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Wings

wings

Though so much time has passed that I can barely remember his face, his wide lips, his deep, shadowed eyes and empathetic brow—I forget these parts, they’re more like a warm blur of kindness and light than a particular image I hold in my mind—and though time has shifted my memory in some respects, I remember, and will always remember, everything about his wings.

I remember their movement, even when they were held still, aching to ripple and unfold to their full size. I remember their breath, the small wind when they rested, the gust when they fluttered, and the full wind when they expanded. I remember their softness, vulnerability. And I remember their warmth and protection, folding around Maggie and me as we slept.

He walked, even stood, as if he were weighted down. Someone with a burden, physical and emotional, perhaps psychological, who eased that burden by shifting weight, dragging, not quite limping, but making each step carefully. Someone aged beyond his years.

Maggie noticed him first.

“Mom!” she said when we were in the market, picking out melons, tapping and putting our ears to the smooth, cold rind, competing to find the sweetest one. “Mom, look at him, that man!” Her whisper hissed in breathy excitement, like she pushed out the words with her chest, something she learned from me.

I didn’t notice, didn’t look. I was paying for the melons and holding out my hand for change. She always moved on to the newest sparkling thing, which sometimes made me feel annoyed, other times abandoned. But I know she didn’t mean it.

Maggie extended her excited finger to the next stall, one that sold homemade, Amish baked goods, pies and jams, bread and pretzels. They always stacked them so beautifully, so tastefully. The Amish weren’t talkative, which some people mistook as arrogance. I couldn’t say. Most stalls stacked their unpolished apples and pints of berries, dusty from transport, directly on the rough, unstained wood that balanced on small nobs of the green metal structure, which was set in the cement floor and capped by canvas and plastic awnings. The Amish stall had two clean cotton cloths on the makeshift table. The whiteness glowed—clean, smooth, worthy of the goods on top of it.

I’ve always found it difficult to draw substantial interaction from the Amish who came to the market. They are kind, pleasant, but they didn’t chat or give the time of day like the other farmers—farmers with whom conversations could go on forever, like old friends, connected through fresh peaches, spiraling dahlias, and hardened beans. Conversations, interactions about rain and dirt and sun and, above all, about the earth and our place in it. It was a shared connection, a community of which certain members were present and engaged, others just present.

So, perhaps that is what I noticed first when Maggie’s whisper rasp escalated into her tugging on my bag, pulling my shoulder down towards her, how she—the Amish woman behind the table, in a thick cotton smock, hair pulled back, invisibly held—was smiling. Not just smiling, but basking, indulging in whatever grace was bestowed upon her. A wedge of warm sun caressed the jams and reflected in a glimmer from the top of the glazed sugary sweetcakes, but it wasn’t the sun at which she smiled.

Seeing her, I felt a glow, a happiness in the back of my heart. A warm feeling of something good that happened, something you remember—before you recall what it is, you remember the feeling.

Maggie had said something nice that morning, something unexpected, so kind and mature. What was it? Oh, and then quickly it was time for the market, and with putting on shoes and grabbing the shopping bags I pushed her act of grace to the back of my mind as I made room in the car for cartons of blueberries and bags of cherries. And yet, there was a memory, a residue of what once was, like that which marks dry rocks around a lake after long sunny days. What was it she said?

Following the direction of the young lady’s gaze, I saw the customer in front of her purchasing bread. Maggie, still tipping my body towards her, released her hold on me as soon as the customer turned. I saw him, his face, but more powerfully, I felt a light on me. Then, what I had forgotten that morning came back to me, Maggie’s words. She had seen a book that she had thought I’d like. That’s what she had mentioned, a children’s book borrowed from a friend, full of intricate drawings of flowers and then, in the middle, a bird. She thought of me. That intimacy, that generosity of this little girl, who knew my needs and likes. I leaned over and kissed her messy hair while the stranger gently studied us.

His eyes were set deep, blue, unblinking in the bright light. His hands, as he held the bread he’d just purchased, were large, soft, not beautiful, and quite indelicate. His fingers were short and thick, wisps of dark hair fell over his wrists and tucked into his sleeves. Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of him, however, was his jacket: lightweight, fitted, wrinkled, and completely unnecessary in the warm summer afternoon. He looked familiar and yet so out of place.

But he turned, looked at me—us—and smiled, and my mind cleared. All I remember is how I felt that morning, and I feel it now.

I smiled broadly into the sun. Maggie pulled forward from my embrace and stepped towards him, offering her opinion that his purchase was well made, that we’d had that bread before. His face opened at her boldness and kindness and offered her some of his purchase.

We strolled the rest of the market with him, Maggie running and jumping, our new friend walking slowly and carefully but always keeping up.

I don’t remember inviting him into our life. Perhaps Maggie did. Perhaps neither of us vocalized it, maybe we didn’t have to. He was there. Around, comfortable, brought us to the park. Brought books for us, which he used to teach Maggie to read. A summer full of moments in the sun. And always the market, always, every week.

I don’t know how Maggie thought of him. I asked her once, and she said his hands were warm and it looked like his back hurt him. And that he was too quiet.

“Well, love, I think he’s older, sometimes older people are like that.” She said, “Older than what?” “Older than he looks,” I answered. And she said, “Yes, he has so much hair!” Which was true. He did.

You wonder where children develop their ideas of older people. My parents were dead, her teachers were young. Did she know anyone old? Were they in her books? I wonder how she thought of him—as a grandfather, a father, a brother, a first love in the imaginary sense of someone so young that love is possible and probable with everyone because everything is about love. I wonder how she thought I thought of him. I didn’t know myself. But I trusted him, and I knew he needed us.

When finally he told us about his wings, it didn’t feel odd. It sounds odd—it is odd—to have wings. But he unfolded them in a way that felt like they were an extension of his body, like opening arms, like a stretch. They didn’t unfold easily. He had slats in his shirts, small, through which the wings expanded. I never got close enough to see or touch his back, but I could sense an aspect of them was always there. Maggie asked me one night, casually, where he got his shirts because she’d never seen anything like them. I said I didn’t know, I had no idea.

His wings were magnificent. White, with some bits of brown and even gray and what looked like red on the furthest tips. Their graceful span filled our living room. His body was quite eclipsed between them, but yet he seemed stronger, lifted, and extended through these beautiful appendages. Once we saw his wings, we couldn’t imagine him without them. Maggie breathed in wonder. “You’re an eagle, you’re like an eagle. Mom … look.”

I could only nod. Then I saw his face pull back into itself, eyes retreating under the brow, ashamed by the beauty he carried. Maggie saw it too. Stepping carefully but assuredly in full steps, she reached out. The wing fluttered and shimmered. She stroked a few feathers gently, and the whole thing rose instinctively, hitting the ceiling with a bang and startling all of us. She looked up. He perhaps mistook her silence for judgment, but she soon laughed, relieving him.

“You’re ticklish! Mom! Look!” She pulled the feather, gently, and again the massive wing rose and hit the ceiling. “Ticklish!” She laughed, then we all laughed.

The first time we flew with him, Maggie was the least nervous. He was kind, he knew how scared I was, how frightened for myself, for Maggie. And even for him, carrying such a load as us. He told us how to hold him, how to cling. Maggie went first, put her arms around his neck, swinging her legs onto his back and hanging like she had no care in the world. I held him from the other side. And I held her, shielding her from the anticipated cold and wind and rain as I have done since the day she was born, as I would always do.

I don’t remember the ground leaving us, feeling weightless or light. I just remember where my arms met his neck and the increased pressure of skin against skin. I remember Maggie’s small body pressing closer to his back and mine to hers.

And I remember seeing the world. Dark, at first—he said flying at night was better—but our eyes adjusted. The countryside rolled around, up and down, and as we gained height, the hills and valleys, farms and forests, were pressed closer together and seemed to swarm in patterns of habitat and wildness, chosen, deliberate, yet undeniably distinct. And us in the middle. We flew over and around all the small inland lakes. I never knew how many there were, so close. And rivers, glowing fissures.

We broke through the thin clouds, and Maggie cried out loudly when she saw the moon. It reflected on her and on the feathery wings, glowing silver and black. I felt its pull, it’s power over me and, then, my strength in resisting it. The thin air, made into wind by our movement through it, was cold and dry. He found an updraft and soared around it, like swimming around a drain, circling and circling.

It was a new person who came down from that ride. Bright, happy, fulfilled. He was tired afterwards. He likened the movement of his wings not so much to waving arms but, rather, to holding them taut against the uplifting pressure and the strong wind that curled through. He rested soundly. I held Maggie, wrapping us in a blanket. She was rambling and mumbling about whether I thought the city would look different and could we see that next.

“Yes, we can see it next,” I said, folding her in my arms against me, resting my chin on her hair. After a while, I laid us down next to him. His wings folded instinctively around us like a cat’s tail, warm and twitching in our exhale.

When we woke, Maggie was almost diagonal on the bed, and he was gone, a lightly written note said to expect him Sunday, at the market. There were many days we didn’t see him. He wasn’t communicative, but we never worried. Life was busy, life moved on. Maggie returned to school.

Story Break

We were never concerned, not until early October. It rained, without stop, for a week, and we hadn’t seen him in almost two. Maggie pointed out it was the sixth day of rain as I was getting her in her boots for school. I shrugged and pointed out her boots. Then she insisted I pay attention: it was raining. Raining very hard for a long time. “Maybe he’s caught somewhere?” she asked as we walked out the door.

“Honey, he’s a grown man. He’s not caught somewhere. He’ll be OK.”

“What if someone finds him, though?”

I knew what she meant but didn’t have anything to say. I pulled up to her school, dropped her off, kissing her forcibly, and realized maybe he was in trouble. He never had a phone, but he often went to a small bookshop near our neighborhood.

I bought a coffee, picked a few books to thumb through. Customers came and went, the shop grew warm quickly, windows fogged and started to drip. I ordered my second coffee. When he finally came in, he was quite hunched, his posture and strength suffering under his burden. I felt a quick shock, a sadness, a chill.

He was leaving us. I felt it.

He saw me, waved, and headed over. As he sat, he picked up the books I’d only restlessly looked at while waiting.

Avoiding my gaze, he spoke softly. “I read this one, quite good. It’s about a man. A young soldier, who falls in love with a woman in a small French town, right before he goes to the Front. Their love …  it can’t … it’s no match for war.”

He traveled to a much deeper thought. I thought I saw his back move, he seemed to lean forward even more, then quickly pulled back. “Trite, I know. The love is sentimentalized. And yet…“

“What?” I asked quietly, pushing out the words in a raspy whisper.

He raised his face. There was such tenderness in his eyes, such love and strength.

“The love is sentimental, but it was true. They are true. Love stories. In one way or another. They are always true. Even if surrounded by, well, life.”

“Yes, I … “ But my thought left, I was empty. I nodded, feeling tension in my sinuses, and tilted my nose. “Yes.”

Holding the book in one hand, he flipped through a few pages and smiled, perhaps remembering the story. The true stories.

“What do I tell her?”

“She knows. She’s wondering how to tell you.”

For some reason I thought of that book she said reminded her of me, it just popped into my head. Was that her view of things? Maggie knew him better than I did. She knew me. Who’s to say she didn’t know love? How it is so bright, beautiful, necessary.

We said a few more words, I can’t remember what. Then parted.

Thinking about it today, this point in my life, I can’t be sure he had wings, and in my darkest moments, when murky thoughts leak through whatever barriers I’ve constructed to keep me safe, I can’t be sure he even existed. And this is the part I hate the most. I hate that it’s gone, and in the absence of continued reassurance or presence, I doubt it ever was. That he ever was.

I want to appeal to Maggie, I want to talk to her, ask her what she remembers, what she sees when she thinks of him. Does she think of him?

But she was so young. And now she’s not. She has her own life, her own issues. She feels her own doubts and worries and she in the middle of it all. She hardly needs her mother’s fear and faithlessness. And yet, she’s such a fine, talented, beautiful woman. I couldn’t love her more.

I live with that doubt—whether he existed, whether he had wings, was there, or meant anything. Whether we meant anything to him. It’s lonely but constant, at least.

The market is still there, flourishing. The move towards supporting local farmers and growers has been kind, and now they sell every day of the week. The green metal bars on which they hung flowers and canvas are now sky blue and beautifully bright against the canvas covers. The people are different too, younger, more diverse. I walk more slowly, deliberately, carrying my own burdens and strains. I find grace and love in the faces. I smile, widely, broadly. I meet a few people, make connections, pick melons.

The Amish still come, now they have more than one stall. An unfolded, clean white sheet on which are piled lovely, fresh goods over which they smile politely, and I engage. They have a store in Chicago, people they know. They’ve done really well, it’s been helpful. We discuss weather, frosts, and freezes, sometimes I sit down and have a water, it gets so hot under the tarps. They are most kind, so very kind, and yet, mostly, they haven’t changed at all.

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