I was wearing yellow nail polish the day my sister turned into a bird. I wasn’t surprised – and I wasn’t horny either, which was strange, because it was the summer I left Saint Dolores’ School for Indolent Prodigy Femmes, where I had lain most nights in the long white dormitory with my Hanami-fresh nipples pressed against the blithely muscular back of Dylan Cosway, also a girl, but called Dylan, so you know (as I knew, the moment I met her at the bus stop, a hockey stick in one delicate hand and a dog-eared copy of Mrs. Dalloway in the other) that she was cool.
But she belonged, and I didn’t.
I didn’t belong because we were poor – not poor in the sense where your first boyfriend at university makes fun of you, because when you take him to meet your dad he sees you don’t have a dishwasher and all your family members are all still chain-smoking and you don’t know what Le Creuset means and you feel a profound shame and sense of impostordom that you retain until your late twenties when you realise that first boyfriend was actually an utter dick – but poor, like, as an aesthetic conceit, which falls away as soon as climactic life experience demands you have a cinematographic outfit. Poor as in a single tin of sardines on a scuffed mahogany credenza beside a mason jar of wilting, white peonies.
So in the single bedroom I shared with my sister, in our seafoam-coloured bungalow in the suburbs of, let’s say, Prague (its walls plastered with posters of anachronistic yet modish pop icons including Roy Orbison and Lux Interior, Peter Murphy from Bauhaus – that kind of guy – smeared with the elusory buds of her rose-scented Glossier Balm Dotcom) is when the transformation began.
Wolf Blass’ parents were out of town at a big psychiatry conference, where Ben Lerner’s parents also were, so he was having a party (Wolf Blass, not Ben Lerner). She, my sister, was going, because she was a metaphor for oppressive femininity, and I, essentially a cipher whose physical attributes will remain carefully undisclosed, was not.
I perched on the side of the bed, my hands primly folded in my lap, watching her dress up. My faded Bratz doll comforter reminded me of the girlhood we had shared, skimming stones on a river we for some reason go to all the time, where they said the dead body of a heavily tattooed man had washed up once, all bloated and pale (he was never identified, but helpfully contributed to the sense of ambient dread that infused my adolescent years in Prague).
There, in our bedroom, she carefully teased at her lashes with the mascara wand. She touched the centre of her bow lips with a tiny jot of crimson. Her eyes met mine in the broken mirror that denotes both our poverty and the abjection of the Jezebel, and then she smiled. And then she coughed. She coughed white feathers.
I remember how those white feathers gleamed in the soft and perpetual efflorescence of this short story, where no one ever says ‘Hey, it’s getting pretty dark in here, can you turn on the lamp please, no, not that one, the one on the table,’ to a person leaving the room to go to the bathroom.
She was coughing up those feathers, my sister. And it didn’t stop. They began to break through her skin like a sweaty, dirty snow. She tried to arrange them neatly around the polymer lace waistband of her ‘pulling pants’, her cheeks reddening with shame, because feathers = pubis.
Later that night I went over to the kitchen to fix myself a grilled cheese sandwich and I saw her standing there by the oven, her slender left leg raised aloft and cocked, her pretty head held askance, just clucking. Her blonde hair extensions seemed to harden like ritual blades in the tender lambency of the digital stereo clock. It was 23:23, which had to mean something, numerologically speaking. The barrettes dropped out of her platinum bob one by one.
I thought, I sort of want to be like you, Chickensister. But also I thought, I never want to be like you, because you’re deeply unfulfilled in a way that’s hinted at but never fully interrogated or politicised.
The day she got her beak was the day Daddy chose to elbow open the door, his eyes heavy-lidded and shifty, He was wearing some kind of sports T-shirt/jersey, because his only interest is in sports/jersey, and not us, his rapidly metamorphosing feminine progeny. Also his belly is hairy, and he’s fat, so you know he’s sort of bad.
‘What’s the racket in here about?’ Dad belched, in a regional accent most consider charming but that also immediately marks him as an outsider who has endured his own struggles that will be hinted at but never fully explored (like an Irish or Scottish or North Carolinian kind of accent, or implicitly Jewish also works).
I glanced between my sister – then deeply troubled, blondely doubled-over in front of the mirror and dry-heaving as the raw corn-yellow aperture of a beak tore her soft human mouth to pieces – and my father, whose loneliness in his sports jersey I somehow found easier to relate to. He took another sip of his beer, reminding me of Prospero.
‘Don’t worry,’ I tell him. ‘Can I see Mom?’
‘Mom… ?’ He breathed the word like a thousand more short stories were unsheathing their keen sides in his soft drunk brain at the simple enunciation of the word. Mom. I mean, aren’t they, the short stories, in your head, unsheathing?
‘Okay’ he said, after a ruminative silence, scratching the blunt end of his pool sliders into the greying carpet, (this carpeted smelled of my dead aunty’s cigarettes still, somehow. This is important, because my dead aunty was the only one who truly understood me. She never had children of her own but had gay friends).
‘You need to be quiet, though.’ Dad warned.
‘I will.’ I nodded, keenly. Too keenly.
I followed him down the hallway, past a cheap print of a pertinent Italian Renaissance painting of a scene from Greek myth, to the door to Her room, which I will describe in great detail to build narrative tension the same way I capitalised Her.
The door was white, I remember. A sort of white-painted medium-density fibreboard, absolutely spotless, with a gold handle, not real gold obviously, because we were poor. It was a rectangular white door, bathed almost baptismally in the hard raw bulbgleam of the hallway. There were… little fissures in the door, somehow redolent of the whisperings that followed my lame heels and slackening tubesocks around the halls of Saint Dolores’. It stood before me like, like, a Saint in a Puffa jacket, wearing a sombrero. A saint, if a saint was a white door, imploring me to extend filial affection, but also to remain firm in my convictions that my morals and sensibilities were essentially middle-class, and therefore superior to the morals and sensibilities of my family. But still, Mom.
The handle on the door stuck out like Satan’s tongue. The tongue of Satan, shining and bright, if the tongue of Satan was made of brass-plated base metals and could be bought from some hardware shop whose name I don’t know. I put my hand on it, the handle. It was cool under my fingers, the handle. It was also way gold, like the calyx of a Midaean flower. I look at Dad, my metaphor. He nods. He puts his hand on my shoulder. I open the door.
I see her then. Mom. Tubes. I see the tubes, hear the purring of The Machine.
At that moment my sister bursts through the window in a shower of broken glass, the shards and her vivid yellow feathers spilling everywhere, like menses.