Once upon a time a young girl lives her life free from the constraint of clothing. She is vulnerable, as you might expect. Perhaps even unaware of her vulnerability – fixated instead on the way wind raises gooseflesh over her knees; the way sunshine sweeps a palm over her spine before singeing it. While it could be assumed that her life revolves around this nakedness, it doesn’t.
She lives a life you might expect, fairly normal if such a thing exists. She has parents whose caring is neither notable nor neglectful, a dog that looks like most other dogs, a school experience that is subpar. She lives in a house with windows and doors. Eats food that is sometimes too salty and sometimes too bland.
Eventually, she meets a man who wrongs her – harms her in some way and makes her keep it a secret. He threatens her, shames her, looms over her in warning. He gestures to her smooth body in disgust, as though it means something. But she is bare like every other girl and doesn’t understand.
Her lungs burn from this secret, fill up with something akin to acid. It is clear and swirling and pushes at her ribs to break out. She draws in a great breath, as if to scream, and the man pulls a feather from his pocket. It shimmers in the light and startles the girl, who has never seen something so full of possibility. It pushes the air back from her lungs. The feather is silver and glints like tinsel on one side. On the other, it is deep purple like the core of a cracked amethyst. It is an offering. A distraction. She holds it above her head, lets go, and watches it swirl towards the earth.
Its opalescence dances in the light and she cannot decide if it is floating or falling. Sometime during her consideration, the man leaves. She does not know where to find him and does not want to ask.
Instead, she watches the sun slide over the feather’s ragged edge, caresses it, runs its softness along her skin. She has never possessed something so magnificent, she thinks, and tapes it to the hollow of skin above her left hip, to the place where her bones curl in to protect themselves.
Once upon a time, this is not one girl, but many. Hundreds. Thousands. Millions even. Each with their own stories of wrong. Some of them overlap, of course. How many forms can wrong take, after all? The answer is more than you would think.
Once upon a time, a young girl is hurt by a man. It happens so quickly her eyes remain unfocused when he leaves. When the world around her stills, she expects her room to look different; she expects the walls to melt, the floorboards to split, the windows to fall continuously open. When the world around her stills, the walls continue to stand, the fuses in each light continue to burn. She runs her hands over her body, refamiliarizes herself. She begins at her toes and moves slowly over her calves, up her thighs, across her stomach. When she reaches her spine, her hands find a small point, rigid and soft at once. She pinches with her thumb and index finger, squeezes until the tops of her nails turn white. She pulls and pulls until the vane of a feather emerges, orange and yellow like the burn of a lightbulb.
Once upon a time, girls are praised for their resilience and beauty. The feathers give their hurt away, but people say that feathers are what give a woman character. Older women call it a right of passage, a part of womanhood. They say young girls should feel complimented, knowing they are so beautiful they are wanted desperately. Men say it is what makes the women beautiful in the first place. When girls cry over their hurts, older women tell them how lucky they are to have feathers. “How funny that men are like naked mole rats when undressed,” they say. “Only wrinkled skin remains once their clothes are removed. Not a feather in sight.”
Once upon a time, a young girl comes home hurt. She enters the living room hesitantly, holds her feather behind her back. Her hurt is not visible, does not decorate her body in unusual colors or angles. Her parents coax her forward, press her into the couch, ask what makes her eyes so hollow. She cannot utter the words. Her chest heaves with the need for air, her cheeks burn with attention she does not want. She shows them the feather – blue-spotted and white-rimmed – absolves herself of the need for words. Her parents gasp and she waits for their arms around her, for their promises that this changes nothing, for their attempts at comfort. She waits for them to tell her she can forget the feather, if she wants.
They tell her that it’s lovely, pull it from her fingers and hold it up to the light, lay it briefly against her mother’s modest plumage. They turn it around and around and around. They say she should be proud to add such strength, such beauty to her body. They tell her there is tape on the desk in the study.
Once upon a time, girls and women tape feathers to their flesh. Adorn themselves with down. Some want to be called ornate and beautiful. Others want to absorb their hurts, tuck them into their skin in an effort to remember or forget. Most want to be free of prying glances and raised eyebrows. They want to stop being asked about their smooth skin, about their featherlessness.
They coat themselves in quills; some are short and purple, others fluffed and black. Some are yellow like the inside of a lemon. The feathers cover their left hips, their right hips. They prick the soft tissue of underarms, slip over the backs of thighs, cling to the soles of feet, line the edges of the naval. Nowhere is off limits, though they are encouraged to place them in more clearly visible spaces.
The feathers are stuck on with duct tape, masking tape, medical tape, packing tape, scotch tape, silicone tape, invisible tape, glitter tape, adhesive putty, sticky foam, layers of plastic wrap, anything and everything that might hold them. Sticky residue dots the skin of girls and women becoming grey globs of glue and dust.
Sometimes, after the tape has been removed, the feather remains without support. Its quills and downy barbs hunkered into soft tissue. They pinch and poke as the girls move, but it seems a small price to pay for the feather’s permanence.
Once upon a time, a girl hides feathers in a box under her bed. She doesn’t want to tape them to her skin, doesn’t want to display her hurts. When her parents find them, they say she has no choice. That it’s her job to wear them. That she shouldn’t have allowed the hurt if she didn’t want them. That there are girls out there with feathers only half as beautiful as hers.
They strip her room of things one by one. First, the obvious: games, electronics, books, art. Privileges, they say. Soon, they take lamps, chairs, her bed. She and the feathers are all that remain, and when she still won’t wear them, her parents fill her bedroom with mirrors. They line the walls and the ceiling. Say she deserves to stare at her plainness.
Once upon a time, girls grow the feathers themselves. No one quite knows why. Some say that as the first feathers became part of their skin, so did the wrong. Growing into them. Roiling. Swirling. Creating more of itself like an infection. Inflamed and swollen, their skin grew hot to the touch, until new feathers erupted from their pores.
A few believe the girls to be sorceresses. Mistresses of evil. Conjurors of beautiful things. Sinful things. Downy things. Things that beckon to be touched. The girls don’t mind this; they hope these people believe them capable of conjuring more than feathers too.
Others think the girls have made themselves this way; taken to their skin with small knives or large needles. Sought out back alley surgeons and black-market feathers – knock offs made of polyester and nylon. Those who believe such things say the girls like to be spectacles. Say they enjoy the attention they draw. Say perhaps the girls wanted to be hurt in the first place. Say they were asking for it. Say they want feathers at any cost.
Once upon a time, a girl stands in front of her bathroom mirror examining the feather that grows from her side. It is light grey and dotted with crimson, and though it isn’t fully emerged yet, it is already a few inches long. She has kept it hidden, pressed tightly under her arm for days. Now, she stretches the skin around it. Presses down with her fingers. Pushes them together as though she can squeeze it out.
Beyond the locked door, sounds of family dinner time bang through the hallways. She knows her parents are cooking; her younger brothers are watching tv. She thinks she smells meatloaf, and maybe mashed potatoes.
She pulls on the medicine cabinet knob slowly, waits for the click to bring her mother and her mother’s questions to the door. Her mother has feathers, but they are few and modest in color and shape. She never talks about them. Pretends her daughter will never have them. Her daughter never knew how they got there until now.
When no one knocks, she reaches for the tweezers, slips hesitant fingers over the cool metal. She brings them to clamp on the central vein, squeezes lightly to see if she can feel it. She can’t. But when she wraps fingers around it and yanks, the burn is instant. The quill breaks free of her skin and blood rushes to its place, drips down her side. She yelps and tears fall to her chin, drip onto the counter. She hears her mother shuffle down the hall.
Once upon a time, girls are put on display. Not on stages or in exhibits per se, not in anything round or hollow with rusted metal bars and newspaper lined bottoms. Perhaps it’s more logical to say that the world is their cage. To say that they find themselves stuck in a Lucite box so large they can’t see the ends of it.
It’s hard to say exactly when they realized it. Mostly it was the way that they were watched that tipped them off. The way eyes became appraising, prying, insistent. It was the way they felt touched without contact. The way they felt robbed without anything going missing.
Once upon a time, women continue to be hurt. To be harmed. To be abused. Did you forget that part? Their feathers grow and grow. They take different shapes now. Primary Coverts, Alula, Contours, Scapulars, Down. They are sleek and iridescent, tufted and velvetlike, frayed at the edges. They are unasked for.
Some women have more layers than any avian would need. They grow feathers upon feathers until only their faces remain visible amongst the plumage.
Others have only a dozen or so. Enough to be seen, but not so many you can’t tell they’re human. Only some of the youngest girls and infants remain featherless.
Once upon a time, a woman tries to fly. She stretches her arms out as long as possible, presses the air down with her biceps, leaps toward the sky. She feels the wind slice through her downy layers. Feels the slightest resistance as she falls to the earth.
Later, she seeks higher ground, moves to a bluff a few feet above the beach where she jumps again and again. Stretches her wings and propels herself higher. She meets the sand with an abrupt falter.
Women watch from the beach below, see the way she stays suspended a little longer each time. They join her on the dune’s ledge, a flock of women removing the earth from beneath themselves. Some of them take to flight immediately, leaving the earth behind them in favor of whatever gusts they can find. Others jump and hit the earth in rapid succession. They push their arms harder, hold their chests out further. They trim their feathers into the shape of triangles, thinking they will be more aerodynamic. Again and again they meet the rough sand, crashing into a grainy spray rivaled only by the sea. They scramble back up the hill, hold their arms a little lower, feel the burn push them to keep jumping. Some of them will never make it up. They will jump again and again, until their feathers are weighted with damp sand. Until they are too heavy to move. Until they can only watch the others.
Once upon a time, a girl swings in her backyard. Her cheeks are plump with cherries and juice runs down her chin onto her sun-colored shirt. Her fingers grip the chains tightly, lace with the links. She has just learned to whistle, and she coos softly to herself. She pushes her toes to reach the nearest tree branch, works to knock off another cherry or two. Pumps so hard her cheeks flush.
Nearby, a flock of women take to the sky. Perhaps migration. Perhaps something else. It’s hard to understand what propels a woman to leave the earth. They soar above the girl and she traces the shapes they make in the clouds. Their feathers and skin are a blur of changing colors against the blue. They fly in loose Vs, in droves, in great murmurations that stretch so far you can’t see the ends of them.
Hannah Newman is a founding Editor-in-Chief of Sweet Tree Review and a poetry editor for the Bellingham Review. An MFA candidate at Western Washington University, she is currently working on a collection of short stories about women, ghosts, and joy. When she isn’t writing, you can find her indulging in expensive cheese, old books, and too many cups of coffee. Her work can be found in The Mantle and Yemassee Journal.