Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Man Who Learned To Fly

Mr. Tomšík walked down the street under the Vinohrady hospital. It was his evening constitutional, for Mr. Tomšík was particular about his health and was a rabid sportsman, in that he attended all the league matches. He walked lightly and quickly in the spring twilight, only meeting a pair of lovers here and there, or someone from Strašnice. I should buy a pedometer, he thought, so I know how many steps I have taken in a day. And suddenly he remembered a dream he had three days before: he was walking down the street, but there was a woman with a child's stroller in his way; he pushed off with his left foot lightly and suddenly rose about three meters in the air, flying over the woman with the stroller and gliding back to the ground. This did not startle him at all in his dream; it struck him as very matter-of-fact and unusually pleasant--it only struck him as slightly odd that no one had ever tried it before. It was so easy: one simply had to wave the feet a bit, as though on a bicycle, and Mr. Tomšík again rose upwards, gliding to a second-story height and lightly regaining the ground. It was enough to push off add fly again as effortlessly as streamers around a maypole; he didn't even have to land again, just move his legs like so and fly on. Mr. Tomšík had to laugh out loud in his dream, that no one had gotten the knack of that yet. It was easier and more natural than walking, after all, Mr. Tomšík realized in his dream, I must try it tomorrow when I am awake.

Three days ago he had had that dream, Mr. Tomšík remembered. What a pleasant dream it was; it was so easy--well, it would be wonderful, if one could fly like that, just by pushing off a bit with the foot. Mr. Tomšík looked around. No one was walking behind him. Mr. Tomšík started running a bit just for fun and pushed off with his left foot, as if he were jumping over a muddy puddle. Right then he rose about three meters in the air and flew, flew in an even arc in the air. This did not surprise him at all; it was really quite natural, a little thrilling, like a ride on a carousel. Mr. Tomšík almost shouted in boyish delight, but he was already nearing the ground thirty meters down the road, and he noticed it was muddy there. He waved his legs as he had in his dream, and immediately rose higher and landed lightly and without injury some fifteen meters on, right behind the man who was walking melancholically towards Strašnice. He looked back suspiciously; clearly he did not enjoy having someone behind him whose footsteps he had not heard. Mr. Tomšík went by him as innocently as possible; he was afraid he might push off with too energetic a step and begin to fly once more.

I have to test this out systematically, Mr. Tomšík said to himself, and started returning home the same way he had come, but as though deliberately he met the same lovers and a railwayman. He crossed the street into an empty lot where they had stored ballast years ago; it was already dark, but Mr. Tomšík feared he might not remember how the next day. He pushed off more firmly this time, but he only flew a little over a meter high and had somewhat of a hard landing.

He tried it again, helping out with his arms, as though he were swimming; now he flew a good eighteen meters high, in a neat semi-circle, and landed as neatly as a dragonfly. He was about to try it a third time, but a ray of light fell on him and a hard voice asked: "What's all this, then?" It was a police officer on patrol.

Mr. Tomšík startled terribly and stammered that he was in training. "Look, move along and train somewhere else," the patrolman snapped, "but not here." Mr. Tomšík didn't understand why he could train somewhere else but not there, but he was a loyal man and so wished the patrolman good night and left immediately, full of fear that he would take off again. That might have been suspicious to the police.

Scarcely had he reached the national institute for health than he again jumped into the air, lightly clearing a wire fence and, with the aid of his hands, he flew over the institutional yard right to the other side, to Korunní avenue, where he landed right in front of a waitress carrying a mug of beer. She cried out and took flight. Mr. Tomšík guessed that flight at two hundred meters; it struck him as an excellent start.

In the following days he trained diligently, of course only at night in lonely places, especially in the vicinity of the Jewish cemetery over in Olsany. He tried various methods, for example starting from a sprint or with a dead jump from one spot; playfully, only waving his legs he attained heights above a hundred meters, but could get no higher. He developed further methods of landing; from a gliding touchdown to a slow vertical landing, which depended on the work of the arms; he also learned to control his speed and change direction in the air, to fly against the wind, to fly with cargo, to rise or fall according to necessity and similar things. It was simple and easy; Mr. Tomšík was all the more astounded that people hadn’t realized it yet; perhaps it was that no one before him had simply tried to push off with one foot and fly. Once he remained in the air for the entirety of seventeen minutes, but then he got caught in some telephone wires and gladly landed. One night he tried to fly on Ruská avenue; he was flying maybe four meters high when he spotted two patrolmen underneath him; he turned at once into the garden of a villa while the shocked whistles of the police sounded behind him. He returned on foot a little while later and saw six patrolmen searching the garden with electric torches, supposedly for a thief who had scaled the fence.

Just then Mr. Tomšík realized that flying offered him unprecedented possibilities, but nothing decent occurred to him. One night he caught sight of an open window on the fourth floor on Jiři z Lobkovic square; Mr. Tomšík rose up with a sharp push-off, sat down on the windowsill and was at a loss how to proceed. He heard someone in a firm and deep sleep, so he crawled into the room. Since he had no intention of stealing, he stood there with the same awkward and embarrassed feeling you get in anyone else's apartment. Mr. Tomšík sighed and crawled back out the window, but to leave some trace of his presence and some sort of proof of his athletic feat, he took a piece of paper out of his picket and wrote on it with a pencil: "I was here! The Avenging X." He put that paper on the sleeper's nightstand and quietly descended from the fourth floor. Once he got home he found that the paper had been an envelope addressed to him, but he didn't have the courage to return for it. He was terribly afraid for several days that the police would come investigating, but surprisingly nothing came of it.

After some time Mr. Tomšík felt that he ought not have to practice flying as a secret and private entertainment; but he did not know how to reveal his discovery to the public. It was just so easy; push off with the foot and help out with the arms, and one could fly like a bird. Maybe it would become a new sport; or certainly it could ease the congestion of the streets, if one could walk through the air. And there wouldn't be any need for elevators. It would have quite a large impact; Mr. Tomšík did not know exactly of what sort, but it would clearly take off on its own. Every great discovery starts off as a simple game.

Mr. Tomšík had a neighbor at home, a fat young man named Vojta, and he did something for the newspapers. Yes, he was editor of the sports edition or something. So Mr. Tomšík visited that Mr. Vojta one day, and after much ado finally managed to say he had something interesting to show him. He was so painfully secret about it, that Mr. Vojta thought "My God," or something like that. Nevertheless he started talking and went with Mr. Tomšík to the Jewish cemetery at about nine o'clock in the evening.

"So have a look, Mr. Vojta," Mr. Tomšík said; he pushed off with his foot and rose to a height of five meters. He went through his routine there, landing, taking off again waving his arms, and even stood motionless in mid-air for a good eight seconds. Mr. Vojta got terribly serious and started looking at how Mr. Tomšík was doing it. Mr. Tomšík showed it to him painstakingly: just push off with the foot, and there you are; no, there's nothing spiritual in it, no, no higher power is necessary to do it, or strength of will, or muscular exertion; just jump up and fly. "Just try it yourself," he suggested, but Mr. Vojta shook his head. There must be some special trick to it, he thought distractedly. But I'll find it, he said. And Mr. Tomšík wasn't to show anyone else in the meanwhile.

Later he made Mr. Tomšík fly in front of him with a five-kilogram brick in his hands; it went more poorly and he only got three meters in the air, but Mr. Vojta was satisfied. After the third flight Mr. Vojta said: "Listen, Mr. Tomšík, I don't want to scare you, but this is very serious business. Flying like this under your own power could have a great impact. For example, defending the state, do you understand? It must be dealt with scientifically. You know, Mr. Tomšík, you will have to hand this over to the experts. I will take care of it."

And so it happened that one day Mr. Tomšík stood in boxer shorts before a panel of four men in the courtyard of the national institute for physical education. He was terribly ashamed of his nakedness, had stage fright and shook with cold, but Mr. Vojta had demanded it: were he not in the boxer shorts they couldn't have seen how it was done. One of the men, big and bald, was himself the university professor of physical education; he looked quite contemptuous; one could see from the way he held his nose that he considered the whole thing nonsense from a scientific standpoint. He looked impatiently at his watch and grumbled.

"So, Mr. Tomšík," Mr. Vojta said excitedly, "show us the running start first."

Mr. Tomšík, startled, ran two steps.

"Wait," the expert interrupted him. "You have terrible starting form. You have to put all your weight on your left foot, do you understand? Once more!"

Mr. Tomšík returned and started to put his weight onto his left foot.

"And your arms, sir," the expert instructed him. "You don't know what to do with your arms. You must hold them so to keep your chest loose. And you held your breath when you started running the last time. Once more!"

Mr. Tomšík was confused: he really didn't know what to do with his hands and how to breathe; he proceeded uncertainly, looking to see where his weight was centered.

"Now!" cried Mr. Vojta.

Mr. Tomšík goggled and ran: he was just about to take off when the expert said: "Poorly done! Once again!"

Mr. Tomšík tried to stop, but he couldn't; he weekly pushed off with his left foot and flew maybe a meter in the air; but since he wanted to comply, he aborted his flight and stayed put on the ground.

"Just awful," the expert shouted. "You have to bend! You have to get on the balls of your feet and bend at the knees! And you have to have your arms forward, do you understand? Your arms transfer momentum, sir; it is a natural movement. Wait," the expert said, "I will show you. Watch carefully how I do it." Therewith he took off his coat and got into starting position. "Notice, sir: my weight is on my left foot; nose straight, body inclined forward; I hold my elbows back to expand my chest. Do it like me!"

Mr. Tomšík did it like him; never in his life had he felt so uncomfortably contorted.

"You have to try it," the expert ordered. "And look at me now! I stick my left leg out first--" the expert did so, ran six steps, pushed off, jumped, describing a beautiful arc with his arms; whereupon he landed elegantly, knees bent, arms forward. "That's how it is done," he said, tugging at his pants. "Do it just like I did."

Mr. Tomšík dubiously and unhappily looked at Mr. Vojta. Did it have to be this way?

"Once more," said Mr. Vojta, and Mr. Tomšík contorted himself as he had been instructed. "Now!"

Mr. Tomšík got his legs mixed up; he ran left foot forward. 'It doesn't matter; if I just bend my knees like this and hold my arms in,' he thought carefully as he ran. He almost forgot to jump; he quickly took off--'got to keep my knees bent', he thought. He leapt a half meter hight and landed a meter and a half away. He at once bent his knees and held his arms forward.

"But Mr. Tomšík," cried Mr. Vojta, "you didn't fly! Once more, please!"

Mr. Tomšík began running once more. He only jumped a meter forty, but fell to his knees and threw up his arms. He was soaked in sweat and felt his heart in his throat. God, just let them leave me alone, he thought in defeat.

He tried twice more that day; then they left him alone.

From that day on Mr. Tomšík could no longer fly.

LN 1 May 1938

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