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The Wingmaker

This is a short story I wrote when I was about 14. Read at your own risk for it is lame.


The Wingmaker


The old man was bent with age, his head so crammed with brilliance and cogs and whirs that his hair had fallen limply out long ago, leaving a small, wispy whiteness like the feathers of a baby bird. The girl knew him to be a genius, brilliant in his eccentricity, and no matter how the villagers jeered at him, the madman on top of the hill, she never once listened to their ridicule.


She had long since forgotten her relation to the old man. He had been there, a kindly, warm presence forever on the edge of her being like he was always close by, smelling of warm feathers and graceful aging and pipe tobacco.


He was a wingmaker, he had told her when she was small, and he made fairy tales come alive, he made beauty and poetry into reality.


Away with reality! he had always said to her, pacing about and waving his arms in a fantastical manner. Yes, away with narrow-minded ignorance and petty disagreement and away with the grown-up tendency to see only what one wishes, to want nothing more than is necessary for life. Foolish, hopeless creatures grown-ups are, he would add to her disparagingly. They see nothing on their horizons, my girl, nothing at all but the next day’s work and toil and pay. Hah, them and their money! I ask you, m’lady, who needs money?


All of the world is ours, without those little bits of copper and silver and gold, the food grows and the sun shines and there is cotton and wood to make a loom, and there is water everywhere, my dear, and people to talk to, and the means to make anything in the world in the palm of one’s hand, and still they see the need for money! And what is more, they think money is their happiness, their freedom. Their idea of freedom is the few hours they can sit and do nothing, sit inside and stare at the wall, or sleep, my dear. They are deprived of the goodness in life—adventure! True freedom, in flight and fight and poetry and the beauty of the earth!


Details, details, my girl, he would then mutter. They worry of details. Now, /I/ worry of details as well, m’dear, but I remember the general idea of things. The general idea of things, my girl, is life itself! Live to one’s fullest! Taste the air, breathe in the sunlight, and live! And whatever you do along the way, my darling, is useless and pointless if you never stop to enjoy the sun. Because we were given an Earth, m’dear, and we were not meant to ruin it with our ideas of progress and technology and all this garbage.


And then, saying awful things under his breath that she knew not to repeat, he would bow to her, and she would bow back, and he would return to his work.


The old man was awfully strange compared to other old men. He interrupted his impassioned speeches often with little insertions of “my dear,” or “my lady,” or “my darling.” He never called her by her name. In fact, she did not know that she had one. On the first day of school, which her old man had insisted that she attend, they had asked her what her name was, what they should call her. She had thought about it; they had suggested kindly if it was Amber, like her eyes? Or maybe Cherry, from her cherry wood curls? But the teacher had grown impatient, and the children had become unkind, so she decided to tell them her name: Missy, because when the old man spoke to her with that tone, that was what he called her.


Of course, the old man was never angry with her. How could he be, when she always did as she was told, never dropped a glass, rarely spoke? He was angry at the world, angry at grown-ups. I never wanted to grow up, he told her. Never. And I never have. This she did not understand, nor why the old man bowed to her before he left her room or the dinner table, nor why no one in the village liked him or his ideas.


But she did understand his inventions, what he was trying to accomplish.


He wanted to fly. His entire life, from the moment he saw a bird, he both loved and hated them, both understood them and their small victories and plights, and envied them with a terrible, powerful envy. He had once healed birds with broken wings and ravaged insides and many other bird-ailments, and he fed them and kept them warm and talked to them with his slow, deep voice. Birds were forever swooping around their house, sleeping in the rafters of the attic, making their cacophony of birdcalls in the morning light, and their quiet hoots and rustlings above her head lulled her to sleep every night, after the old man had finished reading a fairy tale from a book or from memory. She sometimes left the window open, and birds swooped joyfully into her room, eating her birdseed and settling comfortably on any perch they could find.


She loved birds as much as he did, she thought. The way they hopped so adorably with both feet at once, or hobbled drunkenly on their silly little yellow talons, but then in a moment they turned from oddity to poetry, spreading their wings and soaring, flapping, diving in the most beautiful way. Her old man always said that nothing personified grace and beauty as well as a bird.


When the old man grew older, and started to fear that he was growing up, he decided he wanted to become a bird.


Of course, birds are rather like grown-ups as well, he would tell her sometimes. They think only of danger and food and mating and nesting. They do not lament when another dies, they do not empathize or understand. All they know is fear, and peace. Fear and peace dancing a wild little dance around their minds, my dear. And yet, they have not made the mistakes that humans have made. And I felt, my darling, as I still feel, that if one free, beauty-loving human could take to the skies, become one with the birds and the sky and the heavens and the stars, the world would then become a better place.


I dream that people will not clamor to purchase wings and seek to make them cheaper and seek money and fame through flight. I dream that people will gaze up at the lone bird-man flying high above the ground, and watch, and make dreams of their own. I dream that they will hope to achieve their dreams like I have done, and they will hope that someday, when the time is right, they too can fly. That is my dream, above all dreams. Above even my dream to fly.


And yet, the old man wanted to fly. Day after day he took notes on bird behavior and flight, drew wonderful pictures with inks and different papers and charcoal from the unlit fireplace and he would color with ink and with water and with his old, brilliant mind. Then after dinner, after she had had her bath and he had tucked her in and read her a story and gave her a whiskery, warm-feathers-and-old-men-and-pipe-tobacco-scented kiss on her forehead, he would work on his wings. She could hear him, humming to himself in the next room, in the room that was both their kitchen and his workroom, banging on things, sometimes making a happy sound, sometimes swearing.


Once he had told her that no matter what he said about grown-ups, they did make some very nice swear words. Then he added sternly that she was never to say them until she too was a grown-up, which he hoped dearly would never happen to her.


One night it was different.


She was playing with a sparrow outside when her old man called her in for dinner. The dying sun lit their plates, along with old-fashioned candles in metal sticks. Everything in their old, rickety house was old-fashioned. The old man said he liked these things better than whatever rubbish grown-ups came up with. They ate, and to her the old man seemed jittery, nervous, somehow. She asked him what was wrong and he said that everything was fine. She took a bath, and he tucked her in.


That night he read her the story of Icarus and Dedalus, the two men who tried to fly. One fell. The other did not. She thought he read it for himself, to give him hope—Dedalus was old, and yet he flew, didn’t he? He could fly, high into the sun and the skies and the stars. Icarus was foolish, and the old man was trying to persuade himself that he was not.


She told the old man, after he had kissed her goodnight, that he was not foolish in the slightest for following his dream. He looked back, and a tiny smile curved the corner of his old, wrinkled mouth. And then he softly closed the door and went to work.


Moonlight poured into her bedroom, and a nightingale swooped down upon her windowsill and sat there, gazing out at the world. Where the hilltop ended, there the sheer cliff met the sea. The whole scene would be lit by moonlight, she knew, like the angels had poured silver over the world and into the sea. Seized with a sudden desire to sit with the nightingale and gaze at the water, she hopped out of bed, and with a quick, birdlike movement, she flung her blanket over her shoulders and wrapped it around her like a cloak.


The bird did not move as she climbed out the window and sat beside it on the ledge.


Twenty or thirty feet below was the ground. Sitting here on the ledge, she felt like she could fly, just by letting the cool, crisp, clean night air expand her lungs and fill her up like drink. The cool air whipped her glossy curls around her face, and she felt that she was not tired in the least. She wanted to sit her on her window ledge, facing the east until the sun came up, never leave this silver-coated paradise. The nightingale made a soft sound, and she stroked its head with a finger. It did not fear her.


Suddenly, there came a cry—the old man’s voice.


She stiffened, listening hard. It came again…a cry of passion and feeling, and then a sound that filled her with fear, the sound of the old man sobbing….


She leapt inside and ran to the door, taking the steps three at a time.


The old man looked up as she came in, wild happiness transforming his ancient features. I have done it, m’dear, he told her, choking a little on his sobs. I have at last figured out the secret…what makes one stay up in the air while they flap and flap. I will finish the wings tonight, my darling.


You’ve done it! she told him joyfully, running over to him and hugging him tightly. You’re a genius, I knew you could do it!


He smiled down at her. You may stay up tonight, if you wish, he told her, and then he went back to work, still crying, just a little. She sat in her corner and watched him do odd things with wax and wood and paper, curled up in her blanket. The hours wore away, and she was not tired at all. She felt a warm excitement fill her up from top to bottom, a longing to see the wings, to see the old man fly like he had always wanted.


The sun began to rise, and the old man stiffened, taking hoarse, ragged breaths.


I have done it, he told her, in a voice that was soft and remarkably calm. Look, my darling, look!


And he held them up in the light of the morning sun, and they sparkled tawny and white and black like gold and silver and ebony:


Wings of spun gold and paper machê

Risen to the air in the hands of the joyous maker,

Both rich and poor,

Beautiful and ugly,

So free, yet so against the rules of God

That we think they will never take flight.


And her heart and her hands shook with a nervousness that she could not explain.


My darling, he told her, his eyes filled with tears, I don’t believe you shall have to attend school today.


She did as she was told to do: go upstairs and put on her best clothes, and meet him on the hilltop. She did so; her best clothes were also her most comfortable, a red-gold tunic and soft white pants with a belt. She thought it made her look rather like a robin, or a phoenix from ancient legends. She ran back downstairs, to the old man standing on the cliff side, gazing out at the fire-gold sea.


She stood beside her old man and waited for him to put on the wings. But instead, he spoke, gazing out into the sea.


I have worked my entire life on these, my darling, he told her solemnly. Ever since I was your age I wanted to fly. I spent years studying flying birds, dissecting dead birds, doing all I could, and in return I gave up a proper life, the kind of life I have always told you to lead, milady. A life where one basks in the glory of the world without seeking to fix it in any way, a life where one sits in the sun and in the shade and enjoys oneself without worrying about grown-up things. My dear, in my journey to never grow up, I have grown up much too fast.


I have tried to make up for it since I took you in, my dear, by taking care of you and doing nothing else until you fell asleep. But it has made up for nothing, for my mind is filled with too much of the annoying things grown-ups worry about so much. Details, my darling. Too many details. I have forgotten the big picture. I only wanted to fly, but even that has been forgotten in all the little details of making a human fly. My dream has been ruined by none other than myself.


But you, my darling…you want to fly, too. And you dream of it. But you do nothing to achieve your dream. You make me wonder if one is supposed to achieve one’s dream at all. Maybe dreams are just that, fantasies that can never really come true, like fairy tales and hopes to one day fly like a bird. Maybe dreams are to keep one focused on life, to have something to look forward to, but not things to actually reach.


My dream has come true, my darling, and I fear that it was never supposed to. I fear that I was never allowed to defy God and give humans wings. No matter how much I hope and pray that someone will look up and see the bird-figure and try to make life better for themselves and others, just by that one simple thing, I am forced now, at the brink of success, to admit that it cannot happen. I have changed no one’s life, and I will not. I will never be the bird-figure in the sky.


But you can, my dear.


She stared up at him in confusion and complete awe, not yet understanding what his purpose was. He knelt down and set the wings in the grass, grasping her shoulders and looking into her amber eyes with his misty blue.


My dear, you can look up into the sky and see sky, whereas I only see failure now. You can look upon the world and see it for itself. You are a child, and with any luck, you will remain so without repeating my own horrible failures. I want you to be my muse, my girl—my bird, my angel in the sky.


He picked up the wings and held them out to her, smiling slightly with just the corners of his mouth. Will you do it? he asked.


The girl thought about it. She loved her old man, and she knew his dream was not really to fly, but to change the world by flight. It was a beautiful ambition, and he had dedicatedly worked his entire life.


But /her/ dream was to fly.


Slowly, she looked up into his eyes and nodded.


He smiled. My darling, he said, you have a good heart. You deserve to have your dream fulfilled. Only angels and birds may roam the skies.


He beckoned her closer. Come, my dear, before the wax cools.


She came; he held up the wings and there they were, beautiful, tawny, longer than her arms—and yet she felt as if they had been made for her all along. How strange.


My life’s work, said the old man with a smile. Two small golden wings. And then he suddenly grew a little anxious, saying, My darling, I will have to put this wax onto you…it will only hurt for a moment….


She nodded and smiled, hardly caring about that. She had dipped her finger in candle wax many times, and it had never hurt much. She held out her arms obediently as he slipped the two arm-holds, like small belts, under each shoulder, above her elbows, around her wrists and torso.


A little child,
Curly cherrywood hair and bright amber eyes,
Solemn, respectful,
Waiting as the wings are fastened;
She does not wince
As a line of hot wax joins feathers to skin.
Unaware of the abomination,
Only seeing the fixation
Of wings on shoulders,
Clouds and sun in sky,
Birds on air, free to fly.


As she had suspected, the wax did not hurt. She was too distracted, excitement blooming in her like a rose after a long, cold winter, by the thought of it: /She was going to fly today/.


The old man smiled, a little sadly, as he led her to the edge of the precipice. You must be brave, he told her, as she watched the waves crash onto the rock below. You must believe in yourself, in your dream. Nothing on earth can stop you if you have a dream, my darling. You must trust in your wings, and in yourself.


She smiled up at him and hugged him tightly, and he kissed her forehead. Goodbye, my darling, he said quietly.


The wings are fastened tight.
He says they will come off
when she is done,
she replies that
that will never come.
And before he can do more
Than stare in slack-jawed silence,
She takes one step, two, three.


The cool air whipped around her the minute she was in the air, and for one frightfully exhilarating moment, she felt that she was going to fall, to plummet down, down, until she splattered onto the rocks. But then—


One step is too far, takes her over the edge.
Two, the wings push upon the air like feet upon the ground.
Three, and she’s free,
She’s a bird on the wing,
She’s an angel,
Made of riches and rags,
Newspaper and threads of silver and gold,


And then she was flying in the air, and the old man became a smiling, crying, wonderful little speck, and the sun grew warmer and larger as it rose, and she with it, and the clouds touched her face with gentle playfulness, and birds swooped around her and with her and she with them….


Flying into the sun,
Feeling the sweet heat on her back,
The air on her cheek,
The song rising in her breast—
And she sets it free,
A long, pure note
Like the call of some exotic bird,
That she has now become,
Poetry in music,
Music in the air,
Air from the mouth of heaven,
And heaven is in the air.
She is an angel,
No longer of the earth;
She will never fall,
She will never return.


She took one last look at the old man, sweeping low to see his face, and tears were in his eyes and a smile was on his face, and he put up both arms and he waved them frantically back and forth. And she was content, because she knew he was happier. She knew his dream of changing people had happened, even with just himself.


And then she soared up, up, up…and was gone.


And the wingmaker looks up,
Stares into the sun where she disappeared,
Hears her cry of joy,
And knows that she is gone.


And all throughout the village, people cried out and pointed up at the sky as a dark shape obscured the sun, and they shaded their eyes and peered hard through their telescopes or the bottoms of glasses or through their disbelieving eyes. And then they recognized the shape—a human with bird wings, flying through the air!


And they began to think that the wingmaker was not so crazy after all.


And yet, through his tears,
A sweet taste, uplifting his heart:
For he has created

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