Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureFall 2015
By Sarah Kelderman
Cynthia always knew she could fly. She watched birds out her bedroom window, soaring through the air, above houses and tree tops and up to the clouds and to the deep blue sky, and knew she was really one of them. That she was just stuck in a human body. She needed to be free. She'd close her eyes, pretend she was up there, wind through her feathers and the land below, floating on air currents and warm wind.
She balanced on fences, teetered on the edges of rooftops, arms spread, willing them to become wings, empty air before her.
She heard shouts and voices and police sirens from the street below, but she tried to zone all of it out, to just become one with the sky and the clouds.
She was really a bird, and birds were meant to fly, to be free, but right before she felt her transformation, and the excitement and liberation that went along with it, making her laugh with joy, something spoke to her. Something grabbed her and pulled her back, and she hit her head in her struggle and fell downwards, into a blackness, pain exploding through her head, because that something, that annoying person who had spoken to her, had interrupted her transformation.
# # #
She sat on an uncomfortable chair. Next to her sat Nathan the prophet. Across from her sat Margaret, who could bring animals and people back from the dead, and beside her Janet, who ate hearts out of love. At the very head of the circle sat the therapist, in her severe uniform of pants and white blouse and her clipboard and pencil and glasses.
Janet fidgeted where she sat, her hair uncombed and greasy, her pale and thin face placid, because this place restricted her from hearts and love.
Margaret sat cross legged, grim faced, but cheeks round and rosy, and short hair red and glossy. She glowed with life because she could give life, give some of her own life.
Nathan's face was always sad, hair cropped short to his head, blue scrubs loose on his bony frame. He was sad because they'd interrupted him from resurrecting his brother beneath the water of a stream. They'd stopped him before he could bring his brother back, like they'd stopped her from becoming a bird, from changing into her true form.
They'd stopped all of them.
Right now the severe therapist was focused on Janet.
"You killed a puppy, Janet. You ate its heart."
"I gave it love!" said Janet, voice booming. She crossed her arms. "I was giving it love."
"You cut out its heart. When the police found you, there was a knife, and you were covered in blood. Half its heart was eaten. Can you explain that? Can you explain how that would look to others? What the reality of it was?"
The therapist grilled them all like this, scratching away on her clipboard with her chipped pencil.
"The reality was love," said Cynthia. "And they interrupted it."
Now the severe therapist turned her attention to her, and Cynthia stared straight back, challenging that severe and condescending look the therapist always had.
"Cynthia, it is interesting how you always insist everyone here was stopped, was abruptly interrupted, in some sort of transformation you would say. Why is everyone always the enemy? Why do you perceive the world as an enemy? Please explain again."
"The gifts we have are special, and they stop them. Have stopped them. Have restricted them. Just because they don't understand."
"And who is they, Cynthia?"
The therapist scratched away at her clipboard. "The world--the they--is not your enemy. The they saved your life."
"The they interrupted my transformation."
"Into a bird."
"I am a bird, stuck in this body."
"But, like Janet, can you not see how it looked? What the reality of it was? You were at the edge of a building, about to jump, about to commit suicide--"
"No. About to transform."
"About to fly," said Nathan, in an almost whisper. He always spoke so softly, so sadly. That made Cynthia mad, that they'd caused his sadness, had prevented him from baptizing and saving his brother.
"Yes," said Cynthia. She had a soft spot for Nathan. It was he she defended the most, stood up for the most, from the severe therapist and her clipboard and chipped pencil.
"They saved your life," said the therapist. "Without them you'd be dead right now."
"I'd be up in the clouds." Cynthia envisioned the birds, felt the freedom she'd only gotten a taste of, before they'd stopped her. She'd be soaring up in the deep blue sky.
"You'd no longer be with us."
"You're right," Cynthia seethed. "I wouldn't be. I'd be free." Soaring above and away, from everything. She'd be where she was meant to be.
"You'd be dead."
"You're right, My human form would be dead--"
Margaret giggled, face all red and rosy. "I could have brought her back.
Not that I would have needed to, you know, of course. But I could have brought Nathan's brother back."
"Yeah," Janet said. "he died because Nathan was interrupted. Yeah, like we all were. Cynthia is right."
Cynthia liked how they all agreed with her, liked how she'd convinced them all that the they were the enemy, and that all four of them had special gifts that the they just didn't understand.
"Nathan's little brother would be alive if it wasn't for them," said Margaret.
"Nathan's little brother was already dead. Nathan drowned him. That's how it really looked. That was the reality," said the therapist.
"No," said Nathan, looking at his knees. "No no no!"
"Yes," said the therapist.
"You're an awful bitch," Cynthia said. "If I was in my bird form, I'd scratch your eyes out. Leave him alone."
"Yeah. Leave him alone. He loved his brother," said Janet.
"He did," agreed Margaret. "And I could bring him back. Can I, Nathan?"
"Yes," said Nathan. "Please."
"Margaret, you broke into a funeral home. You were found among cadavers."
"She was interrupted," said Cynthia.
"We all were," said Janet.
"Cynthia, you are not a good influence on this group," said the therapist.
"Why? Because I won't let you brainwash them?"
The therapist pursed her lips. "I only want you all to see past your delusions."
"We're not delusional."
"You're not a bird, Cynthia."
"Yes I am."
"No you're not."
A burning rage filled Cynthia. She felt them. She saw them. The birds, soaring over the rooftops, soaring through the clouds and up into the deep blue sky, and she was one of them. She just needed to break free from this form. The therapist was the enemy, and Cynthia lunged at her, felt her talons through her fingertips, scratched at the therapist's face. Noises erupted from around her, Janet and Margaret and maybe even Nathan, though she could never hear him. Too quiet.
And then there were the they again, and she felt something stinging and the blackness engulfed her once again.
# # #
Cynthia spent her time in isolation sitting quietly. Birds perched on her shoulders, stood all around her, preening their feathers and stretching out their wings, and they were all multicolored--the color of rainbows, and the huge lollipops she used to get as a kid from the state fair, and the wall before her was an open window, revealing blue sky and clouds, and she felt the warm wind across her face and through her hair, and it smelled like lilacs. She sat, still as possible, as quietly as possible, because that's what the they didn't expect. The they expected her to scream and bounce off the padded walls like some crazed lunatic, and she wasn't that way. She'd only been that way with the therapist because an uncontrollable rage had consumed her.
She closed her eyes and hummed and kind of rocked back and forth, and the birds sang.
# # #
They gave her some new pills to take after that incident, but Cynthia never really took what they gave her anyway. She just pretended to swallow them. They were poison. They were designed to keep her trapped inside this human form forever, and that was something she definitely did not want. She didn't know how long she was in isolation. She had no idea how much time had passed since her last group therapy session.
The therapist sat at the head of the circle as usual, with her chipped pencil and her clipboard. Janet and Margaret and Nathan were there of course, and Nathan looked even sadder. They all did. Janet fidgeted in her chair and gazed at the floor, and Margaret picked at her red nail polish, and Nathan looked at his knees. Cynthia wondered what had happened in the time she was gone. None of them acknowledged her presence.
"Welcome back, Cynthia," said the therapist.
There weren't any scratches on her face, which surprised Cynthia, because she swore she'd gotten a few scratches in before the they had stopped her.
"Now, Nathan," said the therapist. "We've made progress since Cynthia's been gone, haven't we?"
"Yes," said Nathan.
"Was your brother alive when you went to the stream that day?"
"Was he alive when you pushed him under the water?"
"What happened then?"
Cynthia felt the rage well up inside her.
"I drowned him," Nathan said. "I murdered him!" he shouted that last part. It made Cynthia start. Everyone else did, too--except the severe therapist, of course. "I killed him. Oh my god. I killed him!"
"Yes, yes you did. And now that you've been able to see past your delusion, you will face the charges."
Nathan whimpered, rocked back on his chair. He put his hands behind his neck and jerked his head back and forth.
"He didn't murder him," said Cynthia.
"Be quiet, Cynthia."
"Yes I did! Yes I did!"
"No! You're a prophet! He was already dead and you were resurrecting him!"
Cynthia heard the birds, heard their song, and the flapping of their wings, and it overwhelmed her. She stood up, grabbed Nathan's shoulders and shook him.
"They've brainwashed you!"
"No! You're not a bird. And she doesn't raise the dead, and she ate a puppies heart. We're all crazy."
"Nathan, we're not."
He pushed her, hard, and Cynthia fell. Above the birds and their song and the flapping of wings and the loud beating of her heart, she heard shouts from the therapist and Margaret and Janet, and the scraping of chairs across the floor. She saw Nathan, slamming his head repeatedly against the wall, and she saw blood and felt sick.
"We're not delusional!" she wanted to shout, but her mouth was too dry. And she couldn't hear herself over the overwhelming song of the birds. Then then the they were in the room too, pulling Nathan away from the wall and the blood, and his head lolled, and his eyes glistened with tears.
"I killed him! I killed him!" he cried as they took him away.
# # #
Cynthia sat on her hard hospital bed, not even bothering to look out the window at the sky or the sun. She was a caged bird, and the bird song had turned into a sad song because they'd managed to brainwash everyone except for her. The doctor and the therapist sat on chairs at the foot of the bed.
"The others are gone, Cynthia," said the therapist, as if she didn't already know that, didn't already know she had failed.
"You are the only one who still holds onto your delusion," continued the therapist.
Cynthia looked at her knees, not even bothering to correct the therapist.
"You are not a bird, Cynthia. You tried to commit suicide because of that delusion."
She hadn't tried to kill herself, but there was no point in saying that. There was no reason for her to stay here anymore. The others were gone, discharged, and she had failed.
"Do you still feel suicidal?" asked the doctor, an old man with gray hair and a smug expression on his wrinkled face.
"I never did," said Cynthia. The bird inside of her sang sadly.
"Okay. Well, do you have any urges to jump off anymore buildings?" The doctor actually laughed.
"No." She didn't have the urge to jump off of anything. She just wanted to transform and fly away, and she wished she could go back, could go back to those group sessions with Nathan and Janet and Margaret, before they'd been brainwashed. Nathan had said they were all just crazy, that she wasn't really a bird, but she wasn't crazy. Nathan was a prophet, and Janet ate hearts out of love, and Margaret was able to bring things back from the dead.
The they were the ones who were crazy, with their charts and medications and scratching pencils and diagnoses and brainwashing and clipboards.
"Okay, good. As long as you don't feel like a danger to yourself anymore, or to others, I can discharge you."
Cynthia looked up in surprise. The therapist frowned. "I'm not sure--" she started.
"She can go, as long as she's no longer suicidal--"
"I don't think--"
"We're understaffed and have too many patients. I don't have time to waste on someone who isn't a danger to themselves. She'll have her medication. Set up an appointment for her to see you in a week. She can go home."
The caged bird inside of Cynthia cried.
# # #
Cynthia's mom picked her up from the hospital in a drug induced haze because she'd taken their medication before leaving. She'd had no choice this time. She couldn't hide it. The therapist made an appointment for her to see her in a week. Medication was waiting for her at the pharmacy, which her mom had actually already picked up, much to Cynthia's dismay. It was in a white paper bag at her feet. It surprised her that she'd only been in the hospital for four days. Just four days. It felt like four years. In just four days they'd managed to completely stunt her transformation, and now she had emerging, glinting memories of her everyday life--her job and her friends and her brother and her apartment. It wasn't just her and the birds and the they and their brainwashing. It still hurt when she thought about how they'd managed to break Margaret and Janet and Nathan, and now even she felt herself breaking too. It felt like she was waking up from a dream. Maybe it was just their poison, but she didn't like it. She wanted it to just be the birds again.
"He didn't kill his brother," she said out loud, without meaning to.
"Who, dear?" her mom asked nervously.
She sighed and stared out the window at the houses and trees as they drove by, thought about the birds most likely perched on the branches and preening their feathers, balanced on top of fences and the edges of buildings.
"Nothing," she said. "It's nothing."
# # #
Cynthia stood on the roof of a huge skyscraper, on the very edge, cement beneath her feet and empty air before her. Above spread a night sky full of bright stars. On the street below were cars and buses and people and the tops of trees and bright lights, all small, all hazy and unreal because she was surrounded by empty air and night, and the sky beckoned to her, and the stars, and even the bright glow of the moon above.
She heard the beautiful song of the birds. She saw them, soaring and soaring and free, floating on air currents, up to the moon and the stars. She felt her true form, the bird inside her, awaken.
Beside her stood Nathan, and beside him Janet, and beside her Margaret.
Margaret's red and glossy hair blew across her face, from the wind, and she smiled, face red rosy and ready to give life to the dead. Janet fidgeted, but her usually placid face glimmered with color because once again she'd been able to eat hearts out of love, and she pushed a strand of her greasy hair behind her ear.
Nathan managed to smile too, his eyes glossy with tears, but they were tears of happiness because he hadn't drowned his little brother, had truly been trying to save him, beneath the water, because he was a prophet.
Cynthia took his hand, her heart feeling like it was about to burst from her chest, and Nathan took Janet's hand, and Janet took Margaret's hand.
Cynthia closed her eyes, felt the transformation taking place inside of her, felt the bird emerging, felt her human body melting away.
She stepped over the edge, taking Nathan and Janet and Margaret with her.
Open air and wind rushed past her, and then her true form broke free. She spread her black wings, swept upwards on the air currents. She soared, through the night sky, up to the stars, and beside her Janet, Margaret, and Nathan had transformed into birds too, flying and soaring, their wings dark in the night sky.
The four of them soared up to the stars, to the moon, away from the land and the people and cars and lights below. They flew and flew. Free at last.
It was a beautiful dream.
Sarah Kelderman has a magic eight ball that hates her, is terrified of butterflies, and is currently working on a YA fantasy novel series that takes place in the dream world.