Ahnani reheated the potatoes, scooped beans and meat onto a plate. Slid it in front of him. Whiskey and ice in a tumbler.
I wanted peas, he said.
She refilled the ice tray. I’m sorry?
Peas, you goddamn bitch, I wanted peas.
She turned to the sink, hands shaking. Eyes focused on the tray, filling and refilling, water spilling over the plastic edge and into the swirl of the drain. Crash of plate into the linoleum.
I can make you peas, damn it, you don’t have to explode, she said. Her voice a quiver of arrows.
If I can’t eat what I want in my own goddamn house, I don’t know why you’re here, he yelled. Hand at the nape of her neck.
Ray, Ray, Jesus Ray, get your hands off of me.
Down to her knees.
Eat it, eat it off the floor, you stupid bitch. You gonna act like a bitch, you can eat like one.
Mashed potatoes in a soft heap, gravy gray and thick. Hot on her tongue. Ahnani smelled blood, felt grit bite into her knees.
Her life quiet, hemmed at the edges. She remembered the azaleas her grandmother planted, shorn in the winter, covered in plastic bags. Ray came and went in unpredictable tides. She titled the other New Ray. New Ray was cold, sharp-toothed. New Ray fucked. New Ray believed incomprehensible myths about the Deep Web and secret governments, a race of alien people who controlled the strings.
It was New Ray who decided she was pregnant.
“Don’t do that, Ahnani,” he said, as she brought a menthol to her teeth. “Pregnant women shouldn’t smoke.”
She held the cigarette, still lit. How to explain the physical impossibilities of this?
Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t eat fish. She never liked sushi. New Ray blessed her flat belly with his ear, listening for the thudding of an unborn heart. Old Ray painted the extra bedroom yellow, hung curtains.
Old Ray brought her sunflowers and lilies. He washed the kitchen floor. He hung new shutters and opened the blinds. Old Ray was made of light.
New Ray questioned her stomach, as if it held a secret.
What did you do with it, he asked. His voice a growl. Liquor in his teeth but that wasn’t what made him mean.
Play nice. Roll over. Show your neck.
His hand over her face, grabbing the skin of her cheeks. Pucker up. Brought her head to his mouth.
You’ll never be a real woman, you bitch.
Threw her to the bed and stormed out into the night.
The feathers began appearing in her pubic hair, up the path to her navel. Downy at first, soft. Ray ran his fingers through them while they watched television. He blessed the filaments with his teeth.
I told you it would work out.
Ahnani wondered if the feathers were connected to her pregnancy, somehow. She imagined a nest, laden. Little bird babies, born of the biological imperative to stay alive.
Ahnani tried to put New Ray away, rituals and experiments. Was it this dress? That lipstick? Those words? He came out stronger, his eyes deeper. Ahnani could see a physical change in her man. He bought a gun and always kept it near him.
For protection, he said. For the baby. He kissed her belly. Ahnani tried to feel for an extra heartbeat. The baby would be the size of a beer can by now, she thought.
Days, when Ray was at work, Ahnani stayed in the trailer. The temp agency she worked for stopped calling her. She pulled feathers from her navel and watched tiny beads of blood form. She researched pregnancy on a variety of websites but could find nothing about spontaneous growth of plume. She shopped online, buying slinky silver dresses and bejeweled heels. Shawls and scarves and fluffy slippers. Pearl earrings and gold necklace chains. She maxed out her credit card and then Ray’s. She told him this was for the baby.
As the boxes arrived, she carried them into the spare room. Made a nest of silk and lace and leather. She hung the jewelry from the lamps, threw the scarves over the windows and lights. The room took on a soft, umber glow.
She tried shaving, but the razor caught in the tangle of the down. She felt an itchy tingle as feathers sprouted around her neck. At night, Ray gasping next to her, his hands on his chest. Her body bruised, sore.
She tried to imagine what type of bird she would be. A raven? A peregrine falcon? A gold eagle? Or an ugly bird, a trickster, a thief? A magpie. A crow. Even as the feathers spread, as her bones reorganized into strange patterns, Ray still believed in the baby. He brought her folic acid tablets and chocolate. He burned the palms of her hands with cigarettes if he caught her smoking.
Her feet became scaly, her toes, curved. She watched her talons with a new joy. Ray threw lightbulbs at her, as if it were a game. They shattered in her hair and she imagined slicing through the tendons in his neck.
He disappeared for two weeks. New Ray, with Old Ray over his shoulder like a dirty bag. Ahnani stayed in the trailer, preening. She rubbed coconut oil through her glossy tail feathers. Her wings were growing, spreading, long and thick, which made clothing hard. She wrapped her new body in printed cloths and towels. She kept the television turned to the game show network and watched Family Feud and ate popcorn from the greasy bag.
Nights, she roamed the woods, naked but for the gossamer feathers. She found a deer carcass in a roadside ditch, the bone partially exposed, yellow and grimy. The smell slickened the night but it did not turn her. She touched the ribcage and thought how it looked almost human. More human than herself, this new creature she had become.
When Ray returned, he smelled of sweat and smoke, like the rancid bottom of an alcoholic’s trash.
Where the fuck have you been? Ahnani asked him, not turning from the television.
The band, we toured, New Ray said.
Toured some other woman’s body, I’m sure, Ahnani said.
Why do you give a fuck? Ray asked.
Just stating the facts.
Ray came fully into the room. He reached out to stroke the top of Ahnani’s head.
Don’t touch me, she said. She turned to him. The dark filament along her neck and chest, her shoulders bristling.
What the fuck? Ray asked.
I told you not to touch me, Ahnani said.
Ray reached back, pulled a lamp off a table, swung it at her face. She dodged, and screamed, a striking sound from the depth of the forest of her.
He jumped for her, grabbing fistfuls of feathers in his hands. He pulled. Blood sprang along her chest and she ripped her talons into his back.
Ray rolled to his feet, pulled the gun from his jacket.
I didn’t want to fucking do this, he said. He pointed it at Ahnani, held the trigger in his finger.
I should’ve known you’re a fucking monster, he said. I should’ve guessed. I was gonna do this the humane way. But someone or another has got to put you down.
He pulled the trigger and she sprang upward, wings catching the dank air in the trailer. Glass shattered as she exploded out the window, leaving a trail of feathers and blood. She caught wind above the treetops, and followed its current, between the broken teeth of stars.
RUNNER-UP for the 2020 BARRY HANNAH PRIZE
Jules is a writer and advocate from the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can read their stories or essays in the Raleigh Review, the Sonora Review, McSweeney’s, Appalachian Heritage, or elsewhere. Jules is a fiction candidate at ASU, where they currently serve as an associate editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review.