They leave just before dawn. Four unshaven men abandoning the prospect of a lazy sunday morning for the chance to get out of the city, to get away. Their equipment stowed safely in the back of the station wagon, the stereo playing the songs they remember from their youth, they will drive miles out of the city, looking for a place where the flying will be good.
Today they stop in the middle of a large cornfield. It's a likely enough spot. Low mountains rise on either side of the valley, creating a natural wind tunnel, and there's a dirt road that leads to the middle of the field, far from the busy hum of the highway. Alighting from the car, they stretch their half-sleeping limbs, then begin to ready the equipment. Working in practised silence, they thread string through the kites they will use as bait, check and recheck their reels for snags. Five, ten minutes later they are stepping into the field, their kites ready, casting them skilfully into the air and watching them sail gradually upward to where they hang suspended, awaiting the wind.
After that, it's just about patience really. And a little luck. Sometimes you barely get the kite up in the air before a mean old gust takes it, and you spend the rest of the morning fighting to gain control. But most times there'll be this long interlude, when the mind drifts, lazy as a kite, and there's nothing to do but wait for the wind to come along. Sometimes they talk to each other at these times, speaking words without consequence, slow updrafts of conversation that go nowhere but help keep them afloat. But often each man will stand by himself, letting the calm of this weekend morning soak into him, feeling that sense of relief that comes from knowing that nature requires no proofs from us, will accept us as we are.
Three of the men here today are regulars - they've been doing this for years. The fourth, the son of the oldest among them, is new at this. It shows. When the first breeze nibbles tentatively at his kite, he panics, lets out a shout of triumph, tries to reel the wind in too quickly. The wind, sensing danger, escapes, taking his cry with it. The boy feels the line in his hand grow suddenly slack, and disappointment comes fluttering through the air, crashing to the ground like a kite out of control.
The others shake their heads but say nothing. They understand. They can still remember what it feels like, the first time you feel the wind take your kite, the throbbing tension of the string between your fingers, that feeling of being connected to some alien and struggling being. The feeling of being handed a power too mighty for you to control. It doesn't matter, they tell him, when he looks downcast. There will be other winds. You will learn.
After the morning's flying, they pull out the icebox they have brought with them, sit in a circle in the grass, eating sandwiches and drinking beer. Now the conversation flows freely. They do not talk of worldly things though, of their lives back in the city, but rather of flying itself - sharing the old war stories they have told each other a million times but that they never tire of recounting. Today they have the advantage of a new listener, so their enthusiasm is doubled. In well-rehearsed words, they recount all the old memories for the boy's benefit, reminiscences about the good times they had, flying kites together back in the old days: stories about the distant places they traveled to, about irate farmers who chased them out of their fields, about drunken flying soirees that ended in comic disaster.
By the time they are done with this picnic meal the sun will have risen high in the sky, and the air around them will be starting to heat up. They will go back to their kites then, taking another hour or so to enjoy the drafts of hot air swooping invisible above the valley floor, the eagles up in the sky their only witnesses. And then it will be time to leave. And they will pack up their equipment and take the unexpectedly long road back to the city, to their families, to their homes and offices. And each man will carry back with him, in his memory, a small piece of the sky, as a trophy from this day's flying.
Categories: Fiction, Whimsy