A Winter's Flight
Another hour, just another hour, then winter break, or rather Christmas vacation, as the (politically incorrect) children called it, would start. Class 5-308 was now having their pre-vacation/Christmas party. Parents had sent in cupcakes, cookies, chips, candy canes, caramels, chocolate, more candy, all manner of unhealthy foods that started with the letter "C." Some parents even sent in a small present for each child. Not worth much more than a dollar, but the children nevertheless appreciated the gesture as a portent of more presents to come. The teacher gave each of her fifth graders a book, one of those thin paperbacks from Scholastic, accumulated for free from previous book orders.
The children chattered excitedly about their vacation plans and gift expectations. It was one of the few times during the school year that the teacher did not berate her students for being too noisy. Some were leaving on planes that very day. Others were in for a long boring drive. Still others complained of having to visit their neighbors just next door. These children were already too old to believe in Santa Claus. In this modern age, most had stopped believing in Santa by the time they were five. Now they spoke not of Santa and elves and reindeer but of uncle-so-and-so and aunt-so-and-so and how they had asked them for this new video game that their own parents refused to buy because it was too violent and too expensive.
The children talked and stuffed themselves while also keeping an eye on the classroom clock - watching the minute hand as it ticked closer and closer to three o'clock, when they would achieve their week of freedom. Most of the children had finished their foray into carbohydrates except one. One sallow skinned girl, small, unkempt, and underweight, ate only one of her chips and picked at her cupcake. She had already stored away all the wrapped candy and gifts in her backpack. Unlike the others, she was not looking forward to the break from school. She was not going anywhere, had never been anywhere, nor was she expecting any other presents. If anything, school was her only respite, where she received two nutritious, if not quite filling or tasty, meals every day. The other kids teased her and called her a bottomless pit, who was happy to eat, or store away, any untouched, or slightly touched, food they offered her.
A plump girl with dirty blonde hair tied back in a ponytail approached her. "Maya, here's my cupcake if you want it. My mom's been telling me to stop eating so much so I saved this for you. Looks like you need it a lot more than I do. You're soooo lucky to be thin!" she said jealously.
Maya smiled a bit at her friend. If she only knew. But Maya did not want anyone to know. She did not want anyone feeling sorry for her, or more likely making fun of her even more. Even though Shivanie was generally nice to her and shared her food with her, Maya knew she talked about her behind her back and made fun of her to the other children. Shivanie was often teased about her weight, so in return she teased Maya to booster her own self confidence.
The dark haired, dark eyed girl patiently listened to her friend ramble on and on about her vacation plans (going skiing or something) and what she wanted for Christmas (XBox 2 among others). Actually Maya was barely listening. Why anyone would want to be out in the cold, in the snow, on dangerously long strips of metal, was beyond her comprehension. It didn't seem like fun at all. What would be fun was to visit sunny Cape Canaveral, where the Kennedy Space Center was, where the rockets and space shuttles launched. And to fly to the moon. There was supposed to be an old man in the moon and a rabbit of immortality. Silly though they were, Maya loved myths from all over the world. She would have loved to travel not only all over Earth, but beyond the stars. The best myths were the ones explaining the constellations.
Shivanie soon noticed Maya was not listening. Annoyed, she turned her attention to someone else, but Maya didn't care. She was more concerned about other things. She woke from her reverie and eyed her cupcakes contemplatively. She decided to eat one cupcake now that she had an extra one for later. She also finished her chips since those would be crushed if she tried to save them. Shivanie's cupcake she carefully wrapped in her napkin and then stowed it away in her backpack. That with the candy was most likely dinner.
She had forgotten that she had also saved a banana from breakfast. That was hard. Food was not allowed out of the cafeteria. Many of the cafeteria monitors forced the students to throw away uneaten food rather than allow them to save it for later. They didn't care about wasting food, or starving children, just the rules. After years of stealth, Maya knew which monitors to look out for and which paid little attention to anything, even food fights.
Finally, the bell rang. The loud, harsh clanging jolted Maya back from her food ruminations. The other children started cheering and putting on their coats and backpacks with great enthusiasm while she took her time. The other children waited impatiently for her - because of her lack of height, she had to be at the front of the line.
The line wound its way down the cramped stairs with the girls on the left, the boys on the right, and the teacher at the head of the line. It was almost mass chaos as the voices from other classes in front and back merged with theirs. Three flights down, the doorway to freedom was clearly in sight, and the excited voices increased in volume and pitch.
The icy wind swept through Maya's scarf and across her narrow face as she exited the building. Their teacher smartly stayed inside and waved, wishing them all "Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukah! Have a Great Kwanza! Happy New Year!" then turned back inside and made for the teacher's lounge where they were having an adult party, with real eggnog, not the nonalcoholic stuff.
The children dispersed with a few going off on their own and others picked up by parents or babysitters. Maya lived just a few blocks from the school. Since the fourth grade she was allowed to go home by herself; the school no longer cared whether a parent picked them up at that age. It was better this way. Otherwise she would have to (not) rely on her mother, or her proxy, to pick her up. She usually returned home to an empty apartment, which she preferred, so she could do her homework in peace. It was still officially illegal to be left home alone at her age, but no one ever questioned it. Since it was after school hours, she was no longer the school's responsibility.
The snow from last night had been cleared away, for the most part, but Maya walked slowly, with her head down, careful not to slip. There was no first aid kit or even bandages at home should she have an accident. The path cleared was slushy and slippery and her too tight boots made squishy noises as she walked. She pretended that she was walking on the moon and took slow exaggerated careful steps, just like the astronauts she saw in the film played in the auditorium last year. That was the most exciting film the school had ever shown, in her opinion.
Three blocks from the school, and just a block from her house, there was no longer a clear path. The snow lay several inches deep, indicating old people lived in these homes - too weak to shovel the snow themselves, too cheap to hire one of the neighborhood kids. Maya happily made deep footprints while thinking about the astronauts' impressions on the moon.
Then out of the corner of her right eye, she saw something fluttering in the snow - a fragment of gold ribbon. She walked over and pulled at the ribbon, but it was attached to something buried deep. With her small bare hands she dug, ignoring the sharp cold pains in her fingers. The pretty lace ribbon was tied around a damp and slightly crushed box.
`A present, a real present,' she thought with a wistful smile. She turned the box around to look for a tag with an address or name, but there was none. She looked at the houses near her, wondering whether someone there had dropped it. But the undisturbed snow in front of the doors led her to believe the box was dropped by someone just passing by. `A real present, for me,' she decided.
Maya tucked the box under her left arm and quickly walked the rest of the way home, fearful that someone would see her with the box and claim it. She felt a bit like a thief, but the thrill of doing something not quite proper washed away any guilt.
Home was the basement of an old frame house sadly in need of repairs. The house was originally the property of her grandmother, now gone. When she was alive, she was the one who cared for Maya, who saw to Maya's daily needs. Afraid of her own mortality, her grandmother had wisely instructed Maya how to care for herself should something happen. That something happened early, when Maya was six.
The car accident destroyed whatever normal childhood Maya could have had. She was left with a mother barely out of her teens who had minimal education or job experience, but with a fondness for liquor and partying and who knew what other vice. Unable to hold a job to pay the mortgage, Maya's mother resorted to renting out the house. She moved herself and her daughter (illegally) into the basement. There was luckily a full bath installed by the previous owner. There was no proper kitchen, but they each had their own bedroom, though cold as igloos. Even if there had been a kitchen, it was unlikely to be put to use. Her mother only knew how to microwave food, not prepare it.
Food became more and more scare as the alcohol slowly destroyed her mother's brain cells and even her memory of having a child. What she did remember was to collect the rent. But she didn't always remember to pay the bills. Many tenants had come and gone over the years, fed up with the lack of maintenance and the yowling her mother called singing at three in the morning. Her mood swings were unpredictable, so Maya was hesitant to ask her mother to buy groceries, or clothes, or any basic necessity. Maya was as likely to get a hard cuff on the head as a twenty dollar bill. She only saw her mother a few times a week since they kept opposite schedules. Her mother worked at a neighborhood bar at night and slept during the day. Catching her sober was rare, but somehow they managed. And somehow, to her great relief, there was always toilet paper.
These circumstances formed a child mature beyond her years, despite her occasional flights of fancy. The other children innately knew this and avoided her as they would with untrustworthy adults who judged them. It didn't help that she was also painfully shy and quiet, which most children interpreted as being spacey. She had no real friends at all, at least none that ever called her or visited her. This didn't matter much since it was easier not to have friends. She had nothing to share, nor could she openly invite anyone over to her little underground room which used to be a storage closet.
Maya's nearly frostbitten fingers fumbled with the key. Once inside she quickly dropped her backpack by the door, kicked off her boots, and ran to her room, all the while holding the box with both hands. She knew without opening the box that there was something special inside. Most people used cheap giftwrap, not a fancy gold lace ribbon. Even the ivory box had an ingrained pattern. `Something special just for me.' She hesitated now, allowing the thrill of anticipation to warm her.
She held the box and shook it lightly near her ear. No rattle, no parts, something whole. "What could it be?" she asked herself. "It's quite heavy I think for a box this size. Too square a shape to be a book. Too large to be a paperweight. Maybe bookends? That would be nice if I had enough books. Not jewelry or a stuffed animal. Maybe a collection of CDs or DVDs."
The solitary girl often played such games with herself to while away the time. Though she was often lonely, she always made the best of it. She had her books from the library, an old radio in her room, a television set in the living room, and her own imagination to entertain herself.
She continued in this vein for a while longer. It was already getting dark, but tonight there would be a full moon. The moon, in both her waking and sleeping hours she dreamed of traveling there, imagined the feeling of zero gravity, and fantasized what it would be like to be completely free. How wonderful it would be if the moon were somehow in that box, or rather a piece of the moon, a moon rock.
She wanted very badly to open the box, but it was not Christmas yet. She knew presents were normally opened on Christmas morning, yet she was afraid the box would be taken from her or somehow disappear by then. She resolved not to open it until after midnight; she could stay awake until then. After all, then it would be officially Christmas.
Maya resignedly decided to start on her holiday homework that their slave driver of a teacher had cold heartedly assigned. She alone did not mind the extra work - it gave her something to do. It was actually not due until two weeks after their return from vacation, but it was a science project that required considerable thought and planning. The first step was to select a project. That was relatively simple - it had to be something to do with space. Maybe a model of the planets, or an explanation of gravity, or how rockets worked, or the light vs. dark sides of the moon. She mulled over the possible projects and outlined ideas and sketched out diagrams until her stomach rumbled.
From her backpack, Maya took out the banana, cupcake, and candy and placed it with the rest of the food she had stored during the week. Five bananas, three apples, two oranges, three one-serving boxes of cereal, fifteen carrot sticks (lots of kids gave her those), twelve cheese sticks (ditto), one cupcake and five dozen pieces of candy. It should be enough food for at least four days she estimated. For her Christmas Eve dinner, she ate two carrot sticks, two cheese sticks, and the ripest banana. It was now past eight o'clock.
The upstairs tenants were having their own party, which apparently had just started. Horrific rock and roll Christmas music and uncoordinated attempts at dancing could be heard from the ceiling. The tenants were a young couple who had moved in recently, blissfully unaware that once the weather got even colder, the house's low heat setting would not compensate.
Maya yawned and forced herself not to look at the box. Instead she went to the living room and turned on the other box, the television set. There was nothing on that she hadn't seen before or that she found remotely interesting. She left the channel on some silly sitcom that had an episode based on A Christmas Carol (how original, not). Still wearing her coat and huddled in a blanket on the sofa, she slowly drifted off to sleep despite her resolve.
In her dream, one of her favorite recurring dreams, she was on the space shuttle. Not strapped down but free to float through the cabin. She got to eat free floating potato chips just like Homer Simpson. She performed a little ballet in the air, floating about to catch the chips, pushing her little body along with her arms like oars against the air. Such a wonderful dream.
Maya woke to the sound of a honking car. It seemed the tenants' visitors were leaving. It was just past midnight now. She looked around and noticed her mother had yet to return. That gave her confidence to return her attention to the box back in her room.
She took a deep breath and held it in front of her, memorizing the way it looked before she opened it. The ribbon was tied in such an expert way, that with a gentle steady pull, the bow came apart. She undid the rest of it and with her small hands slightly trembling, she lifted the top off. As she expected it was a figurine.
But this one was not of a Christmas theme. Not a snowman or Santa or reindeer, instead it was a crystalline winged horse - something so delicate and exquisitely beautiful, her hands had never touched before. Beautiful, but not terribly useful. She could not eat it or play with it. All she could do was admire it. So admire it she did, turning it around and upside down, looking closely at the expert craftsmanship where even the shafts and barbs of the feathered wings were carefully defined.
`A winged horse, like in that old myth."
She suddenly heard the basement door open. He mother was back. Maya quickly placed the little statue back in its box and hid it under her bed, just in case her mother was in one of her black moods. She turned off her bedroom light, closed her door, and waited. She could hear voices - that meant her mother had a visitor, probably male and probably drunk. The voices started to rise in timbre as they started to argue. Swear words could now be heard, then noises of a scuffle, then a door slam, then footsteps outside the house, then silence.
Maya sighed in relief, but a tear formed in each eye and though she tried to blink them back, they escaped and wandered down her face. It wasn't fair was it to be alone on Christmas Eve while other children had warm families surrounding them. Though she was brave most of the time, she was still just a child and there were times she felt she could not continue. But she did because her grandmother had told her life was precious even if you were miserable, and things will get better.
From under her bed, she retrieved the box and took out the winged horse. Then she wrapped her bony hands around the cold glass, wishing very, very hard. Wishing to be taken away to somewhere, anywhere else but this cold dreary gray city where even the snow was polluted. She was quietly but freely crying now. The tears ran down her face, splashing onto her hands, held as if in prayer around the little horse substituting for rosaries.
The cold glass started to warm in her hands, warmer and warmer until it felt as if her hands were now being warmed by the glass. The glass started to soften and felt as it if were melting, ready to be molded into another shape. But as it warmed her hands it also began to glow silver and grow heavy, very heavy. The light emanating from it was now so bright and the statute now felt so heavy she had to put it down on the floor. The mass seemed to be growing in all dimensions. Maya had to squint to look at the silver light which obscured the morphing figure.
When the light faded, before her stood the winged horse, no longer a miniature and no longer transparent but with a coat and wings of pure white. It was somewhat smaller than the horses she saw the policeman ride that one time the class took a trip into the City, but more elegant than a pony, with slender legs that did not look like it could support such a body with its massive wings.
For a second it stood as still as its previous form, as frozen as she was in her surprise. Then it gave a shake of its mane and a snort from its nose. Its black eyes looked wisely at the girl and then it jerked its head, indicating that she should get on its back. Maya approached cautiously; her hands tentatively touched the horse's mane. `I must have fallen asleep. I must be dreaming. But I've never had a dream like this before. So real. And it's a good dream, I think, not a nightmare.' She giggled at the unintentional pun. `Night mare, a winged night mare.'
The horse's mane would have felt like strands of silk just spun from a caterpillar and its fur would have felt like white velvet if Maya had known what such finery felt like. Instead, such descriptions were just lines from a book and meant little to her until now.
The horse bowed its head and lowered its forelegs. Now hunched over, the girl could climb, with some effort, onto its back. A basement ceiling is lower than a normal ceiling and the girl had to keep her body bent to keep from hitting her head. She instinctively clutched its mane to steady herself. But how could they leave? The windows were too small. Even going out the basement main door would be difficult. The horse seemed to sense her thoughts as it tossed its head and mane reflectively.
The silver light returned, enveloping both horse and rider with a warm aura of comfort - such a wonderful euphoric warmth that she had never felt before, and such a dazzling light she could not see beyond it, yet it did not hurt her eyes. When the light dissipated, she found that they were now standing outside in front of the house. The horse turned its graceful neck, blinked its black eyes, and stamped its feet impatiently at her, as if to ask for her next orders.
It came to her instinctively. "Fly!" she said, "Fly anywhere, just fly up, away from here."
The horse extended its wings slowly and gave a few flaps as if testing them out after long disuse. It then ran a few steps while flapping its wings and the girl felt herself lifting unsteadily into the air. Her stomach lurched. Maya had never been on a plane before, much less an amusement park ride, and the sudden lift against gravity unsettled the aspirant astronaut. She closed her eyes but then realized that she was missing out on the most important, most exciting thing that had ever happened to her in her entire life. She forced her eyes opened.
She looked down and saw some houses with their lights still on. It was well past midnight now and most children were already sleeping in their beds with visions of IPODs dancing in their heads. Meanwhile their parents were still up, struggling with cheap giftwrap that easily tore, curling ribbon that tangled, and invisible tape where the end was always lost. But Maya no longer cared about tangible gifts. What she was experiencing now meant more than a truckload of presents. Even if this were a dream, just a fantasy, just a fleeting experience, it would stay with her forever.
Maya did not feel the chilly wind as she huddled low on the horse's back. Her hands circled its neck and her legs pressed hard against its flank. She snuggled her face against its soft warm neck, feeling its pulse, ensuring herself it was alive and not a dream. She breathed into the horse's neck, her breath condensing in the cold and wetting the mane.
They soared through the fresh winter air, climbing higher and higher. Maya's stomach settled and she ventured to sit up a bit and relax her legs and her hold on her mount. `What was that song, that old song grandma used to play? Sung by some old guy, also long gone, about flying to the moon and the stars.' She vaguely remembered the melody and started to hum it to herself. She was happy, truly happy, the first time in a very long time.
`This feeling of weightlessness, of total freedom, of cold air and thinning oxygen, this is what it must be like, what the astronauts feel, way up there, above the atmosphere. Are snowflakes and raindrops any bigger up here where they are formed? What was that myth, the one with the winged horse.the constellation.P.Peg.Pegasus. and his master. Bell.Bella-something? He fell, didn't he? He was trying to fly to Olympus but the gods didn't like that. Zeus, the king of the gods, did something to make him fall.'
The innate fear of falling caused panic to strike as she realized how high up she was and how far down she would fall if something happened. Her arms tightened around the horse's neck again, her legs squeezed tighter, and her body tensed. `But I must fly higher, higher, this is my only chance. I want to reach the moon, as close possible.'
The rider and her mount now entered a low hanging cloud. A thrilling chill ran through the little girl's body. She coughed a bit as the cold wet air entered her lungs. Her steed turned its head as if to say, `Isn't this high enough?' But the girl shook her head, looked up at the full moon glowing in the dark sky and ordered, "Higher! To the moon! To the stars!"
But now Maya found it very difficult to breathe as the bright orb came closer and closer, filling her eyes with its reflected silver light. Soon all she could see was the blinding brightness of the moon, obscuring her sense of sight. All she could hear was the rush of the wind and the rhythmic flapping of the wings. All she could smell was the fresh cold air devoid of any scent. (The horse seemed to have no odor at all.) All she could taste was the icy water from the cloud they passed through. All she could feel was the warmth from the fur beneath her and the icy wind above her.
Her breath grew ragged and shallow. The low pressure caused a slow building headache. Still she did not order her mount to stop. A little voice cautioned her: she was flying too high; man was not made to reach the heavens; Bellerophon (so that was his name) was thrown off Pegasus before he reached Mount Olympus. But she did not heed the warnings. Now she had to close her eyes against the brightness of the moon and against the throbbing pain in her head. She had to concentrate on breathing - each breath now burned her lungs. The lack of oxygen finally overcame her. Her head started spinning and she felt herself let go of her steed.
The bright orb was etched into her retinas, or so it seemed as she tried to blink her eyes. Then she heard a voice, no one familiar.
"Here! Here! I found one! She's still breathing, her pupils are fine, but her body's cold and. wet?" said the young paramedic as he shone his penlight into her eyes.
Maya gradually sat up against the advice of the man. She heard him say something about a gas leak. But she had priorities other than her health as she looked around her little room. There it was, the box with its gold ribbon, on the floor, crushed. and empty.
Low clouds are at about 6500 ft elevation. Mount Everest is about 29,000 ft and airplanes fly at above 30,000 ft.
Maya means "divine creative force."
Shivanie was the name of a little bully in my son's pre-K class.
This story was inspired by and is dedicated to Nixmary Brown - the seven year old girl who was tortured, starved, and beaten to death by her stepfather while her mother did nothing. The school officials, doctors, and government officials did little to investigate her domestic circumstances despite evidence of abuse.