Midnight creeps over the tall hand of the clock as Leon inspects the broken bird under the lone amber street light. Up close it’s clear the creature is not of this flesh and blood. There’s no possible way. Well, there could be a way, but if there is, Leon doesn’t know of it.
Obscure malleable metal makes up the carcass, hollow in places and compact in others. It’s a robotic contraption of sorts, with a beak too long and talons too short, its right-side wing mangled into a mess of coils and cables. A single beady blue eye peers centrally like a cyclops—the colour so intense you could swim inside it, though no life appears within.
The street light flickers. Leon shouldn’t be out this late. Shouldn’t be out foraging for scrap. Ma wouldn’t like it.
But the man is in Ma’s bedroom. The man who leaves her with the bruises she absently brushes at the kitchen table over breakfast—thumb and index finger circling her lower back and thighs as her free hand stirs a cup of black, bitter coffee.
Leon probes the broken bird’s riven wing, twisting and turning, letting the metal ache. In a choked jolt the creature cries out. Leon hushes it quickly, startled and sorry, sorry, sorry. There is no stir from the flats above.
The broken bird makes Leon promise not to hurt it again.
In the safety of dawn—the man duly departed—the broken bird confesses to Leon that it’s here to help.
Is that true?
If you want it to be. But you must fix my wing first.
Its working wing, left-side, extends out to nearly half the length of Leon’s bedroom. A metre, or just shy, yet stable and secure enough to carry mammals.
Humans, to be specific.
That’s where Ma comes in. Leon requires a sea of supplies.
There’s a yard behind their flat where cars are crushed into cubes and mounds of contorted metal are scattered like shattered cartilage. There’s leaking battery packs and piles of damp, disused timber left to rot. Enough to build the base of a bone-like structure for the wing. Enough to be airborne. Ma has a key to the lock—residents get first pick of the junk.
Leon doesn’t ask the broken bird of its origins. He’s not sure the answer will matter.
Ma is bent like a plasticine doll over the kitchen table, nursing a half-smoked menthol cigarette and a slice of burnt toast. The broken bird is in Leon’s room. Leon is waiting for Ma to speak. Or to look up from where she’s staring at the linoleum, the cocktail of chemicals from her cigarette lingering on his tongue.
In the dim glow of the morning, her face is cast to a tinge of pasty ivory. She has a moon crest cut in the sallow under her right eye, raw and recent. She had two last week, each indented into her neck where the muscle meets the inner arteries.
After the man has come to collect my debt as he puts it, Ma can be a firework with the fuse lit. Leon accidentally smashed a mug in the porcelain sink a month ago trying to make Ma chamomile tea—the man had been harsher than usual. Leon’s palm sliced clean open on the cracked china—lifelines cut,blood seepingand snaking in narrow rivers down the plug hole. Ma struck him for it, a whip hand across the back of his knees that smarted like a wasp sting. She echoed a sorry, sorry, sorry as Leon ran from her.
This time, Ma is sedate—lips elastic and puffy, so Leon asks for the yard key.
I’ve got to go there, Ma—it’ll have everything I need.
For what? Not another project.
Leon lies by omission. Ma sighs but gives him the key, making him cross his heart that he’ll stay safe. He doesn’t see her for the rest of the day.
Leon drags back an array of oddments over the tarmac, up the pebble dash steps and into the antique elevator that works on a pully system.
Insulated twisted copper wiring, snapped screwdrivers, and two panels of plate metal, ripped from the doors of a dismembered lorry, make up the first batch. There are some thin electrical cables, a jar of silver screws and a pile of tin cans and glass bottles, the latter two not for the broken bird but for decoration in his bedroom. It takes him three trips.
Ma doesn’t go in Leon’s room. There aren’t many rules in their house, but that’s one of them. Leon bargained for it after he was banned from Ma’s. After he saw things he shouldn’t.
Before the man, Leon would creep into Ma’s room on soft mornings and crisp nights and climb under the covers, snuggling close. To the moon and back, Ma would say, stroking the bridge of his nose. Nothing bad can get us here.
Leon looks to her closed door now, at the notches in the wood where loose fists have swung.
The broken bird instructs Leon as best it can, considering the scrap they’re working with.The plate metal is bent over the remains of the wing, Leon pushing and pulling it with as much strength as he can muster, warping the material into a shape made to slice through the air. The cables and screws hold it, hammered and nudged with ill-fitting tools, the copper wiring set to recreate a system of fake veins.
The exertion gives him a toothache, molars clenched and forehead sweaty. Ma isn’t home.
The man returns with the evening rain, so Leon hoists up his sash window and takes a solo flight. He wanted to treat Ma to the inaugural voyage—soar where the sun splits the horizon. Escape from reality below.
The bird, no longer broken, makes it for miles, orating the earth, its repaired wing flapping mechanically amongst the moors, towards the sea, before swooping past the blacked-out bay, the electricity intermittent on this side of the island.
He wishes he could divulge all to Ma as he clambers back through the window. Instead he spreads himself like a starfish across his wooden floor, heart racing and hair ruffled with the wind, too high on adrenaline to shift into slumber. The bird is hushed beside him, Leon lying motionless and mute, suspended in adrenaline. If he concentrates, he can hear the white noise of the radio fizzing lonely from the kitchen. Ma must’ve left it playing. He can hear the man too.
Ma, I’ve got something I need to show you.
Ma is submerged, the door to the bathroom open and the landing clammy with heat from the piping water. Her face is ruddy, and her neck bright red. There are no new nicks this time, though her eyes are swollen in their sockets. She dips down to wet her hair and slides back up the tub, rivulets of water skating over the ridge of her jaw, hands reaching for her pink razor to coast over her legs.
Leon stands in the doorway, bouncing on the souls of his feet.
It’s a surprise.
She sinks down again and stays beneath for several seconds, hair straying across the surface.When Leon was younger,Ma used to tell him that she was a mermaid—that Leon’s elder Ma grew up by the salt. She had tail like nothing you’d ever seen—a chromatic sylph of the sea. She glides back up for air.
I mean it, Ma. I mean it. Come see when you’re done.
The towel scratches at her skin as she dries—the burn from the blades biting her ankles and knees.
Ma knocks on Leon’s door. He makes her close her eyes. Hands over them too—you can’t peek. Ma humours him, interlocking her fingers so all she can see is darkness. He guides her by the elbow and positions her in the middle of his room, the bird perched on his bed, its ingot-esque talons denting into Leon’s duvet.
Ma is static as she is unmasked. Leon’s grin nearly splits his cheeks asunder.
Ma is stationary, irises roving Leon’s room.
This is why I needed the yard key. Can you believe it, Ma? I fixed it. Let’s go flying, Ma. Let’s escape.
The silence bleeds across them as she remains aphonic and puzzled. It brings Leon to falter. The bird is quiet too.
Like the spread of a heat rash, doubt prickles over his fibres. Ma? Ma. Can you see the bird?
Let’s fly, Leon.
Her mouth jumbles like she’s never spoken a single word before. Like each letter tastes brand new.
With bodies buoyed by the breeze, their hands grip the robotic makeup of the bird’s wings; Ma to the left, Leon to the right. They sail through the cloudless sky, the atmosphere a vivid turquoise, flecks of emerald dotting up to the heavens in a delicate hue. The ground is infinitely sweet below, bountiful and lush, so far removed from the concrete and rubble that haunts them.
Ma remains mute as the bird navigates the terrain. Heavy tears are forming despite the vista, some slipping astray in the air.
You okay, Ma?
She sniffs and her eyes seek him, nodding weakly. Her hair is tangling at the blunt chopped tips.
Leon nods back, and without losing sight of one another, he whispers words he’s kept close.
Is this real, Ma?
Arm outstretched to reach him, Ma answers with the palm of her hand pressed tender to his cheek.
If we want it to be.
The bird beats its wings then, and down they dip before ascending higher, take us higher, towering away and elsewhere. Far from the burden of being.