The north wind through the mountains flutes its reedy tune at night. Ocean-salted rain crushes down the cottage’s roof like the fists of gods. The birds are agitated, but this is nothing new. They caw and thrash outside, pinching each other, or themselves.
You’re fine, Kairo tells himself. Don’t listen to the falcons. Go to sleep.
He presses his sling-tied shoulders against the rough bedcover and prays he doesn’t wake up to blood-dotted, feather-covered sheets.
In red-haze dreams, the Bull-Man’s pen is built like an obstacle course, or perhaps like a maze.
The boy named Kairo—and he is a boy again, a pink fledgling—perches on a wooden post. His legs with their sharp grasshopper knees are drawn up on either side of him, his spindle-thin arms stretched out for balance.
“I’ll get you, you know,” the Bull-Man says, his way of striking up casual conversation. The wire stitches holding him together weep ochre pus. The Bull-Man has been ripped apart and pieced together again out of different cattle parts. His pelt is a mottled amalgamation of colours and textures. His body seems to defy bovine anatomy, enabling him to walk on his two hind legs, if he so wishes.
“Door’s locked,” the boy mumbles. He wills the wooden fence to elongate for good measure, and the dream accommodates him.
“The door will stop being locked the moment I tell it to.”
Kairo doesn’t answer.
A pensive sniff fans out of the Bull-Man’s wide, dark nostrils. “You could fly away, if you wanted to.”
The boy rolls his aching shoulders. Thinks of crinkled pinions, plucked vanes, broken rachises, and bloody skin follicles. “I can’t. You of all people should know that.”
The Bull-Man smiles slow and sure. He stomps his forelegs. “Then you shall be trampled under my hooves.”
Pterotillomania, or feather-picking, is a psychogenic, self-mutilation behaviour exhibited in birds in captivity. Birds suffering from this malady bite or pluck their own plumage with their beaks, thus damaging the feathers and epidermis. Potential causes include anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and exceedingly small cages.
—From The Great Avian Dictionary,
ex libris Dael Sokolov Sr.
Kairo awakens, feeling as though he was dragged through a bramble patch. His wings have burst out of their slings, where he tucks them day and night. His fists open to reveal pellets of mud-coloured feathers pasted together with dried blood. He could fill his lumpy mattress with the number of plumes he’s been tearing out in his sleep as of late. Not just downs and contours, either. It’s gotten so bad he tried to dislodge one of the secondary flight feathers bound to his hollow bones.
Kairo circles his sore shoulders back and forth. The scapular muscles twinge. Sweeping the feathers away, he prepares to face the sun.
Outside, the air smells of rain-soaked, dark stone. The prospect of stepping into the falcon shed is a harrowing one, but he has no other choice. It’s a chicken-wired, rotting wood and metal structure, almost as big as the cottage, housing fifteen birds in total. The ground under Kairo’s feet is carpeted with a shower of vanes and bouffant down torn from keratinous shafts.
It’s nowhere near moulting season. On his worst days, Kairo wonders what came first: his fingers attacking his stolen wings at night, or the trapped birds ripping out their own feathers?
“I’m sorry,” he whispers to the tiercels and falcons. Congealed blood and ruddy rashes mark their wings. Looking at the downy nestlings hurts the most, so Kairo tries to avoid those.
Kak-kak-kak, comes the birds’ reply. Neither absolving, nor accusing.
He weaves his way through the mounted cubes where the falcons roost in poor imitations of eyries. The air is suffused with their waste, the cloying particles of it lining the insides of Kairo’s nostrils. Some birds are brown, others dark as volcano dust. The soft susurrus of wings morphs into frenzied flaps as he walks past each falcon, taking silent inventory. Pin; semiplume; pennaceous; down. All ragged and unkempt.
Guilt rattles Kairo’s ribs like window shutters in a storm. He strokes the back of his hand across the falcons’ coarse bodies, smoothing back the chewed plumage in an attempt at wing grooming. Their hooked bills peck him. Not enough to maim, but bloodying his fingers nonetheless. He doesn’t mind, touch-starved as he is. One of his earliest memories is his father holding Kairo’s little arm in a vice-like grip to let a fledgling falcon perch on him, talons digging into bare flesh.
If his father and grandfather saw the wretched condition of the flock—of Kairo himself—they would be livid. But his grandfather is long dead, and his father’s body has been sitting at the bottom of the ocean for six months now. Kairo pictures the fish biting pieces off him, the kelp braided through his hair, his spectacles fogged over for eternity. Even someone as formidable as his father can’t rebuke Kairo from his aqueous grave over the decline of the family falconry business.
With the falcons’ help, entire generations of their family earned a living without ever having to leave the island. Kairo’s grandfather moved here with a boatful of waterlogged books and his young son over fifty years ago. Dael Sr. must have been running from something—or someone—because he changed their last name to Sokolov, and trained the native falcons not to allow another soul on their desolate island. A skilled engineer, Dael Sr. built the cottage, the falcon coop, and a long trough carrying fresh springwater from the mountains to their crops and dwelling. Dael Jr., Kairo’s father, sailed away to study medicine on the mainland late in his twenties. He returned to the island not five years later, banned from the medical field, abandoned by his wife, and with baby Kairo swaddled in his arms.
Kairo unlatches the coop door and shouts at the restless falcons, “Go on, then. You’re not captive. You can leave. Shoo!”
He ducks at the snap of wounded wings, staring at the shed feathers and shit stains on the straw-coated ground.
A part of him hopes the flock flies away and never comes back from the wild. Time and time again, the falcons soar high and far, hunting and fighting with other raptors. It might take hours or it might take days, but they always return to their cage. His grandfather, father, and then Kairo himself trained them well. And now there’s only Kairo left on the island.
And the falcons will never be free of him.
[…] skin grafts ought to be harvested from the same individual (i.e., autologous tissue), otherwise there is high risk of the graft being rejected by the recipient’s immune system. For further information refer to the Renaissance rhinoplasty for sufferers of syphilis (p. 899).
Mixed results of viability can be observed in allogeneic living tissue or organ transplants (i.e., obtained from a genetically non-identical member of the same species). In most cases, the ailing body will attempt to reject or destroy the foreign transplant.
Be warned: xenotransplantations (e.g., placing a porcine heart inside a human thoracic cavity) and other experimental procedures should not be attempted under any circumstances, lest it be construed as hubris to the gods.
—From A Guide to Transplant Surgery for the Gods-Fearing Individual,
ex libris Dael Sokolov Jr.
At night, Kairo weaves himself stories from a ball of red thread. They lull him to sleep, distract him from the falcons’ laments and his own nuclear need to scratch and pull.
Once upon a time, there was a man and a boy, father and son. The father liked games and puzzles of all kinds. He liked getting lost in labyrinths of knowledge. He liked medicine and engineering. More than anything, he liked experiments.
No, stop, go back.
Try following a different thread, a different path.
Once upon a time, a young boy named Kairo liked to trek to the green-clad foothills of his island. He ran along the path strewn with pine needles and blooming yellow gorse, bracketed by mica-speckled granite outcrops. His arms were stretched backward, tapered fingertips pointed toward the fair sky, and upper body bent low to the ground. If he could flap his imaginary wings hard enough, he just might be able to lift himself, up, up and away.
On one such outing, Kairo came upon an adolescent tiercel, crashed against a ragged rock formation. Although the falcon’s body was rendered crooked and contorted, its blood-dotted chest still heaved with bull-headed life.
Kairo ran back to the cottage, scampering into his father’s study. “I found a falcon in the mountains. It’s hurt itself and…and we need to hurry!”
“Is it one of ours?” Dael Jr. enunciated each word slowly, almost vexedly. He was poring over one of his heavy gilded surgery books at his oaken desk.
“It’s not from our flock, I don’t think. But still. We have to help it. Please.”
He trembled as his father looked up from his work. Dael Jr. peered at his son over his crescent-moon spectacles. Kairo’s breath snagged in the craggy dryness of his throat.
“If you say so.” Here his father smiled, his dark, gimlet eyes glinting behind their lenses. It reminded Kairo of the afterimages burned into his retinas after staring directly at the sun. “Then of course we must.”
And Kairo trembled again, this time from relief, from heady joy, because his father listened to his plea. Together they would save the poor bird. Kairo led the way, and his father followed with his measured, silent gait that came from not wanting to smear soil on the burnished leather of his wingtip shoes.
They placed the feebly keening falcon in a sling made out of Kairo’s canvas overshirt. Kairo’s legs felt like wooden pegs on the way back. Cumbersome. Unwieldy. This time, his father strode ahead. Dael Jr.’s body exuded an intense, manic energy that made every fine hair on Kairo’s body rise to attention, the follicles engorged.
Then, of course, came the cutting up and stitching together. The screeching death throes of the tiercel. The kitchen table turned surgery bed. The chafe of the restraints around Kairo’s wrists and ankles, a paltry echo compared to the whitehot fire searing his shoulder blades. Feathers drifted everywhere, and Kairo choked himself on them.
His father said, “Hold still now, boy, this is history in the making.”
The Bull-Man is back. He’s taken the form of a regular bull, like the one they used to keep by the cottage when Kairo was younger. He forgot to lock the pen gate one time. The cows and calves remained inside, placid as ever. Yet the flame-eyed bull chased Kairo for a mile before he climbed up a tree to save himself. Dael Jr. watched and did nothing, an expression of scholarly interest flickering across his cunning face. The next day, the bull vanished from the pen, as did the rest of the cattle. Kairo used to wonder what happened to the animals. He doesn’t have to, anymore, but knowing only makes things worse.
Kairo is running, and the bull gives chase. It takes him a long time to realize he’s dreaming, therefore he can weave the oneiric oxblood threads at will. Thick manacles clamp around all four of the bull’s legs. The beast’s mountainous body thuds against the ground, puffing up a cloud of dust the colour of yellow sick. Kairo doubles over, wheezing with his hands pressed under his sharp-edged ribs.
The bull is grinning again, and that makes him look like a man. He usually resembles a bovine cadavre exquis. Now, the bull’s expression renders his face an echo of Dael Jr. Disturbed doctor and vile experiment merge into one creature before Kairo’s eyes, although in the waking world Dael Jr. would never have condescended to associate himself with something as base—as flightless—as a bull.
When Kairo can move again through his viscous fear, he slaps his hands together. A pen materializes out of the aether.
“Stop smiling,” he tells the bull, but the command sounds more like a broken plea.
Kairo checks the bolt in its iron socket, rattles the wooden planks to make sure they hold.
“Stop. You’re trapped here. There’s nothing to be merry about.”
“I’m trapped and you’re not?” his father’s voice asks through the Bull-Man’s mouth, sounding far too pleased with himself.
Kairo cannot formulate an answer.
“How are those wings of yours after all that ill treatment? Have you checked for infection yet?” He tsks. “The birds got ringworm once, remember? If your grandfather had lived to see what has become of his prized falcons, he would have both of our heads, boy.”
He doesn’t doubt for a second that Dael Sr. would be capable of it. Of hurting them. Kairo’s only memory of his grandfather is his frosty gaze and unsmiling razor-wire mouth. Dael Jr. never looked quite as severe, but his calm demeanour was always underlined by a callous sort of curiosity.
Kairo’s wings strain against their sling. Restless, rustling, always. “Why did you do this to me?” His voice rings through the fields, far up into the mountains, low into the roiling sea. The captive falcons cack their hoarse reply. “Mutilate me? Experiment on me?”
His father’s indignant frown superimposed on the bull’s face chills Kairo’s perspiration-glazed skin. “Wretched thing. I gave you the gift of flight and this is how you repay me?”
The Bull-Man’s voice teeters from its smug, honeyed taunt to a menacing grunt.
“I didn’t ask for it. You never stopped to consider what I wanted. You didn’t stop even when I begged you to.”
And then you made me complicit, Kairo thinks. You forced me to sew wings on your own back, too. And that time, the falcons hadn’t died of natural causes. Oh, no. There was blood under my fingernails even before I took to plucking out my own feathers.
“Nothing about us is natural,” Kairo grits out at last.
The patchwork of cattle was the first experiment. Kairo the second. His father himself the third, and last, abomination.
Dael Jr. laughs and laughs. “Who needs nature when you can make yourself into a god?”
On the day the falcons are due to return from their latest expedition to the mainland, Kairo is outside, tending to his garden. He grows fruits, vegetables, and grains. The falcons help him catch fish and small birds and hares too, which he preserves in salt for the winter. At least they did, before the feather-picking spiralled so out of control. A ship used to arrive once a month with supplies as well. However, after Kairo awoke on the blood-soaked kitchen table with wings implanted in his back, he never saw another ocean vessel again. His father made sure of that.
Kairo’s gaze combs the scarlet and indigo horizon fleeced with cirrus clouds. It’s not long before he spots the first dark smudge, the tip of their formation. He always thought the falcons were arrestingly elegant for birds of prey, even in their savage, swooping dance. While other birds’ flight is a curlicued calligraphy through the air, a falcon flies like a launched missile. Kairo relinquishes the weeds he’s been pulling from his cucumber and zucchini patch to observe the flock’s arrival.
He’s not concerned when one of the birds dislodges itself from the rest to plummet toward the ground. It’s a sudden, vertical fall Kairo has seen before in hunting. Right now, however, there are no small birds in sight for the falcon to snatch with its shiny beak or sickle-like talons. The falcon raises a mushroom of stinging dust when its body strikes the ground. The flock screeches overhead in what Kairo’s ears can only comprehend as agony.
Kairo claws his way to the fallen falcon. It’s a female peregrine, with slate-grey streaks across her chest and tail, now oily with blood. Even with all the calf-bound books on falcons in his father’s library, Kairo doesn’t know how to unbreak her wings, unbend her body. He gathers the falcon in his arms. She snaps her beak at him, but she’s too weak to cause much damage. The flock lands all around Kairo: on the citrus trees, the crabgrassed ground, the empty pen where the cattle used to graze, the crumbling cottage roof. His flock. His responsibility.
They watch him with sharp, sinopia-coloured eyes. Kairo’s heart tries to wreck itself against his thorax when he takes a closer look at the female falcon’s wings. Three of her chief primaries are missing: the feathers that power and orient flight. The epidermis underneath is rutted and irritated, bits of grit and dirt embedded in the sanguine depressions. It reminds Kairo of the sorry state of his own wings.
Of seven years ago, when the first falcon fell from the sky, and Kairo became the blueprint for his father’s experiment.
“No wonder you couldn’t fly,” Kairo whispers, burying his face in the falcon’s chest. “Yet you waited ’til you were home to die.”
She chitters once before slackening against him. Heavy, sodden, warm. His wings prickle in their worn-thin sling. The rent skin tightens; the still-healing indentations feel raw, as if rubbed with sea-salt. The flock lifts off again, blackening the sky with a funerary mantle. The sound is akin to the rustle of old book pages.
Kairo sits tangled in the grass for a long time, even after the temperature has dropped to bone-shivering degrees. At last, he looks down at the falcon clasped in his arms. Her beak is frozen in a ghastly rictus. He doesn’t want to end up like her. Not like his father, who was arrogant enough to fly without the aid of the flock, battered by the air currents and blinded by the sun until he nosedived into the ocean while Kairo watched helplessly from the shore.
The thought smites him while he’s digging yet another avian grave.
If I stay here, I’m going to end up much, much worse.
Kairo returns to the Bull-Man’s pen three long months after the female peregrine’s death. This is the first time he follows the vermilion thread into this particular dream labyrinth of his own volition. He’s a man now, even in his slumber. Too big and gangling to perch on the wooden posts, so he leans against the pen and locks eyes with the creature inside.
“I think I’m going to leave and never come back,” Kairo says, his voice tremulous despite his best efforts.
The Bull-Man rasps out a phlegmy laugh. There are no shackles to hold him back this time. The pen door, too, hangs open. Yet the Bull-Man makes no move to attack Kairo, only says, “You can’t leave. You can barely stand to look at your wings, let alone fly with them.”
When Kairo remains silent, the Bull-Man continues. “The gods will strike you down like they did with me. Do you know what it feels like, to hit a body of water from such heights? You’ll be dead before the sea enters your lungs.”
Kairo rolls his shoulders, a ripple that starts at the stiff base of his neck and traverses the curved length of his spine. He closes his eyes, flooded with the awareness of the wings bound tight inside their perennial sling. Of the hollow avian bones that have become an extension of his skeleton, the falcon feathers now fused with his skin, an intrinsic part of him. Most of the self-inflicted wounds have closed over, but the interlocking scars are there, underneath his plumage. So is the urge to gouge the wounds open again and again.
“You were your own undoing,” Kairo says, steadier than before. “No gods involved.”
The Bull-Man’s massive body oscillates between forms. Kairo blinks, and he’s staring at the motley bull sutured together from the best body parts of the cattle herd. The animal could be heard wailing and stomping in the mountains for months before a younger Kairo finally went to investigate and came face to face with his father’s first experiment. Kairo blinks again. This time, Dael Jr. stands before him in all his wretched humanity, seawater dripping off him, wings wilted, and spectacles askew.
Kairo has never stood up to his father. Even if this is a mere dreamscape—an intricate textile woven out of Kairo’s worst fears, out of his red rage—speaking his mind feels right.
Kairo tells his father so. “And flying…” he says. “Flying will feel even better.”
Turning around, he walks away from the pen. The dream threads begin to unravel, weft, warp, and all.
“You’ll never be free of me, even if you leave the island.” There’s a pitiful edge of desperation in the Bull-Man’s—in his father’s—voice.
“I know,” Kairo says, eyes fixed firmly ahead as everything collapses around him and red fades to black. “I’m fine with that.”
Kairo doesn’t take much. The freshest provisions from his garden, parchment and ink, the money he never had use for before. He uses his sling as a pack and straps it between his shoulder blades. Between his outstretched wings. Looking at them still makes some hollow part inside him throb, but he doesn’t shy away from the dull-knived pain. He used to dress with his eyes closed, avoid all mirrors, and pinch his heart tight. He hadn’t realized how much his wingspan has grown since boyhood. How small he’s made himself to be.
“You,” he says with one hand touching the closest quill cluster, fingers preening the bedraggled barbs. “You owe it to me to get me safely across the water.”
The last thing Kairo does before he leaves is unlatch the coop by the cottage. The wire enclosure’s door creaks wide open. It offers the birds a full view of the milky morning sky.
“Come on,” he shouts. “You’re free, godsdammit!”
For once, the falcons listen to him. They flap their wings and surge out of their cage as one, taking to the grey, weathertorn firmament. The flock’s racket buffets Kairo’s eardrums. He clenches and unclenches every muscle of his body. Minuscule anticipatory shivers run through his wings like choppy waves.
Kairo closes his eyes. He takes flight.
The air in his lungs, against his exposed face, is honed to an invigorating keenness. He opens his eyes to better follow the flock through the overcast clouds interspersed with bright veins of silver as he weaves between sparse raindrops. A dewy veneer of ice settles over his skin. His back and shoulder muscles strain with each stroke, unaccustomed to the vigorous exercise, but his wings, empyrean, empirical, know how to catch the updrifts and glide along them, how to keep his airborne body from crashing down to the fog-veiled sea.
The peal of distant thunder rolls through his feathers, from the patches of new down growing timidly where his fingers plucked and scratched and ruined, to the peculiarly resilient flight feathers. The tips of his cedar-coloured wings graze the sagging clouds.
He catches up to his flock, just as a lone, rosied sunray breaks through the stifling cloud cover. A tender morsel of light he’s eager to savour.
Kairo might not know much about the labyrinthine outside world, but his flock does. He lets the falcons guide him, lets his tattered wings carry him where he needs to be.
November 12, sunrise
Fledgling peregrine falcons will roost together with reduced frequency as they near adulthood; all members of my flock huddle close together as we seek rest from our arduous journey. We protect one another without fail from the cold and the predators.
Allopreening in falcons and other raptors is limited only to broodmates or mated pairs; my falcons like to straighten and smooth my wings with their bills, so that every single feather produces optimal lift and thrust, the vanes fluffed and shining blue-black in the brilliant sunlight. I help groom their healed wings in return, ridding them of dust and debris with careful, practised fingers.
Outside of mating and breeding seasons, falcons are widely viewed as solitary, territorial birds. They are thought to be aggressive, antagonistic, and incapable of showcasing affection; more and more, I’m finding that a lot of the things I was taught to believe in couldn’t be further from the truth.
—From unnamed travel journal, vol. 1,
property of Kairo
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Story copyright © 2019 by Avra Margariti
Artwork copyright © 2019 by Carrion House
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, The Arcanist, Three Crows Magazine, and other venues.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.