By Alex Heldman
Everything he touched, he made it fly. They were his dreams, after all, currents and clouds. I remember the wind as it caressed my hair, his hands as they caught me back down, quiet arcs of memory and fatherly love. Stones we’d turn into missiles by the water. We’ll get to the sky one day, he’d say each night, his kiss a sapphire on my forehead. Then the door would shut and my world would narrow, just me and the ground and the city lights that floated above.
When my time was young, my favorite tale was the one where cities couldn’t fly. The one where everyone lived together. The one before the endless rains, when ice crystals crowned the world and the water didn’t have the poetry of the fall. It made me feel like a king, or at least a man, one of the old, the heroes in my father’s favorites that set out on roads to lands unblessed. He’d always act them out, twirling around the room as if he were the breeze. He could be but he could not act—every line did not deserve a suppressed smile and a knowing air.
In the mornings the sun would break the sky like bones. I’d sit on the dock, dip fingers in the water. The air would sputter in the heat, like a skip of the record, like my father would fade out on every other step. His movement was quick, light and ultraviolet. He laughed and smiled to tell the water that it could not rise to reach his soul. Every day he’d cut wire, canvas, return in the evenings with wood and metal and a new stitch in his thoughts. He’d hammer and saw and I watched his sailer grow from a board to a ship to a dream.
He never moved with the stars, but he loved to roll their names on his tongue. It made him feel ethereal, timeless, like a print on the moon. He would pull each one from the air, tell me they all had names once, that the stars were tied together with satin ribbons of myth. When the water was low, we’d lay out on the dock and carve our own constellations. I always pushed the cities into the stars just to feel like God.
On evenings when my father cared not for lessons we’d sail into the curve of the world. The ropes and the wires would make love to the wind beneath the sails. The water would slide in slices underfoot and my father would dance about the mast like he did in his stories. Out on the waves he’d call us Nerites and Nereus. We’d sail until the light from our home was just another static noise at our backs. When he saw the swells, my father would will our craft to turn and hit them head on and we’d fly for an endless moment, our hearts rinsed by the rise. The water that poured on our heads was so much sweeter than rain. Not this time, he’d say, but we’ll get it.
The sun always beat us home. When my father would roll up the sails it was like a surrender, an acquiescence to that made of gravity and earth. We’d hide the sailer under whatever we could find fallen from the sky. In the day my father looked only upwards, staring relentlessly at the metropolises that soared like dreams above our lives.
The end of our trips was the only time I heard him silent. I know he’d fall asleep aching to be reborn.
When my mother and brother died, my father and I sailed for days. They had gone to market but we found them in a grove. The light there carved obliques through the trees. Red craters peppered their backs. The grass burned quietly, black streaks and broken branches where the ships had shot back off into the sky. We carried them home and washed them, wrapped them in spare canvas my father cut from old sails. After a day on the sailer we pushed them over, watched them drift down to the old towns swallowed by the sea.
If you must know, they came again at night. I awoke to sounds of phantoms and pieces of myself on the pillow. I knew how to sweat, we all did, but there’s something primal about fire. My father had kissed my head and dissolved in the dark. A sentence with a hyphen or a wrong turn in the road. Under the flames, his blood sparkled orange and gold. I could not carry him atop my shoulders. Beyond the fire the phantoms fled into the sea. Drunken laughs and engines gurgled to life out on the water and my world cracked around me. I watched their ships turn to comets in the night and remembered the day before, when I thought I had not spent my childhood. I walked back inside, kissed his eyes and rolled him to the pyre. As the night faded I fell back asleep to a rising sun, shimmering smoke, and a latticework sky.
The smoldering wood forgot to stop burning. The frame that was our home forgot to let me die. When I stood soot shook off my body and I watched it drift like old memories to the floor. I found a steel vase in the dust and collected what I hoped was my father but nothing there remained but the bones. They were brittle in my hands and I could feel nothing.
Often my father would point to a city and say There’s the one I want to see as if from down below he could tell the difference. When the storms came I would wonder if the cities scrambled themselves to confuse us. When he’d point again I’d imagine the last city we spoke of, miles away, some other family watching as sunlight prismed off like a miles-high taunt.
The sailer had escaped the flames. In the eyes of engines and steel it must have seemed a barbaric thing, a shoddy project by us lesser folk. Something not worth destruction. I placed the vase on the ground and threw off the canvas that covered the sailer. Sails hidden by sails.
On a different day maybe that’d strike me, the recursion, but that evening the nerves in my brain did not fire.
One day my father and I got drunk on mash we made ourselves. We let the day slip from our hands into the sea. I had never felt that before, the sense of being untethered from the world. All of life spun around me and all I wanted to do was twirl. I’ve failed you, he said. He cried, maybe, slowly, or maybe it was the rain, but I don’t know why. Hour by hour the house was quiet, only our breathing, the waves, and the sound of liquid in a bottle.
Wood protested as I pushed the sailer into the water. Where my home stood a beam fell and with it half the dock became driftwood again. I moved automatically, memories and visions brought back to life in my arms and pulls. In the sky the cities hung around the tormenting sun like chrome planets. Behind countless ships contrails carved craquelures and to me they all spelled out my father’s name. The only ice that remained. I unfurled the sails and felt the wind pull us out to sea. From atop the vase, a thin blessing blew out like glitter on the breeze.
When I was young, one day I threw a coin off the dock. I watched it glimmer as the silver became blue became black.
The sun held high but over the edge of the world clouds began to roll. Lightning flashed in the distance and I feared the shock racing towards me. The vase trembled in my hands.
My father walked over and I told him what I’d done. He chuckled and put his hand on my back. You shouldn’t toss things in the water, he said.
The clouds grew darker with every wave I crested. A lone city remained in my view, unconquered by the storm.
Why not? I asked. He knelt beside me. Because then you can’t have them anymore, he said gently.
Thunder shook the world and the clouds and I raced towards the city in the sky. I imagined my father on the bow, his finger in the air. There’s the one I want to see. I overturned the vase and ash phased into the blue.
Oh, I said. He laughed and I laughed and he pushed me into the water.