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A Clockwork Phoenix featured story

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From the pages of Clockwork Phoenix 5
 

The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me

 

Rachael K. Jones

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There are things that fly and things that fall. You must remember this distinction, because they are not the same.

Devils are flying things that learn to fall. Lovers are falling things that learn to fly. Do not confuse them.

* * *

Saints do not fly, precisely, although they may seem to as they bear our prayers up the sky. They merely learn not to fall. It takes long years of repentance to master this art, and even then, some saints fall anyway, like my mother did.

I repented of my first sin at the age of eight. I do not remember the reason, but I recall the lonely, still hours in the garden, kneeling among the wild onions, the sun’s heat my only company, and warm blood beneath the rose stems wound round and round my wrists. High above the willows, my grandmother cut a dark shape from the sky as slowly she raised a naked foot for the next step.

Even then, I dreaded the day I would climb the air to take her place. I feared it more than falling. From the time her feet left the ground, years before my birth, no one had spoken a word to her, lest they cause her to sin and fall. I couldn’t fathom a life spent with only the darting chimney swifts for company, and seeds for food.

I prayed I might be spared, but there was no saint to carry the prayer upwards, save for me, and my time of ascent drew near. If I did not go, who would walk to Heaven to ask for rain?

One evening, as I peeled rose stems from my stinging legs, I looked up at the darkling sky and saw a dazzling thing, neither bird nor saint, plummeting toward my garden.

* * *

Imagine a star falling to Earth.

From a distance, it appears to fly across the dark shell of the atmosphere. If you are too close—if it is falling straight toward you—it seems fixed like a star whose inner fire is growing brighter and brighter until the illusion breaks, and the heat is upon you, and the light, and the sound, and then the collision, flesh on stone, flesh on bone.

Imagine finding it was not a star at all.

* * *

A taxonomy of flight:

Flying things stay aloft in different ways. There are gliders, floaters, and Mab-like things that catch and ride atoms of air. Certain fish glide by leaping with kitelike fins, while spiders make silken parasols and float like balloons. Still others fly on deep, booming music loud enough to stop your heart. These include shooting stars. Some eschew music and ride on light and heat, like the falcons who soar on the ever-changing thermal winds near Heaven.

Some things only appear to fly, like the sun and moon, which are actually falling like arrows away from the universe’s birthplace, toward some unknown thing. In the same way, given enough distance, raindrops would become racing comets with tails of ice.

* * *

Falling is not always failing.

* * *

She was not like any angel I ever imagined, but I knew her nature by her wings. She had six: two on her left ankle, one on her right, one sweeping down from each collarbone, and one sticking straight out from her back like a stabbing knife. Her feathers glistened, dark as the night sky, black to my brown. Blood slicked her limbs, congealing into black scabs. Jagged white bones protruded from the wreck of her skin. She had too many wounds to count, too many sharp bones for one body. They reminded me of prickles on a plucked hen.

When I bent to pick her up, I found her unbearably light. I almost lost her to a snatching breeze. She had all the substance of a dead leaf.

* * *

A taxonomy of falling:

There is only one way to fall: toward something.

A goal. A destination. A stopping point.

* * *

Imagine a place where falling is not the law, a realm cloudy with sky-people as they sail from island to island in the buoyant air. They are wings all over, too many to count. Whichever direction they throw themselves, they soar like dandelion puffs on an eternal wind.

Far below, they see the earth swimming in orange and green and blue. It haunts their legends. They call it Paradise and believe their spirits go there in death (never their bodies, whose skeletons are too light and angled to obey gravity). But no one ever goes there. No one falls to earth, except through a special act, a miracle, and no one ever quite gets there.

Their hatchlings have dreams of plummeting like rockets toward the fast-approaching earth, wings outstretched to embrace it, their fearless faces burning with the anticipation of impact. Other times, they dream of falling in slow motion, oaring toward the ground in desperate strokes, as if all the forces of physics conspired to keep them apart.

Only their saints and heroes fall to Earth. It is the mark of a holy woman to attempt it. Among them there are ascetics, mad devoted ones with their sights set on Paradise who spend their lives studying the art. The best among them, pious Icarus-saints, will bring the Earth so close that its scourging, purifying pressure rakes against their scalps before flight yanks them back to the sky.

* * *

I thought the angel a strange omen in my time of cleansing. I feared someone would discover her, so I locked her in my hut. No one disturbs a holy woman purifying herself for the ascent, but once a week, my mother would bring me seedcakes and roses and a little news from the greater world. I intercepted her when she limped up the path on her crooked cane, and I heard the news she brought. The drought had grown worse, spread to the lake country where the wheat fields wilted from thirst. The clouds roiled and flickered but did not weep.

The people prayed for rain from Heaven. Someone must take those prayers upward. Me.

After my mother left, I salved the angel’s wounds with a paste of crushed rose petals. “What is your message?” I asked, because angels always bring messages. It is what they exist for. Perhaps I needn’t make the ascent, or carry prayers on sinless feet up the darkling sky.

But she did not wake for two days and nights. On the morning of the third day, she opened her eyes. “Ananda,” she said in a voice like birdsong. How did she know my name?

“I am here,” I told her.

She sat up, shedding all the bedclothes except a sheet. She gawked at the laundry line strung between the rafters. She dug her toes into the dirt floor. A large pink snail on the windowsill made her laugh outright, a sound I hadn’t heard since my first repentance. Winged things stirred in my heart and fluttered inside my throat, and I laughed too. Then the angel marveled at me.

She traced the tiny muscles that joined my neck to my collarbone, pausing in the hollow that held my drumming pulse before continuing along my shoulder. But when she reached the thorny stems of my repentance twisted around my arm, the swollen black scabs, her eyebrows knit together. Her fingers gently picked apart the thorns. I struggled not to gasp or flinch. I bit my lip and focused on the angel instead—her trembling black wings, the sheet that draped her body, and beneath that, rose petals stuck to her skin where I had treated her wounds. She gathered some loose petals and pressed them against my bleeding arm. The warmth of her touch spread through my shoulder and down into my belly. My mind tumbled like swifts in a gale. I thought I should pull away, but it was already too late.

“Are you an angel, then?” I asked, swallowing back the frantic wings beating in my throat.

“I thought perhaps thou wert,” she said. I floated on those rounded syllables and leaned into her breath, her arms, her wings, her everything. My world’s center shifted, and I fell toward it.

Then she kissed me.

* * *

Falling is a kind of attraction—it is clasping gravity to your breast. This is why we fall in love, not fly in it.

* * *

It took me a week to purge the sin of her kiss, rose stems wrapping my arms and legs. Holy women mustn’t love. The sin would weigh me down on the ascent so I would die before I reached Heaven.

It took a long time to ascend.

Love made my mother fall, so hard and fast her body never fully healed from the impact. A fallen saint is worst of all, for she drags the prayers of others to Earth with her. Now I must be holy in her stead.

I locked the hut’s door and slept under the open sky, but the chirping swifts in the eaves kept me awake.

“Hello?” said a voice behind the door. “Art thou well?” Six wings thumped against oak rafters. “Art thou there? Is it thee that is in’t? I am after falling with an urgent message. Wilt thou open the door?”

* * *

It took my grandmother forty years to ascend. When I was little, I would watch her on clear days high above the tree line, receding by inches as the sin sloughed off until she was light enough to take the next step.

The chimney swifts fed her on seeds carried from my family’s garden. Poppy and parsley, mostly, and rose hips in the winter. We would lay out sweetened seedcakes on holy days as a special treat, and the birds would swoop low and bear them up. Seeds are the only food a holy woman should eat. Anything else is weight.

One day, while pruning roses, I shaded my face but couldn’t see her anymore. I ran for my mother and brother, but their eyes could not find her either. No one knew how long she had been gone. She had disappeared like a steady star which quietly shuts its eye in the night, unmarked and unmourned.

The forty-year drought broke a week later.

She was the last saint to make the journey in living memory. Now all their prayers weighed me down.

* * *

Fall is both a season and an action. So is spring.

To spring is to act against entropy, but it is not true flight; it’s just another kind of falling. The darling buds of May belong to the Earth, not the sky. But you can find them in the sky-people’s gardens anyway, because the chimney swifts bring them seeds.

* * *

“Now then. Thine Paradise here, it does not be what I am expecting to find, sure,” she said through the door, voice so low and close I thought she must be leaning cheek to cheek with me through the wood.

“Well, what did you expect?” I asked, because I was lonely and bored from long hours of repentance.

“Gods and gardens. Whole cities of earth-walkers.”

“Well, we do have cities. Just not here,” I said. “I have to live alone because I’m holy.”

“With our holy women, so they do, too.”

“Do I disappoint you?” I asked.

“Well, thou dost not, precisely. Only, to be sure …” Her flapping wings stuttered to a standstill. “Thou dost not seem so happy as I expected thou wouldst.”

* * *

The chimney swift spends its whole life in the air, and comes to Earth only to build a nest from things caught in the wind, joined together with its own saliva. It sleeps on the wing, drifting in a torpor as it rests.

It dreams, perhaps, of falling.

A swift isn’t sure what would happen if it ever stilled its wings. Perhaps, like certain sharks, it would die if it stopped. Perhaps it would transcend its own nature, become a mad bird-saint hell-bent on betrothing Heaven to Earth.

* * *

We chatted through the door whenever I wasn’t purifying or repenting. I could feel myself growing lighter each day, light enough, perhaps, to bear the prayers. My mother had begun her ascent at a younger age than mine.

“Are you hungry?” I would ask the angel. “Do you need anything?”

We shared the seedcakes beneath the gap under the door one bite at a time. When they ran out, I dug up wild onions in the garden, and we ate those. That repentance was easy. Harder, though, to repent of her.

“What hath the name of thee?” she asked me.

“You know that. You said it once. Ananda, same as my grandmother.” It was an odd question. “What is yours?”

“Sano.” Dark, clawed fingers curled under the doorframe like inchworms. “Ananda, I’ve a message for thee.”

“No. Please, not yet.” An angel without a message would have to leave me.

I wanted to unlock the door, but I was afraid.

* * *

The holy women in the sky practice the art of falling in ascending stages.

First, an acolyte meditates until she can command each wing still. This is done in utter silence and isolation, for her wings never rest in life, and it takes immense self-control.

Next, she suspends herself over the void and stills her wings, one after another after another, as many as she can stand. Usually the first wing will flutter again before she gets through even the first dozen. It’s easiest to start with the wings of the feet, but these are also the most impatient, and won’t pause long.

When all her wings stop, she will slowly begin to descend. It can take years to fall. If she loses concentration for even a moment, she will jerk upward like a kite in a strong draft, borne up all the way to the cloud-cities, and will have to fall again from the beginning.

As they fall, the swifts bring them fruits from the earth to weigh them down. Holy women should only eat earth-food. Even the acolytes cultivate gardens from the seeds the birds bring. In this manner, the flying peoples’ gardens have become the wildest and most variable in the world.

Occasionally, their gardens sprout roses by mistake.

* * *

It grew harder to stay grounded. I filled my pockets with rocks to hide my lightness from my mother when she limped up the path that week.

“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” she asked, craning her neck toward my hut. It was a long walk from the village, especially for a lame woman, and we were accustomed to taking rose hip tea for refreshment. It was threatening to rain.

“We might disturb the nesting swifts,” I said. “I’ll prepare tea in the garden.”

I struggled to sit down. I had grown so light already, the ground shrank from my touch. My skin itched. Already prayers flocked to me, clamping to my skin like mosquitoes, opening the scabs left by the rose thorns. I scratched running sores beneath my sleeves.

“It’s nearly summer.” My mother poured herself a cup of tea. “I began my ascent in summer, you know.” It happened before my birth. My grandmother took to the air the next day, even before she knew if her daughter would survive her injuries.

“Mm-hm.” A prayer floated on my tea’s amber surface, its ten black legs floundering for purchase, its proboscis extended. I tried to sip around it.

“It’s a good season for it, don’t you think? Weather’s nice. Plenty of seeds to eat. I remember seeing the garden in summer from high over the trees, everything green and growing and the roses in bloom.”

“Yes, it’s very nice,” I agreed. Over my mother’s head, I caught a flash of wings in my hut’s upper window.

“And of course, the rain would be most welcome right now, during the growing season.”

“What rain?” I slapped three biting prayers roosting on my hand.

She fixed me with a piercing look. “What do you mean, ‘what rain’?”

“Right. I’m sorry. I forgot,” I admitted. My hand trembled, and tea splashed from my cup. When I bent to pour myself more, rocks clicked in my pockets and a trickle of pebbles bounced around my feet.

My mother gaped at them. “What’s this?” She grabbed my arm, and more stones spilled, and without their weight my feet left the ground instantly like terrified sparrows. “You—you’ve been stalling! How long have you been ready?”

“You don’t understand.” I tried to pull away, but how did one gain traction, treading on air?

Her fingers dug like claws into my wrist. “Oh, Daughter. Oh, you mustn’t do this. Have you learned nothing from me?”

The prayers buzzed and nipped at my face. My feet dug into air. She was only one lame old woman, and somehow I yanked away, stumbled several steps higher. I floated level with the high windows. Inside, wings fluttered in the rafters. I pounded on the glass. “Sano!”

“Ananda!” she yelled back, voice muffled through the glass.

“Who are you hiding in there?” my mother demanded. She tried the door, but it was locked. Sano’s flapping grew more frantic.

I skipped across air over the hut, but did not know how to descend. I had so little sin left. Every step carried me a little higher. I knelt over the roof and dipped a hand downward until my fingertips just brushed the straw.

The prayers swarmed in my eyes, and I swatted at them, casting for something to weigh me down, anything to bring me near her. A chimney swift hovered near my shoulder, its tiny vestigial talons almost invisible against its underside. Down in my empty pocket, I fished out a little brass key—the one that unlocked the door.

Down you go now. Down the chimney, little swift.

Thunder rolled, but it did not rain.

* * *

There is another way the holy women of the sky can learn to fall. It is not artful. It is not celebrated, or even condoned. But it is very, very swift.

If a woman wants to reach the ground in a hurry, meditation will not do. But there is no faster way to still one’s wings than to tear them off. As many as you can reach.

One’s errand would have to be very urgent to attempt such a thing.

* * *

She had changed during her time in the hut. I’d expected her wounds to heal over, but instead bones had grown like shoots from the many, many holes. Some had even sprouted a fuzzy black down. They all flapped at once. I could just make out Sano’s body at the center of the scintillating sphere as she stepped into the yard. Her feet no longer touched ground. She must have been lighter than me, judging from the speed of her ascent.

“Ananda!” she cried out. “’Tis myself that is ascending now!”

I grabbed at a wing-bone as she rose past me. It cut me like a blade, but I pulled her close, clasped her through the beating flurry until her wings embraced me back. One by one, they ceased their frenetic flapping and rested against me. Slowly we descended, together heavy enough to fall.

“Don’t let go,” Sano said.

“I won’t.”

* * *

The saints of Earth leave the ground in search of Heaven. They step on water and ascend the air. Falling is an art reserved for demons.

What if, when the saint reached Heaven, the angels were amazed? If the saint explained Earth wasn’t Heaven at all, but only another destination? If the saint’s coming caused a great debate among the people of innumerable wings? If their priestesses called it blasphemy, but their people, raised on falling dreams, saw a way to Paradise?

What if lightning were not a natural phenomenon, but the war machines of furious angels, weapons against a schism?

* * *

My grandmother had reached Heaven after all.

“It was years ago, and thy grandmother ascending in our midst, so confused,” said Sano. “And asking wouldn’t we take the prayers from her, but we could not, to be sure. We are not gods or angels.” Our toes touched my hut’s roof. We hugged tighter, afraid to lose each other. “We do not send the rain. We only go to war.”

“Why did you come here?” I asked her.

“Because she said they would have sent another like her, and another, and another, until someone showed them their errors. Our priestesses, the rumors they quelled this time, and my people they convinced thy saint was mad. But if another saint of Earth arrives in our city, it will be war for certain. It needs to end.”

“Will you toss aside the prayers of others so easily?” asked my mother. “Oh, you will fall too, and then what will we do?” She knelt among the roses, cane in lap, cheeks wet with tears. Pity pricked my heart. My whole life I had been intended to carry their prayers to Heaven. It had been no different for my mother, only no messenger came in time to save her from a wasted life, a pointless fall.

I clutched Sano tighter. “I am sorry, Mother. I won’t be like Grandmother. I can’t.”

Sano whispered in my ear. “Let go, and trust me.”

I let go of her waist. The moment we lost contact, her wings fluttered, and she rose like a kite. My own lightness bore me up alongside her. Afraid, I clutched at her, and Sano gave me her hand. It felt cool and clawed and secure in my palm. Hand in hand, we shot straight as arrows toward the mountains, neither falling nor flying as long as we touched.

* * *

There is another way to fall: toward someone.

* * *

My Love and I have become flying, falling things. We have no need of a Paradise above or below. We are not saints or demons. We are fallen women. We are broken angels. We have an embrace that anchors, a kiss that soars, and a love that balances entropy.

We sow our garden from seeds the swifts bring us, and whatever grows, we eat with thanks. We dine on plums and parsley and rose petal tea.

One evening late in the fall, when leaves paint the ground in sunset colors, Sano points upward and shouts my name. High above, a dark speck floats down from the clouds: an old woman descending step by careful step.

 
 

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Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee, Tiptree Award honoree, and winner of Writers of the Future. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and PodCastle. Follow her on Twitter at @RachaelKJones.

About “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me,” she writes, “What do you do when your whole worldview comes undone in a moment because you met someone who made you question the path you’d tried so hard to stay on your whole life? We don’t like unexpected detours, but in my experience, the straightest, quickest line to your destination doesn’t always bring happiness. Life’s about the surprises, the adventures, the unexpected friends you make along the way. This story celebrates finding what you really needed instead of what you sought. Because sometimes when faith shatters, it hatches love; and when you search for heaven, you arrive home; and when you fall, you fly.”

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