Half Flight

by Shweta Narayan

The boy with one wing does not fall asleep. He rises into sleep, lifts into sleep, sleeps high, high above the muck and drizzle. In sleep he soars over rippled clouds, wrapped in clean and comforting sky. The ground is an occasional patch of brown and green below. Until he wakes.

She has caught him in nettles and his feathers are falling, falling out.

The swan with one arm falls awake.

The boy with one wing loves his sister, who spun and wove and sewed for him, voiceless as any swan. The boy with one wing understands primogeniture, understands why he was last, understands that she loves him no less for that. The boy with one wing likes to wrap that wing around his sister, a hug like a cloak.

The swan with one arm would hiss and bite them all, if only he could make his top–heavy, nettlestained body do his will. If only he could strike with a neck so laughably short.

If only he could laugh.

The swan with one arm trips over things because he never will look down.

The boy with one wing has dizzy spells, floating above his own head, the world he knows tiny and distant below. But the swan with one arm loses his balance every time and falls back into the boy.

Neither of them is terribly social.

The boy with one wing wears cloaks. He does not dance. He pretends not to hear whispers, pretends not to see averted faces. The man with one wing talks to no woman other than his sister.

His brothers say it is good to be human again. They are discomfited by his wing. So are the horses. The swan with one arm thinks there is little difference between them.

One day he leaves. He returns with a woman, tall and silent. The court has an impression of downy hair and long neck and dark, terrified eyes. Nobody knows where she comes from.

The man with one wing gives her flowers, jewels, ornaments, gowns. The dust gathered on them records how long ago he made each gift. It marks the months, then the years, of her captivity.

The swan with one arm takes her walking, takes her to the lake; she smiles at him sometimes. What joy is missing in her eyes can be found in his.

Does she fall awake? He does not ask.

Her belly grows; his smiles grow with it. Then one day it collapses into itself, pouring out blood and slime and a half–formed baby with crushed, hollow bones. The man with one wing weeps for his daughter. The swan with one arm weeps for himself. Their bride does not weep.

The swan with one arm makes her one last present: her cloak, bright white feathers lined with swansdown, supple after all the buried years. The next morning she is gone, leaving only a calendar of dust to say she was more than a dream. Even the bloody sheets have been laundered.

The man with one wing adopts ducklings, chicks, goslings. They are absurd, graceless; they follow him in an uneven, squawking line. When they are scared or cold he takes them under his wing.

They follow him into the king’s great hall, where a lady almost steps on a gosling. Nobody knows who screams louder, the lady or the goose. The swan with one arm finds himself surrounded by angry courtiers, pecking and shrilling at him until he looks to his brother the king; but the king is laughing. The man with one wing leaves.

He trails goslings and ducklings and chicks to the palace of his sister’s husband. By the time he gets there two of the ducklings have died and the chicks grown brown and handsome. He makes them known to his sister. One lays an egg at her feet. She does not laugh.

The egg hatches, in time, as do others, and the next generation trails him through kitchen and barn and great hall, and the next; so he is never quite alone, though he is left behind every time another flies away.

His sister dies giving birth to her third child. Mourners throw flowers into her grave. The swan with one arm throws nettles. He thinks of his sister and the baby — not the squalling live one, but the dead child with hollow bones who flies on shattered wings. He tries to call them back, wrap them in nettles and pull them down to him. He knows he cannot.

Her children trail him, in time, in a ragged line; when they are scared or cold he takes them under his wing. They are graceless far longer than the birds, and so he has more time to love them. He brings them flowers, ornaments, cloaks lined with swansdown. These never last long. They gather dirt and rips and breaks instead of dust. The swan with one arm smiles tosee his gifts spattered with mud, and he smiles to see his charges jumping from logs and walls, pretending to fly. It hurts him only a very little that they never will.

But they too grow up, and learn that he is strange, and his smile becomes more distant and more sad. When the youngest finally falls away, the man with one wing realizes that he is grown old.

He finds the first when he bathes one day, a bump beneath his skin, an ache that flares sharp and hot when he touches it. Soon they cover his body. He grows thin, feeding only them. Pain and weakness leave him abed, but he welcomes them, welcomes it all.

The swan with one arm knows this dizziness, this half flight; the swan with one arm knows his legs again, thin and clawed. The man with one wing can feel feathers sprouting, sprouting beneath his skin.

They lie back, smiling, and wait to float asleep.