by Dora Knez
from the chapbook Five Forbidden Things
Malfi arrived in the middle toilet stall of the men’s room. The Saurians had chosen it as the best way of concealing him initially, though it was not ideal. But he was lucky: the only other man there was locked into a cubicle of his own. Malfi had plenty of time to check his appearance in the mirror and make sure he had the beeper and the ticket mock-up before entering the airport proper.
The last thing he expected was that the terminal building would seem so ordinary. He looked around unabashedly, figuring that jet travel was still new enough that plenty of people would be as wide-eyed about it as he.
The ceiling was about twenty feet up, the floors were terrazzo, and there were rows of fat columns dressed with narrow ceramic tiles. The airline counters were in a long row in front of him, but at either end there were corridors at right angles, in which he could see shops full of multicolored boxes and bottles: odd electronics, liquor, jewellery and tobacco.
Just like any terminal building, thought Malfi. Lots of open space with a bit of echo. Not the best thing for sound effects, though of course if it were packed with an audience the resonance values would be different. Then he shook his head. This was his standard travel fantasy: checking out the space to see how he would mount a performance in it.
No more, thought Malfi, and quickly took a deep breath to ease the tight feeling in his chest. Never mind, he told himself. He was here, and that was an adventure greater than any he had ever undertaken before or ever would again. Malfi fingered the paper and wax arrangement in his pocket and moved toward the airline counter.
* * *
The house in which Roberto Malfi had grown up was near Kennedy Airport, and he had always watched the planes. He was just old enough to remember the early jets with their smooth rounded noses and pod-like engines under the swept-back wings. He had learned them by their shapes and by their names: the elegant Boeing 707, the tall 747, the DC8s and DC-10s from Douglas, the Pratt & Whitney engines and the engines from Rolls-Royce.
Malfi did not know why he watched the planes. They were beautiful, but when he watched them he felt like crying. Distance, they said to him. Adventure, they said. Loneliness, they cried, and sometimes, rarely, paradoxically, they sighed, Home.
* * *
There were a few people ahead of him, and he waited patiently in line. He was dressed like them in a sober-coloured suit made of wool. He had chosen not to wear a hat, but many of the men he could see wore them, or carried them in one hand. The women wore hats too, but theirs were smaller and brightly coloured, and had either small brims or none at all. Malfi had seen clothes like this in old family photographs and news films, but seeing it for real was different. He allowed himself to think of them as costumes for a moment and imagined a slow and graceful pavane in which the sober-suited males and brightly-coloured females wove intricate patterns around each other in the wide space of the terminal area.
“Travelling to New York, sir?”
The woman’s voice cut through his distraction and he extracted his ticket from his pocket and offered it. He hoped it would work.
The woman examined it. Malfi thought she might be wearing some kind of military uniform, a dark blue coat with padded shoulders and bright metal buttons arranged in strict symmetry upon her hourglass shape. She was also wearing a hat, small and brimless and austere, but she smiled at him.
“No luggage, sir?”
“Er. No. Just my bag.” He lifted his portable, not much longer than his hand, in which the beeper rested snugly. He would take it on the plane with him.
The woman tore several leaves from his ticket. His most precious prop! Malfi started to reach to retrieve it, but stopped himself before she could see. She offered him another piece of paper along with the remains of his ticket.
“Your boarding card, sir. Boarding will begin in forty minutes. Until then, we would be happy to welcome you in our flight lounge on the second floor. Drinks are free, compliments of the airline.”
“Er. Thank you.” Very polite, thought Malfi. He would go up to the lounge. Maybe he would be able to see the planes from there.
* * *
Roberto Malfi took flying lessons when he was eighteen. It was an innocent excitement, and it fed several of his burgeoning passions all at once. There was the satisfying ritual of the pre- flight checklist, the knowledge of the machine. Malfi admired the dovetailing of the systems that kept the engine running, cooled by air flow until there was danger of ice in the carburetor venturi, which was to be fended off by a timely blast of carb heat. Malfi always knew when: his feeling for the machine was effortlessly accurate.
Then there was the sheer physical pleasure of it. There might be cross-winds trying to turn the plane’s nose or turbulence trying to tip its wings. Malfi answered these rudenesses with an instinctive foot on a rudder pedal or a precise hand on the control column. It was easy for him. It was like dancing, which he was also good at, only much more vertical than dancing could be.
But most of all, there was the peace. Those early flying lessons were the first time that Malfi could remember being free of the terrible longing. Flying soothed some part of him that had ached so long and so hard that he had grown used to the ache, as to a damaged limb that he could neither heal nor amputate. Later he found other ways to soothe the longing, when he began to put some of the shapes in his head into the dance arena for the people.
* * *
In the lounge there were a great many people drinking and smoking cigarettes and talking. Some of them, like Malfi, looked out of the glass wall at the airplanes, but most of them seemed preternaturally blasé. After a few minutes he no longer watched the people, counting instead the airplanes as they landed and took off. By his standards, there were few of them and their spacing was generous. Nevertheless, he was entranced. He was a child again, watching the beautiful sleek machines alighting on or parting from the runways with apparent careless ease.
* * *
There had been a choreograph he had done off-world, when the aliens had first invited him to tour. He had hired several dozen local high-speed flyers and programmed an intricate three- dimensional dance for them. He’d had the flyers drop giant floating holograms, which opened in the green molten sunset sky like flowers that were also faces. With the flyers weaving around them, the faces bloomed from unconsciousness to curiosity, from there to joy, through triumph to awareness of mortality to grief and sadness and finally acceptance, when each hologram was recaptured by a flyer and brought gently to the ground. The H’orotny, who passed through a joyous flighted adolescence before adulthood grounded them, were favourably impressed.
The call to board came too soon for Malfi. He sighed, looking over his shoulder at the big machines. They were almost like sentient creatures, and he felt inclined to call a farewell to them. But he hefted his portable obediently and followed other passengers toward his boarding gate.
* * *
Ordinary airplane travel was no longer a magical thing by the time Malfi reached his early twenties. The planes were larger, but there seemed to be less room in them. Travellers were expected to sit like dummies, legs bent at the knee and feet flat on the ground, arms at the sides and eyes and ears plugged with whatever film or television entertainment was currently judged amusing. By this time Malfi was spending all his cash on hobby-shop electronics and artists’ supplies, and there was certainly none left over for luxuries like flying lessons or air tickets.
* * *
Malfi took his place and looked about him in deep satisfaction. There were only five seats across the width of the 707, and they were wide and comfortably upholstered. He had a window to himself, and in fact as far as he could see, every row of seats had its own.
There were more of the uniformed women moving up and down the aisle, hanging up people’s coats and stowing hand luggage. One of them offered to take his portable, but he shook his head. She smiled and asked him to put it on the floor under the seat in front, which he did.
Malfi leaned his head against the window, observing the airport, looking for other planes, watching luggage carts trundling their bulky way to and from the terminal building. He took a deep breath, tasting the cool stale air that blew from a pointed mobile nipple set in the bulkhead above his seat. He could not repress a smile of pure excitement.
* * *
Malfi was twenty-five when he became known in avant-garde circles. His first public performance was in a university gym with the gymnastics rings and ropes rearranged in a precise pattern throughout the space. He had also put three or four springboards in strategic places. His sound system was a large cassette player with a tape he had mixed himself: the hooting calls of howler monkeys and hoarse squawk of parrots, set against a poetry reading rendered mostly incomprehensible by distortion, and various music he thought sounded primitive. He called the piece “Return to the Trees,” and he performed it in near-darkness punctuated by a dozen carefully placed lights that flashed or glowed according to a very particular plan.
His viewers were confused but excited. Was this dance or was it gymnastics? What did he mean, “Return to the Trees?” And what were those words on the soundtrack? As it happened, there was a professional dance critic in the audience who was very impressed with Malfi’s “use of vertical space” and his “intense energy,” and said so in his paper. There was a flurry of interest and support for Malfi among the alternative art set.
Malfi neither welcomed nor repudiated this interest. He had a profound drive to create, and little else mattered. Those who got to know him described him as a loner, or as lonely, depending on their degree of sympathy. He never told anyone about the aching feeling that was still with him, that made him feel unable to rest. He knew he was struggling to say something very specific, but he did not yet know what that was. He sometimes marvelled that no one else in the world seemed to share his feeling about the insufficiency of things in general. Movement soothed him, but not for very long at a time.
* * *
Malfi watched the woman explain seat-belts and flotation cushions. His heart lurched for a moment, but he took another deep breath and concentrated on her words. She said that they would be flying at a height of 35,000 feet — well above storm systems, so they would have a smooth ride — and a ground speed of 590 miles per hour. The trip from LA to New York would take only four hours. Malfi knew that this was fast. With its four Pratt & Whitney engines, the 707 was, for a time at least, the undisputed ruler of the skies. Malfi could hardly wait to get up there.
* * *
Malfi had done two more pieces very soon after that initial performance. The first was called “Moon-man,” and it involved a scratchy bodysuit that was wired for light, nine moveable lights he called glow-globes which were manoeuvred with almost-military precision by nine accomplices with radio control units, and another self-mixed soundtrack played this time over a real sound system. Viewers talked about the deep loneliness of the piece and said that they thought it approached expression of the fundamental mystery of human consciousness.
“The Mud-People,” Malfi’s third piece, was also his first ensemble piece. He built five huge masks out of papier mache and choreographed a dance in which they were used alternately as furniture for the dancers to move around (or over, or upon) and as costumes. He combined this with sophisticated light changes that made the background seem, variously, a jungle, an ocean, or a barren moonscape. The masks were something like Easter Island heads and something like nothing anybody recognized. Critics, who were by now beginning to take notice, talked about Malfi’s “paradoxically technological primitivism” and “innovative vitality.”
* * *
Malfi closed his eyes as the plane took off, not because he was afraid but because he wanted to concentrate on the powerful push in the chest that the plane was exerting, as if it was rising into the air by leaning on him. He wanted to enjoy all the aspects of this flight.
* * *
When the aliens came, Malfi was just mounting a new dance which he called “Odysseus.” Like everyone else he watched the news videos, but unlike most people, he felt a deep satisfaction. The constant ache he lived with, which was only soothed by movement in the unexpected directions of his art, and his sense of unbelonging were both vindicated.
Most people felt differently. There was violence and there were strange new religions and there was a rash of suicides. The aliens were lizardly, foul, even evil, public opinion screamed. Indeed, the Saurians, eight feet tall and equipped with aggressive-looking claws and teeth, were more nightmare than dream. Their diffident voices and polite salutations were not even heard above the hysteria caused by the fact of their arrival and their fierce appearance.
Malfi blew his budget on stage sets and created something like a dark nebula shot through with curving lights. He accomplished this effect with lasers and a lot of very tiny and very sophisticated mirrors. Then he dressed himself in a dark costume that reflected light only at certain very specific angles, and danced with all his ingenuity, as if truly freed for the first time.
Critics praised the dance in terms that were ridiculously profound. Malfi was hailed as a prophet, a revolutionary, saying things about humanity that humanity needed to know now. People flocked to see “Odysseus” and left feeling that the universe was a strange place but maybe they had a place in it.
Malfi followed up with “Reptile Rag,” a lighthearted piece that somehow convinced the world that lizards were not, after all, so bad. The oddest thing of all seemed to be that his performances caught on with the Saurians themselves. They attended and they praised. They suggested cultural exchange.
* * *
Malfi opened his eyes again and looked with interest at the ground that he was deserting. He had seen this perspective many times in many different kinds of craft, but he always enjoyed it. Travel, movement, adventure, movement, fascinated Malfi under any circumstance. He had always been seeking; sometimes maybe even finding. Since he had begun to travel to the stars in alien company, his aching feelings had quieted, but had not disappeared.
* * *
Malfi became a pop-culture as well as a high-brow success. His critics called him another Shakespeare, another Stravinsky, another Einstein. Malfi did not even try to make sense of that. He kept working. His sense of terrible longing was no longer as intense as it had been, but this relief only seemed to give him new creative energy, as well as a lighter tone that had previously been absent from his work.
* * *
The ground had disappeared below the clouds when Malfi looked around the cabin again. People were taking off their seat belts, lighting up cigarettes, ordering drinks and generally relaxing. Malfi allowed himself to think about the beeper in his portable. It was what the Saurians called a simple beacon, but he did not know how it worked. The idea was that it would activate itself on impact and begin broadcasting a signal that the Saurians would detect, and they would know their experiment had worked. Malfi did not know what kind of signal that would be, though he assumed it was a radio beacon of some sort. In that he was wrong.
* * *
Malfi enjoyed a long and consistent success. He knew how unusual that was, and he was grateful to the Fates. Somehow this made it easier when he heard the diagnosis. His disease was something new and did not have a name. It was doing something to his brain, maybe robbing him of one or another neurotransmitter. He did not know about the mechanism and he did not care, because it took away the one thing he had relied on all his life: his sense of three-dimensional space. The fact that he would die of it, and relatively soon, hardly affected Malfi beside the despair of knowing that he was losing his art.
The Saurians had been sympathetic. They valued Malfi both for his art and for the influence his art had had in helping humanity accept the aliens. Non-human, they agreed to help him live out one final aspect of his fascination with movement before his life ended.
He had picked this particular flight for a particular reason. The Boeing 707 was a safe airplane. But this particular flight was not. On its approach to Idlewild Airport in New York in 1961, there was a series of events starting with a sea gull getting sucked into one of the jet engines. Compounded by pilot error, this accident brought the plane down. Malfi had made sure his seat was on the side that was crushed beyond hope by the impact.
The Saurians had asked Malfi to do only one thing for them in return: carry the beeper. If it were activated, they would know that their experiment in time travel had been successful.
* * *
Malfi did not worry about the beeper. He flew with the beautiful machine into the darkness of the east and thought about the wind on its rudder and the laminar air-flow over the wings, about the beauty of the swept-wing design and the tidy power of the jet engines that had conquered distance.
What Malfi did not suspect was the nature of the beeper’s homing signal, which was not based on radio. The Saurians, worried about changing the time stream, had searched for a signal that humans would not detect. Radio was out of bounds for that reason, as was most of the electromagnetic spectrum. But there was a mechanism that would serve their purpose.
Activated by the impact of the crash, the beacon called out its psionic message: “I am here, far away, find me.” The crash buried the beeper in the ground a few miles short of Idlewild Airport, which was later to be called Kennedy.
The beeper didn’t care about being buried. It was built to last. It kept calling out its message to the beings from the future and the stars. Nobody realized that a few years later there would be a housing development practically on top of the beacon. Nobody guessed that there would be a child who would hear the call, understand it without knowing, weave it into his own talent until there was no distinguishing one from the other. Nobody ever figured out the reason for Malfi’s terrible longing.
from the chapbook Five Forbidden Things
…a collection of 5 stories and 3 poems
October 2000 $4.00
Originally published in Lady Churchill”s Rosebud Wristlet in 1998.