When I first cracked through the barrier of that tract of skin, the sun bathed my fluffy head, and all I could think of was my short yet wondrous existence on my strong protein skeleton. A harbinger of a trajectory towards warmer lands before the end of September. I’d grow and proudly protect my carrier against the elements. I’d diligently serve the laws of aerodynamics without being trained how to do so. Feathers like me are as important yet as easily replaceable in the sky domain.
No bird with half its mind set right would ever get attached to any of us. Plucked out, spread around nests, lost in the wind; these are some common ends to our collective journey of keratin build-up before the annual moulting begins. Yet we serve such a high purpose that there is little to no room for drama or overthinking. No other sentient creature can fly as high and fast as a bird does, and it is only because of us, complex early triassic descendants, wearing it all due to our complex cellular processes. But no one ever seems to explore the possibility of self-awareness in the fractions.
We have successfully managed to wave our way into eternal existence and evolution through pillow stuffing and arrow decorations, elaborate dream-catchers, delicate quills or even accessories for human hair and ears. It’s something about our lightweight nature that has fascinated people for aeons, who sometimes carve our image onto their shoulder blades. If only they could fly. They do not require a full avian sample to wish away their limitations. Our existence is proof enough to them of visible powers at play – sometimes only disrupted by mites sneaking in between the vane, causing too much chaos and sneezing frenzy amidst pillow fights doomed to be swept into a bag of biodegradable waste.
But I am none of such feathers nor will I ever be anything more than what I have come to be; locked up inside a glassy vacuum, exposed to the curious eyes of preschoolers, and forever bound to fall and crash. I’m an experiment feather of white and grey pigment in equal parts that has never left this lab. A predecessor in our field of work had even managed to gracelessly land on the moon surface next to a hammer, but those days of silver-screen glory are long gone.
I have never had the chance to float since I was captured nor will I ever degrade into precious nitrogen fertilizer for some thirsty soil outside these whitewashed confines. This prolonged existence in the void is all I have apart from some distant memories of flying to an exotic land once. But how I dream of being swept by a sudden wind gust like so many fortuitous others of my kind when the last visitors leave.
The 13.30 teacher is standing tall before the air-sucking instrument, explaining in the simplest of words how the right environment is necessary for two objects to fall down at the same rate. “Gravity must be the only force at work, so the air needs to go,” he raises one eyebrow while pressing the blue button to take my oxygen away. I don’t need it to be, unlike him, but sometimes it makes for a nice change to that instant falling hard on the lower end of the tube next to a clinking penny. Cheers and clapping erupt whenever the young uninitiated witness my seemingly delicate nature turn to a pile of mass, too fast for their eyes, but slow-motion cameras provide all the evidence to turn them into believers. The weight I suddenly carry on my rachis is unbearable. I cannot resist the pull downwards as my barbs stretch upwards betraying my will. A new free-fall starts with every new press on the button. Once could never be enough when a miracle occurs.
The teacher goes on now to capture his audience with a tale that attributes some sort of magnificence to the equal fall of all things regardless of size, material, and weight. In the void we are all the same, he would like to elaborate but doesn’t on second thought, as he is clearly not mentally ready to be affected by my plight on neither a physical nor existential level.
No one had ever really seen the professor climb up the endless stairs of the leaning tower yet drawings of two balls of different volume were thrown down hitting the ground simultaneously. A striking moment of what historians would later call a thought experiment, but not the first one to disprove old Aristotle’s gravity theory. Galileo got all the credit for it while feathers have become an inseparable part of a fascinating spectacle to watch in any vacuum setting for as long as I can recall.
Despite the glory some may think this premise carries, I can’t help but feel the need to float when I’m allowed not to fall. Gravity makes me dizzy, empty, and weary. The falling humans don’t have to experience, but for when they stumble or meet the eyes of a serendipitous stranger, is relentless. The centre of the earth doesn’t care about which part of me lands first either, so predictability ends before it begins.
Why do they get to defy gravity with their unnatural parachutes while I must serve their science till this tube turns to shards? Why can I not roam the air currents and be swept back and forth till I turn to dust under a flexing mushroom? Why can they not find a substitute feather to relieve me from this nightmare that never ends with a hypnic jerk?
I have been falling every Monday-Wednesday-Friday from 10.00 to 17.00 with 15 minute-long breaks of silence per labour hour. Sometimes when the staff returns, I hear of a rumour about some galaxies potentially crashing into each other sooner than the next earthly war could erupt. Some are scared, others rejoice at the prospect of destruction, few are indifferent. Regardless of the catastrophe scenario, I cannot help but despair as I see no end to my gravitational oblivion.