Holiday short story by Carolyn Parkhurst: ‘Care and Feeding’


(Illustration by Chris Koehler)
November 14, 2012

Imagine that your child is born with wings. It’s a good thing, right? The freedom to step off the earth, to glide and soar and float. It represents not just flight, but the potential for flight. It works with all the metaphors of child-rearing.

You can see that there might be a downside; it makes things a little more complicated. She’s going to get teased; some people will stare. And the onesies you’ve bought aren’t going to fit, not without some alteration. There are plenty of things you could worry about, plenty of things you haven’t planned for, but so what? She’s your girl.

Her wings are small at first, like the rest of her: feathered little nubs, lying folded against the skin of her back. They flutter against your arms while you’re nursing her; you see them twitching while she sleeps. And even though you wouldn’t say it in public, even though you gently remind strangers and friends alike that she’s not a supernatural being but an ordinary flesh-and-blood human baby, you can’t help but call her your angel once in a while.

When she learns to walk, you buy one of those child leashes. They have nice ones now, not horrible at all: The one you get is a furry backpack that looks like a monkey, with an extra strap to secure it around her waist. As she zigzags down the street, three feet above the sidewalk, you keep a tight hold of the long tail.

Safety issues are different than they are with other children. She can’t sit comfortably in a stroller or a car seat without some jury-rigging. When visiting friends, the first thing you do is look around for ceiling fans and open windows. You have to be extra careful with breakable items and cleaning products and medications. Whenever you see the phrase “Keep out of the reach of children,” you feel like calling the company and not hanging up until you find the right person to speak to. You want to explain your situation; you want to talk until you can make someone understand why you’re going to need alternate directions.

At the park, reactions are mixed. Other parents are kind and interested, or else they won’t meet your eyes. “Watch her, please,” one mother says sharply when your daughter zips up and tries to land in the stroller that holds the woman’s new baby.

Your daughter wrenches a shovel away from a little boy in the sandbox, carrying it up as far as she can go on her tether. As you’re handling the negotiations of sharing and apology, tugging gently to pull her back to earth, you see the moment when she realizes the paradox: She can keep the shovel away from the other children, but only if she never settles down in the sand to dig.

***

Your second child is born without wings. This is something that none of the parenting books cover. You find yourself loving this new child, this ordinary child, almost guiltily. Before you became a parent, this is what you’d imagined it would be like. This baby rolls on a blanket and finds tiny pieces of carpet fluff to put in her mouth. Baby-proofing takes place much lower to the ground. When you put her in her crib, you don’t have to zip a mesh tent over her to keep her from gliding over the railings during the night.

Your older daughter is fascinated by the soft, smooth skin of her sister’s back. One day, she asks when the baby’s wings are going to grow in, and you begin a conversation you’ll probably be having for years. You tell her that the world is rich and varied; you tell her that we’re all different, and we’re all the same. Your task here is clear, and it isn’t really so different from anyone else’s. Like every parent, you have to teach your girl to live a contradiction, to be exceptional and ordinary, all at the same time.

You figure out ways to make it work. You enlist her help in dusting high corners and painting over water spots on the ceiling. You divide your grocery list into high shelves and low ones, ripping the paper in half and giving each child a piece to carry around the store. You make up new verses for the hokeypokey. And at Christmastime, you have one of the few perfect ideas of your life.

She’s only 3 the first time you put the angel ornament in her hands. It’s a rather flimsy thing, lightweight, meant to be seen from below, but it’s pretty in all the ways that appeal to little girls: white lace and glittering halo, rosy lips and kind eyes. Your daughter runs a finger over the wings, which are stiff, made of the same white ceramic as the angel’s face.

“There aren’t any feathers,” your daughter says. “How does she fly with such hard wings?”

“She can’t,” you say, pointing her toward the top of the tree. “That’s why you’re going to have to help her.”

***

Eventually, the time comes when there’s no way you can justify the leash. You set ground rules for flying: no flying at school, with a babysitter or at a friend’s house. No flying higher than Daddy’s head. No flying across or above the street. No lifting anyone to fly with you.

Clothes are an issue, of course: As she grows, so do her wings. In the summer, in the early years, you generally let her go shirtless — let them both go shirtless, since it’s hard to make it seem fair to a 2-year-old that she has to wear a shirt, and her sister doesn’t. Your neighbors grow used to the sight of the two of them half-naked in your front yard, making up elaborate games and mixing messy concoctions of mud and leaves. Sometimes when they’re caught up in playing, you see your older girl begin to flap her wings in excitement, not remembering until she’s a few feet off the ground that her sister doesn’t like it when she flies away from her (a tactic she uses with some glee when they argue). Her wings are remarkably expressive. She folds them up tight when she’s sad or hurt; when she’s happy, she flutters them softly, without seeming to notice that she’s doing it.

You remember being slightly horrified when a well-meaning aunt gave you a sewing machine at your bridal shower, but now you use it regularly. You cut long slits up the back of your daughter’s shirts, then stitch the edges so they won’t fray. On cold mornings, it takes a while to work her wings through the different layers, and you’re impatient with her when she won’t stand still for it.

Occasionally, someone will ask you if you would change things if you could, but it’s not a question that makes much sense. Your daughter has wings, and without them, she would not be your daughter. This is not the way you thought things would be, but it doesn’t make you wish there were someone else sleeping in her bed.

A few Christmases in, your younger daughter gets jealous, complaining that it’s her turn to put the angel on the tree. But you find other ways to make it up to her. This is something you’d like to keep going as long as you possibly can.

***

It doesn’t take much to make the incredible ordinary; mostly, the question of your daughter’s wings just gets folded in with everything else. You field challenges as they come up, explaining and negotiating and occasionally arguing: Should she be allowed to use her wings when she plays basketball? (Do they make the tall kids pretend to be short?) Is there any reason why an eighth-grade production of “Our Town” can’t include an Emily who can fly?

On long car trips, when your kids want to hear stories about themselves, you tell them how your younger girl said “potabies” instead of “potatoes,” and you tell them how your older girl taught herself to fly one afternoon when you’d stepped out of the room to get her some juice. You learn to buy extra-large umbrellas and to bring a doctor’s note when you go to the airport. At carnivals and amusement parks, you know exactly which kinds of seats and safety restraints can accommodate her without too much trouble.

Her wings are, in many ways, just another part of her body. You pour soapy water over them in the tub; you pat them dry with a bath towel. She asks you to scratch them when she has an itch, and you run your nails gently over the stretches of feathered muscle, the hollow bones jutting at unexpected angles. They seem to get more sensitive for a while when she’s going through puberty; she complains that it hurts to lean back against the solid surface of a chair. It occurs to you once — one of those thoughts you wish you hadn’t had, but there’s not much you can do about it now — that perhaps someday they’ll be an erogenous zone for her. That her husband or boyfriend or partner or whatever — well, that’s as far as you want to take it, which is just as well, because that’s the part that stops you every time. You hope. You hope there will be someone there to touch her wings if she wants them to.

But that’s a long way off. For now, you just do the ordinary things, feeding and clothing her, helping her to navigate and explore. You don’t say a word when she starts going to school with a shawl draped over her shoulders, and you don’t say a word when she stops. And the year she decides that she doesn’t want to fly up to the top of the Christmas tree, that she wants to do it the way any other child would, you don’t argue about tradition, and you don’t tell her how much you’ll miss the soft fluttering, the tiny breeze it creates. Instead, you pick her up, all of her unfamiliar weight in your arms, and you lift her in the air for as long as your strength holds out.

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Carolyn Parkhurst is the author of three novels, including “The Dogs of Babel” and “The Nobodies Album,” as well as a children’s book. She lives in Washington with her family. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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