Birdman was molting again. His wife swept buttercream feathers from the carpeting and plucked them, nearly dried to down, from the shower stall’s chipped blue walls. All this she did in silence, thin lips pursed, eyes once bright as chips of sky dulled now. He perched at the worn oak tabletop and watched her wordlessly, wings tucked in repose, an untouched mug of now-cooled coffee placed before him. He drew his thumb across a knot in the wood, counting the rings that unfolded like a pool of oil.
“I could help,” he offered, his voice a thin chalkboard scratch in the dusk, the starless sky mottled as a bruise. She clenched the broom, knuckles paling as they tightened, and said nothing. She regretted marrying him, he knew – and yet, once there had been no reason for something as absurd as stray plumage to cloud her dizzy, swooning fantasy of white-weddings, pure futures somehow separate from decay. But that was so long ago now, those years of happiness dimmed to a handful of moments, a scattering of spare change clutched in the palm: nothing much, if you stopped to think about it.
She had been the one to find the wings. Of course, when they first appeared, they weren’t wings so much as peculiar nubs, poking innocuously from his shoulder blades.
“What’s this, Smith?” she asked, pulling the comforter up to her chest then tracing a fingertip across his back, soft as spring rain.
Long before Birdman, he had been Raymond Smith. Named so to honor a stodgy, misogynistic great-grandfather, he had abandoned the abhorred name the moment he arrived at college, flush-cheeked and straining beneath the weight of his battered suitcases. His parents had crunched out of the gravel driveway, back, back again to a house he would never again consider a home, and he became Smith – like the birth of a star, so many years in silent making.
It was Smith who first thrust a mittened hand to her in their freshman French course, who had borrowed her meticulous notes and memorized lines of verb tenses sprawled out alongside her on the scratchy carpeting of his room. Smith who courted her through a bitter winter, arriving at her dorm for those same study sessions clutching a bouquet of daisies flecked with snow and glittering beneath a saucer moon. And Smith who had married her, tugging at his collar until she took her first cautious step towards him and he found himself beaming, a thousand fireflies beating their wings within his chest. What a clamor.
A lifetime had passed since then, unfolding with the soft echo of books’ spines. Mornings when it seemed as if the entire world was asleep but them, smiling softly over cups of milky coffee and creased sections of the paper, hair still shower-damp. Cartons of steaming Chinese food and flimsy chopsticks, warming themselves with chow mein and firelight, with the simple joy of two bodies pressed together on a creaking couch. Piles of novels purchased, keeping their neighborhood hole-in-the-wall bookstore afloat – two copies of each so Smith could devour one in the bathtub. It seemed so long ago.
But on that chilly January morning, he had known nothing of the years to come, could not have fathomed budding wings, neighborhood kids cackling “Birdman!” and pushing their faces, perpetually smudged with ketchup and dirt stains, to their windows to catch a glimpse of him, or the thin sheet of frost that had quietly curled in the backs of their eyes, thickening to an impenetrable crust as the days wore on. Then, he had simply stretched languidly, the powder blue sheets pooling as he sleepily craned to catch sight of his thin shoulders.
“I don’t know,” he mumbled, pressing his hand to hers. She laced her long, graceful fingertips between his as the continued to fall, unnoticed from their world within windowpanes.
Low in the sky that had grayed to crackling television fuzz, the sun was dulled by the drawn curtains. Today would be two years, nine months, and fourteen days since he had left the house, since the wings had grown to their full span and could no longer be shoved, painfully crunched, into an oversized sweatshirt. They were a monstrosity: four feet in length, buttery yellow dappled with lighter spots of white, uncannily heavy and always aching. He had had to quit his job as a bookstore clerk because of them; on his last day, his coworkers toasted to his career with warm champagne from Dixie cups, the wings awkwardly stuffed into a woolen sweater. He bought his books online now, which always stung like a betrayal: lumbering onto the front porch after the mailman had turned the corner and bending down to cradle the brown package in his arms, the crisp afternoon air unfamiliar on his paled face.
His body had changed, too, becoming gradually leaner, more sinewy, to support the added weight of the wings despite his prolonged inactivity. He was always starving, it seemed, resorting to raiding the pantry for heaping bowls of cereal after his wife had left for work or attempting to tiptoe inconspicuously into the kitchen at midnight, the purpled night hazy and hushed silent as he foraged for a turkey sandwich. None of it mattered, though – he was never satiated; every mouthful he took seemed to go straight to the wings, sustaining them, allowing them to extend to their full capacity to antagonize him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a good sleep. They were heavy as a woolen blanket in the already oppressive summer heat, useless in the harsh chill of winter for he refused to blanket himself in the thick plumage; it felt like giving in, and so his teeth would continue to chatter as he leaned over to rub his wife’s smooth shin with his toes, grasping at some form of warmth, natural and human. Sometimes she would reach back to him, stretching her toes to coil with his own like fingertips; other times she would shift away from him, barely perceptible in the darkness, but he always knew, the immeasurable weight of the wings pressing harder still on his collapsible heart.
And now, he could barely recall a time when things had been different. The entirety of their courtship seemed to evade him, until he could only see the remains of their past in slivered glimpses, like so many shards of sea glass rechristened from discard. He could see her floating towards him in a froth of gossamer, lips bare as they met his in matrimony, or trouncing him at pool, sweat filming at her forehead and her voice low, beckoning him closer until they fell onto the carpet in a tangle of limbs and rose only with the first flush of daylight. She would watch late-night talk shows as midnight blurred the night’s rough edges and loved to cook, but only breakfast foods; she made vanilla French toast the morning of graduation and buttery pancakes dripping with rivers of sticky syrup before their wedding. She had burnt her thumb on the lip of their cavernous frying pan, he remembered dimly, swearing in the French she had cultivated in her junior year abroad, and arranged chocolate chips into a smiley face to distract from its misshapen appearance. She loved the Beatles, would curl up on the couch like a cat after work and listen to Rubber Soul the album removed from its dusty, watermarked sleeve with precise care as the needle shifted and the crunch of the music began. Once, he had been accustomed to slipping through the door in the evening to the first subdued strains of “In My Life” as she stirred a pot of pasta and hummed softly; the night they had first met, she took a sip of white wine and whispered that she had cried for a week after John Lennon’s death, folding into herself like an origami creation and spinning Imagine on repeat, letting the music course through her veins. Smith had fallen in love with her right then, the cacophony of tipsy college freshman and pulsating rap music muffled to nothing as he took her small hand in his, traced the veins of her soft wrist, and smiled.
Amid the ceaseless churning of the ocean, time unfolding with the sigh of the waves lapping at the shore, he planted his feet in the watery sand and gathered these shards of sea glass, clutching them close in his waiting palms, steady as the world pulsed on around him, despite him.
He heard her key scrape in the lock at five-thirty, turning like a cog in a machine as the long June afternoon stretched like washed silk across the expanse of sky. He leaned over to switch off the television, feeling vaguely like a teenager again having to diffuse the lingering cloud of pot smoke as his mother pushed through the door. He gingerly patted the couch to dislodge the remnant crumbs of his lunch and, on second thought, shoved his lukewarm mug of coffee and its illicit splash (or four) of Jack Daniels behind a picture frame just as she turned to regard him. Her dark, straight hair was limp from the heat and her lipstick was smudged; the bright yellow patterned scarf knotted at the base of her throat too seemed listless, and she smiled wanly at him.
“Hey, honey,” she said, lips pursing as she took in the disheveled den: the sports section sprawled like a pet across the carpeting, his ragtag appearance – faded jeans, two days of stubble clinging to his cheeks – and the mug tucked incongruously behind the photo of her beloved great-aunt. He rubbed his toes to try and cover the hole in his sock, and his wing twitched involuntarily. A barely-masked grimace crossed her face.
He sighed, feeling the ache in his leaden wings. “Hey.”
“I don’t really feel like cooking tonight. Is Chinese okay?” She had already half-turned from him, busying herself with tidying the house he had destroyed.
“Yeah, I guess,” he replied. “We could go out.” She didn’t respond, and he could taste their usual chow mein and kung pao chicken as his words floated into oblivion, impossible and useless, the menu in her hands and the phone already dialing.
They ate dinner on placemats and china plates, candles nearly burnt to the nub plunked ceremoniously in the middle of the table. The noodles were greasy, the chicken like spiced cardboard, but he focused his full attention on his heaping plate, downing forkfuls of white rice as she primly sipped her wine, her gaze heavy-lidded. He swallowed another mouthful, suddenly exhausted. She only picked at her dinner, stirring more soy sauce into her already-inundated rice before pushing her chair back and dumping her plate in the sink.
He glanced up as he heard the china clink. “I can do the dishes. Go sit down, relax.”
The sink began to gush, clear water streaming. “It’s fine.” Loud, guttural crunching rang through the kitchen as she flicked on the garbage disposal. He licked his dry lips, said nothing else.
Outside, night had fallen, casting purpled light so deep it seemed to pulse through the small kitchen window.
He blinked open his eyes the next morning as sun began to filter through the slatted blinds, reflecting on the crumpled sheets in neat bars. Her side of the bed was lumpy and cold. Empty. He sat up, clenching a fistful of blanket, eyes still heavy with sleep as he willed himself out of bed. Stepping into yesterday’s jeans, he dragged a toothbrush across his teeth and padded towards the kitchen, the wings automatically extending, stretching, and brushing against the plaster walls of the cramped hallway. He could smell her hazelnut coffee as it drifted from room to room, washing the house in its sickly-sweet, lingering stench.
“Morning,” she said as he plopped into a chair, passing him a plate of buttered toast. He nodded, and she returned to her paper, pushing an errant chunk of hair out of her eyes. The sprinklers came on, rainbows glimmering in the surging droplets, and he smiled softly, eyes still lidded by glass windows.
Then: a round, pasty face pressed to the window, the rainbows dissipating as a pigtailed girl joined him, the resuming chant of “Birdman, Birdman!” suddenly throbbing in his ears as the chorus grew. Beside him, she tore her gaze from the paper, delicate features hardening, mouth set, as she moved to stride out the door.
He swallowed, heart pounding in his throat, standing by dumbstruck as the ocean
crashed on around him, prepared to devour everything in its gnashing jaws. He felt the wings twitch again, the long, sinewy tendons struggling to unfold like a sheet of paper let loose to the wind. The door was open, the light of the day brilliant, the cloudless sky hope-bright, the slight draft of wind rippling his feathers as it coursed through his wings, his warming veins, like an unfettered spring. Planting his feet on the porch, he glimpsed her fighting to unfurl the hose, struggling with its coils as the mocking chorus suddenly froze.
She looked up, back still hunched over. “Smith. Go back inside.” He closed his eyes, concentrating on the pulse of the wind around him, warm on his waiting face. “Smith,” she repeated, her words losing their crispness and he opened his eyes, drawing his wings in tight with a snap – then took off sprinting, his wild flapping drowning out her voice.