by Ranee Zaporski
The name of the village is still on maps. Its disappearance, however, was already beginning to show during my childhood. Larger wisps of smoke started floating from the expanding factory towers toward the sea. Old pathways one by one were paved over with cement. The wealthy strangers began moving in, building foolishly large houses and taking pictures of themselves standing near the peak of the Queen’s Crown. The new world was coming in and taking hold of the old world’s edges.
At the time my mother might have tried to explain the party to me. I don’t remember what she told me about the purpose of it all, or why most of the village was there. People were crowded into our tiny sitting room. The men were boisterous and drinking from the same ornate bottle. Mossy smelling smoke wafted from an old man’s pipe. Other children ran in and out of the room. Someone’s scratchy wool elbow grazed my cheek.
I was given a colorful hat made of feathers, which my mother placed carefully on my head.
My father, David, had come all the way from the factory headquarters in the Capital to attend the party. He stood in the corner and silently watched as I sang songs he didn’t know. An old woman glared at him.
“Are you having fun, sweetheart?” he asked when the singing stopped. I was shy, smiling as I hid my face in my mother’s skirt. No one had told me David was coming to the party. One of my uncles said a few words to everyone in the old language that I had trouble understanding, and all of the adults burst into applause. Children in the room stood by their mothers, staring at me expectantly. That is when I felt something. I didn’t know what it was, yet.
“Aren’t you glad to see me?” David asked. “You must be tired.”
I ran to the other room and began to cry. David followed me.
“Don’t you want to be nice to your guests and stop crying?”
I looked up and saw it.
There was a hand in the air, near the window. Just the shadow of a hand.
“Can’t you see it?”
My father sat down beside me, staring blankly at the space near the window.
A hand, then a fist, then a hand, opening, closing, like a heart beating. Then it stopped.
“Look! Don’t you see…?”
I pointed as David wrinkled his forehead. He looked at the space where the hand was hovering and saw nothing but air. My fingers fluttered like wings, and my heart beat fast, because for the first time I was alone.
What initially brought the tourists to the village were the birds. They would form a perfect ring around the peak of a tower cliff, an impressive flying pattern that appeared as a fluid circle. My mother wrapped her long fingers around my shoulders and squeezed them.
“They have always flown that way, since before your great-grandfather was born. It’s called ‘the Queen’s Crown.’ See how they fly, as if they are crowning that peak?” We gazed down at our home from the base of the hill. “Yes, they are making a crown for the old Queen, if you believe the tales.” A frown passed over her face. “Or they are just birds, trapped in their own memory.”
Her reluctance to embrace the stories was a mystery to me. I was finally part of something greater. My reaction was one of instant and unthinking loyalty.
It was universally agreed, I learned as I became older, that my mother was too beautiful to live without a husband in the house. She had the kind of beauty that is usually only seen in paintings. Her hair was jet black, always worn back in the style of that time. Her eyes were green with specks of brown and blue. The way she looked set our family apart from others. Things had happened, Mother tried to explain to me, a long time ago. They were part of the reason David didn’t live with us. They caused her to have troubles.
We would walk out to the sea on the days she felt better, to where the newly poisonous leaves grew along the rocky peaks.
When my grandfather, a stern man who wandered around smoking a pipe saying nothing, died, people went to the funeral out of respect. Some were young men back from the army in the Capital. They bowed to my mother and stood uncomfortably in our sitting room holding bread, like grim princes away from their castle. No one knew why breads baked in the shape of a crown were brought to funerals; it was what always had been done. No one ever ate them because it was considered bad luck to do so.
The women introduced themselves to me or patted my head as they left roast offerings on the table, different colored dishes with fancy designs etched on their edges. Mother’s face was expressionless. She ignored them because they had always snubbed her at the market or while walking in the evenings. The women looked away uncomfortably as they began to set down the breads, placing the offerings at her feet. The oldest ones gathered in the corner, wrapped in their embroidered shawls and looking stern. They watched me out of the corner of their eyes.
“What about the girl…?”
I stared at the crown breads, sparkling with colored sugar. It was clear they thought my fate was more of a mystery than their own.
At school the other children regarded me as a curiosity. They didn’t understand me when I talked and they were scared of my fluttering hands.
“Why do you do that?”
“I don’t know. The doctors don’t know,” I said. Then I added, “It’s because I’m part bird.”
I had never been told this explicitly, but I still said it aloud. I knew it was true. Several of the children gathered around me in interest.
“You aren’t,” said the blond boy. “That’s a lie.”
“It makes sense,” said a little girl with a single braid resting neatly down the middle of her back. “That’s why she is so odd.”
“That’s not why she’s strange,” said another girl, “and everyone knows it.”
“I’m a bird,” I said impatiently, wanting them to understand. “That’s the difference.”
I stood straight and unmoving as they circled me, searching my body for any other signs of my brethren, such as wings or a gently curved beak.
“Can you fly?” the boy asked.
“Sometimes I do,” I said, suddenly thinking of the hand that had been floating in the air.
“We will need more proof from you,” the boy said as the circle around me disbanded.
My single childhood talent was the ability to draw. One day during maths I sketched a careful portrait of my teacher, down to the bump on her nose and the uneven way her eyes were set.
“My goodness, young lady,” Miss Liden said in surprise. She told me my gift was exceptional. Miss Liden was young and from the Capital and never hesitated when telling me important things. I liked the way she talked. Miss Liden’s vowels were crisp and polished compared to the local accent, made up of sounds that continued to linger after the original thought was gone. “I would like to take your drawing and submit it in a contest. The prize is a day at the Great Museum.”
My eyelids blinked several times faster than usual. The Great Museum, said Miss Liden, was considered one of the wonders of the world. It was located in the center of the Capital. I had never been there, even though it was where David lived. Perhaps I could see him. I tried to remember what his voice sounded like. My arm moved as I drew. The bird I was creating was one I had never seen in person, just a picture preserved perfectly in my head. My hand lengthened the white feathers of the swan, created the curving shape of the swan’s long neck.
“My dear, that’s very good work, but wasn’t your study about a bird last week, and the week before?” Miss Liden said. “Perhaps you could try to draw a different kind of animal. You know, to show the judges something different than what is… expected.”
I looked at her blankly. My head at that moment only had room for an imaginary pair of swans, gliding across the water like they did in the picture, wearing their black beaks like serene masks. Birds felt like the only real story to tell.
When my mother told me that I was the only winner of the contest from our region, my body began to shake and my fingers fluttered uncontrollably. The word of my accomplishment spread fast, and people who normally avoided us on the street stopped to congratulate Mother and hold one of her hands in theirs.
I asked what the Capital was like.
“I was there as a young woman with your grandfather. It is full of the biggest buildings you will ever see and all kinds of faces. All different kinds of people.” A shadow passed over her face, then was gone. In the Capital, she explained, there is always more than one of everything, and anyone can choose whatever suits them best. “And the Great Museum, well! Aren’t you grand! I have never been inside.” She smiled, smoothed my hair, held my fluttering hands together. “You will have to tell me all about it.”
My eyes squinted. Miss Liden had told me that the Great Museum was the Museum of the People. I would see the Great Museum before my own mother did, even though she had been a person for many more years.
It was the first time I realized the world was quite out of order.
On the day of the museum the bus driver described to Mother the route he would take to the Capital. He told me to sit up front, right behind him with his matching grey jacket and cap. Mother nodded her assent. The driver closed the bus doors as I waved a fluttering goodbye through the window.
The bus skirted the edge of the village, traveling past homesteads until they started to turn into little houses next to each other. I watched as the buildings became taller and shinier.
The bus turned into the museum parking lot and the bus driver opened the doors. A woman was waiting for me at the foot of the great set of carved stone stairs. She grabbed my hand and stamped it with red ink, as if marking a letter from a faraway place.
“It washes off with soap and water. The stamp is proof that you are supposed to be here,” she explained, gesturing at the Great Hall of the museum. I floated into a city of treasures under a curved roof. Her hand guided me to a circle of children near my age.
“Congratulations,” said the lady, who put a medal around my neck. She did the same to another girl, then a boy standing next to her. There were ten children in all who had won the drawing contest that day, and most were from the Capital. No one spoke to me. I was silent with awe, clenching my fists so I wouldn’t reach for another child’s hand. I knew things were done differently here.
“Time for our tour to begin,” the lady said. “I’m the Docent. I will lead you through the museum.” We lined up, each wearing our medal around our necks. “You must not go off on your own.”
We saw pictures of Jesus in anguish and in victory. We looked at paintings of naked men, and naked women, and also a real skeleton, but were told not to point or laugh or cry because everything was from long ago and far away, so that made it all perfectly grown up and fine.
“You are doing a wonderful job of looking and not touching,” the Docent announced, even though it was not entirely true. Most of us could hardly contain ourselves. Even I was guilty of poking at a human figure in the Peoples of The World display to see if it had real skin.
“This display,” the Docent assured us, waving us down a long dark hallway, “is every child’s favorite.”
There was a large wooden sign that hung over the entrance: The Old City. Play sized versions of old and famous city buildings were nestled next to gas torches that bubbled light to every pretend corner. The Docent looked pleased, as if she had built the city herself.
“This, children, is how the Capital City looked long ago.”
Most of the people in the little buildings were made of plastic. I remember feeling sorry for figures eternally performing chores like churning butter or helping the soldiers or brewing beverages, all wearing the same fixed expression. The past felt static, a silent mirage that could only exist in protected places.
In the middle of all the buildings there was a small candy store, with a real person behind the counter selling candy. Children swarmed around the entrance. I can still remember the different flavors of hard candy sticks before I caught a glimpse of David in the reflected glass: red currant, blackberry, pistachio rose.
My heart was pounding. I knew I had seen my father. Half of my childhood had been spent waiting for him to appear. The swarms of children didn’t matter; he was a tall man, and stood above the crowd. He and another little girl stopped to admire a fake old building in the middle of plastic snowflakes and hollow storefronts. He was holding the other girl’s hand.
I walked toward my father and the other girl slowly, getting closer and closer, my fingers fluttering, until I was so near I could almost touch them. But I didn’t reach out; there was a filmy veil, like the wall of a soap bubble between us. My hand refused to break through it. The girl turned to look at me.
I ran away as my father began to slowly turn. My feet raced around the corner, down the large hallway, past other school groups and families to an unlit corner of the lobby. A parent chaperone came in to find me there, standing behind a large coat rack.
“Did you run away?”
I nodded. She grabbed my arm, roughly leading me back through the Great Hall and dragging me around the next corner to where the Docent stood.
This is a very interesting display, said the Docent in a distant sounding voice.
Something had happened to my hearing after I saw my father. It began to fade in and out. The docent sounded muffled, as if she was far away.
This exhibit will help those of you from the Capital to learn about the different histories of our Great Republic.
The walls were covered with black and white pictures of serious looking men from long ago. All of them looked like my grandfather. There was the name of my village, spelled out in large letters on the wall.
In this region they don’t allow women to be photographed, the Docent told one of the trip chaperones. That’s why there are no women pictured here.
The room felt strange. There were at least fifty stuffed birds, hanging from the ceiling. They were preserved as if in mid-flight, their wings extended for show, their eyes glazed over with a strange clear coating. One child asked if being killed had caused the birds pain.
It happened so quickly, the Docent insisted, that they didn’t even realize.
I could feel the eyes of the photographs follow me through the exhibit hall.
There were old stories from the sea regions about these birds, she explained. That long ago the birds had married the people. Some of the families looked like humans and others looked more like birds. Even their own shadows had spirits of their own, she whispered, smiling, waggling her fingers. Several of the children tittered. Her smile disappeared and she folded her hands primly in front of her waist.
The truth is that a long time ago the old factory had an accident. It affected the bones and hearts of human beings. Chemicals entered the water, you see.
Some of the children weren’t listening, instead examining the medals that hung around their necks, or peering into the face of a photograph.
It’s all cleaned up now, of course, she added hastily. But it did affect many generations. Many from those regions still do not have access to good medical care or quality education.
The Docent’s voice faded out completely. My mind moved slowly, seeing everything and yet forgetting. I know I boarded the regional bus because I arrived home early that evening.
“Did they tire you out, in the big city?” Mother said gently, studying my face. I said nothing. She helped me change into my night clothes as if I was a baby. “You’ll have to tell me all about it tomorrow,” she whispered, closing the bedroom door behind her.
When I shut my eyes I could see the landscape changing, from the giant stone steps to the close crowded buildings to the old paths that led to the ocean. The faces of the photographs from the museum, and the sound of footsteps of the people who had walked through this village, from a time before I was born until that very day. My father’s cold Capital heart in the air, right through his skin, a mass of sinew and blood. My own long neck, hollow bones, eternal instinct. And the blue roaring sea.
That night while sleeping I raced down the road until I stood at the cliffs, where the birds of the village were waiting.