When We Had Wings

Millard Fillmore loved the butterflies. He was confused at first, having never seen one. I struggled to explain that they used to be common; ordinary like birds, I said. That was a mistake since he’d never seen a bird. It took me a while, but I told him all I knew about hummingbirds and roseate spoonbills, cardinals and woodpeckers, robins, eagles, and bluebirds. I waxed a little poetic on the bluebirds, I guess. Birds of happiness. Anyway, I started singing a snippet of some old song, a bluebird on my shoulder. At that point, Millard got bored and fell asleep.

That was months ago. Most of the butterflies are gone now, which is a bad sign and indicates we need to move along as well. 

As I am packing our few remaining things, I say to Millard it’s time to fly away. He eyes me warily and I admit it is a figure of speech but that also once people could fly. When water covered more of the planet than dust, when trees donned resplendent coats of many-colored leaves, when rain fell like tears and sometimes when it was cold, yes cold such a concept, and snow fell. At that time, so many years gone, we people, we were so clever, and greedy, we climbed into machines and dared to fly. 

Millard does not think much of this story. He likes the stories about companions. I have shared with him tales I was told long ago, but by whom I can’t even remember. A guardian? I would like to think I had a gran. Maybe I sat in a comforting, wide lap, listened raptly to a sonorous voice. Anyway, I like sharing the buddy stories with Millard. I tell him about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I tell him about Pooh and Piglet. He likes Bert and Ernie the best because he thinks it’s funny that I don’t know what they are. Once I said they were bears but last time I called them critters. So yes, I don’t know how to explain to Millard what Bert and Ernie are, but I know they were close friends and I think that should be good enough. Sometimes he just misses the point. 

I have packed up everything we want to take with us. After I have made sure we are leaving the place tidy, I realize Millard is not with me. I spy his fluffy ginger striped tail on the porch railing. This is unnerving and I feel a hot anxiety bubbling within me. I want to scream but at the same time a cautious voice is heeding me to approach quietly. 

Millard, I practically whisper. He is vexed. I can tell from the twitching of his tail and the angry spitting noises he is making. 

Millard, I manage it a little louder now. We no longer have wings, please, Millard. Please come back down.

When I am certain he will jump, when he has hinged up upon his back feet, I lunge. I have not moved with this kind of alacrity in months. I have not been chased or afeared for so long, but my muscle has memory and my body hurls me toward Millard whom I grasp tightly round his midsection as we both hit the floor of the porch.

And then a thing so miraculous, I cannot believe my own eyes. At first, I think we are watching a dust devil; the air seems yellow. Then the thrum of hundreds of wings. Goldfinches! I say, Millard, I never mentioned goldfinches! 

How can this be, I think. There is a veritable cloud of goldfinches hovering, swarming, surfing the breeze. They alight in the anemic branches of an old linden tree. They perch upon the ratty tatters of an elderberry bush. Their birdsong swells upon the break of the hazy dawn.

I sit on the porch with Millard in my lap. I think the warbling of the birds is moving through me before I realize that Millard is purring. There is a warmth, spreading over me, the way I imagined I would have felt in a gran’s lap. I remember, if blue birds bring happiness, goldfinches bring luck. Millard nuzzles my chin. Yes, I tell him; we will stay.

I chose Shen Chen Hsieh’s stunning artwork on the cover of Moon City Review for this piece because I am eternally grateful to be included in this journal with so many talented writers.

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