Once there was a girl who suffered from a peculiar affliction: she was born with one healthy right arm, and one healthy left wing. When one looked at her from the right side, she appeared to be a perfectly reasonable young girl with curly black hair that flowed to the middle of her back, a slender right arm that moved gracefully, and a profile that looked like the finest 18th century silhouette portraiture ever painted. When one looked at her from the left, that sensible-looking girl lost all reason as a large wing with sweeping, white feathers appeared, elegant in its shape, and grand in nature.
On the day of her birth, she had emerged with a soft cry like a trumpet and as she had no sense of the world yet and no words, just instincts and needs, and everything around her was only mass and shape and color, she had no idea of the clamor and uproar she had caused by simply appearing.
“Oh my god in heaven,” a nurse had said with horror upon seeing the wing. “It that a chicken wing?”
“What a miracle: a swan-child,” another nurse said with reverence. “Like in the fairy tales of old.”
The swan-girl’s father peered into the arms of the doctor and promptly fainted at the sight of a bent-up, wing-shaped appendage attached to his newborn daughter’s shoulder.
The doctor laid the baby swan-girl in the crib awaiting her. A bright, warm light shone down on her; drops were put in her eyes. The doctor then gingerly took hold of the tiny wing and stretched it to its fullest length. It was all fragile bird-like bones with flimsy bird-like feathers. He let it go, and the swan-girl folded it around her body as if to protect it and herself.
“She seems perfectly healthy,” the doctor said, trying his best to sound knowledgeable, like the medical professional he thought himself to be, and as if he daily delivered children with wings for arms or pig’s hooves for feet. “It’s probably a deformity of some kind.”
The swan-girl’s father had come back to himself some and asked, “Is there anything we can do about…it?”
The doctor appeared to have said all he wanted to say on the matter. He was already half out the door, but he turned to look at the swan-girl’s father. “Cut it off?” he offered, and then disappeared.
“Cut it off!” the nurse who believed the swan-girl a miracle exclaimed. “No need for such drastic talk. Wait and see how functional it will be. You never know, it could be vital to her!”
The swan-girl’s mother, exhausted, confused by the commotion and the talk of a wing, was handed a tiny bundle, half-girl and half-bird, and as soon as she held her daughter in her arms, she did not care even an ounce that the girl had a wing for an arm for the child was, indeed, a miracle to behold, wing or no wing.
The swan-girl fidgeted and stretched her small wing-like arm with its damp, fledging feathers. And if she had any thoughts, being so newly born, perhaps, she, as she flapped that left wing, imagined that she was about to take off.
The swan-girl grew up as any child might. She had a devoted mother who fussed over her to extremes and worried, like all mothers, that her daughter was somehow more fragile than other children. She had a father who tried his hardest to make sense of her as all girls had always been a mystery to him and his daughter, with that wing, was the biggest mystery of them all.
She learned how to walk as her father steadied her, and she would stretch out her little wing for balance.
“I wonder if she thinks she can fly,” her father had pondered once.
“Maybe half of her does,” her mother answered, and they both laughed.
The swan-girl learned to speak by mimicking her parents, who were relieved she did not have the honking tone of a swan’s voice, but sounded like a little girl should; she learned to count using her fingers and feathers, and was exceptionally bright for her age; and for some time she did not understand that she was different. Did all children not have wings for arms? Did they not long to fly? Did they not dream of building a nest on a lake shore and living happily ever after?
But when she started school, the other kids called her bird-brain, they threw bird seed at her by the handful, and they snuck up behind her to pluck a feather from her wing. The swan-girl never cried in front of those kids, but hardened her face and squawked at them with as much menace as she could muster. But she came home each day and slipped into the depths of her closet. There, hidden behind all of her shirts, which had modified sleeves for her wing, and her normal-looking shorts and pants, she cried in spite of herself, in spite of telling herself to stop it with all that nonsense. And that was when the swan-girl began to believe it was a curse to be half one thing, and half the other.
Her father found her there one day as he was putting away her freshly laundered clothes.
“What’cha doing in here?” he asked, sitting in front of the open bifold doors since he was too big to fit inside next to her.
“Nothing,” the swan-girl said.
Her father nodded, and then said as if they had been in the midst of a deeply philosophical conversation, “That’s the eternal question, isn’t? Why are kids so mean to each other? Mainly, they want to fit in, and when they make fun of something that is different from them, it makes them think that they aren’t different, that they do belong. Does that make sense?”
The swan-girl shrugged her shoulder and wing.
“You just have to make them see you’re no different from them, really,” her father said.
At school the next day, a boy called Phillip, who had been relentless in his mocking, who would pretend his arms were wings while running around the swan-girl in circles, saying, “Oooo, look at me! I’m a bird that can’t fly,” approached her. Their fathers had worked together and months ago the swan-girl had overheard her parents talking about how Phillip’s father had been laid off and couldn’t find any work now.
Phillip smirked as he sauntered up to her on the playground with his hand hidden behind his back. The swan-girl knew that he gripped a fistful of bird seed. Quickly, she bent down and scooped up a handful of dirt and sand and before he could say a word, she threw it in his face.
“Why don’t you eat that dirt up, Phillip?” the swan-girl said in a high pitched mocking voice, sounding nothing like her real self. “Isn’t that what you parents feed you for dinner every night because you’re so poor? Dirt? Are you a dirt-eater, Phillip?”
Phillip looked stunned. As if the swan-girl had reeled back and punched him in the face with her normal right arm, and then, for good measure, had slapped him in the face with her left wing. The small knot of kids who stood behind him, who had been hoping to see the swan-girl sideshow, were stunned, too. But then they laughed. Some doubled over in fits; others began taunting Phillip, calling him “dirt-eater,” pointing out his dirty, old shoes and the hole in his T-shirt.
The swan-girl struggled to keep the superior look on her face, to keep on smirking. And when she met Phillip’s eyes, which were watering either from the grit she threw at him or something else, and she saw the hurt she was so familiar with, she didn’t feel like she belonged to anything in this world.
Although the kids at school stopped their teasing and would talk to her now as if she had no wing, the swan-girl would still catch kids, even the teachers at times, staring at her wing. In the grocery store, at the mall, the whispers of strangers always followed her and their eyes were full of horror or awe or even reproach. She would try to pull her wing as close to her body as she could, hoping she could make it disappear inside herself.
So one day the swan-girl announced to her parents as they sat at the dinner table that she wanted to be rid of her wing for good. She thought that without the wing she might be able to somehow be herself; to be the person she was meant to be before she had developed a wing in her mother’s womb. But beyond that, she reasoned that a wing was a stupid thing to have. What was the point in only having a wing? One could not fly with a wing. One could not glide through the water with a wing. One could only look like a freak with a wing. Better to have none at all when it came down to it, she thought.
The swan-girl said, “I want to cut it off.”
Her father frowned, but thought it might be for the best, having seen the way that people gawked at his daughter, knowing what the kids at school had put her through. And without the wing, she could live something of a normal life.
The swan-girl’s father said, “If it would make you happier.”
Her mother sighed, and told her swan-child that she must wait, and if she still wanted to cut it off when she turned eighteen, it would be her decision to make. She thought that with time her daughter might see that it was not her wing that defined her, but the other way around. The swan-girl’s wing was only endowed with the meaning the swan-girl gave it.
The swan-girl’s mother said, “See if you don’t change your mind.”
The swan-girl waited for something to change her mind.
She did not mention wanting to cut off her wing to her parents again, but always the desire was there. When she couldn’t wear the latest fashions because her wing wouldn’t fit in the sleeve and every shirt she did own was missing one sleeve; when she would wake in the middle of the night from a dream about flying with her wing extended as if in mid-flight; when the only party she was ever invited to was the birthday of the weirdest kid in school, who always smelled like maple syrup, but which she went to because she knew no one else would; when she would spend hours grooming her wing, picking out small bugs and dirt … all of these times she would imagine taking a hacksaw to her wing and ridding herself of the monstrosity once and for all.
But it was true that, eventually, people in their medium-sized town became accustomed to her wing. The novelty of it had, slowly, but surely, worn off. When a stranger would come to town and express shock at a girl with a wing for an arm, the people who had known the swan-girl her whole life shrugged and said something like: “What’s the matter? Never seen a girl with a wing before?” Or: “No need to gawk, it’s nothing special, just a standard wing.” Or: “It’s not like she can fly or anything.”
When she was thirteen, the swan-girl began volunteering at the local animal shelter. She had walked past the small building many times, paying it little attention, and then one day a large banner announcing “Volunteers Needed” caught her eye. There was something about the word “needed” that appealed to her; the shelter didn’t want volunteers, they needed them. What a thing she thought, to be needed. The banner itself looked old and worn, and the swan-girl could only imagine how desperate the place must be inside without volunteers, without her.
They put her to work hosing off kennels and cleaning out litter boxes. The swan-girl didn’t mind much as, for what felt like the first time, she felt that she was a vital part of something. Those cages didn’t clean themselves, she reasoned. And the dogs and cats all craved her attention like she was the last half-human, half-bird on the planet. Ironically, she loved playing with the cats the best. She let them use her wing like a very large cat toy. As she half-flew, half-jumped around the small playroom, cats by the half dozen or so would chase after the feathers of her wing in pure joy, and in what she thought sometimes was primal hunger.
Then one day the swan-girl looked up from the cat frenzy she had created to find a girl watching her. This girl had the biggest eyes the swan-girl had ever seen. They were round and luminescent; they gave the impression that she could have been distantly related to a lemur of some kind.
“You’re really good with animals,” the lemur-girl said.
“Why? Because I am one?” the swan-girl said, attempting a joke. It was a strategy she had learned; make the joke before they do.
“No, no! I didn’t mean it like that at all,” the lemur-girl said, looking horrified at the accusation that she would imply such a thing. “It’s that the cats really like you. They hate me.”
As if to prove her point, a tabby kitten seemed to meet the girl’s eyes, then promptly puffed up its fur and hissed menacingly before retreating into a large cat tree.
The lemur-girl, as the swan-girl learned, invoked that sort of reaction out of most things, whether animal or human. It was as if nobody had the ability to bear her gaze for long. Nobody, that was, until the swan-girl decided to be her friend, her best friend.
The lemur-girl, or as she was called by most, Allison, turned out to be more needy than the shelter animals. And the swan-girl reveled in it, not caring that Allison used the swan-girl’s wing like a shield to hide behind. The swan-girl knew that Allison took comfort in the fact that when she was with the swan-girl, nobody was likely to be startled by her own innate weirdness.
They became inseparable. Allison was two years older than the swan-girl, but the swan-girl always felt like the learned elder of the two. They had sleepovers, staying up way past midnight; they ate lunch in the courtyard together; they loitered at the mall, drinking milkshakes and eating French fries; and they told each other the kind of secrets that only teenage girls tell each other. But Allison always walked a few steps behind the swan-girl, content to be the one following; she always looked to the swan-girl when asked a question, hoping she would answer it for her; and she always complained that she was invisible to others, especially boys, all the while encouraging the swan-girl’s crushes as if the swan-girl could have any boy she wanted.
Years after they first met, on a mid-summer Saturday night, they were pushing the limit on how long they could stay out before their parents lost it. Standing on the corner where their two streets intersected, Allison’s eyes reflected the streetlamp in a magnificent glow of dirty yellow.
“Sometimes I can’t decide if you’re really lucky or…,” Allison the lemur-girl said.
“Or very unlucky?” the swan-girl finished for her.
Allison shrugged; she held a cigarette between her fingers, having not worked up the nerve to light it, yet. “I can’t imagine you without it. The wing, I mean,” she added unnecessarily.
The swan-girl looked at her wing; the yellow light brought out the dullness of her white feathers, making them look dingy.
“I would have been swallowed by the weight of it,” Allison said, finally throwing away the unused cigarette. And it was true, they both knew, Allison could have never been born with a wing.
“Why would I be lucky, though?” the swan-girl asked.
Allison looked at her as if the answer was obvious. “Because I don’t think many people can bear being special.”
The swan-girl had never considered that she was special. Weird, yes. A medical oddity, yes. But never special. As the night grew too dark for both of them, they walked home alone in opposite directions. The swan-girl turned to look back at Allison, who must have been watching the swan-girl walk away as her eyes glowed brightly in her otherwise shadow-covered face.
Allison the lemur-girl moved away soon after. They both cried and held each other, promising to stay best friends. And they did in the beginning, with phone calls and letters. But with Allison starting college and with the swan-girl still stuck in high school, they both claimed that they didn’t have the time to keep up with each other. The swan-girl supposed that Allison had simply found others to need, while she, the swan-girl, found that it was a burden to be too needed.
The day after her eighteenth birthday, the swan-girl sat in the waiting room of a plastic surgeon’s office. The receptionist, a woman with an unnaturally straight nose and high cheekbones, could not contain her amazement; she kept glancing at the swan-girl, her incredulity increasing with every look. The swan-girl focused on the medical form she was filling out.
It asked, Reason for visit?
I have a wing, the swan-girl wrote.
The swan-girl waited with a nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach. The receptionist made a big show of looking down at the swan-girl’s form then back up at her and then back at the form again before hesitantly calling her to come on back. The receptionist held open the door leading back to the plastic surgeon’s office; as the swan-girl passed through, she felt the distinctly light brush of fingers on her wing and knew that the receptionist had reached out to touch her feathers.
The plastic surgeon seemed less impressed with her wing, and more impressed by the novelty of being the first surgeon to successfully amputate a wing from a girl. He sat in a wingback chair behind a mahogany desk, surveying her. He smiled at her, in what he must have thought a comforting manner, but his teeth were oddly too white and his forehead oddly too smooth, so that he only looked like the impression of a competent surgeon.
After he examined her wing, the swan-girl listened as he described how he would create an incision down her shoulder blade, break the bone that connected wing to girl, tie up all the blood vessels, and then sew her back up, sans wing.
“Easy as pie,” the plastic surgeon said.
As the swan-girl left the consultation, confused as ever, she kept coming back to one question: Should cutting off a piece of yourself really be easy?
Her parents did not press her for an answer. They ate dinner together; her father chewed his food very slowly, her mother pushed food around her plate, and the swan-girl felt like every bite of food lodged itself in her throat.
That night, the swan-girl showered, shampooing her hair first, and then the feathers of her wing. She dried her hair with a towel; stretched her wing to its fullest extent so it could air dry. She looked at herself naked in the bathroom mirror, something she always avoided doing. Her wing was connected to her shoulder seamlessly, skin turning to feather in a gradual gradient. How could having a wing not be the most natural thing in the world? The swan-girl tried to imagine herself without her wing; tried to hide most of it behind her back. I could live with one arm, she thought. It was living without the wing that would be the hard part.
The swan-girl crawled into bed, pulled the covers over her face and breathed in the musky scent of feathers. As the swan-girl slept, her wing curled around her body, protecting and warming her, and she dreamt she flew, crooked and haltingly; dreamt she walked, uneven and unbalanced.
The swan-girl gave into the one thing she had always wanted – she cut off her wing.
She woke, groggy and nauseous, after the procedure, not yet feeling any different from before. The wing. It still felt like it was there, and she thought something must have gone wrong.
“The surgery went as well as could be expected,” the plastic surgeon said as she came back to herself. “It’s like it wanted to come off.”
The swan-girl fell back asleep only to wake again to her parents around her hospital bed. Her mother looked pale and wan; her father nervous and sweaty. She tried to tell them everything was fine, but the words got stuck somewhere in her head, and she could not push them past her lips. Very early in the morning, the haze from the anesthesia finally wore off, and the swan-girl found herself staring at the beige ceiling of the hospital room. Her shoulder, now bereft of its wing, was aching a little. She rolled herself gingerly out of bed and made her way to the small bathroom. In the dark, she stood in front of the mirror, working up the nerve to turn on the light. What would she look like now? She somehow thought everything would be different – was her hair still blonde? Were her eyes still brown? Maybe all her coloring had changed when the wing left her. She felt shorter, too, more compact and narrow. The familiar weight of her wing had left her. She had always walked slightly bent to the right to compensate for that weight. But she did not feel weightless now, although she felt lighter. With a swift movement, she flooded the dark bathroom with fluorescent light. She pulled down her hospital gown to find her left shoulder all bandaged — they had grafted skin over the open wound left by her departed wing. There was an acute sense of loss that she could not name, but she pushed it away as best she could. No sense crying over it now that it was done.
“Well,” the swan-girl said, her voice hoarse and weak. “Nothing for it now.”
The swan-girl went off to college with the secret she once had a wing, or still had one, as her mother had insisted on keeping the cut-off wing, threatening all kinds of lawsuits and threats when the hospital had wanted to dispose of it. And as there were no protocols for what to do with a swan’s wing, they handed it over. When the swan-girl left the hospital, she sat in the front seat, her wing wrapped up in the trunk.
The morning she left for college up north, she stood with her parents outside her house.
“My little girl is finally leaving the nest,” her father said sadly.
The swan-girl was not sure if he was joking or not, but he smiled at her and blinked to rid himself of tears.
“My baby,” her mother said, holding her. Then she whispered, “Such a miracle.”
The swan-girl was sure that her mother meant her, and not her wing.
And who was the swan-girl without her wing? It turns out, a regular girl. So the swan-girl dived into college life with unchecked excitement. Finally, the chance to be something quite ordinary. She shared a dorm room with a girl from Minnesota called Susan, who had loud sex with guys while she was still in the room; she went to frat parties with friends, no longer afraid to wear revealing shirts; she took a variety of classes, not sure what she wanted to major in; she got drunk on too many occasions, spending more mornings she cared to count puking in the bathroom. And if someone was brave enough, or callous enough, or kind enough to ask about her missing “arm” she told them she had been in a horrible car accident as a kid and it had to be cut off. And if she felt bad for the lie, she brushed it off, since a story about having a swan wing cut off would never be believed. And any moment that she might miss her wing — when she would feel a breeze and miss the way it used to ruffle her feathers, when she would wake in the night screaming that someone was sawing her wing off, when she would look at herself in the co-ed bathroom and not quite recognize herself — well, those things were fleeting.
In a biology class, she met Adam. He was tall and handsome, was kind and gentle. As lab partners, they sat together late into the nights going over lab notes and text books and the swan-girl would be lulled into a pleasant stupor by the sound of his voice. Soon their late-night talks stopped being about school work and turned more personal. The swan-girl had never met anybody like him. He could be so serious at times and frowned down at his notes in concentration, as if he was deciphering an ancient language. But then at other times he would be open and joyful, laughing with her.
The swan-girl had never been in love before. In high school, she did have a boyfriend she had cared for, but there were times she would catch him staring at her wing like it was a secret treasure that he was biding his time to collect. They made love once, and she broke up with him the next day. There was something about the way he caressed her wing during the whole thing that had made her deeply uncomfortable. He welled up with tears when she explained that she still wanted to be friends, but afterward they both could not even look at each other out of shame or guilt.
Adam was deeply interested in Arctic wildlife.
“Do you know what first got me interested in animals?” Adam said one afternoon as they sat huddled close together on a bench outside her dorm room.
The swan-girl could feel the heat of his body even through all their layers of clothes. “No, what?” the swan-girl asked.
“I read once that penguins could sniff out the odor of their lifelong mates,” he said. “And I’ve always admired that.”
“What?” the swan-girl asked, laughing, her breath misting before her. “You’ve admired having a really great sense of smell?”
“No, I think there is something amazing about the idea that penguins can find each other,” he said. “Against all the odds, they find each other. I think that’s something to admire.”
Adam looked at the swan-girl, serious and intent, and she had the intense desire to take off; under her all-weather jacket, she felt her phantom wing as if it were about to open wide.
After their first time together, the swan-girl rested by his side, aching a little, feeling self-conscious about the roundness of her stomach, the smallness of her breasts, and the scar on her shoulder. For the first time in a very long time, she wished for her wing, wished for its softness and warmness, wished she could wrap herself in it once more. When Adam leaned over and kissed her again, deep and languid, she wished she could have wrapped him up in her wing, too.
Taking a zoology class, the swan-girl finally realized what she wanted to do with her life: be an ornithologist. There was something in the scientific study of birds that she found both comforting and fascinating. The cold hard facts about bird anatomy, bird diet, bird migration, and bird behavior inspired moments of understanding about herself. No, she had never craved fruit and nuts like a parrot, nor did she ever feel compelled to hunt smaller birds like a hawk. And she had never had the desire to show off her plumage to attract a mate. But every winter the swan-girl did have a slight desire to travel south, into the sun, even now without her wing. And when comparing the X-rays of her wing to that of a swan’s wing, she saw that her wing was the same, bone for little bone. She took a particular interest in flightless birds, too, for reasons she didn’t care to examine very closely.
But as the swan-girl began to understand herself, the less and less she understood Adam. It was only after they moved in together that she realized there was something condescending about his nature that she hadn’t noticed before. He often called her interest in birds “cute” as if her field was somehow less than his, like there was something inherently better about mammals than penguins. It was then she began to question why she had never gotten around to telling him about her wing, why when she brought him home the previous summer, she hid all the photos and evidence of her wing from him, and forbade her parents from mentioning it. Was she ashamed? Worried he wouldn’t love her if he knew? Scared she didn’t really love him?
Before they graduated, they both applied to the same graduate school and for the same prestigious research fellowship to study and live at an Arctic base. The swan-girl got it; Adam didn’t.
“That is complete bullshit,” he said, holding the letter informing him he wasn’t chosen. “I mean, come on, I earned it. I deserved a spot more than…”
The swan-girl finished that thought for him: “…more than me, you mean?”
Adam bristled at the accusation but didn’t outright deny it.
The swan-girl watched from a distance as he faded from her. They went through all the motions like their hearts were still in it – they got ready for graduation together, buying their caps and gowns, went to parties, held hands, and pretended to be excited for all that was to come. But they stopped talking about their future plans – Adam was heading to grad school on the West Coast, the swan-girl to the Arctic for the year, and then on to finish her own master’s. Adam did nothing to help her prepare for the Arctic, so she was left to shop and pack on her own, worrying she would not be able to handle being so far away from home.
On the final night before the swan-girl went back home, before she shipped out to the Arctic, Adam and she spent the evening on the couch in her apartment, watching a National Geographic special about migrating geese. During the entire program, Adam clenched his jaw as if that action was all that kept him from getting up and fleeing from her right there and then. The swan-girl watched half-heartedly, not daring to look anywhere but at the screen. They went to bed, and the swan-girl tried to put everything she felt into him, all the good and all the bad. They moved together, practiced and easy – his body was as familiar to her as her own, but he felt hollow now, and not once did they reach for each other’s mouths. Their last kiss was a brush on the lips when they said goodbye the next morning.
On the ride back to her childhood home, there was a pang in her chest – heavy and sharp – for she, for the first time, was envious of those birds she had watched last night with their wide, gliding, elegant wings and how they always knew where they were going.
Having been reared in a mild climate, the swan-girl had a rough time adjusting to the harsh winds and below-freezing temperatures. The ocean stretched endlessly from the frozen, rocky beach. The only other person at the research base was an old scientist studying the impact of habitat erosion on the penguin’s mating habits. He had emerged the day after the swan-girl arrived, and it was as if he had been created from the ice itself. With a white beard and white hair, his eyes seemed to have lost their color, too.
The swan-girl slowly adjusted to the solitary life. Although she was supposed to be his research assistant, the old scientist trudged off into the frozen wilderness and sometimes she did not see him for days. He left her with data sets to go over, notes to type up, and little else to do. Some days, even though she was not supposed to, she went out on her own and dared to get as close to the penguins as she could. And she was not sure if she imagined it or not, but she liked to believe that the penguins were not as afraid of her as they were of other humans, that they recognized her as one of their own.
On one particularly cold night, the old scientist sat with her before their heater.
“My mother took me to a sea aquarium when I was little,” he said out of nowhere as if they hadn’t spent the past few hours, if not weeks, in silence.
“Really?” the swan-girl asked when he did not continue.
“And above everything, I remember thinking how cruel it all was.”
“Why was that?” She had never been to an aquarium or a zoo; when she was little, she had no desire to see animals in cages. And there was every chance she would be mistaken for an exhibit herself.
“All those fish trapped behind glass. Swimming endlessly, never getting anywhere,” he said. “And the orcas – these beautiful killer whales stuck in swimming pools.”
“I never really thought of it like that before,” the swan-girl said.
“Animals aren’t meant for lives like that,” he said. “They should be allowed to be exactly as they are.”
The night before she left, her mother sat on the edge of her bed in her childhood bedroom. Her room was unchanged, her mother not – older and slightly more worn, but as comforting and knowing as ever.
“I thought now since you’re all grown up that you would want to decide what to do with it,” she said. “It can’t stay bundled up in your closet forever.”
The swan-girl didn’t look up from her packing – it was difficult to fit so many jackets in one suitcase.
“Take your time,” her mother said – referring, the swan-girl, knew, to the packing and the wing.
And what could she do with her wing? She couldn’t throw it out with the trash, but she couldn’t let it decay in her closet either. So she took it with her – concealed in a dress bag, wrapped in a coat. She carried it with her through the airports, on planes, and on the boat that took her to the research base. Then she stowed it under her cot. All the years without it, the wing had always been there – invisible, weightless, and waiting. She could shed it from her body, but she could not shed it from her mind. With practice though, she had learned to live without it. The question now was did she want to? In her small, cramped room in the Arctic, she unzipped the dress bag and removed her wing. Most of the feathers were dull and brittle now, bent at odd angles, haggard and forlorn. But there was still something oddly beautiful about it.
The swan-girl stared at her wing and knew exactly what she wanted. Her sewing skills left something to be desired, but she found strong fishing line and a sewing kit with a large needle – in the Arctic, you had to be prepared for every eventuality. After threading the needle, the swan-girl wedged her wing in a corner of the room and pressed her shoulder into the spot where they had been disconnected. With one hand, she started to sew. In and out, through her skin and sinew, through the feathers, she put herself back together. The pain was unlike anything she knew before, and she bit her lip so hard it bled, too. When she was finished, her wing was still lifeless and immobile.
In the morning, the scientist with the white beard and white hair and colorless eyes stared at the swan-girl and her wing as if he didn’t even see them.
“You have that your whole life?” the old scientist asked.
“Yes,” the swan-girl answered.
“Hmm,” the old scientist said, nodding in an empirical way, and then he went back to warming his breakfast, never to mention her wing again.
Late in the afternoon with her shoulder aching, she hiked out to look at the penguins. As she looked over the ridge, she thought of Adam and how he had told her about penguins finding their way back to each other. Maybe there was something inherently true in that fact for all things. She did not believe she was meant for Adam any more than he was meant for her. But she thought of lemur-girl, wondered where on the Earth she was now. She thought of her mother and father – who loved her above all other things – wing or no wing. All these people in her life, shaping who she was in small and insignificant ways, in large and magnificent ways. Then, as if it had been waiting for her blood to fill and warm it, to bring it back to life, her wing beat as if preparing to take flight, and the swan-girl understood that there was nothing singular in the world, nothing that was meant to be alone.