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For a few years, after Jonathan Seagull vanished from the beaches of the Flock, it was the strangest bunch of birds that had ever lived on earth. Many of them had actually begun to understand the message he had brought, and it was as common to see a young gull flying upside-down and practicing loops as it was to see an old one, unwilling to open his eyes to the glory of flying, boring straight and level out to the fishing boats, hoping for a supper of soggy bread.
Fletcher Lynd Seagull and the other students of Jonathan spread their instructor’s teaching of freedom and flight in long missionary journeys to every flock on the Coastline.
There were remarkable events in those days. Fletcher’s own students, and students of their students, were flying with precision and a kind of joy that had never been seen before. Here and there were individual birds who flew aerobatics as they practiced, better than Fletcher, sometimes better even than Jonathan himself had flown them. The learning curve of a highly motivated seagull goes on steeply off the top of any graph, and now and then there were students who overcame limits so perfectly that they disappeared, as Jonathan had, from the face of an earth too limited to contain them.
It was a golden age, for a while. Crowds of gulls elbowed in upon Fletcher, to touch the one who had touched Jonathan Seagull, a bird they now considered divine. In vain did Fletcher insist that Jonathan had been a gull like them all, who had learned as they all could learn. They were after him constantly to hear Jonathan’s exact words, his precise gestures, to find tiny details about him. The more they begged for trivia, the more uneasy grew Fletcher Gull. When once they had been interested in practicing the message . . . training and flying fast and free and glorious in the sky . . . now they began to slack away from difficult work, and became ever so slightly wild-eyed over legends of Jonathan, as though he were the idol of a fan club.
“Gull Fletcher,” they asked, “did the Magnificent Jonathan say, ‘We are in truth the ideas of the Great Gull . . .’ or was it, ‘We are in fact the ideas of the Great Gull . . .’?”
“Please. Call me Fletcher. Just Fletcher Seagull,” he would reply, appalled that they would use a term of reverence upon him. “And what difference does it make, which word he used? Both are correct, we are ideas of the Great Gull . . .” But he knew they were not satisfied with his answer, they thought he had dodged their question.
“Gull Fletcher, when the Divine Gull Jonathan rose to fly, did he move one step toward the wind . . . or two?” Before he could correct the one question, another was fired. “Gull Fletcher, did the Sacred Gull Jonathan have gray eyes or golden eyes?” The questioner, a bird with gray eyes, was in anguish for one answer only.
“I don’t know! Forget his eyes! He had . . . purple eyes! How can that matter? What he came to tell us was that we can fly, if we would just wake up and stop standing around on the beach talking about the color of somebody’s eyes! Now watch, and I’ll show you a Pinwheel Turn . . .”
But more than one gull, finding it wearying to practice something as difficult as a Pinwheel, flew home musing, “The Great One had purple eyes—not like my eyes, not like the eyes of any gull that ever lived.”
The classes changed, with years, from wide soaring poems in flight to hushed talk about Jonathan before and after practice; to long involved recitations on the sand about the Divine One, with no flying ever done by anybody.
Fletcher and the other students of Jonathan were at turns puzzled and correctful and firm and furious at the change, but they were helpless to stop it. They were honored, and worse—revered, but they were no longer heard, and the birds who practiced flying were fewer and fewer.
One by one the Original Students passed away, leaving cold dead bodies behind them. The Flock, seizing upon the bodies, held great tearful ceremonies over them, burying them under enormous cairns of pebbles; each pebble laid in place after a long sorrowing sermon by a deadly solemn bird. The cairns became shrines, and it was required ritual for every gull who wished Oneness to drop a pebble and a doleful speech upon the cairn. No one knew what Oneness was, but it was such a serious deep thing that a gull could never ask without being thought a fool. Why, everybody knows what Oneness is, and the prettier the pebble you drop on Gull Martin’s tomb, the better your chance of getting there.
Fletcher passed away last of all. It happened during a long lonely session of the purest and most beautiful flying he had ever done. His body vanished in the midst of a long vertical slow roll, something he had practiced since he first met Jonathan Seagull, and when he vanished he was not setting pebbles or meditating over slogans of Oneness. He was lost in the perfection of his own flight.
When Fletcher didn’t show up on the beach in the next week, when he vanished without leaving a note, the Flock was in brief consternation.
But then they gathered together, and thought, and decided what must have happened. It was announced that Gull Fletcher had been seen, surrounded by the other Seven First Students, standing on what would henceforth be known as the Rock of Oneness, and then the clouds had parted and the Great Gull Jonathan Livingston Seagull himself, clad in royal plumes and golden shells, with a crown of precious pebbles upon his brow, pointing symbolically to sky and sea and wind and earth, had called him up to the Beach of Oneness and Fletcher had magically risen, surrounded by holy rays, and the clouds had closed again over the scene to a great chorus of gull-voices singing.
And so the pile of pebbles on the Rock of Oneness, in sacred memory of Gull Fletcher, was the biggest pile of pebbles on any coastline anywhere on earth. Other piles were built everywhere in replica, and each Tuesday afternoon the Flock walked over to stand around the pebbles and hear the miracles of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and his Gifted Divine Students. Nobody did any more flying than was absolutely necessary, and when it was necessary they grew strange customs about it. As a kind of status symbol, the more affluent birds began carrying branches from trees in their beaks. The larger and heavier the branch a gull carried, the more attention he earned in the Flock. The larger the branch, the more progressive a flyer he was considered.
A few in gull society noticed that by carrying the weight and drag of the branches around with them, the most faithful seagulls became disturbing flyers.
The symbol for Jonathan’s teaching became a smooth pebble. Then later, any old rock would do. It was the worst possible symbol for a bird who had come to teach the joy of flight, but nobody seemed to notice. At least, nobody who mattered in the Flock.
On Tuesdays all flying stopped and a listless crowd gathered to stand and hear the Official Flock Student recite. In a matter of only a few years the recitations stratified and hardened into granite dogma. “Ho-Jonathak-Gullak-Great Gullak-Oneak-have-pity-on-we-who-are-lower-than-sandfleas . . .” On and on, for hours, come Tuesday. It was a mark of excellence for the Official to run the sounds together rapid fire, so they couldn’t be recognized as words at all. A few insolent birds whispered that the sound meant nothing anyway, even if one could eventually figure out that there was in fact a word or two buried within it.
Images of Jonathan, pecked from sandstone, set with great sad purple-shell eyes, sprung up all along the coastline, at every cairn and replica cairn, centers to a worship heavier even than rocks could symbolize.
In less than two hundred years nearly every element of Jonathan’s teaching was taken out of daily practice by the simple pronouncement that it was Holy, and beyond the aspiration of common gulls, lower-than-sandfleas. In time, the rites and ceremonies that were planted around the name of Jonathan Seagull became obsessive. Any thinking gull altered course in the air so as not to even fly in sight of the cairns, built as they were on the ceremony and superstition of those who preferred excuses for failure instead of hard work and greatness. The thinking gulls, paradoxically, closed their minds at the sound of certain words: “Flight,” “Cairn,” “Great Gull,” “Jonathan.” On all other matters they were the most lucid, honest birds since Jonathan himself, but at the mention of his name, or any of the other terms so badly mauled by the Official Local Students, their minds snapped shut with the sound of trap doors closing.
Because they were curious, they began experimenting with flight, though they never used that word. “It’s not flight,” they’d assure themselves over and again, “It’s just a way of finding what’s true.” So, in rejecting the “Students” they became students themselves. In rejecting the name of Jonathan Seagull, they practiced the message he had brought to the Flock.
This was no noisy revolution; there was no shouting, no waving of banners. But individuals like Anthony Seagull, for instance, not fully grown into the feathers of adulthood, began asking questions.
“Now look,” he had told his Official Local Student, “the birds who come to hear you every Tuesday come for three reasons, don’t they? Because they think they’re learning something; because they think that putting another pebble on the Cairn is going to make them holy; or because everybody else expects them to be there. Right?”
“And you have nothing to learn, my nestling?”
“No. There’s something to learn, but I don’t know what it is. A million pebbles can’t make me holy if I don’t deserve it, and I don’t care what the other gulls think about me.”
“And what is your answer, nestling?” ever so slightly shaken by this heresy. “How do you call the miracle of life? The Great-Gull-Jonathan-Holy-Be-His-Name said that flight . . .”
“Life isn’t a miracle, Official, it’s a bore. Your Great Gull Jonathan is a myth somebody made up a long time ago, a fairy tale that the weak believe because they can’t stand to face the world as it is. Imagine! A seagull who could fly two hundred miles per hour! I’ve tried it, and the fastest I can go is fifty, diving, and even then I’m mostly out of control. There are laws of flight that cannot be broken, and if you don’t think so, you go out there and try it! Do you honestly believe—truly, now—that your great Jonathan Seagull flew two hundred miles per hour?”
“And faster,” the Official said in perfect blind faith. “And taught others to do so.”
“So goes your fairy tale. But when you can show me that you can fly that fast, Official, then I’ll begin listening to what you have to say.”
There was the key and Anthony Seagull knew it the instant he said the words. He didn’t have answers, but he knew that he would gratefully, gladly lay down his life to follow any bird who could demonstrate what he was talking about, show him just a few answers in life that worked, that brought excellence and joy into everyday living. Until he found that bird, life would remain gray and bleak, illogical, without purpose; every seagull would remain a coincidental collection of blood and feathers pointed toward oblivion.
Anthony Seagull went his own way, as did more and more other young birds, rejecting the ritual and ceremony that encrusted the name of Jonathan Seagull, sad at the futility of life but at least honest with themselves, brave enough to face the fact that it was futile.
Then one afternoon Anthony was flapping along above the sea, thinking blankly that life is pointless and since pointless is by definition meaningless then the only proper act is to dive down into the ocean and drown. Better not to exist at all than to exist like a seaweed, without meaning or joy.