The Myth of Wings

Extract

 

Yesterday it began. Yesterday was the falling through the sky and then the ground below, deadly and level and made of earth and grass. The noise was a thrumming, a taut noise of hard air striking and shivering past wings that would no longer fly. It was a scream that had no lungs to pant and make it stop. The men in the aircraft were beyond screaming. They were focussed on pulling up, pulling up, trying to make it so that the aircraft touched the ground more softly than a spear.

Yesterday, yesterday. It seemed impossible that it was so close. He sat at the table and stared at his hands, one clenched round the other so tightly that his bones were proud and white like the bones of the starved.

The plane hitting, the ground rucked and terrifyingly solid. The jolting and jolting, and holding his head down, his arms over his skull, and praying, praying, praying to God. And God didn’t stretch out His hand and slow them down. It was a tree that did it, catching the wing, spinning the plane like a toy on ice, and then there was the tumbling and the heat of fire, and finding himself face down in mud with no idea how he was alive. And looking up, raising his face from the ground, and seeing the plane there, a crushed wreck with flame licking and teasing and then racing over the metal, and Frankie staring at him, staring through a pane of glass, half his face smashed into a mess of red and the fire licking closer and closer. The heat was like a furnace and he couldn’t get close. He couldn’t get close enough, he couldn’t…

His hands twisting on the table before him, his eyes staring but not seeing. Someone clapping a hand on his shoulder in wordless, masculine sympathy. The thoughts turning and turning in his head. All those people who died, all those thousands and thousands of men shot down in the senseless mud and the men and women and children herded to their deaths in the snow and the cowering souls reduced to patties of meat under the slamming impact of bombs – all of them nothing, nothing to that face in the window staring at him, the eyes wild as the fire caught hold.

‘I’d recommend some leave if we had the men,’ he heard someone say, and he shot upright, straight and tall, his clenched fists clenched harder still.

‘I don’t need any leave,’ he growled, his voice something that belonged to an animal, not to himself. ‘I just need to get up there again.’

‘Ed, why don’t you get off the base and see your girl?’

He looked at the floor with its straight, dirt-ingrained boards. He wanted to be lying face down with his eyes closed. The thought of Cassie’s live face seemed like a blasphemy against the thought of Frankie, trapped behind that window.

‘Ed, the C.O.’ll sanction it. Go see your girl,’ someone else said, and then he heard behind him the voice of Colonel Powell, casual but firm, saying, ‘The C.O. doesn’t sanction it. He orders it. Get off this base, Haldorson.’

And he stood stiffly, like someone with damp in his bones. He walked off the base without looking left or right, without letting his eyes move to the machines in their silver majesty waiting for the time to take off, without seeing the control tower with its weeping, concrete-slab walls or the men lounging about outside despite the cold. He left and walked into the lanes that were suddenly narrow and twisting after all that openness, and he didn’t know which way to turn.

*

Ed was old enough to remember the dust bowl. Just. He remembered, at least, the strained looks on adults’ faces, and the black clouds of dirt that sat across the sky like a judgement, and the scarcity of good food in the shops. The city streets showed less sign of drought and hardship than did the fields a few miles away, but the dust and the want still tracked into the urban pathways.

He remembered a woman knocking on the door in the early morning, two small children in tow hardly older or younger than he, their eyes large as the hunger within them and no will to fidget left in their hands. His mother had turned them away because to encourage begging was to encourage the erosion of all boundaries. She had turned them away and told them never to come back. But he had seen paper slip from his mother’s hand as she touched the woman’s arm to nudge her down the steps. He had seen the dollar bill falling into the woman’s pocket. It was one of the new ones, crisp and clean and small of size. He remembered it because it was so bright and clean, and because it was so much money. His mother knew, and the woman knew, and he knew, but no one had ever spoken of it.

The years revolved. He took up clarinet and played in the school band. He studied hard and got good grades and played on the baseball team. He grew like a spruce pine and developed the shyness and awkwardness that too many boys do. He pushed through fences and roamed where he should not go and came back at night to the safety of dinner and home, and nothing ever changed in his world.

The war, when it came, was nothing but a new adventure. He was becoming a man, and he felt the importance of it chiming through his soul. He felt the menace of it from the moment of Pearl Harbor, when Pearl Harbor became a time and event instead of an obscure name dredged from atlases and geography bees. He felt it from the moment they had sat around the radio as a family and heard the baying and murmuring of people like a wild thing, and then Roosevelt speaking, his words clear and as separate as coins placed one by one in a palm.

December seventh, nineteen forty one, a date which will live in infamy

There had been a chill and an excitement in his spine then. It was remote and special, a distant menace made to entertain all those boys like him who sat on the edge of their chairs listening to the crackling reports that came out of the wooden box. It was something that could be reached out to and grasped.

When he was eighteen he signed up. It was something to do and somewhere to go. It was something more than walking every day down the straight grid streets of a Midwestern city and trying to think what to make of his future. It took him up and out. He didn’t know what else he wanted to do, and this gave him purpose. And after the excitement and safety of those first few months of learning and training and becoming moulded to the form he was expected to fill, he travelled four thousand miles to the smallness and dampness of England and settled like a migrating bird on new land.

A strange kind of bird, he had become. He and the thousands in his flock flew out from their adopted home, made forays into other territories but never landed, looked down on the spider webs of cities and roads, the capillaries of other, older lives, the ruled lines of power and steel cutting across the land. They were migrating birds who dropped their bombs from so high that the air was gaspingly thin and ice crept delicately across the windows, and when the smoke began to rise they were already returning to their nests.

Sometimes they flew home whole and hale, and sometimes they came back with shattered bones or dripping blood, and sometimes they could hardly fly at all. It wasn’t a game any more. These twisting English lanes were the place for games, but there were no games in the air and Ed was not a child any more. He could not aim a gun at an aircraft and watch bullets streaking into its metal hide and know that he was hoping for another man’s death, and remain a child.

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