The straw-haired girl, not a child though not yet an adult, stood quietly next to her mother as the crowd of mourners closed in on them. The air was damp and cold, making her breath a steam cloud as she exhaled. She stared at her shoes, her face hidden by a curtain of hair, and let her gaze wander along the grassy floor. Sodden feathers clung to her shoes while others lay strewn across the once-verdant ground.
A purple-robed priest floated past her so close she could have snatched his long, flowing scarf from around his neck. But she didn’t; instead, she kept her hands stashed deep in her coat pockets, the stolen eye gripped tightly in her right hand.
Amid the human forest, the girl thought about Grandfather’s house. She visualized his bedroom: the heavy drapes pulled shut as if to keep the sunlight from revealing the room’s secrets and the lumpy quilt with its evenly spaced knots. Even now, she could still taste the stale cigarette- and sweat-infused air heavy on her tongue. Inside her pocket, nimble fingers turned over the convex shell-shaped object. She pictured the blue iris and covered it with her thumb, pressing hard. Grandfather’s glass eye, stolen from the jewelry box on his dresser the last time he had taken her to his bedroom.
A distant caw from a derisive crow pricked her ears. The black-winged creature had come for the eye and, she hoped, for her as well.
Mother shifted her weight from one shoe to the other, her nylon-covered calves flexing. The corner of her elbow nudged the girl from time to time to remind her to stand still or straight, or to keep alert – the girl was not sure which. Earlier at home, the girl had wanted to wear her blue jeans and sneakers instead of her Sunday shoes and the dress Mother had bought specially for this occasion. When the girl protested, Mother had thrown the clothing at her and then left to wait for her downstairs, slamming the door behind her.
During the church service, the girl had wanted to go up with the others, the old men and women, to peer into the casket. She wanted, needed, to see him lying in that silk-lined box. But when she went to stand, Mother clutched her arm and jerked her back down. It was then that her feathers had begun to sprout through her skin. Small pinfeathers poked through her nylons and pulled against the pores with each movement. They itched and made her fidgety – it was all she could do not to scratch them.
The feathers would come to her at Grandfather’s too.
At his house, while on his bed in the dim light, his ashtray-breath smothered her and his thick, probing fingers touched her. With every visit to his darkened bedroom, her avian powers grew stronger, and flight came to her more quickly.
In the cemetery, the newly formed feathers covered the girl’s arms, and she felt their pointy ends as they pushed against the inside of her coat. She shivered as she raised her eyes and scanned the crowd for Father. Solitary and distant as always, she spotted him, standing two black-cloaked bodies away.
A flicker of movement caught the girl’s eye. To avoid Mother’s detection, she slowly turned her head until she spotted Sister Crow perched on the edge of a grey headstone. A smile pulled at the corners of the girl’s mouth. The bird, black as Goth, tilted its head and eyed her. In quick, short motions, its sharp beak worked like a pencil writing an invisible message in the air. And the girl knew, for certain, the bird was waiting for the eye – the ridge-less half marble clasped tightly in her fist.
A shift in the crowd momentarily distracted the girl, and then she heard the shovelfuls of dirt thunder down onto the casket. Edging away from Mother and moving toward Sister Crow, she pulled the eye-shell from her pocket and gently lobbed it toward the bird. Without a sound, it fell to the grass just left of the headstone. The bird’s shiny obsidian eyes followed it to the ground. Its beak tipped up and down, and then it cawed a thank you.
With a flap of wings, the bird descended to the ground and picked up the object in its beak. Then it swiftly took flight and disappeared into the nearby woods. In vain, the girl searched the naked branches for the bird while a heavy sadness filled her. “No, wait,” she cried out, “take me too!”
An abrupt yank on the girl’s arm reminded her she was to stay still and be quiet. “Why can’t you behave?” Mother spat.
No one spoke in the car on the way home. No one commented on her feathers. Father kept his hands on the steering wheel while Mother stared out the window, and the girl sat in the backseat, running the tip of her finger over her soft, inky down. Once home, Father abandoned them, going straight out to his workshop; Mother headed directly to the forbidden cupboard; the girl went up to her room and climbed onto her bed, where she curled up like a fledgling in a soft nest.
When the girl awoke, she was dismayed to discover she was still a girl. The feathers were gone, but the inner ache remained. She rubbed her palm against her pale skin.
One morning when she was supposed to be in school, the girl instead rode her bike down to the run-off pond. From the sloping bank, she watched a swan float by. She pulled the secreted items from her pockets and examined them. Two bottles: one from her mother’s medicine cabinet, the other from the forbidden cupboard. After a long minute, she flopped onto her back, her grasp tight on the bottles. Lying face-up with her blackened eyelids softly closed, she could feel the feathers, black as Goth, once more push through her scalp.
—Kara Donadt lives in beautiful British Columbia, where she writes from her home studio overlooking Lake Okanagan. She loves wakesurfing and golfing in the summer and hiking and skiing in the winter. Her inspiration comes from other talented writers, nature, and the world around her.