“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.
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?”