The girl winced as the old man tightened a screw. “Ow!”
“Well, if you would stop cringing so much, maybe I could do my job the right way.”
“I’m holding as still as I can! We’ve been at this for hours.” The girl sighed, trying to stand up as straight as she could. Her legs hurt and her back was fairly screaming in agony. But this was the price one paid. The old man had told her that this would be a long, tiring process.
“How do you think I feel? You stand here, I do all the work,” the old man said in his thick European accent. “This is delicate work.”
“I don’t even understand how you can get that to work,” she said, trying to peer through the mirror at what he was doing. Even with the extreme angles the mirror provided, she had only the dimmest idea of what the old man was doing. She had seen the sketches, vaguely remembered how it all went together.
“It is very complicated, little girl,” the old man said. “Do you know how a clock works?”
“Well, no,” the girl answered, furrowing her brow.
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
She was a girl concerned with things that were beautiful and interesting. Clocks were old and musty and utterly beyond her. “Of course not. So long as they work, I don’t care one whit.”
“Then hush up and let me do my work. I know what I’m doing, and I promised you that when I was done you would have what you wished for, didn’t I?” He tightened a screw, and the sound of intricate metal pieces sliding into place clicked loudly in the quiet workshop. The girl felt a pinch, and took in a sharp breath.
“That’s natural,” the old man said. “Well, as natural as this can be, anyway.”
She just nodded absently, trying to think about something else. They had been here for what seemed like days, her standing in front of the mirrors and under the lights, the old man working behind her. She would have felt unsafe in a dress that exposed so much of her back but the man seemed too ancient to muster any sort of passion. He was as dusty as the old machines he kept.
“Hold this,” he said, handing her a piece of wire. “Be careful you hold onto the leather. The wire will cut you if you let it.”
She nodded and took a hold of the grip he had fashioned. The old man took the other end of the wire and began to work it through the pulleys she knew were back there but could barely see. He was very insistent that she keep out of his work while he did it. But she remembered the armature he had shown her, how the wires would keep the structure together, allow it the freedom of movement she wanted.
“Very good,” the old man said as he took the grip from her hand. He wound the wire around the anchors that they had worked to graft over the past few months, small metal eyelets that had been inserted deep under her skin, screwed directly into the bones until the muscle and skin had grown back over. It had been the worst part, aside from this.
“Everything looks accurate,” the old man said. “Exactly as I had planned.”
“You’re … you’re done?” After all this time, all the pain and the strain on the underdeveloped muscles that had barely been needed in her shoulders and back before, suddenly it was done. It didn’t seem so bad. She had worn dresses more difficult.
“Yes. Would you like to give them a try?” The old man stepped back, looking carefully at his handiwork. If anything was going to give way, he was going to be there to fix it before the whole armature fell apart.
The girl nodded and flexed her shoulders. It was just a graceful roll, as though she were shrugging off a coat, but the anchors held and the wires pulled taut and the pulleys began their task. From behind her on either side unfolded the slender metal structures, all slender spines and a spider web of wires and gears. It looked incredibly fragile, but she knew better. Even a young girl like her could tell when things were built to last.
She continued to shift her shoulders, wincing as her muscles pulled in unusual ways. The anchors, at least, held firm. She barely felt them, they were so integrated into her now. But they pulled where they needed to, and slowly the wings unfolded. They spread out to either side of her, the top of the frame rising up above each shoulder as everything slid into place for the first time.
“Very good,” the old man said softly, barely a whisper. “Everything looks wonderful.”
“Yes, it does,” the girl said more to herself than the man. The mirrors made more sense now, giving her a perfect view of everything opening up now that she was bent forward more and he was out of the way. The clockwork wings were a marvel, more beautiful than anything she had ever seen.
“How do you feel?” The old man seemed a thousand miles away to her. His voice could have been of an ant, crying up to her as she walked by.
She flexed her shoulders again. The wings spanned wide, and then closed with a whisper. She felt the wind, saw the dust kicked up around her, and grinned.
“I feel light. I feel … free.”