“Wings” by Mohini Malhotra

There’s a girl named Harper, and she thinks she was born with wings. It began that Tuesday morning no different from any other. She was crossing the field to school, her military-green canvas backpack sagging with her school texts plus overdue library books. It started to rain hard and fast. School was still a twenty-minute walk away, and at the junction of deciding whether to go forward or back the fifteen minutes to home, she found herself at the school’s front door, just as the bell rang. A few other kids that she’d passed in the field arrived 20 minutes late, white t-shirts plastered to skin, hair dripping rain down their backs.

In PE they were all doing the annual high school fitness test—pull-ups (fail), push-ups (fail), the sprint (made it but last), and the mile run. She lined up for the mile run, four laps around the track field. The other kids looked at her shoes, they were the same ones she wore everyday—black leather shoes with the toe-tips scraped brown—and they twirled their sporty Nike swirls.  She trailed them in the first lap, the second one, started to limp through the third round, mushy corn flakes rose up her throat and the leather rubbed up against the blister on her heel…when her feet lifted and skimmed the ground, like she was skating on air, and she was surprised more than anyone when she was at the finish line and the rest were holding their sides pressing into their stiches, panting, sweating, stirring up dust whirls as they tried to catch up.

Most days during the week her mom worked the double shift at the meat-packing factory, and then every other Saturday too. Sixteen-hour days with three thirty-minute breaks. “Breaks my back,” she’d sigh, wiping down the splatter from her shoes each evening, preparing them for another day of splatter and standing. Harper would hang back in the library after school, face in book pretending not to see the other kids making-out behind book shelves. She’d pretty much browsed most sections, except the one in the Geography section titled cartography, and reached for An Atlas of the World one day. She flipped the page to the United States and traced her finger over the lines of Kansas and then squinted to find Tiopa. I live in a speck of the world, she mused.  They were studying the map of the US in Geography but here in this book, it was just one page of 195 countries. When were they going to learn about the others?  Each country got its own page in this book, with statistics at the top of which said how many people lived there (pop.), and its size (sq. miles). She looked up the tiniest country—The Vatican (pop. 825. Sq. miles. 0.18 miles) to the largest—Russia (pop. 144 million, sq. mi. 6.6 million). The US was smaller than Russia, Canada and China! Wow…everyone in her town always bragged that America was the greatest and the biggest.    

She had never really thought about much about what lay outside Kansas, until this Geography class. The teacher, Ms. Sanchez, had moved to town about a month ago, just before school started. Kansas seemed to stretch to the end of the world until then. Ms. Sanchez came from New York, for a year as a transfer teacher. She was tall and thin. She wore narrow skirts and short jackets and her hair was styled differently than the other teachers and ladies in town—it was short and dark and smooth and swept to the side, and you could see her earrings—a different pair every day, “understated and elegant, very New York chic,” some of the fancier girls opined. She not only taught Geography, she had actually been to many of the places in the US that they learnt about, and even many other countries. She spoke four or maybe even five languages, maybe even Arabic, and Chinese, it was whispered across hallways. 

Her mother came to pick her up from the library on her walk back from work—she got off early this day. Harper noticed several blood smears on her dress and heard the two girls from her grade at the next table loudly whisper, “oink oink. She’s starting to look like the pigs she packs all day, oh dear God, don’t breathe till she passes—meat factory perfume whiff…”  One of the girl’s dad owned the bloody meat factory…she of anybody should know about meat factory perfume…except her mom says they never see him there.  But she held the thought—her mom had been unemployed till this job and she remembered hunger felt like someone hollowed your insides out.

Her father had died in a far-away place—a place called “EYE-RAAK” according to mom. “He was there fighting to protect America and Americans, you know, and I was carrying you in my belly, and just like that one day they showed up at the door, wearing their fancy military costumes and badges, and started to read a letter out loud. I didn’t need to hear I had seen them show up on other people’s doorsteps around here and read their letter, hands on hearts, and before they started, I said I know and grabbed the letter and slammed the door. I got a small check for a few years as ‘sorry.’”

She looked up Iraq (EE-RAAK) and traced the lines of this country that swallowed her father.  Floated her finger down the Tigris river, wait, this is the same river that we heard about in church—from the book of Genesis, where it flows from the Garden of Eden. She saw a place called Ash near the Tigris—the letter said he had been cremated.  She cups the map of Iraq with her hand, looks around to make sure no one is watching her, and then cups her hand to her heart. I come from the Garden of Eden she mouthed.

Iraq. Capital—Baghdad.  Pop. 38 million, and somewhere in the 168,754 sq. miles, her father died.

This wing thing—it had actually started years ago when she was about seven. She was sure she could feel bumps on her back where they were trying to push through. “Shoulder blades honey, they’re called shoulder blades, they’ll stay like that” her mom had laughed. So convinced was she that she took the kitchen scissors and cut out two holes in the back of her shirts, her dresses, to make space for them, so sure was she that she stopped sleeping on her back.

Her mother was not amused, in fact, she was positively furious! “You’re never ever going to get a new dress or shirt. Why should you, all you do is cut them up. Do you know how hard I work to put food on the table, to buy us new things?” She was especially mad when she bought her a new dress for her eighth birthday—lace and tulle—it was on special at the Walmart and when she put it on, she could feel her wings bursting against the back, could almost hear a tear. She wriggled out and made the smallest pair of holes, let her hair down to cover them, and slipped on her coat to walk to the grocery store to buy a cake, but it was a 100-degree Summer day.  Her mom said that the coat looked ridiculous and hid the beautiful dress which was the main point of the walk…yanked it off and saw the holes.

“It’s…it’s because of my wings mom”—but she could tell she had gone too far. Her mom stepped forward her, hand raised, and Harper whimpered, “why can’t you be like Jane Goodall’s mother…?” She’d read in a library book that Jane’s mother would find earthworms and dirt that little Jane dug up and carried to her bed to cuddle with, and that her mother never yelled at her, just said in a gentle British voice that maybe earthworms were happier in the dirt, and then would work with her daughter to restore them to their habitat in the flowerbeds….

“Well go be her daughter whoever she is, and I’ll take a daughter who likes earthworms over one who cuts up her clothes.”

She didn’t mention her wings to anyone because they made fun of her already about so many things. Her house was said to be the “eyesore of the block. The front door handle’s missing but then who ever visits you…” The hinges from the two front windows were loose, hanging from the windows like droopy eyebrows, and the front door spilt onto the sidewalk—no patch of green or walkway leading up to it, no flowers. She heard them whisper loudly within ear-sight is that even a word? that her father wasn’t a soldier, that he’s still somewhere in prison, maybe for life, or maybe he died in prison, or maybe ran away from his piggy-scented wife. She wanted to tear their eyes out and say she didn’t work in the meat factory back then but who cared?

She studied her Atlas of the World in the library. She decided to pick a country that day by how cool or curious its shape was and chose Italy. She outlined its shape like a fur-lined ladies boot kicking the Mediterranean Sea with her finger and then with eyes closed, picked a spot on it and landed in Rome. She googled Rome, and learnt that they sing opera, they eat spaghetti (and call it pasta), and they have beautiful buildings in squares filled with people. She made a note to take her mom to Italy, where they would both dress in velvet and dance together in a piazza.

“Dance on a pizza you said? They do that there?”

“No mom, a piazza, like a town square where everyone hangs out in the evening and sings and dances and everyone looks at each other and everyone dresses up to be looked at and they drink coffee and wine and the kids eat ice-cream.”

“Oh ok, that sounds fun,” Mom said, and they ate their mac and cheese and Harper said “pasta. In Italy they call this pasta.”  

She borrowed the Atlas of the World, although the librarian said it was a reference book so only allowable for two days. “But you can borrow it again after two weeks.” Harper spread it out on her bed that evening, and the world stretched out before her. She could hardly sleep, she caressed the lines of the world, feeling the bumps of Everest and Mount Fuji, the flow of the Nile and the Ganges, and the burn of the Sahara under her finger, belly on bed, eyes wide-open, wings upright, prepared for flight.

Once, in the middle of winter, the heat went off. The electricity bill was due and mom had simply forgotten to pay it she claimed.  “First thing tomorrow, I’ll call them” she said, serving the meat that she got from the factory that day with mashed potatoes. Snow waved at them in drifts across the window, and they shivered. “I’ll fly us to New Zealand, mom, it’s Summer there, they’re opposite from us.” She finger-drew New Zealand in the air and they reveled in the sudden warmth and glow around them and her mom said, “wow, it’s like you turned the heat back on all by itself,” and the fried pork tasted like Beef Wellington.

A whole season came and went and nothing much shifted. She was walking from school to the library. The girl whose dad owned the meat factory was standing nearby with her two side-kick friends. “Hold your breath. Meat perfume meat perfume about to hit.” She kept walking, stopped, and turned to face them. 

“Hey small-town girls, you know which country’s capital is Ulaanbaatar?” Snapped her fingers.  “Give up? Okay. Name the continent that Sri Lanka is in. Give up? Let’s give you an easy one…capital of India? Baghdad is in what country?”  Snap snap. “Biggest country in the world? Hint—it’s not America. Give up? Capital of AMERICA? Stumped? Maybe you might get the capital of KANSAS?” She turned to walk away without giving them a chance to answer and there was Ms. Sanchez, standing nearby, taking in the scene. She was figuring out what to say, stammering “oh Ms.…Ph…Ph. Phil…” turning red like the wild poppies on the roadside, and the girls snickered. Ms. Sanchez gave her a big thumbs up with her left hand, and beckoned with her right hand to the three girls—“Follow me, yes, you three, follow me straight to the principal’s office” She turned to Harper and said, “Harper, your essay on Mesopotamian History and Civilization was phenomenal. Phe-nom-en-al.” She poked the air deliberately with each syllable. “Come see me tomorrow if you’re interested in special Geography lessons. Oh, do come see me tomorrow anyway. We just got our student lists this morning and I’m your college advisor. There are some really great scholarship opportunities we should talk about…I’ll see you tomorrow.” Harper would swear that her wings stood straight up and flew her to the library that afternoon.

In the heat of summer, when the leaves on the trees shriveled to brown curled crisps and the dirt in the ground split and cracked like dry skin, and the cement on the sidewalks steamed—they looked like they were smoking and spitting out hot air, and if barefoot you hop-scotched involuntarily to stop your feet from frying, she traced her finger over the map and found Patagonia. She loved the name. “When I have a daughter one day, I’ll name her Patagonia,” she told her mom that evening as they walked home together.

“Pata-who?” Her mom crinkled her forehead.  “Honey, I won’t be able to say her name. Can we give her a nick-name please?” She slipped her arm in her mom’s, “We’ll all three of us go there.”   

The electricity didn’t come on the next day. Or the next. Her mom had lost her job. “Down-sizing they said. They’ll give us a month’s pay. And then what will we do, Harper?” Harper wondered if it was because of the Ulaanbaatar episode she had not told her mom about. 

“Mom, Ms. Sanchez thinks there are some scholarships I could get—she’s already talked to people about me—she thinks there’s a good chance mom. Maybe in New York. Maybe somewhere else. She said there are a few places to choose from. When things don’t look up, I trace a place on the map and go there. So, choose Mom. Close your eyes and put your finger on the map. Where do you want to go?”

“How…this is the only place I’ve ever been, it’s the only place I know. It hasn’t been so good to us but…Harper, where will we go. And… how will we get there?”

“My wings. My wings, mom. Watch them flare.”

Mohini Malhotra is an international development economist, adjunct professor, and founder of a social enterprise to promote women artists and invest in causes that better women’s and girls’ lives. She loves language and her fiction has appeared in anthologies (This is What America Looks Like, 2021), Gravel, West Texas Literary Review, Silver Birch Press, Blink-Ink, Flash Frontier, 82 Star Review, a Quiet Courage, Writers’ Center, and other literary journals.