Upon These Wings
Taking the angel’s wings was supposed to be easy. The elders said the motions would come as natural as breathing, or praying. I had years of training, they said. They told me their stories, they told me about the angel’s cold blood and the way bone grates against blade. They told me it would be easy.
The room was dim, lit by sun coming through cracks in the walls. Five paces wide, five deep with dirt for flooring and branches for roof. The angel squatted in the far corner, broad shouldered and flat-chested like a man. Rope secured his hands to his ankles. He hid his face the fold of his great white wings, but I think he could see me, if angels can be said to see. Hard to tell what strange visions happen in those glossy black eyes.
I squatted with my back against the door, knees tucked around my ears, knife tight in my left hand. The hilt– carved from the leg bone of one of the first angels–dug into my palm, splintered in places from age. Not half so sharp as the blade, though.
I stood and shook the tingles from my feet. The angel shifted, too, stirring up a wave of scent. Dirty, like an unwashed sow, and the peppery tang of musk. I clenched the knife. The elders warned me the angel would try to seduce me. I asked them how? I am a man and the angel is sexless, but they insisted.
You’re strong, they’d said. But the winged ones use any trick to escape.
I told them I would be on guard, but it wasn’t lust I felt for the angel now. No, the sour in my stomach tasted like pity.
He’s less than a yard from me. With a move I could tear out a handful of feathers from those wings. Would that be enough? Could the elders craft me wings from a dozen quills?
I laughed aloud at the thought of such tiny, worthless appendages, and the angel raised his head. His hair, which might have been yellow once, had dulled to an ugly brown with dirt and sweat. The angels didn’t need to eat and didn’t deserve to bathe. This one’s skin was coated with a thick layer of grime. Filth like that would have given even the most stalwart soldier sores, but the angel’s skin shone smooth and luminous through the layers.
Late the night before I caught a glimpse of the elders bringing this one through the jungle. Only elders and acolytes on transition day were allowed near the huts, so I hid in shadows and spied. He’d given no fight when they threw him into the hut.
“Do all angels come so willingly?” I flinched at my voice, so loud after the silence. The angel raised his head, unable to answer. The skin where his mouth belonged was as plain as the skin between his legs. I’d expected as much.
I was not prepared for how much he looked like me.
Not a twin, but the features were similar. Skinny angled nose, thin arching eyebrows. He even had the receding chin most of us in the village have. It was unnerving.
The elders had told me not to look at him. Was this why?
I turned so my eyes were on his wings and not his face. They attached to his back with a mound of lumpy skin and soft, tiny white feathers. A strong bone, covered in skin and down, jutted out from his back, with a joint at the apex. Just like a bird. I ran my hand over the bone, from his back to the top joint. His feathers were clean, and soft.
The angel shivered under my touch, and the smell of its musk grew stronger. I gripped the knife harder and pressed the blade to the base of his wing. The angel didn’t move.
Neither did I.
After a long, breathless moment, the angel curled his fingers around my calf. I swallowed hard, the taste of his musk thick on my tongue. A sound unlike anything I’d ever heard, yet eerily familiar, grew in the little room. Almost a melody, almost a voice, it sounded like water trickling down and rocky brook, and like the bells hung outside our home tinkling in the morning. It sounded like my mother saying I love you, and like my baby sister snoring in her sleep. Like all of these things, and none of them.
I jerked from the angel’s grip, and the sound evaporated. For a long moment the angel and I stared at each other. His dark eyes drank of me, pulled at my core. With a shudder I turned away and dropped to my knees, swallowing back the remains of my breakfast. Bile burned my throat, tears stung my eyes.
Behind me, the angel shuffled, drew near. He placed a hand on the small of my back, just above the band of my drawstring pants. Cool skin and rough hempen rope. He felt like ice, melting in the sun. Slippery and cold. Bitter melody poured into me. Not through my ears, but through my body. The angel’s voice. Unbidden, a sob tore through me. So much pain in the sound, so much longing.
I pressed my forehead to the earth and prayed for my triplet gods to deliver me from this evil. To no avail; the gods listened to the elders, not weak acolytes.
I rolled to my side, away from the angel. He hunched like a stalking cat, reaching toward me. I recoiled from his hands, those fingers too long, too slender to be human, and brushed away the tears wetting my cheeks.
The angel shook his head.
He bowed his head, but did not move. I got to my feet, knife in hand, and tried to stop the tremors his song had induced in me. I edged around him, inch by inch, until his wings were before me.
It wouldn’t be hard. It shouldn’t be hard. But when I moved in, pressed the blade to the joint on the angel’s back, I could not cut. The shaking of my hand drew blood, dark spots wetting the down feathers covering bone and skin.
“I can’t.” The words were a whisper, lost in the hut.
Or so I thought.
A pounding on the door made me flinch.
“Looten!” Freyo, muffled by the wood. I stepped nearer the door. “You’ve been too long. Take the wings and emerge, child.”
Child. I frowned. I was no child. At fifteen I was nearly a man. Otherwise they wouldn’t have allowed me to come here and take my wings.
You can’t, a secret voice reminded me. With my wings I would become an elder, in time. Once Poluy, the eldest, passed on, I would be one of the three. Powerful. Meaningful.
Without my wings, I would be less than a child. Years spent learning the prayers and the rituals, wasted on a boy too weak to take what was his.
“You are strong,” Freyo said. “Use that strength. Take the wings.”
I was strong. Out of all the youth in my village, they had chosen me.
I strode forward, pressed the blade to the bone and began to cut. I expected a surge of righteousness, or belonging. My stomach clenched instead, and I collapsed against the angel. Skin touched skin. The angel’s song filled me, seeping into the holes where my devotion to the triplet gods once belonged. For the first time since entering the hut I felt secure.
Until the door flew open, and Freyo dragged me into the blinding sun.
I twisted, hoping to see the angel one last time. The black wings of an elder disappeared through the doorway. Tylf, the third elder, likely going in to cut the wings off herself. Freyo wrenched me forward.
“I knew it would be you.” He steered me across the clear-cut surrounding the hut, and onto a narrow trail. Broad-leafed trees towered over us, vines dripping from their branches. Top growth all but blotted out the sun, though the shade did nothing for the heat. Sweat dripped down my back.
The trail ended at the entry to another hut. Roughly the same size as the transition room, this structure boasted clay walls and a thatch roof, though the door was made of the same wood planks. Freyo pulled on the handle and shoved me in ahead of him.
Smoke hung in the air, a storm cloud of sweetgrass curling up from Poluy’s pipe. The first elder sat atop a sturdy cushion, facing the door. Beside him a small brazier heated the air. Black wings curled over his head, silk rope wrapped around his shoulders to keep them in place. Age had wilted both the wings and the man. Poluy had time enough left to train an acolyte, but not much longer. I went to one knee, head bowed. Between the elder and I sat an earthen bowl, full of a dark, grainy mixture. The smell stung my nose. Pepper and mold and vinegar.
Freyo squatted on Poluy’s right. Behind me, the door swung open, and Tylf slipped in. As she crossed to take her place on Poluy’s left, I noticed a spatter of blood darkening her ankle. Fear twisted inside me.
“Looten, son of Olen and Glorri, we meet under dark circumstances.” Poluy tapped his pipe against the edge of the bowl, adding his ashes. “Your training was designed to test your spirit, break your will if it was to be broken. Somewhere along the way, we failed you. It is only natural that you, in turn, failed me.”
Freyo popped forward and slapped me with a cupped palm. Not a hard strike, but the shock made me tumble sideways.
“Freyo.” Poluy handed the second elder his pipe. Freyo nodded and set to filling the bowl from a bundle of sweetgrass beside Poluy’s cushion, brows furrowed. I got the sense he would hit me again, and gladly. I pressed my lips together.
“To most acolytes, taking the wings of an angel is considered a good and proper thing. As you were told, this process should be natural, infused into your very self, and yet…” Poluy shook his head. “There are exceptions, which are necessary to the course of our world, though much less a reason for joy.
“You have not met one who turned away from their wings, Looten, because we do not allow such people to remain with us. If you can betray the three gods, you can betray anyone.” Poluy took his fresh pipe from Freyo, letting the second elder light the sweetgrass using a smoldering stick taken from the brazier. Coils of smoke spilled from his weathered lips. “You lost your village, my child. And your people.”
My eyes burned, from the pipe and from his words. I didn’t want to lose my family. I didn’t want to lose my friends, or the future I could have here amongst the elders and their jet-black wings. Why? Because I couldn’t take the wings of the angel?
“No, let me try again,” I said, half-raising up on my knees. “I can take the wings.”
Freyo glared at me until I sat back down. Poluy only shook his head again.
“A new life awaits you.” He gestured at the bowl between us. “Drink this. It will make the transition easier.”
“No, I don’t need to–”
“You will change, Looten. None of us can stop that now, especially not you.” Poluy nudged the bowl closer to me with the end of his pipe. “Drink, Looten. I do not want to pour this down your throat.”
I picked up the bowl.
“What’s going to happen to me, Poluy?” I sounded like a little boy, pleading with his mother, and it made me burn with shame. Poluy smiled, and gestured for me to drink. I did.
“You’re becoming an angel,” he said, once I had finished.
Moments later my ribs began to shift. Tiny prickles of pain exploded on my back, above my shoulder blades. I lost grip of the bowl and it fell–just as my knife had–to the ground. The mixture splattered, turning the dirt to a viscous mud. My skin tightened like the slack being pulled out of a length of rope. My ribs moved again, cracking and changing to make room for a new thing growing inside me. Bones that would carry the weight of a thousand feathers.
Strong hands grasped my shoulders and dragged me from the hut. Dappled sunlight broke over me, and I inhaled greedy lungfuls of clean air between the spikes of torment. Over roots and undergrowth, past trees and the transition hut. With each step the world blurred a little bit. Each footfall brought darkness closer. My thoughts were fire and lightning. My body was heartbreak and rage. And soon, my world narrowed to a pinprick of light.
Then, nothing at all.
Water gurgled nearby, a gentle rushing sound coaxing me drop by drop back to life. I was lying on my belly, roots pushing into my thighs and one of my arms. Something moved under my chest, an insect or a snake or my imagination. A nasty, bitter film coated my mouth. I opened my eyes a slit–any more was too much work–and dragged myself over to the river.
The water felt strangely hot. I brought a handful to my mouth–but I had no mouth to drink. Nothing but smooth skin. I tried to lick my lips, and my tongue met with unbroken flesh. My teeth were smaller, my jaw tighter. This was no dream.
I slid my hand over my belly, past the waist of my pants and between my legs.
They had robbed me of my manhood, before I’d known a woman.
I craned my neck, looking for my wings, but my eyes caught on the world around me. A dark, angry sky, a blood red sun, and the trees grew leaves of white laced with purple. Heat pressed down on me, as heavy as my wings. I’d woken in an alien land, one that pretended at familiarity. Only the scent of the jungle–earth and sweet blooms and my own sweat–remained the same.
I rose and grabbed hold of a tree for balance, breathing deep. It was all I had left. They’d stolen everything else. My little sister, who would learn to walk and talk and live without me. My mother, and her high hopes for my future as an elder. The boys I’d grown up with and the girls we’d adored. Gone. Because one day, and possibly one day soon, the elders would come hunting. I don’t know why the other angels never fought back. Or, if they did, I don’t know why they lost.
I intended to be ready.
I intended to win.
I had a feeling it wouldn’t be easy.
Eliza Hirsch is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in the Seattle area. She is a Clarion West alum, loves cats of all kinds, and collects deep thoughts about serial killers. You can find her online at exploringeliza.com.