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Floating Feathers, Wings Red and Wild

by Lauren Dixon

3070 words
Listen to this story, narrated by Dana Naughton

Bird-clawed and bony, we tread lightly in the shadows, accustomed to the dark.

• • •

This night, it’s too late to turn back, to break the pattern I follow by rote. Donovan stands against a lichen-edged wall, uneven stones pressing into his back. I hold him, fingers forcing space between his ribs. He sighs, dark hair falling into his dark eyes, thinking how he’ll throw me against the wall, shatter my skull, and fuck me. I lift my index finger to his lips, smile into his unknowing and push his mind.

Gulls call from the ledge, longing to see beyond the blind.

• • •

He does it, of course. I give him no choice. And I breathe through the pain. When it’s over, I stand back up and shake my head, he stutters, those slow drops he calls thoughts transforming into a kiddie whirlpool of disbelief.

“Shh,” I say, finger on his lips again, running my other hand through his tangled locks. His head is wet, but that is expected. I might not have absorbed the impact, but he did. They all do when they try to force pain onto me. My hand comes away from his skull, a black red in the dim light.

“I can help you,” I say. “Make you like me completely. Take the longing for life and fulfill it, and you will never, never know sorrow the way you do now, the way it clings to your bones, drips into your veins, and burns through your skin.”

He looks at me, hand on my arm, already broken, already mine, already too far gone to ease the aching swell spreading through my bones.

It takes but a moment for me to see his past, and then I can’t ease anything of his, not even to keep my sisters safe. I turn him loose into the sea, where his lungs will be filled yet. I stand there sorry, still yearning for him to fill me. It is then I begin to bleed.

• • •

Some say we’ll take back the night, swallow the sleepers whole, take their everything until they wake up, desiccated, clamoring out of thirst.

Oh, Lilith, what you’ve brought upon us.

It wasn’t so long ago men heard the stories of how we clawed them open and wrote the stories of their desecration on their loins. They knew to fear us, felt the possibilities of blood from a single, forbidden touch and knew not to take what wasn’t theirs.

When the first man shot off my mother’s wings and brought her to the ground, we hid, and instead turned our will to vengeance into redemption. They wouldn’t know us, wouldn’t even know themselves after we were through. We would take it from them and bring it into ourselves. Stronger. And lasting forever. If we would only do this one thing. But they would never remember what they’d done, and what the twisted would continue to do. Never be made to atone.

They forgot to fear us. Such is the way secrets die. They lie rotting in boxes while the living breathe no hint of their power. And, wilting, our secrets trembled beneath a sunless sky until they too lost their power, and in turn, ours.

In the grace of dawn, my mother and her sisters came for me. Ripped off my claws and plucked me free of my wings. I was twelve when they took the day and replaced it for night.

“The blindness will not last,” my mother said. “But you will come to need it, Cerese, to take comfort in it.”

Even so, respite comes only for a moment, for I always grow — ever full, every longing.

Now that I’ve given him to the sea, I can’t turn back. While the sea takes him, my lungs burn for oxygen — a fire that spits and rips with each sputtering breath.

“Can you take me?” I whisper, but the sea refuses to answer. I should know its response by now, I’ve asked so many times.

So I’m left to wander, having sacrificed my own sacrifice for life.

• • •

The sisters are coming for me. It’s easy to hear them in my skin, pressing and calling, skittering through the streets, trailing their own sacrifices behind them.

They’ll check me for wings, for the lice of love, to be sure I haven’t sacrificed for the right reasons. All to confirm there’s still power left in these too-human bones.

• • •

“But why?” my mother asks, tapping a talon on the stained rocks. She lazes her long, human-like limbs over red lichen, the only hints of her other being in her talons and the nubs of wings straining at her pink tank-top, a disconcerting brown stain splashed across the torso. Her eyes stay fixed on the crashing waves, never on me. “We don’t judge, we fix the broken and regenerate what we lose. What’s wrong with that? The world is full of scars.”

My grandmother eyes my body, still half-naked from my botched encounter. My flesh all prickled — feathers threatening to extend again.

“You got to fix that,” Grandmother says quietly, fingers brushing along my back. I wince.

They have no right to touch me while I still bleed for him. But they do, their power as hard and strong as his body might have been. Once I’d made him part of me. How I wish I hadn’t seen, how I wish we didn’t always see the twists and turns of sickness.

“Don’t make it so impossible, Cerese. Look at you now.” My grandmother refuses to let go.

“Is this your dream?” I want to ask, to spit my broken wings at their feet, to rip my ruptured organs out of my body and feed them the long, slow beats of pain.

But I don’t. I watch my mother’s gaze still fixed on the sea, and let my grandmother brush my mottled flesh.

I know they feel the same pain.

• • •

Mother once told me that for a time we took to the water, but that kingdom was even harder than this one — and the pressure, the pressure, it always killed.

We skim from the land, take from the deadbeat, brooding crop of the tangled and confused, merge with them and offer new life in the form of our flesh. That is their redemption, though we once did it otherwise. How we made them pay, made them hear the screams from their nightmares, and carved our names into their chests.

Today, we take them, and a few, a very lucky few, we pick to carry on our line. But so often these days the children come out mangled, corrupted by the history of our flesh. There’s always a price.

Sometimes, though, we find women who know our true names. They wish for us, praying in their sleep that we were sent to ease the strain of life. But so much fear becomes a wall and the passage through hardly bearable. I know I must find the woman I saw in Donovan, though, before this blood is all I’ll ever have, all I can ever be. I want to be free.

• • •

Before I gave Donovan to the sea, his mind gave me a picture he’d long buried, so scared he was more demon than man. We both knew the truth, though. I would cure him.

Cora was his sister, curly red hair and a breezy laugh, always in the sun. Donovan clung to the shadows, pressed against the walls while Cora flowed through the grass, turned cartwheels, and rolled down the long hill above the bay beside their house.

She would drop to the ground and his insides would grow hot. He’d caress himself, pretending it was her instead.

And one day, she rolled down the hill and he followed, insides burning, a voice inside saying yes, do it, it’s what she wants. And he did, watched her cry, and touched her hair and said it was okay, that it was natural and they would always have each other.

“I will always be there for you,” he said.

• • •

But he left Cora in her own blood, left her to clean up the sticky mess of him and she curled into herself, cried out at night and left the afternoons on the hill for afternoons in her room, the lock turned, a chair wedged beneath the doorknob.

Their mother didn’t know, couldn’t understand why her brilliant baby began to wet the bed again at twelve and screamed and sobbed if she tried to leave them alone, even for an hour or two.

For Donovan’s part, he left her alone, that afternoon bottled tight inside. He licked his lips and caressed the memory of Cora in the sun. Now that she shrank from the light, she drew him no longer. He needed those moments in the bright to keep him out of the dark.

• • •

In a way, he gave Cora to me. I could take her as his sacrifice, but the image turns my stomach, like so many of their images do. She did glow once, it’s true. I hear her in the darkness, so far away, bricked up behind his wall and her own. Why she said nothing, why she kept it and let it merge, I can’t say.

She calls for me now. She knows I gave him to the sea.

“Can you take me?” she whispers, like I did, but I already have something more in mind.

She can be in the sunlight again, the way I stay clinging to the dark.

• • •

When we hatch there is only blindness, only the glow of night around the edges.

• • •

It’s like breadcrumbs, the path Cora’s laid for me. Around every corner a floating breeze of lavender and green grass, the trail she’s set. Grass so I won’t forget. Lavender to say, “I need you too.”

She doesn’t have to remind me. I’m still bleeding.

Every man we take, we keep something. Because I let him go, I have a scar, a jagged edge that rips at my insides. Cora waits for me to stitch her up, to swallow the sticky pain whole and gift her with my wings. It’s not so simple.

I find her finally, scrubbing stains from a bar counter with a dirty rag. I could laugh but the obvious grief is too much. She’s made it so easy, but still the sorrow lays heavy.

Why didn’t we take her all those years before? It’s our power, it’s within our rights, but we left her to be broken. Maybe we didn’t know. So much blindness.

I sigh and sit at the bar, pleather stool creaking. I don’t look like a savior. I don’t look like anything but a scrawny, bird-like woman whose neck sticks out too far. My fingernails slope in a predatorial curve — and my shoulders — let’s not talk about my shoulders.

Her hair frizzes in the heat and a sheen of sweat cakes her tank top.

It’s this Gulf air that makes us all crazy.

She pushes a glass at me, sloshing amber on the gummy surface she’s cleaned at least ten times today.

“I know who you are,” she says.

When I say nothing Cora glares and dabs at the puddle between us.

“I’m not crazy. You were in my dream. You said you would come, and hey, what do you know, here you are. It’d be a first, you sticking to your word.”

I raise my glass and take a drink. She throws the soiled rag on the floor and walks away. She’s giving a show, but she’ll come back. I start counting until she does.

It would be too much for either of us to say, “I need you.” It violates the line we cannot cross, a wall of crumbling stone and moss, destined to give way to the sea. All the pressure of holding on.

The liquid burns my throat and I choke, spit it on the bar. She shoves a feather into my hand.

“Clean it up yourself.” She disappears again, into the back. Like that, she’s gone. I drop blood onto the creaking stool, trail it behind me out the door and around back, where she leans against a wall and smokes.

I think of her fifteen years earlier, laughing curls shining as she tumbles down the hill. If only we’d plucked him then.

She exhales a coal black cloud. For a moment, I feel the blindness and reach for her with my bloodied hand.

She sidesteps me. “What makes you think I even want your help? Look at you — you’re totally stuck too. Nothing you do helps anyone. Little lonely lost.”

But her smoke fills my lungs. It is then I sprout my wings — the dangerous, killing wings — and we fly.

• • •

I take her to the seawall, where jellyfish bob in the dark, starfish cling to the rotting wood of the bay.

Cora’s heat, her hands gripping my wound. We’re both so bloody beneath this black sky.

“This is where I let him go.”

She dips her toe into the murk, our reflections lost.

“He’s not gone. You know that.” She points at my dripping side.

“Doesn’t it hurt? Mine still does.” She lifts her shirt and shows me where he cut her, trying to hold her down.

“It wasn’t as deep as yours, you know. And he doctored it up after, so mom never knew. But it still hurts. Never goes away.”

“It can,” I say, simply, a whisper that cracks over the crashing waves.

“You know I don’t believe you. Some fairy godmother you turned out to be.”

I pull her to me and hold her, even though my side aches. Her memory burns it like salt.

“That’s not who we are, that’s not what we do,” I whisper into her ear.

She turns and kisses me, the first time anyone’s ever done it voluntarily. I flinch but she holds her hand over my wound and says, “It hurts less when we do it this way.”

In that moment, we are both blind again, back at the beginning. But when she stops, the stars in the sky burn me like acid.

My stomach swells with pooling blood, my body unable to contain the damage any longer. I guide her hand to the wound again and together our fingers curl inside, reaching for the escaping heat, an orb of us that’s taken its own form. Once we pull it out, I lift it up, and we lose the blindness.

In the glow of its light, she sees herself, young and old, new and already dying, alone, afraid and hidden from the sun. But then we turn the orb around and there’s me, wings and all, skimming along the ocean, my mother calling behind me, afraid to beat her wings and be shot down again.

This is our possibility, everything we’ve ever been and will never be.

“Touch it,” I tell her, “and we’ll reset the clock.”

Fingers trembling, she brushes the day it happened, the day we both lost our wings.

• • •

The sun is so bright as she rolls and rolls and rolls. Cora doesn’t hear her brother as he tiptoes up behind her, but then a feather flutters down and stops him for the briefest moment. She sings and waves at the gulls in the sky, not caring if they shit or sing, but that they are with her.

Then she turns. Her brother still stands there, feather on his upturned palm. He crushes it when she asks to see it. All at once he begins to cry.

“Don’t cry,” she says, and picks the feather up from the ground. “If you cry, the gulls will hear. They don’t like salt water, you know.”

“That’s stupid,” her brother says, face red. “They live off the ocean, dummy. You think they don’t like salt? I heard they’ll eat anything in the ocean if it moves. Wanna bet?”

He steps toward her and she stops smiling.

“No, Donovan, leave me alone. I meant they don’t live in the ocean is all.”

“We’re still gonna see what they like. You think they’ll rescue you? Or eat you? Let’s see.”

He grabs her wrist and she pulls, pulls so hard it feels like her hand will come off, and finally, when she’s tugging as hard as she can, tears streaming, he lets her go, and she’s loose, but flying, flying, tumbling backward off the hill and into the bay.

The water hits her, so cold and blinding and never ending. She falls so far, so deep, without breath, without anything but darkness and that stupid feather still clutched in her other hand.

And Donovan? Donovan? Where is he? She falls so, so far.

• • •

From above, he watches the ripples die. Cora will come back, she has to. Above, a gull cries and dives at him. Then another and another and another, until he sees nothing but white feathers, hears nothing but their screams, the skittering of talons against his skin, feels nothing but the hot breath of wind as he falls backward toward the bay.

She’ll come back, she has to, he thinks, and just before he crashes into the rocks, he sees another gull, too big to be real, rising from the sea and swirling toward the sky.

• • •

I let the water weigh down my feathers until I can barely breathe. After all this time, all this blood, all this blinding pain, Cora comes to me.

Her red hair swirls as her fingers close on my shoulders. I could let her go, shake her off and let my mother clip my wings, but I won’t. This is my future and her past and we are one.

Cora’s hands shine against my scars. This water, this heavy near death that binds us, lifts us up. My wings close around us until we break the surface.

I see Donovan against the rocks, the real scars where they belong. Cora doesn’t see, doesn’t know him in her new body. Together, we lift from the surface and rise into the sky.

I am her mother, and she is mine. Her red wings will shine forever in the sun and no one, no one will drown us in the blood of sorrow. We will not hide from what we are. And they will know to fear us once more.

A technical writer by day and weirdo author by night, Lauren Dixon has written lingerie catalogs for the Army, talks a lot about vaginas, and doesn't eat animals unless they ask her to first. She attended Clarion West in 2010, holds a PhD in literature, and her work has appeared in Menacing Hedge, DIAGRAM, BookLifeNow, and other publications.

Issue 29

May 2018

3LBE 29

Front & Back cover art by Rew X