By Daniel J. Schaub
Sparrow lent me his wings for the summer. Asked for nothing in return. At first, they didn’t do much of anything. Between my shoulders, impotently flapping and mussing shirt collars. I slept face down to avoid crushing them. They caught on bath towels and twitched incessantly. When I’d got them, I’d dreamt so far and wide. Spreading open glorious wings, making archangels jealous, and flying to wherever I chose. Forget plane tickets and days on a train. I wanted to ride the gentle caress of winds and touch down in gardens of my loved ones. Ben, where ever did you get those wings, they would ask. I’d smirk. I got them for free, I’d reply.
But that was not the case in the beginning. The wings were smaller than my palm. I thought for sure that they couldn’t even lift Sparrow himself. I went to see him. Without his wings, he’d settled into the hollow at the base of a willow tree. The wingless bird scampered out of his hole on two spindly legs.
“Tell me, Sparrow. What is the point of having wings if I cannot fly?”
“A hatchling doesn’t fly the first day out of the egg. It has to grow strong and partake in nourishment.”
“But I feed myself. I go to the gym.”
“That’s how a human does. Do as the sparrows do.”
At the Arlo’s Feed & Seed, they sold five-pound bags of bird feed and Styrofoam buckets of earthworms for bait.
The seed tasted dusty and cracked like pebbles against my teeth. Tremendous pain shot through my jaw and to the rest of my body. But I continued to chew. The points of my canine teeth cracked and chipped. I felt my teeth wear down as I ate. Earthworms next. They had the aroma and flavor of fetid rainwater. I forced myself to pull one from the Styrofoam. Jutted my mouth out into a point so as little of the earthworm touched my tongue as possible. The worm popped open on my aching teeth. A mess of rotten junk shot out and stuck in the back of my throat. The ribbons of pain shooting through my jaw prevented me from even gagging on it.
Enraged and disgusted, I threw the seed and earthworms into the bin, convinced that Sparrow had pulled some nasty trick on me. But the next morning, I caught a glimpse of my back in the mirror. I had spent many hours in the mirror those first few weeks, studying those wings. Immediately, I saw that they had grown. Not by much. To a casual observer it would be an imperceptible amount, but I’d become intimately familiar with the size and shape of my new appendages. Sparrow’s advice had been coy but truthful.
A new routine overtook my days. I threw away the produce in my refrigerator to make room for scores of earthworms. Pantry filled shelf to shelf with packets of seed and suet. I made a meal from them three times a day to nourish the wings’ growth. I also refocused my workout regime, turning my attention to the muscles between my shoulders, creating the muscle memory to control the contraction and expansion of the wings. Like a child learning to flex his bicep, I learned to flap. They slowly sprouted out to the point I didn’t have to look back in the mirror to see them. The wings unfurled and the tips lightly brushed my shoulders.
With my new routine, I treated other parts of myself to neglect. The sparse protein went to the muscles I worked in my back. My legs dwindled down to bony spindles, marred by dry skin and wrinkles. The extra weight of the wings pushed my torso forward to the point I had to crane my neck upward to see in front of me. The seeds wore down my teeth to a uniform sliver of enamel around my mouth, and the constant jutting of my jaw became permanent. Jaw pursed out and teeth nearly gone, I resembled more a bird than man. But with enough practice, I could force myself inches off the ground and glide across the garden to the back fence.
Then, summer ended. The deal Sparrow and I made came to end. I hobbled back to his hole and tearfully knelt before him.
“You can’t take them yet. Please,” I begged.
“Look how big they’ve gotten. This is much better than I ever expected,” he ignored my pleas and hopped around me to study the wings.
“I’m so close. I’ve put in so much. But I can’t soar yet.”
“You were never meant to soar. You’re not a bird. But just imagine how high I will go.”
He took his wings back without ceremony and I saw them for their full majesty. The impressive wings of an eagle, strong and wide. And he’d done nothing to get them. I watched him sail off into the clouds, and I curled up at the base of the willow tree.