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When the flying was done, the students relaxed on the sand, and in time they listened more closely to Jonathan. He had some crazy ideas that they couldn’t understand, but then he had some good ones that they could.
Gradually, in the night, another circle formed around the circle of students—a circle of curious gulls listening in the darkness for hours on end, not wishing to see or be seen of one another, fading away before daybreak.
It was a month after the Return that the first gull of the Flock crossed the line and asked to learn how to fly. In his asking, Terrence Lowell Gull became a condemned bird, labeled Outcast; and the eighth of Jonathan’s students.
The next night from the Flock came Kirk Maynard Gull, wobbling across the sand, dragging his left wing, to collapse at Jonathan’s feet. “Help me,” he said very quietly, speaking in the way that the dying speak. “I want to fly more than anything else in the world . . .”
“Come along then,” said Jonathan. “Climb with me away from the ground, and we’ll begin.”
“You don’t understand. My wing. I can’t move my wing.”
“Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way. It is the Law of the Great Gull, the Law that Is.”
“Are you saying I can fly?”
“I say you are free.”
As simply and as quickly as that, Kirk Maynard Gull spread his wings, effortlessly, and lifted into the dark night air. The Flock was roused from sleep by his cry, as loud as he could scream it, from five hundred feet up; “I can fly! Listen! I CAN FLY!”
By sunrise there were nearly a thousand birds standing outside the circle of students, looking curiously at Maynard. They didn’t care whether they were seen or not, and they listened, trying to understand Jonathan Seagull.
He spoke of very simple things—that it is right for a gull to fly, that freedom is the very nature of his being, that whatever stands against that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation in any form.
“Set aside,” came a voice from the multitude, “even if it be the Law of the Flock?”
“The only true law is that which leads to freedom,” Jonathan said. “There is no other.”
“How do you expect us to fly as you fly?” came another voice. “You are special and gifted and divine, above other birds.”
“Look at Fletcher! Lowell! Charles-Roland! Judy Lee! Are they also special and gifted and divine? No more than you are, no more than I am. The only difference, the very only one, is that they have begun to understand what they really are and have begun to practice it.”
His students, save Fletcher, shifted uneasily. They hadn’t realized that this was what they were doing.
The crowd grew larger every day, coming to question, to idolize, to scorn.
“They are saying in the Flock that if you are not the Son of the Great Gull Himself,” Fletcher told Jonathan one morning after Advanced Speed Practice, “then you are a thousand years ahead of your time.”
Jonathan sighed. The price of being misunderstood, he thought. They call you devil or they call you god. “What do you think, Fletch? Are we ahead of our time?”
A long silence. “Well, this kind of flying has always been here to be learned by anybody who wanted to discover it; that’s got nothing to do with time. We’re ahead of the fashion, maybe. Ahead of the way that most gulls fly.”
“That’s something,” Jonathan said, rolling to glide inverted for a while. “That’s not half as bad as being ahead of our time.”
It happened just a week later. Fletcher was demonstrating the elements of high-speed flying to a class of new students. He had just pulled out of his dive from seven thousand feet, a long gray streak firing a few inches above the beach, when a young bird on its first flight glided directly into his path, calling for its mother. With a tenth of a second to avoid the youngster, Fletcher Lynd Seagull snapped hard to the left, at something over two hundred miles per hour, into a cliff of solid granite.
It was, for him, as though the rock were a giant hard door into another world. A burst of fear and shock and black as he hit, and then he was adrift in a strange strange sky, forgetting, remembering, forgetting; afraid and sad and sorry, terribly sorry.
The voice came to him as it had in the first day that he had met Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
“The trick, Fletcher, is that we are trying to overcome our limitations in order, patiently. We don’t tackle flying through rock until a little later in the program.”
“Also known as the Son of the Great Gull,” his instructor said dryly.
“What are you doing here? The cliff! Haven’t I . . . didn’t I . . . die?”
“Oh, Fletch, come on. Think. If you are talking to me now, then obviously you didn’t die, did you? What you did manage to do was to change your level of consciousness rather abruptly. It’s your choice now. You can stay here and learn on this level—which is quite a bit higher than the one you left, by the way—or you can go back and keep working with the Flock. The Elders were hoping for some kind of disaster, but they’re startled that you obliged them so well.”
“I want to go back to the Flock, of course. I’ve barely begun with the new group!”
“Very well, Fletcher. Remember what we were saying about one’s body being nothing more than thought itself . . . ?”
Fletcher shook his head and stretched his wings and opened his eyes at the base of the cliff, in the center of the whole Flock assembled. There was a great clamor of squawks and screes from the crowd when first he moved.
“He lives! He that was dead lives!”
“Touched him with a wingtip! Brought him to life! The Son of the Great Gull!”
“No! He denies it! He’s a devil! DEVIL! Come to break the Flock!”
There were four thousand gulls in the crowd, frightened at what had happened, and the cry DEVIL! went through them like the wind of an ocean storm. Eyes glazed, beaks sharp, they closed in to destroy.
“Would you feel better if we left, Fletcher?” asked Jonathan.
“I certainly wouldn’t object too much if we did . . .”
Instantly they stood together a half-mile away, and the flashing beaks of the mob closed on empty air.
“Why is it,” Jonathan puzzled, “that the hardest thing in the world is to convince a bird that he is free, and that he can prove it for himself if he’d just spend a little time practicing? Why should that be so hard?”
Fletcher still blinked from the change of scene. “What did you just do? How did we get here?”
“You did say you wanted to be out of the mob, didn’t you?”
“Yes! But how did you . . .”
“Like everything else, Fletcher. Practice.”
By morning the Flock had forgotten its insanity, but Fletcher had not. “Jonathan, remember what you said a long time ago, about loving the Flock enough to return to it and help it learn?”
“I don’t understand how you manage to love a mob of birds that has just tried to kill you.”
“Oh, Fletch, you don’t love that! You don’t love hatred and evil, of course. You have to practice and see the real gull, the good in every one of them, and to help them see it in themselves. That’s what I mean by love. It’s fun, when you get the knack of it.
“I remember a fierce young bird, for instance, Fletcher Lynd Seagull, his name. Just been made Outcast, ready to fight the Flock to the death, getting a start on building his own bitter hell out on the Far Cliffs. And here he is today building his own heaven instead, and leading the whole Flock in that direction.”
Fletcher turned to his instructor, and there was a moment of fright in his eye. “Me leading? What do you mean, me leading? You’re the instructor here. You couldn’t leave!”
“Couldn’t I? Don’t you think that there might be other flocks, other Fletchers, that need an instructor more than this one, that’s on its way toward the light?”
“Me? Jon, I’m just a plain seagull, and you’re . . .”
“. . . the only Son of the Great Gull, I suppose?” Jonathan sighed and looked out to sea. “You don’t need me any longer. You need to keep finding yourself, a little more each day, that real, unlimited Fletcher Seagull. He’s your instructor. You need to understand him and to practice him.”
A moment later Jonathan’s body wavered in the air, shimmering, and began to go transparent. “Don’t let them spread silly rumors about me, or make me a god. O.K., Fletch? I’m a seagull. I like to fly, maybe . . .”
“Poor Fletch. Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly.”
The shimmering stopped. Jonathan Seagull had vanished into empty air.
After a time, Fletcher Gull dragged himself into the sky and faced a brand-new group of students, eager for their first lesson.
“To begin with,” he said heavily, “you’ve got to understand that a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull, and your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself.”
The young gulls looked at him quizzically. Hey, man, they thought, this doesn’t sound like a rule for a loop.
Fletcher sighed and started over. “Hm. Ah . . . very well,” he said, and eyed them critically. “Let’s begin with Level Flight.” And saying that, he understood all at once that his friend had quite honestly been no more divine than Fletcher himself.
No limits, Jonathan? he thought. Well, then, the time’s not distant when I’m going to appear out of thin air on your beach, and show you a thing or two about flying!
And though he tried to look properly severe for his students, Fletcher Seagull suddenly saw them all as they really were, just for a moment, and he more than liked, he loved what it was he saw. No limits, Jonathan? he thought, and he smiled. His race to learn had begun.