She ran barefoot through the doors, past the shops, past bicycles and cars. Marshall, Quimby, Raleigh, then 26th, peeling off her leggings as she went, her bare legs pumping along the dusky green school field, beside the happy families, the lithe dogs, the wary picnickers beneath ominous rolling clouds. Now she was nearly naked and the flecks in the night sky were sparks flying up from a campfire burning holes in the world, and she was losing her soul, and yes, it was about time.
It was Friday morning, and the dominant feeling was that of being pinched as she pulled on her leggings. The catch at her tailbone made Ren wonder if her chakras were off. She patted her butt pockets to be sure a bunched-up dryer sheet hadn’t hitched a ride. She ran fingertips inside her waistband. Still, the odd crinkle. Hadn’t her yoga teacher said the first chakra—or was it the second—was the center of money, sex, and…? She swished dental rinse, spat the blue-green mouthful into the sink. She stared into the mirror, trying to remember the third thing about the second chakra.
Brush in hand, she flung open her daughter’s door. Bailey was burrowing under covers, dark hair with the streak of red ribboning over cotton jersey. What, pray tell, was the point of Bailey setting her phone alarm? It shook and buzzed at the edge of the mattress. Her last phone had been run over by a four-wheeler, the disaster of the summer. Without being able to text, Bailey had been separated from her flock.
Something Ren didn’t have to worry about. She didn’t have friends. She was always about to start a friendship, but then she would back off when the friend was too…something. Louisa, a fellow soprano in choir, so chatty and funny, wore peridot and read comic books. She just kept getting weirder. Ren couldn’t have that. She was trying to be solid now, she was obviously a linear person. Doing one thing at a time, herding the kids where they needed to go. She’d quit choir. She had a tiny little reed of a voice, a squeak. Who could compete with Aunt Marva? Ren was fully occupied being a support, a failsafe, for her family.
She touched the thin wing of Bailey’s shoulder blade. “Rise and shine, superstar.” She drew circles on Bailey’s back. With her other hand she brushed her own hair. It was wild today.
Bailey grabbed her pillow and planted it over the back of her head, sealed by her forearms.
“Now.” Ren yanked the pillow to the floor. Her anger spurted then thinned to a dripping faucet. She sighed. “You can’t be late again. It’s only the third week of school.”
Her problem was Bailey. Or maybe her own ineptness at teaching life skills.
Her problem was not being late for work. Fridays at the nonprofit were so chill that Ella brought her grandkid and Brittany made a run to Voodoo Doughnuts. Work was a break from the care, feeding, and transport of the humans she lived with. And from their need to be entertained.
It was Charlie who needed to be entertained. Once Bailey was off with friends, and Jackson was with his mom, well, then Charlie expected Ren to “spend time with him,” to be his wife, playmate, and helper, running errands all Saturday, and on Sunday going kayaking, then going to dinner, then seeing a movie, and afterward, turning on the sizzle, whether she felt sizzle or not. Lately, not.
Her problem was Charlie.
Tonight was Aunt Marva’s birthday dinner.
Her problem was she couldn’t keep this up anymore.
When Bailey’s feet touched floor, Ren ran into the kitchen and threw together almond butter and jelly. She knew Bailey would supplement with preserved poisons from the vending machine. She tucked the lunch inside her daughter’s backpack. Her knuckles hit metal. “What the—?”
Ren pulled out a sepia photograph in a tinny frame. Dark eyes stared from a pale face. A feather headband swept the high forehead. “Cornelia,” she breathed.
Bailey thundered down the stairs. “Where did you get this?” asked Ren. “Theater project,” Bailey said, snatching socks from a laundry basket. “We’re supposed to create a show about a distinctive member of our family.”
“But you never knew Cousin Cornelia,” Ren said, after they got in the car.
“I visited her that one time, remember?”
Ren squared her shoulders, squinting at a traffic light. Her left elbow itched. “Maybe,” she said. Anything before the accident was hazy.
“She lived in Washington,” said Bailey, holding her mascara wand aloft. She adjusted the passenger mirror. “Near the Snowhome River.”
Ren paused. “Snohomish?”
Bailey waved her mascara. “Whatever. I was little and stayed a weekend. It was at the start of the school year. She told me stories. Also, we went to this old school, Wagner something, and watched all these birds do a migration thing. Thousands and thousands swirling all around the roof.”
Ren dodged Bailey’s mascara. She saw in her mind’s haze Cornelia’s old farmhouse, the massive red brick chimney. “Did she die?” asked Ren. For the life of her, it was one more thing she couldn’t remember.
Bailey capped her mascara and picked up her phone. “She disappeared. It was complicated. I hate having to tell you everything.”
Ren had lost her family long ago, except for Cornelia, the old cousin twice-or-thrice removed who’d had six children. Ren had never met the kids; they’d long ago flown the coop. Ren remembered Cornelia’s eyes, small and shiny as flax seeds. It was strange not having a family like other people, but you got used to it. Now that she had Charlie’s family, it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Aunt Marva, a tyrant, a one-time opera star, a clock-watcher.
But that was okay, Ren was a linear person.
She worked half a day at the nonprofit, then headed home. She flipped on public radio. The Vaux’s swifts were “plummeting into the chimney at Chapman School tonight around 8 pm.” Other cities had weather reports; Portland had bird reports. She snapped off OPB and ran through her checklist: buy groceries, get gift bag, make calls—car repair shop, plumber. She dashed into the house and wondered if there was time for a dip at the pool. But she’d lost her padlock.
Charles kept every lock, along with every key, keys to locks from houses left long ago, keys and the sewing kits they give in hotels. She rifled through his dresser drawer and found six buttons, half-used sunscreen, and an old pair of binoculars. She pushed the assortment aside until she found a padlock. It was in a plastic box.
There was something else in the box.
A ring of feathers. Intricate, silvery feathers, comprising a tiny, dusky gray band. Or it might have been blue, or black, with a shifting of light.
It was the same feeling she’d had seeing Cornelia’s photograph—as if that regal face were trying to tell her something.
Something she didn’t remember.
The stupid accident.
This ring, it should be hers, should it not?
She pulled it over her finger, but it didn’t fit. Not even on the pinky. She put it in her back pocket. And then felt her tailbone. Still crinkly.
Which made her worry.
Was this a skin lesion? Cancer?
Charles was uptight about money and who knew if insurance would cover this. She pulled off her sweater, tugged down her leggings, and twisted around to the mirror. There it was: a stiff spiny thing, like a long thin tooth, emerging from her tailbone.
She couldn’t tell Charles or he’d freak. He’d insist she see his dermatologist, just like he insisted she use his plumber, repair shop, and even hairdresser. She disliked his people. Conventional to the core. But she was, too, wasn’t she? It was easy to go his way with things, because, after all, what did she know? Her brain could only go as far back as coming home from the hospital after the accident, Charles driving the copper-colored Acura, a couple of months before they got married.
She didn’t remember much of Bailey’s Dad. She could see herself sneaking into the garage, weeks after their separation, rifling through the beat-up filing cabinet for papers. For identification. For things she’d never recovered. . . she blinked. The feathered ring? But then, she must’ve found it, before Charles stashed it away. She felt hollow, porous, as she sped across town to Bailey. Couldn’t you pick a past the way you opened your car door to a passenger? You look fine. Come on in and be my own.
She parked and scanned faces as bodies spilled out of school doors. So many girls wore skimpy things. In my day we didn’t show bra straps, she thought. We were svelte, aerodynamic.
But she wasn’t exactly sure.
Ren rested her chin on the steering wheel. The sun warmed the car leather, raising scents of sweat, sour milk, cat, and trapped french fries.
Her elbow ached. She touched it, and an arrow of pain shivered along her arm to the small bones of her neck. What if she had been someone else before the accident? What if she’d been an artist?
The closest she’d come to creation was yesterday. At the craft store, she bought weather-beaten reminders of a simpler time. Okay, made in a factory and steeped in chemicals, but still. She’d flung all her distressed wood and twiggy things onto the kitchen table. The hot glue gun smelled like Tupperware melting in the dishwasher, yet was not altogether unpleasant.
Late into the night, she sorted, arranged, and glued. It had felt right, making the gift.
. . . for Aunt Marva’s dinner – tonight!
Her blood pressure quickened. Charles hated when she was late.
Where are you? she texted Bailey.
She thought of her neighbor, Geneva, getting her PhD. Her kids always on time. Now there was a woman Ren should emulate, especially according to Charlie. But Ren never fit in with other moms, the ones without mixed families, or the women without kids. Ren’s rhythms were different. Every change of season pulled at her. September was the worst.
She bolted out of the car, stood by the brick entry. She had an impulse to cling to the wall, to pull herself upward. She reached both hands, pressing fingertips into mortar, holding her body erect, close to the brick, as if preparing to cling tight for a long time.
“Mom!”—Bailey’s voice delivered the word with at least two syllables—“I told you, I had to stay after for the Theater project, don’t you ever hear me?”
Ren shook herself as her daughter followed her back to the SUV. In the passenger seat, Bailey crossed her arms, miffed. But then she softened. She took off a purple hat draped with an enormous peacock feather, and her deep brown hair with its red streak billowed onto her shoulders. She touched the hat brim with interest. It sported a row of silver sequins alternating with thin black threads and a gold magnifying glass. Ren opened her mouth in an “O” of curiosity.
“Cousin Cornelia’s hat,” explained Bailey. “The kind of thing she used to wear. She would go around collecting feathers and looking at them under the magnifying glass. Don’t you remember? She called the feathers, ‘dream castoffs’. Peacock isn’t right, but that’s all I could find. And here, with the sequins, these are thistle seeds. Some birds are bug feeders, but remember, she used to feed the birds? She had a hundred birds coming to her feeders every day, I bet.”
Ren pulled onto I-5 which was already slowing. Teaching Bailey to drive was going to be brutal. Charles barely let Ren behind the wheel. When a situation was unpredictable, he avoided it.
“These pics are so crazy,” Bailey said, scrolling through screens on her phone, grinning. “Here I am in our play, holding my arms up in a cloud of steam. It’s supposed to be a magic cloud of birds, but we have to use dry ice. That’s how Cornelia disappears, where she’s last seen.”
Ren only caught every other word. “Where did this story come from?”
“It’s in the old clipping from the Everett Herald. Now do you remember?”
Left onto Northwest 23rd, just missing a silver Prius.
“Watch it, Mom!”
How was a person supposed to see through parked cars?
Aunt Marva’s gift tumbled onto the floor from the back seat. All her hard work. Please don’t be broken.
She limped in her heels ahead of Bailey toward Papa Haydn’s. As she went, she pulled up her gray sleeve. A slim spur of bone jutted from her elbow. Something dark, like a blood blister, was emerging from the flesh.
She gasped and covered the arm.
Aunt Marva, Jackson, and Charles were in the back corner of the restaurant. Aunt Marva was giving her that look.
Jackson glanced up. He pushed his glasses higher up on his freckled nose and went back to scanning the menu, his long form folded over the table.
“I was worried because you didn’t answer your cell,” said Charles.
Ren clapped her hand over the crinkly small of her back. Her body, it knew something. “Traffic,” she said, as Aunt Marva’s eyes flashed out of sync with that artificial smile. Bailey sat, flipped her hair over her shoulder, and picked up the menu.
“Didn’t you come straight from school?” asked Charles.
“Five minutes,” Ren breathed. “I’m late by FIVE MINUTES, okay!” She swallowed hard, trying to even out her heartbeat.
Everyone looked away. She took the moment to squeeze past Charles into the seat by the window. “Well, there’s always traffic now, isn’t there?” broke in Aunt Marva. “Arnie used to miss my birthday and every year I’d tell him, ‘Some things happen whether you’re ready or not, so you might as well get ready.’”
Ren’s chest tightened.
“And ready means organized.” Aunt Marva laughed musically, and her matte lipsticked lips curled up at the ends, but her eyes were hard. “Something you may have been before your accident. Of course, I didn’t know you well, then.
“Organized,” she continued. “Is that a dirty word for you, Ren? Do you just hate that word?” Aunt Marva laughed again, patted the back of her red curls, then exclaimed over the menu. “Crab cakes. Isn’t it funny how much I love crab cakes when I hate crab?”
Marigolds nodded from the centerpiece, making Ren think of clowns. A tiny spider, hanging from a single strand, bobbed toward her water glass. Without thinking, she inched forward into the air, opened her mouth, and enclosed the spider inside. She swallowed.
Her husband gaped at her, eyebrows high in alarm.
Glasses were clinking and the wait staff was singing “Happy Birthday” three tables over. No one but Charles had noticed.
Ren leaned back, closed her eyes. The taste in her mouth was nutty, wonderful.
She thought back to the start of their marriage. Hadn’t they met birdwatching? That’s what he’d told her, another memory she couldn’t resurrect. Charles had since stopped birding. He was in high demand at his architectural firm, and less inclined to go out in the rain.
What she missed was rain, and air, and wind.
Maybe she had come to him some other way. That was all so long ago.
And now her right elbow was throbbing. A movement outside the window caught her eye. A twitch in the maple tree, a sparrow.
“Couldn’t we change the plan?” Ren had asked Charles that morning as he got ready for work. “Do something unexpected? I heard the swifts are roosting at Chapman—”
“Huh?” Charles was working his belt through his pants.
“That bird thing. You know. They come every year and roost in the chimney of the ancient school building. It’s a nature experience, how they descend all at once. We could walk over after dessert.”
“Honey, you know Marva’s arthritis makes walking difficult.”
“Well, we can drive first. Then we can sit on a blanket.”
“Her sciatica makes it impossible to sit. Why can’t you be more understanding?” He sighed, fishing for the back loop. “Why do you always make everything so difficult?” He fastened the buckle, stepped over and kissed her quickly.
Now she scanned the sky, seeing dark clouds, trees, buildings. Shapes she had seen in another lifetime.
The accident, it happened here. Northwest Portland. She remembered in a flash. She’d been on her way…to Food Front?…getting provisions.
“Here.” She picked up the beribboned bag on the restaurant seat beside her and thrust it at Aunt Marva.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have!” Aunt Marva clasped her hands over her chest. She lifted the tissue from the bag. There was an awkward silence as the tissue fell away and she held the contents. “It’s…a nest.”
“A swag,” said Ren, her voice catching in her throat. It did look like a nest, in a squared saucer shape. It hadn’t occurred to her until now.
Jackson blinked, a complete poker face. He took an enormous mouthful of Georgian peanut butter mousse. Bailey held her phone up to her mom as if to change the subject. “Did I show you the cast photo?” But Ren had already seen the look of horror that said, What is wrong with my mother?
The Bocconi Dulce tilted on Ren’s plate, collapsing. It was sweet, too sweet. What she craved was another spider, just the size of a dandelion seed, a wish pushed out from a stem of wishes, a bloomed thing only she could taste. What became of all unclaimed wishes blowing all over the world?
Charles’ fork clinked against the plate as he severed corners of the Hood River Apple Crisp. Ren was dumbfounded that there were people who put time and energy into such elaborate dishes. What she set on the dinner table lately were dry, natty, things, like lentils she boiled endlessly. She was taken with chia seeds.
She wanted her foods to be like her—why take up space in the world? She was small, dry and drab. The moisture had been pressed out.
Her dreams were lost things resurfacing. Besides the pinch at her tailbone, she felt a lump directly beneath her. That feathered ring. With one hand she reached behind, brushing her leggings pocket.
“It’s getting dark,” she whispered, feeling her heartbeat slow, as if she were crouching at the starting line of a race. “They’re coming at dusk. I may not get another chance…”
Charles looked away. As if he hadn’t heard.
Ren stared out the window at a wisp of cloud. Under the table, she withdrew her hand from her pocket. She spread her white cloth napkin over the sinewy tops of her hands and commanded them to be still.
A fat raindrop fell, then another. Ren squeezed past Charles, sliding out of the booth. “I’ve got to go…I…the swifts.”
Her hands shook as she tossed her white napkin on the table. Her family stared, stunned. She did not grab her purse.
Charles barked, “Sit down!”
She could feel all eyes in the restaurant, curious, amused, hypothesizing. Her daughter was texting furiously, trying to fade into the artwork on the wall. Her ankles wobbled in high heels as she raced forward.
She kicked off her shoes and ran, heart in throat, blood behind her eyes.
She ran barefoot through the doors, past the shops, past bicycles and cars. She jogged left onto Marshall, hung another left at Quimby, then at Raleigh, zigzagging to 26th, peeling off her leggings as she went, her bare legs pumping along the dusky green school field, and she shed the rest of her clothes as she ran, reaching the happy families, the lithe dogs, the wary picnickers beneath ominous rolling clouds. The flecks in the night sky were sparks flying up from a campfire burning holes in the world, and she was losing her soul, and yes, she was finding it again, and yes, it was about time.
They were crying, shouting directions, making promises, declaring truces, making threats. This one was terrified by the hawk watching from the fir tree. That one chattered about running behind schedule. Another held forth about wind currents, and there were so many words for winds, and oh my God, she could hear all their words and feel their histories, knowing that among them were the shapeshifting ones, like Cornelia had been, living for a time as humans and then returning to their own. She felt the bones behind her elbows, each growing feathers, dark and filled with blood, and her tailbone balancing her center, elongating, sprouting, and her feet so light, no longer a part of any body she’d known.
And she remembered what was in her pocket, and she placed the silky feather-webbed ring onto her hooked claw, not talon, swifts didn’t have talons, and it slipped into place easily, and she smiled over all the human beings converging to watch her people, all the landlocked humans as they wandered and trailed and pecked like chickens. They had no wings.
And one man was standing on the curb next to a red-haired old woman and two young, thin ones who were standing and looking.
And the rain stopped, but these four humans had rain on their faces. They turned their faces to the sky.
“She remembers her old life now, and she has to go back!” cried the one with the long, dark feathers and streak of red. “Just like Cornelia!”
Her heart called to them, her heart so much smaller, yet so much lighter, so bright, beating fast and slow at the same time. She could not stop. Her mind that had learned to remember, had also learned to forget. And as the wind took her, and she unfurled her new wings, she found a word: “Power. The second chakra is the center of power.” Her last human thought.