When the children were children they thought every story began with “Once upon a time,” because all stories happened long ago, so long ago, time had been a recent invention. Yet their grandpa—as they thought all grandpas looked alike, with heavy gray beards and leathery skin like a rhinoceros—had known someone who confirmed the story because they—most often a cousin the children had never met—and there were so many cousins the children had never met—had been there.
“…there were sandcastles all over the desert,” Grandpa had said. His lungs wheezed and his beard rested at his knees. “No one ever tried to build a tower. That was nonsense. My cousin was there. It wasn’t like a language we speak now.”
The children, when they were children, circled around Grandpa and listened, eyes wide, mouths open, and leaned in to hear the wheeze between words intent on not missing a single note. Sometimes, Grandpa would lean in and lower his voice, press his skeletal-finger to his lips, and the children inched closer to hear his whisper.
“People didn’t care about divinity. They built a castle so large one of the towers almost poked through the sky. Someone had built a bird suit. Birds always flew so high! The suit needed to be tested from above the clouds. But people weren’t meant to fly. That’s what really happened.”
The children never knew if they should believe Grandpa; it depended on the story. The kids and the candy-house story was true because Grandpa had been there. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow couldn’t have been true because it wasn’t Grandpa’s cousin in that story, it had been a friend’s sister, and everyone—even children—knew they could not take that seriously. But Grandpa always told his stories with sincerity, with at least a single element the children must believe no matter how absurd the tall tale, like sandcastles built into the sky, which the children wanted to believe. The children shared the same goal every time they visited the beach: build a castle so large they could climb inside and see where the world ended, or where the sea monsters made their homes. But the water always rushed in and took the castle away before reaching knee high to a sparrow.
During Grandpa’s last birthday his children and his children’s children gathered around the table; a large cake the color of sandstone burned with candles that looked like pillars. The oldest daughter had spent almost twenty minutes smearing the icing with candles, to the point it looked like the cake would burn down, or burn the house down, or latch itself to Grandpa’s beard and burn him down.
“May you live to be one hundred and twenty!” the children and their children screamed. They clapped and cheered. The oldest child pulled the candles from the cake with the room shrouded in smoke. The youngest children stood around Grandpa. It was a normal wish the children heard throughout their lifetimes on birthdays and anniversaries. Their Grandpa’s ninety-fifth birthday: the cake hit the table, flickered like a firework. Grandpa shook his head--skin dark and loose, eyes gray, hair thin and almost gone--and leaned.
“Is that a blessing or a curse?” they asked.
“I don’t know anymore,” Grandpa said and laughed.
The children laughed like wind chimes. Grandpa smiled with teeth that had eaten too much cake. When the candles melted closer to the castle and the song ended, Grandpa wheezed over the disparate flames and blew them away. At the edge of the table, Grandpa ate his cake with quiet bites and shaky hands. Frosting crusted around his lips. It dangled from his mustache.
“Tell us about Blackbird,” the youngest children said.
“Promise me you won’t splinter when you get old, children,” he said.
“Tell us about Blackbird,” the children said.
They sat around his feet, the most flexible stuffed under the table, others standing around the lines of the smallest seated children, each of them eager to let Grandpa’s exasperated voice tell them another story—one last story.
He leaned closer to the children who circled the table but he didn’t speak. He yelled for his children to open the back door and panted into a balloon.
“Once upon a time,” he said. The balloon stayed limp between his fingers. The children expected an elephant or a giraffe, even a poodle. But Grandpa’s breath had turned to wisps and the balloon never inflated.
“Tell us about Blackbird,” the children said again.
“These balloons have no life,” Grandpa said. The sliver of rubber dropped to the floor. The bulbous decorations floated around the room and bounced against the walls unable and not wanting to escape. “They should have some spirit."
Grandpa sighed soft and weak. The children imagined his breath unable to fog a spoon.
“Blackbird, Blackbird, Blackbird.”
“Once upon a time…” he said, “when your grandmother was young she had fresh dark hair that splayed at her shoulders like wings.
“I was there,” Grandpa said. “The entire landscape shifted in one night. It wasn’t a flood, there was never a flood, but the water rose from the ground up, as if the ocean seeped through the spongy floor.”
Blackbird had feathers ragged at their edges, her wings sticking out at the fringes like extra fingertips, once broken and wrongly healed. She never could fly but she could sing. She came into the restaurant crowded with word bubbles. She wore the black dress made more from her body than material, while her hair draped her shoulders like plumage. The darkness clung to her. Her leggings had holes in them where her pale skin poked through like faded stars in a night stretching from her waist to the floor.
The word bubbles burst into silence. The musical notes drifted like perfume across the dance floor; they dropped and shattered into empty fragrance. The restaurant stopped but Blackbird didn’t. She stepped through the door surrounded by the room frozen in time and sat at a table alone where her feet kicked at the broken pieces of past conversations and shattered musical notes no one swept away.
Grandpa sat cross-legged on a pillow hovering three inches off the floor. He gripped a hose in his hand, listened to the simmer of the water-pipe when he inhaled and blew out the smoke when Blackbird sat down, filling the room with rumbling fog. The smoke spread through the empty air smelling like strawberries. It twisted and beckoned him towards the bird at the table who pecked at the strawberry air as if the scent gave birth to seeds, seeds to vines, vines to fruit ripe for the picking if she could hang onto the air long enough.
“Do you dance?” Grandpa said.
“I can dance,” Blackbird said.
“There’s plenty of dancefloor to spread your wings,” he said.
“Who needs a floor?” she said.
Grandpa put out his hand. Blackbird brushed his palms with the light touch of her feathered fingers and led him to the floor.
“Did she teach you to fly?” The older children said. “Yeah! Did she teach you to fly?” the younger children said. “Tell us more about her dress!” “What were people saying?” “How big were her wings?” “How many strawberries did you eat?”
Blackbird soared along the dance floor. Musical notes surrounded them like a sandstorm, each note a grain of sand in the wind adding to the cacophony of sound that swept them away. Thought bubbles replaced word bubbles, an entire restaurant filled with balloons sprouting from their minds, filled with jealousies and thirst, hunger and admiration, watching Grandpa dance with Blackbird, his beard soft, dark, and short, her dress soft, dark, and long. When the music stopped the storm of notes drifted into the black sky and added more stars to the nightlight. There was always an uncomfortable allure of pressure in the desert nights with the emptiness of the vast dunes inching closer, with castles made of sand and cities made of water, nightlights made of stars and animals made of thought balloons, blown up, tied off, and twisted until they strolled through the hills and flatlands as if they had always been there roaming among the locals made of flesh, blood, salt.
Another song played. When the music stopped, the notes didn’t splash down to the floor. The people resumed their meals and smoke rose from between their lips once more like a poor imitation of the balloons that had been let loose, scattered, and deflated. There was a space three feet above the floor people didn’t notice, too focused on the totality of ground or the sky but never the in-between. And in that space, Grandpa learned to fly when in the arms of Blackbird.
“I’ve never flown before,” she said.
“Neither have I,” he said.
“One of us must have before now,” she said. Her wings expanded as the wind picked up and blew away the smoke in the open air of the restaurant. They lifted higher from the dance floor. They stepped on the wind like stairs and walked above the sprawling dust replacing the smoke. He held her in his arms and clipped her wings; he caged her until she had forgotten how to fly. She wanted the same for his feathers, for his wings—for him. Together they stayed on the sand beneath the open nights, using the dunes as blankets in the winter’s cold. Then the stars turned to raindrops and flooded the desert, changing the sand dunes to muddy rivers never turning to glass.
“Did she take you to her home?” the oldest children said. “What did her nest look like?” The younger children screamed. “How long before you were married?”
“It’s not that kind of story,” Grandpa said.
“It’s never that kind of story,” the children said. The youngest had frosting smeared over their faces, remnants of cake rampant over their chubby cheeks. The older kids still had cake left on their plates as they pushed around crumbs in attempted maturity. Grandpa’s plate was empty, his mouth without crumbs and icing; he hadn’t touched a fork or a spoon or the plate at all. He coughed and wheezed again. The children leaned closer to hear what he would say hidden within throaty, delicate words.
“Open the door!” he yelled. The children lurched back at the noise and looked to the kitchen. The air took away a balloon shaped like a rhinoceros. Grandpa had taught them to make balloon animals, to use the air in their lungs to fill each balloon with life, each animal with spirit, until the air dripped and rained from the plastic leaving the poodle, sword, or crocodile flaccid on the floor at the end of the party.
“How many times have I told you?” he rattled, “never keep the animals confined.” The rhinoceros hit the floor and deflated. The gasp sounded like Grandpa’s fading voice. “How do you expect to repopulate the rhinoceroses if you don’t let them go?”
The adults shook their head, a universal sign of disapproval but their whispers near the kitchen fell like led to the floor and didn’t carry to the children who ran to open the doors even if the rhino hadn’t made it.
“What about Blackbird!” the oldest children yelled again.
“Why should I tell you about Blackbird if you can’t keep the doors open?”
The adults clucked their tongues and shook their heads like chickens. The children imagined their parents in a coup pecking at seeds, clucking at the scary glowing ball in the sky. The trouble with parents, all children knew, is that knowing everything kept them from seeing anything. The party had run out of balloons, left only with the hanging word bubbles from the disapproving parents which floated around the ceiling too high for the children to reach. The more the adults whispered the more air filled the word bubbles. The ceiling turned into thunder clouds ready to burst with dark thoughts about Grandpa. If the children poked the cloud, the house would flood. They turned back to Grandpa instead, begging him to continue the story. A gust blew open the doors. A parent went to shut them and Grandpa tapped his cheek with his finger, the way he always did when the children didn’t believe one of his stories.
Blackbird cloaked Grandpa until her feathers mixed with his beard. He woke up in her wings higher than the tower of the famous sandcastle all the children had heard about. They watched above the world’s word bubbles, higher than conversation could reach, and in silence, waited for the people to emerge from the garden, step over the sand, and find the water on the opposite edge of the dunes. They waited in the sky and watched lovers embrace, watched children learn new games, and watched wars tear open the garden until the palm trees cut like bayonets and the spring smelled of putrid iron coated in rust. Blackbird’s wings wilted. The rich, deep darkness of her hair spotted, revealing the slender space between her feathers and sallow skin. The world shriveled into a single dune. The sea from the flood dried up and returned the desert to dust, not the glassy sand they celebrated outside of the garden. The tower collapsed and with it, the sky swallowed Grandpa’s conversations with Blackbird, words they shared and the thought bubbles he had held onto for later until he looked up to find a litter of grandchildren smiling with gaps in their teeth and the looks of his children who learned to know better without ever learning a thing. He looked up to a hummingbird who fit in his hand in a world absent of sky. He held the bird, absent of its glimmer, absent of its song, and learned how small the bag that could fit an entire body, including all the conversations they had and wanted to have stuffed inside as cushion.
“Once upon a time,” the children started. The parents continued their whispers in the kitchen, hiding their sobs between words. The children had taken the word balloons after they had run out of the party balloons for Grandpa’s birthday. They took the words they didn’t want to hear, filled them with air making them buoyant and maneuverable. They made rhinoceroses, elephants, wolves, cats, and rabbits. The youngest children ran to open the door. The balloons turned into a parade. They filled the house with dancing animals. The wind whipped the balloons away and the lions roared; the elephants trumpeted. We took the darkest balloon sitting on Grandpa’s empty chair, the one filled with the lost wheezes and wrinkles reminding us of the person we missed the most, a balloon draped in black and filled with the word no one said. We blew extra hard into the word, growing it seven times, warping the edges, and turning it into a blackbird with the fringes crinkled like paper. We took it outside and let the balloon float into the air. We walked inside. Before we shut the door, two blackbirds flew past, higher than the conversation. Sand blew in over the backyard fence. A new tower took shape in the distance. The blackbirds danced across the sky.
The children sat around Grandpa’s empty chair once more. We listened to music the blackbirds made when dancing. We listened as their wings beat against the quiet air. We took a seat on the chair. A dark beard grew, our knees felt weak, we grew and changed, and sat eating our cake.
“Once upon a time,” we said.
New children leaned in closer.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Douglas Weissman is a graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco. He has written a Young Adult series and a New Adult novel released by Epic Press in Fall 2016. He was shortlisted in Glimmer Train’s “Family Matters” writing contest in 2015. He currently works as a travel writer and lives in Los Angeles.
Editor: L. Naisula
Cover Design: Shompole, N.L.