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Anyhow in a Corner

Mark Bastable

This is what I can see from here: the combed brown fields; the scrubland dotted with silent cattle; a ship, speeding towards me.

There’s a girl standing on the quarterdeck, staring, pressing a hand to her heart. She thinks I’m amazing. If things were different I might talk to her, take her up to the promontory for a picnic overlooking the harbor. I’d put my hand under her skirt. She’d let me – because, yeah, I’m amazing. I really am.

Maybe we’d settle down and have kids – and when we got old we’d sit in our chairs and look out at the sea, and she’d remember the first time she saw me, my head thrown back, the wind whipping my hair into a horsetail behind me. She’d love that memory.

It’s not going to happen though. She will never know what she missed. She’ll marry a carpenter and bear children that are only half what ours would have been. And half something else. She’ll be perfectly happy, or perfectly miserable, but not in comparison to anything – because there’s no comparison to be made with what never happened.

Hey - I’m incomparable! I knew it. I told my dad so.

I can’t see my dad now, and I wish I could. I seem to have all the time in the world to look for him. I have the whole of the rest of my life. But all I can see is the approaching ship and the sea.

I’ll miss the ship.

I’ll miss everything.

I have lain awake at night and imagined my future – who doesn’t? Especially when you’re stuck in one place and there’s no way to leave. I raged about that.

“I have to get out of this fucking hell-hole!” I yelled, kicking the low wall of the flat roof where we ate our evening meal. “I’m going stir-crazy here. I can’t stand it.”

“You’re going to bust your foot,” Dad said. He was gazing at the gulls circling over the fishing boats docked below us. “That’s not going to help, is it?”

“I swear, I’m going to climb over the wall, clamber along the cliff to the point and I’m going to dive into the sea. I’ll swim for it. I’ll take my chances.”

He wasn’t looking at me – he was just staring at the gulls and sketching them with a piece of charcoal on the back of one of the thousands of labyrinthine designs he made for the man he referred to as ‘our host’.

“It’s not so bad here.” He indicated the leftover lamb and olives on the table. “There’s plenty of food and drink. Women. We can wander wherever we please within the walls of the town. It’s sheltered. It’s safe.”

“It’s a prison, Dad! I'm going  out of my mind!”

“There is no prison but the mind.”

“Well, I’m going out of my prison, then.”

I sat on the wall, dangling my feet above the street below, drinking tepid wine. I could hear the frustrated roar of the freak who was the reason we came. His howls echoed from his gaol beneath the looming mountains, audible all the way out by the bay. That sorry fuck-up. Back when we arrived on the island, I thought he was okay, to be honest. Not easy on the eye – but okay. Later, when I heard him bellowing with rage and heartbreak, I really felt a connection with him. He was trapped in a prison that my father made for him – and I was trapped in a prison that his father made for mine. The ugly kid and I were both frustrated freaks.

Dad got to his feet. He put his sketches on the table and stood an empty glass on them. He produced a length of fishing twine and a hook from his pocket and he snagged a scrap of grilled lamb on it. He started to swing it around his head in a long arc, circling just fast enough to keep it up there.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Young men can’t imagine that the world could get by without them,” he said, his eyes on the gulls hovering over the fishing boats. “But the world doesn’t care if you dive from the point and smash yourself to pieces on the rocks. The tide will still come in. The moon will rise. The plowman will wake in the morning and check the horizon for clouds.”

“I’ll chance it.”

A black-headed gull swooped from behind us and snatched the morsel of meat in mid-air from the moving hook. Dad let the hook fall onto the roof terrace. He picked it up and attached another piece of lamb.

“I don’t like the odds. I would rather have you here, alive and bored, than let you risk your life in the pursuit of - what? Another island?”

“I want to see the world.”

Dad started to swing the baited hook around his head again.

“But the world doesn’t particularly want to see you.”

So I lay awake and I imagined futures – though I never imagined having no future at all. Even the dreariest and most restrictive scenarios I imagined were, actually, futures. Like anyone – like you – I imagined dozens of ways my life might be. Scores. Hundreds. Anyone who does that knows that only one will actually get to happen. Well, I’m the same, except I’ve ended up with one fewer than everyone else.

Look at that beautiful sea. I can hear it now, even above the rush of the wind. I can see silver shoals of fish just beneath the surface. They’ll scatter and regroup, as if I were never there. They’ll carry me away in a thousand pieces to the shallows around other islands. So I will see the world. Or its coastlines, at least. One scoop of a fishing net and I may end up in the belly of the carpenter’s wife after all.

During winter on the island, the birds were hungry. Every day – for months and months - my father stood on the roof swinging his baited hook, and the gulls came to take the meat from it. And not just gulls. Falcons, osprey, ravens – all manner of hunters and scavengers. Along the low walls Dad laid berries and seeds and crumbled bread. Finches came. And sparrows, doves, swallows. By the time the olive-groves were harvested again, Dad could simply raise his arm and any bird would settle on his wrist – from the magnificent sea-eagle to the tiny wren.

“Tomorrow,” he told me, as he crumbled candles into a bowl at midnight, “I want you to collect a bouquet of aconite. Don’t touch the flowers.”

He mashed up the plants I’d collected and he poisoned every one of his birds. He plucked their feathers – just one or two from some of them, most of both wings from some others. He piled the cloudy-eyed corpses in a corner of the terrace. He unravelled the wicker of our rooftop wind-break and he heated the wax over a brazier of coals.

“Young men think life and death are exciting,” he said, strapping wicker struts to my outstretched arms. “But life and death are what happens while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

He dripped blobs of wax onto the wicker frame, and to each blob he carefully attached a feather.

I flexed my shoulders. “Will this work?”

“You matter to me. If you’re determined to go, I’ll give you the best chance, because I care. But you don’t matter to the world. The world doesn’t care.”

“You’re a genius,” I said, looking from side to side, admiring my wings.

He grabbed my face and twisted my head so that our eyes met. “Listen to me. You cannot imagine the world without you. And I cannot imagine the world without you either. But that’s a catastrophic failure on both our parts – it’s not a magic spell. It’s not a protection.”

“I can look after myself.”

I had to help him with his own wings. It took hours and I was impatient. I could feel the breeze wanting to lift me, but Dad forbade me to so much as hover above the table until he was ready too.

“The minute they see one of us aloft, they’ll be up here. We have to go together.”

We went together – up from the roof terrace, suspended there higher than the potted bay trees, tercel-feathers spread. And then – a push against the warm, solid wind and out across the docks, over the water, beyond the masts of the fishing boats, above the circling gulls. It was easy. It was as natural as laughing.

And I did laugh – just for the joy of swooping and soaring, diving and banking, free of the low walls and the stairs to the street, the smell of grilled lamb and sweating goat’s cheese. I laughed, spiraling upwards on unseen currents into the blue silent sky. I laughed plunging through wisps of moist cloud, plummeting past my father – “Be careful, you idiot!” – twisting, sleek, spreading my wings and skimming the whitecaps like a kingfisher, the taste of salt on my grinning lips.

Climbing again, pirouetting on nothing, I could see the island we had left – tiny and insignificant, too small a vessel for a soul like mine – and I could see a dozen other islands, ahead, left, right, all reachable, all places I might choose to set foot - all there for me alone. No man had ever seen what I was seeing, from so high, with such freedom. Whatever Dad said, this world could not exist without me. Without me, there was no such world at all. I summoned it by perceiving it. It was my creation.

“For God’s sake, be careful,” Dad yelled. He was far below me, craning to look up over his shoulder. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”

No. I wasn’t about to die. I was about to be born. I was coming all new and fresh to the world, and the higher I flew more alive I became. Higher and higher into the brilliant blue cold and the damp trails of cloud, laughing at the world below me that was there to be taken.

But as I climbed, the cold air froze the blobs of wax, which became brittle and fragile. They cracked when the shafts of the feathers moved in them. A long eagle-feather was whipped away in the high breeze above the clouds – then another. The balance of one wing shifted against the air and in turning sharply to adjust I put too much strain on the wicker struts. A thin stem fractured and sagged, another snapped clean in two. I dropped. I tumbled past my father, but far behind him and I don’t think he saw me. I felt the wings ripped from my arms, spinning away as I plunged headlong.

And in the rushing roar of the wind around my head, my hair streaming like a horsetail, the girl looking up at me with her hand held to her heart, it seemed as if I had forever. I do. I have the rest of my life.

This is what I can see from here: the combed brown fields; the scrubland dotted with silent cattle; a ship, speeding towards me.

I'll miss the ship – by only a few feet. I shall plummet into the water, scattering the silver fish who will regroup over me as if I were never there. And the girl on the quarterdeck will scream, perhaps, and then she’ll marry a carpenter and be perfectly happy or perfectly miserable, and she’ll remember that once, late on a summer afternoon when she was young, she saw something amazing – a boy falling out of the sky, his white legs disappearing into the green water as she cried for help.

But - I understand now - the expensive delicate ship has somewhere to get to, and it will sail calmly on.

Anyhow in a Corner: Resume
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