Sunset is imminent, the air still and clear. Distant birdsong wafts through the open window. My focus jerks from the computer screen to the real world. I scramble down the stairs, grab my helmet and goggles, and make a quick getaway. The screen door slams behind me. (A recurring thought races through my head—I really should have a “Gone Flying” sign for that door.)
Outside, the short, green grass and spindly dandelions cushion my rushing feet. (As always, thoughts tumble through my over-active brain like prisoners trying to escape. Dandelions … when I was a kid, didn’t I have a neighbour who made dandelion wine?)
I make my way toward the back hayfield, crossing behind the Century-old, stone church next door. (Sunset through stained glass church windows . . . beautiful.) Two of my most venturesome cats follow. We pass under an archway of greenery that a neighbor has fashioned for me then cross through their side garden. I wave to his watchful, little girl, Willow. (Lovely name. Unusual.) Willow calls out, “Look ‘Ish-Ell.” (She can’t quite pronounce the “M” part of my name yet.) “I got a airplane too!” She proudly displays her pedal biplane, runs to it and jumps in excitedly. I smile, “Very cool kiddo. Every girl should have her own airplane.” As I leave, Willow is making engine noises and tearing up the grass. I cut through a stand of trees at their property line and emerge into a clearing; my friend Bryon’s long hayfield. And there she is … The Piet. My Other Self, the one with wings.
The colours of sunset dance across her corrugated Pietenpol ribs, and her bright orange fuselage shines as if lit from inside. (Jeez, hope not.) I have struggled to name The Piet ever since we started out together, over thirty years ago. (Time flies, huh?) But still, I just call her, “The Piet.” At first, I thought “Sunrise” might be right because that’s her color. But friends made fun, saying I was rarely up early enough to fly at dawn. That’s true enough because I often write deep into the silent night. Time has always seemed relative and fluid to me, much to the dismay of others. So then for her name I thought, “Sunset,” but that had an ominous ring to it. “Pirouette” came to mind when on the first test flight by Glenn, my partner in crime, she stubbornly refused to come out of a spin for several thousand feet before finally recovering. (I almost lost my whole world that day . . . but I digress.) Naming The Piet became too forced, too artificial, so I let the idea go. What’s in a name anyway? In some ancient cultures, one’s true name is sacred and secret, never to be spoken. Perhaps that is the case here.
She’s shining new—the Piet, practically glowing from her recent lengthy rebuild; even preening a little after a few, adventurous test flights. I feel eager to reacquaint us and hurry to untie her ropes. We don’t want to lose the light. After a quick scan for new groundhog holes in the hayfield (Lesson learned), she’s ready. (Love my Piet.) Our routine is an old one. We kinda grew up together. With slight variations our pre-flight goes like this: walk-around, tuck ponytail under helmet, throw prop, untie tail rope, hang onto her, and leap sprightly into rear cockpit. Watch gauges, do checks, then away. The Continental 65 ticks over solidly at idle. (Well I hope so. She’s only got a couple of hundred hours on her.) The sound is comforting, mesmerizing. Pause. We sit together contentedly. (This is the first easy breath of the day.)
By now, all the birds have fled to the treetops, their calls and squabbles rudely interrupted by the rumble of a different kind of bird. My cats are perched, still as statues of the feline goddess Bastet, watching from the Cedar rail fence that parallels the runway. They know what to expect. I taxi to position, (Position? Ha!) centered between where the short, green grass ends and the late summer flowers sprout freely. I search the sky, watch tree tops for wind, then throttle in, tail up … Levitate. Magic. Big sigh. My shoulders drop a full inch. I remember.
To the west, the sky is alive with a riot of ever changing hues; great swaths of pink, yellow, orange and purple. Who but Mother Nature could dress herself in such colours and get away with it? Climbing, I scan my few gauges. We’re in the green. Green means go. At five hundred feet, I bank left over vast expanses of golden wheat stubble and naked grey-brown, furrows. The Piet’s long undercambered wing points down to my thinking rock, nestled below, in a copse of startling white birch and Fall washed maples, where a smattering of wild Phlox still thrive. On my right, a hawk soars in to investigate this brash intrusion. We are eye to eye for the briefest of moments. It feels almost as if I could reach out and touch him … but then he is gone. A thousand feet below, neighbor Bryon, whose hayfield doubles as the runway, works on a tractor. His face is a round, white moon as he looks up. I imagine him smiling.
Further on, I spot a lone woman on horseback trotting over a forest trail. It’s probably Suzanne. I leave her to her solitude and wheel to follow a meandering river. Soon I overfly another neighbor’s farm. Her name is Christine and by chance she is outside hanging laundry. Right away she knows who is snarling around above, waggling wings. She waves a friendly hello with something white and filmy.
The light is fading and it is now past time to be heading back home. Home. This wondrous land and the generous, friendly people who inhabit it, represent the small rural hamlet that I call home. We are situated distinctly, the aerial map rendered into art and duplicated inside my head, and somehow that makes life here seem as a whole, not just the chance meanderings of chaos. This place, right here, is the place I choose to be. The place where I laugh, love and live. And the sight is good.
Ah, this is too short a flight. I was so late getting away but it’s still well worth the rush back. I find my fingers have gone numb from the evening chill and the vibrations of flight. They are stiff as I remove them from the throttle but a quick massage gets the feeling back in time to set up my lopsided circuit for the hayfield. I turn short of the radio tower, curve out to avoid overflying a neighbor’s horse barn, then power back and start to let down over the forest.
The Piet’s glide ratio is almost nonexistent, so I stay high-ish on final and, for fun, slip all the way down to the button. Then it’s kick her straight, back pressure, wait for it … peripherally the flowers alongside the runway blur into a rainbow spectrum … then we touchdown, down, down; jostling over the old semi-flattened furrows, slowing to a taxi and then to a stop. Lovely. (Now I can face whatever tomorrow brings.)
The cats gather once more, joining me under the graying sky as I tie down and button up The Piet. I call out their names and, encouraged, they approach at a trot, tails stiffly skyward. My face feels like it is still vibrating as I shake my hair from under the leather helmet. I pry the goggles from my face, rub my semi-deafened ears, and the five years of proverbial blood, sweat and tears dedicated to The Piet’s rebuild fall away into memory. A new beginning is at hand for both of us. The cats and I head back to that other world, our life on the ground.
Even though darkness encroaches, little Willow waits for me by her back door. She spots me and comes running, an anxious question furrowing her young brow. “Ish-elle …” she blurts, “… can boys fly too?” I am slightly taken aback, and then filled with a sudden fierce glee, “So they tell me, kiddo. So they tell me.” Inside my head, I rejoice that this little girl will never have to face the hurdles I did if she wants to get herself into the air. (Doin’ the job.) I smile.
Glancing back at The Piet, tied down in the last of the dying light, shadows long upon her, I feel a rush of gratitude. My patient plane, my nameless other self, “she who awaits the next leap into the air.” Sighing, I silently ask her, “What’s in a name, eh Piet?”
In a sudden rush, an answer floods into me, fully-fledged. Inspired by this epiphany of sorts I dare a new native tradition, the sharing of a name. I ruminate. Apart from The Piet, I am simply a “woman” and she, a flightless “bird.” But once airborne, we become a part of each other…. Together, we are “Birdwoman.”
Ah, now “Birdwoman,” there’s a name for us. It is a name worthy of this extraordinary endeavor, this gift—this magic—this flight.
(C’mon, let’s see if it sticks!)
To see “Birdwoman” in flight, view this photo essay.
About the Author
Michelle Goodeve is a Co-Founder and the Creative Director of Why Fly. Learn more.
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