We’re pleased to be present the second chapter in our first serial, The Basics of Flight by Singaporean writer Joyce Chng. You can read Chapter One here.
Finding Her Balance: Standing On Two Feet
The ground looked ominously far away from her dangling feet.
“If you keep on paying attention to your feet, Miss Riley,” the voice above her boomed out sternly. “You will remain in the air until the end of the day!”
She hung onto the rope, feeling it rub against her already-sore palms. She forced herself to move upwards, focus on the voice above her. The wind tugged at her fiercely, pulling at her breeches and making her feel extremely naked… cold. She swayed, because the rope was swaying, because the leo-fin was swaying gently in the incoming wind current. She could hear the leo-fin sing its own unique song. Shaped like the lion fish, a fish from the distant tropics, it had captured her imagination ever since she saw it land in Dorset.
Or rather, its creak-creak-creak voice as it flew suspended in mid-air for the flightmen’s basic training. That creak voice was the result of its engines working hard to keep the entire craft airborne, combined with the lift of air currents.
“Rainbows,” Alethia would say during meal times in the Dining Hall. “They speak in rainbows.”
Rainbows. How she wished she could see one now. Not while she was dangling in the middle of the sky, feet wishing for terra firma. Maybe, she was not destined to fly anymore.
“Pay attention, Miss Riley!” The voice boomed out again. Stenton, their instructor.
She looked up, almost lost her grip and quickly clung onto the rope, her heart pounding in her chest. Come on, come on, she goaded herself. She called up images of a shriveled harridan shrieking verbal abuse at her and it got her most motivated. She began to move slowly and when she faltered, stricken with exhaustion, she would think of the shrieking harridan and she would have energy.
It was a sense of immense relief when Stenton pulled her into the compartment area of the leo-fin and she collapsed onto the floor. Her hands were red with new blisters and she felt as if she had run a mile without stopping. Her arms ached terribly.
“Less tarrying, Miss Riley,” Stenton said, not unkindly. “More focus on your task.”
She nodded, knowing that she had accomplished her own personal best. As for her personal demons, she still needed that extra energy to repel them away.
“Heard that you almost fell from the leo-fin.”
She met Alethia during the mid-day meal. How Alethia got to know about her disastrous training session was a mystery. Then again, the academy was closely knit and news spread easily.
The fair-haired girl navigated around with a walking stick. She also used her hands to touch the surfaces around her. She was uncanny though – she was adept at knowing spatial direction. In College Sable, she was nicknamed “Ghost” by a sarcastic student and the name seemed to have caught on. She seemed to shrug off the nickname nonchalantly. Katherine knew that she was actually quite hurt by that rude comment.
The mid-day meal was a hearty vegetable stew with freshly baked bread. Most of College Sable sat at their designated tables. Katherine and Alethia sat at their own spots. Katherine soaked the bread thoroughly with the savory stew. It reminded her of her mother’s cooking.
“I almost did. But Stenton was a cruel taskmaster and made me climb the rope in a jiffy.” She said, chewing on the bread.
“Stenton is well-known for his cruelty. But he is actually quite a kind man.” Alethia’s voice was always soft, gentle. Katherine had never heard her raise it in anger.
Katherine glanced at her blisters, still raw from the morning’s climb. They would heal in time. No doubt, there would be more in the future. She was not so sure about her ankle. It was painful when she walked. Stenton had already made note of it. So did Doctor Ash, the academy’s resident physician.
By Jove, she really wanted the ankle to be well. Inwardly, she cursed the person who caused it, only to pause. It was bad enough to curse. Her mother did say something about curses coming back to haunt people like spirits of old.
Alethia’s voice broke her reverie.
“You are unusually solemn,” the girl continued and Katherine could see a slight frown creasing the smooth pale brow. The sightless eyes were forever open. Yet, Katherine knew that Alethia could easily feel her emotions.
“I am just thinking, that’s all.” Katherine said, realizing her excuse sounded flat and unconvincing. Later, Alethia would sit down with her again and probe it out of her in her gentle, unassuming manner.
She wondered if she was indeed adapting well to the Flight Academy. The lessons were agreeable – more so than a small Dorset class-room – and she was learning everyday about flight and the basics of it. There was time for rest and for work – the Pilotmaster and lecturers made sure of that. A tired pilot, they said, makes a careless pilot. The Great Manor was a splendid building. There was hot and cold water in their dormitories, a luxury – she knew – especially in autumn and winter. There was a hydraulic pump-core working underneath the Great Manor, powering the electricity that in turn powered the lamps and other sources of light in the Manor. It was said that the Manor was a Marvel for its age and there were many people who wanted to do the same for their own endeavors.
There was First Light when the lights came on at the break of dawn, waking the students from their slumber. After First Light and breakfast, the morning began with Athletics and other exercises. Lessons began promptly after Athletics and continued until late afternoon, near Tea. Last Light was turned on before bed and it was a time for students to rest, play games and converse with their friends.
She had to agree that she enjoyed the academy, more so when she saw the leo-fins in their glory and to be so close to them. She would only fly next year, “when you find your balance, young lady!” Captain Sagan told her once, kindly but firmly enough for her to take note of the lecturer’s words.
She knew she was simply awful at balancing. Stenton thought she had a problem with her inner ear. She just simply could not balance well on the beams. A problem, she felt her heart sinking, at the helm of a leo-fin.
“Katherine,” Alethia’s voice was more persistent. “Katherine?”
“Oh!” Katherine shook herself and finished her by-now cold stew.
When Last Light illuminated the Great Manor, Katherine found herself at the Exercise Hall, staring thoughtfully at the beams.
The beams criss-crossed each other and were designed to teach poise and equilibrium. For her, they were … obstacles. Frustrating, harrowing obstacles. She saw the rest doing it with various degrees of grace and poise and she felt like a lumbering cow whenever she stood on one of the beams.
In the dim light, she touched the beam, already polished smooth by countless soles and hands. She lifted herself up onto the wooden apparatus, feeling it creak ominously beneath her bare feet. She inhaled deeply and began to walk, placing her right foot before her left carefully. She lifted her arms to give her enough balance.
At first, it was fine. She was doing remarkably well and Stenton, if he saw her, would have been pleased.
Then, her ankle, that accursed damned ankle, gave.
She fell awkwardly onto the cushioning mats, bloomers and all. For a moment, she lay flat on her back, staring at the high ceiling, breathing quickly in the darkness, glad nobody saw her embarrassment. Far away, she could hear jocular music, some people playing the violin and the pianoforte. There was some singing and general laughter.
And she was flat on her sore back, her hands still stinging with the morning’s yield of blisters and her ankle throbbing dismally. If she could cry, she would. But she did not. Captain Sagan would have choice words to say if she did see her in this present predicament.
Something about balance, she thought gloomily. Somewhere in her head, a shriveled old woman laughed harshly like a blighted harpy.
She was back in that cramped classroom again. Back with the insipid simpering girls who would have been her friends but were not, would never be. Their minds were always on lace and how to catch the eye of the nearest farm-boy. Hers were mathematics and flying. Always flying.
They were whispering and watching her side-ways, while she sat next to the window. She could see the rare blue skies, glorious and inviting, without being obscured by the black smokes from the nearby factory.
Uptight, wearing a prim dress and a pair of proper black shoes, the old woman walked into the room. Her face was creased, her nose hooked and her eyes were like cold gimlets. Her hair had long gone white and there was no use trying to guess her actual age. She always held a brown belt, “for strict discipline”, she would say proudly.
“Good morning, Miss Sharpton,” the girls sang sweetly.
“Katherine!” Her voice was shrill.
“Good morning,” Katherine said quietly.
Miss Sharpton glared at her, basilisk-like. Katherine knew she loved the simpering idiots, because they were “lady-like”. She laughed. These girls would know only Dorset for the rest of their lives. Not her, Katherine Riley.
“Katherine Riley,” the old woman’s voice was icicle-cold. “Explain to the class what balance is.”
Now, it was wrong. All wrong. What kind of question was that? She did not know how to explain balance. Nor did she understand balance. Physics? Physical balance? Mental balance? What kind of balance?
She gasped as the old harridan’s eyes flamed red. Katherine shook her head hard, trying to wake herself up. This is a dream. This is a dream. This is a dream.
The old harridan stalked towards her, witch-thin and witch-terrible. She had her belt ready and Katherine was quite well acquainted with the belt. Her ankles bore previous scars.
“So, Miss Riley,” the old witch snarled. “What is balance?” Her bony fingers twitched, as if in wicked anticipation.
“Balance is…” Katherine stammered, suddenly at a loss. The tittering in the background had a cruel edge to it. Everything around her went dark, except for Miss Sharpton, whose visage filled her entire vision.
“What is balance?” Miss Sharpton demanded. “Miss Riley, do not tarry with your answer!”
“Balance is,” Katherine took in a deep breath, knowing that deep down, even in the dream, she was shaking like an aspen tree. “Balance is learning to stand on two feet.” The answer came forth from her mouth unbidden.
“Wrong!” Miss Sharpton crowed triumphantly and down came the brown belt, hitting Katherine at her right arm. It stung like fire, even in the dream…
She woke up with a start in the moonlight. The bed-sheets were damp with her perspiration. She was surprised that everyone else was sleeping soundly. Her arm smarted with phantom pain.
Alethia sat up on her bed.
“I heard you shouting,” the girl explained. Alethia was a light sleeper. “Did you have a nightmare?” She patted the area around her, as if trying to get her bearings.
“Yes,” Katherine said, half-apologetic for waking the Forrester girl up. “Please go back to bed.”
Alethia seemed to open her mouth to say something, changed her mind and lay back down again. The moonlight cast a faint white glow on her pale hair. Soon, Katherine heard her breathing regularly, meaning that she had finally slept.
Katherine slowly sank back into her own goose-down bed, her heartbeats finally ceasing their mad drumming. It was a bad dream. A nightmare. Yet, she remembered what she said in the dream, to the nightmarish Miss Sharpton. And there was truth in it.
To be continued next Tuesday!