Sound effects used in the host spot are in the public domain and can be found here.
Grounded Women Never Fly
by Stefani Cox
It is the women of the community who can run, but don’t.
The women are the ones who can place a foot just so, another precisely calculated in front of it and leap across yards of empty space. If the women did move in this way, there would be a rhythm. The settling of muscles. A steeling of the mind for the goal of the further rooftop. And the moment when the visualizations and intention explode into movement.
For a short time, such a woman would experience flight. There would be a spreading of arms accompanied by weightlessness; the thrill of a body propelled over nothingness. She could bridge impossible distances this way. She could crisscross from building to building among the packed houses. She could scale walls.
This magic is not a substitute for wings, for this woman would still be humbled by gravity. It’s just that that such a force would seem a mere afterthought. An inconvenience to be shrugged off.
In the end, however, none of what they could do really matters, does it? Because the women do not run.
The hardest day of Janae’s twenty years of life was the one that Lila left the family. She remembers this while she beats rugs she’s hung over the frayed drying cord between their home and the Medillas’. The weight of the water-sodden weave pulls the thick string down so the carpets are almost touching the earth. That won’t do. Janae needs to pound more water out of them before she can leave the sun to finish the job.
Even if Janae could understand, she doesn’t want to. She beats the rug hard as she imagines again the back of Lila’s head, black duffel bag hung over one shoulder. When Lila went, the family changed. Their mother became dull. Their father left too — Lila had always been his favorite. Janae was left with a shimmering rage and something more tender underneath that she can’t stand feeling too long. The water in the rugs is dissipating slowly. Each time Janae takes a swing, more droplets fly off. The sun beats down on the back of her neck, and she can feel the sweat rising up from her exertions.
It is then that Janae catches the barest hint of red fabric at the edge of her vision. A flutter, though there is no wind. Without looking, Janae knows this cloth. It is Lila’s dress on the day she left. The burning shade is locked in her mind’s eye forever. Janae tenses to turn. But no. She will not indulge this fantasy by looking. Some memories are just memories.
Lila was the older one, by five years. She taught Janae running late in the humid silences of the night, from the safety of the rooftop. Lila lay flat on her stomach, chin resting on the back of her interlaced hands so she could watch the exact placement of Janae’s feet.
“Don’t touch your heels down. You’ll make too much noise.”
“Faster. You run as though you are afraid of the edge.”
“Where will you leap? Your footing is off.”
“Don’t look at me when you are unsure. You have to feel it in yourself.”
Her words cut, each phrase leading Janae to believe that she would never master this thing that came to her sister so easily. When Lila grew too impatient with Janae’s progress, she would push up from the uneven concrete.
“Like this,” she declared and flung herself forward, feet thrashing but somehow not making a sound as she approached the gap between their house and the Medillas’ and leapt. She made the forty-foot space seem like an inch and waved to Janae from the other side.
Truthfully, Janae was afraid of the edge. She still is. She has dreams about the lip of the roof melting away just as she goes to put her foot down. She steps down on air and gasps awake.
Janae wonders now — realizing that the rugs are finally dry enough — if Lila ever felt like that, during everything that happened. Was she always as surefooted as she seemed? In the corner of Janae’s vision, the red fabric withdraws.
No one knows where the ability came from, but everyone remembers the afterward.
It was Alsi Menton from fourth sector who was the first to do it. The witnesses say they saw her carrying water back from the desertfarer stands just after sunset, when a group of three men lit on her tail. A woman alone, carrying something as precious as water at that time of day? clucked the whispers.
Alsi was jumped five blocks from her home. One of the water cans fell to the earth and split open. It was such a clear and utter waste that Alsi’s three assailants froze in anguish. One witness recognized them as brothers from a starving, thirsting family a half-mile away. Whatever their situation, they loosed Alsi in their surprise, and she flew up a wall. That’s exactly how it was described.
Like the devil.
I’ve never seen someone climb that fast.
I don’t think she was even touching it.
She was five rooftops away by the time anybody could catch up to her.
After Alsi, other women started to notice the change. It was as though they had all grown wings.
I just feel lighter, said one.
I can’t explain how to do it.
It’s like something I remembered after a very long time.
Women should be grounded, said the local politicians, who were mostly men. It’s not fair for some in the community to experience that which others cannot.
The community became divided between those in favor of running and those opposed. There were rallies and protests on both sides. It was the most controversy their small city had seen in decades.
What settled the matter was more a question of numbers than anything. Too many women simply did not want to run. A few experimented and then stopped running on their own. Some were too afraid to try it in the first place. Others refused to believe the power really existed.
It’s not necessary, said Janae’s mother, ever practical. Why bother when there is so much work to be done?
So running quickly became a thing of the past, as everyone tried to forget that it was ever even an option.
“Why should I learn to run if it’s wrong?” asked Janae.
The two of them were stationed in an alley this time for yet another practice session. The shadows stretched to menace all around. Janae was tired of the constant drills. Her feet felt like dead things at the end of her legs, but she still hadn’t managed to climb up the side of the bricks as Lila was trying to teach her. She was frustrated and snappy and wanted none of Lila’s usual cryptic answers.
“What is the point of all of this?”
Even in the dark, Janae could tell Lila had sharpened her focus on her sister. She could feel Lila’s eyes appraising her. “What do you feel like when you run?” asked Lila.
The question only irritated her further at first. She can’t run. That was the whole problem. The entire thing was just too hard.
But then, Janae remembered one moment the past week, when after an hour of working with Lila she managed to jump a gap that was fifteen feet wider than anything she’d leapt before. The thrill of air with the certainty of her landing already a knowledge in her body — well, in that moment she felt better than she had for the rest of her life combined.
Lila nodded, as she watched Janae relive her memory. “We have to feel the joy sometimes, Janae. That’s why I’m teaching you, so that you will always know you can fly.”
It was the next week when Lila was spotted running on her own late one night — later even than the lessons she led for Janae. The officers didn’t send a notice, but Janae’s family got a tip from the Medillas, who knew someone at the precinct. Her parents flailed.
“Why do you do this?”
“You know the rules!”
“You have brought this upon yourself.”
Janae’s response was was different. “You run without me? Since when have you run without me? And why? Why would you run alone? Why is the ground never enough?” But Lila wouldn’t answer.
Janae thinks maybe everyone knew that Lila would be gone the next morning, her bed made up, sheets tight and neat the way they never were otherwise. That was how Janae knew this leaving was final. The tidiness of Lila’s room was a peace offering, a goodbye in material words.
Janae beat pillows at night for weeks. She hit them with her fists over and over again in a synchronized rhythm, imagining Lila’s chest there, wanting the solidity of her, wanting something that she could touch to be mad at. She used to pummel her sister like this when they were both children, Janae’s tiny fists bouncing off Lila’s stomach. Lila was never hurt. Lila never told her to stop. She simply let Janae do what she needed to do to vent the ceaseless energy she stored up. A soft casing of feathers would never substitute.
Most women who still want to run have learned to quell the urge. It is easier for them, since they never had a teacher like Lila. Certainly, they twitch and buck in their sleep from time to time. Yes, they do glance wistfully skyward throughout the day. But they have long since learned that to get a man, to feed a family, to be respected by the community, they will have to stay at one level, they will have to make being a woman a gentle thing. They learn a different kind of magic. A magic of transformation, of illusion, of presentation.
Janae sees her mother roll in sleep every now and then, but it is a vague and fitful movement, nothing that cannot be pushed down further into unconsciousness. Janae’s mother has silenced the urge to run. Over and over and over yet again. But perhaps, Janae thinks, perhaps her mother has also forced down a part of herself in the process. She wonders how much joy is missing in the world because of it.
Two days later, Janae goes back into the courtyard to pull the rugs from the line. She’s had time to think about what she saw Monday. She’s no longer so sure it wasn’t her sister. This time Janae wants a firm answer.
She moves close to one of the rugs, as though to examine it for loose threads or remnants of dirt. There is nothing there of course. She’s thorough in her chores — everyone is these days. The age of room for error is over. But moving close to the weave gives Lila a chance to make her appearance — that is, if she was ever really there at all.
Janae waits, hardly daring to breathe, as she listens for any giveaways from her sister. But she only has gifted movement, not gifted hearing. Her senses tell her nothing.
Eventually, she decides the guessing game is over. Janae turns around and sees Lila, perched like a bird on the top of the compound wall. Her sister has changed. Lila is older. She’s aged more than the six months she’s been gone. She’s lost some of her softness, and her eyes have gained an edge. Janae’s first thought is to wonder if Lila finds enough to eat on her own. It’s hard to survive outside the family unit in this time of scarcity.
For a moment, the two simply regard one another.
“Why are you back?” asks Janae.
Lila doesn’t move.
“I needed you,” she tries.
“I’m still running.”
Lila nods once. It is a tiny gesture, and Janae would have missed it, if not for her utter stillness otherwise.
“I’m sorry,” speaks her sister finally. She extends a hand.
Janae’s first instinct is to look around for her mother or their neighbors to make sure no one is watching. But she’s afraid that if she glances away, even for a moment, Lila will be gone again. She already knows there will be no second chance.
So she makes a choice. Janae looks up at her big sister, takes a step backward, and then leaps forward and up the wall to grasp ahold of Lila’s waiting arm. For a moment she is afraid the limb is imaginary, that her grip will pass through a mirage. Janae doesn’t allow herself any breaths between her leap and the contact of skin. But what she feels at last — what she touches — is a solid revelation.
Do you remember how I taught you?
Do you remember how to put your feet?
Don’t be afraid. Nothing hurts once you become air.
About the Author
Stefani Cox is a speculative fiction writer based in Los Angeles, and an MFA student at Stonecoast. Her work has appeared on the LeVar Burton Reads podcast, as well as in FIYAH, Speculative City, and the Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers anthology. Stefani has previously edited with the fabulous PodCastle team, and is also an alumna of the VONA/Voices workshops. She has another short story coming out in the anthology Black from the Future: A Collection of Black Speculative Writing and is currently in progress on her first novel. Find her on Twitter @stefanicox or her website stefanicox.com. If you like her stuff, feel free to send some support her way through Ko-fi: ko-fi.com/stefanicox.
About the Narrator
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published in or has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, and FIYAH. Khaalidah also co-edits podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com and on Twitter at @khaalidah.