They ate on a grassy flank of the lake close to the scrap metal sculpture Iana wanted Luc to see. Neither male nor female, at least four times their height, and wingless, the figure faced eastwards, sunrise, its arms arrested in mid-swing, its upper thighs wavering beneath the surface of the water. To the dawnfish which darted round, the intentions of the thing were immaterial so long as it didn’t decide to thwack or bite, for they had seen divers tussling with it during construction. Its lack of distinctive features, of eyes, made onlookers complicit in its purpose: to some, it appeared to be striding ashore; to others, struggling to be released from lakeweed or bunching its muscles for flight, an enigma which prompted considerable (and at times fantastical) speculation. No one thought it mere coincidence that only at sunrise on the summer solstice, and only from the air, did a tracery of wings unfurl in light and shadow. It had taken Tilka more than a year to design; nearly two more to build, test, tear down, rebuild. Despite the blandishments (and threats) of her family, she refused to commercialise the modelling software developed in the process, releasing it instead for anyone to use or modify.

‘It’s already started to rust,’ Luc said. ‘In a few years it’ll be gone.’

‘Or free.’

She expected Luc to laugh, but he rose from the rug they’d spread under the makumbra, its pale, smooth-barked girth providing an ample backrest for them both, and its thick canopy, welcome shade. There wasn’t much breeze, but the leaves trembled slightly from the movements of the birds and other small creatures for which the tree was ageing custodian. In the mottled light which draped him in cryptic colouration, Luc could have been one of Khai’s otherworldly creations. He placed both his palms against the trunk, with all the appearance of someone preparing to climb. It was an awfully tall tree.

‘Please don’t,’ she said. ‘Its limbs are old and brittle.’

He dropped his hands to look at her.

‘Please.’

‘Then why don’t you show me how it’s done?’ he asked with a sarcastic flourish, miming wings. Before she could retort, he softened his tone. ‘Sorry, that was uncalled for.’

‘If you hate us so much, why are you here?’

‘To rape and murder you, of course. Isn’t that what we grounders always want?’

‘Luc—’

He didn’t give her a chance to continue, even if she’d had known what, exactly, to say. With a skewed smile, he turned away and walked through the high grass to the water’s edge. Though barefoot, he moved as though nothing pierced his skin. It was still several hours till sunset, but the sun was low enough in the sky to open a path across the red-stained lake. She watched him quietly for a time, his stillness, his hunter’s stance. With his slight build and careless grace, he would have been magnificent in flight.

‘Do you want to swim?’ she asked at last. ‘There are some towels in the airbug.’

Instead of answering, he turned his head towards a stand of mala trees, raised his left arm to shoulder height, and gave a raspy, two-note call. She was astonished when, a moment later, the upper branches of the tallest tree shook and a bird burst forth, winging straight towards him. In his place she’d have ducked or jumped aside, but Luc didn’t even flinch, and the creature settled on his forearm as if coming home to roost. It was a glossy black reagle with a bronze gleam to its feathers in the afternoon light, a compact scavenger known for its sharp talons and sharper cunning. Fiercely independent, the reagle appeared to view winged humans as overgrown reaglets, fledglings to be tolerated till they outgrew their childish antics; unwinged humans, useful only for their leavings. Though it was surely a mistake to anthropomorphise animals, Iana saw curiosity in the bird’s eyes; curiosity and something akin to begrudging respect. Luc’s face was in profile, and almost impossible to read, though not his objective. To show her this! Whatever happened between them, whatever else they might have to relinquish, she must not ask him to relinquish his mystery.

The flicker of a skim intruded, drawing the reagle’s attention. Humans were fond of the oddest trinkets and playthings. Having encountered a skim often enough to dismiss its usefulness, he regarded Luc again.

‘Yes,’ Luc said as if in answer to a question. With the reagle still perched on his arm, he turned towards Iana. ‘You won’t mind sacrificing a fish pie, will you? He likes our pies.’

‘You can understand him,’ she said softly, doubtfully.

‘Not in so many words, but he’s a bright fellow, and his wish is clear.’

‘There’s no evidence that humans have telepathic abilities. We’ve looked.’

The reagle pranked from Luc’s arm to the edge of the picnic rug, tilting his head at their holdall, and Luc laughed. ‘Keep telling yourself that, if you prefer, but do give him his pie.’

 

While the reagle carried off the first chunk towards the mala trees, Iana acknowledged Tilka’s skim. An offworld dignitary had arrived to discuss a possible commission, and Tilka had invited him to stay for dinner. He had a reputation for brutality, and though Tilka mistrusted rumour (and conjecture), she wouldn’t sell a piece to someone she didn’t respect. Iana’s impression—and Luc’s, of course—would be appreciated. But they were free to enjoy the countryside, and each other’s company, for another few hours yet.

‘There’s a thicket of wild honeyberries not far from here. With all the hot weather we’ve been having, they ought to be ripe by now. Shall we pick some for Tilka?’

They left the rest of the pie, broken into rough segments, on a patch of ground between two protruding makumbra roots and set off along the lakeside path with a basket improvised from the stretchy fibre holdall the university canteen provided for takeaways, lined with leaves from a low-hanging branch. She warned Luc that the path was uneven and rocky in places and that they would soon be veering off into a thick tangle of wild grasses and shrubs, some prickly, some thorny, some stinging, but he shrugged aside any jeopardy to his bare feet.

‘On your own you’d fly, wouldn’t you?’

‘Not necessarily.’

He stopped so abruptly that she was a few steps ahead before his anger caught up with her.

‘This isn’t going to work,’ he said.

‘Because I don’t want to hurt your feelings?’

‘Because you’ve got no idea what my feelings might be.’

‘Like hell I don’t! You walk around with a chip larger than the scars on your shoulder.’  She could feel her wings tense in a flight-or-fight response, which was ridiculous under the circumstances. ‘Shoulders.’

He took a step towards her, and though she knew, rationally, that she could always fly out of reach, she backed away. His face changed. If she hadn’t known it before, she knew it now: she had no right to hurt this man. Any fool could see that he’d been hurt far too much already. What had he said when he’d given her the sphere? It’s a music instrument of sorts which translates sentience into sound—a musicalisation of self, tuned uniquely to whoever plays it. My best guess is that it’s alien—a technology so advanced that it may as well be magic. You’ll never hear anything else like it, music sometimes haunting, sometimes ugly and discordant, but always—always—you. The thing is, it may not respond to you. Though it’s not particularly fragile, it may even shatter. No one knows exactly how, or why.

‘And what did you hear?’ she had asked.

‘The sound of wings.’

 

Out on the lake, a dawnfish leapt into the air, shattering the silence between them with the splash that followed. There were people who prized these playful fish as a delicacy, her granduncle among them. Tilka would probably shoot anyone she caught with a net or laser harpoon; Iana had once witnessed her rage at a small boy, a visitor’s child, who had been swinging a fledgling by its broken wing and laughing.

‘There are men who get off on someone else’s fear,’ Luc said quietly, with an effort. ‘I’m not one of them.’

‘I know that.’

‘Do you?’

‘Of course I do.’

‘Your body language says otherwise.’

She could apologise. She could tell him that we all speak several languages. She could give way to the tears that were threatening. Instead, she unfastened her tunic and dropped it to the ground, then spread her wings. The men she knew would stare at the contour of her breasts beneath her silk camisole, some even delighted to let her see what was happening under their own clothing. I’m not one of them.

‘I don’t want to hide my wings from you any longer,’ she said.

He said nothing.

‘It’s who I am,’ she said, trying not to sound defensive.

He turned away to face the lake, his shoulders tensed as though readying for flight. In the literature, there was no mention of phantom wings. Nor could she recall a single study of cortical topography which addressed the body image of sinepen subjects. Everyone assumed that the brain didn’t need to remap itself after amputation in early infancy. Or perhaps they didn’t care.

Slowly, uncertain of her ground, she made her way to his side. He didn’t speak, but neither did he move away, and his back seemed less rigid, less likely to fracture at a touch. She was trying to work up the courage to remove a leaf from his hair when he tugged his shirt over his head. She couldn’t help herself—her eyes went first to the scars on his back. In his new game, Khai had told her, he hoped players would be horrified by an ethnic ritual he’d devised—female circumcision. She’d been duly horrified. You’re overreaching, she’d said. Genital mutilation is unheard of. No one would do anything so monstrous.

And then there was the tattoo of a draven. It was stunning—‘body art’ didn’t begin to describe it. The depth and saturation of colour, the fine detail, the vivid impression of flight. Exquisite as the image was, there was something masochistic about submitting to all those needles. Of course, pain could also be intensely pleasurable, the sort of seeming contradiction Luc was likely to appreciate. He hadn’t tried to disguise his scars but had seen to it that the tattoo was positioned midway between them, a stark contrast, so that the beauty of the one eclipsed the ugliness of the other, and the raw crudeness of the one, the delicacy of the other; so that his pain had wings; so that over the whole hovered the light and darkness of human longing. Her eyes swimming, she told herself she could forgive this man anything.

‘So, tell me. Just how well can you swim?’ he asked. ‘Think you can beat me to the statue?’

‘Only if I fly.’


 

Excerpt narrated by the inimitable Welsh actor Ioan Hefin

Photo courtesy of Nico Frey