An essay by Jay Callum, as provided by Paul Stansbury
Art by Leigh Legler
“Do you remember how to fly?” was how Froug started the conversation. His question caught me off guard. I had been working as a weekend orderly at Wrighthaven Hospital for barely two months. College was costly, and I needed the money. Besides, I figured working in a hospital setting, even if it was a psychiatric facility, would provide a beneficial experience for a pre-med student. Wrighthaven was an old facility with a grimy, limestone façade that gave it the appearance of a prison. The gray clouds of January made it look all the more foreboding. Froug was always in the solarium, sitting in his worn wheelchair facing a window that overlooked the vast grounds surrounding the hospital. The sour smell of lunch trays waiting to be retrieved from the hallway spilled into the room. That was the only place I had ever encountered him. Until that point, I had never heard him say anything; I had not even seen him move. He was always attired in ubiquitous institutional clothing, faded blue robe struggling to cover striped pajamas, his bare feet shoved into dingy, terrycloth slippers. He had turned his head in my direction, clear, bright eyes focused directly on me.
“Oh, I never learned,” I replied.
“I didn’t ask you if you learned how to fly,” he clipped back. “I asked if you remembered how to fly.”
“Well, I’ve been on a plane a few times if that’s what you mean.”
“I don’t care if you have been on an airplane, hot air balloon, or rocket ship!” The frustration in his voice was palpable. “The question is very simple. Do you remember how to fly?”
“I guess I don’t, then. Is there anything you need, anything I can help you with?” I asked.
“You probably can’t remember talking with animals either, I bet.”
“Oh, I talked to my dog all the time–when I was a kid.”
He rolled his eyes. “You don’t listen, do you? I asked if you remembered talking with animals–not to animals. There’s a big difference you know. One is a conversation, the other is just making sounds.”
“Well, excuse me for not making the fine distinctions,” I shot back, immediately regretting the sarcasm in my voice. Wrighthaven was in the business of providing psychiatric services. Everyone on staff, including orderlies, was expected to be caring and positive in dealing with the residents. Unusual conversations were to be expected. This exchange was benign compared to some. “I’m sorry, didn’t mean that the way it sounded. What was it you wanted to know?”
He had turned back to the window, seemingly oblivious to my apology.
For the next three weekend shifts, nothing transpired between us, not that I took any measures to speak with him during that time. I saw him in the solarium and checked on him as I did with the other residents. He never gave any acknowledgement of my presence.
On the fourth shift, as soon as I approached, he looked at me and picked up where he had left off a month earlier. “I wanted to know if you remembered how to fly and if you do, then it is obvious you would remember talking with animals.”
“Mr. Froug, can’t say as I do.”
“Call me Lazlo. No need to clutter one’s mind with a second name,” he continued. “I was like that. Couldn’t remember, until I met Yardang. Asked me the same question. ‘Do you remember how to fly?’ I gave him a response much like you gave me.”
“Oh, so you don’t remember how to fly?”
“I said I couldn’t remember until I met Yardang,” Froug corrected. “It has taken many years, but I do remember now.”
“How many years?” I asked.
“That’s not important. Useless data. I didn’t bother to count them, so I wouldn’t have to forget them,” he replied.
“What was it like?” I asked, humoring him.
“Wonderful,” he whispered. The face, usually void of expression, now beamed with joy.
I decided it was no harm to continue a conversation, no matter how outlandish, that obviously brought Froug so much enjoyment. Can a true smile be harmful?
“How does one learn to fly?” I asked.
Froug chortled. “Do you have to learn to breathe? Do you have to learn to roll over in bed? No! How does an infant learn to laugh? It doesn’t–it sees an image, hears a sound, feels a sensation and voilà–you have laughter. It’s there inside, innate, no lessons required. Much the same with flying. Though it is not really flying like a bird flapping its wings. Yardang characterized it as self-actuated instantaneous levitation. As good a description as any. Like riding a bicycle. You don’t have to think about balance, it’s just there. When you fly, you just move to where you want to be–except you don’t use your feet. It’s that simple.”
“Sounds neat,” I said, not wanting to challenge him. I had always heard that people with delusional thoughts construct elaborate explanations to support their claims. “So you just go. Must be great to zoom all over the place.”
“It’s not quite that easy,” Froug said seriously. “You’ve been watching too many movies with caped superheroes if you believe you can just zoom all over the place. On the contrary, it takes some thought and one must be careful. Just bash into a tree while not paying attention and see how good that feels.”
“Well, I didn’t mean it that way,” I said, in hopes I hadn’t offended him. He had seemed so happy and normal up to that point. But I was too late. He had turned back to the window.
Just as before, nothing transpired between us for the next several weeks. Each time I saw him in the solarium, I tried to strike up a conversation. Each time, he ignored me, staring out the window as if I didn’t exist. Then one afternoon, as soon as I approached, he looked at me, picking up where he had left as if nothing had happened.
“You see, you’ve got to take it slow. Flying is not like walking around your backyard. Despite what you may have seen in the movies, Newton’s laws of motion still apply. So zooming about might result in a nasty collision with a telephone pole. And you can’t go up into the clouds, you’ll freeze your butt off up there, not to mention there’s not enough oxygen to keep you conscious.”
“I never thought about that,” I stammered.
“Of course you didn’t. That’s what you have to learn when it comes to flying, hopefully not the hard way. As for me, I just enjoyed gliding above the fields ever so slowly. Not even fast enough to stir the wildflowers. If you are very quiet, you can watch the field mice forage, smell the wild strawberries, or drift alongside a bee while it gathers nectar.”
“Gosh, how could you ever forget something like that in the first place?” I asked. As soon as it jumped out of my mouth, I hoped he wouldn’t take it wrong and clam up again.
“Yardang explained it like this: each of us is born with these wonderful abilities, one of which is to fly, but they diminish over time as our brain is crammed full of useless information. We call it memory. Like a computer, once our brain’s capacity is filled up, it can’t do anything until some space is cleared.
“He went on to explain that the accumulation of memories is a terrible burden. Consider the insignificant pebble created at the birth of the universe, lollygagging through the void. Over the millennia, it collects bits of dust and debris, the detritus of the Big Bang. The more it collects, the more it attracts, growing in size like a snowball rolling down the hillside. It floats along through the cosmos, snatching up all that it encounters, until the original pebble, trapped at the core, is crushed beyond recognition under the weight of all that surrounds it. Its essence, what it was is no longer recognizable, diluted in the conglomerate. In like manner, our mind is crushed under the weight of memories. Those primal abilities we were born with are similarly diluted in the cacophony of memories that fill our minds and ultimately pushed into the dark and lonely corners of our psyche.”
By that point, his voice had increased in speed and enthusiasm. I found his arguments fascinating, and even though I was sure they were flights of fancy, I wanted to hear more. He must have sensed some doubt on my part, because he suddenly fell silent. For an instant, I thought the spell had been broken and he would once again turn toward the window. Instead, he continued to look me right in the eye. He waited long enough for my anxiety to build before he drew in a measured breath and began to speak.
“You have doubts. Consider the plight of a Russian man, many years ago, who had the ability to recall everything he had seen or heard. The famed neuropsychologist, Luria, studied him for 20 years. He asked the man to memorize all manner of things ranging from long sequences of random numbers to poems in foreign languages, all of which he did with apparent ease. His ability was so strong he could retain them all and recall them years, even decades later. The man eventually went on to perform as a mnemonic. However, in time, the accumulation of memories created great confusion in his mind. So much so, he quit to spend the rest of his life attempting to forget them. It is said he finally found peace when he learned to consciously identify and remove them one by one from his mind. A conscious unremembering so to speak. This really happened, you can check the facts.
“Which brings the discussion full circle. You see, I was determined to remove the unnecessary from my mind so I could once again remember how to fly. I will not remove everything. I wish to remember my Mother’s face. But for the most part, my mind, which was incapacitated with worthless information, is now clear. I remember only the good stuff.”
“So you remember how to fly?” I asked.
“Why don’t you?”
“How do you know I haven’t?” he answered with a question.
“You got me there, I only work on the weekends. I guess you have all the weekdays to fly about.”
A wry smile puckered up on his lips. “There was one thing Yardang asked me to do before I decided to fly again.”
“And what’s that?” I asked.
Too late, he had turned back to the window.
The last time I saw Froug, his wheelchair had been rolled out on the porch attached to the solarium. It was a bright, balmy April day. I stepped out from the cool shadows into the warm sunlight. A squirrel sat on its haunches next to Froug. It scampered off as I approached.
Without turning his head, Froug said, “Yardang said I had to pass it along.”
“Yes, about flying.” Froug took a deep breath. “Doesn’t that air smell wonderful?” he whispered. “I was just having a conversation with that squirrel before you came up.”
“I hope I didn’t scare him off,” I said.
“No, we were done.” Froug waived his arm off to the left. “He said there is a lovely field beyond those hills. The wild flowers are just popping out. I think I’ll go take a look. Remember, you must pass it on.”
As much as I tried to explain, the hospital administrators and the police just would not believe that Froug flew away. That was many years ago. I don’t count them, so I won’t have to forget them. I’ve been here at Wrighthaven Hospital ever since, although not on the payroll. I don’t mind. After all, Yardang said the accumulation of memories is a terrible burden, and the solarium is as good a place to unremember as any.
I’ve got a new shrink. Nice young lady right out of school. We’ve had a couple of conversations. It won’t be long now, Spring is just around the corner, and a squirrel said “Hi” to me the other day.
Jay Callum is currently a resident of Wrighthaven Hospital in Brambling, Maine. Prior to that, he was a pre-med student at Gadwall College, where he also played winger on the soccer team. He is a graduate cum laude of Paloma High School located in Finchville, Maine.
Paul Stansbury is a life long native of Kentucky. He is the author of Inversion – Not Your Ordinary Stories, Inversion II – Creatures, Fairies, and Haints, Oh My!, and Down By the Creek – Ripples and Reflections, as well as a novelette: Little Green Men? His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Now retired, he lives in Danville, Kentucky.
Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“Do You Remember How to Fly?” is © 2017 Paul Stansbury
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Leigh Legler
This story originally appeared in Inversion – Not Your Ordinary Stories.Follow us online: