We Would Have Had Wings
by Sandi Sonnenfeld
Our cat Jupiter has begun prowling the house late at night. Sixteen years old, matte black with white paws and a dignified white bib, Jupiter has a heart murmur and a filmy cataract developing over his left eye. As befits his age and station in life, Jupiter generally spends the entire night asleep on our bed, his haunches on my husband Corey’s back, his paws and head resting on my chest–a warm furry bridge of domesticity.
Married eight years, Corey and I have always had a passionate, somewhat stormy relationship (should I have taken it as a sign that during our honeymoon in Hawaii we encountered the worst hurricane in the state’s history?), but lately, it feels like all the passion has dried up, the soil caked and dull from lack of moisture. Over the past few months, variety for us had consisted of contemplating the rolling cloud formations over Mount Rainier from our view from the bedroom window.
On weekday mornings, I drive ten miles south to Tacoma where I work as a grant writer for a small nonprofit organization. Corey drives twenty miles north to Seattle where he works as a graphic artist. At seven, I watch the evening news on TV while working out on a treadmill. Corey arrives home just in time to see the weather and the day’s basketball scores. Once a month, I attend a book group discussion hosted by my college alumnae association. Twice a month, Corey feeds his interest in anthropology by attending classes in Native American spirituality and culture.
On Saturday nights, we go to the movies. On Sundays, we sleep in late, go out for brunch at the local pancake house, and then spend the afternoon cleaning the bathroom and kitchen (me) and pulling weeds up out of the garden (him).
I feel as though Corey and I are talking to each other over a very long distance, like two children communicating through paper cups attached by a long white string on either end. Something keeps getting lost in the translation.
At night, I dream that Jupiter is in some kind of trouble. I dream that I have no arms and when a car races down the road to our house too quickly, I can’t pick up Jupiter to stop him from running out into the street and being hit by a car. Or while Corey and I are at work, a faulty wire in our automatic coffee maker emits a spark and sets the house on fire. When a neighbor calls us to come home, we arrive in time to see the firefighters turning their powerful hoses onto the flames.
“You must rescue our cat,” I say, shaking a firefighter by the rubbery lapels of his bright yellow protective jacket. “He can’t get out. We lock the house up tight to prevent criminals from getting in. That’s what everyone says to do. They don’t say leave a window open, so your cat can get free in case of a fire. He’s still in there. He’s in there, dying, alone.”
And I rush towards the house. I feel the heat of the flames, the thick heavy smoke and my own tears choking me so that I can’t breathe.
“Jupiter,” I scream. “Jupiter! Jupiter, come out, come free. Jupiter!!!”
I wake up, our heavy quilt wrapped around my neck like a noose. I take a deep breath and wait for the pounding in my heart to subside. To comfort myself, I reach out my hand to stroke Jupiter’s soft warm fur. But Jupiter is not there.
I sit up in the bed and in the semi-darkness I search for the cat in the room.
I hear the sound of rustling paper as Jupiter chews at an empty brown grocery bag that sticks out crookedly from the recycle bin in the foyer just a few feet away from the bedroom.
“Jupiter, sssh….” The rustling stops instantly. “Jupiter, come here.”
And in a moment, the mattress shakes gently as Jupiter takes a graceful silent leap and settles himself back on the bed.
“Good boy,” I say sleepily, and sink back down into the covers. But a few minutes later, I awake again when Jupiter begins dashing back and forth across the living room floor. Underneath the twelve-year-old carpeting, the old wooden boards have enough give that they creak each time Jupiter reverses his position.
“Must be after a mouse,” Corey says sleepily.
“Must be,” I say, and reach out to take my husband’s hand. He pulls away, rolls over on to his stomach, and in a moment, begins to snore. A big inward breath and then a five-second whistle as he releases air from his nose. Corey didn’t snore when we first met. It’s something that came later, along with the extra fifteen pounds we both have gained since the wedding and the endless bickering over his never washing the dishes. When we first bought the house, we fell in love with its wood beams, the cavernous A-frame ceiling, and the views of Mount Rainier from the upper-deck. We agreed that the tiny kitchen wouldn’t bother us that much since neither of cooked much, and we would take turns doing the dishes since there was no room for a dishwasher. Of course, nine times out of ten, I’m the one who ends up washing them. Listening to him snore, I have a sudden desire to punch my husband in the nose.
The next morning over breakfast, I tell Corey my dream.
“It was really scary,” I say. “Mostly because I felt sure that Jupiter thought we had abandoned him. Not only did he die horribly, but died alone.”
“He’s not dead, Rachel. It’s a dream.”
“But it felt real.”
“Mmn,” Corey says, and reaches for the cereal box to pour himself a second bowl.
“I think it may be symbolic of our relationship,” I suggest tentatively. “Like it’s telling us something about how we relate to one another.”
Corey sighs, “Listen, Rachel, that dream is telling your subconscious what I’ve been telling your conscious state for years—that you are smothering Jupiter to death. You spoil him.”
“I do not!”
“Before we were married, Jupiter didn’t even sleep on the bed. Now he’s not only on the bed, but sleeps between us. You give him leftovers off your plate, which you know isn’t healthy. Then if he sneezes just once, you immediately want to call the vet.”
“He’s old,” I say. “And cats don’t sneeze as often as people do.”
“Maybe there is some dust or lint on the floor,” Corey says. “Lord knows we both love him, Rachel, but he’s a cat, not a baby. And for your information, there is nothing wrong with our relationship, so stop trying to fix things that aren’t broken.”
“Fine,” I say.
And we both sit there, the milk in our plates pink from Fruit Loops residue, glaring at each other.
“The trouble with you is….”
“Quiet,” he says, quickly.
“Hey! I’m talking to you.”
But Corey is no longer listening. Instead, he’s watching Jupiter, as the cat quickly crosses the room to the fireplace. Made out of stone with glass doors, the fireplace is the centerpiece of the living room. Raised two feet above the ground, the stone base forms an ideal ledge for a small cat. Whenever we light a fire, Jupiter is the first one to the ledge, sitting on a little pillow just inches away from the flames. But it is early April now, the glass doors closed, the hearth cold from disuse.
“What is it, boy?” Corey says.
Six three in height, Corey weighs nearly two hundred and forty pounds, but all those years of studying Native cultures have paid off. For he moves almost as silently as Jupiter.
Rigid with alertness, the two of them stare at the ash pit in the hearth. Suddenly, I hear it, the scratching of tiny fingernails on stone.
“It’s a mouse,” I say. “There’s a mouse in the fireplace.”
“Come here,” Corey says, motioning to me. “But come quietly.”
I push back my chair and tiptoe to the fireplace.
“What is it?” I say, whispering.
“Kneel down on the carpet,” Corey says. “And then look in the back, by the damper.”
I peer into the small space, but all I see is residual ash from our last fire. “What am I looking for?”
“Wait a moment. You’ll see it.”
And then I do. A single black shiny eye that blinks at me slowly. I pull back in horror.
“Oh, God,” I say. “Is it a bat?”
“It’s a bird. We must have left the flue open.”
“But why would it come here?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it wanted shelter from the rain. Or maybe it just accidentally fell down the chimney.”
I imagine suddenly a flight-weary bird, staring down at our old cedar roof, looking for a place to rest. It alights on the chimney, but doesn’t grab tightly enough with its talons. Or perhaps it stumbles in the dark, and whoosh, down the flue it goes.
“Maybe it’s near-sighted,” I say, laughing.
“Or maybe it’s hurt,” Corey says.
“What should we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“We have to get it out,” I say. “If Jupiter’s restlessness these past few days is any indication, that bird’s been in there awhile. How long do you think it can go without food or water?”
“Okay,” Corey says. “Grab Jupiter. No matter how much he squirms, don’t let him go. I’ll open the glass doors and try to reach the bird.”
“What if it flies out?”
“At least it will be out.”
In response, I pick Jupiter up in my arms. He makes a few mews of protest, but doesn’t really fight me. I stroke his fur and watch Corey go to work.
On the news last night, the anchor told a story about some farmers in Yakima who claim a vision of the Virgin Mary has appeared on an empty billboard on I-5. People from all around the country have begun to arrive in droves to witness this miracle. As I watch Corey kneel back down in front of the fireplace and gently open the glass fire protection doors, he looks like the way the travelers did on television, their faces a combination of hope, reverence and awe. He has the look of a child filled with wonder about things that can’t readily be explained. We have long come to expect spiders, mice, carpenter ants, and dozens of other creepy crawly things that inevitably enter our house through the small tears in the mesh of our screened porch. But not this. This strange alien bird that stares at us with its black eyes and makes no form of protest when Corey reaches into the fireplace. Nonetheless, here it is, a gift, this five-inch bird that Corey suddenly holds in his two hands.
As Corey gently strokes the exhausted bird’s head with his forefinger, carefully examining its fragile body for wounds, I feel a stab of jealousy. It’s been a long time since Corey has been that gentle with me. Yet as he talks sweetly to the bird trying to allay its fearful trembling, I also see the man I first fell in love with—the one who tempers his large frame with soft words and patient hands that can caress my body until it feels as warm and smooth as silk.
“Is it hurt?” I ask.
Corey shakes his head. “It’s just covered with soot. That’s why it can’t fly. Its feathers are heavy with it.”
I think of the appeal we receive in the mail each year from the World Wildlife Fund asking for money, deliberately heart-breaking photographs of endangered species: ocelots, polar bears, baby seals featured in the newsletter. Or the shocking photos that appeared on the Internet after the BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf, wild birds covered in sleek black petroleum, their downy feathers matted by contaminants.
“We have to save it,” I say.
Jupiter uses this moment to wrestle free from my arms and takes to the floor, pacing.
I follow Corey into the bathroom, where holding the bird closely to his chest, he directs me at the sink.
“Fill the basin with about an inch and a half of warm water,” he says.
“Should we use soap?”
“I don’t know. That might make it worse.”
I nod my head and pull the lift rod up on the faucet. As the warm water hits my skin, I realize that my hands are shaking.
Corey places the bird’s body into the basin, gently splashing it with water.
I open the door to our linen closet and pull out a clean washcloth, rubbing the nubby material against my skin to make sure it’s soft enough for the bird’s delicate wings.
I look up. Jupiter stands in the bathroom doorway, rubbing his face against the doorjamb. His green-gold eyes gleam with curiosity.
Corey and I look at each other, then I quickly shoo Jupiter away and close the door. Outraged at being locked out, he scratches anxiously. His meows grow louder as Corey washes the bird until the sink and water have turned gray with soot.
Stirred into life by the warm water, the bird tries to flap its wings. Corey lets go of the animal’s body to gauge its strength. Flap, flap, flap. The bird beats its wings, but it is too “Maybe it’s hungry,” I say.
Corey says nothing, but wraps the bird up in the washcloth, trying to dry its wings. He then reaches for one of the shoe boxes where we store our toiletries, dumps them out, pokes a few holes in the lid and places the bird in the box and tapes it closed.
He carries the box out of the bathroom and places it on the top of our living room bookcase. Then he grabs his leather jacket. I watch him put his wallet and checkbook into his back jeans pocket. He grabs his car keys.
“You’re going out?”
“You can’t just leave the bird here.”
“It needs rest. Just let it be.”
Corey gives me an absent-minded kiss on the forehead and in a moment is out the front door. I hear the engine turn over in his pickup truck, and then the crunch of loose gravel as he drives away.
I listen to the sound of the bird scratching, trying to poke its way out of the box with its beak. If Corey was only to move the bird from its larger stone prison to this small cardboard one, why did he bother? I fear the bird will wear itself out seeking freedom.
Damn Corey and his orders. I’m perfectly capable of taking matters in my own hands. I pick up the box, determined to take the bird outside and set it free. But as I near the front door, I hesitate. What if the bird isn’t yet strong enough to fly? What if I bring it outside and it falls prey to a cat or a larger bird?
I pace back and forth trying to decide what to do. Jupiter is at my heels, and as I walk, I accidentally step on his right paw. He yelps. I bend down to apologize, but he slinks away. I feel abandoned.
I place the box back on the bookshelf and walk over to the desk to work on a grant application I had brought home from the office. The computer makes its usual hum and bleep when I turn it on. I begin typing, but I keep hearing the bird’s endless scratching inside the box. Jupiter is back, standing directly below the bookcase, ears cocked, neck stretched, his entire body tense with excitement. He knows the bird is in the box, but tormented that he is unable to get to it. Instead, he stalks the room, chews on paper and meows continuously. The louder he meows, the harder the box shakes.
It’s impossible to concentrate, my nerves frayed and on edge. I go into the bedroom, close the door and pull a pillow over my head to drown out the sound.
Corey does not return until past noon. I confront him the minute he arrives. “Where have you been?”
“I told you I had errands.”
“Since when do I have to account for everything I do?”
“If you weren’t doing anything you weren’t supposed to, why are you being so cryptic?”
By this I mean, spending money we don’t have. Corey is a chronic shopper, buys magazines, computer software, craft kits and hobby projects that he only half-completes before something else engages his interest.
“Don’t you dare yell at me,” I say. “You leave me alone with the bird and the cat and the two of them are driving me crazy. I have a headache from trying to keep the two of the separated. You tortured Jupiter by leaving that bird here. To say nothing of that poor bird.”
“I just wanted to wait a little until its wings could dry. I didn’t realize I was gone that long.”
He reaches out his hand and gently strokes my hair.
“Come on,” Corey says, pulling me up off the bed. “Let’s go set it free.”
Corey takes the box down from its bookshelf perch. Together we walk outside to our front yard. Jupiter follows us out the door. As typical in the Pacific Northwest, a gentle gray mist has begun falling.
“Do you think she will fly?” I ask, abandoning all pretense of gender neutrality.
I hold the box while Corey opens the lid and carefully lifts out the bird, cradling it against his chest. The soot gone from her body, her feathers are speckled with blue and silver and as fluffy as a freshly laundered blanket. At this moment, I think she’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Jupiter rubs his body against Corey’s leg, but makes no attempts to leap for the bird.
“Here goes,” Corey says and opens his hands.
In less than a second, the bird begins to fly. I feel a light breath of air rise up to bathe my face as she flutters her stretched-out wings. Without a backward glance, she rises up above us, flying upward…eight, ten, fifteen feet until she alights on a small fir branch. She looks back down at us, our family trio, as though trying to make sense of what role we play in her bird life.
“At least we know she is well enough to do that,” Corey says, grinning. “She’ll probably stay there until she gets her strength back.”
“No, look,” I say. And in a moment, she launches herself from the tree and soars up into the sky, her body black against the gray sky. As I watch her go, I feel like I am rising up with her, releasing all my fears. She circles us once, dips her wings, and then flies southeast towards the snowy peak of Mount Rainier before disappearing into the clouds.