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An Impossible Woman
It started as an itch in the middle of her shoulder blades. At first, Ann didn’t pay attention to the slight pain. It grew though, taking over her dreams and waking her up in the middle of the night with a strange aching that encompassed her chest as well as her back, making her feel terribly sad, for some reason. The feeling was not unlike keen sorrow, that band of tightness that makes breathing an effort. She went to see her doctor, and he tapped her chest and back, peered into her open mouth and shined a pinpoint of light into her eyes. He raised his eyebrows when she described her symptoms. Then he prescribed a light tranquilizer, patted her on the shoulder, and called to his nurse to show her out. Ann thought that he has been kind, polite, and unconcerned. She understood that he had seen nothing wrong with her so she assumed that she was fine, simply a little nervous. Perhaps it was because her divorce was so recent, and she missed her stepchildren with an intensity that overwhelmed her. Her husband had been married before. Twice before. She should have known. As Wife Number Three she had inherited two adorable stepchildren from a previous marriage, and her husband’s compulsive dishonesty. The marriage only lasted two years, long enough for him to undermine totally her opinion of the male sex. Then he’d left, taking the children, moving back to Germany. Was it because he was foreign she had married him so quickly? More likely, it had been the surprising combination of blond hair and dark, penetrating eyes. He had the quick, easy smile of a youth, and the serious gaze of a man. The steady stare was a sham. She had
found that out soon enough. However, the two children had enchanted her. Their names were Daren and Mandy. They had been left with their father after their mother, absent minded, stepped in front of a tramway in Italy. Nothing is perfect, thought Ann, as she wrote long letters to the children and sent them hand-knitted sweaters and mittens. She pictured Germany as being perpetually cold, locked in ice, as her husband’s heart had been. She worried constantly about Mandy’s health, and Daren’s nightmares. They never answered her letters; they were too young to write properly.
She woke up sometime before dawn. The sky was still dark but it had that thin look about it that meant daybreak was not far. She didn’t know what had woken her until the itch reminded her. That prickling! It had grown from a tingle, like the whisper of a feather across her skin, to an insistent itching. She tried to scratch herself, but of course, it was right in the spot she couldn’t reach. The next day her back ached and she felt definite knobs on her shoulder blades. It was very curious. Her skin felt tender around them, like a tooth growing. She went back to her doctor and he prodded and frowned, and told her to get some rest and see a chiropractor if the pain continued. He didn’t notice any lumps. On Saturday, Ann woke up with wings. It was quite amazing, actually. She woke up and felt heaviness behind her, as if her shoulder blades had become leaden. No, not that heavy, but more solid. She reached backwards, sleepily, and touched…feathers? That woke her up. She bounded out of bed and looked. She couldn’t believe it. She had wings, big, shimmery, silvery wings. They were as obedient as her arms. It was as if she’d always had them. She could fold them, stretch them out effortlessly. The first time she’d unfolded them it felt painful, like legs
that had been bent too long. She knocked over a lamp because they were much bigger than she thought. The feathers were soft and smelled faintly of roses, but why this was she couldn’t imagine. She was terrified and exhilarated. She was torn between wanting to scream and wanting to sing. She hoped it was all a dream and she hoped she would never wake up. In the garden, in the shadow of the maple trees, she practiced gliding. She couldn’t wait to fly, but she was mortally afraid someone would see, so she only went out after it was dark. She didn’t eat all day, she had no hunger, only that intense feeling of excitement rushing through her veins. Her hands were drawn to her wings and she stroked the feathers, drawing them around her like a cloak of swan’s down. That night, since she had no fear of heights, she flew high into the air and circled the sleeping countryside as silently as an owl. The desire to tell someone about her wings was so overpowering that before she realized it she had dialed her mother’s phone number. After fifteen rings or so, her mother answered in her hesitant voice. “Mother? It’s me, Ann.” “Darling! How sweet of you to call. I missed your visit last week.” “I was there mother, don’t you remember?” “Oh yes. And the children, how are they? Have they grown? I do want to see them before they’re all grown.” “They’ve gone back to Germany with their father.” There was a minute of silence, then she added, “I told you, remember? Last week.” “Yes, but have they grown?” Ann’s mother sounded querulous. “Of course they have. Is Mrs. Baker with you?” Ann asked.
“She went out to get the groceries dear. She’ll be back in a tick. Do you want to leave a message? Whom shall I say is calling?” “It’s Ann, mother.” Ann’s hand fluttered helplessly in the air as she stared bleakly at a photograph of her mother and her hanging on the wall. “I wanted to tell you something, something incredible.” “Oh yes, please do! I love incredible stories!” “I’ve grown wings mother, beautiful wings to fly with. If you want I can come over, in the evening, and I’ll show you.” “Oh Ann! Oh Ann, how wonderful!” her mother’s voice was vibrant. “I always dreamed of having wings. I flew in my dreams. I would fly forever. Sometimes, when you were a little girl, I would tell you stories about all the places I visited in my dreams. I made them into bedtime stories. Do you remember darling?” Ann nodded silently, tears glittering in her lashes. “I know you remember. How wonderful.” She sighed and there was a deep silence between the two women. “Oh Ann, I’m so happy for you. Now you can go wherever you please. Do you remember the land of pillows? I used to save that story for last and then I’d lift you up, plop you down on your pillows and bounce you gently for a while. You would fall asleep with the sweetest smile on your face. You were such a precious little girl.” Her voice caught in her throat. “Why do children grow up? I loved you so much. I still love you, but it’s never the same. You don’t need me anymore. You had such little hands and feet. You listened to my stories with such a rapt expression on your face.” She clicked her tongue. “Oh well, the wheel does turn. Here comes Mrs. Baker,” and without a good-bye, she hung up. Ann stared at the telephone in her hand. Then slowly she replaced the receiver. There was a queer buzzing in her ears, and her head felt as if it were about to float off her shoulders.
She sat down on her couch and thought. She reflected on all the different choices that she had suddenly, now that she had wings. If the FBI or the CIA got a hold of her, she would spend the rest of her life as a classified top secret. Caged and chained in the basement of some government building while scientists spent hours trying to find ways of growing wings themselves or how to use her as a weapon. If the church got hold of her, she would become a symbol, an avatar, and a powerful tool for whoever wanted to forward their own religion. If tabloids got wind of her, she’d spend the rest of her life as the cover of some scandal paper, right alongside the headless dog and the ghost of Elvis. That night she made a small belt for herself, tucking in its pocket the necklace and rings her mother had given her, her grandmother’s lace wedding veil, and some tissues. She still had no need of food; the very thought of eating made her nauseous. She did feel thirst, and she drank some bottled water. The tap water was suddenly too acrid for her. When she held the glass up to the light, she saw that her hands were nearly as transparent as the glass and faintly opalescent. She left a note on her door, saying that she was going on an extended trip to Europe, and that anyone who was cold, hungry, or simply wanted a stereo or television set, was welcome to come in and help themselves. Before she flew away, she picked a small, white rose from her garden. Mandy had helped her plant the rosebush, but she’d left before it had flowered. She flew to Germany. Crossing the Atlantic was not as fearsome as she had thought it would be. The cold didn’t bother her, or the rare air at high altitude. She flew with the jet stream, streaking over the dark water through the night, arriving in Germany just as the dawn was coloring the sky pink.
She had her husband’s address, and she had torn out a page from her atlas. She flew over Germany, holding the paper in front of her, swooping low to check signposts when there was no one in sight. He lived in a small town near the coast. That made it easy for her. She followed the long, gray beaches and dunes until she arrived at the village. She landed and folded her wings behind her, covering them with a pale blue cloak she’d carried with her. Then she walked around, admiring the quaint town. The houses had thatched roofs and neat gardens. There was a faint sprinkling of April snow on the ground in the shade, and in the sun, crocuses had pushed their yellow and purple heads out to check on spring. The streets were very clean and the hedges all clipped. Her husband had a house on the very end of a quiet street. As she watched, a woman came out of the house and shook a rug out. He had gone back to live with his parents he’d told her, but she very much doubted his mother was so young. “Mandy, Daren, hurry up, you’ll be late for school!” she called back into the doorway. Ann held her breath. The children trotted obediently out of the house. They paused to give the woman a peck on the cheek. Then they made their way down the sidewalk, wearing their backpacks. Mandy was wearing the cap Ann had knitted for her. “Hello my dears,” said Ann, stepping out from behind the tree. “Oh! Ann!” they both cried and flung themselves into her open arms. “We missed you so much. Thank you for the letters and the clothes. Papa said you wouldn’t come, but I knew you would,” said Mandy, reaching up and stroking her cheek. “You look prettier than ever.” “Here’s a rose, I picked it for you. And here’s a little shell for you, Daren.” Ann blinked back tears, but they slid down her cheek anyway, falling with little tinkling sounds on the ground.
“Look, you’re crying diamonds,” said Mandy in awe. She crouched and picked up a sparkling stone. “It’s lovely,” she said softly. “Why are you here? Did you miss us?” she added. “I missed you dreadfully. I simply had to come and see you. I wanted to know if you were happy, if you had new friends, if you loved your new home.” “We’re happy,” Daren said. “We go to the beach when the weather is nice. We’re learning German, and our teacher is very patient. Papa has a new wife,” he said, opening his eyes wide all of a sudden. He looked like a little owl and Ann laughed. “Is she kind?” “Not as kind as you, but she’s very nice. She keeps telling us that she’s trying hard,” said Mandy. She shrugged, then peered closer at Ann. “What’s that behind you, under your cape?” “Wings,” said Ann. “I had to grow them before I could come see you.” “Ohh, Ann, they are so bee-you-tee-full!” exclaimed Mandy. “I always knew you were an angel,” she added. Daren nodded, eyes still wide. “Can you really fly?” he asked. “I’ll show you, Ann said. They walked together to the cliffs near the ocean and Ann took off her cloak and soared into the air. The wind lifted her up and she was buoyed upon the air currents, her wings outstretched, floating above the children in a nimbus of light. She flew in a circle above them, then landed lightly on the grass. She laughed, pure joy in her voice. “I can come and see you whenever you wish,” she told them. “We’re so glad,” said Mandy. “We’re really glad, but we must go to school now, if we’re late we’ll be punished.” “I know. I’ll let you go. Give me one more hug, each of you. If you ever need anything just write. Here is my new address. Don’t ever tell anybody about my wings. All right?” She
gave them each a card, with a new address printed upon it. The children took them and put them carefully into their backpacks. “I won’t lose it,” said Daren, and I’ll write, as soon as I learn how.” “I can write a little now,” said Mandy. “Goodbye, goodbye,” called Ann. She felt the wind, like an irresistible current, pulling at her. She opened her wings and soared away. The children watched, looking upwards until she was lost in the vastness of the sky over the ocean. The next day Mandy and Daren were surprised to see their father coming home from work early. He told them to sit down and with a tragic expression on his face, told them that Ann’s house had burned down and that apparently she had perished in the fire. After the initial shock had worn off Mandy said, “but papa, she’s not dead. She’s an angel.” Daren nodded furiously. “She’s a beautiful angel papa, you should see her; she has wings now, huge, silver wings. She can fly. And her tears are diamonds, show him Mandy.” Mandy frowned at him and shook her head suddenly, sharply. Daren made his owl face again, and his mouth snapped shut. Their father hugged them, looking over their heads towards Inga, his new wife. “What a beautiful thought,” she said, but he frowned. “Who told them about angels?” he asked angrily. I certainly never did. I told Ann I wanted my children to be raised atheists.” “She must have been lovely, to inspire such remarks from the children,” said Inga. “She was an impossible woman. That’s why I left her,” he said.
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