As he came from Earth now, above the clouds and in close formation with the two brilliant gulls, he saw that his own body was growing as bright as theirs. True, the same young Jonathan Seagull was there that had always lived behind his golden eyes, but the outer form had changed.
It felt like a seagull body, but alreadv it flew far better than his old one had ever flown. Why, with half the effort, he thought, I’ll get twice the speed, twice the performance of my best days on Earth!
His feathers glowed brilliant white now, and his wings were smooth and perfect as sheets of polished silver. He began, delightedly, to learn about them, to press power into these new wings.
At two hundred fifty miles per hour he felt that he was nearing his level-flight maximum speed. At two hundred seventy-three he thought that he was flying as fast as he could fly, and he was ever so faintly disappointed. There was a limit to how much the new body could do, and though it was much faster than his old level-flight record, it was still a limit that would take great effort to crack. In heaven, he thought, there should be no limits.
The clouds broke apart, his escorts called, “Happy landings, Jonathan,” and vanished into thin air.
He was flying over a sea, toward a jagged shoreline. A very few seagulls were working the updrafts on the cliffs. Away off to the north, at the horizon itself, flew a few others. New sights, new thoughts, new questions. Why so few gulls? Heaven should be flocked with gulls! And why am I so tired, all at once? Gulls in heaven are never supposed to be tired, or to sleep.
Where had he heard that? The memory of his life on Earth was falling away. Earth had been a place where he had learned much, of course, but the details were blurred - something about fighting for food, and being Outcast.
The dozen gulls by the shoreline came to meet him, none saying a word. He felt only that he was welcome and that this was home. It had been a big day for him, a day whose sunrise he no longer remembered.
He turned to land on the beach, beating his wings to stop an inch in the air, then dropping lightly to the sand, The other gulls landed too, but not one of them so much as flapped a feather. They swung into the wind, bright wings outstretched, then somehow they changed the curve of their feathers until they had stopped in the same instant their feet touched the ground. It was beautiful control, but now Jonathan was just too tired to try it. Standing there on the beach, still without a word spoken, he was asleep.
In the days that followed, Jonathan saw that there was as much to learn about flight in this place as there had been in the life behind him. But with a difference. Here were gulls who thought as he thought, for each of them, the most important thing in living was to reach out and touch perfection in that which they most loved to do, and that was to fly. They were magnificent birds, all of them, and they spent hour after hour every day practicing flight, testing advanced aeronautics.
For a long time Jonathan forgot about the world that he had come from, that place where the Flock lived with its eyes tightly shut to the joy of flight, using its wings as means to the end of finding and fighting for food. But now and then, just for a moment, he remembered.
He remembered it one morning when he was out with his instructor, while they rested on the beach after a session of folded-wing snap rolls.
“Where is everybody, Sullivan?” he asked silently, quite at home now with the easy telepathy that these gulls used instead of screes and gracks. “Why aren’t there more of us here? Why, where I came from there were.. “
“... thousands and thousands of gulls. I know. “ Sullivan shook his head. “The only answer I can see, Jonathan, is that you are pretty well a one-in-a-million bird. Most of us came along ever so slowly. We went from one world into another that was almost exactly like it, forgetting right away where we had come from, not caring where we were headed, living for the moment. Do you have any idea how many lives we must have gone through before we even got the first idea that there is more to life than eating, or fighting, or power in the Flock? A thousand lives, Jon, ten thousand! And then another hundred lives until we began to learn that there is such a thing as perfection, and another hundred again to get the idea that our purpose for living is to find that perfection and show it forth. The same rule holds for us now, of course: we choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome.”
He stretched his wings and turned to face the wind. “But you, Jon,” he said, “learned so much at one time that you didn’t have to go through a thousand lives to reach this one.”
In a moment they were airborne again, practicing. The formation point-roils were difficult, for through the inverted half Jonathan had to think upside down, reversing the curve of his wing, and reversing it exactly in harmony with his instructor’s.
“Let’s try it again.” Sullivan said over and over: “Let’s try it again.” Then, finally, “Good.” And they began practicing outside loops.
One evening the gulls that were not night-flying stood together on the sand, thinking. Jonathan took all his courage in hand and walked to the Elder Gull, who, it was said, was soon to be moving beyond this world. “Chiang...” he said a little nervously.
The old seagull looked at him kindly. “Yes, my son?” Instead of being enfeebled by age, the Elder had been empowered by it; he could outfly any gull in the Flock, and he had learned skills that the others were only gradually coming to know.
“Chiang, this world isn’t heaven at all, is it?”
The Elder smiled in the moonlight. “You are learning again, Jonathan Seagull,” he said.
“Well, what happens from here? Where are we going? Is there no such place as heaven?”
“No, Jonathan, there is no such place. Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect.” He was silent for a moment. “You are a very fast flier, aren’t you?”
“I... I enjoy speed,” Jonathan said, taken aback but proud that the Elder had noticed.
“You will begin to touch heaven, Jonathan, in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there.”
Without warning, Chiang vanished and appeared at the water’s edge fifty feet away, all in the flicker of an instant. Then he vanished again and stood, in the same millisecond, at Jonathan’s shoulder. “It’s kind of fun,” he said.
Jonathan was dazzled. He forgot to ask about heaven. “How do you do that? What does it feel like? How far can you go?”
“You can go to any place and to any time that you wish to go,” the Elder said. “I’ve gone everywhere and everywhen I can think of.” He looked across the sea. “It’s strange. The gulls who scorn perfection for the sake of travel go nowhere, slowly. Those who put aside travel for the sake of perfection go anywhere, instantly. Remember, Jonathan, heaven isn’t a place or a time, because place and time are so very meaningless. Heaven is...”
“Can you teach me to fly like that?” Jonathan Seagull trembled to conquer another unknown.
“Of course if you wish to learn.”
“I wish. When can we start?”.
“We could start now if you’d like.”
“I want to learn to fly like that,” Jonathan said and a strange light glowed in his eyes. “Tell me what to do.”
Chiang spoke slowly and watched the younger gull ever so carefully. “To fly as fast as thought, to anywhere that is,” he said, “you must begin by knowing that you have already arrived ...”
The trick, according to Chiang, was for Jonathan to stop seeing himself as trapped inside a limited body that had a forty-two inch wingspan and performance that could be plotted on a chart. The trick was to know that his true nature lived, as perfect as an unwritten number, everywhere at once across space and time.
Jonathan kept at it, fiercely, day after day, from before sunrise till past midnight. And for all his effort he moved not a feather width from his spot.
“Forget about faith!” Chiang said it time and again. “You didn’t need faith to fly, you needed to understand flying. This is just the same. Now try again ...”
Then one day Jonathan, standing on the shore, closing his eyes, concentrating, all in a flash knew what Chiang had been telling him. “Why, that’s true! I am a perfect, unlimited gull!” He felt a great shock of joy.
“Good!” said Chiang and there was victory in his voice.
Jonathan opened his eyes. He stood alone with the Elder on a totally different seashore - trees down to the water’s edge, twin yellow suns turning overhead.
“At last you’ve got the idea,” Chiang said, “but your control needs a little work... “
Jonathan was stunned. “Where are we?”
Utterly unimpressed with the strange surroundings, the Elder brushed the question aside. “We’re on some planet, obviously, with a green sky and a double star for a sun.”
Jonathan made a scree of delight, the first sound he had made since he had left Earth. “IT WORKS!”
“Well, of course, it works, Jon.” said Chiang. “It always works, when you know what you’re doing. Now about your control...”
By the time they returned, it was dark. The other gulls looked at Jonathan with awe in their golden eyes, for they had seen him disappear from where he had been rooted for so long.
He stood their congratulations for less than a minute. “I’m the newcomer here! I’m just beginning! It is I who must learn from you!”
“I wonder about that, Jon,” said Sullivan standing near. “You have less fear of learning than any gull I’ve seen in ten thousand years. “The Flock fell silent, and Jonathan fidgeted in embarrassment.
“We can start working with time if you wish,” Chiang said, “till you can fly the past and the future. And then you will be ready to begin the most difficult, the most powerful, the most fun of all. You will be ready to begin to fly up and know the meaning of kindness and of love.”
A month went by, or something that felt about like a month, and Jonathan learned at a tremendous rate. He always had learned quickly from ordinary experience, and now, the special student of the Elder Himself, he took in new ideas like a streamlined feathered computer.
But then the day came that Chiang vanished. He had been talking quietly with them all, exhorting them never to stop their learning and their practicing and their striving to understand more of the perfect invisible principle of all life. Then, as he spoke, his feathers went brighter and brighter and at last turned so brilliant that no gull could look upon him.
“Jonathan,” he said, and these were the last words that he spoke, “keep working on love.”
When they could see again, Chiang was gone.
As the days went past, Jonathan found himself thinking time and again of the Earth from which he had come. If he had known there just a tenth, just a hundredth, of what he knew here, how much more life would have meant! He stood on the sand and fell to wondering if there was a gull back there who might be struggling to break out of his limits, to see the meaning of flight beyond a way of travel to get a breadcrumb from a rowboat. Perhaps there might even have been one made Outcast for speaking his truth in the face of the Flock. And the more Jonathan practiced his kindness lessons, and the more he worked to know the nature of love, the more he wanted to go back to Earth. For in spite of his lonely past, Jonathan Seagull was born to be an instructor, and his own way of demonstrating love was to give something of the truth that he had seen to a gull who asked only a chance to see truth for himself.
Sullivan, adept now at thought-speed flight and helping the others to learn, was doubtful.
“Jon, you were Outcast once. Why do you think that any of the gulls in your old time would listen to you now? You know the proverb, and it’s true: The gull sees farthest who flies highest. Those gulls where you came from are standing on the ground, squawking and fighting among themselves. They’re a thousand miles from heaven - and you say you want to show them heaven from where they stand! Jon, they can’t see their own wingtips! Stay here. Help the new gulls here, the ones who are high enough to see what you have to tell them.” He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “What if Chiang had gone back to his old worlds? Where would you have been today?”
The last point was the telling one, and Sullivan was right The gull sees farthest who flies highest.
Jonathan stayed and worked with the new birds coming in, who were all very bright and quick with their lessons. But the old feeling came back, and he couldn’t help but think that there might be one or two gulls back on Earth who would be able to learn, too. How much more would he have known by now if Chiang had come to him on the day that he was Outcast!
“Sully, I must go back “ he said at last “Your students are doing well. They can help you bring the newcomers along.”
Sullivan sighed, but he did not argue. “I think I’ll miss you, Jonathan,” was all he said.
“Sully, for shame!” Jonathan said in reproach, “and don’t be foolish! What are we trying to practice every day? If our friendship depends on things like space and time, then when we finally overcome space and time, we’ve destroyed our own brotherhood! But overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don’t you think that we might see each other once or twice?”
Sullivan Seagull laughed in spite of himself. “You crazy bird,” he said kindly. “If anybody can show someone on the ground how to see a thousand miles, it will be Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” He looked at the sand. “Good-bye, Jon, my friend.”
“Good bye, Sully. We’ll meet again.” And with that, Jonathan held in thought an image of the great gull flocks on the shore of another time, and he knew with practiced ease that he was not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all.
Fletcher Lynd Seagull was still quite young, but already he knew that no bird had ever been so harshly treated by any Flock, or with so much injustice.
“I don’t care what they say,” he thought fiercely, and his vision blurred as he flew out toward the Far Cliffs. “There’s so much more to flying than just flapping around from place to place! A... a... mosquito does that! One little barrel roll around the Elder Gull, just for fun, and I’m Outcast! Are they blind? Can’t they see? Can’t they think of the glory that it’ll be when we really learn to fly?
“I don’t care what they think. I’ll show them what flying is! I’ll be pure Outlaw, if that’s the way they want it. And I’ll make them so sorry...”
The voice came inside his own head, and though it was very gentle, it startled him so much that he faltered and stumbled in the air.
“Don’t be harsh on them, Fletcher Seagull. In casting you out, the other gulls have only hurt themselves, and one day they will know this, and one day they will see what you see. Forgive them, and help them to understand.”
An inch from his right wingtip flew the most brilliant white gull in all the world, gliding effortlessly along, not moving a feather, at what was very nearly Fletcher’s top speed.
There was a moment of chaos in the young bird. “What’s going on? Am I mad? Am I dead? What is this?”
Low and calm, the voice went on within his thought, demanding an answer. “Fletcher Lynd Seagull, do you want to fly?”
“YES, I WANT TO FLY!”.
“Fletcher Lynd Seagull, do you want to fly so much that you will forgive the Flock, and learn, and go back to them one day and work to help them know?”
There was no lying to this magnificent skillful being, no matter how proud or how hurt a bird was Fletcher Seagull.
“I do “ he said softly.
“Then, Fletch,” that bright creature said to him, and the voice was very kind, “let’s begin with Level Flight....”