The Phoenix (iii)

That isn’t to say this warfare is slow. A man’s life can be snatched before you’ve wiped the fog from your goggles – as I am a living testament to. After I shot down my first plane, I took the opportunity to get some distance and see if I could find a friend. There! Close to the ground, a daredevil weaved and dodged anti-air guns with the ease of a swallow. I took my plane lower and kept up with him, his tail was painted in French colours and when he also recognised me as an ally he made some sort of a frantic gesture with his hands. I rubbed my goggles clear to get a better look at what he was trying to communicate. As I lifted my fingers from the goggles and it was as if I had erased the friend’s plane with the condensation. There was no trace of him but a blinding red flash that passed with such speed and proximity that I hardly recognised it as a plane. My ally was sent in a fiery descent down to the craggy hillside with the ease of Pharaoh dashing a newborn against the rocks. And I, as helpless as my friend, somehow survived by inaction and used a gentle breeze to float away as Moses did down the Nile.

A red flash again. It must have been a plane, the only other alternative is that long ago vanquished beast painted in red for its never-ending rage – still searching for St George who cleverly had his tomb dug deep underground, hidden from vengeful sky-borne eyes. Forgive the romantics, I am getting sentimental in my old age. It was a red plane, though it may as well have been a dragon, I was petrified. My subconscious seemed to have made the connection ahead of my conscious mind – a red hot prickling ran down my back, itchy hives crawled across my skin – I was being hunted by the Red Baron. He saw the Frenchmen as the more experienced pilot and had left me, the baby bird, till later. Somewhere in this sky that bright red knife of his was floating and hidden but could at any moment plunge down into my flesh


<- Part 4 of XX ->

The Phoenix

“Get up,” said the chief quietly. We all jumped out of our bunks with no man hesitating to stretch or yawn. I smiled to think of how the drill instructor used to shout and scream to get us out of bed. Now our movements were almost mechanical in their efficiency: shirts, pants, and boots flew on with a flurry of movements trained over hundreds of early morning just like this one, though this early morning was special.

“We’re fighting for King and Country today lads, I’ll see you out on the strip.”
My arms and legs operated all the necessary movements by themselves, preparing for my first combat flight. My body’s preparation was automatic, the real fight was preparing my spirit for combat.  I mulled over the idea of king and country while I strapped on my leather helmet.

All I know of the King is his profile printed in the six-pence in my pocket, a noble profile but I’ve seen nobler in strangers walking London’s streets. All I know of Country are lines on a map and I have no pride in my lines compared to a foreigner’s lines. I’m sure there must be much more to it than that – what of our culture and tradition you cry out – well, to be honest, all I see when I look at a foreigner is two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. In simpler words; an ordinary man. That’s not to say all foreigners are ordinary, extraordinary people are rare no matter the country.

By coincidence, it happens that the most extraordinary gentlemen I have met happened to be foreign. The story of how I came face to face with him is equally extraordinary.

Sirens blared. We ran to our planes. The sun was creeping up at our backs, we felt exposed by its blood orange gaze and scurried into our cockpits. My ground crew were flustered and struggled with the propeller. I smiled at the young crewman who wore a tight grimace over his boyish face, I don’t know why he was upset – I would be the one flying over France, it would be me filled with bullets, charred in flames, ripped asunder in a crash. Only God knows why I was smiling.

The emotional whirlwind turned suddenly, the engine roared and I felt a deep dread building in me. I drove the plane to the main airstrip and prepared to take off. The pressure built and built as the plane gained speed. The familiar pull as I sunk into the seat, it felt like an uncomfortable throne, and I, like a common-born usurper would find either glory or death. The front wheels drifted off the ground and the back and I was free. My nerves levelled out as the ground became more distant as we escaped the chilly morning mist growing off the frosted pastures below. We passed above the clouds before the sun’s lingering kiss had left the horizon’s dew-dripped lips. It was a joy that wouldn’t last, I had yet another terrible mission, another burden to be chained to my tired soul.

You are a little soul carrying about a corpse, as Epictetus used to say. Then here we are, six corpses flying into battle, what does it matter then if I am shot down over a French forest, I am dead already. How do the dead feel joy as I do now? Perhaps it is a shared joy, the shadow of a joy cast by migratory birds who also sail above these pink trimmed clouds. Cotton candy. The country fair. Shooting tin planes for a prize. My dad lifting me up onto his shoulders. Strange vivid particulars come to me, moments of joy – which like all moments of joy have given way to pain. And the pain has given way to nothingness. And the nothingness gives way to joy again – and here we are still above the cotton candy clouds. Here I am still asking, screaming, begging for an answer:
“What does it matter if I am shot down?”


<- Part 2 of XX ->

The Mallard

I’ve never seen the world like this before. My father and I are sitting in a ditch by a marsh, it is just before dawn with only a sliver of light creeping up behind us, reflecting softly off the lake. The creatures shuffled and went about their business but in a manner I have not witnessed before.

Of course, I’ve seen animals and critters in the wood across from the paddock. Due to growing up on a farm, animals have been reduced to just part of the scenery, completely ordinary. But this morning I must have been feeling a wonderment that I witness in other children not used to see the grace of a horse’s stride or the quiet peace of a lazy eyed cow, chewing grass in the shade of an elm.

This morning we aren’t looking upon work animals but the wild untamed creatures. And I say I have never seen the world like this because in this moment I feel I am entirely absent from it. What a simple fact I’ve ignored all my life; whenever I have seen an animal they have always seen me. Now here I sit, where we have hidden for a few hours. The scene is free of any of that excited tension that homo sapiens bring to every plain, mountain, lake, or sea. Perhaps we don’t notice it because it’s constantly around us, the fear in every blade of grass we tread on, the horror in every patch of dirt we pry open and rape for its metals that we use for our machines of industry and war.

I would have felt at peace away from all that, here in the gentle marshes, if not for our terrible quest. I secretly hoped our prize, that yet lay hidden within the labyrinth of reed beds, still slept and would decide to sleep in today.

We watched the frogs hop out of the long grass for a morning swim, and the graceful waking swans who in lifting theirs head to the rising sun resemble white lilies. I could not focus on the beauty, for I was distracted by the ugly mission I would have to carry out.

My mission is the hunt, I already know its sequence of actions. My hands flutter – but as soon as my father places the rifle in my hands they are stone. Stone my hands may be – and if that is the truth then I must be a golem for they moved automatically as if enchanted. Muscle memory and practice operated themselves on my arms. I load it, cock it, aim, and wait for the duck call. My father holds the horn to his lips. Hoped not to see that brown dull looking bird, the dullness of its feathers only added to its innocence – it wanted no attention and meant no harm, yet here I was in its home murderous instrument in hand.

Oh God, give me a way out. In excitement, I thought a tremendous sound that blasted in my ear out was Gabriel’s horn and not my fathers. “My day of judgement is not this one,” I barely had time think before a flurry of wings took off from the reeds. I spotted my quarry, slower than the rest, its struggling wings seemed to claw at the wind rather than sail upon it. I followed it with my sight and pulled the trigger. The Recoil. The Release. Final Relief.

If for just an instance, the shot seemed to wound the blue yonder herself, sprouting a burst of bleeding poppies in the sky. The mallard flapped its wings a few times in defiance of Death before falling as a mess of feathers like Icarus. But the hubris belonged to me, I tried to feel bad – what right had I to snatch its life? My father put a hand on my shoulder and the look in his eyes seemed to say that he understood. In honesty, I enjoyed the experience. I loved it despite myself.

Looking back at that spectre of a childhood memory it seems that the apparent twists and turns my life have in reality been a straight A to B journey. Reaching now into young adulthood my mission is still the hunt, but my new quarry is far more cunning than the mallard, though both share wings. This hunt is more sporting for the bird shoots back – though what is far more unsettling is that what I hunt loves to kill just as I do.

I must rest, piecing together mangled memories has been tiring. As the captain says, a good rest should be a RAF pilot’s top priority, especially on the eve of his first combat flight. Goodnight.


Part 1 of XX ->

The Turtledove

The turtledove at my window cries and cries and cries. I can still picture when I first saw the bird, it’s doll eyes staring up at me, a baby bird sitting next to its broken sister. It was frozen with fear and wouldn’t leave its dead sibling’s side until I scooped it from the cold ground back into its nest. That was at least five or six years ago. I haven’t forgotten that childhood memory. How could I when it sings for me at my window every morning? It is a dull repetitive song, no good deed goes unpunished as they say. It wakes me up so I never hear the start of the song and because I throw books at my window to frighten it and go back to sleep – and so I never hear the end. Despite my angry outbursts, it comes back faithfully every morning.

Perhaps it isn’t singing for me, or singing for a mate – but singing for his sister.

One morning, I wake up to the same grey gruelling tune that leaks out from my window and instead of throwing a book it lulls me into a trance and I start to think. I start thinking harder about my own life than I ever have before, with the raw emotions of a painter or poet I cut past the litter and sound that clutters my mind. My thoughts are forming some image but for now all I have is the palette to draw from.

I think about my sister, I think about heaven. I hope she is there and I hope there is a there. I dream about walking the fields golden and green, plains that stretch forever, and rolling hills. Over this hangs the eternal blue sky with brushstroke clouds and the smell of sea salt in the air. This is an image that is hard to hold, so beautiful that it blurs with tears but I can see my sister – as young and innocent as a flower in bloom. The words I witnessed a deacon tell my mother after the tragedy come back to me: “A flower bud has burst on earth, to bloom in heaven.” She is playing with the other children that were taken too soon, they glide over the grass on a summer breeze, flying like a swift, which when it leaves the nest it never again lands. Waving to me, she dances over the meadow. I run to her but I am stopped by a river. It is a raging torrent and I would be swept away but still she waves for me to wade through it. I cannot pass over.

From above an angel said, “Your sister also feared the river of death, but while passing over realised it was only a little brook after all.”

It was true for her it was only a little brook so easy for her to glide over with her tiny cupid wings. My heavy body would surely drown me, I look within myself and see my soul is also weighed heavily. My knees in the water, I kneel and beg, “Free me from the fetters – lust, greed, jealousy – that hang over my neck like iron chains, every day pulling me deeper into the dirt and filth.” I sit on the riverside and cry, my sister wishes she could wash away my sadness, to live like the blessed – over the way, where there is no more suffering for the little flower buds. The turtledove’s lonely song ends, breaking my trance. The vision is lost. I look out the window for the turtledove but only see my own weary reflection.

Did I really see heaven? I like to believe so. Of course, I would like to believe, what’s the alternative? Katherine died of leukaemia and now she lies in the dirt, that’s that – she will never smell the flowers we place on her grave, these words will never reach my baby sister and the only company she keeps is worms. All my life, eye sockets full of worms have haunted me while I slept. But there is no point trying to get back to sleep now, the sun is shining into my room. I get up and write this. Then I regret writing this because unlike the other bird stories in this book this one is of my own life. I have left the comfortable and easy heights of fiction and landed on a limed branch to become some creature’s dinner. If you be that hungry creature reading now, I offer up my heart for you – still beating and bleeding on these now stained pages.

The Puffin (ii)

The sea came into view, but the climb down was even more precarious. If you were to slip you would be killed before your body came to a rolling stop. If you were killed down, it’s unlikely your body would be found before it became part of the land. The jagged outbreaks come from the ribs and broken elbows of careless passerby’s, moss-ridden and turned to stone before they can be found by mourning mothers. My older brother Jon is here among the shattered and doomed, I wasn’t even born when he was killed- so please save your sympathy. Save it for my Mother, who out of hunger has to send her youngest over the same precarious terrain which devoured her eldest. I don’t fear his end, my young feet are nimble and neither does the mule, he has risked his life over these rocks so many times that his fate must be written on a dusty forgotten scroll, fallen behind Death’s desk.

The fear was especially easy to subdue in the face of such a beautiful view. A world cut into thirds – land, sky, and sea. And for me, this division was more than just a view. Within the mountains, under mounds of dirt slept giants that my mother told me stories of before bed. And there the great blue sky, which my father swore was the very same one that Saint Michael descended from to trample Lucifer back into the dirt. I hope that in throwing Lucifer back down into hell that St Michael does not wake a giant – that would bring great trouble for everyone. For a giant rages like no other creature when awakening from its slumber. Who would find victory in that battle, would the angels find victory in one cruel swoop as an eagle snatches the life of a field mouse — or would the giants simply feel their spears as mosquito bite and swat them like a fly. Whoever the victor a clash between those two worlds would sink the world, bring us to the third part of this great view: the sea. You have heard the stories of the land and sky from my mother and father respectively, but the stories from the sea I reserve for myself.

An ice shelf extended from the shore. It was of the purest white that I struggled to search for the perfect fishing perch without squinting.
“Where should I begin?” I asked myself as my stomach rumbled hungrily. Up and down the coast little nooks and crannies looked inviting. But there was one magnificent spot that stood out like a sore toe – in fact it even looked like a sore toe. Here I would fish. I climbed up the outcropping of ice that looked like a giant’s foot that had slipped out from under his warm sod blanket during his sleep. He might appreciate my backside warming his big, so I took to climbing up it, and no sooner than I was up there I started to become drowsy. Something about the coast makes me feel entirely safe to sleep out in the open. Whereas down in the valley when I sleep I imagine the surrounding mountains closing as my eyes do, swallowing me into the ground while I snooze. Out on the coast, I am free and my dreams are also free to wander across the sea. This dream in particular was fuelled by my father’s tales of his adventures the prey of this new modern era: the bird-fish or as they were called in England, puffins.

Mostly I dream myself as lowly things. I’ve dreamt I was a worm, I’ve dreamt I was a dog. There are simply and secret comforts to the lives of beasts. But this dream was different, I dreamt I was with my father in search of the puffins which Europe craved. The reason behind the puffin’s sudden popularity and profitability is a result of Pope Urban III decision. He declared the small critter to be a fish which therefore could be eaten during Lent. Millions of Catholics sick of Fish Fridays rejoiced and a new puffin ventures popped up naturally. My father explained to me his job as the pilot as we walked the deck. “Leif, I am thrilled you are here at last.” I smiled nervously.
“We’ll show you the ropes my boy and you’ll have your hands on a great juicy puffin.” The crew nodded and I searched among them for the familiar smiles of my brothers but couldn’t find them. I was about to ask when a call was shouted from a lookout posted on the masthead, “There she soars!” My father jumped and dashed through the men like a banshee to take the helm. The crew came alive with him all bouncing and scrambling over each other. A great tangle of ropes was untangled from the middle of the deck and then hoisted up, at the end of them was a queer contraption that looked like a combination between a kite and a lobster cage. Inside the cages were fish heads and guts. These cages were promptly thrown off the side and caught on the breeze. I looked to my father who grinned as steered masterfully into the wind allowing the kited-cages to float up. The ship appeared to be a great Kraken with tentacles waving high above the ship- all in pursuit of a great flock of puffins on the horizon.

What a peculiar sight, even for a dream. These images are all sourced from my father’s tales which he swore on his word. And now in this dream, we are upon the puffins who have taken to the skies, safely above the ship away from any spear, net or harpoon, so they might think. Attracted to the fishheads they crawl into the kited-cages but it will be their last meal because they are unable to escape from the inside which is coated in birdlime. With glee these fishermen of the skies pulled them from their lofty prisons, squawking and cawing, I felt their terror and pain – ripping their own feathers from bloody plucked skin trying to free themselves. From behind my father cruelly laughed and I awoke.


 < Part 2 of 9 ->

The Puffin

Often a strange story begins with a strange awakening. My story begins with a strange nap. It was a nap that took me half way around the world, not within my dreams, I truly lived this adventure. I doubt that my imagination could even conjure up a dream as otherworldly as my adventures have been. My odyssey will be but a footnote in history, in fine print it will be written just after the death of Christ and before Ragnarok, on this day Leif Erikson fell asleep and changed the world! Aye, changed the world and all it took was a sickening amount of pain.
I regret nothing, it was a pleasant snooze.

I remember the warm afternoon well, warm for an Icelandic morning anyway. I woke up late and my mother scolded me for not doing my chores on time. The first of these was to kill a chicken for dinner, which I had left too late – the sun was already setting. By my villages tradition, we kill livestock in the morning, the idea being we send the animal’s spirit to rise with the early sun.
I approached my mother cautiously while she was washing clothes in a basin.
“Ah, so you did not die in your sleep as I thought.”
“No Mother, I’m alive and well.”
“Alive and well but hungry, you haven’t prepared a chicken.”
“I was thinking…” I said, “Perhaps I can still kill us a chicken.”
She continued washing, “You know the rules.”
“I was thinking I could kill one and then we invite his soul to stay the night, just till tomorrow morning.”
That made her laugh, “You’re a funny boy Leif.”
“Thank you, you do say that often.”
“It’s a shame you’re only funny when you’re trying to get out of work.”
“I’m sorry, you do say that often.”
She managed to keep a straight face, “Go grab your Father’s fishing rod and be back before dark.”
I gave in.

My father’s shed always felt ominous. As a small child, it felt like I was walking into the jaws of an iron monster, sharp and rusted farming tools jutted out of the walls like ruined teeth. At the very back was his harpoon, unused rusted as the rest of the farming equipment. He was still at sea at that time, hunting a very different beast to a whale. As I walked past it, I felt somehow ashamed by its disuse. I thought of me and my two brothers playing with our pretend harpoons, one would be the whale spurting water of our mouths while the others chased him down with sticks. None of are whalers now, least of all me I thought as I plucked my mighty weapon from its scabbard- a crooked fishing rod. Fishermen may lie about the size of fish they catch to their wives, but that is only because they are jealous of the whaling men who can scarcely measure the size of their catch with three arms lengths. If I could travel back to that moment I would have dropped the rod and ran away with the harpoon to find some wayward vessel and live out my dreams…of course instead I did what my mother told me.

“Take the mule,” my mother cried as she hung up clothes on the washing line. I whistled for for him and off we went. The mule trotted ahead, he knew the way well. He didn’t have a name, my father didn’t want us to get attached in case we had to eat him when times were bad. He was over thirty years old and still didn’t he have a name. We wandered through weed ridden farmland, that turned into rolling hills, which then became crueller in character until they were craggy mountains – where nothing grows but a healthy respect for mother nature. Up and up we climbed, out of the valley which our house sat in. The mule was fitter than me despite his age and wasn’t slowed by the terrain. Maybe he thought that if we didn’t catch any fish by nightfall that we would eat him. He looked back suspiciously as if reading my mind.
“Don’t worry I would never eat a dear a friend,” I reassured him, “Especially not one as old and chewy as you.” With a snort he trotted away. We reached the summit of our climb and I took a rest.

Though I had no idea at the time, those few moments I spent on the mountain top would be a final farewell to my childhood. Looking down to my house I could just barely see a human figure in our garden, my mother. She was surrounded by radiant white sheets that blew in the wind, they lit up her blonde hair which humbly danced with all the trees and bushes around despite outshining them all. What a beautiful scene, she could have been Venus herself in that moment.

I reminisced about the clothesline. That was the same clothesline I used to swing back and forth on, I used to love that. I remember many a summer day spent being pushed back and forth by my brothers. Too big and too old for that now. Funny, I guess one day I simply let go of that clothesline and never grabbed hold of it again. The exact moment of that final farewell is lost in a vague blur.

On the contrary, the final farewell with my mother is a very exact moment – it was that very moment on the mountain top. She finished hanging the washing, walked inside, and I would never see her again. I question whether on some level I knew this was goodbye because all the while I wanted to shout and wave like a child – but I resisted and remained silent. I will always be grateful to myself for this, it would have tarnished a comforting memory which I have replayed many times in the ceaseless theatre within my skull. If you were to pry open the red curtains that cover my brain, I doubt you could dissect this memory from me without tearing out the whole stage.

The mule whinnied to get a move on and with a yawn I passed over onto the other side.


Part 1 of 9 >