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Featured Story • October 2013

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The Art of Flying

 

Georgina Bruce

 

A detail from Marc Chagall's "Peace Window"

A detail from Marc Chagall’s “Peace Window.”


 

Maggie flies in the night. It’s like swimming a breaststroke through the air. She can see for miles around, see her truck parked in the bay and the motorway winding in a charcoal line to the horizon. She loves the sweet purple heather, the peach-red sunrise. Currents of air buoy her, lift her, wave upon wave. When the sky lets go of her she falls like a feather, and lands in the dew-wet grass.

She’s barefoot, dressed in jeans and a jumper. There is nothing to be scared of, she tells herself. This is the sort of thing that might happen in a dream. So she climbs the hill, digging her toes into the grass and soil. On the other side of the hill she sees her truck, and beyond that the mountains with their jagged tops of snow. Yesterday there had been eagles riding the air near the mountain peaks. Maggie had stopped on the hard shoulder to watch their elegant turns. She had the stereo on at full volume, playing canticles written by Hildegard von Bingen nearly a thousand years before.

I, the fiery life of divine wisdom, I ignite the beauty of the plains, I sparkle the waters, I burn in the sun, and the moon, and the stars.

The bleak morning pulls the day open and pale light falls across the hills. Maggie wishes the dream would pick her up and move her swiftly to her destination. Her body is stiff, and gets stiffer with every step.

At last she reaches the truck, but it is locked up and heavy blackout curtains drawn all around the cab windows. Only now does she start to feel panicky constrictions in her heart and stomach. She tells herself wake up. Slaps herself round the face with stinging hands.

She has the keys in her hand, but her fingers are too cold and clumsy to open the cab door. She is afraid she might find herself lying there in the back, asleep. Dreaming. Or dead. After some minutes of worrying at the lock, the door springs open. When she climbs into the cab, it is empty, of course.

* * *

She doesn’t sleep the next night. The cargo has to get to Rakovski, a long haul down the Trakia Highway. She picks up her load of pallets, making sure to check the contents carefully against the paperwork. The supervisor leans back against the cab, slowly smoking a cigarette and watching her through narrowed eyes.

When she can’t drive any more, she parks in a bay and straps herself into the driver’s seat. She slides the photograph of her daughter from under the mirror, and presses it to her heart, then props it up on the dashboard, next to the figurine of a man with the head of a dog. That is Saint Christopher, the patron saint of truckers.

She works on the problem of her night flight in little parcels of lucidity. Maybe she sleep walked, hit her head, was concussed, amnesiac. An epileptic seizure. Perhaps her cancer has come back, has spread to her brain. A myriad explanations present themselves for judgment, but none of them convince her. Perhaps it is a gift from God.

Perhaps it is a miracle.

* * *

The Church of the Highway holds a service under a large blue tarpaulin, rigged from the top of the bridge down to the grass verge at the side of the road. Under the tarpaulin are hundreds of wax candles, burning gold. The candle flames flicker and blur into teary shapes falling down the insides of Maggie’s eyelids when she closes her eyes.

“Maggie,” a voice says softly, into her ear.

Maggie jumps and turns towards the voice, fear spiking her blood. But it is only Gabriel, the church pastor.

“Are you okay?” He puts a hand on her shoulder. “I heard what happened.”

“I’m okay,” Maggie says. How else can she answer? No one speaks of her husband directly. As if to merely speak of him will cause the bruises to bloom on her skin, will cause her bones to break.

Gabriel leads her to a seat at the front of the church. He has to get ready for the service. Maggie sits on her hands, and shivers, perhaps with cold. She wishes her seat were a bit more comfortable, but knows that she would probably fall asleep if it was. There is a feeling of pressure in the back of her head, and her skull makes popping, creaking sounds, like it’s contracting in the cold.

About twenty people are gathered under the tarpaulin. In the blue and gold space, with the rumble of traffic overhead, and the cold breaths of wind that sometimes blow around them, the churchgoers become quiet and still. When Gabriel reappears, dressed in a white robe with an orange sunburst sash across his breast, he is transformed by ritual into something other than a man. He’s the keeper of the mysteries. Light falls from his hands.

Maggie cannot catch her breath. Gabriel speaks, welcoming everybody, and his voice seems to swell and fill all of the space. It bursts from his chest, a wound of blinding light. It rises to the roof and breaks out like it’s prickled with stars, exploding over the heads of the congregation. The voice rains fire on Maggie. She puts her hands over her head in frantic prayer, and the voice speaks to her and says, I burn in the sun, and the moon, and the stars.

She feels herself rising out of her chair. First her hair rises up, then her arms, pointing up to the tarpaulin roof. A hot snake of power muscles its way through her body. It pushes her up out of her chair, up above the congregation who are breathing heavy into the night. The voice is the breath. The voice is the fire. Maggie looks down and sees herself amongst the churchgoers, her body rigidly leaning forward. She is awash with tender pity for herself and in that moment of feeling, she is pulled back and lands inside herself with a jolt. She falls from her chair onto the ground.

* * *

“You need sleep,” says Gabriel. “That’s all. Nothing’s wrong with you.”

Maggie sips cold water from a plastic cup. It’s too dark to see very clearly. They’re sitting in Gabriel’s cab. The Church is packed up in the back, and everyone else has gone home or driven on to their resting place or their next destination.

“I’m so tired. I’m losing my mind.”

“No,” says Gabriel. “Don’t think that way. It’s the breakup. It’s stress. You work hard, you miss your daughter. You have a bad dream, and maybe you can’t sleep well anymore, it’s normal.”

“I have to stop driving.”

“Yes, of course. If you aren’t sleeping.”

“But is it from God? Is it a test? Does He want something from me?”

“I don’t know, Maggie. But God gives comfort. Don’t be afraid of sleeping. I will pray for you.”

* * *

Maggie’s body is a ruined country where everything lovely has been bombed out. Her chest is marked with a ragged white burn scar that pulls the flesh tight in ridges and craters. Her thighs are skinny, hollow at the top, and her hip bones jut out like shark fins. There is nowhere to touch Maggie’s body that does not have some painful history. The doctor draws in a breath when she lifts Maggie’s shirt up to press her stomach.

“It’s come back, hasn’t it?” Maggie tenses, and her stomach goes rigid.

“Breathe!” The doctor tells her, pushing on her belly. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re fine. Just a bit thin.”

Dr. Lesley is the company doctor; an elegant woman with short, manicured nails and grey hair cut like a man’s. It was Dr. Lesley who helped Maggie gather the strength to leave her husband. It was she who took her to the hospital after he found her again and beat her bloody.

“I’ve brought you something,” says Maggie, after the examination, when they are sitting either side of Dr. Lesley’s desk. She reaches into the pocket of her leather jacket and pulls out a little wooden figurine: a man with the head of a dog.

Dr. Lesley takes the figurine and smiles. Saint Christopher, the patron saint of truckers, is also the patron saint of those who suffer from toothache. Maggie and Dr. Lesley know all the saints, on account of them both having had a Catholic schooling, and Saint Christopher is their favourite.

“Please don’t worry,” says Dr. Lesley. “Just take care of yourself.”

She signs the certificate that says Maggie is fit to work.

* * *

There is a convent at Ebstorf, and the nuns there watch over a map. It’s a map of two worlds: a portrait of their faith, and a geographical picture. The original map burned in 1943, says the sign, but the nuns made a very detailed and faithful copy. Maggie is allowed to stand for an hour in front of it. The colours swim before her, red and blue and black, and the images seem to move. Creatures rear up on their hind legs, villages crumble to dust, rivers flow in wavy blue lines; and Christ encompasses everything in an infinite embrace. His steely gaze falls on Maggie and ignites her skin. The white scar on her chest flames and burns.

I am so afraid. She prays for something, she’s not sure what. Some comfort.

Her cargo is bound for Munich, and she cannot stay for much longer. It is cold and snow is forecast. As she stands to leave, one of the nuns enters the room. She is old, Maggie sees. Her face is a map of lines.

“We are closing the viewing, I’m sorry,” she says. Her voice is soft and tremulous.

“I’m sorry,” says Maggie. “It’s so beautiful.”

“Yes.” The nun smiles. “It is so very interesting, I think. Are you a Catholic?”

Maggie nods, and the nun smiles again. When they walk out of the room, the nun guides her, holding gently on to her elbow, as if Maggie is the elderly one.

“It is a wonderful thing,” says the nun.

Maggie says, “I’m dying, you see.” Why did she say that? She is embarrassed and wishes she hadn’t blurted it out, but the nun appears to consider her statement carefully.

“Death is just one more thing we must do,” she says. “I will pray for you.”

Maggie walks back to her cab, her hips aching from the cold. What a thing it is to be so old at forty-two, she thinks. And she wonders if dying is like flying in the night.

* * *

Her daughter calls while Maggie is eating her sandwiches in a lay-by near Bad Bevensen. It has already started to snow. She has the heaters on full blast, and is wearing her jacket that feels like being wrapped up in a sleeping bag.

“He’s out,” says Cara. “Out on bail. Fuck’s sake.”

Maggie flinches at Cara’s bad language, or is it at the bad news? She’s not sure.

“Mum, I think you should come home.”

“Maybe.” It’s not safe anywhere now. Not back in England, not with Cara, not on the road. But he doesn’t know the rigs like she does. He was only ever a small-timer in the business, never even drove an eighteen-wheeler. He won’t get very far if he comes looking for her. Truckers look after their own.

“If he comes here, I’m going to kill him,” says Cara.

“Cara. Don’t say that. He’s probably not even allowed to be in the same city.”

“I fucking mean it. I’m serious. And if he lays a hand on you.” She doesn’t finish her sentence.

“Don’t swear, love. He’s not going to get anywhere near me, or you, so stop worrying. I don’t want you to worry.”

“Please come home, Mum,” Cara says. She sounds so heartbreakingly young that Maggie has to fight back tears.

“I will, darling, I will come home soon. I’ll be home before you know it.”

After the phone call, Maggie starts up the engine. The snow is coming thick and fast now. She drives carefully, unable to see far ahead, feeling like a giant in the massive rig, high above the rest of the traffic.

* * *

She dreams that Saint Christopher is running beside her, his tongue hanging from his jaws, his long nose pushed up in the air.

Good boy, good…

A struggle to get her breath, and she yanks herself upright. Where am I? The cocooning whiteness of snow… But she is warm, dry. She changes focus: she is in the cab, she’s safe.

The windscreen is shrouded in snow, obscuring any view. She rolls down the window. Four other rigs are pulled up nearby, but she doesn’t recognise any of them. She leans out to knock snow off her windscreen. From across the lay-by, she hears music.

Gabriel’s little truck is almost hidden behind a massive artic. It looks like a sliver of Christmas, lit up in gold and blue, red and silver. Maggie puts coffee, chocolates, and cigarettes into her pockets, and trudges through the deep snow.

“I can’t believe it,” she says, hugging Gabriel. “I heard the music and I knew it must be you.”

“Been here all night. I don’t like to drive in bad weather. You too, it’s dangerous driving in the snow.”

“Maybe. I’ll give it a couple of hours, anyway. We can visit.”

They sit in the truck. Maggie tries to eat the chocolates, nibbling away at the edges, but they don’t taste of anything.

Gabriel leans in so she can hear him over the whirr of the heater. “I’m worried for you. I heard he’s out of prison.”

“You heard already? Has he been looking for me?”

“Don’t think so. He has some friends on the road still. A few. What are you thinking?”

Maggie is staring at her hands. They are shaking. After a minute she says, “I’m sick, Gabe. I shouldn’t be driving. I can’t drive anymore, I really can’t. But I don’t know what else to do.”

Gabriel takes her hands in his. “The cancer?”

“The doctor said no, she said it’s gone. She said I’m fine. But I can feel it inside me. I’m dying, Gabriel. I know I am.”

“Oh, Maggie,” he says. His hand tightens around hers.

They pray together all morning, until Maggie sees the colours rising from Gabriel, blue and gold, red and silver, and the fiery words burn over her. She lets him massage her hands, which are stiff and cold. Her fingers warm under his gentle ministrations, and she feels them grow soft and strong, young again.

“There are so many miracles,” she whispers, and the Pastor cries and kisses her fingers.

* * *

They hear about him in Gdansk; a trucker there radios Maggie to let her know. He’s driving a baby rig around for one of his old friends; he never could handle an artic. Let him come, thinks Maggie. Let him come and it will all be over.

She turns in her last cargo in Varna and drives back to Germany. She wants to get to Ebstorf if she can, to see the map again and drink in its strange beauty. It’s cold everywhere, but she hardly feels it now. She has stopped sleeping, stopped eating, no longer defecates, even. Sometimes, when she’s driving, she loses her body, and her consciousness drifts into the engine of the rig. Her wheels turn, and her gears change up and down, smooth and flowing like breathing in and out.

At a rest stop near Munich, she telephones Cara and tells her she’s coming home to England. She’ll be back very soon, she says.

“Has he found you?” Cara asks. “Does he know where you are?”

“I won’t let him get anywhere near me.”

“I’m scared for you,” says Cara.

“I love you,” says Maggie. “You’re my wonderful daughter. I’m so proud of you. And I’m so sorry for everything.”

“Don’t be daft, Mum,” says Cara. “I can’t wait for you to come back.”

Maggie winds down her window, and throws her cab keys out into the ditch. No more of that. No more. Saint Christopher barks once from the back of the cab, and she smiles, and draws the blackout curtains all around. She climbs over onto the thin mattress, and curls up next to him. His soft ears flicker against her face. She clutches her wooden rosary and her photograph of her daughter, which she kisses before she closes her eyes.

* * *

The air is so cold that when she flies through the clear night, it shatters and falls to the ground in a tinkling rush. Below her, the whole world is spread out in vivid red and blue and black. The world is made of soft vellum, sewn together, embroidered with bold threads. Creatures rear up and canter through the landscapes: a monster with the head of a snake and the body of a lorry charges towards a village made of wheels. A gold and blue church rises luminous on a white plain. The moon burns with white fire and bursts with beams of light, and the voice of the world takes her breath, I, I, yes, I, the fiery life of divine wisdom, I ignite the beauty of the plains, I sparkle the waters, I burn in the sun, and the moon, and the stars.

A dog barks, rhythmically yapping into the night. Maggie soars into the sparkling darkness, flying home at last.

 
 

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Georgina_smallGeorgina Bruce’s stories have been published in Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, Clockwork Phoenix 3: New Tales of Beauty and Strangeness, and various other magazines and anthologies. She has just completed a master’s degree in creative writing, and is currently writing her first novel. Her current home is in Edinburgh, where she reluctantly shares a flat with a moustachioed mouse named Alphonse.

 

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