Ever wish you could fly?

only-a-witch-can-fly-coverAll my life I’ve wanted to fly. On the tops of mountains I lean forward with the urge to jump, and the same with tall bridges, and the roofs of tall buildings.

I don’t want to die. No no no, I don’t want to die.

But I want to fly. How I want to fly.

My best dreams are dreams of flying, ones in which I’m flying low through a valley, drifting on the  wind like a hawk or an eagle, and then suddenly my arm-wings are pumping and I’m swooping up and up and up and the mountain is rushing toward me and I’m pumping harder and harder and then suddenly I’m up, I’m over, I’m high in the sky and the mountain is far below me, and the valleys and rivers are spread like a map on the surface of the earth, and I’m gliding on the invisible wind toward the far horizon, where the river runs to the sea.

That’s my favorite dream, right there. Sometimes I make a wish before I go to bed that I will dream that dream, but so far, that wish hasn’t come true. The dream of flying comes when it will, and it will not be willed.

The closest I’ve ever come to my arms as wings and my body drifting weightless on the wind was the time I went up into the sky in an ultra-light. Or maybe it wasn’t an ultra-light – does an ultra-light have an engine?

Because this tiny little wind-plane did have an engine, not that it mattered much except to get the pilot and me up into the sky and then down again. Once we were up there, it was a different story.

“Should I turn the engine off?” the pilot said to me.

This man was someone I didn’t know. I was in the deep South, driving on a rural road, and I saw a sign that said Ultra-light rides, $30. I was very poor back then, and $30 was a lot of money, but I looked at the sign and I thought about flying, and I forked over my dinner money for the week to this man who came walking through the field when he saw my little red car stop by the sign.

Should he turn off the engine? Why would he turn off the engine? Wasn’t the engine the thing that was keeping us afloat, up here in the almost-soundless sky? If he turned off the engine, wouldn’t we go arrowing toward the ground? Wouldn’t I die?

“Okay,” I said.

And he turned off the  engine. And then  it was soundless, high up there, drifting without words in the sky. I looked out the window – the tiny plane was all window – down at the fields and mountains and creeks and valleys of that land where I was a stranger.

He didn’t say anything. He knew how I felt.

We drifted up there a long time, far longer, I’m guessing, than my dinner-money-for-the-week had bought me.

And many years later I wrote this book, Only a Witch Can Fly, about a little girl who dreams of flying. I wish you could see the pictures. They’re by an artist named Taeeun Yoo – gorgeous, haunting woodcut illustrations.

Our book looks like a Halloween-ish book because it’s about a witch, so if you’re a Halloween fan you might like it.

But if you’re a girl, or a not-girl, who wants to be up there among the clouds and the stars, looking far far down – leaving it all behind, if only for a little while – then you’re the one I wrote it for.

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And it never curled again

cinder-blocksOn summer mornings when she was a child she stood on the cinder blocks outside the small bedroom window of the addition built onto the trailer which sat next to the old frame house, out there in the foothills.

She shaded her eyes – the sun rose to the right, over the pines across the field – and peered in to see the grandmother  sleeping quietly in the bed, in the room with the knotty pine walls.

The grandmother was sleeping still. The child went away and came back again later. Climbed the cinder blocks. Shaded her eyes. Peered in.

Groan. Groan.

The grandmother was waking up. She had a headache when she woke up, a bad one, one that went away only after her coffee was drunk, her cigarette was smoked, an hour had passed by.

If the grandmother was groaning, then she would be up soon. The child went inside and lit the tall, skinny oil furnace with a long fireplace match. She put water on to boil. She got down two teacups, two saucers, two spoons and a single plate.

The grandmother was getting dressed now, washing, brushing her hair.

When the water boiled, the child stirred Nescafe into one of the teacups and added Cremora. She tore open a hot chocolate packet and emptied it into the other teacup and stirred hot water into it. She added Cremora to the hot chocolate.

The grandmother came into the tiny rounded-end kitchen of the trailer and sat in her chair at the formica table. The child set the coffee before her.

“Thank you, dear child,” said the grandmother.

The grandmother tapped her pack of Lark cigarettes against her palm and shook one out and lit it. She leaned forward, supporting her aching head with one hand and smoking with the other.

The child put two slices of Roman Meal bread into the toaster and got the plastic tub of whipped margarine out of the tiny trailer refrigerator. She waited for the toast and she watched the Lark cigarette.

When half an inch of ash hung off the end of the cigarette the child said, “Flick,” and the grandmother tapped her cigarette on the ashtray.

The toast popped up and the child put it on the plate and turned her back to the grandmother, hiding the plate from her so that she could spread an inordinate amount of whipped margarine on it. This was her secret vice. When she ate the toast she would hold the slice, heavy with its over-buttered-ness, under the table so that the grandmother wouldn’t know how much butter she had spread on it.

Now she wonders if the grandmother knew anyway, and thought, let her eat as much butter as she wants to.

They sat together in mostly silence, the grandmother and the child. The grandmother often closed her eyes and groaned, waiting for the headache to dissipate. She let her coffee grow cold before she drank it. This was a peculiarity of the grandmother – she wanted her coffee boiling hot, but she never  drank it while it was hot.

When the grandmother had smoked her first two cigarettes, she would tell the child stories of her own childhood in the big city, the biggest city in the world, six hours downstate from the hundreds of acres of woods and fields that the child was growing up in.

The butcher down the block, who wrapped three slices of bologna in white butcher paper for a penny, can you imagine? The grandmother’s father, who stowed away on the ship from France, bound for the harbor where the Statue of Liberty raised her giant torch, and he dove into the water in the middle of the night, and he swam to shore, and he spoke to a man on the street in French, and the man answered in French. The child’s mother, whose hair had curled in long silky ringlets until that time she had the long fever, and it never curled again.

The child spoke, but not much. She listened to the stories she had heard so many times. She knew the inflection of each sentence, and she waited for the dip of the head and the brief smile that meant the story was finished.

The grandmother had been a model in her youth. She had married late after several engagements. She had borne her only child when she was nearly forty years old, almost unheard of back then. She had worn high heels and suits every day to her job as legal secretary. She was a sophisticated woman who could not have imagined she would ever leave the bustling streets of the biggest city in the world, a woman who carried the knowledge of that city and its life with her always, as she sat at that formica table in that tiny trailer kitchen, looking out at the woods and fields that were not the city, nothing like the city.

One day the grandmother looked straight at the child and leaned toward her.

“You don’t talk much,” she said. “But I want you to know that you can tell me anything. There is nothing I have not seen. There is nothing about you that would shock me, and I am here to listen to you.”

“I know,” the child said in a voice that she made bright and childlike.

I won’t, though, the child thought, in a thought that was not childlike. I won’t tell you anything, anything that’s real.

She thinks about that now,  how the grandmother leaned toward her, the intent look in her eyes. There was so much that the child didn’t know then, and there was so much she had to protect and keep safe and contained and hidden.

And now? She thinks about the grandmother every day, usually at dawn. Sometimes she thinks about how unspeakably hard the grandmother’s life was, at times, but more often than not she simply sits and lets the grandmother come to her.

Which she always does, leaning toward her with outstretched hands and a genuine smile.

Wherever she is now, she is happy. That is the sense that the now-grown child, a woman now, has of her – happiness and light.

The woman talks to her now the way she never did as a child, about things that are real.  See the two of them, leaning forward in their chairs, hands moving, smiling and laughing, the toast and the cooling coffee and the silent cinder blocks forgotten.

For more than sixty years he has eaten fire

800px-sideshow_at_the_erie_county_fairThey went to the fair in the late afternoon. That way, they could fly into the sky – or as close as they could come – when the Midway was lit up against the darkness. Two of them had been dreaming of the Kamikaze – which he termed “a truly horrifying ride” – since last year’s fair.

She had no such inclination. Why subject herself to the torture of dangling upside down, body held skyward by only a slender metal bar?

But the Kamikaze would come later, when the Midway was extravagant with colored lights beating back the darkness.

First, the food: for two of them, the traditional first-Fair-food foot-long hot dog, raw onions for the young one, fried for him, a stripe of mustard and a few pumps of ketchup for both. She looked at them eating their footlongs and thought, Will I go my entire life never having eaten a footlong?,  and stepped up to the window and ordered one.

And then it was on to the Fine Art, where the three of them scoffed at the prize winners and where they each gazed in awe at a magical, hand-stitched work of art on hand-woven cloth stretched over canvas, tucked away in a corner.

Ribbonless. Proving once and for all, in case there was any doubt left, that they lived in an unfair world.

Time for a beverage? Certainly. And what might she have, a rumless pina colada or an Orange Tastee? Why, a rumless pina colada, thanks. Feel free to have some, if you want.

On to the Amateur Talent Contest, where it soon became evident that the only kind of amateur talent remaining in the entire state was musical. Shall I sing this year?, wondered the amateurs statewide. I shall sing.

And they sang, all of them.  A skinny little 13 year old girl in cowboy boots, a country star in the making. A 39 year old security guard in tight blue jeans and a Stetson, a country star in the making. A retired man of 69 who took up the mandolin two years ago, a star of some kind in the making.

But wait. On stage came a sister and her twin brother in identical black suits and hats, tapdancing. I want to be that girl, she thought, I want to dance and smile like that. She wanted to be that girl because that girl’s joy was so evident, and so infectious, that the three of them sat on their hard wooden bench and laughed. The happiness of that girl made them all happy.

Laughing made them hungry again, so they journeyed on, on to the International Bazaar, and a giant cup of noodles for him, and another giant cup of noodles for the young one, and gyros sampler with tabouli for her.

He nudged her and pointed out the old couple next to them, the old couple with their coupon book, dozens of pages carefully sticky-noted in some sort of code known only to the two of them. She told him that watching the old couple confer over their coupon book made her want to cry, and he nodded.

Then it was getting dark.

They made their way to the Midway, where they carefully tore out the $6 off coupon from their own coupon book and purchased 80 tickets. She sat on the bench and watched as he and the young one were strapped in. She made a face as they gave her the thumbs-up.

She watched as they rose into the air, higher and higher, faster and faster, until gravity overtook the old steel cars and they whipped around and around and around, first forward, then backward, for many minutes on end. She watched as they grew silent and red-faced, split at the waist by that iron bar as they dangled upside down. Grim determination in the air.

She turned to the man sitting next to her on the bench and made big eyes of Never In This World to him, and he silently nodded in agreement. No Kamikaze for her, and no Kamikaze for the man next to her on the bench.

But what about Big Ben? What about the tall, tall clock tower with the dangling-leg seats and the anti-gravity swoop straight up into the air? What about that ride?

Why not?

Up they swooped,  and then down they plunged. She could not stop screaming. He laughed at her. The young one laughed at her.

The Crazy Mouse hurled them around its square corners, and had they not been strapped in, would have hurled them straight out into the night and the lights, human cannonballs. The young one’s phone flew out of her pocket and straight into the air, and he caught it as it came soaring back down.

And finally, on their way out, they stood before the Freak Show as they did each year, waiting for the tiny man to eat fire. 79 years old. Poobah, the last performing pygmy on the carnival circuit. He sat as he sat every year, on his small chair, his legs dangling down, two black spokes of iron held in one hand.

The fire eater has been performing for more than sixty years. The fire eater dipped the black spokes in fuel, set them ablaze, turned to the crowd and, one by one, patiently swallowed the flames. Black teeth. Smoke-darkened face. Eyes that every day watched a thousand eyes looking back at him, expectant.

Late at night they trudged down the dark roads to their car. The young one shared her cotton candy with them. Fireworks exploded above their heads, and their eyes turned high to the lit night sky.