As Jonathan joins the two other gulls and flies up to heaven, he realizes that his body is growing bright and gleaming, too. His new body feels the same, but flies much more easily and more surely than his old body ever did—with half the effort, and twice the speed. As he pushes himself to new speeds, he is sad to realize that this body, too, has limits to what it can do. In heaven, Jonathan thinks, there should not be any limits at all.
Jonathan wants to be limitless. When he is given this new body, he believes it will allow him to transcend the limitations of his old one—but it does not. Jonathan does not yet realize that transcendence depends on the unification of mind, body, and spirit.
As the clouds break apart, Jonathan’s guides wish him “happy landings,” and then disappear. Jonathan is now flying over the sea toward a jagged shoreline. He can see a few seagulls up ahead, but he is stunned by how few gulls there are around. He thinks heaven ought to be full of gulls. Jonathan also notices that he is feeling very tired—he knows that gulls in heaven are never supposed to be tired. As he proceeds closer to the shoreline, he feels his memories of life on earth blurring and falling away. The other gulls come in to meet Jonathan, and help him land on the beach. As soon as he gets to the shore, Jonathan falls straight to sleep.
Jonathan is entering a new realm of being. Doing so is evidently taxing and disorienting for him, as he falls asleep almost immediately upon arrival. Although Jonathan doesn’t know where he is, what’s certain is that he is one of just a few gulls in this realm. This suggests that Jonathan is even more special than he previously realized.
As the days go by, Jonathan realizes that there is as much to learn about flight in this place as there had been on earth—but things are slightly different. All around him are gulls who think the same way he does; the most important thing to each of them is to “reach out and touch perfection” in flight. All of the other gulls here spend every hour of the day practicing flight. As Jonathan joins the other gulls, he finds himself at times forgetting completely about his old life and his old Flock, remembering them all only now and then and only just for a moment.
Jonathan is overjoyed to be in a place where he is at last accepted for who he is and is surrounded by likeminded gulls who support and challenge him. This demonstrates that Jonathan, despite his loner tendencies, never really wanted to be on his own—he always wanted to just be a welcome part of a loving, supportive whole, but his old Flock couldn’t provide that.
One afternoon, Jonathan asks Sullivan, his instructor, why there aren’t more gulls in this heaven. Sullivan replies that Jonathan is a “one-in-a-million bird,” and that most of the gulls in this heaven came to it very slowly. Sullivan believes that every bird in this heaven has perhaps gone through many lives before they realized that there was more to life than eating, fighting, and gaining power in their Flocks. He believes each bird here has lived ten thousand lives, and that the birds will now choose their next world through the things they learn in this one. Sullivan reveals that he believes that Jonathan learned so much so quickly back on Earth, that he only had to live his one life.
Sullivan has seen a lot of birds come to this realm, but feels his new pupil, Jonathan, is something special. In explaining to Jonathan that it often takes a lot of time for gulls to reach this plane, Sullivan lets Jonathan know just how far his inquisitive nature, individuality, and self-determination have taken him. However, back home on Earth, these qualities all seemed like immeasurable burdens that rendered Jonathan Outcast and alone.
One night, up on the shore, Jonathan approaches Chiang, the Elder Gull of his new Flock. Whereas on Earth, the Elder Gull of the flock was “enfeebled by age,” Chiang has only grown stronger and more capable as he advances and ages. Jonathan confesses to Chiang that he suspects this world is not actually heaven. The elder smiles, and congratulates Jonathan for learning. Jonathan asks if there is no such place as heaven, and Chiang tells him that there is not. Heaven, he says, is not a place or a time—“heaven is being perfect.”
Just as Jonathan was different from the other gulls back on Earth, Chiang, too, is shown to be a different kind of leader. Chiang’s confession that Jonathan and the rest of the gulls in this realm are not actually in heaven makes Jonathan realize that he has yet to achieve perfection. However, for a gull like Jonathan, who enjoys setting goals and pushing himself to new limits, it’s likely comforting to know that he still has work to do and things to learn.
Chiang says that Jonathan will at last begin to touch heaven in the moment that he touches perfect speed. Perfect speed, however, is not flying at a certain numerical speed—numbers are limits, and perfection has no limits. Perfect speed, Chiang says, is just “being there.” Chiang then vanishes and reappears fifty feet away in an instant. In another millisecond, he reappears beside Jonathan, commenting that perfect speed is “kind of fun.”
Jonathan’s ideas about achieving new “goals” in speed and aerobatics are shown to be not exactly right in this passage. Chiang insists that perfect speed is not actually about perfection, or beating a record, or becoming the best—it is about approaching one’s goals holistically and calmly, with the state of mind that one has already accomplished perfection and unity.
Jonathan is “dazzled” completely by Chiang’s skill, and asks how far Chiang can go. Chiang replies that he has been “everywhere and everywhen.” Jonathan asks if Chiang can teach him how to fly like that, and Chiang agrees, saying that the two can start practicing now, if Jonathan wants to. He tells Jonathan that to fly as fast as thought, Jonathan must first know that he has already arrived. Jonathan must stop seeing himself as trapped in a limited body, and instead must realizes that his true nature lives “everywhere at once across space and time.”
Chiang’s doctrine is not one of training hard in pursuit of a goal. Instead, it is one of teaching oneself, however slowly, to accept that the goal is within reach, and always has been. This Zen or transcendental approach to the world reflects popular cultural touchstones of Bach’s time, and demonstrates his preoccupation with the metaphysical aspects of life.
As the days go by, Jonathan tries very hard to learn to fly like Chiang, but cannot move even an inch from the spot where he stands. Chiang reminds Jonathan that he doesn’t need any special kind of faith—he needs simply to understand. One day, Jonathan realizes “in a flash” that he is a perfect gull—he closes his eyes, and when he opens them, he has traveled alongside Chiang to a completely different shore. Chiang comments that Jonathan needs some “control,” but has at last done it.
The key to instantaneous transportation flight is the self-assured realization that one is “perfect” already. It is not about meeting the goal of accomplishing a certain kind of flight, but rather trusting that one has had the ability to do so all along. This speaks to Bach’s interest in the synchronicity of mind, body, and spirit, as well as the idea that through such unity, all things are possible.
When Jonathan returns to the original shore with Chiang, the other gulls congratulate him. Jonathan demurs, though, insisting that he has much more to learn. Sullivan, however, congratulates Jonathan on having “less fear of learning” than any gull in ten thousand years. Chiang offers to help teach Jonathan how to fly to the past and to the future. After Jonathan masters time, Chiang says, he will be ready to fly up and at last know the true meaning of kindness and love.
This passage establishes that it is not Jonathan’s skill or talent that makes him special, but his lack of fear and his dogged determination. He is just like any other gull in terms of his physical abilities, but he is also able to turn away from fear and determinedly pursue innovation at any cost, and despite any obstacles.
A month or so passes, and Jonathan learns at a “tremendous rate.” As the special student of Chiang the Elder, Jonathan takes in completes new ideas as fast as a “computer.” One day, however, Chiang vanishes into thin air—his last words to Jonathan are “Keep working on love.”
Jonathan is special, and as he quickly learns complicated skills, he proves just how determined he is. Chiang is proud of his pupil, but his final words do not concern technique, skill, or triumph, but rather love and empathy.
As the days go by, Jonathan cannot stop thinking about Earth. As Jonathan learns more about love and kindness, he yearns to go back home. He knows at last that he was born to be an instructor, and to pass on the truths he has learned to other gulls—especially gulls who might have been made Outcast for “speaking [their] truth.” Sullivan, however, has his doubts. He asks Jonathan why he thinks that the others would suddenly listen to him. He implores Jonathan to see that he should focus on helping the gulls in this new realm rather than trying to go back and influence his old Flock. Jonathan heeds Sullivan’s advice for a while, but even as he trains new birds who come to this world, he continues longing for Earth.
This passage shows how Jonathan’s goal is not—and never has been—betterment only of his own self, and achieving perfection for perfection’s sake. Chiang’s final words about love are also shown to have affected him greatly. He wants to share what he has learned with his Flock; even though they have Outcast him, he still loves them, and he wants to help improve their lives, too. Jonathan shows himself to be truly selfless here, and more interested in the good of the collective than he previously seemed to be.
At last, Jonathan tells Sullivan that he feels he must go back to Earth. Sullivan tells Jonathan that he will miss him, but Jonathan replies that their friendship should not depend on their proximity to one another in space and time, but rather their feelings for one another. Sullivan bids Jonathan goodbye, and Jonathan reassures his friend that the two of them will one day meet again.
Jonathan is enlightened now, so he knows space and time cannot hold him—he has transcended the physical by achieving unity of his mind, body, and spirit, and he is able to traverse the realms of being and consciousness with ease and confidence.
Back on Earth, a gull named Fletcher Lynd Seagull has just been Outcast to the Far Cliffs. As he flies, he thinks how unjust his Flock has been—he knows there must be more to life than flapping around from place to place. Fletcher laments that the other gulls cannot see the glory of flight. A voice appears within Fletcher’s own head, warning him not to be too harsh on the other gulls—in casting Fletcher out, the voice says, the gulls have only hurt themselves; one day, they will know this. The voice urges Fletcher to forgive his Flock.
Fletcher’s worldview and experiences seem to parallel Jonathan’s pre-enlightenment days with the Flock. Fletcher has been Outcast for his curiosity, and as such is angry and ashamed—but still, he is determined to strike out on his own and discover “more” than the narrow life he has been leading.
Fletcher sees a brilliant white gull appear at his wing—he wonders what is happening, and whether he is dead. The gull asks Fletcher if he wants to fly; Fletcher replies that he does. The voice asks Fletcher if he wants to fly badly enough to forgive his Flock, and one day return to them with the intent of helping them “know.” Fletcher softly says that he does. The “bright creature” next to him—who is Jonathan, returned to Earth—tells him that their lessons will begin right away.
Jonathan selects Fletcher as his first pupil—not just because he sees potential in him, but because he sees echoes of his own past in Fletcher’s present. Fletcher is Outcast, indignant, and shamed, but still determined to succeed and express his individuality. This draws Jonathan to him across space and time.