For Advent this year, as part of the Artist Advent Giveaway I am posting a free copy of my short story ‘Her Red Wings’. Anyone who emails me can also get a giveaway code for a free copy of my novel The Boston 395. Jasonderr@mac.com.
HER RED WINGS
By Jason Hubbard Derr
On Saturday, Jenny learned to fly. Sammantha woke to find her older sister dancing in the air like dust caught in a shaft of light from a window. She stayed up there for most of the morning, wings spread into the wind. Even when their mother went out and yelled at her and tried to throw the broom at Jen, even then she stayed high up in the air. Her sister watched from the window for an hour and then went and laid in the yard to watch her.
As Samantha watched Jen did loop the loops, spirals and dives. Once she headed out over the lake their house bordered on and did a long dive, pulling up at the last minute so that only one hand pulled across the waters surface. Sam laughed and clapped. Her mother shushed her.
It was only at lunch that Jen came to ground. She glided down, her wings behind her with the light peeking through. It was a dramatic entrance until she hit the ground and her legs twisted the wrong way and she fell to a heap by the swing set they had used as children.
“I need,” she said standing up and brushing herself off, “To work on my landings.”
“You need,” her mother said, handing her a glass of ice water, “To stop showing off.”
“Oh Mother, I would stay in the clouds all day if I could. I only came down for lunch.”
“Well, next time you can catch a fish from the lake like the other birds.”
Sam could tell Jenny was mad by the way her feathers bristled. But she didn’t say anything, just sipped her ice water and looked back up at the clouds.
Jen’s wings were bright red, like her hair and her mother’s hair. When she really got some speed under her all you could see was a red
blur trailed by a bit of yellow that you knew were Sam’s favorite rain boots.
That summer she started talking about things that the family didn’t understand. She started talking about the lift of wind under her wings, and how it felt to glide and hang in the air. She talked about approach vectors and perfecting a landing – which she never seemed to be able to master. She started to read books about aerodynamics and the history of the airplane.
“How long have you had the wings?” Sam asked once at dinner, after their mother had locked the door behind her oldest daughter to make sure she would stay with them through a whole meal before heading back to the sky.
“They’ve been growing for months. I could feel them, like a growing pain. But it was only two mornings ago that ˇ they burst from my back fully formed.”
“You’r e an angel!”
“She’s always been an angel, my dear,” their mother said “And a bit of a devil, just like her father.” And they all laughed at this, even Sam and Mother and their dog Old Man Chester who laid under the table and gave a small woof of approval.
All the neighbors started to call a day later. Except for the old man next door they were supportive of Sam’s antics in the sky. It had been awhile since the people of Miracle, Washington had anything really special to talk about.
“Well” Mother would say on the phone when they called “That’s my girl, a beauty and a troublemaker. But can she dance in the sky or what!?”
By Wednesday Jen had started bringing college catalogues home. She had stacks of them and had stated to mark – in red circles and dog eared pages – every section that had anything to do with flight.
“Maybe I could go to flight school, mother.”
“Where, Jenny, where?”
“I have a catalogue for one in Florida.”
“Florida, my lord child, do you know where that is? Do you?”
“Yes, it’s -”
“Well, where is it?”
“It’s on the east coast.”
“That’s right, it’s east. It’s on the other side of the country.”
“I know Mother.”
“Why would you want to go to the other side of the country?”
“It’s somewhere I have never been. They have good flight schools. Father is out there.”
“That’s not a good reason.”
“It’s not. Good night.” And then mother went to bed leaving Sam and Jenny and Old Man Chester alone in the kitchen.
For the next few days Jen was only home when it rained, and that was only for an hour on Tuesday. She spent the rest of the time up in the air and on the other side of the lake where she would sit in a tree by the shore and stare at the sky, or lake, or the house she had known her whole life.
Rumors around town were that she had found a young man with blue wings and they were dancing in the sky together, a twist of blue and red. This was a lie, mother said. But she kept sending Sam out to check the sky – to call Jen in for dinner if she could be coxed down.
On Friday when she came back to the ground, Mother and daughter did not talk and Sam had to play peace maker. More catalogues had started to arrive. And now Jen was watching videos on innovations in wing design. It was too much for the girls mother to take and she began going for longer and longer walks.
A week to the day that Jenny had taken to the sky the girls awoke to find their mother crying at the kitchen table. The girls didn’t say anything at first, just prepared breakfast and talked among themselves. But her sobs were so big and so loud that, one by one, the girls put an arm around their mother and held her as her shoulders heaved and rattled and shook.
Jen stayed inside that day, going out only once during the night to ‘stretch her wings’. Mostly she sat and talked with mother, pushing her sister out of the room whenever she tried to come in.
“Mom, it’s not going away forever-”
“But it is going away, Jenny!”
“But not for forever, and Father will -”
“Mom, don’t be like – Sam! Leave the room, this is private!”
The old man next door came by in the morning. He was dressed in gray and black and had his black hat on with all its holes, stains and smells. His nose was large, red and veined and stuck out from his face and swayed in the wind as he walked.
“Madam,” he said as mother opened the door “Your daughter is polluting our sky.”
“Your daughter is flying too high and it is a pollution of the sky – all I want is to see the clouds and the birds – the natural birds, mind you – and your daughter insists on being in the air with her red wings.”
“Sir, I -”
“And furthermore, what kind of woman lets their high school daughter fly?”
“I do!” Mother said angrily and slammed the door so that the house shook and the old man had to step back quickly so his nose wouldn’t get hurt. His hat blew from his head and he had to chase it.
On Wednesday, Jen went out over the lake and vanished from their sight. Hours past and neither mother or daughter could see Jen in the sky. They started to bite their nails and worry. In the afternoon, they went out onto the front porch to sit.
“Do you see her?” Mother would ask.
“Not at all?”
“Not at all!”
“I’m so used to seeing her there, hanging in the air. Where could she be?” The old man next door was looking over at them from his garden and ‘tutted’ under his breath.
When the mail came that day, it contained a large blue envelope marked with the words ‘NORTH FLORIDA SCHOOL OF AIRBORNE ARTS’. Mother looked at it for a long while, smelled it and placed it on the counter carefully.
“What is it?” Sam asked.
“It’s a letter for your sister.”
“I’m sure I don’t know.”
“Can we open it?”
“It’s not for us.”
“Aren’t you curious about it?”
“So, let’s open it then!”
“No – it would not be fair to your sister.” And the mother went out into the front yard with a chair and her favorite book and a glass of lemonade and she kept one eye on the sky the whole night.
Just as the sky began to darken and after dinner was done – the Mother and Samantha both ate out on the front lawn, sitting on a blanket and surrounded by sandwiches and soft drinks and the large, square envelope between them – Jenny dropped out of the sky and landed perfectly.
“Good landing, Jen!” Sam cried out to her sister.
“I’ve been practicing in a field on the other side of the lake.”
“Jen -” Their mother began.
“Mother, I know what you are going to -” Jen’s wings are bristling.
“Jen, stop for a second. This came for you today.” And the Mother hands over the blue envelope to her daughter and steps back. Jen looks at it for a moment and then tears it open. A red letter spills out and Jen begins to read it, her sister reading along over her shoulder.
“I’m in,” she says when she is done, softly.
“The school, this school,” and she waves the envelope “They want me to start in the fall, after I graduate high school. I’m i ∆n! I’m going to college – i’m going to flight school!”
“But it’s so far away.”
“Not so far away.”
“Mother,” Jen raises her wings and walks over to her mother, “This is me, who I am or who I want to be – I’m not sure yet, but I need to find out.”
Their mother kicks a loose piece of rock. Sam looks at the sky. Jen reads her letter again – once to her self and once out loud.
“No, I understand, it’s time for you to go away and-”
“Let me show you.”
“What-?” Jen walks to her mother and grabs her under the arms. “Now wait a second, what are you-?”
And with a little jump and a swift pump of her wings, both mother and daughter were up in the air. Jen was soaring, slower than usual, but in wide loops that took her and her mother over the lake, over the roofs of houses and past the old man next door who tried to turn his hose on them as they passed.
She takes them over the lake and their mother looses a shoe to the water below Ë her and can see her reflection gliding just below them, mother and daughter: the mother dangling and her daughter with her wings spread and her jaw set.
As the sky goes from day to night she can see stars reflected in the water below, can see the stars overhead. She can see the little yellow squares of windows and the dull outlines of houses. The old man next door has gone inside, looking out through a window as they dance and soar.
And their mother is laughing and her daughter with the wings is laughing and grinning and Samantha on the shore is laughing and dancing with glee and even their dog Old Man Chester is letting up a howl of approval.
And the wind is rippling over her wings and through their hair and they are happy here, up in the night with all that sky and all that wind, and their mother understands that for her daughter there is nothing else but this: the sky and the air and all the is in-between and within.
“I love this,” the Mother is screaming, “I love this.”