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Of Cog and Feather

by Darja Malcolm-Clarke


Humans always ask, eyes wide: Why were you given that name? I don’t know why, I tell them, but it means the crystalline blue-black sky of a cloudless winter night. My mother gave me my name on the fifth night of a blizzard in Mongolia, when I was born.

Before the Brethren of Truth broke me out of the Institute, the only night I knew flickered into existence when the white-coated doctors switched off the overhead florescent lights and disappeared through the heavy metal doors outside my enclosure. That kind of night was different than the one I am named after; electric stars were scattered throughout the room — red, green, blinking.

During the Brethren’s raid on the Institute of Bio-Reconstruction Research for the Glory of God, a rebel named Davis carried me over his shoulder through a cascade of bullets. Feathers drifted to the ground in our wake and were tossed up again in the commotion. Outside, Davis set me down on the ground, and I looked on the blank gray face of my home, the Institute, for the first time.

Then I collapsed under the vast expanse of the sky held up only by buildings.

Screams echoed up into the sky between the towers and vanished, and I thought those people must be dying. That’s what dying sounded like in the Institute: voices dropping away. Of course, those in the street were human voices, not the cacophonous trills and shrieks, the sonic screams and howls of what was made at the Institute.

Once, when I was born, I was human.

What does your name mean to you? they ask. They have so many questions. You may think my name is from another language, I say, but really it is a river in Bangladesh, a place I have visited. I have stood upon its broad green banks to look over the calm silver rush of the river. I have decided: That was my father’s homeland.

As I speak, the group of them stare wide-eyed at where my arms should be, and I know the question they are not asking: What did they plan to do with you at the Institute? I know they are thinking about Michael — Michael from behind the stars. That was just before the Institute got me. I have heard the story of his flight to earth a thousand times; we all have in the city of the Temple-Capitol. The Glory Party retells that story daily, how he came down on sun-white wings, heralding the righteousness of the Glory’s coup d'état.

After Davis and the other Brethren emancipated me from the Institute, it took a while to get used to the homogeneity of the human population. Gone were the feather and gear, fang and cog, hoof and claw components merged with human flesh. They told me I had been misused; that my wings were a corruption, a heinous mimicry of Michael.

I have learned that Michael’s name has only one meaning: he like unto God.

The story of my own destiny is another I have heard thousand-fold. The Glory needed to show to all doubters that Michael had come from the behind the stars, from a place no human being could come from: Heaven. Once they completed my wings, I would prove Michael was truly an angel of God. That’s why the Institute doctors called me their Blessed —

But I know what my name is. I know it means the first birdcall at the edge of morning just as the sun’s rays brush treetops.

The Brethren doctors told me that the Glory had perverted the word of God and manufactured Michael’s miraculous appearance to convince the public of their righteousness. They reassured me I was safe now from the Glory’s corruption and their wicked experiments at the Institute. I lived in a small white room at the Brethren’s hospital, so the doctors could study what had been done to me. But sometimes that place reminded me of the Institute. Sometimes they let me out to see others, but in my mind the heavy white door with the dull silver doorknob — it locked from the outside — began to resemble the metal bars of the enclosure I had known before.

They were fascinated by what had been done to me at the Institute. They took me from my room and sat me upon a bed of white paper and blue threadbare sheets beneath a gold light. They asked about the procedure, but I told them what I wanted to say: what I could remember of what it was like before the wings, and of when I was a child, before the Institute recon-physicians replaced my arms. And of a time barely recalled when a dark-haired woman held out a square cracker to me, and I took it with fingers of flesh and nail. When the doctors persisted about the procedure, I said I acquired elongated phalanges and limbs covered with variegated feathers. My fingers beneath the feathers are almost a foot long,I told them. They nodded impatiently, frustrated that I could tell them no more than the obvious. When they returned from a private conference, one of the doctors told me with wonder, You are quite like Michael, as far as our specialists can tell. Very like Michael.

Over and over, they prodded and examined and questioned. Their curiosity made me feel uneasy. Sometimes, though, Davis visited. He asked the same questions as the physicians, but he was always pleased to see me — always kind. He understood the difficulty of my situation. Once, he brought me a gift: a book of birds with illustrations so vivid they looked real. Aren’t they beautiful, he said. You are like them now. Maybe someday you can fly, if you want. It was the only gift I have ever been given. So I did not tell him I could find no bird picture with my name beneath it. There are no birds like me.

After a few months, they allowed people into the hospital common room — people from the television stations and some who had heard of the rescues from the Institute. That is when the questions became much more difficult; that is when they asked about my name.

Those times, I longed to be human again. I reminded myself: My name means the hushed feeling one gets watching shadows play across summer blades of grass. It connotes delicate breeze in the language it comes from; gentle sway of meadow grasses.

Some weeks later, news came of how the Brethren of Truth had stormed the Temple-Capitol and followed an underground tunnel to a secret chamber where they captured the Glory priest-president’s entire cabinet. News of the Glory counter-strike, and the Brethrens’ move to quell it, surged over the television.

Later that night someone — not a doctor and not a television man — came to talk to me. He told me the government needed to convince civilians throughout the country that the Brethren were acting to liberate them. Do you understand that? he said, and put his hand on my wing. He said the Brethren needed to prove beyond a doubt that Michael was a creation of the Institute — not an angel sent by God. A hoax.

Prove beyond a doubt. I knew then why the Brethren of Truth freed me from the Institute.

Soon after that, Davis came to me, at night. Seeing him steal towards my bed — it had taken all these months to adjust to sleeping on feathers in a mattress, rather than my own wings spread over a metal floor — I remembered how, at the Institute, he had peered at me through the bars in awe before he found the presence of mind to blast the bolt and open the gate. He looked at me now with that same stricken look. I thought he had come to break me out again.

But then — he began to plead.

Prove it for us — Michael was created. You’re the only one who can — you’re like him. Your wings are almost done. Let us complete you.

What he said next was so familiar, for a moment I thought I was back in my enclosure at the Institute: Let us take you up into the sky — and you fall to earth like Michael did.

• • •

He kept insisting, You will survive. You must. After a while, I stopped hearing him. I fumbled with the bird book, trying to get purchase on it. He must have thought I was finding a picture. My heart was breaking.

When I threw it at him, he made the same sound I heard beneath the buildings when he freed me from the Institute. After he fled my small white room, the cry kept going — because it was the same sound I was making, and made for a long time after that.

• • •

Davis had failed his assignment, for that was what I was: persuade me to say I would go with them to where Michael was first seen, and step from a flying machine into space. But in the end, whether I agreed or not ceased to matter to the Brethren of Truth.

Lying strapped to an operating table under a gold lamp, Brethren physicians working over me, I knew at last I could not escape the purpose for which the Institute made me: descent. For the Glory, it would show that no man-made wings could carry a mere human to earth intact. Death would mean Michael was God’s messenger, and the Glory coup sanctioned by Him as Michael claimed. My death would be the Glory’s triumph.

We’ve come to release you from this fate, Davis had said when he found me in my cage at the Institute.

But the Brethren never meant to free me.

Under the gold lamp, my wings completed but the rest of me broken, I saw for the first time that my given purpose has followed me just as wings follow both scented summer updrafts and chill blizzard winds burdened with snow. I cannot be freed from it, from these wings. If I survive the fall from the sky, I will promise victory for the Brethren — I will prove Michael a hoax and the Glory’s claim to power a fraud.

My descent will determine who will rule in the Temple-Capitol.

This matters none to me — me, who will fall, alone.

• • •

Feathers singe in a shower of sparks. The heat of the sky rushing past coaxes flames from the underside of my wings. The ground broadens beneath me while the stars kite, streamers of gold. My wings are bright as banners, proclaiming the truth about Michael — and about me. I steel myself for flame or earth or wings to answer the question for which my arms were claimed.

As the wind burns and rips me, I repeat my name to myself over and over. It is the name given me by the doctors in the Institute, the only parents I knew, in the only home I have ever had: Gabriel. My name that means anything, anything at all, except God is my strength.



Darja Malcolm-Clarke has masters degrees in Folklore and English and is working towards a doctorate in the latter, studying speculative literature and critical theory. She attended Clarion West in 2004 and knows the feline words for “river,” “UFO,” and “waffle mix,” as they were recently relayed to her by her cat in a dream. She lives in numinous southern Indiana where cornfields watch and buildings of limestone lie in wait.


Summer 2005