Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

The Quality of Descent

The trick begins like this:

The magician throws an egg up into the air, where it flies — small and white and full of import — up and up, high into the black reaches of the proscenium. We await the descent, holding our breaths, expecting at any moment the crash of slapstick hilarity, exploding like a bomb.

But the egg simply vanishes.

• • • •

Ava arrived with the night. I had abandoned the air-conditioned silence of my office for a street that was just going dark when Ava, about to change my life, erupted around the corner on a bicycle that clattered. She wore rubber slippers of fluorescent orange. Her legs flailed and the pedals spun around and around. Her clothes streamed through the air like a crowd of flags, and I might never have noticed the strange thing about her, on account of how funny she looked, if she hadn’t stopped in front of me and spoke.

“Hey!” She threw her bicycle to the ground. She had on too many clothes, layers piled on layers as if she didn’t have anywhere else to keep them. “Are you still working?”

“No,” I said. I wondered if she were homeless.

“But I’ve got a proposition for you,” Ava said. “Seriously. Let me show you.”

Propositions mean doing something awkward for the benefit of someone else, and I would have said so, except that there was this pretty stranger standing in front of me, unbuttoning her coat. She might have been crazy, but my eyes would not peel themselves away.

Ava took off a coat, a sweater, a long robe with a cord sash. She was skinny underneath all that, and her t-shirt had two holes sliced through the back to make way for the things that stuck out from the white fabric, which were a pair of wings.

A pair of wings that protruded from her shoulder blades and hung in smooth, brown-specked dignity to her knees. For a moment, I forgot to breathe.

“Unusual,” she said. “Unexpected. Not the kind of thing you want to see at the end of the day. Sorry about that.”

I didn’t know what to say. The wings shifted when she talked, rising and settling with the brittle plush of a canary. They were never quite still, and when she shrugged, the edge of one brushed the side of my arm and drew back, apologetically, of its own accord.

“I understand if you have nothing to say,” she said. “You haven’t prepared a speech for this situation because you never expected to come across a woman with a pair of wings. It’s not like it’s part of the ordinary repertoire. You want to know: Is this a trick? Are they real? is probably the first question that comes to mind, but you might try something else because that would be kind of rude.”

I waited for the moment to stretch too far, to burst. Someone would jump out with a camera. She would apologize for the joke.

But that didn’t happen, and I couldn’t ask the question that mattered because Ava had already mentioned it. She said it might be rude.

“What is it that you do?” I asked.

“Birthday parties,” Ava said. “Theatrical productions. Magic shows. I like magic shows. Advertising banners. Washing windows, cleaning out gutters on very tall houses. I’m comfortable with heights.”

I should have asked the question then. Did she use a ladder, or did she ascend by some other means? It pressed against my teeth and I was afraid it would fly out from between them to puncture the girl standing in front of me. I imagined her deflating, melting away, leaving me to walk home to eat a cold sandwich and fall asleep in the middle of a movie that I would be unable to remember. I held the question back and swallowed it instead. It hurt my throat.

• • • •

I arrange entertainments for people. If there is a camel in your opera, or if you need an elephant to appear at your party and impress your guests by dispensing rides, then I can get them both. I have several times delivered a box half as tall as me, but light enough to lift with one arm, and packed inside, between layers of chilled glassine, several hundred butterflies dreaming of escape.

I specialize in living creatures, and I’m good at what I do, though it’s mostly a case of knowing who to call. Ava said she found my name in the phonebook, next to an ad for custom-dyed helium balloons.

• • • •

“How did you get into this anyway?” Ava asked. She breathed on the framed thank you notes I keep in my office, then wiped the fog away. “I mean, you have a job that no one ever thinks about until they need someone who does it, and then when you do, you can’t believe it actually exists.”

“I worked for a florist,” I said. This is an old story and I tell it all the time. I could tell it in my sleep. I could tell it to anyone, even a girl with wings. “Someone ordered twenty-five centerpieces of cream roses and hosta leaves in black vases. They wanted them for a wedding, and they wanted something unique to surprise the guests with over their hors d’oeuvres. I suggested goldfish. I thought pairs of them would go with the romantic theme.”

“That sounds pretty,” Ava said.

It was pretty. The goldfish dropped in like handfuls of tangerines. I like to make sure my audience has considered this before I go on, how good everything must have looked with the green, and the black, and the living, vivid gold.

“The goldfish died,” I said. “I offered to pick them out, but the bride refused. They meant something, she said. Something romantic and important, like art, is how I think she put it.”

This is when people either laugh or make a face and reconsider the complications of dealing with living things. I’ve lost business telling this story. I’ve also watched people decide they’re in this all the way to their noses, toss aside the guilt and extravagant expense, and sign my check. Ava laughed so hard that she staggered. Her laugh rolled up from her stomach and poured out of her mouth. It soaked everything, including my ears. It made her tip over until she had to fling out her hands, or crash to the floor.

I caught her, just, but her wings fell around us, the tips of them fluttering with alarm. The smell of her feathers, hollow and dry, assaulted the inside of my nose.

• • • •

Ava stayed with me because she said she didn’t know anyone else in the city, and because I have a tall, narrow house with too many empty rooms. My last girlfriend filled it with people she knew, almost-discovered musicians and old acquaintances from college on the East Coast, but since she left, the sofas and futons had gone uninhabited and I hadn’t bothered to clear them away. Sofas are graceful things when they’re empty.

I asked Ava if she wouldn’t rather go to a hotel.

“Haven’t you noticed how hotels aren’t real places?” she asked. “It’s like they get scrubbed too frequently and never get the chance to develop a personality. They smell like cleaning products. They give me the creeps.”

She stayed up late, listening to sounds I didn’t hear anymore. She hung over the sofa’s cushions and pressed her cheek and ear to the floor, all upside down like she was riding a trapeze. The wings slumped against her neck as if they would, at any moment, fall off and smother her.

“Isn’t that uncomfortable?” I asked.

“What’s that?”

I repeated myself, but she shook her head and pointed at the floor.

“That noise.” The wings pulled her shirt askew and I could see the place where skin ran into down.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Just the house. It’s old.”

“Oh.”

There were no straps on the wings. No strings. No telltale crust of dried glue. If there had been, I could have kept my hands flat on the creaking floor. It wasn’t even a clean transition. Stubs of feather dotted the skin on her shoulders and down the center of her back like freckles gone insane.

I wrapped my hand around the closest wing and pulled, gently.

“Satisfied?” Ava asked.

I got a firm grip through warm feathers and pin fine struts that would crackle and snap if bent too far. I stretched out the wing as far as it could go, stood and walked backwards until it unfurled in sagging, mechanical beauty. I wanted to lay my face on it. I wanted her to flap it until the whole room shook with beaten air.

“What would you do,” Ava said, “if it just came off? If — pop! — and there you are with a big piece of make believe hanging in your face? Glue. Wires. Fishing line and goose feathers.”

I put the wing down and it sat still on the floor between us. Feathers skimmed my bare feet and the wing sat there. It sat there and it might have been dead.

“I guess I would give it back to you,” I said. “But I’d want to look at it first to see how you did it.”

“You could keep it for a souvenir.”

We both looked at the wing, and then Ava hauled it in. It moved slowly, sweeping up lint and dust, until Ava shrugged and it folded into a smooth cape behind her. I wondered what kind of person would keep a giant wing for a souvenir.

I stayed up and watched Ava while she watched late night movies on the TV. The wings pushed her to the edge of the sofa, but she reclined into them and the feathers took her in, nestled around her shoulders and curled over her feet like a fringe of velvet leaves.

In the morning, I watched her over bowls of cereal and milk. I watched her reflection in the window above the sink while I washed our dishes and she talked about how she kept losing telephones, not on purpose, she assured me, though she was starting to think it might be more than bad luck. A personal flaw, unconscious and inconvenient, but impossible to get rid of because it was hidden somewhere under everything else.

“It’s like always putting on your right shoe before your left,” Ava explained. “It’s not that one is better than the other, but you can’t help it because if you do it the other way, it feels like you made a mistake. Your socks get wrinkled up wrong and you might have to stop and adjust.” Ava examined a spoon before putting it in the drawer. “Sometimes I feel sorry for anybody who tries to call, but then I figure that if it’s really important, they can always write.”

• • • •

Where is this headed? Somewhere predictable. Not that there’s anything wrong with a story because you think you can see the ending from across the room, from a mile away, from the other side of the world.

• • • •

I got Ava a job in a magic show. The magician was a client who went by Charles on stage and Charlie everywhere else, and on the rare occasions when he was in town, we would take each other out for tacos and discuss work.

“You’re looking great,” Charlie said. “It must be the weather, you lucky bastard. I’ve been traveling through this stuff that you wouldn’t believe . . . No, wait, that’s not good enough. It must be a girl. Isn’t that it? I can always tell. They make you handsome if they don’t do you in, and you are looking all shiny and puffed up on something good.” He raised one eyebrow and winked in slow motion.

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess. She makes me happy.”

We sat down and Charlie poured a container of salsa over his meal, completely obliterating the taste of the fish, and said that I had all the luck. “You’re in love. You’ve got this nice job. You just have to find people what they think they need, while I’ve got to deal with a dying world. Nobody gets their kicks anymore from watching rabbits hopping out of top hats, you know. I have to find that particular detail that’s going to reach out and dig its fingers into people’s calloused guts.

“You have to go about things sideways in my business,” he said. “And then, when they’re least expecting it, you shoot them in the heart.”

Be indelible, was Charlie’s advice, not forgettable. Which is why he never hired people’s girlfriends. He didn’t need an assistant. He was a solo act.

I found a picture of Ava on my phone and put it on the table.

“Rules,” Charlie said, “are built with exceptions.”

• • • •

“A magician never reveals her secrets,” Ava said. “You can’t expect people to believe a trick unless you can convince them that it’s real first.”

She liked to lay in bed with the windows open so the night came drifting in on top of us. It made me cold, but I didn’t want to admit it, so I hid my hands under her wings where her feathers were warm and dry on one side and her skin was warm and barely damp on the other.

“You’re not a magician,” I said.

“I don’t have a silly three piece suit,” Ava said. “With pocket cuffs for playing cards and secret lighters for turning things into smoke. That doesn’t mean anything. Assistants can be magicians, too. Didn’t you ever read fairytales when you were a kid?”

“Of course I did.” I tried to remember some names, but all I got were lists of characters. “Poor boys turn out to be princes. Old ladies are really fairies. Girls run away from home. You could be in a fairy tale.”

Ava prodded my forehead with the tip of her nose. Then she ruffled her wings so air puffed through all the feathers and brushed her hair across my face.

“Don’t be stupid,” she said.

• • • •

Wings are an obvious thing. See them every day and they should still be bigger than everything else in the room. They should poke you in the eye.

But wings are like the rest of us. They fade away with too much seeing. First go the edges, then the rest, and then all you see is Ava’s sharp, funny nose, the creases on the inside of her elbows, her lazy shuffle when she can’t be bothered to lift her feet. Most of the time, all I saw was Ava.

Except for when all I saw were the wings. When we were lying in bed together. When I was walking down the street alone. When I was waiting in the dark behind the theater, high on anticipation for the moment, the sudden, surprising moment when the door became a rectangle of light pushing Ava out to meet me.

The wings crouched on her back like a monster, inciting me to dissection.

She showered and brought them, soaked and dripping, into the bedroom. They left water on the floor and transferred cold, clinging damp to the sheets.

“Is that really necessary?” I pushed the wings away, bunched the blankets into a wall between us.

“What?”

“I mean, are they real?”

Ava turned her head and the blankets became an actual wall, one with a wide parapet and a vertiginous drop. “I can’t hear you,” she said.

The worst times were at the magic show. I sat in the audience and the questions collected in heavy piles somewhere behind my ribs while Charlie pattered on, making way for Ava’s wings.

• • • •

The trick went like this:

“Imagine the egg,” Charles says. He holds up an egg.

Ava told me that he blew them clean himself, after pricking the ends with a pin.

“Not much bigger than the space between an average pair of hands,” Charles says. He claps his own clever, bony hands together and makes the egg vanish before it can be crushed between them.

Ava said that, if I knew where to look, I would see him putting it away inside one of his sleeves.

“They say the inhabitants are aware of the world waiting outside. Noise. Light. Warmth. The walls aren’t very good.” Charles folds his hands together, and the egg is there again, balanced on the flat of his palm. He taps the side of it with his finger. “Hello?” he says. “Hello?”

The audience laughs. Charles fumbles the egg. The audience holds its breath as the egg shoots between his careful fingers and flies up into the darkness. Then here it comes! Falling into view, speeding downwards, growing larger and larger as it falls. This is no mere function of distance and perspective, no, it is a goose egg, an ostrich egg, the egg of something extinct and large. It is not an egg at all, the audience swears. It is a boulder; it is a moon, unslung from alien orbit. It is an unidentified falling object.

When it arrives, it is a crash landing, augmented by all the cymbals and brass the orchestra can muster. And once the creamy, dreamy smoke has lifted, in the ruins of the shell, it is something that could easily be a miracle.

Ava told me about the complicated elevator that rushed her up in a tightly curled ball until her back touched the underside of the stage. She had to rear up like a beast, she said, or else the trapdoor wouldn’t work. Her back, padded by wings, forced the panels apart and she stood, so quickly that the unprompted eye would swear that she could only have appeared from the ruins of the egg.

Charles steps back and Ava shakes out her wings. They are covered in glitter, big, garish things that look, under the stage lights, like items bought from a costume shop on the cheap. They wave, they strain, they grip the air and pull it down to haul Ava up, and for the people sitting close enough, there is a faint rush of displaced air. Ava rises, leaving Charles behind. “Wait!” he says. “You’re supposed to take me, too.” He raises his arms to reach for her, or maybe to obscure his face. He stands like that, for a slow count of five, until a single feather drifts down and strikes him on the head, hidden behind his still and upraised arms, and his suit crumples to the floor, full of nothing.

Ava punched me in the shoulder when I asked and said that it was only a classic substitution, switch one in, switch the other out, all elegant as pie if you have a distraction — that’s me, Ava said — no eye can resist. And the rest is theater, smoke and mirrors to make the trick taste good.

Shoot them in the heart, Ava said.

In the end, the audience always cheers. They clap until the magician comes back to take his bow. Ava takes one too, and the audience claps because she is so beautiful, despite the makeup smearing her sweaty face. But they clap loudest of all when the magician takes Ava’s hand and they bow together, one arm each lifted in thanks. The end, the audience thinks. Happily ever after.

• • • •

“And you just fly?” I asked. “That’s not much of a trick.”

“Up, up, and away,” Ava said. “Like a balloon on a string. Not that I’m telling you anything. Secrets.” She pinched her lips together so she momentarily looked like a fish.

“What about Charlie’s secrets though? Goose eggs, you told me. Extra pockets. Trap doors under the stage.”

Ava took her fingers off her lips and climbed into bed. “Those aren’t my secrets. They’re his. And you can have as many as you want.”

Her feathers made a crunching noise when we rolled on top of them, their central shafts crushed under our weight. They only bent, never broke, though leftover glitter lodged between their barbs and some of them looked like they had been combed backwards until the filaments unlocked and sprang irreparably apart.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked her while listening to the way we breathed.

“Not much,” she said. “But I’m very good at hiding it.”

One of her wings was caught under me, and I would have sat up to rearrange it, but Ava pushed herself across the bed until we were pressed tight together. Her wing pulled on me and I imagined it tearing off in pieces from wherever it was attached. I worried that it might hurt.

Ava didn’t say anything. Pins and needles began to grow where her shoulder carved a hole in my ribs. Feathers filled all the spaces between us, trapping the air against our skin and turning it into something so hot and still that I thought it would suffocate us both.

• • • •

The important question is: Did I ever see Ava fly? Honest to goodness, close up, right in front of my own and only eyes. All the questions can be boiled down to one.

• • • •

There is a very short list of people allowed backstage at a magic show. I don’t mean the waiting area, or the dressing rooms, which are all lit up in honest brightness. Anyone can go there, but the doors all close before you make it to the secret black corridors where the curtains meet the stage.

I know how theaters work. It’s part of my job.

I hid in the back, next to a bisected glass bowl that held goldfish on one side and empty water on the other. I waited and imagined my stomach floating up to fill my throat.

Ava and Charlie stood onstage, under the dim rehearsal lights. Ava was so still that she looked like a statue next to Charlie’s swooping, competent hands.

Ava said something. I was too far away to hear.

Charlie said something. He pointed to the wing closest to him, and when Ava shook her head, he pressed his fingers on his eyebrows and dug his thumbs into his cheeks. He stood that way for several seconds, then put his hands down and snatched at Ava’s wing.

I was with him in that moment. I was Charlie and Charlie was me.

“Don’t you get it?” he shouted.

Pull the feathers from them, I thought. Pluck them, one by one. If they’re real, they must hurt. We would have Ava’s face before us then, impassive and dishonest, or else Ava’s face with every detail outlined in tears.

The world stopped.

My legs dragged me across the stage. I was a man in slow motion, a sloth, a snail on a burning summer day, and by the time I got there, Charlie had gone. Coward.

I was breathing too hard to speak, and Ava looked bored. “He wanted to know how things worked,” she said. She licked a finger and smoothed the feathers where Charlie’s hand had disarranged them.

The world began to move again. It resolved itself into distinct pieces: me and Ava. Ava in a harness of thick webbing, painted to blend with the skin around her arms and the feathers of her wings. I stared at it.

“For safety,” she said.

“What does it do?” It had complicated metal fixings painted black to block out their shine.

“Nothing,” Ava said. She took off the harness and dropped it on the floor, and then she reached behind her back and took off her wings.

It seemed to be an arduous process. She had to twist her arms around her neck and under her armpits to reach. They came off one at a time and fell with a damp, sodden noise that hurt my ears. I wanted to gather them up and shove them back at her, right away, as if I could save them, as if they were in danger of death. I couldn’t move. Ava stood in front of me, her back bare and delicate, and I knew I should say something, or touch her, but I couldn’t think of how to start. I looked at the wings for inspiration. They lay still on the floor.

“They don’t do anything,” Ava said. “Nothing.” She picked up the wings and walked away from me. “Nothing, nothing, nothing at all.”

• • • •

You may have heard about the closing of the magic show. It was sudden, unexpected, and the theater returned every ticketholder’s money with a letter of polite and vague apology. Charlie retired to teach mime at an obscure university in western Canada, and I occasionally receive letters from him on official stationary with requests for consultation on experimental theater productions. His most recent project was a surrealist play for which he needed a dozen birds that would fly out into the theater and back to the stage like clockwork. The best I could offer him were pigeons, but Charlie wrote back and said they had decided to scrap the idea and were starting all over again with puppets.

Ava rode away, early in the morning before I got out of bed. She folded her wings in a plastic tarp and strapped them to the back of her bicycle, securing the bundle with rope and tape to keep it from tangling in the wheel. They were battered and worn out, molting and spiked with feathers bent in half or broken off to leave sharp, hollow tips. She smoothed them down anyway and stacked them, soft undersides together, to wrap safe in the blue plastic skin.

I shouldn’t have pretended to be asleep, but I did. I tried to watch her without opening my eyes, and every so often I made a noise like I was hearing something I thought was part of a dream.

I found her phone in the laundry hamper, in the pocket of a pair of jeans she kept saying she really needed to throw away.

• • • •

Ava doesn’t have a forwarding address. Of course she doesn’t. You saw that coming. I guess I did, too, but a story doesn’t mean anything unless you get to the point where you are holding a phone and pressing it to your ear, as if, by listening hard enough, it will turn into some sort of clue.

• • • •

The day before she left, Ava put a ladder against the side of the house and climbed to the top of the roof.

“I’m up here,” she called, and I ran out the door to see her balancing with both feet curled around the highest peak. “Up. No, up. Up.”

I went to the ladder, put my hands on its sides and one foot on a rung, but Ava shook her head. She leaned over so I could see her wingless back curved under the sky and gestured me away.

“Further,” she said. “Further.” She pushed her hands at me until I shuffled backwards into the street, and then across it, where I stood in someone else’s lawn. She stayed on the roof, her pointy elbows braced against the air. The sun hit her in the face and I could see how she squinted, even from so far away.

“Up there. Look at that.”

There was nothing to see when I tried to follow her extended arm except for flat blue sky that made my eyes water. Which is why I never saw Ava fly. I wiped my eyes and I only saw her fall. She tumbled into the sky, knocking against invisible corners, and while she fell, she laughed.

How she had time to laugh, I’m not sure. My house is narrow and tall, but not tall enough to lift her that many seconds away from the ground, not unless she stayed inside and took all the stairs, pausing as she went.

Ava laughed anyway. She descended through the thin, bright air, laughing until she shook with the joke, until her arms pressed into her sides and her knees headed toward her nose. She made a cannonball that bobbled impossibly in its arc, clearing the road at a height that made me lean back to keep her in view. She kept going until she ran out of laughs, and then she sighed, a tiny noise I only heard because she fell down beside me, in the grass on the opposite side of the street from where my house stood, empty.

When I picked her up, she was smaller than I expected. Her shoulders had strange muscles that could have carried heavy things, and I didn’t know where to put my arms without the slab of feathers that would have kept them from wrapping all the way around.

“There you go,” she said.

The sun sat on top of her lashes so I couldn’t see what her eyes were telling me, if they were saying anything. She had a dark spot on her cheek, and at first I thought it was a bruise. Later, when I rubbed it as gently as I could, it came off on my fingers, just a smudge of dirt that went away so there was nothing left.

Megan Kurashige

Megan KurashigeMegan Kurashige is a professional dancer. She and her sister, Shannon Kurashige, collaborate on wild and quixotic dance projects under the name Sharp & Fine in San Francisco. She is also a member of Liss Fain Dance. Her fiction has appeared in Unnatural Creatures, an anthology edited by Neil Gaiman and Maria Dahvana Headley, Electric Velocipede, and Sybil’s Garage. She attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD in 2008. You can find out more about Sharp & Fine at sharpandfine.com. She has a blog (immobileexplorations.blogspot.com) and is on Twitter @mkazoo.