Although the sun shone the day they took me to the hospital to have my wings removed, there were rumblings of a large storm brewing in the west. The doctor hmm-ed and ahh-ed and pursed his lips. Stepping back, he unfurled my left wing with clinical roughness, his fingers tracing each ligament with an unsettling intimacy. He talked about the number of cases this year versus last year, how many surgeries he had performed that month alone, how at thirteen I was older than his typical patient. Taking a fat black pen, he drew dotted lines on my back around the joints that held my wings in place; the cold ink lay thickly on my pallid skin.
My mother stood in the corner, near the pale blue partition curtain, and pushed her knuckles into her mouth as she watched me. My little brother drove his toy car along my back, delighted with the new roads seemingly drawn for him. I watched the clouds while they talked about the procedure. Words like ‘incision’, ‘stitch’, ‘side effects’ floated around me. Though bright white and billowing, the clouds moved with surprising quickness, soon disappearing beyond the window frame. My throat tightened at the word ‘normal’.
When I woke, I felt inexplicably heavier. I could hear my mother whispering about pills, suppressants, recovery times and noted the worry in her quavering voice.
“He’ll be out playing with boys his own age this time next week,” the doctor said, a reassuring hand on my mother’s elbow. “People forget. They always do.” She nodded but tears threatened the corners of her eyes.
I didn’t ask what they did with them after they were removed. I had heard stories of wings being incinerated, sold for alternative medicines, cut up and put in great glass pickling jars. One internet chatroom I’d found was dedicated to people finding their lost wings; the long, rambling messages increasingly filled with desperation and despair. I didn’t want to know.
After my mother silently drove me home, I craned my neck around to see my back in my bedroom mirror: the wounds were surprisingly thin and neat, barely there, barely remembering what had once been.
Later, it was the gales that roused me. The night roared with the squalls and clouds swirled with abandon. Energy burned and fizzed and echoed about my head. I stood in my mother’s garden, the pain and loss forgotten, and relished the cool air whirling around my body. A warmth spread through my bones, growing and thickening, knitting me back together, tingling at the seams where the wings once met my skin. As lightning bit through the sky, I felt my wings, absent though they were, spread out towards the stars. My breath caught and, gently, my feet lifted off the damp grass.
The wings, it would seem, were just for show.
“Within And Without” first appeared at National Flash Fiction Day, 2021. UK
IMAGE: William-Adolphe Bougereau “L’amour mouillé” (‘Cupid’), 1891 oil Height/ 155.5 cm (61.2 in); Width/ 84.5 cm (33.2 in) Collection Unknown, France
Charlie Swailes is a secondary school English teacher, living in West Yorkshire, England, with her husband and two small sons. Her flash fiction has been in a variety of publications, including Reflex Fiction, Re-Side, Flash 500 and the National Flash Fiction Day Anthologies 2020 and 2021.