The first signs were almost too subtle to notice. Mom mentioned back pain, but I thought and she thought that rest would cure it. Two months passed before we saw an expert. Doctor examined her thoroughly. He mumbled hmmm and hmmm, touched her back, asked her to take off her shirt, he looked and looked, touched her spine again, remained silent, like he couldn’t find the words. Mom was silent too, didn’t ask questions, as if she suspected something was seriously wrong but didn’t want to find out what, unlike me who couldn’t stay still or silent, I circled around them, a loud howl in my mind I tried hard not to let out. We’ll run some tests to make sure, he said minutes later and showed us the door.
The wings appeared a month later, after a biopsy had already confirmed the diagnosis. I didn’t take it as well as Mom. He doesn’t seem that good, that doctor, I told her. She sighed but nodded. We’ll see another one, I went on, but Mom said she didn’t need a new doctor, or more tests. Tears slipped down on her cheek, which she quickly wiped away with the back of her hand. She told me I shouldn’t worry too much about her, that I’m old enough to take care of myself. I hugged her and felt the wings on her spine. They were still small, I felt like scratching them away, ripping them off and I think I must have tried pulling them, because Mom cried in pain, pulling herself from my arms.
The wings didn’t take long to fully form. Even the doctor was astonished. He took pictures of the wings before trimming them. It won’t be long now, he said, then stopped talking, bowed his head, like he was ashamed, like he shouldn’t have said those words aloud.
Long before what? I asked. Doctor frowned, like doctors do when they don’t feel like talking, pretended to focus on the procedure, didn’t answer back.
He mentioned people say that if you place white and red ants in a bottle, nothing happens, the ants will live in harmony, but, he added, couldn’t hide his excitement, if you shake that bottle, the ants feel danger, they attack each other.
He asked, so who shook the bottle?
I thought of all the bills we can’t pay since Dad left. Dad must have shaken the bottle, he must have fragmented Mom, torn her apart.
Doctor also mentioned guilt, like when we think we can’t be good humans, and we go back, back to being animals.
Oh, I said, which sounded more like a bark, such an anthropocentric point of view. Doctor stared at me, rolled his eyes, like he knew better, seemed ready to argue, but then changed his mind, ignored me and went on about Adam and Eve who did wrong and that’s how humans were exiled from heaven. But birds were not. You’re trying to break back in, he said to Mom, and Mom smiled, she was relieved, like she remembered something, it could be our life with Dad, or a paradise lost perhaps, a paradise she longed for, like she had to run fast and get in before the gates closed.
It’s been six months since the first symptoms. Mom has now a mark that looks like a bird tattoo on her arm. She claims it’s not just any bird, it’s her. At night, she can’t sleep. She heads outside and, just before dawn, she climbs up the tree in the yard, flapping her wings and singing. I follow her and stay with her, walking in circles around the tree until she comes down. She tells me she’s torn. On the one hand, there is this irresistible call, like I had my wings cut once, she says, but they’re growing now, they’re growing back, and I can fly. On the other hand, Mom bows her head, there are so many things I have to leave behind.
Including me? I ask.
She nods, then stares at the sky, as if the sky is already her land, her country, like she doesn’t belong here, with me.
Doctor says there are options, I tell her, clinging onto her, my hands like claws around her waist, to keep her grounded, to comfort her, to keep the bottle stable. But Mom gets lighter and lighter. Her wings grow bigger and bigger. And gravity doesn’t seem to work, not anymore. I touch her hand, a slight reminder she’s not alone. She frowns, like my touch feels like prison, it’s not the warm, tender touch she longed for, long ago, as if my skin feels like chains, holding her back, tying her down, while she longs to fly. Mom floats, above the ground, leaning on to me to walk steady, or better, I lean on her, to keep her down. You have to let go, she says.
I’m not sure she means it, so I pull her down with all my strength, but even all my strength isn’t enough anymore.
She says it’s natural, she says that’s how it goes. I tell her she can fight it, that she decides. She croons a song about a free bird. She sings loud now, so that I recognize the song, but I close my ears, I close my eyes, I refuse to see and hear her, I don’t see how she resigns to fate, like there’s no choice at all. Mom chose flight when reality attacked, when she ran out of hope she turned to nature to find it.
I turn her way and say, you can leave if you want, but don’t make it a fate thing, ’cause it’s not.
Mom drags me into the woods and says, it’s nice here, it’s peaceful. She knows the woods frighten me but doesn’t care, Mom drags me here to show me she’s made up her mind, like these woods are the inside of her mind, a dark and cold place, she’s chosen a path that doesn’t include me, I cringe, I arch my back, I smell danger, I walk near her, give her a kiss, rub my face onto her cheek to feel her warmth, Mom gently pushes me away, you’re right, she says, it’s my choice.
I nod, it’s the first time Mom spoke the truth since the beginning of this. She says she feels free, like the cage has never been but in her mind, like the wings were trimmed but never vanished, only she couldn’t feel them. I see the bird mark has grown bigger, it’s on her whole arm now, Mom denies it, she says it grows by itself, but I think she spends our money on tattoos, while we could save it to proceed with the eradication. It’s going to cost a lot, doctor said, but it’s an option. He gave Mom a look that seemed to mean he knew we were too poor, and Mom nodded and replied we couldn’t afford it, and they shook hands like they both knew what to expect, like they were a team and I wasn’t part of it, but I took a step closer to Mom, stood there, baring my teeth, the doctor threw a glance at me, smiled and leaned back, so we go back and back and he trims the wings but they keep getting bigger and bigger and Mom can’t hide them anymore.
Doctor claims it happens to all of us. Sooner or later, we all turn into the animal we hide inside, he says.
It’s not nature that made her that way, nature made her strong enough to fight this, I object. I lower my eyes as I watch him stare at me.
Are you a philosophy major? he asks, his tone ironic, as if he doesn’t expect an answer
As a matter of fact I am, I growl, but Doctor didn’t expect this, he says he’s impressed. He says philosophy is nice if it helps, but does it really?
Doctor says philosophy won’t get me far. I’m not sure what he means, but I don’t ask either, I bet he means professionally, but he may also mean in life. He pats my back, like I’m a little kid or a helpless puppy. I violently pull back, my fists clenched, an urge to punch him or even bite him overwhelms me which I suppress, he’s got that look, like he’s being supportive, but he sounds patronizing, saying I should let go and that anger is only holding me back. He acts like Mom’s transformation is the most natural thing. He suggests we make it quick. If we can’t afford eradication, there’s a cheap injection that makes things move faster and Mom smiles like she thinks it’d be a good idea, like human nature is a burden she can’t wait to get rid of, like she’s been given a ticket on Polar Express to experience the magic of human consciousness and wants to throw it away, then looks at me, expecting me to nod probably, but I don’t nod, I’m shaking, my hands are trembling, I mumble no, I yell no and Mom’s spreading her wings around me and I feel safe again, I stop screaming, like Mom is an angel, my guardian angel, an angel of hope, Mom is hope, and hope is the thing with feathers, like in a poem I read in school.
Doctor comes closer, examines my eyes. He turns me around, examines my feet, my hands. Aha, he says, like he unveiled a mystery, you hide a wolf. I roll my eyes, then laugh a little, but doctor stays serious, touches my hand, he says, loyal to the pack, only your pack is gone. He doesn’t smile, I keep staring at him but he isn’t joking. There may be a wolf inside that howls, cries, prepares for attack, but I remain calm, composed, I keep the wolf inside locked, like I should, I smile a little and nod.
I’m making us dinner, but Mom can’t eat, she says birds don’t eat like that.
Birds eat too, I tell her, but Mom looks the other way, like she can’t hear me, or doesn’t understand what I say. I feel the wolf inside trying to protect her, but I’m still human enough to try to make sense of the world. I keep thinking about that bottle and the ants inside and the more I think about it, the less I want to keep the bottle stable, the more I want to shake it. Because if we are the ants inside the bottle I can’t see why we are trapped. Who trapped us into this stupid bottle? Whoever wants us trapped, inside the bottle, whoever wants this bottle stable, is someone who wants us to believe we’re naturally trapped. We’ll be fine, Mom, I tell her, I’ll set us free. Mom looks the other way, looks up, and I circle around her, trying to catch her eye, only I can’t and I can’t break this bottle and Mom knows I can’t. She can’t handle captivity, can’t fight it, can’t tame the wild, so she becomes wild, she’s getting lost inside in her mind.
You’re drawn into your mind, Mom, I say, into the woods.
What woods? Mom asks. She can’t even speak properly, as she stands up, heads to the window, opens it, takes a deep breath.
It’s a metaphor, Mom, I say, but she claims she doesn’t get metaphors, not anymore. I turn her way but I can’t see her. That bird mark has grown so big it hides Mom’s face, her body. I see a bird instead, Mom is a feathered animal, watching me, then looking around, spreading her wings and flying, out of the window, into the sky, doesn’t look back, and I can’t call her, can’t even scream, I jump out to follow but I can’t fly, my paws scratching the ground, I growl hard and loud, I howl and howl and howl, like a deserted wolf.
Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist, from Athens, Greece. A Pushcart, Best of the Net, Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions nominated writer, her work can be found in many journals, such as New World Writing, Citron Review, Lost Balloon and others.