We Belong to the Sky
Anil knew the moment she first set eyes on them. Mid-summer and the air smelled like tomato vines. She was crouched next to her mother, a smaller copy of the short, dark haired woman, toes wiggling into the dark earth, arms wrapped around her knees, paying more attention to the orange cat on the garden wall than to her mother’s explanation of how to thin carrots.
The dark shadow that swooped over them drew her eyes upwards.
“Look, Ma,” she pointed. Together they watched the two men on their huge white swan wings circle lower and lower until they disappeared behind the neighbor’s house.
That was supposed to be her. Anil held her arms out to her sides as if she were soaring, but arms were all she had. Anil’s brow furrowed. “Where are my wings?” she asked.
Her mother looked over at her and smiled. “We’re human. We don’t have wings.”
“Where? Where are your wings, sweetheart?”
“That’s what I was asking you!”
Her mother blinked and rubbed a hand across her face, leaving a streak of dirt on her forehead. “We’re human. We don’t have wings. Maybe you want wings, but you don’t have them. That would be impossible.” She resumed pulling tiny wisps of carrot leaves out of the dirt.
Anil didn’t say anything more, but she knew her mother was wrong. She got to her feet and wandered over to the garden wall. The cat had slipped away while she was looking upwards. She lifted herself up onto the wall and stood up, reaching for the sky and turning in a slow circle. “Wings, wings, wings, wings. Where are you, my wings?” she whispered.
The wings on Kesia’s back shifted, as if in response to some far off call that she could not hear. They were always doing that, part of the reason she knew the wings did not belong to her. She reached for the smooth red rock of the cave wall, another point of contact, and stared down at the brown ribbon of water snaking across the broad bottom of the canyon. She would give anything to be down there, feet dangling in the muddy water, instead of up here. She had stood here at the mouth of the cave every day for two years and she never wanted anything other than to be down there or to back away from the precipice.
“You can fly, your wings know, you have nothing to be afraid of,” her mother recited from the center of the cave mouth, impatient rather than reassuring.
She tried to imagined leaping from the cave mouth the way her brother had done, the way her mother wanted her to, but all she could see was herself, wingless, reaching for the ground and falling. She swallowed hard.
Her mother pulled Kesia away from the cave wall by the arm and tilted her chin back so she was forced to look up at the top of the far wall of the canyon and the blue skies above it. “We belong to the sky. It is long-past time you realized that,” her mother said. “The sky is reaching for you. All you have to do is look up and reach back.”
A thin fingered, cool hand came to rest between her shoulder blades. “Look up!” her mother hissed. And then she shoved Kesia with all her strength.
Kesia screamed as the red canyon walls streamed by her and the winding river grew larger and larger. She reached for the canyon wall, but it was too far away. There was nothing for her fingers to grasp hold of. It was exactly what she had just imagined.
Except the white wings she bore on her back snapped open and caught the air she was plummeting through. There was a moment they would have borne her upwards, but her gaze never left the ground and her will to put feet back down on something solid was more powerful than the instinct to fly.
She swooped in a controlled spiral in vast circles between the canyon walls, her breath shallow, heart pounding, until her feet hit the earth and she stumbled, dropped to her knees and let herself pitch forward, arms and wings outspread so she came to a rest whole body flat against the sand. It was then that she began to cry. The wings folded themselves onto her back and Kesia wished desperately that they would just let go of her.
Heart pounding from exertion, Anil gained the top of the hill. Only a few paces away, the hill ended abruptly in a rocky plunge to the red desert that began at its foot. She bent and took her shoes off, stepped to the edge of the cliff, curled her toes around the rock face. Before her there was only red clay and blue, blue sky to the edge of infinity. Her heart seemed to leap in her chest. She smiled and leaned forward ever so slightly, not intending to test gravity too far, spread her arms out and behind her, tilted her face upwards, closed her eyes, felt the wind play in her hair, heard the rush of her own blood past her ears, felt the lightness of being on the edge, pretended, fiercely, that her feet were not holding her and that the air was.
Then her heart leapt once more and stilled completely. Her eyes flew open and there it was before her, glistening red and on huge, metallic blue butterfly wings, heart and wings beating in time. She lifted her arms and opened her hands outwards so it hovered between her open palms and she gave it to the sky, as though she had a choice and it would not have continued to rise without her gesture, as though all she had ever wanted was for her heart to take wing.
It flew up and up until it was just a pinprick and then she blinked and could no longer even decide where it had been. She took a step back and sat down heavily. She thought that this might be the moment to cry and give up on wishing, but she did not have it in her.
The craggy trunks of the cottonwoods towered over Kesia, their crisscrossing branches and shifting leaves providing relief from the blank blue of the sky. She sank down onto the wet ground at the base of one of the trees, letting the wings partially unfurl to either side of it in an embrace, letting her back rest against the tree and her fingers dig into the soil. Despite feeling almost at peace, a fluttering began in her chest, like butterflies in the stomach, pure energy, except higher, tickling her throat.
She coughed, once, twice, and her heart flew out of her mouth on little wings she hadn’t known it possessed. It hovered near her head until it occurred to her to reach for it and then it began to rise on steady wingbeats. Her hand was left trailing after it. Its motion became lost in the shifting leaves. She let her hand drift down to rest on her chest and there was nothing under it. She closed her eyes and leaned into the tree.
Once again, there was the sound of little wings flapping. Perhaps her heart had come back. Kesia thought to open her eyes, but couldn’t. The rustling of the leaves overhead and the murmur of the river faded until there was nothing. Maybe this was what it felt like to die.
Anil stared off at the horizon, the line of red against blue. Maybe all the wings she’d ever had or ever would have were the ones on her heart. Maybe that was it. Her vision began to blur and she did not try to refocus it, though the hint of movement drew her eyes upwards. She could just make out a brain in the air above her head, bulbous and borne on dark, leathery bat wings. Her vision blurred further. She felt the wind gust across her cheek and then she didn’t feel anything.
From nothing, Kesia felt the wind, invisible hands pulling at her hair and clothes. There was blue horizon before her, it was all she could see. She caught a whiff of the sharp tang of sagebrush. And she finally felt the rough rock beneath her crossed legs and looked down over the edge of a cliff just a step away. She scuttled backwards, but froze when she felt the ground begin to tilt downwards, realizing she didn’t know what was behind her.
She looked over her shoulder and didn’t have to peer around the white edge of a wing to see the hillslope rolling away behind her. And she realized she couldn’t sense the wings at all, no weight on her shoulder blades, the wind ruffled no feathers. She reached behind her and was met with nothing more than light linen on her back. She didn’t even feel the absence of wings.
She had left the wings behind. She hugged her broader new shoulders, traced the line of a blunter chin. She hadn’t thought to dream of it quite like this, but she wouldn’t change anything. She lay back on the warm stone, feeling its solidity and hardness under her head, her shoulders, down the length of her arms and legs all the way to her palms and heels. She pressed her fingertips into the rock, grounding herself further, and then she pressed one hand over her heart.
“Stay here,” she murmured. “No more flying for either of us.” She smiled.
Finally, fuzzily, sensation returned. Dim shapes began to arise from the darkness. Birds called above her. Anil could smell cottonwood leaves. She could feel bark beneath her hand. The trunks of trees took shape around her. A river murmured not too far away. The shifting green leaves above her head and the texture of the bark gained clarity. She wiggled unfamiliar fingers and toes, shrugged thin shoulders, felt her wings shift against the bark of the tree.
She sat upright. She glanced over her shoulder and she could see the edge of white feathers. She reached around her back and stroked them, smooth and cool under her fingers. She could feel them. They were finally, finally real.
She pushed to her feet. She stretched out her arms and her wings. This was always how she was meant to embrace the world.
She started running towards the sound of water, beating her wings as she raced between the trees, leaping from the low river bank into flight. Her eyes fixed on where the branches tickled the sky. She laughed and reached up for it the way the branches were. Her wings beat, powerful against her back, and she felt the sky finally reaching back to her.