Mei Knutson is currently an eighth grader at Fletcher Middle School (and a rising ninth grader at Gunn High School). Her hometown is Stanford, and her hobbies are storytelling, reading, drawing, and playing guitar.
The origin of "Reiko’s Flying Machine" came from a novel I’m writing. It’s a fantasy novel--- Reiko is one of the main characters. I wanted to tell her backstory, and the Palo Alto Short Story Contest seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. Reiko’s world was inspired by the fantasy books and movies I’ve consumed over the years, but it also comes from feverish Google rabbit holes and middle-of-the-night revelations. My goal was to capture the pain, but also the elation, that comes with the creative process.
Sand dunes stretched out for miles in every direction, corroded strips of metal and cloth marring the desert like infected scars. The mirrored suns beat down on Reiko’s face. Her hands, once smooth as porcelain, had become covered with blisters.
She wiped sweat from her brow, looking out at her creation. It was a flying machine, a colossal balloon attached to a vessel like a ship’s cabin. Every inch of it had been dredged from the sands and put together with a precise, loving hand.
The sand shifted under her feet, and a slip of silk caught her eye. She gingerly pulled it out. It was a small pouch, buried with a lump of burnt wax and a battered doll. Immediately, she knew what it was, but how it had gotten all the way out there mystified her. She thought she had left it to the mercy of the wind years ago.
Reiko closed her eyes and let herself slip into memory.
Light shone through the brocade curtains. Reiko yawned, and then sneezed. She opened the windows, basking in the briny scent of the sea.
A doll sat on her desk. It had been a birthday gift, and by the look of it, no expense had been spared. Handcrafted by artisans from every corner of the kingdom, it was the exact likeness of her. Almost too exact. Its painted golden eyes seemed to stare at her mournfully, too beautiful and too lifelike to sit in a dark manor forever.
She took her breakfast alone in the great hall. After that, she wandered aimlessly, looking for something to do. She often lingered by the door of her eldest sister, Mori.
Mori was in training to become the next Matriarch, constantly traveling and attending lessons. But mainly, she focused on honing her aigasa, the force ingrained in the flesh of all living things.
Everyone had the ability to manipulate aigasa. Some used it in different ways, and some were more powerful than others, but even a toothless farmhand could use it to strengthen his muscles or toughen his skin. Mori had moved on to controlling other things, like plants, or more strenuously, animals. She could make flowers wilt, grasses grow. She could make fruit emerge from the branches of a barren tree. Mori was gifted. So was Adaris, Reiko’s younger sister. People like them could override the forces of nature.
However, Reiko was an anomaly. She had no aigasa at all. Reiko’s mother, the Matriarch, had tried everything to get Reiko’s aigasa to manifest: shamans, sages, and masters. She was not a gullible woman, yet she had even hired conmen, smoke-and-mirrors types. More and more herb-scented scars appeared on Reiko’s arms and legs and the curves of her back, but despite the healers’ promises, they didn’t awaken any power deep within her. With the changing of the seasons, the nobles’ puzzled expressions turned to disdain and pity. Reiko, who once had a constant stream of visitors pouring into her room, had found herself more and more alone.
Surrounded by her talented sisters, Reiko felt like she could shrivel up and die of shame. It became unbearable for her to look at her mother’s face. While her sisters indulged in special lessons and trips to the faraway countryside, Reiko was destined to spend her entire life on her family’s estate, wandering the halls and pondering her existence.
The only place where she felt at peace was next to the ocean. She loved the whistling reeds and frothy pools, the sand-covered creatures under her feet and in her hands. That evening, she slipped away just after dinner.
The sea was calm, lapping at her ankles. Her robes lay abandoned on the shore as she stood alone in the whirling shallows. She looked up at the overcast sky. A blackbird was circling above.
Reiko wondered what it felt like to be so free. If she could fly, she would have been miles away from home by now. But nobody could fly, not even her sisters.
Footsteps sounded from behind her. She spun around to see Mori, shaking sand out of her shoes. "You always come here in the evenings. Why do you like this place so much?"
"I don’t quite know." Reiko looked out at the setting sun. "I suppose I like the calm."
"Well, it’s much nicer than being cooped up inside the manor." Mori grinned, and Reiko looked away. Mori was allowed more freedom than her.
"Nice view, isn’t it?" Mori said. "The sunset’s beautiful."
A sea breeze rippled through the air, and Reiko shivered. Mori was unbothered, and Reiko knew that she had quickly adjusted her aigasa to withstand the cold weather.
Although the two shared the family’s copper skin and almond eyes, there was a thoughtfulness etched in Reiko’s features that was absent from Mori’s vivacious smile. Reiko appreciated Mori’s kindness, but she always felt a slight undertone of awkwardness in their conversations. Mori couldn’t possibly know what it felt like to be the family disappointment.
Reiko waded back to shore, drying her legs off with her sash and slipping her sand-caked robes back on. As she adjusted the knots on her belt, she noticed a feather hanging from one of the tassels. Perhaps the blackbird was molting. As she studied it, she was struck with an idea.
"You’re leaving already?" Mori asked.
A small smile toyed with the edges of Reiko’s mouth. "There’s something I have to do."
The full moons glinted in the sky. As the grasses danced and lashed against her ankles, Reiko ran home.
Eventually, the morning came. Reiko had been working all night, and discarded scrolls littered her desk. She wrung out her ink-stained hands, taking in the fruit of her labor.
Reiko wasn’t much of an artist, but the diagram showed what it needed to: a pair of wings. In theory, she could strap the wings to her back and soar up into the sky.
Reiko sighed, mesmerized by what she’d done. She couldn’t stop looking at it. Who knew a sheet of parchment paper could make her feel so powerful?
She clutched the scroll to her heart. She could already feel herself flying.
After eating, Reiko went to the library. It was seldom visited by the inhabitants of the manor. Most of the books were better used as cures for insomnia than reading material, but this suited Reiko’s purpose perfectly well. She hadn’t gone there to be entertained.
After poring through half of the library’s collection, she found just the chapter she was looking for. It was buried inside an otherwise unassuming text on birds, detailing the results of a potential flying machine.
She scanned the pages, and her eyes widened when she saw the diagram they had drawn. The design was almost an exact copy of hers, albeit sketched with a more refined hand. Frantically, she flipped forward to the results of the experiment.
Her face fell. The writing was tinged with disappointment, as test runs had been unsuccessful. Even with aigasa-enhanced strength, the experimenters were unable to take off. The book concluded with the words she had dreaded--- the idea that humans could take to the skies was ludicrous. Mankind had already been blessed with the gift of aigasa. Why seek out more? Why attempt the impossible?
A bitter feeling rose in Reiko’s stomach. For once in her life, she had felt purpose. But as quickly as it had arrived, it melted on her tongue like forbidden honey.
Night was falling, so she returned to her room. As the orange light of the fire danced across her face, she wept. Why had she let herself hope? She should’ve stayed in her place.
She burnt the scrolls that night. She watched the flames swallow the paper, belching sparks as she tossed the last scraps on the blackened hearth.
Days passed. Reiko lost track of time, feeling sick and lethargic. Her sisters seemed not to notice. Outside her window, she could sometimes see them whispering. Their silks rippled with the wind and their laughter.
She hadn’t gone to the ocean in a while. It stung too much to see the birds. Instead, she sat in her room alone.
But on Mori’s seventeenth birthday, Reiko had no choice. Mori had invited a hundred nobles to the manor for a celebration. The party took place at the beach, which Mori had developed fondness for. Flowers lined the sand, and strings of lanterns were dashed across stalls like strokes of an inkbrush. The feast was lavish and spice-infused, but Reiko didn’t have an appetite for sticky buns or meat dumplings. Everything tasted like clay.
Tired from navigating the crowd, Reiko found her way to the section of the beach that used to be her favorite. She was nervous to return, but as she took the first breath of familiar air, her worries floated away. The water welcomed her, the creatures scuttling between her toes. She settled into the rhythm of the sea.
She had missed this feeling.
The night deepened, and the air became cold. Reiko decided to build a fire using the wick of a stray lantern. The blaze crackled, and embers shot up from the wood.
She sat back, admiring her work, and then noticed something.
Fascinated, Reiko stretched her arm over the fire. Her skin was struck with another burning ember. She jolted back in pain, wondering why she had never noticed it before.
The sparks… they were rising.
A few weeks had passed since Mori’s birthday, and Reiko had spent every waking hour tinkering with her machine. On her first try, her mind had been flooded with passion. But now, it flowed in a steady stream, allowing her to focus on things she hadn’t considered before.
Finally, Reiko settled on a design she thought might work.
She set up a test on the sand she’d paced a thousand times. The beach was quiet, and the frothy tide crept over her feet. She was illuminated with moonlight, her dark hair softly waving with the breeze.
She was holding her device to her chest--- a basket, a candle, and a bag, stitched together with great care. It was a flying machine, but it wasn’t powered by aigasa; it rose because of a flame nestled deep in its heart.
Reiko’s doll, curled up in the basket, would be the first passenger. Its eyes were no longer filled with despair. Instead, they mirrored the joyful fire.
Reiko watched it soar.