Grounded

by Michail Velichansky

 

The winged child lost his footing as soon as he touched down on the abandoned roof. The wind blew him off his feet again, dragging him over to the lip of the roof. He folded his wings and clutched at rotting brick to keep himself from falling off.

He waited to catch his breath, then sat down on the edge and let his feet hang down. Holding onto the brick he stretched white-feathered wings and stared out at the broken, grounded city: at the crumbling buildings, stretches of cracked cement, a rusted playground. A huge shadow crept across it all, cast by his own city in the sky. Even here he couldn’t escape it.

Dust whispered in the air. A piece of tumbling debris scraped against brick and rusted iron. The roof groaned. He turned around. There were groundling kids sneaking along the roof. They stared at each other for a second. Then the kids screamed and ran at the winged child. He scrambled up, spreading his wings. The brick broke under him. Groundling hands grabbed his wings and pulled him down to the rooftop. The winged child cried, and kicked, and beat his wings. Now and then he managed to throw one of his attackers off, but there were too many of them punching and kicking. When he felt the brick hit him, he curled up into a ball and tried to cover himself with his wings.

They didn’t let him. The groundling kids held his wings in their coarse hands and plucked out feathers. In the darkness behind his lids, the winged child counted: one, two… He jerked with each pull. Three, four… He sobbed and shuddered. Seven… eight…

Two for each. He could hear the kids sighing and laughing, full of wonder at their treasure: long and slender, the barbs softer than anything they’d ever touched, soft as the rare white cloud, and the rachis as light as ash and strong as bone. Their footsteps shuddered through the roof into the winged boys flesh as they ran to the collapsed places and climbed down through places where the roof had caved in.

Sobbing, clumsy from misery, the winged child pawed at his wings. New waves of tears burst out when he felt the places missing feathers. When the tears ran out, he lifted his dirty, bloodied face and stared at the belly of his home floating overhead. Loneliness ached worse than any groundling poison.

He crawled into a corner and wrapped his wings tightly about himself, crushing his arms and knees against his chest. He couldn’t return. It had been bad enough before, with his puny wings and clumsy flight, already called a groundling bird, a chicken. Now he’d proven them right. Chickens were plucked before you ate them. Not a real bird, not sky-born.

“I guess I don’t belong here, either,” he said to nobody at all. “Maybe I should learn to swim.” He cried and thought of the slow, friendly poisons in the groundling water.

*****

The kids ran from the crumbling building with feathers in their hands, laughing nervously and running fingers over the ribs, poking the quill-tips into their palms.

But though they were excited, they were hungry from the fight and knew they’d need their strength. They went to the Center to get food. There, the wingies flew down with shipments of food that they distributed to whoever came to get it, so long as they looked healthy: Melissa wore a rag over her head to hide a third eye, Chris Filter wore a scarf to hide thick, membranous gills that let him breath in toxic zones, Coyote stuffed a tail into his pants. Lon-Looks-Normal, of course, did nothing.

The kids felt a mischievous glee knowing that they had stolen feathers in their pockets so close to the food-servers, volunteer wingies that tried too hard to be nice—“we were all groundlings once,” “even birds have to walk sometimes, haha.” They wore air-tight robes of pristine white mesh and breathers with blinking LEDs.

All around the Center, red-guards scowled and fingered prism rifles. Each had at least one pair of feathers that were a deep red instead of white. Stories of the riots still survived: red-guards had no qualms about burning groundlings. They left their wings uncovered to show them off. Touching the feathers in their pockets, the kids said a polite hello to every one.

They left when their stomachs were full, and for once they didn’t bother stealing extra. There would be food aplenty soon, and drinkable water in the streets, no gangs or rodents or quiet deaths. There would be farming.

Unburdened and excited, the kids made their way through the blasted city until they hit the edges of the radiation zones.

“Find the quiet death,” Lon-Looks-Normal told Melissa of Three Eyes. She closed her two normal ones while the tumor in her forehead opened to reveal a third. She saw where the land emitted the strange, colorless light no one else could see. She led them until they were bathed in it.

They were ready. They could do it here.

They’d heard tales of farming: before the toxic air and the light of quiet death, you could put something small into the earth, and it would grow up great and tall. And of course they knew that kids born in the unseen light were either changed or dead. So each of the kids but one took out their pair of feathers and lay down on their stomachs. Lon-Looks-Normal took out a piece of glass he’d found and sharpened. He walked to each of them and cut a slit on either side of their spines, then worked a feather in. Finished, he reached behind his own back, planted the feathers, and lay down alongside the others.

They lay tense and excited, waiting for the wings to grow. Melissa kept her double-eyes shut tight, and through her third watched the minute patterns in the light. Coyote’s tail flicked left and right. Chris Filter’s gills sucked and gurgled at the air.

Their wounds oozed. A bloody red worked itself up the feathers and spread out into the barbs. Still they waited, dreaming of the floating cities, dreaming “Anywhere But Here.” Every now and then one of them would say, “I think I feel something,” “Maybe they’re starting to grow,” and “It just takes some time, we have to give it time.”

Coyote talked about all the things he’d do once he could fly up to the city, which included dropping food on the heads of friends and foes. Lon-Looks-Normal only clenched his teeth and fingered the scars along his fingers where he’d cut away the webbing.

For a long time nothing happened. Then Melissa of Three Eyes said, “I don’t think its working…” and Chris Filter said, “I don’t feel so good.” The pain in their backs no longer felt like the ache of muscles, the feeling when you first split the membrane holding your third eye closed or the first breath through spongy gills. It had turned into an idiotic, frustrating pain, an old and angry pain like a drone in their heads brought to the surface. They couldn’t take it anymore.

“Let’s get out of here,” said Lon-Looks-Normal. He tore the feathers from his back, and the blood flowed free. The rest of them followed suit. They were angry as they walked back to the crumbling building—tension and excitement had turned bitter without release. The walk back to the building where they’d found the winged child took longer than it had before, in a time that seemed as far away as the city overhead.

*****

The winged child still lay there, huddled up and staring at the sky. Hunger scrabbled at his belly and thirst hissed against his throat. The puddle of water he’d seen down in the building tempted him, but he feared to drink. Then again he heard rocks fall and the roof groan. He scrambled to the edge of the roof, ready to fly away. The groundling kids climbed up through the hole where the roof had collapsed.

“Why didn’t they grow?” shouted Lon-Looks-Normal, and the others joined in:

“Its not fair, we want wings too, we want to live up in the floating cities.”

“Is it true that wingies can eat whenever they want?”

“Is it because you have farming? Is that why they grow for you and not for us?”

“We’re poisoned, just like the soil… that’s it, isn’t it? Just because he’s got a tail, and she has three eyes.”

“Y-you can’t grow wings like that.” Amusement flickered behind the fear beating against his ribs. “We’re born with them. L-like her eyes.” They stared at him expectantly. His hands trembled on the brick. “Like her eyes, only th-they didn’t just happen.”

Dizzy, afraid he wouldn’t be able to fly if he slipped, the winged child climbed down off the ledge onto the roof.

“A-at school, they told us that we got wings because we’re better. But in the old b-books it says they did it on purpose back when everyone still lived on the g-ground. People with money. So they could have small islands in the s-sky only they could go to. Then they started living there, and they could float above the bad air, and the bad light from the ground couldn’t get at them. T-they-we could make fresh water from the clouds.”

He wanted to go home so much he feared he’d cry again. The city’s hateful words sounded hollow now, while his thirst and hunger were real.

Chris Filter said, “So… can you make them give us wings? We don’t like the bad air either, or the quiet death.”

The winged child sniffed and shook his head. “They don’t remember how anymore. They forgot, because now we’re born this way. They want to think we were always like this.”

Coyote scowled and scratched his tail bone. “Here, then. We don’t need them.” And he dropped the blood-red feathers on the ground. Silent or mumbling, the rest of them did too. Lon-Looks-Normal hesitated longest, holding the feathers in one tight fist. Then he sagged and flung them away, disgust and anger like a third eye on his face. Soft crimson glided to the rooftop.

The winged child stared at the feathers. His heartbeat slipped as excitement settled over his fear. He looked up at the groundlings, then back at the feathers. He edged closer to them, and the kids stepped back to give him room. He grabbed two feathers and dashed back to the ledge.

“You don’t want the rest?” Coyote asked. He held his hands close to his chest.

“Just need two,” the winged child said, a smile fluttering on his face. He could go home now. Whenever warriors fought and won, they found any lost feathers—you could always tell your own from someone else’s—and dipped them into enemy blood so that they turned red. He fought hard to keep from crushing his feathers out of excitement. They’d check the blood to make sure it wasn’t his own, and it wouldn’t be. It would be groundling blood, poisoned groundling blood, and they’d know that he’d been on the ground without a suit, had met with groundlings and poison and won. They’d have to respect him them. They’d have to.

“Keep the rest,” he said. “I’m going back.” He stepped onto the ledge and readied himself to fly.

Melissa of Three Eyes said, “You going to come back again?”

“Yeah,” Coyote said, “Why don’t you? Tell us about the floating city, and we’ll tell you about the grounded one.”

The winged child was on the verge of flight, but still he paused. “All right,” he said. “Maybe I will.” Then, concentrating hard to keep from ruining the flight, he dove and flapped his wings. He held the blood-feathers close to his chest as he rose towards his city.

*****

“You really think he’ll come back?” Chris Filter asked as they watched him fly away.

Lon-Looks-Normal said, “No. He’ll be back up in his flying city with his bright shiny red feathers—if he can stay there, why come back?” He closed his eyes and loosened the grip he held on his own flesh. “I wouldn’t,” he whispered.

After a while Coyote said, “He might. We’ve all seen him here before, sulking on the roof. Just ’cause he’s got red feathers now doesn’t mean he won’t come back. It only means he thinks he won’t—isn’t that right, Lon?” The boy laughed. “Anyway, we can at least try to sell these.” He picked up the red feathers and scrambled down off the roof.

The other kids followed suit, wincing as their shoulder blades rolled beneath the wounds, trying to keep their clothes from sticking. Only Melissa and Lon remained.

“I can only see the city with my double-eyes,” she said. “It must be strange without the light.” Then she, too, walked away, and Lon-Looks-Normal was left looking up at the place where he’d lost sight of the winged child. He ignored the pain in his shoulders and stared at the city’s metal underbelly, dark against the sky. He rubbed the scars along his fingers where glass had stripped away the webs.

 

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