[excerpts from my short story work-in-progress “Charlie Burtree Can Fly”]
Charlie Burtree discovered this surprising ability quite by accident 300 vertical feet from the summit of Mt. Everest. The discovery jarred him, coming so suddenly as it did in the very shadow of the roof of the world. But in other ways, it was perfectly inevitable. Charlie’s entire life had anticipated just such a discovery. Hadn’t this time and place been–all along–patiently waiting for Charlie to arrive? If not the time and place and moment, hadn’t the dream recurring since his childhood of arcs of flight’s freedom above the clouds, prepared him for exactly this discovery?
Viewed from outside his frozen oxygen mask, Charlie’s smile is a rictus. He sits in the snow at 28,728 feet above sea level, nearly five and one-half miles. And except for the 300 feet still looming between him and the summit, as near to the limits of outer space as a human can get on foot. There Charlie Burtree sits, his feet dangling over the edge of a dangerously corniced ice ridge. To the mountain, he is a tiny blue speck in a vast expanse of angry winds and frozen crags. His red-booted feet swing like a child’s over the crest of ice and snow, relentlessly sculpted by the howling wind.
Weeks before, Charlie heard the temple drum as he trekked through Tengboche on his way to Base Camp. Tengboche, where prayers were offered to the mountain, the temple priests barely breathing as they spoke her name, ‘Chomolungma,’ Mother. Tengboche, where the slow cadence of the ceremonial drum carried whispers on the wind to the mountain herself. Charlie marveled at the drum, as wide as the span of his arms, suspended like a gong at one end of the temple, and at the precision with which the priest swung the long mallet. With each blow, the drum’s breath filled Charlie and its voice rumbled through him, filling the temple, spilling into the black canyons beyond.