Jan Irene Miller and
Cristal Guderjahn

Jan Irene Miller
“Wings of Hope”
Acrylic on Paper, 30″X22.5″

By Cristal Guderjahn
Inspiration piece

Miller’s Canyon was a two-mile walk from my house, and it took about half an hour to get there, longer if I stopped to throw dirt clods at the water tower. The canyon was a mile-wide mouth in our flat valley, with black walls that dropped into shadows that outlined a narrow river I had never seen. If I stood on my toes on a boulder, or if I lay on my stomach and crawled out to the rim to hang my head over the edge, I could see more. I could see sheer rock faces dotted with dried brush, water stains that fell deep into the shadows, cracks that followed in parallel, wild grass and cypress trees long dead. Nothing seemed to live there. I had sat on its edge for several hours at a time and had never seen so much as a hawk hover or a lizard lying in the sun.
The canyon was imperceptible from a distance. Whenever I went there, I was surprised at how suddenly it appeared before me, as if it had been hiding all along, out of sight and ready to swallow me if I forgot to pay attention. There’s a story about Miller’s Canyon, about a man who, attracted to rumors of its depth, walked several miles to see it. He grew so tired from his trek that he walked straight into it, stepping right off the edge without consideration or fear, without stopping to ponder the darkness of the precipice but simply drawn to its mystery. He fell to his death. I never did believe the story, although I often imagined his walk toward it, and I could see him falling, head first, into the broad, bottomless hole.
When we were twelve, my friend Franklin thought he could fly. That summer, the two of us would lie in the grass field behind my apartment building, staring upward and talking about his travel plans, about the balsa-wood and cedar wings I was helping him build in his garage. I envied him. Flying was no dream to negotiate. Franklin knew the world was wrong, and I believed, truly, that he deserved a fair chance to prove it. And if he failed, I doubted the damage would be anything more than embarrassment. Of course my new fondness for Franklin prevented me from thinking logistically. I never considered how high Miller’s canyon wall was, never thought to ask if he needed a safety strap or a parachute. I assumed he’d taken care of that and thought of everything and mapped each possibility. Franklin was very complex.         His wings were elegant, intricate, airworthy. They stretched from one end of his garage to the other, a giant white wingspan across a dark cement floor. We built them together—two feather-shaped wooden frames, to which we stapled large sheets of translucent white nylon. Each frame held a delicate network of nylon kite string latticed across geometric shapes. At first glance, the wings looked like spider webs woven by an amateur. But a closer look revealed a geometric playground, a complicated coordinate system of isosceles and equilateral triangles, parallelograms, triangles, countless Euclidean geometry equations. Franklin was brilliant.
The entire summer, I devoted everything to his project. This was our summer, and our determination fueled us to make a mark on the world. At least Franklin’s mark. At twelve, I hadn’t really considered making my own; I was much more interested in securing the attention of my classmate, who had secured all of my attention by smiling at me.     We were classmates at Sorenson Middle School, and we had met the previous spring on a field trip to the local tar pits. I sat beside him on the bus ride back to school, listening to him tell of his fascination with the tremendous number of carnivore bones that archeologists had found inside the pit, our ecosystem having been inhabited mostly by herbivores. I had grown tired after a day of listening to the tour guide’s talk about dinosaurs and evolution and I craved humor. Instead of attempting to enhance a conversation I could not possibly enhance, I submitted that inside the tar pits must have been the remains of a mass carnivore suicide, which was a stupid thing to submit, even in conversation, and which Franklin didn’t seem to find amusing. He just squinted at me for a long time and then turned to stare out the window. He sat like that for several blocks, while I suddenly worried that he’d found me infantile. I tried to save my reputation with a clever comment that never came.
“No, they were trapped,” he said, still fixed onto the street. I watched his eyes flutter as they settled briefly on passing landmarks. “They chased their prey into the tar, then got caught themselves. And they just couldn’t get away. They just sat there, stuck, knowing they were going to die. I mean, really knowing it. Ready for it.”    I said nothing, not wanting to sound stupid, because he was, after all, a boy, and I was, after all, a girl, who by popular middle-school notion and personal experience would better serve the boys around her by keeping her mouth shut. At twelve, I was much more clumsy than calculating, much more interested in teen television stars and leg-shaving than Earth’s origin. Keeping quiet on this bus would have to be my attempt at seeming thoughtful, a way I imagined to please Franklin. And it seemed to work. He turned to me, laughed out loud, and slapped my bare leg. The two girls in the seat in front of us turned around and scowled.
“Think about the birds!” he said, not to the girls, but in their direction. “All those bones. They’re bones from predators; they’re all scavengers. They hovered over the trees, then swooped down to kill and eat all the rats, and fall into the tar pit. Can’t you see it?”    Yes, I could see it, whatever it was. And it was no doubt beautiful, because at that moment, with the sting in my thigh, I noticed Franklin’s exquisite smile—white and wide and perfect. The hair on his forehead hung straight, pointing to a pair of eyes the color of a profound summer sky. Two splashes of heated pink flushed his cheeks. It was only a moment, perhaps two seconds. It was really only enough time to gasp, and I suppressed it with every thing I had. I knew enough, given my protracted experience at twelve, not to indulge these moments, because if I looked even a split-second too long, he’d notice my cheeks flushing, and they would reveal my internal agony.
Playfully I bared all my teeth back at him, squinted, and growled. It was a good way to ward off passion and impress him with my ability to be his buddy. The girls ahead of us turned around again with their twisted lips. He returned the growl and clawed the air before us, attacking a fledgling pterodactyl, eagerly wadding the animal into a delicious ball of bone and crunchy skin. This was love, all right.    After that bus ride, we met after school nearly every day. We lay in the grass behind my apartment building, Franklin telling me of his plans to build the great wings that would carry him to Hawaii, and Mexico, and Fiji. I plucked ladybugs from his pant legs, holding them close to my face to examine their wings. Franklin knew everything about flight, about aerodynamics and gliding. He knew that flying fish didn’t really fly, that they simply launched themselves out of the water with their tails. He seemed most fascinated with the idea of falling forward with open wings, perhaps someday into Miller’s Canyon, then swooping skyward just before reaching the bottom. But then, we believed Miller’s Canyon had no bottom.
So instead of joining the seventh graders at camp that summer, I joined Franklin in his garage. This was Franklin’s sacred laboratory, a dark workshop he had taken over the year before, a few months after he had walked in to find his father lying on the garage floor after the man’s heart stopped beating. He seemed to revere his father’s tools, which hung on nails above the workbench, each matched to a white chalk outline on the wall behind.  Franklin cleaned the tools with a rag and touched up the chalk outlines. He said he felt closer to his father to hold the things his father had held. And in time, the garage gave him a sense that his father still stood next to him as he worked, even as we smoothed the spider-web wooden frame with fine-grained sandpaper. I never experienced the sense that his father joined us, however, and thought it too spooky a matter to pursue. It was easier to consider this another example of Franklin’s eccentricity, and for me, another reason to appreciate him.    I couldn’t imagine my new friend with his father, because Franklin seemed lonely and preoccupied most of the time. Even with me, his obedient friend, he was often so dark and focused that he rarely broke from his work to discuss other subjects. Me, for example. He’d never asked me anything about me, he’d only discussed our mutual alignment. This didn’t stop me from helping, however, because I knew that to win Franklin would take diligence, that to catch his attention I’d have to work at his side, absorb his philosophy, become much better at math.
It was bound to take time. Despite the fact that I had the entire summer, I progressed no further than demonstrating simple loyalty. Franklin was inaccessible, detached. Though he seemed to appreciate and enjoy my company, sometimes his laughter seemed forced, as if he knew he should laugh at things but didn’t quite know how. Indeed, I thought things seemed wildly tragic to him, but never hopeless. Franklin had dreams.     “I’m going to fly.”    “I know,” I said. “I believe you.”     “These wings are gonna work.”     “I know.”
One July afternoon, Franklin talked about death but said he wasn’t afraid of it, even though he’d seen it on the cement floor of the garage. To him, life began, then ended; he would eventually end too, and there was nothing morbid about confronting the idea. I listened and said very little because I rarely thought about death. The closest I had ever come to death was the summer my pet rat died in the heat of the backyard. And even then, my father had wrapped him in newspaper and thrown him in the trashcan before I got home, so I gained no concept of death or its finality. Franklin refused to believe that death was terrifying; it was simply a law of nature. And certain.     My comments leaned toward thoughtful, generally, although I attempted metaphoric at times, thinking it intellectual to find similarity in things. I said that death was a tugboat pulling a ship into the ocean, like a slingshot to ancestors and the great deceased. And once we died, we’d know all the answers.     “Answers to what?” he said.     “To everything.”    Always easier to generalize and shrug, then change the subject to the project at hand. It was always more difficult to prove my aptitude in thought and logic. I was far too distracted with distracting him with my eagerness and dedication. And he was often dismissive, which protect me from saying anything too idiotic.     As the wings neared their final form, I devoted all free time to working with Franklin. It became the only way I could be with him, and I was unfailing. Our lazy afternoons in the sun and grass soon gave way to intensive hours in the garage, hours that stretched into evenings with little light and a constant cloud of fine dust. And I was there—handing him tools, helping him sand the intricate structure, the web wood that would be Franklin’s feathers. Providing solutions to small problems. We were engineers, scientists, and he was teaching me about geometry. My devotion grew with every new part of the structure. Each time we completed a task, attach a new feather frame, Franklin’s expression was my reward. I’d wait for his eyes to look my way, to acknowledge my help, to give evidence of his appreciation for my work and my interest.
One day I announced boldly, “I think I’m gonna be a pilot.” My words stopped him from sanding, and he looked up. I rarely had things to say that would provoke such a response, and when I did, my heart flew. Now I had Franklin’s attention.    “I think that’s a great idea. You’ll make a good pilot.”     “You think so?”     He had returned to his sanding, and I suppressed my flying heart, kept my cool, tried to appear bored and melancholy.
“Of course. You’ve got the perfect attitude for flying. You’re always looking at the sky, just like me. And you always talk about it. I mean, what else is here to talk about, really? It’s just right, that’s all.”     “I really need to be in the air.”    “It’s a good idea. When we’re done with my wings, I’ll help you.”     It was as good as a marriage proposal. I cut small pieces of sandpaper and handed them to him as he needed, while I planned our lives together and put us in a house by the ocean, on a cliff surrounded by horizon, with plenty of room on our property for wing-building.
We would stock our roomy workshop with the industry’s state-of-the-art tools, thousands of them, because the world would need our wings. The world could see how important and natural flight was. And we would install birdfeeders to lure birds around us so we could study them to improve our designs, because as people grew tired of simple flight, they’d need the ability to perform stunts, to swoop in and out of canyons with little effort. Franklin asked me what I was smiling about, and it was easy to keep quiet.

With our final structure completed, we pulled the sheets of thin white nylon over each section of the wing, using a staple gun to secure the fabric. I held the fabric in place and planted staples into the wood, until I accidentally shot one through the tip of my index finger—a messy mishap that sent blood splattering and prompted our removal of an entire section. We replaced it, this time with Franklin at the gun. I held my bandaged finger and hoped the pain would never subside, because each time my finger throbbed, as I sat at the dinner table with my parents or lay alone in my dark room at night, I felt closer to him.     We finished the project in late August. On the scheduled day, just before sunset, Franklin and I, scientist and assistant, stood on the small mound of gravel behind the middle school, the wings ready and our moods already soaring. I helped him strap the structure around his chest and waist. He pulled the goggles off my arm and settled them over his eyes. Standing before me with his wings attached, Franklin seemed to have grown since June, though perhaps only in my imagination.
“You’ve gotten taller,” I told him.     Ignoring my attempt at personal conversation, he answered, “I’m ready. You got the stopwatch?” I could see his eyes peering through the goggles. My face burned.     “Check,” I said, and I stuck my thumb in the air.     “I’ll go up for at least ten seconds. Keep an eye on the time.”    “I will.”     “Okay. Stand back.”     I stepped back about twenty feet.     The wings resting on each outstretched arm, Franklin was a white dragonfly with an enormous wingspan, open sails that appeared solely composed of light. He stood on the mound and looked upward, as if plotting his route. He pulled his arms above his head and brought them down heavily, slowly, then gradually increased the pace. I expected his body to spring upward, but instead I felt a slight rush of cool air. His air. From my twenty feet, I could smell him, a sharp Dial-soap scent against a background of dirty clothes.
He stood there several minutes and flapped without taking flight. I could hear his breathing turn heavy. Franklin appeared almost deeply wrinkled, as if he had already grown older and was ready to sacrifice himself to whim. I worried for a moment that he might fail, that he would keep flapping without his feet ever leaving the ground, and that I would then need to say something comforting. I worried about his reaction, anticipated his disappointment, but then realized that if he failed this time, I’d be there to help him adjust the wings—even rebuild them if we had to. I was devoted; neither success nor failure could alter that devotion.
Franklin stared forward, his face coated in sweat, his hair forming dark strings on his forehead. Then he jumped, high, and right then, something strong, supreme, and invisible yanked his body skyward.     I shouted and watched Franklin’s lanky body vault several feet as I pressed the button on the stopwatch. His feet kicked violently, and he yelled something I couldn’t understand. He seemed to reach a high point, then float, as if he had shifted into a slower gear. His sneakers kicked again before he fell like dead weight toward the ground, but he flapped again and glided upward.
At once, I felt the urgency of our friendship, that we needed to hurry up and spend our lives together. That we needed to build wings for the world, raise birds, fly around our planet, because summer was almost over.
I looked at my watch: twenty-three seconds. His feet landed hard in the dirt, and he fell forward, wings and all. But his face was bright as he unbuckled the straps and crawled out of them to walk toward me. I smiled.    “Good job,” I said and held out my hand to shake his. “I knew you could do it.” His hand felt as chilled and as sweaty as mine.     “We’ll need to optimize the lift-to-drag ratio, but I was hoping we’d be ready for the canyon by the weekend,” he said. We turned toward the wings on the ground, exquisite and white, the sum of our collaboration and devout teamwork. But as he admired them and how they’d soon give him everything he wanted, I immediately hated them. I may have been proud, even happy for Franklin, but this victory suddenly felt like an intruder. I could see our end, the end of our work and the end of seeing him each day, and prayed the wings to fail him, just so we could return to the intimacy of his father’s garage. We stood there on the school grounds for a long while, not talking. The air shifted.     Franklin wiped the wet dust from his chin. I gripped the stopwatch and hoped I would think of the perfect thing to say, a disclosure that would make him admit that we had an inevitable and permanent link. The ache in my stomach proved it; if I didn’t say something, I’d lose my nerve, and it wouldn’t come back. Here it was, my first love, wearing dirty sneakers and a toothy smile, so far my only glimpse at a future with an accomplice. No one had moved my stomach like Franklin, and my stomach was indeed moving. I looked down at our feet and kicked a loose dirt clod at him, watched it break and shoot powdery specks on his shoe. Surely I could tackle this, but perhaps later, on a day when I wasn’t about to throw up.    “Right,” I said. “Lift-to-drag ratio. Let’s go fix it.”     We fixed whatever it was by Friday evening, and by six a.m. Saturday, the two of us shivered at the edge of the deep hole of Miller’s Canyon with a set of fine-looking wings on the ground next to us. The vastness of the place, the enormity of the feat before us, these seemed even greater shadowed in the pale light of morning. Franklin stood on the biggest boulder and looked down into the abyss, crossed his arms, stared into the dark where he’d soon glide, and said nothing. I looked down too and tried to see the river that snaked the canyon floor, but, as always, saw nothing. It was only the vague belief of a pre-adolescent girl that the Canyon I had known all my life contained a great mystery, and that mystery connected somehow to the hero, in my mind a man, yet in reality a boy of uncertain judgment.
Franklin took off his jacket and broke our long look down to crawl into the wings. His teeth chattered as I helped pull the wings onto his back and buckle the strap around his chest.     “Cold?” I asked.     “No, I’m good.”     I held out the goggles, which he pulled onto his head and over his eyes.    “Thanks.” He lifted his head to look at me through foggy plastic. I thought he should say something to thank me, but I also thought he should scream because he was afraid, or scream because what he felt was worse than fear. I wondered what waited for him and why Franklin had set his sight on the canyon, almost as if he knew it would work, that the wings would keep him safe, and that his father’s breath would hold him if the canyon air couldn’t. I returned the look and wanted to tell him that he was crazy, that the world was right and he couldn’t fly, that we couldn’t raise birds or children or fix the world if he failed. But then I remembered that he couldn’t fail, that he had done the math, and that I had to keep my confidence as unwavering as his.    I had given him my time and support, my open admiration, and he had taken it all, caught every moment and compliment I had offered, thanked me only when he’d remember or when I’d sigh and slump after too many hours of sanding.
Franklin’s eyes became dark lines behind the goggles. I was cold standing there. He took a deep breath and held it for a second. Then he said, “You’re the best.”     My stomach, forever painful, heaved and knotted. There was the one moment, the few words, the single expression that he had been paying attention. I felt a rush in my chest, a feeling I shall never forget. It was like my heart all at once had started pumping peanut butter and not blood. I could feel myself breathing, and a rush of heat surrounding my neck.
“You’re the best too,” I said. I wanted to leap onto him with all four limbs and lick his face, run my fingers through that crazy hair. I restrained and instead glanced down at my stopwatch to find something, anything to distract myself from reacting to what I was sure was an admission of his love.
“See you later.”     “You promise?” I had to ask. He nodded, and I again looked down at my stopwatch, a gesture that told him I would document things, that he could again count on me. I tried to look official. Had to hide the blush and pretend his words hadn’t stirred me so deeply.    He climbed onto the launch pad, the biggest boulder, and bent his knees. I looked up, sensing his height. I reveled in the moment, feeling a mixture of love, adoration, and fear. I grinned with the right half of my mouth and crossed my fingers. Franklin squatted, then straightened his legs and bent them again, leaning forward this time and lifting the wings above his head, all in the take-off sequence of a red-tail hawk. I watched his sneakers leave the boulder, and then, as before in the schoolyard, Franklin was in the air, headed up and out over the edge.
Instead of hovering, like we’d both imagined he would, he was falling, slowly at first. He lifted his wings above his head and left them there, perhaps too long, pausing enough to look up toward me before dropping his wings hard to his hips. I expected him to call out to me, but I only saw dark eyes and stringy hair, eyebrows pushed into the center of his face.
He was a white blur–in such pure contrast to the dark walls surrounding him that I could see that blur even after I closed my eyes. And I had closed my eyes, because there was something like panic in that face. Something that wouldn’t let me look until I knew he was out of sight. And then, his scream, a shrill call in a dim morning, pushed me somewhere behind the sound itself, and told me instantly that he hadn’t given me anything, nor had he paid me back for my constancy that summer. I decided to hold him to it, his See you later, I promise. I deserved his adoration, or at least his loyalty, in return and badly wanted the day when we could walk into a classroom with our pinkies linked. I was sure I could wait until September for it. I knew I had enabled another kind of flight for Franklin that summer: Through my generosity during the days in his garage, Franklin had discovered how to accept my help. It would become part of his character, a trait he could fine-tune. But now, after learning how to take without return, he was about to take himself from me.
I opened my eyes and aimed them across the canyon, then at the boulder. I couldn’t look down. I picked up a dirt clod and hurled it at the launch pad, and listened to a silence that made my ears throb. “Franklin!” I yelled as loud as I could. I threw another dirt clod and listened as a faint breeze pushed through the canyon, that recognizable swish of wind through brush, the sound of a shell at your ear. The wind rose and fell, then softened into distant apology for not returning my call.
“No, you promised. You promised you’d see me later.”  I crossed my arms and ignored the heavy fear that kept me from breathing calmly, felt for a moment that he had played some evil trick on me, and then waited for a second or two for Franklin’s hand to grab the stopwatch that hung from my neck. I hadn’t pushed the button. How could I forget that? And why didn’t he reach for me when he knew something wasn’t right? I imagined returning home without anyone, walking into my house and sitting alone on my bed. How could I run home alone for two quiet miles that were no doubt empty? But the breeze flew through my clothes and across my arms; he wouldn’t want anything from me.     I shouted his name again and heard my own voice repeat it from the canyon a second later. My temples and stomach hurt. With eyes closed, I could envision him at the bottom of the canyon by the river, lying on his back on the bank, a delicate tree branch resting across his neck. I saw his pale skin covered in water drops, mouth open and filled with water, eyes open to the sky, hands gently splayed, his broken wings outlining him in white.     “Franklin!”     I paced the rim and kicked more dirt, surrounded myself with dust, and felt it settle inside my nose and onto my teeth. I paced and kicked for a while, until I couldn’t anymore, and I kneeled to the ground and lay on my stomach. The sun moved overhead, throwing bright light everywhere. I lay on my stomach at the edge and stretched my neck as far as it would go but saw only black shadows.
At the boulder lay his plaid jacket in a flannel heap. I picked it up and sobbed into the plaid to smell him and remember his words: “You’re the best.” I looked out at the canyon again and called into the stillness, thinking of how empty eighth grade would be without him, how things would change without his fingers reaching for my hand. My heart pounded hard, and the space, or that distance from here to there, from me to anything else, became too far. Two miles. I had forgotten the name of my street. I cried quietly and waited for the sun to rise.     Without Franklin, I was sure to forget about the flying fish, about the mechanics of gliding. Without him, I would have nothing to say, nothing to expect or laugh about, no one who’d listen to my opinion. No one to help me become a pilot, no reason to become one. I would no longer predict his behavior, pick ladybugs off his pant legs, toss a thumb into the air when he needed it. I felt empty and silent, and listened to the vast quiet surrounding me. I knew I’d have to walk home alone on sun-heated, dark pavement.     I went to the edge and climbed onto the boulder to look again, this time on my toes. For the first time, I could see that river—black, inaccessible, with an empty shoreline that couldn’t give me back anything but a cold sting to the eyes. I, too, had grown that summer. It was much easier now to see everything below.     The shadows left, and I felt warmer when I stood again on my toes for a final look, to see the canyon floor flicker with thousands of white feathers. I pulled Franklin’s jacket to my face again and took deep breaths, then held my arm straight out and let go, let the jacket drop, watched it float, listened for the splash it wouldn’t make in the river.     I lay on the boulder, rested there for a long time with my cheek flat on the cool rock surface. The sun had moved overhead by the time I crawled down and again looked at the canyon. Without the long shadows or the cold, it could have been shallow and inviting. Water didn’t flow in the riverbed; the river hadn’t breathed in decades. Nothing moved around me except the canyon floor, which appeared to surface, filling the darkness with a fast-moving plane of sand and indistinct dead trees. I thought I could have easily walked to the other side without looking down and without falling. But the haze in that space between me and the other side kept me from stepping forward. All that kept me from lifting one foot was my will. Such a simple thing, I thought, to fall. And eighth grade, even high school, could be effortless if I left the canyon with Franklin’s courage.     Before I headed toward home, I looked across the canyon, not to say good-bye to anyone, but to secure the image, to ensure that I’d remember it all. I felt I would love Franklin forever, and I wanted to be the most important person he knew. If he ever came back, I wanted him to find me first.
Directly across from me on the cliff, standing on a large rock, a young boy grinned at me and waved. I watched him there, long enough to make sure I’d never forget him. His two feet were strong on the rock, two sneakers ready to jump anywhere. His dark hair hung stringy against his forehead, and his arms flapped a pair of liquid white wings now free of staples and dubious precision. They lifted him upward as if he weighed nothing, and he was gone.
Many years later, I’d recall those wings as I walked the marshes near my home to watch egrets sweep through the dark brown grass, sleek white bodies that would never consider flight anything but commonplace.

Inspiration piece

Note: All of the art, writing, and music on this site belongs to the person who created it. Copying
or republishing anything you see here without express and written permission from the author or
artist is strictly prohibited.