1500 words long
To go among humans, you must be human. Otherwise, you’re a freak, and that makes you prey.
Notes from the author:
Most of us know, to some degree or another, what it’s like to struggle to fit in, to hide our awkward freakish true selves so we can appear normal and find acceptance. A story about a supernatural creature trying to pass for human can’t help but present a metaphor for that universal struggle. Nothing wrong with that, but the temptation for my lazy brain is to focus on the metaphor and forget that the details are important. Like, exactly what kind of supernatural creature? What precise non-human traits do they have, and how do they hide them? And how do those decisions affect the plot? I have the glorious and terrifying freedom of infinite arbitrary choice, but I also have the consequences of my decisions. I’ve got to follow through with the implications. If I make my protagonist a were-pterodactyl, her wings have got to be real enough to bleed.
Reenie had cried herself to sleep last night. Upon awakening, the first words she said were, “Fuck it.”
Then she walked naked onto the balcony and unfurled her wings.
She had kept them hidden for so long. It had seemed the only way. Humans distrust you if you have something they don’t, and all the worse when it’s something they wish they themselves had. They’ll deny their envy and call you a freak and congratulate themselves on being nothing like you. That’s how they console themselves. They turn your glory into shame and they never let you forget it.
She’d learned that lesson early, on her first day in school. School here, that is; she hadn’t been old enough to start before her mother, for reasons she never explained, flew them away from Overmountain. She’d been inserted mid-semester into the second-grade class. The teacher had been unwilling to resist making a short speech about welcoming everyone despite their differences, which alerted the other children that Reenie’s wings were different on an entirely different scale than things like of skin color or left-handedness. They’d immediately accosted her with questions: “Can you fly? Can you take us for rides? Can you steal us apples from the top of Mr. Spletchum’s tree?” She’d had to admit that no, she couldn’t fly yet, her wings were too little and her pectorals not sufficiently developed. One day she’d be strong enough to carry another person, even two, but not yet. As for apples, stealing was wrong, wasn’t it?
Her classmates, disappointed in her answers, set out to find what other entertainment they could get out of Reenie’s wings. They started tugging on them to see how loudly they could make Reenie yell and how much force the membranes could take before they tore. It was great fun. Everyone joined in. A few children hesitated at first, but it wasn’t like Reenie was human or anything.
Their teacher suffered from a desperate idealism that made her completely ineffective at dealing with classroom bullies. She was convinced of a latent sense of empathy in the heart of every child which it was a teacher’s job to awaken. “Now, George,” she asked, “how would you like it if someone did that to you?”
George rolled his eyes. “They couldn’t. I don’t have wings.”
Reenie came home bruised, bleeding, hurting, and inconsolable. Her mother took her up in a leathery embrace and soothed her as best she could, but it was too late. Reenie had learned her lesson. To go among humans, you must be human. Otherwise, you’re a freak, and that makes you prey.
The next morning, she used a belt to bind her wings flat, and she begged her mother to buy her a T-shirt to wear over them. It broke her mother’s heart, but she understood and did as her daughter asked. She couldn’t help but point out, though, that the Overmountain-style sash was not so different from Prisha’s sari.
“I bet they make fun of Prisha, too,” Reenie said.
When she got older and her wings got too big to bind, she rolled them up instead, like posters. It hurt a little, but she got used to it. You can get used to almost anything. The two long ridges down her back didn’t entirely escape notice, but most people assumed it was some congenital deformity, and they pitied her. Reenie didn’t mind the pity, but she wished they’d be more careful not to let her hear them talking about her. Poor girl, they said, screwed over from birth. Wonder what her mother got up to while she was pregnant with her. Probably never find a husband, looking like that. Probably for the best. Wouldn’t want to pass on those genes.
Reenie wasn’t looking for a husband. Human men meant little to her. Theoretically she wanted a man who was like her, light-boned and leather-winged and strong (for she had grown into a prodigious strength as she matured that served her well during a series of short-term manual labor jobs, construction and landscaping and the like), but she’d last seen one when she was six and saying goodbye to her father. It was hardly the sort of memory to help her determine her romantic interests.
Nevertheless, whenever a man—a human man—expressed an interest in her, she basked in it. It meant she was successfully passing as human. As normal. She felt she deserved an evening now and again when she could enjoy being normal, even if it meant disappointing the man in the end.
Last night, the man had taken exception to being disappointed.
He’d bought her drink after drink, which in retrospect Reenie thought she ought to have taken as a warning. The alcohol had no effect on Reenie’s metabolism, but its ready abundance suggested certain intentions on the man’s part. He was touching her constantly. At first it was casual but frequent little pats on the arm and shoulder, like extra punctuation to his long-winded bragging stories. But as the evening wore on, his hands lingered with a frank possessiveness that Reenie found distasteful. And he kept badgering her for a kiss. At last Reenie decided that she’d had enough of normality for one night. She made her excuses and left.
He caught up with her in the parking lot and backed her against the wall of the next building. “Come on, let me take you home,” he’d slurred. “No? Rather do it right here? That’s fine, honey, I’m down with that.” After that came what Reenie remembered as a slow-moving eternity of laughably ineffectual struggling, but it probably only lasted about fifteen seconds, because with the way he was all over her, it couldn’t have taken much longer than that for him to accidentally grab one of her wings.
It hurt, the way he crushed the leather roll of it in his grip. It hurt worse when he yanked it free into the half-hearted light of the nearest street lamp. It hurt like her first day of school. It startled a cry out of her, a natural one, a sound like death from above as she flicked her wing away from what was hurting it.
She slithered away from him along the wall. He stared at her, hand still upraised and grasping. “You’re a fucking freak,” he said at last. “Who wants to fuck a freak?”
She ran the whole way home. Not that she was running from him; she could have thrown him across the parking lot. It just about killed her that she hadn’t. Even when she dimly recognized herself to be under attack, she’d limited herself to how she imagined a human woman would fight back. And she’d still failed to pass for human. He’d found her out. And she was horrified to discover that his rejection mattered. When he’d abruptly left off trying to force himself on her, she’d felt, not relief, but the familiar despair of hearing the human world tell her, yet again, that she didn’t belong. That was what she was running away from: the part of herself that so badly craved acceptance.
And she’d run, really run, on the ground, with her two stupid legs, as though she’d forgotten what wings were for.
Well, from this morning forward, she was done. Done hiding, done trying to pass, done crawling around on the ground. She spread her wings wide and—
Cried out in sudden agony. Lurched forward against the railing. Felt her wings snap back into position like window blinds rolling up. After so many years of hiding them that way, she couldn’t fully extend them. The attempt brought crippling pain. With that realization came a new despair; she gave in to it and wept.
But not for very long.
She hadn’t owned an Overmountain-style sash for years. She used a strip cut off her bedsheet instead. She still remembered how to wrap it, diagonally across her chest and between her wings. When at last she tied it off at the waist and stood before the mirror, she was shocked to see her mother’s reflection looking back at her.
She stood there a few minutes, carefully exploring her wings’ range of motion. It wasn’t much. But she forced herself to do what she could, open and close, stretch and relax, in a set of disciplined repetitions. She was sweating with exertion when she was done, but it gave her hope. She’d do it again later today, and then tonight, three times a day for as long as it took. It was uncomfortable, but she’d get used to it. She could get used to anything. It would be worth it for the possibility that one day, for the first time, she’d fly.
Until then, she’d just have to walk.
She left her apartment. She didn’t bother to lock the door. She set her face to the mountains and began the long walk home.
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