Fiction, Bryana Lorenzo
My father had a golden songbird cage hung before a grand window sill in a gray storage room at the back of the house. Within the cage, he kept a great white crane, its feathers clipped and trapped by the metal, its neck contorted unnaturally downwards by the cage’s top. My mother was allowed nowhere near the cage, not even anywhere near the back of the house where it was kept, despite complaining of the noise the crane made as it shuffled and squirmed about trying to escape—to fly free through the clear glass.
“At least take the poor creature outside so it may get some fresh air!” my mother begged.
But my father never budged. “It has all the air it needs by the damn window.”
Like the crane, my mother was disallowed outside the house. Mechanically, she spent her days sweeping and sewing—mending buttons on my blouse and nurturing wounds I’d garnered from playing out in the mulch. Sometimes, she sang me to sleep, a low croon, hushed, melancholic, a birdsong, a call for the outdoors, for a faraway flock. Other times, she spent her days telling me stories, tales from when she was young and not with father, from when she ran through grass barefoot and knew the sky better than the ground.
“To the east was a mountain range so high and white that it appeared like a great covering of cloud,” my mother claimed. “Up above was the sun, a shining yolk. Down below was the canopy of pines and nests and nuts and sound—sounds of the birds and the buzzing bees and the gray squirrels and the breeze.”
My mother claimed to once wear a pair of wings—long, white, and glistening in the daylight, like they were covered in dewdrops. Then she met father, who hid them somewhere in our house—beneath the floorboards, under the furnace, in a secret compartment in the dresser. She didn’t, couldn’t, know. But they were there. She heard them—felt them—fluttering about, waiting to fly off again.
“Will I grow wings one day too?” I asked once.
My mother stared past me, gaze affixed to a bare wall. “No child. You are mortal, human. Your feet are affixed to the ground. You’ll never fly without the help of great metal machines, and you’ll fall if you aim too high.”
We were isolated in our little cabin home. I had nobody else but my mother and father. My only companions were the fresh spring breeze, the ladybugs and butterflies that lingered in our back garden, and the towering conifers. I heard their whispers as I ran through the dense woodland, felt the faint phantom pantomime of love, longing. I imagined care from the caterpillars that squirmed on my arms and love from the squirrels high up in the trees. And even the buzzing bees made themselves known as friends to me.
But of course, such flights of fancy were merely daydreams, fun little fairytales that made me feel less like a solitary soldier stuck in a near empty trench where only scant impressions of people, comrades, remain. If only I had wings to fly away and find solace in other lonely lost souls like. But only my mother was truly free. Only my mother ever had the chance to love and find paradise far away. I could only ever crawl through earth until darkness led me astray.
“Could you at least teach me how to fall one day?” I begged my mother once. “Show me how to crash gently to the ground while still ending up far away in another world?”
My mother sighed. “Go on now, child. Play your silly little games outside. Learn to walk and find freedom there, for there is none to be found in falling.”
Falling was the folly that led her to my father. And now she can’t fly away from him.
When my father was home, my mother was affixed to his side. He admired her figure, her pretty porcelain face, her button nose, her long golden hair that cascaded down her back like a waterfall. My mother sang father to sleep, was the only one who could ever make him sleep. Without her, he awoke in the night in a manic sweat, still seeing whatever night terror he’d thought he’d left in his dreams. But all he needed was her soft, dulcet crone, her quiet assurances of love, to go back to bed. He didn’t care that those assurances were sweet white lies. Just as he didn’t care enough to comfort my mother when she cried herself back to restless slumber.
But when father wasn’t around, my mother spent her days searching for her wings, and, when she couldn’t find them, she’d sit by the crane’s locked back room and cry, languishing for the creature locked in its tiny crane cage. On those days, she never sang, never told stories, never even looked me in the eye. It was as though I were a plane of glass, invisible or unreal or an illusion conjured up. Her mind seemed to wander up and far from Earth, and I was never privy to where she flew.
Then, my father would come home and make sure she was grounded, leaving little purple bruises on her shoulders, arms, and back. He made sure to never touch her face or neck, lest he ruin his lovely little music box. But he did make sure to leave a great amount of bruises on the ridge of her spine, where her wings would have been, where they should be. And he always forced my mother to claim she loved him before he left her alone. And every time, she reluctantly did, cooing like a canary in an already collapsed coal mine. And every time he left her, my mother stayed on the dusty floor by the door to the crane room, null, hardly alive not from injury but from fading lights in her eyes and mind. I always wanted to help her up but I feared to touch her, out of fear she’d stop breathing. But even when I left her, she hardly stirred. Thus, I’d stay by her side, to ensure she still had a beating heart. The next morning, she’d put on a strained smile, as if nothing ever happened the night before, and she’d fix buttons on my coat, before reminding me not to track dirt in the house.
Once, on one of the days my mother frantically searched for her wings, I asked my mother what she’d do if she found them, and she admitted she’d fly away.
“Would you take me with you?” I asked.
My mother’s eyes went dull. “I had a nest, dear chicks to tend to before this.”
“But… aren’t I counted among the nest?” I asked.
My mother paused, then sighed. “You’re not my chick, just a girl,” she said. “I’m sorry… I wish I could give you what you desire.”
My mother didn't speak to me for the rest of the day, no matter how much I proked or prodded her, and couldn’t even look me in the eye. She simply pruned, crooned, mended. All with her gaze locked away, her ears deaf to my pleas. Only once did I catch a quick glance my way. Guilt. Pity. That was all her eyes let loose. Then the next day, in the early morning, I found my mother by an open window, looking out into the dark wilderness with a cup of tea.
“I had another lover before this, you know. Another family. Sisters. Another life,” she turned to face me. “Then your father shot me down and stole my wings… and I lost all of it. Now I don’t know where my children are or where my mate is or where my family is… I don’t even know if they know that I’m alive…”
She took another sip of her tea, and I tried to reach out to touch her but she pushed my hand away, then tried to touch my face. But I pushed her hand away too.
My mother’s body may have been trapped in the smothering walls of the cabin, but her dear my mind was elsewhere far afield. Far from me. The cabin felt suddenly unbearably empty, still. The trees outside were lifeless. No critter made a move or a sound. I took a breath and searched my mother’s eyes for recognition. Searched for a sign that I wasn’t alone.
“Do… Do you love me?” I asked. “I know I’m not part of the family, but… do you still care for me as one of your own?”
My mother stared me down, up and around and over. She grabbed my head and leaned it against her chest. “This isn’t your fault, isn’t yours at all. Nothing is wrong with you.”
“That… doesn’t answer my question.”
But she just kept repeating what she just said, over and over and over again. She said it each time she saw me, as if unsure if she was trying to convince me or convince myself of what she claimed. I believe she was doing both, but neither of us believed her.
Not long after the incident, I was outside, playing in mud, playing with the worms in the morning mildew which crawled along and under my legs. Or at least, I was pretending that I was playing, as if the incident had never happened at all. Otherwise my mother would worry. And so I forced a smile as a worm crawled between my toes, the most true affection another creature had ever given me. A robin approached and plucked it from beneath my big toe, flew away with it, likely fed it to her chicks. I should’ve cried, should’ve been horrified, by the poor worm’s fate. But instead I felt envious, felt that the little slimy thing was lucky it was wanted, that it could fly far away to somewhere else, somewhere better. Then suddenly, I had a revelation. I went inside and told my mother what I was, what I wished to be.
“I want to be a worm,” I said.
“Child, you are no worm,” my mother said. “Don’t think less of yourself just because your father—“
“No! You don’t understand! I want to be a worm!” I repeated again.
My mother raised an eyebrow. “What… whatever for?”
I sighed. “I… I want to be light enough for you to carry away, to be of use, to be something that sustains you, that will always be with you, even if only in spirit…“
“Child…” my mother pulled me close. “Don’t yearn for death for my sake, or anybody else’s for that matter.”
“I don’t want to die, I just,” I groaned. “I don’t want to lose you…”
My mother laughed weakly. “You’re unlikely to ever lose me at this rate… I’ll likely always be your mother…”
“But you’re not really my mother, are you?” I said. “You’re just a bird taking pity on a poor human girl… until, one day, you don’t have to anymore.”
After that, I refused to allow my mother to mend my buttons or tell me stories or croon me songs or tend to my wounds. I’d aid her in finding her wings, but I’d never speak, never even look at her. A part of me wished to look in the mirror and already see a ghost where she stood—a haunting, a spirit, a memory in glass and nothing more. I wished to see a crane, droning in a corner, a rare beauty ready for flight. But I didn’t want to see her, didn’t want to remember her, longed to forget her. But at every accidental glance in the mirror, all I saw was her visage, moving forlornly through the halls, waiting for wings that may never come.
Once, I got so tired of accidentally looking at her that I broke the mirror with my bare fists, the entirety of the glass shards falling to the floor, revealing nothing but a wall and the glint of a golden key behind. I pocketed the key before anyone could spy me. For breaking the mirror I received a beating from father, who then moved onto mother. Before he could touch her, I got in the way, punching back, kicking, crying, screaming.
“Why? Why do you do this? Why are we even here with you?” I hissed. “What’s the point of keeping us just to beat us and hate us and control us? You don’t even love us!”
But my father always punched back harder. “You entitled little brat! I’m the only reason you still have a mother!”
“And you expect me to thank you for that? To grovel at your knees?” I asked. “My own mother doesn’t even like me and neither do you!”
“You think you’re still here because you’re loved?”
“Then why am I here?”
My father knocked me to the floor. “To be an anchor of guilt. A tool. A pain in the ass for me. Nothing more, nothing less.”
I pulled myself off the floor, coughing as you did. “If that’s the case, what’s stopping me from leaving now and finding somewhere better?”
Bitterly, my father cackled. “Oh really child? Out there, who’s left to care for you at all? Who out there even knows you exist?”
In the months following, I was disallowed from leaving the house just as mother was. Each time she saw me, she gave me a look of pity, like I was a prized cock pecking at each and every person as it’s dragged from its cage to be thrown into another fight. Or a pathetic pigeon fleeting a huntsman’s bullet. Or a poor crane in a golden cage, slowly losing strength as I attempted to free myself even as I likely never would.
And yet, housebound, I spent more and more of my days searching for those goddamn wings, and I searched under both my father and my mother’s nose. Obviously, my father couldn’t know what I sought, but I also evaded my mother in my quest. I wanted to find them first, to bring them like an offering, to see a light in her eyes of love, gratitude, something. Anything but pity. But all I found was dust from where my mother had yet to sweep and buttons from when my mother mended my clothes.
Then one day, as I searched, the crane in the back room was being particularly noisy, banging its cage against the wall, against the window, against itself. It screeched and squawked like it was being murdered. At one point, I banged on the door to the room where it was locked up, as though that would scare it into shutting up. But that only made it screech louder.
“Please, just be quiet!” I begged. “What do I have to do to make you shut up?”
Then, I had an idea. From my bottom pocket, I took out the key and unlocked the room, entering slowly inside, eyeing the beautiful crane and crane cage before me. Gently, I opened the window and then unlocked the cage. The creature didn’t step out.
“What? Are you suddenly scared now?” I asked. “Go now! Fly off! Be free!”
Finally, the crane took a tentative step out of its cage, stretched out its feathers, and fluttered gracefully out the window. I’d never heard the back of the house so quiet, felt the walls so still. The room felt… almost bare without it. Empty, despite the boxes of books and knick knacks that towered up to the ceiling. A certain sorrow sullied the silence, as did a certain joy. As did a certain peace from freedom, from the liberation of quiet.
“Mother!” I called out. “I… uh… I released the bird!”
Silence echoed back.
“Mother?” I called again.
I searched the house, but it was scraped of her presence. Not a trace of her remained, not the broom she swept with, not the needle she sewed with, not even the clothes she wore. It was as though she never was, and never would be. I went back to the storage room and stared out the open window, leaning my head against the cage’s cool metal. Perhaps she flew off to the mountain range as high as the clouds. Perhaps she returned to the family she was snatched from. Wherever she flew off to, for me, she was finally a ghost.
After that, I crept outside the house, walking through the dark, mangled forest, hardly aware of the sights or sounds or smells before me. I had the bird cage in hand, eyeing the trees. When I found one sufficiently tall enough, I dragged myself all the way to the top and threw the cage to the ground as hard as I could. The gold crooked and turned but didn’t break. Still, I left it where it was and kept walking, barefoot, bare-minded, the dirt caking between my toes, the breeze brushing past like a mother’s gentle caress. At one point, I felt a worm squirm beneath my big toe. I wondered whether it would live to see another day or if a bird would find and consume it.
Pushcart Prize and Best of Net nominee Bryana Lorenzo has had her fiction featured in Outlander Zine, The Graveyard Zine, Rhodora Magazine, Le Château Magazine, The Literary Canteen, Pile Press, Agapanthus Collective, Novus Literary Arts Journal, io Lit, The Talon Review, and White Wall Review, and has a story forthcoming in Occulum Journal. She’s also an alumnus of the prestigious Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship and the Iowa Young Writers Studio. Find her on Instagram @bryanastarwrites