Falling is an art. It’s a skill that has to be learnt just like any other and it takes time. All the time in the world until you hit the ground. That’s what the instructor said and Karen believed him. She trusted him implicitly.
It all started when she was a small child. She would go out into the garden, clamber up on to a low stone wall, place one foot carefully in front of the other, and walk along its ledge. All children take a delight in doing this sort of thing. I used to do it myself.
It was her father who first began to notice how well she kept her balance. Eager to please his only daughter he taught her to walk on peg stilts to help her develop her skill. Karen loved this game and showed no fear of falling.
When she was twelve, her parents bought her a juggling kit. She quickly mastered the art of keeping all the coloured balls up in the air at once. Each one seemed to rise and fall with split-second precision arriving and departing from the palm of her hand at just the right moment.
In Sunday School she heard about how the apostle Peter had tried to walk on water. The story made such a big impact that she kept returning to it many times and every time she read it she discovered something new.
When she was fully grown she became a tightrope walker. It was an ice-breaker. When anyone asked her what she did for a living, people equated it with danger.
The long hours of training were something else. She spent hours falling. Everyone falls at some time in their life, her instructor had said. It was important to know what it felt like. No matter how many times she fell, she never felt comfortable with it. She spent hours falling under his watchful gaze. Sometimes they would fall together and later they would fall apart.
It was lonely on the high wire. She was the only person in the roof space. There was nothing between her and the ground below. Not even a safety net.
One night, catching one foot in front of the other, she lost her balance. The experience of falling was not as she had known it in her training. Instead of happening quickly, it happened very slowly. She had ample time to feel the strange pain that rose in the pit of her stomach and travelled to every outer part of her body. She had time to think about the actual descent and what kind of impact the ground would make when she hit it. How would she land? Would she break any part of her anatomy? Would she ever be able to walk again? She had time to contemplate all these things for the descent was long and it was dark, terrifyingly dark, with pinpoints of light that flashed past her like glowing stars in the galaxy. It was as if she had broken away from the earth and was lost in outer space.
She tried to remember to breathe out to relax her body, to keep her arms and legs slightly bent to absorb the final impact, to think above all things of falling like a cat. The ground was a long way down. It was so far away that she woke up before she had even reached it and clutched at the bedsheet in a moment of unreality. This was the falling dream. It was the white angel who had brought it to her. Whenever she had this dream she knew that the angel had been and that it was a sign to her that she should not walk the high wire the following night. Mr Kennedy, the Head of the troupe respected that. He knew she knew everything there was to know about falling. And that was why she never did. Instead, she sat up in bed and recited to herself over and over “I am a funambulist, a rope walker, from the Latin funambulus, from funis rope, and ambulare to walk.” It helped to restore her balance, to bring her back into equilibrium so that, all things being equal, she was once more able to face the world.
On the days when she was not performing, she would study the art of the great masters in their depictions of the fall from grace (how lovely Eden was then) and the great battles where the cry went up “How are the mighty fallen.” She had a postcard of “the skating vicar” – an unlikely skater, you might think because clergy are not known for skating on ice. He looked graceful enough and was clearly having the time of his life. No fear of falling there. Later still, she would look at paintings about people who were falling in love: Daphnis and Chloe, Venus and Adonis, Romeo and Juliet…She loved to observe their rapture. Like her, when she was on the high wire, they were caught up in the moment so that no other thoughts were allowed to enter their heads. Falling apart was unthinkable. Around midnight, she thought about falling asleep. Rip van Winkle had been good at that as any child will tell you. She hoped she would never fall out of favour but would always be needed, always be loved.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, editor, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is a regular reviewer for several journals including Galatea Resurrects (A Poetry Engagement) (USA) and Write Out Loud (UK). His work has been translated into Dutch, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.