by Katherine Westermann
The Widow found the tiny creature in the flower patch behind her house. Broken petals lay all around him, and although no one had seen him crash down, she knew he had been soaring high and out of sight before the blustery spring cast him from the sky. His body was wrapped up in a tangle of purple wings. He looked like a baby bird cloaked in a regal wreath of feathers, but the plumage was his own.
She lifted him from the fresh tilled soil and unfolded his tangled wings with the same delicacy she had used to brush her infant daughter’s hair. His wings were hugely disproportionate and bright as violet fire. Such fierce wings looked foreign on his tender fledgling form.
She would have presumed him dead, but his warm body pulsed like a heart in her hand. Slowly, slowly and softly, she folded his wings to his side, held him close, and took him inside. She owned neither cats nor dogs. There were no children and no guests. No living thing inhabited the house, save the Widow, so she felt safe leaving the fallen creature on a pillow while she tried to look him up in one of her books. But to her chagrin he was not featured in her copy of Backyard Birding, and he was nowhere to be found within the pages of A Bird Lover’s Reference or any of her National Geographic Field Guides. She even resorted to the computer, but nothing resembled her foundling.
She was about to give up when she noticed a thick volume shoved behind the other books. Clucking her tongue at her own disorganization, the Widow pulled it out and wiped away the cobwebs and dust festooning its cover.
“The Almanac of Strange and Curious Beasts Who Fly,” she read aloud.
She did not remember buying it, but then again she had so many books. She had always staved off loneliness through reading, and as everyone around her disappeared one by one, the books in her empty house multiplied.
With the Almanac in hand, she went back to the tiny creature, still resting on the cushion where she had left him. Settling in close beside him, she stroked his silky wings and felt the shudder of his surprisingly strong heartbeat.
Still absently petting him with one hand, she thumbed through the book. She came across strange African insects, fish that purportedly flew, and bats of great intelligence. The illustrations were precise, and some of them reminded her of naturalist sketches. Then she found a glossy, brightly colored illustration of a tiny fledgling with gangly purple wings. The caption informed her that it was an infant Vorare Mater. Her heart quickened with excitement and the creature’s pulsing sped up as well. Squinting down at a column of tiny text, she read:
The Vorare Mater, colloquially known as The Orphan, is a birdlike beast that has many human qualities. Little is known about Vorare Mater’s origin or natural habitat. The only detailed account of the Vorare’s maturational processes comes from the diary of Sister Lucia Ferra, of Spain. Her diary, uncovered in 1835, describes her attempts to rehabilitate a Vorare.
She discovered the creature unconscious on the steps of her rural cottage. Sister Lucia lived alone, surviving as a subsistence farmer, after having been excommunicated for her radical religious views and her insistence on following her own ideas over those of church superiors. Due to her relative isolation, Lucia was the only person who observed or cared for the Vorare. Her recommendations for care and feeding are detailed below, as well as her discussion of the Vorare’s development, temperament, and how it bonds with a human host.
The first set of instructions struck the Widow as quite strange, but the Almanac was her only reference. So she scooped up the fledgling in her two cupped hands and sang him her favorite lullaby. The book encouraged her to stroke his tiny oval shaped head while she sang.
The creature stirred in the palm of her hand. His weak clawed feet kicked her palm and it felt like her unborn daughter kicking inside her, so many years ago. She sang louder, pulling him closer to her face, and he raised his head to peer in her grey eyes. His face was covered in down feathers, and his beak was stubby and hooked like an owl’s, but his big blue eyes were that of an infant. Intelligent and curious, he looked straight into her face. He blinked and cocked his head as though appraising her, deciding if she would suffice. The music died in her throat and she stared at him in awe. His gaze was fascinating and painful, like looking into an eclipse. After a few moments of silence, the Vorare’s eyes started to slide close and his head sagged, but the Widow sang again and he reawakened.
At first she needed to sing constantly to keep him awake. But once he was strong enough to stand on his own shaky legs, she only needed to sing to keep him vital and happy. She sang all her favorites from childhood, and he grew stronger. She sang the dance tunes and the rock ballads she used to boogey to in High School and he stretched out his wings as though he hungered to take off. His wingspan was two feet, which in contrast with his teacup sized body looked almost comical. When he extended his wings the purple feathers caught the light like prisms, but he was far too weak to fly.
Over the first few weeks they grew into a rhythm. She walked with him perched on her shoulder, and the twinge of his tiny horned talons reminded her that she was no longer alone. In the darkness, when the house groaned its enigmatic complaints and the trees quaked outside, the Vorare perched above her on the headboard, and she slept deeper than she had in years.
The Widow wanted to feed her foundling but according to Lucia Ferra: “Vorare’s do not eat.” Despite the reassurances of the Almanac, she tried offering him seeds, nuts and greens. He gave a curious sniff to a piece of fried liver, but he had no need for food, only song. So she sang until her throat ached, and the tunes all blurred together into meaningless noise.
Was she singing Silent Night or Itsy-Bitsy Spider? The words went first, but he didn’t care about words, so she made up her own. Then she began to lose the tunes. She forgot the melodies from childhood. She forgot the tunes her mother used to play on the piano. She was even muddling the tunes of her daughter’s bedtime songs. Eventually, the Widow found herself listening to the radio for hours, simply to find new songs to sing, but those songs fell out of her head the moment she sang them.
But the Vorare never judged her musical failings. He would blink his curious eyes and nuzzle her with his fuzzy head. He never reproached, and he always forgave. In her writings, Lucia compared her Vorare’s nature to that of Christ, but the Widow thought he was more like the perfect child. Sometimes she left him alone when she went to luncheons or ran errands, but he withered when she wasn’t close and it took hours of singing and humming to restore him to health.
One day she returned from grocery shopping to find him collapsed on the rug with his wings tangled, his feathers ruffled and bent, and his head turned at an odd backwards angle. The Widow’s hands went numb and her world narrowed onto just the Vorare. The grocery bags slipped from her hands. A pickle jar shattered on the tiled entry way, but she hardly heard. She ran to him and fell on her knees, her arthritis temporarily forgotten. She couldn’t feel the ache in her joints or the stiffness in her back, only the nerve deadening terror that he wouldn’t awake. Her hands shook so violently that she was afraid to scoop him up. She imagined that her fumbling fingers could snap one of his tiny hollow bones, or turn his neck the extra millimeter it needed to snap. Tears brimmed in her eyes as she tremulously began singing the Happy Birthday song, one of the only tunes she hadn’t used a hundred times.
“Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you.” Her voice cracked and wavered, barely managing to hold the tune. But she kept singing, and after five choruses he stirred. She sang louder and more insistent, resolving to sing nonstop until he was restored to health, to sing until her lungs ached. But when he looked up at her, she burst into tears.
After that, she had her groceries delivered, and she signed up to have her prescriptions delivered as well. She could not risk the Vorare being alone even for a moment, and she intuitively knew that taking him outside wasn’t an option. He might try to fly again and get swept away in the wind. Others might covet him and try to steal him away. She knew some people would think her concerns were groundless, but Lucia echoed the same need for caution.
“Keep him safe and warm,” she wrote, “and do not encourage him to fly or venture out on his own. At this young age, the Vorare does not know the extent of his own fragility.”
When his downy grey feathers began falling out and his torso started growing rapidly, it was time to transition from singing to storytelling. Lucia noted that her Vorare was particularly fond of bible stories and stories about church politics. But the Widow quickly discovered that her Vorare had no taste for bible verse, instead preferring children’s fairytales and stories gleaned from popular books and television.
As she talked and talked, his thick layer of down fell out to reveal pale skin underneath. She was shocked by how human his face looked without feathers. His almond shaped blue eyes peered out at her from a soft oval face, and a hooked beak was where a nose and mouth should be. But despite the falcon ferocity of his beak, she couldn’t help but see a child’s face. His torso was shockingly human as well. His chest was covered in human musculature with pectorals and abdominals reminiscent of the statue of David. Midway down his stomach, flesh gave way to glossy purple feathers and his legs were the great talons of a raptor.
Lucia’s diary said that the Vorare should grow at a spectacular pace once you start telling him stories. But after weeks of story telling the Widow’s foundling was still small enough to hold in her two cupped hands. His torso wasn’t approaching the size of a human man and even worse, her stories had begun to make him listless and bored. He looked away while she recounted tales of dragon slaying, knights and maidens fair.
“The princess fell in love with the prince the moment she saw him,” said the Widow. The Vorare was perched on the counter while she mopped the kitchen floor. With each stroke of her mop the floor shone in the summer sunlight. She longed to go outside and check on her flower garden and young tomato plants. Soon they would be red and swollen, tasting of sunlight. As she spoke about the princess the Vorare yawned, his hooked beak opening wide.
“Love at first sight does happen you know,” she said waggling a finger at her listless foundling. “I fell in love at first sight.” At those words, the Vorare turned to stare at her his blue eyes wide and glistening with interest. “We met at a dance.” She spoke slowly, monitoring his reaction, watching his blue eyes widen. “He was very shy, and awkward around girls, so I asked him to dance. In those days that was uncommon, but the look of relief on his face was worth it. Even if my girlfriends thought I was forward.” As the story unfolded, she realized his eyes weren’t widening, they were swelling. He expanded so fast that she could watch his shoulders broaden, his face widen, his sharp beak lengthen and his great talons grow. By the time she finished recounting the story of her first kiss with her husband, the Vorare was as big as a Barn Owl. He clicked his beak, his body pulsing with energy.
“So you want to know about my life,” said the Widow. And so she told him about how she grew up in a rural town, bought candy at the only convenience store for twenty miles, and hunted frogs in muddy irrigation ditches all summer long. Her stories nourished the foundling, but after his initial growth spurt the Vorare’s development was gradual.
“Mother’s grand piano was the most expensive thing in our whole house,” she said, while pulling her clothes from the dryer. She shook out the static cling and carefully stacked the blouses and floral skirts in a pile. The Vorare perched on the washing machine, his gaze following her every move.
“Mother played piano every night before bed. We used to grumble because we couldn’t watch T.V. or rough-house while she played, but now it’s my fondest memory of her.” The Widow shook out a pair of black pants and folded them in thirds. “I remember her playing Moonlight Sonata with her eyes closed, swaying gently to the music. I can’t remember the tune, but I remember her hands.” She paused in her folding and sighed, leaning forward onto the dryer. “By the time she died her arthritis was so bad she couldn’t play anymore. Her fingers were knotted and painful.” She looked down at her own spotted, wrinkled hands and formed them into claws. “They just curled up like dead spiders.” As she spoke the Vorare’s talons grew to the size of human hands, and his eyes glazed over with sympathetic tears. “You would have liked my mother,” said the Widow.
Over the following weeks, she told as many anecdotes as she could, but soon the details became confusing. Was it her uncle who taught her to ride bareback or her grandpa? Did she excel in penmanship or arithmetic in grade school? All the tales felt so trivial, like the time she painted the bedroom an awful shade of yellow, and all the tedious years she spent working as a bookkeeper.
Only the stories she didn’t want to tell seemed to matter. She told the Vorare about the day her husband left for war, so tall and handsome in his fresh pressed uniform. He kissed her and their baby girl goodbye and said he would be coming home soon. But he never came back. She described her mother weeping at the piano, her hands bent and inflamed. And she talked about her daughter: her first steps, her wide innocent smile, how she learned to say Mama but not Dada.
Her daughter’s hair was strawberry blond and her favorite food was cooked carrots. She talked about the day her daughter stopped gaining weight. And she recounted every detail of the expression on the pediatrician’s face when he told her the news. She even told him how the children’s ward of the hospital smelled like lemon cleaning product and the air tasted like tears.
She told the same stories over and over. She told them in the morning when she woke up. She told them as she walked aimlessly around the house. She dreamed them at night and mumbled them in her sleep. But the Vorare never tired of hearing them. He grew with each recounting until he was monstrous.
His head was bigger than that of a man’s with a protruding forehead and a cruel hooked beak. His musculature had long ago surpassed the fine detail of a man and was more akin to the bulging sinew of a bull. Even with his long purple feathers and five foot wingspan, he no longer looked capable of flight. He hopped and lurched around awkwardly on his horned talons like a drunken crow.
Every time the Widow looked at him her heart pulsed and fluttered, and she couldn’t tell if she should approach him or run away. She looked for the Almanac of Strange and Curious Beast Who Fly, but it had disappeared. So she just kept telling him the stories. She told him the stories until the memory of her mother’s twisted hands held no sting and until describing the image of her frail and dying daughter no longer moved her to tears. Her emotions seemed to have fizzled out. The sunshine outside didn’t make her smile, and she couldn’t feel the warm comfort of her bed.
She would have thought she was dead if it wasn’t for the shudder of her ever beating heart. She pinched the skin on her arm, digging her nails into the wrinkled flesh until it bled, but she felt no pain. She watched the TV dramas, but she couldn’t follow the plots. She ate food, but she couldn’t taste the spices. For weeks the Vorare lurched around her house, and she spent her days staring thoughtlessly at the wall.
Then one day, when the Vorare came to hear her stories, she couldn’t remember the words. Her mouth opened, but everything inside had gone blank. She looked up into his blue eyes, the only part of him that remained unchanged, and the Vorare cocked his great misshaped head. He gave a loud insistent rasp and the Widow laid a hand on his warm face. He was afraid. By touching him she could almost recall that terrible feeling, a cold churning deep in the gut.
He lunged at her and pinned her to the ground. The only noise was her body thumping to the floor and the quick uneven rasps in the Vorare’s throat. He searched her face for any sign of pain or reproach, but she just looked through him.
In one quick motion he slashed her with his claws. Her flesh tore open as easily as wrapping paper. The Vorare trembled, his breath coming in ragged terrified wheezes. Tears squeezed from his eyes and his monstrous muscles shook, but the Widow showed no fear. She couldn’t feel a thing, save the pulsing of her heart. She didn’t cry or flinch, even when he hooked his talons and wrenched her open like a locked trunk.
Blood splatter covered the Vorare’s torso, and the Widow’s body lay all around him like the ruins of Christmas morning. She was dead, she was dead and he’d killed her. Throwing his head back, he opened his beak to scream but his face just kept opening. He split down his neck. His flesh tore with the dry sound of paper. And from his wide open beak emerged the head of a man. The skin of the Vorare sloughed off and he appeared, like a hermit crab crawling from its bulky shell.
Crouched naked, the man looked down at himself in disbelief and ran a hand over his young, perfect skin. But the stench of blood and innards returned him to the present. The carpet was soaked red, and shattered pieces of bone and misshapen lumps of meat were strewn everywhere. Her remains were still warm to the touch as he sifted through them. Every time he touched a piece of her his mind flashed with a memory: the soldier holding a telegram, the little girl too weak to sit up in bed, the metrical thrum of moonlight sonata. His hands shook, and tears formed in his blue eyes as he bent closer to inspect where the body’s heart should have been.
“Mother!” he exclaimed. He reached into the corpse’s open rib cage and lifted up a warm pulsing creature that looked like a baby bird with disproportionately large purple wings. Blood and pieces of burst veins matted its downy feathers. The creature peered at him with empty, thoughtless eyes. “Mother,” he whispered again, “you’re alright.” He cradled the fledgling close to his chest. “I didn’t want to.” He whispered, lightly nuzzling the Vorare on the top of its head.
She was warm, and she pulsed like a living heart. He held her with his eyes closed, rocking gently back and forth. Alive, it was alive. He hadn’t killed all of her.
When his shaking had lessened to where he could walk, he carried her to the bathroom, where he rinsed them both clean of the blood and clinging pieces of flesh. He found a shirt and pants that had belonged to the window’s late husband and got dressed. He peered in the mirror a long time, looking at this pale face with a chin dimple and beaky nose. He did not recognize the man in the glass, but he was already growing to like the look of him.
The Vorare was restless, stirring in his hand. She fluttered her wings and gave out tiny rasping chirps. She was hungry for music.
He took her back into the living room, where she squirmed, trying to escape his grasp and search for an open window. She was getting her initial burst of strength. “You don’t have to go just yet,” he crooned. “Not yet.” But she didn’t want his caresses or words; he had no new music to give her.
He stared at the riot of gore picking out pieces he recognized, a hand, a shoulder, and wondered if he should stop her from flying away. Spare her the pain of sopping up a parent’s blood. But it was an idle thought. If he didn’t let her go, she would die in his care. And he couldn’t kill those large grey eyes. Not again.
Katherine Westermann splits her time between living in Suzhou China and Portland Oregon. She spends her days writing and recovering from jet lag, often at the same time. Her work has appeared in Wilde Magazine and Skipping Stones Multicultural Magazine.