“...American Novelist...” by Julie Phillips
Co-winner of the Endeavor Award
The Times Literary Supplement
"In its vision of an unbendingly fundamentalist State which, convinced of the rightness of its own dogma, persecutes questioners and dissenters, The Telling is a prescient book."
She went regularly to exercise with Iziezi now, often staying on to watch Akidan and other adolescents and young people do "two-one," an athletic form performed in pairs, with spectacular feints and falls. Odiedin Manma, the teller of the strange story about the man who dreamed he could fly, was much admired by these young people, and some of them had first taken Sutty to his class. He taught an austere, very beautiful form of exercise-meditation. He had invited her to join his group.
They met in an old warehouse down by the river, a less safe place than the umyazu-turned-gymnasium she went to with Iziezi, where legitimate health-manual gymnastics did take place and served as cover for the illegal ones. The warehouse was lighted only by dirty slit-windows high up under the eaves. Nobody spoke above the barest whisper. There was no hocus-pocus about Odiedin, but Sutty found the class, the silent, slow movements in darkness, hauntingly strange, sometimes disturbing; it had entered into her dreams.
A man sitting near Sutty this morning stared at her as she took her place on the mat. While the group went through the first part of the form, he kept staring, winking, gesturing, grinning at her. Nobody behaved like that. She was annoyed and embarrassed until, during a long-held pose, she got a look at the man and realized that he was half-witted.
When the group began a set of movements she wasnt yet familiar with, she watched and followed along as best she could. Her mistakes and omissions upset her neighbor. He kept trying to show her when and how to move, pantomiming, exaggerating gestures. When they stood up, she stayed sitting, which was always permissible, but this distressed the poor fellow very much. He gestured, up! up! He mouthed the word, and pointed upward. Finally, whispering, "Up -- like this -- see?" he took a step up onto the air. He brought the other foot up on the invisible stair, and then climbed another step up the same way. He was standing barefoot half a meter above the floor, looking down at her, smiling anxiously and gesturing for her to join him. He was standing on the air.
Odiedin, a lithe, trim man of fifty with a scrap of blue cloth around his neck, came to him. All the others kept on steadily with the complex, swaying kelp-forest patterns. Odiedin murmured, "Come down, Uki." Reaching up, he took the man's hand and led him down two nonexistent steps to the floor, patted his shoulder gently, and moved on. Uki joined in the pattern, swaying and turning with flawless grace and power. He had evidently forgotten Sutty.
She could not bring herself to ask Odiedin any questions after the class. What would she ask? "Did you see what I saw? Did I?" That would be stupid. It couldn't have happened, and so he'd no doubt merely answer her question with a question.
Or perhaps the reason she didn't ask was that she was afraid he would simply answer "Yes."
If a mime can make air into a box, if a fakir can climb a rope tied to air, maybe a poor fool can make air into a step. If spiritual strength can move mountains, maybe it can make stairs. Trance state. Hypnotic or hypnogogic suggestion.
She described the occurrence briefly in her daily notes, without comment. As she spoke into her noter, she became quite sure that there had in fact been some kind of step there that she hadn't seen in the dim light, a block, a box perhaps, painted black. Of course there had been something there. She paused, but did not say anything more. She could see the block or box, now. But she had not seen it.
But often in her mind's eye she saw those two callused, muscular, bare feet stepping up the absent mountain. She wondered what the air felt like on the soles of your feet when you walked on it. Cool? Resilient?
After that she made herself pay more attention to the old texts and tales that talked about walking on the wind, riding on clouds, traveling to the stars, destroying distant enemies with thunderbolts. Such feats were always ascribed to heroes and wise maz far away and long ago, even though a good many of them had been made commonplace fact by modern technologies. She still thought they were mythic, metaphoric, not meant to be taken literally. She arrived at no explanation.
But her attitude had been changed. She knew now that she'd still missed the point, a misunderstanding so gross and total that she couldn't see it.
A telling is not an explaining.