The distinctive squeals made Irena look up, the bright mid-August sun making her squint even with a hand shading her eyes. High above the village two buzzards wheeled in a tight circle, gliding with outstretched wings on the summer thermals. Irena smiled, understanding the raptors’ unchallenged acceptance that the vortices and air currents would keep them up. She ached to join them.
In several hours Irena would be leaving, returning home after a lifetime in exile. She chastised herself for wasting precious minutes, daydreaming in the garden, when she still had a list of tasks to tick off. David had taught her the simple pleasure of list-ticking and now she carried his obsession like a keepsake.
Cancel the newspapers.
Clothes to cancer charity shop.
Saskia appeared from under the Hebe bush like a tabby ghost, conjured by thinking her name. The cat weaved between Irena’s bare legs, her white-tipped tail twitching in anticipation of some treat. ‘Yes, yes,’ said Irena, ‘I won’t forget to feed you before I go.’ After all these years she couldn’t stand to touch or be touched by the animal. It was still David’s cat.
When Cassandra first left for university, and Irena found herself alone in the house, David had surprised her with the tabby kitten ‘for company’. The arrival of Saskia was a splinter in Irena’s heart. David was oblivious to her distaste, couldn’t see how she hated and mistrusted the cat. It was then that Irena began to doubt that her husband had ever truly understood what he’d married. Irena began to doubt that she could stay with him after all.
Bury spare key in porch geranium pot.
Turn off hot water timer.
Make sure Cassandra KNOWS key is in geranium pot!
She stayed until Cassandra graduated. Then just a little bit longer to see her daughter settled in a job. Waiting until Cassandra moved in with Alec, her boyfriend, and long enough to ensure the relationship was a pair bond.
David must have seen something in the hunch of her shoulders, heard the longing in her wistful sighs and suspected how she yearned to return to the forests that spread across the mountain side like a vast green stain. He caught her staring at the bird feeders, her fingers forgotten in the stinging hot water of the washing-up bowl, as she dreamed of wading into the cool, black lake where she’d once bathed with her sisters. Irena’s husband finally accepted what he had brought back to England and promised they would take a trip, back to the Balkans and the valley where he’d first enslaved her.
The promised trip had to be postponed when David became sick. The travel plans went permanently on hold, like Irena’s dreams, when David moved into the hospice.
Water hanging baskets.
Stop by churchyard to say goodbye.
Irena shooed Saskia into the kitchen, nudging the cat forward with her toes, and tossed a handful of fish-shaped biscuits onto the lino. ‘See, I feed you as I promise,’ she said, ‘you ungrateful monster.’ The click of the front door latch made Irena straighten quickly. Cassandra was early. Time was running out.
‘Oh, Mum,’ scolded Cassandra, snatching away the box of cat biscuits, ‘you’re supposed to put them in her bowl.’
‘Why?’ Irena’s hands flew up. ‘It eats baby birds off floor without complaint! The monster kills plenty things without knife and fork.’
Cassandra gathered Saskia into her arms, the cat arched backwards to expose a white bib of fur under her chin. After kissing the offered white throat she glared at Irena. ‘She’s a cat, Mum, and cats need to hunt. It’s an intrinsic part of her genetic wiring, her natural behaviour. She can no more stop killing birds than you can stop making silly lists.’
Irena sniffed, but there was pride in her voice as she latched the back door. ‘You sound like your father. Big words I never understand. Always using the big words.’ She forced out a smile, pushing down the sadness that threatened to change her mind. ‘You are his daughter – a true scientist.’ Irena watched her only child coo and fawn over the cat. When had her little girl become such a beauty? Sprouting from a spindly, clumsy teenager into this confident young woman. Tall and slender like David with Irena’s pale skin and dark hair. Her blonde, almost white, hair was cropped comfortably short and bouncy unlike Irena’s long tangled mass that never curled.
‘You don’t have to go through with this, Mum.’ Cassandra let Saskia jump down to finish her biscuits. ‘I know you want to do if for Dad, but we can make a donation some other way. We can have a coffee morning, bake lots of cakes. That’s how we raised money for charity at school or uni. Alec has promised you fifty quid to Cancer Research, whether you do it or not.’ Her eyes widened and she suddenly gushed, ‘In fact I’ll double that to a hundred quid if you promise not to do it.’
Shut bedroom window.
Unplug clock radio.
Tell Cassandra she is loved.
Irena wrapped her arms around her precious daughter and whispered against her cheek, a prayer that hung in the air like the echo of gossamer wings.
‘Speak English, Mum,’ said Cassandra pulling back from the hug. ‘Let’s talk about this properly like adults, not descend into mystical chants that I don’t understand. We can still watch the lunatic birdmen and women leap off the pier. We can have hot dogs and candyfloss, watch donuts spin in the fryer and burn our tongues as we eat them hot with tons of sugar.’ She frowned, as if she were a toddler again, about to stamp her feet. ‘You don’t even have a costume or proper wings or anything. When you run to the end of the pier you’re just going to plummet into the sea. What if you really hurt yourself?’
‘Please do not fret for me, Cassandra, I will be safe and you can watch me soar above the waves.’
Cassandra sighed and slumped against the breakfast bar. Irena smiled. Her daughter was stubborn, but wise enough to know when a battle was lost. ‘Okay, then I’ll be right at the front cheering you on.’ Cassandra reached down to her rucksack and pulled out a long, narrow box. She held it out to Irena, saying, ‘I’m sorry, but after the funeral and everything I completely forgot about this.’
Irena hesitated and then took the box. She opened it and gasped.
‘Dad asked me to give this to you, after he … after …’
Cassandra’s voice became soft, hushed and reverent. ‘It’s in excellent condition, incredibly well preserved, and I’m not sure he should have kept it.’
Irena was puzzled by Cassandra’s words. Inside the box lay a single white feather, but how would her daughter know its significance?
‘The fossil,’ explained Cassandra lifting the feather to reveal a stone slab beneath. ‘It’s a fossilised feather from an Archaeopteryx specimen. At bedtime Dad used to read from his palaeontology books, I never got fairy tales, and he taught me all about Archaeopteryx.’
‘Ancient wing,’ said Irena quietly, trailing the feather along the back of her arm.
‘Yes, that’s right. He must have told you the same stories! In ancient Greek Archaeopteryx means ancient wing. It was a dinosaur about the size of a raven and thought to be a transition species between dinosaurs and birds. I think the other feather is from some species of swan. I’m not sure why he kept the two together.’
‘David was on a dig in my country, hunting for his fossils, when we met.’ Irena suddenly felt the need to sit and sank onto the nearest kitchen stool. ‘I should have trusted him, should have known that he really loved me.’
Leave rings in envelope with letter to Cassandra.
Take out rubbish.
Tell Cassandra the truth.
Before he finally became unconscious and slipped away, David had urged her to tell Cassandra the truth. ‘Tell Cassandra how we met on the lakeshore. She must know what I took from you. Tell her how I tricked you, how I made you stay.’
Cassandra kissed her forehead. ‘Of course he loved you, Mum. Don’t say such silly things.’
‘I think he meant for you to keep the fossil,’ said Irena. She held the feather against her cheek. ‘But this belongs to me.’
The DJ’s voice boomed brash and cheery from the loudspeaker, announcing Irena’s name and charity. She stepped forward to face the edge of the pier. The crowd clapped and whistled; she could hear Cassandra’s voice near the front, cheering her on. Curling her toes Irena felt the warm wooden slats, baked dry by the recent heat wave. The white linen sundress hung loosely and would allow her to run freely.
Tell Cassandra the truth.
Time had run out. Irena had let her daughter chatter on, as they’d driven to the seafront. She realised Cassandra was calming both their fears with inane anecdotes about her workmates and what Alec had said at breakfast. It was the last time she would hear her daughter’s voice and couldn’t bear for her to stop. Soon Cassandra would know the truth anyway.
Glancing at the cloudless sky behind Irena could see them flying low over the South Downs, heading silently towards the sea, her sisters were coming for her, coming to take her home. Closing her eyes she could hear the rhythmic beat of their ancient wings, a song she knew by heart, as the lamentation of swans flew closer to the pier.
Irena had been bathing alone, without her sisters, on that morning when David came to spy on her at the lake. Stealing away her wings had bound Irena to the Englishman until the day he returned her freedom. Back in England they married and Cassandra was born. Irena grew to accept her earthbound life, grew accustomed to her heavy, plodding frame and clumsy limbs, learned to live without her wings.
In returning the feather David was setting her free. Irena had tried to explain, that she could have taken back her wings at any time, but he was sleeping, already moving on without her. He had never truly imprisoned her. She loved him, her mortal husband, and chose to stay with him out of love.
Irena held out her arms, flexing her long pale fingers, and began to run. The crowd whooped, chanting her name. Her bones became hollow. Her body was light, almost weightless, her muscles tight and strong, with outstretched wings she felt like an angel glowing white hot in the sunlight. Salt spray tingled on her lips and a gentle westerly breeze rippled the primary flight feathers, lifting her upwards.
Twisting her long neck round to look one last time for Cassandra, Irena saw a rush of people surge to the end of the pier. Shouts and screams echoed after her as the crowd now stared down into the water, searching for the bird woman who’d leapt into the sea. But her daughter stood alone, looking out across the waves. Cassandra was watching the family of swans as they flew over the coast, one hand shading her eyes, while the other was raised into the air, like a salute, or perhaps in farewell.
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