Tales of the Sky and Sea
by Garrick Sherman
My father was an eccentric man mostly, I think, because he could afford to be. What I mean is, I don’t believe he would have been called eccentric until he became wealthy. Outlandish, perhaps, or (generously) quirky, but the quality of eccentricity seems to have arrived suddenly, wed to his immense, and abrupt, fortune.
His riches were the result – as, I suspect, is often the case with billionaires – of his idiosyncrasies. Money, as you might expect, did not quiet his whimsy. Instead, his visions became both grander and more attainable, and his fantasies began to lose their fantastical station. His most preposterous dreams seemed feasible, should he invest wisely enough.
My fate was a flit of fancy for my father, not the fulfillment of some glorious conception, nor even the first steps along such a path. The same, I suppose, can be said of my very existence. My father never wanted a child. He considered fatherhood an unnecessary diversion, as he explained it to me. He would never admit that his decisions concerning me were at all related to my role as intruder on his work – and, it is true, my father always expressed his love for me without any apparent reservations. Still, I find it difficult to divide his disinterest from my fate.
I was born aboard an airship where I was to live out the next four years of my life. Thanks to ingenious (and unfathomably expensive) design adjustments, we – myself, my mother, and the crew – were able to refuel and resupply in midair by descending slightly to rendezvous with bi-weekly hot air balloons. Sometimes the balloons brought me playmates, and occasionally my father would visit. Mostly, however, I was alone with my mother.
After those four years, we boarded a balloon and descended to an airport where a jet awaited our arrival. We took a two minute drive in a cart to reach the airplane. It was the only time in my life that I set foot upon the ground. I remember only the balloon ride down.
The plane, like the airship, was outfitted to receive both fuel and supplies without landing. I must have crossed the entirety of the planet tens of thousands of times during this period. The effect of my life on the Earth’s environment was certainly stupendous.
I recall that I preferred the airship over the jet, which was very loud and less spacious. It was also during my time aboard the airplane that I became conscious of the oddness of the life my father had assigned me. I began to spend time gazing at the ground sliding below me, wondering about life there. It appeared so peaceful from my vantage point. I imagined the surface as a sort of paradise, and wanted very much to go there.
My father continued to visit from time to time using the same mechanism by which we received supplies. At the completion of one such occasion, as he prepared to board the surface-bound craft, I summoned the courage to ask him whether I could join him so that I might see the ground for a few days. He looked me in the eye and said with solemnity that it was very important that I stay off of the surface. He then departed without offering any explanation, leaving me to ponder his words.
I, of course, wondered often about this ominous assertion. Was the ground so dangerous? And, if so, why could he and so many others live there, while I remained perpetually airborne? Perhaps there was something wrong with me, an immunodeficiency or some similar frailty, that required me to stay confined to the sky. But if that were the case, how did I survive my brief trip to the airport years before?
Before I could come to an adequate conclusion, however, I was ripped once again from my home. Strapped to a parachute and life vest, I watched with curiosity as the door of the aircraft was unsealed. Violent wind, such as I had never imagined, whipped the inside of the cabin. Far below, the vast blue ocean winked up at me. One of the crew jumped first to demonstrate, though I had already been taught and retaught the proper technique.
I felt completely unafraid. I suppose that, having spent my entire life miles above the ground, it hardly occurred to me that anything could go wrong. I stepped gingerly out of the airplane and immediately began to shriek. I had not fully anticipated the sensation that plummeting to the Earth produces in one’s guts.
Only once I had deployed my parachute did I feel safe enough to enjoy the feeling of the wind against my face. I watched with awe as the sea grew larger until, at last, I splashed into the ocean. I released the parachute as I had been instructed, and tried not to swallow too much water. I was exhilarated by the sound, the taste, the smell of the sea. A few minutes later, a small dinghy arrived and its crew pulled me aboard.
After retrieving my mother and the remainder of the crew, the boat ferried us to an unremarkable patch of water. Within the hour a hissing off the port side drew my attention, and there, rising from the sea, emerged a submarine: my new home.
I hated the submarine for its narrow corridors and cramped quarters, but I loved it for the otherworldly sights it offered. Peering into the ocean haze, I would see creatures and landscapes I had never imagined could exist. Coral reefs, schools of fish, sharks, and squid populated the world outside my bedroom. Not since my days aboard the airship had I seen wild animals so close, and then I could only glimpse the occasional flock of birds.
Still, wonderful though the view was, the ship was horrendous. It was trapped in this heinous vehicle that I at last contemplated escape.
It took mere hours to concoct my plan. The submarine surfaced periodically for supplies, and this provided me the perfect opportunity. I considered stowing away within a crate, but remembered the workmen would check each one before unloading it.
Instead, my imagination alighted upon a different means of escape. It was a rash and desperate maneuver that could have killed everyone on board, but I did not consider the ramifications of my actions. When the submarine had surfaced, and the hatch opened, I gathered all my strength and smashed several valves, creating an incredible flooding. As the workmen ran to repair the problem, I exited the ship and boarded the supply boat, where I hid beneath a tarp.
Alas, my reckless plan accomplished little beyond endangering my mother and the crew. As any prudent caretakers would do, after repairing the broken equipment, the workmen searched every cranny aboard the submarine, seeking me. Once or twice I could hear the echo of a call as someone passed by the open hatch, but I cowered under my tarp and hoped they would leave me for drowned.
Of course, the men were more thorough than that. Within a few hours, I was discovered aboard the supply boat and returned to the submarine. A guard was placed at the hatch, and I was confined to my room, which my mother called being “grounded” – a term I found ironic.
My father came directly to see me afterward. He talked with me, explaining how dangerous my actions had been. He asked me why I felt it so important to see the land.
“Wouldn’t you wonder?” I asked him. He considered this.
“Perhaps, yes,” he said, “but I would count myself lucky: the first person to live his entire life in the sky and the sea!” He smiled. “You don’t find that exciting?”
I shook my head. “The ground is exciting. The ground is where the people are, and the cities.” I gestured to the walls of the submarine. “Here there’s nothing but water and in the sky there’s nothing but clouds. I want to go climb mountains and see buildings and trees!”
“I suppose,” he said after much thought, “that you wouldn’t understand, having never lived on land.”
“Understand what?” I asked him, but he was lost in contemplation.
At last, he said, “I’ll take you to see the shore.” I cried out and hugged him. “After you are no longer grounded,” he qualified. I was disappointed at the addendum, but mostly I was filled with an excited energy such as I’d never felt before. Soon enough I would walk on solid ground in open air! My father departed, promising to retrieve me once I was free.
His helicopter crashed into the ocean on the way toward land. His body was never recovered.
My first thoughts were of grief, not for my father’s death, but for the idea that I might not ever depart this loathsome ship now that he was gone. With joy, however, I learned that my bereaved mother intended to move us to land within a month! My high spirits returned and, disregarding the tragedy of my father’s passing, I ran through the halls, delighted at the future.
The day finally came, and we surfaced outside of a major metropolis. A boat took us to the harbor, and with immense pleasure I stepped, for the first time in fifteen years, onto cement. I stared, amazed, at everything around me – the grass, the trees, the cars, and, most of all, the people. So many people! I felt the warmth of the sun, and I laughed with bliss.
My first want was to investigate the city and see the skyscrapers from below and see the shops and watch the people. My mother, who was also relieved to set foot upon land once again, agreed to take me out exploring. With awe I witnessed monstrous buildings, and I delighted in the various businesses: supermarkets and restaurants, clothing stores and watch shops, toy stores and barbershops. I was dumbfounded at the sheer volume of food and other items for sale, and I constantly pointed out humdrum articles to my mother, who nodded and smiled.
Yet, watching the people inhabiting this paradise, I noticed in them an utter lack of appreciation. With downcast faces and unfocused eyes did they peruse the wares; with blank expressions did they walk the streets; apparently, they did not notice the skyscrapers or trees at all. I felt shocked at their banal attitudes toward their miraculous lives. Did they not realize what splendor they inhabited?
Soon enough, my consternation gave way to revulsion. I demanded that we leave the city and move into nature, and away from people. After several arguments, my mother agreed to send me to the woods for three weeks to witness nature firsthand.
And there, too, I was horrified to find humans, jaded by the abundance of wilderness, chopping trees, digging mines, and killing animals for sport. I returned to the city disheartened.
I spent years living in subdued wonder at this metropolis. I learned how urban society functioned, and even came to appreciate some of its traditions. Still, I turned much of my time toward planning for a permanent departure. My mother and I shared my father’s fortune, and I knew how I would spend my piece.
Two years ago, early one summer morning, I kissed my mother goodbye and boarded a rocket, bound for Earth’s orbit, where a private space station was already in place. The launch was rocky, and I felt myself pulled forcefully deeper into my seat. I imagined the ground attempting to hold me down, but the rocket, built with my father’s money, defied the earth. I left the planet.
I remember, as a boy, looking out from the airplane and thinking the surface seemed so peaceful and beautiful. From here, fifteen thousand miles above the Earth, it appears even more sublime, and I spend much of my time gazing down at the surface.