by Avra Margariti
When he’s born, he is under five pounds and light as a sparrow, with a too-big head covered in brown down and eyes darker than soil. He doesn’t cry, not at first. Only makes the softest gurgling noise in the back of his throat. The nurses joke he is the quietest, best-behaved infant in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
His mother and father take one look at him and say, “Baby bird, you may be earthbound now, but you’ll be flying in no time.”
This is the only thing his parents ever agree on: their love for him. It isn’t enough to keep them from fighting every day. As he grows, so does the certainty that the happiness of their family lies solely on his bony shoulders. He brings his parents all sorts of things wedged in his stubby beak: crayon drawings and daisy chains and gold star foil stickers. A science fair award, later; a Little League baseball medal; a straight A’s report card every semester. His mother and father smile and ruffle his feathery hair. Then they go right back to fighting, and he to planning the next big achievement that will finally, finally make them stop.
At school, teachers praise him for being such a bright and dedicated pupil. His classmates’ parents look at him with envy on the playground, while keeping an eye on their own rowdy offspring. Those same children bully him whenever they catch him alone, because he is small and reserved, dubbed the teacher’s pet. He doesn’t speak up about it—good, quiet children aren’t supposed to. So he avoids the schoolyard and remains indoors during break, studying or working on his sky paintings. Through the smudged window, he watches his classmates as they flap their wings and twitter to each other.
At fifteen, he falls for a girl with peach hair and gray eyes that glimmer like pebbles in a river. Every time he thinks of her, he feels like he’s flying through a sunset sky. She says she feels the same, only the sky is dusky when she thinks of him, laden with purple-bellied rainclouds.
You never say what’s on your mind, she tells him one day when they’re hanging out at her nest.
That’s not true.
You change the subject when we talk about feelings.
Didn’t I compare you to a sunset? he asks, anger bubbling through him for once. Because she’s right. He has learned to gobble down his emotions like worms, to compress and dissolve them in a tight, dark space inside him.
She looks at him with sad eyes and doesn’t invite him to her nest again. Around the same time, he starts falling behind in school. Despite feeling more flightless than ever, the sensation of freefall is lodged in his stomach. His parents talk about one of them moving to a different nest. You won’t have any trouble adjusting, they say. You’re such a good kid, our little bird.
He doesn’t say much. The words he does speak turn into tiny gurgles, like the ones he used to make when he was born. The report cards come back, marked with various letters of the alphabet. His medals go from gold to silver, from bronze to ether. When he paints, he refuses to use any colors that can be found in a sunset, and his art grows dull and lifeless in turn.
Every one of his hollow bones feels at once brittle and leaden.
Standing in the middle of the living room, he looks around at all the cardboard moving boxes. Down the hall, his parents are arguing again. A breeze blows through the open balcony doors and stirs the chestnut feathers of his wings.
He gets a running start and—at last—takes off.
Distantly, he hears his mother and father stop shouting at each other. They dart to the balcony and call his name, their voices bristling with panic.
I’m flying, he thinks as he flings himself into the sky.