Fiction October 2003

Ghost-Birds

What we think is a gesture of freedom is a symptom of our cage
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Then the city enters another torpid and simmering May. Parents grimace while pulling their kids through the Museum of Westward Expansion, and barges moan down the Mississippi. Something erupted at the Dowling Industrial factory, and the gases are making our sunsets plum and plutonium orange.

I work from eleven at night until six in the morning. The park is deserted, and I keep watch from a small window in a wall of steel 630 feet above the ground. Ninety acres of grass and trees below, bridges over the river to the east, and the lights of St. Louis to the west. I patrol under purple sky (you can't see stars this month), and after surveying the grounds with my official National Park Service binoculars, I squeeze out my window and drop off the top of the St. Louis arch.

I use a Perigee II, a Velcro-closed, single-parachute container made by Consolidated Rigging. It holds an Ace 240-square-foot canopy, and my gear is black: helmet, knee and elbow pads, scarf for my nose and mouth. My goggles, however, are the blue glass of fourth-generation night-vision. The arch, made of Pittsburgh steel, is called the Gateway to the West, and when my leg hangs out the window and high winds break on my face, I can stare down at the dark forest or turn to a far window beyond which St. Louis smolders. In that moment I feel I might be straddling the sleeping intersection of a country's dreams. Gichin Funakoshi tells us that all truth is contained in dreams.

Wind explodes so hard and loud I might be disintegrating. Three seconds of free fall, about twenty more guiding the canopy down. Sometimes I spiral in descent, like water going down a drain.

The Museum of Westward Expansion, at the base of the arch, has the dimensions of a football field. In its lobby I keep a gear bag and a ranger uniform; I hustle in after a jump and emerge moments later as Ethan Landry, park ranger. Those times I depend on the quiet darkness to remind me that the park is closed, and I am alone.

The stairs to the top ascend in darkness, and I climb them two at a time.

A radio plays music, and I listen to breaks in static on the black call box. Hours crawl toward morning. Since I don't drink anymore, I break up the tedium by reading stuff like The Book of Five Rings; Hagakure: Way of the Samurai; The Tao Te Ching. I enjoy the writings of Black Elk and some of Emerson's essays, but the Eastern mind seems a lot clearer to me. Clarity, I think, is the chief thing. Find a road and walk it.

Which as much as anything explains my jumps. The literal definition of base jump is to parachute off a stationary object (building, antenna, span, or earth), but for me it means narrowing your senses and joining the void. The great samurai Miyamoto Musashi says it is necessary to lose the self and become one with Mu, the emptiness at the heart of existence to which everything returns. Thus the warrior finds life in death. That's tougher than it sounds, and I've come close only once. Three years ago, kayaking on the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas, I overturned and kicked loose. I smacked into a rock and the kayak shot at me, broke my ankle, whipped around and knocked out a molar and vanished downstream. Pounded by waves, swallowing water and nearly blind from pain, I clung to the rock, knowing that if I got washed away, I was gone. On the bank of the river I noticed a squirrel staring at me. It cocked its head, as if asking what I thought I was doing, and spiraled up a tree, where I lost it in the branches. I remember a sense of calm, stillness, and thinking, This is my death. Interesting.

That moment was a glimpse of the true universe, a galactic procession that marched on without me. What Dogen calls "The Ten Thousand Things." My ankle healed, but kayaking lacked something after that, and I discovered skydiving, which led to base jumping. I started kayaking in the first place because one of the basics they tell you in rehab is that if you're going to stay sober, you have to get physically active.

But if none of that makes much sense, let's just say that with the hours I keep, my main relationship is with gravity, and we're intimate every moonless night around 3:00 a.m.

And we're in May. The skies are hued amethyst and green and, as I said, I can see no stars. At night the woods take on a flatness and seem to stretch out in a single plain, like the overgrown grazing fields on the farm where I grew up. The two spotlights at the bottom of the arch aren't a problem—I fall between them. Though there's no moon tonight, I'm a little wary of the illumination the strange sky creates. BASE jumping is effectively illegal in the United States. Many jumpers take falls in national parks, and park rangers are their traditional nemeses. The irony of my life is so obvious that I don't even think it's irony.

Before I jump, I check the park with my binoculars: clipped grass, patches of pine and broadleaf poplars, concrete walkways converging at the Old Courthouse, to the west. A gleam—behind a tree I spot a shining flash. I zoom in and see at least two people huddled in the shadows. I'm about to call it in on the radio, but then I see what was gleaming: glass lenses. One of them is looking up at the arch with binoculars. Three o'clock has brought something new tonight; I shed my rigging and become a park ranger.

The elevator chugs me down, and I creep between trees and crouch behind tall shrubs. I find three people—a girl and two boys. They're pretty young, and I remind myself to take it easy on them. At twenty-eight I can still remember the thrill of sneaking around at night. I once had a girlfriend who loved exploring forbidden places. Our nerves humming along on whatever we copped, Mabel would lead me through dark spaces crammed with steam pipes and no-trespassing signs, up staircases to rooftops that ended in a kiss. I hold off on my flashlight and move closer, because I can hear voices and I want to know what they're saying.

A burly kid with fat cheeks and glasses is speaking to a thinner boy in a baseball cap and a trenchcoat.

The girl, who has the binoculars, lowers them and interrupts the boys: "I think I saw a ranger up there."

Then a human moan breaches the air. I look around and see outcroppings of shadow everywhere. Beyond this grove people dot the park, at least a dozen of them. A girl and a boy are lying on their backs, the girl pointing to the sky. Another couple, making out against a pine tree, explains the moan I heard. I've stumbled on some dream of youth and lust. For vague reasons this angers me—these young people intruding on my sacred and necessary moment.

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