A warm June wind came across the big lake, carrying with it the smoke of a farmer’s field burning on the other side and a large, invisible cloud of uncertainty. The wind ruffled the mother ducks on their nests among the rocks and rattled the leaves of the oaks near the shoreline, then it swept around the edges of the village houses and began to drop its freight. As the smell of far-off fire filtered into living rooms and kitchens, the people began to suffer the consequences of what the wind had delivered.
Felicia’s neighbor, Old Frances, was wringing out the towels she’d soaked in bleach, but froze in her work with her cords of muscle stretching the dry, sun-freckled flesh of her arms. She suddenly wondered if she should have gone to visit her sister this weekend after all, instead of staying home to finish the strawberry preserves. The sisters turned 85 and 86 this year, after all, and the probability that they wouldn’t see each other again increased each day. Old Frances would worry about this for weeks until she forgot to worry anymore thanks to the fog of age, which Nana said comes from having a mind too full from so many years of remembering things.
Another neighbor began to argue with his wife about her spending, but only because he had become suddenly in a vague way doubtful that he’d been successful in covering up his affair with a very young woman from the next town over. And a man preparing for an interview for an important position with the government felt his confidence ebb and insecurity overwhelm him.
And so it was with many of the people thereabouts; their noses discerned the tang of smoke, while a deeper sense reacted to the stealthier stimulus of that cloud of uncertainty.
Nana understood the hidden weather, though, and knew what was afoot. From her gliding swing on the wide patio behind the house she called in to Felicia, “Doubt’s a natural feeling. Just take a moment to feel it and then let it go. Say hello, but don’t invite it in for a stay.” Having years of experience with her grandmother’s advice, Felicia knew it was best to ask no questions and to simply do as Nana suggested. So she hesitated for a minute in worry that the pain in her belly was more than indigestion, and then let the worry slip away and carried on washing dishes.
The smoke, however, clung to the walls and ceilings of their old house and set Lizzie to coughing. The girl was home from school with some vague malady, her legs curled under a blanket in the oversized armchair. Felicia turned on the ceiling fans to chase out the smoke and brought her daughter some ice water. Lizzie took a very small sip and set the glass on a table, almost upsetting it at once with her scratching. Scratching, scratching at her side.
“Settle down and try to lie still and relax,” said Felicia.
“It itches, Momma!”
“Better rub on some calamine!” called Nana from out back.
Felicia nodded in agreement with Nana and got the lotion from the bathroom cabinet. She bared her daughter’s tender hip to find the skin slightly reddened from Lizzie’s scratching, but not alarmingly so. In the center of the redness, though, was a small greenish spot. At first, she was sure it was a mole, but who’d ever heard of a green mole? Peering more closely, she became convinced that it was a tick or some other parasite, and so she rubbed at it roughly with a wet cloth to dislodge it.
The spot didn’t go, though. If anything, it seemed to swell and lengthen, protruding from the girl’s skin like a tiny spike. Finally, Lizzie, who’d been quietly savoring the momentary relief from the itching provided by her mother’s scrubbing, asked in a small voice, “What is it?”
“It’s nothing,” said Nana, who had come in with silent steps from her perch on the patio and now stood peering over Felicia’s shoulder at the green spot. “It will work itself out soon enough. Just try not to scratch it bloody.”
Felicia was accustomed to her Nana knowing whatever needed knowing, and so she gave the spot a final pass with the cloth, rubbed on some calamine lotion, and tucked Lizzie back in snugly. For the rest of the day and night Lizzie curled up rubbing at her hip, but the following day she got up and went back to school. She hadn’t actually been particularly sick. As Nana could have told anyone who asked, it was a family trait to need occasional days of lying about listlessly. Felicia certainly did it from time to time, and Nana treated days of indolence as sacred. They allowed a body some time to just think.
* * *
The appearance of Lizzie’s green spot didn’t exactly coincide with the advent of Felicia’s stomach pain, but the two things shared a spotlight in Felicia’s worried moments as June turned to July. The spot had grown into a small stalk like the stem of an apple, sticking out maybe half a centimeter. Several more green spots had appeared around it, some beginning to project their own green stems. The doctor had prescribed a cream, but Nana continued to insist it was nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, Lizzie had taken to pulling the lamp down close to her hip and spending hours examining the spot minutely with a hand mirror. In the fuss over her daughter’s odd condition, Felicia mostly forgot about her own pain, gobbling down antacids and guzzling milk to soothe her stomach.
* * *
The wind mellowed into the kind of grass- and clover-scented breezes that slide over the land and graze the skin with such lightness that they couldn’t possibly carry anything heavy or onerous over the lake—at worst just a whiff of impatience here or a tiny puff of regret there. Mostly the hidden weather brought light and wispy things like buoyant moods or the desire to sing to oneself. Old Frances had long since finished putting up the strawberries and had moved on to pickling peppers and canning green beans with garlic and dill. Nana presided over the back yard, and by extension over Frances’s garden next door, from her glider seat. The two old women discussed the vegetables and the village news, one almost shouting from her position kneeling over planted mounds and the other gliding back and forth and almost shouting with her head back and her eyes on the sky. From time to time, Nana would rise to help in the kitchen.
Lizzie’s spots continued to multiply and lengthen, and soon what the girl herself had known for a while became apparent to Felicia, too; Lizzie was growing feathers. They were the iridescent green and blue of a peacock’s feathers, the longest now two inches long and lying flat against the girl’s hipbones. What’s more, a corresponding patch on the other side had begun to flourish, which Lizzie had not told her mother about.
Lizzie was not alarmed about her situation, what her mother referred to as her condition. To Lizzie, the sprouting plumage felt entirely natural, no different than growing hair. Indeed, as the feathers grew longer and lusher and began to cover her hips and creep across her belly and down her legs, she would stand naked in front of the bathroom mirror admiring the glossy colors and smoothing them down with her hands over and over. Her posture became straighter, her bearing regal, her chin so high that she seemed to enter a room hips first.
All of this was kept strictly in the family. Nana insisted that the doctor, whose ointments and creams had stopped the initial itching, had no expertise to offer, and so they didn’t consult him again. Felicia forbade Lizzie from telling her schoolmates about it, but by then it was summer break. Felicia puzzled over her daughter’s condition and worried about what it could mean for her child to be displaying this trait that was not precisely mammalian.
“It’s fine. She’s just a special kind of person,” said Nana. And since it was not in her nature to dwell on her worries, and since there was nothing to be done about it anyway, Felicia began to accept it.
* * *
The hottest days of August swelled Nana’s ankles and wilted the leaves of the tomato plants in Old Frances’s garden. The wind seemed to have taken a vacation, so Nana sat in her swing out back without gliding, fanning herself with a newspaper and sighing heavily and often. The grass turned dry and crackly and the rich, brown earth lightened to the color of burnt cream and cracked every which way. Nana knew it would rain again come September and that the winds would blow again, but the deathlike stillness that settled in seemed to stretch out indefinitely.
Felicia was no stranger to death—of course no one is. Death sets its brand on each babe, but some people manage to keep the understanding of it at a distance longer than others. Felicia had met and recognized death at an early age. Her father, Nana’s only son, had died with his wife in a train accident when Felicia was nine. Thus orphaned, she had gone to live with Nana. Then at 19, she had married a quiet, scholarly man whose health had never been robust. He spent too much time in archives and libraries, inhaling so much book dust that his lungs failed him and he died when their daughter Lizzie was just a baby.
So it was that when the doctor told her about her cancer, Felicia greeted her own impending death with familiarity, if not with gladness. Nana made her drink a slurry of greyish plant matter with an astringent quality that puckered her mouth. Coffee was thrown out and banned from the house, given that it hurt Felicia’s stomach and that Nana swore it would interfere with the healing effects of her medicinal drinks. The medicines that the doctor prescribed, Nana also tossed out. She called them poison and was not terribly wrong. She took over the cooking and cleaning with an unexpected energy that hadn’t been much hinted at when she’d happily spent her long days gliding on the patio. All in all, Felicia felt well taken care of, although she felt no hope for a cure.
* * *
A new atmosphere pervaded the house, a dance between stagnation and flow in which Nana’s efficiency spun and eddied around Felicia’s exhaustion. Lizzie tried to help with small things, but was often left on her own. When she tired of reading, she began to spend time sitting quietly and just thinking her meandering thoughts. She developed a new habit of preening.
Entering the bathroom on a Sunday morning, Lizzie locked the door and stripped off her nightgown to admire herself. From her waist to midthigh, she now glistened with feathers the length of her hand. She gave a shimmy, watching the feathers flicker blue and green under the bathroom lights. She stroked them and arranged them just so.
Turning her attention to the tender skin just above her blossoming breasts, she was pleased to see that a new crop of green spots had appeared. She leaned forward until her clavicle nearly touched the mirror, craning her neck to study the spots. Then she sat on the sink and twisted and contorted in an attempt to examine her back; she thought maybe she could see some darker spots above her shoulder blades, but she couldn’t be sure.
A loud rap on the bathroom door startled her, and she jumped off the sink and grabbed her nightgown up in one sweeping motion.
“Finish up and come eat breakfast,” said Nana through the door.
Nana was earlier to rise these days, and although Felicia stayed in bed most of the time, lunch was still at noon, dinner still at 6, and Lizzie was still expected to help with the clean-up. Lizzie pulled her clothing back on, flushed the toilet for show, and made her way out to the kitchen.
She sat down with Nana and ate some toast with a smear of Old Frances’s raspberry jam. When Nana rose to take breakfast up to Felicia, Lizzie could think of nothing to occupy herself until lunchtime. She wandered out to the back patio and took up Nana’s old post on the gliding swing. Then she sat and watched the songbirds at Old Frances’s feeders. She pondered whether they were kin to her, if she could learn to sing like them, if someday she would fly.
* * *
Nana hustled about and seemed continually occupied with one household task or another, but she did not neglect to keep one eye on her great-granddaughter. Lizzie’s glazed eyes and lethargy were familiar to Nana, who could recall her own adolescence sharply even when last week’s news had already faded from her memory. Nana knew that Lizzie would come back to herself soon, that this lazy hazy girl was only one chapter.
Sometimes in the morning, after she had interrupted the girl’s ritual of self-admiration and chased her from the bathroom, Nana would close the door and take off her own clothes. She would stare at the old woman in the mirror, at the sagging ropes of fat about her middle and the loose skin so dry and stretched that it had taken on a scaly texture.
Most of all, she would examine the scars that circled her hips, legs, and chest, dreaming of the time before the scars when she too had admired her own beautiful feathers. They had been white and golden brown with a hint of yellow near the skin. Nana shimmied her ancient form under the bathroom lights and remembered the opalescent effect of light moving across her feathers, recalling the physical feeling of pride that had centered somewhere around her throat at the sight of her fully-feathered self. She remembered her erect carriage, the need to hold her head high and her shoulders back, the small smile that had curved her mouth whenever she had thought of that secret loveliness beneath her clothes.
With the acceptance of great age toward old grief, Nana let herself remember the morning when her father and her uncles had come for her, pulling her from her bed and dragging her in her nightgown out to the barn. The sharp, bitter smell of hot tar would bring back that moment for the rest of her life; she’d smell tar and see again her mother’s agonized face looking out from between the yellow checked kitchen curtains. Her mother had watched as her child shrieked and twisted in her attempts to get away from four grown men, whose faces were grim and even disgusted when the girl’s nightgown rode up with her struggles and revealed her freakish plumage.
The three uncles held her while her father yanked out her feathers in handfuls until there were only the small, downy ones underneath. Her nakedness appalled her as much as her helplessness. In her horror, she cried out for him to stop, that it hurt, that she wouldn’t let anyone see her, and anything else she could think of to save herself and her beautiful feathers. Tears ran down her father’s face, but he did not stop. He applied hot tar to the skin where the feathers grew, a process so painful that the girl who would become Nana passed out and woke later, bandaged, in her bed.
She remembered these and other things with solemnity, but the anger and regret had mellowed with the years.
* * *
September’s wind did indeed bring rain, as Nana had known it would. It rushed about, pushing warm spray into walls and treetops and splattering the people with a heavy load of impatience. The cracks in the ground soaked up the water and closed on themselves, and the plants in Old Frances’s garden, seeming to realize that their time to produce had become short, quickly reddened their tomatoes and plumped up their squashes in a frenzy to do what they were meant to do before time ran out.
Until now, Felicia had moved through the universe in an unflappable, unhurried way—serene and enduring to a fault. But her new existence bored her and grated on her nerves. She’d always been happy to work hard and then, work done, to be quiet and just think. But lying in her bed, her thoughts were either exhausted or afraid and didn’t bring the pleasure that solitude had taught her to expect throughout her first 36 years of living. When the pain wrapped her middle and squeezed, she began to see her own end and to almost crave it.
So when Lizzie wandered into the bedroom, Felicia grabbed her wrist and pulled until the girl sat on the mattress beside her.
“Come tell me about your day,” she said. “What have you been doing?”
“I don’t know. Watching the birds by Old Frances’s garden.” Lizzie leaned her back against the pillows beside her.
“What are the birds up to?” asked Felicia.
Lizzie settled into the pillows and turned her head toward her mother.
“They fly down and sit next to each other, and they just eat some seeds together and fly off whenever they’re done. When they feel full, I guess. When they’re done eating, they just go do whatever is the next thing they think of.”
“I wonder if they talk to each other while they’re sitting together there,” said Felicia. She had a light hold on Lizzie’s hand, and she rubbed her fingers against the girl’s knuckles.
“I think they talk to each other by singing. I see them in the tree branches and they lift their heads up and sing and their throats kind of ripple while they do it. Then sometimes another one sings the same tune from another tree, and then they both fly down to the feeder.”
“They know just when it’s time to sing and when it’s time to eat, I suppose.” Felicia leaned her head against Lizzie’s shoulder.
“They go on instinct. No one tells them that supper is at 6, they just go when they’re hungry.” Mother and daughter lay side by side, holding hands but not looking at each other for several long minutes. Felicia broke the silence.
“We might plan our mealtimes more than birds do, but people have to do what their bodies make them do, too.”
Lizzie lay thinking quietly beside her mother then, and Felicia fell asleep.
* * *
Nana continued to insist that Felicia drink the pulpy concoctions she brought, and Felicia continued to drink them. She assured Nana that they made her feel better, but she couldn’t hide that eating was difficult. Her flesh withered and she became weaker.
Lizzie had started back at school, but her new air of self-importance inspired her schoolmates with an indistinct mistrust, and she sensed their withdrawal. At the same time many of them wanted to be near her, because they felt a pull as of a celestial body around which lesser planets must orbit. And so Lizzie traded friendship for admiration, though she was not entirely pleased about it.
“No one wants to come with me to the lake,” she complained to Nana.
Nana had no explanation to satisfy her, though. She only continued to sweep behind the trash bin and said, “You should stay home, anyway. Go talk to your mother.”
So she went to sit in the hard chair beside Felicia’s bed.
“No one wants to go to the lake with me,” she said, shoulders slouched.
“They’re probably busy,” said Felicia, who turned toward her with a small inhalation that was almost a gasp.
“They aren’t busy. They just don’t like me anymore. Do you think I look different?”
Felicia patted Lizzie’s hand. “You look fine.”
“It’s like they can all see through my clothes. Like they know.”
Felicia looked at her daughter for a long moment, thinking of her own petulance at Lizzie’s age, and the unsuspected glory of it. She thought about times when she herself had felt anxious or timid, and she found that those too had been splendid.
Finally, she said, “Any one of them could have feathers under their clothes too. You never know what people are hiding.”
* * *
The trickster wind blew warm one day and bitter the next, and all through October it brought chill air that smelled of deep earth and the sweetness of decaying leaves. In November, it blustered and seethed in an imitation of rage, but was actually soft underneath, where it carried a cargo of relief.
Old Frances’s garden withered overnight, and she cleared away the dead plants and harvested the carrots, which always taste better if they’re left in the ground until after the frosts come. Then she settled in for winter, that less burdensome season, when she could knit long, scratchy scarves for loved ones and stew pots of vegetable and barley soup that stayed on the stove all day long. Her sister came for a visit, and together they stitched and knitted and talked about the past in that particular way of people who share a long-ago—that way that releases the pressure of a swelling blister of memories.
All around the village, people found respite from their various woes. The wife of the man who had had an affair with a very young woman sat back with her feet up and smiled, because her husband no longer lived with her. A man who had waited months to find a good job finally got the news that he had won an important post with the government. And Felicia’s pain was alleviated when she found death one November afternoon.
In the evening, Nana and Lizzie sat close together, bundled in blankets and sharing the gliding swing on the back patio. They sat for long hours, looking out over the empty garden next door and watching the birds and thinking. The wind carried off a dry leaf, and they watched it go.
Lydia Sanders lives in Wisconsin, where she teaches college writing, edits fiction, and writes both fiction and memoir. She is working toward an MFA in creative writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University.
Buy this writer a coffee.
Photo by Andre Mouton