The skywriter fills his tank with gas and points his airplane towards the empty blue sky. The airplane is old—it burps and rattles in the open air—but it is precise and the skywriter’s hands are sure and steady. He pulls a lever. He begins to write in perfect italics.
When I was nine, he starts, my parents bought me a parakeet to keep as a pet. This parakeet lived in a cage, chirping in our living room. I don’t remember now what the parakeet’s name was, or if it ever had one. I don’t remember asking for the parakeet, though surely I must have because why else would it have been there?
I’m telling you this, he writes, because you need to know it. I’m telling you this because it’s important.
The parakeet’s care was my responsibility. It was my job to replace the liners in his cage and keep his little bowls filled with water and seed. When the seed ran out, it was my responsibility to replace it. It wasn’t much responsibility; at nine, I could easily do it.
I never told you this story before because I never wanted to. I only wanted it to dissipate like candle smoke.
The skywriter taps his gauges. The skywriter cracks his neck.
One day, I let the bird out of its cage. I thought it would be fun to have a bird flying around inside of our house. But the bird seemed terrified. It clung to the walls. It was clear that there was nowhere for it to go. It was not easy getting it back into the cage. The bird didn’t trust me. Did I mention that I don’t remember if the bird had a name? We were like strangers to each other.
Are you seeing this?
We ran out of seed and so I crumbled up some crackers and put them in the bird’s little dish. I didn’t feel like going to the store just then, you see. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever made those small concessions to your selfish nature? Just one, and then another? Anyway, the bird didn’t eat the crackers. And anyway, I was only nine years old.
In a couple of days—maybe a week—the bird had starved.
Here’s the thing I want you to know: I only needed someone to tell me that the bird was dying. I only needed one person to say it out loud to make it real. But it was a lesson about responsibility, and so the choice and repercussions were mine.
The cage was removed. I didn’t see it in the garbage—I don’t know where it went. My parents never mentioned it. We didn’t bury the bird; it was as if the bird had never been there at all.
The skywriter thinks a while. He cuts the engine and glides in the silence. Above him are the sun and the dome of the sky; below him is the green of hard ground and his house and the woman who grows flowers. She’s sitting in the place outside where she likes to drink hot water with lemon and a drip of honey. She pinches a leaf of basil and puts her fingers to her nose. She is watching butterflies flit around the blooms on her climber, trying to decide whether or not to look up.
The skywriter chugs the plane back into sputtering life and continues.
What I can’t say now, he writes, is if I am still the boy who needs to hear things said aloud, or that boy now grown who has learned to be the thought itself and to speak it through my body, through my own two hands. Some days I’m the man repeating the mistakes of his parents without being able to see or understand it; other days I’m a man looking through a boy’s eyes, trying to remember, trying to be better, trying to grow as from a cutting.
Other days I think: Look at me. Look at what I’m doing. I find myself aloft in the thin, limitless air trying not to be terrified, trying not to panic, writing names in the sky hoping that someone will look up and read them before the wind blows them all away.
The airplane wheezes with fatigue. The woman who grows flowers holds out one finger for a butterfly to land on and sits quietly, contentedly, perfectly still.
Joe P. Squance is a writer, editor, and teacher. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Fiction Southeast, Cease Cows, Monkeybicycle, Juked, Everyday Fiction, Menacing Hedge, and elsewhere, and he has written essays for Salon, Runner’s World, Organic Life, and Serious Eats. He lives in Oxford, Ohio with his wife and their young daughter.