This is the paradox of flying.
To learn how to fly, you must read the books on the top shelf of the library, which teach you precisely how. But the library is miles high and there are no stairs, or lifts, or ladders – meaning to reach the top shelf... you must be able to fly.
The moment I joined the division of Aviation in the university, I was thrown headfirst into this paradox like everybody else; all of us wanted to fly, but none could solve the puzzle. I sat in the library, watching the Prefects uncurl their wings and soar up and up past a never ending column of filled shelves. It was so high, I couldn’t actually see the top shelf, just a pinhole of light from the windows in the domed roof.
“A hidden staircase in the wall?”
“Nope. We thought of that.”
I bit my lip. “Maybe they somehow knocked a book down from –”
“No. We thought of that. The books up there are wedged in pretty tight.”
I watched the prefects until they became dots in the distance. “Could we shoot an arrow with a string attached and pull one down?”
“Er, no, for the same reason. Plus the library patrol would go crazy. They’re a reason those books are out of reach.” Hartley said, wolfing down a bagel and glancing around guiltily over his shoulder for the library patrol. This guy breaks all the rules. I suppose that’s why we’re friends. I don’t mind bending a few for the sake of knowledge – which sounds more noble than it actually is.
I sighed and pulled my blue gloves back on. I loved what we wore at the university; I always felt so queenly. “Let’s not be late for class.” I said, even though I knew the lecturers didn’t care. The Aviation department was really lax about classes, about teaching. I learned nothing. The paradox of flight was all the students cared about, and Aviation professors seemed to be quite lazy.
At lunch, I sat with Hartley’s friends. The term had begun a fortnight ago, but I was meeting them for the first time because they were always coming up with plans to thwart the paradox with other students.
“Anne, this is Daryl, Jayda, Timothine.” Hartley said through mouthfuls of lasagne.
They all nodded and smiled at me. “So, how come we haven’t seen you before?” Daryl asked.
“Because you haven’t been here,” Hartley said pointedly.
“Shut up. Anne?” he smiled.
I quickly glanced around at their faces and knew I couldn’t wriggle out of this one. “Well, I’m a transfer.”
“A transfer!” the three of them said at once, looking astonished. “Honestly? I didn’t know you could.” Jayda said. Black hair hung over her eyes so it never seemed like she was looking at me. “And Admin let you?”
“Yeah.” I shrugged. “I just had to pass some basic literacy, numeracy and sorcery tests.”
“What did you major in before Aviation?” Tim murmured, his voice impossibly low.
I was getting uncomfortable. Even if they could, people rarely transferred because of animosity between divisions. I wasn’t sure what not to say.
“In school my best grade was in Authority but I never really liked it so I chose to major in Supernatural Species. That was when I discovered I liked some magical creatures less than domestic animals so I transferred in my first week to Dark Sorcery, Desiccation and Anti-Life.”
“Woah.” Daryl said. He looked apprehensive now. “So I guess that didn’t go well if you transferred again.”
I made a noise of surprise as I swallowed my yoghurt. “Oh, no! That was last year. I completed my first year of that major.”
There was a stunned silence. “You don’t look evil.” Jayda said challengingly.
I laughed. “DSDA isn’t about villainy, it’s about the opposite of... magic, I guess. The study of it, that is, not the practice. It’s most reading, which I am very good at.” Daryl visibly relaxed.
“So you don’t do curses or jinxes.” Tim intoned, looking crestfallen.
“Er... not really.”
“Oh. That’s a shame. I needed one.” he sighed. then it was his friends’ turn to look at him with surprise. “What?” he said defensively. “If the prefects are banned from bringing down books for us, I don’t just see why we can’t just jinx one of them to do it.”
My mouth slowly fell open. So did Hartley’s, making mushy lasagne fall out. “Oh wow. I never thought of that.” he said, eyebrows raised.
“We’ve never had a transfer from DSDA before.” Tim explained, “No offence, but I kinda wanna take advantage of that.”
I was in the library again, only this time it was early morning and quiet. It was open all hours but timetabling meant that different divisions didn’t run into each other too much in the library. The library was octagonal – one column for each division – so they shouldn’t anyway. But my point is this morning, I wanted privacy because I was looking up a Compulsion spell. Students had no real reason to look up things from other divisions, so it would be suspicious – and the paradox of flight meant that Aviation students had a reputation for doing crazy things.
I peered upwards as I always did, wondering why and who on earth would bother to build a library where most of the students can’t reach the books above the tenth shelf. It’s true that the lower shelves jutted out so you could climb them if you wanted. But on the eighth shelf that’s no longer possible. The tallest students could stretch to the tenth but that’s about it – the shelves are short and the spine of the books sit just over the edge. This library must have, literally, over a hundred shelves, stretching up impossibly.
With a sigh, I squatted and scanned the titles on the lower shelf of the DSDA shelf. Claiming Vengeance, by Rolf Blacksmith. Protecting Your Throne, by Dark Lord Lorfjar. The Economic Repercussions Of Anti-Magic, by Dr Suzan Grant. I glanced over to the shelf beside it for the Aviation division, and saw The Evolution Of Winged Humans by Anonymous. I flipped it open and recoiled, a hand over my mouth. The illustration was grotesque. Instead of beautiful wings I saw deformity.
An Aviation prefect dropped down from above and landed lightly on her feet. She smiled at me.
“You’re in early. Supernatural Species student...?”
“Oh no, I –” and then, I had a wonderful, wonderful idea. Morally, it was wrong because it included lying. But I called it ‘twisting the truth’.
“DSDA student.” I said cheerfully, leaving out the ‘I am’, or more truthfully, ‘I was’. “Aviation, right?”
She nodded proudly. Her wings were magnificent, and tawny brown like her hair. “I’ve always admired Aviation students.” I beamed, “I heard flying is extremely difficult. Is that true?”
“Flying itself is very easy,” she assured me, “But learning how to fly can be tricky. You need to be determined.”
“I also heard you need to read a lot for Aviation... right?” I said casually and pointed up. “What’s up there? Why are all those books so high?” Her smile faltered and she struggled with words. I hastily added a direct lie to hurry her up. “I’m a DSDA student, but I’m just curious.”
She looked a little like she was choking, but then she stopped, calmed and said carefully, “It’s not the books up there that are important. It’s the books down here.” She suddenly turned and bellowed, “HEY! No ladders in the library! Where did you get that?”
I hastily grabbed my Winged Humans book and left.
In our first seminar of the day, Hartley dropped lazily into a seat beside me, the hood of his cloak over his tired face. “How it go? You find the spell?”
“Er... I got a bit sidetracked.” I confessed. Yep, sidetracked reading that bizarre book about wings. It was very vague about how people grew their wings so they could fly, but I understood on my third reading that it was suggesting flight and growing wings were independent of each other. But then I was confused. What use was a pair of wings without the ability of flight?
“Listen up, please,” Professor Jet called from the front of the lecture hall, adjusting his glasses. “As stated in the memo, this class will be taken by one of our prefects. The subject today is factoring air resistance into aviation – Lila, please go ahead.”
The prefect that stepped forward was no other that the same one I saw that morning. She began to introduce herself fully when she spotted me and frowned.
“Oops,” I muttered.
“I think you’re in the wrong class, DSDA student.” she said frostily, as I realised that ducking under the table was no longer aN option. “Or are you not a DSDA student?”
“O-oh, n-no you see I-I...” I stammered, looking at Hartley for help, but he'd slouched right down in his chair under the prefect’s withering gaze. “I was. I’m a transfer. I just transferred.”
“Just?” she said, her eyebrows raised, “As in, after eight-thirty this morning when I saw you?”
I had to pause then because I didn’t know if prefects could look at registers for the past week. Lying would go badly for me... but then, I’d already lied once. “Um...”
The prefect was not impressed.
“Idiot. Idiot!” Harley scolded me at lunch. “I told you, we’d tried that. Prefects won’t talk. She’s gonna have her eye on you now.”
“That’s really not fair!” I wailed, “I was just trying to get ahead like everybody else.”
“Yeah, but you were being sneaky – they don’t like sneaky.” Hartley Said in his warning voice. “Watch your step, Anne. The professors don’t seem to care that we’re trying to get ahead, but they put their foot down if students do things like lie to prefects.”
“Ah, shit.” I said sourly.
Daryl laughed at my sulking. “What happened, Dark Queen Anne? You get caught?”
“Do you wanna fly or not?” I said shortly. That made him shut up. “That’s what I thought. I’m doing this for you guys. So next time, you all come with me; if I get caught, we all get caught.”
Aviation such a laid back course that I had more time than I knew what to do with, so I read. The Evolution Of Winged Humans had detailed illustrations in the book that were sickening to look at, but it was also fascinating. It reminded me why I picked Supernatural Species in the first place. On the last page, glittering dust puffed into the air and I sneezed on it, but after I saw the list of books for further reading. I made a quick note and was on my way to the library when I stopped in my tracks with a very devious, devious idea.
Tim mentioned taking advantage of my knowledge of DSDA, but I’d only studied it for a year. My old tutor, however....
I skipped across the university’s garden and wandered the dungeons of the DSDA division – my old halls of residence – until I found my old tutor’s office. When I poked my head in, Professor Leon’s face lit up.
“There’s my star student.” he said with a grin, laying down an enchanted dagger. “I was beyond surprised that you didn’t continue this year. You transferred to Aviation, didn’t you?”
“There’s my star student.” he said with a grin, laying down an enchanted dagger. “I was beyond surprised that you didn’t continue this year. You transferred to Aviation, didn’t you?”
I smiled at him fondly, and sadly. He was my favourite tutor, so mischievous and childish. They never did find out who turned the dean into a warthog but I have a pretty good idea. “Yes Sir, I did.”
“Aw. You were extremely bright for a first year, Anne. Did you fall out of love with the subject?”
“I loved the subject, Sir. I was... concerned about employment opportunities with this major. I don’t really want to be a Dark Queen or a necromancer or anything like that.” I grinned, rubbing the ticklish feeling out of my back. “The thing is, I came because I’m up to a bit of mischief. A compulsion spell. Can you help me?”
Professor Leon shot out of his chair and clapped his hands with glee. “Only if you can keep a secret!”
We poured over his worn spell book but many of the jinxes had unfavourable repercussions. “I think your best bet is this one. It’s weaker, makes them merely more open to suggestion, the only setback is you can’t be too far from them or they might suddenly wonder what on earth they were doing.”
It was my best chance, it seemed. I quickly made a note, thanked him and left, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t work. Even as I pocketed it, I was going somewhere I never thought I would – to the Supernatural Species manor.
Each division has its own quarters, and SS was tucked away beside the meadow in the Manor. It’s one of the newest buildings of the university, because the old manor was blown apart when some idiot conjured a typhoon. Now, the manor is like a fortress. They’re rumours that next year, the Professors will bring in dragons, sphinxes and gryphons. I think that major will be pretty packed next year.
As I knocked and entered my old SS tutor’s office, I remembered my one, awkward week as a student of the Supernatural Species division and hoped I had made a good impression.
Professor Fleur’s office was a bird sanctuary, full of colour and noise. She glanced up and gave me her usual delicate smirk. “The deserter! I’m surprised to see you here, I didn’t think I had anything of value to teach you.”
I winced at little as she said that, scratching the itch in my back. “It wasn’t for me, Professor Fleur. But perhaps I could owe you a favour.”
The professor narrowed her eyes. “In return for what?”
So I told her. An hour and a half of bartering, I walked to the library, grinning wide, a beautiful Silverwing perched regally on my shoulder.
We all snuck into the library at dawn to test the Silverwing idea. I was exhausted because I’d stayed up all night reading about wings. Also my back was really itchy and I kept scratching it until I discovered, to my horror, lumps growing over my shoulders blades. I sprinted to the medical wing in the middle of the night but the nurse tiredly said the swelling would go down soon and told me to put ice on it.
“Are you sure the spell won’t work?” Tim muttered.
“If the prefect flies up too high, I’ll lose my hold on the spell.” I explained. “This idea’s better.”
“I love having a smart student for a friend for once,” Daryl said, then to Hartley accusingly, “What have you ever done to get us wings?”
“I feed you and keep you out of trouble, which technically counts. Can’t get wings if you’re dead.” Hartley shot back.
“Shh.” Jayda whispered. “Be quiet, there might be extra patrols. I heard one of the aviation students tried to use a disintegration spell to turn the wall to dust – you know, so the shelves fall down? But it also vaporised about two dozen books and Professor Jet was pretty pissed. So shut up and hurry up. Anne? Let’s try this.”
The Silverwing sitting on my arm was so calm and peaceful, looking at me with intelligent doe eyes, that I wasn’t really concentrating until Jayda spoke. I whispered the command word. “Silter.” The bird chirped at me. “Bring me that book.” I pointed to a book three shelves above my head. It flew up, gripped the spine fiercely with its beak and pulled it out – it fell right into my arms. Hartley, Jayda, Tim and Daryl’s sudden eruption of cheers was so loud that I had to shush them.
“Okay.” I said excitedly as it perched on my forearm again. “Silter. Fly to the top and bring me a book!” It didn’t move. It seemed confused. “Silter,” I repeated, “Fly to the top, bring me a book. Silter.” I pointed up to the seeming infinity of books, but it didn’t move.
“You know,” came a voice and we all jumped, “Aviation students aren’t meant to take advantage of resources from other divisions... to read books not meant for them.” It was the prefect I’d lied to yesterday, Lila. Her arms were folded.
Next thing we knew, we were all standing in front of Professor Jet. Hartley kept muttering “Shit shit shit shit shit...” It wasn’t as bad as we were expecting. He didn’t seem to care much but he did warn us that as first years, we weren’t yet ready to learn to fly and that we had plenty of time later. I barely listened because the two swellings on my back were really itching. Professor Fleur was livid when she discovered what I’d ordered the Silverwing to do.
“For your research, you said!” she shrieked, “Obviously I would have trained all my creatures not to aid an Aviation student trying to cheat!”
“How is it cheating? I thought I was being open-minded.” I defended myself, sulking again.
After that, things were pretty bleak. Lessons were boring and not one student had cracked the paradox of flying. At our level, we weren’t supposed to, but it didn’t stop anybody from feverishly trying. It was the most intriguing puzzle in the university.
And I cracked it.
I realised something. When I began paying attention again in lectures, I remembered that there were many more aspects to Aviation than flight. There was engineering. So I went back to the library and borrowed some books from the third shelf – and began engineering mechanical wings.
This could not POSSIBLY be cheating. I tried to tell the others at lunch but they weren’t really fired up any more. Daryl grimaced and said, “Sorry Anne... I think we’re gonna sit this one out.”
I skipped all of my lessons and stayed in the workshop forging my wings. Hartley, ever-reliable, was always there either eating, sleeping or distracting me with chatter, but I was touched that he was being supportive. I worked on it all term, until autumn faded to winter.
However I never finished the wings, because the ‘swelling’ that the nurse told me would go down had gotten bigger, and inflamed. When it started to hurt to put my bra on, I went back to the medical bay and kept being waved away by the nurses until I laterally had to strip so they would see. Their pale faces told me all I needed to know.
I spent Christmas in the medical bay, laying on my side because laying on my back hurt. Hartley was completely perplexed. “Is it jinxed food poisoning or something? I looks like you’ve got elbows growing out of your shoulder blades.”
I wasn’t an idiot. I knew what else grew out of shoulder blades.I snuck into the library one morning and climbed up the shelves to peer at the tenth and eleventh shelf, which I’d never actually done before. As I reached up to the twelfth shelf, I remembered Fli N. Sprite’s laws on antigravity and air resistance and joked to myself, ‘If only gravity wasn’t so harsh on me.’ Suddenly, I was touching the books on the twelfth shelf. I frowned. I looked down.
My feet weren’t touching the stool.
Stunned, I stayed absolutely still. I couldn’t figure out how I was doing this! Was it Sprite’s Law? Was it meant to teach you flight? My vision blurred. The ground seemed so far away. Or was I floating up?
“Spread your arms out, slowly, to go up. Bring them down to your sides to come down.” came Lila’s voice from above as she floated down, her wings spread, then beating gently before her feet hit the ground. My heart pounding, I drifted down to the stool, then promptly collapsed from the effort. I didn’t realise it would be so hard. Lila raised her eyebrows at me, then peering over my shoulder to see my back. “You have to unfurl your wings intentionally. It won’t be nice. It feels like... shooting one out.”
“Why are you always here?” I snapped.
She seemed amused. “I patrol the library in the morning. Mainly because of nosy Aviation students like you.” I glared at her. “Have you read Professor Jet’s Easing The Pain?” She pointed above my head. “It’ll help.”
Shaking with effort, I floated up to the sixteenth or seventeenth shelf and quickly pulled it off the shelf. Panting, I stayed sitting on the stool and read the introduction.
‘If you have reached this book,’ it read, ‘Congratulations. You have reached the shelf above the height of the tallest students in the university. You will no doubt be in pain, but this will fade. Ice will soothe it, for now. But now the trials begin; you must be devoted and diligent to the study of flight. Flight will elevate you, but wings give you direction. You will need both and you cannot cut corners. Diligence will reward you with wings. The other result is your budding wings will wither and fall away.
As you now understand, the paradox is no true paradox. You cannot fly with first acquiring the knowledge. Many are so concerned with what is at the top that they forget to look first at what is at the bottom. Only those who are ready to understand will learn, and this is why we do not teach flight in class. For this reason, there is a hidden jinx on this page that will prevent you from telling this to those who have not yet discovered this for themselves... sorry about that.
Now to the point. Your wings are waiting to bloom. You’ll have to push them out and the effort can be strenuous. I’m afraid it will feel a little like shooting one out.
After that, please refer to On Your Way, which is on the fiftieth shelf of the library. You will not be able to fly for an extended time but with practice you can hover well enough to reach it. Remember Sprite’s Law of antigravity. Good luck.’
No time like the present, right? Following the instructions, I closed my eyes, clenched my fists and tensed my whole body, squeezing until I shook. It wasn’t like doing a poo at all. It was like trying to make yourself explode, which was much more unpleasant. Without warning, relief swept over me and I felt something uncurl and touch the bookcase. I went still. It felt so odd to have what felt like two extra limbs hanging out of my back, but they weren’t as heavy as I thought they’d be. Slowly, I looked over my shoulder at my... my wings.
Hartley burst into the library and looked at me with disbelief. “What the hell are you doing here? You can’t just discharge yourself from the medical bay, the nurses went crazy looking for you. All the prefects are running around the uni trying to find you, idiot.”
Then he fully saw me and his jaw hung open. “How did you do it? How did you do it?!” he screamed at me. I was so tired I could only smile.
Over the next week in the medical bay, word seemed to spread pretty quickly, and soon I had an endless stream of students asking me questions. The jinx stopped me from saying certain things, as it had done to Lila at the start, but it allowed me to tell them enough so they’d go away. My wings were small, featherless and pretty ugly to be honest. But Professor Jet came to see me himself with a list of what I could and couldn’t eat, a big jar of a special cream to use daily, and the name of the seamstress who would modify my clothes for free. He leaned in close and whispered, “Well done. Keep reading.” Rapidly, my wings grew in size and sprouted smooth white feathers, with the inner barbs the same colour as my blonde hair.
When I was officially discharged, and the length of my wings matched my height, Hartley and I ran to the library – he whooped with glee when I jumped off the top stair and fluttered to the bottom, laughing with delight. We’d gathered quite a crowd when we finally burst in, and the prefects frowned at the Aviation students chanting “Fly! Fly! Fly!” but the students from other divisions also crowded around me with interest so the prefects struggled to break it up.
“Come on, Anne! Up! Up!” Hartley shouted, and then they all started shouting encouragements.
Beating my wings was tricky, like trying to make my little finger move on its own, but once I managed to isolate the feeling I raised my arms out to the side and soared.
It was more tiring than I ever could have predicted but so worth it. I picked up speed, and the thirteenth shelf became the thirtieth shelf, and I just kept going up until at last, and long last, I could see the top. The edge of the shelves jutted out much further up here so I could sit or even stand on them. As it happened, I collapsed onto the shelf, dizzy, but not dizzy enough to see that every single book up here had blank covers. I pulled one out and let it fall open. The pages were blank.
Ashana Lian .
10 October 2014
If posted, the Author's Notes link will be here.