Seraphina was born with the filigree pattern of a doily etched into her back. At six months it had not healed. When she was three and the Millers’ big barking dog chased her, and she felt her feet leave the ground, she realized why it was there. Whenever she felt scared, iridescent, granite-colored wings emerged from the grooves in her skin. You’ve got your head in the clouds, her mother joked, and sometimes it was true.
The night before her first day of school, Seraphina’s mother tried to steady her daughter’s nerves, but Seraphina kept floating to the ceiling. Her mother shut all the windows before she doctored Seraphina’s dresses. She cut gill-like slits in her back so her wings could wave and edged the vents in pink trim and twinkling rhinestones. The televised Watergate hearings played on the black and white TV in the corner. How I wanted to fly when I was a girl, her mother said as she sewed. Seraphina curled her socked feet around the legs of a step stool and knew her wings were not the stuff of wishes.
Why did she have wings and her momma didn’t? Standing side by side in front of the bathroom mirror, Seraphina’s momma compared her dark green eyes to Seraphina’s grass-colored ones, her chestnut coils to Seraphina’s russet curls, the dimple in one chin to the smooth surface of the other. Some things get passed down, and some things skip a generation or two. Then her momma sat Seraphina on the opaline stone vanity and told her about the Crystal Fairies, angels fallen into irredeemable love with mortals on earth. When the angels snuck down to woo their lovers, meteorites pummeled the earth. The man upstairs threw a mean fastball. If an angel made a wedding vow, God shut the pearly gates on him forever.
Sometimes Seraphina felt her skin splitting when she lay in bed. This was when the sensation was still new, when the wings scraped a little as they pushed through. In the dark and alone of night, with the Boogeyman panting in the closet, she had to turn on her stomach so her wings wouldn’t get tangled in the sheets or rip the mattress. A little blood slid between the ridges of her rib cage and dribbled under her arms. But being airborne felt like floating in water and riding a Ferris wheel at the same time. Getting down was another story. Crash landings meant skinned elbows or bloody knees. To comfort her, Seraphina’s momma said Seraphina might outgrow her wings when she got a smidgeon older and wasn’t so afraid. Seraphina hung her head because she knew it wasn’t true. She knew it when Michael Walker tried to kiss her after the Eighth grade graduation dance and all he got was a mouthful of shoe.
With her back forever scabbed and deeply scarred by the time she was fifteen, Seraphina never swam at the quarry nor wore halters. At school she laughed off names of Scaredy Bat or Bird Girl and invitations to join a circus. She ignored the piles of chicken feathers left around her desk and the teeth-marked bread crusts piled up near her locker, and she didn’t hold it against them when her classmates cornered her and tried to clip her wings. A few of them ended up with sore behinds when they fell off as she flew to safety, but no real harm was done. The art room’s scissors were no match for her rock-skeletal wings. After that, she kept to herself and the other kids thought that was fine too. From beneath her thick fringe, she’d watch them cluster in the cafeteria, making plans for Saturday night, and she’d think about the Crystal Fairies.
Outside Heaven’s gates, the banished Crystal Fairies cried big, salty tears, but God remained resolute. Their tears collected space glitter and moon confetti. They grew fatter and thicker and heavier, so that when they fell to Earth they crashed through the ground into the depths of the underworld. Pluto, who had no time for tears, set them on top of the highest mountains and let the rising Sierra Nevada do its trick. We call it granite, Seraphina’s mother said as she touched the shimmering walls of their house and then placed her hand on Seraphina’s upper back. Their house had been built from the local pearly stone right before the railroad tracks were pulled up in the 1940’s. And now those developers in their city suits were trying to take it as they had taken all the others during the twilight days of the town. But Seraphina’s mother knew how to dig her heels in, because she knew about the Crystal Fairies: how they followed their tears to the California valley when God wouldn’t open his door; how they remained love-torn on earth, even as the land divided and even as it hibernated under the ice; how the sculpting glaciers blended fairy bone with rock until the entire mountain range gleamed. Nobody’s going to force us from where we belong, she said, after the developers had finally gone. This place is in our bones. The salve she worked into Seraphina’s skin felt both icy and hot at the same time. See, her momma would say, pointing at Mount Whitney. And the granite mountain glistened like crystal when the sun licked it, as if wetted by tears.
Lucy Mae Whittlefield played Cupid in the Red Top Circus until her wings caught fire after she stood too close to a fire twirler. She dyed her wings daily to keep them the aquamarine color of her eyes. Richie Benson didn’t sprout wings until his voice cracked and he grew facial hair. Things evolved in their own time; this was the point. Nature did as she pleased. And when people didn’t understand Nature, they made up stories to explain her away. Seraphina had read about sirens and swan maidens and fallen angels, but she’d never met anyone like herself in her thirty-seven years. How wondrous it would be to curl under someone else’s unfurled wing. To fly without fear.
Seraphina’s house was her momma’s house and her momma’s before. With all her folk gone to the great beyond, Seraphina always left an upstairs window open, even in winter. A telephone extension cord stretched through it to the roof where she kept an old princess phone, a rope ladder, and an extra set of house keys. When she scared herself high, like she had just done cleaning the gutters, she could always make her way down. Seraphina picked up the rope ladder from the rooftop. It roughed her palms.
“Lady, how’d you get up there?” From the sidewalk below, a little girl blew a huge purple bubble from her wad of Hubba Bubba gum. She had her hand on her hip like a grown woman. “I don’t see no stairs.”
“I flew. Now I have to get down. Catch.” Seraphina threw her the end of the rope ladder. Some things were easier to do, knowing someone was waiting on the other side.
“What do I do with it?”
“Just hold it steady.”
Grabbing the rope’s tied off end, the girl plunked down to her knees. Her ribs poked through her T-shirt like the wires of a parakeet cage.
“Watch your head.” Seraphina hopped over the crouching girl.
“You want me to yank it down?”
“We’ll leave it. How about an ice-cream reward? I hear the truck coming. You think your momma would mind?”
“She won’t mind. Hey lady, are you hurt? There’s blood on the back of your shirt. My momma always says you have to wash a cut. Then she gets this stingy stuff and puts it on and then she blows on it. I always tell her the blowing don’t help none. When something stings, it stings.”
“You’re right. When something stings, it stings.”
“And there’s not a G-D thing you can do about it.”
Seraphina hid a smile. “Where do you live?”
“We live the next street over. We just moved in with my Uncle Ray, who’s not really my uncle, but I’m not supposed to say that in public. I have to start Valley Middle School on Monday and I don’t know what kind of kids those kids will be.”
Seraphina pulled on the back of her shirt to unstick it from her open scabs. Blood slid into the waistband of her trousers. The little girl wore purple nail polish to match her gum. Her left hand nails were fairly neat, but her right hand nails were a mess. Her toes fared somewhat better. “Is purple your favorite color?”
“Way. I did them myself. They’re good, huh? I can do yours if you want. Momma says she’s gonna paint my room any shade of purple I want when I turn eleven. That means I have to wait ‘til October. That’s just too long. I might die.” She clasped her hands in front of her chest like a heroine in a melodrama. Seraphina noticed the Hello Kitty ink stamps lining her forearm.
“I’m sure you’ll work something out.”
“Yeah, probably. I’m pretty resourceful.”
“I have no doubt.” Seraphina pointed at the kitty cat conga line stretching from the little girl’s left elbow. “What’s that?”
“It’s my stamp-on tattoo. I’m practicing for when I’m older. Momma says I can’t get a real one ‘til I’m sixteen, and that’s final!” The left side of her mouth snarled up to meet her nose and then settled back down.
Now that Seraphina was closer, she could see the girl’s lazy eye barely turning inward. She saw crusts of pink lipstick in the corners of her mouth, and a tear worrying the collar of her shirt. “Lady, you ready for that ice cream?’ She slipped her warm hand into Seraphina’s cold one. She knocked her head on Seraphina’s shoulder as they walked towards the ice cream truck. “I can never choose between chocolate and vanilla.” Her bottom lip thrust out with indecision. “It doesn’t seem right to take one and leave the other behind.” She lifted Seraphina’s arm and draped it around her bony frame. In all Seraphina’s life, nothing had fit so perfectly.
Her name was Stella Riley. In early October, her room was painted Snugglepuss-Periwinkle, and every afternoon she’d walk past Seraphina’s on her way home from school, head bent towards the ground. Her sandals click-clacked down the sidewalk long after the air began to nip. She almost never carried books. Seraphina paid her five dollars to paint her fingernails and toenails and another five to read to her while they dried. She bought her Little Women and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Stella looked dubious while she read aloud. Seraphina watched Stella’s preadolescent face and saw the woman she would become twinning underneath it, in the flare of her nostrils and the upward turn of her mouth.
Ten dollars for the literary-spa treatment and another ten to clean out Seraphina’s closets when the dry cold came and reaching up for anything on the shelves made the skin on her back split. Her wings were stiffening as she aged. Soon they wouldn’t retract all the way inside her, and there’d be no hiding them. Outside, the wind rushed down from the mountains, tinseling the air.
Stella was digging in the closet. “You sure got a lot of stuff in here.” She emerged with a fedora jauntily astride her head. “It’ll take forever to get it sorted.”
“That was my momma’s.” Seraphina pointed at the hat. “I’ll give you ten extra if you get it done today. And keep the fedora. It suits you.” She’d just as soon give Stella the money, but her momma might not like that. Better to have Stella earn it and learn the value of things. That’s what Seraphina would do if Stella were hers.
She sat in an armchair and let Stella rummage. Her lungs were being crushed as the space inside her body filled. Dr. Bauman warned her that she’d have to get pleural fluid taps soon enough, and probably surgery to reinflate her lungs. Or, she could try radiation. Even though it was more advanced than it used to be, it still killed off the good with the bad, as some things in life tended to do. Only the specialist would know for sure, and new options were being tested every day, and all she needed was a bit of good luck; in the meantime, she’d have to stay strong.
Seraphina put her feet up on the bed and watched this perfect miniature woman. She wanted to cocoon her. Stella separated the Goodwill items from the keepsakes. Sometimes, she’d hold up a frilly little something to her stick frame and twirl in front of Seraphina’s full-length mirror. She’d curtsey, half-smile with her chin down, then throw her face up and to the side, laughing for a million imagined admirers. When she looked in the mirror again, she seemed surprised to see a skinny eleven-year-old girl staring back at her. She’d take a second, longer look; then she’d fold what was in her hand because those ten dollars were ready for the taking and there was a second-hand, twelve-speed bike ripe for the having.
“Uncle Ray says I’m nothing but trouble.” Stella pushed the purple frame of her glasses higher on her nose and continued spring-cleaning the living room windows. Puberty had made her lankier. She was all arms and legs in her cut-off denim shorts and tank top, lattice-like against the glass. “I heard him tell Momma maybe we should rethink our living situation. I don’t wanna move again.” She rested her forehead against the window and turned only when she heard the sound of cloth tearing.
Nacreous wings protruded from beneath Seraphina’s shirt, which had mostly torn away. Stella saw her leaking scars when she grabbed Seraphina’s legs to pull her down to the hand-woven rug. She touched one wavering fingertip to a wing. “Does it hurt much?” Stella traced the wing’s veins. The wing was hot, like the temperature of a body, brittle but smooth.
“Not much.” Seraphina’s voice sounded like caked dirt on hot asphalt.
“Love you for being a liar.” Stella kept her hand on Seraphina’s shoulder. Seraphina’s wings beat a small breeze into the room. The air smelled wet and metallic. “How come you have them and no one else does?”
Because most people don’t believe in angels, Seraphina didn’t know what to say about the Crystal Fairies: how some of them didn’t take to earthly ways; how they grew resentful of their mortal lovers and soaked the earth with tears of regret; how their tears gathered in huge chambers below the earth’s surface where they bubbled into ashy bitterness. When Earth purged herself of such acidic discontent, fairy lament flowed within the lava, tinging the hills with melancholy. Not a lot of people knew that the Sierra Nevada mist is made of fairy tears.
Seraphina grabbed a blanket off the sofa and wrapped it around her torso. She missed her momma, who would’ve known what to say. The blanket rippled behind her head. “You’re momma’s probably wondering where you are,” was what she came up with.
“Did your momma have them too?”
Seraphina shook her head.
“So they’re from your daddy?”
Seraphina gazed at the granite foothills framed in the window. Her momma’s kin had lived among the glacial polished rock as far back as memory went. Seraphina didn’t remember a daddy. She thought about the fairies whose bones were embedded in Owens Valley and the fairies who’d survived the Ice Age by teaming up with the jinn. “It runs in the family. Sometimes, these things skip a generation or two.”
“All that runs in my family is drunkenness.”
The air rushed out of Seraphina’s lungs and a grating sound drowned out Stella. Seraphina felt two jagged slabs squeezing her insides together.
“What the G-D’s goin on?” Stella moved towards the door.
“My wings are going back in.” Seraphina struggled to breathe.
Stella swiveled forwards and backwards, not knowing what to do.
Seraphina held onto a glimmering wall for support as the blanket she was wearing settled down around her. She wanted to remove it before her blood stuck it to her, but she saw the fear on Stella’s face and left it where it was. “You’d best be going.”
Stella didn’t need to be told twice.
In time, all beautiful things go away. Spring gave way to summer, and Lone Pine Peak glistered from within, turning each crystal nook into an inferno of light. The days turned dry and hot, while the nights stayed dry but cool. Seraphina was as restless as the rock dust blowing through her windows, even as the odd jobs piled up around her.
Stella would disappear for stretches. She’d take off on her bike in her short shorts and purple Chucks before Uncle Ray and her mom went to work, and she wouldn’t come back until sundown. She’d wave at Seraphina’s living room window as she rode by, fast. When it was scorching, she’d stop by for some lemonade and tell Seraphina how Matt Geiger’s braces nicked her lips when he French-kissed her at the lighted baseball field, how Rudy McGovern took her swimming at the quarry and pressed himself against her under the water and how it made her feel scared and excited at the same time. Shadow lashes danced over her flushed cheeks. Was it like that for you?
Other times, Stella chattered about her tattoo fund, which was growing, and she was just waiting to turn sixteen, was waiting for her boobs to develop, and what was taking them so G-D long? Still skin and bones, Stella didn’t need a bra, but she wore one anyway for encouragement. She said it might be a blessing in disguise since Uncle Ray liked big boobs, but then she dried up when Seraphina asked her to explain.
When Stella started high school, Seraphina saw even less of her. That was the way with young people. Seraphina waited for Stella to pass by her window until the evening sunlight turned a mandarin color. Then she’d go inside to fix herself a cold plate and eat it standing over the kitchen sink. Most of it wound up in the trash.
Stella made the cheerleading squad at Valley High and was always at the top of the pyramid. She’d catapult off and somersault to standing. Seraphina saw photos in the local newspaper, which she cut out and scrapbooked. What was it like to fly through the air with ease? To be admired for doing so? Stella smiled her megawatt smile because she knew how to take a picture: how to cock her head just so and look like she had a delicious secret.
“They say it’s my birthday,” Stella sang as she danced a little step through Seraphina’s front door the day after her sixteenth birthday. The cake sitting on Seraphina’s kitchen counter was now a day old and sagged under its homemade purple frosting.
“Look!” Stella pulled a bony shoulder through the stretched-out neck of her T-shirt. A purple phoenix loomed from beneath its cotton rim. “I designed the wings myself.” Stella was halfway through her second piece of cake when she told Seraphina about the part-time job she had gotten at the diner in town two weeks back. She stole a look at the kitchen clock and gulped down the rest of her cake. The cheerleaders were waiting on her, and you know how it is, and then she was gone, the front screen door banging behind her, Seraphina’s gift for Stella still wearing its bow, waiting for her on the counter.
Stella ditched her twelve-speed for a Vespa, much as she ditched high school. After she quit altogether, she moved in with her Marine Corps boyfriend, who was all tattoos and muscle. Stella worked at the diner, but without her cheerleading friends inviting her places, she had time to pick up odd jobs again, saving now for her get-out-of-Dodge fund. She kept it hidden in a brown paper bag underneath the kitchen sink. What’s his is ours, but what’s mine is mine. Stella talked about going to Vegas to make some fast money or heading to Hollywood and putting her wide smile to good use. Not seventeen yet, Stella was already hardening.
Seraphina looked for projects to give her because sooner or later Stella’d be gone. While Stella worked, Seraphina hoarded Stella’s expressions in her memory as she supervised from her crutches. Her partially retracted wings weighed heavily on her candy-cane spine. Soon, her home looked as nice as it had when her momma was alive, sewing slits into Seraphina’s dresses. Tipped backwards in time, Seraphina was the momma and Stella was her skinny little bit with an upwards smile. Standing in the kitchen, Seraphina brushed crumbs from Stella’s cheek and looked into those dubious eyes. One that turned barely inward, that bravado face Seraphina had known for almost half of Stella’s life. Under the rattle of the kitchen exhaust fan, Stella jerked away. Seraphina’s wings fluttered and her feet lost the floor. In the silence on the underside of Seraphina’s eyelids, they held each other close, their arms encircling all the way round.
Stella was working the breakfast shift when Rudy McGovern and the prom queen came in for a post-dance fuel-up. The rest of their gang, mostly the cheerleaders and jocks, followed. In a few months they’d all be heading to college, to war in Afghanistan, or to fracking jobs in North Dakota. They were leaving. Right after her shift, Stella headed home and counted the contents of her secret paper bag. Then she packed a duffle bag and counted again. At nightfall she rode over to Seraphina’s, where the rope ladder still hung from the roof and an upstairs window was always open.
When Seraphina hadn’t seen Stella for a long spell, she put on her roomiest shirt and called a taxi to drive her past the diner. She reached inside her momma’s old sewing tin where she kept her household money, and that’s when she found Stella’s note. Sorry. Outside, the taxi honked its horn. Inside, Seraphina’s home rushed with silence.
Loneliness is an exacting mistress. With Mount Whitney standing guard, Seraphina lidded her eyes and spilt out the quantity of her heart. Her mother used to say, when you really love someone, the love envelops you both. That way you have some leftovers when the sad times come. We all have measures of good and bad; loving in spite of them is faith. That’s why God sent Phanuel down to Earth to offer the Crystal Fairies a second chance. If they renounced their earthly lives, they could reenter the pearly gates. Thinking everybody was better off with their own kind, some of the fairies followed Phanuel, not daring to look back at the ones they left behind. Others stayed. Still in cahoots with the jinn, they masquerade as homeless people muttering your unknowable truths for a few coins, or bewitch young women as shameless Lotharios. Those with a talent for healing become shamans.
Everybody knows it’s impossible to beat time. Seraphina heard her mother’s voice as the wind kicked through the trees and the days passed in stillness. At night, every breath drew a beat of her wings that shredded her skin. She was forty-five and her wings didn’t retract anymore. They had grown too big and stiff for her accordion spine. Her scars burned. Sometimes Seraphina felt her mother rubbing salve onto her skin, soothing all the places that hurt. Flight was overtaking her more and more as her time came near. She spent most of the rest of it in a nest of cushions on her rooftop. There’s nothing to be afraid of, baby girl. Her mother’s breathy words tickled her ears as Seraphina headed for the clouds.