top of page

The Physical Exertion of Human Flight

Paul Thompson

Thirty years ago, his brother flew off a cliff.

Details of that day keep him from sleep. Instead, wide awake, he practices flying. Pushes himself up from the bed, forcing his muscles toward the ceiling, expanding in his skin. His mind wanders to the cliff top, disrupting his focus. Thoughts of the past, overwhelming in mass, pushing down onto his abdomen. The sound of uncertain skies, the taste of the ocean, the rotation of a falling body.

His attempts to fly are physically demanding. A cramp in his shin. Shoulders tense. Bones rubbing and unable to settle. Human flight, if possible, has a downside - the physical exertion to move in any direction at will. His body pulses, stuck to the bed, always in need of a surface beneath it.

Back on the cliff top, the wind picks up. In hindsight, watching from his bed, the signs are clear. Trees rustle whispered warnings. Wildflowers point towards the sea, bobbing with the tide. His brother's clothes, over-sized and hand-me-downs, flap like sheets on a line. He has long limbs and awkward posture, a human-bird hybrid, soon to be extinct.

On the coastal path they fight with sticks and catch bugs, keep a safe distance between the holiday park and the cliff edge, no ball games or falling objects. One of their comics has a pull-out section on birds. He reads it to his brother - how the birds glide on air currents, their bones hollow and made for flight. A diagram of a bird asleep in mid-air, undisturbed by arrows passing round its frame.

The wind gives a final warning, blowing the comic from their hands. He feels it in the past and present, at bed sheets, clutching at the grass. The wind at their backs, chasing the comic towards the cliff, warnings left far behind. One freak gust, and his brother lifts off the ground, the cliff top pulling out from beneath him. His clothes billow and inflate - a kite of human assembly, a cross frame of bones, skin taut across the surface. He falls, flapping his arms to save himself, before hitting the ocean hard.

This final image is permanent, etched underneath his eyelids. Half asleep, salt on his teeth and spray in his eyes, he tries to lift himself off the bed once more, his body a broken puppet. When sleeps comes, it is the deepest of sleeps, from a place of exhaustion. Here his brother waits in the sky, bones hollow and limbs long. Birds circle him in a tornado of feathers, and together they fly weightless, with zero effort, without ache or discomfort. They move without ever knowing how, their mass ignored by the planets, gravity now a myth.

They glide over meadows, through plumes of butterfly. Dive-bomb across empty beaches, stomachs brushing at the scrub. Weave between pylons, as dawn casts its first shadow across fields of rapeseed yellow. As the light begins to consume them, pulling their bodies apart, weight returns to his every atom. Birdsong amplifies, the dawn chorus returning his brother to the skies.

He wakes in bed, tangled and flightless. Remnants of birdsong through the window, a link between realities. The earth pulls at him, his weight that of a thousand sleepless nights. His body lies in the centre of the bed, away from the edges, always away from the edges, in the land of significant effort.

Paul is from Sheffield, UK. His stories have appeared in Okay Donkey, Spelk Fiction and Ellipsis Zine. He was recently on the Best British & Irish Flash Fiction list for 2019-2020. Find more at @hombre_hompson

bottom of page