Chapter 3: A YA fantasy of intriguing fae politics, magic, love and acceptance.
I had never expected Grandfather to be very well off financially, considering how he used to be a normal history professor with minimal pay in the University back in his primes. Whenever I imagined my mother’s childhood in the suburbs, I had always pictured her having grown up in a farm-like atmosphere, with a tiny house and lots of land around. Well, his house wasn’t exactly a palace, but it was certainly not as shabby as I had imagined it to be. Apparently, history professors back in his time had pretty good wages.
And there was something incredibly magnetic about that place which drew me on the moment I stepped out of the taxi.
His house was good – not very shabby, not too huge. It was just good; good enough for me, in any case, seeing how I was not very used to living in happy houses. It was located right in the middle of the suburbs of the city and boasted of fairly comfortable living conditions.
But it was not all this which attracted me to the place. It was not the three large bedrooms or the well-stocked kitchen or even the tastefully decorated living cum dining room which attracted me to the place. It was the vast woods behind which was so alluring. Well it wasn’t exactly very dense or forest-like. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if I could call it a forest. Suburbs don’t have forests. It was more like a cultivated land with a sprinkling of trees here and there. It had a thicket of bushes in the front, separating it from the rest of the backyard, and beyond the bushes stood sparse trees atop which hung snaky vines and creepers spiraling all the way down to their roots, interconnecting the foliage and trees in such a way that, in total, the scene looked like a terrific panorama of botanical mysteries.
“That’s our land too,” Grandfather said, probably noting the way I was ogling the woods like I’ve never seen anything like that before. We were standing on the balcony of what was to be my room – a fairly spacious one with a sloping ceiling, huge bed, study table and a towering bookcase (this I noted happily) – which was in direct view of the woods. My room, he had said, had been his study previously (which explained the bookcase and its startling collection of books).
“Is there anything there?” I asked him, a baffling curiosity causing the underside of my wings to tingle.
Grandfather smiled. “Not if you count the trees. Honestly, don’t bother going in there, it’s all trees and snakes.”
“Snakes. Dangerous ones. I saw a viper coming out from there two weeks back, you know. You’ve got to be careful around here in the suburbs. It’s not like in the city.”
I considered this. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve lived in the same place all my life. In that same apartment,” I reminded him. It was true; I hadn’t once stepped out of the city before. Not even for an hour. When the kids in my class recounted their holiday tales to me, I could never really feel their excitement at having been abroad, on an aeroplane. They went skiing in Switzerland and trekking in Corbett but I couldn’t care less. I was perfectly content skiing in the flood-drained streets of the city – my city - all my life.
My grandfather didn’t reply. He drummed his spindly fingers on the railing, choosing to gaze out.
I decided to grab this opportunity for further questioning. “What about my college?” I asked. “What will I do? Where will I go?” My school was over and I had given my final exams; all that was left was college admissions. I mean, I wasn’t exactly the brain of the class back in my old place but I did like school. I was an active member of the Green Club and Cyber Talk and I missed them already. I certainly didn’t want to end up illiterate; I wanted to go to college, get a job somehow.
He turned to me. Apparently, he hadn’t thought of that. Of course, why would anyone bother thinking about their abandoned granddaughter’s future? Not a big deal at all. “What do you want to do?” he asked and once again I thought I saw my mother’s familiar anxiety wash over his face.
I shrugged. “I haven’t really thought about it, Grandfather, but I-“
“Pa,” he interrupted.
“Pa,” he repeated and this time he looked a bit flustered, as though he was almost embarrassed. To lessen the discomfort he tried a half-shrug. “You can, you know, call me Pa. If you want to. It’s shorter than grandfather.”
Hearing this made my spirits rocket. For some reason I felt insanely happy he was extending this offer. It was a simple choice, but to me it almost felt like…love. And acceptance. At that moment I could have responded in a million different ways. I could’ve hugged him, smiled at him. But all I could do was nod and say, “Thanks. Pa.”. The rusty word rolled off my tongue like it was meant for him all along. The closest thing to a fatherly figure in my life was obviously this man, and it somehow felt right that way.
He cleared his throat awkwardly. Clearly he wasn’t used to being nice and loving. Then again, neither was I.
“So,” he continued somewhat self-consciously. “What do you want to learn?”
I had never been the artistic type. My relationship with creativity ended at diagram-drawing in early Biology. No, I was more of the facts-and-figures type. Then again, I never did too well in Science so maybe I wasn’t cut out for that either. “Honestly,” I stated, “I really don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it much.” The truth was, I didn’t want to. I was afraid to think too far ahead in the fear that what I may wish for would never happen. I never could take to disappointment too well.
However Pa seemed unconcerned. He waved it off. “Oh we’ve got all summer to figure it out,” he bustled. “Now just wait for your results. Explore the place a little, make new friends, do whatever you want to do.” With that he turned and trudged out to show Sasha her room.
Do whatever you want to do. The words rolled off echoing in my head. What did I want to do? Well for starters I wanted to surgically operate on those annoying wings(or whatever they were supposed to be) and get them out of my system. And perhaps find out the exact reason behind it. Of course there had to be some perfectly logical scientific explanation for the wing growth. Maybe my spinal cord went all feathery and decided to jut out? Unlikely and totally absurd.
Or maybe it was a disorder. A devastating, disfiguring skin disorder which, by some weird coincidence, looked like wings. But how could that be possible? And they didn’t even look like bird wings! They were more like…well, butterfly wings. Sans feathers. Just like the ones I had seen on my mother’s back that fateful night.
And on Crepuscula’s.
I wondered how long I would keep denying the inevitable truth from myself.
I hoped Pa had an internet connection so I could Google in wing growth.
Frustrated, I shut the door and flopped onto the bed.
I felt the wings crumple. My eyes closed out of their own accord. I rolled into sleep.
Around midnight I was woken up by some serious tugging of my shirt.
“Sasha,” I shot up, anxious. Somehow she had ended up sleeping next to me in the bed where I was curled up with my back facing her. Now she too sat up.
“Peri,” she breathed. She sounded funny.
“What is it?” Maybe the new atmosphere made her feel strange. I squinted in the pitch darkness which was only slightly livened up by the shimmering moonlit vespers spilling in from the French window. As my pupils adjusted to the dimness, a bolt of panic shot through me when I realized where- or what- she was staring at.
“Are those…” her eyes widened as she reached out to touch the bit of silver protruding from underneath the back of my nightdress. Instinctively I slapped her hand off.
“It’s nothing!” I snapped. “Just some silver thread sticking out. Go to sleep now.”
Even as a child Sasha had her own mind. She took after me in the obedience area; she did what she thought was right and no earthquake could budge her decisions. *insert childhood experience*
Even now as I desperately tried to hide the tip of the wings poking out, she eyed it carefully, eyes widening. “That’s not a thread!” she rebuked with a violent shake of her head. “Peri, get up! Switch on the light! There’s something in there!” Her voice bordered on hysterical as she tried to push me out of the bed and I lamely tried to catch myself before I suffered my first fall in this house.
“Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping Sash? Get back to sleep!” I yanked my hand away before she could grab it. I didn’t care that my voice was getting louder – and more irritated and anxious – by the minute, I just needed her to lay off of my damn wings. I didn’t know why I was so inclined to keep it a secret; I just felt it would be an unwanted intrusion of my privacy, my weirdness. Maybe there was an inward fear that I’ll be regarded abnormal (not that I already was). Who was I kidding? My picture would make the headlines the next morning if anyone found out! And the last person in the universe I wanted to worry was my impressionable young sister.
But did she listen? Oh no. I don’t know how long I struggled to push her back into bed with repeated orders to “lay down and go to sleep or I’ll smack you black and blue”. All I knew was, just when I’d begun to realize that the girl wasn’t as puny as she looked, light flooded into my eyes like angry buzzing bees.
I held out a hand in front of my eyes, squinting at my grandfather who stood by the light switch; torch in hand, cold cataract-clouded eyes staring right back.
“Pa!” Sasha stood up at once, her ragged hair all scruffy and pajamas crumpled like the wrinkles on his face – which wore an unfathomable expression. Was it anger? Or worry?
“It’s – it’s nothing, Pa, we were just –“ I didn’t know what lie I was going to come up with but then my helpful little Sasha saved me the trouble.
“Pa, she’s got something on her back!” she squealed. Before I could react, she grabbed a tiny fistful of my nightdress and pulled the back down, low enough to show him the cursed flange.
I closed my eyes in defeat. This was it. The little bit of normalcy I had desperately clung on to was about to be discarded, stamped and squashed ruthlessly under his frosty glare. The tiny optimistic part in me which often tried to tell me the wings were my imagination - that the world was all normal, that I was normal and so had been my mother - was to be killed. And all this, I calmly forced myself to accept as he drew near me looking strangely awkward – I mistook it for chasteness – and yet at the same time carrying a disappointed ‘oh-she-did-it-again’ look.
Which was strange, because he was supposed to be witnessing something out of this world, something which defied the laws on which our human bodies were crafted. He was supposed to look shocked or overwhelmed or disbelieving. Not crushed or disheartened.
But I must’ve imagined his odd reaction because, in the merest moment, his expression flattened to a passive, indifferent one.
He shook his head. “It’s probably just some loose fabric sticking out. Go to sleep, Sasha. You need it.” With that, he turned off the lights and stalked out of the room leaving behind a bracing draft of air which felt like it was trying to suck out my breath as I stared into the darkness incredulously.
Did he not see it? Did he not understand the abnormality of my body? He saw they were wings. There was no way he could not see what was growing on me!
Or maybe he saw. Maybe he knows, I thought. Maybe he knows what this is all about. Maybe he has the answers I’m looking for.
Maybe he knows about my mother.