By Frank Oscar
There was no celebration planned for Kirby’s fiftieth birthday. No black balloons or banners that read “Over The Hill.” The last time anyone threw a party for him was nearly twenty years ago when mother-grandmother-aunt were still alive. The only friend he had was a cat named Bill he adopted from the animal shelter. Unfortunately, Bill got leukemia, and now his ashes were contained in a small wooden box. Kirby finished work and was spending the evening alone, holding the wooden box on his lap and watching TV, when suddenly he got an idea: He would make himself a kite.
When Kirby was a boy, he liked to build kites and fly them in the fields surrounding his home. One day in school, his class studied sound waves. The teacher connected two soup cans with a piece of string. The first student spoke into one can, vocal cords creating vibrations that followed the taut line to the student holding the other can to their ear. That student’s tympanic membrane responded to the changing pressure of the sound waves, levering tiny bones that amplified the signal, bending microscopic hairs inside the cochlea, stimulating the auditory nerve and manifesting a response in the brain.
To Kirby’s delight, the teacher showed the class a diagram of human vocal cords. They reminded Kirby of his kite. It gave him an idea. Excited, he went home after school and wrapped kite string around a tin can. Then, he took his kite to the hay field next to his yard and launched it in the breeze. When the kite reached its maximum height, string stretched tightly from the knot in the bottom of the can, he cupped the open part of the can over his ear, listening.
As a child, Kirby believed God lived in the sky, surrounded by winged angels, biding His time on top of the clouds. The imagery came from the illustrated children’s bible his aunt gave him. His belief in a biblical God only lasted as long as childhood, but whenever Kirby saw cumulus clouds, they still invoked a sense of the divine. He liked to imagine mother-grandmother-aunt strolling together on a cloud, cottony mists swirling around their feet. Perhaps Bill was there too, tail in the air, happily following them along.
Maybe someday they would all meet again, Kirby thought to himself. He used to believe anything was possible. Now he wasn’t so sure. All he knew for certain is that his time here on earth was ticking by.
The next day was Saturday, and he didn’t have to work at the factory. Early in the morning, he went to the hardware store and bought what he needed: dowels, string, glue, wrapping paper. Walking to his car across the store’s parking lot carrying his supplies, he felt light with anticipation.
Back home, Kirby spread his materials on the kitchen table. He started by attaching two dowels together in a “t” shape. Next, he cut notches in the ends of the dowels and threaded string around the outside of the “t,” forming a diamond. Then he laid the kite frame on the wrapping paper and cut around the perimeter, leaving enough paper so that he could fold and glue it over the string. The tricky part would be adjusting the harness—those crisscrossing strings the flying line connects to—so that the kite caught the wind at the proper angle. Finally, all he needed to do was tie a long strip of thin plastic for the kite’s tail.
The very last thing he did was wrap his flying line around an empty tin can.
There was a public nature preserve not too far away where he thought there might be suitable land to fly his kite. He drove to the preserve, leaving the highway and following dirt roads that cut through the wilderness until he spotted a hilltop meadow off in the distance. Kirby parked the car, took his kite out of the trunk, and walked through scrub brush until he reached the clearing on the hill. Up here, he could see for miles in all directions. A steady breeze was blowing. Perfect for kite flying.
After a few minor adjustments to its harness lines, the kite rose eagerly into the air. Sometimes the wind gusted, causing the kite to zigzag and dive towards the earth. When this happened, Kirby let out more string, and the kite righted itself, rising into the air again, flying even higher. Up and up it floated, the kite becoming a tiny speck before disappearing into a silver cloud.
He felt a tug on the line and covered his ear with the tin can.
As a child in the hay field listening, Kirby only heard static, the sound of wind passing over paper wings. Mother-grandmother-aunt were waiting for him in the kitchen after he landed his kite and returned home for dinner. When they asked Kirby what he learned at school that day, he told them about sound waves. He didn’t mention the kite experiment. Nor did he ever try it again. Until now.
What did he expect would happen? He needed a miracle, a sign, something to reassure him life had meaning. A way to escape the factory grind. To find new friends. To feel part of a family again.
None of these thoughts registered in his consciousness, however. His mind was as open as the blue sky.
From high up in the cloud, vibrations traveled down the string, gently tickling Kirby’s tympanic membrane. He closed his eyes and listened.
Could it have been the wind, those voices singing “Happy Birthday?” Anything was possible.