“Flight” by Hannah-Elizabeth Newell

Flight

I was never sure what I meant to Dimitri, if he had a heart with a space that I came to occupy.

The nature of our friendship was never that he reached out for me, it was that he simply never stopped me from reaching out to him.

I found myself the day of his death in a car full of kitty crates with pigeons in them. I had stolen them, along with his tape recorder and his training journal from his home when I found out Dimitri was gone. I had nowhere else to be; I had been a temp covering someone’s maternity leave but, alas, the child popped out and so I was unemployed. And Dimitri had not yet finished training this group.

The journal sat fat and sagging in the passenger seat, it seemed to be weighed down by ink and an unnamed dampness. I couldn’t read much of his handwriting but he drew plenty of maps, I knew where he wanted Hippolyta to be released next.

But I was just going to release all of them.

Hippy was the most intelligent, as well as the youngest and most aggressive, according to the journal. She would likely find her way back to Dimitri’s home.

As for Theseus, Lysander, and Quince, they had not yet been brought out this far. I wasn’t sure about them. I wondered how much about each of their personalities Dimitri had recorded in the book. Recorded. Shoot, I forgot about the recording. I leaned down to the floor of the passenger side and reached into my purse to pull out the tape recorder. I figured it didn’t much matter at what point it was at, I couldn’t tell if it was in the right or wrong space anyway.

I pushed play hard and the dihs and dahs began. Morse code, I figured. He played this tape endlessly where the birds might hear it. I had attempted on and off for years to learn what it was saying, but gave up when I could never keep up with what were dashes and what were dots.

At this moment it hadn’t quite hit me, at least where it counts. I felt his suddenly vanished consciousness leave a hole in my brain, but the impact was nowhere to be found elsewhere. This was the first time I had lost someone who actually mattered to me, I wasn’t sure if I was mourning the right way. Or if there was a right way. This just felt like the right way for Dimitri.

Snow began falling in thick clumps, much like it did the day I met Mr. Derolf when I was fourteen, the day I ran away from home. I was wearing a thin hoodie and half-hopping with my crappy cane, the one five inches too short to suit my build. I had kept the darn thing because a friend had seen it at a yard sale for a quarter and thought of me. And the idea of someone thinking of me was something too delicious to not to try to remember.

The hour I met Dimitri I was losing light and wandering down rocky, tree-lined roads. I was panicking, thinking about turning back while feeling I had no choice but to push on. The minute I met Dimitri I was losing feeling in my hands (my feet had stopped communicating a while ago,) and I began paying less attention to where I was placing my cane before using it for support. The second I met Dimitri I was hugging the ground and looking up. My cane had landed on the curved side of a large rock in the road and down I went. And I looked ahead to yellow light, and saw a grandfatheresque silhouette standing in a doorway.

He didn’t rush down to help me. He just stood and watched as I got up, snow clinging to my clothes, and made my way to his steps and (after what felt like a very, very long while) to his door. He didn’t invite me in from the cold, he just didn’t stop me from walking in. He didn’t offer me a seat by the fire, but he let me curl up in the rocking chair by the fireplace and fall asleep. He said nothing and I said nothing.

Come to think of it, I don’t believe he ever learned my name.

I knew who he was when I woke up and saw a pigeon walking out of a back room. I had heard about this man. I had heard he was supposed to be a broken man. That I was supposed to see sadness radiate from his innermost chakra and grab hold of his every expression. I was supposed to see the burden of a life badly lived suck itself onto the backs of his eyeballs and make them appear deep-sunk.

But in the six years I knew Dimitri Derolf, he never once struck me as a broken man. He seemed more alive than most, simply quietly alive. I felt connected to him in this way. I wondered if the fact that he never shooed me away meant that he felt connected, too, or if I was simply tolerated…no, not even tolerated. It was as if I truly had no impact on his existence. There were so few moments when he seemed to acknowledge me at all. I think I might have made him smile once, when I was trying to step beside him and kept losing my balance while not quite falling. I was waving my cane and arms everywhere trying to regain control.

I made a weird sound (something like a laugh) at the memory. I wondered what the sound of my laugh sounds like. I couldn’t remember the last time I found something funny enough to lose control of my throat noises for a second.

I saw the sign for Tamarack and felt anxiety start to build. I didn’t know how to train birds, I didn’t know anything about releasing them or what’s supposed to happen next. I had been on a sort of autopilot doing something I felt had to be done. Why did it have to be done? Because not doing it would have caused a discomfort in me that would never quite go away. It seemed like a fitting thing to do.

I wondered if my face looked odd, I felt very odd. I looked around the stores and small business as we passed through a downtown. I was worried about someone looking at me and being able to tell something wasn’t quite right. And these were the sort of folk to look at the people in the cars beside them at a red light for some reason I could never figure out. I was aware of my heartbeat getting gradually louder, but I was ignoring it out of hope that it would just quiet itself down. I could feel the beginning of a panic attack and I wasn’t much in the mood to stop and ride it out.

My breathing felt thick and I began to feel as though someone was hugging me from behind and slowly squeezing all of my air out. I began to worry sincerely about passing out from this, and a voice seemed to appear from within telling me I was going to die. I turned into the parking lot of a diner and sloppily into a free space. The car was bending in on me and I couldn’t breathe.

I had to get out. Where was my cane? Shoot, where was my cane?!

I pushed open the door just as someone was trying to pull into the space next to me. They leaned on their horn and I screamed. I got out anyway, standing only on my right leg, and leaned against the car.

“Hey!” A female voice yelled, pissed off. “Do you mind?”

I looked over, it was an older woman in the passenger seat of a rusty red sedan with a gentleman about the same age driving. I imagined getting back into the car, into the tiny, squeezing space and started hyperventilating. I closed my eyes and shook my head and heard the car back up and drive away. Air in, air out. Air in, air out. My face felt red from embarrassment, but it had to be ridden out.

I hated being in public.

Not gonna die, a voice said in me, softly and comfortingly.

Duh, I replied to it.

I sat back down on the driver seat but kept the door open. Cold water used to help this, just a gulp. But the water bottle sitting in my cupholder was empty, and the diner didn’t appeal to me. Really, people have never appealed to me. Each person always wants something, they need to pull from you for their own comfort. Small talk, a bit of change, a returned smile. I never meant to sound angry about this, I’ve never been angry about it. It’s just…intimidating. All of the tiny social behavioral slots we’re supposed to fill, the checkmark boxes we’re supposed to tick off in order to know that we’ve done socializing the right way.

I’ve never known what’s supposed to be on my list, I just see empty boxes and know when I go out into the world and interact with people that there are things I’ve neglected to tick off. Interaction doesn’t come naturally to me, I think I could enjoy it if people stopped reading into lack of affect. I am always content if I am allowed to be.

I stared ahead into the windshield, the car was facing a very nice hedge. A well done hedge. I looked back at my prisoners in the backseat and they seemed to look back at me. Hippy seemed most aware of this whole shindig, each time I checked on her she seemed to walk as close as she could get to me and ask, “Well?”

Dimitri treated her with a gentleness and sweetness I had not seen with the others. I imagined if she had been a real person fallen in the snow he would have rushed down to help her.

She was the special one.

Another car was slowly trying to pull into the space by me, I took a breath and pulled the door shut.

We entered the town where the pigeons were to be released. It was all hills and trees and open land. It had been several hours since I stopped last. The tape recorder had gone crackling followed by silent a while ago. I heard their talons ticking and tapping on the bottom plastic of the cages, trying to hold onto something when I made a tough turn. Hippy seemed to always be moving no matter what, looking around and trying to get her head through any slot she could manage.

I always turned to check on her when I reached a red light. I didn’t care much about the others. I hadn’t taken a liking to any of the birds Dimitri had owned, I suppose I never really got the chance. I never tried to hold or train any of them, I was too afraid of sudden, direct, negative interaction with Dimitri. His birds seemed to be sort of sacred things. And I would feel lost if he suddenly demanded I leave and not come back.

Nearly every free day since I was fourteen was spent in Dimitri’s home while he trained and cared for his pigeons. I’d bring books or drawing materials and I would enjoy the safe silence. I never asked to visit, I never asked to come in. He got into the habit of leaving the door open for me, though. But I had to think that this was to save himself the time of listening for me and then needing to go open the door to let me in. We didn’t smile to acknowledge each other’s presence in the room. He’d sometimes walk in, see me, pause for a moment and then go on with his task.

He never asked me about my cane. If I had to pick one thing I would have wanted him to ask about it would have been that, because I felt it was the only sincerely interesting thing about me. Vanishing bone disease with localized venous insufficiency. Nature wanted my leg to either explode from blood pooling or snap in two. Go on, I’d imagine saying, ask me about the surgeries and bone grafts. Guess how many scars I’m up to. Guess how I found out that my leg doesn’t feel like making tibial tissue anymore. Guess how long I waited at the bottom of the basement steps until someone found me, and how much longer until they did something about it.

I never felt welcome, as I never felt unwelcome. I was a ghost that he let haunt his home. Nobody cared where I was. My legal guardian, Aunt Ruthie, tried to reach out at first, but I was always a very quiet and distant child, and she didn’t feel the need to connect with me, she never found the idea of motherhood enjoyable. When I’d come home sometimes she’d ask where I had been, or ask me how I was, but I could tell she disliked seeing me. She wanted to live alone with Egg Fart and King Tut (her diabetic tabby cats) and watch soap operas before starting her shift at the Denny’s in town.

She forgot how to pronounce my name often. It’s Daumier, but if you heard it from her you’d think it was something like Day-myer or Doo-me-ear. Eventually I told her she could call me Dau. This worked much better.

I had a bit of fun for half a moment mispronouncing her name when I was thirteen and saw Love Me or Leave Me, and I heard how James Cagney pronounced Ruth Etting’s name. Roo-tee. C’mon, Roo-tee. Don’t be like that, Roo-tee. Look at all I done for ya.

I found some excuse to say her name this way, feeling for the first time close to ridiculous giggles. But her glare and “Excuse me?” shut down my feelings of silliness in a flash. I was always hypersensitive to disapproval. I spent the day wondering why I thought something so completely stupid was funny, why I’d expect her to find it funny. Stupid.

The map showed a wide-open space with mountains surrounding and a square box thing in the middle. And we were passing a huge piece of land with a tall wooden structure up ahead. Looked a bit like a watchtower, or the beginning of a tall treehouse never completed. The snow was falling softer now.

As I pulled up to the thing the road got rougher, my compact car wasn’t made to deal with this terrain or this weather. Seeing the structure clearly it was a large platform, one could reach the top using a ladder. I stared at the wooden rungs and squeezed my leg. My heart sank as I tried to imagine a way for me to get Hippy and the others up there without snapping my leg from the weight.

It couldn’t be done. I wondered if getting them up there was really necessary, if I could do all this from the ground.

This had to be done the way Dimitri would do it.

I rewound the tape and started from the beginning. It took what felt like several minutes

“If it be true, as is said-“

I froze and stopped it. I felt ice on my head and in my stomach. He had a voice.

Idiot, of course he had a voice.

I didn’t realize, I had never heard enough of it to recognize it. I wondered now if it was him, it could be anybody. Heck, it could be James Cagney for all I knew. Roo-tee, how ‘bout dem pigeons, Roo-tee? I looked back at Hippy as though I expected her to nod yea or nay about the whole thing. She gave me her usual silent treatment.

I looked back down at the recorder and turned off the car. I wanted to hear it all clearly. Rewind, wait, play.

“If it be true,” he began again, “as is said, that when good New Yorkers die they go to Paris, then surely it may be added that when good pigeon amateurs die, they go to Belgium…”

He sounded much gentler and happier than I was expecting, amused even. It seemed to be a guide to pigeon training, specifically a guide to training Belgian pigeons. It went on for some time, about the greatness of Belgian homing birds. I rewound it and played it back half a dozen times, trying to stuff the texture of his voice into my memory. But every time I paused the recording and tried to remember what his voice sounded like I seemed incapable of holding onto the sound. I could recite the words but I couldn’t hear his voice in my mind.

The recording explained experiments regarding sound influence on the ability of flight in pigeons, specifically how morse code might affect their behaviors before and during flight. “Creating a world of dits and dahs has been shown to create higher aggression and focus in homing birds…” It went on to explain that the following would be his favorite play in morse code. And then the familiar sound of the past six years began. I set the recorder on the dashboard and stared at it a while. I looked back at Hippy and the others, and I wondered if they recognized his voice.

There was a shine of brown on the floor of the backseat and reached down to pick up my cane. Hippolyta started flapping as I reached to pick up her cage, I couldn’t read if it meant excitement or anxiety. I never spent time really observing any of them or learning their behaviors.

Upon opening my car door I was met with a wall of icy air. I stashed the tape recorder in one of my big coat pockets, the speaker sticking out so Hippy could hear it play. I set my feet on the ground and tried to feel the terrain beneath the snow. I tapped the ground with my cane to find something decently solid, everything felt much like gravel. I took a breath, swallowed and pushed up and out of the car. The space felt so massive standing outside, everything so hazy and white and soft. Dihs and dahs echoed lightly around us.

I gripped the handle of Hippy’s cage and used my elbow to shut the car door. The tower looked weaker the closer we got to it. I hated the ground, everything shifted with the weight placed on the cane. I stared at the ladder, numb and weary, and asked Hippy if she thought we were going to Belgium, too.

I knew before I set a foot on the ladder that it wouldn’t hold, but I tried a step on a rung anyway. It cracked right away and I stepped off. I backed up a step and set Hippy down. Well, I thought, we’d just have to do things this way. I got on my knees in the snow and opened her cage. She hopped out right away, bobbed her head this way and that and jumped while spreading her wings.

And then she softly landed back on the ground.

She spread her wings and flapped them several times before jumping, catching a moment with the wind and then coming back down. Surely height doesn’t make that much difference? I crawled over to her, her breathing had picked up and she was looking around, her head flicking back and forth. She saw me and hopped up again, wings going mad, but failed to get anywhere.

“Come on, buddy.” A strange ache churned in my gut. I shuffled on my knees and grabbed her, holding her wings close against her body so she didn’t injure herself. I struggled to stand, putting as much weight on my right leg as I could. I raised her quickly to the sky and let go. But her story of flight remained the same. “Come on. Come on come on come on,” I begged her. “You’re not special if you can’t do this. He wouldn’t love you if you couldn’t do this and he loved you.”

She was looking at the fluffy world around her, trunk-deep in snow. I let out a laugh, a single, frustrated laugh. She had no idea. The wind seemed to slow suddenly, and the sound from the recorder seemed loud in my ears. I looked down at the thing. “Well, this jazz sure didn’t work, did it?” I took it out of my pocket, “That was the point of it, yes? To inspire things like you that can’t do what you’re supposed to?”

All the years I spent being around him, I asked for less than his stupid birds. I didn’t ask even his attention, I didn’t tell him I wanted it, I didn’t actively seek it out. But I wanted to be connected to him, I wanted to take up some space in him. And maybe because I had always been broken I was hoping he was broken too. I wanted to see the burden of a life badly lived show on his face and cling onto his back. Maybe I believed we could silently lift up and fix the things that hit us the most.

How could he love something that always asked everything of him? Something defective like this thing, this broken, useless thing that he treated with careful hands and a softness never shown to anything else?

I looked up at the tower. How long had it even been since he was up there? Why would he take her here? Her name was marked in the journal by the map. I was pissed and confused.

I looked back at the car. Lysander, Theseus and Quince were still inside. I grabbed my cane and made my way back to the car, I pulled out the cages and set them on the ground before opening them. All of them hopped out, checked the place out and started flying around the space. I closed the backseat door and leaned against it. Theseus flew down to Hippy after a few minutes of flying and stayed with her. Lysander disappeared quickly, and Quince landed atop the tower, staring down at all of it.

I set the recorder on the ground before getting back into the car and watching them a few minutes longer. I felt a longing to belong to something. I watched Theseus walk around, but not away, from Hippy, and I envied their friendship. I belonged to nothing now; I had nothing to which I could feel connected.

I turned the car around and made my way out of the valley. Nothing felt explained, nothing felt like closure. Everything felt open and torn and lost. The drive back home felt much faster than the ride out, and I wished that it had felt like an eternity. Dimitri had been home to me, and now home was dead.

I wondered if I should feel more, and I wondered if Dimitri occupied as much space as I believed he had. I felt crushed but selfishly crushed, I felt that I had lost something. And I imagined if I had loved him then it would feel as though the world had lost something.

I returned home to feel like a useless, hungry bird, stuck in the snow without the gift of flight.

 

 

 


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Hannah-Elizabeth Noelle Thompson has a long name, and she is an INFP. She is also terrible at starting bios.

A restless little whippersnapper, Hannah grew up never staying in the same town for longer than a few years, and eventually she never stayed in the same state for very long. She currently resides in Morgantown, West Virginia. Her spare time is spent fixing (and accidentally breaking) her typewriters, making things one might call ‘art’ (ithinkilikeyoupeople.wordpress.com), and attacking everyone online and elsewhere with hugs (if you’d like frequent hug attacks, you may follow her on Twitter @SherlockMadame.) She has plans to travel the world. One way she’s working towards this is dunking paper in coffee and then typing on it for people: Fiverr.com/HugsAreSent.

It’s a rare occasion that any fiction Hannah writes solo is released into view of the Internet with her name openly attached. She prefers writing any public fiction with a tall, ridiculously handsome and brilliant fellow whose name rhymes with shmay-leb phew-pell. Hannah has been keeping secret blogs on numerous sites ever since she learned what the Internet is, and how one uses it. She does this for the same reason The Singing Butler is one of her favorite paintings. The woman’s face is turned out to sea as she dances, we can’t judge her face. It feels as though her dancing is the writing and her face is Hannah’s name. If her face is turned out to sea, out of view, all there is to think about is the dancing.

Hannah is weird about her writing, and there’s likely a very good reason why she doesn’t do this jazz professionally.

Also she kinda loves you. And she is terrible at ending bios.

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8 Comments

  1. I don’t know exactly what I’m feeling, but this story made me feel a lot of it. I’m not sure if you meant the end to be interpreted the way I interpreted it, but if you did, that was F%$#ing beautiful. Well done. I’m going to have to think hard this week, both stories were excellent.

  2. this story was strange and beautiful. there was something so emotionally solid about the mix of mundane and magical that this story offers.

    the characters on their own seem otherwise unremarkable, the kind of people that live in the background of someone else’s life. but together, in their unlikely friendship and afterward, something simple and fantastic and really beautiful happened. these unremarkable people became incredibly engaging and relatable, and i loved them both.

    and thank you for presenting our protag’s disability in a way that was honest and sweet and not at all cliche or patronizing. with so little space to tell a story, it would’ve been easy to fall back on her leg as a facet of her personality; you took the road less traveled, and the story was so much more beautiful for it.

  3. This was just freaking amazing. There’s a sweet-spot in a story for me where I’m partly being led through emotions by the author and I’m partly having “AHA!” moments on my own as I piece things together, and this story walked that like perfectly.

    The topic was weird, the subjects were odd, the characters had quirks I’d never come across before, and somehow it all seemed perfectly natural to me. At no point did I step out of the story and say, “Okay that seems forced.” And that’s saying a lot considering this is a story about someone with brittle bones taking their dead old coot friend’s homing pigeons out for release.

    As Matt said above, I’m not sure if you meant for me to feel the feels I felt during the ending…I found an amazingly subtle and beautiful peace there finally understanding which things Dimitri chose to dedicate his time to during his life. And then there was the weirdest, yet somehow satisfying, whiplash as our protagonist missed this point entirely and refused to have an epiphany.

    This has my vote this week.

    Also, as co-founder of the arena, I have officially ordered Hannah-Elizabeth to become a more regular contributor.

    • “…the weirdest, yet somehow satisfying, whiplash as our protagonist missed this point entirely…”

      That’s exactly how I felt. Whiplash, but yet weirdly satisfied with it. As I said before, just beautiful.

  4. What everyone else said about the emotional punch of the story? The beauty? Yeah, that. They’ve said it better than I would have. Hannah-Elizabeth, I want you to write more.

    Something here doesn’t speak to me as clearly as is seems to have spoken to other people. I’m missing something in the emotional journey, so I feel like I’m observing it at a distance. I know it’s there, but I’m not feeling it.

    That doesn’t mean the story or the writing is any way at fault; sometimes you don’t connect with a piece of art and that’s how it is. Some art, you fall in love with is destined for the friend-zone, some will always remain an acquaintance.

  5. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    This is a masterpiece of poetic projection, and while initially I was turning the corner of each word feeling a bit perplexed, I soon found that I fell in love with something here along the way. There is a beautiful strength in the brokenness of these souls, so carefully and precisely conveyed through a backdrop of unadorned desperation.

    The ending is anti-climactic in a manner that is so humblingly perfect. It is truthful.

    I agree with the prior comments in terms of being unexpectedly impacted by the nature of this story, and the transcended manner in which it compelled me to think about birds. Amazing.

    But Doc’s comment also resonates with me in the sense that the emotional impact of the story doesn’t necessarily feel like my own. And yet, I feel almost as if that’s part of the makeup of the narrative – a longing for meaningful connectedness despite the encumbrance of a cold emotional desolation. I have the sense of being an observer of someone else desperately striving for an “AHA!!!” moment, and it’s actually quite amazing.

    More specifically, I feel like I’m looking over the shoulders of a painter working on their life’s masterpiece. As new colors are applied with each brush stroke, the life of this painter starts to come more fully into view, and by the end, I am in even more awe of the finished masterpiece because of what I’ve seen of its progression. And so it is with the protagonist of this story. Perhaps even more so in the sense that this character is doomed to never fully grasp the poetic truth of their predicament. Each small piece of insight into this life, and the hardships endured, all are brush strokes in a life portrait that is lovingly rendered as words left unspoken,…names mispronounced or unlearned,… voices unheard,… or even heights unattained due to steps not taken or wings unused.

    A portrait most profound in its empty space.

    I loved this.

  6. Instantly captivating and emotional. I really enjoyed it.

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