Beautiful painting created by my friend, Sarah at Secret Art Expedition, who was inspired by my story.
“Birds of a Feather” is the first story of mine published that I made money on–a whopping $10.00. It was published in Mindflights, an online magazine of speculative fiction (now defunct), under a different pen name than I use here. I think of all the short stories I have written, it remains my favorite.
My little sister was born with wings, or at least the beginnings of such. Little nubs on her sharp shoulder blades. When they reached any size, when from time to time tufts of white feathers dared blossomed out, Ma cut them off. I held Morphia down while she clipped them off with the cow dehorners. Morphia cried and carried on, but Ma said it didn’t hurt none, no more than snipping off a fingernail did, and if she didn’t cut them off, Morphia would fly away like Pa had.
Fact was, Ma had lost Pa to the winds, and she was bound and determined not to lose Morphia too. “Should’ve never let that bird-man in my bed, Henry,” she’d told me more times than I could count.
Folks in town said the bird-people had died out more than a hundred years ago–if there ever had been such beings, and they weren’t just made-up things like vampires and werewolves and such. And Preacher Conroy said they were unholy creatures, and if one ever did show up they’d burn it like they had that strange cow-fish that’d flopped out of the river last year. But they’d never seen Pa sail down out of the sky, his big, white angel wings flapping against the wind like Ma and I had. And I prayed they never did.
No one had ever seen Morphia’s bumps either. Ma kept her hidden away in the cellar and only let her out in the pitch-black night. Ma told people, any who cared enough to ask, that Morphia was an albino and couldn’t tolerate sunshine. She looked it, with her milky skin and white, corn-silk hair. But her eyes were a dark wonder—no whites; they were as black as the soot coating the inside of the chimney.
It’d been years since Pa had come to see us, way back when Morphia was still in Ma’s swollen belly. I had just turned six the night he lifted up off the back porch and flew toward the Red Dirt Mountains. Ma and me had watched him wing out over the flatlands and sail over the Celeste River, growing smaller and smaller till he was no more than a speck against the rust-colored slopes of the mountains. Then nothing.
I had looked up at Ma. “Why can’t we go with him?”
She’d put her arm around my shoulder and hugged me to her side. “We can’t live up in them mountains, Henry. Why they’re so steep, they’re like walls. Only birds can live in a place like that.”
“I wanna be like Pa. I wanna be a bird.”
“Well, you’re not, and I’m not. We have to stay on the ground where God put us.”
Pa flew away that night and we ain’t seen him since.
That’d been almost six years ago. Seventy-one months. Seventy-three full moons—adding in the blue ones—all counted off in Xs painted in Ma’s blood on the white-washed wall of the kitchen, each reddish-brown smear a mark of her looniness.
And now, while stirring the pot of plopping cornmeal mush I’d fixed for supper, I watched Ma rummaging in the cabinet, muttering to herself. And when she came up with the butcher knife, I knew that tonight the moon would ride fat and yellow across the sky.
Ma went to her wall of marks and rolled up the left sleeve of the baggy calico dress she’d worn night and day for over a week. She drew the blade across her forearm next to last month’s just-healed slash. Blood plop-plopped onto the floor. She dipped her finger into the fresh blood and made her X, then stepped over to the window and stared out into the dusk.
I put the pot of mush on the table next to the flickering candle, then got some rags out of the cabinet drawer. And as I had seventy-three times before, I took the knife out of Ma’s hand and wrapped up her arm, then wiped up the tacky red splotches dotting the wood-plank floor. What would come up, that is; the old, dry wood sucked up the blood like a hungry leech.
“Come on, Ma, it’s time to eat.” I put my arm around her bony shoulders and guided her to the table and down into a chair. Then I went after my sister.
I took down the lantern that hung on a nail by the back door, lit the wick, then crossed the room and removed the board that braced the cellar door. It swung open with a squeaky breath. A song without words, the notes high and clear and as sweet as thick molasses, rolled up the stairs and spilled out into the kitchen.
“Henry!” Ma’s voice. “Henry!”
I turned around.
Ma rocked side to side in her chair, her eyes big and anxious and wild. “You be careful. Don’t let her get away.”
I didn’t know why she fretted so; Morphia had never so much as stepped foot out of the yard. Didn’t seem to have any interest in it. “I won’t, Ma.”
Holding the lantern high, I went down the steps. Lit only by a small window set high on the wall, it was darker in the cellar than outside in the twilight. Ma wouldn’t let Morphia have a lantern or candle neither ‘cause she was feared Morphia might accidentally burn down the house. Fact was, if it had anything to do with Morphia, Ma feared it. But I knew she couldn’t help what she felt; she had too much loony rattling around in her head.
Morphia sat on the side of her narrow bed, hands folded in her lap, head cocked to one side, eyes closed. Singing…just singing like a bird. That’s about all she did anymore, day and night. Fact was, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard her speak real words. Been more than a year, I reckoned. She just sang.
I spoke soft, not wanting to startle her: “Suppertime, Sis.”
Morphia opened up those black wells. She smiled, a happy little trill escaping her lips, and came up off the bed and danced across the dirt floor to where I stood at the foot of the stairs. She was always anxious to get out of the cellar.
I gripped her arm as we climbed the steps so she wouldn’t run ahead and upset Ma. “Easy now.” I didn’t want her to fall, either. She’d taken a tumble down the stairs a year or so ago and had broken her arm. It’d been a bad break, a jagged, hollow bone sticking out of her pale skin, and I’d had to set it ‘cause Ma wouldn’t take her to the doctor. She didn’t want anyone to get a good look at Morphia. “They’ll burn her, Henry,” she’d said. And I’d known she spoke true.
Morphia made an impatient clucking noise and moved a step ahead of me. Then two, stretching out my arm. Fact was, though she was only five-years-old—closing in on six—her legs were longer than mine. Thin, scaly things. But she moved on them as gracefully as the night ptoons that high-stepped through the silty shallows of the Celeste River after dark, stalking the glowing mud worms.
Morphia pulled me through the doorway and into the kitchen. I felt the excitement drain out of her, wither and die and shrivel up like a sun-blistered tomato when she saw Ma sitting at the table. Ma had that effect on Morphia: took the life right out of her.
I gave her a little push. “Go on, sit down.”
As Morphia baby-stepped toward the table, I held up the lantern to blow out the flame, and that’s when I saw them poking against the gray dress covering her back: the start of wings. My stomach turned over.
I sat down beside her, but couldn’t eat. Morphia bent her head and dug right in. She was always hungry.
Ma looked up from her untouched bowl. Her eyes fell on Morphia, and the jitteriness stilled. Her cracked lips turned up in a little smile. Love beamed big and bright on her face, making her look almost normal, almost not loony.
Morphia slurped her mush.
Ma watched Morphia and I watched Ma, praying she wouldn’t see, wouldn’t notice…
Ma’s eyes narrowed. She stood up, her chair scraping on the boards. Finally, Morphia looked up, and she must’ve seen what was in Ma’s eyes, ‘cause she squeaked and jerked backwards. Her chair toppled over and she spilled onto the floor.
“Get her, Henry.”
And though I felt sick to my soul at what was to come, I did as I was told, reached down and grabbed Morphia by the foot as she crawled by.
She kicked and squawked, but I held tight, went down on my knees and pulled her to me. I gathered her thrashing body in my arms. “I’m sorry, Sis, but it’s for your own good.” Empty words to someone who’d never heard the Sunday sermons warning of darkness and evil and demons with wings, who’d never seen the fires eating anything and everything the preacher said was unnatural.
“Get her up here,” Ma said.
I struggled to my feet, bringing Morphia with me. She fought me every inch of the way, little high-pitched peeps sprinkled in with her ragged breaths, as I turned her, exposing her back. A strong smell of sweat and wet feather clogged my throat. And when Ma ripped away Morphia’s dress, I saw why: a fine white down covered her back.
Ma sucked in a hissing breath of air. “Oh, dear Lord, it’s spreading.” She peeled the gray material down over Morphia’s shoulders, then her arms. More white down.
And I remembered…
Pa’s arms reaching down for me, arms sprouting the same pale fuzz.
“Hold tight, Henry.” Ma’s voice pulled me back to the stuffy kitchen, back to the dehorners in her hands, back to my sister wriggling in my arms.
I hugged Morphia tighter, her trapped, scrawny arms digging into my ribs.
Ma pulled apart the handles. The steel blades separated.
I closed my eyes.
Morphia writhed against me, her shrill chirps ringing in my ears. Then every muscle in her body right down to her toes went board-straight. She shrieked. And there was another voice joining in, howling like a snake-bit dog.
“Hush up, Henry,” Ma said.
And it was me. I was the thing crying out its pain.
Morphia’s screech lifted higher. She jerked and twitched. Then her body relaxed, loosened into a bag of sharp elbows and bony ribs.
“It’s over,” I whispered against her hair. But she didn’t hear me; she’d passed out.
I felt a warm wetness spreading over my arms, opened my eyes and looked down at Morphia’s back. Gouts of blood pumped from the two places where the start of wings had been. Before, when Ma had clipped them off, there’d been only trickles; this was a flood.
“Oh my God, oh my God!” Ma wailed. She dropped the dehorners, tore at her hair. “Oh my God, I’ve killed her!”
Blood ran in a thick river down Morphia’s back. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. And Ma, she fell down on her knees and started banging her forehead against the boards.
Blood was beginning to form a pool at my feet. “Ma.” And it kept on coming, spreading outward. “Ma!”
She didn’t look up. She’d gone away.
I swooped Morphia up and carried her to Ma’s bed. I eased her down on the mattress and turned her on her side. Blood continued to flow. So much of it. The thin sheet beneath her shoulders turned sloppy red. I had to stop it. But how? How did you—
Cobwebs. I remembered now. Ma had used cobwebs on my foot that time I’d sliced it open on a piece of glass.
I grabbed the broom propped in the corner beside the wood-box and raced around the room, sweeping the ceiling, twirling the gauzy webs around the cornhusks. Then I stripped off the sticky gray stuff and packed it against the bony knobs on Morphia’s shoulder blades. And I noticed…the bumps were different. Fact was, they weren’t soft like ear-bones no more; they were hard like regular bones. And a brownish-red circle of marrow dotted the center of each. Morphia’s wings had set.
The cobwebs did the trick, stopped the bleeding. But Morphia had lost so much blood she was as weak as a newborn kitten. She slept for most of a week, only rousing now and then to eat a little. I stayed close by, even slept on the floor beside her bed, afraid if I turned my back she might slip away–and not like Pa had to the sky, but to the land where the dead walked.
And while I watched after Morphia, Ma wandered the flatlands, crying and wailing and cursing Pa.
“You can’t cut them off no more, Ma,” I said to her back. “She’ll most likely die if you do.”
Ma gazed out the window at the face of the rising moon. If she’d heard me, she gave no sign.
I removed the brace from the cellar door. “I’m gonna bring her up now, and take her outside. I just wanted you to know…I didn’t want you to be…she’s got wings now, Ma. Big wings.”
It’d been four months since Morphia had been out of the cellar, four months since Ma had seen her, and four months since Ma had spoken a single word. Fact was, the only voice I’d heard in all that time had been my own. And Morphia’s now and again. When she’d sing.
Morphia didn’t sing much no more, but when she did, she sounded as sorrowful as a mourning dove. She stared, day in and day out, at the little patch of sky visible outside the cellar window, and sometimes, soft tweets and trills trembled off her tongue and dropped into the darkness at her feet. The sadness of it pret’ near broke my heart.
And her wings, lord how they’d grown and grown till the silvery tips brushed the ground. Beautiful, they were, as white and shimmery as the feathers of a camray. At times, she’d whip them back and forth like a baby bird practicing flying, raising up a cloud of dust inside the tiny cellar. Once, her feet had even lifted off the floor a tad. But there was nowhere to go, no room to stretch out her wings. So she’d settled back down, dusty tear-tracks smudging the down on her cheeks.
I said to Ma, “Morphia needs to get out of the cellar for a while. She’s pining away down there.” Nothing from Ma. “I just didn’t want you getting upset when you see them…her wings.” I turned away and pushed open the cellar door.
Behind me, I heard a rustling, rattling, clattering.
“Henry.” I looked back. Ma lurched toward me, dragging the chain we used to fetter the milk cow of a day so it wouldn’t wander out into the flatlands and become supper for a pack of ornery, one-eyed cyclotes. “Put this on her or she’ll fly away. Loop it around her middle and hook it in the back where she can’t reach it.”
I hadn’t thought about that—Morphia flying away; all that’d been on my mind was how shocked Ma was gonna be when she saw Morphia’s full-growed wings. I took the chain from her gnarled hands. “Okay, Ma.”
The cloud of looniness lifted from her eyes. She smiled at me, and for just a second, I saw her as she’d once been: all shiny blonde curls and white teeth and dancing eyes. She patted my cheek. “You’re a good son, Henry.” And as her hand slowly dropped, I saw the black jitteriness seep back into her eyes, dulling the green with its dirty fog.
I wanted her back. I wanted my ma back. I wanted her to put her arms around me like she had when I was little and had scraped my knee or some such, and tell me everything was gonna be all right.
She turned away and shuffled over to the night-dark window.
“Ma…” squeezed out of my tight chest on a ragged gasp of air. “Ma…” Not so much as a twitch to show she’d heard me.
I swiped the back of my hand across my wet face and turned to the black mouth of the cellar door. I couldn’t cry, wouldn’t cry. I had to be strong. I had to be the one to take care of things ‘cause Ma couldn’t. Down in that hole was my sister and she needed me.
I clomped down the stairs into a darkness lit only by the light spilling through the doorway from the kitchen. “Wanna go outside?” I said to the shadow that was Morphia.
Her answer was a melancholy croak.
“I’m gonna take you outside, but Ma says I gotta put this on you first.”
Morphia stood quietly as I slipped the thin chain around her chest, under her arms, then over the base of her wings where I snugged it tight and fastened it together. I took her arm and led her up the stairs. She had to duck her head as we passed through the doorway into the kitchen. Fact was, as her wings had grown, so had her body. Now, she was somewhere nigh around six feet tall, and as slender and willowy as the marsh grass that swayed along the banks of the Celeste River.
As we stepped inside the kitchen, my eyes cut over to the window where Ma had been. Now only the black, blank eye of glass looked back at me. Mind and body, Ma was gone.
I opened the door leading out onto the back porch. Night-thick summer air puffed through the opening, its breath sweet with the odor of honeysuckle and whisit vine. It ruffled the fine white down on Morphia’s face. She closed her eyes. Cooed.
“Come on, Sis.” I urged her through the doorway out onto the porch.
Cicadas buzzed. Tree frogs croaked. Somewhere out in the flatlands, a cyclote howled. Morphia raised her eyes to the stars and drank in the night, her wings quivering.
I held tight to the end of the chain.
After a time, she glided down the steps into the moonlit yard. Making little clucking noises, she meandered here and there, stopping occasionally to scratch in the dirt with pointy toenails.
I fed out the long chain, looped my end around the porch rail, then sat down on the steps. And I watched Morphia. She clucked and scratched, clucked and scratched.
The breeze picked up, soughed through the wind-squashed tops of the two old oaks that squatted in twisted lumps on either side of the house. Gimnets whirred and whip-poor-wills warbled. Morphia clucked and scratched, clucked and scratched.
My eyes drifted closed.
And my mind slipped back in time…
“Be careful, Keme, don’t you dare drop him.” Ma’s face below me, worry drawing her features.
A low rumble against my back. “He’ll be fine, Millie.” Arms wrapped around my belly, strong arms covered with white down. Then Ma’s face getting smaller and smaller, the land spreading out below me, our house, the scrubby flatlands, the Celeste River, the Red Dirt—
My eyes flew open as the last of the chain snapped into the air. Heart in my throat, I stumbled to my feet, my eyes following the taunt chain up into the night sky to Morphia’s flapping shadow. The chain pulled tighter, held for a few seconds, then came raining down in spirals. Morphia slammed onto the ground.
I bounded off the steps and ran toward her. She clambered to her feet, beat her wings and rose up into the air. I jumped and grasped her scaly foot, but it slipped through my fingers and I fell to the dirt on my back, knocking the wind out of my lungs. In seconds, the chain hauled Morphia back to earth. She flopped down beside me. I reached out my hand as she thrashed in the dust, and finally, was able to draw in a breath of air and say her name: “Morphia…”
She ignored me, scrabbling to her feet, and lifted off again. And again, the chain pulled her back.
I crawled the few feet to her and grabbed her arm as she was pushing up onto her knees. “Stop it, Sis, you’re gonna kill yourself.”
Her head turned in my direction, and lord, the sadness in her eyes was a terrible thing, as black and bottomless as the strip pits of Cheyanna. Her lips worked, spilling out chips and chirps, then: “P—pl—please, Hen—ry.”
And I knew what she wanted.
I had two choices: set her free and probably never see her again, or keep her in the cellar and watch her die.
Fact was, there really wasn’t no choice at all.
I nodded my head. “Okay.”
I got to my feet and pulled Morphia up to stand beside me. She turned her back and I unhooked the chain. It slithered to the ground. Morphia’s wings whooshed, whooshed, whooshed, and she lifted up into the sky. I cocked back my head and watched as she darted one way then another. And she was singing, the lilting notes lighting up the night with shiny-bright stars of happiness.
“Henry! What in God’s name have you done?”
I heard Ma, but I didn’t pay her no mind. I just watched Morphia fly. God may have intended for me and Ma to stay put on the ground, but He meant for Morphia to fly. That’s why He’d given her wings.
Morphia swooped down over me and Ma, passing so close I felt the wind off her wings. Then she whipped back up into the night sky, turned north and soared out over the flatlands. And I think I saw—I squinted my eyes—maybe saw, other winged shapes hovering over the river. I think I saw Morphia join them.
“Henry!” Ma tugged on my arm.
And I think I saw them disappear over the mountaintops.
Maybe someday when I’m a full-growed man, I’ll cross the flatlands and swim the Celeste River and climb the Red Dirt Mountains.
Maybe someday I’ll see Morphia and Pa again.