A Life in Six Feathers

I. Down feathers—the foundation layer, which underlies most other feathers

Abby let the dented screen door slap closed behind her. “Mom, I’m home!”

She plastered on her best grin to deflect any mom-scowls over the screen door. But the house was quiet. Only Einstein, her parakeet, warbled happily from her bedroom.

Abby frowned and dropped her schoolbag on the rental-beige carpet. In the kitchen, a note sat next to the half-finished sink of dishes. Sorry, Abs, we’ll have to go to the zoo another time. I got called in. Happy Birthday!

The crumpled note bounced off the rim of the trashcan. Abby stomped on it and tossed it in. She stomped to her bedroom.

“Divorce sucks,” she told Einstein, who chortled in agreement. “Mom couldn’t have said no to extra hours for once?”

That was selfish, and Abby knew it, but they’d been plotting this trip to the zoo—and its world-class aviary—for months, ever since she got out of the hospital minus her appendix. It had seemed a miracle that her birthday fell on the zoo’s annual free day. She only turned twelve once.

Einstein’s claws pattered over her skin as he walked up her arm to nibble on her ear.

“Thanks, buddy, but ear nibbles aren’t going to make me feel better today.”

He kept nibbling anyway.

Abby sighed. She wandered into her mom’s bedroom. There the window gave a clear view of their neighbor’s birdfeeders.

“Black-capped chickadee,” she whispered to Einstein as a perky black-and-white bird hopped down from a branch. It snagged

a seed and flew away, its desire firmly secure in its beak.

“American goldfinch. House sparrow. Northern cardinal. Carolina wren.” Each bird flitted in and out again, each one an arrow loosed into the sky, flying away from earthly cares and troubles. But none of them was the one—-the unidentified bird she’d been looking for since she saw it in the hospital.

Her mom insisted she’d hallucinated, insisted the bird was an effect of the anesthesia, a memory of a picture in a book. And Abby admitted it was unlikely she’d seen a black bird with teeth and claws in her hospital room. But she had seen it, plain as day, seen the way its feathers ruffled, its tail twitched, its black eyes gleamed as it peered out the window. If it had been a hallucination, it had looked just as real as the birds she saw every day.

And it didn’t match anything she remembered seeing, or anything she’d seen since. It hadn’t been a vulture or a crow. It hadn’t been in any bird guide her mom brought home. She’d hoped she might see one at the zoo’s aviary.

She sank down onto the folding chair her mom had angled so she could watch the birds. Something crinkled beneath her. She shot up, Einstein squawking on her shoulder in surprise.

A wrapped present lay on the chair. Her mom must have put it there knowing she’d come to this seat. She’d been so engrossed in the birds she hadn’t seen it.

The wrapping paper had Tweety on it, of course. She ripped it open.

The book inside was square and thin, with a hard green cover. On the front was the drawing of a creature that made Abby gasp. It looked like a black chicken with teeth and a long tail.

“Einstein, that’s the bird!”

She traced the title with her finger, sounding out the word: “Ar-kay-op-ter-ix.” Then, faster. “Archaeopteryx.”

The word sounded like a spell, something magical to be savored.

She flipped open the book, turning pages faster as she realized what she was reading. “Einstein, listen! You’re descended from dinosaurs, and this was the very first dinosaur to become a bird. It had feathers and could fly and everything!”

Einstein peered down at the book from her shoulder, cocking his head as birds do, but Abby sat still, too excited to move. “The first bird, ever,” she breathed.

Something soft fluttered in her chest. She rubbed her hand-me-down-jeans, wiggled her toes in her cousin’s old sneakers.

What must it have been like to wear primordial feathers? To look to the high curtain of the sky and decide you would go there, no matter the obstacles?

“Fly, archaeopteryx, fly,” she whispered. The book rested lightly on her knees, like a kiss or a prayer.

A dark blur winged past the window towards the feeders, but she kept her eyes on the book. One picture showed archaeopteryx on the ground, gazing at a high, high branch. She knew that feeling, that desperate desire to be somewhere, anywhere else.

She traced the picture with her finger. She had no idea why she might have seen an archaeopteryx in her hospital room, whether it had been a dream, a hallucination, or what. But she knew she’d never seen this book before, and she knew what she must do now. “I’m going to see one of these someday. For real.”

Einstein chipped, a sound that could have been a protest. “I don’t care if they’ve been extinct for millions of years.” She held the book close. “Maybe it’s impossible, but someday I’m going to see another archaeopteryx.”

II. Semiplumes—small feathers that help make a bird insulated and aerodynamic, and that aid in courtship displays

Abby plunked herself down on the frat house picnic table. God, this party sucked even more than she’d thought it would. The music was bad, and the alcohol fumes were giving her a headache. She’d totally bail except she’d promised not to leave without her roommate, and Regan was across the yard sticking her tongue down some guy’s throat.

Abby rolled her eyes. She snatched up an unused paper napkin from the table and rescued a pen from the trampled grass. A few sketch lines later, a giant archaeopteryx chomped the head off a stick figure frat boy.

She giggled and drew again. This time, she flew off into the sunset on the giant archaeopteryx’s back, Regan gripped safely in its talons.

A guy’s voice spoke at her shoulder. “What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen archaeopteryx?”

She quirked an eyebrow. How intriguing. Amid all the dumb jocks, someone could quote Monty Python. Without looking up, she said, “What do you mean? African or European archaeopteryx?”

“Ha! Archaeopteryx fossils have only been found in Europe.”

“Very good.” She looked up.

The guy at her shoulder wore baggy jeans and a t-shirt with the picture of a gray-and-yellow bird that she couldn’t identify. His ears stuck out on both sides of his head, but rather than looking dopey he had a certain boy-next-door charm.

He stuck out his hand. “Luke Michaels.”

Wow. He knew about archaeopteryx, had a bird on his shirt, could quote Monty Python, and was polite. It was a miracle. She shook. “Abby Weber. Were we in psychology together last year?” She thought she remembered his ears.

“Yup. You sat in front and asked lots of questions.” “Well, Professor Kay wasn’t clear on a lot of stuff.”

“Agreed. I’d have asked those questions, but you beat me to them.” He nodded at the picnic table. “Mind if I join you?” “Only if you tell me how you know about archaeopteryx.”

He grinned. “I got my nerd credentials early. By the time I was six, I could name something like sixty different dinosaurs.”

“That’ll do.” She scooted over so he could join her on the table. Across the yard, Regan didn’t look like she was coming up for air anytime soon.

“How about you?” Luke asked as he settled in. “Why were you drawing an archaeopteryx of all things?”

Her vision was her own, not for other people. But a dinosaur-loving bird nerd might understand the resulting impossible dream. “I’m a biology major. I’m studying to be the first person to clone one.”

Both his eyebrows rose. “You’re gonna do a Jurassic Park?” “Except something the size of a blue jay won’t eat me.”

“Good point. When you get one cloned, can I take a picture?” He shrugged his shoulder, and Abby realized he had a camera slung over it.

“You’re a photographer?” “Yup. Studio arts major.” He plucked at the picture on his shirt. “I took this. It’s a Kirtland’s warbler.”

No wonder she hadn’t recognized the bird. Kirtland’s warblers were critically endangered. “You saw one? How lucky!”

He beamed. “I’m gonna be a professional photographer, take pictures of things before they’re gone, maybe help save them.” He leaned close. He smelled not of alcohol, thank goodness, but soap and toothpaste. “What I really want is a picture of an ivory-billed woodpecker.”

“They’re probably extinct.”

“Yeah.” He hung his head. “That might be an impossible dream.”

“Well, if I can clone an archaeopteryx, maybe I can clone an ivory-billed woodpecker, too.”

“And I could take the pictures?” He pressed his hands to his heart, not mockingly, but in total sincerity. “It would be an honor.”

Just like that, Abby knew this was the man she wanted to marry.

III. Body feathers—the colored feathers that help give a bird its identity

“I hate it,” Abby said. Her voice was muffled by her face in her hands. “I’m listening to all the presentations, and these people are reporting their amazing work—getting clones to live for more than a week! Hatching chickens who display ancestral traits of teeth and bony tails! When I’m figuring out a better way to extract DNA from fossilized eggshells, and my boss won’t let me publish yet. God, he’s so paranoid.”  “Drink something.” Luke pushed an orange juice across the restaurant table. “You’ll feel better with some sugar in you.”

Abby made a face but drank.

Out the restaurant window, Las Vegas simmered under the noontime sun. In the hotel hallway, people hurried past sporting green conference badges. Abby waved to one man, a scientist from Australia, before she downed another gulp.

“You’re right.” She plunked her glass down. “Sugar solves all. But I didn’t ask how the photoshoot went. Did you get some good condor pictures?” “Fabulous! National Geographic should be thrilled with them. I wish you could’ve been there. This one condor—”

“Dr. Michaels?” A man in a grey suit with a blue tie approached the table. He carried a slim black briefcase but no conference badge. “Are you Abigail Michaels?” She straightened, aware of her rumpled t-shirt and jeans. “Probably. Who’s asking?” The man extended a hand. “I’m Malcom Xavier. Is there a place we can speak privately?” Abby gestured to the table. “Here’s fine. This is my husband, Luke. You can say anything you need to in front of him.”

Mr. Xavier eyed Luke as if he regularly betrayed state secrets. Luke grinned, rubbing his unshaven chin for emphasis.

“All right,” Mr. Xavier said. He slid into the booth, forcing Luke to scoot over.

Abby scooted over on her side so she faced Luke, not Mr. Xavier. “Well?” she asked. Whatever this guy had to say, it had better be good.

Mr. Xavier clasped his hands and rested his elbows on the table. “I represent Teddy Hardy.”


Luke whistled. “The M-C-Squared.com guy? You know, we see his commercials all the time.” “Exactly,” Mr. Xavier said. “As you may guess, Mr. Hardy has an interest in science. In particular, in creatures long extinct.”

Abby found herself straightening in her seat and smoothing her shirt. She wished she had bothered to put on mascara that morning. “Didn’t he just give something like twenty million dollars to the Field Museum?” “Exactly,” Mr. Xavier said. “Now Mr. Hardy wants to advance the field of de-extinction, to resurrect creatures no longer with us. He is prepared to build a lab for just such a purpose, and he’s looking for someone to run the lab. Dr. Michaels, you’re known to be a vocal proponent of de-extinction, and—”

“You’re joking, right?” Abby looked from him to Luke, whose eyebrows seemed poised to hover over his head. “I haven’t published in five years, didn’t even present a poster session here. Other people”—she waved towards the Australian who had wandered into the bar—“are getting all sorts of publicity on their work to bring back the Tasmanian tiger, and…” She trailed off at Mr. Xavier’s bemused expression.  “No joke. Perhaps if you look at the contract you’ll understand why I approached you.” He slid a paper from his briefcase across the table. “You’ll want to have your lawyer review it, of course.” “Of course,” Luke echoed. The closest they got to lawyers was watching them on TV.

Abby skimmed the paper. Her fingers began to tingle. “It says Mr. Hardy wants to focus on avifauna, bringing back extinct birds. Especially the first birds, the basal birds.”

“Exactly. Mr. Hardy has learned of your work advancing DNA extraction from fossilized eggshells, as well of your interest in archaeopteryx.” Abby clutched the table. It seemed her breathing had gone haywire. It wasn’t surprising that someone from work had blabbed about her breakthroughs, and now—“You’re offering me my own lab. To bring back an archaeopteryx.”

Across the table, Mr. Xavier dipped his chin. “Exactly.” Luke craned his neck, reading the contract upside down. “The lab would be in New York City? But you’re only offering a starting salary of $50,000.”

“Most of the startup money will be invested in equipment, you understand. But we offer a generous benefits package.”

“Oh,” Abby said, her heart sinking. Not only was Mr. Hardy interested in her science, but he knew that without recent publications to her name, he could get her cheap. “But, Luke, we talked about me finding a position that would let you open your own gallery.”

“We both know that’ll take years. Impossible dreams start from humble beginnings, remember? I’ll make great contacts in the city, and we’ll be an easy driving distance to lots of places. I’ve always wanted to photograph piping plovers on Cape Cod.”

“You have? You never said.”

He pressed his hands to his heart. “This is a fabulous chance for you. Take it.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m counting the days to my first archaeopteryx picture.”

She took a breath, afraid her heart would shoot into her throat. The signature line on the contract stood out bold as an airplane’s runway. She rummaged in her bag for a pen.

IV. Bristles—stiff feathers that help protect a bird’s eyes and beak

“The lab door was padlocked?” Luke demanded. Abby had never seen him so angry.

“And a note on the door said all the equipment’s to be repossessed!” She stomped through the gray slush. A gray sky spit gray snow onto the gray New York sidewalk. “God, six years of work, gone.”

Luke scowled at the passing traffic. “I mean, we knew Mr. Hardy was having money problems, but to just close the lab like that…is there anything you can do?”

“I called that lawyer your brother recommended, but probably not.” She kicked a discarded soda can. “I mean, the eggshell DNA hadn’t panned out, and we never were able to get DNA from those fossilized embryos. But I would have thought of something else. I would have!” She bit her lip.

“Christ.” Luke jammed his hands into his pockets. It’d been years since she’d heard him swear.

A car alarm blared, the noise grating like claws against her ears. As abruptly, it stopped.

“Hey,” Luke said, his voice brighter. “Come with me to Europe.”

“What? Now?”

“In two weeks, my trip for Scientific American.”

“When you’re shooting the Białowieża?” It was one of the largest tracks of intact primeval forest left in Europe, home to rare and endangered animals.

“Yup. We could extend the trip, go to Germany, maybe—”

“Visit the museums? See the archaeopteryx specimens?”

“Yup.” He grinned.

“Oh, yes!” She stopped, threw her arms around him. She’d seen the fossils before, of course, but years ago. It wasn’t the same as a real thing, but…“A little pick me up is exactly—”

Tires screeched. Abby turned.

A bus careened up over the sidewalk. The driver’s panicked eyes stared down at her. Then all went black.

V. Retrices—tail feathers used to steer and brake in flight

“Again,” Luke said.

“I’m trying,” Abby snapped. She knew she sounded peevish, but no matter what she did her stupid fingers wouldn’t stretch the rubber band looped around them.

“Okay, I’ll get the ball the therapist gave you. Maybe that’ll work better.” Luke grabbed his crutches and limped out of the kitchen, favoring his fractured ankle.

Abby slumped in her chair, cradling her ruined right hand. She should be grateful to be alive. If she hadn’t stopped to hug Luke, if the two of them had been one step closer to the curb, the bus would’ve done worse than sideswipe them. But gratitude was hard when she couldn’t hold a pen, let alone a test tube or an eye dropper.

She flexed her hand, but nope. Her fingers barely moved.

With a shake of her head, she looked up from the ruins of her arm. On the table lay stills from the project she was working on with one of Luke’s friends. The man was making a film about the origins of birds. She’d thrown herself into her role as scientific advisor, desperate to keep her mind occupied while her body healed. But no matter how she tried, the project couldn’t calm her impossible cravings. The animations were good, very good, but the archaeopteryx portrayed there wasn’t living. There was no mind, no beating heart behind the images.

A blur at her window startled her. She leaned, searching for what headed towards their feeders. Instead, she saw a dinosaur hopping up and down in the courtyard.

Not a real dinosaur, no, rather someone in one of those T-Rex costumes. She’d seen videos of them, ice-skating, chasing jeeps, frightening small dogs. This one was followed by a second, smaller T-Rex, and she recognized their neighbor’s two sons. The boys had asked her more than once to tell them about archaeopteryx and had hung on to her every word. No wonder their mom had gotten them costumes.

She pressed her cheek to the glass, watching the boys chase each other in the courtyard, their tails bobbing, their arms flailing in the ridiculous costumes. How lively, how joyous they looked.

The smaller boy stumbled. His foot hit the corner of a planter, and he slammed snout-first onto the pavement.

Abby sucked in her breath. Was he all right? Should she call his mom?

She reached for her phone, but the boy righted himself, laughing with the easy resiliency of the young.

As he did, he must have seen her in the window. He waved, his movements endearingly awkward in the costume.

She waved with her good arm and realized she was grinning. As silly as the costumes looked, as awkward and make-believe as they were, the very gracelessness warmed her heart. Here were living, breathing creatures beneath the images.

Behind her, Luke gasped. “Abby, whatever you just did, do it again.”

Around her damaged fingers, the rubber band stretched taut.

VI. Secondaries—a bird’s wing feathers, which provide lift in flight

A shriek of laughter brought Abby to the activity room door. She peeked out into the main hall of the Michaels Science Center. There, families worked their way through hands-on exhibits about everything from photography to Earth’s vanishing species to the evolution of birds. One little girl in particular couldn’t seem to get enough of the ride-on archaeopteryx. Her black pigtails bounced in time with its feathers.

“This is what I’m going to make,” her older sister said, tapping the archaeopteryx’s head. “I’m going to be the first person to clone one.”

“Me, too!” black pigtails said. “I’ll clone one.”

“You can be the second person.”


They pinky swore, and Abby ducked back inside the activity room, grinning.

Still smiling, she hung a piñata from the activity room ceiling. The Center was hosting another birthday party that afternoon, and she wanted everything to be ready before she left. Whistling, she strung dinosaur lights on the walls and set out plastic dinosaur plates on the cake table. Their kid-sized T-Rex costume she’d carefully folded in one corner. Amira, their assistant, would help the birthday boy inside before he took the first swing at the piñata.

The staff door opened. “Abs,” Luke called, “it’s time.”

“Coming.” She stepped back from the cake table. The Center had been their brainchild in the year after The Accident, when they decided they needed jobs where they could work side-by-side, where it didn’t matter if Abby’s hand shook or Luke’s ankle throbbed. Now, as she cast a critical eye over the room, she took a deep breath, let it out. The room looked perfect. The Center was a success. She’d married a wonderful man and brought science to thousands of children. One of them, she was sure, would hold a living archaeopteryx in their hands.

She carried the satisfaction close as Luke opened the car door for her and made sure she was safely inside.

I’m not made of glass, she wanted to protest, but she held her tongue. He needed something to do in face of her illness.

At the hospital, nurses whisked her into a surgical gown. It was stiff and harsh against her skin, chafing at the neck. Once she was prepped and on the gurney, they ushered Luke in.

He gripped her hand. “I’ll be waiting right outside.”

Abby gripped back. Dormant fears wormed through her belly. What if something went wrong with the surgery? What if the surgeon found that her cancer had spread? “I know,” she said and forced a smile. “See you soon.”

“It’s time,” the nurse said.

Luke leaned over and kissed her. She held his hand as long as she could. As she let go, she saw it.

A plastic archaeopteryx stood on the shelf over her gurney. Probably a left-behind toy, it seemed to carry in its plastic wings all the comfort of an icon on an altar, all the assurances of her own guardian angel. What serendipity. She gasped.

“What?” Luke asked, his gaze never leaving her face.

“Archaeopteryx,” she whispered.

He turned. At the sight of the toy, his shoulders lifted.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said, and as they wheeled her away, she realized it was true. She didn’t know why archaeopteryx had come into her life, would never know why this longing had been hers to carry, but whatever happened next, she had Luke and the Center waiting. Because of archaeopteryx. It was all she could ask for from an impossible dream.

“Fly, archaeopteryx, fly,” she whispered as the anesthesia took over.