July 23, 2020

Throwback Thursday: BENTWING by Ellen Stader

He knew with great certainty that
the great birds had given him
the egg to take care of...

Editor’s note: I love the egg details and the pictures this story paints. I really feel like I can see the story. It’s from April 2019.

An old man was walking one morning on a lonely errand, bent shoulders poking up through his coat. Rounding a bend, he stopped short at the sight of five gigantic birds clustered in a circle on the road. Cranes, he thought, on their way to the river nearby. The way they lowered their red-capped heads and flapped the tips of their snowy wings, the old man could have sworn they were talking. But, talking birds or no, he had to get his errand done, and this was the only road. So he walked toward them.

The birds turned their heads as the old man approached. Instead of flying away, two walked to the east side of the road, and two to the west side; the last one stayed put. The man saw they’d been gathering around an egg. The biggest egg he'd ever seen, dappled brown and rust and gold, marred by a hole the size of his eye. Pushing down a pang of curiosity, he moved to step past the birds—but all five spread their wings until the road was blocked. The man was surprised enough to ask, "What do you want?" The birds did not reply, but one floated the tip of a wing downward, drawing his gaze to the egg.

The man looked down and noticed that whatever was inside was breathing, just enough to see. Perhaps the hole in the shell hadn't harmed its contents. He leaned toward the egg slowly, not wanting to alarm the birds. When he noticed a faint golden light glowing from inside, a calm and a peace bloomed through him. He crouched and reached out his hands, entranced. The great bird nearest him brought down its other wing and rolled the egg into the old man's hands. He hugged it close to his chest, feeling it warm and smooth and precious.

Then, in an instant, the cranes began to take off, one by one. As the man stood in amazement, each bird flew high toward the western hilltop nearby, then swooped low over his head and disappeared into the eastern horizon. The old man was left alone with the egg.

As fate would have it, this uncommon man was not only wise and knowledgeable, but also kind and warm-hearted. He knew with certainty that the great birds had given him the egg to take care of. He walked back home, errand forgotten, cradling the egg in his arm.

He fixed the egg a soft place not too near the stove, then sat down to ponder. Before an hour had passed, though, the egg moved. It jerked once, shuddered and rocked, then did the same again. The man could hear tiny scratching sounds coming from inside, but he left it alone, for he knew that usually animals are best left alone to manage their own births. He watched with a pounding heart and felt no fear but a joyous anticipation. Finally, the hole in the eggshell began to widen as pieces were chipped away from it. The old man saw dark, wet feathers, a blinking eye—and a nose.

Soon the creature inside the egg was struggling its way out. The man saw that the creature was a girl child, by all appearances human, but with two bony puffs of dark, downy feathers upon her back. While one of the wings folded neatly against her shoulder, the other was bent at an awkward angle. Maybe the hole in the eggshell had done some damage, after all.
A bent wing was the last of the man's concerns, though: He’d counted on raising a baby bird that would soon learn to find its own food, but a human child was another matter altogether. His own children were long grown; decades had passed since he last fed a child. Still, when the winged baby girl fixed him with solemn dark eyes and reached a small human hand toward him, he knew how he would willingly spend the rest of his life.
The old man raised the baby into a fine, strong girl. She was lively and mischievous, and she loved her "grandfather.” They had enough to eat, and things were right in their home until her birthday one year.
For weeks, the girl had been having flying dreams, sometimes comical, sometimes frightening, sometimes soaring. She woke from each with an aching desire to fly. So on the morning of her birthday, she went to her grandfather and asked him to teach her how to fly, naturally assuming he could do anything.
"I've got these wings, but they don’t do anything. And that seems wrong. Things with wings are supposed to fly," said the plain-spoken little girl. "Only, I'm not sure about this one…" She twitched the bent wing. "It's never felt right, and it doesn't fold flat like my other one."
"Well, we won't know until we test it," said her grandfather with a little wink. He didn't know how he’d teach her to fly, but there was nothing he wouldn't do for her, so he would try his best. The two climbed to the summit of the hill behind their home—a good starting place, the old man reasoned. There they sat for half a day, watching the hawks take off, soar and wheel, dive and hunt, then land to feed and rest. Into the evening, the girl practiced running, leaping, and flapping.
They returned to the hilltop often. She practiced every day for months, her wings growing stronger and sleeker, her leaps higher and longer. But to her dismay, she couldn't stay in the air. She began to doubt her crumpled wing could keep her aloft. At the end of a year, her flying dreams had turned into falling dreams. Though the old man had perfect faith in her flying, still she began to practice less, with less of her heart in it.
These worries kept her from noticing her grandfather was moving more slowly every day. Though he still sometimes accompanied her up the hill, more often he watched her from home, offering advice when she returned. He was already an old man when he found her, and many years had passed since then. He was often cold now, even in the old cloth coat that showed his bony shoulders, and he began to eat less.
One day he said to the girl, "You’re old enough to take care of yourself now—indeed, you’ve taken good care of me for some time—and you no longer need me. I will go to join my ancestors soon."
The girl wept. He was the only family she’d ever known. But he’d taught her to be strong and kind, so she dashed her tears and knelt beside him, asking, "What can I do to help you?"
The old man replied, "Before sundown, go to the river and catch five fish. Arrange them along the eastern bank, then hide and watch who comes." So after fixing his supper, the girl took her pole to the river and caught five fat fishes. She laid them on the eastern bank, each upon a little mound of leaves. Then she slipped up the western bank and sat down in the lengthening shadows to watch.
Before long, an enormous white bird with a red head and black legs was stalking up the eastern bank ... followed by another ... and then three more. Each bird walked to a fish, bent its long neck, scooped the fish into its upturned gullet, and swallowed it in a few shuddering gulps. Then, in the last slanting rays of orange light, the birds did something astonishing: They gathered into a tight circle, twitching their wingtips and lowered heads as though in deep discussion. And there they stood in the gathering twilight.
The sky was dark when the girl slipped back to the house. She said, "Grandfather, five giant cranes came and ate the fish I caught! Then they stood in a circle talking!" At that, the old man smiled and sighed.
"Then I shall be going soon," he said. The girl was puzzled, but he beckoned to her. "Sit and talk with me first." So she sat beside the man who raised her, and they laughed at memories through the night. Neither was afraid for him to go, but both were sad at the thought of parting. Finally, as the black sky turned to purple-grey, the old man said, "Go see if anyone is in the yard."
The girl reached the window to see a crane alighting. Four more followed, winging in soundlessly and landing in a semicircle to face the house. She gasped, "Grandfather, it's the five birds! What do they want?"
He unfolded from his bed, saying, "They’ve come to take me home, to thank me for taking care of you. It was from those birds that I received you years ago, still in your egg." He walked through the door toward the rising sun, shrugging off the old cloth coat. Again the girl with the bent wing gasped, for she saw upon her grandfather's shoulders two powerful, dark wings—one of them bent at an awkward angle.
As she followed him into the yard, he turned and kissed her brow, saying, "This is how I’ve always known you can fly with a broken wing. Don't be afraid anymore." And with that, the five great birds and the winged man leaped into the air, circled the yard, and swooped low over the winged girl before soaring east toward the sunrise.  
Ellen Stader is a writer and performer in Austin, Texas, who’s always looking for the right corner to turn into Animals-Can-Talk-to-People Land. She first found the characters for the story “Bentwing” while choreographing a dance. Her essays can be found on Medium, and she writes, curates, and publishes two blogs: Austin.Women.Love, telling the stories of superhero women in Austin, and I Would Write 4 U, collecting stories about Prince. Stader is currently finishing a memoir tentatively titled The Salmon of Knowledge and has no idea when it might come out.

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff


Ellie a.Goss said...

Beautiful - loved it!

Kathleen Jowitt said...

That's a beautiful story, with a twist I didn't see coming, though in fact it's signalled from the very first line.

(Oddly enough, I've been working on one from almost the opposite point of view - hope to submit it next month...)

Kelly Jarvis said...

I love everything about this story, especially the relationship between the grandfather and the girl. A beautiful twist at the end.

Katew said...

I did too!

Katew said...

Can’t wait to read it!

Katew said...

I’m so glad you liked it. We have a wonderful backlog of stories and poems here.

Maxine said...

Lovely story, well told, with a great twist at the end. However, I do wonder why the old man did not show the girl how to fly to encourage her more. Was it because she had to discover the ability for herself? I would really love to know.