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art by Wi Waffles

Tell Them of the Sky

A.T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer living in Pennsylvania. Fueled by a sheer love of books and a tyrannical imagination, she writes the stories that appear over her morning coffee and won’t leave her alone until they are put down on paper. She is a member of Codex and a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI. Find her at atgreenblatt.com and @AtGreenblatt. This is her first professional publication.
She is too small, Kitkun thinks, the first time she enters his tiny workshop tucked between the market's stalls. Too young to have left the nest alone. Yet, despite the years of waiting, he still feels a prick of hope as she steps out of the city's unrelenting smog and over the threshold, thinking, perhaps she will be the one. Perhaps she will ask.
"Are you lost, child?" asks Kitkun, setting down his tools. She is dressed in cream colored silk--a foolish color to wear in this city--but her shoes are covered in grime.
She nods. "I thought I saw a raven," she says.
"And did you?"
Her face crumples with disappointment. "Nanny couldn't keep up. She doesn't believe birds exist."
Kitkun smiles. Customers do not randomly wander into his shop. "Well, I do," he says, pointing at the display next to her, "See?"
The tiny table is filled with a flock of toys and from it, she picks up a sparrow made of wood and cloth. In her hands, the bird lifts its head, chirping happily, stretching its neck up towards the canopy ceiling in anticipation. But instead of releasing it, the girl frowns at the bird for a moment and places it back on its perch.
Kitkun raises his eyebrows. The sparrow's little tricks often delight customers. But then again, most of his customers do not wear the finest silk. No, she will not ask, he thinks. Kitkun ignores the ache of disappointment as he returns to the eagle he is crafting, watching her as he carves.
One by one, she examines each toy and kite in his shop; picking them up, bringing them to life, setting them down moments later. She lingers only at the doll which she studies with fascination. At her touch, it smiles, stretching out its lacy wings, turning its tiny face upwards and with a few strong beats, it lifts itself out of the girl's hands into the air above her head. Only then does her frown disappear.
"Can you make other things fly?" she asks, balancing on her toes like a dancer, catching the doll in her outstretched arms.
"Yes," replies Kitkun.
She nods, setting the doll down tenderly, and then with the swift impulsiveness of a child, she steps out of his narrow shop into the bustling market. Kitkun rushes after her, afraid she'll be knocked over or lost again. But he finds her standing fearlessly among the broken cobblestones and crowded stalls, looking past the colored canopies, up into the thick, oily clouds of smog; the smog that, despite the city's filters and barriers, is turning her cream robes gray.
Kitkun stops beside her, following her gaze. In all the years he has been in this city, no one has ever bothered to look at the sticky, black sky without his toys or kites in their hands.
The girl longs for what she cannot reach, he thinks. A longing Kitkun himself knows well.
"What is your name, child?" he asks.
"Aya," she replies and Kitkun smiles.
That evening, long after her nurse has found her and whisked her away, Kitkun begins a new project.
The second time Aya visits his shop, she is almost grown. Kitkun knew that she would one day return and yet, he is surprised to see her standing in the doorway, brushing the soot off her clothes. She is early.
"It's been awhile," he says, tilting his head respectfully.
Despite the ration restrictions of the new war, she still wears silk, but it is a darker color, a wiser one. The market, too, has lost some of its vibrancy; fruit sellers now barter uniforms and weapons and many citizens have left to defend their kingdom in foreign lands. But not Kitkun. Not Aya.
"Nanny didn't like this place," she says. "She thinks birds and kites should stay in stories. But Papa says I'm too old for Nanny, now." Aya reaches out but doesn't quite brush a kite with her fingertips. "Why do you make these toys, Craftsman?"
"Even a simple toymaker must eat, child."
"I am no longer a child, Craftsman. Why hawks and gliders?"
Kitkun smiles. She has grown tall in her absence.
"To remember," he says. "And to share the memory."
She frowns in confusion, but turns and picks up the kite. It flutters in her hands, as if in a spring breeze. "Why are they all the same color?"
"I call it 'sky blue.'"
"Why?"
Kitkun sighs. How does he explain what lies beyond the smog and the ash? The question has tormented him for years, haunting his waking hours and his dreams. And though he tries, the sky remains too vast to be captured with his unskilled words and his simple toys and yet too beautiful to keep to himself.
He sees from her expression that his own face has betrayed him.
"You've seen it?" she asks, her eyes bright, "They say it's just a story, that nothing exists beyond the smog. People must think you're mad."
"I do not often speak of it."
"Yes, you do." She gestures to his birds and star lamps. Now there is desire in her eyes. "I want to see the sky too, Craftsman."
Kitkun studies her. She is tall but she still must grow. She should be out in the city, he thinks, enjoying her new freedom. There will be time enough for the sky later.
"Once you've seen it, you can never come home," he says, nodding at her rich clothes and real leather shoes. "You have a good life here. I'm sorry, child, I cannot give you what you want."
She bites her lips as if biting back the words and strides out into the market, fists clenched at her side.
This time he does not follow her out.
Instead, Kitkun pulls out the empty frame of her wings. It is the only lie she hadn't seen through. But she had come too soon, too soon.
He knows it's the longing for the sky that brings her back. Aya visits often as the years slip by, despite the war that rages on. The cleaning boys and the girls with brooms have all been sent away to fight; the smog claims the market, soiling its bright colors and masking the scents of fresh bread.
The customers are fewer now, so Kitkun turns his efforts to the wings; making needles and paintbrushes dance, weaving endless webs of cloth, smiling as the empty frame slowly begins to fill.
Eventually, he can no longer hide them from her. She studies the wings, saying nothing as usual, but Kitkun sees the relief on her face.
"Why?" she says.
"Because you asked," he replies, though it's not quite the reason. The truth is he was given too large a gift to keep to himself.
She often watches him work and then, gradually, with his encouragement and guidance, she picks up the tools.
She is hopeless with wood and cloth, but her paper lanterns and gliders grow from crude to exquisite. While he paints, Aya uses ink and nib to adorn her creations, and though Kitkun can read only a little of the language, the words are beautiful.
She works fiercely, her desire for the sky burning strong, but he catches her, sometimes, regarding the wings with hesitation or staring out of the shop at her sickening city with longing.
She is not ready yet, he thinks with a tinge of disappointment. Yet still, he sews on.
It's only when the city's filters failed completely and the rain comes down in black, oil-tainted drops, that she gives her doubts voice
"You waste your time, Craftsman," she says, standing up from the workbench and stepping away from the tools, "You should be making weapons, not toys."
"It wouldn't change anything," he says.
"How do you know?"
Kitkun sets down his tools. True, his creations do not stop wars, but they bring glimmers of hope to the drifting souls who wandered into his shop.
"Because people are lost and will always be lost without the sky," he says.
They stare at each other for a long moment before she removes her apron and heads towards the door. "I'm not ready to abandon my country yet, Craftsman."
Kitkun hastily follows. "Where are you going?"
"To fight."
Kitkun's heart drops, but he does not stop her. Her choices should be hers alone.
The sky has called her. She'll come back. She must come back, he tells himself as he stands in the threshold, watching as she disappears into the polluted rain.
Months pass but she does not return. It is a long time before Kitkun can touch his nearly finished creation without a heavy heart.
On the night the wings are finished, she enters his shop for the last time. Her shoes are worn and her eyes are sadder now, but wiser. Kitkun sees she has grown strong in her absence.
"I am ready now," she says. Kitkun fetches his masterpiece.
The wings are painted with the colors of the sunrise, the blue of a clear day, the hues of rainclouds and the brightness of stars. They appear delicate, like lace, but they are made for her, and she for them, and they will carry her.
"Remove your shirt," he says and she obeys.
His skilled fingers work quickly, fastening the wings to her shoulders and her wrists with a needle and thread. She winces, but says nothing because they both know that every farewell comes with a bit of pain.
As he sews, he tells her of the wind and of the sun, of the stars and moon. He tells her that the wings will most likely break when she lands and she will be stranded in a faraway place.
"But what will I do there?" she asks.
"Tell them of the sky," he replies.
By the time he is finished, it's nearly dawn. There only a little blood, but he knows that when the wings are gone, the scars will remain. Yet, for the first time since they've met, Aya smiles.
Together, they walk through the abandoned market, leaving footprints on the sooty cobblestones. They stop in a small square with a clear view.
"How can I repay you?" she asks.
"Once you've seen it, you will know how."
She nods and tilts her head upward. Her wings beat once, lifting her feet from the ground. She laughs, the joy of flight radiating from her.
"I will never forget you," says Aya.
And she rises.
Long after she's gone, Kitkun stands alone in the square, staring at the barest glimmer of blue shining through the hole in the smog.
He smiles and touches the scars on his wrists, where years ago in a distant place, a craftswoman had shared a gift.
"Thank you," he whispers.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

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