“When We Flew,” by Jennifer Diemer
The violet-eyed girl falls from the sky, bypassing the village’s heavily guarded gate, and Ola knows, as if by a sixth sense, that her life will never be the same again.
(photo by PeppySis)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
“When We Flew”
by Jennifer Diemer
Three days before from my Removing, a girl named Yara taught me how to fly.
She wasn’t supposed to be in our village. She hadn’t passed through the gate, hadn’t gotten permission from the keepers to enter. But when you can fly, you own the sky; roads and gates and other fastened-down inventions are as irrelevant as trees are to a star.
I was clipping Father’s white shirts, smooth and damp between my hands, to the clothesline when Yara alighted upon the daisy hill behind our cottage. I knew she was there, felt her there, though she was some yards behind me and did not make a sound. I knew she was there in the same way that I sense an oncoming storm, or an oncoming fit of temper from my father. I knew in the same way that my feet always choose the driest path home after a day of foraging in the woods. I knew in the same way that I knew I could never be happy in the village, could never embrace the life my father expected of me.
I knew Yara in the same way that I knew myself: very little, and yet deeply, inherently, submissively, like a wave folding into the sea.
“Hello,” I said, before I turned. I did not turn. I drew in a breath of perfumed air—it was the time of the lilacs—and neatly affixed a sleeve to the line.
“Hello,” Yara said. Her voice was new, a sound I had never heard before. My heart responded it to with a tripping rhythm. Surprised, I lay a hand over my chest.
This, I thought, biting my lip. This moment. Now. It’s come.
And I didn’t want to begin it, because once it was begun, it could never begin again. I wanted it to last, to stay.
But time is wild, will not be tamed.
I dropped the remaining clips in my hands into my apron pocket and faced Yara for the first, the only first, time.
She looked like no one I had ever seen before, and like every one of my dreams.
“I’m afraid I’ve trampled your daisies,” she said, gesturing toward her sandaled feet, crushed white petals peeking out beneath the leather soles. “From up there”—she pointed toward the sky—“this hill looked as if it were covered in grass, and I saw the flowers too late, couldn’t heave myself away.”
“Up…there.” I regarded her with parted lips, with a tilted head. She spoke words I had grown up speaking plainly, simply, and made them sound strange. Beautiful. “Do you live on the mountain?” I asked her, wondering at her pointing and her accent.
Her eyes—large and lilac, like the flowers—searched out the mountain peaks poking through the clouds. “No. Not from there,” she said, looking at me again. Her mouth curved up at the corners as she watched me, and my heart stumbled over itself, clumsy as a newborn calf. I turned to the clothesline, pretended to straighten the hem of one of my father’s shirts.
“My tribe is not known to this country, I don’t think,” she said. “But…”
I paused, staring at her, and her smile deepened. She took a step nearer, mashing daisies.
“We know of you.”
“Me?” I asked, and then flushed, shamed. Not me. Of course she couldn’t know of me. Who was I but a blacksmith’s daughter? There were some villagers who did not know my name, or never used it, called me simply “the smithy’s child.” When I married, I would then be known as my husband’s wife. But my name, the name my mother had given me, was as inconsequential as the daisies’ name for themselves, which we could never know, would never even think to ask.
I gazed down at the daisies and pondered this, and suddenly the world felt full of shadows, an inexplicable place.
“Yes, you.” The girl took another step closer, then another, and, startling me, she claimed one of my hands. “We know of your village,” she said softly, brushing her thumb over my fingers. “My tribe tells stories of your village, the flightless village. But we have not been able to find you.” She smiled at me, bowing her head, black hair shifting over her shoulders. “Until now.”
“I don’t understand.” I blinked at her and then looked away, focused on our hands joined together. No one ever held my hand, hadn’t since my mother died four years ago. It wasn’t the way of our people to be physically affectionate, to casually touch.
The nearness of her affected me profoundly.
And her eyes, so odd and ardent, gazing at me now with an intensity I had never experienced before, struck me breathless, lightheaded, every time I felt them upon me. That frightened and thrilled me. I seemed, already, changed.
“I will explain, but first… My name is Yara.” She drew in a breath, then, as if expectant. “What is your name?”
I licked my lips, looking at her uncertainly. She urged me on with a nod.
“My name is Ola.” The word tasted strange in my mouth; I hadn’t spoken it in a long time, not for many months. “It was my great aunt’s name, my mother’s aunt. She left our village eight years after my mother’s birth, and she never returned.” I sighed, glancing at the white clouds, at my father’s white shirts flapping gently in the gusts, at the white daisies spotting the hill. “My grandmother burned all of Ola’s belongings and forbade mention of her name. My mother never knew what had become of her, where she had gone.”
Yara, again, nodded her head. For a long moment, she held her eyes closed, still slowly caressing my hand. I watched her, traced the contours of her long dark lashes with my own dazed, searching eyes.
“Tell me what you know of wings,” she said then, blinking, staring at me.
“W—wings?” I stepped back, pulling my hand away; waves of unease jangled my nerves, altered my heart’s beating. It felt as if a fist were pounding inside my chest. “I don’t—I know nothing—I’ve never heard of…those before.”
“Truly?” Yara regarded me with a sad downturn to her mouth. “Are you certain?”
“Yes,” I breathed, digging my nails into my palms. And it was the truth. I had never heard of wings, never, but somehow the word rang a stoppered bell within me. Instinctively, it felt familiar, mine—and dangerous. The sound of it, the thought of it, made me want to run into the cottage where I could be surrounded by the things I knew, beloved things: my mother’s herbs and my aunt’s rough, colored stones.
But I didn’t run.
Because I knew Yara, too, though I did not know her at all.
“Why have you come here?” I asked her, the question I should have asked her first, when she appeared behind me, when I sensed her, before seeing her, there. But I hadn’t asked it. Because part of me had known why Yara had come.
She had come to remake my world.
“I’m here, Ola,” she said, stepping before me and then behind me, resting her hand, light as air, upon the ragged feathered appendages on my back, “to teach you how to fly.”
We never had a name for them.
If we were forced to refer to them, we called them back limbs or growths, but we tried to avoid remarking upon them at all. They were our burden, our embarrassment. Some of the villagers claimed they were our curse: for engaging in worldly behavior in the past, for venturing beyond the borders of our village.
So now we didn’t venture. We didn’t wonder or explore. No villager had glimpsed the world beyond our gates for generations. Those who had left, like my great aunt Ola, had never returned, and would not have been welcomed back.
But despite our efforts, the curse could not be broken. Babies were born with two arms, two legs, and two spiny nubs protruding from the shoulder blades, nubs that lengthened and sprouted feathers—white as daisies—over time.
They were useless, these limbs, hanging limp upon our backs until we reached seventeen years of age.
In three days, I would be seventeen.
And then, before the gathered crowd, as he had done for all of the villagers before me, the doctor would perform my Removing. He would take his sharpened saw and relieve me of my growths. And I would walk unburdened into adulthood, into a future that was never of my choosing but that was, by birth and geography, my lot.
I staggered, too weak to stand. My legs collapsed beneath me, and my back limbs jarred painfully upon the ground. Within the same breath, Yara was crouching beside me, and she placed a hand upon my shoulder, squeezed.
“Ola,” she said, but I shook my head, staring pointedly at the appendages folded upon her back. I had noticed them, of course, but hadn’t remarked upon them out of courtesy. To point them out would be like pointing out a scar. I had simply pitied Yara, and the tribe she came from, for sharing my people’s curse.
But now Yara spread her feathers wide, stretched her back limbs high to rise in graceful peaks above her shoulders.
And I looked at her, stared at her.
And my heart—fully—stopped.
She was a holy vision.
“Wings,” she whispered, smoothing her lower feathers with her hand, where the tips brushed upon the ground. She smiled faintly to herself. Then her lilac eyes shone upon me. “You did not know the word, but you know the soul of it. You know, Ola, have always known, that there is more to the world than what is apparent, or believed, or feared.”
“Yes,” I said softly, swallowing. “But my w—wings….” With a deep breath, I glanced to my tattered feathers, dusty and split. “They aren’t like yours. They aren’t… I mean, they can’t—”
“They can,” Yara insisted, and then she swept me up from the ground so quickly that my stomach turned and my head spun. She held me in her arms, stared intensely into my eyes. “Listen, Ola. My tribe has sought your village for a very long time. Your people have come to us—your great aunt and others, many others, down through the decades—and learned the truth about themselves, remembered the purpose of their wings. But none of them has been able to recall the way back to this place, so that we might come and help you all, free you from your false imprisonment.”
“Why couldn’t they remember the way?” I bit my lip, confused. “How far do you live from here?”
“Very far, Ola. Farther than most will ever travel. I think instinct draws your villagers to us. As if they know that, with us, they will find the missing parts of their stories.”
“Missing parts,” I whispered, and with a seizing gasp, tears sprung to my eyes. “But no one under seventeen has ever left our village. None but those who whose w—wings have already been Removed—”
“Yes.” And Yara’s eyes glistened, sorrowful. “They will never fly, but they know now that they were not cursed, were never wrong. They know they were born whole, and that has given them, despite their loss, great comfort.” She rests her palm against my cheek, so close that her breath gusts my hair, and my heart tumbles toward her.
“You have come to save us.”
“No.” Her smile washes over me like light, like love. “I have come to teach you how to save yourselves.”
Flying is a sixth sense, Yara says. It’s true. It’s not like seeing or tasting, smelling or hearing. It’s not like touching, though there is transcendence there, too.
Flying is something else, an experience incomparable to all others. I missed it all my life without knowing how to define it. Just like I missed Yara, without daring to dream that she was real.
My father chose to remain in the village, as did many of his friends, the older men and women. I wept when I left him, when I left all of them.
I hope they will change their minds, in time, and venture beyond the gates.
I hope I will see them once more.
But the younger villagers embraced Yara’s teachings. She taught those of us who had not yet been Removed how to strengthen our wings, how to care for them and make them beautiful, like hers. For so long, we had hidden them, ashamed, so to groom them, exercise them, lift them high over our heads seemed, at first, profanity. Some of the angry villagers spat at us when we practiced our flying in the meadow. But we did not let them ground us; we had been born knowing that this was our right—to fly, to watch the earth fall away and the sky rise to buffet us. When we faltered or forgot, Yara was there to remind us that we were, in ourselves, whole.
She taught everyone in turn, but she never left my side for long. And when we were alone, she taught me things that were for my knowing only—the sanctity of a night-long kiss, the taste of air upon sky-touched skin…
And on the scheduled day of my Removing, I removed myself. I flew on wings that had been destined for dust but grazed the stars, instead.
Yara flew beside me, daisies in her hair.
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