My grandfather was old. He had a bushy white beard and smelled of tobacco. He walked with a stick, was always dressed in black, and dropped bits of food when he ate.
But he could fly.
On a shelf in a cupboard was a cardboard box. Inside was a neatly folded pair of wings.
Sometimes, when I was sitting on Grandfather’s lap, he’d say: ‘Shall we fly around, then?’
I always said yes.
No one but Grandfather, Grandmother and I knew there were wings in that box. And I was never allowed to say a word about them to my mother. ‘I’m sure she wouldn’t approve of flying,’ said Grandfather. ‘Walking’s more her style. Brisk walking.’
Grandmother would take the box out of the cupboard and fasten the wings to Grandfather’s back. When she’d finished, I would stand on his knees and clamber onto his shoulders.
‘How did you get these wings?’ I asked one day.
‘From my grandfather,’ he said, ‘and he got them from his grandfather, who got them from his grandfather, and so on, all the way back to the beginning of time. They’re very old wings. Eternal wings, if you like.’
‘How did you learn to fly with them?’ I asked.
‘Up there,’ said Grandfather, pointing at the ceiling.
Where a lamp was hanging, there had once, long ago, been a hook: he had hung from that and learned to fly. The same way people learned to swim, suspended like a fish on a line in the swimming baths.
‘Was it hard?’ I asked.
‘No,’ said Grandfather. ‘If you want to fly, you can always learn how.’
Grandmother opened the window. ‘Take care, won’t you?’ she said. And off we went.
‘Where shall we go?’ Grandfather asked.
‘Mmm … to the steppes … ’ I said.
‘All right,’ said Grandfather.
So we flew to the steppes.
We saw a vast plain, crossed now and then by a glittering river like a meandering thread far beneath us. And every thousand kilometres or so we’d spot Cossacks on tiny horses, veiled in clouds of dust.
‘Look,’ said Grandfather, ‘a castle!’
There, below us and at some distance, was a castle. We swooped down towards it.
There were soldiers in gleaming blue uniforms, with rapiers and muskets and glinting halberds. Grandfather pointed at them.
‘Aha!’ he said. ‘I see what’s going on. They’ve captured a princess. Hold on tight, now!’
Keeping out of range of their bullets, we darted in through a garret window.
When he was flying, my grandfather could do anything. He would smash the glass in the thickest windows to smithereens, and iron doors were nothing to him.
If a princess happened to have turned into a frog, Grandfather would magically turn her back into a princess. And if she was guarded by a fire-spitting dragon, Grandfather would spit right back and put the dragon’s flames out. Or he’d chop off a few of its heads, just like that.
Sometimes there’d be a sleeping princess. Then Grandfather would waken her with a kiss. I remember the startled expressions of all the princesses we freed. Some of them had been lying asleep for a hundred years, and they would have slept for a hundred more if my grandfather hadn’t made an appearance.
At other times we soared above armies advancing on each other in battle array. We witnessed the Battle of the Golden Spurs, the Battle of Marathon and the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds.
On one occasion Grandfather and I were invited up to Mount Olympus, where we sat between Zeus and Hermes. It was all very convivial. Zeus was amazed at everything my grandfather came out with.
‘I see,’ he said. ‘Now that I didn’t know.’
‘I thought you knew everything,’ said Grandfather.
‘But not that,’ said Zeus.
We were served cakes made of ambrosia and large glasses of nectar.
And so we flew hither and thither, into the past and into the future, to Katwijk and to Turkmenistan – wherever I wanted to go.
‘When I die the wings will be yours,’ Grandfather yelled into the wind, as we saw Troy beneath us and the ships of the Greeks, who were supposedly setting sail, and the gigantic horse standing before the city gates.
‘All right,’ I replied.
At the end of the journey we flew back to Russia. Then Grandfather flew lower so that we could see the villages and the forests, and we skimmed over the roofs of St Petersburg, over the street where he was born.
‘Close your eyes, we’re coming in to land!’ he cried over his shoulder, and then we landed.
When I opened my eyes again a few moments later, we were having our tea at the table in my grandparents’ house in the Haagweg, in Leiden.
We flew around like that many times. The last time, I think, was when I was seven.
Grandfather died when I was thirteen. I heard the news when I came home from school.
‘It’s always unexpected, no matter when it happens,’ my mother said to someone who was offering their condolences.
He was buried in a small churchyard on the outskirts of Leiden.
That box, I thought, as I followed my mother over a gravel path beneath rustling trees. That box … I wanted that box. But how could I ask for it? My mother wasn’t supposed to know it even existed. And Grandmother was very pale and tiny, and she was avoiding everyone’s eyes, not saying a word.
It was only months later, when I was alone in the room with her, that I tentatively tried to broach the subject. ‘Those wings … er … you know the ones I mean … ’
‘Oh, Lev and his wings … ’ she said, and she looked past me and out of the window, shrugging. She said nothing more, and I asked nothing more.
Grandmother lived for a long time after that.
Only after she died did I dare go in search of that box. It was up in the attic. ‘Wings’ was written on it. In Russian, German and Dutch. Below that, someone had written the name of my mother’s brother, killed on the Burma Railway. The box contained dusty old notebooks full of scribbles, a few exercise books filled with writing in Russian and Dutch, and a great many loose sheets of paper with indecipherable poems. But no wings.
I brushed the dust off the box with my sleeve and took it away. I put it in a drawer in my cabinet. Next to another box, one that was all but empty still, on which I, too, wrote ‘Wings’.
By Toon Tellegen
Translated by Fiona Graham
Published by Querido, Amsterdam (2016)
This short story was first published in Dutch in the collection De trein naar Pavlovsk en Oostvoorne (‘The Train to Pavlovsk and Oostvoorne’) by Toon Tellegen (Querido, 2016). It is appearing in English for the first time in The Dutch Riveter.
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Toon Tellegen is a prolific poet, playwright and children’s writer. Over the last fifty years, he has won numerous prizes for his children’s books and his poetry, and much of his work has been translated into English and several other languages. I Wish, a book of prose-poetry translated by David Colmer, is his latest work available in English.
Fiona Graham is a literary translator from Dutch, Swedish, German, Spanish and French. Her published
translations include Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: When Now Begins, which was longlisted for the Warwick Women in Translation award and the JQ Wingate literary award.