On the same road, there lived a girl with feathers for hair and a boy poet who had to use a wheelchair. The boy lived in a small rented house, and he’d always had to use a wheelchair. But the girl, she lived in the large stripe-painted house at the end of the road, in the cul-de-sac, and she didn’t always have feathers.
Teary-eyed, she dropped the feather into the sink, where it caught fire and turned to ash before washing down the drain.
The first feather grew in her teens. She woke one day and found a feather growing from her head. It was fiery red, with orange and black stripes, and tinged at the tip with gold. At first, she thought one of her friends had woven it into her hair while she slept because all the girls were doing this then. But when she looked for the end, she saw the nib went straight into her head. This frightened her, and sucking in her breath, she pulled hard and cried out in pain as the feather was plucked. Teary-eyed, she dropped the feather into the sink, where it caught fire and turned to ash before washing down the drain.
She told no one. Who would believe her anyway?
Down the road, the boy woke up in his driveway. He had parked in the direction of the rising sun, falling asleep before it had risen. He often stayed up late, sometimes through the night, writing the girl love poems on single sheets of elegant cotton fiber. Every night, he folded them into paper airplanes and launched them in the direction of her house under the light of the moon and street lamps. Most twirled a few feet before entering death spirals or flat spins and crashing nose down in the grass. He left them there, hoping the girl would jog by and stop to pick one up.
“The yard’s the Bermuda Grass Triangle, Jack,” his mother said one morning over dinner. They had dinner in the morning and breakfast at night because his mother worked late hours and slept during the day. His house always smelled like a warm crock-pot dinner.
After waking, he went inside, and while he ate a breakfast of pot roast, potatoes, and rolls, he waited for the girl to jog by his house. But on this day, the girl did not come.
Later that summer, the girl was putting on a fresh coat of sunscreen lotion when she noticed a baby feather amongst the fair hairs of her arm. The feather glistened in the sun like gold dust. Shocked that another feather was growing from her, she pulled it out before anyone could see it, and it flared up into a ball of fire just like the first one had, then ashes.
One of her friends saw the smoke and teased her about playing with matches.
When she became angry or frustrated, she could feel the heat radiate from within her and into the feathers. She always smelled slightly of smoke.
She kept things under wraps for a while, but it soon became difficult to hide her feathers. They budded everywhere on her body. When she became angry or frustrated, she could feel the heat radiate from within her and into the feathers. She always smelled slightly of smoke. Her mother took her to a doctor, and the doctor made a lot of “hums” and “ums” before referring her to a veterinarian who specialized in cross-species disorders. The vet, who made small jokes about Dr. Moreau, did nothing more than give her some medications that may or may not have been tested on animals and may or may not have been safe for use on humans.
She even tried laser hair removal, but the laser only caused her feathers to bud up.
She spent endless hours combing the Internet for an article or image or something about someone with a similar condition. All she could find were bizarre and often pornographic images of witches and shamans performing ritual sex acts. One black ink illustration portrayed a cartoonish political ad about the coming of the end of times, and then there were the mutant superheroes all brightly illustrated in their action poses saving a humanity that wanted nothing to do with their mutant sideshow-ness.
The girl even searched for herself, but she only found that one .gif file of her and her friends goofing off on a school trip.
At school, people teased her because her clothes always had burn holes in them, as if someone had questioned her repeatedly with a cigarette, Why don’t you fly away from here?
The boy in the wheelchair thought that although she had many friends, she always looked sad. Frequently, he followed her, writing over and over again in his head all the things he wanted to say but never did.
Once, he followed her to the second floor balcony between classes and watched as she dropped bird eggs, one after another, over the side of the balcony. He thought that maybe she was performing a science experiment, though they were on the formation of cells in biology. When the girl turned to leave, she looked right at him, and she was crying.
He said, “Hey,” and she pushed past him and was down the hall before he could turn in the cramped space and follow.
It was soon after that, though it had nothing to do with the boy, that the guidance counselor called her into his office and said in his one-sad-sitcom-rerun-too-many voice, “Phoebe, if you’re on drugs, it’s okay to tell me. We can talk our way through this.”
She showed him the feathers that began at her knees and crept up her thighs.
“Some drugs, huh?” she said. The look on his face gave her a slight thrill. He was astonished. Curious. Disgusted. Maybe even aroused. This one instance of seeing his face contorted into a mix-match of emotions made her feel more powerful than she ever had before.
She began to proudly show her feathers. Long legs of reds and golds. Smooth midsection of yellows and oranges. Wild hair designs that always had a stripe of black.
She began to proudly show her feathers. Long legs of reds and golds. Smooth midsection of yellows and oranges. Wild hair designs that always had a stripe of black. She gained friends amongst the artsy crowd and she had a series of fast-burning relationships. They all had their reasons for leaving—her temper, she made them sweat, or the feathers were soft but noisy. Most likely, she knew, they all became bored. The shock that showing her off to friends and parents wore off after a while, and when it did, Phoebe, the girl who could quote Shakespeare and Poe, remained. None of the boys wanted a real relationship. They would claim later on that her lips glowed ever so slightly in the darkened rooms full of couples testing rebellion. She gave them burn marks, left them thirsty, made them sing. They never found that anywhere else, with anyone else.
She started skipping classes, and the teachers didn’t say anything. They all drew their blinds closed when they saw her there on the school lawn, basking in the sun. “She was a distraction,” they said, and, “Have you seen the way she dresses?” It was really the cold that she left behind her that disturbed them. Her body temperature, the school nurse would later say, was “ten degrees higher than normal.” And though the teachers and staff complained to the principal, there was nothing he could do. The girl made A’s in school and never caused physical problems.
One day, the boy in the wheelchair visited the girl at her large striped house.
“Wanna come up?” she asked, seeing him pacing back and forth at the end of her driveway.
She was on the roof outside her bedroom window. She spent a lot of time there these days, and the boy knew why when he saw her hold her head back and let the breeze blow through her head feathers.
He motioned to his wheelchair. How was he supposed to get up the stairs?
“Oh, right,” she said.
She went inside and opened the front door a moment later to let him inside. She helped him out of the chair, and he climbed up the stairs after her. He could see her tail feathers underneath her dress, and she didn’t care.
Her bedroom was just like any other girl, except this one corner. All of the mean girls had sent her bird gifts at Christmas—seeds, bird baths, tiny mirrors—and they were stacked in this corner, except a red plastic bird that she had placed on her windowsill, where it dipped its head constantly into water. The boy pulled himself up beside it before rolling out onto the roof beside her.
They sat there for a moment, and the boy said something like, “It’s nice up here.” The girl agreed.
“You live down the street, right?” she asked.
“You throw all those airplanes in the yard, don’t you?”
Reluctantly, he did.
“I want to fly,” she said, to the boy’s relief. “It’s all I think about. It’s like the onset of a fever. Like wanting to kiss someone. Like watching one hundred eggs falling all at once and waiting, knowing what will happen when they land.”
She shook all over, and the boy could hear her feathers underneath her dress, as though someone had fluffed a pillow.
She stretched out on the roof, and the boy could see the feathers on her legs. Soft. She closed her eyes, and he closed his until she began speaking again.
“Are your parents divorced?”
“They were never married,” he said.
“Well, my parents are divorcing. My father is leaving my mother. You know how kids always think it’s their fault their parents are divorcing?”
His father had left when he was born. Because he couldn’t walk? Because of everything that being a father meant? He didn’t know. It didn’t really matter now, except the lack of cash, which meant that his mother had to work a lot. He didn’t like his father because of that more than anything else.
“I’m not sure if it’s my fault,” she said after waiting the appropriate amount of time for the boy’s pause to be an answer. “My mom dated this circus freak about the same time she met my dad. I guess he’s my biological father, but my dad is my dad, you know. He raised me thinking I was his all along. My mom tried to hide it when I hit puberty and started growing all the feathers. She drove me from one witch doctor to another before confessing. My dad just sort of left the nest after that. I still think I’m his, but the feathers…they don’t lie.”
He believed she was a phoenix. A living phoenix, and she would one day save the world.
The girl outlined a few of her feathers as she said this last bit, and the boy couldn’t take his eyes off of them. He believed she was a phoenix. A living phoenix, and she would one day save the world.
“They’re beautiful,” he said.
She stared at him a moment. No one other than her mother had ever called the feathers beautiful and meant it. Not even her boyfriends. The girl herself once thought of them as zits.
“One of these days, I’m going to fly, just like one of your paper planes.”
The boy laughed, the planes didn’t fly as much as crash and burn.
“What’s up with those planes?” she asked.
He squinted as he looked towards his house, wondering how well he could see the planes from her house. It had rained recently, so most of the planes now looked as if they had been melted down for scrap.
“I write,” he said. “I—” he made the motion of throwing the planes, as if he was trying to make sense of it himself.
“Oh, I get it.”
“Well, it’s more than the flight. It’s what’s on the planes that—”
“What are you doing for Christmas?” she asked, interrupting him. The decorative lights on the house opposite had come on, and Santa Claus was waving at them. “I might try flying.”
The boy thought real hard before he thought of something pessimistically funny to say. He held his hands together, like a diver: “Maybe I’ll try the high-board at the pool.”
It was the final time the boy saw her during Christmas break. At the last minute, his mother announced that they were going to Florida to visit his grandparents. The boy didn’t want to leave because he had some poetry to write, but what was he to do? In between packing his bags, he scribbled some lines of poetry down. He knew he couldn’t go outside because his mother would have a cow or a brick or something: “You should be sleeping!” He could sleep in the driveway, he thought, and, opening the window, he threw what he thought was not only his best poem but his best plane. It went in a straight line for a few meters before dropping off steadily, landing right beside his mailbox. In the morning, he drove away with his mother and didn’t return until the day before school began again.
After Christmas break, the boy was shooting hoops in P.E. class when the girl walked into the gymnasium holding one of his unfolded paper airplanes. She just sauntered right over to the boy in the middle of class for everyone to see and sat on his lap and began crying. She cried all over him: his hair, ears, neck, shoulders, legs, toes, and eyes until she began kissing him ravenously. And as he kissed her back, her tears fizzed on his skin. She began glowing, and then, she broke the kiss.
“I saw the sun,” the boy told her, wiping her tears from his eyes.
“I know,” she said.
She fell onto her knees and bent in pain until she was the shape of an egg. Her skin was flushed and her feathers smoked, dripping gold from their tips.
“Oh my god,” someone said.
The boy was out of the wheelchair now, and no one noticed, not even him, that he was able to walk. He stood near her, his arm outstretched, trying to touch her as she said repeatedly, “My insides are burning!” He couldn’t get close enough to help her because of the unbearable heat. The wax on the floor had begun to melt as she cried, and she sank into it.
A teacher ran into the gymnasium with a fire extinguisher, but it was too late.
The girl screamed, and she stood upright on the tips of her toes, her arms spread wide. The feathers covered her from her head to her knees. Her clothes burned off as she became ever hotter, and then she flew, streaking to the ceiling as one large flame that rolled across the rafters until she burned out. A contrail of ashes fell to the ground.
She was gone. The boy was healed.
The students gathered round the center of the gym as the ashes fell on them. One of the students picked up the blackened piece of paper and handed it to Jack.
He could still see the title of the poem: “This Girl with Feathers.”
Near the end of the semester, the boy was jogging one afternoon when he saw the girl’s mother on the roof ledge.
“I…I loved her,” he said.
The girl’s mother nodded.
“Will she be reborn?” he asked. “She was a phoenix, right?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” the girl’s mother said. “Her father told me that human phoenixes only get one flight. Once they burn, they’re gone forever.”
She dropped an egg off the ledge. “It’s a new habit,” she said. “I’m just trying to understand how she felt. Sometimes, I sit and watch candles for hours, holding my hand over the flame until I can’t stand it any longer. I want to think it was like that for her.”
“I’m sorry,” the boy said.
She looked at his legs.
“Don’t be, it was her choice.” She threw a paper airplane off the roof. “You’re quite good,” she said. “Never stop.”
The plane landed at the boy’s feet. It was the poem he had written the night before. He still wrote her poetry every night. Sometimes, he burned them, pretending she could read them from wherever she was.