Autumn 2017 / Short Story and Poetry Contest
Down Feathers

“People’s Choice” winner in the 2017 U of T Magazine Short Story Contest


Lyra was seven when her wings grew in. She’d first noticed a dull ache in her shoulder blades. Over several weeks’ time, the feeling grew sharper, jabbing at the thin layer of skin on her upper back. She craned her neck and looked behind her into the mirror each morning, tensing different muscles to see how they reacted to the change. On the day she saw the first tufts of black down feathers poke out from a hard tip of bone, she ran into the kitchen to show her mother, who bent down on her knees to examine them. She took a tuft between her forefinger and her thumb and rubbed it. She said that it felt as soft as a cygnet and looked not unlike an adult tooth peeking out from a set of gums.

Within the following month, Lyra’s new bones grew into a giant frame. They extended past her head and down to her ankles. Down feathers dusted the house. She shed them as fast as they grew. Weeks later, sleek black feathers, larger than those of eagles, took their place. The tips trailed on the ground when she walked, and one wing beat was enough to take her airborne. She began to sleep facedown with the pillow against her chest, her knees tucked into her stomach and her wings folded along her back, covering her body.

Lyra’s mother worked at a flower stall in the corner of the market square and often brought back wilted roses or hydrangeas at the end of the day. She lined them on the wooden bookshelves in Lyra’s room and tucked them into her fairytale collections so they would dry and keep. Each night, she swept the fallen feathers into the trashcan. She kept the largest ones and arranged them aside lavender sprigs in glass jars on Lyra’s nightstand. As she fixed the arrangements and swept the room, she talked about where she had flown when her wings had grown in – the selkie caves and the pelicans’ islands and the beaches, where no one could go without flight. Lyra sat on the bed and listened, swinging her feet.

“A shame we have to lose them,” her mother said every time, “but mine were never strong like yours. You found gold with that pair, so take care that you use them.”

They practiced flying after dinner each night. Lyra jumped off the bed, the dresser, and the kitchen table. She wove around the house, landed, and jumped again until the stars came out.

One night, when all the lamps inside were extinguished, Lyra alighted on her windowsill and flew to the rooftop of the red house down the block. Her friend Elliot was sitting by the chimney. His wings were a deep auburn, softer to the touch than hers. He was two years older but had shed his last down feathers only the previous week. When he glimpsed her, he tipped his head in greeting. His wing beats were unsteady as he rose to his feet.

“You came,” said Lyra.

“I guess so,” said Elliot, shrugging.

“Do they know you left?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Let’s head down then,” said Lyra. “The shells are just about ready, and we’ll get them before anyone else.”

 “We’ll be back by midnight?” said Elliot. He cast a look down the empty street.

“Of course. That’s the rule, isn’t it?”

“That’s the rule,” repeated Elliot, “I do have to get up for class in the morning.”

“I do too, you dolt,” said Lyra.

“Then what are we waiting for?” he said.

He unfolded his wings and gave a quick ruffle, then bent his knees and pushed off from the rooftop.

“You don’t have to do that little jump,” said Lyra. She had noiselessly drifted up beside him.

“Quit bossing,” he said. “You got a head start. I’m still catching on.”

Lyra opened her mouth to say that she’d never needed to push off, but she changed her mind and flew on instead in silence, slowing her wing beats to match his pace.

Summer was waning and a half moon hung low in the sky. It nodded when it saw the children approaching, and Lyra smiled back. They flew past the bakery, past the bookshop and the watchmaker’s and came to the cottage where the old poet lived steps away from the coastline. Before Lyra had been old enough to go to class, her mother had left her in the man’s care every day while she worked. He was the only grown-up she had ever seen with wings. He’d picked her up from town in the mornings and carried her in his arms to the cottage. It had been years since they had spent a day together, and she had no memory of his face. When she thought hard, she remembered the smell of chives and the sight of a bustling crowd beneath her in rush hour. Her mother had told her that he lived alone and had read her poems in the language of the stars.

Lyra could hear the stars’ voices as she flew. They sounded like the flutter of hummingbird wings, beginning as whispers and growing louder as they drew nearer to the beach. Lyra stretched her own wings to their maximum span and could not help admiring their size. She held them wide open and coasted straight over the waves, revelling in the feel of the wind brushing her feathers and the sea spray splattering on the underside. Though it had been only one month, she could no longer remember how it felt to be grounded. She glanced back at Elliot, and saw his eyes closed, but she could not decipher if it was for fear or pleasure.

They touched down in the damp sand. Small red crabs scuttled around the beach, leaving miniature trails in their wake. The ocean was black, but the stars were so thick that the entire sky seemed infinitely lit.

 “Let’s start with the largest ones,” said Lyra. She flitted over to a dead log and pulled out a partially buried conch shell.

“Like this!” she said, waving it over her head.

“You call that a big one?” Elliot yelled back. “I didn’t come all the way down for that. Watch me do better.”

He removed his sandals and tucked them behind the log, springing around the scurrying crabs. They ran up and down the beach, dancing by the rising water line and lifting into the air each time a wave came too close. Lyra held the front of her shirt out like an apron to store her shells. Elliot examined each one carefully and brushed the sand off before putting it in a damp drawstring bag that he had pulled from his pocket.

When they had no more room, Elliot gathered his shoes, and they flew up to the nearest rooftop and lay on their backs, wings outstretched. Lyra took out the first shell that she had gathered.

“Ready?”

Elliot rolled onto one elbow to face her and said that he was. They put the shell to their ears, heads bowed towards each other. For a moment, neither could hear more than the echoing roar of the ocean, emanating like static from instead the shell. They waited.

The story began.

The voice flowing from the shell was raspy and deep. Lyra closed her eyes and listened. It told her of a young man from two oceans away. Lost at sea, he had found a goblet that would give him boundless life but no children. When the voice fell silent, Elliot took another shell from his pocket, and they listened as it spoke of an ogre who had fallen in love with an elf and paid a steep price for their happiness. The next shell told of how, eons back, a fairy’s anger had split a single universe into dozens, tearing apart lovers and erecting insurmountable hills between each realm so that only the sun and moon and stars could be seen from every world.

Lyra’s eyes grew tired. She rolled on to her stomach and drew her knees up, shaking out her wings and tucking herself into them. Elliot nudged her and said they ought to be getting back.

They tossed the shells they had listened to back onto the beach and kept as many new ones as they could carry.

“Let’s come back tomorrow,” said Lyra. “We’ll be the first ones to know this season’s stories.”

The following night and the ones after that, the two met on the red rooftop and flew down to the beach. Elliot’s wing beats became stronger, and they tested how high they could go (a little higher than the tallest sycamore) and how quickly they could move (as fast as the pelicans). They gathered shells and listened to stories and occasionally kept their favourite ones. Lyra sometimes caught her mother staring hard at the shells that appeared on her bookshelves, arranged neatly beside the jars of flowers and feathers, but they never spoke of what happened in the night.

After the first evening, more winged children appeared on the beach to seek stories. Few were older than fourteen, but Lyra was always the youngest. One night, as they departed from the shore, she heard a cry and looked down to see a blond girl sunken to her knees on the sand. Her white wings were tattered, and feathers fell off as Lyra watched. The girl rose again and tried to lift off once more. This time, she succeeded, and her friend above her flew close to help her remain airborne. Her flight was shaky, and Lyra realized that she would not have her wings for much longer.

When the shell season ended, Lyra and Elliot went apple picking around the half dozen orchards outside of town. The selection was plentiful, but the activity required skilled manoeuvring. Farmers didn’t hesitate to shoot if they caught the children stealing. Few kids dared to risk it and even Elliot begged to stop after a shot grazed his bottom and tore a hole through his jeans. From then, they moved on to trapping fairies in bell jars, turtle jumping on the waves, and searching around the coastal caves for signs of dragons that they never found.

Lyra could barely sense herself growing, but she could see the change in Elliot. He grew taller, far taller than she, and his hair grew darker and less red. One night, several years after their first flight together, they lay on the rooftop staring up at the stars that were just beginning to wake.

“Where do you want to go tonight?” said Lyra.

She waited for Elliot to smile and say that she could decide, but he lay still and said nothing. Lyra noticed that his eyes were closed.

“I’m not sure how much longer I can do this,” he said at last.

She stared at him.

“What do you mean? Your wings look fine to me.”

“They don’t feel fine,” he said. “I feel tired. Besides, my parents need me to help more around the café. They said they’ll pay me, and I could use the extra cash.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Lyra. “You’re twelve. Most people don’t lose their wings for several more years. My mom had just grown hers at your age.”

“My parents never grew them at all,” said Elliot. He drummed his heel absentmindedly on the rooftop and didn’t look at her. “They’re not like you or your mom. They’ve had to work to keep the café running. They never would’ve had the time to go off so much.”

“My mother cuts stems at a flower stall,” said Lyra. “I don’t know what you’re saying, Elliot. We don’t live in luxury.”

“You do though,” he said. “I mean, maybe not the money – that’s not what I meant. I mean that she gets this flying. She gets you. Mine don’t see what’s so important about it all.”

“Let’s go down to the beach,” said Lyra. “We haven’t been back in a while, and I’ve heard that the shells can help strengthen your wings.”

Elliot sighed and sat up, but he did not rise into the air. Lyra looked at the back of his head and slowly propped herself upright beside him. He wrapped his arms around his knees.

“There won’t be any shells out this early in the year,” he said. “You know that.”

“We can give it a try,” said Lyra.

He didn’t move. They sat in silence.

“Haven’t you liked our flights?” said Lyra when she could no longer stand the stillness.

“Of course I have,” he said. “But you know we can’t fly forever.”

“I don’t see why not,” she said.

“Come now, Lyra, those people are rare,” he said. “You don’t have a choice in whether you keep your wings.”

“You don’t know that,” she said.

“If we could choose, everyone would have wings.”

“You must want to keep them?”

“Of course I do. But the reality is that we can’t.”

“You can use them while you’ve got them, can’t you?” she said.

He sighed and went quiet once more. Lyra stared at her feet and for the first time in their friendship, she felt scared to look into his face.

“Alright,” he said finally, and he held out a hand to help her up. “To the beach it is.”

            She smiled and sprung to her feet. She took his hand and they held on to each other the whole way down to the water, taking their time to coast over the sleeping town.

Elliot had been right about the scarcity of the shells, but after an hour’s search, they managed to find a single story apiece. Both were minuscule, their voices faint, and their tales short and bitter. When the children left the beach near midnight, it took Elliot two tries to get airborne.

 

***

 

Elliot lost his wings when he was fifteen. In the first weeks that he was grounded, Lyra helped him climb onto the red roof, and they sat and talked about his work at the café. His little brother had begun to feel aches in his shoulder blades, Elliot told her, and his mother was ill yet again. Lyra told him of the girl in her year who had lost her wings just one year after they grew in. They placed bets on who might never grow any and who might keep them forever.

“My money’s on you,” Elliot said every time. “I can’t explain it, but my money’s on you.”

Shortly before midnight, Lyra helped him climb down to the street and back to his house. When they parted, she took to the air once more, flying to the ocean or the apple orchards or the wheat fields past the furthest end of the town. After a month of watching her lift off, Elliot no longer came out at night. She waited by his window when the street lamps came on, but he only smiled and shook his head at her and began to close his curtains. She left apples and shells on the sill, and they took longer and longer to disappear. She stopped after two of them went bad.

 

***

 

On the evening of Lyra’s seventeenth birthday, she flew down to the cottage by the coastline and knocked on the door. She heard a bird squawk and a heavy object being moved. The door opened to a man bent almost double, his hair white and sparse and his eyes a shocking blue. He leaned on the frame and looked at her, his white wings aged and streaked with dirt. She stared at him and began to cry.

“I’m sorry I never came until now,” she said. “You must’ve seen me on the beach.”

“I’ve watched over many children in my lifetime,” he said. “You needn’t apologize.”

 “Will you fly with me?” she said.

 The shell season had passed and the beach was empty. They stretched their wings wide and took slow beats, coasting on the winter breeze. Lyra shivered in her thin white top and tried to not look down.

They landed on a mass of boulders that she and Elliot had often perched on to listen to shells. The man took two pears out of his pocket, took a bite from one, and offered her the other. She took it but did not eat. He looked healthier outdoors than he had in the light of the cottage, she thought. He did not seem any younger, but perhaps less frail.

“Don’t you ever get lonely on your own?” she said.

“You well know that the beach holds no shortage of company,” he said. “Have you ever heard a beat of silence on these sands?”

Lyra shook her head but did not answer. She closed her eyes and stretched out her legs on the rock. Goosebumps rose on her skin each time the sea spray splashed her bare limbs. If she listened hard, she could hear the scuttle of crabs on the rocks and sand and the stars’ silvery laughter above the crash of the waves.

“I can’t lose this, but it isn’t enough,” she said at last. She spread her arms and wings wide as she spoke.

“I know your kind,” he said. “I’ve met them all – wheat farmers, math teachers, healers. They fly to their work each morning, and they stare at the stars at night.”

“Where do you see them?” said Lyra. “I’ve never met anyone but you.”

“I see them everywhere,” he said, and he made a wide gesture towards the ocean. Lyra stared at the arc that his wing had traced along the sky. Had Elliot been there, he would have laughed and rolled his eyes and reminded her that midnight was approaching. She ate her pear and put the core in her pocket when she finished.

The return flight seemed to pass quicker, and Lyra did not stop at the cottage but flew straight home to her bed. She returned the following night to tuck a black feather in the poet’s wind chime. On her way back, she placed a pear and a very old conch shell on Elliot’s windowsill. She did not return to see if he had taken them.


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