This Tuesday I’m delighted to welcome our first fiction contributor, Joyce Chng from Singapore, with her 15-part serial Basics of Flight. I hope you enjoy it!
The Basics of Flight
by Joyce Chng
To my little girls and to those who dare to dream and to fly.
Beginnings: First Steps
Katherine found her view obstructed by a phalanx of broad backs. Nevertheless, she managed to grab an empty wooden crate and she clambered on top of it, seeing – finally – the great flying contraption.
It rippled in the sun, a play of fire and blood in its fins. It was modeled after a fish of the tropical seas, a lion fish. It surely appeared leonine, with its erect frills like a lion’s luxuriant mane. In the morning sunlight, it looked courageous and daring, flashing its bright colors. It floated in mid-air, tethered only by sturdy rope.
It was magical.
Everyone was whispering excitedly, pointing at the flying lion fish. Women in their washerwoman’s clothes thronged near it, clucking like a gaggle of geese. Her own mom was amongst the women, a quiet figure, watching the contraption.
The lion fish’s pilot stood, conversing with Mr Stanton, the village’s local merchant. Mr Stanton held a stack of notes and he seemed to be explaining something important to the gentleman pilot who wore dashing brown leathers and goggles. He stood like an aristocrat of old, slapping his leather gloves on his thigh.
She gazed longingly at the lion fish. They were the craze in London, touted to be the new devices to take over the place of the horse and the train. They were also the invention of the collectors, a group of inventors and scientists who spoke of Science and Logic. Next to the steely and cumbersome trains who breathed spumes of steam and were loud, the lion fishes were graceful, almost angelic.
The pilot saluted smartly to Mr Stanton, bowed to the gawkers and strode confidently to the lion fish. Now, she could see the pilot: handsome, his skin tanned brown by the sun and moustaches neatly and fastidiously trimmed. He looked about two years older than her. He wasn’t that old as she had previously thought.
He disappeared into the flying lion fish. For a moment, nobody dared to speak, all eyes intent on the contraption. Someone loosened the rope and the pilot appeared from an window, quickly pulling the rest of the rope back in. The lion fish was no longer floating but moving with purpose. Everyone gasped and ducked as one when it shot over their heads and lifted into the air.
She tilted her head up, shielding her eyes. The lion fish – leo-fin – shimmered in the Dorset sun. It was glorious. It was magnificent.
She wanted it so much to be hers.
The academy’s main building reminded her of a cathedral, with soaring steeples and grave-looking stonework, befitting more perhaps a monastery or a convent. Yet, as she walked towards the large brass door leading to the auditorium, she could hear merry laughter coming from the courtyard. It lifted the somber mood and she felt less intimidated.
It was an exceedingly large area. A crisscross pattern of roads and paths led to the main building that served as the center of the academy. Directly facing the cathedral was a splendid-looking manor, constructed in the form of a H, with the extreme wings serving as dormitories for the academy students. Between the two wings were the classrooms and lecture chambers as well as a dining hall.
What drew her attention immediately was the Flying Field, a magnificent sprawling field probably the size of Dorset. There were two leo-fins flying in the middle of it while a group of students watched. A tiny figure – the pilot? – threw down rope from one of the leo-fins and as she watched in amazement, the students began to climb up the rope one by one. The figure/pilot shouted encouragement.
The activity on the Field sent a thrill of excitement through her. To be able to fly! She would do anything!
She pushed the brass door and it opened with a low stygian groan. Eyes stared at her: a thousand pairs of them, as she walked in, feeling – suddenly – immensely small. The auditorium seats were arranged in terraces. Row after row of seats and students wearing their college designations. She swayed, dizzy with the sensory overload. The noise. The colors. The people.
To make it worse, the lecturer standing in the middle of the auditorium was watching her like a hawk. The lecturer was a tall handsome-looking woman, with a strong jaw and shoulder-length russet hair. Her skin was tanned, bearing testimony to the hours spent in the open and under the sun. She was dressed in a simple white shirt with long sleeves, covered with a manly black vest, and khaki riding breeches. Black boots shone with dedicated polishing and she held a riding crop in her right hand., tapping it impatiently.
It was an astonishing sight.
Clear-blue eyes bore into her critically and she ground to a halt, realizing that she could hear muffled giggles and whispers coming from the students.
“Name and College? You are terribly late, young miss.” The woman said, her voice husky but firm.
“Katherine Riley. College Sable.” She replied, almost biting her tongue. She knew that the woman was looking at her injured ankle and her slight limp. The injury was an unfortunate reminder of her past; it had not healed properly, forcing her to limp. Icy anxiety spiked uneasily in her stomach.
“Good! I am the Tutor-in-charge of College Sable. Please find a seat, Miss Riley.” The woman’s voice held a hint of amusement and tapped the rostrum sharply with her riding crop. “The rest of you, make haste back to your task. The chapter on bird flight, please.”
She walked up the aisle, desperately looking for an empty seat. Most of the seats were occupied and jealously guarded. She was about to give up hope when she saw one beside a pale looking girl, about her age. Embarrassed and muttering a rushed Iamsorry, she eased herself in, knowing that she was distracting others from their studies.
The girl beside her appeared fragile, her face framed with fine flaxen-colored hair and her skin the shade of delicate porcelain. Her fingers were slender, caressing the open book in front of her. She noted that there were tiny notches on the page and wondered why. The girl’s eyes were a startling green and they stared straight ahead.
“Don’t be embarrassed. Tardiness is a problem, even though Pilotmaster Lee doesn’t really like it.” The girl whispered softly.
“I am Alethia Forrester,” the girl continued, still staring ahead. “I am College Sable too.” She noticed the red band around the girl’s slim left arm.
“You are a muddle of red and orange, aren’t you?” The girl finally faced her and she realized, with shock, that she was blind.
“I am not!” She hissed back, stung and offended, and some students glared at them. The nerve!
“I think in colors,” Alethia said mildly. “I am blind. But I perceive and feel things in different hues.”
“People assume I can see.” The girl smiled and it was a warm genuine smile. “Come, I do not want Captain Sagan to hound us later.” She inclined her head towards the direction of the tall woman at the rostrum.
She opened her book but she kept glancing at Alethia’s fingers stroking the notches. It was rather fascinating. By now, Captain Sagan had begun the lecture. She noticed that there was another woman, dressed in a more lady-like black gown, seated before a strange metallic contraption. She looked as if she was playing pianoforte. The contraption made clacking sounds. As Captain Sagan spoke in her strong voice, the woman moved her hands quickly over the odd object, click-clacking away.
“That’s the vox-recorder,” Alethia explained as if she somehow sensed her curiosity. “Captain Sagan makes sure her words are written down for laggards to peruse in the future.” There was gentle humor in her words and she found herself smiling.
Captain Sagan was talking about the basics of bird flight, using detailed drawings of bird skeletons. She settled down to listen, knowing somehow that the academy was going to be an interesting place. She was going to fly and she knew it deep inside her bones.
TO BE CONTINUED!