You can’t remember when you first learned that some people had wings, but you remember the first time you saw a winged person.
She descends from the sky into the town where you live and people on the street stop to stare at her. Their faces are studied calm revealing flickers of hate when she isn’t looking. She’s impossibly beautiful. You can’t look away. Enveloped in the soft white of her wings, folded behind her and towering above her head, she looks like she’s made of light.
She catches you staring as her eyes flit across the faces of the people on the street where she landed. There’s a guarded caution in them, but they soften when they see the shining wonder of your expression.
You want to go up to her, to touch her wings, to see if they’re as soft as they look, but you can’t think of how to cross the space between you, especially through the crossfire of hostile stares that stretch like tracer fire across the street between you and her. Instead you feel your shoulders hunch and your eyes prickle with incipient tears.
You expect her face to be cruel, but it looks kind. You expect her mouth to sneer, but it curls in the slightest smile as her eyes slide from your face. You have read fairy tales with winged people in them; they’re a staple of the genre. The stories about the winged people are dark.
They’re capricious, they’re the villains of fables. Not malice, but a casual disregard for human norms. In a story, the winged people would trick someone, twist their words against them, convince them to betray their families. Not for cruelty’s sake, but because they didn’t know any better.
You turn to look at the person you’re with, who might be a parent but might just be a stand-in for everyone in the town, which itself might just be a stand-in for people without wings, and a cold fear trickles down your esophagus and into your stomach, where it settles as a clenching weight. The person you’re with isn’t bothering to hide the look of disgust and contempt on their face, and your own expression falls. You’re a child, and you take your cues for behavior from the authority figures in your life, and you fear this person’s judgement enough to be willing to hide your fascination and even love.
You’ve seen people with wings since then, of course. They live in the sky, but they have to come to earth sometimes to buy supplies. You’ve never managed to touch any of their wings, though you’ve longed to ask permission. When you are alone, you imagine what it would be like to have wings. For a month of nights, you prayed for wings of your own, probing your shoulders with tense fingers to see if anything had changed. You never grew wings, and you lost a little of your sense of the world as a hopeful and lovely place.
So you’re on the road, on a pilgrimage. There’s a temple, you’ve heard, atop a mountain, and it is where you can meet people who have wings. Supposedly. And there’s a rumor, one of those bullshit stories that get debunked on a regular basis on Snopes, that it’s possible to go there and pray and become a winged person. You already know all the arguments for why this is impossible, you’ve read the explanations. Humans can’t fly. The weight is distributed all wrong. The wings can’t hold them aloft, because of the solid bones and the cross-sectional area thing and, basically, winged people are fundamentally different from humans.
But everything that’s known about winged people comes from this one place, this mountaintop temple, repurposed from its role in the ancient world into a cultural center, research station, embassy, whatever it is now. The place where the winged people land. The place where they stay if they have to deal with humans for any length of time. Something about the altitude, apparently.
The pilgrimage is an unacknowledged aspect of the place. Nobody really calls it that, but that’s how you’ve come to think of it. People go to the mountain. There’s no way up its flanks, no road or lift or cable car. There’s a precarious path, mostly without any railings or handholds. When the facility needs supplies, they’re airlifted in. It is not a place you get to easily.
The winged people made it clear that they would be unhappy if the government prevented people from going up the mountain, so even though they’d rather keep everyone away, they’re obligated to allow access. But that doesn’t mean they have to help. So it’s a hike, a long one, from the last bus-accessible road to even just the trailhead of the climb.
You’re at the trailhead, though. You sold most of what you owned to pay for this trip, and you read everything about the trip you could find, other people’s accounts, blogs, photos, route maps. You figured out the supplies you’d need, you trained by climbing easier mountains. It’s not an ascent of Everest but it’s not something to be done lightly or trivially.
You don’t have a clear reason for wanting this pilgrimage. Nobody ever does. Every pilgrim gives the same answers to the media, who pounce on them as they arrive at the town that serves as the last civilization before the mountain climb. ‘I don’t know why I’m here. I felt like I had to come here. I felt like I had to visit the shrine.’ Between you and the other pilgrims, no words are necessary. You can see in their eyes the same need you know is behind your own.
So together, mostly, you climb. Some stride ahead, though they may eventually falter when the trail becomes steep. Some travel in small groups, helping each other, sharing supplies. Some are totally unprepared and hoping the other travelers will aid them, and they’re largely correct. Like walking the Appalachian trail, there’s a community and a kind of casual communism to go with it. Did you bring extra food? Share it. Do your legs work? Carry someone whose legs don’t. Are you brave? Talk to those who are scared.
It’s an impromptu civilization built of the challenges of the situation, expressed in pockets of two or three or four people at a time, never formalized, never discussed. You give away most of your food, receive different food in return. You refill your water from streams, or from the water supplies of others. You talk to strangers about the rough terrain ahead, when there are wide spots to rest, how far until a spot to camp.
You carefully don’t talk about the people who fall.
It’s a long way down, to broken rock. You hear people fall, in the dark. You never know if they slipped or jumped. The climb is harder for some than for others. You think about jumping sometimes, but never really feel the clench of inevitability people have described when trying to cope with the vast heights of the mountain. The sense that you must leap.
You walk until your feet have blistered, calloused, and then blistered again. You’ve moved past the expectation of reaching a destination. You know there is no destination, that you’re supposed to be enlightened by the journey, that you’re supposed to learn that the hike itself is the goal.
You see fewer and fewer people. Most people don’t make it this far up the mountain. There was a study on the number of people who turn back, which is not as many as you would have thought, and the number of people who give up and either fall or stay on the mountain until they run out of dried fruit and jerky and snow melt, and just fall asleep forever. Which is a lot more than you’re really comfortable with. It’s one of the few conversations you have with the other pilgrims when you overtake them or are overtaken. Why are we doing this, when we know how few people make the summit? The answer is always a shrug, understood to mean ‘because what else are we supposed to do?’
It’s always interesting when someone reveals that they’ve met, talked with, even touched a winged person. They’re so much a part of the fabric of this journey that it’s easy to forget that they’re real people, that they have names and families and they love and die. It’s interesting and centering when it happens, when someone can share what they know. You’ve learned that the feathers are, just as you’ve always suspected, soft like pillows. But apparently they’re also warm, because they’re not really feathers at all, but frond-like extensions of the winged people’s third pair of limbs. They have capillaries. They do not molt, not entire feathers like birds. They molt like skin, a fine white powder that drifts down when they leap aloft. You learn that they’re cooler than humans, that kissing a winged person is strange and chilling, that winged people say kissing humans is like tasting fire. You imagine what it would be like to kiss a winged person, but your mind won’t encompass it. The old fear and shame take root in your belly again.
You expect reaching the shrine to be an anticlimax, and in a sense it is, because you reach the top alone. The last people you passed were a couple, and that was four hours earlier, so they’re probably well behind you by now. Your calves are numb for a moment, as the ground levels and then dips ahead of you, making you stumble.
The shrine sprawls out from the gates, which are rough stone and dark weathered wood. There’s modern touches, solar panels and modular buildings, thick cables on the ground. You think of that year-round station in Antarctica. There’s a kind of practicality hanging in the air here, as well. Humans seem like visitors, like intruders.
You’re assigned a room.
The lowest level of the shrine is a single vast and echoing hall, supported by stone pillars which have since been reinforced with steel, because the place is a thousand years old and there’s only so much stone can do. Two of the walls are pierced by openings like the doorways of airplane hangars, beyond which stone piers jut out over a bottomless drop. The clouds are far below, and the air is cold and thin, and the sunlight is piercing in the way that it is when you’re in an airplane. You were given sunscreen as part of your supplies when you arrived, because sunburn is such a problem here despite the cold. You can die from it here.
You spend your days in the great hall, watching the winged people, who rarely land. They dive and swoop past the openings, occasionally hovering, sometimes touching down with one foot or one toe, just long enough to give a push and change their direction. You hear their voices throbbing through the hall, coming from everywhere at once. Sometimes you stand in a place and clearly hear a whisper from the other side of the hall, a quarter of a kilometer away. The winged people have voices like bells: some deep and resonant, some high and tinkling. They’re all musical. Their own language is music.
People call the molted wing material ‘angel dust’. There’s a pragmatism about the winged people here. For most of the non-pilgrims, this is a job. They get airlifted in and then, after six months, airlifted out. They don’t care in the tense and obsessive way that pilgrims care. In fact, they’re largely contemptuous of the winged people and the pilgrims. Winged people are too embedded in the cultural consciousness as villains and tricksters. Winged people are aliens, and they’re bad, and humans who like them are sick in the head. Pilgrims are tolerated only because the winged people insist.
There are rules for pilgrims. You’re not allowed to approach a winged person. You’re not allowed to talk to them unless they initiate the conversation. You’re not allowed to touch a winged person. You wouldn’t anyway, because you know from your reading that most of them are very touchy about physical contact and personal space. They’re so fragile; this makes perfect sense.
For their part the winged people don’t seem to care. They alight on a whim. A winged person with deep brown feathers tipped with vivid yellow drops next to you one morning, tilting her head to the side to take you in, and then asks why you don’t have any hair on your face. You stammer out an answer, and seem to be sinking into the endless pools of her golden eyes, and she has a secret smile as though she knows exactly how lost you are. Satisfied with your answer, apparently, or simply tired of listening to your voice, she leaps aloft and soars off.
One of the other pilgrims vanishes. She came up in a group of three, and the other two seem unconcerned. When you ask them, they give you a pitying look, as if to say — you came all the way up this mountain, and you don’t even believe? She grew wings, they say.
Before dawn, she went out onto one of the sky piers, spread her wings, and flew off.
You ask: did you see this happen? and of course they didn’t see it happen. Nobody has ever actually seen someone grow wings, because it’s not possible. It’s like alien abductions and homeopathy. Wishful thinking for the endlessly hopeful and despairing. You assume the pilgrim left in an evac helicopter; they come every week to carry away pilgrims who have had their fill. Or maybe she really did jump from the sky pier. You shudder.
You think about the evac helicopter but honestly what would you be returning to? You sold almost everything to make this pilgrimage. You have no-one waiting for you below. And here you’re fed and given shelter and you can spend your days watching the winged people in their complex aerial dances.
Over time, each of the other pilgrims you recognize from the climb disappear. Each time the story is the same, except where they’ve made a public spectacle of their despair and been forcibly shipped out on the evac chopper. Breaking the rules. Acting out their desperation as it turns to hate.
You feel the hot prickling lure of desperation, but you can hold it away. You believe you can hold it away forever. Being here is enough.
New pilgrims arrive every day, and soon you’re a fixture, a veteran, someone who can tell stories of other pilgrims and of strange interactions with the winged people. You tell the story of the two winged people who flew in wobbly circles in the great hall, looping around the pillars, making love in the air and giggling in their high music at the humans below, watching in astonishment or envy or hate.
How long has it been? Only months, or has it been a year? You can’t remember, because there are no rituals of civilization to mark the days as they slip past you. You ache in new and unfamiliar ways, your body growing weak again from the inactivity.
You see her, one bleak dawn. She’s far away, which makes it hard to be certain, but the hair, the shape of the shoulders — she looks more human than the other winged people, somehow. The pilgrim, the first of your cohort to vanish. Is it her? It might be. It’s possible. You squint but she soars down towards the cloud layer and around behind the bulk of the mountain, and is out of view.
Now you have new purpose. You take a notebook of clean white paper and a pencil, and you sketch the faces of the pilgrims as they arrive, and when they vanish you watch the skies, trying to match features for features. The shape of a nose, the curl of hair, the set of a mouth. Nothing for certain but a definite sense of growing certainty.
One night, one of the pilgrims, a girl young enough to be your daughter, comes to you and confesses she’s going to fly at dawn. She asks if you’ll go with her, see her off. You agree, though you’re terrified, and you don’t know exactly why. You tell yourself that it’s because you believe she’ll jump and die, but secretly it’s because you believe she’ll jump and fly.
At dawn you’re standing on a sky pier with her, listening as the winged people begin to call their wakeup sounds across the face of the mountain, drifting in from whatever errands they were on. The girl smiles at you, peels off her shirt. Her shoulders are sharp and clearly defined, the climb up the mountain having drained off all the reserves of fat she might have once had. Her nipples are hard points in the freezing dawn air, and you hope that whatever protection the winged people have from the cold, she acquires it soon after her flight, because this air is death for much longer than an hour.
She touches your arm, leans in and kisses you. She whispers in a voice filled with exultation. Thank you. Thank you.
Then she turns and sprints to the end of the pier. There’s a group of winged people hovering there, watching; they always watch when someone is on the pier. The girl reaches the end. She leaps.
The blossoming of her wings is a glory: spreading out from her shoulders first as a gossamer of light, then filling rapidly with multicolored feathers, a pulsing rainbow, the colors too vivid for your eyes, a kind of searing beauty you’ve never seen in your life.
The gathered winged people swoop after her as she brings her wings forward, cutting their leading edges into the air and scooping, their flex and beat seeming effortless. She shrieks with her joy and, as the other winged people gather to her, embraces them and begins to kiss them each, passionately, with total abandon. They plummet towards the clouds, then pull up, again and again, and their lovemaking is excruciating for you to watch, in its perfection.
Then she’s gone, with them, out of sight.
Now you know.
It’s still days, though. Days until your courage is gathered. Days until the beauty of her wings begins to fade from your mind, becoming pale with time and distance. Days until you realize if you don’t act, you’ll be lost forever. That you have to go back down the mountain, or learn to fly. There is no other choice. There is no way for you to live any longer in the shrine, among the pilgrims.
You feel something like religion growing in your chest, a tightness of breath and pounding of heart, an excitement and certainty.
It’s cold in the morning, and you don’t think you’re ready, but you wonder if it’s even possible to feel ready. You stand shirtless, your skin puckering with gooseflesh, trying to breathe deeply, unable to fill your lungs.
There are no winged people in attendance.
You think about the girl, you think about the look on her face as they embraced her, welcoming her. You think about how that will feel. You think about how long you’ve known this was your fate, back to that first meeting in the town where you were born, that first winged person and her soft white wings. You think about meeting her again, about telling her your story.
You swell with the need, the bursting, endless need. You run for the end of the pier.
You leap off.
You fall into the clean bright air, exulting as it tears at your face and arms and legs, tumbling you. You fall alone.
There are no wings.
You do not fly.