I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
Your father tells me he wants to turn your bedroom — the empty bedroom, he calls it, as he has stopped talking about you and will not say your name — into a guest room. Except, when was the last time anyone visited us here at the edge of the city?
Perhaps your room should be a second-floor den, he suggests.
“There is too much light in that room for a den,” I tell him.
We gave you the brightest room in the house, you know.
“Then what should the room become?” he asks.
“I was thinking we should leave it as it is, with the window open and the screen removed.”
“That is a very bad idea,” your father says. He insists the windows remain closed and locked, as if you are now unwelcome, a destructive force.
Are you a destructive force?
“I love you as you are now,” I told you when the only difference I could see was a turquoise hue to your skin — to your forehead, in particular, and your neck.
Can you remember that I told you this?
“So . . . what? You won’t love me after I’ve changed?” you asked, rubbing your hand, which was still a hand then.
I didn’t answer.
The reason I didn’t answer is: I’m not sure love works like that. Love — not just my love but anybody’s — can’t possibly apply to all the potential forms a person, even a daughter, might take. Can it?
This is love’s failure of vision, not mine.
You used to look like me. Can you remember that, too?
Early on I thought about wiping your memory. I might as well admit this to you now. I thought maybe if you stopped believing you were something else on the inside, then you wouldn’t be sad anymore. And you wouldn’t change. This was before your body really began to transform.
The only reason I didn’t go through with a memory wipe was the cost, which was prohibitive.
At one point you left a guide for parents on my side of the bed. This was after that fringed scarf you always wore no longer hid the scales on your chest. There were too many for you to cover now. The guide was a list of dos and don’ts. (The list of don’ts was substantially longer.) We were not to ask, What is wrong with you? or, Why are you changing? or, When can I drive you to the doctor? or, What is happening to your fingernails? or, What about having children? or, What about being happy? or, What about being normal?
“If you badger your changing child with such aggressive questioning,” advised the guide, “your child will flee into the trees and never be seen again.”
Your father and I asked you such questions anyway. We sat you down one afternoon in our spotless kitchen, which has always been your least favorite room of the house, and we asked you those questions and more. I thought it was our right, as parents, to ask. Your skin, sparkling in the sunlight, was distracting. Your answers were brief or vague, if you answered at all.
“I’ll never want children,” you said.
“Just you wait,” I replied, thinking you surely would later on, as I had.
The next morning you sprang away from me into the old silver maple in our yard. Up you climbed effortlessly, scattering the squirrels. I thought you might not come back down.
I was lonely, watching you climb higher into the tree, ignoring the branches that tore at your hair. Your father had left for a business trip. The suitcase he had taken with him was extremely large, as if he would be away for a long time. Perhaps I should have texted him a video of you clinging to the tree’s crown. Or would he have deleted it?
In any case, before I could even take a picture, you took flight.
So she can fly now, I thought.
I know it is no longer supposed to be extraordinary to see those of your generation flying — and whatever else you do.
Many mothers in our neighborhood remain inside these days and stare ashamedly and hopefully out their windows in the direction of the sky. They call to each other from their porches and take turns speaking their daughters’ names.
You were beautiful when you flew, your sinuous, veined wings extended for the first time, your blue-green skin trailing behind you.
Or maybe it wasn’t your skin. I don’t know how to describe you anymore. I’m told the younger generation is growing disinterested in maintaining a stable form.
You were beautiful to me, too, many years ago, when you sat close to me in the kitchen and shared a quiet dinner of pasta garnished with cut tomatoes; when you were still wingless and looked like a little girl. When you were a girl.
Couldn’t there be something dazzling and worthwhile in such a simple memory, in its ordinariness and lack of fire and magic?
You didn’t need to grow wings to be beautiful.
“I was never a girl,” you said to me, despite the photographs I stacked in front of you, my piles of proof.
“What were you, then?” I asked.
“I was something else,” you said.
“But you didn’t look like something else,” I reminded you. “You looked like a girl. You looked like my child.”
“I was never your child, not really.”
I don’t think all your answers to my questions were correct.
In the old stories, the myths, your sort of transformation would have happened through a curse. You might have angered a god, and that god might have turned you into something else, some sort of animal, a swan or a cow. I would have preferred that. I could have learned how to care for a cow. People would have understood and pitied me, and you, as well.
Rarely have I heard any myths about a young woman choosing to turn into something unrecognizable all on her own.
We were not in need of a new type of story, you know.
I burned the parents’ guide in the fireplace in our family room while you were crouched in the tree. Then I considered wiping my own memory. But of course we didn’t have money for that either.
I might have been able to change, too, in less dramatic ways, at an earlier point in my life. But I did what was expected of me.
There is something to be said for doing what is expected of us, for becoming what is expected.
Another time I saw you hunched behind the garage beside the compost pile, engaged in some repetitive action that I didn’t understand, doing something with your — with whatever replaced your hands.
It looked as if you were digging. You were digging with frustration and urgency. I didn’t know how to help, so I knelt beside you. Eventually I dug with you. Can you remember this — that there was nothing buried in the soil? We found nothing. Then I reached out and touched a part of you, a leftover part of who you had been.
I had always wanted a daughter. I used to think, As my daughter grows, I will have so much to share with her. I will teach her how to watch, without sadness, the afternoon light fade in the kitchen. I will teach her to apologize, even when it isn’t her fault, to keep the peace in her house. And how to rub away a child’s growing pains in the dark. And how to make promises you always intended to keep. And the comfort that comes with knowing one’s future for the rest of one’s life.
What can I teach you in your current state? What do you need to know that I can tell you?
You were always a little bored of me. We did not have much to talk about, even in the beginning. Can you at least try to remember our silences as comfortable? I did my best to fill the silence between us with love.
This is not about my love anymore, is it?
“This is not about you at all,” you have said to me.
But I am the one telling the story. Try to remember that.
It’s only fair that the person who is left behind gets to tell the story.
This is a very different story, I know, than the one you would tell.
You had begun to stand in front of the wall mirror in my bedroom without a shirt on. This was around the time you turned twelve. The scales had not yet emerged, and your skin was not yet discolored, so I assumed, wrongly, that you were taking note of how puberty was affecting your body. I wanted to sit you down and tell you about the changes that were happening, so you would not fumble blindly into sexual maturity, as I had. When I asked, “What do you know about how pregnancy happens?” you walked to the other side of the room.
“That doesn’t apply to me, Mom,” you said from the doorway.
“Oh, girls your age, they all say that sort of thing at first,” I assured you.
Several times I tried to restart the conversation, but you refused to engage with me. You wanted to talk instead about what you saw when you looked in the mirror.
You said you saw two wings extending from your upper back.
You asked what I saw when I looked at myself in the mirror. Did I have wings?
I did not have wings.
You asked, “Do you see my wings?”
I did not yet see yours, though at times I thought I could feel them brushing rhythmically against my shoulders.
I wonder if I didn’t make my life appear fascinating enough for you. If your changes were a reaction to what you presumed was stifling boredom on my part. If you assumed, because I wanted you to have my life, that this was the only kind of life available.
Should I have been more upbeat about the duties of a mother? Should I have worn more festive clothing, more gold necklaces? Should your father and I have gone after each other in a corner of the kitchen?
“Let’s look like who we really are. Let’s stop pretending!” you told me early on, before I understood what was happening.
“You’re pretending?” I asked.
“Aren’t you?” you said.
Throughout my life I never expected to turn into anything else, to be transformed.
You: “It started internally, like a distancing. It was not unpleasant.”
Me: “So it was pleasant?”
You: “I didn’t mind it.”
Me: “You should have minded it.”
Here is a worry: When you are fully changed and there is nothing of me left in you, how will I pick you out from the flock of others swarming in the trees?
The sky right now is quiet without you in it.
We threw you a party, with sliced oranges and alcoholic punch for the parents, and platters of whatever you were eating then for you and your friends. I didn’t want to host such a celebration, but I did, because the other mothers were doing the same for their daughters: a hastily improvised rite of passage. It was expected. And you’d told me you wanted a party.
Some of your friends were further along than you. They perched on our roof and screeched and called out. Others flaunted their changes like velvety capes. So many yellow-irised eyes, so many scaly underbellies and diaphanous wings. And you, nibbling at a black walnut that you held between your elongated fingertips. “Thank you,” you whispered before your party ended, not smiling but not running away either, your breath earthy and bitter.
I am telling you all this because I don’t think you remember.
If you remembered, I think you would at least look in my direction from time to time.
I think you believe you were born the way you are now, a thousand feet above me.
Try to remember.
In the evenings I have begun walking around the neighborhood, along the border of the scrawny woods, the same path you and I used to take together when you were a child, over the creek and back again. Now, with all the young people flapping above, and the women my age trembling below — our hands dirty and nails ragged, as if we have been digging — I often don’t recognize where I am.
I know what you would say: Not all losses are sad. Some things we are meant to lose.
“I want to be understood,” you said.
“That might not be possible,” I told you.
I am telling you all this so you will know that you once lived on the ground and slept in a yellow canopy bed. The canopy had ruffles around the edge. It was a childish bed, and you always seemed too old for it. You had a father, and you had me.
I watched you one morning in the yard, flapping your translucent wings, which reflected the rising sun. They looked as if they were made of glass; as if they might break if I tapped them. I didn’t come out of the house. I stayed inside, not wanting to startle you. There was a fluidity, a calmness in your movements, and a certainty. As your wings swept harder, you lifted off the ground, then higher and higher until you joined one of the flocks that throbbed and twisted in the air. I wanted to see your face, but you were turned toward the neighbor’s yard, and then you became too small for me to see.
I wish somebody could convince me this was supposed to happen to you.
Listen: you don’t have to keep moving farther away.
You don’t have to leave these woods for some other woods who knows where.
Mrs. Nebus down the street — do you remember her? — she kept her changing daughter in their backyard, in chains, behind a fence. I don’t know what the daughter was chained to, perhaps a stake hammered into the ground. On my walks I used to hear the girl thudding against the wooden fence. Sometimes, above the stained cedar, I glimpsed the tip of a wing.
The chain broke, eventually.
I’m told that at some point soon there will be more of your type and less of mine.
What will you do to us, when there are enough of you?
“You were meant to lose me,” you said. “You were meant to watch me fly far, far away.”
Yesterday I searched for you in the woods behind our house. Your father pretended not to know what I was doing. “Have a nice walk,” he said as he weeded the yard, eyes down.
I felt like I was searching for an animal. I couldn’t find you, though I saw where you must have spent some recent night: an indentation in the dead leaves; a kind of nest marked with loose tufts of your hair. I lay down there and slept.
Today I was raking in the yard, and it was growing late, and I looked up and thought I saw you gliding east, toward an area of the sky that had already darkened. Your wings flapped lazily, and a gauzy trail of turquoise skin — or whatever it was — swirled around your uncovered chest. You did not look back.
You were my child up there. You were a movement in the sky, a flash of reflected light. You were a terrifying and wide-open future.