She wasn't born with wings. They first appeared when she was five years old, small nubs covered in gooseflesh protruding from her shoulder blades. She remembered her mother undressing her for her bath, head and upraised arms still trapped in the fabric of her dress when she heard her mother gasp, "Oh, Lily!" She remembered it vividly; thought, in fact, that it might have been her very first memory.
The doctors shrugged and shook their heads; every examination proved inconclusive. First elderly Doc Glover, right in Cooksville, and in 1912, once the nubs had begun to sprout a delicate covering of down, a whole group of doctors at the university in Syracuse (where they had taken her to make use of the newfangled X-ray machine) told her parents that they could find no explanation for the strange growths.
Lily was a normal child in every other respect. Inclined to be bookish, perhaps, and quieter than most of the boys and girls her age, but people said that was just because she spent so much time indoors. Her mother always kept her close, never letting Lily out of sight to play with the other children. People thought she was just protective. It made sense, they said, that a woman with only one child would be liable to dote a bit. And it seemed even more natural after Lily's father died when she was seven.
At first, loose dresses and voluminous blouses were enough to conceal Lily's strangeness. Every morning her mother walked her down to the whitewashed schoolhouse and every afternoon she obediently walked herself straight back home, and for several years no one in Cooksville knew that there was anything different about her other than maybe a touch of shyness. But as the wings grew, they defied every attempt made to hide them. Lily's mother altered all her dresses, letting out the seams in back, adding darts and complicated stitching, anything she could think of to disguise her daughter's deformity, until it became hopeless. Then she cut and hemmed two long slits in every dress, and each morning she held them open while Lily put her wings through.
She was in fifth grade the first time she went out of the house with her wings showing. When she recalled that day, she couldn't remember what she had been feeling as she got ready to go to school. Had she been nervous? Had she been aware that her life was about to change? Before that day, she had kept to herself willingly; afterward she would keep to herself because she had no choice. She wasn't mocked as she walked down the street to school that morning. Everyone, adults and children alike, was too stunned to pass cruel remarks. They simply stared: in astonishment, in revulsion, in fear, in disbelief. She would grow accustomed to the stares in time, but that day in the fall of her fifth grade year marked her first taste of what the rest of her life held. No one spoke to her all day.
The man with the camera appeared two days after that walk to school. Word of Lily's strangeness had spread, and the county paper had sent a reporter to Cooksville to see if the rumors were true. He was waiting outside the schoolhouse when Lily arrived, and though she turned her face away from the camera's flash, he got a clear picture of the wings poking through her dress. Lily never saw the picture that ran in the paper (her mother kept it well hidden), but other people did and soon there were photographers from Syracuse, then from as far away as Rochester and Albany, and eventually from so many places that no one could keep track of them all. They waited in a mob outside Lily's house and followed her when she tried to walk to school.
After the photographers, other men came—men who didn't wait in the street, but walked right up to the door and knocked. Men who tried to make deals, men who wanted Lily to travel with their circuses, or star in their films, or be healed by their faith in front of an audience of thousands. And there were other men who didn't specify their purposes, who simply offered money to, as they said to Lily's mother, "take the girl off your hands." But Lily's mother kept Lily in a back room where these men couldn't even see her, and she told them all that her daughter was not for sale. Then she closed and bolted the door.
They went away, the photographers and the others, once they had gotten their pictures or had the door shut in their faces, but they never disappeared completely from Lily's life. From time to time someone would remember the old story about the winged girl, and come back to Cooksville to see if she was still there, to get another picture of her as she grew up. They appeared infrequently and at random intervals; for years, Lily would occasionally be started by a flash as she walked around town, and she'd know that somewhere in the country her picture would appear in another tabloid or cheap magazine. In adulthood, she took to wearing a large-brimmed hat whenever she went outdoors; she may have been unable to hide her wings, but she saw no reason to let them have her face too.
Lily's wings were not colorful and diaphanous like those of fairies or butterflies, but they were beautiful nonetheless. Her feathers were long and glossy, variegated from a light toffee color to a rich Darjeeling brown. As she got older she grew her hair long, and sometimes in the evening she would stand with her back to the mirror when she let it down, watching over her shoulder as it fell and curled between her wings. She knew that everyone else saw only strangeness when they looked at her, but in those moments she saw her own beauty: brown hair, shining brown wings, and soft, milk-white skin.
By the time she entered high school, her wings were fully grown. They were longer than her arms when she spread them out, but she did so rarely, preferring to keep them tucked along her back, as out of the way as possible. Her mother warned her many times about trying to use her wings, saying, "You're a person, Lily, no matter what some might say. You're a person, and people don't fly. If you want to be treated like a person, you can't be seen flying around like some kind of bird!"
Lily watched from her window as girls in her class began to walk about with boys in the evenings. No boy ever came up Lily's walk and rang the bell for her; she knew better than to hope for that. Instead she took refuge in her studies and in books. She got the best marks of any student in the school, and crossed the stage first at graduation. For years she would remember that moment, the bubble of silence in which she walked, solemnly, her brown wings protruding from her white gown. She shed a feather onto the stage and didn't notice until she was back in her seat with her diploma in her hand, and saw the other students stepping around it as they crossed the stage.
A few of Lily's classmates left Cooksville after high school, disappearing into universities or factory jobs in Syracuse, but most stayed. The boys worked their fathers' farms; the girls got married. With no prospects for marriage, Lily took a job in the library, where they knew her as a faithful patron and were willing to hire her despite her disfigurement. It was a quiet job—hours would sometimes pass when she didn't see or speak to another person. Some patrons stared, some whispered to each other behind their hands, but some were kind and spoke to her about books or some item of news, though no one ever offered or asked for personal confidences.
Although she heeded her mother's warnings and had grown resigned to the idea that her wings would never be used, Lily took meticulous care of them. Every night she preened her feathers, smoothing and arranging them, fluffing her down, stroking her long primaries with her fingers to stimulate the oil-producing glands that maintained their sheen. It was her secret ritual, conducted only in the privacy of her room, and she took great pleasure in it. Even after her mother died and Lily lived in their house all alone, she always shut the door before grooming her wings.
Years passed. Now when Lily looked out her window, she saw the girls who had been her classmates (not girls any longer, but women) walking with baby carriages, or with small children clinging to their hands or their skirts. The first time she saw one of them, she drew the curtain and turned away, but after that she forced herself to watch, schooling her heart to hardness against what she knew she would never have. She felt it was important for her to be realistic; spilt milk, her mother would have said.
She was lonely—at times bitterly so. There were times when she could see her whole life spread before her—thirty or forty more years identical to the twenty-seven she had lived already: silent days in the library, evenings in the silent house, the monotony broken only by the occasional invasion of a flashbulb—and on those days her loneliness rose up so strong that she thought she might choke on it. Yet for all that she held herself apart from the life of the town as surely as the town held itself apart from her. She stayed away from public events, avoided the places where people gathered. She shunned churches in particular, attending services at neither the Catholic nor Methodist churches in Cooksville. She didn't like to see the images of winged men in the stained glass. Knowing the contents of her heart to be human, she had no wish to be compared to the angels.
It was because she kept to herself so much that she didn't know about the arrival of the new schoolteacher. He came to Cooksville at the end of August, but she was ignorant of his existence until halfway through September, when he came into the library looking for a translation of the odes of Horace. The people of the town had known Lily all her life; they thought of her as an oddity and either stared openly or averted their eyes and did not look at all when she passed. But this man was a stranger, and from the moment he walked into the library, he looked at her with open eyes; he saw her for her beauty and it nearly made him gasp. He asked for the Horace, and she smiled a little when he said he wanted it for himself, not to teach to his class.
He began coming to the library regularly. She learned that his name was George Brennan, that he had come from Buffalo to teach literature in the high school, that his mother had died but his father still ran a hotel in the city. He developed the habit of arriving at the library just before closing time and walking her home in the evenings. George Brennan didn't seem to notice, but Lily knew that the people of Cooksville saw them walking together and wondered what the new teacher was doing with a woman like her. She held her wings perfectly still as they made their way through town, closed tight and pressed against her back, as though she could hide them. When she got home, she spread them wide and imagined what George Brennan might think if he could see the way the light bounced off her shining feathers or feel the silken warmth of her down.
She fell in love with him. He was like no one else she had ever known. Even her mother, who had loved her fiercely, had done so in spite of her wings. George loved her wholly, wings and all. He was nervous of touching them at first, but in time he developed the affectionate habit of stroking an outer curve once, lightly, as he walked next to her. She secretly thrilled to this touch, just as her heart swelled when he told her she was beautiful. He liked to take her walking along Otter Creek, and to kiss her under the trees there. She brought him the wild blackberries that grew behind her house. They gave each other books to read and talked for hours in the library or in the park. Her pinions quivered when they made love. She was happier, she thought, than any other woman had ever been.
Lily didn't notice it happening but, bit by bit, hope entered her. It took the form of a house—their house, hers and George's—that grew in her mind. She daydreamed about how they would make a home together; she planned menus for the meals she would cook for him; she pictured the rooms and imagined how she would decorate them: the stately parlor, the warm and comfortable kitchen, even (she hardly dared think it!) the sunny nursery with delicate white furniture.
Winter came, and George began to spend time in the home where she had lived with her mother. Lily liked this; the house had always been her sanctuary and it was the one place she and George could spend time together without feeling the eyes of the town upon them. He stayed very late sometimes, and she enjoyed lying in his arms until she was just on the verge of sleep. Then he would slip off to his own room above the school and she would hardly know he was gone. One night at the end of December, with the fire burning very low in the grate, he pulled their blanket up over her wings and spoke. "Lily," he said, "I want to have a family. Do you see what I'm saying?"
She thought she did, and her heart leapt in her breast. She lay perfectly still. She couldn't lift her face to look at him, but she smiled into his shoulder.
But George was not smiling. "I— I have to find a girl I can marry, Lily. A girl I can have children with. It's time for me to settle down. Do you understand?"
She felt his hand brush her feathers. After a stretch of silence he let himself out.
Lily didn't leave the house the next day, but the day after that—two days before the new year—she got up and put on her light blue dress, buttoning it up under her wings with the skill of long practice. She left the door of her house open to the cold wind and walked out of town, all the way to the snowy shore of Otter Creek. There was a thin film of ice on the water near the bank. She stood at a bend in the sandy shore and spread her wings wide. She felt clumsy, ungainly, and she didn't know what to do. Should she jump into the air? Run a bit along the creek? She made a tentative flapping motion and felt the muscles of her wings; they were unused and stiff, but she could feel the strength they held. She jumped, and at the same time beat down hard, once, then again, then the third time—she was in the air. She flew higher, above the tops of the trees. She followed the line of the creek westward, into the white winter sky.
Title graphic: "Not Innately Sensual" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2010.