SUBMISSION: ELISHA STAM
TITLE: Feathers WRITTEN BY: Elisha Stam
PHOTO BY: Phillip Wolt (https://www.pinterest.com/pin/564638872009834369/)
At the bird refuge the bird keeper introduces them to Octavius the owl.
“An owl can turn it’s head 270 degrees,” the bird keeper says. The owl looks right at the mother, never losing eye contact. Octavius is perching on the keeper’s arm, his stick-thin leg bound by medieval jesses.
“Is he heavy?” the son asks, because the bird is as tall as his torso and seems massive.
“No, only about five pounds. Owls are mostly feathers and air.”
The small crowd around the bird watches Octavius poop. It splatters in a white blob on the concrete floor and everyone laughs.
After the educational presentation, the mother redresses her kids in their outdoor wear, because it is still cold, still winter. She takes her thumb and finger and pinches off a slug of snot from the daughter’s nostrils, and wipes it discreetly on her sock.
At night, the mother puts the kids to bed, and a peace fills the house. The father puts on the TV but the mother dozes off before the show is done. Upstairs on her bed she notices about a dozen white, downy feathers around her pillow. She thinks so little of the feathers at the time. They fall slowly from her hand into the garbage.
“But the show isn’t finished yet,” the children yell but the mother turns off the TV just the same. She makes them put on their boots. Outside the snow is falling thick from a white sky. The snowflakes are as wide as loonies, as soft as veiny clouds. Pieces of sky flake down and touch them until they are covered.
The next day the mother walks to pick the children up from school. The air is warm and they are overdressed so that as they walk home, her arms become full of moulted coats. They stop at the park, where the ground is soft and wet.
“Hoot...Hoot!” says the son.
“Hoot! Whoo!” says the daughter as they swoop toward her with arms wide open.They ask for pushes on the swing, and they go so high the chains slack.
Unbelievable things happen every day. She sits beside her son, and they munch carrots while they read a library book about nocturnal creatures. Part way through the story, her son jumps in and finishes the sentence.
“You can read?” the mother asks and the son brushes off her astonishment.
In the early summer, her children wake her up one morning, and the mother’s eyelids are so heavy they don’t want to open up. Something jostles her awake, and she is confused.
“What is this?” she asks. Her son and her daughter are both covered in white and grey feathers. They look at her politely, with no hint of a surprise. She tries to brush the fringes off like someone would brush flour off clothes but most of them stay put. It is unbelievable.
For breakfast she makes them oats. They have stopped eating it cooked like a porridge, and now wanted it raw like a muesli with bits of margarine and nuts mixed in. They play outside but come back in after to watch TV.
“What were you guys up to?”
“We were just looking for squirrels and mice,” the son says, and his pupils are large against his golden brown irises. It used to be so loud in the house, chaos reigning every day, but now the children move around like ghosts and all is silent.
When she held her newborns tight to her chest, they reminded her of plucked chickens, ugly and pathetic, and yet she carried them everywhere. She felt an ache in her bones when they weren’t close. She even held nursing babies on her lap while she peed. She never put them down, those damn screaming toddlers; she balanced them on her hips.
Those souls had flapped and kicked the inside of her womb. Tiny bones had held her pinky so tight. The feelings weren’t just love, but innate desperation too. Before, when they were just her little children, they asked to hear her heart. She would kneel down, and each would take a turn pressing their ears up against her chest.
In return she got to listen to their hearts. The skin on their chests smooth and pale against her big ear, their ribs delicate as the bones of birds. They asked her to tap out the quick beats so the movement of fluid pumping became tangible and real to them. They could see the rhythm of those wings inside.
One night in early fall, she climbs the creaky stairs to say good night, but the kids are not in their bunks. The bedroom window is an open maw; she sticks her head out and watches her owls perch on a sturdy branch of a Manitoba Maple. That her children had changed was undeniable. Their growth was thrilling and heartbreaking.
Her children had used her. They’d needed to because she’d birthed them helpless with undeveloped frontal lobes and no viability what-so-ever. She’d asked for it really, wanted them to pluck the very feathers from her back if they needed them. She felt something unnamable when her babies came out from inside of her. It felt the most like jumping-up, like pushing a weight against gravity. For a long time after their birth, she carried a tangible weight around with her. She feels a larger echo of that now, with her insides on the outside for everyone to see.
Originally Published in 1:1000 Literary Magazine in 2014