Borrowed Wings

by Raiff Taranday

I will tell you about the two people who lived in a tree.  They lived high in its branches, overlooking the vast expanse of the emerald forest.  They loved the tree so much they called it home and it loved them so much that it cultured its limbs into a house, one replete with spacious rooms and a library full of books that the tree, its roots tapped into the collective unconscious, also grew for them.  Is the tree magic?   Yes.  How did the people come to live in it?   I might tell you, if it comes up, but this is not an origin story full of sprawling mythologies.   This is the story of two people; their home, their animals, and the life they decided every day (often in spite of themselves) to make together. 

         “I’m taking the wings,” the peregrine said.  “You don’t need them, right?”

         “Not today,” said the monk, ruminating over the scraps of his breakfast.  This was an oft-repeated ritual between them, the asking of this unnecessary question.   The wings ostensibly belonged to both of them, belonged to the house, but they had been hers originally, just as the tree had been her home before it was his.  The monk had been there for nearly a century but often still felt like a guest and acted with a guest’s deference. 

         “Larder’s perilously low,” the peregrine grumbled.  Their bodies needed meat and innocent blood to live these days—there had once been other nutritional options but the various tragedies of the world had stolen them.  The tree could grow fruit laden with protein, but the vestiges of anima that could only come from a once-living being were among the few resources it could not generate for them.  The valleys beyond the emerald forest were rife with sheep; one of them needed to fly there and return with flesh.

         “You know you’re the better killer,” the monk said, his tone consoling.  He was, as he often did, attempting to affirm her choices with information they both already knew.

         “I’d rather be caring for little things than crushing them.”

         “We have to care for ourselves so that we’re strong enough to care for others.”

         “When you try to give me ‘comfort’, it has the odd effect of making me want to crush your skull,” the peregrine replied.  She did not look up from her own meal but her plumage was rising in the beginnings of a threat display, the ebon feathers on her neck bristling to obscure the sapphire skin around her jawline.   His own brown-gray plumage flattened and contracted in response.  The monk, long practiced in survival, was sensitive to the changes in her bearing, and knew he should desist.

         “Use that sentiment out there to fuel your hunt, mighty provider,” he said anyway.

         “You’re right, I have to do it.   You’d just come back empty handed, like the last time.”

         “My abbot always said, ‘proper division of labor is the bedrock of a functional community’.”  The monk often quoted aphorisms from the cliff-dwelling commune of ascetics where he’d been born.

         “How’d things work out for him and his lot?”  Apparently she was only trying to hurt him with words today and, honestly, the monk would have preferred the alternative.  He imagined the wind whipping away at the stone, ten-thousand years of erosion, schooling his sadness and resentment into something resembling peace.

         “Not well, as you know, though through no fault in their philosophy.”

         “Our kind isn’t meant to live in groups.  You made yourselves targets.”

         One of their diamond-squirrels elected this moment to leap on the table between them, making a chittering complaint that her own morning meal had yet to be provided.  Beneath the table, the cat-rats were bullying and cozening one another.  Both peregrine and monk could hear, in the next room, the sound of their maimed archaeopteryx, Hoplite, dragging himself out of his nest. The menagerie was getting restless.

         “To our duties?” the monk suggested.

         “Enjoy your day of ease.”   The peregrine wished she could while away her time playing with precious animals and communing with the tree, even if the monk was better suited to that particular task—the very reason he was still alive and occupying her home.  

         “Good fortune and favorable winds,” the monk said, his voice as sincere as it usually was when he wished her off.  “Kill them fast.”

         “I always do.”

         The peregrine ascended the branching stairways and vine ladders to the highest point of the ur-tree, to the vestibule that led out to the steeple balcony.  It was the chamber where she kept her wings.  They hung, suspended in the empty air inside a pillar of dim light, folded into themselves, waiting for her.  She backed into their central harness and felt the moment of contact, the changing magic coursing through her.  She felt the flesh, bone, and embedded minerals in her back fusing with the lithic substance of the wings.  Her shoulder blades reshaped themselves, elongating and twining around the artificial humerus, the line between her own anatomy and the thaumaturgical prostheses blurring into seamless union.  She flexed her phalanges and felt the stony feathers unfurl and radiate away from her, saw her shadow upon the floor spread and change in turn.  She had repeated these motions ten thousand times throughout her life, but the power of them never dulled or grew familiar.  She was peregrine of the sky people, one of the last lords of the open air. 

         She charged off the balcony.  There was the rush of the fall and the lurch of the updraft.  Her tree, her home and its inhabitants, and the expanse of the forest all fell away behind her.   She was born up on the thermals into the blue and the white and the blinding flash.  She was on a hated mission, each beat of her wings taking her closer to acts she detested, but the thrill and the freedom were undeniable. There are small pleasures even in the most menial labor, if the mind is alive to them. I do not need metaphors for you to understand how she felt on the wing.  You already know. 

         The monk set about his own tasks with his typical devotion in action and humor in disposition.  He bustled about the pantry, preparing the variety of meals necessary for the diverse animals in their care.  The noise was already drawing the attention of his most audacious and food-driven charges. 

The cat-rats came skittering on their six legs, five of which busied themselves in constant motion to distract from whatever mischief the sixth was working.  They mewed plaintively, imitating the cries of sky people chicks.  The sound made the monk smile at their capacity to ruthlessly adapt, even if it pricked his heart to know he would likely never hear the real thing again.  He plucked several of the salmon-flavored protein fruits he had convinced the tree to grow for them, pureed them, and placed them in individual root cubbies.  If the cat-rats were not separated at mealtime, the larger ones would bully the rest out of their share, because cat-rats were the cruelest children, and it amused them to do so.

Next he took another offering from the tree: adamantine acorns.  These he placed between the twin opposable thumbs of his right foot, shattering their shells effortlessly.  The grips of sky people feet were made to crush far tougher surfaces: the skulls of their enemies and the nuts of the jejune bush.  In happier times, jejune nuts had provided them with ethical nourishment.  Now the bushes were gone from the world, along with so many of his kind, the few scattered survivors forced to sustain themselves on innocent flesh and its remnant spirit.  A fallen world, but one in which he was able to feed acorns to eager diamond-squirrels, who voiced their gratitude in the form of a high, crystalline song.

Next came the numinous dream bats, whose flashing wings carried them across the multiplicity of realities, but they always arrived back to this one for meal time.

“Lumina, Demotor, Nightmare,” the monk said, greeting them respectfully by name.  The numinous dream bats flapped about his head, filling it with visions of other universes.  He raised his left hand and, with the talons of his right one, pricked his palm.  He gave each of them a drop of blood, which they lapped up with their tiny curly-cue tongues.  Satisfied with the tribute, Nightmare hung upside-down to observe the goings on in this reality, while his sisters vanished to places the monk could not imagine but would see tomorrow at the next feeding.

A squawk loud enough to shake the house and scatter the cat-rats announced the arrival of the resplendent thunder chicken.  The wiser animals fled at her coming.

“Hey Girl-Girl,” the monk said.  “Why was the tree stumped?”

Girl-Girl’s black marble eyes observed him with eldritch unknowability.

“It couldn’t find its way to the root of the problem.”

She hissed in displeasure.

“Come on, that wasn’t bad enough for you?”

The silence in the pantry was like the eye of a tempest.

“Maybe you should be like the diamond-squirrels and try an acorn diet.  It’s nuts!”

The resplendent thunder chicken assumed an attack stance—back arched, neck stretched, beak wide open—that reminded him of the peregrine, except somehow more terrifying.

“What does the Shy Tree say to its visitors?” One more failure would spell his doom. “‘Leaf me alone, I’m done branching out!’”

Girl-Girl swallowed the terrible joke and ground her beak in slow satisfaction.

Throughout each successive feeding, Hoplite watched from the pantry entrance, where he sat on his muscular haunches, his one remaining wing curled at his side, his liquid emerald eyes fixed on the monk.  He was patient and well trained.  He would also refuse his meal until he had personally seen the rest of the pack fed.  The monk and the peregrine loved him for the miracle of his fine character.  The archaeopteryx had suffered terrible injuries and traumas so early in his life, the kind that might push a supposedly intelligent being into bitterness. Yet each day, Hoplite was full of cheerful contentment and submissive friendliness.  

“Hop!” the monk called.  “Who is the goodest and most considerate of all possible boys?”

Hoplite tilted his head curiously, either too humble or ignorant to answer.

The monk presented Hoplite with the lamb bones left over from breakfast.  He devoured them in three crunches, then stared adoringly at the being who had provided them.

“You really expected never to be fed again, huh?”  It was a joke the peregrine liked to make, and the monk repeated it for the sake of continuity and because it was the best summation of the ridiculous level of gratitude with which his animal friend accepted the daily meal.

The monk gave affection to the ones who elected to stay after their meal, except for the resplendent thunder chicken, who sat in the root rafters, hissing and watching him judgmentally.  He dispensed pets and scritches, coos and taunts, lovins and rough houses.  He wrestled with Hoplite.  The archaeopteryx was missing a wing and his left leg had a severe limp, so regular exercise, encoded as play, was the only way to assure his quality of life.   The two of them clawed and snapped at one another, the monk relentlessly sweeping at his good leg, until the great beast was tired out and fell into a light doze on the living room floor. 

Having satisfied his duty of care, the monk had a choice about how to spend what remained of his day.  He could retire to the library and lose himself in a book, or he could descend to the base of the tree, to do the important work of meditative communion.  As he often did, he asked himself what the peregrine would want him to do.  Sighing, he began the downward trek.

The peregrine swore to herself, loudly and repeatedly.  She didn’t want to be doing this.  She was angry that her life had taken this particular shape.  She wanted her solitude interrupted solely by the animals she adored.  The only time she got to be alone was flying to or from committing acts of brutality. She was not meant to be a hunter.  She was bloodthirsty, to be sure, but not naturally inclined to be focused and proactive.  She would much rather be back at the tree, reading with Hoplite curled at her feet.  If only the monk were less useless, they could take turns doing the odiously needful.  She briefly recalled the last time he had tried to procure meat for them, his tear-streaked face.  She felt a stab of tenderness and put it out of her mind.  He had stolen the easy jobs, the sweet fun time, and left the horror for her—he didn’t deserve what little sympathy she had to spare.  

To make matters worse, this errand was already taking an unexpected turn.  She was barely outside the perimeter of the forest when she spotted the first sheep.  Normally she had to fly for several days, past the blackened remains of the jejune grove, before she spotted one.  It should have delighted her, to have her task accomplished so quickly, but the sheep of the valleys were nature’s most predictable animal.  For one to be so far outside the herd’s territory meant something was wrong.  If something was wrong, that meant something was different.  The peregrine knew that life was change and to struggle against it was suffering—how often had the monk smugly informed her as if she didn’t already know!  Still, she found comfort in a certain amount of stasis, and was particularly leery of anything that affected her food supply.

At least this sheep was by itself in the pasture.  She preferred it that way.  She had no desire to terrorize the animals she killed or the herd around them.  Whenever possible, she endeavored to end them before they could feel a thing.  She set about doing exactly that.   She spread her wings and soared higher.  As she climbed, she was sure to keep her shadow fixed on the softly bleating creature beneath her.  She finally reached a sufficient zenith—wearing the wings rewired her neurology so that these calculations happened instinctively.  She cut her wings all at once.  Her body, dense with minerals, fell faster than she could ever fly.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she thought as she reached terminal velocity.

The monk sat cross-legged at the intersection of roots and tried to keep from crying as he thought of home.  The ur-tree was in his mind, trying to learn what he wanted it to grow.  He had been an adolescent the last time he had tasted the jejune nut.  He had no practical knowledge of its biology or chemistry.  All he had to give the tree were fleeting impressions.  The warmth of the monastery’s dining hall.  The steady, reassuring presence of his elders.  His impatient fidgeting as he waited for his turn.  The pleasure of the first bite and the satisfaction of a full belly.  He tried to focus on the taste—earthy and slightly bitter?  No, that wasn’t quite right.

He cursed himself, for failing to keep his people’s memory, for being a bad son, an unworthy survivor.   With twice the bitterness he cursed the men of the lowlands, who had burned every jejune bush they could find and, impatient to see the end of the sky people, scaled the monastery cliffs with their infernal tools.  He unconsciously rubbed at the scars on his chest where their spears and bolts had pierced him.  Whatever fragments of memory he had been pushing towards had thoroughly retreated from him.

“Not today,” he mumbled to the tree.  He felt its thoughts pulse, too alien for words, but with an overwhelming impression of sympathy, reassurance, and fortitude.  “You abide… you always abide.  Alright, let’s try something more achievable.  Spiral staircases.  The peregrine adores the idea of spiral staircases, so long as they’re properly placed and sufficiently wide.  Let’s have one growing in the library foyer by the time she gets back.”  The prospect of pleasing the peregrine caused the tree to super-charge its chlorophyll, suffusing the chamber with warm green light.  It had known her since she was a chick, had been her home and more.  

“Maybe that will stay her wrath a bit,” the monk grumbled.  He felt the tree shudder, almost imperceptive, and got the distinct impression it was laughing at him.  Of course it was.  It knew that he wanted more than to merely appease her.  Both ur-tree and sky person were of one accord on that matter.

The monk imagined snail shells, the cochlea of an inner ear, the path of running water, the double-helix encoded with life’s plan, the turning stars of a galaxy.  Spirals.  A spiral staircase.  A gift for his friend.  Such peace.

The peregrine felt the sheep’s vertebrae shatter beneath her feet and rip through its stomach before they exploded out the other side of its perforated belly.  She was soaked in its red, red blood.  It was dead and the constellation of its remains was all around her.  It hadn’t felt a thing.  The pain of its death was all hers.

Acting before the blood could curdle, she took out her gunny sack and began scraping the recently alive scraps inside.  Her wings were nimble enough to assist in the task, fanning out and scrubbing the ground inward, the rocky barbs of her feathers neatly separating viscera from grass.  

She reminded herself to collect the brains.  She didn’t care for them herself and had sincere doubts about their nutritional value but they were the monk’s favorite.  Luckily, most of them had managed to remain inside the skull, so gathering them was a relatively easy, if profoundly disgusting, undertaking. 

What had been a placid stretch of lightly grazed earth was now a maroon smear, stained with the mix of mud and blood.  She tucked the half-full sack away.

She badly wanted to go back.  She usually preferred to get two or three sheep on a trip, so as to give herself more time to spend at the tree before the next hunt, but she was equally inclined to call it a day on just about any undertaking.  Something was wrong, though.  There should not be sheep this close to the forest.  Something had driven this one so far afield.  If there was a threat to her, to the tree, she had to know. 

Sighing, she stretched her wings and alighted, circling higher and farther from home.

The monk was too exhausted to read.  He had poured all his efforts into home improvements.  After the spiral staircase, he had focused on better blinds for the windows, then herb boxes so he could add seasoning to their meals, more comfortable bedding for the animals that slept indoors, a playpen for Hoplite, and finally a more efficient gunnysack for the peregrine.  She often complained about how badly the current one leaked.

Having overextended himself, he found all his good will spent and his mood considerably darker.  His mind retreated to thoughts of smoke and fire; recollections of faces twisted with hate.   His abbot screaming at him to take the monastery’s only set of wings.  He was the coward who had fled, but not before his master was cut down and the monk’s own body riddled with bolts.  How long had he flown before his wounds carried him down, crashing through the limbs of the tree?  His body still bore the aching memory of each branch he had bounced off on the way down, the minerals and bones within him fracturing.  None of those old pains matched the loss he had been conscious enough to feel when his already damaged wings shattered on final impact, irrecoverable. 

He had tried to coax the tree into growing a new set of wings, in those early days when he was sure every day that the peregrine would eventually kill him, but some things stay lost, no matter how well and often you remember them.

“Hop!  Hop, come!” he called, desperation catching in his voice.  His friend came bounding after him without hesitation, his gait always lopsided as he fluttered and fell and caught himself.  The monk pressed his forehead against the great beast’s thick skull.  

He tried to turn his thoughts away from those ugly memories but inner darkness is like stagnant water and it will rush to fill whatever confines you create for it.  He thought instead of the peregrine and how she would react to his day’s work.  A grunt and perhaps a word of gratitude, then some remark about how nice it must be to spend his days conjuring beauty while she wallowed in sheep guts.  He would be taken for granted, just like he had for decades.

“People take you as you give yourself,” came the words of his long dead abbot.  “Try not to fault them for doing so, little chick.”

“A kind heart gives selflessly, but a wise one knows when to step back,” the monk whispered.  He leaned away from Hoplite’s warm, sturdy head. 

“Would I stay if not for you?” he asked.  His companion blinked in incomprehension. 

He had tried to leave, once, on foot, nearly eighty years ago.

“Watch out for the violet moss,” had been the peregrine’s one comment regarding his imminent departure.

He had climbed down vines and roughly grooved bark to the forest floor.  The violet moss was all around, growing on every stone and boulder.  He had tried to edge around it, but once the sun began to sink, his footing became clumsier.  His breathing became labored, and the cilia in his throat hurt, like he was breathing smoke, making it impossible to focus on safely planting his feet.  He would never forget how it had burned where the moss touched him.  A sensation somehow worse than spears or arrows.  His leg had gone numb in less than a minute, pitching him headlong into a great patch of violet. 

He had woken up back in the tree, bandages swaddling his leg and face.  The peregrine sitting across from his bed, her face behind a book.

“What did I tell you?” had been her one comment regarding his return.

It had taken him weeks to recover.  One day, the peregrine came in with a bleeding archaeopteryx pup, a bloody stump where its left wing should be, its right leg bent the wrong way.  She stitched and braced it in front of him, casually, her hands so clever.  The pup barely resisted her, its eyes wide and somehow still trusting.

“D-did you tear off his wing for fun?”

“I would never harm an undeserving creature, and I do not find any suffering ‘fun’, including yours.”

“Then… how?”

“I came upon its mother full of quarrels, curiously similar to the kind you were pin-cushioned with the day you fell into my house.  All the other pups had been smashed or clubbed.  No meat taken.  They did it for fun.”

“Men of the lowlands,” the monk growled. 

“How refreshing to see a smidgen of hatred in that serene face of yours.  I’ve never encountered their kind before.  Ugly little things, aren’t they?  All that fur on a biped is damn unsightly.”

“How are they in the forest?  The moss…”

“They had these masks, and thin, papery armor to protect their bodies.  They are fiendishly clever inventors, just like you said.”

“If they’re close, we’re not, we’re not safe.  We have to go.  You have to go.  Take the wings and leave me behind.”

“They were close.  Now they’re not.”

“If you drive them off, they just come back in greater numbers.”

“I didn’t drive them off.  I caught up with them.”

“…all are one, all harm is self-harm.” 

“Lovely sentiment.  Next time you say it, try to mean it.  Look, think of it this way: their bodies go to feed the forest they harmed.  They are now literally one with nature.”

She bundled the pup, now fast asleep, and passed it to him.

“Balance,” he said.  He felt the little weight in his arms and the greater one growing in his chest.  He looked at his bandaged leg, then up at the peregrine. “I suppose we’re stuck together.”

“At least until I kill you.”

The monk shrugged off these remembrances.  He made his way to his bedchamber, now more lavish and better appointed than when it had been his sickroom.  Hoplite was at his heels.   He plucked a pup-treat from an overhanging vine and gave Hoplite one, then two more—knowing that the peregrine was concerned for his weight and would not approve.  He cursed her for being an enemy of joy and self-appointed arbiter of how others should live their lives.  That was not even it, because he knew in his heart that, in her own stark way, she knew how to choose the best outcome for their family and had few reservations about the means of getting there.  The peregrine was also not there at the moment and, the monk reasoned, what she didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.  Hoplite was, as ever, enormously grateful to be fed.  He made hard eye contact with the monk, then sneezed directly in his face, which was the archaeopteryx’s love language.  The monk laughed and called Hoplite into bed with him, and nested his head in the semi-circle of the great beast’s resting body. The darkness in him had abated, even as the night around him deepened, and he needed help keeping it away.

“‘No heart’s so cold that it can’t be warmed by the embrace of a friend’,” he quoted to his animal, kissing its thick skull.  He fell asleep, thinking about all he had lost without reason, and all he had gained without expecting.

The peregrine flew through the night and, in the pale dawn hours, found what she was looking for.  There was a newly constructed fence in the lee of the valley.  The herd was fractured, the bulk of them loosely penned in.  This valley had new inhabitants.  Her telescopic vision could even see a plume of smoke rising from what she now recognized as a hut.

She landed just inside the perimeter of the fence.  She hunkered down among the bleating sheep to consider her options.  She needed to know more.  How many of them there were, what their presence portended, how likely were others to follow.  Then she would know what actions to take and precisely how deadly they needed to be.  She just couldn’t allow herself to be seen, which shouldn’t be difficult if—

“Wow!  You sure are big!”

The voice came from beneath one of the sheep.  The creature emerged from under the fluff, straining to lift the pail in its hands.  It was far smaller than the others of its kind she had seen before, with less fur on its face.  A child, perhaps.

“You are a man of the lowlands?” the peregrine asked.  Her left foot tightened in anticipation of a skull crushing.

“I ain’t no man!”

“You’ve come at last to cleanse the forest and valleys.”

“Cleans whatnow?  I was just yankin’ on this wooly’s teats.  Pa said, ‘Iske, if you get distracted like last time and don’ come back with that milk, I’mma tan you like a hide’.  Pa’s always sayin he’ll do this or that, but most of the time he don’t.”

“I see.  You are… annoying.”

“That’s what my brother’s always sayin’.  He ought t’ be ‘round here somewhere.  He’ll wanna see this.  Yaveen!  YAVEEN!  WE GOT A GUEST AND SHE’S A BIG BLUE BIRD STATUE TYPE PERSON.”

The peregrine knew that now would be the time to kill the child.  It would be over in an instant and she would be long gone by the time the rest of its—her—pack found the body.  Why was she standing still instead?  I hope you know without my having to tell you.

“Blast it, Iske, watchu hollerin’ for?”  This one was a little bigger than the girl creature, almost as tall as the peregrine’s knee, and had a miniscule patch of hair on his face.  He came bounding up, eyes narrow in suspicion.  “You see some kind of—” They widened when the peregrine stood to her full height.  “Giant!  Evil giant!  God-cursed!  Pa!  PA!”

She spread her wings.  It was time to go.  She could minimize her exposure, regroup.

“Don’!” the smaller one—Iske—cried.  “You don’ have to leave!  We friendly people.  Kind people.”

“Clamp your fool mouth, girl!” her brother said, cuffing her hard enough to make her wince.  “That’s one of the God-cursed.  Like in the stories the Scarlet Crosses tell.  Burn ‘em and bolt ‘em.  Make the world pure.”

“Pa says the Scarlet Crazies are a pack of fools an’ we came out here so we wouldn’t have to mind their nonsense.”

“Iske, look at this damn thing here.  I knew they was right and pa was wrong.  I shoulda stayed behind and joined up rather than get drug out here to be killed by a giant.  PA!”

“I’m not going to kill you, man of the lowlands,” the peregrine intoned, deciding it was true the moment after she said it.  At least not yet.  She could see a third figure approaching from the direction of the hut.  It—he, she supposed—was the size she expected, with the right amount of fur on his face.  He must be the sire of these whelps.  He would answer her questions, then die, depending on what she learned.

“Well damn,” the man said when he reached them.  “Never thought I’d see one of you things.”

“I am a person,” the peregrine said.

“One of you… people.”  He had moved to interpose himself between the children and her.  “Didn’t think there were any of you left.”

“Thanks to you.”

“Well now, I never killed a person, be they of the sky or the earth.”

“Do you think that absolves you?” Her talons were flexing on their own. 

“My grandfather, he was a patriot, far as that goes.  Sure he took a torch to some of your bushes, maybe even helped string up a few of you.”

“Then I trust you’re prepared to answer in blood.”

“I’m sincerely hoping it doesn’t come to that.  Iske, run back to the house, girl.  Fetch our guest some… water.”

“But pa, I wanna stay out and keep lookin’ at the big blue lady.”

“Now, if ya please,” her father said.  “What am I always tellin’ you about bein’ a good host?”

“Remain hospitable,” she recited from memory.

“Go on and do so.”  She did, although she kept one eye on the peregrine as she retreated, full of wonder, not fear.

“Pa, I can fetch the bolt caster,” the son whispered to the father, unintentionally loud enough for the peregrine to hear.  She stepped forward, closing the distance between them.

“That won’t be necessary, son.”  He looked the peregrine in her baleful red eyes.  “We’re just talkin’, right?  The name’s Hile.  My children are Yaveen and Iske.”

“I am the peregrine,” the peregrine said.  “Where is their mother?  It’s my understanding that you apes require such a pairing to make more of you.”

“Passed on.  Took fever on the way out here.”

“And what others?”

“There’s just us.”

“For now,” the peregrine hissed.

“None set to follow.  Look, the city’s unlivable these days.  ‘least it was to me.  Full of religious crazies.  I didn’t want them takin’ my little ones, fillin’ their heads with nonsense.  So now we’re out here.  They say these lands is haunted.  Reckon now I can guess why.  I chose this place because it was the last any others would want to come.”

“Your kind spreads and multiplies like mold on a rind.”

“We ain’t interested in old hates and old debts.  We just want a life out here. Just peace.  We can be good neighbors.”

“Is that true, boy?” Her eyes shifted to Yaveen, his teeth bared. “Can you be a good neighbor?”

“Long as you don’ try ‘n’ hurt my sis or pa.”

“If you’re not set on killin’,” Hile said.  “Maybe we can come to an understanding?”

“State your terms.  Then you will know my decision, one way or the other.”

“There’re an awful lot of sheep in this pasture.  My son and I, we ain’t enough to keep track of ‘em all, n’ my little girl is… distractible.  I can’t help but notice those wings of yours.  You keep watch of the flock from the air, gather up strays, be my shepherd.  In return, I keep mine away from your forest—I’m guessin’ that’s where you come from—keep your secret in case any others show up, an’ in return I give you two sheep every week.”

“I could just take them.  I was doing it long before you came to colonize.”

“Fair point, fair point. Suppose I butcher them for you?  Can’t help but notice the blood leakin’ out of yon sack.  Seems… I dunno, inefficient?  And it’s ugly work for a majestic sky goddess like yourself.”

“I am uninterested in your torturing animals to death on my behalf, ape.”

“Torture?” Hile said, incredulous. He reached into his smock and drew out a small metal device.  The peregrine tensed her foot.  The man of the lowlands did not approach her, though.  He sidled up to one of the sheep, placed the device against her head, and depressed the trigger.  There was no sound.  The other animals did not even react as she lurched to the ground, instantly lifeless.  “That look like torture to you?”

“Drag ‘er to the shed,” Hile told his son.  “Shear ‘er and gut ‘er, then wait for me.”

“Pa, I don’ like—”

“Do it, boy.”

With a theatrical sigh, Yaveen took hold of the animal corpse’s forelimbs.

“What do you say?” Hile said, looking back up at the peregrine.  Once she started paying attention to them, his facial expressions were not so different from an actual person.  His looked… hopeful.

“Three sheep a week.”

“I mislike this deal,” the monk said to her.

“I’m not surprised,” the peregrine replied.  “Trust requires courage.”

His dark eyes widened, hurt. 

“Courage ought to be tempered by wisdom,” he said, mastering himself.  The peregrine wished he would fight back.  She was sick to death of him masking his passivity as serenity.  “They will betray us the first chance they get.  I can feel it in the cracks of my stones.  You don’t know them like I do.”

“You don’t know these individual ones at all.  I actually met them.”

“They’re all the same…”

“I thought separation was an illusion and all were one.   Aren’t they no different than you or I?”

“The illusion grips some more violently than others.  They are lost in a dream of hate.”

“Perhaps, although that was not my impression.  Someone has to break the chain.”

“Yes, you’re a great peacemaker.”

“Unless you want to take over the hunt, we’re going to try it this way.  If it doesn’t work, I’ll just kill the lot of them.”

“And when more come, too many even for you?”

“Then I suppose we’ll die.  It’s past our time anyway.”

“How can you say that?  We are wonder workers.  We lived in balance with nature and guarded the creatures of the world for an age.”

“You know what I think.  The world already made its decision when it came to our people.  None of us ever had a choice.  It was always happening, going to happen, happened.  All that’s left to us is to enjoy what life we have left.”

“We have a responsibility—”

“And by making this deal, I am going to enjoy my life just a little bit more, for however long I have left to live it.”

She expected him to spend the evening sulking in his room, but when she went to the library to unwind, she found him there, reading with several of the cat-rats in his lap.  He had even charged her favorite pipe and left it on the end table for her.

“I like the new staircase,” she said.  “The library was the perfect place for it… thank you.”

“Well,” he grunted.  “It’s all a collaboration.  Me, you, the tree.”

“Now that I’m going to be around more, I want to commune with it again.”

“I look forward to seeing what that fiendish mind can devise.”

She looked at the cover of his book.  It had been one of her recommendations.

“You liking it?” She tapped the spine.

“You know I’m a sucker for a journey to the stars, and the culture of the spider people is so well realized.  And I appreciate an unconventional protagonist.”

“Unconventional?  She has issues with her father.  I am so tired of that being every character’s motivation.”

“You only say that because you barely knew yours.”

“Abandoning me here was the kindest thing anyone’s ever done for me.  Saved my life, left me in the care of a fine tree, away from harm.  That solitude was a gift I treasured.”

“I’m sure you miss the emptiness of this place.  Before us.”

“I’m sure you’re sure.”

         That was about as satisfying as conversation got between them these days.  She took her pipe and retired to her chair with her own book.  Eventually, one of the numinous dream bats, Demotor, came to keep her company, hanging upside-down off her earlobe like a piece of jewelry.  Hoplite snored, curled at her feet.  The peregrine frowned at the page before her.  She was having difficulty imagining the characters as four meter tall, blue-skinned avioids whose flesh was suffused with mineral deposits.  Instead, it made more sense to visualize them as creatures like Hile and his family.  The descriptions tracked better that way.  She closed the book and stood up.

“I have an early day tomorrow.  I ought to be back by evening, though.  Hile’s sending his boy to meet me halfway with my first payment.”

“Good fortune, favorable winds,” the monk said.  “Be careful with them.”

She tapped the monk’s eyeball with her talon affectionately.  He smiled and she walked to bed, Hoplite stumble-jumping after her.

The wanderer waited until the peregrine had left the tree before making her landing.  The monk had been expecting her.  They had a standing appointment every two months, when the path of her never-ending migration brought her to the emerald forest.

The monk had several mates, which I assure you is hardly scandalous in his people’s culture or even his particular monastic order, though some of these individuals he had not seen in years.  He gave himself to them with furious abandon, telling himself he had both an ethical and biological imperative to do so.  None of these couplings ever produced a child.  He had still been an initiate when the monastery burned; had never learned the rites necessary for the creation of a new sky person.  Still, he reasoned, there was no harm in trying.

The wanderer and the monk lay naked in his bed, pleasantly blank for a time.  Her wings floated by the window; their long and beautifully curved onyx feathers folded inward.

“You can’t stay, as much as I hate to cut our indulgences short,” he told her. “The peregrine will not be away for as long as we are accustomed.”

“I’m tempted to let her catch me.  I’m so curious to meet her.”

“She would kill you. She guards this tree jealously.”

“She never killed you and you’re much more irritating than I am.”

“I think she will, one day.  Her threat displays have become more prominent and frequent this past decade.  Only a matter of time before they turn into a death dance.”

“If you’re so scared of her, you should just steal her wings while she’s asleep.  It’s not like she could chase after you.”

“No,” the monk said.  The truth was that he had given serious thought to stealing the wanderer’s wings.  He was far more likely to take hers than the peregrine’s.  He told himself that he refrained because of his personal code, that it was wrong action to take another sky person’s wings.  The truth was that he could not bear it, imagining what the peregrine would think of him if she came home to find the wanderer there in his place—that it would prove all her darkest suspicions of him.  “I have a life here.  I love the tree.  I love these animals.”

“They are very loveable, although I can’t help but notice who you omitted from that list,” she said, rising from the bed and giving Hoplite an affectionate scratch beneath his beak.  “And trust me, my darling, for I have plenty of experience in the matter: you can make a life anywhere.”

She fused with her wings and fell backward out the window, away with the wind.

The monk rose and wound his garments back into place.   Then he fed the animals, absentmindedly going through the motions, and descended to the communion chamber.

“Tree, my beloved home,” he called.  “Tell me, if I asked… could you make another creature like the peregrine and myself?  A new sky person.”

He felt the weight of its rumination.  Eventually he felt it change to affirmation, though with a heavy undernote of reluctance.

“I would never ask it without her permission,” he began, but then had no choice but to follow the thought to its conclusion.  “Which she would never give me.”  She had made her feelings about the inevitability of their extinction perfectly clear.  “Let’s just try for the jejune nut today.”  He had wanted to liberate the peregrine of the hunt and now he wanted even more to extricate her from this obscene contract she had made with the men of the lowlands.  He knew he ought to tell her what he was trying to do, but he was afraid of the kind of rebuke she would give him if he tried and failed.  “I remember the way they smelled…”

“What’s it like, to fly?” Yaveen asked the peregrine as he transferred the parcels of meat from his sledge to her new gunnysack.

“What do you imagine it’s like?”

The boy blinked as if being asked to use his imagination was an entirely unfamiliar concept.

“Well,” he said.  “The Scarlet Crosses called it an obscurity.”

“Obscenity,” she corrected.

“That’s right.   You know the holy word?”

“Educated guess, though I’m sure it’s scintillating.  Do you really believe these men from your city know the correct way to live?”

“If they didn’t, why do they have all the power?”

“You fly in your dreams, child.”

“How did—”

“But what you’re truly dreaming of is freedom.”

“I, I… musn’t be an offense to God.”

“You don’t have to be an idiot.  You can make that choice.”  She did not necessarily believe that sentiment, did not believe that anyone really made choices.  It all played out the way it was always going to play out.  Still, she liked to believe she was meant to stand here in this pasture that smelled like manure and sunlight and blood, and say words she did not mean so that this underdeveloped mammal could hear them. 

“Iske says ‘hello’,” he said at last.

“You may return my greeting to her.”

“She says she misses the big blue lady.”

“Tell her… tell her, the next time my patrol takes me by your cottage, she may ride on my back into the sky.  If she wants and your father approves.”


“Will you tell her or not, small ape?”


The monk tuned the peregrine out as she harangued him about whatever.

“There are mites all over his feathers!”  She plucked another from between his pins as Hoplite lay submissively on her feet.  “Didn’t you notice?  When I go out there, I expect you to mind matters HERE.”

“You know, I have concerns besides the animals.  Projects… things I do not always talk to you about.  But I really do try my best.”

“And here you sit, thinking that’s enough.”  She hissed as she seized another mite, this one slipping from between her talons before she could crush it.  “What really galls me is that I told you last week that I saw something moving between his feathers.  I speak and I always say very clearly what I need from you, but do you listen?”

“I… don’t remember you telling me.  I’m sorry.”

His mind was more and more preoccupied with what he could coax the tree to grow.  He tried to remember the last time he had been truly present when the peregrine was talking to him; only when she snapped at him, he supposed.

“These damn things are going to spread to the rest, if they haven’t already.  I had a notion you were neglecting your duties here.  You love to laugh about what a lazy, shiftless novice you were.”

He felt betrayed that she would use a private joke he had shared with her like a cudgel to swing against him.  He sought peace, though, and thought that there might be truth beneath the unpleasantness of the words she was choosing.  He resolved to continue trying to grow the jejune nut, but not to the detriment of the household.  He had to be present for more than his own concerns.

“I could ask the tree to make a balm for them… maybe a feather comb so you don’t have to use your hands.”

“Nevermind.  I’ll just do it myself.  I’ll do everything around here.  Enormous difference.”

The peregrine realized she was intentionally making her patrols longer than they needed to be.   Even after rounding up the stray sheep and returning them to Hile, she found herself staying out, savoring the chill of the night air.  She knew the instant she returned home, she would find herself in a vile mood.  She resented the monk for being there to greet her when she wanted solitude, for being in his own chambers when she wanted company, for looking at her when she wanted to be invisible, for not looking at her when she needed to feel seen and heard.   They had coexisted for nearly a hundred years and some of that time must have been pleasant, surely, but when she reached for those moments, they retreated from her.

“You won’t believe it,” the monk said, “but I think Girl-Girl and Hoplite might be forming some kind of friendship.  She spent the day riding around on his back like a queen on her steed.”

“You think I want to hear about what I’m missing when I go out to guarantee our survival?  Do you think a man in the desert wants to hear a detailed description of water?”

“I actually thought it might, I don’t know, amuse you to hear about our amusing animal companions and their hijinks?  You’ve enjoyed it before.”

“Do you think a person with no eyes wants to hear how wonderful it is to see?”

“Alright, I get it.”

“No, I have a few more.  Do you think we should find a person whose village was destroyed in a fire and tell them all about how wonderfully constructed our house is?”

“I believe I’m going to call it an evening.  Come on, Hop!”

The archaeopteryx whined, unsure whether to stay or go.

“Take the wings for today,” she told him.  “Fly around the forest.  See if you can find another ur-tree.”

“I did that before and didn’t find a thing.”

“That was eighty damn years ago.  Maybe things have changed.  Besides, I’m not convinced you put any real effort into that search.”

“Why would I need to find a new tree?  I already have this one.”

I have this one.  Your father didn’t leave you here.  You didn’t even mean to come here!  You crash landed.  You had a home and you ran away from it.”

“You know that’s not fair.”

“I.  Do.  Not.  FUCKING. Care!”

“Fine, fine.”  The monk took a long breath.  He tried to see past this conversation, into a future where whatever was going on between them was in the past.  “I will take the wings.  I will search for another tree.”

“I don’t believe you.  You’re greedy and dishonest.   You’re just going to perch on a branch for a day, then come back and say that staying here is your one option.”  Her plumage was in full threat display.  He had never seen it this bad.  He had never sincerely believed it would become a death dance until this moment.  They had history, affection, even, a family they had made together, however unconventional.

“You act like all of this happened to you,” the monk said.  “But no one forced you to take me, to pluck the quarrels out of me, wrap my wounds, and heal me.  I was weak, next to death.  You could’ve easily finished me, then gone back to whatever the fuck you were up to before I got here.”

“You think I didn’t try?!  The tree wouldn’t let me.  It loved you, responded to you, the moment you fell, heedless and hapless, into our perfect solitude.  It wrapped its branches around you, oh so adoringly, before my foot had a chance to twine round your skull and bear down. You took my home from me without even trying.  You think I can’t feel the tree’s sorrow right now, judging me for being cruel to its poor, sweet, blameless favorite?  You think I want to feel this way?  Be this way?  To be tense and harsh to you every second because I can’t stand even knowing you’re nearby?!”

He spun around, his feet moving before he could think.  The climb to the vestibule seemed like it took seconds, which was impossible.  His mind was skipping along the surface of time like a flat stone, expertly tossed.  He had the wings on and was soaring away, not sure in any way if he would return.

The peregrine made Hoplite lay down beside her, spread out a sheet of bleached bark, and set about picking the mites off him with the comb the monk had grown for her.  She would flick the hapless mites onto the bark, then squash them with the tip of her talon.  In that moment, she saw very little difference between the insects and her own people, both crushed by an existence that saw them as abhorrent and inconvenient.  All harm was self-harm and she killed herself with each downward thrust of her thumb.

She became aware that the ominous eyes of the resplendent thunder chicken were on her.  Its beak clacked hungrily.

“You want one, huh?” she said.  “How about this: all of life.”

Girl-Girl swallowed and ground her mandible contentedly.

“Here’s another: sometimes I’m lonely and sometimes I’m angry, but I’m never sure which is worse.”

This, too, the resplendent thunder chicken accepted.

That’s what the monk didn’t understand about telling bad jokes.  You put it all in the delivery.     

Many hours passed before she heard the sound of his footfalls overhead, but she did not see him for the rest of the night.

The monk was consumed by two conflicting fantasies of self-destruction.  The first was to simply escape, to steal the peregrine’s wings and fly as far and fast as he could.  He had searched the emerald forest for another ur-tree, more times over the years than he had even admitted to the peregrine.  He had gone so far as to ask the tree to create another seed of itself.  It had agreed, and requested that he be patient while it spent a hundred years doing so.  Still, the wanderer was right.  There were other lives he could lead.

The other fantasy, one which had begun to increasingly consume his waking thoughts, was what he would do if the men of the lowlands killed the peregrine.  It astonished him to see her, of all people, won over by them.  He had to remind himself that she had only the smallest taste of what they were capable of.

“Do you have it?” he called to the tree as he entered the communion chamber.  He felt its hesitation, then a deeply reluctant affirmation. 

He had asked for another seed, one that would not take a hundred years to grow, one that contained not life but death.  If those pigs murdered her, he would crack it open and the violet moss would spill forth, consuming him, the tree, the animals, all the forest and the valleys beyond.  Left unchecked, it would spread to the edges of the continent, until the wind picked up its spores and carried it across the oceans. He would take everything away if he lost her.  It felt so slight when he warily plucked it from the vine, its shell as hard as a jejune nut.  It wasn’t every day that you had a chance to hold all your hatred in the palm of your hand.

The peregrine had been standing in the pasture like an idiot statue for hours.  Yaveen was very late.  The early morning chill had begun to fade.  She didn’t like this.  She was tense in general these days, less inclined to trust.  If you could know a person for a century and still be disappointed in them, what did that say about the value of relationships?

She tried to pass the time by counting the leaves on the branches, listening to the shrill cry of baby birds, doing some of the breathing exercises the monk had taught her.

At last she saw the sledge in the distance, but with two figures instead of one.  She fell into a combat stance, then relaxed when she realized that the second figure was Iske.  She did not trust the men of the lowlands, but she did believe that Hile had sufficient affection for his daughter not to involve her in an ambush.

“You’re late,” she intoned when they pulled up to her.

“What of it?” Yaveen said, spitting on the ground.

“Our agreement only works if we both hold to it.  I am not made of time.  When we appoint an hour, I expect you to be there.”

“Listen to me, listen,” the boy said, walking straight at her.

“Do not approach me.”

“No, listen, just listen.”

“It is likely I will harm you if you come closer.”

“Please, listen.  Listen!”

“I said not to—”

He was too close to her now, craning his neck up at her face.  She could smell the sweat, the bad breath, and sour odor of his mammalian flesh.

“It’s fucking early,” he said.  “I don’t like waking up early.”

“That’s your excuse?”  She wasn’t sure if she was furious or amused by this small man’s audacity.

“You think you’re better than us because you can fly?  Your wings are stupid.  They shouldn’t work cuz they’re made of rocks.”

“I do think I’m better than you, in this specific moment, but it has nothing to do with my wings and everything to do with your conduct.”

“Yeah, well, my pa’s a fool to deal with you.  An’ I shouldn’t be running errands for some God-cursed bitch.”

“Careful how you speak in front of your sister.”

“I never burnt no bush nor shot a bolt inta one of you, but I reckon I’d like to.  Reckon I’mma ride back to the city and tell the Scarlet Crosses—”

Her foot closed around the complete circumference of his head and lifted him bodily off the ground.

“Your death would be one moment, as meaningless as any other in your meaningless little life,” she told him matter-of-factly. 

“Don’!” Iske squeaked, running from the back of the sledge.  “He don’ mean what he says.”  

The peregrine’s lips twisted in a snarl.  She was so tired of people not believing her when she did the things she said she was going to do. 

“Please!” the girl whined.  “I’ll tell pa what he said!  Pa’ll straighten him out.”

“He threatened me.  Threatened my home.”

“He ain’t bad, he jus’ stupid.  Please, please, please.”

The peregrine released her hold, spilling Yaveen on the ground, alive.

“Thank you, lady,” Iske said.  “Thank y—”

The peregrine stomped down on one of Yaveen’s splayed legs, snapping it at an unnatural angle.  She grabbed him using the same foot she had brought down on him, raised him up, and tossed him onto the sledge.

“Ride back to your city on the ruins of that leg and tell your priests whatever you like.  I’ll kill them, your family, and you last.  Do we understand each other?”

The boy gave a barely perceptible nod, weeping in pain, crying for his father.

Iske gaped, then glared.

“I thought you were nice!” she screamed.  “But you’re mean!  You’re a mean blue lady an’ I FEEL BAD FOR YOUR HUSBAND!”

“I don’t have a husband, you stupid little ape!” 

  She spread her wings and took to the air.

The monk heard the crash from the vestibule.  He sat at the kitchen table, drinking a calming tea.  He had resolved to have this conversation and he was going to do it, no matter her mood.  Her face when she stalked into the room was terrifying, and he did his best to ignore it.

“Listen,” he began.  “I’ve been thinking, and I know things haven’t been… easy, recently.  But I want to say this: I think that hatred spreads like a virus. Believe me, I’ve seen it happen, but love spreads too, even if it’s on slower wings and—euf!

The table splintered in half with the force of her blow.  She seized him by the shoulders.  He stumbled back in fear. His legs caught in the wreckage and he slipped, his back striking the branch-wall.  Animals scattered in every direction.  The diamond-squirrels scampered into the eaves, the cat-rats disappeared between cracks in the floorboards, the numinous dream bats blinked to the furthest possible reality away from this one.

“Wait, stop,” the monk groaned. 

She began to shuffle to the left, crisscrossing her feet, her plumage flared, the pins of her feathers standing on end, her head bobbing up and down, her neck extending and slowly drawing back, then a sudden lunge forward.  A death dance.  It was happening at last.  The monk clamped his eyes closed and craned his own head up to expose his throat.  He hoped she would make it quick.

Then, nothing.  And then more nothing.  Then he heard the softest of possible sobs and opened his eyes.  The peregrine wasn’t dancing anymore.  She had dissolved to the ground, talons clamped over her face.

The monk clambered to his feet and dodged around her.  She remained motionless.  He began to climb, up the stairs, up the vine ladders.  He could feel the regret of the tree all around him.  He thought about freedom, about terror and the open sky, about another night he had run away.  He entered the vestibule and there were the wings, furled and waiting for him.

The peregrine hoped he was far away.   Not for her own sake, but for his.  She felt she deserved every moment of what was happening to her.   She was, in alternating waves, giddy and desolate, liberated and damned.  She wished that the monk was back, so she could yell at him more about why he had to leave. She had wanted to be abandoned for so long, but now that she had it, she didn’t know what to do with it.  It was unfair asking anyone to share their life with an impossible contradiction.  She knew it.  It was better this way, always meant to happen just like this.  She wanted to rise, to begin collecting the wreckage of the things she had smashed, to start anew, but couldn’t find any strength left inside her.  

Then she felt the shadow settle over her.  The lapidarian feathers curling around her, drawing her close.

“My wings?” she said.

“I’m only borrowing them,” the monk replied.

She put her arms around him.  There was a heaviness in her eyes they could not contain.

The last time she had held him—the only other time she had ever held him—it had been the monk who was crying.  It was after his final attempt to go on a hunt in her stead.  He had executed the plunge sloppily, she later learned, and merely broken the sheep’s back without killing it.  He had been so distraught that he left it there, suffering, and flown back empty-handed.  He had wept then and her consolation had been automatic.  Now she understood the gratitude with which he had clung to her.  They were people.  This is what people did.

  The tears came hot and free.  She let them, only trying to speak once she had given them their time.  She felt very clear.   Of all the animals, only Hoplite had returned, and he circled them, excited by their contact, eager to find a moment to wedge his heavy head between them.

         “I can find a way to live without the wings,” she told him. “You can’t.  Take them and go.”

         “I choose not to, if you’ll have me.”

         “Reality is a lie and choice is a story we tell ourselves.”

         “Then… let’s be powerless together.”

         “My decision to make?”

         “All I ask is that you make it with more love than fear.”

         “You’ve always been such a fool.”

         “Sister, my heart’s twin, don’t I know it.”

         Her arms tightened around him and the wings pressed in closer still.

         “You can tell me what happened,” he whispered.  “I’m listening.”

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