I found her. Slightly broken, by the bins. Russet feathers. Small uncertain wings. Hazel eyes, deep-set and still amidst all the fluttering. Little pink left leg damaged, bent at the ankle.
In the hollow of my ribcage something opened and closed. Heart about to take flight. I cupped my hands and laid them in front of her. Determined on her good right leg, she hopped into my palms.
I should have taken her in to work for them to look at but I didn’t want to. I thought of them splinting her leg, maybe caging her. No.
A splint the size of a pack of Rizla, tacked to the leg with masking tape and stapled just under a centimetre from the joint, not too tightly.
Each day before work I checked her toes. Left water in a shallow plastic tray from some long-gone takeaway sushi for her to bathe in. I’d look up from street level and see her outlined behind the blind, perched on the sill of my tall, wide window.
She fit into my routine. Easy company. Someone I could chat out loud to.
It was months since Kiran left. After the first month or so, our friends stopped coming over. They were always more Kiran’s friends than mine.
I rarely smiled. I never played my guitar. I went to work. Did my laundry. Lived my life. I carried on. Boring, for friends who are only half yours.
The average healing time for a bird’s leg is around six weeks. Soon I would be faced with a choice: cage her, or let her fly.
Two weeks dawdling over the decision. What if “the wild” was dangerous? What if she never found her own kind?
Both things were completely possible in the cold grey city streets.
Her leg grew stronger. I would let her go. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a cage.
One night, I was drinking a glass of Echo Falls, with her perched on my knee. The weight of her felt heavier than usual, her tiny claws sharper through my jeans. Her spine beneath my fingers thickened, stretched and straightened. She kept her eyes on mine and I didn’t, couldn’t, look away.
One time I heard of a python who started sleeping beside its host, stretched to its full height. It looked affectionate, but actually it was sizing him up before pouncing one morning. Rush of teeth and tearing flesh. Guy barely survived.
As the bird became taller and taller, heavier and heavier, I couldn’t help but think of that story. I wasn’t afraid.
She spread her wings wide, ticklish against my skin. And then there were arms around my shoulder and waist. I took my gaze back from her and ran it over what I now held:
A young woman. Naked. Light-skinned. Shivering.
It seemed so natural.
“Here.” I pushed her gently into a position beside me on the couch. Wrestled out of my dressing gown. Helped her put it on. Along her shoulder blades remained two even lines of brownish feathers, the colour of her hair.
“Water?” Her voice was chirpy, slightly croaky, high and odd and lovely. She tried to stand but her legs were unsteady, especially the left one, tiny splint still dangling from her new skin. My instinct was to bring her a shot glass, but I checked myself and brought a pint. Human sized. She drank it within a minute. Then laid her head on the arm-rest and fell asleep. I got off the couch and covered her with a blanket. Then I stayed up all night.
She woke at five as the birds outside were beginning to make song. Her short hair, brown at night under the forty watt, was red in the early sun. She stretched her arms, seemed surprised at their heaviness, brought them back down to her sides and smiled at me. Beautiful.
Her eyes flitted around the room with all the amazement of a baby learning to see in colour. She didn’t speak much. I asked nothing. I was awed. In the presence of something awesome, I felt I shouldn’t question.
The weeks fell into place. Our routine stayed the same: she would wake earlier than me and before I left I would run her a bath. She was impressed by the colours of Radox, unnerved by bubbles. Evenings together. Echo Falls and bad TV. My life unchanged, except for everything. We never spoke a lot but I loved her.
Doubt crept in the morning I caught her reflection in the bathroom mirror. The feathers on her back were looking stronger, her leg beneath the water straighter than before. I knew she would leave. Prickle of loss in anticipation. Slow drum of sadness. Everybody leaves.
When I got home that night, she was sleeping deeply, back turned to me. Building her strength. Getting ready to go. I drank my wine slowly, tears wobbling the room. Then I walked over to her and lifted my loose-white T-shirt from her back. The first feather struggled like a tooth. The other three came out easier. Horror. I pulled the T-shirt back down over her body. Four spots of blood stained the cotton. I left the feathers lying on her back. When she woke she would think she was shedding them. She would never know. Could never. In the morning, when I saw her tear-stained face, I promised myself I wouldn’t do it again.
Promises made in daylight are easily forgotten once the sky is dark. Every night I plucked more feathers. She never stirred. And if they were strong enough for her to fly, they wouldn’t come out so easily. I was helping her. Stopping her dreaming useless dreams. I was making her normal. I left the feathers where they fell from my fingers, more and more each time. Every morning my heart broke at the look on her face. Every morning I promised her it would be OK. The night I plucked the last feather I cursed myself, then settled into a strange peace. How could she leave without her wings?
After that, she never went unclothed in front of me. She kept her arms folded around her middle, holding herself together. She wouldn’t wear the dresses I bought.
She was awkward and angry. It was like she had just realised the meaning of nakedness, and she was ashamed of it. She learned to run her own baths, shut the door before I could push it open to brush my teeth, comb my hair. She spoke less, sang more— strange, unpleasant sounds.
Sometimes she would reach around and feel the space on her back, searching for lost wings.
I came in early one afternoon. She was waiting, leaning on the kitchen counter. The blinds were rolled up, the windows wide open, letting in the breeze. Blue shirt, bare feet. She was trembling. The look on her face. Those eyes.
“Why?” Her voice wavered but her eyes stayed, steady and liquid on my face.
No good asking “why what?” I knew she knew.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry,” and then, “You knew?”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“I loved you.”
“I love you.”
“I wanted you to stay.”
“I would have stayed anyway.”
Her eyes still on me, she crossed her arms downwards, grasping the hem of the shirt in her hands. She pulled it over her head, revealing her complete nakedness underneath. Then she walked past me, towards the window. I saw the two thick lines of feathers on her back. The pale down on her arms. She pulled herself with difficulty onto the window ledge.
“No!” The feathers were not big enough to carry her new weight. If she tried to leave me now she would die.
Yet she stood in the frame and spread her arms like wings.