Saturday, January 14, 2012

South Side of the Sky (a fragment)

Part of something larger which may or may not ever come to fruition. Written with this song in mind.

“You can feel it, can’t you?” The old man’s voice was the brush of a butterfly’s wings in that thunderous storm, barely audible, but somehow distinct and capable of great power. “The ship is part of you now. She’s in you; in your bones, in your blood.”

I could feel it, all right. Or rather I could feel everything that was happening to it. The whirl of elements outside buffeted the airship as though it were no more than a butterfly itself, wind with such velocity and vigor as would surely kill a man, rip through him like paper. We were in the upper heavens now, in the relentless void of the mountain range, where the weather was as cruel as it could be. I could feel it so acutely it was as though it were beating against my naked skin. I felt the tremendous cold and the simultaneous warmth as my blood rushed in to save me. My nerves were all fraught with confusion—I was suffering no actual damage, but my entire body was responding as though I was. I was in pain. I was terrified. My grip loosened a little.

“Don’t let go.” Pilot could see what was happening to me, even as subtle as it must have been. Immediately I felt a little surge of resolve—small, but significant. He had that effect on people. His voice was very soothing. It was what made him such a good teacher. “The ship will protect you. Think of her as your armor. Your exoskeleton. She has survived far worse than this, and she will take care of you, so long as you take care of her. You must guide her. Do not fear for your own structural integrity, or hers. You are focusing outwardly, on the storm and the world around you. Your attention is not with the ship, where it needs to be. Focus on her presence within you.” A little smile in his voice. “And don’t forget to breathe.”

In, out. I could feel the tingle in my blood, the faint ache in my bones. It was exhausting, flying a ship like this. I could see why no one wanted to do it anymore, why it had the terrible reputation of driving men to both mental and physical dystrophy. I could see why Pilot had retired, and also how he had such great vitality, even at his age. I suspected he was far stronger, at sixty-three, than I was now, in the prime of my life.

“I feel her,” I murmured, already gasping. “She’s being pulled apart.”

“She will be fine.” Pilot’s old hands were on my arms, which had started to shake.

The shorted telecomm crackled abruptly back to life and was filled with the voice of our understandably distressed navigator.

“—can’t see a bloody thing—Wick? Wickerfield? You there, boy?”

“I’m here.” I could hardly hear my own voice. The external wind filled my ears, battered my body. My fingers felt frozen.

“By my estimates we’ve still got a bit of a buffer between us and the mountain range,” she was saying, “but it probably ain’t very much. You’re gonna have to pull us way the hell up, boy, if we want out of this in one piece.”

“Do you have coordinates?”

“I got nothing. I am completely blind. This bloody storm’s knocked out just about everything I have.”

“We’ll be all right, Ofelia,” said Pilot, his voice clear and steady. “Sit tight and tell everyone to buckle down. And I mean that literally. Things are going to get wild before they get smooth again.”

Pilot cut the communication out before Ofelia could say anything more, and he said to me, “Move forward.”

“Ofelia said—”

“Ofelia is a blind navigator,” said Pilot. “She is in a panic because she does not have your advantage: she cannot feel what is happening. Go in deeper. Listen to what she’s telling you. Be calm and trust her. You’re a smart boy, and she’s an old, powerful machine. Together you can take us through.”

I closed my eyes, but my breath was coming in short, fluttering fragments. I felt fatigued, pulled apart. “I can’t do this,” I gasped. “I can’t do this.”

“You can.” Pilot tightened his grip on my arms, fortifying me gently. “You can.” Then he let me go.

I felt the sting of the cold. The rush of air. The hard knife-slices of snow and ice. But we could push, she and I. Pilot was right, this ship was old and strong. She was stubborn. I nudged her forward, and she was rocked with such force that I felt like my back was breaking.

“Don’t go gentle,” Pilot murmured. “Be aggressive. There’s no time to waste.”

We pushed forward harder, and I suddenly felt all the wind knocked from my lungs in a sudden, violent burst of clarity. The turbulence was astounding, and I am sure Ofelia called down again to unleash a stream of profanity, but I didn’t hear it, didn’t feel any of it. We rode the chaos with exhilaration and ease. We broke through it even as the storm pulled us in a thousand directions, trying to shatter us. We were too fast. We pushed ourselves headfirst into the onslaught and used its momentum to fire ourselves forward.

And then we were out. In the little center of calm. I felt a sudden, exhausting flood of warmth fill my throbbing, strained limbs. I felt like I was dying.

Ofelia’s disembodied voice joined us again. “Pilot? Wick? You boys still alive?”

“Very much so,” said Pilot. I could hear him smiling.

“Well that was absolutely mad, but we made it into the eye. I can see the mountains below us, and they are scary-close. Now can we  pull up?”

“Right you are,” said Pilot, and he helped me pull down as hard as I could, hauling the full weight of that monstrous beautiful craft upward. I could feel my own center of gravity shifting, pulling at my insides. When we were aimed at the clear, distant sky, I kicked the ship forward and we shot up to easily that I almost passed out right then and there.

We broke out above the clouds, where everything was still.

“Better take over from here, love,” said Pilot to Ofelia. “Mr. Wickerfield needs a bit of a rest.”

“Roger that,” said Ofelia. “Good work, little ‘un.”

I couldn’t reply. Pilot unlocked the mechanisms from my arms and my legs and helped me drop down to my knees. He stroked my hair briefly, a kind, grandfatherly sort of gesture. My emotions were all over the place.

“Told you so,” he said.

I had just enough energy for a smirk, even though he couldn’t see it.

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