‘It’s beautiful. May I touch it?’ His hand hovering over the outstretched wing, one eyebrow raised questioningly.
The light in Gregory’s eyes dimmed slightly. He wasn’t going to buy. People never asked to touch if they were going to buy, they waited till they got it home and then they stroked and caressed in privacy. They only asked to touch an object if they knew they’d never see it again, and wanted to fix the experience in their minds.
‘Sure,’ he said, ‘go ahead.’
The man’s fingers swept lightly over the bird’s wing, tracing the lines of the inner vane, the outer vane, the primary and secondary remiges. He stroked down the thorax, right down to the spindly, gnarled legs on which it perched.
‘It’s extraordinary,’ he said, ‘it’s just so…’
‘Lifelike?’ offered Gregory.
‘Lifelike. The lightness of the feathers. The tension in the legs. Even the shine in the eye. It’s a stunning piece of work. You should be very proud.’
Gregory smiled, but said nothing. He turned his attention back to the piece he was working on: a sparrowhawk, its outstretched form just beginning to emerge from the block of lime clamped to his workbench. He laid down the adze he’d been using to shape the upper curve of the beak, and switched to a riffler to begin on the fine detail.
‘You really seem to have a feel for these birds’ anatomy.’
Gregory nodded. ‘Yes, I know how they’re put together. The bones, the muscles, the tendons. You can’t carve a bird unless you really understand how they work, how the underlying structure connects everything together.’
‘So delicate,’ he said, stroking the wing feathers. ‘But these claws, this sharp beak… birds of prey are vicious too, right?’
Gregory looked up. ‘Vicious? Only out of necessity. Animals kill only to eat.’
‘Really?’ The man started to smile. ‘Have you seen a cat with a mouse? A fox slaughtering chickens? I’d argue that the prime motivation for random acts of evil is not survival, but mischief.’
The man wandered around the crowded workshop, letting his fingers brush lightly over the array of eagles, falcons, kestrels and hawks. ‘And you only do birds?’
’ ‘Only’?’ queried Gregory. ‘That’s like saying to Puccini, ‘You only write operas?’ A bird isn’t just a bird. Every bird is different. I ‘only’ carve birds, yes. Birds are my life. My fingers translate flight into wood.’
‘And I bet you’d love to be able to fly, right?’
Gregory laid down his tools and studied the man for the first time. In his early 60s, hair thinning, a slight paunch. Round horn rimmed glasses that made him look like he’d walked out of a wartime movie.
‘Seriously? I’d give a year of my life for five minutes’ flight. Like a bird, not in a contraption. I’ve been up in planes, microlights, balloons. I’ve even been strapped to a hangglider and jumped off a cliff. But that’s not real flight. It’s a cheap imitation. I’d give anything to experience what it’s like to fly like an eagle.’
‘Anything?’ The man leaning closer, dropping his voice to a whisper.
‘In that case, I might just be able to help you.’
The man stepped forward, stretched out his arms, and gently placed his upturned hands beneath Gregory’s elbows. Then, with surprising force, he gave a strong, hard shove upwards. Gregory felt himself being thrust into the air, crashing through the flimsy wooden roof of the workshop. In a couple of seconds he was hundreds of feet up, looking down at his distant workshop and the upturned face of the man gazing up at him, smiling broadly.
As he started to tumble back to earth, Gregory reflexively spread his limbs to slow himself down — and found he had sprouted a vast pair of feathered wings. He glided for a while, caught a thermal, and found himself flying up once more.
Gingerly at first, he tried flapping the wings, and discovered that his powerful new shoulder muscles were able to lift him even higher. He could feel each tendon pulling him aloft, could sense the wind rushing through each feather, could gauge with unnerving precision the air currents that would raise him up or drag him down.
For several minutes Gregory swooped and climbed, flapped and glided, probing each new experience and mentally logging the process. This was how it felt to bank into a breeze; this was what it was like to rise on a current of warm air, effortlessly lifting into the sky as each thermal carried him upwards. This was how it felt to plummet, to check, to rise again. He could feel each muscle, each tendon, pulling and reacting to the infinitely variable densities of the medium of the air. In five minutes he’d gained more insight into the workings of avian anatomy than in twenty years studying textbooks.
One final push to the upper limits of his ability, and Gregory swooped down towards his workshop. He spread his wings and glided to the ground, running for a few paces as he touched down. Finally, he knew how it felt to be an eagle, and he could see where he’d got it wrong for all those years. At last, he could carve a bird with a true knowledge of how they operated.
The man was gone when he ran back into his workshop, but Gregory barely noticed. He rushed to his workbench, and examined the newly started block of lime in the clamp. With an understanding more certain than any he had known before, Gregory reached for his tools.
The tips of his wings brushed over the adze and the mallet, and sent the riffler clattering to the floor. He reached down to grasp it but all his feathers could do was brush the tool further beneath the workbench. It rolled in a wide arc, its handle tracing an ironic smile in the dust, before coming to rest in a small pile of wood shavings and sawdust.