Feathers are for Flying
Natasha blinks open her eyes. The left eyelid feels heavier, puffy, she allows it to slowly close as her right eye scans the room. Everything seems to be in its place, her tall wooden dresser, her lamp she had made with the beach shells she had collected when she went to the coast with her sister, a black hoodie she should probably pick up, the porcelain doll her stepfather had given her three years ago when he and her mother announced their engagement. She had been fifteen, clearly too old for dolls, but her mother made her keep it. “Hey, he’s trying Tasha,” she whispered. “He’s not used to kids.” And he did try. At first.
By now her left eye has completely swollen shut. Natasha tries to push herself up with her left arm, but it won’t move. She tries to wiggle her fingers. Nothing except for a slight tingling. She looks at the feather she had gotten tattooed when she was sixteen between her wrist and inner-elbow. She can’t believe it has been two years already since her father had passed. Thin lines of black and brown ink cover her olive skin and somewhat mask a purple and green bruise that seems to be growing brighter.
John’s deep voice murmurs behind her door and down the stairs. “Hey beautiful,” he says to her mother. “How was your day?” Natasha never once saw him get angry in front of her mom. Secretly she suspects that if she wasn’t there to absorb the blows of John’s masked anger, he might one day turn to her mother for his emotional release.
“Wonderful John, how was your day?” she hears her mom answer. “Did you play golf with the boys?” Natasha never found the words to tell her. He was the first thing to make her mom happy since the divorce. He was also the reason her mom didn’t have to keep taking loans out to pay the bills. Natasha runs her fingers along her mouth and jaw, still sore from the other day. She couldn’t tell her mom anyways, she was finally smiling again.
Natasha never knew why her seemingly happy parents decided to split. When she was almost thirteen, the family sat in the brightly painted living room, parents on one side, their two daughters on the other. When her parents first told them, Natasha didn’t believe it. She giggled nervously thinking it couldn’t be, not our family, this had to be a joke. The table, made from a tree trunk and separating the two couches, seemed to grow larger, widening the gap between parents and children, as if a meteor had hit, forming an uncrossable, jagged valley in the middle of the room. The deep browns of the wood her father had so carefully cut, sanded, and polished stretched, pushing the girls farther from their parents, shoving their parents farther from their reach. Natasha wanted to stop it; she wanted to pull her parents back to where she was, she wanted it all to be a dream. The two sisters sat silent on the suede couch, confused what to say or how to feel. Natasha’s older sister Adia grabbed Natasha’s hand firmly, gently, the moisture of each palm sticking, gluing the two soft hands together.
“It’s gonna be ok, at least we’ll go back and forth together,” Adia whispered, but her hand was clammy and her mouth was trembling in that subtle way it always did when tears were being yanked back behind her unfaltering eyes.
Natasha closes her one good eye. She feels groggy and disoriented. She must have fallen asleep because when she opens her eyes again the room has adopted a dark blue glow and the house feels still. She wiggles her fingers, they are tingling, so she opens and closes her hand in an attempt to wake it up. The bruise and finger marks seem almost illuminated on her skin. She glances at the mirror opposite her. Her eye is looking better, nothing make-up could not conceal. She sits up and pulls her knees in tight, remembering the way her dad would wrap her in her comforter whenever she was hurt or upset. “I’m not going to pretend I know how to fix this, sweet heart, but this is the best way I know how to comfort you. Isn’t that what these comforters are for, anyways?” and they would laugh and he would squeeze her in his arms until the little calamity in her mind had been washed away.
Natasha runs her finger along the ink feather on her arm. “Don’t be afraid to fly, sweet heart,” her dad had once told her. The next day he had gotten into a car accident, head on, no survivors. The police report stated that the driver had been a sixteen-year-old male, the only passenger a fifteen-year-old girl, the backseats covered by empty beer cans.
The prisms she and Adia had hung near her window throw colors across her blue walls. Each color is so vibrant as it bleeds into the next. She wishes Adia had taken her with her with her when she left for California almost three years ago.
Adia had graduated high school the spring before their mother remarried, and as the warmth of the summer began to fly away, Natasha was left alone with her mother and her new step-father. At least she got to see her father on the weekends.
“I’ll only be one state away,” Adia had promised. But one state may as well have been one ocean. She was too busy with her new life. She hadn’t even gone on the ‘family vacation’ their stepfather had arranged for all four of them.
“As a way to celebrate our new little family,” he and their mother had said trying to persuade her. But it was no use, Adia had already made plans with her new friends from school. The three of them went without her.
The next time the sisters saw each other was at their father’s funeral; black umbrellas dripping and glistening with the chilled rain of Oregon’s coast. Natasha dropped her arm heavily to her side and let a faded and frayed record cover fall past the grass and onto the oak casket, the dimmed colors on the cover blending and blurring into each other as the cover floated back and forth hypnotically; greens and blues, yellows and oranges, pinks and reds.
Natasha could still hear her father’s voice. “I’m gonna take this one with me to heaven one day, Tasha. That’s all I’d need, my favorite music and enough color to paint all the clouds up there for you.”
“That’s just silly,” Natasha had said. “You can’t paint clouds from the colors of a record cover, it’s already dry, see?” She ran her tiny finger across the colors and put her hand up towards his face, showing him clean skin.
“How do you know sweetheart? Have you ever been to heaven?” Natasha shook her head. “Then how do you know what you can paint with up there?” Natasha had spent the rest of their afternoon together looking at the cover, tilting it side to side, holding it up towards the sky and imagining painting the clouds with all its colors.
After the casket was covered in dirt Adia tried to put her arm around her sister, but it was shoved off quickly. You left me Natasha wanted to scream. You said we’d still be close. She wanted to hug her and push her away all at the same time. I’ll never be like you, I’ll never leave someone I love. Natasha got in the car after the funeral without saying a word to Adia, she didn’t know what to say, and at the time a seemingly standard ‘good-bye’ felt awkward and out of place.
Natasha looks into the mirror, now flooded with reds, blues, yellows, and greens. Her dark hair falls on her freckled shoulders, cloaking a scratch near her collarbone, a fading bruise on her neck. He had never hit her above her shoulders before. She can’t stay here anymore. She had tried to leave before. She had made plans. She had even packed once. Tears sting her eyes but she holds them in, burning her throat. The shell lamp glows above her. How amazing the beach sounds to her, she can almost hear the crash of the waves, the smell of salt and seaweed. She pulls a prism down, ties it onto a looped leather cord, and pulls it over her head.
The next thing she knows she is pushing her old Volkswagen van in neutral down the slanted driveway and into the street. The painting she had begun on the passenger side looks like a mess of splattered paint. She’d never finished it. Her dad had been a painter and every weekend when she would get to visit him they would do a small section of the van’s exterior she would inherit once she got her license. His death stopped this project. His death stopped a lot of things in her life.
She drives. She drives past the coffee shop she works at. She drives past her old high school. She drives past the movies and her ex-boyfriend’s house. She drives past the county line and keeps on driving. Dark green trees become one giant blur of foliage, streaking the starry backdrop as her bare foot forces the gas pedal down. Jimi Hendrix belts out, “Purple haze all in my brain, lately things just don’t seem the same, actin’ funny, but I don’t know why, ‘scuse me while I kiss the sky”. She had gotten all of her dad’s old records and CDs when he died. This was one of their favorites.
She drives until little strands of gold and pink creep up the horizon and reach for the low-lying clouds. Yellows, greens, blues, reds, and every shade in between. It looks like someone has just begun painting the clouds. She kisses her prism for good luck as she passes the sign that welcomes her to California.
When she was little, the family would take trips to the beach. Her mom would pretend to be angry when her dad threw her into the soft waves, and then look so mischievous when she would pull him in after her. Adia would be up on the dunes, gathering seashells for the collection she kept in glass jars along her windowsill. Natasha would just watch her family as she wriggled her toes into the sand until she found the cool, wet sand buried deep underneath the slightly rockier surface. Adia’s dress would blow in the salty wind, making her look like a superhero or an angel or maybe both. Natasha’s hair would fly in her face and wrap itself in front of her eyes like the fingers of two hands clasping together, and then fly up again. Sometimes she would imagine her swirling hair lifting her off the ground, flying her above the crashing waves; grays, blues, greens. Watching her family grow smaller and smaller on the sand, small enough for her to cup both her hands out in front of her and keep her family there in them forever.
She would laugh at the wind and the sand between her toes and run after Adia to see if she would let her help in the treasure hunt. “You have to be patient, Tasha, see?” she would remind her. “Sometimes you can’t see the shell because the sand is covering it, or sometimes it is only half buried and you can’t tell what it is until you pick it up.” Adia always found the most unique treasures. She would brush the sand off them the way grown ups would dust off old memorabilia, antiques and books in those black and white movies they loved to watch together. Like something from long ago had finally found its way back, along with memories and secrets and mystery.
The sun makes its way up the sky, climbing steadily, gaining height as it gaines in brightness. Outside of a gas station Natasha finds a pay phone. After calling the tattooed manager at the coffee shop she works at to tell her she would be away for a while, she calls her sister. “Hey Ad, um, so I guess I’m in California, almost to San Diego. I hope you’re still at the address on the envelope you sent me last month. I miss you. I’m sorry for not calling you back for a while, I just didn’t know what to say…how to say it…” She pauses and looks through the scratched up door as a woman stands there, eyes wide, foot tapping the crumbly asphalt, left hip jutting out. As she pops her gum loudly she spins her finger round and around, motioning for her to make her call quick. “Uh, sorry, anyways, can I stay with you for a while? I forgot my cell at home, so don’t try calling. I’m on my way, so, see you soon.”
Natasha throws the map onto the patched up seat next to her, covering an old coffee stain. She looks into the rearview mirror and reapplies make-up to her left eye before she gets back onto the highway. Speckled brown and white feathers flutter from the dream catcher tied onto the mirror. They look like they are trying to fly away.
The first time John had hit her was the Saturday after she had just turned seventeen. She had been making a dream catcher for her first time. The morning began normal enough. Her mother was still asleep. Natasha walked down the stairs and into the wide kitchen. She sat at the marble island surrounded by stainless-steel appliances and stared out the full-length windows around her. It was cold, angular, sterile, nothing like the house she had grown up in, but at least her mother had stopped having to take out loans.
Natasha and John ate the breakfast he had made them in silence; bacon, omelets, and a fruit salad. On his way to the office, John drove Natasha to the coffee shop he had gotten her a job at. She stared out the car window on the way, early morning colors coating the passing houses like the first layer of paint on a canvas.
She was sitting in the living room after her shift at the coffee shop, making dream catchers like the ones the old woman near the coffee shop always made, using the feathers she had been collecting. The woman’s face was so kind, so deep with wrinkles from years of crying, laughing, thinking. Natasha would occasionally bring coffee out to her especially on the colder days. Sometimes after work she would watch as the old woman would wrap feathers with strands of leather, making and selling her creations, always smiling. One day when the streets were bare except for a few passersby the woman had noticed Natasha watching intently. She motioned for her to come over and had shown her how to wrap the feathers so they wouldn’t fall off. She told her of her ancestors’ stories about dreams, and about feathers, and about the spirits they believed in.
“Dreams are very important,” the woman said. “They can tell us secrets, bring us clarity, let us travel with our minds. I have even met with people in my dreams, sometimes people still alive on earth, sometimes ancestors not alive in the flesh.” Natasha was fascinated.
As Natasha wrapped the feathers with the thin leather cords, she heard the front door slam. “What do you think you’re doing? Shouldn’t you be at school?” The stale smell of whiskey itched her nose as John came closer. He was home early.
“It’s Saturday,” Natasha mumbled. John was always busy with work or golfing with his friends from the office. Their only real interactions were during their Saturday morning breakfast and the quick drive to the coffee shop. Other than that, he was only around when her mother came home, and then they mostly paid attention to each other.
“Oh, right. Well what about your job?” John stumbled into the kitchen and drank straight from the faucet, cool water running across his tongue and down his chin, dribbles racing down his shaven neck and onto his white collared shirt. The only time Natasha had seen John drink was at the wedding, but he only allowed himself one drink that night, when the newly weds toasted to their union.
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Natasha, I fucking helped you find that job, I bought us this beautiful house. When your mother said she’d always wanted to be an international flight attendant and travel the world I got her the job at the airlines, and you, hiccup, act like you don’t care. I know you skip school sometimes, Margie says you call in sick at the shop, hiccup, occasionally. I mean, do you realize how embarrassing it is for me to hear that after I asked my business partner’s wife to hire you, you go and skip work?”
Natasha just looked down at her feathers and twisted the brown string in her fingers. Ever since her father’s death, she stopped hanging out with her friends, school was a sea of sympathetic faces and the coffee shop was a series of mundane tasks keeping her away from the only thing she wanted to do; from losing her emotions on canvas, hiding her thoughts in music.
“What? Just ‘cause I’m not your dad I don’t matter? I’ve tried and tried to make you like me, but fuck, you make it fuckin’ hard sometimes with this ‘woe-is-me’ attitude you have going on here.”
Natasha stood up finally and looked him in his splotchy face. “Did you drive here like this?”
John nodded. “Business meeting hiccup didn’t go so well.” He laughed a hallow laugh and searched in the refrigerator. “So me and Jeff went and got a few drinks.”
“Are you serious? You could have killed someone,” Natasha yelled.
“I’m an excellent driver,” John said as he bumped into the marble island in his way, looking surprised and angry that it was in the middle of his kitchen.
Natasha began to collect her feathers. “You shouldn’t even be drinking, mom told me it used to make you go crazy,” she mumbled under her breath.
John’s fists clenched and eyes widened. “You’re mother told you that?”
Natasha stood frozen in the living room. “Um, yeah. I mean, she mentioned that you had to go to therapy for anger management and alcoholism a while ago.”
“Oh she told you that, huh? What else did she tell you?”
Natasha looked down at the feathers in her hand, wishing she hadn’t said anything, wishing she had feathers of her own to help her fly away.
“What else did your mother tell you about my past, Natasha?” John’s deep voice rose and echoed in the large, hollow house.
Natasha’s shoulder’s rose up towards her ears. “Well, just that you’re not supposed to drink anymore.”
“Yeah, well, that was a long time ago,” he muttered. “I’m better now, I can have a few drinks.” He wrestled with the bag of bread, unable to untwist the tie at the top. He threw it across the kitchen at the shelf full of spices, sending little glass bottles onto the marble counter, crashing onto the wooden floor.
Afterwards, Natasha lay down in her bed and pulled her comforter over her. She didn’t want to look in the mirror. She didn’t need to; she could feel where the mirror would confirm he hit her. The following morning she opened her bedroom door to find a tray waiting for her with bacon, an omelet, and a fruit salad.
John began to drink occasionally after business meetings, mostly when her mother was away for work. The alcohol rushing through his veins would seem to remind his fists of the first time he hit Natasha, and wash over his mind to blur his guilt. He would feel the same embarrassment and anger he felt when she told him she knew about his past he had tried to conceal. He didn’t drink every day but when he did he would stumble home, breathing loudly and blurry eyed, wanting to relax and release the pressures of his workweek. Sometimes Natasha was there when he got home.
Once she had left her dishes in the sink. Once she had skipped school. Once she just “looked depressed.”
He would shove her, demanding, “shouldn’t a girl your age be happy? What? Your mother and I don’t give you enough to be happy?”
Sometimes John would smack her, saying, “here, here’s a whole new meaning to being ‘slaphappy’.”
For the most part John never hurt her bad enough to result in visible evidence. When he did, it was nothing long pants and a baggy sweatshirt couldn’t hide.
Signs pass inconsequentially as Natasha drives without thinking about the road, the cars, and the directions. She hums along with Bob Dylan to “Desolation Road”. His voice seems to slide its way into her veins, numbing her and misting her memories of John, his callused hands, his expensive house. Time seems irrelevant. The wind begins to pick up, trees begin to bend and whip, and with a loud popping sound the old crinkled map darts into the corner near the speakers, muffling the notes and melody. She reaches down for the map, remembering her destination, but the wind grabs it from her.
A sign points towards the border of Mexico. She remembers when she was ten years old and her father had sent her a postcard from Mexico. She taped it up next to her bed and fell asleep looking at it and imagining herself running on the white sand and splashing into the blue water. He promised her after graduation he would take her there.
She doesn’t realize she has pulled the rough steering wheel towards the sign. She finds herself speeding away from the United States, her knotted hair whirling and whipping in the free air, her arm dangling carelessly against the van’s door. She holds her arm out, as if trying to grab the air whizzing past. Her ink feather stretches out from her like a wing. Opening her fingers loosely she allows the force of the air to ripple her fingers up and down, forward and back. Her palm and the invisible force meeting with equal pressure, give and take. On either side of her there is a blur of colors flying past with the foreign dirt—dusty browns, pale greens, dark reds. Her dad’s old music, turned up high, floods the van and escapes out the open windows.
Suddenly, she comes to a fork in the road and without thinking she veers to the right and follows the dirt ahead of her. The tires crunch along, surrounded by unknown plants and scattered rocks. In the distance, she notices something shining, almost blinding her. She follows the glittering sliver in her horizon, until she finds herself parked alone, her breath growing quiet as she listens.
It looks just like the postcard.
Turning the ignition off, she jumps out of the van and runs towards the sparkling waves as they crash against the shining sand. Everything she can see seems brightened, almost gilded by the intense sun above her. She leaves a pile of fabric on the white sand and dives head first into the cool water. Diving in, the tingling begins at the top of her head and makes its way to the tips of her toes, enveloping her sweaty flesh, washing everything away, pulling her deeper. She spins and watches her hair fan out and glitter with the gold of the sun that pierces through the water.
Breathing hard she falls onto the warm sand and rolls over onto her back, watching as her body picks up the tiny tan, white, and beige grains of sand. The sun shines through her closed eyelids, making her whole world bright yellow and red. The warmth of the sun kisses every inch of her as she lets the strange sensation of cool water droplets and hot sunbeams collide on her skin. She has never felt so alive and vows never to go back home. She wriggles her toes into the sand, searching for the cool untouched grains below. She keeps her eyes shut against the power of the sun, images of her family visiting the beach flashing in gold.
Suddenly, she begins to feel cold, and the sounds of the crashing waves begin to grow distant. She tries to push herself up with her hand, but it has fallen asleep under the weight of her head. Her eyes flutter open and she stares at the ink feather inches away, colored in with the greens and purples of a bruise. A few orange, translucent bottles lay near her, bright colored pills seeping out like loose dirt on the side of a hill.
Natasha takes a deep breath and begins to try to wake her arm up by wiggling her fingers, tingling her arm back to wakefulness. She sits up and can hear the muffled sounds of her mom and John talking downstairs. Looking around her dim room she looks at all of her paintings on the wall, colorful swirls of confusion, anger, and hurt.
Natasha sweeps the run-away pills back into their bottles and carries them over to the trashcan filled with crumpled up paintings too painful to finish. Perhaps the pills were too powerful. Perhaps she would not need them to cover her emotional scars like her sweatshirts and make-up covered her visible ones. Perhaps she would leave the pain behind. Perhaps.
A loud ringing pierces the quiet of her room. She leaves the pills on her desk and slowly makes her way across the floor and picks up her phone. “Hello?”
“Tasha, it’s Adia, are you ok?”