10.2 / March & April 2015

Airplanes over Disneyland

In the mid-1990s, a hippopotamus swallowed a dwarf during a circus accident in northern Thailand. The dwarf bounced sideways off a trampoline trying to turn a somersault while a hippo named Hilda started yawning, bored with the aerial acrobats. Of course no such thing happened, as myriad news outlets reported. Just another Internet hoax, as happens all too often. Hippos and dwarfs do exist, however, though more so the latter. Because hippos live only in sub-Saharan Africa apart from zoos and circuses, while dwarfs you encounter everywhere except within the maw of a hippopotamus. People who can grow only so tall live on all seven continents, which is to say all of us. The average hippo grows to 13 feet, and we are all dwarfs in comparison.

On my 16th birthday, Laura gave me a folder emblazoned with an iridescent unicorn with a rainbow stamped on its rear while we changed into our gym clothes to play volleyball, avoiding the ball to spare bruising our wrists. Inside the folder was a sheet of loose-leaf paper on which a poem began, “Airplanes at night, and I’m on the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland,” and ended, “And she can see me, knowing that I, like her, will always be there.” I can remember no more, only that she had written it all with a smeared purple crayon the color of a hippopotamus ensconced in chlorine.

Prior to the last line, however, the whole poem was in first person—I assumed she had copied something she had scrawled inside a journal resting on her nightstand—and the poem’s close felt tagged on, for my birthday, I gathered. She was riding an airplane at night, yes, but how did the girl on the ride below know her? How did she recognize her and from such a distance, and wasn’t the ride enclosed? It was as preposterous as a hippo swallowing a dwarf and anyone believing the rumor. And no one is always anywhere, especially not airplane passengers, who have to land and leave the airport terminal.

And though I can quote no more lines than those few, the poem, I vaguely remember, went on to limn the narrator’s appearance, an almost woman still with a child’s stature with Laura’s same auburn hair, floating through Neverland on a pirate galleon, making herself the verses’ cynosure. It was never clear to me, though, which of the girls was Laura beyond question, because my hair also resembles wheat begun to burn in autumn. And so who might have been at play in the theme park and who was only looking down from above sealed within a commercial aircraft traveling to another destination remains an open question. Laura was much shorter than myself, at least during adolescence, yet from an airplane’s height you can hardly tell the difference between dwarfs and any other person. And I have always been arrogant enough to assume that Laura could have hardly known herself, whether she sat in an airplane or a pirate ship overlooking a land of eternal children.

Hippos are largely herbivorous, feeding solely on soft grasses, reeds, and ferns. So even did the story of the hippo swallowing the dwarf derive from actual circumstance, the dwarf more than likely later died of natural causes. A hippopotamus has no incisors and could never have chewed through a human, however small his proportions. The hippo would have had to regurgitate the dwarf, spraying the unicyclists with excess saliva they might have drowned in. An ancillary tragedy that went unreported.

If anyone would have swallowed a dwarf in Thailand, it would have been a werewolf come to devour prey bouncing as high as the rafters to amuse the children. Because werewolves freely feast on humans, particularly hearts and other internal organs, and would sooner keep their jaws locked open for the purpose, while hippos graze on grasses.

In Iron Age Europe, lycanthropy served as metaphor for initiation into a class of warriors, men who were trained to kill and develop an indiscriminate blood thirst for anyone of another race or country of origin. Whereas other civilizations approached the process more literally, for which I applaud them. The Greek geographer Pausanias recorded Zeus transformed Lycaon into a wolf because he had murdered an infant, while Pliny quotes Agriopas regarding a tale of a man turned wolf after trying a baby’s entrails and liking the taste of them. Similarly, northern Europeans once believed those who died in mortal sin returned to earth as werewolves with a thirst for human hemoglobin. The transformation was easy then, so long as you behaved badly enough, which I may have done in my innocence.

Audrey instructed me to drink three raw egg yolks for five consecutive afternoons to avoid becoming a werewolf. The egg yolks, she said, would keep hair from sprouting all over my body en route to feasting on my parents. At the time she was my best friend. A few years later, though, she would become Laura’s when we all went to the same junior high school. When we had almost forgotten how close we once were to becoming cannibals.

And yet, after I had swallowed more than a dozen yolks along with their albumen, my hair kept growing from every pore, as a budding werewolf’s would if you took Audrey’s word for it. I looked and found hair everywhere, feeling fuzz growing even within my ears’ wax coils, and was afraid the cure had come too late. I was only seven—with no swelling of breasts, much less any tendriling of pubic hair as yet—but what hair I had portended I would soon change species regardless. It was only lycanthropy, nothing fatal, yet I still wanted to reverse the process and so ceded to Audrey all my common sense. My dad had just hung a new swing from the magnolia tree with lichen mottling its limbs outside our kitchen window, I told Audrey in distress. He had cut the seat from an old rafter holding up our barn’s ceiling, giving me room still to grow as my legs kicked higher into its blossoms. I hated to punish him with an early death, sinking my fangs into the veins inside his neck.

I had no choice, however. With fifteen egg yolks down my gullet, my legs were still swathed in hair long and golden. I was leaving my family while being swallowed by the spirit of an animal I had not long known extant outside of legend. And so I lived in fear for a month or two or more, until I knew the truth for certain. Were it not another hoax, I would have died so much shorter a person.

After school, I would trail Audrey and Todd, her cousin, to their grandmother’s basement next door to my Aunt Millie’s, where I waited for my mother to finish work and drive me home to our farmhouse, ten miles south of the town where Audrey and I went to Catholic grammar school. Playing a Def Leppard cassette in Audrey’s boom box, they would unzip their jeans and grind their underwear against each other while telling me to watch so no one else entered. Todd’s leg arched in a scythe over Audrey’s back while their grandmother trundled upstairs to make us a pitcher of lemonade with no real lemons. Audrey, I knew from slumber parties at her house on the town’s outskirts, had a stepfather with a sagging mustache of red umber and an outdoor toilet nothing more than a hole in the ground framed by a pink shower curtain hung from a wreath of maple branches. When she spent the night with me, on a farm relatively pastoral, she would mimic being a lion plundering our livestock. She’d shake her long blonde bangs over her eyes and roar at our sheep, causing those with foundered legs to trip over a scree of gravel, their bleats morphing into shrieks of panic and a fusillade of turds spraying out their rectums. I would trail behind and roar just a little, hoping the sheep would still let me near enough to cradle their lambs in my arms then freckled once Audrey had gone home to pee outdoors with the animals.

I never did develop the taste for my fellow humans Audrey said I would. And though the egg yolks didn’t prevent hair growing everywhere except on my palms and the back of my feet where I now have callouses, they did halt the final transformation. I could never have swallowed someone as small as Laura, in other words, no matter how much I yawned at any circus.

One day during gym class while waiting to be assigned teams for volleyball, I told Laura that Audrey had once convinced me I was becoming a werewolf, to the point that I couldn’t eat my supper, because the egg yolks had filled my stomach prior. That I believed her, she said, made sense, however. I was still so innocent, like a child with breasts.

Male werewolves, Audrey had found through experience by the time she was seven and only a month older than I was, had long penises as well as talons that held their organs erect like missiles, poised to impale little girls like myself with limp hair sunset colored. A whole gang of werewolves, she insisted, had invaded her bedroom, and she had told the leader that I would join them. She whispered this to me at recess as I wrapped my arms snug around a warm water pipe as the handball game played on beside us.

More than 150 mummified dwarfs and skeletons are preserved among modern Egyptology collections spanning several continents, while tableaus depicting dwarfs adorning tomb walls were also fairly common. A form of dwarfism known as achondroplasia pervaded the ancient civilization. The dominant genetic mutation carries a 50-percent chance of being passed onto offspring, and translations of hieroglyphs reveal dwarfs suffered very little prejudice like they do at present, when we love to watch them tumble into the jaws of death in a circus aside the elephants. Then Egypt welcomed very few foreigners and had to suffer the consequences of little genetic variation. And in times gone by everyone was shorter. We all grow taller, it seems, with hindsight and the inertia that carries us into the future.

People keep getting taller, though, we know for certain—and see more clearly yet when we visit colonial houses of former presidents and examine the length of their mattresses. Even the tallest person, however, only grows so high for so many years on end. We all someday fall below ground, where our height hardly matters except to the graveyard plotters. This is assuming we don’t return as werewolves, that is, drinking the blood of our friends and gulping down their organs. Because of all things there should be an end. People should grow only so many inches. One person should dwarf another by only so much, correct? So that we are certain we are all the same species and can rest assured that when one of us dies, there is another to replace us who looks reasonably similar from a distance. Who will not prey on our descendants.

Of the three of us our sophomore year of high school, Audrey stood the tallest, with Laura so short she was almost a dwarf by comparison, while I was of no height at all. I stood so much in the middle as to be invisible.

Whatever their disparity in height, however, Laura and Audrey both wore frayed denim shorts in autumn, spring, and summer, so short you could see the hang of their buttocks when they walked across the cafeteria. Both smoked pot on swing sets and made out with boys under bleachers I only lusted after. My parents knew Audrey from our time together as children but never did meet Laura. Never looked into her cornflower eyes or wondered how she kept her tube tops from sliding waistward while she swung her arms high to keep pace with the longer legs of everyone around her. Laura and I would likely not have stayed friends much longer—I never did understand her metaphors. But I kept her poem folded inside my copy of Jane Eyre and threw away the folder with the unicorn. That and a watch from my parents were all my birthday presents. Both told time, and both I’ve since lost.

I was home reading Victorian literature the Saturday night in early August when Audrey and some boy driving her stepfather’s El Camino inched Laura’s boyfriend’s jeep forward from behind while Laura sat shotgun in a K-Mart parking lot. The jeep tipped over on its left axis when the prodding vehicle’s front tires failed to align with the jeep’s back ones. And Laura flew from her perch a few feet right of the wheel across the top of the fallen vehicle and lapsed into a coma for five months, before her parents consented to have her taken off a ventilator at the doctor’s counsel. And though I never knew Laura as well as Audrey perhaps, I had reason to believe, from the many hours I sat in the hospital that summer and the following autumn, that she had never actually looked out the window of an airplane, over Disneyland or anyplace else. Her parents had no medical insurance and drove an old van with a rusted bumper from which their license plate hung by a clothes hanger.

I took my place by her bedside with ease I hardly understood from her coma’s inception, holding her doll-like hand with the proprietorship of old friendship when ours had just begun. But when our gym teacher made me sit on the bleachers for turning back flips underwater when I was supposed to be rescuing a dummy sinking to pool’s bottom, Laura had excused herself because of sudden cramps and we sat together, laughing at the flailing inflated arms until we were separated. I wouldn’t smoke pot or give anyone fellatio any time soon, but I could turn back flips instead of rehearsing rescues of unknown someones. I could quaff four successive slurpies at lunch until the brain freezes started. I could slide down steel banisters and bruise my shins when I fell onto the pavement. I could paint the bed of my pickup truck into a bottomless ocean and speak with the gargly voice of a scuba diver during roll call for volleyball. And Laura had laughed at it all. Though she was hardly full grown herself and could only grow so tall. She was exactly two weeks younger than myself and four or five inches shorter. Had she lived to adulthood, a hippo would have swallowed her.

Audrey hardly ever came to the hospital, giving me more time to stare at Laura’s fulvous eyelids, crusted with pus I removed with a tissue I wetted with saliva.

Audrey’s younger brother, Dustin, had a form of childhood cancer that had stunted his growth from the time he was a toddler, and he never did grow enough hair to cover his skull altogether, so that in kindergarten he looked like a balding old man instead of a boy whose hair grew in a patchworked pattern. For several years, his smooth egg head budded a new lump every week or two, and we were forced to pray for him at our Catholic school after saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Some looked purple as tumescent bruises, while others were the same color as his face, fleshy volcanoes that might and might not blow us all to pieces. I considered him highly intelligent, though he was probably babbling his alphabet no sooner than anyone else his age. He just looked so much younger, wise for his years when he really wasn’t. Because his legs had never grown, only his head, out of all proportion, I reflected while watching him play video games as I sat in Audrey’s kitchen, overlooking the outdoor toilet with the pink shower curtain while waiting for my mom to pick me up from another slumber party for a girl who talked to werewolves on a regular basis.

The end of Laura’s life did anything but impact my own aside from making me a little sadder than I was already and allowing me to leave school the afternoon of the funeral and eat fast food instead of chicken fried steak in the cafeteria. I acquired a token suffering, making vast erroneous assumptions about my own capacity for pain in the process. Unlike Audrey, Laura had never punished me for my innocence, yet once she was gone I didn’t miss her much. She had written me only one poem about airplanes over Disneyland I thought fairly childish. Neither of us knew who the narrator was.

Peter Pan himself made no appearance in the original Peter Pan ride constructed by Walt Disney’s original team of engineers. As park patrons flew from London to Neverland beneath phosphorescent lighting, they witnessed everything except the eponymous boy who never perished and later expressed their disappointment in writing. The designers had intended for guests to inhabit Peter’s perspective, which tells sorely on the human condition if you think about it. That you can never love someone enough to see the world from inside him. You can never escape your own integument and rest within another person. You can see yourself in a mirror, yes, but the vantage point remains a false one, your right eye where really is your left. You can never ride the Peter Pan ride and watch yourself staring down the pirates. You must either be the girl at Disneyland or the girl flying over it.

In 1983 after decades of service, engineers at last put Peter in the action so you could observe rather than become him for the space of a few minutes. Patrons could then fly over London and into another timeless dimension and observe Peter flying alongside them. He was also animatronic and narrated part of the adventure he never fully lived. His speeches proved repetitive.

Laura, I assumed, wrote her poem from a vintage perspective, overlooking Disneyland 1982 or prior. She thought when you rode the Peter Pan ride you never saw Peter but instead became him, an eternal boy typically played on stage by a young woman no taller than Laura at the time she wrote the poem. It was the mid-90s, and she was also the one who told me a dwarf had been swallowed by a hippopotamus. At first, I had believed her.

In retrospect, had she lived to adulthood, I would have been surprised and feared for what would have become of her. She would have had to grow several feet not to look a dwarf beside Audrey and myself and other women who look similar, though I’m no taller than average.

The last time I saw Audrey was in a church parking lot after my mother’s funeral when we were 26 and she stood uttering her condolences, bouncing a baby on her hip with some impatience while trying to burp him. We faced each other at eye level, though, I couldn’t help but notice. Perhaps I had grown a few inches since high school, yet I always remembered her as a whole head taller, her nose pointed like an arrow at a world that to me remained imperceptible, four inches or more higher into the atmosphere. She told me I looked different—I knew she meant older—but she looked just the same, I offered, a compliment.

J.M. Barrie based the character Peter on his older brother, who died in an ice-skating accident the day he turned thirteen. A shorter life is an easier life, however, and I fail to see why people should dread the end of theirs, especially if it comes quickly, though their fear perhaps explains Peter Pan’s popularity. Most of us are not dwarfs fit for the circus, though all lives feel unnaturally short when drawing toward their close. Or that is the impression I have gotten from the death beds I have visited. Not a single sigh of relief have I encountered yet. I hardly know how this is possible, so I may be the first to feel my life has been long enough when the time comes, though when that will be I cannot say unless I decide to end it on my own. Then perhaps I have been riding in an airplane too long, overlooking everyone else at play within the theme park where the rides grow progressively more lifelike, where the characters converse through programmed monologues.

The airplanes are flying at night, however. The park should be closed by now, the gates locked to the public at dusk if not sooner. No one should be riding the Peter Pan ride at this hour, no one who sees the planes fly overhead in tandem. So who has stolen inside, just to savor the sweetness of pretending she is an ageless little boy who flies over London while stuck in California? Laura, of course. She who wore such short shorts with her buttocks flapping underneath them, at such a close distance from her ankles. She who, if you saw her only from the back when we were friends, you might mistake for a child of 9 or 10, Dustin’s older sister in place of his older sister’s best friend. While I rode overhead, knowing we would each be there always, she said. Only I was moving through the air on a commercial airliner whose ticket I had paid for, she just pretending to in a child’s ride that only orbited the same ellipse, so close to the ground you could nearly touch the pirates’ handkerchiefs. While I was flying to someplace real, to real London perhaps.

Only someone like Laura who spent her 16th birthday in a coma would bother breaking into a theme park after hours. I would be home reading and not hear of the accident until the morning after.

Until Audrey told me I was turning into a werewolf, I hadn’t noticed I had hair inside my ears or swirling round my navel. And even after I realized she was just playing an elaborate trick and that I would become no human predator, I remained aware of myself as an animal. I was growing taller and would keep growing, I suddenly knew for certain. In a matter of years, I would be as tall as my mother, though I grew even taller. My hair too would only keep growing longer, until a skein of dark moss covered my pubis where Audrey said the leader of the werewolves would like to put his penis. There was no reversing the process. To become a werewolf, I realized only once the ruse was over, would be comparatively easy to becoming a woman who bled with the moon’s gravitation. Growing into a body Peter Pan kept himself from all knowledge of. All signs suggest he stayed a virgin.

Smaller animals tend to live shorter lives than larger ones. Hippopotamuses average 36 years of existence, pygmy hippos only 27. The median life of a dwarf, however, is the same as that of a much taller person, one who can easily reach the top shelf of any cupboard. That of those who are not dwarfs but merely short, whose boyfriends’ jeeps are tipped over by friends getting high in a K-Mart parking lot is 16 years and a few weeks more. That of their friends in gym class whose mothers die of breast cancer and father of leukemia within four months of each other when they are 26 remains to be seen, however. At the moment, I am 35 and could go longer but won’t make a fuss if I live no more than the average hippo. I have never ridden on the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland and am making no plans to visit either.

When I was seven and a half and hirsute to the point I knew I was no longer human, I crawled out of bed one night close to 10 or 11 in the evening and told my mom I would be leaving, asking her to pass the news along to my dad, who was watching basketball the next room over. I had done everything I could to stay with them, but I was almost a werewolf, and the process was irreversible; I had to pack a suitcase and write a note to my sister explaining my disappearance. My mom only sat down beside me on my twin bed, tucking the covers into my clavicle, and told me werewolves were not real, not only invisible, that I would swing from the magnolia tree as long as I wanted to. Audrey only laughed the next day at recess when I told her I would never eat the heart of her little brother or any other person. I was too relieved to be angry at her, relieved and yet sadder than I was before. Because of Dustin, who died a few years later without growing any taller. Because of Audrey’s outdoor toilet and because of all the dwarfs who are never swallowed and have to die adult deaths looking like old children.

Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her narrative nonfiction appears in literary magazines including Prick of the Spindle, Gravel, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Menacing Hedge, Beetroot Journal, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Pithead Chapel, and Flyover Country Review.
10.2 / March & April 2015