“The Girl with Wings of Iron and Down”
by Aidan Moher
I woke in a white room. The gentle hum of electricity enveloped me, and a blinding white light shone down from a single point in the ceiling. I felt like I had just crawled out from the pits of death. Hell. A shadow moved into the light, then resolved into a head, then a face, and then a man. He reminded me of my father.
“Don’t worry, girl,” said the man. “I’m fixing you.”
The light faded, the man drifted into shadows. I fell back into sleep.
Or death. It was difficult to tell which.
The next time I woke, I was still in the white room, but the light was now a dim orange. I was free to move my head, but leather straps held me tight against the table. I looked around my prison as best I could. Two walls were bare, one had outline of what looked like a door, and the third was dominated by a lifeless screen built into the wall above a small desk. On the desk sat a simple table lamp, much like the one in my bedroom. This was my bedroom now.
I didn’t know where I was. The easy answer was that I was dead — but was Heaven really just a white room with an orange lamp? My grandmama had always said it would be wonderful, and this room was anything but. It was boring. Small.
The ceiling held several lights settled into shallow depressions. They looked like the watchful eyes of angels. I thought again of my grandmama and her silly stories. Father hadn’t liked it when she told me those stories.
They were just stories, though. So where’s the harm, Father?
The hiss of a door broke the room’s silence; the light shifted from orange to white and back to orange as new light invaded from whatever lay beyond the door, then was shut away again. Slippered footsteps whispered across the floor.
A large hand touched my shoulder, tender and delicate. It belonged to a stern-faced man in horn-rimmed glasses. The same man as before. The datapad in his hand glowed; its colours danced across the pale skin of his palm as he used the device one-handed, manipulating the screen with his thumb.
“You’re not supposed to be awake,” he said. His voice was also like my father’s but sadder.
He turned and walked to the desk. He put down his datapad and fiddled with the wallscreen. It jumped to life, adding its own erratic light to the room. A soft hiss, then a light kiss against the nape of my neck.
My eyelids strained to open, but remained closed as if stuck by glue. Voices filled the void.
“Would you come to bed, John?” said a woman.
“In a moment. Just another moment,” said the familiar voice of the man with the glasses.
The woman sighed. “Yes, yes. Another moment.”
“Sarah,” the man whispered. It wasn’t my name, but somehow I knew he was talking about me.
“John.” Ice entered the woman’s voice. She sounded weary and lonely. “Think of who she is, of what you’re doing.”
“Please, John! Don’t call her that. She’s broken beyond repair. You’ve broken her! She should be dead.”
Something crashed against the wall. The man huffed. My grandmama once read me a story about old warriors who fought bulls — pricking them with their metal weapons, taunting and enraging them, then killing the poor beasts for sport. The man’s next word had all the power and anger of one of those bulls. “Out.”
“John…” said the woman. “Come here. Please.” I couldn’t see her, but I pictured her holding her arms out before her, inviting the man into her embrace, into a place where whatever sins he carried could be momentarily forgotten.
He didn’t move — didn’t even speak.
“John,” she said more firmly. “She’s awake. Look at her eyes flutter. Can she hear us?”
The man stomped through the room; he slapped his hand on the screen above the desk. I fell back into dreamless sleep.
They tried to fix me.
“The drugs are too much. You’ll kill her.”
When next I awoke, I lay on my stomach. I was free to move, but now metal wings sprouted from my back. My first thought was not that they were absurd but that metal seemed a poor choice for tools meant for flight. My second was a wave of revulsion.
“Do you like them?”
I hadn’t noticed the man with the horn-rimmed glasses sitting in the chair. Startled, the disgust and panic washed away from me in a wave of curiosity.
“I…” I did not know what to say.
“You are special, Sarah. You are my little angel.”
That name again.
He smiled, the first I’d seen from him. I was caught off guard by the kindness in his dark eyes. The smile just barely touched his lips, a small turn at one corner, but his eyes danced.
Try as I might, I could not flap the wings and they would not fold; I could not stretch them to their full length nor draw them tight against my bare back. They were dead to me.
“They don’t work” was all I could think to say.
“Not yet,” he said. Some of the happiness left his eyes. “But soon. I will fix them. You will be the little angel of Tao Hua Yuan.”
Being an angel would be nice. And if these wings ever worked, I could leave this small room with its metal bed and leather straps. I’d fly the world over, and find my real father. But they were broken and needed fixing. I needed fixing.
“I’d like to go back to sleep,” I said.
“Yes, my dear. Sleep well,” the man said. The last thing I saw before sleep swept over me were his sad eyes and smiling lips.
They broke me.
I am no longer in the white room, but I am in a room. There on a small bed — quilt emblazoned with a dozen unicorns — is a small stuffed lion. Sebastian. I’d received Sebastian from my grandfather on the day I was born. I didn’t remember that, of course, but my mother had told me. I miss my mother. I don’t remember how she looked anymore — just that she loved to smile.
Sebastian looks lonely. He’s right where I left him, nestled amongst the fluffy pillows on my bed where I always put him before I leave for school each morning. The rest of my room is just as I remember it as well. A small data terminal built into my desk, a green light pulsing in the top corner. I must have homework due. Overdue now. Flowered wallpaper — the pattern my mother picked when we first moved from Istanbul to this new town. This new planet. I barely remember the room I’d had before that. I don’t think it had flowers.
I leave my room and wander through the rest of the house. It smells of my father — the rich leathery scent of his cigars and the perfume, redolent of cotton and flowers, which he keeps because it reminds him of mother. The walls of the hallway are lined with bookshelves, dusty old things. My father is a collector. On the kitchen table sit a steaming bowl of porridge mixed with blueberries, and a cup of black coffee. He must not be far away.
Outside, the sun shines down, warm and smiling. A stream babbles, and my mother’s old flower garden, grown beautifully wild, ripples and dances in the breeze. I once asked my father why he never tended the garden. “That is what your mother was like in life, my darling,” he told me. “Free and boundless. Her spirit now cares for those flowers.”
Willard, my father’s big wolfhound, is nowhere to be seen.
The windows of my home are dimmed to keep the house cool, and my reflection in their dark surface shocks me. The wings on my back are no longer clunky metal but luxurious feathers. White as fresh-fallen snow, they look as an angel’s wings. I spread them wide — twelve feet at least from tip to tip. Spreading them feels wondrous, like the muscles have been cramped and bound for my entire life. I flap them once and the gusting wind sends my mother’s flower garden into a frantic shudder.
Then I fly — like I was a bird born to it, not a little girl with newly found wings.
Far and wide I fly, all across the land. I leave my house, Father, Willard, and Sebastian behind, all forgotten in my excitement.
I circle the world in minutes. Or is it years? Time has no meaning as my angel wings flap. I see many wonders from above: far to the south, glaciers crash into the sea, and waves crash in all directions for miles and miles; I cross endless grasslands and forests seeming to blanket half the world… but I do not see a single living thing. Not a bear hunting for salmon in a stream, nor a gazelle prancing through the long savannah grass; no whales break the roiling surface of the ocean; and the enormous cities, endlessly scarring the beautiful earth, are empty.
Eventually, though, I hear voices raised in argument.
Far from any city, I stumble upon a volcano. Lava oozes from the crown of his head as he argues with the sun, who hangs far above in her heavenly perch.
Far distant, the moon watches. His face is wrinkled and his eyes are wise and sad.
“She will never be replaced!” says the sun.
The volcano spews ash and more red lava leaks from its cracks and seams, like hot tears rolling down his devastated face.
“Sarah is gone,” says the sun. “Forever, John. She’s dead.” Kindness and cold callousness mix in the sun’s voice. Suspended above all, she will never understand the volcano’s misery; she can never know the scorching pain of the magma that fills his craggy core.
The volcano spits an enormous gout of ash and flame, showering the land with its fury. The sun and moon are hidden behind the dark cloud.
I flee on my wings of down toward the kind-faced moon. Higher and higher I fly, my wings tireless — away from the sun and the angry volcano, back to the land of the waking.
The next time I woke, I was allowed to leave my room. Walking at the woman’s side, I caught my first glimpse of the outside world through the dimmed force-windows that lined one wall of the hallway. White buildings reached toward the heavens; cars zipped around through a crowded sky. The woman stopped at a door — it looked no different from the sliding door to my prison, or the others that lined the wall opposite the force-windows. She pressed her palm on a sensor next to the door and it opened with a relieved hiss as the slightly pressurized air inside the building escaped into the outside world. On the other side of the door was a walled garden — utterly alien to the rest of the compound’s technological utopia. This garden was alive — lush, organic; the compound was sterile — scientific…human.
We sat together, enjoying the cool touch of the breeze on our skin.
“They make me look so ugly,” I told the woman. In truth, however, I found them kind of pretty — elegant and powerful. I stuck out my lower lip and attempted to make it quiver. I tried to mine thoughts of my dead mother, the empty house I’d seen in my dream, but even those aching memories could not draw enough emotion to bring real tears to my eyes. I’m not sure I fooled her.
“Ugly?” said the woman. “John would never want you to feel ugly.” Kind words, but the look in her eyes spoke to their dishonesty. “He wants…”
She paused. I waited for her words.
“He just wants…” But that was it. She finished her sentence with a small sigh. “He wants you to be beautiful,” she finally said. “To be happy.”
I admired the wings. I saw other children in the compound, even here in the gardens, but none had any sort of alterations or metal limbs. They were normal children, leading normal lives and living in normal bodies. I never felt normal, not inside or the outside. These wings proved to me that I wasn’t meant to be normal. The wings reminded me of my mother, of her freedom and grace. My father often spoke of her spirit, of the beauty of her soul, of her laugh and the way she could make the world seem so right even when everything was going wrong. I think my mother would have liked my wings.
I don’t know why I told the woman the wings made me look ugly. It was what she wanted to hear, I think. She was not my mother.
I tired quickly after that. The woman carried me back to my room. The man with the glasses was waiting for us, but he left alongside the woman after I was settled.
I explored the intricacies of the wings, hoping to find their secret. He no longer put me to sleep with his drugs, and the clouds were gone from my thoughts. The powered-down wallscreen was almost perfectly reflective and I used it to investigate the parts of the wings that I could not see otherwise. My skin was still raw where the metal joined my body, but it seemed to be healing without infection. The man was a delicate surgeon, and already in some places, metal met skin in a way that was startlingly natural.
That’s how I discovered the keyhole — plain to the eye, inviting to my young curiosity and begging to be unlocked. But with what key?
In the days that followed, I was given lean to wander the compound. Sometimes I was even allowed out without a chaperone. I spent much of that time in that garden, listening to the gurgle of the stream and the chirruping of the small birds that lived in the trees. I wasn’t sure whether the birds were real or just more mechanical artifice, until one day I saw a sparrow drinking from a small pool. I allowed myself a small, private smile. They were my friends and I envied them their freedom.
The “compound,” as I’d come to think of it (a friendlier word than “prison”), was actually a research campus, the woman told me. A place of learning, where scientists lived with their families, where the secrets of life were broken open and laid bare. She named it Tao Hua Yuan, the Peach Blossom Spring.
The soft bitterness in her eyes was new.
I saw many families on my wanderings, though they never came close enough that I could speak with them. Fathers and mothers steered their children away; scientists in long white coats, datapads forgotten, stared before detouring through less-traveled parts of the garden. In their stares I saw curiosity and disgust, pity and wariness. One day, the kind woman came and spoke sharply with two men who watched me from another bench. I couldn’t hear her words, but soon the two men shuffled off, sullen and speaking in furious whispers between themselves. The kind woman came over and sat down beside me. She tried to put an arm around my shoulders but my broken metal wings made it awkward, so instead she took one of my hands in hers and rested it in her lap. She didn’t say anything, just sat with me, listening to the singing stream.
I woke screaming. The walls of my small room were choking, the weight of my imprisonment closing in — collapsing like a paper box under a heavy boot. The air was stifling and the thin blanket was tangled around my feet. I tried to kick it away, to scramble from its grasp, but every kick and squirm only ensnared me further.
The door to the room hissed open, light chasing back the shadows. The man — John — entered in a hurry. He had on no shirt, nor glasses, just a pair of small shorts. He crossed the room in three strides, chasing back the demons that haunted the shadows. He crouched over my bed and took me in his arms.
“Hush, my angel,” he said.
My screaming turned to whimpers, then subsided. The gentle stroke of his thumb on my forehead was soothing, the warmth of his hand on the back of my head firm.
“Quiet, my sweet. Hush, my angel. It’s all right.”
My body sagged into his, all the tension gone. The walls of my prison retreated, back to their familiar white, washed with the light from the hall. The man hugged me to his chest. I could hear the quick beat of his heart.
“A dream is all. Hush.”
“Why is he so sad?” I asked. I felt bold that day.
The woman tried to hide her surprise behind a smile. “Would you say he’s sad?”
“His eyes say so, and the sounds around the words when he speaks.” Even when he seemed happy or excited, there was a certain melancholy underneath it all. “Is it because of Sarah?”
The woman mouthed the name, rolled it around with her tongue.
“He calls me that. Sarah. But it’s not my name,” I said. “Who’s Sarah?”
A small butterfly, its wings as yellow as a dandelion and just as delicate, settled on a nearby flower.
“Sarah was… My daughter’s name was Sarah. She was an angel.”
“Does he miss her?”
A tear rolled down the woman’s cheek. It clung to her chin for a brief moment, then fell to splash against her hands clasped in her lap.
The butterfly flew from its perch, fluttering away into the garden.
“So do I,” I said.
I was woken by the hiss of an opening door. I tried to open my eyes, but they were disabled. He had been working on me again, trying to fix my wings. He always shut off my eyes when doing so.
A gentle hand grabbed my own. It was papery and dry and reminded me of my grandmama’s. She would hold me by either side of my face and plant wet kisses on my lips.
In its palm was a small piece of paper — hard and full of tension, as though it had been folded many times. Another papery hand joined the first and folded my fingers around the paper. Hold tight, I knew the person was telling me.
I felt chapped lips brush against my forehead, the tickle of their whiskers light against my skin. Then the man lay my hand back at my side and walked from the room. The soft sound of silk slippers on the cold floor was the last I heard of him before the door shut. The paper was warm and damp in my sweaty hand. Knowing it must stay hidden, I slipped it into my underwear, just where the elastic waistband dug into my skin.
I fell asleep wondering what was written on that note.
Behind the small oak, near the crook of the stream where the sun never shines. Meet me when dusk falls and find your freedom.
I sat alone near the described spot as dusk blanketed the garden. I’d been there each day at the desired time. The man with the glasses never questioned my whereabouts as long as I was returned by the time full dark fell over the campus. Sometimes, I left my room at noon and spent my days in the garden; other times, I left near dusk. Seven days passed this way, though I never lost heart.
But that day, I was startled when the man with the glasses entered the garden. He saw me and came to sit on my bench.
“Where is she?” I asked. I’d not seen the woman since we last sat in the garden, watching the yellow butterfly and speaking of Sarah. She hadn’t met me in the garden nor warded off curious scientists since. I’d not heard her voice in the darkness as the man in the glasses worked on my wings.
“She left,” he said. He looked tired.
He laughed, a quick bark with little humour in it. “Be damned if I know.”
The man took off his glasses and rubbed his bloodshot eyes with the heel of his hand. Where my father’s hands had been rough and callused from hard work in our yard, this man’s were soft, the fingers long and delicate. I missed my father’s hands.
“Is she coming back?”
It took him a few moments to answer. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think so. I hope so.”
“Why did she leave?”
This time, he didn’t answer me. Together we watched the stream as the sun fled to wherever it is she goes after dark and night enveloped the garden.
“Let’s go home,” I said. The person who had given me the note was not coming to meet me that day, not with the man sitting next to me.
Freedom would have to wait for another day.
On the eighth day, there was a little boy waiting for me by the stream.
He had dusty blue eyes and a quiet soul. He wore nothing but a thin paper medical gown, the kind that does up in the back with a string, and his hair was all mussed up. He looked like a boy I could be friends with, in a different life.
Without a word, the boy handed me a key. Then he vanished. He didn’t duck behind a tree or run around a corner; he didn’t poof up into a cloud of smoke; he just disappeared. He was there, then he wasn’t. Is that any stranger, though, than having metal wings sprouting from your back? It wasn’t for me to say.
So, instead of dwelling on it, I looked at the key. It was not a flat plastic card like most keys, but an archaic piece of metal, knobby on one end, with staccato teeth at the other. It was a key like the ones in the old fairy tales my father read to me as a child. Tied to the knob was a brown paper tag, on which was written:
Use this when the time comes
I had no idea when the “right time” would be, but I did have a very good idea of which keyhole it belonged to.
On the ninth day, I used the key.
On closer inspection, the key was made from the same metal as my wings, and a single word carved onto the shaft between the knob and the teeth. A name, actually.
It was not a key to somewhere but to someone. To me.
Over the past several days, items had started to appear in my room. A delicate doll with a ghostly white face and a pretty pink dress; a quilt on my bed to replace the thin white sheet; a silk flower in a vase on the small desk. Small offerings of peace from the man with the glasses to his little angel of Tao Hua Yuan. To Sarah. No matter his effort, though, I felt no twinge of regret when I left that small room for the last time and went to the garden, key in hand.
An old man sat on a bench. He smiled at me but soon left, shuffling away with a ratty paper book in one hand — a relic even older than he was, I’d guess. Birds chirped, the stream gurgled, and the ever-present breeze sang its song accompanied by the susurrus of leaves blown idly about.
I slid the key into the wing’s small keyhole.
I turn it, and the wings stirred to life. Metal screeched and steam surged from the exhaust vents, jetting away from my body. Soon the wings settled into the low rumble of a well-running engine.
“Ancient technology,” said the man. Memories of a dream, overheard while drugged. “But tested and proven.” The woman had said nothing, but I remembered hearing the clip-clop of her shoes as she left my small room.
Whether from my dream or some trick of science, I knew how to use the wings as though I were born with them. I stretched them out eight feet on either side of me. They dwarfed me with their immensity. I launched into the air and flew — lifted towards the heaven by that ancient technology. Lifted towards freedom.
My wings weren’t all-powerful as in my dream. Instead, they huffed and wheezed, pulling me skyward with beleaguered strokes. But they worked, and freedom was before me, ripe for taking. I thought of the kind woman. Where would I find her? I must find her.
The small community and its scientists and families dwindled. Soon, they were like little toys, the white buildings like dollhouses. Scattered throughout were pockets of green like the garden I’d grown to love. Glistening streams twisted through the community — so carefully laid that they looked nearly random — feeding into an enormous lake. I pushed higher, and angled toward the lake. The clouds above were enormous now, wandering across the sky, curving towards the horizon.
But there was no wind. And clouds do not curve to the horizon.
The sky shattered as I slammed into it, my body crumpling against the phantom clouds, and a spider-webbing distortion spread out from the point of impact — like the glass screen of a cracked datapad. I noticed the oddness of the sky. It didn’t stretch out infinitely before me, but curved, dome-shaped, to the horizons. No clouds floated midair; instead they were flat and depthless against the surface of the dome, displayed there to hide the vastness of space beyond. How had I not noticed such trickery from the ground? Falling, I could see stars beyond the outside surface of the dome as the projected sky reassembled itself into a façade of daylight. A small island, floating in space. The digital webbing righted itself almost instantly and the clouds knitted back into perfection.
My wings were useless, crushed by the impact. I felt like one of the loose dolls inside my grandmama’s old snow globe.
The lake was dotted with people in paddle boats, like a pattern on a dark quilt. One or two pointed at me, others drew hands to their mouths in shock, many didn’t even notice. I crashed into the placid water, hard, like it was solid stone. I blacked out.
It might be that I died.
I awoke in the arms of an old man. He shuffled along, unaware that I watched him through slitted eyes. I closed my eyes again but did not fall back to darkness. Instead, I listened. Birdsong drifted on the breeze, in counterpoint to the slow lap of water on a nearby shore. My hair and clothes were wet and my body ached fiercely. I shifted in the man’s arms and knew that my wings were broken.
His hands were papery soft.
‘Don’t worry, child,” he said, his voice whispery, like silk slippers over a dusty floor. “You’re safe now.”
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One of the “May Science Fiction And Fantasy Books Everyone Will Be Talking About.” (io9)
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