(An Experiment with Magical Realism)
A little girl stumbles over the twigs in her path, expelling a frustrated breath as she attempts to keep her hold on the blanket trailing her. Birds from above quiet as her presence startles their songs, and she ignores them as she struggles to her feet. A rustling of leaves alarms her, for she is quick to realize the sounds are not her own administrations. She stills, and her blanket settles beside her, laying unobtrusively on the cracked and browning leaves flattened by her toes. Pinpoints of brown dart from tree trunk to tree trunk.
The birds start up again, and the little girl's pink tongue wets her lips in a dissolving streak of salt. Patience has never been her virtue, and she yanks her blanket up as she straightens to her insubstantial height. Papa will not worry. She knows this because he rarely comes home before dark, and experience has taught her that the shaded sunlight through the canopy allows two more hours of light. She has been out here plenty of times out of hunger, boredom, pure curiosity.
Her small feet go on exploring, excited at the prospect of finding something—anything. The repeated rustling, instead of stilling her, makes her tilt her head curiously to the side. Strands of brown hair slip silently over her shoulder, obstructing only briefly the angle which reveals to her a man.
Now her feet still, her eyes narrow, and her tiny fist tightens on her blanket. Walking forward, the girl comes upon him—naked! Her wide eyes run over this dirt-caked form lying crumpled on his side, large white wings protruding from his shoulders and digging into the same dirt that cakes his body. For some inexplicable reason, she decides to crawl on her hands and knees to him, as if respectful of being level with this stranger. His eyes are closed, and his eyelashes lie long and flush against his cheekbones, his lips open just wide enough to run air laboriously in and out.
A miniature finger pokes this man's shoulder, prodding until dark green eyes reveal themselves in a haze. He blinks and shifts just slightly, enough to view this little girl with the dry lips and inquisitive brown eyes.
Neither of the pair says a word, until raspy, the word, "Hello," passes this brown man's mouth.
Smiling brightly in response, as if rewarding her stranger, she responds with, "My name is Pinny."
"Hello, Pinny," her stranger corrects. "My name is Luis."
"Hi, Luis. What are you doing here?" Pinny asks, resting her face now on two doubled fists.
Luis cringes as he tries to sit up and Pinny asks, "Are you hurt?"
"Maybe a little." And Luis lays back down on his back, his wings flattening out to accommodate him. He tilts his head back towards this little girl. "What are you doing here?"
"Exploring," Pinny answers promptly.
"Isn't it dangerous for you?"
Her answer causes Luis to cough out a chuckle and sigh, closing his eyes. Pinny regards him for a moment before pushing to her feet with a quiet look on her face. "Where are you hurt?"
She automatically scans his body and discovers his hands placed strategically low. She scoots down his body to see the damage, "Does it hurt here?"
Pinny touches his hands just as he jerks out of her reach and flattens determinedly on his stomach. "No," he grunts, a redness spreading over his face that Pinny admires.
"Then why are you covering it?"
There is no answer at first, and Pinny is maturely about to let it go when her stranger says, "It was a little cold there. I was covering from the wind."
Silence. Luis's eyes glance out the side to watch her as she stands biting her lip, as if deciding what to do or say next. He does not help. He closes his eyes as she sits down by his head again.
"Here," she offers the blanket—her prized possession on this expedition. Luis thanks her. Looking up, Pinny sees the darkening leaves. "Do you want to come home with me?"
Luis only looks at her, then sighs and replies, "I can't."
She nods and pauses to ask, almost hesitatingly, "Will you be here tomorrow?"
Luis opens one eye to arch at her, "You gave me your blanket. I have to return it to you."
Pinny beams at him, and impulsively leans down to pat his shoulder.
The trip back home passes faster than the expedition out, and she does not notice the few children still around, taking advantage of the last rays of sun. All she can think about are great green eyes in a brown face, the crooked smile of a stranger, and it does not matter that none of the children call out to her. Hurrying across the dust, the little girl reaches home, with its stained wooden planks and a wooden door missing a hinge, forcing her to tug heavily on the metal handle.
Darkness crowds the interior and she pulls out a rickety stool to reach the flicking tail of the light bulb. Crawling carefully back down, the little girl does not wait long before her Papa arrives home.
Papa throws his coat on the stool his daughter left out, and tramps to the kitchen in his heavy boots, a thunk thunk that Pinny's ears follow. He places on the table a small brown bag, and the blueberry wafts over to her ignored stomach. She rushes inconspicuously to the table.
"Mrs. Lamden baked us pie, so we'll eat that tonight," a rough grating voice announces.
"Thank you, Papa."
He doesn't look at her, simply washes his face and hands. Toweling himself dry, he murmurs, "Did you get your reading done today?"
Stuffing a piece of pie into her mouth allows her to mumble her response, disguising the truth in a pile of blueberry. Papa simply drinks some water from the sink as she continues digging happily into the pie. Memory strikes her, and she saves some for her stranger in the woods.
Humming, Pinny emerges at the spot she last saw her stranger. She finds him sitting up against a tree, looking flushed and just as dirty—but awake. Excitedly, Pinny lugs her basket of goodies, filled with leftover blueberry pie and bottles of water, as well as an extra blanket from her bed.
Proffering her gift to Luis, she claims, "I'm sorry there's only one blanket. I only have two at home, and it gets cold at night for me, too."
"Thank you," Luis responds humbly, his wings twitching.
Pinny regards the dirtied monstrosities for a moment. "Will those get cold?"
Luis smiles, "No."
She hands him quite a large chunk of the pie from the night before. She tells him about her typical day, who Mrs. Lamden is, and how she bakes too much pie for her son. Luis devours the pie and water all the while, and Pinny must stop him in this.
"Wait! Save some to wash with."
Wiping his mouth, Luis lowers the bottle and says, "Actually, there's a river a couple of miles back. I should be able to get there tomorrow to clean off."
This perplexes Pinny, who eyes him again. "But aren't you hurt?"
He nods succinctly. "Yes, but this helped a lot."
"Oh. How long have you been out here?"
"Just a while."
"Do you have a home?"
This gives Luis pause, before he claims, "No, I don't believe so."
"Oh." Pinny is not sure what to make of this. "I live with my papa. Our home is small and a little messy. Papa says I need to clean better if I want to be a good wife."
Luis grins, "How old are you—seven?"
Pinny shakes her head, not at all offended. "I'm ten."
"You live with just your papa?"
Nodding, she explains, "My brother Alistair lived with us too, but he's gone now." She wonders if her stranger will ask about Alis, but he doesn't.
"I miss him…" she adds quietly, and looks down at her lap to see a drop appear on her dress. Startled, she thinks she must be crying, but then more drops follow, and rain suddenly swells past the towering leaves. With a cry, Pinny stands up, arms flying up in a vain attempt to stay dry. Luis laughs, extending a wing over her body from where he sits, stopping the rain as suddenly as it starts. Arms falling back to her sides, Pinny simply stares at the sticky feathers that act as her umbrella.
Quite out of the blue, Pinny smiles at Luis and shifts towards him as his wing contracts, pulling her tighter into the cocoon of feathers. It seems like a cave to her, this comforting shelter of wings and breath.
The little girl misses the next day with her stranger; Papa discovers she has been missing her lessons. Grumpy and softened, she argues, and he strikes her before flinging her to the table. Hitting the edge, she immediately quiets, reflex back in tune. Without a word, she walks over to her corner and takes out her books. Lines and words and numbers. She sighs, then an idea occurs to her: she could read to Luis!
But Papa sends one of the women in town to come to the house, angrily swearing at his daughter about wasting his money.
"Hello, Pinny," Ms. Notters says monotonously as she walks in the door.
"Hi, Ms. Notters. Sorry you have to come."
"It's no trouble; just for today."
Pinny nods and obediently sits down to read. Mostly, she just looks at the pictures; landscapes and fancily dressed characters, trees with leaves she's never seen before. The pages are far from new, and her fingers run familiarly over them, only to stop when Ms. Notters interrupts her daydreaming.
"Is there a word you do not recognize?"
Shaking her head, Pinny finishes her book for the nth time, wondering if she should make the trip to the town's one school to find some more.
Papa returns with bread, butter, and milk. She thanks her papa quietly, wondering if his demeanor originates from guilt. She wishes to tell him she forgives him, but something inside her advises silence. When he asks about the leftover pie, she stiffens, tripping over her tongue.
"I-I left it out. I'm sorry. They ate it all. The birds. Rats." Every nerve ending on alert. The lie congeals and she despises the taste. "I'm sorry. I gave it to someone who needed it more, I think."
Papa turns to face his little girl, "What?"
She does not note that the pie was free from Mrs. Lamden. She knows better. She watches her papa, noticing that he sits tensely, hating him for her fear, hating her for her fear. But she loves him forgives him loves him.
Suddenly she smiles—hesitantly. "I can learn to make pie, Papa. I can learn."
Papa slides off his chair and passes his recoiling daughter, stripping off his boots and outer jacket to head to bed.
"You can read?" Luis asks, wading into the river where he washes the grime off his body. Pinny introduces the books in order to distract him, for she has never seen a Perfect Man before. He slips gingerly in, and his wings lie gently—just barely—on the water's surface before he plunges under. Upon surfacing, Pinny completely forgets his question, because as he rises, his wings extend to their fullest, shaking off the water and enveloping Luis in a mist of water and sun. Unbeknownst to either of them, Luis with his wings enclosing his body has stepped into the glorified vision of this little girl's mind. Moving to the water's edge, she splashes her arms and legs in it, stilling when she catches her reflection and sees a slight bruise on the side of her face. Embarassed, she wonders if Luis has seen it too, but he has closed his eyes in the water.
"Mmhmm," she focuses on her books distractedly. "I'm going to learn to make pie, too."
Luis smiles, "Will you bring me some?" He ties her blanket around his waist, his wings retreating as he perches on an oversized root.
She nods matter-of-factly and retreats to higher ground.
"Would you like to read to me?"
She hesitates, abashed, uncertain of her reading. Alistair and Papa never sat down to listen, and she is unsure of how to proceed. He is not one of the indulgent townswomen who are paid to watch over her. But she proceeds to attempt the lines on the pages, checking on Luis occasionally to find him with his eyes closed. Believing him to be asleep, she stops, but he perks an accusatory eye open at her. She promptly begins again, strangely and completely happy.
"Pinny?" a soft voice registers. The little girl blinks blurry eyes and finds Luis's familiar green ones, reassured. She snuggles deeper against the downy cushion of wings that smell of river and earth, listening to the deep vibration of his laugh.
"It's getting late. Won't your papa worry?"
This snaps her eyes open, finally understanding the shadows surrounding her. Bolting up, she starts off without a word, then reels as the trees swarm around her and form a maze.
"I- he'll be so mad! I don't know where-" and she whirls, stomping her foot to channel her anger and restrain the tears. Her mind remains fuzzy with sleep.
Luis remains against the trunk, and there is a sort of thick silence, where a person understands something intangible. Pinny turns around, knowing that Luis is trying to say something.
"Will you be okay?"
It is a strange question to her, and Pinny hesitates. "Well, Papa will be mad. Do you know which way I came from? It's dark."
"May I lead you? I'm stronger now."
The pair makes its way steadily around trees that earlier had seemed perfectly distinguishable. Luis's hand feels warm and tight around hers, his right wing instinctively covering her as she studies the falling night.
Papa opens the door to see a stranger and his tired eyes ask what he wants. He looks down when a wing adjusts and reveals his daughter looking up with blank brown eyes, clutching onto the hand of this stranger.
The boy pulls Pinny just a little ahead of him, her hand raised high to stay attached.
"Who are you?" is the question Papa seems to have given priority. He's looking at this half-naked boy with the wings and a blanket around his waist.
"I'm a friend of Pinny's; she fell asleep and was disoriented, so I brought her back."
Papa forebodingly eyes his daughter, "Where was she?"
Before Luis can reply, Pinny interjects, "I'm sorry, Papa. I know I'm not allowed in the woods, but—"
"Go to bed," Papa interrupts her, but she remains.
Papa eyes Luis for a few moments, as if judging something. "Well, boy, thank you for bringing her back. You didn't touch her."
Pinny watches as the only two men in her life exchange looks. She would be more curious perhaps, if she weren't feeling relief at her papa's distraction. She wants to suggest Luis stay the night, but Papa is nodding and Luis turning around. The door swings unsteadily shut.
The birds squawk in alarm as small feet pound in the early morning dawn, a knot of fear in her throat. She cannot identify the feeling; all she knows is that it propels her into the woods to the spot she first stumbled upon her stranger.
And Alistair stands there, with his back to her. Screeching to a stop, Pinny tumbles forward and scurries back up, the knot expanding until it hurts to swallow and breathe.
He turns around.
"Hi, Pinny. It's early. What's the rush?"
"I-" The knot fades just a little, and she lets it. But it's a lie. "I was afraid you were gone."
Luis frowns, "I wouldn't leave without saying goodbye."
She remains standing there. Luis leans towards her, "Pinny, do you want to fly?" Even as he asks, his wings flex and expand, settle. They want air.
Eyes widening, she nods. And she sees nothing because her eyes close when he lifts her. When she opens them, she laughs and cries, hands tightening around Luis's neck. Waves of vibrant green drown her vision, peach colored pathways melt into blue-grey strokes, and the people! No one looks up, and she wonders why. She feels as if she drinks the sky, and she wants to let go—even of Luis. She wants him to let her go so she can catch the wind on her own, but he doesn't loosen his hold around her, and that is just as well because the heat from his body encases her against the cold. Her eyes and ears and nose and mouth and skin scream in pain and delight, sobbing at the sensations running through her.
The horizon beyond…the sun! She watches a color she has never seen before splash out against the hills and rise, taking the green and spilling gold over them. She almost believes if they fly long enough, she may touch it one day, all that fire. Her small hand reaches out, and in her mind, she does touch it. Her fist grasps it, and she tucks it into her body. Luis must say something; she feels it against his chest, but her ears are too preoccupied, because from here, the birds never stop singing. Luis's glide never disturbs them, and she even hears the wind, not whispering, but crowding in her ears with wails, as if trying to fill her up until she must float by herself. Love fills her, because what else could possibly feel so consuming?
The landing brings her heart rate down, and she wants to say No, but her body feels drained. She does not let go of Luis as he settles against a tree trunk. And there she falls asleep, so filled up, she feels like she swallowed the moon and the sun.
Pinny, however, does not wake happily. She wakes again into a state of instinctive but restrained panic. No wings hold her, and she stifles an unexplainable urge to cry. There, again! It's Alistair.
No, he turns around. Luis. Luis who listens to her read, covers her from the rain, holds her to sleep and to fly.
"I have to go, Pinny."
She finds herself nodding, Ok, Alistair. Ok, Luis. Ok, Papa. Please don't. The No catches in her throat and struggles briefly among the muscles.
He walks towards her and kneels in front of her, taking her hands. She simply looks at him.
"I owe you my life. That's something I can never repay; do you understand?"
A frown tickles her forehead. She shakes her head.
Her eyes widen, and she starts to deny her words, but her eyes dart around as if searching for reasons. She opens her mouth, "I'll be good. I'll clean. I can learn to make pie. I can be a good wife. Please don't go." Wrong words.
"Pinny, what's your name?"
Blinking, "Penelope Windsfeld."
Luis smiles, "Good. I'm going to come back for you, ok? Come here."
He alights with her easily into the air, making short distance over the woods to Pinny's house. She cannot even enjoy the flight, even as she smiles bemusedly at the open enjoyment of his wings. On the ground, at the broken door of her house, she bites her tongue and swallows. Luis kneels at her level and looks her straight in the eyes. "Listen to me. You have that pie ready for me in ten years."
The door opens, and Pinny feels herself transferred to her father, who is late leaving the house.
"What is this?" Papa demands. "You leave her alone."
"I'm returning for Pinny in ten years." He peeks in at her, where she has hidden behind her father, gazing at the stranger. "Wait for me."
Nodding, she retreats into the house where she hears no further word from him.
Seven years later, a stranger lands in town with wings as large as his body and eyes as green as their trees. He strides steadily towards the wooden door with a missing hinge and knocks.
Note: I wanted to experiment with magical realism, so this never actually had a title, to be honest. But I based it off an image I had when a teacher read a sentence or passage in an attempt to describe magical realism. I don't remember what she read, but I remember imagining a boy stumbling on an old man with wings protruding out of his back.
A friend told me later that it sounds like Gabriel García Márquez (author of Chronicle of a Death Foretold and One Hundred Years of Solitude). It sounds likely, because he wrote great magical realism, and I wanted to give him credit, since I based this story on that image.
Thanks for reading! :)