Gift of Flight
By Nghi Vo
11 June 2007
My mother's wedding dress was the skin of a swan, still blindingly white after more than a decade nestled in tissue paper. I would bury my fingers in the feathers, but my mother would only stroke it distractedly before putting it away again. She would never let me try it on, no matter how hard I begged, or how my young arms ached to stretch into strong beating wings.
"It doesn't belong to me," she told me over and over again, and I instinctively knew never to ask the skin's owner, my father, if I could try it on.
The first time my father hit my mother, I was watching Bugs Bunny on television. As the skinny gray rabbit pranced around in Carmen Miranda drag, I heard a meaty thump from the kitchen, followed by a sound that was too soft to be a scream. The bottom dropped out of my stomach and I froze, not even daring to take my eyes off the screen.
My father stormed out of the house, and an agonizing moment later, I peeked into the kitchen.
My mother was sitting on one of our battered kitchen chairs, her long, beautiful legs crossed. A cigarette dangled from her lips, and her hair fell over her face in a blond curtain. Her hands were steady, though, and when she glared at me, her black eyes were dry.
"What?" she said.
My mother met my father when he was stationed in Germany, just six months before he was due to return to the United States. They fell in love and she gave him her skin as a gift.
When she was in a good mood, or a sad one, I could sidle up to the issue of her past, walk sideways, distract her, until before she knew it, she was talking about Dresden and the Elbe, where she had grown up. She spoke of them so wistfully that once I made the mistake of asking if I could ever go with her to visit them.
"Why would you want to do that?" she asked sharply, and I knew that I wasn't getting anything else.
She seized my arm right above my elbow, careful even in her annoyance to keep the burning tip of her cigarette away from my skin.
"We can't go back to Germany," she hissed. "He—"
She let go abruptly and guiltily, backing away from me as though afraid I would bite her.
"Don't bring up such things, Ava," she said finally. "It's an old land, and we are much better off here."
The soft thorniness of her accent was flattened by the Midwestern twang she had adopted after more than ten years in America. When I was small, she watched Sesame Street with me and we learned English together, crouching in front of the glowing screen, clinging to every number and letter as though our lives depended on it.
I went to kindergarten and lost my German as easily as I might lose a mitten, but my mother, isolated in our little ranch house, still thought, prayed, and swore in her mother tongue.
The second time he hit her, it woke me up. I didn't know if they had been fighting, or she had said something or not said something. Suddenly I was awake and alert under the sheets, wondering if I had had a bad dream.
He never screamed or swore at her, not that I heard. He just said her name.
He didn't call her a bitch or a whore or a cunt, and maybe that made it worse. It was just her name, spit out like it was something dirty. He said her name and suddenly she was crying. I put my hands over my ears, but I could still hear the flat sound of flesh meeting flesh, and not just once, either. Somehow I fell asleep to that irregular sound.
Once, when she came to pick me up after school, I caught my mother staring at the sky. It was October and the geese were flapping south in their orderly vees, their strong wings working tirelessly to speed them across the sky.
She started, and, for a moment, I thought she hated me. Then her gaze softened and she stroked the side of my face, just once.
In the car, it took me eight blocks to screw up my courage to ask her.
"Mom? Do you miss . . . your family?" Do you miss flying?
"What a silly question," she said sharply, but she never told me why it was silly.
My aunt came to our door two days after my eleventh birthday. My mother had asked me if I wanted a party, but I'd told her no. My friends had had to give me their gifts at lunch; I couldn't stand to have them in the place where my mother and I lived.
Aunt Gerda was as tall as my mother, and her black hair curled down to her wide, earthwork hips. I compared the two and my mother seemed shrunken and plain; in that moment I loved my mother a little less for it.
My aunt walked into our house as though she owned it and the walls of the place weren't big enough to hold her. She had a fierce smile and a fierce frown and she smelled of lavender sprigs and clove cigarettes.
My mother seemed slightly embarrassed by her house, and, with a hurried kiss, sent me out to play. I wondered if she was embarrassed by me, too. I hung around on the porch, scuffing the green outdoor carpeting with the soles of my flip-flops, and strained to hear what they were talking about.
They began in German, but it wasn't long before they started speaking English. My aunt had been in the country almost as long as my mother and her voice had a distinctly New England-Yankee tinge.
"Have some self-respect, Sabrina, if not for yourself, then at least for Ava."
My mother's response was murmured too softly for me to hear, but my aunt snorted derisively.
"A promise is just a promise. Don't flatter yourself." A pause where I could imagine my aunt stabbing out her cigarette on a saucer. "Another year and then another one after that. Do it now."
I don't know what my mother's response would have been, because my father had come home. He frowned at my aunt's car, which was parked imperiously in the center of our driveway, and walked past me without a glance.
I jumped off the porch and I was nearly out of earshot by the time the fighting started. I walked down to the supermarket and read trashy romance novels until after dark.
When I came back home, my aunt's car was gone and the whole house was dark. I wondered, deliriously, if they had killed each other, and my legs were trembling as I walked up to the door.
My mother sat on the front steps, her legs folded up to her chin and her face obscured by the darkness. Without saying anything, I sat down next to her and pressed myself against her lean flank, resting my cheek on the point of her shoulder. Hesitantly, she stroked my hair.
This close to her, I could feel the way she breathed, and I realized that she was crying. I put my arm around her and by slow inches she relaxed into the curve of my body. I'd never felt so grown up.
Finally she stood up and turned to me.
"Do you have your house key?" she asked. "He's locked the door."
The last day my mother lived with us was gray and sullen. I was thirteen and I thought I hated her. We had fought and I was in my room, my head dramatically under a pillow, when my father came home.
It was the middle of the day, and I think a sharp word must have been surprised out of her.
He said her name, just once, and I heard kitchen chairs turning over as he followed her from kitchen to living room, the sound from his hands hanging in the air. I imagined her covering her head with her hands, eyes slitted against the pain and fear, teeth clenched.
Tears dripped down my face as I curled under the covers, trying not to hear, trying not to think.
The sound of breaking glass and splintering made me sit up—I realized instantly what it was. Somehow, they had managed to break the grandfather clock. It had stood in our living room like Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders, solid, immovable, permanent.
My first thought was that there were glass shards on the floor and my mother never wore shoes in the house.
My second was that this time, he would kill her. He would kill her and I would hear it.
The thought made me scramble from my bed and run to my parents' bedroom, where I clawed through their clothes until I found the dusty box that held my mother's real skin.
In the living room, she was trying to talk, though the words were mushy and soft. They were interrupted by another loud slap, but the words kept coming out in a broken flood.
For a moment, after I had thrown the feathery mass into the bathtub, the lighter in my hand, I hesitated. It was an old magic I was going to burn, and possibly my mother would burn along with it.
I heard my mother scream and I heard my father say her name, a curse, a brand, an obscenity.
I held the flame to the edge of the strong white feathers and cried out at how greedily it took hold.
My mother began to scream. It was so loud that it surprised my father into stopping. It was a long, unending wail that continued even as she ran to the bathroom where I still stood, guilty as Eve, a lighter instead of an apple in my hand.
She shoved me aside roughly and reached her hands into the fire, before jerking back from the heat. She crouched by the side of the tub, silent now, rigid as a statue. Twice, her hand reached for the tap, and twice she returned it, white-knuckled, to her side.
My father stood in the doorway, and I was shocked to see that he was scared. Once I had seen that, I saw other things as well. I saw how gaunt he was, how worn, more like a crabbed male crone than a monster.
"What does this mean?" he asked, his voice shaking.
There was a long moment of silence, and then my mother stood up, the feathers crackling and hissing with heat behind her. She walked towards my father—her husband—and her eyes were bright and cold.
"It means that you're going to get the hell out of my way, Danny."
She was human, from the crown of her head to the cuts on her feet. The last bits of magic in her were burning to nothing and she was nothing but human, strong and mortal, and she had found her strength at last.
He stumbled backwards and she walked past him, limping a little. She stuffed some of her clothes haphazardly into a suitcase and painfully put on a pair of old sneakers. My father couldn't take his eyes off of the remnants of his marriage, still on fire in the bathtub, but I sidled past him and met my mother in the hallway.
I was almost as tall as she was and I could look her in the eye, but while hers were an intense, animal black, mine were just gray. She kissed my cheek.
"I'll come back for you," she said, and I stepped aside.
She was just human after what I did. Humans break their promises. I never saw her again.
I grew up, got out. My father died a few years ago and I was surprised when I cried over it.
If I hadn't burned her skin, I could imagine her on the banks of the Elbe, white feathers gleaming under the starlight. If I hadn't burned her skin, she would still be with me.