Folklore: Fly


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She sat there on the bluff rock about 40 feet above  the first bench below. One slip and she would be too injured or too dead for me to be able to help, even if I could get to her.

Why are you sitting there? I have sat there before, maybe thinking what you’re thinking right now. If you decide to do it, there’s no turning around. You can’t change your mind and go back home.

When I was a young boy we used to climb down those rocks. I’ve dug ginseng roots near the base of those bluffs, in the shade where snow stays a long time after it’s melted everywhere else. When Native Americans walked these woods, they sought relief from summer heat in the shade of those bluffs. Where there are overhangs, ghost imprints of ancient smoke remain on the rock ceilings, above the places where fires were used for cooking. I’ve dug around those areas and found pieces of flint, arrowheads and pottery.

The girl stood, and the wind started to blow. Her long hair shimmered in the light and moved like a living thing fighting the wind. It danced in rhythm with shadows appearing as frenzied Maenadic women, their own long hair flying wildly. She stared straight ahead, over the tree tops, as if contemplating flight. I recall believing at that moment – she can fly.

For some reason, I also thought of poetry, of Emily Dickinson. A fly buzzed near my left ear. I started to wave it away, but the sound of the buzzing combined with the sound of the wind, as it flew through the trees on its way out of the forest, seemed to be whispering: Fly – fly.

The rhythmic incantation brought words flashing through my mind. Some song lyrics I heard once, about words flying across the universe, whispered for a moment. Fly – fly across the universe.

I wanted to turn away and run, but I was spellbound. I could move only my eyes and my mind, and my mind wasn’t going anywhere. It was already there – waiting.

I thought about the sound a tree makes as it grows older. If it could be recorded and deciphered maybe it would tell a story, sing a song or maybe not make any sense at all. Maybe they are calling her. They’ve called to me before. Trees are like people, you know. They talk to each other and they have answers to questions people have never thought about asking. My mind started flailing about like a drowning man grasping for something solid to hold onto. My thoughts ran wildly into the past.

We walked into the barber shop, me and my younger brother. I didn’t like going there. The place was usually filled with angry old men sitting around talking about politics or baseball. I believed these old men were always angry.

“Hey, boys. What can I do for you?” the barber asked.

“Haircuts,” my younger brother mumbled.

“Imagine that,” said an old man who was always in the barber shop.

“We figured you boys wanting to wash them dirty clothes you’re wearing. I was gonna direct you down the street to the laundry mat.”

“Shut-up, Seymour,” another man replied. “Leave them alone.”

“Aw, I was just kidding and having a little fun, Ralph. Ain’t nothing wrong with that, is there?”
“You know there is. Just stop it,” the barber said.

“Well now, mister high and mighty barber man, I might just take my business someplace else.”

“Do that and do us all a favor,” Ralph said.

The angry old man named Seymour got up and walked out the door, mumbling as he left.

“Don’t pay him any mind, boys,” the barber said. “His brain is so small it overloads and causes his mouth to malfunction. How’s your sister doing?”

“She’s better,” I replied. “The doctor said she’s getting stronger and might get to go back to school this fall if she keeps improving.”

“That was a horrible accident. She’s been through a great deal.”

I didn’t like talking about my sister. I didn’t like that place. Even today, I dislike barber shops.

I sure didn’t like those old men talking about my sister. They couldn’t know she had injuries that would never heal. No one knew.

Why didn’t I know?

I saw an eagle once and then another. It was unusual to see them up here. I’d seen them before, down in the valley, close to the lake. These two circled in the sky as I  watched. Higher and higher they soared out over the big hollow. The hollow was probably of little significance to these birds. The twin black dots were set against a sky the color of someone’s eyes. They fell back toward the earth until they became birds again, with wings folded back. Two missiles aimed at something down in the hollow and not stopping until they disappeared below the tops of trees. They were never seen here again, not by me anyway. It seemed odd. The hollow swallowed them, like it swallows people – sometimes. They might not have been eagles at all but a different kind of bird, the kind resurrected from the spirits of lost people.

I’ve sat on the bluff rocks and wondered how many people were down there, lost and dead. I’ve even thought about looking for them, but I can’t go down there, not anymore. Not even to look for my sister. I know she’s not there. Right after she disappeared, someone said they saw her walking toward the big hollow, but I don’t believe it. Even if she did go there, she’s in some other place now; somewhere I can’t go. I’m not going to try. She was always going to places where no one else could go.

The air stirred a little. It was as if the wind that had blown a few minutes ago was almost out of the woods and was sucking whatever it could into the vacuum. Fly – fly.

The girl turned her head enough so that I saw her face for a second, and my mind went blank. No more wild thoughts of lost spirits or barber shop trips. The wind that traveled out of the woods had taken them with it and left a blank page, white like the first page of a new novel, not yet written. It came flooding back in as the girl looked back out over the big hollow. A fly buzzed by my ear again, and this time I swatted it. Why wasn’t he swept away along with my thoughts?

My grandpa sat in his old rocker on the front porch of our house.

“Whatcha doing, Grandpa?”

“Sitting here watching the sun go down. You should try it sometimes. See how red it is and how it just hangs there like a framed picture? See how those white clouds are transformed into big red balloons?”

“Yeah, that’s a pretty sight.”

“I used to sit in my boat and fish as the sun was setting. Now I just sit here and rock and imagine the wave action is what’s moving my chair. I make a cast out across the yard sometimes and watch huge bass leap for the lure before it hits the ground.”

“We should go fishing, Grandpa.”

“I’m too old, son. I tell you what, though. Pull up a chair and make a cast over by that rose bush. There’s a big one lurking there.”

My grandpa died not long after we did some imaginary fishing from the porch. A short time later, my sister was hurt in the auto accident. She lay unconscious for days. That was years ago.

The girl had seated herself again on the bare rocks of the bluff. I believe she knew I was there, had probably known all along.

Who are you?

A coyote howled down in the hollow, probably answering my question. I’ll understand what he said one day, maybe. Coyotes come right up to the field behind the house sometimes now. They can be heard howling at the train when it comes through down in the valley. When I was younger there were no coyotes in this part of the country. They don’t belong here. Maybe they do. Maybe we don’t belong here. They crossed the wide Mississippi to get here from the Western states. Maybe they have returned home.

The girl was standing again. Falling leaves fluttered to the ground. She took a small step forward toward the edge and hesitated. I listened for some sound, but there was none. The world was holding its breath.

The woods gasped for air, and a new breeze stirred the leaves. A shrill whistle from overhead startled me, and I looked up. A red-tailed hawk was circling. I looked back, and the girl was gone. The woods roared in laughter. A stronger wind had returned. I walked to the edge of the bluff rock and searched below for a crumpled body. Nothing there looked out of the ordinary. I could hear music playing, and the wind moved the trees like dancers glued to the ground. I heard whispers: Fly – fly. I didn’t realize they were talking to me until much later.

I’ve had strange dreams, about flying and dying and about talking with spirits that once resided here. This didn’t seem like a dream.

I saw my sister sitting there on the bluff rock. I missed her flying into the sky because I was distracted by a whistling hawk. It was most likely a friend of hers. After my thoughts cleared, my memory of that face returned, and it was her. She had changed little since I last saw her. Maybe it frightened her knowing that she knew me.

I see hawks flying about. The red-tails always come here in the winter months. I don’t know where they go in warm weather. I’d love to go there and see what she has seen, but I would have to think long before deciding to leave here. Right now, I don’t want to leave. Voices nearby call my name, beckon me to join them. Maybe I will someday, maybe not. Fear is an enemy that is hard to defeat – the fear of flying, the fear of leaving. I have little fear of dying. Why fear something that is a certainty? Living is scarier, not knowing what is next. I now think the girl on the bluff rock showed no fear. She only hesitated out of curiosity. She probably wondered why someone was watching her. Unlike me, she must have listened to those voices. She was always fearless.

Sometimes I walk along the edge of the bluff and imagine hearing voices singing down below. The sound is like ancient poetry. I’ve sat at a desk and tried emulating the cadence with words on paper. It’s always wrong. It can’t be replicated, I’ve come to believe. Those ancient songs and the voices of trees and the wind are too much to bear. I believe that’s why she left, why she won’t return except in the winter months when most of the songs and voices are hibernating, waiting for warmth and new life to emerge. Maybe it is something else altogether. Other times I walk through these woods and hear nothing but the sound of my shoes on the dry leaves. It’s these times when my mind gets even more lost and wanders off course. I have emerged from the woods without remembering walking through them.

One night, I closed my eyes and saw two black dots falling from a sky the color of someone’s eyes. Those dots and those eyes were both clear as a vivid memory.

They’re not just friends, I thought, but twins who have ways of communicating without speaking, who know things without having to communicate.

I’m now sure I wasn’t dreaming. It was my sister sitting there. She will return. I know it. I’ll be waiting, and if she beckons, I might join her.

The End

Chuck Buckner is a writer, nature photographer and a mixed-media artist. He wanders daily in “the wilderness behind the house,” taking photos of nature and formulating stories and ideas for art projects. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Athens State University.