Man-Flier

Man-Flier

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Richard Wolkomir

 

EVENING ONE:
Mr. Lo Comes Home and Finds His Wife Sitting
on the Sofa in Her One-Piece Black Bathing Suit

She sat with her arms clasping her drawn-up knees. Tonight, a strand of reddish-brown seaweed entwined in her wet hair.

She stared quizzically at Lo.

He removed a bowl of left-over noodles from the refrigerator and ate a few bites. Then he changed from his office suit into his white flying robe. He went to the kite room.

A huge silk kite’s unassembled components leaned against the wall: scaly thorax, wings, coiled tail. Atop the workbench rested the final piece, a disembodied dragon’s head. You do not fly such a kite holding a string—you ride it into the sky. Lo touched the dragon’s black eye, encircled by rings of yellow and scarlet.

But the man-flier must not fly first. It flies third. The dragon ends it.

So he studied the smaller kites hung on the wall.

Perhaps the rat?

He had painted it fallen-leaf brown. For background, he chose gray, like late autumn’s stratus clouds, which bring winter’s first chill. The rat’s tail served as the kite’s tail: at its base, robust as a healthy newborn, but tapering to a point.

One year now gnawed away, as if by rodent teeth, all but these three final ceremonial days. And the rat signified time skittering by. But when he painted the rat’s black eyes, he impulsively sprinkled in powdered glass, so they glittered. Now he saw why: does not the rat peep out from hiding, possibly to venture forth, after morsels?

He cursed himself, hanging his head.

“A-minus?”

His father speaking, thirty years ago, scowling at his report card.

“Not A-plus? Why do you shame us?”

Besides, he should chop off the tapering tail at its thirty-ninth segment. But then the kite would fly improperly.

So he took down the fox kite instead.

Its square shape signaled a man flew it. But he had painted the fox a vixen, to show the man stood grounded, watching the woman soar. Dog fox and vixen hunt together. But time ultimately separates them. Then the dog fox hunts alone.

Around the kite’s perimeter, he had painted a band of black.

He carried the fox kite onto the balcony. A breeze out of the northern desert stirred it.

Mai now leaned dripping against the railing at the balcony’s far corner, looking down twenty stories to the street. Cars honked, and voices babbled up, reminding Lo of sixteen years ago, when he first saw his future wife in a little beech-tree park squeezed between noisy avenues, practicing in the pool with the provincial swim team.

Each succeeding evening he walked home that way, to see the lithe woman’s intense gaze as she dove in with hardly a splash and surged through the water to the pool’s far end, then somersaulted and kicked off from the wall and surged back, and climbed out of the pool dripping and laughing.

He looked at her now, and spoke: “I thought you an athlete at life.”

But she only looked at him quizzically again. On her wet arms, sand grains glinted.

He sighed.

Unwinding string from the kite’s spool, he closed his eyes and mouthed memorized ancient phrases. Then he presented the kite to the breeze, as a falconer might unfetter a hawk on his glove, thrusting it to the sky. He felt the kite shudder.

It flew.

He let out string, watching the fox rise into the golden evening sky. Nothing in the ritual tomes said when to sever the string. The flier chose.

He let out more string, so the rising kite dwindled southward along the long row of apartment buildings, toward the sea.

“Enough?” he asked Mai.

She looked at him, sadly amused, as you might regard a beloved child toting a poorly wrapped bundle, who proclaims he is running away.

On the balcony’s little table, beside his binoculars, lay his knife. As he reached for it blindly, while peering at his distant kite, he saw something fly out from a building down the line.

He put the spool of twine on the floor and stepped on it, to hold it. Then he raised the binoculars, twirling the focus knob. It was a kite, sent out by another apartment dweller to fly beside his own.

He scowled: to intrude on another’s ceremony! Barbarism!

He glanced to see if it offended Mai. She now leaned her back against the railing, studying the distant kites. Then she turned her eyes on him.

From her hair, she pulled the strand of seaweed. Still looking at him, she put it into her mouth. Slowly, she chewed. She swallowed.

“I do not understand,” he said.

She looked back toward the distant kites.

Upset, he looked through the binoculars at the interloping kite, and saw it was triangular, so flown by a woman. At its center, a large black circle signified loss, despair. Yet, the kite’s background, pale blue, like the dawn sky, suggested hope.

Lo sighed.

He put down the binoculars on the small table. He picked up the knife. He gazed down the row of buildings to the fox kite, a dot, ignoring the interloper beside it.

Mai, leaning against the rail, watched him unhappily, as when he defied his doctor and brought home deep-fat-fried chicken.

He cut the string.

Now he put down the knife and again raised the binoculars. He saw the fox kite gliding free down the row of buildings, toward the shore. But the intruding kite, too, was cut free. It chased after the fox. He watched through the binoculars as both kites dwindled and then disappeared.

“Why did you eat the seaweed?” he asked Mai.

But she only looked at him silently.

EVENING TWO:
Mr. Lo Comes Home to Find the Living Room Empty,
but Knows His Wife Has Not Gone

He ate some of the left-over noodles. Then he changed into his white flying robe and went into the kite room.

Mai sat in a corner, in her black bathing suit, dripping. She had tipped back the chair so that her shoulders leaned against the wall, and her legs sprawled to either side, her feet resting on the floor. She looked at him, he thought, with reproach.

A memory, from their marriage’s first year: he arrived home from work to find Mai and her swim-team friends draped in the apartment’s chairs like otters and muskrats, their legs dangling over the arms, each woman sipping tea or a soda. They stopped talking when he came in, amused.

Afterwards, in an angry voice, he had scolded Mai for letting her friends take up all the chairs, so he had no place to sit after another dreary day at the bureau, and because she and her teammates offered no respectful greeting, as if he intruded in his own apartment. And what amused them? And when they traveled to meets, and she was away, what happened there?

At first she had looked angry. But then she seemed to feel sad for him. Later he felt small, a fool, because he feared she preferred her friends to him. Her black eyes still reproached him, down the years.

“Which kite for this second night?” he asked her.

She shook her head. So he studied the remaining kites hung on the wall.

Ox?

Did her lips imperceptibly curl up? Sometimes he would dryly comment about his office travails, perhaps likening his superior to a god of ineffectuality, duck headed. Mirth would rise in her eyes, and it warmed him.

“Ox, then,” he said.

A large, boxy kite, of paper. He had shaped its prow as an ox’s thick head, with horns and a nose ring. Oxen plod, without imagination, doing their work. They mean no harm. But they can step on your foot inadvertently, or move their bulk and crush you against a fence. They have no flare for life. If an ox dies, only its labor is missed.

“Do you wish you had married a racing stallion, or a tiger?” he asked.

She spread her hands, palms up, exasperated. Her black bathing suit dripped salt water. He saw, clinging to her wet arms, grains of sand, and he shut his eyes and moaned.

One year ago tomorrow.

At the beach, side-by-side in their canvas chaise lounges, he reads a newspaper, letting the office week’s acid drain from him. Mai, glancing at him, sees the office still fuming in his head. She tosses down her novel onto the sand. She stands, stretches.

“Lo, swim with me,” she says.

But he studies a report on steel-production shortfalls, which peripherally affect his department’s work.

“Not now,” he tells her, not looking up.

When he finishes the article, he does look—her head bobs far out, beyond all the other swimmers, and she surges through the sea as if it were a pool. Minutes later he looks again. He cannot see her. But then he does see her, just the dot of her head, far out, too far, rushing away, too fast…

Riptide.

When he finally returned to the apartment that night, he did not switch on the light. All night he sat still, back straight, hands clasped in his lap.

“An ox cannot swim,” he told Mai now.

He opened a jar of red paint. He dipped in his brush. Then he stabbed the brush at the kite, where the ox’s heart might be, leaving a puncture in the paper, which dripped crimson.

He carried the kite out onto the balcony. He mouthed the second evening’s phrases, which he had memorized from the book of ancient rites he found in the library. Then he held up the kite, offering it to the wind.

Mai came out. She regarded him, hands on hips, elbows out. After retiring from competition to coach, she had often stood just so, frowning at a protégé in the pool, whose arm strokes missed the proper rhythm.

“Why did you eat the seaweed?” he asked.

She knitted her brow at him, as if frustrated he did not understand.

He let the ox free. It lifted from his hands, then faltered. He pulled the string, swinging it into the wind. Now it plodded upwards. As he let out twine, it lumbered south down the row of apartment buildings.

Just as happened yesterday, far down the row, another kite flew out. It bobbed in the air beside his own. He raised the binoculars, frowning.

This kite, triangular, displayed the image of a white hare, evoking timidity. A hare hides under bushes. Danger is everywhere. Yet, fearful, the hare ventures into the meadow. It feels the sunshine as it nibbles flowers. It is weak, but its appetite is strong. It is fecund. This kite’s perimeter was black.

Lo, upset, looked back to see if the intrusion troubled Mai. She stood studying the distant kite. Then she regarded him thoughtfully.

Sometimes, when he came home depressed, Mai would gaze at him that way and then announce: “Poker.” She would get out the cards. Assuming her riverboat gambler face, she would shuffle the cards, making them arc between her hands, defying gravity, or she would work them like an accordion, pulling them apart so they hung momentarily in the air, then squeezing them back together, and all the while she would look droll. And he would laugh.

“I loved…”

His face contorted. He composed himself.

Expressionless now, he cut the string. Through the binoculars, he saw his boxy kite plod southward toward the ocean. He saw the hare, also cut free, chase after his ox. He watched until both shrank to nothing.

EVENING THREE:
Mr. Lo Comes Home and Finds His Wife in
the Kite Room, Examining the Dragon Man-Flier

She stood studying the dragon’s unassembled components. As always, she wore the black-one piece bathing suit she had on that afternoon at the beach, and her wet hair hung in sodden strands around her ears.

Looking from the kite to Lo, in his white flying robe, she knitted her brow, squinting quizzically. He remembered once telling her he would resign, because the better he performed, the more his superior resented him, and sniped. She had squinted at him then, with this same quizzical expression.

“Find a better way to kick,” Mai had told him. “Don’t let him be your father.”

Lo carried the dragon’s head out to the balcony and set it down on the slates. Mai followed him out, and they both looked down at its face, yellow, with blue eyebrows and green leaflike appendages and red tendrils. Grinning, the dragon displayed peg-like white teeth, the canines sharpened.

A year’s work for Lo, every night in the kite room. His fingers remembered the feel of stretched silk.

He returned to the kite room to carry out the dragon’s thorax and its wings, stiffened with bamboo struts to bear the combined weights of kite and flier. Finally he brought out the segmented, coiled tail, so long it could straighten only in the sky.

Lo attached the head to the body, using dowels and silk twine. Then he attached the wings, and the tail.

He showed Mai the levers he had affixed to the bamboo handlebars, hidden in the dragon’s body—when he squeezed the levers, strings would pull out the dowels holding on the wings, and the wings would fold. He would then be over the sea.

As he tested the kite’s bamboo frame for tightness, Lo spoke to Mai without looking at her.

“I could not swim, so I stood like an ox, and I watched the riptide take you away,” he said.

He kept his eyes on the kite as he worked.

“I should have run in, let the ocean take me, too,” he said. “But I stood like an ox.”

And he said. “I am shamed.”

He lifted the kite and found its lightness amazing, although he had created it. He raised it up over him and down, so that his head fitted inside the dragon’s head. He looked out through eyeholes, placed all around. He gripped the handlebars, where his hands could easily find the levers by feel.

As he carefully climbed onto the balustrade, the long tail began to uncoil behind him. Balancing, he stepped over the low railing, first one foot, then the other. He looked down at the tiny people and toy cars.

Mai frowned at him.

“I’ll fly over the ocean,” he told her.

She looked down, shaking her head in exasperation, as she did when a swimmer she coached failed to grasp some technique, such as correctly cupping your hands.

Closing his eyes, he mouthed the final memorized phrases.

He stepped into the air.

He plummeted.

But he leaned back, even as the street rushed toward him, angling up the dragon’s wings to catch the wind. And the kite steadied. It rose, until he hung suspended before his apartment’s balcony, where Mai stood looking at him, shaking her head.

She pointedly looked southward. He followed her gaze: far down the row of apartment buildings, something flew out. And, when he turned back to Mai, he thought she looked thoughtful.

Gazing toward the distant kite, she held up her hands, dangling them from her wrists, making forward motions. It was a gesture she made at meets, to coax a protégé to swim intensely, to vie.

A gust sped the dragon kite along the row of buildings. Now he made out the other kite: a man-flier, like his. It took the shape of a luna moth, the palest of greens, its wings delicately rounded, tapering in back into long lacy tails.

A luna moth is almost air. It must go where the wind pushes it, perhaps into a bat’s mouth, or perhaps to a safe perch, where its beauty might be perceived. A luna moth can only flutter and hope.

He looked back and saw Mai watching him from the balcony, her hands still motioning him forward.

“You lie in seaweed on the ocean floor,” he shouted back to her. “You ate it to show acceptance.”

With her hands she motioned him on.

A second gust: he surged through the air, as Mai had surged through the pool. It exhilarated him. He looked back to see if Mai saw. But she was gone.

 

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