A short story
by Rebecca Hodgkins
You cross the rubble with your dad, shirtless like him, because your shirts are wrapped around a woman's wounded arm, and she is on her way to one of the medical tents that sprang up like a dark circus after the bombs started falling. She will live, thanks to you and your dad. All you can hope is that your mother is still out there, somewhere, unconscious but alive, yes, dragged from last week's wreckage, tagged Jane Doe and dreaming of you and your father. You hope this but you cannot bring yourself to speak of this hope to your dad, whom you suspect may not think the same way. Since you are only six years old, you keep these thoughts protected like glass wishes because if they break, you may never feel six again.
Your father is a good man with a silver chain around his neck, a medallion of St. Michael the archangel lying against his sweat-stained undershirt. He is a man who still clings to certain fragile beliefs. Your mother's return is not one of them. He knows better. He found all he could of her at the ruined marketplace after the bombs fell. You do not know this. He cannot bring himself to tell you this yet, but hopes that you will understand somehow on your own. He keeps you with him at all times now.
Everything around you is grey—the rubble, the sky, the dust that settles on your shaved head, on your father's shaved head. Even your dad's trousers are the color of clay, a dusty black belt dividing them from his sleeveless undershirt. He has never used the belt to strap you, the way his mates sometimes strap their boys. You have a difficult time seeing around you as you cross the rubble because the last deluge of bombs sent up a great cloud of dust and smoke into the already misty evening. Everything above you is obscured. Sounds travel in strange ways through this haze and things that should sound far away by now sound close. And closer still. The planes carrying the bombs were chased away hours ago by England's own. You listened to the fighting above like a heavenly battle, listened to the engines grow quieter in the distance. Engines that sound like they are coming back now. Not as many, maybe only one or two. Enough. Others around you do not hear the sound above the sirens. Mothers calling their children's names do not hear the sound.
You and your dad look up into the sky. Something moves above you, small and high, too small to be an airplane, and quiet. You can almost make out what it is through the smoke—it looks like a man, a parachutist. To you, his parachute looks like a pair of wings. He circles like a hawk on air currents, the heat of the city rising to keep him airborne. You think it must be very peaceful up there, and wish you could join him. Maybe you could see your mother from up there, or pick out the medical tent where she lies unconscious, waiting for you to wake her up. You are sure you would know the one.
The peace is shattered by the unmistakable shape of an enemy fighter emerging from the smoke and haze. Before you and your father can think about seeking shelter, and that thought comes to you as a quick instinct, you see another plane swoop down after the first. Mouths open, you and your father watch the deadly dance, listening to guns fire in the battlefield above your heads. Impossible, but it looks like the parachutist is caught between them, though he must be far below the fight. Yet you see fire blossom on his parachute, looking even more like a pair of wings now. He plummets, and your father’s eyes widen, his hand reaching up to clutch the medallion at his chest. He tears his eyes away and looks down at you, screams for you to run home. You don’t want to leave him, but his eyes compel you. You never want to look into them again if they stay like that. They push you to run and you do, stumbling over the debris.
When you reach your one-roomed flat, your knee is skinned but you don’t care. You pound up the stairs, legs keeping time with your heart. You don’t stop to catch your breath until the door is closed behind you. All you want to do is curl up in bed so you do, taking with you your favorite toy—a wooden marionette. Under normal circumstances your father would tell you that you were too old for such things, but things have not been normal for a long time. Or perhaps this now, this chaos and dust and cowering under the roar from above, perhaps this is what is normal. You are not a good judge, because this has been the shape of half your life. You play with the marionette, making it walk over the hills of your knees under the covers. A voice in the hall catches your attention but it does not belong to your dad. Waiting is difficult, especially when you think about how you are waiting for two people. So you think about the marionette instead, about the green hills it crosses, far away from the war. Soon, you are dozing under the warm covers.
A sound works its way into your sleep and tugs you back. This time, you hear your dad’s voice in the hall. He speaks in the same tone he used the last time you woke up crying for your mother, the tone that lulled you back to a soft sleep. You know that there is only one other person he would comfort in that voice. His step is deliberate on the stairs, like he is carrying a fragile package. You sit up, kicking the marionette to the foot of the bed. Your eyes lock onto the door, watching the knob turn. A bulb in the hall backlights your father and you cannot see his face. You can see that he carries a blanket-wrapped person in his arms. There is something funny about the blanket but you are too intent on your father’s face as he steps into the light of the kitchen. He reads your face as well, the hope of who he brings home. He shakes his head and you know at last that she really is gone.
The world for you goes blurry and hot. You can’t be sure of anything anymore. Before you can cry, before your tears can dissolve your heart, he motions for you to get out of the bed. The burden in his arms stirs, drawing your bleary attention, and you see that the blanket is completely covered in snow-white feathers spattered with blood. You scramble out of bed and your father lays his burden down. There is an unfolding, like a piece of crumpled paper easing back toward its natural shape, revealing a man. His face is agony-twisted and will not unfold. His head is shaved like yours. The blanket continues to open. It is not a blanket—you can see that now—but a wing. The possible and the impossible have changed places in your life, brought in on the arms of your father.
The man you thought was a parachutist is not a man. Only one wing has unfolded and it will be the only one. The other is gone and the bedclothes soak up the blood from where it had been. But a wing like that could not just disappear. Not a wing like that one. Before he can stop you, you push past your father and dash down the stairs. You fly as if you had wings of your own back to the place where you stood looking into the sky. They are still falling, the snow-white feathers spotted with blood. You reach out your arms to capture them all. Other feathers lie scattered in the dust and you collect them. Some are whole and some are singed. They smell of smoke and vanilla. They feel like powder in your arms. In your arms they flutter as you race back to the flat.
Your father is tending the wound as best he can. When he looks up at you, there is a moment when you can see shame in his face, shame that his son has run in fear from the miraculous and the dreadful. In the next breath he sees the feathers and realizes what you tried to do. He smiles at you and his eyes are his own again, the way you remember them before the war.
The man who is not a man is propped up on his right arm, the wing lying under it, long pinions drooping to the floor. Free now of pain, his faded blue eyes look out of a grime-covered face straight into you. His face is not beautiful, even out of pain, but his square jaw reminds you of your dad’s so he does not frighten you. He raises his grime-covered left arm and gives you a thumbs up, like an aviator. Then his face closes like a fist and he bares his teeth. As he rolls onto his back, his mouth opens, releases a howl to shake heaven, hell. His agony rocks the entire building and the floor itself gives way at the bottom corner of the bed. Your marionette slips from its hiding-place and dangles tangled and upside-down over the new black hole.
You will tell this story only one time and you will tell it to your youngest granddaughter when she visits you in hospital. At the end of your life, she wants to understand you, so she has been reading about the war. She is an observant girl, catches odd, relevant details from what she reads like feathers from the sky, picks up the rest from where you left them on the ground. She is a dreamer, and you don’t want to disappoint her.
You will tell this story after she tells you the story of voices singing in the sky that stopped a battle, and asks if you ever heard them, and if they were beautiful or dreadful.
Copyright © 2010 Rebecca Hodgkins
Image courtesy of hidesy
“‘Wing’” was a gift in the form of a dream I had about fifteen years ago. There were no words spoken, only Marie Callas singing in the background. I woke feeling like I'd fallen back into bed, with the image of the marionette hanging over a bottomless void still in front of my eyes. I tried half a dozen times to write “Wing”: in third person, in first person, in present tense, in past. Eight years later it flowed out one afternoon while my newborn boys were napping. I'd love to see it as a graphic novella someday."
Rebecca Hodgkins has been a lab rat, a marketing assistant, a graphic designer, and a copy writer. She is currently enrolled at the University of Colorado's College of Nursing and vacillates between wanting to be in Labor and Delivery or Hospice. Her fiction most recently appeared in Everyday Weirdness, an online journal. Rebecca lives in Colorado with her husband, twin sons, and a Jack Russell Terrier named Sam. She is currently looking for an agent or publisher for Just Another Love Letter, a humorous novel about angels behaving badly. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.