The Man who Knew How to Fly

This is, perhaps, my favorite story ever. The following is my own translation of a Hebrew translation from the original Czech, so don't expect scintillating language...


By Karel Čapek

Mr. Tomašek walked on the road passing around Vojnohrady hospital; he used to stroll that way in order to keep in shape, as his health was dear to him more than anything. Mr. Tomašek was also a devout sports fan, primarily an enthusiastc spectator of the National League soccer matches. At that moment he was stepping lightly in the spring dusk, and perhaps here, perhaps there, would meet a couple in love or somebody from Strašnice. I should have bought a step meter, he thought to himself, so as to know how many steps I take in one day.

He remembered suddenly it was the third night he had been having the exact same dream: he walks down the street, but in his way stands a woman with a baby carriage; he makes a slight leap, pushing with his left foot, and at that very second he rises to a height of ten feet. Then he flies over the woman with the carriage and lands, after hovering boastfully. The dream did not surprise him at all. The thing seemed to him self evident and caused a feeling of untold pleasure, yet it was somewhat ridiculous that nobody before him had tried it. For there is nothing simpler - he just has to move his legs a little, as if he were riding a bicycle, and he is rising high again, cruising at the height of the first floor and returning leisurely to the ground. A light leap is enough, and there he is, flying effortlessly; he doesn't need to touch the ground at all, just to move his legs - and he continues to fly. In his dream, Mr. Tomašek had felt obliged to laugh out loud at the fact that nobody else besides him had yet discovered the trick. Indeed, it is easier and more natural than walking, Mr. Tomašek had realized in his dream. 'Tomorrow, when I wake up, I'll have to try it again.' For three consecutive nights, he dreamt the very same dream. It was a pleasant dream; he felt as if his body completely lost its weight...

How wonderful it would be if it were possible to fly without trouble, just make a little leap - Mr. Tomašek looked around him. Nobody was following him. Mr. Tomašek began a light run, just for fun, as if he were about to hop over a puddle. At that moment he rose to a height of ten feet and flew in a moderate curve above the ground. He wasn't astonished at all; it seemed natural and obvious, he just felt sweet excitement, as if he were riding a carrousel. Mr. Tomašek almost let out a cry of childish delight, but after a hundred feet he got close to what turned out to be muddy ground. He moved his legs again, just like he had done in his dream, and immediately he took off and then got back down and landed on the ground lightly and without the slightest tremor, at a distance of about 50 feet, behind the back of a man whose feet had taken him in a melancholic walk towards Strašnice. The man stared at him suspiciously; apparently he didn't like having someone walk behind him without having heard his footstepes first. Mr. Tomašek passed him, trying as best he could not to raise further suspicion; he was almost afraid to step too energetically lest he might leap and start flying again.

I must try this properly, said Mr. Tomašek to himself and took the same abandoned road home, but, as if they were conspiring against him, he kept meeting couples in love and train workers. There was nothing else for it but to turn to a side path which led to a deserted lot which was being used for the disposal of garbage. It was already dark, but Mr. Tomašek feared he might forget his skill by the next day. This time he leapt with some hesitation; he rose to a height of three feet and landed on the ground somewhat roughly. He tried it again while using his hands, as if he were swimming. This time he flew a distance of two hundred and fifty feet, made a half circle to boot and touched the ground with the gentleness of a dragonfly. He wanted to try it for the third time, but at that moment a beam of light flooded him and a rough voice asked: 'What are you doing here?' It was a police patrol.

In shock and terror, Mr. Tomašek stuttered. 'I am practicing here,' he told the officers. 'Then be good enough to buzz off to some other place and practice there,' raged the policeman, 'but not here.' Mr. Tomašek didn't quite understand why he was permitted to practice anywhere else but there, but being a law abiding citizen he wished the officer a good night and got away hurriedly. He was anxious not to fly unwittingly, which might raise the police officers' suspicion. Only after having reached the National Institute of Health, he leapt into the air again. He rose over the barbed wire and, using his hands, flew over the institute's garden from one side to the other, all the way to Crown street, where he landed next to a maid who was carrying a pitcher of beer in her hand. She cried out and fled.

Mr. Tomašek estimated he had flown for six hundred feet; he considered it an excellent beginning. During the following days he diligently engaged in his flying practice, only at night and in deserted places, of course, especially near the Jewish cemetery, not far from Olšeny. He tried different methods, such as taking off after a sprint or vertically from where he stood. With no difficulty, just by kicking with his legs, he managed a height of three hundred feet, but couldn't find the boldness to rise higher than that. Then he tried different methods of coming down, such as an elegant landing or a steep, slow drop. That was accomplished by using his hands; he also learned how to control his speed and change direction in mid-flight, fly against the wind, with a weight in his hand, go up and down as needed and so on. Everything was as simple as can be; Mr. Tomašek became more and more puzzled that people hadn't yet found this out, for apparently nobody before him had attempted to leap and fly. On one occasion he stayed in the air for the whole of seventeen minutes, but then got entangled in phone lines and decided to come down. One night he tried to fly along Russia street; he flew at a height of twelve feet and when he noticed two policemen behind him, hurried to turn to the gardens of an expensive neighborhood. As he was flying, he heard the sharp police whistles piercing the quiet of the night. He returned to the same place on foot, and saw six policemen combing the garden using flashlights. He was told they were following a thief who had climbed over the fence.

Only at that point did Mr. Tomašek realize the immense advantages of his ability to fly, but no practical idea occurred to him. One night he was tempted by an open third floor window in Yeji Melovkowitz square. Mr. Tomašek got there after a light leap. He sat on the window ledge, and had no idea what to do next. He heard the sound of someone who was clearly immersed in a deep, noisy sleep. He sneaked into the room, but, since he had no intention of stealing, remained standing there, filled with the feeling of uneasiness and embarrassment which a person finding himself in somebody else's apartment is bound to experience. Mr. Tomašek let out a sigh and climbed back towards the window, but in order to leave a mark behind, testifying to his athletic achievement, he fished a piece of paper from his pocket and wrote on it with a pencil: 'I was here!! The Avenger X.' He left the paper on the man's side table, and dropped noiselessly from the third floor. Only after arriving home, he realized that the piece of paper had been nothing other than an envelope with his address, but he couldn't find the courage to go back and retrieve it. For a few days he was in a state of terrible anxiety, fearing the police might investigate the matter, but, to his great surprise, nothing happened.

After a while, Mr. Tomašek began to feel that he could no longer indulge in flying as a private, secret hobby, but he had no idea how he should make his discovery available to the public at large. For there is nothing simpler - all you need to do is leap and use your hands a little and there you are, flying like a bird. Perhaps a new athletic field would be born, or perhaps it would be possible, for instance, to ease trafffic on the streets if people fly instead of walk. And it would no longer be necessary to build elevators. At any rate, this would be an immensely significant discovery; true, Mr. Tomašek wasn't sure what it would actually turn into, but things will surely take their own course. Every great discovery seems initially nothing but an idle toy.

In Mr. Tomašek's building lived a young, fat neighbor, called Witta, one who was working for a newspaper. Yes, he was the editor of a sports column or something of the sort. One day, Mr. Tomašek called on Master Witta, and after beating about the bush for a while, indicated that it was within his power to show him something of interest. He wasn't willing to let out his secret, and Mr. Witta was of the opinion that he was dealing with a weirdo. However, after a great deal of begging and persuading, he obliged and at nine o'clock in the evening the two men went to the Jewish cemetery.

'Well, observe, Mr. Editor,' said Mr. Tomašek, leapt off the ground and rose to a height of approximately fifteen feet. There he performed some exercises, came down to the ground again, rose again while waving his hands vigorously and even remained, hovering in mid-air, for exactly eight seconds. Mr Witta became extremely serious and started examining Mr. Tomašek's exercises carefully. The latter demonstrated everything patiently: a slight leap suffices and you're up in the air; no, there is not one bit of spiritualism involved and no superpwers are needed. Even a power of will or muscle is not necessary, you just leap and fly. 'Try it yourself, Mr. editor,' he begged of him, but Mr. Witta nodded his head. 'There must be some sort of trick here,' he thought aloud. 'I will get to the bottom of this,' he stated. He asked Mr. Tomašek not to show it to anybody in the meantime.

The next time, Mr. Tomašek was obliged to fly in the presence of Witta while holding in his hands weights of ten pounds each. This time it was not as good a performance, and he only rose to a height of ten feet. But Mr. Tomašek was satisfied. After the third flight Mr. Witta said: 'Well, look here Mr. Tomašek, I don't want to alarm you, but this is a very serious matter. Self-propelled human flight is of the utmost significance. For instance, in terms of defending our homeland, understood? This issue has to be dealt with professionally. You know, Mr. Tomašek, in my opinion you have to demonstrate this in the presence of experts. I'll take care of that.'

And so, one day, Mr. Tomašek was standing, wearing shorts, in front of four gentlemen. The meeting took place in the yard of the National Physical Education Institute. Mr. Tomašek was ashamed of his nakedness; he was nervous and shivered from the cold, but Mr Witta wouldn't relent: the exercise absolutely had to be perfomed wearing shorts so that everybody could see how he was doing it. One of those gentlemen, a muscular, bald man, was a professor of gymnastics at the university. It was evident from his expression that the whole thing made no sense to him; even his nose made it clear that, from a scientific point of view, he regarded the exercise as complete nonsense. He glanced at his watch impatiently and grunted.

'Well, Mr. Tomašek,' Mr. Witta got excited, 'demonstrate it to us with a leap.' Startled, Mr. Tomašek ran two steps.

'One moment,' the expert stopped him. 'Your leap is extremely bad. You have to shift your weight to the left foot, understood? Repeat!'

Mr. Tomašek tried again, attempting to shift his weight to the left foot.

'And the hands, sir,' the expert gave him the benefit of his knowledge. 'You have no idea what to do with your hands. You should keep your arms in such a position that your chest is expanded. And before, during the leap, you held your breath. This you mustn't do. You have to breathe deeply. Be relaxed. Please, repeat!'

Mr. Tomašek got confused. Now he really didn't know what to do with his hands and how to breathe. He fidgeted and looked for the center of mass of his body.

'Now!' called Mr. Witta.

Mr. Tomašek swung like a pendulum and started to run, but at the moment when he was about to take off, the expert snapped: 'Bad! Hold on!'

Mr. Tomašek tried to stop, but without success. He leapt weakly and flew to a height of three feet, but since he wanted to obey the command, dropped to the ground and remained standing.

'Extremely bad,' yelled the expert, 'you must move to a crouching position! Drop on your toes and move like a spring! And push your hands forward, understood? After all, your hands carry the moment of inertia, sir, that is a natural movement. Wait,' said the expert, 'I will show you how to leap. Watch closely how I do it.' He threw pff his jacket and moved to the line. 'Please pay attention, sir, the center of mass rests on the left foot, the leg is pulled back and the body leans forward, my elbows I keep behind, so as to expand the chest. Now you do the same!'

Mr. Tomašek mimicked his movements; he had never felt so small and uncomfortable before. 'You have got to practice,' said the expert, 'and now look! On the left foot I am leaping forward - ' the expert leapt, ran six steps as his arms moved in a beautiful circle, then dropped elegantly to a crouching position, with his arms extended forward. 'That's how it's done,' he said and pulled at his pants. 'Do it the same way I did.'

Mr. Tomašek turned a shocked, miserable look at Mr. Witta. Was it really necessary?

'Again,' said Mr. Witta and Mr. Tomašek twisted to carry out the order. 'Now!' Mr. Tomašek's legs got entangled, he leapt on his left foot. 'Maybe they'll overlook it, provided I crouch and extend my hands,' he thought as he ran. He almost neglected to jump, but hurriedly leapt - 'just let me crouch successfully!' flashed the thought in his mind. He leapt to a height of order. 'Now!' Mr. Tomašek's legs got entangled, he leapt on his left foot. 'Maybe they'll overlook it, provided I crouch and extend my hands,' he thought as he ran. He almost neglected to jump, but hurriedly leapt - 'just let me crouch successfully!' flashed the thought in his mind. He leapt to a height of two feet and fell on the ground at a distance of five feet. Then he hurriedly moved to a crouching position and extended his arms forward.

'But Mr. Tomašek,' shouted Mr. Witta, 'you didn't fly at all! I beg of you, try again!'

Mr. Tomašek leapt again. He jumped a distance of five feet, but managed to land crouching and remembered to extend his hands. He was drenched in sweat and his heart was beating hard. 'God, why don't they let me go,' he despaired.

On that day he leapt twice more, but then they were obliged to forego the rest.

From that day on, Mr. Tomašek no longer knew how to fly.

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