A few blocks from our apartment, a hospital is falling while thousands of rats have begun to surface from the old foundation’s ruins. Signs tacked to the fence promise a condominium complex will replace the old structure by next summer, though in the meantime I avoid walking much after sunset when I can. In this quiet neighborhood where we live, in the purlieus of a college, I come across the rats earlier each evening as they outnumber us, emboldened.
Over the past few weeks, they have grown greedy for my garbage when I toss it in the dumpster, normally no later than seven in the evening. They are already there, ravenous and waiting, before my husband and I have eaten dinner ourselves. Reclaiming a world likely theirs from the beginning, they are ground creatures at bottom, wasting little time reaching for what hovers above them. If they have any desire to flee their homes for somewhere more spacious, somewhere flush with sunlight, they do not indulge it.
As the rats scuttle more deeply underground at dawn to sleep, I tend to wake exhausted from another night spent flapping my shoulder blades in place of peaceful dreaming. These two blunt bone stubs at my upper back imagine they can fly somewhere free of rodents, away from the dirt they bury themselves alive in. Otherwise, my scapulae feel useless, vestigial remnants of wings long since fallen. Skittering across side streets, earlier each evening, the rats have only exacerbated a wish to become weightless, float above things. Whether this reflects my lack of personal fulfillment or is simply part of being human, I am undecided. All I know is the urge to be somewhere other than I am has a weight to it, making me heavier than needed. Other people seem more at home here in comparison. If they also long for purification, they neglect to tell me.
I can no longer manage easy conversation—at cash registers, at coffee shops, at picnics—with people whose lives strike me as needlessly grounded, with those who spend all their time outside of work buying cars, having children, refurbishing houses. When I try responding, saying something relevant, the strain is transparent to everyone who listens. As friends discuss their jobs, their parents, their spouses, I increasingly sit silent, staring into my napkin. I look up only once my shoulder blades start to itch, dreaming of flying again. Even if I could use them to soar through the skies naked, I doubt I would become any more angel than I am at present.
Since the first wall of the hospital collapsed into middens, I have noticed more dead birds littering the sidewalks. Many lie holding a wing high and stiff with their beaks still open. They look as if they died trying but failing to say something. What they wanted to say I have no way of guessing. Only when my scapulae begin to flap again, I guess anyway. I scratch my back and decide the birds died trying to warn me how living on the ground doesn’t make the skies a heaven. Even if the birds all died in silence, the fact their corpses decompose back into the earth alone says plenty. However dirty and riddled with rodents, the earth remains a home for bodies.
If the rats ever want to escape their own existence, to flee the human surfeit once the condominium complex rises, I doubt they will consider growing wings an option. They are more apt to tunnel through the earth until they reach China instead, using their main talent. Only they make do with Chicago for the moment, while China likely has its own rat problem. Should rats and humans ever both manage to sprout wings, should evolution drive both species in the same direction, I’ll clip mine and fall back down to the ground again. I’ll stain the soil with feathers still growing and therefore bleed when broken. The earth will then feel clean and spacious.
To the Coast
My husband and I walked inside a diner once our plane landed in Portland. After taking our order, our waited mentioned he had a pair of wings tattooed to his back. Without being prompted, he told us a friend had done this the other day for him, though other people could see them only when he was naked or had taken his shirt off in public. Diving into a lake or ocean or backyard pool with a film of dead bugs splayed like black stars across its surface, he must have looked half man, half avian. Even in the diner, I noticed his hair was oiled into a waterfowl’s smoothness, meaning he might have stayed dry underwater for this reason, finding ease and contentment while living out his life in a lake or ocean. If growing my own wings would present any challenge, I realize it would be my constant impulse to use them. With a ready means of flying wherever I wanted, I might never be still again. With those only drawn in ink, however, I might prove less restless.
Handing us our check after our meal was finished, our waiter added that he cut hair in his living room on weekends. Sometimes he spun his girlfriend around in his barber chair until her tomato hair clipped the air into wind. My husband and I were only visiting the city for the weekend before driving to the coast, I told him. I also didn’t want to waste time having my hair cut on vacation. Instead, I planned to have it blowing freely in the sea spay. I planned to have it blown into a bird’s nest while breathing cleaner air than that blanketing the Midwestern city where we lived. Cleansed by the Oregon coast’s purer oxygen, we would return home rid of a certain weight we’d always carried while the old hospital keeps falling.
A few hours east of Portland, along a fog-softened shoreline, I almost stepped on a jellyfish resembling a sailboat too small to carry anyone larger than a goldfish. It didn’t look like others I’d seen, I told my husband as I pointed. He shrugged and said there were more species than I had ever come across during the little time we had spent on the West Coast several summers ago. The sails of this particular one were bright blue, nearly florescent. When the wind died down, I watched them flatten. They stood up again only once air began to sting and prickle my skin. They tilted their sails into the wind before being carried away by its breath, its coolness.
Standing in deeper, softer sand while I stayed closer to the ocean, my husband found a stick and starting drawing labyrinths. After he finished his first one, he asked me to walk through it, adding that I should make this a meditation. I did as he wanted but also slightly resented his instruction. I like to think my mind is quieter than his, as he does almost all the talking already. Though he cares no more than I do for children, cars, and houses, his conversations tend to be long and fluid. When a topic bores him, he listens intently before changing the subject. When another rat runs across the path in front of me, he laughs at my reaction.
Though the tide soon came to erase all his drawings, I liked walking through the labyrinths barefoot while wearing a sweater dress that fell to my knees. I liked changing directions each few steps as the ends of my cotton scarf flew into my nostrils and the maze tightened. Could I have only stayed here, inhaling and exhaling with the ocean, I thought I might forget about transcendence. My mind might grow so quiet, my body so emptied of all its heaviness, that wings would seem redundant. Living on the water’s edge, I also might see no more rats when taking out the garbage. I might feel more grounded, maybe learn to refurbish houses, in a place this windswept.
To Come Clean
More nights than not throughout my childhood, I fell asleep while chewing gum that my mom, in her indulgence, never took away from me. Early mornings, she routinely retrieved the scissors and cut out the sticky swatches, leaving those tangles in she couldn’t comb clean. “What’s wrong with your hair?” other girls at school asked me, girls with better grooming. “A bird landed in it,” I remember responding out of habit. Though it was a lie, part of me felt sure this would happen eventually. At that time, my world was also being invaded by birds, not rodents.
The stone birdbath that stood in the middle of our garden split when I was only seven or eight, when my hair was still stitched with gum on a nearly nightly basis. Lightning had cleaved it during a thunderstorm through which I had slept without waking. Once I left my bed in the morning, it didn’t take me long to walk outdoors and notice the birdbath had gone crooked. Afterward, any rain that collected there pooled only at its rim, only a matter of droplets. The bath no longer attracted any birds, no longer fulfilled its function.
Soon after, there seemed to be less birds in the air and more inside our basement, where we had a bathtub that no one ever used to my knowledge. Moths resembling the shadows of brighter butterflies hung limp on its faucet. Though I preferred avoiding the basement’s dirt and darkness, sometimes my dad still asked me to sweep it, when I often found a bird’s severed leg or talon stacked between those logs we burnt inside our furnace. Though I was quick to do what chores my dad wanted, the basement usually stayed dusty, something the birds themselves never minded. Even winged creatures knew better than I did what to do with dirt that never stops accumulating, makes the ground thicken.
Bathing in water and rolling in dust for birds can serve the same purpose. Both keep their plumage from matting. Dust absorbs excess oil that prevents their feathers from fanning, though birds have developed many ways of performing their ablutions. Wrens clean with water first then roll in dust second, while chickadees fly into puddles then immediately out again, shedding excess moisture with a feather flick. Other species do little more than wait for morning dew to drop from trees above them. It is all survival, this bathing, all to maintain their wings, keep themselves from falling. Even after taking a much longer shower than necessary, a certain weight still keeps me grounded, a heaviness beyond the pull of gravity. Sometimes I suspect it is pain alone. Some is personal, while some seems simply part of being human, belonging to the collective.
Occasionally while we sat and watched TV, blackbirds flew into the windows of our living room before dropping dead on our front porch swing. My mom always said they thought they could fly inside our house, that they were optimists. For years, I believed her until I realized they were eating fermented raspberries, which grew along the fence lining our garden with its broken birdbath. The birds were swallowing the same fruit that made the moths sleep their days away in the tub in the basement. I kept sweeping its floor of beaks and wings when my dad asked me and left the dead birds on the porch for my mom to dispense with. I also understood those in the basement better. I knew they had flown there for a purpose, stone cold sober. They had flown there to take a bath, of dust or water, only so they could fly out again.
My mom has been dead now well over a decade. Yet at some point each day I still find myself hoping I’ll be reborn an optimist, someone who maybe even sees a reason to have a house with children. So many years after her passing, I still wake each morning hoping I have been reborn a lighter, purer being, born inevitably from another woman’s body but missing her all the same—missing, looking, flying. To have any hope of growing wings, first you must walk among rats while a hospital is being demolished. To come completely clean, you must first be dirtied.
Fleeing the earth alone—its rodents and lifeless conversation—also does not make people appear who have vanished. Even if I could manage to grow the wings I’ve wanted, I could never bring the dead back again. My mom could never cut swatches of gum out of my hair and leave some tangles in, making it resemble a bird’s nest. All I could ever do is travel farther distances, fly to Portland without buying a ticket. This is the problem with evolution as I see it. Its insistent, forward movement. Given the chance to fly anywhere I wanted, there is the same absence.
To the South Pacific
Last autumn, I read only a few chapters of Amelia Earhart’s autobiography, The Fun of It, before skipping to the end and closing it disappointed. I felt betrayed by Amelia’s optimism, her lack of intuition that her life was approaching its end. At some stage, I had wanted the book to become slightly ominous. I had expected the tone to turn almost melancholy as she reckoned with her own attachment to the firmament, her refusal to stay grounded. I wanted Amelia to tell me what she might have been avoiding by rushing to the cockpit of her biplane. When she didn’t, I had to accept that she was an aviator and not a prophet. She died in the South Pacific in the 1930s along with her navigator, Fred Noonan.
She died while trying to become the first person to circumnavigate the world in an airplane, flying nowhere other than back to where she started. At the time, her own mom was still living. Her life on the ground as she described it sounded free and pleasant. Still a certain instinct led her to escape, an instinct that likely originated as much with Amelia and her sunny disposition as the consciousness of the collective, part of being human. Sometimes our longings to flee this life have no outward explanation. They have something in common with but are not equivalent to a death wish. Maybe Amelia, who seemed otherwise contented, woke with her own blunt bone stubs flapping.
For decades, her death remained enigmatic, leaving some to speculate she might still be alive long after she perished. Not until 2016 did investigators reveal fresh findings countering preexisting theories that her plane had crashed into the ocean. Forensic anthropologists uncovered what they believe to be her skeleton on a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands. They determined the bones to be consistent with someone of her height and ethnic origin. The forearms are particularly large for a woman of European heritage, a trait apparent in photos of Earhart wearing sleeveless dresses. Yet however strong her arms must have been, she still likely starved to death for weeks or months on end. The anthropologists discovered more than a hundred radio transmissions she had sent from the island.
I remember once telling my dad how her last name struck me as prognosticative. “Air heart,” I said, meaning she loved the air—she must have—well before she became a pilot. In response, he only reminded me of the spelling, saying I was taking too much license. He claimed the sound of her name was only a coincidence, though I did not believe him. From almost the beginning, I ascribed a power to words he didn’t, which perhaps explains why I still hate to waste them on other people’s family and possessions. Standing beside someone so much taller than me then, some of my hair still matted with gum swatches, I also accounted more for misspelling than my dad did.
Though I like thinking of myself as straightforward and honest, my own last name, Wiley, implies cunning. There must be some truth here too then, embedded in language, however imprecisely. If it were all coincidence, I likely would not have already decided on the next stage in human evolution. Maybe if my name were different, I might work harder at conversing about anodyne topics and avoid staring at my napkin. Someone who is wily, however, has a tougher time accepting reality, trying instead to make life suit her own purposes. She wants to flee this place as soon as she sees another rat greedy for her garbage. She wants to inhabit the thinner atmosphere where the clouds may blind her.
In her book, Amelia mentions Madame Blanchard in a chapter briefly listing those female aeronauts who came before her. In doing so, she reminds the reader that before airplane pilots came hot air balloonists. Amelia was less a daredevil, she implies throughout this section, than this Frenchwoman, whose husband died years before her in his own ballooning accident. Decades afterward, Madame Blanchard lost her own life in a balloon that burst into flame over Paris.
Before her death, however, she made an ascent in Milan to mark Napoleon’s 42nd birthday, and a poster designed for the occasion shows Blanchard standing tall on a ship that looks little larger than a jellyfish. Her head appears disproportionately large for her person, her complexion dark and shaded. I have no way of knowing the extent to which her many flights, risky and unusual then for a woman, were taken because death had less meaning once she lost her husband. Whether wanting to escape a life that keeps on going in another person’s absence helped to feed her passion, no one who lived after her could verify, Earhart included. Perhaps spending so much time among cloudscapes, though, was only for the fun of it. Perhaps it had nothing to do with wanting to become more spirit than body, a longing for purification that allowed her to float above things.
At some point, there also had to be a first female balloonist, someone wearing a corset inside a floating basket so others could know the sensation of flying too can be feminine. Angels are often portrayed as women, meaning escape may be even more necessary for them than for men. Though both our mothers have long since vanished, my grief seems far deeper than my husband’s. It seems to weight me in a way the death of his mom death hasn’t. I have never been to the South Pacific but have heard it described as heaven, a place I do not believe in. However much my shoulder blades may flap when I sleep, my forearms are not particularly large for a woman. I have never been afraid of flying but also never wanted to become a pilot.
One year for his birthday while we were still dating, I painted my husband’s portrait. I painted him naked and flying over a sepia ocean. He hurt my feelings when he admitted he didn’t like it. I thought I had done a decent job depicting his brown beard and flaccid penis, his birdlike legs tapering from narrow waist and hips. I also gave him the wings that even then I must have wanted, maybe because part of me knew my mom was dying already, or maybe I didn’t. Maybe the instinct to escape this life for another one would have developed even had she lived. Even before her diagnosis, I had no interest in children, cars, or houses.
A couple weeks ago, we went to a cabaret circus. Female contortionists bent as if they were boneless while my husband and I sat sipping from our wine glasses. My husband leaned over to talk to the couple seated beside us as I sat there silent. The contortionists changed their shape so freely, stretching sculpted arms and legs—around poles, through hoops, through chains—that they looked to be almost a different species of human. Were I capable of elongating my body as they did, were I only more flexible and my movements more fluid, I also might come to see flight as pure pleasure, as Amelia claimed she did until she landed in the Marshall Islands.
Coming home from the circus, my husband and I noticed a wrecking ball had crashed into the house across the street during our absence. With its white-painted brick and scarlet door, the house had been small compared to those buildings around it. Yet in a single evening, the sweetest home in the purlieus of a college had begun to vanish, to inevitably make way for a larger one with more rooms, more stories. The home has not been gone long, but I already miss it. Some days, the scarlet door seemed to beat with emotion. When glimpsing it from my apartment, I always felt as if I were seeing its heart through its body.
Though I never walked through its entrance, never sat inside its living room to see whether birds might fly to their deaths at its windows, the home always struck me as a place of welcome. Now the lot is empty. Until someone or some family begins building another house to replace it, even more rats have found themselves with homes with sky for ceiling. The world looks bluer, blanker. The sky sometimes feels less real to me than painted, with fewer birds flying through its expanses.
Yesterday afternoon, I was walking back home from the dentist. Before my appointment, a lazy rain had been falling but since abated. Instead of sidestepping the puddles, I walked through them, splashing myself up to ankles to resensitize myself to the world after having my gums anesthetized for two fillings. In a park halfway between the dentist and my apartment, I noticed the sidewalks lining the tennis courts were covered with chalk drawings—ornate depictions of unvisited galaxies, flaxen prairies, a tailcoated Charlie Chaplin, Josephine Baker baring teardrop breasts—whose details all were disappearing.
The park was almost empty. Others had been here in the morning, for the drawings’ birth before the rain started. Now they were left to bleed into the grass unnoticed. I saw a man and woman resting on a blanket, their hands smoothing each other’s hair along the length of their necks. Their languid limbs and rumpled clothing hinted they had made love not long before this. Watching the skies clear through a bedroom’s parted curtains, they decided to continue stroking each other outside, where crowds had yet to follow.
Passing through the park’s fading landscapes and portraits, I saw the red and thinning hair of a man I had met once before but had no desire to see again. I had spoken to him outside a grocery store months ago with my husband. He had given me his card, touting his abilities in spiritual healing, ushering in transcendence. He had offered me a free massage as well as reading, but I told him no and thanked him. Now at the park’s edge, he turned around to face me before I could walk past him without him noticing. Trying to take control of the conversation, I mentioned the chalk drawings.
Yes, he had already seen them, well before they started dissolving. This was his answer, his cursory explanation for no longer caring. I could tell he was tired of them, restless. He handed me his card again, renewing his offer to bring me into contact with another dimension. As he stared into my face long and intently, I looked again toward the drawings. To see them now, diluted and all but erased by the rain, was different than having seen them under the sun, pulsing and vivid. Now they were half lost in shadow, pneumatic. You had to be looking down when you were walking to notice them at all, I said. I had told this man my secret, how all that matters lies below and not above us, and he was indifferent. Birds flew overhead. I kept walking.
Author Bio: Melissa Wiley is the author of the essay collection Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press, 2017). Her creative nonfiction has also appeared in places like The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, Phoebe, Waxwing, The Offing, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Juked, and PANK. She lives in Chicago.