When I was winged and I had sisters, when I was still a thing that flew, there came a hurricane. Blown far from home to a land that dripped with Spanish moss, feathers heavy with rain, wings faltering in the wind, our flock had no choice but to land and to transform. Shed our feathers, wait out the storm. Huddled together, cold and naked, but firmly grounded by our now-human feet and our now-human heaviness, we stood, my sisters and I, in silence beneath the tree cover, shivering. The world was blue and grey and flashing, no part of it still.
I’m not sure what the man was doing out in such foul weather. I’ve never known what drove him from the warmth of his mother’s home that day. I didn’t see him then, though he saw me, and I didn’t ask him later. When the thunder ceased we heartened. As the sun rose, the rain subsided. By midday the earth had started to dry out, slowly, like bath water from a tub with a drain clogged with hair. We let the sun warm our strange skin. As the afternoon waned, the time came to pull our feathers out from the thatch under which we’d stowed to shield them from the downpour. Each of my older sisters found her own and shook her wings dry, took her proper shape. Each except for me. I had not seen the man in the storm but he had seen me.
My sisters took their bird forms. I did not. All around me now, my family stood as swans. They watched me searching, frantic, through the leaves and swampy earth. Hands and knees, fingernails and elbows, whole body caked in mud. Night fell and they grew impatient, flew away, left me behind.
That’s when the man stepped out of the shadows, my plumage captured in his fleshy hands.
“At last,” he said, “we are alone. I love you,” he said. “Marry me.”
After we were married, we moved into his family home and lived there with his aging mother, their wormy dog, and three or four chickens kept for their eggs. Whenever one stopped laying she would be dinner. White and dark meat. Leg. Breast. Wing.
In time I bore my husband’s sons. Pushed their slimy, skinny souls into the world, shell-less and vulnerable, from the cleft in my wrong-body. When they were children we played these never-ending games of hide and seek. The children delighted in them, little smiles illuminating their little faces when I found them and they got to ask “again?”
Jeremy. Avery. Gordon. Sebastian. James. Wilhelm. Peter. Samuel. Malcolm. These were the names of my children, oldest to youngest. Malcolm especially loved the game. My baby. Small enough to crawl up into the lofted part of the derelict chicken coop or curl into a ball inside the oven, and always the last to be found. The game could go on for hours, the way that Malcolm played. As I found his brothers, one by one they would join me in the continued search for him. High and low, indoors and out, upstairs and down, between the cushions of the couches.
It was on a cold day that we found him in the wardrobe in the hall, up at the back of the high shelf where my husband kept his collection of thick fur hats.
“How’d you get up there?” Jeremy asked as we joined together to pull him free from the narrow space. Down tumbled my youngest son and with him something I did not recognize at first, turned from white to grey with dust, tucked away at the back of the hat shelf in the wardrobe—a place too high, too far for me to ever reach—smelling of mildew and of closet. Molting.
“What’s that?” asked James, nose wrinkled at the filthy thing.
I took it up, myself into my hands. I said to the boys, “Tell your father I’ve gone.”
Phoebe Cramer is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her past work has appeared in NonBinary Review, The Dart, Slink Chunk Press, and Bard Papers. She can be found, occasionally, on twitter @PhoebeLCramer.