By Heather Rutherford
The crow rapped its blue-black beak against the rainy window. No one else in eighth-grade language arts noticed when the crow swooped inside, its shadow dark and opaque under fluorescent lights. The squawking bird plummeted toward the boy, who ducked, shrieked, and shielded his head with gangly arms. The crow ripped his thrift-store flannel shirt, scratched a ragged red line across his cheek.
His teacher called the principal, who arrived with the school safety officer. They took his arms, “in case he felt light-headed,” and escorted him to the nurse. The officer remained in the clinic while the nurse pressed a cold, wet washcloth to his wound.
She asked him, “Can you tell me why you did this to yourself?”
He said, “It was the crow.”
She took his wide, rough hand in her soft, tiny one and showed him his bloodied fingernails. He blinked, pushed off the cot, towering over the nurse and even the safety officer, who rushed in close and said, “Settle down, son.”
His first hospital stay he received the white tablets, dropped into impossibly small paper cups by another little nurse. The pills held the bird in his murky periphery for a year.
He grew ten more inches that spring. In his high school hallway, he bowed his head, hunched his shoulders, and still loomed over the others. Students crowded the halls between classes, and their eyes went black; their hands and feet turned to the talons of a hawk. They screeched at him.
The day his mantra, “It’s not real. You’re not real,” failed him, he flattened his huge, awkward frame against the floor, squeezed his eyes shut, pressed palms over his ears, and the screeching stopped, the hallway emptied except for the principal, the nurse, and the school officer looking down at him. He was soaked in sweat and urine.
Another ninety days in the hospital.
He returned to the dark, crowded house he shared with his mother, his aunts, and his grandmother. His mother, her eyes framed by deep purple half circles, was bent over like an old woman from cleaning office buildings at night. He ducked his head below the doorframe to his room in the basement. The wooden stairs creaked beneath him. He crouched under the low ceiling to avoid hitting his head on the pipes and ductwork that crisscrossed above.
The next morning, he had nothing to do, nowhere to go. He couldn’t return to school; the social worker had sent a letter explaining that an alternate arrangement would be made. Though storm clouds rolled overhead, and thunder threatened, he walked toward the quarry. A turkey vulture, eating something long dead, flapped and glared at him. Drizzle turned to sheets of rain that dripped from his nose, soaked his shirt, his jeans, his shoes. When he arrived at the quarry’s gates, the thunder grew menacing. He climbed the chain-link fence and perched at the edge of the sheer cliff. He gazed down; the massive trucks stood still and silent.
He didn’t feel monstrous here.
On the ledge, heat prickled his back. He reached over his shoulder to touch the painful place; his skin bubbled and burned.
His “It’s not real” echoed into the void.
He gasped in pain and shock when enormous wings broke through, unfurled from his shoulder blades. The burning stopped; the wings unfolded and arched above his head. Their feathered tips brushed the stone behind his feet. His clean, white wings opened and closed silently, like an owl’s. He touched his soft feathers.
Eyes closed, he stretched up, spread his arms wide. He dove into the cool, clear air high above black rock, and flew.