The Flock is Your Blood

You do not want your wings.

You twist your back toward the mirror, tweeze, pull. Grey stalks at your shoulder blades, slow intimate slide of extraction, the satisfying stretch and snap of your skin as it clings and then surrenders.

You do not want these wings. They are—will become—not the luminous white of a snowy owl’s, nor an eagle’s streamlined obsidian. Only a patchy dung-brown, the gawking limbs of a vulture.

You know, because those of your parents sprouted long ago.

Tweeze, watch feather stems spiral into the trash. If you pull hard enough, they won’t gather in second-third spines down the backs of your ribs; if you pull hard enough the stumps of your shoulder blades will bulge only a little, like baby hairs, so itchy you could claw out your skin in the middle of Calculus—and you almost do, once, get sent to the nurse’s office with blood all under your fingernails as the blonde girl next to you texts vomit emojis to her snickering friends.

If you just watch yourself, every word, every breath, you can hold it off for another year.

* * *

There is a boy.

You meet in drama club—not because either of you knows how to act, but because he’s watching you forget your monologue from the grubby dark doorway of the auditorium and afterward he says, hey, I’m new, his eyes bright in the shadows, and you catch a pale tuft of down feather on the sleeve of his peacoat.

There is a boy, and the next day at lunch he sits at the table in front of yours and you watch him out of the corner of your eye, wondering if you’ll see another grey wisp, another portent of unbelonging, and when he turns to the side his grin flashes too wide and you think he knows, he knows, he knows.

The next week the itching gets so bad you sprint to the bathroom and tear off your coat and sweater and t-shirt— it’s so cold in this school, you’re always cold—and pull, right there in front of the sink where anyone could be watching, and blood is weeping trails down your back and it hurts like mad and you’re making these crying-gasping sounds like a dying cat and you hear his voice—are you okay?—around the corner.

You tell him to fuck off, and he fades away.

But in the library that afternoon, when he brushes past you with an indifference so flawless it’s a work of art, it’s your hand that shoots out to catch his sleeve, your mouth that tumbles out the words—hey, I’m sorry—and then, choking: please.

He looks at you then, the bloody crescents you couldn’t scrub from under your fingernails, and then he tugs up the hem of his shirt and says me too and there they are, pressed against the backs of his ribs, dark and growing and whole.

I’ll show you something, he says, something else, and you follow him out the back door, past the art class trailers and the tennis courts and the parking lot, out into a field where there’s only swaying wheat and a faded barn and he says, look up.

* * *

You stand and look at the washed-out sky.

What? you say. Your fingers itch for tweezers.

Wait for it.

Cold wind snakes down your neck, tugs your hair. You stick your hands in your armpits. The highway drones behind you—truckers and families on holiday speeding wearily past, counting the endless spool of mile markers as fields give way to mountains give way to sea. No one ever stops here.

You want to crawl out of your own skin. You have always wanted to crawl out of your own skin.

His breath clouds the empty air. Here they come.

Your fingers have frozen by the time you see them. A trickle of birds, then a stream, wings spanned longer than arms. From so far below, you can’t make out the mottle of their feathers, the choked forest of bristles where shaft must meet skin—only flight, the aching grace of bodies streamlined and borne up by nothing but wind. They are the image of—the word that comes to you is honor, the way stagelight casts a face, any face, in arrested focus, makes them worthy of being seen.

For some reason, you want to cry.

One of them lands near you, as if drawn by your scent, your hunger. Its feathers are glossy amber, its curved beak proud, stirring, lethal. As it regards you with one golden eye, it occurs to you that you and it are two lives borne of the same blood. Parallel histories drawn, for a moment, perpendicular.

That you are as much a monster as it is, and as little.

Hello, you say, and it nips your ear, though not hard, as it might one of its children.

When it takes off, an ache settles in the back of your throat, as if someone you know is leaving for a long trip. It doesn’t look back—why would it?—and the flock circles one more time and is gone.

You look at the boy. He looks at you.

Now do you see? he asks, and you walk back to school together in silence.

You think about how you’ve never seen your parents fly, the gawk of their half-sprouted appendages like third and fourth arms—a flattening, a negation. You think about the bitten twinge across your ear, and the way that bird looked you in the eye, and how it must have grown up surrounded by sky.

You think about how your back still itches like hell.

At the door to the library, the boy stops, waiting, and you realize you’ve stopped too.

Yes, you say, and it feels like the whole world leans in to hear. The world or just him, smiling and grave, his wings tucked neatly against his skin, keeping him warm. Yes, I do.

Previously published in If There’s Anyone Left, November 2020. Reprinted here by permission of the author.