As a girl, Maggie dreamed of joining the Sisters, a group of women who enjoy the status and attention afforded by their beautiful wings. Now, years later, she has wings of her own. But an encounter in the woods forces her to reckon with her past—and the painful price her wings demanded.
Content warning for fictional depictions of sexual violence.
They are coming out of the woods when Mateo grabs one of Maggie’s wings and tugs, hard. This has long been his way of getting her attention and she has always let him do it, wanting to be a good mother, reminding herself that this is a phase, that he is only five years old, that little boys who do bad things are not destined to become bad men.
But now she wheels on him, the force of her movement yanking her wing from his grasp. “No!” she says, and he blinks and reels back. Two women are walking ahead of them with their children. At the sound of her voice, their heads flick back to watch. “You’re a big boy now,” Maggie says, her voice rising. “You can’t touch them anymore.” Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the women murmur to each other. Turning their smooth, wingless backs to her, they seize their children’s hands and hurry away. Maggie doesn’t care. Tears pool in Mateo’s eyes but she ignores them, stalking up the big, sweeping lawn toward the place where everyone parked their cars.
Further up the slope, the man who is not Trace walks quickly, gripping his daughter’s hand. On her arm is a bruise the size and shape of Mateo’s fist. As Maggie watches, the girl tugs her hand out of her father’s and takes off, her empty Easter basket bobbing in her grip. Her father calls out but she keeps running and Maggie urges her on, her heart pounding on the girl’s behalf, as her head says: faster, and her heart says: it will never be fast enough, and all the places where the Brothers took her apart pulse with remembered pain.
Ten minutes ago
The man who is not Trace kneels in front of his sobbing daughter and hushes her. Neither he nor Maggie was there to see what happened, but the girl has just told them that Mateo hit her when she wouldn’t give him an Easter egg she had found. Now her father says, “I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt you.” He winks at Maggie; an invitation to a game she does not want to play. “You know boys.”
Maggie looks from her son to the bruised girl to the man who is not Trace but who is so much like him, and something flares within her that has been dead a long time.
“She has a right to her pain,” she says. “She has a right to it.”
“We’re going,” the man says, to no one in particular, and pulls his daughter away, his fingers wrapping around her hand and enveloping it completely.
Seventeen minutes ago
The Easter egg hunt takes place at the home of some friends of her husband’s, wealthy investor types who live in Marin County and own several acres of old-growth forest. Maggie hasn’t set foot in a forest like this in years, but her husband is out of town and the things that happened to her were such a long time ago and so she agrees to take Mateo.
The moment she gets under the trees, she knows she has made a mistake. She sees the bobbing lights, hears the Brothers’ laughter, remembers running until she couldn’t. Heart hammering, she grasps the trunk of a nearby redwood and inches her hands along its fibrous bark, noting its texture as her therapist has taught her. Gradually, her heart slows. The throbbing in her wing joints fades.
When she looks up, Mateo has disappeared.
Forty minutes ago
They are walking from their car up to the big house where they will collect their Easter baskets, and Mateo is angry because she would not let him have another juice box, not right after lunch. He grabs one of her wings and tugs, hard, and she lets him.
Two days ago
She is bathing Mateo and he is angry about this. He grabs one of her wings and tugs, hard, and she lets him.
Three months ago
Maggie loses Mateo at an outdoor shopping complex. For five minutes that feel like fifty, she runs up and down the cobblestone streets, the faux-colonial shopfronts, calling his name with increasing urgency. She finds him with his nose pressed to the window of a lingerie store, watching a winged mannequin rotate on a pedestal.
She seizes his arm. “You can’t run away like that! Do you know how worried I was? I was running around the whole mall looking for you.”
He looks up at her, confusion creasing his face. “Why didn’t you just fly?”
Two years ago
Mateo wanders through the garden of the old Italian villa where they are staying and falls into a fishpond. Maggie, up on the patio with her husband, is too far away to hear the plop of his body entering the water. Yet she is aware of the sudden absence of sound and knows, in her mother’s bones, what has happened. She runs down the lawn and throws herself into the water and pulls him out. When he wails, she is gladder than she has ever been. She is aware of some other bodily sensation and looks down; blood streams from a cut on her shin. She doesn’t care, doesn’t feel the wound, only gathers her son in her arms and takes in his wet, algal smell, and her urge to protect him is so strong that it does not occur to her to wonder if someone someday will need protecting from him.
Six years ago
The HR guy takes Maggie to the top floor. “Change of plans,” he explains. “The big man wants to interview you in person.”
The CEO’s office is all wood and chrome and billion-dollar views. He leans back in his leather chair and surveys her, his eyes skimming over her wings in a way that is not lecherous so much as assessing.
“The job is yours, of course,” he says. “My wife is winged. I myself was a Brother.” His gaze wanders now to the windows. “We got up to so much trouble in those days, didn’t we? But we were all so young.”
Maggie searches for an apology in his voice. She does not find it.
Six years and two days ago
In the vestibule of her apartment building, as she is unlocking the door, a man comes up behind her and crushes her against the door.
“Don’t move. I have a knife.” His breath is hot and puffs her hair against her ear. “I’ve been watching you,” he says. “You’re so beautiful. Your wings are so beautiful. I’m going to take them now.”
The point of his knife pricks her skin as he begins to saw through her winter coat. A scream bubbles up her throat and then dissipates. Her breathing is labored and his breathing is labored and it sounds, ridiculously, like they are having sex. With each breath Maggie lifts further and further out of her body until she is not here at all, she is running through a forest until her legs and lungs give way, until the lights catch up to her and they—
There is a shout from behind; someone has seen them. The man runs. Later the police will catch him and there will be a trial and the man will go to jail. For now, though, Maggie’s legs collapse beneath her and she is suddenly aware of her heart thudding in her chest, the film of sweat coating her body. She looks down at her hands, which look like someone else’s hands. She tries to focus on the keys she is still holding, digs their teeth into her skin. But her mind keeps flicking between here on the vestibule’s tiled floor and there on the dirt in the forest—here—there—no, here—and for weeks afterward she experiences this split self, hearing a man’s shout of laughter in the street and wanting to run, seeing in a restaurant’s glinting silverware the head of an axe.
Eight years ago
An old woman stops Maggie in the streets and tells her, with tears in her eyes, that she can die a happy woman, because now she has seen a true angel. “Thank you,” she says, “thank you.”
Her fiancé lets her keep all the lights on at night. He wakes her up from her nightmares and holds her and sings to her in Portuguese, husky, off-key lullabies.
Everywhere she goes, people give her things. Promotions and restaurant tables and fur coats and free trips to Ibiza tumble into her lap, the world falling over itself to show her how lucky she is, how loved.
Nine years ago
Maggie sees the man who will become her husband across the room. His eyes meet hers and do not for a second flicker toward her wings, do not even seem to notice them. He makes his way toward her through the chattering cocktail crowd, his gaze never leaving hers, and she feels she could be anyone, she could have no wings at all. And although later she will construct many reasons for why she falls in love with him, really it is this moment, she has already fallen.
Fifteen years ago
After her college graduation, Maggie does what she has been avoiding for the past three years: she goes home. It is the first time anyone from her old life has seen her wings. Her high school friends take her around, show her off. At the town’s only diner, they place her at the center table. They make excuses to brush against her wings as they get up to use the bathroom again and again.
Sitting in one of the scratched vinyl seats that have stayed the same since her infancy, Maggie feels the town’s collective gaze upon her: in the diner, on the street, every eye drawn to her as though she is a flame blazing at the center of their small, defeated town. She feels suffocated. She feels proud.
Her mother won’t speak to her. She leaves every room Maggie enters; her lips drawn tight. Her father treats her like a china doll. Whenever she turns away, she can feel his gaze burrowing into her back, her wings.
It was worth it, Maggie thinks.
She repeats the words like a mantra.
She repeats the words until she almost believes them.
Eighteen years ago
It is two days after initiation. One of the Sisters finds Maggie balancing on the railing that lines the balcony of the big Sisterhood house, holding on to a post for support, trying and failing to flex the wings that sit heavily against her shoulder blades.
“What are you doing?” the Sister hisses, jerking Maggie back by her wings, making pain jolt anew through her body. “Someone will see.”
“I was practicing,” Maggie says.
The Sister stares at her. Wings sprout from her back, identical to Maggie’s. “Didn’t anyone tell you? Our wings don’t work like that.”
Eighteen years and one day ago
When they return from the woods, the Sisters take her into the big house that is her home now. One of them gets into the shower with her because her hands and her entire body are shaking so hard that she can’t open the door to the bathroom or swing open the shower stall or take off her clothes, she can’t do any of it. Maggie sobs in the shower and the Sister makes soothing sounds and soaps her body, her smooth, unblemished body, which they broke apart and then put back together, except that they didn’t, not really, she can feel every place they cut her and will forever.
Eighteen years, one day, and three hours ago
Maggie comes to on the forest floor. She spits twigs from her mouth and groans, pain spiking through every inch of her body.
“Hush,” a voice says.
It is one of the Sisters, kneeling beside her. When she gets to her feet, Maggie staggers under the unfamiliar weight of something on her back. White flashes in the corner of her vision; she looks and there are her wings, arcing above her shoulders. She reaches an arm back and strokes them. They are so soft. She looks down. She is naked, filthy.
Then it all comes back to her, what happened, and she cries out and clutches at herself, looking around for the men, for the weapons, for the big white tent. But they are gone, trampled dirt and trash the only signs that anything happened here at all.
“What did they do?” she asks. “What did they do?”
“Hush,” the Sister says. “They brought you back. They had their fun and then they brought you back.”
Eighteen years, one day, and nine hours ago
Maggie is sprinting through the woods. Earlier, other girls were running too, their LED bracelets flashing through the surrounding trees. But their lights have gone out one by one, and now she is the only one left. The Brothers’ flashlights bob behind her, drawing nearer by the second. Her lungs and legs are on the point of collapse, but still she staggers onward. Through the trees, she can just make out the lights of the university buildings. She is less than a mile away from campus. If she can make it there, she will be safe.
An arrow whistles through the air, close to her head, and thuds into a tree. She tries again to claw off her glowing wristband, but she can’t get it off—Trace fastened it too tightly.
The Brothers’ thudding footsteps, their primal whoops, are louder now. They are laughing as they gain on her, sensing that they are close. That is perhaps the worst part of all, she thinks—their laughter. Her legs collapse beneath her and she falls to the forest floor, scrambling over tree roots, and they are almost upon her and still she thinks this must be a joke, some kind of sick joke, they don’t mean it, they won’t actually do it.
But it isn’t. They do.
Eighteen years, one day, nine hours, and twenty minutes ago
There is a truck and inside of it are several foot lockers and from these foot lockers the Brothers are unloading weapons. The weapons are like something out of a history book: crossbows, double-headed axes, swords, things that are spiked and chained and so heavy that the Brothers groan as they lift them out. The girls gather round, slow and stupid from the food, the champagne. They are trusting. They are lambs.
“What are we doing?” they ask. “Are we playing a game?”
“Of a sort,” the Brothers say, hefting their weapons.
Eighteen years, one day, and thirteen hours ago
Maggie approaches the big white tent on the arm of Trace, handsome Trace. She is wearing a white dress, the length and cut of which would make her mother faint if she were here to see it. The tent is in the middle of the forest, which borders the campus and belongs to their university.
“Isn’t the forest protected?” Maggie asks. “I thought you weren’t allowed to camp in here.”
Trace gazes at her intently, and she flushes and raises a hand to make sure her hair hasn’t fallen out of place. He has a habit of maintaining eye contact for a couple seconds before responding to anything she says. It makes her suspect she either repels or attracts him; both possibilities terrify her.
“They bend the rules for us once a year. After all—Terry’s a Brother.”
It takes Maggie a moment to realize he is talking about the university’s president. By then, they have made their way to the entrance of the tent. Inside are two long rows of trestle tables, laden with gleaming dishes and artful arrangements of flowers and candles. White-coated waiters move between the seats, pouring water, laying out bread rolls with silver-handled tongs.
“Oh,” Maggie says. “It’s so pretty.”
Trace smiles down at her. His eyes are very blue. “Isn’t it?”
They sit down. He asks about her small-town Indiana life, her hobbies. “I want to know you,” he says, his hand brushing hers as he shows her how to crack open lobster with a little silver tool. He pours champagne, and more champagne, and with each glass she feels herself expanding: she is a better, wittier version of herself, her jokes funnier, her opinions sharper. Perhaps this is a preview of life as a winged woman—feeling adored, the only of her kind in the world, as men nod and laugh and stare at her with their blue, blue eyes.
Near the end of dinner, the Brothers pass a box of LED bracelets around the table. Trace takes one and starts to put it on her wrist but Maggie pulls back, her stomach fluttering. The air is heavy with a sense of expectation. Brothers shuffle in their seats, wink at each other over their dates’ heads. Her head feels fuzzy; she wishes she had not drunk so much champagne.
“What’s it for?” she says.
“So we can find each other.”
Beyond the well-lit tent, the forest is a wall of darkness. But in the distance Maggie can make out the lights of the university, barely two miles from here, and she is comforted by their obscure glow. She holds out her wrist and Trace clamps the bracelet over it. The clasp nips her skin and she winces.
“Sorry,” he says.
He passes the box of bracelets down the table without taking one for himself.
Eighteen years and two months ago
There are whispers. (There are always whispers.)
As Maggie marches through the grueling rounds of the selection process, she hears them. Those who have been cut talk of some archaic ritual in the woods. Girls go out into the forest, and the next morning they emerge winged. The question is, what happens in between?
Every round that she doesn’t get cut, Maggie’s anxiety increases. She feels like a fraud, like any minute now they will see through her to the scholarship budget stretched tight and her father who is a mechanic and the credit card debt she is rapidly accruing to buy all the right clothes and shoes. Two days before initiation—the same day she learns she has made the final round—the director of her scholarship program calls her in for their third meeting in as many months. She informs Maggie that her grades have dropped such that her scholarship will not continue after this semester.
“You can always leave,” the girls who have made the final round tell each other. “If it doesn’t feel right, you can just leave.” They assure each other that they will have each other’s backs and they convince themselves that this is true even though they all know it is not.
On the night of initiation, Maggie has everything to lose. She knows even before she enters the tent that her life is now like one of those moving walkways at the airport. She can proceed in only one direction. There is no turning back.
Nineteen years ago
As a freshman, Maggie sees the Sisters gliding through campus, their wings trailing ethereally behind them. She sees everyone who scrambles to give them things, to get other things out of their way, and she wants her life to be that easy. Only later—much later—does she wonder why she never questioned whether they could fly.
Thirty-two years ago
Maggie is sitting next to her father on the sagging pleather couch, watching football—their weekly ritual. During commercials, an ad for a car comes on. There is a woman crouched like a figurehead on the roof of a car as it drives very fast through winding country roads. She is not wearing much clothing, but that part doesn’t matter. What matters are her wings, full and lush and white like an angel’s, streaming behind her in the wind. Maggie’s breath catches in her throat. She has never seen anything or anyone so beautiful in her life. She looks over at her dad, who has brought his Miller Lite halfway to his mouth and is holding it there, gaping at the woman onscreen. Maggie understands, even then, that she wants other men to look at her this way, that this is something all little girls should aspire to. She turns back to the TV, where the woman has launched herself from the car and is spiraling up, up, into the air. “Take control of your destiny,” the voiceover says, and Maggie pictures soaring above the rooftops of her small town and then beyond, the wind on her face and in her hair, the air cold and sweet and tasting of freedom. “Take flight.”
“Flight” copyright © 2020 by Claire Wrenwood
Art copyright © 2020 by Reiko Murakami