Gone is the Mother in the Sky
by John Carlo Encarnacion
Mom sprouted wings while she was giving my sister a bath one Sunday. I was doing my nails when I heard her scream. The scream was so loud and thrilling that I could feel her pain, so I ran to the bathroom to the sight of blood on the walls and these brilliant wings slowly opening and closing, like how you would stretch after a long sleep. The wings looked like they belonged in a classical painting — cherubs in the sky, that sort of thing. They were white and feathery and covered in blood since they had just sprouted. Mom looked exhausted, sweating and breathing heavily. Her face was red, not from the blood on her wings but from the blood inside her cheeks. She was leaning over the tub, staring into the water. Her shirt was ripped on the backside. Rachel was in the tub and drops of blood were coloring her bath. She laughed and grunted in her happy and ignorant way. She caressed Mom's cheek and then slapped the top of her head a few times. She was never all there.
"Rachel, stop," I said.
Rachel grunted something and kept going at Mom's head. Mom then grabbed Rachel's hand and held it.
"Rachel, stop," she said.
Rachel kept going with the other hand and Mom stopped that one too.
"Can you finish her bath?" she asked.
I looked at my nails and they were still wet. "Sure," I said. I got out of the way and let Mom through. As she walked by, her wings, which she had no control over at the time, dragged along the door and walls, leaving long, red smears. Some even got on my blouse and all I could think was, damn it, I just washed this. I heard Mom make sounds of pain as her wings touched the walls. They were wounds, still tender and raw. I went over to Rachel as she splashed around in the tub, and I heard the shower in the other bathroom come on.
I finished Rachel's bath, drained the tub, and began cleaning the bathroom. I got a bucket, sponge, and rag and started wiping the blood off the walls. There was red everywhere. I then imagined the gore and beauty in that one instant of the wings sprouting. I cleaned long enough that my hands became stained. When I finished, I left the bucket on top of the sink and went to the other bathroom. Mom left the door open and the shower was still running. I peeked inside and saw the shower curtain was open. Mom was squatting down and letting the water hit her with her clothes still on. There were still sections of the wings that were stained pink, but most of the blood had washed away. Her face looked better, not as flushed and she wasn't breathing as hard. I went closer and rubbed her back. The bumps of her spine seemed like they had grown larger and the wings came out right underneath the shoulder blades. We stayed like that for some time before one of us said something.
"It was like giving birth to Rachel again," she said. "She was the fighter."
"Do you feel better?" I asked, but only to say something, because what do you say to someone after that?
"A lot better," she said.
"They look beautiful." I felt the wings and they were soft and real.
"Can you put on some coffee?"
I put on some coffee and then went to the living room. Rachel was sitting on the couch watching TV. I sat down beside her and took the remote and went up the channels until I circled back because I couldn't decide. Rachel made noises whenever something with loud music or sound effects came on. She tried her best at imitating the sounds she heard. I had always wondered if she experienced everything the same way everyone else did. Was her intake of information more extreme, more chaotic, or was it that it was the same to her but she just couldn't get hold of things? Rachel had her hand in her mouth. I gently pulled her hand out. Her condition made things hard. She was 10 and should be okay to do certain things for herself, but that wasn't the case. She still had to be fed, given baths, and helped into her clothes. I took part of her shirt and wiped her wet hand, then gave her the remote so she could press away at the buttons. I reminded her which buttons gave the best responses, channel up and down.
"Make sure she doesn't put that in her mouth," Mom said.
I turned around and saw her holding a cup of coffee, leaning on the living room entryway. One wing was blocked by the wall but the other stuck out in full view.
"It looks good," I said.
"I need your help."
"I need to alter my clothes."
Rachel found the buttons for the volume control and raised the volume. The news anchor got louder and louder, to the point I snapped at her. I grabbed the remote control and she fought back for it. I got both of her hands and turned her around to Mom.
"Look, Rachel. Mom's an angel," I said, diverting her attention.
Rachel laughed. It stopped her for a moment but then she turned to me and continued to fight for the remote. I eventually gave it up and she went to pressing buttons again. I got up and followed Mom to her room. She had a pile of clothes laid on her bed, ranging from office attire to leisure wear to tank tops. From her dresser she pulled out two scissors. They were small and she preferred them over larger ones because she felt it gave her more control in her cutting of cloth. She handed me one, then she took one of her dresses and held it out.
"I'm going to sew Velcro on all these," she said. She was wearing a different shirt from before. This one had two cuts on the back. The stems of the wings fit into the cuts and it didn't look too bad.
"On all these?" I asked.
"Just these for now, but I'm going to have go through all my clothes."
"The shirt you're wearing looks cute."
"Yeah, but if I put Velcro, they might look like real clothes."
We spent the rest of that night cutting her clothes. And in the other room the TV volume was so high, probably at its highest point, that we couldn't hear ourselves think.
• • •
The first few days Mom had a hard time adjusting to her wings. Given that her wingspan was about 11 feet and this was her first time having wings, it was understandable. Who could blame someone for trying to get used to wings?
The morning after her wings sprouted she kept knocking things down in the kitchen. Every time something fell and crashed or shattered Rachel would scream. Mom would turn around to clean up the mess, which would in turn cause her wings to hit something else behind her and so on. I told her to pull her wings around her body and get out of the kitchen. I told her I would take care of everything. I cleaned up the mess and helped Rachel with her food.
When I was done, I went to the living room and saw Mom sitting on the couch, but instead of sitting on it normally, she sat on the backrest with her feet on the cushions. Her wings got in the way of her leaning back; she didn't know how to move them herself yet. They moved all right, but it was on their own, as if they were separate creatures. At this time she had already sewn Velcro strips onto some of her clothes and now they looked like they were designed to be worn with wings. She had altered her clothes as best she could to slip on from the front like a straitjacket, and she would connect the Velcro on the back. This was her first step to getting used to the wings. The next thing was driving with the seat lowered in the car.
Out in the driveway we looked at her car. I measured her wings, then the back seat of the car. It looked doable, but there was no real way to tell until she got inside.
"It should fit," I said.
She opened the car door and moved the lever on the side that controlled the backrest. She pushed it down until it was nearly flat and hitting the back seat. She got in, trying to fit the first wing in. The passenger seat got in the way so I went around the car and lowered it. With both seats down, she had enough room to drive the car sort of comfortably.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a person watching us. It was Mr. Williams from a few houses down. He usually went on morning walks.
"She sprouted wings last night," I said.
Mr. Williams nodded as if understanding everything. He walked toward us. "They look beautiful, my dear."
"Thanks," Mom said.
Mr. Williams reached out with his hand. "Can I?"
He petted the wings, as if Mom was a dog or cat.
"So soft. You look like an angel," he said.
Mom looked at me, then rolled her eyes.
"I should get going. You two take care." He got back on the sidewalk and continued with his morning walk.
"Help me out with this one," Mom said. The other wing was still sticking out.
I tried pushing the wing into the car. We wanted to make sure it wouldn't get caught in the door because we weren't sure just how much pain she would feel if it got pinched like that.
"Lean forward," I said. She did, and I was able to push the wing through the small space in the door. "Watch your feet," I said as I closed the door for her.
She looked behind her and tried to adjust the wings. She did that for a few minutes, settling into her seat. When she was good she gave me a thumbs up. I gave her one back. Then she drove off to work. I got dressed for school, helped Rachel into her clothes, and drove both of us. We got to Rachel's elementary school and I walked her to her class, then I went straight to my school just a few blocks away.
• • •
During the first few months, Mom was miserable and couldn't handle the wings. She had thought about an operation but wasn't sure how much that would cost. The thought of money didn't help her attitude. The way she looked and moved, it was as if she just got back from a funeral. She didn't like the wings. She had to sleep on her belly because lying on them hurt. They got in the way and attracted people's attention. It wasn't bad attention, but still attention. And there were the hardcore parishioners at our church, responding in a more spiritual manner.
The first time at church a crowd gazed in awe at her wings. The priest said "An angel walks among us." My mom covered her face with her wings. Some really old people tried touching the wings with their heads bowed, as if it would absolve them of something before it was too late. Because the wings could sense things like a snake's tongue, my mom pulled away from the people as soon they touched them. And luckily she didn't hit anyone because she now had more control over them. She didn't bump into her surroundings like she used to. She could extend and raise and lower them without using her hands or asking for my help. Everyone else saw beauty and grace, but she saw her wings as pointless because she still couldn't fly. She had tried flapping them but the best she could do was a foot off the ground with a small gust of wind.
It was on a weekend a few months later that we all decided to go to the lake up in the mountains, about an hour's drive. I knew a good spot where she could get some practice in with her wings. It didn't take much to convince her because she understood that a person with wings who couldn't fly was pretty much useless. And to agree so quickly she definitely saw herself in that way and must have been thinking about flying for a while. It seemed like she just needed that extra little push, that second opinion, to convince her that learning to fly was the next step.
It was a little before noon when we arrived. There were several lots around the lake where visitors could park. I pointed out a series of cliffs and outcroppings coming off the mountain and hanging right over the lake. I told her she could jump off those. Her face tightened up and she looked sick. As the trail elevated alongside the mountain, so did the outcroppings. They were like giant stairs going up. During the summer you would often see people jumping off and diving into the lake below. The first two cliffs were okay to jump off because they were just high enough to both give you a rush of adrenaline and not kill you when you landed in the water. Jump off the other cliffs and you were gambling.
We went up the trail. I held Rachel's hand, and Mom walked not far behind us. We eventually got to the first cliff. There was a fence around the cliff ledge, but there was a small gap where you could squeeze through and jump off. I sat Rachel down at one of the picnic tables between the trail and cliff. I showed Mom the cliff and she looked down into the water.
"I've been up this trail so many times, but I've never jumped off the cliffs," she said.
"It's safe here," I said. "But it gets dangerous higher up."
"I'm not sure about this."
"Oh, come on. It's fun. Just don't land on your face. Or belly."
I walked to the picnic table and sat beside Rachel. She had picked up a stick and was hitting the table with it. Mom stood in the gap in the fence and waited. The trees nearby swayed in the wind. She just waited there. I took Rachel with me and we went up to the fence right beside Mom. She turned to me and my sister and smiled. She leaned forward and let gravity pull her down.
I leaned over the fence.
Rachel had her hand in her mouth.
And Mom landed in the water.
She was soaking wet when she got back to us. But she was excited now and wanted to go again. She jumped off the edge again and this time she glided downward into the water rather than falling straight in. She came back up and was still smiling. Even though she was failing, she was having fun. She made seven attempts, each time gliding further and further, until that lucky seventh she was able to flap her wings enough to stay in the air. She did this moving hover at first but eventually got the hang out of it and started flying, her position flat and pointed, like a jet.
I could see her force in wonderful clarity. She was a different person in the air, like this was who she truly was. She was doing it so easily, after only a few tries, as if flight was always within her.
"Look, Mom's flying," I said to Rachel. I held the back of Rachel's head and tried pointing her eyes toward Mom, who was now somersaulting above the lake. The clouds drifted above Mom. She eclipsed the sun as she flew in random directions with spontaneous and freeing movements.
Rachel followed her movements through the air, making noise as Mom flew. We watched her for nearly an hour, seeing that it was the happiest moment of her life, at least that I was aware of. She landed near the picnic tables with a wide grin on her face. She hugged both of us and said we should get going. On the way home she told me how it felt.
"It's like I was separate from the world. Like I was in my own bubble and no one could bother me. I mean no one could bother me anyway because I was 400 feet up in the air, but you know the feeling. The wings, oh my god, the wings. Even though I was in control, it felt like I wasn't, you know? Does that make sense? It felt like I wasn't in total control, that something was watching over me and could change any little thing and it could have affected me in the most terrible way, and yet it's the most free I've ever felt. I felt complete with my life. Like I've seen and learned all there is. Does that make sense?"
When we got home, Rachel and I went to my room. I did some homework while she watched TV. She sometimes didn't like being alone. Mom took off to visit some friends on the other side of town. I looked outside my window, and her car was still in the driveway.
• • •
The excitement had died down after the first few months of my mom sprouting her wings. It died down because nothing really happened with her aside from having the wings. But once she learned how to fly she was the talk of the town again, making big waves of gossip. They called my mom the Angel, even though she wasn't any different in terms of her capacity for kindness and charity. People knew me and Rachel now. They called us the Daughters of the Angel. They treated us like royalty and, in return, hoped the Angel would grace them with a visit.
Mom stopped going to church altogether because, once she learned how to fly, the other parishioners really showed their enthusiasm. They gave Mom gifts, and some even asked her if she could visit their sick family members in the hospital. She told the crowd that she was nothing special, that her wings were just that, wings. To calm down the few who were asking, Mom did visit some people in the hospital. One was a little girl.
Her family gave Mom a gift and asked for her presence in the hospital. The family was in a bad way when they came to her and Mom couldn't refuse them; she saw herself in the parents. She flew to the hospital while the family followed her. She arrived first and had to wait 20 minutes because the family got caught in traffic. Mom appeared to the little girl of the family, and upon seeing the Angel the little girl smiled. But the little girl's condition worsened later that night and she died two days later, so Mom sent back the gift that the family gave her.
Things like that kept happening. People begged for Mom's presence, and when their family members died or got sick they blamed her lack of presence. But it wasn't that at all. It's just that sometimes the world was an oncoming force, out of control and relentless. It was a force that sometimes went against everything you believed in, and parts of your life would seem wrong and unjust and because of that everything would seem wrong and unjust and that blindness could encourage you to place all your blame on a single thing outside of your power.
Things go wrong. Isn't that what things do?
Once, Mom tried catching a guy who jumped off a 20-story building.
She was at work when it happened. A guy was standing at the ledge on the roof of the building next door. Mom's coworkers were making a fuss at the windows, so she went over to see what was going on. She saw the guy at the top and saw a crowd below. Someone in the office begged her to do something. And so she did. They opened the windows for her and she flew out, making her way to the other building's rooftop. But the guy spotted her and he stepped forward. He fell faster than she could fly. She said you could hear the faint screams of people below. She landed on the ledge the guy was standing on and stayed there, just staring at the red dot on the sidewalk.
When Mom got home she went straight to her room and sat on her bed, her knees bent halfway to a fetal position. I noticed something was wrong with her face when she came in. Something wrong with the way she carried herself. I sat down next to her and asked what happened. And she started telling me the story. But when I realized, a few words in, that the story was going to be hard to listen to, I told her to hold that thought. I went to my room for nail polish, and when I came back, I took her hand in mine and started on her nails. I nodded for her to continue the story. And she told me.
Her voice trembled and she had a hard time coming up with the right words. She was stuttering and pausing. Her eyes were wet and her nose was stuffy. She said the wings were still useless, even after learning how to fly. They weren't fast enough. She wasn't fast enough. By the time I finished one hand and started the other, she was done telling me all there was to tell and she brought her wing around me and we just sat there. I finished the second hand and then looked at her wings.
"How about I do these, too?" I asked.
I grabbed one wing. "I could do these."
"With nail polish?"
"No. I'm pretty sure Rachel still has some paint."
Mom nodded, but in her eyes was something like, "Do what you want."
I went to Rachel's room and looked through her desk. Rachel wasn't in her room. I could hear the TV downstairs. I took four bottles of paint, a brush, and some old newspaper from the living room. I wasn't a very good painter so I just did simple stuff on her wings. Some flowers, a sun, a cat and dog. The sun looked a lot like the flower and I couldn't tell the difference between the dog and cat. And that whole time Mom just sat in silence. I spent nearly two hours painting her wings. She let it dry overnight and in the morning when she stretched her arms, her wings also stretched and the paint cracked, sending small chips of color to the floor. Beautiful effort undone in an instant.
• • •
There were weekends when she would just vanish. She wouldn't tell me where she was going, why, or when she'd be back. I imagined her flying off into the sun, joining the migrating birds, over the ocean, and into other countries, passing people and borders. She came back Sunday nights because she still had work in the morning. I would ask her where she went and she would just say "around."
And so we tried living our lives like this, as best as we could, and things were quiet for a while. Instead of me driving Rachel to school every morning, Mom took her in the air and flew her there because it was faster. She still disappeared for the weekends, not telling me where she had gone. Errands didn't eat up as much time because she didn't have to drive through traffic or find a parking spot. The bad thing was that she couldn't fit as many groceries in her arms as she could in the trunk of her car. She often came home with only 3 to 4 bags of groceries. Anymore would have been hard on her arms.
Then one day Mom dropped Rachel.
It happened in the morning, when Mom was taking Rachel to school. My teacher got a call in the classroom and told me I had to go to the office, then they told me to go to the hospital where Mom was waiting. I went to the hospital and then to the room where my sister was in a coma.
Mom hugged me as I entered the room, her wings wrapping around me as if shielding me from something. "I don't know what happened," she said.
I pushed her away and went over to Rachel.
"Stupid wings," she said.
"It's not the wings," I said. Mom stared at me. She knew what I was thinking. "You can blame the wings, but they're still part of you."
Mom sat down in a chair next to the hospital bed. She leaned forward and brushed away some hair covering Rachel's face. She looked so peaceful in that bed that you couldn't tell something was wrong with her. There was dried blood on the side of her head going down her cheek.
"What happened?" I asked.
Mom was silent, then finally, "Rachel freaked out. She's usually so calm when she's in the air with me. She started struggling and I couldn't control her. She banged her head on my nose and then she was gone from my arms. We weren't that high. Probably the only reason she's still alive."
"Those wings are also the reason she's here."
"I was just trying to help."
"You know how you can help? Stop using those wings."
"What's the point then?"
"Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should."
Mom buried her face in her hands. She didn't want to look at me. "I don't feel like I belong anymore," she said, then after a minute of silence, "I don't belong anymore."
"I'm around more than you. You know that, right?"
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry for all of this."
I knew what she meant. She didn't mean me and Rachel. She meant the wings and how she had been acting for the past year. She was talking about how she couldn't be the person people expected her to be, how she had failed strangers even though she owed them nothing. I was mad that she didn't mean me and Rachel. I was mad that she had put other people before her own daughters. I was mad that she had abandoned us, mentally, and so easily. I was the one taking care of Rachel now. I had taken Mom's place and was now everything she failed to be.
Eventually, Rachel woke up and didn't seem altered by the accident. My sister left the world for only a little while and then came back because I needed her. But Mom had prepared for her own departure long ago and was gone by the time Rachel woke up.
• • •
It was two weeks after Rachel's accident, a Sunday afternoon, when I got a text message from Mom: Sell all my stuff. I'll miss u both. Rachel was still in the hospital and Mom had been away since Saturday. I went to my window and saw her car in the driveway. I went to her room and her purse was on the dresser. There was no phone inside the purse. I went back to my room, lay down, and stared at the ceiling. Then I closed my eyes.
I knew my mom was somewhere out there. I imagined her flying over one of the world's oceans, or reaching the height of a man-made structure. Maybe she was resting at a picnic table or riding public transportation for a change of pace. I saw her still trying to provide some small bit of charity to strangers. There she was, attending morning mass and helping out in a soup kitchen, wiping the sweat off her brow and keeping her wings tucked in so she didn't hit anybody. I imagined her somewhere in the glowing sky, with a beautiful body and face, with a smile capable of devotion and the clearest eyes to see all things, with a big enough heart to take it all in and those wings to set her free. I imagined Rachel and I were the wake she left behind and that we were always important to her, even after leaving us. I imagined she was close by, only hiding and only a flight's distance away, and if I never saw her again, I would at least meet her in the next world.
And so I kept my eyes shut and my thoughts, drifting into dream and sleep, went back to the lake where she first learned to use her wings. I saw her, clear as day, flying downward into the water and rocks, a faint splash, and then I walked over to the edge of the cliff and looked down and instead of seeing her enjoying the surface of the lake, I saw in the still water that everything above me, the sky and clouds and more, was reflected back perfectly.
Copyright © 2016 by John Carlo Encarnacion