We flew our babies high, worry-free, with ample cord wrapped around the trees. We flew them in the open skies, their sequined booties glinting the sun, stars flashing at midday. And when the fogs came, we rolled back our roofs and flew them from our living rooms, gin in hand, their lilies attached to the navelhooks in our floors. But mostly, we loved to fly them from the limestone cliffs above the sea, high in the briny tang, above the stunted pines and their prickly cones. We’d set them aloft, then drink our martinis and toss frisbees and laugh at our goofs. Some of us cried, remembering the days when things were simple, when our hands mattered. And some of us smoked, holding our pensive cigarettes low between our soft fingers. Our wives would never know.
We are, of course, grateful for our wives’ money, and they encourage our camaraderie. So we can’t complain! It’s just this: How many of them have flown their own daughters? Not many at all. That was our job, they told us. And when the rains came, we wrapped our progeny in wool, checked our flyBaby app, then set them aloft. Rains are good for their lungs, our fathers told us.
But Joe grounded his daughter Grace. He and his family lived at the bottom of a hill just outside of town. His shack sat in the wetlands, and when it rained, the waters flooded the house. Joe wore his trousers short, always telling us that Eva, his wife, vowed to have the home raised to county standards. We were skeptical; that house had always sat low in the bottomlands and nothing would change that, not even the risen waters, which fed the twisted moss between the kitchen tiles. Grace was big for a fifteen-month-old, larger than any of our girls. Her father, however, barely reached five feet and once had to be rescued from a sunflower field. Eva dragged him out and harangued him for not wearing his tall shoes.
Eva developed apps, and Joe, when he had time, delivered his two sikkel goats, Rena and Faye, to clients on the steep slopes north of town. His goats, whose slit pupils reminded us of the mysterious openings between our wives’ legs, trimmed the grass on impossible slopes and left rich, black pellets in their wake. Joe gathered the manure and sold it by the ounce to the highland turnip farmers, a lovely symbiotic relationship if there ever was one, he always told us.
Eva was embarrassed that he even attempted to work. She brought home ample pay every week, she said, and the only thing she demanded of Joe was to keep Gracie safe; is that too much to ask? It wasn’t—our wives demanded that from us all—but every evening, while Joe ran his broken fingernails through his goats’ beards and Gracie sat on her diapered bum with turds falling from her fists, Eva lectured Joe. None of us would have lasted long under Eva, whose nails were like the nacre in the oyster shells left out on the beach.
Joe loved his wife, of course—we all did!—but Gracie he loved more, worrying himself to death over her wellbeing regarding the krake. “You know it haunts our coasts,” he once told us, “so beware when it takes flight.
Now it’s true that there were ancient accounts of the krake, that it ate unsuspecting children, that its resulting shit was the most generative of all fertilizers. So, in theory, Joe had reason to fear. But the problem was this: None of us had ever seen a krake, nor had any of our great great greats. Our ancestors made crude likenesses of it—drawings of the krake grabbing crosses from our pastors or paintings of a green krake snatching gold from our lenders—but, finally, its venal tentacles were the stuff of fairytales. And never had we heard of a flying krake; Joe’s ideas were simply ridiculous. Besides, we insisted, how could a krake even fly given its waterborne tentacles?
Joe ignored us.
He knew what we always told him, that our daughters need distance from us if they are to be strong like their mothers. How can a child amount to anything if we keep her under our wings? Our daughters need flight, so toss Grace like a pigeon from your hands! Watch her catch the very best thermals!
When Gracie was born, Joe severed a nearly ten-foot lily from daughter and mother. We were astounded at the fructuous nature of Eva’s womb—none of our wives had produced such a prodigious lily—though we shouldn’t have been too surprised, Eva being Eva, perfect in every way. But just whose lily was it? The mother’s or the daughter’s? That naval cord has consistently confounded us, and our women are never helpful, only telling us that some things will always be a mystery to you, you bastards. Regardless, Gracie’s (Eva’s?) lily was gorgeous, taut but flexible, and not at all bloody, shimmering on the rocks in the afternoon light. We cried, and Joe tied the fleshy nub perfectly, gifting his daughter a faultless navel, not like the ones we tied, navels that protruded under our daughters’ blue onesies.
Joe was still nursing Gracie when Eva released the flyBaby app, freeing a whole generation of dads from the drudgery of direct care. It worked like this: We downloaded the app then bought, through in-app purchases (the app wouldn’t work without them, Eva being brilliant!), the required navelhooks and lilies, which weren’t really lilies at all, obviously, but so much like the real things that many of us were vexed by them. They were flexible and strong, sinewy chains enfleshed with plastic skin. We paid by the foot, so the higher we flew our babies, the more it cost. And we weren’t cheap! We flew our babies high! Our girls loved it.
Idiot Joe, however, didn’t see the monetary benefit of Eva’s hard work. Instead, he pestered his wife to spend more time with Gracie; it’s what any mother should want, he told her. But we told him to cut his losses, man, and move on. Don’t be that dad. Nobody likes a nag. You’re fucking set!
When the time came for Joe to gild the lily, he heaved his printer into the marsh and proclaimed he’d do his own thing and he’d do it by hand, like they did back in the pre-app era. Cræft was what he called it. Handiwork. Whatever. As far as we knew, no husband had ever done such a thing. What man, after all, would want a smelly lily framing his daughter’s portrait? None of us, that was for sure.
We did it proper. We plastic printed our children’s lilies and tossed the real ones into the sea. Our wives were fine with this, even though the fish nibbled the lilies into a pink slush before the tide carried them out. The plastic lilies were nearly indestructible, at least the ones produced from the more expensive printers. We printed them gilded, then used them to frame our daughters’ official photograms. Ariel, our town photographer, took portraits of our daughters sitting in cotton resembling clouds; portraits of them wearing laundered white angel wings (available through a flyBaby in-app purchase); and even portraits in utero, using Ariel’s very expensive and very special tube, the Gravidus, resulting in lavish incubation photos that we shared among ourselves. We competed. The man holding the best gravidgram was king of the month. We washed his shoes. We flew his girl. He got the best parking spot, free smokes, and extra gin with three olives, a martini rex. And at the end of the month, one of our wives came to him.
Ariel refused to do Gracie’s portrait because she thought no future leader deserved to be plopped down in a pile of goat shit with seven turnip tops springing from her head. It’s humiliating and downright shameful, she told us, something only peasants would do. And she was right: Joe’s harebrained schemes left little to be desired. A typical man of the fen.
Joe gilded Gracie’s lily with gold shavings. He shaped it around her portrait, an actual drawing he made himself. Grace in Shit, he called it, a penciled still life of Grace sitting in the goats’ byre with daisies crowning her head and calla lilies blooming from her palms. He rested it against the peeling clapboards. Joe would never be king of the month.
When she returned from work, Eva saw the gilded lily shining there in front of her shack. She was disgusted: Why do you contrive such junk? You’re a reproach to our neighbors. Here she opened her long arms and swept them through the air, implicating us. We set our eyes on her sandaled feet. She had amazing toes. While it was true we found Grace’s lily a bit gaudy, we thought the drawing excellent. Joe had captured Gracie’s crooked grin with simple, elegant lines. Still, it was easier to snap a photogram.
Grace dropped a fistful of goat turds and crawled to the lily. She sat in front of it, naked, loose hair in a braid, belly rolls sunshine red, fat thighs splayed in the muck. She touched it, then laughed so hard she pitched onto her side. Joe grinned and sat her upright, but Gracie rolled over again, mud and shit pressed against her perfect skin. Eva snapped her fingers and told Joe that he needed to clean her up immediately; look at what you’ve done, you’re a derision to everyone around you. Gracie laughed while Joe hosed her down, but I thought I saw tears in his eyes. Probably just mist from the spigot.
When our girls are old enough, we take our offerings to Pastor Margot, then become official fathers of daughters. When it was his turn, Joseph draped the columns along the nave with lilies. There were thousands of them, fragrant white flowers with bright stamens. On the altar, next to the candle, was a huge calla lily. Eva had spent a bundle on Grace’s service.
After we sang, Pastor Margot stepped down from the chancel and stood in front of the altar. She ran her fingers through her spiky hair, adjusted her black chasuble—the one with the embroidered lilies—and looked over all of us with a gracious smile. “How can you make perfect that which is already perfect?” she said. She paused for a moment, then launched into the standard lily conundrums we’d all heard from her many times before, how lilies are both cords of attachment and cords of separation; how flesh is animated by spirit; how a body’s transformation is vital for our future glory. What we sow is not quickened unless it dies.
We leaned against our wives’ hard shoulders.
But when Pastor Margot tossed the candle from the altar and replaced it with a clay chalice full of lumpy manure, we sat up wide-eyed. Sunlight streamed through the window and illuminated Joe’s offering. His goat pellets gleamed, capturing low shimmers of blue and black, searing oily shadows in the backs of our eyes. We’d never seen such a sight; but, then again, neither had we ever given shit the time of day. However, a few loose turds shattered the holy moment when they dropped from the cup and plopped onto the ordinary linen draped over the altar. The sun deflated, and a cool draft swept over our feet. Eva gasped, and although her sudden emotion was theatric, sometimes what you’re supposed to feel actually corresponds to how you really feel.
Pastor Margot lifted the chalice with trembling hands. “We hold these seeds in earthen vessels and not in gold,” she said, pouring the turds into the calla lily. The lily bulged expectantly, carrying the shit without a bend in its stem. Pastor Margot smashed the chalice on the stone floor, then gently lifted Grace in her arms. “And through these earthen vessels we encounter Sophia who, through the loving power of God, is the firstborn of every creature, for through her were all things created, and by her do all things exist.”
Grace squirmed, and Joe leaped from his pew, snatching her from the pastor. Grace nuzzled his chest, and he rested his chin on her head. We longed for that feeling, for the times our girls pushed their soft heads into our necks. For the times we stroked their pulsing fontanels. For that golden hour. And now he dances with Grace while our ghost girls claw our chests.
That fucker! Who was he to make us cry? Say it with us: Our lives are so much easier now. And who are we to be nostalgic? Nostalgia was once a disease, you know, a disease easily treated with a series of injections and three sessions with a therapist. Four if you’re really fucked up.
And then you forget, they say.
Pastor Margot lit the thurible, and we all sat in the smoke.
The following day, whether emboldened by the pastor’s words or by simply being a donkey’s uncle, Joe reeled our daughters in. The day was bright, the sky white, a fatherless fathering sort of day. But while we drank, sneaky Joe folded our plastic lilies, section by section, until they were stacked neatly at his feet and our babies lay crying in his arms. We told him to knock it off; can’t you see that they’re happier in the air?
Joe raked at the stones under his sandal. “Keep your girls close,” he said.
We looked at Grace, who sat whimpering at Joe’s feet, dirt crusted in the corners of her mouth, her hair a tangled mess. She wore a single blue sock. Eva would have shit bricks had she seen the sorry state of Grace. We asked Joe if he ever considered flying Gracie. Perhaps she wouldn’t be so fussy if you tossed her into the air now and then.
Joe affected deafness.
At lunch, we relaunched our girls and shook up a third round of martinis. We reclined on our blankets and ate egg salad sandwiches. We munched on cold stalks of celery. We wagged our chins about our wives. We played tennis on the clay court cracked with dandelions, but that didn’t last long given the missing net. Joe and Gracie, however, sat under the scrub oaks in the hedgerow. He fed her chive-sprinkled goat cheese while he ate radishes smeared with salted butter. She drank water from a tin cup, but Joe swigged generous drafts of a lager, beer he no doubt brewed himself and not the ass-crack beer we bought from the store.
While she ate, Gracie pointed at our girls in sky. “Fly,” she said. She had cheese lodged in her left nostril. Her braid was coming loose.
Joe lowered Gracie’s fat finger and cleaned her face with warm milk from Rena’s teat. The milk rolled down her chin and fell on her thighs. She fussed, straining against Joe’s hand. “Fly,” Gracie said again, her finger trained on the hazy horizon.
We folded our arms and kicked our heels. We would give Gracie what she wanted.
The day of the krake was perfect: blue sky with good wind and carefree sunshine. While Joe tended his goats, we snatched Grace from the mud in her yard and scurried her to the cliffs. She laughed while we ran, drooling on our honorable porter’s forehead. It had been quite some time since a child moved us so profoundly.
At the cliffs, we attached a lily to her belly, then flew Grace high, worry-free, with ample cord wrapped around the tree. Her laugh was a racket echoing off the limestone cliffs. Even fish surfaced the breakers just to see the show. Grace stretched her arms toward our daughters, who were delighted to see her aloft. And after they embraced, Grace caught a thermal and soared high into the clouds. When her lily locked, Gracie was a simple speck, barely visible, barely there. The beauty of it made us weep. Grace belonged to all of us.
The krake was, at first, a simple glimmer on the sea. A flicker in our imaginations. A bit of unease in our guts, as if we’d eaten a bad egg salad sandwich, perhaps. Or maybe it was just the gin. Regardless, the krake didn’t look at all slimy; in fact, it sounded dryly mechanical, like hornets in the late-summer orchards. Six of its tentacles were motor-powered, keeping it aloft while pulleys and wheels controlled the remaining two, which the krake used to clean its squeaky mandible. We followed its shadow on the sea as it angled toward us.
We tried to reel our daughters in, but the krake was faster than Eva’s app.
When all was still, we removed our hands from our faces: Our girls were still alive. We quickly folded their lilies and held them in our arms. Grace, though, was gone; her lily drooped over the cliffs. We could hear the whirring of the krake, but even when we squinted at the sky, we couldn’t see it.
Chad Gusler has an MFA in Fiction writing from Seattle Pacific University. His work has been published in The Other Journal, Relief, the Center for Mennonite Writing Journal, and in the literary anthology, Tongue Screws and Testimonies: Poems, Stories, and Essays Inspired by the Martyrs Mirror. He teaches creative writing at Eastern Mennonite University, where he is Associate Professor of English