1776

by Rowan Ricardo Phillips

illustrator Guglielmo Castelli

Issue X

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The top of the new tower’s just gone up and I have to try it out, so I descend down slowly onto the tip of its spire. Freedom Tower is half-finished and half-lit under a typically starless and purple New York City sky. It’s around four in the morning and I’ve put my faith in being invisible now among the low iron clouds. No one looks up at the sky at this hour: no inspirations or gods chance the air and the unplugged skyline sits dull and firm. 
     The winds work their way up the panes of glass like fingers on the fretboard of a guitar. Immediately after, nothing seems to happen. But then the spire sways ever so slightly and the infinitesimally small torque of the metal moans. I shift in my seat, turning from the ocean to face uptown. Pure silence. Miles ahead I can see the dark secretive rectangle at the heart of Manhattan. Lights run out from it as though electric arteries and veins. But it shows little sign of life now. Manhattan’s never seemed so empty, so narrow––like the pupil of a dead cat’s eye. Suddenly, a murmuration of starlings shoots up into the air from the darkened treetops, a lithe twittering black cloud that twists up and then to the side and then up again. I’ve seen the sinuous back of a black panther scale the skywall and I felt less afraid then, less alone than I do now as I watch them veer toward Harlem, then toward New Jersey, before bending back over the park and then out into the Atlantic, still surging, still together, past the vast limits of my sight. A bone-old solitude creeps up on me and settles inside my wings.  
     I thought this would be a remarkable moment ... but do I sound remarkable to you? I can say things to you like, This tower was a lancet that drew me out of a cloud or I am a drop of blood from the tip of Heaven’s finger, things I tell myself to feel better about these pointless joyrides. But in the end that’s all that they’ve been. Pointless joyrides. I make nothing happen.
     Especially at 1776 feet in the air. I’ve done 1776 before. And I’ve been higher than that––I’ve been much higher than that. Once I reached the end of the atmosphere, the thinnest upper ether where there’s no perch to rest on. I flew so high that the sky itself ended and the stars turned pink and throbbed. There’s an impossible music in the air at those heights: the faint purring expansion of all things cupped to your ear––the champagne of sound. But there was nothing to do up there either, and eventually I needed either to descend or drown in space. And as I descended I saw for the first time the top of the new tower. I fell uneasily as I approached it, darting in a scratched line like lightning does likely due to the fact that my wings were scorched at the shoulders and smoked by frost at the tips from that unprecedented trip. For the first time that I can remember I flapped like a feral animal, although my mother says that is how I came into the world. 
     Heiliger Dankgesang, I said to myself, trying to remember how its third movement began, still with the music of the void in my head. I was desperate to remember something utterly human, and being how we make art out of time, there’s something desperately human about music. 
     I settled my elbows gently into my ribs, forearms out from my body, and began to wade my hands through the thickening city air, keeping my hands hip-high, slightly twisting them at the wrist, softly back and forth like so, threading my fingers through the night, descending although not seeming to move at all, eighteen-hundred and sixty-eight ... eighteen-hundred and sixty-five ... seventeen-hundred and ninety-one ... seventeen-hundred and eighty-seven feet ... seventeen-hundred and seventy-six feet ... As my feet touched down I put one hand down as well between them to better balance myself and then the other hand. The red light was surprisingly warm to the touch. It made me red all over. I hadn’t thought about the lights––how they would change the view: the vast expanses of city and sky encrimsoned and dark coraled as though the red mist of war had fallen on me. 
     That’s when I launched myself from the spire. It was like unchording the air––as though the air itself is a wrapped gift that you open lovingly, fold after fold and layer after layer until there’s nothing left to unwrap. I try to never take it for granted. I try to remember that at any moment this could all end. But there are people who like to say, I wish I were free, as free as a bird or free as the wind and am I supposed to be here for them, am I supposed to never have felt so free in my life although I have? 
     Freedom, when it doesn’t feel the lyrics, is an unconvincing singer. 
     It’s taken me years to find a safe altitude––high enough to be out of clear sight from the ground, low enough to remain off both the radar’s grid and the path of planes. This is where I can be me, this, whatever I am: this one corridor of New York sky between Governor’s Island, Staten Island, Red Hook, and the Financial District where the sky is thick as a callous. I circle in it like the contents of a Magic 8 ball, coursing between extremes. The first blue aspects of the sky at this hour are unreasonably beautiful––the color of that color in a cube of ice. These twenty minutes of flight, like Yeats’ twenty minutes of feeling blessed and like being able to bless in the embrace of such fleeting happiness although seven seconds in and the traffic has already thickened. Fourteen-feet of wings tucked into the back of a blazer, a strap cinched around my chest, working with you, walking with you. I just try these days to enjoy it, to see what grows from it. So this one isn’t about being born with them; or about the eleven times my parents or I cut them off, only to feel them grow back longer and more resilient to the knife; this one isn’t about the new tower in the invisible shadows of the old towers; this one is about this flight, this one twenty minute flight in the morning nautical twilight. And isn’t that enough? Doesn’t every heart have in it that one nocturnal lover who sleeps like a cereus inside its darkened core and rises like a feral sun feeling for the black horizon?

 

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