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How to Fly
This is how to fly. First, remember that it’s all a trick of the mind. You have to let your conscious slip down and to the right, until you can feel your thoughts floating off into the air around you, and it feels like a sort of tingly numbness, an almost pulling sensation. It feels like no worries. It feels like nothing. Once your mind dazes off-center, you can will yourself up, and up you go! It is never easy; you are never weightless. There is the constant fear of descent and then the fall. If you think about flying, dead-center, you’ll drop from the sky like a rock. It’s easy to lose the knack. It is something only children can do.
“Julia!” calls Papa, and she knows that she has come crashing to the bed, though there is no impact. “Time to put on your costume!”
“Yah, coming Papa,” she replies in German, and starts out of the dinghy attic bedroom and down the crooked stairs. When she was younger she had been afraid of the witch that lived under them and gnawed on the ankles of little children, but she is too old for that now. At eight 8, she has been earning her bread for quite a while, and the only escape is the precious time to herself she spends, eyes closed, believing with all her heart that she is hovering in the air.
The poorly-lit stairs, made of warped wood so tortured and ancient that it screeches like its resident witch every time Julia places a toe on it, leads to the tiny kitchen. Julia does her best to keep it clean, but there is constantly work to be done and of late she hasn’t had much time to spare for the kitchen. Already a stack of grimy dishes is building in the little sink and more grime encroaches on the plastic-tiled floor. Papa lounges awkwardly against the chaotic counter, his thick blond hair sweeping across his forehead in a way Julia is sure would have been the height of fashion in the 90s. He is tall and handsome, with his classical, chiseled features and bright blue eyes, but the twinkle in them has worn out long ago. At 33, his features are ravaged and his eyes red and veins fallen in, and his hands shake like an old man’s. Julia knows the reason and pretends she doesn’t, and he pretends too. Or maybe he really thinks she doesn’t know. He certainly tries hard enough to hide it from her. Papa smiles at her and holds out the costume.
“Dress up time, honeybee!” He says a little over-brightly. “And then it’s the castle at six. I hear they’ve got a new group from Tokyo.” He hands her the costume gently, planting a kiss on her head and then turning to look out the window and into the gathering dusk as Julia pulls it on over her underclothes. There’s not much to see out there, just a few scrubby little saplings, a birdbath that no bird has yet ever dared land in, and a mailbox that has seen better days. Papa says that this was Mama’s parents’ house before they moved to the USA and left it to him. This is one of the few things Julia has heard Papa say about Mama, other than the perfunctory, “You’ve got your mother’s eyes.”
The costume is at last secured. It is supposed to represent the tourists’ image of Austria, a red vest over a puffy-sleeved white blouse and a full white skirt embroidered with blue and yellow flowers. Personally, Julia finds it tacky and revolting, and there no matter how many times she washes it, she can’t erase the sour odor of dried sweat that lingers after its last owner. Papa starts to braid her dark blond hair as tenderly as he can, but as usual his shaky fingers fumble, and Julia patiently goes back and does it all over herself.
“Time to go, Papa,” she says, glancing at the old carved wooden cookoo clock and tearing a bit out of a stale bun.
“Oh, yes,” says Papa, jumping up and getting the keys from their special place on top of the refrigerator next to the mouse-shaped cookie-tin. He looks distracted and a little sick, watching her with that little crease between his brows that means he’s seeing her and thinking of Mama. Julia has her father’s thick blond hair and her mother’s large, dark brown eyes. She has never seen her mother’s eyes, but she is told that they drove the photographers mad. Inside, she wishes she had Papa’s eyes. They may be sunken and red-rimmed now, but they change beautifully with his emotions- joyful and sky-colored, angry and the chill azure of glacial ice, sad and the dark sapphire of the night sky. There are no eyes she loves more in the world.
Soon they are in the old Ford Explorer they call the Carriage, climbing the steep, winding hill lined with darkly textured evergreens where shadows gather as though waiting to seize hapless passersby. Papa sticks an old tape of the Beatles into the car’s tape player and the silence is broken by “Eleanor Rigby”, and “All You Need is Love”. If only that were true, thinks Julia, twisting the fraying edge of the embroidered skirt in one hand. If all we really needed was love, Papa and I would have nothing to worry about. If love was diamonds, we’d be richer than any of those fool tourists waiting up at the castle. But our money drains away towards what I used to call the Bad Stuff and now know is an Addiction, and so I must work to keep bread on the table, for Papa and for me. Poor Papa, wearing himself out, burning himself up, and always so ashamed… I wish I could tell him I understand how he feels. I need my escape too, and I don’t even remember Mama … If only I could teach him how to fly.
Julia’s train of thought stops abruptly as Papa pulls into the castle driveway, tires spewing gravel. He jumps out to open her door and bows, saying “After you, Princess.” Julia giggles and blows him a kiss, turning away. The next thing she knows, she’s flying through the air, for real this time, safe in Papa’s thin arms. He plants a scratchy kiss on her cheek, sets her down on the gravel, and waves goodbye. “I’ll be waiting, my Princess!” He quips dramatically, and for a moment he looks just as he did in one of his old films, young and earnest and simply dashing. Julia grins, though she knows what sort of night lays in store for her, and starts up the steps to the castle. It rears above her, monstrous and stoney and almost entirely fake. Bright orange-gold light blazes from the slit windows.
There is still a little light left but it is grayish and fading, the dregs of a brilliant jewel-clear day of sunshine largely spent at school; and those same shadows that lurked in the pine trees watch Julia now from beneath the hedges and reach out long fingers to brush her shiny patent-leather shoes. Julia is too old to be afraid of the shadows but hurries anyway, cold in the late September evening. She misses the warmth of summer, playing Stuck in the Mud with Papa and going swimming at the pond with friends, but at least Fall means the tourist season is tapering off. This new group of 47 Japanese tourists will be the last of its size, she knows it. Julia lets herself in the peeling yellow door by the cherry tree as she has every other night for the past couple of months and slips into the warmth of the kitchen. Marge and Bertha bustle around, roasting chickens and frying potatoes and boiling corn.
“You’re late,” snaps Marge, and Bertha says kindly,
“Go to the dungeon now and look adorable. Here, take these potatoes, will you?” She hands Julia the heavy platter and the little girl steps out into the clamor of the dining hall. There is an immediate chorus of awws and then some delayed ones as other tourists turn to see what the fuss is about. At 8, Julia looks 6, and though she would like to look more intimidating, she is glad of it. The cuter and younger-looking the little Austrian waitress is, the more tips she’s likely to get. Julia approaches the long wooden table, already laden with steaming meats and vegetables that make her mouth water, and stands on her tiptoes to push the plate onto the table. A dignified-looking old man says something that sounds vaguely complimentary in Japanese. On either side of him sit a plump boy with thick glasses that distort his dark eyes and a worn-looking mother with graying, chin-length hair.
“Guten tag!” Julia says sweetly, and in the highest pitch she can muster, smiling in what she hopes is a charming manner. The mother smiles back distractedly and the boy’s mouth hangs open. A bit of chicken is caught in his teeth. Julia turns away and goes to collect more dishes. She is solemn and sweet by turns and she soon finds her pockets stuffed with Euros. Still, it’s not enough to make her stop hating these tourists just like all the others. They take it for granted that she and the castle alike exist merely for their entertainment. And what galls her the most is the fact that they are right. Also, the amount of food they leave behind on their plates is enough to make Julia’s stomach churn. She wonders what the world they come from is like, why they have come, whether they approve of what they see. She wonders what the plaster “dungeon” looks like to them, with its plywood torture devices that couldn’t hurt someone no matter how hard you tried, its tacky paintings of knights and damsels in distress that her old neighbor’s wife had painted for 20 Euros apiece. When the lights were turned off and the fire breather came out, she wondered how they saw him. A miraculous magician? A comical foreigner? A tired entertainer? She could only ever see him as the man who yelled at his wife on the phone and provided the distraction necessary for her to pick the tourists’ pockets. This can’t go on forever, Julia thinks. It’s slipping already.
But then Papa is there, with open arms and a strange smell about him and Julia loves him so much that it hurts inside. He is too thin. His blue eyes are so dull. But he tells her a story, about a yellow-haired knight and his little princess, and Julia closes her eyes and forgets. For now she is safe. For now she is lucky. She has Papa.
That night Julia went home tired, but not too tired to kiss her Papa goodnight. Not too tired to hide her money under the dresser in the corner of her room. And not too tired to close her eyes and go flying out into the shadows, farther and farther, thinking of nothing.