The lady who could fly

Issue 2/1989 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Kenkää suurempi jalka (‘The foot bigger than the shoe’, 1992)

A day came when she felt she could fly. You used technological gear and gadgets for flying, or meteorological shifts in the air masses: rising currents gave you a weightless ecstasy with the lightest of equipment. But that wasn’t it.

To begin with it was one of those typical flying dreams, which gradually extended into the waking state: she could feel it coming in her sinews, her nervous system, her cortex. She was acquainted with Freud and Jung and the other dream-interpreters of today. Characters in the myths and fairy­tales flew; cruel princesses flew on the wings of the storm; Gogol’s overcoats, Chagall’s lovers, cows and cats flew; and vampires – those last leather-winged flutterings of the prehistoric archaeopterix in the mud of the gene pool.

Not one of these, she was sure, had influenced her mental and physical sensations.

She remembered waking at three from the first real-seeming dream of flying: she had stood up on the bed, fluttering her arms like wings, and relapsed into embarrassment when she realised she was awake. These childhood dreams lay around like her first sexual fantasies: those hot July days by the lakeshore, on rocks thick with cow-wheat and hop vines: men glistening with sweat, and burnt brown, wheeling logs along the loading wharf from the strawberry-and-timber-scented lumberyard to the tugboats.

Now it was different. Flying was no longer explicable in terms of unconscious needs: it was charged with energy and a compulsion that demanded realisation. The dreams came back: she rose into the air, rhythmically flapping her arms, and making swimming motions with her legs; she felt herself rising birdlike in the misty dream-air, her legs dangling like a corncrake’s, her whole body strangely arched, a fish floundering in a net; and then she gradually relaxed, soaring heavily down under the trees, skimming up a sloping lawn and brushing the tips of the grassblades, reaching the level of the treetops, and then beyond them, until she dived down past the art nouveau balcony of an old stone house. She made a couple of supernumerary loops to pinpoint the house’s location on the town plan, before touching down helicopter-fashion, though silently, on a grassy patch in the park.

The dreams of flying recurred and intensified. At her morning chores in the kitchen, she’d sometimes stop, all alone, in the middle of the room, spread out her arms and begin to impel them heavily up and down, slowly, slowly concentrating, as if the air were a compressed substance: she spread her fingers like wing-quills, each muscle-fibre tense; and one morning it was as if gravity had given way, and she was rising; but nevertheless she didn’t rise.

‘Good heavens,’ she panicked; then pondered the matter for a week and tried again. And again it was as if she’d lost half her weight, till there was nothing but her legs anchoring her to the ground. The rest of her was aspiring upwards: head shoulders breasts stomach bottom rolling beautifully like a boat careening at sea.

But her feet, they stubbornly hung onto her human condition – sole, heel, and toe. They carried her across the kitchen to the crockery cupboard, the refrigerator, the table, the cooker; they kept her eyes firmly a regulation five feet above the floor. She stopped, her heavy lids sinking as if part of the simple mechanism in a china doll. With blue doll’s eyes she looked through half-closed lids at the kitchen – and it seemed to have changed: the furniture’s geometrical arrangement, the copper pans, the rose pattern on the cracked faience cups – faded here, reinforced there – the oilcloth on the table – shinier, stickier than usual… Slicing butter on a dish she paused to stare at the thick glazed wavy edge, as if the line had some secret significance, was a sort of code she could crack by running her forefinger along the ornamental surface.

She slowly circled the table with the butter dish in her hand and saw herself circling the table at six years old, looking out of the window then, seeing a different view because of her different height: the edge of the table cut the landscape at the level of the opposite house’s roof-ridge, and she bent down, pressing her nose against the edge of the table to verify that was how it had been.

The kitchen had been decorated three times; she’d inherited the apartment from her father, had moved into it with her husband when her father died, and had given birth to a boy and a girl; she’d seen them grow up, had said good­bye to her daughter when she went off to Australia with a man twenty years her elder, and received her daughter back when she returned, fed up, and, in her daughter’s own words, ‘shattered to bits’. ‘True in a way,’ she reflected: her daughter had had a tendency to exaggeration since childhood. Sometimes she herself had wanted to destroy everything, shatter the house, the things: she’d altered the interiors as much as she could, moved the partition walls, changed the lighting, the wallpaper, carted the old shabbied furniture out, which her husband had cherished out of parsimony rather than piety. She didn’t want to preserve any holds on the past, there were enough in her memory, so that sometimes she felt like shutting off her inner eyes and ears.

Her son had just got a job in Tampere, and his daughter had been parked with her grandparents during the move. ‘A skinny little day-nursery child,’ she reflected, as the girl came into the kitchen. ‘Early riser.’ She sat down, the child wanting to be hugged: a lively five-year-old, leaning quietly against her shoulder a moment, eyes closed, a faded red-flowered stockinette nightgown over her slender tiny-boned body.

She smoothed the child’s hair; the girl swept the fringes out of her eyes, slipped down, squatted, and began silently playing with her nightgown ribbons. The lady got a carton of juice out of the cupboard, poured some into a glass and set it on the table corner. The girl drank, put the glass prettily down, and asked in a tiny voice if she could eat her porridge with just the two of them, grannie and she, together. The lady ladled the porridge she’d prepared onto a plate, got the milk, poured some, and took a pot of lingonberries out of the cupboard. The child stood quietly at the opposite side of the table. The lady pushed the plate and spoon over to her; the girl remained standing, then pulled up a chair for herself, tucked her stockinette nightgown over her knees and began to eat. She sat so quietly that the lady, doing the kitchen chores with her back towards her, forgot she was there. And then the need to fly became so overwhelming she put down the coffee tin and spoon and stood, her muscles cramped, in a kind of convulsion from the roots of her hair down to the tips of her toes. She raised her arms and began to move them stiffly: they were as heavy and insensible as stone.

The child had eaten her porridge and left the room. The woman could see her husband standing by the bedroom door with his back towards her, before slowly crossing the living room towards his own room: grey velvet dressing gown, reddish pyjama legs, slippers, slip-slopping over the floor­ boards. The pressure in her body grew, she ground her teeth, a slight grating came from her mouth, then exploded – she felt the convulsion easing off. Her arms rose and fell still, but the movement was flexible and rhythmical, and then she took off. Her legs were taking off!

She was floating like a huge amoeba, her slipper toes still dragging across the floor to the door, and was just on the point of butting her head on the lintel when she realised in time and took evasive action, the leaf-­patterned aquamarine hems on her dressing gown rising and sinking with the movements of her arms and legs; it was like an old religious painting: she moved flat out and full length over to a table in front of the bedroom window, rested a moment like a fish on an underwater stone, fins barely touching it, then stretched out her hand and opened the window, experienced a momentary fear she might fall, but moved softly on over the table. Flying slowly like an old-fashioned fighter, she dipped down below the fifth floor and over the lime trees – pruned a year before but still robust – skirting their loosely curving crowns, and passed swimmingly from their gently surging leaves, as if in a dream – though this time there was a solid feeling of physical reality.

In a dream the wind didn’t blow on your face, the leaves didn’t stroke and tickle your arms and calves. ‘I’m flying,’ she said; she saw a late flock of cranes circling raggedly over the town before heading north; she recognised the houses, the streets, the market, the park, and verified that the dream perspective was different: even at their best the dream-tonings were frailer, stage-settier. She breathed deeply; the relentlessness of gravity had faded from her mind; her broad dressing-gown sleeves were filling out in the wind like sails, settling, flapping, and filling out again. Though her arm and leg movements were forceful, she felt no fatigue: it flashed across her mind for a moment that perhaps this was a symptom of sleep, but the feeling was soon gone. There are secret reserves of energy, she reflected: the earth’s overwhelming attraction had split up into numerous conflicting components – she was telling herself things, designing her own theories.

She’d flown, or rather, considering her movements, swum over the road junction, and over a pond she remembered from her childhood as a chilly springwater pool good for swimming. Now the developers had crammed its slopes with storeys of mini-building-sites, cottages and terraces bruising each others’ spirits. Recollecting how it used to be, she identified some different smells and arrived at an undeveloped waste patch beyond the pond – alders, willows, a partly grown-over claypit, the tilting walls of a super­annuated brick works, a crumbling chimney, ancient brick moulds stacked up for drying. Fronting these there were some large spruce trees, some mossy earth, lingonberries, bilberries, and, below a delightfully grassy slope, the marigold-yellowed banks of a brook. All this was surrounded by a veil of distant sounds – trains, motors, people. The woman made a slow belly landing under the shade of the spruce branches, turned onto her back and looked upwards.

Between the branches she could see a pale blue morning sky: the trees seemed to be forming radiant music staves against the light. She’d never felt so much at one with herself. She spread out her arms, disturbing the moss, the straw stubble snapping under her bare arms.

She closed her eyes, meditated a moment on the return home, and on the incalculable possibilities being opened out by the new physics. She stretched and lifted her hands: they felt like the normal hands of someone nearing fifty and inclined to plumpness; when she let them fall they rested on the ground palm upwards. Their winglike flexibility seemed to have disappeared. In her dressing gown, with the nightgown underneath, and her slippers on – how embarrasing it would be to wander through the town on foot! She charted the immediate neighbourhood: her eyes wandered over the bushes, half-opened bud after half-opened bud, over the bird-cherry, leaf by leaf, over the willow twigs. In a clearing among the spruces there was a rock, and near the rock an ice-age boulder, left there by a glacier.

A bird was sitting on the boulder – an extremely striking bird, at least from her present prespective: white-breasted, claws gripping the stone’s coating of peaty turf. The bird preened its feathers and monitored her. When it spread its wings, she felt her body bristling: the wings had expanded to wind her in an embrace of brown wingfeathers and hard birdbones.

The thought was dynamic: she changed position but didn’t get up. The bird’s yellow eyes were focussed on her. Is it thinking of me as its prey? she wondered; and she took a look at her arms, the thin white epidermis, the blue veins under her skin, her bare neck. Against the sky and the frail twigs the bird’s rich plumage stood out boldly, veiling it in princely robes: its broad tail and white crown were insignia of its power. She identified the bird, repeated its name in her head. The bird sat motionless, till, spreading its wings a second time, it took off, circling on slow pinions, as if riding a wave.

She lay under the spruces for a while. She got up tardily, her limbs heavy as if after long sleep; she walked on the squashy moss, one foot after the other towards the rock, and saw the prints left by the bird’s feet: a loosened divot of moss, a scratch in the pale granite. She climbed onto the rock and from there to the boulder: she first bent to examine the claw mark closer up, and then traced the wake of the flight, on out of sight. Some adults and children were going past on the narrow gravel path: they could have seen her from the bridge culvert if they’d looked. A loose cloud of mist was floating by low-down; when the lady raised her hands, casually, relaxedly, with no feeling of cramp, waving her arms, feeling her legs, she hardly noticed she’d risen above the rock, swimming through the moist cloud of mist: a rare, cooling experience, with little drops pearling her pores and the light down on her arms.

The flying continued. Every morning at dawn she rushed to open the window; the trees were pushing out their leaves, the spring flowers were exploding into blossom, it was an exceptionally warm May. She too felt a warmth radiating from her, the same cosmic outer-space benevolence that the earth was inheriting. Only rarely did flying cause difficulties. Sometimes, after a poor sleep following on reluctantly performed marital duties, she could feel the earth’s gravity pulling her down, as if mediated by her husband, subordinating her to the banalities of life.

But early in the morning she was transformed, as if adrenalin had been secreted into her blood; she skipped across the flat to the bathroom, cleaned herself up, solicitous not to add artificial odours to her own, dressed lightly, made the porridge, the coffee, left them on the kitchen table, and rushed to the balcony. She raised her head like a juggler on the stage, a dancer, an actor in a great role. She raised her arms like a conductor, began those light deep rhythmical movements: she’d got into the habit of letting out small shrill gaspings in time with her movements; she wasn’t anxious, afraid, didn’t expect to get lost. And easily she rose, sometimes slower, sometimes swifter – but she rose, topping the balcony railing, making a few playful turns in the air like a seal or a dolphin; her clothes, lighter as the weather got more summery, dangled around her – a thin negligee, nothing on her feet, an airily loose rose-patterned nightgown, its flouncy edge fluttering under her negligee… She smiled, she laughed, the wind filled her mouth and throat with dewy early-morning air.

She always took the same route, the quickest to the waste patch and the shade of the huge spruces; and usually Pandion Haliaetus was waiting for her. He’d be sitting on the boulder, his head swivelling a hundred and eighty degrees when he saw her arriving over the pond and the barrack-­like tenements.

Her landings had become prettier, more delicate – like a flouncy ball of down, she thought, laughing, realising that Haliaetus didn’t laugh; but she sensed him reacting to the humour without showing it at all. His scrutiny was just as penetrating, his outfit just as princely. When he spread his wings she felt the embrace, even though the bird was sitting on the boulder. No one had ever embraced her with an embrace like that: it was as if earth air and water had fused and let her experience the full force of all three elements.

Their relationship became ever more intimate. The bird hopped down from the boulder, seeming in the early morning sun to be flitting from ray to ray; he spoke, and she thought she understood what he said; she replied and the bird flew back to the boulder, turning his head to check the environs. Once he disappeared unexpectedly; she sat in the little clearing without moving, overcome by melancholy, not knowing when he might leave her for ever. A shadow on the tree, and when she looked up the bird was there above, wings hardly stirring, looking at her.

So the summer went by. The woman knew nothing of Haliaetus’s private life, where he fished, where he nested, what his normal territory was – but it was enough. In the autumn, when the days were shortening and flying-time was a little pinched, she thought about the bird. One August morning, in the midst of her ordinary chores, she felt the familiar fluttering in her spine, her shoulders, her fingers, like faint electric shocks; her shoulders, forearms, hands were reminding her: they were fed up with wiping the table and the floors, carrying dishes, sorting out the washing, vacuuming, preserving, salting, deep-freezing; they too, they’d found something that suited them: they’d adapted, dedicated themselves to the role of wings, and fervently cherished their new task.

She shook the sheets on the balcony, made the beds, felt a movement of impatience as she contemplated what was now almost thirty years of the marriage bed; she gave a faint sigh, pouted her lips, and blew a quiet current of air through them. She hadn’t ever learned to whistle, but now her lips gave out a quiet slightly fuzzy sound. Some bird might make a sound like that at the darkest moment of a misty summer night. She blew once more, and the sound carne again, now clearer, and again and again. She came to and saw her husband standing at the bedroom door, watching her. His expression amused her: both indignant and surprised. He was standing with his brow wrinkled, his hands behind his back, rocking slightly on his heels.

She fluttered the canopy on the bed, straightened the edges, crossed the room, took the pillows off the chair and patted them into place. She went out onto the balcony and took a look at the trees in the square. Among the green leaves a branch of lime tree seemed to have thickened at one point into a kind of swelling. She looked at the swelling: it began unmistakably to resemble the shape of a large bird, leaning against the trunk, its yellow eye directed towards the balcony, its big beak shadowy between the leaves. She tilted her head and felt a bony beak caressing her cheek, moving lightly and sharply over her lips.

‘What’s up with you?’ she heard her husband saying from the door. She listened to the tone: a throaty, rather glutinous voice had addressed her, had been addressing her for almost thirty years, had said ‘I will’ in the city’s disagreeable stone church, had come to her ears coughing, echoing back from the stone walls; the black ivy of grief had climbed round the altar, the man had grasped her hand, there were years of dampness in his palm, she was conscious of the people around, the rustling of paper, the breathing, the men, women, children – how could it have been stopped, when all of them, they as well as he, wanted it and all this part of a hypocritical sanctification of copulation.

The sun was behind the limes, outlining the trunk and the bird more distinctly; the houses opposite, with their demolition order on, were catching the silver morning glow that died down as the sun reached its zenith and turned westwards.

Trying to master herself, the woman made small, would-be adequate movements with her hand, straightening the cover on the chest of drawers, changing the position of a flower vase, and a silver box with her rings in. Her husband’s eyes followed her movements meaninglessly: he knew her – middle-aged woman’s body, furrows, wrinkles, hair-roots: he had her weighed up, insofar as he gave her a thought at all. He experienced her more or less like that chest of drawers, like the bed that, if need occurred, he could fall into.

And the swelling near the lime-tree trunk seemed to be moving, the head turning, the beak like a curved scimitar ready to strike… And she cast her mind to the bird in the midnight meadow: was it really her lover, the cock osprey spreading its wings so that it made the wisps of mist stir around it, or was it a part of herself, a power taking material form? Her animus? Sharp yellow stare, powerful wing-quills, downy warmth… You could imagine the swelling in the tree trunk was a shadow, an illusion, a broken stump of branch in the infiltrating leafy light. But when the swollen branch began to move those outer bulges – indisputably wing-joints when it stretched its neck, ruffling its neck feathers so that the tips shimmered in the sun like radiant onyx, she knew!

Her husband came nearer, giving her a look She moved over towards the chest of drawers, gripped its corner, swung round to its other side; her husband’s hand touched her sleeve, tightened its grip; her arm remained squeezed in a carefully manicured hand, it pulled her closer, a dangerous hand, too familiar, too unattractive now – too often – too soon – too much… the words went on working behind her closed lips.

And she thought again about the bird in the dewy morning landscape, the dampness sharpening the naked hardness of bird bones, how he shook his wings and tail, walking with a slow rocking, backwards and forwards on his boulder.

Gradually, she noticed, the bird and she had calmed down: now, instead of that bony musical-stave-inspired lovemaking, they passed their time face to face, she on a grassy bank already blossoming with tansies, the bird on a stone surrounded by blossoming willowherb. And the bird raised his foot, crooked his claw as if to grip – her? Never. The bird was aware of the dissimilarity of their organisms, their different psyches; he spoke as if little pills of chalk were scratching and breaking in his beak; she listened, picked a tansy flower, stroked her calf with it; the bird put his head on one side, followed the hand’s movement. And in this way they’d come to share the time that is seamless for creatures at one.

Autumn came round and the inevitable morning when the boulder and the mass of ruins near the road were deserted. The woman alighted before she was due, alighted in the middle of the road, stood there for a while, turned and made her way slowly, shoes weighing her feet, down by the road junction, the pond and the marketplace towards her home. She went into the kitchen, sat down, spread her good-for-nothing hands on the table, and rested her head on her arm, as if all her work for that day and for a long time to come had been already done.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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