The Boy and the Flying Machine; A Short Story

He fell from the sky, one rain-lashed night, slipping through the clouds on tattered wings.

He called himself Ashari.

He was long and lean and tawny-colored. He couldn't have been much older than I was, but he knew about things. In that soft, strong voice of his, he spoke of a world I'd never seen. Of mountains and waterfalls, and plains that stretched, like the sea, for as far as the eye could reach and rippled in shades of brown and green. 

His dialect was strange to me at first, but as I sat, hour after hour, and listened to his stories, I grew accustomed to hearing him. He spoke in pictures, sometimes, describing the words that held no meaning for me, drawing images in the air with grease-splattered hands. It was good to sit and hear about distant lands. It was good to forget, for a while, the troubles of my own small life and the dark memories of the nights.

But that, of course, was after.

When he arrived in the village, no-one dared approach the flying machine. There was much whispering of devils and demons around the fires at night, with many an untrusting glance at the huge, winged creature perched, otherworldy, at the edges of the light. It was decided that Ashari was some great medicine man, walking between earth and sky. There was much speculation as to why he had come down to us. Some said it was a blessing. Others, a curse. None dared to ask him outright.

At first, I had trembled and avoided his presence. But on the day when he built the great, hot fire and pounded straight the long, grey rods that were like strange legs for the two round feet of his flying creature, I saw the way that the work burned and blistered his hands and I became convinced that he was only a man. I had no doubt of his powers, but I began to believe that his magic must be of a different kind.

That was the day when he first painted me the image of an elephant. He showed me the great, swaying nose and the wide, fanning ears, and the way it would go, crushing the forest before it, and I sat, spellbound, and the fear curled up and lay down and gave room for curiosity. 

One day, he handed me a needle - strong, and very sharp - and showed me how to stitch the material of the creature's wings. It would not have been right for me to touch the creature, but I sewed the pieces together and Ashari coated them with some strange-smelling potion and spread them out to cover the broken wings. It was hard work, but when the day came to its end, we stood back and admired the creature's new wings. They stood out, rounded and straight, against the fiery colors of the sunset. It was a strange sort of beauty. Ashari glanced at me from the corner of his eye and said, "Asante". It was a simple word, and I understood it well, but I looked about me, confused, wondering whom he could be thanking. Surely, it could not be me. I was not that sort of person. And anyway, what had I done? Nothing important.

Aunty spoke to me that night. She spoke to me slowly and clearly, as one speaks to the children and to the very old...and to me. "You will come to no good with that demon creature. Foolish girl. Stay here and help me with the work." Then Uncle came in, and Aunty stopped her scolding to get his meal. I made myself small and slipped away with hunger still gnawing at my belly. I found a sleeping place far from the hut, hoping that Uncle had not noticed me. I knew, though, that sooner or later, he would remember me and he would come and he would not be kind. So I shut my eyes against the dread and thought of broad wings climbing up and up into the stars.

Ashari explained to me that the flying creature could not walk as we did, stepping over and around the things that got in its way, so we began to clear a path for it. He told me that the creature would run, faster and faster, along the path until it could leap from the earth and fly, and so we worked to clear the stones and bushes that would impede its progress. In the heat of the afternoons, we rested in the shade and Ashari talked.

"Today, I will tell you of the baobab tree. It grows upside down, with its roots reaching high into the air, and when an elephant grows angry and knocks one down, it goes flat." He clapped his hands, 'smack!' to show me, "Flat like this. It is not a real tree, at all. It is only pretending."

Once, when I came to meet him and he saw the bruises that were fresh and not from the hard work we had been doing, he put aside the long knife he had been using to clear the brush and said that we would do no work that day. That was when he told me the story of a mother who had given birth to a baby boy, too tiny to live. 'Put him outside.' Her mother told her. 'And let the jackals take him. He will never survive.' But the girl had wrapped her baby up in a long strip of cloth and carried him carefully for a very long way to a place where there were wise men with clever tools and medicine, and they had helped the girl take care of the baby, and he had not died.

I clasped my hands around the small thing that grew inside of me and rounded my stomach, even on the hungry days, and wondered over what he had said.

Ashari looked out over the path we had cleared. "Tomorrow, we shall have made it long enough." He said. "And we will see if my bird can fly."

The entire village turned out to see the great creature take flight. It had a mighty voice that frightened the children, who fled to hide behind their mothers and peek out at the strange scene. The flying creature ran. It ran along the path we had cut for it, and then it leaped up into the air and soared out over the sea. As I watched, I felt a strange movement, like a small touch from the inside of my belly. With one hand, I tried to calm the excitement inside of me and with the other, I shielded my eyes to track the creature's flight.

The flying creature climbed up the sky until it became small and its voice dulled to a distant rumble, like the sound of surf on a windy night. Then it turned and came back to us. It skimmed along the wave-tops, and returned to the earth. I watched anxiously as the legs reconnected with the ground, and the round feet rolled quickly along the path. But Ashari had made the creature strong. It came safely to rest and the loud voice died away into silence. Ashari stepped from his seat on the creature's back. The crowd stirred and murmured in awe and turned quickly away, pretending that they had not seen this terrible magic that was not meant for ordinary men to see. 

My heart pounded as Ashari approached me. I looked him up and down. He seemed like an ordinary man, just as before. But he had risen up from the ground on the back of a great creature with broad wings. His was a different magic, and a fearful one. 

Seeing my fear, he stopped and stretched out his hands to show me his scarred and grease-stained palms. "Aren't these the hands of an ordinary man?" He asked. "I hear the others talk of magic, and it is a name they give to something they cannot understand. It is a sort of magic, this flying, but the flying machine and I...we understand each other. I know it and it knows me, and if I say to it, 'go there', then it goes. If it tells me, 'I am thirsty', then I will give it to drink, as you have seen me do. And if I say, 'carry my sister away to a better place' then it will. For my sister," his voice softened, "is not happy here." 

I dropped my gaze and turned away.

"I will leave tomorrow. At first light." He called after me.

There was much talk in the village that night. Each fire had a circle of people gathered around it to talk, low-voiced, of magic. I stayed in the shadows. No-one marked my absence, and so I sat alone and thought strange, new thoughts. I wondered if a home was the place of one's birth, or if it could be something else. I thought of wings skimming over crested waves and the bellow of Ashari's flying creature. 

A machine, he had called it. A flying machine. What magic had formed its parts?

To fly was a terrible thing.

To fly could not be for me. 

My thoughts circled down into darkness.

When I awoke, it was in the indistinct grey before the sunrise. I lay in the cold sand and felt again that strange stirring in my belly. I sat up, shivering, and looked around the village. The huts brooded silently together in the darkness, like disapproving aunties who had turned their backs on a stupid child.

Today Ashari would fly. And hands went to my belly...we...what would we do?

The thought came to me that, more fearful than flying, was the bringing of a child into such a world as mine.

Perhaps not all jackals were of the animal kind.

I wrapped my blanket around my shoulders and went to find Ashari. 

Somewhere in those vast lands on the other side of the sea, we would find a place to call home.

Written in response to Art Stew 52 prompt: Flight


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