She saw the bloodied coat of feathers before anything else.
In the dark, she couldn’t be certain if what she had seen was the result of a mind running on snatches of shut-eye for the past week. Surely it was just an injured bird, even if the bird appeared to be human-sized.
But then his eyes flickered into view, a flash of silver, like liquid mercury. She didn’t know how she knew the intruder was male – maybe it was the set of his jaw, the regal slope of his nose or the planes under his cheekbones – but she froze at the sight, tracking the shallow beats of her heart as she waited.
Now, he was perched atop the tree directly outside her window, head dipped and motionless, like a frightful bird of prey roosting. Though half-obscured by the canopy of leaves, the shards of moonlight that danced off the facets of his wings revealed how ravaged they were. In the scant light, she noticed the feathers that stuck out, frayed and bloodstained, and one of his wings bent at an awkward angle.
He looked like something from her dream – literally. It had been ages since she had that dream, but she could remember it as vividly as though she were living in it. In the dream, a winged boy no older than eighteen extended his hand to her, hovering a few feet in mid-air. His eyes shone like polished metal, a smile curling at the edges of his lips as he waited for her to take his hand. How certain he was that she would, and oh how she longed to.
She could see the vague resemblance between the boy in her dreams and the one right before her eyes. Just as she debated whether to open the windows to get a closer look, the boy lifted his gaze. It cut to her and she let out an involuntary gasp. There was no mistaking those eyes: like those of the boy in her dream, they were alert, defiant and brimming with life – along with something else she couldn’t quite pinpoint – despite the state of his body. He looked almost inhuman.
Of course he’s not human, she thought. He has wings.
Later, she would wonder why she decided to open the window and let him in, why she trusted that he meant her no harm, that the savagery in his eyes was not intended for her. Later, she would struggle to recall the trepidation as she held out her hand, because all she would remember was the inexplicable exhilaration that stirred in her.
She decided then that this had to be a dream, an extended version of the one she had as a child, because in no circumstance now would she let a complete – inhuman– stranger into the house.
He seemed duly surprised that she could see him, even more so that she would reach out for him. Still, he spared only a sliver of hesitation before tumbling through the windows and crashing into her arms as though he had found home.
The swiftness of his movement caught her off guard. She only had time to take a step back before she found herself pinned under him. For a while, neither of them moved. She could feel his heartbeat, clopping heavily like erratic hoof-beats, and her own hummingbird one, buzzing and light and ready to take flight.
With a soft moan, he slid off her and struggled to sit up.
Up close, she saw that one of his wings was definitely broken. His face was slick and ashen, stark against his shock of dark hair. He seemed so incongruously human, crumpled beneath the weight of his battered wings.
“Let me see,” she said. Her first words to him sounded much braver than she felt.
His brows pulled towards each other as he appraised her, but he was either too weak to protest or trusted her to know what she was doing. He flinched when she touched him with a slightly shaking hand and inspected the damage and she said, rather lamely, “It’s okay,” even though she struggled to make sense of everything that was happening.
There was something disconcerting about his gaze, as though it held a confession, and she kept her attention doggedly on mending his ruined wings, preparing the First Aid kit, a towel and a bowl of warm water as surreptitiously as she could without waking her family.
She worked in silence, all the while contending with the feeling that there was something she ought to say, something she meant to say. Questions sat in her stomach like swallowed air bubbles, but her mind was in too violent a tumult to string the words together. There was something in the silence that she didn’t want to upset, anyway.
He watched her run her fingers over the ridges of his wings, cleaning up his fresh wounds, and winced when her hand skated across the broken bone. She muttered an apology, then resumed working with that narrow, almost stubborn, intensity, as though pushing a memory, a nagging thought, out of her mind. Could it be? Could she possibly remember?
On her his attention felt like a scythe, and she babbled, “Some of these wounds are deep. I can clean them up, but the broken bone I can’t mend.”
“I will heal,” he replied. His voice was stronger than she expected, the baritone of someone who was used to making assurances.
“You might not be able to … fly for a while.”
“Wings only mean as much as the places you go.”
“Not if there are better places for you to be.”
His eyes sparked with surprise, as though she had stolen his line. “Would youlike to be someplace else?”
She could hear the offer in his voice, see his outstretched hand inviting her to take to the skies, and like in that dream she ached to slip her hand into his and tear free from the watchful eye of her father, if only for a while.
Flight terrified her. The sense of giving yourself up to the wind, of losing control. Water was her element; it grounded her in a way air never could. But after what happened to her mother, her father had forbidden her to go near the water. Now, it felt like all the water in the world – seas and lakes and rivers and lagoons, puddles and raindrops and thawed ice – sat in her gut, growing heavier as days passed. She only just realised that it was the need to move, to escape, to live.
Still, that was not enough to make her turn to flying.
“I – I’m happy where I am,” she lied.
He let out a low chuckle – a sound that seemed irreconcilable with his wide serious eyes – as though he saw right through her feebly constructed lie and expected nothing less of her answer. This was followed by a coughing fit so violent she feared for him and worried that they would be heard.
“Maybe you should rest,” she suggested, helping him into the beanbag chair by the bookshelf.
He sank into it gratefully, but didn’t close his eyes until he said, “It was nice meeting you.” He might have said her name – in a whisper like an afterthought – but that wasn’t possible since she had never offered that information.
She didn’t know how long it took for either of them to finally settle into sleep, but the sight of his tranquil resting face made her racing heart peter to a sedated rhythm that lulled her back to sleep.
When the first shaft of sunlight edged its way into her room, she jolted awake to find herself back in her bed. There was no sign of the boy, or traces of the tools she used to nurse his wounds. In the daylight, everything seemed innocuously ordinary, almost taunting in its normalcy.
It had to have been a dream, she thought, although she couldn’t recall the last time a dream felt this surreal. But already, she was beginning to regret falling back to sleep, or keeping her questions to herself.
The window was tightly shut, though she recalled how wide open she had flung it last night, how he had crashed through it and fallen upon her.
She tried to beat down the flush creeping up her neck. Could she really have dreamed it all up?
She was just about to head over to the window when she saw it – the only proof he left behind: a single feather, pure and white as a freshly fallen snowflake, resting on the bedside table.