By Bill Kte'pi
22 March 2010
Jaima Coleman isn't eating dessert tonight because they're cutting Duncan's wings off. Mama and Papa have him pressed against the wall, pinning his wings against the mud room's bluebell wallpaper, Grandpa feeling for the spot like the knuckle of a drumstick, the place where you can put the saw and cut between bones instead of through one. No cobbler is worth having to see that, not even Grandma's best Redhaven Peach with the clove sprinkled on top. Duncan's thirteen and he's the only boy, the last boy. His wings are the last to go, and he's awfuldamn loud.
They cut Jaima's wings off when she was a baby. She doesn't remember, but she says she does if they ask, says she remembers what the choir sounded like before she was cut off from it, and what the sky looked like when she could still see the eleven secret colors. They cut Jaima's off when she was a baby, because "girls can't take the pain," at least that's what they say, that's the tradition. Boys wait until they're thirteen, but "girls can't take it." It won't matter now. Duncan's the last, and unless him and Jaima were to marry, there won't be any more. It takes two to tango, Mama says, and peoplefolk are pretty, but there ain't no more having babies with them than there is with the moon or the spoon. May as well bang two rocks together and hope you make a puppy, is how Grandma puts it. Jaima drew pictures of it in kindergarten, magic stone puppies like gargoyles falling out of struck stones.
After Jaima finished her peanut soup and Awendaw spoonbread, she'd excused herself and gone outside to the fallow hill west of the tobacco fields, and now she's sitting on the stone wall where the old well used to be, watching the ravens in the peach tree play cats cradle with a piece of twine they fished from somewheres or other. Peach cobbler's Duncan's favorite, warm so the ice cream would melt against it. He got to have a Cheerwine from the garage fridge and a shot of Grandpa's brandy mixed with honey, too. He strutted about it all day, but Jaima wouldn't trade places with him now. It's not the first time she's glad she's not a boy. Boys get it worst, and they aren't supposed to play make-believe.
The trees that grow along the stone wall look mean when it gets dark, and she doesn't like to play out here when that happens. But right now it's still hot and bright, sunset still a summer ways off. There's time enough she could play cowboys if she wanted. She can't have any friends over until the end of the week, when Duncan will be better. Entertain yourself, Jaima, Mama said. It isn't long before Papa comes out, walking back to town where he lives with That Woman, with his shoulders hunched and his hands stuffed in the pockets of pants that need mending. That makes Jaima want to go inside even less.
She plays Princess of the Meadow and If I Had a Pony What Would I Name It, and the sun wanes but it'll be a while yet before Mama'll ring the dinner bell that means you gotta come back to the house no matter what. Jaima's trying to decide whether she wants to be the good guy or the bad guy in cowboys when a man lands in the field. She probably can't tell it's a man at first, not for real, but even without her wings she usually knows things before she sees them for sure. The sky scars yellow, the trees whistle their leaves off right before he slams into the dirt, and the ground buckles like that part of the carpet where the pipe leaked. Layers of grass, soil, and rock intermingle around him, and smoke or steam or something thick as fog rises, smelling like barbecues and laundromats.
When she sees the costume, she recognizes him—the Typhoon, the most famous of all superheroes, and the best and strongest. His costume is green and black and dashing, but now it's torn and scorched, and his handsome face is bruised. The superheroes have been fighting. It's on the news all the time. Something went wrong, and the superheroes are fighting each other. Her favorite is the Black Hole, because she saw him once, like everyone did, the time the sun came to life and he saved the world from it. She saw him clear as the creek, even though he was a million miles away and eight minutes before.
"Little girl," the Typhoon says as he brushes dirt from himself, "why are you crying?"
Is she? She didn't realize it. When he sits up, his elbow dislodges from a ledge of rock. She's never heard before the sound of rock breaking without any impact like a sledgehammer—rock breaking just because something very strong breaks it. It isn't a sound she'll forget. She wipes her cheeks with the back of her hands because her palms are grimy from playing outside, and sure enough, her face is wet. "I dunno," she says.
"Where are your wings?" He winces as he gets up, his arm funny against his side. "Shite."
"They cut them off," she says, vaguely waving at the house. "How did you know?"
He points to her chest. "X-ray vision," he says. "You have a wishbone. It's the bone on the sternum that connects the wing muscles, keeps you strong so you can fly. We used to call them 'merrythoughts', but that was hundreds of years ago."
She does? She has a wishbone? "What happened to you?" she asks. "Are you okay? Why can you fly without wings?" She didn't mean to ask this last one, but she's always wondered, because she can't fly, and at least she used to have wings. Duncan used to fly sometimes, wasn't supposed to but she caught him sometimes, saw him in the sky. Up up in that hard blue sky. Be no more of that now.
"Tell you the truth," he says, "I'm not even sure myself anymore." He smiles, and it's a sad smile, with another wince. But he sure is handsome, in a noble swashbuckling way, like Will Turner.
Jaima cups her hands together and looks down at them the way she would if she were holding water in them, the way Grandma does when she wishes she could pray. Then she gets up and straightens out her dress, which is too dirty to be presentable by half, and patched where brambles loved her a little too well. Jaima's never prayed cause it ain't allowed, not for her and hers, and it ain't allowed to tell anybody that either, so she can't ever ask anyone to pray for her. It just is as it is, Jaima, is what everyone tells her. Even Duncan, though she knows he don't get it any better than she does. "I guess you oughta come inside, Mister Typhoon," she says. "Get you cleaned up, huh? No house closer'n our'n and my brother Duncan he'll sure be glad to meet you, I bet."
There is faint surprise in his eyes and she realizes with that same knowing-before-seeing that he is still always startled when someone recognizes him, still after all this time. Like he ain't never heard of the teevee, this one. "That'd be a kindness," he says. "Long as it's all right by your parents."
She nods, takes his hand and leads him. He shudders in pain when she touches his hand, and moves to the other side of her, lets her take the other hand as they walk. "Papa's gone, but I'll ask my Mama."
"I'm sorry to hear that," he says, misunderstanding, and it ain't for her to set him right.
The Typhoon finishes the leftovers and sits by Duncan's bed for an hour talking to him, having been told the boy's sick and recovering. No one is much in awe of him, which seems to put him at ease. Duncan's too hurt for awe, and the grown-ups, well, it takes more than superheroes to widen their eyes.
Not Jaima's, though. She's full of questions, and he doesn't mind answering as long as she doesn't interrupt. Yes, he knows the Black Hole, and they're friends. He's a nice man. No, he doesn't think the superheroes should be fighting either. Yes, Majestia is very pretty in person, just like on teevee. No, he doesn't have any pets, but he used to have a crocodile.
"For real?" she asks, and he laughs.
"Yeah," he says. "For real. When I was still a boy, before I left the island I grew up on. It was a long growin' up, with all manner o' thing." There's a lilt to his voice like when Duncan watches Doctor Who.
"Why'd you leave it?" Mama asks. "Why'd you come here, why'd you become the Typhoon?" There is a challenge in her voice.
"I don't know," he says, and he sounds tired—no, he sounds like Papa, sounds like Papa when he's tired of something just as it starts. "No, I do. Everyone knows. I've talked about it before."
"The Hook," Duncan says, and the Typhoon nods.
"The Hook escaped the destruction of the Never. I knew no one else would know how to deal with him." He sounds sad, he sounds like Papa and Grandpa do when they talk about losing their wings, which they stopped doing about a year ago, knowing Duncan would be next. "No one else would take him seriously until it was too late."
"But if you hadn't come," Jaima says, "there'd be no Shadow, and maybe the Hook would be the only bad guy." She takes a bite of her butter-and-sugar sandwich, happy that she's getting a snack so late at night and nobody's told her to go to bed yet.
"That's not true," Duncan protests. "There's the Clockwork Pirate and the whole Mischief Brigade, you know that. There's Mistress Sputnik and Injun Joe and the Beatnik."
"But maybe that's because of the Shadow. Maybe if it was only the Hook, somebody else would've beaten him, and once he was beaten, all these other supervillains wouldn't have entered the picture at all cause they'd see there weren't no chance in it."
The Typhoon holds up a hand when Mama swats her. "It's nothing I haven't heard before," he says. "There's really no knowing one way or the other what would have happened, Jemma."
"Jaima," Mama corrects him curtly.
He looks hurt. "Jaima. Of course. I'm sorry, Moira."
That's the wrong name too, Mama's name is Mary, but she doesn't correct him, just rolls her eyes. Jaima frowns at her last bite of sandwich, the soft Bunny bread practically showing her fingertips, and kicks at the table.
"That's enough, Jaima," Mama says.
"I didn't do nothing!"
"I think it's somebody's bed time."
"I wanna stay up until Mister Typhoon goes home!"
Mama eyes the Typhoon, whose arm is bandaged up now in a sling. "It's late. You can stay in the spare room if you want."
"If there's no objection, that'd be a kindness."
Grandma's in the door with pillows and blankets. "It sure would," she says. "But you won't get a better breakfast in town. That damn Susan Piker at the Evangeline can't cook eggs worth a damn."
"Well," the Typhoon says. "I'd hate to subject myself to a terrible breakfast."
When Jaima wakes up in the morning, the Typhoon is still asleep on the cot in the sewing room, the covers bunched up and the pillows folded in half under his head. He's not a sound sleeper, and she peers at him from the cracked-open doorway in her feetie pajamas. She used to have a stuffed rabbit named Black Hole and got him a stuffed kitty named Typhoon so they could play together, but they're both away in the box in the closet now that she's older.
"Grandma," she says when she sits down at the breakfast table. Grandma's making soft grits and waffle syrup for Duncan, food for when you're sick. "Mister Typhoon says I got a wishbone. He says he can see it with his X-rays vision."
"That boy says a mite too much," Grandma says absently. "You want eggs or pancakes, youngun?"
"Cain't I have both? We got company."
"We got company, so there ain't enough eggs for both. Now which it gonna be?"
"I reckon syrup on eggs is better than hot sauce on pancakes," Jaima muses.
"I reckon you're a crazy little pigeon, but long as you eat your eggs, that's not today's bother."
"Course I'll eat 'em," she says. "I need my energy. Mister Typhoon's gonna show me how to fly today, without wings."
Grandma stops what she's doing, turns around and looks at her. When the spoon clatters against the bowl of grits, she sets it down atable. "He put that fool notion on your head?"
"Naw," she says, "but I know he can do it. Even if he did fall down, I seen him fly on teevee."
"See all kindsa things on teevee," Grandma says, and brings Duncan his breakfast. When she comes back, she makes pancakes for everyone, forgetting Jaima said eggs, but she doesn't complain. There's a wrong current in the house, and even Jaima knows that, knows it ain't just about Duncan. She rubs her chest while they eat, feeling for the wishbone.
"You think I could make a wish on my wishbone, Mister Typhoon?" she asks.
The Typhoon coughs on a bite of pancake and then laughs, and so does Grandpa, and even Grandma smiles. Mama scowls, not at Jaima but the rest of them. "It's no laughing matter," she says. "Nothing funny about it, not a thing."
No one says anything. The Typhoon starts to, but doesn't even get a whole sound out.
"So could I?" Jaima asks, because whether it's funny or not doesn't answer her question any.
"No, honey," Grandpa says.
Mama puts her hand on Grandpa's, instead of outright telling him he's wrong. "But everyone does," she says, not looking straight at any of them, hiding her eyes. "Everyone makes a wish when she breaks, Jaima."
Everyone finishes their pancakes in the silence of forks scraping against plates, eyes on the table and knees too close together. "They used to call them Mary thoughts," Jaima says, but nobody answers.
"Don't expect me to think it's coincidence, do you?" Grandpa asks the Typhoon. Jaima can hear them on the front step of the barn, which is where Grandpa keeps his pouch and his flask. "You showin' up here of all places, to lick your wounds."
"I got hit," the Typhoon says. They're talkin' hushed. "I got hit hard and I fell."
"Yeah," Grandpa says, and Jaima sits against the side of the barn where sometimes she plays shouting games because the sound doesn't carry as well to the house from here, so she won't bother anybody. "You're a damn fool, but not too much to know who loves you."
"Moira?" the Typhoon asks.
"All right, 'Moira', and Kate too, damn it. And Kate's mama, and her before that. All the women of the family. You ain't here for Jaima, is what I come to tell you."
"Johnny!" the Typhoon says. "You know that's not why I'm here."
"And I'm remindin' you. Even when she's older. This family's quit of you, Peter. We'll mend you when you're sick, we'll feed you an' you're hungry, but no more. You understand? You keep to your cot."
"You don't have to worry about me and Kate," the Typhoon says.
"Damn right I don't!" The air around the corner smells like the tobacco that grows all over the east fields, a smell Jaima's lived with all her life. It smells better curin' than it does burnin,' but she reckons that's true of most the world. "Kate may love you, but it don't make her love me any less. You got to understand that about Mary too, kid. Christ, you never did grow up, did you? Not really. You get hurt, you still come lookin' for somebody to mother you. It don't matter to you whether she's Moira or Mary or the next one. You play dress-up and go off on adventures."
"I'm given to understand that Moira's husband passed on?"
Grandpa laughs. "Passed on down the street for a woman he isn't tired of yet! I love Mary, but she's a hard soul, you understand. Tom's a chickenshit, but he ain't all the way out of the picture yet, she just keeps driving him off in the hopes he'll fight her on it. You don't mess where you oughtn't, you understand?"
The Typhoon shakes his head, Jaima can see his shadow moving, and the shadow of smoke rising around them. "There was another like you, you know. Like all you all, someone who used to have wings, someone who saw things a little differently."
"Yeah?" This is a new tone in Grandpa's voice.
"Gabriel. You seen him on the newsreels?"
"Used to did, when Mary was a girl."
"That was him. Passed on now. Years ago, I guess."
"He didn't have any kids, did he? Brothers, sisters?"
"No. No, it was just him."
Grandpa sighs. "That's a damn shame."
"Johnny, come on. Are you ever going to let me know what's going on?"
"Ain't nothing going on anymore. That's the thing of it. We fought a war a long time ago. Not me, not my father, but a father long before him. The war ended centuries ago, and there wasn't nothing much left for them that survived it, so they came here, settled down. Old soldiers retirin' to raise families."
Grandpa snorts. "Earth, Peter. Christ's sake. This family ain't even been in Macon County two hundred years, you know that. It don't none of it matter now. The war's long ended, one way or the other, and what did we get for it? We're the last of us, now. Jaima and Duncan, there won't be no more. I had a sister died of pox, and you know about Kate's brother."
"You don't know you have to be the last."
Jaima peers around the corner, and the Typhoon's sitting with his elbows on his knees, leaning over smoking a hand-rolled cigarette with Grandpa, who keeps taking sips from the flask, licking his lips.
"There ain't nobody left. You won't be surprised to know we don't breed with humans. Just don't work."
"Well," the Typhoon says. "Maybe I'm not a hundred percent human, though. When you think about it."
Grandpa doesn't say anything to that, until he's finished his cigarette and there's just a tiny nub left that he crushes between his old fingertips. "Don't put your nose on anything you shouldn't be sniffin' around. I can still lick you, Peter. Now or then, it don't matter. Put that on your mind and don't dawdle about getting back to your fancy work up in the sky. If you think that just cause we help you means we need you, you're humaner than you think."
Jaima plays Princess Jaima of the Winged Folk, running down the fallow hill with her arms spread, running as fast as she can so she can feel the air in her hair and her sweat, and it's almost like flying. It almost is. She runs along the stones of the old wall, jumping as high and as far as she can with each stride so she can feel that hanging moment in the air when she isn't falling yet and isn't jumping anymore. She keeps touching her chest, where her wishbone is. She skins both her knees and one of her elbows, and gets a bump on her head, but there's no one around so she doesn't cry. She might later if Grandma notices she tore her shirt at the collar.
"There's no need to take a stand," someone says, voice rising from a quiet she hadn't heard. She's been climbing up in the trees, among those three trees near the base of the hills that are so old that she can climb from the branch of one to the branch of the next, as long as Mama and Papa aren't looking and distracting her by yelling that she'll break her fool neck.
"There's no need to take a stand, I'm the one who started it," the Typhoon says. He has Mama in his arms, in the sumac grove where Grandma goes sometimes to get sumac for lemonade. Mama has her back to him, so that the Typhoon's arms are around her waist, and she has her own arms folded against her chest like she's pretending she isn't letting him. "Jaima's right about that much. Without me, there'd be no Shadow. Without the Shadow, no war. I came to help, but maybe I set it all off. Maybe I should have trusted them to handle the Hook on their own."
"Maybe you should have killed him," Mama says. "Maybe you just should have killed him before it was ever a problem, or after you came here and saw all he done."
"You know the Typhoon doesn't kill," he murmurs, and she snorts. "We could make a fresh start," he says. "We're different now, older."
"I am," she says.
"I am too. Look at me, look how I'm dressed! Look how plain."
"In my husband's clothes." They almost fit him, but not well.
"We could have a family. We could start a family."
She shakes her head, but leans back against his chest. "Jaima was the last. I—can't have more children. It was a hard birth. Harder than most."
"You don't seem to hold it against her."
Mama peers up at him. He's so tall he towers over her, and Mama's not a slight woman. "Love her more for it. But we'd never be able to start a family, Peter. The one I've got's more than enough."
"Well," the Typhoon says. "Jaima—when she's older—there's no saying I can't, I mean I could conceive—"
She turns around, wriggling in his arms, to fully face him. "You're sayin' we could be together and have a family of you putting children on my daughter. When she's old enough."
His face screws up and he sighs. "It sounds so crazy when you put it like that, but how can you stand to be the last? How can anyone, Moira?"
"I guess you could tell me that."
They neither of them say anything more, and he leans to kiss her when there's the grind of gravel from the road, the spin of wheels and an old horn leaned on. They both freeze, and Jaima turns to look up the hill. She can see what they can't from the ground, the old blue pickup rounding the bend.
"Tom," Mama says, amused and surprised. "He finally fixed that fucking truck like I been naggin' him to do." She pushes her way out of the Typhoon's arms.
"Moira—" he says. "No, wait—Mary. It's Mary. Mary—"
"No," she says. "That's enough. A little flattering attention is fun and all at my age, but I've had all I need, 'Mister Typhoon.' Just touch my cheek, and get on your way. That busted wing of yours looks like it's healed up all right. You always did heal fast."
"Not so fast as some." He leans to kiss her and she presses her cheek against his mouth and stalks up the hill without looking back at him.
Jaima and the Typhoon both watch her go, and Jaima jumps down to the ground. The Typhoon doesn't seem surprised to see her. They walk a little ways up the hill towards the old well, in time to see Mama and Papa embracing. Their arms are tight around each other and their mouths together, nothing like the way the Typhoon held Mama.
She looks up at the superhero. "Are you gonna teach me to fly like you do, without wings?" she asks.
He looks back at her, and finally puts his hand out. "I'll tell you a secret. Every time I fly, I think I've forgotten how. I don't think I can teach it anymore, but I can show you what it's like. Would you like that?"
She takes his hand and nods. "But you gotta bring me back, Mister Typhoon."
The Typhoon cradles her against his chest, a hand on the back of her head like you'd hold a baby, and the ground falls away. It's fast but it feels floaty, the wind rushes less than it does running down the hill. Like swimming without the wet. The sky surrounds them and the dots of Mama and Papa and the house and the barn become smaller until you'd hardly remember where they were.
"Wow," Jaima says, and the Typhoon laughs.
"You're not scared," he says.
She shakes her head. "Grandpa could still lick you."
He laughs hard at that, and she feels sad for him because he doesn't believe it. "What would you like to see?" A V-formation of birds passes underfoot, and clouds take on wispier shapes here. It's strange seeing a cloud from the side.
"Show me where the winged people came," she says. "When we first came to Earth like Grandpa said."
"I—I don't know where that is," he says. "Somewhere in Europe, I guess. Maybe the Middle East. Jerusalem would make sense, or Babylon. That's Iraq now."
"Well," she says. "Show me where the superheroes are fighting."
He shakes his head violently. "No. No, it's dangerous there. Rules aren't the same there."
They soar in silence, in a high blue where you can see both the sun and stars.
"I guess you can just bring me home, then, Mister Typhoon," Jaima says.
He lands softly, his feet touching the ground like she imagines you would if you were parachuting, and places her down gently. "I think I need to go now," he says, looking up the hill, at Mama and Papa laughing in the back of the pickup.
Jaima looks up at him and stands on tip-toes and he leans down to her. She presses her palm against his chest. "You need to be more careful with this," she says very seriously to him. "You don't get a wish if it breaks. You're not like us."
He grins at that and kisses the crown of her head. "Be careful yourself," he says. "Be careful growing up."
"It's not as scary as you think," she says, but he might not hear her as he disappears into the sky.
She walks back up the hill, thinking if Mama and Papa are happy enough, maybe they can all get in the pickup and go into town and get ice cream, in the nice little glass dishes that curve like petals. Rum raisin. Or chocolate orange. By the time she gets to the top of the hill, she's changed her mind about which flavor four times, and has just taken it for granted that ice cream will be in her near future. She touches her chest and tells herself to save the wish until she really needs it, because you only get one.