Stephen Messer


to Miriam


Oliver sat back on his stool. He was finished. His hands were blistered, his head ached, and his nostrils burned with the stink of boiling glue, but he was sure this one would work. After a lifetime of embarrassments and disappointments that made his toes curl to think about, he’d finally done it. This time he would fly.

For two days Oliver had snipped and sewn, boiled glue in the glue pots, lit new candles when the old ones had burned down to nubs, cursed and sucked on his cuts when he was clumsy with a knife, and paced back and forth crumpling up papers covered with his carefully drawn designs before hurling them into the corners in disgust. Then he would sit at his workbench to draw up new designs, and snip and sew some more. All the while, the midsummer winds had howled ceaselessly outside the treehouse.

Oliver stood, kicking aside discarded fragments of bamboo spars. With a triumphant sweep of his arm, he cleared the workbench. Everything spilled onto the floor with a tumultuous crash. He pulled open drawers and laid out his tools. He had new twine, new reels, his handvane, and several other useful odds and ends. He jammed it all into his pack.

He dashed to the window and threw it open. Cold wind blasted into the room. Oliver leaned out into the tossing branches of the oak. He closed his eyes, listening to the winds as they blew over the mountain and through the oaks. They were just right for flying, he decided, but twilight would be settling soon. If he hurried, there would be time for one test flight before the night winds came.

He slammed the window closed, then tore off his smock and hurled it over a stack of rejected spars. He donned his warmest flier’s outfit: leather gloves, fur-lined boots, loose-cut pants with toughened knees, a thick sweater, and a heavy wool cap fastened under his chin. Feeling very professional, he slung his pack over his shoulders and, with his creation tucked under one arm, peeked down the hall.

No one had bothered to light the lamps, of course, and the hallway curved into darkness in both directions as it followed the shape of their tree. The only light was a faint flickering spilling through a doorway halfway to the stairs. From within that room came the continuous scratching sound of pen across paper.

Oliver crept down the hall. He had nearly mastered the pattern of the creaky floorboards. Left two steps, right one step, now over to the wall, then a hop, then left… no, right! The floorboard groaned, and Oliver froze as a voice called out.

“Oliver, lad, is that you? Fetch me a cup of tea, will you? There’s a lad.” As usual, his father’s voice sounded distant and distracted.

Oliver peeked into the study. There was the customary sight: his father’s back hunched over a desk piled with books and pages covered with cryptic scrawl. The room was nearly dark, as the shades had not been opened and a last flickering candle was about to die. Just beside his father’s arm was the untouched cup of tea, now cold, that Oliver had brought up hours ago.

“Yes, Father,” Oliver said, trying to hide his creation behind his back on the remote chance his father turned around. “I’ll bring it right up.”

“There’s a lad,” his father replied vaguely. His pen had not stopped scratching.

Oliver hurried to the staircase and dashed down into the kitchen. The rest of the treehouse was silent and dark. As he passed the pantry, his stomach growled, and he realized that he had not eaten all day. No time for that, thought Oliver. I’ll have a victory dinner when I return. Yes, a triumphant homecoming involving crowds of people apologizing for all the mockery he’d received over the years. Thinking these happy thoughts, he pushed open the creaking front door.

He stopped on the landing, forty feet up, and looked worriedly at the signs of Windblowne preparing for the coming of night. In the treehouses of nearby oaks, lamps were sputtering to life. Townspeople were reeling in the rope bridges that connected one treehouse to another. On Windswept Way, far below, people were hurrying home, hands thrust deep into pockets and shoulders hunched against the suddenly cold winds.

A brown oak leaf drifted by. Oliver plucked it from the air. Another one, he thought. The leaf was dry and brittle, as though midsummer had been interrupted by autumn. He’d been seeing leaves like this for weeks, and what was most curious was that Oliver, who could normally tell from which of the giant oaks any leaf had fallen, did not recognize these. They had to be from an oak he didn’t know, and he was certain he knew almost every oak on the mountain. This meant he was never lost, but from looking at this leaf he could see that the map in his mind must have a gap in it somewhere.

He shook his head. No time to waste on leaves. Oliver yanked his handvane from his pack. He snapped it onto his wrist and held it high. The pointer spun before settling southish. Oliver studied the result with an expert eye. He might not be much good at flying, but he was a superb wind-reader. The north-by-northeast wind was still blowing, best for flying, but the pointer was trembling, indicating an increasingly unsteady flow. The wind’s direction and speed would be changing soon. Night was drawing near.

Dare he risk it?

Oliver nodded his head. He did. The kite must be tested tonight.

Down the circular staircase he ran, winding dizzily around the trunk of his familiar home oak, sliding his hand along its bark for luck and comfort. On the ground, he raced across the small front yard. Off to one side was his mother’s workshop, and coming from it was the usual cacophonous assortment of muttering, the clash of hammer on chisel, and the occasional loud curse. Surrounding the workshop were several—Oliver was not sure what to call them—perhaps sculptures? that his mother was working on, or had already finished. Oliver could not tell either way. Maybe they had just fallen over. Oliver sighed and kept running.

In a moment he was on Windswept Way, Windblowne’s only road, which curled round the mountain from foot to crest like a coiled spring. Oliver ran upward, passing under treehouses high overhead as the winds pushed him higher, faster. He kept furtively to one side of the Way, hoping that the late hour meant he wouldn’t be noticed and snickered at. Or worse, prevented from going to the crest at all. He kept running up, up, up as the Way wound higher.

Oliver’s fears were realized when he spied a member of the Windblowne Watch waddling down the Way and lighting the oil lamps on either side. Like all members of the Watch, he was fat and friendly and long retired from a life of flying. Normally the Watch had little to do in peaceful Windblowne, but each midsummer they were forced to rise from their usual seats on the balcony of their tavern headquarters to manage the crowds of tourists who came for the Festival.

Oliver put the kite behind his back and slowed to what he hoped was an inconspicuous stroll.

“Oh! Hullo, Oliver!” the Watchman said cheerily as he lit the next lamp.

“Hullo,” said Oliver quickly, edging past.

“I say,” said the Watchman in surprise. “That’s not a kite you have there, is it?”

“No,” said Oliver.

“Oh,” replied the Watchman, looking puzzled. “Well, that’s good. The night winds are coming, you know. No time to be flying!” He pulled a sheet of stiff paper from within his coat and affixed it to the lamppost.

Oliver resumed his dash for the crest the moment the Watchman’s back was turned.

Oliver had been trying to ignore those papers, but it wasn’t easy. They lined the Way every midsummer, tacked to trees and fences and lampposts and the occasional wagon. They littered the lands beyond the mountain too, their message carried far and wide by the winds. Some of them blew across his path, mocking him, and he kicked at them savagely. He knew their message by heart:



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