She is too young to understand the sky.
The sky does not understand her, either. Although, to be fair, in its vastness, it does not ignore her earthbound fascination, her yearning; it is simply too big and important to care that she exists. It has long forgotten what it is to be young, to tip your face upward and wonder.
She flicks through the images that chart her altitude, the earliest of which are snapshots lovingly fixed into photo albums by her parents like a collection of pinned butterflies. Memories flutter as she turns the pages. A pretty toddler whose wings were only tiny buds, barely visible even through the insubstantial fabric of a summer dress. She recalls that she had liked that dress, candyfloss pink dusted with daisies. She remembers pulling off her shoes without undoing the buckles and removing white lace-trimmed ankle socks so that she could feel the bright grass tickle her toes, heedless of the faint streamers of high-strung cloud still miles above her head.
The pages turn. A smiling girl has forsaken summer dresses in favour of denim and glitter. She is captured lying on a baize lawn with a fledgling friend, pointing up at the parade of fantastical white forms shape-shifting across the infinite blue. Neither of them has any idea that the sky is busy with invisible pressures and brewing storms.
When she is a little older, she will sit in the treetops with the other adolescents and flaunt her beautiful wings, even though they are not quite strong enough yet to bear her weight. Almost, but not quite. She will test them when no one is looking, as impatient as all the others. She will preen and pose and submit to the usual lies of push-up bras and acrylic nails; she will go out made-up, a fiction of her true self, trying to convince herself as much as anyone else that she belongs in the sky. In her determination to rebel, she will end up conforming entirely. Like those who flew before her, she will don the same old disguises and sell ambiguity, making it harder for the circling birds of prey to tell whether or not she is old enough to leave the earth. She will sense that she is playing with fire but she will be intoxicated by the game to the point where she cannot distinguish between fear and excitement. A small voice in her head will whisper tiny prayers that she won’t get burned too badly, although an even smaller voice will confess a desire to burn. And when she first moves closer to the sun, before she gets used to the heat of its fire on her flesh, she will wonder fleetingly about scars.
The long-awaited moment when she finally takes flight will be something of an anti-climax. On an achingly blue day she will simply lift her feet.
The boundless freedom that she spent her years on the ground anticipating will be as thrilling as she’d hoped it would be, at least at first, and she will soar, limitless. She will spread her wings and revel in the power of where they might take her. Even then, when she begins to know what it means to wheel and dive in the wide, wide sky, there will be a surprising twinge of sorrow; an intangible shadow of loss will flicker briefly for something she will never recapture and does not yet know she will miss.
All the flying lessons will have been of some use but ultimately she will do most of her true learning once she is aloft and mistakes have more meaning. And there will be unexpected realities, things nobody taught her, knowledge that would have been infinitely more useful than Pythagoras and Shakespeare. She will discover that the clouds, which appeared so attractively ephemeral from below, are towering responsibilities when you are up among them, disorienting, merging, growing. Some of them, looming with rain, will engulf her completely for a while and she will be glad to glimpse the ground again when she emerges greyer and more ragged on the other side. Her innocent fearlessness will be tempered by the thunder of conflicts and the lightning of pain.
And she will wonder why it never occurred to anyone to point out that, once she had spread her wings, there would be no going back. Oh, she can alight in the treetops occasionally for a brief respite and a taste of the world she so eagerly left behind but otherwise, like a swift, she must learn to do everything while she is flying.
She knows that one day she will understand the sky. What she cannot imagine is that she will grow nostalgic for daisy chains, for grass beneath bare feet, for earthbound things. She will not miss the gravity of youth until it is distant beneath her weary wings and out of reach.
Niki Baker is practically nocturnal, enjoying the world best when the stars are out and most of the people are in. She has received recognition for numerous short stories, poems and travel articles, and her first full-length novel is due to be published in 2020. Find her on Twitter at @NRBakerWriter