“Come outside and play, Kari!” I flounced down on the living room couch, arms crossed, glaring at my older sister, The Bookworm.
“After I finish this chapter,” she said. That’s what she always said. This chapter. Then the next. And another. It was The Witch of Blackbird Pond, this time. I could not understand why those old books were so fascinating, but I knew that to Kari, they were more interesting than a little sister, and I resented them all.
“Fine!” I’d go outside without her, climb to the top of my tree, and never come down. I would rest in the arms of the tree, glaring at her through her bedroom window. Instead, I stood up too quickly and tripped over the low coffee table covered in – what else? – books. Some dramatic exit! I face-planted on the Persian rug, but instead of seeing woven swirls of red, cream, and navy, I saw words. Felt myself slipping. Someone screamed. Startled, I turned my head towards the sound. A girl lay unconscious on the floor. Instinctively, I got up and ran across the room on strange and shaky legs to help. As I knelt beside her, I fought the urge to scream, myself.
It – she – was me. “Celine?” Our voices merged and sounded strange to our ears.
Almost as quickly as it happened, I blinked. I smelled . . . feet. And musty old books. Saw Daddy’s pen, the one he lost last month, lying up against the inside of a table leg. And Kari’s face. “What?” My voice felt raspy. Strange. She stared at me, open-mouthed, mute. I rolled over and clapped my hands in front of her unfocused eyes. “What is wrong with you?”
“How did you do that?” she whispered, both intrigued and afraid.
Our eyes met. I hadn’t imagined it. She knew.
“I don’t know.”
“Can you do it again?” she asked. I wasn’t sure what answer she was hoping for.
“I don’t know.”
“Try.” She sat beside me on the floor, and for the first time in a long time, she looked at me the way she looked at a new book.
I hadn’t done anything, not consciously. I remembered the slipping, like sliding sideways down a warm tunnel of butter. I shook my head. “How?” Thinking back, I’d been angry. Hurt. Ridiculously jealous of The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I’d sought to make a dramatic exit. Instead, I’d been a klutzy clown, tripping over a piece of furniture as if it hadn’t been right there next to the couch for half my life. “Should I throw myself down the stairs?” I asked, feigning innocence. Mother always said it was a good thing they hadn’t named me “Grace.”
“No, you ninny.” Kari’s concern and interest quickly faded. She helped me to my feet, then quick as a cat, curled up in her window-seat with The Witch. I rolled my eyes and went outside.
* * *
It didn’t matter to me if the kids called me “Egghead” or “Nerd,” I loved school. And I had a massive crush on Mr. Jacobs, our 10th grade Science teacher. Massive. Until the day his wife brought him lunch, at school. She had the nerve to interrupt us during Science Lab. I was jolted from my daydreams – in which I had cast Mr. Jacobs as Pierre Curie to my Marie, and we glowed vibrantly radiant in the dark as we discovered remarkable things about the universe, and about each other. Suddenly, I saw her there – right in front of me – gorgeous, blonde, and pregnant with my child.
Ewww! Ewww, ewww, ewww!
But for just the briefest of moments, I was ridiculously happy at the prospect of being a father. I leaned forward, kissed her on the lips – a 1950s movie kiss, no tongue (thank God!), there were children present – thanked her for the sandwich (somehow certain that it was my favorite – turkey with lettuce, tomato, and horseradish), and sent her on her way.
And then, my own thoughts intruded. He would pay for this imaginary infidelity. I need to give Celine an A+ on the final exam, I thought, forcefully.
And then I slipped right out again, only this time, it felt more like a slither.
Mr. Jacobs stared at me. Raised an eyebrow.
I stared back. Smiled.
I knew that we would never speak of this. Mr. Jacobs was a man of science, after all.
* * *
Was jealousy the trigger for whatever this was? I hoped not. It was a nasty, negative feeling. I wasn’t proud of the way I’d behaved in Science Lab. I wondered if Mr. Jacobs knew, too, that I had this stupid crush on him. I took the long way home, after school. Stopped at the bakery for some day-old bread, then crossed the street to McSweeney Lake Park to feed the pigeons for a while. Greedy little beady-eyed rats with wings, is what Daddy called them. But at least they had wings. What must it be like, I wondered, to fly above that sun-sparkled azure lake, or poop on General McSweeney’s hollowed out, verdigris head? McSweeney’s descendants still ran the town and did their Confederate forbears proud. One day, I’d leave this town and not look back.
If jealousy were the trigger, I’d have been flying high, piloting a pigeon, right about then.
I pondered the pigeons, staring intently at a big, fat, healthy-looking specimen with iridescent neck and shoulders. As if it felt me staring, it stared back. Cocked its head to one side. In a flash of feathers, it launched itself – and me, with it. This time, it wasn’t so much of a slipping as a sharp intake of breath, followed by a soaring.
McSweeney Lake was even more beautiful than I’d imagined it, from the bird’s eyes. It was like looking through binoculars, but ones that never needed to be refocused or adjusted as we surfed waves of air that shimmered and danced almost as brightly as the water below. Can you understand me? I wondered. The pigeon flapped strong wings. Climbing air felt remarkably similar to running up stairs, and our heart was beating faster than my human heart ever did, or should. And yet, instead of feeling exhausted, out of breath, it felt…exhilarating. Until we body-slammed a wall – a misty, dove-gray wall of water.
I laughed as we caught our breath. The pigeon had shown me the folly of my fantasies. Fluffy clouds weren’t so fluffy, after all. We dove. This time, terror seized me – but only for a moment, until I remembered that we had done this a thousand times – or rather, the pigeon had.
We ran together like colors swirled on a painter’s palette, never quite blending into murky brown. Trust. I felt the sense of the word, and sent back a sense of nodding.
As we landed next to the stupefied girl on the park bench, the girl who was me, the girl who appeared to be napping with her eyes wide open, I sighed myself back in and stroked the pigeon’s spine with a fingertip, ever so gently. “Thank you,” I whispered, feeling at peace with the world.
* * *
I came back to McSweeney Lake Park every day for two weeks. My new friend and I practiced the slipping, soaring, sighing, and joining until I could do it as easily as breathing. By choice. That was the trigger. And the choice did not have to be made out of jealousy or envy. It could, just as easily, be made out of love, or in response to a calling. Choice mattered; it was not for me to throw myself like a ventriloquist – a mentriloquist – into another being, as I had with Kari or with Mr. Jacobs, in those early days, before I learned control. I understood. The bird and I took turns.
One morning, I called to my avian friend. I brought him with me; I let him see my classmates through my eyes. I invited him into my home, to share a meal at the family table, though physically, he remained outside, perched on the roof. The next day, Kari regaled me with tales of a pigeon that had landed on her shoulder as she left the school, and how it had stayed perched there, fearless, until she reached home. I felt joyful, with not even a twinge of jealousy, at this news.
* * *
My dreams were often turbulent, vivid, almost cinematic. But one night, I felt yanked from a dream – as if I had been grabbed and tossed like a sack of potatoes from one inconsequential, ordinary, nothingness of a dream that I would not even remember, in the morning, and dropped in the middle of a nightmare. I watched, helpless, as a woman was beaten and mugged in the park. Two men who didn’t even bother to hide their faces, attacking a woman as she walked home through the park. I could have drawn them, or molded them from clay, they were so clear and so detailed. One punched her in the face. The other caught her, grabbed her purse, worked a ring from her finger, and dropped her on the grass.
I awoke in a sweat. This was no mere nightmare. I recognized the way of seeing – that crystal-clear, three-dimensional, too-detailed view of things. I knew, too, the very spot. I blocked caller ID on my phone and called 911. Didn’t give my name. How could I explain what I’d seen, how I’d seen it? I told them I didn’t want to get involved; just please, go check on the woman. I began to draw, but drawing was no good. The police would never understand; they would waste time searching for the artist, demanding explanations that I could not begin to give them.
Instead, I called out, called out, called out to all the denizens of McSweeney Lake Park. I felt a soaring, a sighing, a dropping, a howling. The wolves of McSweeney’s woods answered the call. They invited me in, and I let them carry me on swift, strong legs. When we found the muggers, we snarled and bared our fangs.
* * *
I wouldn’t let the wolves eat the men, of course. Together, we herded them like sheep towards the police station, where the woman was still giving her statement. The men ran inside the station, screaming about a wild pack of wolves, begging the cops to protect them and demanding that someone call the game warden. We ducked into the shadows, silent as cats. “What wolves?” asked one of the officers, peering out into the night.
Their victim recognized the two muggers, immediately, and they were taken into custody.
If wolves and pigeons and a human girl could give each other high fives, we would have. Before I left the wolves, we ran the length of McSweeney Lake, howling for joy and justice. High above us, a pigeon laughed with joy.