Borrowing Wings by Angela Rega

Angie Rega is a belly dancing librarian with a passion for folklore, fairy tales and furry creatures and grew up in a household where nobody finished a sentence in the same language. She still struggles with syntax. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Future Fire, Crossed Genres, PS Publications, Belladonna Publishing, Little Fox Press  and The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror. She has a cat that speaks Spanish, often falls in love with poetry and drinks way too much coffee. She keeps a small website here


Borrowing Wings

img_1938The problem with loaning out wings was that too many people didn’t return them.

Lisette printed off the week’s overdues. Another three pairs of wings had not been returned. It was a futile exercise sending the slips out. They always arrived back on the desk marked return to sender and not known at this address. It didn’t baffle Lisette; she of all people knew why.

Lisette picked up the last returned envelope. Skylar Singh. She knew the name. It belonged to the young girl who had recently become a customer at the Library.

“The wings must be returned in three weeks,” Lisette had said to Skylar as she unclipped the girl’s chosen pair from the hooks suspended from the ceiling. They were one of Da Vinci’s designs: two upright posts carrying a double set of canvas wings and a tangle of leather cords, cylinders, and foot pedals. She wasn’t sure how the girl was going to carry the wings home by herself but it was not in her job description to pry. Even though she wanted to. Skylar aroused a certain curiosity in Lisette. When the girl stood at the circulation desk waiting for the wings she twirled a lock of hair with her index finger and a spray of pure white feathers fell around her. The girl exchanged a glance with Lisette and Lisette knew then that they understood each other. The girl was more swan than goose like herself, but a feathered girl, just the same.

Skylar had not returned the wings. And now, according to Feliz, the library manager, Skylar’s distraught partner had appeared at the library to say she was missing.

The shift finished with another pair being requested for a pickup later that afternoon but Lisette couldn’t be bothered. She would take the long way home. Sit for a while on top of the hill to look out at the sky.

At the hill’s summit, she sat on the damp grass, letting her fingers wander through the blades of green and dirt. A worm! She snatched the wriggling thing and popped it in her mouth. It wiggled against her tongue . . . mmm . . . delicious. A habit she could never give up. She couldn’t get her little son, Marcus, to share her delight in this treat, yet he was part feathered creature. She bit hard, the worm’s texture sticking fast against tongue, and looked out. The horizon was empty of clouds, as if it all belonged to her. She wanted to be alone without question, before Jann would be wondering where she’d gotten to.

Jann. She had run away to be with Jann, in his weatherboard cottage that stood on stilts to avoid the floods and marshes where she could wriggle her toes and sigh with delight. “No, my feathers weren’t stolen from me,” she had pleaded with her sisters when they arrived in a gaggle, hissing at Jann at the doorway, ready to claim their sister back. “That idea belongs in fairy tales. I have done it of my own accord. For love.”

“You know what these mortal men do, love you, then fatten you up for market or kill you with a bow and arrow to find another,” one of her sisters spat out. Anger made the girls turn to their essence. Their necks elongated and they hissed and bobbed their heads menacingly toward Jann, ready to peck him with their beaks.

“Love is a compromise,” she said to her sisters.

“But you’ve given up your ability to change form! How can you deny your true self?” They waddled away in disgust. Lisette watched them through her front window, she watched as their waddle changed to a saunter as they changed to female form again. She watched until they became specks and all that was left was a trail of feathers on a cobblestone path. Then, she went outside to collect them. She knew she would never see them again. Geese girls are like that. Once two sisters never spoke for a lifetime over an argument about a silver neck chain. Now in this moment, she missed them, their smell, their squawky senses of humour, so that her heart ached. What had Jann compromised for her?

Still, she had been happy in their togetherness except when the southerly arrived and licked her face in a way that reminded her of the time that restlessness was still a part of her. It was the way for everyone with wings. Once, she spoke the language of the winds better than English. Now, she spoke it in a broken form. She had tried to teach her son the words relevant to understanding the winds: the Gnach Glach that raised columns of dust to spirals, Gnachic, the whirling dust devils, and the Nky Nkga when the pressure funneled the winds through the Tymus Valley, making it perfect for gliding.

Sometimes, she watched Jann sleeping, his lips curling upwards on one side, the way he snored gently like a cat and she wondered why she hadn’t fallen in love with a man like Da Vinci who dreamed of flight? She had seen men wearing goggles and soaring across the sky in hot air balloons and aeroplanes . . . why not them? But she loved him. His strong but gentle hands, the kindness in his eyes, his inability to hunt another creature and only eat that which the soil provided. He was gentler than her. He would never hiss and spit when angry the way she could.

But she knew she wasn’t unique. There were mortal women who had forfeited their dreams for love. Selkies who had given up their skins, their life in water, and mermaids who were haunted by the songs of the Mediterranean too old for anyone but the kraken to remember since they had given up their scales. And Skylar, too, had been a feathered girl, probably a Swan Maiden, far more elegant and majestic than Lisette had ever been in her gooseful youth.

A blustering, punching wind blew her hair back off her shoulders. The Arba—high pressure over the hills and low over Tymus. It beckoned, cajoled. She tilted her head skyward, and that was when she saw her.

Skylar. Gliding. Across the afternoon sky of sunset and orange with Da Vinci’s wings. Lisette took a deep breath, a lump catching in her throat. The girl flew with a wingspan of approximately fifteen feet, on a pinewood frame. She wore a headpiece for steering and hand cranks connected to a rod and pulley system that made the wings flap. Her feet pedalled furiously, too. It would have taken a lot of energy, but it was well worth it from the look on Skylar’s face. Lisette remembered that look. For a moment, it was herself she saw gliding in the sky, then another, her favourite sister, then it was Skylar again. She could have flown side by side, swooping, pecking, squawking together, but she could no longer fly. By the looks of it, this poor girl couldn’t, either—well, except with wings that weren’t her own. She got up. Already the sky had started to darken. She needed to return home.

***

“Where have you been?” Jann asked. He had set the table for dinner and sat poised as if ready to jump up.

“Sorry.”

“There were high winds this afternoon and you didn’t take your coat.”

“I haven’t taken my coat for many, many years now.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Mammi!” Marcus squeezed her shin. She broke into a smile at her son’s strength. She loved him fiercely; it was almost enough to stop the yearning for flight, for those brief seconds of his clutch.

“How was your day?” Jann asked at the dinner table. Lisette played with her food, circling it about the table with her fork. She couldn’t get the words out.

They ate the rest of the meal in silence. Later on, she checked that her son had done his homework and ran a long bath. Jann did not approach her.

They all went to bed early.

In the darkness, Jann reclaimed her by spooning, like a sea urchin to a rock. “I love you, Lisette,” Jann whispered into her ear.

She loved his scent, the touch of his bare skin against hers. It was one of the reasons she had been able to give up her feathers so easily. “I love you, too.”

“Did the winds make you restless?” He nuzzled into the curve of her neck.

“Yes.”

“It worries me that one day you’ll leave me. Leave me and Marcus.”

This was their way. The script they had followed all these years. She should offer reassurance here. This was always the way. First it was, “It worries me that one day you will leave me,” now it was “me and Marcus.” And she would answer, “I’ll never leave you.”

“Lisette?” His voice was uncertain. The silence too long between question and anticipated answer. She felt the quilt move across her shoulders as he pulled it over to lie on his side, his back now to her.

They lay in the dark on opposite ends of the bed, their backs facing each other’s in silence. She listened to his heavy breathing as he waited for her to reassure him that she wouldn’t leave, wouldn’t take flight.

As Jann fell into a slow rhythm of breathing indicating sleep, Lisette shivered. Despite the warmth of Jann’s body each night, she had never really felt warm ever since she had given up her feathers. An image of Skylar in her moment of ecstasy was imprinted in her memory. The yearning burned right through her and made her want to weep—was it anger? Jealousy? She wanted to fly like that again. She crept out of the bed and tiptoed upstairs to the attic. Through its window she could see the ebony black sky with its white stars and silver ribbons of stardust that lightened the Milky Way.

She was surprised at how everything was coated in fine dust; it had been so long since she had been up here. She opened the chest made of fine twigs she nested in when she was young. Relics from youth. A feather from each of her sisters, the ones that she had picked up off the street that day they had left in anger. An unhatched, abandoned egg of her sisters that she’d secretly kept and the small hand mirror her mother had given her when she said she was leaving to be with Jann.

“I am not your mother anymore. I watched you first imprint as a gosling to water, your first worm pecked from the soil from your own beak. You choose none of this. I leave it to you to make your own choices. I say good luck to whatever you choose. I am too old to mother you, you are too old to be mothered, but here is a mirror to truly see yourself should you need guidance.”

It was a small, oval-shaped mirror with a silver filigree handle. After she’d moved in with Jann, she would gaze into it on those restless, homesick nights. At first, she saw the Goose girl, the girl who arrived at Jann’s with a headdress of white feathers from the ones growing from her collarbone, later the woman who no longer made headdresses from her shed feathers, then . . . neither goose nor woman. The mirror showed a milky film, as if she had no image for it to reflect back. She lost the courage to look after that.

She would now.

She gasped. In the reflection a goose carcass was entwined around her body. The long neck, now limp, wrapped around her shoulders, her goose eyes lifeless, the beak hanging from the middle of her throat like a macabre necklace. She lifted the mirror and tilted it down toward her to see her back. The joints of her limp goose wings were propped with sticks worn like a harness on her back. Her body trembled but when she went to touch the dead neck curled around hers, the harnessed wings, they were not there. She covered the mirror again.

Her stomach churned; she wasn’t sure if she would bring up the night’s dinner. She missed that aspect of herself. The restless girl she was who hissed and squawked and loved water, land, and air. She thought of Skylar’s expression in that moment of glorious flight.

“Lisette?” Jann called from downstairs. She returned to their bed.

***

Feliz called Lisette into her office. It was not the first time.

“You’re not working to capacity. I have to let someone go due to budget cuts at the end of the month and right now that someone is going to be you.”

Lisette nodded. She knew Feliz had never liked her. She was a complete mortal, didn’t understand duality. Most mortals didn’t. With Jann’s contractual work, how would they manage without her job?

“Unless you bring back Skylar. Get those wings back,” Feliz said, making firm eye contact with Lisette. “Get the wings, get them repaired, and get them out on loan. We have over fifty-two reservations for them and her partner has offered a large sum to the library if we find her.”

“I can find her, but I need to borrow a pair of wings to do it.”

“Why do you think I picked you? You know, Goose Girl . . .” She stopped short and Lisette realised she was sizing her up—how frumpy she was now. “. . . well, used to be.”

Lisette swallowed. “There are no more wings left except . . .”

Thwack! Feliz hauled the large pair of wings out from under the desk and threw them down on the table. “These were returned last week—you won’t believe it! Goose wings! Huh! Just your luck.”

A feeling welled inside Lisette. It started at the pit of her stomach and made her mouth water. Fly! She was going to fly again. With a pair of wings for her own kind. Her eyes smarted and she bit her lip to stop crying.

“Who returned these? They’re a bit dusty . . . but beautiful.”

“Just make sure you find her.” Feliz broke into a chuckle. “Or you really will be out of a job.”

Lisette carted the wings downs the narrow staircase to the stack. Inside were a few pairs of wings that hadn’t been loaned out—redundant due to lack of feathers or faulty parts. She looked up at the hang gliders that looked like giant bat wings. There was another Da Vinci design that was now on loan, their hooks empty, suspended from the ceiling. She visualised the helicopter design, the shallow saucerlike gondola with upright posts that carried double sets of wings. Lucky she’d finished her shift when these were loaned out; they were so heavy to take down from their display hooks.

Lisette dusted the goose wings, her fingers caressing their downy softness. She catalogued them but didn’t activate the tracker.

 

***

“I am to fly again,” she said that night to Jann at dinner. He didn’t say anything but kept whittling at a piece of wood. When she looked she could see it was of a gosling, with her son’s face.

“Marcus fell off the roof today, said he wanted to fly like you. Do you think it wise to fill the boy’s head so young with tales of flight?”

“I’m sorry.” But deep down, she wasn’t. Why should she be? She had been a Goose girl. Given up her goosey ways for love; her sisters were right. A wave of guilt rushed through her, making her cheeks hot.

“We agreed no stories of Geese folk and the chasing scent after storm clouds . . .”

“Not until he showed evidence of sprouting feathers, I know, but he is part goose, too!”

“He doesn’t sprout feathers yet. He may never!”

Their voices had raised to a volume unfamiliar to them both, and they fell back to silence. She looked at Jann, but could not find herself in his eyes the way she used to. She wondered what it was that he saw in her eyes? His younger self? Her eyes welled with tears.

“And how will you fly again? You going to leave us?”

YES! Lisette wanted to scream. I want to reclaim who I am. Instead she stayed quiet about her thoughts. She could see from the way Jann’s top lip trembled that he was afraid of losing her even if she frustrated him beyond belief.

“Feliz has put me on probation due my poor work performance. I must find a missing customer. She says if I get her back with the wings I can keep my job.“

“What if you get the taste for flight again and don’t return?”

She hesitated to answer. Seeing Skylar flying had given her just that. The yearning gnawed at her like hunger. “I don’t know what I want anymore, Jann. I love you but I don’t know what I want.”

“Marcus?”

“Don’t.” She put her hand up. This was unfamiliar. She had never spoken like this to him before. How could you leave your son? She heard Jann’s voice loud in her head.

She left the house without saying goodbye and walked back up to the hill where she had seen Skylar. A light breeze caressed her bare neck; she wished it could elongate again and she would feel the wind in that sensuous way, tickling, tightening around her neck in the different movements of flight. Krylgiagah. The word came back to her: the sensation of wind against gooseneck that makes a goose’s throat tighten in ecstasy.

She trembled as she slipped the wings on. Her skin itched as if a full flock of feathers would sprout. Then she climbed to the edge of the cliff, extended her arms, and flew.

Flap. Flap. —Ascending was like walking uphill. Already her arms ached.

Swipe down. —Air climb.

Flap. Flap. —Up another echelon of air.

Swoosh. —A pocket of air pushed her through.

Whump. —The wind whacked at her cheeks.

She squinted as the wind and debris stung her eyes. She had gathered momentum. A fine sweat broke across her brow. Flying! She was truly flying! A smile broke open her face, rippling through her as if she glowed.

She was suspended. Air pockets, wind tunnels, open sky. There was no other thought in her head at the moment but of flight. Krylgiagah. One. Now they were one. Her throat tightened and she let out a honk of ecstasy.

***

Lisette needed to focus. And just at that moment when the wind made her gather momentum and she held that glorious balance of weight, Skylar came into view.

Skylar circled and swooped, descending in spirals and then back up again. The expression on her face was a combination of ecstasy and freedom. As she glided past so that the air brushed Lisette’s face, Lisette fell in love. Not with Skylar, but with the part of herself she had long forgotten, that she had thought she lost, that Skylar had been a catalyst to find. She didn’t want to find Skylar. Lisette wanted to find herself.

She closed her eyes and held out her wing to touch the tip of Skylar’s. And Skylar reached out and touched hers. Flight. The sensation saturated her body, making her quiver. She squawked with joy. Lisette hadn’t squawked like that in so long! Not since Marcus said his first word or took his first step. She watched the young girl dancing with the wind, the tips of their wings still touching. Lisette flew closer, her right wing overlapping Skylar’s; it would be easy now to bring Skylar underneath her larger wing, and bring her back. Lisette’s neck was longer, her beak sharper. She may keep her job, get Feliz to stop nagging her with her bad work performance, . . . just a little farther to the right.

Lisette banked to the left.

It was not up to her to bring her back. The girl was happy. And so was Lisette. She swerved back to where she had come from and pushed forward, her body riding the wind.

She looked downward; the curtains of Marcus’s bedroom drawn open, the lights on, his little round face looking up at the night sky. One day she would take him, teach him what was inherently in him, too. The need for freedom.

But not now.

But, Jann, yes. Now. She swooped down. And hovered over the rooftop where he sat waiting. His toes hung over the guttering of the rooftop and he sat, elbows on knees, his chin resting on his hands gazing at the night sky. Next to him was the gondola shaped dish with upright posts and erect wings. It was Jann who had borrowed them.

“Lisette!” he said. “You’ve come back!”

“Come,” she said. “Take a flight with me.”

END


Photography by Toni Holtzman. Toni lives in Gaylord, Michigan, where she works as a hospice R.N. by day, and often night. She loves to travel, and recently returned from visits to Rome, Greece, and Israel.

All Special Issue photos are © 2016, Toni Holtzman