by Sylvia Heike
I’m sifting through my grandmother’s jewellery box when I discover the swallow-shaped brooch. Cast from pewter, with exquisite detail on the wings. Unlike her beloved Sunday pearls, I don’t recall Nana wearing it, though I remember the brooch. She never let me play with it, or even try it on. Once, I snuck it out of her jewellery box, just to hold it in my palm. As soon as Nana caught me, she yelled my name and snatched it from my hand. Then she hugged me close, saying it was no toy. “Don’t ever play with that again, Nora. You hear me?”
I never saw the brooch again.
Yet here it is now, among her earthly trinkets, while she’s the one gone.
I mist the air with Nana’s favourite perfume and inhale the scent — rose, lilac, gardenia, with a hint of vanilla.
It makes me think of summer. Swallows racing above the wheat fields, wild and free, while we sat on the creaky swing. I would think of my mother then, but whenever I asked about her, Nana told me she’s in Africa. As if that was telling much. When I asked if we could visit, Nana said it’s too far. Books say European barn swallows migrate to Africa for winter, and so I stood in the field at the end of summer, yelling at the sky, telling the swallows to say hello to my mother if they saw her.
Sometimes I miss my childish hopes and dreams, the magical ways I thought I could send my mother a message, and she would come, when I didn’t even have an address. For years, I used to save pennies in a big glass jar to buy a ticket, but before they ever reached the top, I grew up and stopped collecting them. I’m sixteen now. Old enough to understand Nana’s gone, and my mother isn’t coming back. I’m on my own.
I’m sure Nana wouldn’t mind if I wore the swallow brooch now. As I’m pinning it on, the needle pricks my finger.
A drop of blood beads on my fingertip like a pin on a map, then everything goes blurry. The room is growing — or am I shrinking? My fingers fan out into wings and feathers, my legs beneath me disappear. The next thing I know, I’m flapping out the bedroom window.
I’m flying, and what a joy it is to be a bird! I’ve never known such lightness. My human sorrows are but a pebble in my chest, small and quiet behind my rapidly pulsing heart. My wings are moving faster than my arms ever could.
Another swallow appears beside me. I can’t explain it, but beyond her shiny blue feathers and dark glassy eyes lies something familiar.
“I’m sorry,” a voice in my head answers, rippling blue, and I can sense the bird means it with all her feathers. “It’s me, your mother.”
“I thought you were in Africa.”
“Only in the winter. In the summer I’m here, watching over you.”
My tiny bird-heart wants to soar through the clouds. My mother didn’t leave me. The same thing must’ve happened to her as to me. Nana must have known, but not how to get her back. On my every birthday, the mother I thought was missing has been flying right above my home.
She chases after an air current. “Fly with me.”
I follow her eagerly, but it doesn’t take long before my new strange limbs are tiring. I flap my wings desperately, unwilling to lose her again. She speeds ahead. I’m falling behind.
I can’t see her anywhere.
I’m sure I’ve lost her when a silky wingtip tickles mine. She has looped back to me. “Don’t worry. I’ll show you.”
We fly together, my mother teaching me everything there’s to know about how to be a bird. How to dance with the wind, how to catch insects and raindrops with my beak, even how to sleep on the wing like a swift. It’s easy to see how one could live like this forever, never longing for anything.
* * *
The landscape below changes as we fly, fast and free, so fast that time barely applies to us. On the ground, people and cars and trains appear to move so slowly, it’s almost as if they aren’t moving at all. I think of Nana, and though I miss her terribly, I’m grateful for how very, very long she lived.
I glance at my mother’s flawless form. Her forked tail, wings designed for flight. We may be together, but I still can’t put my arms around her, only momentarily brush against her blue feathers as I try to keep up. This is her life. This has been her life for a long time. I come to a painful realisation. The forever I spent without my mother didn’t feel half as long to her.
* * *
The ending of summer is a message carried in the cooling wind. My mother sings of Africa, of tropical insects, and land, the greenest green she’s ever seen, somewhere in the Nile Valley. I may have her red hair — and blue feathers — but I am not my mother. I don’t want to run, or even fly, forever.
When I look at her, I can nearly see the wispy threads tying her to the air and the clouds, instead of the earth and me. At least we had this summer.
“I want to go home,” I tell her. “Take me back to the farm.”
* * *
We circle above the fresh-cut fields, the empty farmhouse. Somewhere below there’s still a window open. I send Mother my thoughts, asking how to land.
I ask again, earth’s gravity pulling my heart in two. “Did you ever try?”
“I’m sorry.” The same words as when we met, the same blue ripple of sadness as before. I screech into the wind, as if the world might care about a single swallow’s suffering and sorrow. I’m sorry too, sorry for being too human to be the perfect daughter. I guess I’ll have to figure out how to land on my own.
I swoop towards the farmhouse.
“Wait—” My mother races after me. “I don’t expect you to understand, but even as I flew above, I always wanted what was best for you. All I wanted was for you to be safe and loved — and you were. I saw that you were. With or without me.” She pauses. “I hope one day you can forgive me.”
I wish I could, but letting go of years of pain and abandonment isn’t like shedding a few old feathers. It will take time, maybe a lifetime. In human years.
A strange, heavy feeling comes over me. My beak itches. My skin feels tight over my hollow bones. It’s as if my current shape can no longer contain my giant tangle of human emotions. It’s a struggle just to stay airborne. My mother, though right beside me, becomes a blur. I hear her muddled voice still speaking. “—no more Africa,” she says. “It’s time I come home with you. Let’s find a safe way down.”
I already know that’s where I’m going. I’m flapping my wings as fast as I can, but their beautiful rhythm feels lost to me. The autumn winds blow, moody and strong, pushing me around. I’m a mess of feathers, falling, falling.
My mother latches onto me, claws digging into my back. Her wings are beating so hard I can hear them whirring. She is trying to save me, but with my added weight, she too is rendered helpless against the wind’s will. I’m afraid if we fall like this — or turn human high above the ground — it could be the end for both of us.
“Let go of me,” I say.
“Never,” is her reply.
* * *
It feels like summer.
We’re still falling when a warm breeze cradles us. The scent of flowers envelops us. Rose, lilac, gardenia, with a hint of vanilla. My mother’s delicate wings are somehow strong enough to carry us. “Feel that?” she whispers. “She won’t let us crash to earth.”
A gentle breeze floats us to the ground, soft as Nana’s goodnight kiss.
We land in a patch of long yellow grass. Upon touching the ground, we change. Wings narrow into arms and fingers, legs grow, beaks soften into lips. My mother looks like her framed pictures again, except older. Her red hair has gained a tinsel of white, the only blue about her is her eyes.
“We should get inside,” I say with a shiver, wrapping my strange naked arms around myself. The sun shines from a clear blue sky, but the wind is cool and biting, Nana’s warmth gone. We must both be thinking of her, for my mother is quiet, her eyes misting up.
It takes me a few tries before I manage to scramble to my feet. My mother keeps trying, but her legs are much too wobbly to stand on, let alone walk. I stagger to the porch, grab two old blankets, and help her up. She sways like a tree whose roots are splintered and broken. I can only imagine what it must be like for her to be human again after so long, the flood of emotions rushing through her body and mind. I know I should worry about my own emotions, of almost dying and being saved, but as always, the loudest of them is the little girl missing her mother, still afraid of losing her. I suspect it will never go away.
My mother turns her face to the sky, and a small part of me fears she might regret coming back, that a tiny blue fork-tailed bird with crescent wings will always live inside her, even if she stays.
As if she can read my mind, my mother cups my face with one hand, and looks at me, not the way one gazes at the stars in the sky, but the way one looks at family and home. How Nana always looked at me. “I’m not going anywhere,” she whispers.
I want to believe her. So, so much.
I don’t know if I can forgive her, but her being here is a start. Arm in arm, we hobble towards the farmhouse with small shaky steps, learning to walk together.
* * *
About the Author
Sylvia Heike is a fantasy & science fiction writer from Finland. Her stories have appeared in Flash Fiction Online, PodCastle, Nature Futures, and more. When not writing, she likes to go hiking and looking for birds. To the age-old debate about cats vs. dogs, her answer would be bunnies. Read more at www.sylviaheike.com or follow her on Twitter @sylviaheike