyes stared back at me from a face pinched thin from tension and, I think, malnutrition.

Those eyes will haunt me forever. They were eyes that had seen things that I didn't even want to contemplate. It looked as though she had simultaneously been granted her greatest wish, and abandoned all hope.

At first I didn't think she recognized me, but I was wrong.

"David." The voice seemed to come from a long way inside her, and have trouble getting out. "I knew you'd come." She smiled and, although one of her teeth was missing, it still had the power to move my heart.

"Rebecca," I cried. "What the hell happened to you? I'd almost given you up for dead. The consul had no idea where you were; they didn't even know you were in the country."

She seemed momentarily confused by my outburst. "I told you that I'd be back, and you promised to wait."

"You also said you wouldn't do anything until you talked to me!"

She shook her head emphatically. "I didn't! Oh, I wanted to! David! I saw a shaman take the form of a fish eagle. He offered me the chance to join him. But I remembered my promise, so here I am." Her voice was getting progressively softer; now; it was more like a little girl's voice.

Like that little girl at a tea party, she pointed to one skewer bearing what looked like a piece of meat, though it was nothing I recognized. "This one is for me...and this one is for you." She gazed up at me, madly content. "I knew you'd want to join me. Now we can be free together."

I should have grabbed her, shaken her, slapped her senseless. I knew something horrible was about to happen, had to happen, but I was frozen to the spot. I could feel myself sweating -- I swear I could -- I could feel my heart beating, but through it all, I could feel her madness, like a physical presence, like a third entity in the room. And, somehow, it kept me from acting until too late. Later, I think it might have transferred to me for a moment.

She stood up slowly, still with the beatific smile on her face. "We can fly together!" she said, then she ripped a bite out of one of the pieces of meat.

My limbs came back to life, but it was too late. She was already swallowing. "Rebecca! No!"

I leapt forward, then quickly jumped back. Suddenly she was changing, her body melting, moulding. Her skin was crawling, bunching up, sprouting. Embryonic feathers formed, lengthened.

Her face changed as well, looking like something out of "The Fly," - but more bird-like.

Rebecca, or what had been Rebecca, stumbled on melting legs to the balcony door and slid it back, but the heat was unchanged.

It was difficult for her to move the heavy door. She had shrunk to barely half her original height. She raised a leper's hand and pointed to the brazier. "David--" she began, the words barely recognizable. I think she tried to smile.

Abruptly, she stopped. The changes were slowing. Some of the feathers were beginning to shrink. Rebecca's eyes widened in horror. Was it going to reverse? What if it stopped halfway?

And what had this decision cost her, mentally? To have it snatched away...

"No!" she screamed. "No!" Before I could move, she stumbled out onto the balcony. I reached the rail just in time to watch her body impact the cement, twenty-three stories below.

I'm not too clear on what happened next -- apparently I was being ruled by my hindbrain, because I don't remember any coherent thoughts. I had just watched the woman I loved try to turn herself into a bird, and, when that seemed to fail, smash herself into the pavement. Little wonder I couldn't think straight.

I seem to remember stumbling back into the apartment, whether to call the police, or what, I don't know. I must have closed the balcony door behind me, because it was closed later on. But then my eyes fell on the hibachi, still smoking away, and my doom was pronounced. I grabbed the other skewer.

The changes came on more quickly with me. When I came to my senses, I tried to run for the door, to get help, but I found I couldn't run, and I couldn't work the handle when I got there.

The police arrived sometime later, and tagged and bagged everything. Except me. I hid under a chair until they went to check out the balcony, then I made a break for it. What could I tell them, anyway? I can speak, after a fashion, but what could I say that would be believed? They would cage me, that's all.

And I could not accept the idea of being caged, since I now had the power of flight. And what a power it is! I soared, I dove, I darted. Then I looked for Rebecca, but she was gone.

What happened to her body, and was she still half-bird when they found her? I don't know. If so, I wonder what they made of it?

Is there some way to reverse the process? I don't know, but if there is, the knowledge is hidden somewhere in the Ugandan jungle, where I can't get to it. I wonder whether Rebecca's transformation failed, as she must have thought, or whether it was just slower than mine for some reason.

I eventually found Rebecca's grave -- I have little but time -- and I spend much of my time hanging around the cemetery. I pick food up where I can. I seem to be able to survive on just about anything. There is a lady who feeds us sometimes, and I'm telling her this story. She has promised to write it down -- although I can't imagine her showing it to anyone -- but I feel better with the telling.

If I was a sea bird, maybe I could think of trying for Africa. But, Rebecca! A pigeon? A goddam pigeon.

Still, I can fly.

x-x-x


About the author, Robert H. Beer:

Robert H. Beer lives and writes in Fergus, Ontario, Canada with a very understanding wife and two little distractions, plus two cats which provide a certain balance to life. He has been writing SF short stories for over ten years, and has sold work to the anthology"North of Infinity", along with various other publications such as Eternity Online, Spaceways Weekly, and Jackhammer. Visitors are welcome at his web page: www.mirror.org/robert.beer


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