Winny was in high flight, dancing among cumulus clouds, when she spotted Nicholas. He was a tiny speck sitting on the ground near the muddy banks of a river that flowed turgid and slow. She had been looking for him all morning, and the last place it had occurred to her to look was down. The ground was no place for cloudfolk.
She furled her wings and fell into a steep dive, the rush of the air past her ears growing to a high whine as she descended like a blonde-haired, blue-eyed missile. As she neared the earth and Nicholas, her wings burst forth and she braked, settling into a hover above him. The wind from her wings tousled his light brown hair.
“Nick,” she called. “What are you doing down here? I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Just leave me be, Winny.”
“Why are you on the ground?”
“Because I can’t fly anymore.”
“Can’t fly? That’s ridiculous. I see two good wings on your back.”
As if to answer her, Nicholas gave his wings a half-hearted flap, their brown feathers looking dull and lifeless. He stared into the muddy waters of the river. “I have sadness in my heart, and it weighs me down.”
“Sadness! But that is the one forbidden emotion. You should know that.”
“I know. And now I know why it is forbidden. Sadness weakens the wings.”
“Indeed. Well, think happy thoughts.”
“I wish it were that easy.”
Winny hovered above Nicholas, her wings a flaxen-colored blur. “Oh, Nick,” she sighed. “What is it that brings on this terrible sadness?”
Nicholas stood and looked up to her. “I am in love with one who loves me not.”
Winny’s wings stopped, and she dropped to the earth with a squish as her clean, bare feet sank in the mud of the riverbank. She winced, took a few steps, then looked back to Nicholas. “Love? Just who are you in love with?”
“Her name is Nena. She’s the river woman’s daughter.”
“River folk? They’re groundlings. Cloudfolk should not consort with groundlings.”
“I know this is what is said, but I do not care. I will find a way to win Nena’s heart.”
“Why do you care so much for this… Nena?”
“Well, she’s beautiful.”
“So am… so are our people.”
“It is difficult to express. She is so different from cloudfolk, with her olive skin and raven-dark hair, and a… fullness to her form that stirs feelings in me. She watched me once chasing a murder of crows, and laughed at my antics. I was smitten then, but I have now discovered that she holds in her heart a love for a boatman’s son. I saw them together as I flew down to greet her this morning.”
“Hence the sadness.”
“Yes. But I will beat it. I will stay here on the ground and find a way to win Nena’s heart.”
“Stay on the ground? It is dangerous down here. There are wolves, bears and other beasts. And there are men who would do you harm — perhaps this boatman’s son most of all. Men are warlike and belligerent. Don’t you know the lore?”
Nicholas sat back down on the riverbank, dangling his feet into the water. “I know the lore. It was what made me curious of men. Their ways seemed intriguing. Anyway, what choice do I have?”
“You could forget this Nena. Perhaps then your sadness will pass, and you may return to the firmament.”
“I’m willing to give up the firmament, and cloud castles, and cumulus candy, and everything for Nena. I’ll just furl these damned wings, and live as a man of the ground. That’s where Nena is, anyway.”
“Oh, Nick, have we truly lost you?”
“I am afraid so.”
“Very well. I will go and tell the others.”
“Farewell, Winny,” Nicholas said without looking back. “You were always a good friend.”
“Yes… a friend, I guess,” she said, and she flexed her wings. She then leaped into the air, but she quickly came back to the ground. Her eyes widened, and a chill flashed through her small, delicate frame. She stood crouched for a moment, her wings trying desperately to get up to speed, but failing. “Think happy thoughts,” she whispered to herself. She thought of the times she and Nicholas had spent together, playing hide and seek through puffy white clouds, or braving the turbulent depths of a cumulonimbus storm front, or floating on thermals in the evening twilight, counting the infinite stars in the darkening sky above.
She closed her eyes and thought these thoughts, and flapped with all her might, but her feet still stood firm on the muddy ground.
She looked at Nicholas. He still sat motionless, staring into the river. He hadn’t noticed her failure to fly.
“Nick,” she said at length.
“I’ve… I’ve decided to stay here with you.”
He turned around to face her. “What?”
“Yes. You called me a friend, and… and that is what I am. I will stay and help you with your endeavors.”
“But Winny, you said it yourself. The ground is dangerous.”
“I don’t care. You need me. Perhaps together we can come up with a plan to win this Nena for you.”
“Winny, that is wonderful. I… I feel better already.”
“Good enough to fly?”
Nicholas arched his back and flapped his brown wings. Winny felt the breeze from his efforts against her skin. “No, not that good yet,” he said. “I still can’t fly.”
“You will fly again one day, Nick.” Both of us will, she thought to herself. When I figure out a way to show you that Nena isn’t the only fish in the river… or bird in the sky.
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Fried Fiction, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.