I have grown wings. It happened when I was asleep on Enlli.
“What are those?” say my family.
“Wings,” I say.
I test them over the Swnt. I swoop low over the whipping tops of waves, where currents collide. They work well.
“What was it like?” my family ask.
“They work well,” I say.
“Where are you going to fly to?” they ask.
“I’m going to fly to Bangor. And then I’ll come back.”
They wave at me as I dive from the low cliff and swoop close to the heaving sea. I circle once and then power toward the mainland, never more than a span above the surface. There’s the path up to the coastguard hut. Knots of people pick their way up and down. Some sit and stare at the island. They have binoculars but they don’t notice me. They are too busy in longing for the mystic isle.
Aberdaron is busy. On the sandy terrace of the Tŷ Newydd and in the open-fronted bar of Y Llong, cold beers are swallowed. On the beach, wet-suited children play in the shallows. On the rocks, a seal bathes in the sun. In the graveyard, the tough grass stirs against the slates of the departed, a snake winds a path through wildflowers and bees.
I find easy lift above the village and aim for Porthor – Whistling Sands they call it. Squeaking sands, more accurately, and then only against boots and shoes of picnickers. I cannot hear them from here. They debate suitable spots, erect windbreaks, eat gritty sausage rolls and look out to sea. On the decks of ferries to the Emerald Isle, passengers study the distant Pen Llŷn coast, unable to quite see where the hazy hills meet the water’s edge.
A man in a bright yellow coat sees me from his tiny boat off Porth Colmon. He squints up and then shrugs and determines to visit the optician. There are numbers on the side of the dipping, rolling vessel. He’s fishing. He has a beard and his jumper is holey, pulled by hooks, stained by guts, salt-infused and faded. I leave the coast and turn inland.
When I reach Sarn Mellteyrn, I fly above the fields that once, my great-great grandparents tended. Which ones I wonder? Maybe the ones where the gulls and sheep at this moment stand stock still for an unknown reason, or the ones where the black cattle twitch shoulders to launch a thousand flies for all but a second or two’s relief. A farm worker fills his pickup at the petrol station where they sometimes sell crabs.
I am joined by a buzzard near Garn Fadryn. He or she? I don’t know. There is no malice in the eyes, just keenness, no anger or threat or danger. Interest, maybe? Consideration, perhaps? I land on the summit because I can. The buzzard circles below, scanning the rabbit-holed green field above the woodland. At the far end of the hilltop, where fur-clad warriors once kept watch, a family crests the fort’s edge. I fly away, plunging out of sight down the other side.
“There was a man with wings there! He just flew away!” shouts a little girl to her mother.
“Wow! Was there?” joins her mother, glad of her child’s imagination, pleased that the little one is excited to be at the top of her first high place. “Where did he go?” she continues the exchange.
“Down there!” exclaims the little girl. Her mother sees the buzzard and enthuses,
Her mother sees the buzzard and enthuses, “Is that a man? I think it might be a big bird – a buzzard, it’s called.”
“It was a man with wings… ”
The little girl’s attention turns to the wider picture.
“Dad, I can see our car! Look! Down there!”
One day, they will look at the photographs they took that day. She will be grown up, and her parents’ faces will be lined, their hair grey, and they will remember it as much for the aching beauty of the scenery, as for her claim to have seen a man with wings. Her husband will tease and say that they must go there to look for him with their own children.
I pass near Garn Boduan. The crows, perched on the blistered dead pines that spike from its heathery crown, regard me with indifference. Far below, a dead thing has their attention – a day’s work to tear and share with the fox and the flies. The hidden death lies in its drying ooze, flattening the bracken. A sheep, I assume.
There are clicks in the distance. The heads of clubs strike the golf balls of men and women in diamond-patterned sweaters, bright trousers and spiked shoes, who stride across the immaculate turf of the course at Porthdinllaen. Outside the Tŷ Coch – the pub on the beach – at picnic tables, beer is served, and ice cream. Dogs, exhausted by the retrieval of luminous tennis balls from the flat calm bay, lie panting on the sand, next to metal bowls of (now) slavery water, provided by mine host.
I follow the coast. In Nant Gwytheyrn Welsh learners try out their new skills in the sunshine. They smile through hesitations and uncertainties but glow with pride at their achievements, immersed in a culture and heritage that, unlike the granite of the Trefor quarry that frowns down on them, refused to be crushed and steamrollered. These students, young and old, Welsh and not-Welsh are paving a different way forward. Engaged, proud.
I can no longer resist the lure of the mountains. If I maintain my course, I shall reach Bangor very quickly. The coast to Caernarfon and then the wide impersonation of a river known as the Menai Strait would guide me there with ease. But since I have wings, I must use them. First the deserted ancient forts of Gyrn Ddu and Gyrn Goch pass below and then, across the plain where Pen Llŷn ends and begins, I fly to Dyffryn Nantlle, over Pen y Groes, by-passed and by-gone, to the summit of Craig Cwm Silyn. Ahead, the ups and downs of a ridge that points to Yr Wyddfa, Snowdon, the highest mountain in all Wales.
There is no-one in the eroded chute that plunges from the ridge near the giant cliff of Craig Cwm Silyn, so I rest on the crag that separates it from the Amphitheatre Gully. Voices on the top drift down.
“It’s not worth it mate. It’s looks like a bloody slog across there. Let’s just go down the edge of the cwm.”
“Yeah, but Garnedd Goch is technically part of the ridge AND Mynydd Craig Goch is now officially a mountain.”
“You and your bloody lists. It’s miles over there. Let’s get to the pub. There’ll be nothing there we haven’t already seen… ”
The second voice sighs.
“OK, but I’m doing ’em one day. I bet they’re better than you think.”
The second voice is right. Mynydd Craig Goch is a place of rare solitude and character. Its flanks sprawl down to the Porthmadog road and, seen from the West at sunset, it is well named. The learners at Nant Gwytheyrn would know why. The unseen walkers strap on their packs and I lean from the crag to glide out into the void.
The first voice sees my shadow.
“What the hell was that?”
“Must’ve been massive!”
“What must have been massive? What are you on about?”
“I just saw a shadow of a bird on the edge there. It must’ve been an eagle.”
“They don’t have eagles in Wales… ”
“They do. They have ospreys. It must’ve been one of them… ”
The first voice scours the skies for confirmation but I’ve ducked low and out of sight and they will debate the likelihood of spotting an osprey on top of Craig Cwm Silyn all the way down. Showered and changed in the pub, the story will be consolidated by pints of Dark Side of the Moose, that most efficacious of tongue-loosening ales, and pass into absolute historical fact.
Over Rhyd Ddu. Over the little trains of the avid hobbyists and marvelling tourists. Over the pole-clacking hordes streaming onto Llechog. I am high in the sky, a dot at best until I swoop into the disused quarries at Bwlch Cwm y Llan. Long abandoned, they are now botanical marvels, seldom visited. My wings afford me the safety to study more closely the mosses and the ferns, every shade of green, fed and watered by the almighty rains that fall endlessly onto these hardly visited slopes.
Away to the North, Yr Wyddfa lies still under the human swarms. I go high again, leaving these unique, dripping verdant galleries, over Bwlch y Saethau across Cwm Dyli and Bwlch Coch, to settle at the top of Dinas Cromlech. There are climbers on the crag. Cemetery Gates, Cenotaph Corner. What names they gave them! I never understood why they did it. Climbed like that. Feet off the ground. Until I had these wings. There is a view, and then… there is a birds-eye view. History pulses the air hereabouts. From Joe Brown and Don Whillans, defying gravity, swearing in English on the smooth vertical rock at my feet, to Llywelyn the Great, defying the French-speaker, Longshanks, at Dolbadarn. But eons ago, there was the ice sculptor, who scored and striated and gouged and chiselled and left behind this place of staggering beauty.
I am nearly there. A breeze whips up from nowhere and the temperature, with the sun, begins to lower. Next to the huge Cromlech stones, where the road must give way to ice-rolled, volcanic debris on a grand scale, an old man, driven by his grown-up children, stands in the lay-by, hands in pockets, and tilts back his sunhat as I leave my ledge. He sees me and points. I hear him shout something. The two figures guide him to the car. He will journey back to his care home and tell of the flying man in the Llanberis Pass. His sons and his care-workers will indulge him. Dementia came and things changed – for them as much as for him. In wartime, at the front, he saw other things that they would never believe, so in the midst of transparent doubt, he smiles anyway. The men who flew from the shell-blasts did so in pelts of flesh, sprays of blood and shards of bone. To see a man with wings, soaring below the red screes of Esgair Felen, makes more sense, and the old man will sleep well tonight.
The crew of a rescue helicopter are pre-occupied with plucking an unfortunate from the West face of Tryfan as I dive between Castell y Gwynt and the strewn summit of Glyder Fach. The summits are returning to their splendid isolation, as the sun waves farewell over Sir Fôn. The night will soothe their scars. No-one will notice me. Their backs are turned as they pick a careful path down the Gribin or slither on the loose runnel to Bwlch Tryfan, or jar their backs next to the Bochlwyd Falls. The walker on Tryfan is clipped to the winchman. If you’re descending the North Ridge, stay on it, there’s no easy way off either side, however it might look when you’re in a hurry.
At the point where the trainee fighter pilots in Hawk jets hurtle towards Y Garn and take a sharp right turn, I lift clear for the last time. The light is dying but rage is the furthest thing from my mind. Up here, in the silence, I am given to wondering about why in the world, this world, given all its sublime riches, Emily Young’s ‘little ways of men’ drag us so tiresomely, so greedily into mire after mire.
Nant Ffrancon is flat – the cause célèbre of every geography teacher who ever donned a check shirt, drove a Saab and waxed lyrical over a roche moutonée – and in its U-shaped rapture, the Afon Ogwen meanders calmly seaward.
Bethesda. Tregarth. It’s getting dark. The depths of the quarry yawn in the gloom. The spirits rise to meet me. My Taid, his father, his friends. The steep lanes are quiet, dipped headlights on straggling cars. There is just enough light to fly easily over Maesgeirchen, and over the mountain where Dewi fell from the cliff at the bottom of the High Street.
I dive north-east and hang in the mud-scented air above the exposed bones of the boat whose image is etched in the mind’s-eye of every Sibol. Why are the people of Hirael thus known? A sibol is a spring onion. A scallion? Perhaps the American soldiers who camped on Beach Road in the war called the fag-cadging, skinned-knee’d likely lads, rapscallions? Or maybe that’s a little fanciful. Or a lot.
Beaumaris begins to twinkle in the distance. And Llanfairfechan. More spirits rise from Coll Park as I circle. My father, his brothers, his friends. Football, football, football. The door of The Nelson opens to allow the passage of a man who has an appointment with a cigarette. He has been day-drinking and although a little unsteady, he has room for more. He lights up and sniffs as he draws heavily on the filter. Flicking the first head of ash onto his tracksuit bottoms, he brushes it away and then looks straight at me. I stand on the pavement across the road, my wings at my side, folded but… wings. His mouth falls open. Soundlessly, I open up and rise into the air. He cannot focus. From high in the fallen dark, the lamps by the pub door form a halo around him. The door slams behind him. Although he wonders, he will say nothing except:
“Cold now, aye… ”
And then my journey is done. I land on Roman Camp, the green bonc above the Bishop’s palace – viewpoint extraordinaire. Now, all around is mapped in lights of white and orange. The city, the coast, the Strait’s edge. To the south, I can just pick out the skylines of the Carneddau. I have seen the stars from here so many times. And from there.
Three boys lie next to each other on the slope, flattening the grass. They pass a can of cider between them. It is last of four that they bought from the off-sales counter at The Globe, forty years ago – the empties are arranged neatly alongside – one each and share the last. The boys are sixteen. They are ready for the world. Their dreams are untarnished, their ambitions are strong, their belief, unshakeable. Everything is possible. Every thought fizzes through their boundless imaginations, except the passage of time. Time has not yet intruded. They contemplate an infinite universe. I reflect on my journey. One of them is me.
Tomorrow, I shall return to Enlli, where the saints sleep. I shall rejoin my family. Even as I land on the island, my wings will shrink away and my arms will ache.
“Where did your wings go?” they will say.
“I only had them for a day,” I will reply.
“What was it like to fly to Bangor? Did anyone see you?”
“Aye, they did.”
“It must’ve been like being an angel. Flying around like that?”
I will wrap my life around them and say:
“It was paradise.”