By Atthys J. Gage
On a stretch of gray sand in an early morning hour, a man stood staring out to sea. He wore gray slacks and plain gray running shoes. The wispy strands of hair that remained on his head were gray also, as was the roiling sea and the cloud-smeared sky. The only jarring note in all this matching drabness was his yellow vinyl windbreaker, and even that had seen brighter days.
He moistened a fingertip with his tongue and held it up. There was an offshore breeze, about eighteen knots. Conditions were perfect.
A familiar whirr thrilled in the pit of his stomach. He pulled his shoulders back and let his arms drift out from his sides, fingers spread just slightly. He turned so the breeze was full in his face and drew it in, letting his chest expand. Rising on tiptoes, he raised his shoulders higher, flexed his knees slightly, and then slowly, completely, exhaled.
The look on his face would’ve made anyone think he was lost in a mildly pleasant reverie. There was, perhaps, a certain intensity; concentration was clearly involved. But the look was neutral, all in all, a focused lack of anything specific, as if he was forcing himself to think about nothing at all.
But anyone watching would’ve lost interest in his face by now. Not because it was an uninteresting face but because, with the emptying of his lungs, the man’s body began to rise slowly into the air. It was almost imperceptible at first — a trembling, wavering ascent — but within a minute, his feet were dangling a good eight inches above the sand, and he was still rising.
The wind rippled the vinyl of his jacket. His eyes remained closed, and it would’ve been hard to say for sure whether he was even aware of his separation from the ground. He made unsteady progress, occasionally dipping slightly lower, but overall, he continued rising into the cool air, and he was soon hovering nearly twelve feet off the ground.
It was a remote stretch of shoreline, not much frequented on dreary weekday mornings. Nevertheless, the man was not entirely alone. A woman wearing mismatched sweats, thin wires dangling from her ears, was running down by the water. She was less than fully aware of her surroundings. Her problems, largely financial, would eventually work themselves out, but for the moment, they consumed her attention. Running helped alleviate some of her anxiety.
She was so absorbed in her own thoughts that she might have missed the floating man altogether, had another man not been there as well. His presence on the beach this morning was harder to explain. He had woken earlier than usual, with the sky still dark — one of those awakenings that is so sudden and startling that there is no possibility of returning to sleep. He stood by the water’s edge, a paper cup of coffee, long since cold, in his hand. Neither the running woman nor the hovering man had seen him, but he saw them.
At first he assumed it was just a strange bird, but the more he stared, the more the thing looked exactly like what it was: a man in a yellow windbreaker, suspended above the ground. Probably, it was a trick. Certainly it was a trick. A strange kite, perhaps, or — he couldn’t think of any other possibilities. For a kite, it was hovering awfully near the ground, and keeping uncharacteristically still. Also, there didn’t seem to be anybody around to hold the string.
He had just begun tramping across the sand for a closer look when he saw the running woman. Their eyes met. He called something to her. She slowed and stopped, and then pulled the plugs from her ears.
“Hey!” the man said. “Did you see that?”
She looked where he pointed. “What is that?”
“I have no idea.”
The woman squinted. “A kite?”
The man shrugged, and they both started walking. It looked less and less like a kite, the closer they got.
“Some kind of inflatable doll?”
“What could it be for?”
They were still a good ways off when the man began to descend. He had, at his highest, probably cleared thirty feet. Then something shifted in the wind. He made a conscious effort to adjust, dropping one arm close to his side, tacking windward, but the breeze had flattened out; he couldn’t gain any more altitude. He began to ease himself down.
The approaching strangers quickened their pace, still not sure exactly what they were seeing.
“God! I wish I had a camera,” the man said.
The woman stopped. “I do have a camera! A video camera!” She dug her cell phone from a pocket and fiddled with the dial. They were still too far away to get a very good picture, but the thing would be on the ground by the time they got there. She managed to record about eight seconds of the descent, before it touched down.
Then they ran the rest of the way.
That night, the woman loaded the snippet of video on to her computer and posted it on Facebook with the caption, “Explain this if you can!” People were happy to try. The overwhelming majority declared it to be a fake, and not a very convincing one at that. Admittedly, the image was tiny and grainy. But you could see the man’s arms move quite distinctly, and the tree line suggested a full-sized adult. If it were a puppet, it was a very large one.
It was just odd enough to make a small number of viewers wonder, and one of those viewers happened to be a news reporter from a not-so-distant town. She contacted the poster, and the two of them exchanged emails. They agreed to meet the next morning at a pancake house just off the interstate. The woman brought the cell phone with the original video. The reporter brought a healthy skepticism, but also a quivering enthusiasm. She was primarily a human interest reporter, she said. Some would’ve called the paper she worked for a tabloid, but it didn’t matter. This was just the sort of story she lived for.
The woman with the cell phone didn’t have a whole lot to add. Yes, they had seen the man levitate. Yes, the video was genuine. No, she didn’t know who he was exactly, though he had told them his name. Had he been able to explain his feat? Not really—something to do with the wind. Could he be reached? Probably. If his number was listed.
In fact it was — twice. The first person the reporter called undoubtedly thought she was a crank. The second one agreed to a brief interview.
The article that appeared the next day in the paper caused a moderate stir among the paper’s readership. They were, frankly, a group of readers that were used to, and even expected, a certain amount of scamming. But this story was a little different. The man in the interview was unassuming, even diffident. Yes, he could rise into the air. It wasn’t flying, properly speaking; he couldn’t make himself go anywhere. He thought of it more as hovering. How? He really hadn’t any idea. If he could get himself into the proper frame of mind, and the wind was right, it just sort of happened.
The reporter, who was familiar with the rudiments of journalism, asked a crucial question: Why? To what purpose? Here, the man had been less forthcoming. She did not sense that he was holding back or prevaricating. It just seemed like something he found hard to put into words: “There is, sometimes…something that happens, if you can get enough altitude. There’s a sound… in the wind. It doesn’t always work.”
What kind of sound?
“Well… I don’t know exactly. It’s like voices, maybe. Lots of voices. Singing, I guess, though it’s not exactly music.”
“Oh, goodness no. No words. Just sounds.”
Would he do it again? And with cameras running?
He would try.
Two days later, a crowd of several dozen gathered on that same gray beach. The reporter was there, and a cameraman with a large, hand-held video-cam. It was early morning.
There were the curious, the skeptical, and even a few true believers. The man and woman who had been there that first morning had each brought everyone they could muster. They wanted to prove they had not been duped or deluded, and they were both nervous. If the man could not fly again, it would be hard to live it down.
The flying man was wearing the same clothes as before. If he was nervous, it did not show. The spectators formed a circle around him. At his request, a respectful distance was maintained. He asked for quiet. The crowd complied. He took his stance as before, breathed deeply, and let his face slump into an empty, emotionless mask. The wind rippled at his hair and at his jacket sleeves. Nothing else happened.
For a full two minutes, the crowd waited in near-perfect silence. Then someone whispered something, and someone else laughed. A murmur of nervous giggles spread through the crowd. Some one shushed loudly, and someone laughed out loud; the first man snarled something angry and was met with a loud reply. There was a derisive laugh, and something taunting was said. There were more angry words and raised voices, and two loud-voiced men were suddenly nose to nose. If one had shoved the other, an all-out brawl would’ve surely followed. But at that moment, someone shouted, “Look!”
All turned and looked, and for an instant they were silent again. The man in the windbreaker was floating, the soles of his shoes hanging just inches above the sand.
There was a gasp, and a loud curse of amazement, and then shushing and whispers and incredulous murmuring. All eyes focused on the dangling feet, those nondescript running shoes, rising into the air.
“How the…?” someone started, and was met by more shushing. The faces of those who had believed before shone with vindication. Everyone watched as the man inched higher — four feet up, eight feet up. He was picking up speed as he went.
Cameras clicked and whirred. People whipped out cell phones and took pictures with those, too. The man passed fifteen feet, then twenty, and with every foot, the excitement of the crowd continued to grow.
In fact, the crowd itself was growing. It was unusual to see people gathered on the beach in the early morning hours. People passing in cars chanced to glance over. Needless to say, many of them pulled over, got out, came down for a better look.
“What’s going on?”
“Oh my God!”
“Is that real! It looks so real!”
The man kept rising; he had passed thirty feet. The crowd below was no longer making any attempt to keep their voices down. More and more people arrived. Some ran back to their cars for cell phones and cameras. People were shouting. When the man passed sixty feet, someone dashed forward to take a picture of him from directly underneath. All self-control was abandoned. The circle broke, and people rushed forward. They looked up; he was still rising, soaring up into the wind.
“How in the…?”
“Right here! It’s happening right here!”
High above them, the man continued his ascent, rushing upward even faster, past one hundred feet, one hundred-and-twenty, one-hundred-and-fifty. But he was farther away than that. The whooping and hollering from below might’ve reached his ears but it could not penetrate his awareness. He was higher than he’d ever gone before, not so much riding on the wind as letting it become a part of him, filling his lungs, his veins, his skin.
And then, there it was: the sound. It was like voices, perhaps, weird and unworldly, but also not like voices. Like bells! He heard distant cathedrals ringing the changes, carillons pealing Christmas morning. Metal-shod hooves ringing on flagstones. Ice-cubes clinking in crystal goblets. It was giddy, ecstatic, if the whole sky was suddenly made out of laughter.
His eyes flickered open, his excitement brimmed, and a feeling of joy flooded every level of his soul. “I hear it!” he shouted, “I hear it!”
And maybe he did. Maybe, having heard the unearthly music, he broke through to a new level of consciousness, and his spirit soared upward to an even greater height than his body had reached. Or then again, maybe his concentration just slipped.
At any rate, it only took the gaping crowd beneath him a few seconds to realize what was happening.
And less time than that to scatter in every direction.
Atthys Gage is a writer with a lifelong love for myth, magic, and books. His second real job was in a bookstore. As was his third, fourth, fifth and sixth. Eventually, he stopped trying to sell books and started writing them. He has always had a fascination for that cloudy borderline between the normal and the paranormal and spends a lot of his time thinking about flying carpets and sentient flecks of alien consciousness and other stuff like that. In the so-called normal world, he lives on the coast of Northern California with his long-suffering wife, strong-willed children, and several indifferent chickens. You can find him on Facebook or his blog, Speak More Light.