“Flying Lessons” by Melissa Madore
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Melissa Madore’s “Flying Lessons” follows the unique personal journey of a woman named Anna, in a narrative centered around self-discovery, and the acceptance of transformation.
William wakes up to the sight of Anna standing by the apartment window, her pearly-gray feathers glistening in the light of the morning sun. Her gaze is fixed on the doves shuffling on the fire escape, their wings unfolding, ready to take flight. She isn’t aware of his presence. Her eyes are open, but she is still in her dream.
At least the window is shut. Last week he found her on the floor in the early hours of the morning, a chair tipped next to her, feathers everywhere. Regaining awareness, she grabbed his legs. She told him how she had felt the weightlessness and the rush of air. He scanned her body for injuries—nothing. Her wings had cushioned her fall. Or had she actually glided for a few seconds?
Her wings emerged at fifteen. While other girls compared the swelling and firmness of their breasts, the way they turned their bodies into objects of lust and mystery, her chest remained flat. Instead, she felt the prick of something hard on her back. She stretched her arm, pinching and pulling, felt feathers slipping out, tender and wet as a newborn. The lump that swelled on her back itched at night. What came out weeks later was never intended for flight—too frail. She cannot fly. Her wings, framed by thin bones, can merely displace pockets of air: no more than a breath snuffing out a candle.
When he met her a year ago, she wore a masquerade mask of a bird and a low-back dress—the wings looked part of a dress-up. The club where he was bartending on weekends was near Broadway Centre Theatre, and they often had troupes of actors and members from bands coming to party after their show.
“I like the costume,” he said.
She let out a sound like a chirp.
The different shades of gray, their fragility, and the way they moved with her—there was something organic about the feathers. “They look real,” he said, pointing at the wings.
“What, you like birds?” She lifted up her mask, looked straight into his eyes. “Birds are unpredictable.” Her throat throbbed a little when she spoke. She had a long, very fine neck.
By the fire escape, there is a rustle of wings. Pigeons take off, and Anna’s stare is tethered to their flight. She looks skinny and pale, and he thinks this might be how her flying dream materializes—her losing weight until she becomes so light that gravity loses its grip on her, and she starts to float.
At least today, she is trying something. They are meeting up with James, a paragliding instructor who will take her for a tandem jump. They met him last week while hiking at the Wasatch Mountains. Anna had wanted to see the sego lilies, in full bloom after the wet spring. Midsummit, they came across a group of paragliders standing in a circle, heads touching. Anna pulled on William’s hand. Together they watched as the paragliders lined up onto the ledge. The tallest approached them and slipped them a business card. His name was James. The card read How about flying Utah with me?
As they head out of the city, they drive past electric lines heavy with birds. William wonders why they gather there. “They think it’s alive,” Anna says, pointing at the line as if she’s heard his thoughts. “It’s pulsing like a heartbeat.” She reaches forward, taps on his chest. This is something she does, give him facts about birds, convinced that she knows. “Birds have accents,” she once told him. “Listen.”
They have come up with many theories for her wings. Once, when they were talking about it, he said she was a hybrid, her mother actually a scientist who took pity and stole her from a lab. But her mother couldn’t even measure laundry powder—Anna spent a childhood with soap-stained dresses. And when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, years after they’d arrived in Salt Lake City, she had no answers for Anna, knew of no fancy treatments. She swallowed all her morphine tablets and called it a day. “Worst scientist ever,” Anna said.
They were drinking that day. Anna couldn’t tolerate alcohol very well. She downed her wine, and then suggested that DNA contained genetic material from all the species, everything that had ever been and would ever be. Nothing created, nothing lost—that was her theory. “Maybe we will need wings,” she said, toppling onto the couch. “Maybe our next world is somewhere high up.” She lifted her hand and pointed at the ceiling. Her head lolled, and soon she was asleep.
On nights she can’t settle against his body, he feels guilty for his mundanity. It’s not only the wings, but the fact that her desires seem so clear to her. He’s a drifter: a middle child, a college dropout, a bartender who can’t hold a job for more than a summer. His brothers both lead successful lives as lawyers in California. They send him glossy postcards of sunny coasts. He writes back telling them he would never ever trade the views here. What he doesn’t say is how the views make him feel small and inadequate.
Anna and her mother found refuge in Utah exactly because of the landscape: it was easier to hide in a place where eyes had so many reasons to be drawn to the surroundings. In Chicago, people had too much ambition. Doctors, when consulted, told them the wings were an abnormal growth. They made Anna climb chairs and told her to jump. They asked if she felt something, in that moment just before she hit the floor: a twitch in her wings, an itch. With Anna’s father long gone, her mother pulled her out of school, and they fled.
For seconds, William loses control of the car and it wanders slightly on the shoulder line.
“Are you OK?” Anna sits up straight.
“Yes,” he says as he steers the car back onto its course. He rubs his face. “Just tired.” He almost says, “because a little birdie kept me awake” but doesn’t. This happens when he gets lost between the ordinary and what she is.
James is already waiting at the parking lot when they pull in the driveway. His eyes follow Anna as she climbs out of the car. They told him about the wings. Anna didn’t want to bandage them for the flight. As with any other limbs, the effort of moving them is both conscious and at times unconscious, involuntary. When she has a fright, they flare up. When, in bed, William moves his hands up and down their length, they twitch. If they are tied up, all these impulses made them ache.
After learning about the wings, James told them he was himself a birdman. He forwarded them a picture of him wearing a wingsuit—a jumpsuit with arms and legs connected by fabric, used for wingsuit flying. The suit made him look like an odd superhero.
Now he is not wearing shoes. His skin is sunburned and thick, the blond of his hair almost white. “We’ll hike through here,” he says as they approach, pointing at a spot where the mountain yawns open. William offers his help with the backpack, but James smiles and starts to lead the way.
They hike until they reach a ledge. There James sets down his duffel bag and announces that this is where they will launch. The wings James extracts from his bag are flashy and bold— red, green, and white like a Christmas candy cane. He spends a lot of time smoothing creases and aligning strings. There is a clear ritual, and William stands at a distance.
While he sets up, Anna sits at the tip of a boulder, her head cocked as if she is listening to something. Her wings are fanned out. She looks pristine, sunlight adding texture to the gray of her feathers, like mother-of-pearl.
James calls her to him. He shows her where to sit, back to front with him on the harness seat, her wings on each side of his head. He betrays no emotion when feathers brush against his chin.
“When I tell you to run, you run for your life,” he says. His mouth is close to her ear, his hand in the middle of her wings. The skin there, right at the joint, is very soft, William knows. Sometimes Anna asks him to bite at this spot, softly, tenderly.
They take position and start running, and within seconds they are miles away.
William is to meet them back at the parking lot. He looks for them on the way down, spots them drifting gently, crisscrossing the sky as if following an invisible path. He stops to watch. James appears to be making them spin, and William wonders if this is for Anna’s sake, to give her a thrill.
When he reaches the base an hour later, Anna is waiting, sitting on a rock, arms wrapped around folded knees. James is packing the wings next to her.
“How was it?” He asks both of them.
Anna shrugs without looking up.
“She should try wingsuit-flying,” James says. He brings his hands together and makes them fly in the air. “No harness. No strings. Free. Like a bird.” He gazes skyward and suddenly smiles, as if he and the sky are in on a private joke. William looks up—clouds are starting to take shape. He remembers how James had insisted they meet him early because the weather was going to change by midafternoon. When they left, the sun was a perfect orange disk, not a wisp of white in the sky.
Anna stands up. William notices how her pixie cut is a mess, ruffled by the paraglide ride. She cut her hair last week, a spur-of-the moment endeavor.
“When can we start?” she says, looking at James.
“Wingsuit? First you need to qualify as a skydiver.”
“Can we start tomorrow?”
James lets out a chuckle as if recognizing something in her, something he expected. He lifts his hands above his head, and seconds later it starts to drizzle. He smiles.
“Sure thing,” he tells her.
It is the beginning of June. James thinks that if she jumps at least once a week, she will be ready for her first wingsuit-flying jump by winter. William wants to know if they can fly even when it snows. James jerks his shoulders, grins. “Never stopped a bird.”
James has his theories, too, about Anna. He asks William one day about whether she can really not fly—not even glide?—and hearing that she can’t, that her bones are too heavy and everything about the wings is wrong, he stares at the ground for a long time, disappointed, and then confesses how a small group of wingsuit flyers believe that what they are doing, wingsuit flying, is evolution. “Think of the flying squirrels,” he says.
In the course of the summer, William catches him on several occasions on his knees, picking up Anna’s feathers. He is aware of how James’ hand keeps returning to the pocket where he places them. Like a tongue to a wobbly tooth.
Anna has to complete two hundred free-fall skydiving jumps. James makes all the arrangements for her training. He has a friend who owns a Cessna. First William accompanies them, and then he stops. The ride makes him dizzy; he feels the rattle of the plane through his teeth, finds the interior smells of metal and old anxiety. And he stays behind also because of how Anna rises, straight as an arrow, as soon as James opens the door, how she spontaneously positions herself on the ledge, a ton of air already hitting her face, how she jumps into the void without ever looking back.
One night while she sleeps on her side and her wings part slightly, he sees the bruises. They look like ink spots, some of them resembling shapes—a heart, a leaf.
“You’re jumping too much,” he tells her in the morning.
She waits. “Do I have a choice?”
She becomes more and more agitated when she dreams, as if fighting the stillness of the mattress. Twice she jumps off the bed. When she opens her eyes, she looks wilder than she ever has before.
Her feathers, he notices, have picked up different scents since she’s been jumping. They smell like grass, leaves, or smoke from distant fires.
One morning he catches her in front of the bathroom mirror. She is twisting her head farther than he could ever reach. She frantically takes hold of feathers and starts to bite.
“Everything itches,” she says, upon seeing him. “It’s like a healing wound. Maybe it’s a good thing?”
She wants to sleep on the mountain. She argues that it doesn’t make sense for her to make the journey all the way back to Salt Lake City every time. And in between the skydive jumps, she wants to paraglide. She has borrowed James’s equipment. She doesn’t ask William if he wants to go with her. She brings him keepsakes—small stones, branches, bird feathers, not hers, that are long and stiff and asymmetrical. “Flight feathers,” she says, pointing at their ragged edges and stroking them gently. She presses them against his nose. They smell like dust.
“How does it feel to skydive?” he asks on a day she is stranded at home because it is too windy to jump.
They are sitting on the balcony. The wind catches her wings, lifts some feathers. All her home sweaters have slits in them. Outside, she keeps her wings bandaged, concealed under thick jerseys.
“It doesn’t feel like falling, more like accelerating toward the land,” she says.
He searches her eyes. There is screeching and cooing—not far from them, pigeons are shuffling on a gutter. There are youngsters, too. Their cry is high-pitched like a door hinge. She points at them. “They never get thrown out of their nest to learn to fly, you know. Never on purpose. They leave when they are ready to fly. When they know they can.”
As she speaks, two adults take off. There is the flutter of wings like a gift being hastily unwrapped. The baby pigeons’ cries intensify. Their beaks are wide open, the insides of their mouths are dark holes. None of them try to follow.
When fall comes, she goes through a molt. The feathers that grow back are long and dark. She loses a molar. Her toenails grow thick, hard to file. She accidently claws him at night. “Did I do this?” she says, finding him in the bathroom one night, a bottle of peroxide in his hand and a bleeding ankle. “It’s OK, just a scratch,” he says. But it hurts. The wound is deep and will take a long time to heal.
Sometimes when they talk, her voice suddenly rises and drops. It is as if she is seeking to imitate his voice. Soon he realizes that she can echo the calls of the red throats, the sparrows, and the mourning doves that come by the kitchen window. There are also more birds that hang around the apartment—last week he surprised a falcon balancing on the flower box. A new flock of doves nestled in the gutters.
One afternoon, he comes home to her sitting on the kitchen counter, crouched under the running tap. She is moving her head in and out of the water trickle. When she sees him, she hisses; he sees it in a flash, the ghost of her wildness. He steps away from the kitchen, carefully.
By the end of spring, she has lost the ability to speak.
“I love you,” he tells her before going to sleep.
“Drill. Drill,” she answers, staring back, unblinking. Instead of her eyes closing, a thin membrane of skin swipes horizontally across her eyes.
For a job, Anna is an assistant editor for an online travel magazine. Most of the time, she writes about places she has never visited. The details she gives are sometimes so precise that she wonders whether she might have seen the waterfalls she describes so vividly, the sequoia forests, the river brimming with rainbow trout. She once asked, “What if I have flown above them . . . in another life?”
“You’re good at your job,” William interrupted. But the truth was that he was more scared about her being wrong than being right.
When the magazine editor calls, asks to speak with Anna because she hasn’t submitted articles in days, William tells her that Anna has fallen ill, too sick to even let her know. As he speaks, he suddenly feels overwhelmed. He looks at his hand—the five fingers, the moon-shaped fingernails. Wherever Anna is going, if there is such a place higher up, he is not going.
James drops by the apartment. Anna hasn’t met up with him in weeks, and he is worried. He also has something exciting planned for her: BASE jumping, a sport that involves launching from cliffs and delaying the deployment of a parachute.
But Anna is not home, William explains. James enters the house anyway. Together they sit outside and drink beers. James points at feathers stuck between the balcony railings. “Are they hers?”
William looks at them for a long time before he realizes he can no longer tell.
The wind hisses. The mountains in front of them stand tall, solid. Somewhere in the middle of small talk, William asks James, “Wingsuit-flying, BASE jumping . . . why do it?”
James brings his fingers to his lips. He takes a sip of a beer, then another. He scratches his head. In the end, he can’t explain.
After she’s been gone a week, William drives to the Cottonwood Canyon State Park. This is where she has been camping mostly. He waits till dusk, takes the longer way heading back. The next day, he spends the night at the park. He lies awake in his tent, hears sounds—howls, shrieks—he can’t place. He hopes Anna is safe.
In the morning, he spots her. She is perched on a high branch of a bare cottonwood tree overlooking his tent. The nails on her feet have grown into powerful claws. She has lost all her hair; her body is a lattice of dark, velvety-brown feathers, except for the feathers on her face, which are bone white—he has a vision of a bald eagle.
All the time, Anna watches him with wings slightly spread, talons clutching the white bark. He inches forward; the thin remaining layer of first snow bears witness to his presence, crunching under his feet, holding an imprint.
He tries reaching a hand to her. She crouches, lets out a high-pitched cry. A feather comes loose and drifts downward. He bends slowly and picks it up, brushes it against his lips. It tastes like salt and grass and mud, like everything that is around and beyond.
He returns several times to the mountains, but never sees Anna again or if he does, he does not recognize her. Twice, he comes across a bald eagle, feels the intensity of its stare before seeing the flashes of white, the yellow feet. It crosses the sky above him, always alone, its giant wings eclipsing the sun. There is a whistle of air as it speeds. Then the sky goes quiet.
Melissa Madore is a French Canadian writer who lives in Cape Town, South Africa. Years ago, she was the first-prize winner of the French competition “Les dix mots de la Francophonie.” In 2010, her story “Swallow Dive” was chosen as a Regional winner (Canada/UK) for the Commonwealth short story award. In 2019 “That’s Not the Story,” a craft essay, was featured in the Masters Review blog. When not writing, she teaches French for corporates. She has two amazing daughters, a wonderful husband, and lives by the sea. “Flying Lessons” is her first story publication.