fall or fly
by Daphne Zhu
Too many times she had tried her luck.
Back five years, a friendly voice asking her to play together on the monkey bars, and she skipped over to join the stranger.
She’d never seen one of those things before, and her fingers slipped when she let herself hang from them. The other girl laughed, and blew across the bars like the wind through the trees, and guided her to swing from one to another as she had done.
The little bird teeters along, a wobbly hop from foot to foot, one step to the next, like the first faltering drops of rain.
And when weeks passed, she glided across effortlessly as the other girl, and together they shot out of the classroom to the play structure and raced each other day after day, always claiming that they had beaten the other, then laughing, delighted that they were the same.
The steady pitter-patter escalates, a running start. And it lifts off of its little legs into unsteady flight, hope soaring at the possibility of success.
But when the days came where her hand reached the last bar a second before the other girl’s, faded were the other girl’s laughter and denials of defeat. And before her mind registered reality, the other girl was by her side less and less, until the whole day passed where they shared no look, no smile, no words.
Not knowing what to do with its little wings, losing its momentum, it falls from the air.
When she burst through her home’s front door, flinging down her backpack, it was to run upstairs and bury herself in her bed underneath her giant teddy bears. When she opened her eyes in the mornings she could not make herself climb out of bed, her portal of escape from life. When she walked to her classroom door, her feet moved as if through a bog. Inside, she was a drained well, a spilled jar, an empty vial.
From its open throat escapes a small cry for the ears of its mother. . .but not reaching her.
Back four, in a new classroom, her request to borrow a pen from the girl sitting next to her, answered with a warm smile and the other girl’s favorite blue pen.
It looks up at its mother and its siblings flapping around, a whole world higher, as it settles down on the ground after its failure. Rejuvenated by rest, its little mind finds motivation again, more determination than before.
Soon, their seats were separated to opposite corners, but their constant chatter was replaced only by more trading of their newest erasers and sticky note conversations passed through the class’s student express.
This time, it stays in the air, beats its wings. Its tiny heart, pumping faster than it has in its life, fills to the brim with exhilaration.
Until she heard the word “Renaissance” thrown around each morning, and though she knew not what that word meant, for the first time her eyes became trained more often on the whiteboard than the other girl, and, feeling her old love of art spark in her, she watched the pen in her hand form strokes that outlined the sculptures and paintings the teacher showed them. They were different, but she did not try to make them match. They were hers, and for that they seemed all the better. And they were there, in lasting ink, by her hand, for her eyes.
When she heard the other girl’s praise, dripping with envy, she found herself pouring imperfection into her work, her new sketches filling with lines out of place.
And all she remembered was the blue pen of the other girl, its ink flooding the hollow interior instead of channeling through the tip. With guilt, the hand clutching the token opened above the trash can when she passed, and when the other girl questioned her, it was a giant’s fist smashed into a newly built stone bridge, cracking it down the middle and plunging a segment into the depths of the waters.
A sudden gust of wind catches the fledgling, the unexpected jet of a water gun to interrupt a relaxed float. Thrown off the fragile balance of its glide, it plummets from its four-foot altitude. Even as it lays on the bed of pine needles, it can feel a sore, crushed wing.
Back three, forgetting to fill her wallet before her new friends stood at the counter ordering brown sugar milk tea.
I’ll take care of it, she said, a robot programmed to speak a single line. Her fingers found nothing in the folds of the leather, no crisp, folded bills. She cursed herself.
I—I’m sorry, she choked out in a voice of thin, frayed string.
Oh, all right, no problem, was what they said.
And they would come to her for homework and answers, as always. But tainting the looks they directed at her thereafter was something that wasn’t there before.
What was wrong with her?
Was there anyone else in the world for whom members of the same species were like elephants to herself, an amoeba?
At its side a warm body, whose presence it knows well. But it does not know the silence before her departure that should be the Be safe, darling, I will come back, a song to its ears. It has never known, in her gaze toward the limp, wounded body as she flies away, the regret that emanates, I wish that it could be another way, but you will not survive.
Back two, unable to attend half of the parties she was invited to, and somehow, once again, the path of orbit taking her farther and farther until the invitations ceased to come.
I have an appointment that day, she said.
And like every day she walked alone to the hospital. In the waiting room she passed the chairs with the parents and children, laughing, talking, whining, and turned down another hall.
She peeked into the first room, hands behind her back.
A young girl’s small voice cried her name in joy from beneath the bed covers.
“Guess what? I’ve got something for you today. . .a friend of yours has sent you this lovely card here—”
Her heart seemed to brighten as much as the young girl’s countenance. As she sat down near the bedside and pulled out a storybook, she felt a rush of something she could not name.
But she would have no way to tell her friends that this was worth her time, more than anything. And the taut rope barely holding them together would snap once again.
Back one, pulling shut, finally, her doors that were never really open. Passing her days alone, apart, a world apart, watching the lives of others as if through a glass barrier. No longer daring to hope, to wait for fate to bring her something that would last.
It was the last leaf falling, relinquishing its desperate cling to leave the bare arms of a skeleton.
She was walking home.
She jumped when a figure appeared at her side.
“Mind if I join you?”
Being spoken to seemed as strange to her ears as a foreign language. Her heart stuttered. She would have hunched her shoulders and sped away. Except she looked into the other’s eyes as she had not done for so long, and it was a strand of morning light trickling into a dark room.
A distant memory tickles its mind, the faint sensation of spiraling down to earth. Yet it gazes into the sky. It sees not a vast space from which to fall but open air in which to fly—treacherous, but with the gateways of opportunity hanging wide.
“Yeah—yeah. Sure, I—” Her heart was stammering more than her words. All she knew was the flutter of wings inside her.
It hears, or feels, rather, voices all around. Five, they whisper. Four, they cheer. Three, two, one.
Its wings spread wide with the greatest effort it had ever cost, and with a grand leap of faith, it soars into the expanse.
Boundless, limitless, free, and wide open.