I was found in the cornfields of my parents’ farm the ninth of August, 1942. Mother had discovered me while checking for sick stalks. I remember hearing her tell the story to the other women in the town, every year near Christmas. I would always be sitting beside her, listening to the mothers’ tales of their children while I watched others my age play.
The smell of the fire is the richest detail in my memory, but I still recall the slight hint of spiced pies, eggnog, and honeyed ham. Near the tree it smelled of peppermint and pine. Carols would be sung or played over the radio, as well as seasonal shows. That was the only time I could sit with all the other children and not be rejected silently.
I was different; I understood that. I did not understand why I should be shunned for the difference, though. They all had differences that they put aside every day to talk, play, work. So why should I be the outcast?
“It’s not your fault, or the children's,” my mother had explained when I was seven, after the older kids had chased me back to my house in a fury. It was the first time I can remember bleeding. The color of my blood horrified the kids and they fled to leave me staring at the black on my fingertips. “Their parents don’t trust you, Cory, and that mistrust they can’t escape. Once they can see for themselves, they’ll be able to form their own opinions of you. Everything will work out.”
She promised me that almost every night from then on. No matter how dark things got, I believed her. Things had to get better, because there was no way they could get any worse.
Since it was dangerous for me during the day—with the angry children and unknown people passing through the town—I could only leave the house at night. Coincidentally, I spent my time indoors reading whatever material we had. Fairy tales that Mother had read to my two older brothers and would read to my younger sister. They were not adopted, unlike myself. My eldest brother, Dustin, looked like Father; Ethan, the second eldest, looked like Mother’s sister, Aunt Betty; my little sister, Lisa, looked like Mother. I looked like I was painted by a Renaissance artist for a church’s demon portrait.
It took me until I was twelve to understand that I was something different, more than a look-alike to a widely disliked mythical image. I began to grasp at the reality that I was not human. Still, I saw no reason why others would fear or hate me. I was kind to them, yet…
When I turned thirteen, Father asked me to help him with the crops. It gave me something to do outside all night, where my eyes could see everything flawlessly by the light of the moon and stars. The sun will burn my eyes at times you see—quite randomly—with more pain than a knife through my skull.
That was the beginning of my favorite years: The cool, rich night air filling my lungs, the moist earth between my toes and under my claws from planting seeds. Being able to at last feel a fuller range of movement with my powerful body. I had a freedom that some only dreamed of. I had no one to share that freedom with much to my dismay, but that somehow only heightens the magnificence of those times.
My favorite hour of every night was the hour just before dawn. The air was at its coldest, a rush of sensation against my skin. My work would be done and I would have an hour of my own time outdoors, one lonely hour trapped between hiding and fieldwork. It was around then that I had begun to teach myself to fly. I had seen birds out my window, bats overhead. I could feel my own wings and the potential they held. Every part of me yearned to leave the ground behind, to soar where there was no hatred or fear, with the truest freedom I could imagine.
When I first launched myself out of my window—the highest place I could find since I was clueless of how to get airborne otherwise—there was the sharpest second when I knew that things were on the upswing, that the darkest part of my early years was nearly over. At first I was falling, and then my wings caught the rush of air.
It hurt intensely, the membranes of my wings soft and weak from a lack of use. On the down stroke I felt a surge of emotion without words. It filled my chest, brought tears to my eyes and made the muscles of my unused wings burn. This was the first time I had ever felt like my body may tire out, or may not be strong enough for the task. I could run for miles, farm for hours or any other physical labor possible without rest and when any human would tire or fall ill I was barely out of breath.
But this...This was a daunting obstacle, something I had never encountered. As I made to pull up and away from the ground, a breeze by any standard rustled through the trees, knocking me off my balance to send me reeling into the ground. Tumbling over and over, I heard and felt my left horn snap off in the middle as something tore through the membrane of my right wing. I screamed, of course. Nothing had hurt so much before. Humans are weak after all, and any damage they could have caused me were minor bruises that healed within a day, with the exception of my one skinned knee. I had just been thrown out of the sky though, dragged down by my own weight.
To anyone who might have seen, I imagined it appeared as though I were one of the fallen angels I had read so much about, tumbling to the earth with the visage of a demon. Looking back on that thought, I realize that it was ignorant and amusing. Fallen angels are—yes—seen as demons, but they are described as handsome, too beautiful for mortals to lay eyes upon. As far from my own description as I am told it could ever get.
I was gasping when I could stop crying and screaming from the pain. Where my horn had snapped, I could feel the bitter air against it like acid, and the cut in my wing seared angrily. The blood that gushed from the wound on my wing and—I later discovered—from my horn was hot and felt like it should have burnt me.
When at last I found the ability to lift my bruised body from the patch of crushed plants I noticed the lights of the house were on and shadowy figures were rushing back and forth urgently. I could hear my name being shouted, see Father standing in the doorway. He was worried and even from such a distance the expression on his face was clearly etched and defined. Behind him I saw Ethan and Dustin. Then, I did not understand their slight smirks. Looking back now, I understand too perfectly.
When I stumbled onto the porch, right wing half dragged, Father exclaimed that my face looked “like it’s been drenched in tar!” Both Ethan and Dustin glared from behind our parents, seething that their hopes were unfulfilled. Lisa had come to hug me, giving me some confidence that there was room for me in this family yet.
It was a rather messy and agonizing affair, patching me up. Blood was everywhere. It pooled and soaked so many towels that I thought I should have died already.
“You’re lucky that the doctor taught those classes a few months ago,” Mother had told me as she stitched my membrane. I only nodded and winced as I held the fourth towel to my broken horn. When they inquired as to how I had injured myself, I answered honestly.
Father laughed and was about to go into his explanation that people cannot fly when he paused, looking like he had been slapped. He stared at me as though he had never seen me before when I realized that I was shifting my uninjured wing anxiously. It had not dawned on him until then how different I was, how alien. “People” were limited by gravity, yet I was not. Where could I ever stand in this society built upon generalities and selfishness?
We both knew the answer: I never could. We silently agreed that we would try to make a place for me, however. All for Mother, of course. She would be heartbroken to think that one of her children was destined for such a lonely path, as I was, and it has been a lonely trek to be sure, but worth every moment. That was what she hoped for all of her children. A life that in spite of what came was worth while.
Once I had healed—it took two weeks for my wing, nearly two months for my horn—I was attempting to fly again. Both of my wings could be broken and it would never keep me from trying and failing to fly.
The oddest thing happened around then, as well. About a month after my first crash, a neighbor girl came over with a basket of goods and a note wishing me well. I heard the knock on the front door and immediately ran to my room on the second floor. It was a habit by then and I did not mind it. I rather appreciated having someplace to retreat to when potentially violent people came to my home.
There were the muted voices beneath me as I was accustomed to and then I heard the front door shut. I heard footsteps on the stairs, two people coming up to my room. I looked up in interest. No one ever needed to tell me when it was safe to come out again because I could hear everything that happened downstairs.
My door was opened by Mother and then she left. I frowned deeply, leaning forward from the suspense. What was going on? What was happening?
A girl stepped into my view and I rocketed backwards, off the floor and onto my bed in a sudden jolt of terror. It was a second before I realized that my teeth were bared, a growling hiss escaping me. She flinched at that too, nearly dropping the wicker basket she held tightly in her hands.
When I had control over myself again, I snapped my mouth shut and mumbled an apology. I kept my eyes low, ashamed of my behavior while I listened to her tentative steps into my room.
I curled up with my eyes shut tight, tail smacking the bed with a muted thump. Behind my lids, I saw her terrified little face, framed by tight ringlets of dark brown hair. She was short, with skin that was a smooth, soft brown to complement her almost-black eyes. She was slight and so her yellow summer dress was baggy, but her face held gentle features that gave her an adorable appearance.
I shuddered, a new sensation seeping through me. I could not pinpoint it then, distracted as I was by her nearing steps and a swelling excitement inside me.
Oh, and what a sweet moment that was! If I pondered the world all over for anything better I would be lucky to count any higher than my one hand!
Her soft, trembling little fingers touched my hand and she whispered without fear, “I’m Katelyn.”
I lifted my head slowly—more than aware of what my horns could do if I was rash—to blink at her in awe. Her eyes were wide with curiosity, no trace of fear in her scent or on her face.
Smiling tentatively I replied, “My name is Cory.”
Katelyn smiled back and held out her basket, arm shaking from the effort of holding it. “I heard you got hurt. I couldn’t come by any sooner, sorry. But all of the treats are fresh.”
I reached out a hand, mindful of my claws as I took the basket from her easily. Her little body shuddered slightly in relief. To me, the basket was easy to hold, nearly mindless.
Sitting on the floor, she patted a spot beside her for me to sit with her. “I’m eleven. How old are you?”
“I will be fourteen next month.” I brought the basket to the floor with me, investigating its contents curiously. The smell of freshly baked cookies made my mouth water.
Her eyes widened in amazement. “Wow…You look…older.”
I gasped quietly in surprise. A sentence that began with “You look” commonly ended in an insult directed at me. Unsure of what to say I shrugged at her statement and continued to dig through the basket.
Fresh apples, two berry jams, a warm loaf of cinnamon raisin bread, splendid varieties of cookies wrapped individually in tin foil and tied with ribbons. It made me laugh. I had read of such perfect creations but had yet to witness one. Now here in my hands, as a gift to me, there was one such wonder. I half dreaded indulging in the goods, since it meant that the gift would vanish.
“I don’t mind if you eat anything in front of me,” she told me after analyzing my expression. “I had plenty of cookie dough to last at least until Christmas.”
I stared at her blankly, struggling to find something to say. “That would be in five months.”
She nodded. “Yeah...Why do you sound so…?”
“Gruff? I cannot help it, that would be my voice.” I kept my eyes down again, afraid that she would begin acting the only way I knew unfamiliar humans could act: violently.
“No,” she laughed, “formal and quiet. Are you afraid of being loud and impolite?”
I laughed at that. “Maybe.”
That was the beginning of what we could never have imagined. Every day she had a chance, Katelyn would come to the farm to visit me. Lisa was happy to play with another girl from time to time; more so that I had a friend. Mother was less concerned about me being alone. My brothers were envious, and as I grew older I began to understand why. Katelyn became more attractive as one season came and another went.
Some days she would stay until nightfall to watch me leap out of my window and practice landing or gliding. We would have been inseparable if I had been able to leave the house safely.
In the early summer of my fifteenth birthday, she stopped coming. Day after day, I waited for her to show up and explain that she had gone on some grand adventure to explore the world. I wanted to hear whatever stories she had to tell, or anything else she had to say.
It was September 2nd when the note appeared on our front porch; the words are ingrained into my memory from reading it endlessly. I cried every time I finished it. It read:
My parents don’t think it’s safe for me to spend time with you anymore. I can’t come over, and this is the only letter they would let me give you. I hope you get to have a good life!
I had read the stories and felt each character’s suffering, yet this far surpassed any grief I had ever felt before. My only friend was gone forever, leaving me alone in my home again staring out the windows longingly every day and working diligently throughout the night.
My brothers were snide and sharply enthusiastic about this turn of events; Lisa and my parents missed Katelyn. If you would have asked any of them—even my brothers—they would tell you that there is nothing as terrible as watching and hearing a demon cry. I imagine I appeared rather pathetic, curled into the darkest corner of my bed holding my wicker basket close, the long-worn letter folded as neatly as possible inside it.
Little did I realize my heart had broken. I was a timid dog, cast away by the only kind master it had ever known. The only thing I looked forward to was my steady progression toward flight. I would have wished to damn my life if not for that one thing to cling to. It became my lifeline.
By the time I was sixteen, I had at last begun to recover from Katelyn’s abrupt disappearance. I was also “a monster” as Father put it. Six feet and three inches tall, with a nineteen foot wingspan I weighed 270 pounds, covered with layers of muscle. I understood Father’s description and agreed wholly. Even Dustin—then 20—was barely six feet and had lost much of the mass he had achieved from working in the fields. He had moved out the winter I was fifteen and now worked in retail. He never defined his position to me and I assumed he was intimidated. I understood that he was justified in that intimidation, since most grown men would cower in front of me. Not a fact I have ever been proud of, merely one I have come to accept.
That August, at long last, I achieved flight. A full minute circling over the farm, the wind cascading around me as I pounded out a place for myself in the sky with my enormous crimson wings. It saddened me that the sun was rising to the east, but it also made me proud. The anger could not reach me here, high above the ground. I was unbound by them. I truly was free.
My feet touched the ground at the moment the sun shone over the horizon and I squinted about at the bright new world. Father was standing on the porch, smiling at me as he waved me back to the house, holding up a package for me.
I nodded, taking a moment to appreciate the morning as I strode to the house. I felt pleasantly tired, worn with exertion and flooded with emotion. I took the package with a thanks, mildly curious about what it could possibly contain.
Father’s face was guilty. “She came by yesterday. You were sleeping and she didn’t want to wake you up, so…”
I was frozen, the small package in my hand holding a new weight. It felt like I was choking, strangled by my own excitement and recurring grief.
“Did she…Did she look alright?” I asked. I was breathing heavily from the emotions, my mind reeling.
Father nodded. “She brought by a couple of photos, insisted you have them. They're inside.”
It hurt to think that she had come to visit and did not wake me. Even now, after decades of time, I regret missing those few hours with her. Time is different for me than it is for humans. I can see and feel myself moving through it. Or rather, it moving around me and pulling me along. The best I can compare it to is being caught in a river and being unable to swim or drown. Every moment for me is sharp and precise, but I can still be confused easily when I am spun about and beaten on the head by a few sharp rocks along the way. To imagine what I could have shared in that short time…It would be enough to make me build a time machine, if I were so irresponsible.
When I went inside, Mother wore a guilty expression as well. She welcomed me to breakfast as I sat in my usual chair beside Lisa and across from Ethan. My brother wore an evil grin while Lisa looked like she might cry.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” she gushed with a sniffle. “I wanted to wake you up, but that would’ve upset Katelyn and I thought that would upset you since you’re upset when anyone’s upset and that would’ve made for a bad visit. Can you ever forgive me?”
I nodded with a smile, reaching over to pat her on the head, careful not to injure her. She smiled, too, and then looked at Mother with a pointed nod in my direction. Mother picked up a small envelope and handed it to me. She and Father took their own seats, watching me carefully.
We ate in silence, the package from Katelyn clutched tightly in my stronger right hand, utensil in my left. When we were finished I took the photos and package up to my room. I remember all of this clearly: I shut the door behind me and took care when I sat on my old, dying bed. I stared at the objects in confusion for a minute.
I was indeed confounded. I believed that she would not be coming back. I thought all hope of having my friend was gone. This was a defiance of the reality I had come to face. This was one of those moments when—in that infinite river of time—I had been smacked on the head by rocks.
I took out the pictures first. There were only three, yet still more than I had hoped for. The first image was of Katelyn standing in front of an orchard, grinning at the camera. She looked roughly an inch or so taller than my sister and, oh, that one year had been so generous to her. She was beautiful, her girlish appearance beginning to fade and hint at a more womanly figure. She had on a baggy shirt with a skirt; her hair had been pulled back into a ponytail, allowing her face a full expression of who she was.
In my mind, I imagined the color to her hair and skin. Vaguely, I wondered if her eyes were indeed their odd shade of black or acting kindly and remaining deep brown.
Before I knew it I was crying with joy! By now, I am sure this sounds like a classic tale of the fool and I have felt such many times in life. Trusting obviously dark persons or continuing along a certain path when every instinct told me it could only end in disaster. I would never call any of that a mistake, however. It all brought me to where I am and no matter the route it is a worthy destination.
Another photograph had her smiling tamely, an image of her shoulders and above. The final one was of her staring spitefully at the camera, arms crossed. She wore a formal dress, surrounded by other women in formal gowns. A wedding, perhaps?
Looking through the captured moments, it felt like I could remember her as if I were there. My eyes strayed to the floor where she had sat once and it seemed to brighten the room thinking that there had been someone else here with me.
Setting aside the photos, I picked up the package. It was wrapped in brown paper with my name scrawled haphazardly on one side. I tore off the paper with shaking hands; my heart was pounding with excitement. This was a genuine mystery to me—what could be inside the paper—as it was from my only friend. Excited was hardly a good enough word to describe how I felt.
Beneath the paper, there was a note attached to a small yellow journal. The note on the journal read:
Sorry it’s been so long. My parents are away this weekend, so we can see each other if we keep it secret! Isn’t that great? Also, I’m giving you my journal to let you know how I’ve been this last year. Hope to see you tomorrow (Saturday) night!
P.S. You drool and snore!
I laughed at the ending of the note and then paused as it occurred to me that she meant to see me tonight. I rechecked the note, flipping it over to look at the back as I searched for an address. On the back of the note it was scribbled somewhat hurriedly with the words “Meet at dusk” above it.
Life was too wonderful. It was magnificent! While I thought that everything possible had to go wrong now, I knew it would only go as right as it could. I wished the night could come that instant, even knowing that I had things to prepare for tonight.
I hid the pictures and journal before returning to the downstairs in search of Father. He was sitting in the living room, reading as he always did for an hour in the morning before he went to work. He looked up with a curious frown when I entered.
“Katelyn wants to see me tonight,” I told him, finding myself nervous by this concept suddenly. I pushed that aside for the moment. “May I meet with her? I would rather not put off chores, and it feels wrong asking for permission to, however I—”
“Be back before dawn, for safety’s sake,” he interrupted. I stared at him silently, confounded by what he said. He sighed and motioned for me to take a seat beside him before he explained himself,
“Now, whatever it is you are or look like, we can’t change and that’s a shame. But I’ve watched you grow up and damn it, I wish there was something anyone could do so that you could enjoy the life every man dreams of living. I’m sorry you’ve got to spend all your time on this farm and it kills me that you have the same needs anyone else has,” he told me honestly, keeping his eyes level with mine. He added as he set his book aside, “It’s a lucky thing that your only friend’s a girl, too.”
I frowned deeply at his comment, “Why is that?”
He only raised one eyebrow at me, as though my past few months of mourning should have been explanation enough, “The point is that every man needs a woman to keep him sane, even if it's a woman in a man's body. Anyone who tells you otherwise is crazy or in denial. I’m not going to keep you deprived and tell you that you can’t have friends if your chores aren’t done.”
“But Ethan and Dustin—”
“Can go out during normal and unreasonable hours of the day—you can’t. And you’ve been doing your chores diligently for the past what, seven years? You’ve earned up more than a night’s worth of a break, believe me.” He smiled at me and patted my shoulder, “Go on and shower. I know you don’t start stinking near as soon as any of us human men, but...”
I chuckled and shook my head in disbelief. Father was a strange individual, to be sure. As I got up to leave, he grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze.
“I’m proud of you, Cory,” he told me, then let me go. I stood in shock for a moment before continuing with my intended path. It was the first time Father had told me he was proud.