In the city, smoke clogs the air and paints the buildings in thick soot. They say the sky was blue once, but I have never seen it.
Dark skies, dark thoughts.
There’s no color to be found. No flowers. No dreams.
I’ve forgotten the feeling of hope.
I press a cloth to my face every day when I make my way to the mills, past the abandoned abbey at the edge of town, where a year ago the sculptor commissioned to fashion a centerpiece for the town square established her studio. I sometimes hear screams that shiver through me when I scurry past her walls. There are whispers in the city, and wary glances. No one has seen anyone go in, nor anyone come out.
The screams are silent this morning and a slow breeze stirs the ash-flecked air. A sharp clatter draws my gaze to the base of the gate.
An opalescent peacock feather of shaped metal peers up at me from beneath the wrought iron. Its lacquered eye gleams with sapphire, amethyst, and amber. The plume is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I’m kneeling before I can think.
I touch the tapered tip. It bites sharp and I flinch away, red blossoming on my fingertip, but in that moment the feather flares to life, its brilliant hues illuminating the black gate. I suck in a ravenous breath, as if I could taste the flavor of cerulean or smell the essence of jade.
“You like it?”
I recoil, my gaze rising to find a stranger standing on the far side of the gate. Pale skin makes her mulberry lips prominent and her dark gown drapes from a gaunt frame.
“I wasn’t going to take it.” I’m not sure if the words are truth or lie.
She picks up the feather. “Come inside.”
I shouldn’t. I can’t be late. The master has no patience for laggards and there are plenty of beggars who would gladly replace me at the mill.
But though the feather is fading, even that whisper of vitality draws me after it like a lodestone. I step through the gate.
Metal statues guard the walkway – gargoyle, pegasus, wolf, and more – each wrought with impeccable skill. They don’t gleam like the feather, but they seem to watch my every step. A trail of dew slides from the corner of the gargoyle’s eye.
I look away and follow after the stranger and her now-dim feather. She pulls open the abbey door and beckons me within.
The long stone hallway smells vaguely of antiseptic.
When the door slams shut, it leaves us in darkness. “Give me your hand,” she says.
I reach for her blindly, but instead of touching skin, a sharp pain pricks the pad of my thumb. I hardly have time to gasp before the feather kindles once again, pressed against the blood that seeps from my wound.
I wrap my fingers around it and pull it close, entranced.
“It responds to you like a lover.” Her voice beside my ear is sticky molasses. “There are more. Would you like to see them?”
I nod and follow in the stranger’s steps, deep into the bowels of the abbey. Somewhere, someone is sobbing. I should ask after them, but all I can see are the gleaming colors in my hand and the flare of hope for a life no longer wrought in shades of gray.
No more soot. No more sorrow.
She leads me into what looks to have once been a monk’s cell. A long workbench littered with feathers stands against the far wall. So many pieces – some tiny, some nearly as long as my arm – as if an entire peacock had been plucked clean.
“You can be beautiful.” Her hand touches the small of my back. “Every feather will sing. Your light will shine brighter than the sun.”
My thumb still throbs where the feather had pierced it. “The city’s commission?”
She grasps my shoulders and turns me to face her. A mulberry flush paints her skin. “You’d stand in honor, your light a gift to all who lay eyes on it.”
I’m no one. A simple mill girl. A cog in the city’s wheel. Nobody would miss me.
I could be so much more – the hope I’d longed so desperately to find.
Her voice trembles with urgency. “Will you let me fulfill the promise that flows through your veins?”
My parched mouth barely manages to form my reply. “Yes.”
The sculptor presses a cloth to my face and the scent of rotting apples fills my nose.
“Don’t be afraid.”
I wake, screaming. My feather-pierced skin is exquisite agony. Light presses against the back of my eyelids, scintillating from my plumage as my blood seeps freely along the quills.
I try to speak, but my lips cannot form words. A metal beak clacks open and shut.
The sculptor appears before my frozen eyes, gazing at me with reverence. “It’s done,” she whispers, like a prayer. “My masterwork.”
Another cry rises from my agonized throat.
“The pain will lessen with time. For now – sleep.”
Rotting apples, then nothing more.
A cool breeze rustles my feathers and my eyes blink open. The familiar sight of mill chimneys belching smoke rises before me.
“Just look at it,” someone says. “See how the peacock gleams!”
A small crowd surrounds me. My brilliant plumage reflects in their eyes.
The pain still remains, though it is duller now – a constant, throbbing ache.
A soot-streaked, rumpled old woman approaches and lays her hand upon my feathered breast. “Wasn’t that the color of the night sky? I think that I remember.”
It’s there in the wary smile that ghosts across her face. In the pink that colors the children’s cheeks beneath the grime.
I think that I remember.
A trail of dew slides from the corner of my eye.
Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in the state of Washington. She’s a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Taekwondo, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees. Her fiction has appeared in markets including Fireside Magazine, Cricket, and Flash Fiction Online. You can find her online at wordsofbirch.com.