Fiction: Philip and Short Wing

Introduction:

This is an excerpt from a larger work in progress titled “Home by the Sea”

To give a little context: the main character is on the way to his Uncle’s funeral.  During a plane flight dominated by turbulence, he tries to find peace in remembering a story his Uncle once told him about flying…

Once upon a time,

as these things generally begin,

there was a happy family of Fletchers, who lived in a cottage on the coast of the Aegean Sea. Mother and Father made and mended fishing nets, and were teaching their young son Philip the trade as well. It was a fine, pleasant life for everyone. The family was renowned for making the strongest and lightest nets in the region. Trade was brisk, the work steady, but not overwhelming.

On the weekends when the sun was out and the water was calm, which was often, Philip and his father would go on fishing trips, taking a row boat out onto the sea to fish for sea bass, bream, and yellowtail.

One day in early spring, on one such fishing trip, the perfect weather turned quickly dire. A storm came on with a sudden ferocity, knocking Philip from the boat. Swift currents carried him away from his father.

Do not worry.  That is not the end of Philip’s story.

It is only the beginning.

Philip and Short Wing

Philip woke up with the sun shining down on his face and the cries of a great many birds piercing the air.

The cool surf was brushing against his feet and lower legs. Sand beneath his head. His body was a wreck of soreness, and his eyes felt all gummy. He gradually sat up to find himself on an unfamiliar beach.

In a flash, his last waking memories flooded his brain, the waves, the storm, cracks of thunder and lightning, his father with the brave face, rowing steadily. The fear in father’s eyes at that last giant wave, that chucked Philip from the boat with such ferocity. Then water everywhere, above and below. An eerie weighted silence as Philip tried to determine which way was up, the conflicting messages from his body and buoyancy and then air, surfacing briefly, rain followed by a wave hit, driving him underwater again. and again. With each dunking his father and the little boat farther and farther away. Salty water in his throat, in his eyes, burning, suffocating. A struggle to stay afloat, a diligent dog paddle.

Philip tested his legs. They were sore, but he could walk on them well enough. Seeing nothing but flat blue ocean before him, he turned to looked inland. The beach was crested with clumps of sharp bladed saw grass which rose into a small field that surrounded a hill, atop which was perched the largest olive tree Philip had ever seen.

Carefully walking up the hill and toward the tree, dodging clumps of saw grass, it became clear, with sad certainty, that Philip was alone on the island, and that the island was very small. There was no sign of his father, or their boat. There were no lighthouse or cabins or any structures on the far shore.

Philip was all by himself.

He walked up to the tree, and saw it housed a bee’s nest, a tangle of silk worms and a great many birds were perched on its branches, chirping and chattering, singing and cackling.

“So, not alone.” He said to himself, and walked to the far shore to watch the sun set behind the vanishing storm clouds to the west.

The sand was hot, and Philip took off his damp clothes and buried his legs in an effort to keep warm. He imagined the sand was his blankets and pillows, and he was safe at home where his mother and father had tucked him into bed. He imagined the bird song was outside his open bedroom window which provided another degree of peace.

It was not too long before Philip fell asleep.

The sun on his face woke him up the next morning. He opened his eyes to find a bird had nested in the hollow between his sand covered legs.

“Hello.” Philip gently said to the dark winged bird. He did not want to startle it as he had never been this close to a bird before.

The bird blinked, and turned his head to the side to take in the boy who had emerged from the sand. The bird blinked again, squawked as a kind of “hello” right back.

“My name is Philip.” the boy said, “Do you have a name?”

The bird hopped up and extended its wings in a stretch. Philip saw that the creature’s wings were stunted and short. “I will call you Short Wing, and you can call me Philip,” as the bird was clear of the sand Philip pulled out his club foot “which we can say translates to short foot.”

The bird thought this was quite funny, and the laughter was infectious. Short Wing hopped up and down merrily and Philip laughed and laughed.  He laughed until his throat was raw and his sides ached.

Philip then told his story to Short Wing. Not only about the storm and waking up on the island, but also about his home, his mother, his father and what it was like to grow up the son of a Fletcher.

Short Wing listened to all this with quiet concentration.

The sun was high in the sky by the time Philip had finished, and he was feeling quite hungry, as evidenced by the growling in his gut. “Short Wing, I need some food. Do you know where I could get something to eat?”

Short Wing bobbed his head up and down, and then looked to the ocean and then looked at Philip, then looked back at the ocean and back at Philip. It was plain to see that Short Wing was telling him “The Sea is full of tasties. Fish and fish.”

“But Short Wing, I cannot fly and I cannot swim.” Philip’s belly rumbled again, this time paired with a sharp pain.

Short Wing let out a low call, shook his head rapidly as if to say “you don’t understand” and raced across the sand and into the water. At first it looked as if the waves were going to just throw the small bird back onto the beach again, but he paddled his way out, extending his short wings to catch a breeze to help him along, and soon he was a little dark speck upon the waves, then Short Wing disappeared from view altogether.

Philip felt lonely again. He thought of his family, his home, his bed, and his mind began to wander. Was he going to die here on this island? Alone but for a crippled bird and a giant tree? He turned and looked to the tree, and noticed that it had gone quiet since the chirps and birdcalls of the morning. The branches were free of birds. Where did they go? Did they just stop over on the island for the night before flying off to another island unseen in the distance, or the mainland?

A squawk threw him out of his reverie. He looked down to see Short Wing with a gasping fish in his beak. Philip smiled. Short Wing gave a triumphant jump and turned and raced out into the water again. As before, going, going, gone. Ten minutes later there was another fish. Then another. By the time the sun set again, Philip was full of fish. Short Wing preened and cleaned its feathers before asking Philip if he could nest again in the hollow between his sand covered legs. Philip covered up his legs and the both of them went to sleep. Short Wing dreaming of bird things, and Philip dreaming of a way to get back to his home.

The next day started with a breakfast of fish, and then Philip asked Short Wing if he ever spoke with the bees or the silk worms that lived in the tree. Short Wing said he stayed away from the tree in general, because the other birds who came and went every evening and morning would often mock and tease him for his short wings. Beyond that, he thought the worms probably were tasty, as you know, worms are meant to be tasty to birds.

“I have a plan to get home, but I will need the help of you, the silk worms and the bees. It will take a great deal of time to probably put this together, but as a benefit, you will be able to fly and I will be able to be with my family again.”

Short Wing was keenly interested. He had always wanted to fly like the other birds. He quickly agreed to quell his impulses to eat the worms in order to make it off the island and see the world.

The silk worms were needed to provide silk thread, thin and strong. The bees were needed to produce beeswax, to be used as a binding agent, and the saw grass was to be used as needles. But the chief ingredient, which the island had in marvelous, seemingly unlimited supply were the discarded feathers of the countless numbers of birds who stopped overnight only to leave the next day. Short Wing and Philip gathered these together, making piles of feathers organized by size and shape.

Philip crafted a delicate net of silk that was carefully placed under the feathers of Short Wing. Attached to this net was feather after feather, adding bulk and mass to the little bird’s body. Through trial and error, and hundreds of controlled test maneuvers, Short Wing managed to gauge and relay how the wing expanders were working, and Philip would make delicate corrections, one feather at a time.

Within a couple weeks, Short Wing was able to take great gliding leaps where he could only hop before.

Within a month, he was able to take flights from one end of the island to the other. And even managed to fly among the birds in the tree – who were transitory travelers, not knowing who he was, but would complement him on his very illustrious plumage that seemed to contain every color possible. Short Wing was so proud to spend time with the birds, as a bird, he forgave any jokes at his expense from his previous life as a beach scavenger.

Philip watched this progress with hope and joy.

“Short Wing,” he said one day, as he affixed a fresh layer of feathers to the netted coat, “the flights are getting longer and longer, and your skills and confidence are growing, which is wonderful. But I must give you a warning.”

“Go on.” Gestured Short Wing. As they had been spending so much time together Philip had grown to understand the gestures and mannerisms of Short Wing as speech.

“As a Grecian, I was raised on the stories of my ancestors. And there is one that comes to mind as I work on stitching together silk and beeswax to create wings with feathers.” Philip grabbed a crow feather and a fresh needle. “There is the story of Icarus. A man who fashioned wings for himself and took to the skies, but pride drove him to fly too close to the sun. The wax melted, the wings caught fire, and he fell to his doom.”

“To fix this, perhaps I should only fly at night.” Short Wing suggested, his head cocked to one side. “The sun cannot burn me if it has set below the horizon.”

Philip smiled, for this was an excellent idea.

Months pass and the wings grew larger and larger. Short Wing’s test flights grew longer and longer, some requiring multiple nights of flight.  But then in the morning he would touch down on the beach and give reports to Philip as to how the new wings worked, which areas needed more feathers, which sides had too many feathers.

Short Wing would talk of the different islands he saw, and one morning he spoke of the mainland — the massive island with no end in sight. An excited Philip gave Short Wing exact directions to his home and made the bird promise to go there the next evening and observe if his parents were there, if they were well.

Short Wing promised to do just that.

The report back the next morning was bittersweet.

Yes, Short Wing had found the house easily enough, and mother and father were home, but they were quiet and small. Expressionless, they ate their dinner without tasting it, they stared off into space, they went to bed silently and then both stayed awake, staring at the ceiling.

Short Wing shuddered. “It’s like the life is gone and they are waiting for death.”

The wings grew steadily larger and larger.

With all the practice, Philips needlework, at once clumsy, was now fine work indeed. The feathers which were once selected in a haphazard manner were now chosen with exacting precision. The wings grew larger and larger. Support structures around Short Wing’s body grew as well. He started out the size of a raven so many days ago, and now he was the size of an Albatross. And still, Short Wing grew, larger, and larger.

Soon the test flights involved gliding jumps from the crest of the island to the shore while carrying Philip, who would hold tightly to the harness fathers behind Short Wing’s neck.

There were a few tumbles, but on the whole, these flights were successful.  Philip and Short Wing were quick to learn from their mistakes, as sore wings and posteriors from aborted runs were a fine motivator.

The first successful run from one end of the island to the other with Philip as a passenger was heralded by Philips elated cries of victory which woke the entire population of sleeping birds on the tree.  Many called out to Short Wing “What is it?” but Short Wing could do nothing but laugh and call in celebration.  They laughed and danced on the shoreline as the star glimmered overhead.

Then came the first jaunts over the ocean, which were scary.

The first flight started strong, but then a crosswind caught Short Wing off guard and he went tumbling into the water with Philip.  Philip, with his diligent, yet lopsided, doggy paddle, assisted by the shoreline waves, made it to the beach an exhausted, coughing wreck.

“We can do better next time.” Short Wing said as Philip stripped off his soaked through clothes.  Philip nestled beneath the still warm sand and Short Wing nested between his sand covered legs, like that first day of their relationship.

The next day it was back to work.

The wind was getting cold, the season was turning toward winter, and there was a strong sense that time was running out. The birds on the island were all speaking of migration, and the flocks were thinning down. Fewer flocks meant fewer feathers to work with. The bees were going into hibernation, as were the silk worms. Soon it was quiet on the island, nothing but the lapping of waves and the quiet concentration of Philip and the long practiced patience of Short Wing.

At last, the wings were done. Or they had to be, as all the feathers had been claimed from the island. Storms were brewing to the south, and getting closer and closer. The test flights had reached other islands nearer to the mainland, and while they did require a day’s wait before moving on back to the home island, they had succeeded.  The wings worked.  They could fly over the waves.  It was time to go for the mainland.

“This is it Short Wing.  Tonight is the night.”  At sunset storms were boiling in the sky to the south, approaching their tiny little island.  A cold, hard rain was starting to fall as they launched, projecting over a whitecapped ocean.

They flew. For a time it looked as if the storms might outpace them, getting closer and closer.  But the wind at their back helped them pull forward.  They passed ahead, leaving the thunder and lightning and churning seas behind them.

Time stretched on, only marked by the ache of Philip’s fingers which held tightly on for hour after hour.  This was not helped by the coldness of the pre-winter air, the only resistance to which was the spring fishing outfit he was still wearing.

Philip looked at the stars above and the stars below, reflected on the sea as they passed silently overhead.

Philip saw the lighthouse. First a white flicker on the approaching horizon, then a glowing star beaming out over the beach and sea. His heart quickened in his suddenly too-tight chest.

Then the mainland was in sight.  Philip could see the speck of his parent’s home, his home.  It grew as they drew closer.  He could dimly see, the reflection of the creeping dawn on the windows of that cottage by the sea.  So small and fragile from this height.

He whispered to Short Wing “drop down.” and they began their descent.  A slow gradual spiral.  Skimming over the country roads, flashes of familiar, yet alien silhouettes. Seaside docks, boats, nets, farm cottages – draped in ever thinning shadow with the approaching dawn.

The landing was abrupt, but passing graceful. The wind from Short Wing’s descent blowing up little fitful dust storms in the yard of the cottage where Philip had grown up.

Philip lowered himself down to the ground, shaking his sore fingers and stretching his stiff neck. He wanted to run to the door, to let himself in, and run into his parent’s bedroom, pouncing onto their bed, announcing his return. But he stood there, instead, next to his friend as the horizon went from orange to red, a sliver of sun cresting the sea before being obscured by clouds of the approaching storm.

Short Wing sniffed the air. “Storm coming,” he said. “I should be away before it gets here.” He stretched out his wings, feathers of a thousand colors rippled in the strengthening ocean breeze. “Storm and greater. Winter comes, time to migrate.”

Short Wing caressed Philip’s check with the tips of his left wing. “You have given me a great gift Philip – with these wings I can go with my brothers and sisters to the warm climes. I can go and be with my family.”

Philip felt tears sting the corners of his eyes. He carefully embraced his best friend one last time, and then watched as Short Wing took to the skies. Circling upward in a broader and broader spiral, until he disappeared from view.

It was only then that Philip went into his home.

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