February 2, 2020
The girl I love has wings the color of the night sky, and she says that today is the day she will learn to fly.
We are walking down to the ocean. The waves whip up with a frenzy and crash with a dull roar. The sand is white and brittle under our bare feet.
“Today, I will fly,” Juba says, and I am wondering why today, and why not yesterday, and why not tomorrow. But today, we are here and the beach is empty and the sand is so bright it hurts my eyes. Juba stands close enough to the shore that the water can just touch the tips of her wings when the waves roll in. She usually hates to get her wings wet, but right now she is all smiles and utter bemusement, and I’m smiling with her, twirling my wingless body like a small child, my feet digging deep into the wet sand.
“Why…” I begin, but stop as I realize it doesn’t matter. Either she will or she won’t, and this trip to the sea will be worth it anyway.
Juba licks her lips and smiles, stepping toward me. “Why is the ocean blue?” she asks, her brows quirking up.
I frown, not at the change of subject, but because I realize it’s a question I’ve never asked myself. I don’t think I wonder enough about the why of things like that. Why are carnations pink? Why do some people have wings while other don’t? It’s just the way of things, right?
“Hint: the same reason the sky is blue,” Juba says, holding her hands up, palms forward in front of me.
“And why is that?” I ask, playing along, pressing my palms against her palms, readying us as if we’re about to play a clapping game, like the ones we played as children.
“Lace your fingers through mine,” she says, and when I do, our fingers slide between each other’s, our salty skin catching. We hold each other up for a long moment, and the weight of her body is shared by my own.
“Sometimes the world is blue,” she says.
“Hmmm,” I sound out, trying to follow the connective thread.
“What do you see when you look at me?” she asks in follow up.
I look at her for a long moment, taking in the full build of her stocky frame, the dark wings stretching wide at her back. Lines of thick scar tissue decorate her left shoulder, remnants of a bad fall, an earlier unsuccessful attempt at flight. Her black kinky hair matches the color of her wings, but it’s cut short, an inch in length at most. Her skin is a deep brown, and her eyes are green-golden. The entire picture of her slowly takes shape before me: a geometry of brown and black, girl and bird.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Of course you know.”
“A bird-girl?” I offer, smug.
She laughs and says, “A bird-girl afraid to fly.”
I sometimes have memories of before. How as children we often spent time together in my mother’s backyard, before Juba’s wings came in with puberty, before the world closed in around us with judgement. I remember the two of us once playing with the neighborhood children — laughing, running, chasing each other in the sprinklers. When the memory passes over me, I can still hear the children’s laughter, something so small, but still so significant. Something now too distant. I don’t remember Juba or myself ever feeling afraid back then.
“Sometimes even I’m blue,” she says, and I think I know what she means by that. There’s a blueness coming over me even now. It lingers in my throat, tickles at my toes. I feel it everywhere. Our hands curl tighter together.
“I don’t think I will fly today after all,” she says after a beat, like she’s suddenly made up her mind.
I crook my head, look her over. “You sure?”
She shrugs. “The sky will be here tomorrow.”
“You sure?” I ask again, a soft tease.
She pushes against me and laughs, eventually untangling our hands so that she can turn back toward the sea. As she walks toward the water, I take in the long line of her back. Those wings are as long as she is tall, so black they almost shine blue. I smile and go over to meet her, sidling up against her side to wait for the waves to roll in, for the cold water to slip over our feet.
Juba folds her wings around us both. The soft feathers cover us like a downy blanket, fall like silk against my bare skin. Cocooned, we are hidden from the world.
“Wavelengths,” she says, looking down at me.
“What about them?” I say, tearing my eyes from the frothing summer sea to meet her own.
“They give the world its color.”
There are crumbling cottages all over the island, built long ago by Juba’s people. They were made from large chunks of stone, built to last, but abandoned during the war. We found one not too destroyed by fire, hurricane, or time, and it provides enough shelter for us to sleep soundly during the night. We nest down beside the birds and bugs and the things that remain from long ago.
In the morning we search the house, uncover treasures as if looting an old shipwreck. Jewelry and pottery and glass jars. Quilts and blankets and broken parts of dolls. An ancient box television set sits in the corner of the living room on a cupboard filled with dusty VHS tapes. We find an old newspaper, yellowed from age, its edges folded up from the briny damp. On the front page of the paper is someone like Juba, a winged woman that seems to almost leap off the paper. The headline is captured in black blocked letters that take up a third of the page: THEY CAME FROM THE SKY.
“A bit overdramatic weren’t they?” Juba smirks at the words.
“The world prepares to deal with the winged-people problem,” I read the subhead, my eyes scanning the smudged type of the article. “Can’t believe it’s been twenty years since the forced removal.”
“I can. I count each and every day,” she says and takes the newspaper from me.
We are sitting side by side, propped up against the moldy couch, snacking on potato chips and drinking orange soda. A perfect road trip breakfast. The drive here to the coast had taken us three days. We’d had to take the backroads, keep under the radar, but no matter, Juba needed to be here. She had felt this would be the place she would finally take to the sky. This had been the last community her people had lived in peaceably after all, before they were driven out — many of them forced to have their wings clipped, and then forced to live in the camps. Before the war.
Once I had wished for wings myself, but there had been more years than those when I had wished that no one had them. Miracles, some had called them. Monsters, others had called them.
I had always called them beautiful. People who could fly must mean the world is full of even more beautiful possibilities, right? I don’t know. After all these years, I don’t know anything more than I did as a child, when Juba had been forced inside, into hiding. Even if the winged-folk aren’t miracles, maybe Juba is still reason enough for me to believe in something more.
Juba traces the woman’s face in the picture with her fingertip. The woman’s wings were a tawny gold — that much could still be seen even under the paper’s grime. “They said you should be afraid of me,” she says, her voice soft in the pale dawn.
“People in power have always said a lot of foolish things,” I offer. That much I understand about the world.
Juba looks at me for a long moment, nodding. “Me and you, we are not so different anyway. Our ancestors came from the same place,” she says, putting the paper down and placing her hand on my thigh. We are both a warm nut-brown, our sun-burnished skin smooth as leather. Her fingers run against my leg, linger for a moment as she adds, “But those of us with wings flew away when the slavers came. Flew into the trees to hide.”
“Your ancestors left us?” I ask, not meaning for it to sound so bitter. So lost.
“My ancestors saved us,” she says.
“I feel like a child,” Juba announces the following night. Her voice is low but bristling with indignation. We are camping on the beach, a small fire keeping us warm.
“You are a grown woman,” I assure with a chuckle.
“But I’m years behind in training,” Juba huffs, more breath than whine.
I sigh and lean in to her to bump our shoulders together. “You’ve been dealing with a lot of shit, like the laws outlawing flying. What we’re doing is illegal remember?”
The snap crackle of the fire fills the silence. Juba pokes at the flames with a stick. I poke at a hole in the knee of my jeans. “I’m here as long as it takes,” I tell her. We’d packed the car pretty decently before we drove here, and there’s enough clothes, food, and supplies to last a month at least.
“Thank you for coming with me on my little adventure to the sea,” she says after a time, linking her pinky finger around mine, tugging it until she can bring it up to her mouth for a kiss. I smile, let her turn my entire hand over, trace the lines there, kiss the inside of my palm.
Later I lie on my back and watch the star-punched night sky. Juba stretches out on her belly, covers us with her wings, sleeping bags be damned.
It’s just the two of us out here, on this tiny piece of abandoned island, and sometimes we forget there’s a world still moving around us. We spend most days on the beach: walking, collecting shells, or fishing by the rickety pier. Juba likes the silence of the long summer afternoons, likes to go off on her own, flap her wings as if she will take off. But not yet, never yet.
Today we sit on a jetty, breathing as slow and steady as the tide.
“I’m terrified all the time,” I tell her, although I’m not sure why I make the confession. The sea, the sky, everything is too big, too much. Fucking terrifying.
She leans her cheek on my shoulder and says, “I dream about losing my wings. Waking up without them.”
My belly tightens and I suck in a deep breath. I look at Juba and say, “Damn girl, that sucks.”
“Fear is a real motherfucker sometimes,” she huffs on a strangled laugh, turning to look at the too-blue water.
“What do you think is out there?” I ask, meaning the sea, meaning the world, meaning everything that’s left of it.
In the end she does it for me.
It’s been four weeks and our supplies are running low, so we’re back on the mainland, buying groceries, stacking up for the rest of the summer.
Juba waits in the car for most of the grocery run, covering herself in jackets and blankets, keeping everything hidden. It’s the safest way to travel the world these days. I’m taking too long inside the store, and I know it, but I’ve got my arms full— canned food, laundry detergent, a first-aid kit — and I don’t notice anything going wrong until it’s already happening. I don’t notice the police vehicle, don’t notice the raised voices, don’t notice Juba climbing out of our car.
I run outside to tell Juba to stay hidden, to not comply when the cops ask her to step out of the car. It’s when the officers turn to look at me that I remember where we are and I remember that people like me can be targets too. The cops must think me a threat with my sudden intrusion because they start after me. Instinct and fear: I drop our groceries and run, but Juba catches me. She catches me and flies.
Everything is blue light, and there is so much air it hurts to breathe. From high above, the sea below is a universe of roiling water. The wind in my ears is a jet engine. The thunder is the flap of Juba’s wings, rising like a dark cloud around me.
Everything is stillness even as we are motion.
Everything is the blue sky and the blue sea, and the yellow sun sinking behind us.
Later that night curled up by the dying fire, an orange glow giving faint heat but little light. “What do you want?” I ask her, and there is something cautious in my voice to match the soft, low feeling in my gut.
“I want to fly forever,” she says, voice rough and catching like sand in her throat.
I laugh, because that’s Juba, fearless even in facing her fear. The fire in her eyes is brighter than the campfire.
“Was it painful?” I ask, my fingers running along her right wing, smoothing down the feathers that ruffle in the slight breeze.
Juba shakes her head, then says aloud, “Not really. They’re a little stiff now, like I’ve been working out, but it’s not too bad.”
“Bird-girl Tae Bo,” I joke, and she rolls her eyes, calls me a dork.
That night we curl together, my back to her front, and we don’t talk about flying or returning home or what would have happened had the cops found Juba and realized she wasn’t registered, wasn’t clipped, wasn’t legally supposed to be outside the camps created to hold people like her. And while most people freak out when they see the wings, cops get trigger happy about them too.
Our fingers tangle together. The night is cool, but Juba’s wings are always warm.
We start fixing up the old cottage in the late summer. We manage to find a usable bed and couch, and we buy a book that teaches us how to patch the roof and windows. I find that I like sweeping, dancing with the dust mites. I like brushing the ashes from the fireplace out of Juba’s wings.
We find a tabby cat under the pier and name it Little Birdie because it likes to curl up under Juba’s wings at night, meowing petulantly when I take up too much space there.
I learn to cook in a hearth, and Juba likes to do the washing up after, placing the plates and cups carefully away in the old cabinets. She flies every day now, and I like to watch her take off until she’s a black bird in a very blue sky, getting smaller and smaller the farther she goes. I always worry she won’t come back, that the sky will hold her for good. I feel foolish with my worry, but it doesn’t stop me from doing it.
“Why do you come back?” I brave the question one evening, smiling into her wings, too overwhelmed by her return, too shy to ask her to stay.
“Without you, it’s all just blue,” she says, like it’s simple, like it’s truth.
“Wavelengths,” I say, remembering the science. I stare off into the distance, to the edge of the island, to the ocean, broken only by the foaming waves, to the long line of the sky. From horizon to horizon, an endless blue.