A Sharp Breath of Birds

You are two on the day you see your first personal bird. It is the sort of thing you barely remember later, at six, seven, twenty. And yet you cling to it as your first memory: a sleek black penguin waddling through your nursery, it in black, you in white lace, mended and re-mended because you will not stop pulling off the threads to suck. You remember, later, a surprising softness to its feathers. You remember that it went right on past, even though you lunged for it. Your two-year-old images end like this: dark, warm, comforting, gone.

At seven, you see the birds regularly. You incorporate them into all your pretends; there is always some princess carried off by a bird to a nest made of raven feathers and filigreed spoons and shiny bits of silvered foil. Alice from next door easily accepts all the bird imagery as a fact of life; surely everybody plays games with birds in them, and she finds you books with more; the seven sparrows, and the dove maiden, and the nightingale at sea. Sometimes the princess is rescued by Alice, or Alice by the princess, and sometimes both girls rescue themselves, and sometimes nobody rescues anybody and they settle down as gainfully employed bird-bandits and bring more spoons and candlesticks and hand mirrors to the nest until your mother puts a stop to that and the bandits have to put all the things back.

At twelve you swear to keep playing princess-bandits forever, swear it under a double moon with a flock of geese flying past.

At fifteen you, drunk, try to remind her of this.

At seventeen Alice says nobody gets to make nests in real life and she says it louder, ten times, as if enough repetitions will get you to accept it and then she hands you a letter from her sweetheart inviting her to the next dance and asking if she could please bring a date for his cousin, recently home from the war. The paper trembles between you and you look at it for a long time. You fold it up and hand it back. Why not, you say, and a murmuration of starlings on the carpet takes skittish flight.

The rain is falling on the day you marry Alice’s sweetheart’s cousin. It seeps under the cracks in the chapel door, floods the aisle. It soaks your white silk shoes and you are supposed to be paying attention to the words you are saying but instead the words repeat like a metronome: I paid seven dollars for these shoes and I will never wear them again. The water does not seem to bother anyone else, they keep smiling fatuously at this charming double wedding, though the winds lash outside and the windows are blinded by it. Five fat swans sail out from behind the last pew and make their way up the aisle, attendants you did not ask for. Later, there are pictures, you and Alice and the men, and Alice puts her hand on your back and smiles for the camera. Your hands hang there, lifeless, and at your feet, the swan dives for something dead.

A year after the wedding, the feathers start growing in. They line your arms, scarlet and crimson, and you never once think about pulling any of them out. Instead you marvel at them, running a finger delicately over the line of barbs until they ruffle and your breath catches in your throat. The dark-eyed junco that hops along your bathroom sink cocks its head, marveling with you.

In public, you begin wearing capes; very dramatic. But many women are these days. You look at the drape of each one, wondering if it is fashion or disguise, but mostly you look to see if Alice ever wears one. She does not. Alice is unhappy these days; unhappy and trying to hide it—her husband is unfaithful when he’s gone and drunk when he’s home, and everyone knows it, and papers over it with smiles. Your post-war husband keeps to himself; you dust his study and you occasionally forget and dust him, and watch the line of quail pip-pip past his legs. You don’t really mind, because it means you don’t have to worry about your cape at home, and you sit outside with the sandpipers and watch them scurry in and out of your feathers, safe and comforted.

Alice comes to see you, once. You are bare-shouldered, and the feathers are everywhere, a scarlet cape of their own. She startles at the sight of them, and an exaltation of larks startles in reply. She sinks into a seat, unconsciously rubbing her tight-sleeved arms. It is summer, and even in this town sleeves are no longer required. You think at first they cover evidence of her unhappy marriage, but then you see the way her fingers scratch at the tight material, pull and tug. You think about how the feathers grow from your skin, and you think about how pulling them out might leave visible red dots, might make you itchy and irritable.

So, quietly, you talk of anything else, stories and books and plays and music, and nothing about birds, nothing about silver, nothing about nests. Until Alice is laughing like the old days, and promises to come see you again, the next time her husband is out of town. She will not, you know. She will be too afraid. But she wants to, you think, and a cardinal lands encouragingly on her knee. Alice stares at it for a long time, all inquisitive eye and bright red wing.

When there are enough feathers, you pat your sleeping husband goodbye, leave him a single carnelian feather for luck. You climb out of your attic window and onto the roof of the house. Your wings snap out, clap against the night sky, startle five ruby-throated hummingbirds and a bat. The night is black and the stars shine in it like little scraps of silvered foil. Hummingbirds in tow, you fly across town to see if, just perhaps, someone is staring out of their bedroom window, awake and in need of rescuing. The hummingbirds drop off along the way, but you pick up a pair of hunting owls, and a stream of swifts up far too late, so when you arrive for the rescue it is in the company of a comforting host of feathers and down.

But what you find instead is Alice, standing there. Alice, awake, on her own roof smiling at you, and behind her something unfolds with a snap and your breath hitches at the sight. Alice, ready, with wings as bright and wide and crimson as your own.

This story was written as a companion piece to Laura Christensen’s artwork “Swan Dive” and will be forthcoming in a unique anthology, Then Again: Vintage Photography Reimagined by One Artist and Thirty Writers, available on Kickstarter in April.

Tina Connolly

Tina Connolly’s books include the Ironskin trilogy (Tor), the Seriously Wicked series (Tor Teen), and the collection On the Eyeball Floor (Fairwood Press). Her books have been finalists for the Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards and her novelette “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” is currently on the Nebula ballot. She co-hosts Escape Pod, runs the flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake, and is at tinaconnolly.com.

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