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The Flightless (excerpt)

The Flightless (excerpt)

Published Mar 5, 2023 Updated Mar 12, 2023 Culture Culture
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The Flightless (excerpt)

Translator Austin Wagner


“Homo sapiens volans: sole human subspecies capable of flight. Estimated to have appeared during the late Pleistocene. Wingspan of up to 6.5 – 7 meters. Due to wing structure and body weight, primary form of flight was gliding by means of thermal columns. Estimated speed of 40 km/hr. Functionally extinct by the early Holocene. (Ornis America, 1867)


If you want to fly, you need to be lighter.

Amelia knew this, she’d heard it a thousand times in the hanger while she and the other girls lined up each morning for the scale. Every ounce keeps them further from the sky. Their femurs are working against them. Their skulls weigh them down. Amelia hadn’t had anything to drink since waking up, she’d even emptied her bladder. But she was heavy, still too heavy. Neta leaned around her elbow to sneak a look at the scale. You’ll never beat the Icarus Boys, she said. She pinched the flesh between Amelia’s ribs, then started handing out the limp, tar-flavored balloons.

Less lymph. Less fat. Less bone. More air.

The girls spent all day blowing up those horrible balloons. It wasn’t a competition, but they kept tabs on the others’ progress nonetheless. The rubber screeched as Amelia sank her teeth into it, but the valve resisted, her saliva just slicked around it. She had to increase her lung capacity. It had to be swollen, distended, bloated, harder than a chitinous exoskeleton. As the balloon began to swell, she imagined her lungs likewise growing behind her ribs. They x-rayed the girls monthly to see their progress, Neta celebrated the branchings of the air sacs: at first there were only buds at the apex of their lungs, transparent hopes of air sacs. But with practice, the buds grew to the size of grapes, then figs. Amelia’s lungs sprouted new lobes. They pressed against the connective tissue, they shoved her liver up against her peritoneum. The girls pinned up diagrams of bird’s air sacs in their changing room lockers, they could have labeled the sacci by heart.

More air. More air. More air.

It wasn’t a competition, but they competed nonetheless. Whoever blew until they passed out and had to be revived by Neta with smelling salts was the winner.

The publisher came once a week to make sure they were progressing. He watched them from a distance, cigarette dangling, and not batting an eye as they passed out one by one. Sometimes he’d make a note in his little book, that’s when Amelia would blow on the balloon even harder, with every muscle she could muster. They knew who the man was, his reputation preceded him: it was Charles who had flown solo across the ocean using nothing but wind currents, but it was the publisher who had made him famous, who had ensured his name would go down in the annals of history. He had wreathed the Icarus Boys in legend.

More often than not, the man left without a word. Sometimes he would leave lilies in a vase for them, a flower for each girl. Amelia never took hers; she shrugged that she was allergic to the pollen, it made her eyes water.

But sometimes the publisher would stop in the hanger doorway. He would turn back to the girls, hat in hand:

“Keep practicing,” he’d say. “It is time for you too to conquer the skies.”


“…secondary flightlessness is thus not a human characteristic. Loss of previous flight capabilities is found in many a species – you all have surely examined the latest proof of convergent evolution – the cause of which, as with the ostrich, for instance, is the exceptional growth of body size and weight. It can occur that wing-function transforms, as did the penguin’s in order to adapt to its aquatic environs. We also observe flight becoming superfluous in areas with no terrestrial predators. In the case of Homo sapiens volans, the reason is unknown. Their weight did not surpass that of the largest known flighted birds – consider the Argentavis magnificens, if you haven’t already – and natural selection did not pull them toward an aquatic lifestyle. So then why? Why did our wings devolve? It is quite possible – and forgive me, this explanation shan’t be met with much understanding here – it’s quite possible that man simple no longer wanted to fly.” (from A.R. Wallace’s lecture at the 1889 convening of The Linnean Society)


Amelia first saw wings in the military hospital. The aviators lay face down on the beds – they’d recently been fighting for the air forces in Europe. They had been the scourge of the skies, and now they lay whimpering and wounded in a hospital ward, only opening their eyes for as long as it took to beg Amelia for morphine. Even in a shambles, their wings captivated her. Some had been amputated, and she had to make sure the stumps beneath the gauze wrappings were kept clean. Others had been riddled with bullets, their feathers curled and blackened by fire. Amelia collected the shed feathers. When nobody was watching, she’d snatch them up from the tile and hide them alongside her medicine cabinet key in the pocket of her nurse’s apron. Once she ran her hand down the length of one of the aviator’s wings. She expected it to be soft as down, but the feathers were crackling and sharp, slitting her finger open like a piece of paper.

“Hey!” the aviator grabbed Amelia by the wrist. His eyes shimmered opalescent from the fever. “You should see them when I’m flying. I’ll show you someday.”

Amelia wrenched her hand free and backed away, heart pounding. She couldn’t bring herself to tell the man that with those useless trinkets, he would never fly again.

As a child, Amelia had had feathers too. Not a lot, just as many as others. The doctor called it an atavistic trait and didn’t prescribe any medication. Amelia’s shoulder blades constantly itched, she and her little sister would scratch each other’s back until the area around the feathers was bloody. They were down feathers, their barbs soft and white as a tangle of silken thread. Then their mother got bored of waiting. She ordered them into the bathroom, undressed them, and blasted the shower to scalding. They screamed that the water was burning them, but they had to stay: the heat softens the skin, opens the pores. Makes it easier to pluck the feathers, their mother said, she’d read it in the paper. She set to work with the tweezers, ripping in swift jerks, ripping the rachis from beneath the skin. You’ll thank me one day, she said as she swept feathers into the garbage. How would you ever find a husband in that state.

Amelia organized the feathers collected from the aviators into groups on the table. Contour feather. Wing feather. Tail feather. Down feather. She tore the vanes into strips. Why shouldn’t they grow on it too.

“Were you born this way?” she asked the aviator the next day as she gave him his medicine. According to the patient sheet, a quarter of his lungs had been burnt.

The man glanced at his wings, at the broken bone in an iron brace, at the charred feathers.

“No. They taught us how. In the army.”

Amelia fluffed up the pillow beneath the man’s head.

“I want to learn how.”

The aviator laughed. He grimaced from the pain, but he kept laughing, teeth white, contempt obvious.

“They don’t train women,” he said. He reached for Amelia. Brushed the back of her hand, the valleys between her knuckles, then slowly slid his finger up her arm, caressing up to her elbow. “But I’ll take you for a spin when I can fly again.”

Amelia backed away from the bed. She thought of the feathers she’d pilfered from the aviators. Contour feather. Wing feather. Tail feather. Her shoulder blades began to itch.

“If you touch me again,” she told the man, “I’ll swap your morphine for saline.”



Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

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