Although I spoke to the children many fanciful and not altogether truthful bedtime stories, and although such tales, while effective at sending them peacefully to sleep, perhaps irrevocably harmed their memories, I promise to you that none of my words those evenings around the fire sang malignantly false.
Why would I purposefully hurt them?
How could I know my stories might ruin their memories?
You must believe my good intentions.
The children certainly believed my good intentions.
For children, despite their occasional propensity towards mischief, will not tolerate deception, cannot possibly do so should they wish to, and they will do their best to flee malevolence and pain of all kinds: emotional, spiritual, physical. They have about them a special attraction to all that is true and good in the world, as you yourself once did—and, I hope, still do!—and they desire to surround themselves with that extraordinary truth and goodness, and they do so through cheerful stories, pleasant songs, tumbling play, and the collecting of all things small and wonderful: pebbles, insects, leaves, vials of cloud vapor.
Such playful pursuits, I have come to believe, give children the unique ability to survive whatever horrors they might encounter early in their lives: the destruction of their favorite kites, wandering lost through the busy foot traffic of a skymall, the death of a beloved pet bird, the sudden disappearance of their fathers. And yes, during my stay with the children of the wreckage, I too have discovered the benefits of these minor reductions.
Telling my stories became a way to leave, temporarily, the dirty land of the beneath. For I too am trapped in a traumatic existence in the beneath, one that marks each day I spend away from all I love, one that restrains me further from finding you. So of course my stories help me cope with such despair! I hope you do not blame me for seeking some respite, however little I can find, from my own nightmarish existence.
Quite early in marriage, your mother became pregnant—a surprise, I admit—and she and I happily set about preparing for the arrival of our child, a girl, we were told by the doctors, who had somehow divined your beautiful presence there in your mother’s womb. We established a nursery in the house, which we painted a pleasant blend of sky blue and sunset pink. You grew bit by bit, at first a tiny pea-sized thing, then, later, a fingerling, a tiny angel. We researched nannies and other means of childcare, for we wanted the best for you, our child, no matter what. You began to shift, my wife said, nightly, as if curling up in some kind of nest. We looked into early schools and development programs, and we even met with the admissions officers at the academy to plan for your education in the years to come. You responded to the muffled sound of our voices with happy movement, and you seemed to have already recognized us for what we were: your parents.
As your parents, we hoped you might achieve wonderful things in your life.
As our daughter, you kicked excitedly.
We laughed laying together in bed.
You hiccupped in the womb.
And so, my daughter, you arrived with the quiet dark early one spring, long before the sun had arisen, so early in the morning that the moon still lorded over the sky, and we named you Phoebe, and we rejoiced.
Secretly, I called you Bird, for your wonderful newborn sounds.
Yours was a regular birth, no doubt, and your early months in our city pleased you greatly. We swaddled you and situated your bassinet so that you might enjoy especially the views from our great picture window in the family room, marveling at the aircraft passing by our residential level, their speed, their grace and agility: the rigid frame dirigibles, the crank-winged gyrocopters, the container airships carefully maneuvering above the city. We rocked your bassinet each day and softly spoke to you about the flying machines, regaled you with tales of how you too one day might pilot this or that machine on a wonderful journey, and soon you fell asleep.
As you learned to crawl, and then to toddle, you grew fond of all creatures of the air, especially the flying flowers, twittering birds, the airy butterflies, all animals and plants really, but especially those associated with flight. You explored our city’s hanging gardens so that you might track the aerobatic movements of the hummingbirds therein. You watched as the bugs and moths flitted about the lights over the aerodrome of evenings, tracing their movements in the air with your pointed finger as they fled the pursuing nighthawks. You gladly witnessed the flights of the lofty, soaring birds far above our skyland, and these you seemed to approve of most, for how could one observe a gliding albatross and not wish to join its majestic flight? Yes, you too enjoyed the humble methods by which seeding plants spread their seed, you wondered at the way a frantic bumbling bee miraculously flew despite its great mass and tiny wings, and you never once passed up an opportunity to watch a struggling baby pigeon hatch from its shell.
And so your childhood carried on pleasantly enough, and your mother and I were proud of this wonder in our lives, now crawling, now awkwardly standing, now finally toddling all about our house high in the skyland’s cityscape.
Your mother and I had taken to pursuing short picnics, day trips, family vacations and the like, climbing aboard our personal flying machine and hopping to a nearby skyland, a tradition we had pursued ever since that day we first met each other—we had skipped the afternoon celebration of the springtime festival in order to fly to a nearby skyland to relax in solitude. So, we wished to share with you the wonders of the atmospheric world into which you had been born, and as avid aviators, what better way, we reasoned, than to do this by flight? Flight, after all, had for so long allowed us to connect with one another, so we sought to bring you into that joyful experience as well.
Of course, as with any pursuit such as this, danger existed. Your mother understood this, and I understood this—how could I not, given my training as an aviator? The nearby skylands shifted constantly about our own floating city, especially the untethered ones. Unregulated weather patterns could occasionally rise or descend upon these skylands. The terrain of these skylands too shifted, changed, completely reoriented itself as the skylands maneuvered randomly about the atmosphere. We felt comfortable with these conditions, of course, given our experience, and we had for several months safely visited these local skylands, some not more than a few city blocks in size, for our family outings with you in tow.
We set out one fine morning shortly before your second birthday, as the story goes, our picnic basket stowed securely in the rear luggage compartment, you safely strapped into your infant seat on the rear bench of the crew cabin, your mother seated neatly beside you, and I standing upright in the cockpit above you, the wind of our ascent blowing my hair all about me, flipping the tail of my scarf to and fro above your smiling face. I piloted our craft gently, carefully, so as not to upset you, dear child, and consulted as I flew the day's skyland map, a service the city offered each morning to those who planned to fly the nearby atmosphere. Of course, the skylands could easily change position from the time those maps were released, but the shifts were not often remarkable enough to warrant a new map until the evening arrived, and in any case, in such great visibility, the skylands could often be picked out from the aerodrome as they casually and listlessly floated in the atmosphere all about the city.
Shortly after you fell asleep in your bassinet the night before, your mother and I had selected one skyland in particular for our visit, one the city's surveyors had deemed stable and safe. We had read reports of this skyland, a small, private floating pasture with little elevation, a wild meadow in one corner of which rested a seasonal rain well—essentially a pond that came and went according to the whims of the weathers through which that skyland ventured on its rounds about our earth's atmosphere. This skyland had floated in the nearby region for quite some time—our city's surveyors had spotted it a few months before—but never had it ventured close enough for a daytrip until yesterday, and so your mother and I resolutely set out to visit this land, to picnic there for the day, and to play with you upon that wild meadow.
As I flew, your mother narrated the sights along the way. Here she pointed out a rare form of towering cumulus cloud, and later she drew your attention to an archipelago of rocky skylands trailing one after another in the jet stream high above. As we neared our destination, you called out to a pair of bluebirds descending off our wing to land in the meadow of the little skyland below. Our skyland appeared even more beautiful than any skyland I had ever seen: from the wild meadow there rose a slight hill crowned by several crooked trees that surrounded a rain-pond gleaming in the sunlight. In fact, its image far surpassed the photographs I had seen in the skyland books in the city library. It seemed quite the natural heaven on earth, so to speak, and I shouted over the noise of the flying machine how happy I was that we had chosen this particular skyland today.
I set the machine gently down in the middle of the meadow, and we unbundled the craft, careful first to check that our own parachute packs—even your small, toddler-sized one—were secure around our bodies before drawing out the sunshade tarp from one wing and staking it to the soil, which we both agreed to be quite substantial and stable for such a small skyland. And certainly this skyland was small, quite the smallest we had ever visited, and we found its features to be quaint and charming. You thought so as well, we knew, and you immediately took to pointing at all of the wondrous butterflies that floated there about the meadow, and soon everything around us became your own: Phoebe's butterfly, Phoebe's grass, Phoebe's stick, Phoebe's leaf, Phoebe's meadow. My wife spread under the tarp the picnic blanket, and prepared the meal while I carried you upon my shoulders across the tall grass of the meadow to peer into the rain pond, perhaps the purest rain pond we had ever gazed into. You laughed and pointed at your reflection in the surface of the pond, and then we glanced all about us, enjoyed the light breeze over the surface of the skyland, and then returned to join your mother under the wing of the machine to enjoy our picnic: a bottle of wine, tins of olives, little vined tomatoes, strawberries from our city's garden; cheese imported from the wide pastures of the skylands to the north; thin rice wafers for you. We lounged in the shade beneath the tarp and the fuselage of that machine—just as I now lounge horribly beneath the rusted out fuselage of my own cracked-up machine here in the beneath—and watched as the skyland tracked its way slowly about the atmosphere, the blue growing deeper above us, wisps of cumulus clouds passing below us, the skyscrapers of our city shining in the distance.
Your mother, in the pleasantness of that afternoon, fell asleep.
For how could she not? The sun, the breeze, the wine and food, her loved ones resting in the shade nearby, all of these certainly comforted her, sending her into her blissful nap. I cannot blame her, though she surely blames herself.
To curb your restlessness, I took you to explore the tiny world of the skyland. You toddled happily—with me immediately behind you—through the thick grass to the glassy pond, into which I skipped pebbles to your delight. We then sat by the water to watch the pondskaters' intricate dance across its smooth surface. You soon, during my reverie, left my side to wander after a butterfly, and I remember that I thought the image of my daughter as she delicately tottered back into the meadow might make such a fine photograph.
But in the moment that I rummaged through my satchel for the camera, you disappeared. I could not see you cross the meadow, for the wind disturbed the high grasses, nor could I find you about my knees as I waded through the foliage, circling the skyland so as to catch you before you could hurt yourself.
It was not until I saw you emerge from the meadow mere steps away from the crumbling edge of that now horrible skyland that I knew suddenly how quickly a father's life might change. As I rushed towards you, you toddled and tripped, palm outstretched for the butterfly, and then fell, wordlessly, over the crumbling edge.
I reached out my hand, only to grab the ripcord to your pack.
The truest image I have of my daughter is this: your blossomed canopy, a bright dot against the gloominess of the weather-covered earth below, taken now in the sudden currents of the winds like some fluttering dandelion seed and rushing further and further away from me, then, miraculously, rising with the shifting wind to soar off above me towards the horizon and away from my sight.