On Raglan Road of an autumn day
I saw her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare
That I might one day rue
He appears on the third day of her lowest of lows, when stress and pressure finally drives her to idleness, a listless stupor that she passes in her island of a bed.
Marinette lies in the same pajamas she’s been in since coming home to her apartment four days ago. She idly wraps herself in the bolts of fabric meant for her final collection, meant for her dress form, not her. But she makes a clashing cocoon around her anyway and waits for inspiration like metamorphosis, for something beautiful and strange to emerge out of her crawling and alive. But when she finally bursts out, her legs flailing, her face splotched red, hardly the type of rebirth any documentary narrator would call miraculous, she finds the same dreary bedroom swathed in bluish-gray dusk. The rain outside is on repeat, playing the only song knows over and over again. Her tower of dirty dishes is getting tall and impressive. The spools she had arranged by hue then saturation surround her like soldiers in siege. Her dress form is naked and vulnerable.
She considers a repeat performance - longer this time until she thinks of something or until she suffocates on her own artist’s block - when she hears clattering on the balcony. The frat boys on campus like to test the invincibility of their youth by throwing themselves up walls. Parkour, they say. Nature weeding out bad genes, Alya says. Marinette sighs and wonders what poor buzzed freshman she’s going to have to take to the hospital this time. She throws back the curtains and sliding door and stops at the sight of him. It. Him.
He is naked, give credit where it’s due, but he’s not the fumbling eighteen year old she imagined. He is hunched at the far edge of her balcony like a child, curled over his knees, picking seeds out of her bird feeder, his fingers raw in the diamond pattern of the metal holder. But it’s the wings, the ones folded over his back, twitching when he manages to fish out a sunflower seed, that has her in a silent daze. A dream, she thinks, but the rain is too loud. She would never be able to sleep through this rain. He doesn’t notice her, too busy scrabbling at a seed with intense concentration. He stops, looks up, continues, stops, and then turns to her. His hair is muted gold wet and plastered over his eyes, but she still sees them. Large green eyes - too young for the broad angles of his face - glint with the reflection of overcast skies, mixing into an eerie silver, into something not quite human, something less like a him and more like an it.
Her senses come back, first as a trickle and then a flood that storms through her veins with liquid panic. Her chest rises with a scream that she just manages to clamp a hand on. He doesn’t take kindly to her sudden fear. His wings flare, water and feathers flying off in little whirlwinds. There’s danger, a threat, in those wings. But his human side tells a different story, nervous twitching eyes and hands tightly hugging her bird feeder to his chest.
“Hey,” Marinette says, adopting feathers to her voice, the quiver only slight. “Hey. No no it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I won’t do anything to you. Are you hungry?” And she laughs a little, unable to tamp down on the hysteric quality to it. She’s turning into her mother. She meets someone - something - positively outrageous, something mythical, and her first instinct is to feed it. She reaches behind her, hands blind in their search as she maintains eye contact, and brings around her bag of bird feed. She dumps half the bag onto the ground and takes slow careful steps back until her hips hits the railing, her hands up and open for his peace of mind.
His wings bristle and flap irritably, but he edges to the pile on palms and knees, his fingers like a bird’s beak pinching into the pile and back to his white chapped lips. He eats the seeds, shell and all splintering loudly in his mouth. Her gums tingle horribly at the sound, and the words slip past her in a whisper.
“What are you?”
But he gives no sign of understanding, and he stares at her, even as he eats, with the wild hunted look of animals. The rain intends to deafen. Breathing is relegated to a luxury, and she takes such shallows gasps that she worries that she’ll hyperventilate and send him back into another anxious spell. But he settles and grows used to the sight of her, perhaps just another prop on her balcony. His hands alternate with the task of feeding, and his eyes lazily wander to her chest where the ring she wears on a chain rests on the shelf of her clavicle. It’s a plain silver ring that she bought at a flea market, cheap, too large to fit anywhere but her thumb.
“Do you like this?” she asks and unhooks the chain from her neck. His eyes follow its pendulum swing, wide with wonder, seeds dropping from his hands with little plinks to the ground. She keeps the chain in her hand, uneasy that he might gobble it down like the bird feed. She wouldn’t even begin to know how to perform the heimlich maneuver with those bulky wings in the way, but she worries for nothing. He slides over to her, precaution thrown to the wind at this new toy she has to offer, and he eagerly holds it up, admiring the flash of light when he flicks his wrist. He coos and hums at it, his wings folding over each other like a puppy wagging its tail.
Marinette can’t help it. A tension that’s been building in her since she saw him, since she started her collection, balloons and then explodes. She laughs, a sound too harsh in her ears after speaking in soft flutterings. His plumage flares, and he blinks at her in surprise, but he’s hardly perturbed. Rather, he looks at her with the same fascination as the ring.
“Here,” she says and scoots closer to him, so she can clasp the chain around his wrist like a bracelet. Just a precaution in case he decides he’d rather have it in his stomach. His hands are gritty and speckled with dirt, his nails broken, and his skin unspeakably and inhumanly cold. Simply touching his hand raises bumps along her arms, but she knows better than to shiver. She knows now that he reflects fear.
He mumbles nonsensical music as he jingles the chain around his arm, and then he parrots her laugh, a brash honk that surprises her, all the while shaking his wrist for her to see. She smiles at him, and he parrots that too, perfect teeth boldly on display, his muscles trembling with the unfamiliarity of the gesture.
“Now what to do with you?” Marinette asks him like he might at last speak to her, but he’s mute with wide glassy eyes that stare longingly into her apartment, at what she suspects is the shiny metal bowl sitting on her desk.
“Okay,” she says uncertainly. She gazes at the mortar of muck and leaves caked along the barbs of his feathers. A beetle burrows out of his plumage and back in. “But only if you take a bath.”
All those years of figure drawing prepared her for this moment. There’s nothing like having to stare intensely at genitalia for hours at a time biweekly to help you get over the awkwardness of helping a bird-man (man-bird?) take a bath. The nudity isn’t an issue, but the flailing arms and flapping wings are a completely different matter. By the time they’re done, an exhausting two hours later, Marinette might as well have taken the bath herself she’s so waterlogged. She slumps into her desk chair in front of her computer, a towel covering her head and new pajamas keeping her warm and dry.
Her new companion makes a home of the pillows and blanket she tossed onto the floor, cobbling together a human sized nest. She convinced him to wear last-minute boxers that she had shorn from an old pair of pajama pants, but that seems to be his limit on clothing. When she tried to pull a shirt over his head, he had pitched a whine so shrill that a dog from the next apartment over began to howl. Just boxers it is.
Thankfully he loves her quilt. It’s wrapped around his shoulders, pitched like a tent, snug around his neck and with a little opening so his hands can freely spin her metal bowl. From the back he looks like a mountain topped with blond snow, a small breathing mountain, his wings lungs that move its chest to life.
It’s soothing, but she pulls away to her computer. She starts simple. Person with wings. The internet shows her images of angels and videos of idiots jumping off of their roofs with cardboard wings. Real person with wings. Hoaxes, suspiciously grainy pictures, and “One time I saw…” narratives. She rubs her eyes after skimming the fifth story of winged men with swords of silver and booming multi-layer voices and halos that make it impossible to look at them straight on. Her bird-man is much more simple. Quiet coos and curious hands and a fascination for the pulse of light in metal.
Marinette isn’t sure what she was expecting; some hidden cult for everyday people who just happen to house winged persons perhaps. People who can tell her what to feed him, where to put him to keep him comfortable, how long he’ll want to stay before flying back out. She throws her head back and lets out a frustrated sigh. Her lips purse with a reluctant smile when she hears him mimic her, not mocking, simply trying it out for himself.
Her fingers type it out idly. Angel . Glaring beacons of light and babies on clouds. She looks back at him, swaddled in his blanket, falling asleep while sitting up. It’s the closest she’s seen yet. In small ways, he’s like the children photoshopped with wings, all to do with long lashes and messy curly hair and nothing to do with the wings on his back.
She closes the laptop, and he jolts awake and blinks sleepily at her, pulling the bowl underneath his blanket like she might take it from him. She laughs softly because he can well have it, she doesn’t mind. She sits across from him against the foot of her bed, her crossed legs to his crossed legs, her feet skimming edge of his quilt. “So did you fall from heaven then?” she asks more as a lullaby than a question, and then she grimaces at how much of a pick-up line it sounds. Predictably he has no answer for her, but he mirrors her expression, his teeth too bared to be a proper grimace and entering the realm of a strange cheery snarl.
She wonders if that’s why he’s so enamored by shiny objects, because he’s like them, an honest reflection of his surroundings.
He leaves his nest with his cape of a blanket, the tails dragging behind him, and he settles down next to her. Their sides are flushed. He has an innocent disregard for personal space, but she expects it at this point. She’s more startled when he rests his head on her shoulder and coils her hair in his fingers. He’s surprisingly gentle. His fingers bow with reverence to her hair much like to the ring and bowl, and he croons a nameless song into the strands. She sees what he sees, the golden lowlight streaming down her hair like sheets of water every time he runs his finger down. She wonders how bright and good the world must be in his eyes if he can find beauty in such mundane things.
She leans into him to watch, and he lets her, taking no mind to her weight. He’s still as cold as ever, and she’s starting to think it has less to do with the rain and more to do him. It’s like cuddling up to an ice cube, one that likes to sing lullabies and gently rake her scalp. She thinks that she’ll never be able to fall asleep curled up next to him.
It’s the last thought she has before drifting off.
She was wrong. Her lowest low is not as low as she is now.
“I’m dead,” Marinette mutters into hands clasped like a prayer, eyes wide and gazing into the void of her future. She finds peace in knowing her fate. What are the four stages of grief? Well, the last is Acceptance, and she’s there, accepting her own death. “I’m dead. I’m pretty much in the ground.”
Alya snorts beside her on the bench. It’s a small bench. Really just meant for one person plus maybe a small child, but they’re making it work. Marinette sits like she’s waiting for death row and not like she’s waiting outside her professor’s office. “Mari, he’s your advisor, not the grim reaper. The most he can do is be disappointed in you... Really loudly.”
Marinette lets out an impressive mix of a sob, a laugh, and a gasp. A solasp.
“It’s what happens when you pick someone you admire as your advisor.”
“But… but have you seen the man’s last collection? He’s a certified genius. Have you seen what he does with cut-outs. It’s magic, his-”
“Balance with skin and cloth and the illusion of bareness and yes yes I have seen it. I have seen it. I have heard it. I dream about it, Mari, and I’m not even a fashion major. He’s a genius, but geniuses aren’t easy to work with. It’s a lot of expectation you’re putting on yourself. Plus, Juleka was telling me how she once saw someone leave his office crying, and wow,” Alya says with mild awe at her own callousness. “That is not the right thing to say right now.”
Marinette laughs derisively.
“Okay, this is what you do.” Alya scoots closer to her if that was even possible and leans in. “You go in and say it boldly and proudly. Professor Agreste, I don’t have anything for my thesis collection even though the whole thing is due in a month . But don’t worry. Because then the world will explode into tiny little pieces and the people who do manage to escape the explosion get lost in the void of space.”
Marinette groans and buries her face into Alya’s shoulder. “Why do you do this?”
Alya laughs, the small vibrations comforting as she pats Marinette’s head. “Because you’re panicking, and it really isn’t that bad. You always get tunnel vision and imagine the worst case scenario, but perspective is nice, isn’t it? Imagine being lost in space.”
Marinette does imagine being lost among the stars, the deafness and cold, and she thinks it wouldn’t be so bad. Sound doesn’t travel in space. She wouldn’t be able to hear her idol chew her out. Alya pinches her nose and sends her plummeting back to Earth.
“Oh god, you actually think it would be better. Look, just be honest. Tell him that you’re stuck. You even put yourself in a social exile for a week so you could figure things out, and you’re still lost. By the way, it’s not exile if I get a text every hour about how much you hate your brain.” Marinette frowns and checks her phone, and what do you know, a text almost every hour on the dot, all of the screaming variety. Maybe she should have majored in being a clock instead. She flops back on Alya’s shoulder.
“Anyway, he’s here to guide you and it’s not like you haven’t been working on it.”
Oooooh, Marinette winces. Alya is always sound in her reasoning, but this one not so much. It’s hard to concentrate on a collection when your first priority is to bird-man proof your apartment so your bird-man doesn’t hurt himself. With the right amount of imagination, anything can become a health hazard, and Marinette has imagination in spades. She hisses with guilt and slowly peels off her best friend.
Alya, the woefully perceptive reporter she is, picks up on it immediately. “You have been working on it, right?”
“I’ve been kind of preoccupied by something else. A guest at home.”
Marinette stares like she’s only really seeing Alya for the first time. After angels, psychics don’t seem so implausible.
Alya laughs. “Your phone. You’ve been looking up stuff like bird diets a lot recently.”
“Oh, right, right.” Marinette says, heaving a relieved sigh. She nudges Alya with her elbow. “So nosy.”
“Didn’t know it was a secret. Do you need help? Believe me , you get to know a thing or two about animals when your sister brings in every stray she sees. I can come by and bring bird-”
“Nooooo.” Marinette says, and then she tries to laugh it off. “No it’s okay. He’s just… he’s not really a pet store bird; he flew in through my window a few days ago. He’s just a bit wild, and he gets anxious around things he’s never seen before.” That’s not exactly true. More like he has insatiable curiosity and a two-year old’s compulsion to touch anything and everything, especially the things that could kill him. And at least, a two year old is small; he has the towering height of twenty-something year old man and can reach things even she can’t reach. For the time being, she’s hidden all the shiny knives in a locked cabinet.
“Okay,” Alya says slowly, and she knows something is up. Marinette is a terrible liar, and she carries guilt like a boulder on her shoulders. They’ve known each other for years, and it’s an unspoken code that they tell each other anything and everything. But Marinette can’t share this. She has a feeling that even she isn’t supposed to know about his existence, whether it be an angel of some sort or some genetic experiment gone wrong. It’s not her secret, but she’ll keep it for him. Plus, she couldn’t even imagine the consequences of putting a rabidly knowledge-voracious journalist in the same room with a mythical creature. Far far in the future, she’ll repent and tell all, but only long after he’s gone.
Marinette offers a little shrug of her shoulders, a sheepish smile that says it’s out of her hands, and Alya returns it with a quirk of a smile. “It’s fine,” she says. “I can still give you some stuff if you want. We have toys and a perch. What breed is it?”
Marinette stammers. “A mix?” Between a human and a bird. At least, that one’s not so much a lie.
Before Alya can press further, Gabriel Agreste emerges out of his office. “Mademoiselle Dupain-Cheng? We have a meeting scheduled.” Alya gives her a thumbs up, and Marinette hurries into the office, mildly relieved to get away from Alya’s questions. She’ll take Gabriel Agreste’s temper to an Alya Cesaire interrogation any day. The right fear really does put the world into perspective.
Marinette walks into the apartment, a bag of groceries swinging in the crook of her arm. From the living room, she can hear the sounds of cartoons, dramatic music and 3-D children shouting as they fight off monsters. He’s sitting too close to the screen, cross-legged with the quilt around him, his gaze wide and unblinking as though he thinks the whole thing might disappear with a blink. And maybe he does. That’s a thing. Children have to learn object permanence.
It’s nice, she thinks, coming home to someone. The lights are all on. It’s warm and doesn’t have that musty smell that abandoned rooms gather. She comes home to the sounds of people talking, even if it’s not him. He’s almost always in front of the television. And if he’s not here or wreaking havoc in her stuff, he’s taking a nap in her walk-in closet where he's moved his nest. She finds comfort in that regularity.
“I’m home,” she says as if he’ll understand, and he makes a quiet distracted noise in reply.
She swings by the living room, just long enough to lift him by the arm, his ring-bracelet jingling, and drag him further back from the TV. It’s routine, an odd thought that anything should be routine with an angel. Nevertheless, he complies wordlessly, too distracted as the episode reaches its climax with a giant beam of light that washes over a low pixel-count world.
Satisfied that he won’t go blind, she goes into the kitchen and puts rice on the stove. He’s been surviving off a diet of bird seeds and nuts and fruit, but she doesn’t know how nutritionally balanced that is. They’ll start with something easy on the stomach, congee. It’s warm and simple and reminds her of sick days whiled away in the comfort of home. Her mother usually adds an egg to give it a rich creaminess, but Marinette hovers over the carton and struggles over the ethical dilemma of feeding a bird-man an egg.
She thinks of asking him if he considers that cannibalism when he bounces up behind her and snakes his arms around her waist. It’s his usual greeting since he saw a commercial featuring newlyweds. She doesn’t mind it. It’s simply the kind of affection he adores, and it reminds her of a hug from a child. “Oh good,” she says and turns to him to ask about eggs when he plants a wet sloppy kiss onto her lips.
Cold is her first thought, and then it’s forgotten, forcefully shoved aside for the second and third and then thousandth. Colors, every color known to man and then ones only found in dreams, buoy her up higher and higher until she could choke on the thin air. And she lies in the seam of a dress made of sky and space. Gravity in the draping, stars in the beading, nebulas in the lace. Celestial bodies weave midnight around her, fold bolts of the cosmos around her, and she willingly drowns in that beautiful darkness. I was right, the thought rises like a bubble. Space really is deafening.
And then he pulls away and she sucks in air like she’s been underwater for hours. Her eyes dart around, grounding her in her kitchen, the pot boiling on the stove, the old mini fridge her mother bought for her in the corner, the overgrown plants on the windowsill. She barely avoids stepping in broken egg, the shell scattered in pieces across the floor and the yolk slowly spilling into the grout. She stares at it and wonders when that happened.
He isn’t breathless the way she is. He smiles, an easy gesture once he started practicing it every time they met eyes, and he looks back at the television screen in the living room, paused on two characters kissing. The whole thing was an innocent reenactment, and he hardly knows what it really means. He leans in for another kiss, and for a second, she wants to let him. She wants to see colors only known to God, sounds that no human has ever heard, but she stops herself, very afraid, feeling distinctly that she’s toeing the edge of a cliff. Instead, she kisses his cheek, soft and simple, and he’s equally ecstatic with that.
“You want an egg?” she asks weakly and holds up a new one from the carton. He sings a little tune and flits away back to the television, and she stands there, still lingering in the afterimages of his kiss. She tightens her grip on the egg, reminds herself where she is, and sets about to clean the mess up.
She cracks an egg into a bowl, taking his song as not a no. The yolk breaks and seeps into the white, and she feels a little bit like that. Like something inside her that she wasn’t aware of is leaking into the rest of her.
She whisks the eggs quickly, erasing any sign of the whites.
They lie side by side in bed. Come night time, he comes to her like that first night and slots his body to hers like pieces fitting together, the closet too big and lonely compared to space in her arms. She makes preparations, wears multiple layers and the fluffiest socks she can find to combat his naturally unnatural body temperature. It’s the quietest war two people have ever waged.
He’s long lashes and pale skin and soft breaths against her neck. It’s moments like this when she can see his wings clearly, not hidden in the mountain he makes of himself. They’re not the pure white wings that she has seen on angels on the internet. Rather they’re gray with tips of tawny brown, speckled with dots like freckles across a nose. The young feathers, though, the ones that look like down from her pillows, are a soft cloud white underlit with the pink of a dawning sky. She combs her fingers through them, the only part of her body she leaves bare so she can relish in his softness. He hums in his sleep and hugs a little tighter.
Her eyes fall heavy with sleep as she gazes at the feathers, still brushing the back of her nails against them, and in the space between waking and sleeping, a shooting star flits across her thoughts and and lands with a fire that sets them ablaze. She jolts awake and looks at his wings with new eyes. She needs to find pen and paper. She needs to hurry before the fire dies down. She slips out of the bed, resisting the urge to wrench out of his grip, and rushes into the living room for her notebook.
This is it, she knows deep in her gut. This is the idea crawling and alive that she suffocated for.