Fiction: Laura Hendrix Ezell
The pain in childbirth was different for Rachel. When it was her time, she felt it in every part of her, as if the baby were forming just as she birthed it, tearing its muscles away from her own, drawing blood from her veins and breath from her lungs. It was, for Rachel, a splitting, an end. The room fell silent; the midwife and the young neighbor girl tried to take control of their expressions. But Rachel saw. She readied herself.
Outside, Rachel’s husband, father, and brother stood around and smoked, and drank from a bottle that the last two had brought. They tried to ignore the silence in the cabin. They had come outside planning to ignore the noises of the birth, but the silence was worse. They talked on about nothing much, to try and cover it up.
Inside, Rachel closed her eyes and thought about what it felt like to be different from a person she was once the same as. In the early months of her pregnancy, before she could feel the baby move on its own, Rachel had the sense that they were actually the same person, that something precious had simply been added to her, and that she was somehow better for it. That was the happiest Rachel ever was. And it was months later, when she felt the first kick, first pain inflicted by this thing that was now beyond her and opposed to her, that she was the most afraid.
The midwife handed the baby to Rachel, wrapped in a blanket up to its neck. Even without seeing the body, Rachel recognized something avian about the infant’s face. Its nose hooked downward; its wide mouth was made of a sallow tissue, thicker and tougher than the rest of the face. And its eyes. They were round, and much too big. And already wide open, cutting across the room to corners, ceiling, looking at things so small or shaded that her mother would never be able to see them.
Rachel also knew that beneath the blanket her daughter did not have arms, but wings. Bat-sized now, still curled against her body. They would be made of thin but astonishingly strong skin, and when held up to the light, a webby network of bone and vessel would line them. Rachel had seen it before. Her cousin’s wife had delivered an owlish child. Such births were not unheard of in these parts.
Everyone for miles around had an opinion. They all knew stories about babies born with wings and great power. It was said that once, an owlish boy in the far north had grown up scorned and furious, and was finally forced to leave the place of his birth. When he returned years later, terrible in his size and strength, he tore babies from their mothers’ arms, and devoured them like mice. The people recognized his face by the jagged scars of the rocks they’d thrown at him. Another story told of a girl who had saved her village back in the time of the war, circling its perimeter night and day, scanning the forest for enemies. When the war finally ended, and her village alone stood untouched amid the vast, ruined countryside, she went to find the soldiers who had left from there to fight, and picked them up—living and dead—by their coats, and flew them back home to be welcomed, or buried.
Although there were other owlish children than these, those who had left home quietly, or stayed on to weather the same hard but unremarkable lives that their parents had, their stories were not the ones people remembered, and not the ones they retold with the birth of this new baby. The talk roiled and spread. And so, in fear and reverence, visitors came for months to see Rachel’s baby, who was named Isabel. Those who believed she would bring good luck, mostly the old, came with food and quilts, extra rags to be used as diapers or clothing, rattles made of tin. The ones who feared her for what she would become brought more extravagant gifts—windup music boxes, tiny dolls with glass eyes and horse’s hair, combs made of silver. Gifts that would last, so that Isabel might remember them when she was older.
In the first few weeks, Rachel kept her baby close to her during the visits, wrapped in a blanket and pressed to her chest. She remembered that first look on the midwife’s face, the recognition and the pity, and she did not want to see such an expression cast onto her child again. So she struggled to make tea and cut bread with one arm, while in the other, her baby wriggled against its bindings. By her third month, Isabel was too strong to be held against her will. Rachel had to set her on the ground and hope that she didn’t nip with her hardening, beakish mouth at the bare toes of the neighbors.
Because there was so often company in the house, Rachel told herself, she could not nurse as often as she liked, and had to find other food for her baby. In truth, she dreaded those feedings of her own milk—Isabel’s sharpening mouth sucking her, always too hard—and sometimes greedily, pulling on her raw nipple, biting, so that Rachel cried out in pain. Her baby’s legs were strong as well, stubborn as springs, and tipped with thick, brownish nails that Rachel refused to describe out loud as claws. When Isabel was fussy, she would kick and scratch with her feet. Once, angrily refusing Rachel’s nipple, Isabel shredded the bottom of the blanket she was wrapped in, all the while shrieking and slapping her wings against herself, the sound of it like a sound like a far-off storm of locusts fighting the wind. After that, Rachel did not try so often to feed Isabel from her breast.
But the child didn’t suffer for it; in fact, she seemed to thrive on the bits of meat that Rachel’s fingers pushed into her mouth—always the best parts of whatever rabbit or squirrel she and Xavier were having themselves. For a while, she didn’t know that the baby was supplementing her diet with the spiders and mayflies she found in the cracks of the cabin walls. But then one day, while rolling out dough for biscuits, she’d watched out of the corner of her eye as Isabel sat very still for a moment, and then hefted herself forward with the strength of her legs, landed with her face to the floor, and snapped at something. Rachel ran to pry the child’s mouth open, forcing her to spit out what was in it—the cracked, spittled shell of a beetle. When she told Xavier about it that night, he confessed that sometimes when he took Isabel out for walks at dusk, he allowed her to sit in the dirt, picking at whatever grubs or ants she could find. Rachel was furious. She lifted a hand to slap her husband, but then paused to consider the situation, and after a moment collapsed onto a chair, laughing and crying by turns, as Xavier rubbed his rough hand up and down her back, up and down.
One afternoon, while two women were visiting, Rachel put Isabel down on the ground on her stomach. She kicked her legs and shrieked her high laugh. She began to beat her wings, whose span had grown now to nearly that of a hawk. Her flapping stirred the hot, heavy air in the cabin, and the two women visiting closed their eyes and smiled as the breeze swept their faces. Isabel flapped harder and harder, her face reddening to the point that Rachel leaned in to pick her up, to rub her belly. Just then, Isabel forced herself off the ground in a rush of air and flew into her mother’s arms. Rachel gasped. The women murmured and cooed while Rachel spilled squealing praises onto the baby, raised her to close her face, and kissed her soft head and hair, her round belly, the graceful ridge of her outstretched wing.
Rachel and Xavier didn’t know how to raise a child at all, and so they did not think it any harder to raise this one, despite the fact that she was keen and unblinking, despite the fact that she had wings. Of course, she could not help with certain things. She could not sew or do anything but the most basic housework; the tip of her wing could curl to grip a broom, a spoon. She could not be expected ever to take over her mother’s chores, and so did not apprentice for them, did not even watch.
But being a child, she yearned to be useful. She began to follow her father, whom she could help. Isabel the Mighty, the Dangerous. She could hold a hundred ears of corn in one of her wings. She could see at night. She gouged the rats that gnawed her father’s pumpkin vines.
And so she grew up this way: in the daytime always trying to keep inside her father’s shadow; and at night, sleeping beneath the gaze of her mother, who would run her fingers softly over her daughter’s sparse hair and closed eyes, looking into the girl’s face for something that resembled her own.
Isabel never had a great need to fly. Here and there, sometimes—from the barn to the cabin, or quickly out of arm’s reach while playing chase with the neighbor children. But Isabel rarely wondered about the larger world, or about how far she could go if she had a mind to do it. There was enough to wonder about in the things she saw every day. The long grass changed shades with the wind’s direction. The same shapes seemed to turn up everywhere.
And so Isabel stayed close, for years. She had a few friends that lived near the farm. She never met anyone like herself.
One winter a huge dark owl came to the farm on the first tide of snow. Rachel saw it first, having gone outside at dusk to fill up a bucket for the next day’s water. She walked a few yards away from the house to a white bank that hadn’t been packed and dirtied by Xavier’s boots. As she scooped the fresh snow into the bucket, she began to understand that she was being watched, and she turned around.
Perched high in a pine tree was a terrible shape, great and shadowed. For a moment Rachel saw it as a hole swallowing the uppermost branches of the tree; a passage of sorts—the hungry, open mouth to a darker world. But as her eyes adjusted, she saw the outline sharpen; she saw its eyes. She stopped moving completely. The owl was just as still. It looked down on her, its shoulders broad and arched forward, as if to cover the field and the house in its shadow, sweep the whole farm in its wing. Rachel thought of Isabel. She had a terrible urge to chase the owl away so that her daughter would never see it—so that it would never see her. But the owl was so high in the tree. There was nothing Rachel could do but turn around and go back in the house, and as she did she was mumbling curses and bits of prayers under her breath, though she did not know what for.
That night, Rachel thought she heard noises, and she got up from her bed. Isabel was standing in the doorway in her long white nightgown, one wing holding the door open. She was sixteen years old. An eddy of snow brushed in around her ankles. Her face was upturned and expectant, and not at all beautiful, Rachel understood, to anyone but her and Xavier. A crushing kind of love settled on her chest. She knew that Isabel was looking at the owl outside, and that she should put a stop to all of this before it began. But the sight of her daughter’s face that way, in that light, made Rachel think of how the girl’s wants would probably always be modest, and yet somehow, still out of her reach; and she realized that Isabel didn’t know this yet, but would find out someday. And so instead of interfering, Rachel went back to her bed and cried through the night.
The next few weeks changed her daughter—stretched her out, long face, long limbs; her conversation was slow and weighted with silence. She avoided eye contact and began to sleep long into the day.
Xavier was the hardest hit by this change of Isabel’s sleeping habits; Rachel’s heart ached day after day as she watched her husband go out to hunt alone in the frozen dawn, shaking his head.
One morning Isabel woke as usual, when the sun hung high above the cabin. Rachel watched in silence as she went about her breakfast—tearing into cold biscuits, swallowing what was left of the meat and bending to lick the grease from her plate. She did all of this with a certain ferocity; looking, Rachel thought, as if someone had wronged her.
“Your father tried to wake you,” Rachel said, as Isabel opened a jar of blueberry jam and scooped into it with the tip of her wing.
“There isn’t any more bread?” she asked.
“You know, it’s not for fun he lets you come along with him to hunt. He needs you to look out. His eyes aren’t so much anymore.”
Isabel shrugged. It wasn’t a new gesture; Rachel had seen it countless times of late. But in this particular moment, as Isabel stood there looking bored, sucking the purple mess from her wingtip, Rachel didn’t see her daughter, but some other shape, new and ugly. Isabel’s beak was fully formed. Her eyes were round and protrusive, and they were opaque, their blackness impenetrable.
And then, just as quickly, the perception faded, and Rachel saw only her daughter again. She had the urge to hug Isabel, as she’d always used to after the girl forced her into a spanking, though that hadn’t happened in years.
That night, Rachel and Xavier sat up late, rocking in their chairs in front of the wood burning stove. Rachel wanted to tell her husband what had happened to her that day, how she’d looked at their daughter and the sight nearly choked her with disgust. She began, “Today Isabel was eating jam.” But then could not go on. She gestured emptily into the air, as if trying to conjure the scene from the fire’s smoke. “She was eating jam, right from the jar.” Xavier nodded. Rachel didn’t have to explain. He looked down at the wooden floor, scuffed with marks that Isabel’s claws had left during a recent tantrum, and said, “Always knew it would happen sometime. We should be ready by now. She’s built different from us.”
Rachel stared into the fire and nodded along. It was bound to happen. But she knew that was only the half of it.
She didn’t follow Isabel again, after the first night she’d seen her looking at the owl. In the long nights that followed, Rachel stayed in bed, kept awake by Isabel’s tiptoed steps, rushes of breath, the tiny flap her sheets made as she crawled out of bed. In the way that Rachel had come to sense the world, her daughter’s was a louder presence than any other. She was always aware of it.
Sometimes she was sure that Isabel was still in the front room, alone; other times she thought that she heard another voice, a wordless conversation carried out between sighs and hushed laughter. But the worst was when Rachel tried her hardest, and heard nothing at all; nothing to interrupt her vision of a cold dark room with no one in it.
On one of these nights, as Rachel lay in bed, listening, she felt her husband stir beside her. He was awake. She knew from the uncommon quiet of his breathing that he was listening, too. They lay like that for quite some time.
“What does she do at night?” Xavier finally said. He was looking up at the ceiling. Rachel had been waiting for exactly this question.
“I don’t know. Maybe she’s hunting. You never complained about not having any rats before.” They both considered this. Then she added, more quietly, and with some hesitation, “Maybe she flies places.”
“I don’t know.”
Another long stillness before he said, “Who would she fly with?”
“I don’t know.”
On another night the parents woke up to the sound of a door. Someone coming in or out. It was hard to say which.
Rachel heard it first, because she was already awake, and because she was constantly ready. But Xavier heard it differently, muddled, through a haze of sleep. He scrunched his eyes and turned a little. There was another sound, a sharp footstep. Xavier opened his eyes.
“What. . . ” he muttered, and began to sit up.
Rachel reached over to him. She put her hand on his bare stomach. He looked at her, and she smiled.
“I heard something,” he said.
“What’d you hear?”
“A noise, or something. Didn’t you hear it?”
“No, I don’t think so.” She rubbed his stomach. Their eyes caught and held. Xavier lay back down, shifting his weight slowly onto hers.
When he was well asleep, Rachel got up and walked through Isabel’s room, where the pile of bedding lay flat on the mattress. Like a balloon with the air gone out; the surrendered corpse of an animal. Rachel walked on, into the front room. It was empty as any space she’d ever felt before.
She thought about going back to her bed. If Isabel was really gone, she would not have to know it until the morning. She could find it out with Xavier then, and they could take hold of each other, and keep from falling down.
But she knew that if she went back to bed she would just get up again. She would do it until she saw her daughter or did not see her. And so she walked over to the door and opened it, just enough.
In the yard that opened onto the field, there was Isabel. She was standing so tall, taller than Rachel thought she’d ever seen her, as if she merely wanted to get up into the night sky, as if she could not fly. Her wings were raised just slightly from her sides, and she was looking high above her. Rachel looked up too, and saw the owl. It was circling, high at first, then lower, its wings enormous, casting blades of shadow the length of the yard with every pass. Lower and lower. Rachel could hear the sound. Whoosh. Like the slice of a whip through air, making no contact. It got so low and close to Isabel that Rachel thought it would grab her girl in its beak; she sucked in a sharp chestful of air, but before the cry tore out, the owl passed over Isabel and brushed her cheek with the tip of its wing. That was all. And it began to rise again, making circles that spiraled back up toward the moon, and Rachel understood the sense of this as well as Isabel did. She waited to see what would happen next. Her daughter in the moonlit yard, deciding, just barely able.
Laura Hendrix Ezell is the author of A Record of Our Debts, winner of the 2015 Moon City Short Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, and other journals. She holds masters’ degrees in Creative Writing and Library & Information Studies from the University of Alabama, and currently lives and works in Tennessee.