BOHIDEUS: CHAPTER VIII

IF BIRDS CAN FLY...

By Warren Scott Foster

Illustrated by Adrienne Potter  

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"Oh, well. It's now or never," Bo shrugged. He began to climb. The cliff was mostly smooth, solid granite, although in places it was made of other kinds of rock. In some parts it was solid black and glassy, like obsidian, and reflected like a mirror. It was not an easy climb, but there were many cracks and ledges that could be used for finger and footholds. Sometimes Bo would start up one route only to find it dead end, and he would have to retrace his route and find another way. It was slow, difficult, and dangerous. There would be no lucky escapes if he fell here. Neither was it like climbing a tree, with branches and vines to hold onto. And he couldn't dig his knife into solid rock as he could the bark of the trees. It was difficult to find a place to rest without fear of falling. And it was impossible to find a place to sleep.

          Bo had difficulty keeping track of the days in the continuous daylight of Schmeeky 2. By the time he had climbed about five of Schmoe's miles, Bo knew that several days must have passed. He had no sleep, and only the meager food and water he was able to carry. These had long since run out. Bo's eyes seemed heavy and he had to strain to keep them open. Several times he began to doze, barely catching himself before losing his grip on the rocks. There were no giant trees below to catch him here. A fall would mean certain death.

          Bo's head ached with sleepiness. His muscles were exhausted, and began shaking with spasms, or at other times tighten with cramps. At last he found a large crack in the wall with small shrubs growing out of it. Wedging himself between the rock and the branches of the shrubs, he finally found a position where he could let go and relax. Instantly he fell asleep.

          Bo figured later that he had slept for at least two days. He was awakened by water splashing in his face. A little rain had fallen, but by the time he awoke, it had mostly stopped. His muscles felt much better from the rest, but he was starving, and his mouth was as dry as cotton. A thunderstorm was approaching, and soon it began to rain hard. The wind blew the pellets of water against the cliff, which began to run in steady streams down the face of it. Bo gratefully lapped water off the rocks with his tongue, quickly satisfying his terrible thirst.

The storm grew worse. There was no shelter from it here, and in moments he was drenched with rain. Fortunately it wasn't cold, but the wind against his wet body made him shiver. Lightning shattered the darkness of the clouds, and the thunder was deafening. The wind howled fiercely, struggling in all its fury to sweep Bo off his perch. Thick, dark clouds were above and below. He couldn't see up, and below it looked like a great fluffy mattress inviting him to jump onto it. Bo knew it was a deadly illusion, and clung fast to the branches.

          Lightning struck around him in rapid blinding flashes. Thunder bellowed while the wind screamed relentlessly, and a great torrent of rain threatened to wash him from the cliff. Strangely, the wind was blowing upward. It seemed to have blown against the cliff so long that it had no where else to go, and was blowing straight up! Soon even the rain was falling up instead of down!

          Bo howled into the wind. He was tired, hungry, and homesick. All the world seemed to have combined against him. Right now all his world was one small spot on a sheer, vertical wall surrounded by dark, swirling clouds. In this crazy world did rain fall up instead of down? Or had he turned things upside down in his sleep? Which way was up? No, gravity was very definitely trying to pull him down. In fact, it was trying a little too hard, and he tightened his grip on the rocks. And the water on the cliff was still running down. Still, it was raining up! What on Schmeeky was going on? Bo was too confused to think. He burrowed himself deeper into the cleft and slept.

          Bo slept so long this time that everything which had happened before seemed a dream. Home was a faint dream of long ago. The jungle was a more recent one. Maybe he had always been here. This was all there is or ever would be. He was doomed to perch on this sideways world, clinging to these branches in a storm, tired and hungry forever. Or maybe this was a dream, too? If he could only wake up he would be home in a dry bed, and his mother would be telling him that breakfast was ready. Bo's stomach was no longer suffering from hunger pains. Now it suffered with homesickness.

          Finally, after many hours, the wind slowed, and the torrents diminished into a nice, steady, downward falling rain. Bo dozed again. This time when he awoke he was warm and dry. The storm was nowhere to be seen, and warm sunlight filtered through the haze above. The view was beyond description. He was five miles above the slope, and beyond it lay the great jungle. It seemed to stretch forever. He remembered having seen the jungle briefly like this from his canoe a few months earlier, but then he had more important things on his mind, like falling off a hundred mile high waterfall. Now he could enjoy the view.

          It wasn't long before a disturbing fact began to dawn upon Bo's mind. He didn't want to think the thought, and buried it. To no avail. Back into his mind it popped. He buried it again. Back it popped. Finally Bo allowed himself to think it through. He realized instantly the fact he hadn't wanted to admit. The portion of his fall from this height--he knew it was this height because he remembered the view--had been very small compared to the portion before.

          Bo stopped climbing. He had climbed all this time, used up all his food, water, and strength, and found only one place to sleep, and his climb had barely begun. Even if he never made any mistakes, if he never lost his footing, never grabbed a loose rock for a hand hold, never dozed off and fell in his sleep, was never struck by lightning, even if it always rained just in time to quench his thirst...even if everything went PERFECTLY, he would starve to death long before he reached the top. There was simply no way he was ever going to make it to the top of this cliff.

          Not only that. Bo knew he had to start back down now, for already he might not make it down before he lost too much strength from hunger and fell. But how would he ever get home? He thought of going around the cliff, but that was ridiculous. Even from miles away he had seen that it seemed to stretch forever in both directions. It was like a giant wall dividing one level of the world from another. There was no getting around it.

          Bo stopped thinking. He would consider his options later, he decided, for right now he had to get down out of the cliff to where he could find some food. He began to climb down, but it was even harder than going up. His arms didn't have to work as hard lowering his body as they had pulling it up, but it was much harder to find hand and footholds below him.

          Several times birds flew past. "How I wish I could fly," he sighed, as he watched them effortlessly glide on the air currents. His course downward had taken him far to the side of the way he had come up, since it was impossible to find the exact same route. As he approached a ledge below, several small birds began screeching and darting at his face, dodging him at the last possible instant to avoid crashing into him.

          Bo almost lost his grip brushing them away, but forced himself to hang on and keep climbing. At last he saw it! The ledge was wide enough to stand on, and as he dropped down onto it he whooped and hollered with joy. Bird nests!

          Bo felt sorry for the frantic little birds watching him raid their nests, screeching and circling helplessly. He wasn't fond of raw eggs, and he didn't want to steal theirs, but he was starving. One after another he cracked tiny eggs, emptying their contents down his throat. Bo limited his thievery to one egg per nest so that no nests were left empty, and begged the little birdies to forgive him. The eggs were an wonderful source of nourishing protein for Bo's overworked muscles. If this could be more frequent, maybe he could climb this cliff after all! Bo stood on the ledge watching the little birds return to their nests as his mind wove daydreams in the wind. "If birds can fly, why not me? I'd jump off this ledge and coast down to the jungle!" Of course, Bo didn't have wings. Not yet. But Old Man Schmoe had helped Bo build a small glider once, and he had sailed it off Schmoe's roof. Schmoe had called it a hang glider since it had a tiny harness suspended from it in which to carry tiny objects. Bo suddenly realized he knew how to build a hang glider already. Could he make a bigger one? He thought of the wind which blew upward. What would a hang glider do in a wind that could make the rain fall UP? Wouldn't it lift him upward just like the rain?

          Strengthened and refreshed by the nourishing eggs, Bo made it to the bottom of the cliff. He found food and water and rested for several days from his ordeal. While he rested his body, his mind began to work actively. He tried to remember everything that Old Man Schmoe had taught him about flying.

          He knew this hang glider would have to be much bigger than the one he and Schmoe had built. It also had to be much stronger, for it would have to carry his and its own weight without breaking its wings. Bo remembered how the first small hang glider he had made had broken apart. Schmoe showed him how the stress of wind in the wings had collapsed them. Bo could now imagine the stresses the wings would be subjected to as he tried to ride the turbulent air currents of a thunderstorm! He would have to make it very strong...but the materials he used would have to be light, or it would be too heavy to fly. And the glider would have to be light enough for him to carry it to his take off point, where ever that would be.

          Bo realized quickly that the wings would be a serious problem. What would he cover them with? The frame would not be too much trouble, for he realized that nature had prepared the perfect materials for constructing it. The giant trees! He knew for a fact that many were several miles tall! Bo considered this point. The problem a tree would have in growing so tall is that it must support its own weight. The obvious solution is for the tree to be bigger around. But that adds to the problem of tree weight, since the bigger around it is, the heavier it is. This means that it needs to be even bigger still, and it becomes an unending spiral. The bigger the tree, the bigger it has to be!

          Bo stared at the thick jungle forest stretching out before him. For ordinary trees it would be impossible to solve that problem well enough to grow more than a few hundred feet tall, but these were not ordinary trees. These trees must have been growing for thousands upon thousands of years! They were nourished with a continuous supply of water enriched by glacial silt and soil. Distributed by the winds and storms, this fertile water was constantly feeding the jungle. Not only that, but Bo knew that the trees had continuous sunshine from a sun many times more powerful than most. This sun's light was diffused by the air and clouds of an atmosphere thousands of miles thick. The light seemed to come from every direction, and could penetrate far deeper into the jungle than it would on other worlds. Only when Bo had descended miles below the treetops did it become dark.

          Bo had learned from Schmoe why some trees grew taller than others. Now he considered this strange, unimaginable jungle forest before him. Over the centuries, he realized, as the forest had grown taller, there must have been fierce competition between trees to grow the tallest. The tallest trees got the most sunlight, the richest air currents, the first water, and the best fertilizer. The tallest trees were the ones most likely to survive. They were the healthiest, and produced the most seeds to grow into more and more healthy, taller trees.

          Bo knew that to be competitive, the trees had to grow tall without spending all of their nutrients on growing wide, and especially, without becoming too heavy. true, they were still so wide that at the bottom they seemed more like mountains than trees. How, then, did they keep from growing too heavy? In a flash of insight, Bo caught his breath, for suddenly it was very clear. Nature had caused the trees to grow wood that was both extremely light, and very, very strong. This made for tree trunks that could grow incredibly tall yet were still able to support their own weight. Strong ...lightweight...tree trunks. Strong, lightweight wood... Bo's heart began to beat faster and faster as he imagined constructing a frame for a glider out of wonderfully strong... ...wonderfully light...WOOD!

          Bo's heartbeat fell as quickly as it rose. Covering the wings would be a problem. The model he and Schmoe had built used cloth stretched over the frame of the wing. He looked down at his small, tattered loincloth. Bo didn't have any cloth. Besides, cloth might not be strong enough for a human-sized glider. He knew he couldn't make the wings of solid wood. Even the lightweight wood of the giant trees would be far too heavy. Neither would it be maneuverable or flexible enough. Bo thought for a moment that animal hides might work, but quickly realized it would take weeks, even months, to kill enough animals, cure the hides, and sew them all together. Besides, those animals had become his friends!

           If only he could get some of the big fish from the river, he thought. Their skins might work! Bo had seen fish skins that were much thinner than leather and just as strong, at least for a few days. True, they would become brittle after they had completely dried, but by then he would be safely home!

          Trouble is, there were no fish here. The great ice mountain at the bottom of the cliff probably had many big fish frozen within it, he thought. Every so often some unlucky fish was bound to swim over the edge and land there. But it would be next to impossible to dig them out of the ice, and Bo shuddered at the thought of going to that dreadful place at all. One would never know when the next iceberg would come tumbling down from the sky, smashing everything below.

          A tiny idea began to loom in Bo's brain, but he forced it away. It was silly, after all. Leaves! Leaves are too flimsy and weak. Besides, they tear too easily! He pushed the idea away once more, but again it forced its way back into Bo's thoughts. The giant leaves of the great trees, the idea told him. Bo allowed himself to think it through. He had been sleeping on those same leaves for months. He could walk on them without breaking them. He had seen that where several of the huge leaves came together, they were strong enough to hold a small lake of water. He had even swum in them! Yet the leaves were light and thin and could easily bend without breaking. After all, it was the same giant leaves which had broken his fall in the canoe that fateful day so many months ago. Could he now use them as airfoils? Could he actually make wings out of leaves for his hang glider? He smiled as the idea grew more and more possible.

          Bo's thoughts began to plan quickly. He would use the strong vines he had swung upon for the controls. They would act as cables to the wings with which he could control the glider. Suddenly he laughed aloud. He heard his voice echo in the distance, and so he laughed again. He could do it! He would build a beautiful green hang glider with a light wooden frame covered with a green leaf canopy, using strong vines for controls. The jungle provided everything he needed for his glider! Bo stood, stretched, and smiled, then excitedly began his journey back into the tall jungle forest.

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