Thursdays my father drove me to dance class. He dropped me off in the driveway of a brick mansion, under a line of flags. In the ballroom, fifty children waited to practice social graces. Boys in sport coats and ties gathered separately from girls wearing headbands and white gloves. The creamy corduroy of my dress slanted over my waist. Thick tights folded inside my shoes. At the hotel, we learned box step and rhumba and waltz, so one day we could dance at a cotillion under these brass chandeliers. My childhood seemed promised, a cup-shaped nest. The band of three old men readied their instruments. I stepped into the girl-line. Underneath the gloves, my hands caged and wet, I felt irrelevant. My father didn’t golf at the country club. My mother didn’t play paddle. She worked all day.
Saturdays I went with three girls to matinees at the movie theater. Our parents dropped us off with ticket and candy money. We saw the same film many times before it left and memorized lines to act out scenes later, at a sleepover. The theater had a red curtain that opened and closed with the beginning and ending of each film and a small square window where I flew to see the projector room, the ticking of machine light on walls. Sometimes the strip got stuck, and the theater clerk turned on the house lights, and my friends and I were blown out to the street where we hovered near the movie posters. Once we saw my cousin run by with his longhaired high-school friends. He had been missing for over a month and said—don’t tell anyone you saw me.
My father’s sister had come to live with us a few years before. She found a job in the city, knitting sweaters for a famous designer. From the softest yarn, she knit a yellow sweater for my doll. Her own children lived near a rural southern river with a strict father and a stepmother from another country. My aunt begged her brother to invite the boys to stay with us in our four-bedroom house. My father said—no. Her boys didn’t belong here. My aunt moved to apartments behind the lacrosse fields. My cousins drifted in with their country accents. I stopped by after practice to see them. The older one smoked a cigarette. The younger was my age and next to silent. It would take years for them to recover after arriving. My aunt didn’t know what it was like to be a child in this town.
My journey to school was a mile and a half. There were two ways I could go— I could fly along a busy road by my elementary school and veer onto another main street. Or I could travel past the Catholic school and mental hospital. I liked the hills of the second way. There was a stand of oak in the convent’s sloping lawn, they didn’t always mow the grass, and as I walked I aligned myself with the stone wall along the perimeter. The chapels over the knoll were made of stone too. I hiked the steep hills in flats and carried my heavy bag. My younger cousin locked his apartment door and zippered the key inside his backpack. He rode his bike through the heart of town. I came to the forest behind the hospital. It was a place full of branches and no paths. I could hear the birds in there, rustling the leaves.
With turrets and battlements, our junior high loomed on the main avenue. Near the entrance, my younger cousin secured his ten-speed to a heavy rack. I asked if they had found his brother yet. Not yet—he said softly. His head had been shaved like his father’s. He wore a knit cap my aunt had made. He took it off and tucked it into his pocket. My mom has been crying at night. His unexpected words rolled into the air and caught me. My hands quivered. I felt very unsure. I wore the uncertainty like clothing—it changed the shape of my body. Still, I did not tell my younger cousin about seeing his brother at the movie theater. My older cousin was a character from a fairy tale, a brave huntsman who cut out the organs of a boar, gave them to a jealous queen. And then was free.
Three older girls smoked cigarettes in a pool of slush outside the castle. My younger cousin and I continued under the grand archway. After school, one of the girls whispered, we’re going to push you down and get those white pants dirty. String bracelets from girl-scout camp lined my arm, a rubber band held my hair together at the nape of my neck. I paused for a moment, scanning my pant leg. The ankle tapered above my white shoe. The second girl’s glare moved me along. The third gave me a piece of folded paper. There was writing all over her arm and hand and on the note. The ballpoint ink was bright black. The word Bird written in pretty cursive, but I knew the meaning was cruel. I gathered the noise of the hallway and closed my hand around it. Other kids floated to first period like they were fish.
A month before, snow had covered the fields behind the school, below the turrets and battlements. I had nowhere to be, so I walked up and down the fields, the imaginary lanes, making tracks. A handsome boy carrying a skateboard came through the wet white and asked me my name. I told him—Bird. He thought that was fine. He wasn’t a dance-class boy. We had never met. Later that afternoon, I let him put his hands around me in the second-floor library stacks. I let my long, asymmetrical bangs fall out of the band. When he wanted to take off my flats, I said—no. Afterwards, he wrote me letters. They were sad stories, stuffed through my locker vents. In one, the handsome boy wrote how his mother stooped over his sleeping brothers to kiss them, but when she came to his bed, she only trembled.
I wrote back to the handsome boy. I flew my letters across town to his house in a wooded neighborhood. My father found me missing that night—I was asleep in my room, but my dreams were gone. He found the handsome boy’s notes to Bird in a pile on my desk. The writing had lettering like we saw in the city, inside underground train tunnels with rats, and after that when the phone rang at night, my father told me I was not to answer it. I met the handsome boy anyway in the second-floor library stacks. I called the housekeeper to let her know I would not be home after school. The boy’s clothes smelled of ashtrays. His eyes were a chalky blue. I asked if he knew where my cousin was hiding. Over my sweater, the handsome boy held my miniature breasts like knitted apples.
The math teacher added sides of a parallelogram. I liked geometry, but I couldn’t focus on the lesson. I pressed the paper of the older girl’s note onto my wooden-topped desk. The handsome boy’s mother had sent him away. He wasn’t coming back. He is mine. He’s always been mine. We are nothing like you. The older girl’s cursive knotted on the page and into my limbs. I wasn’t sure if she meant I was nothing too, or if I was different. I didn’t think I was so different. The handsome boy and I shared the same grown-up melancholy in our homes—the weight of it lay on my throat. I raised my hand. My fingers wobbled. I made my way to the lonely staircase. I thought to fly into a high corner until a custodian found me with a long net and put me outside.
At the office, I told the nurse: I feel very old. She asked if I should call my mother. I said—no. She asked if I could talk to my mother later at home. I said it wasn’t something I had done before. The nurse closed me in a turret with one tiny window. The opening faced the field where I had met the handsome boy. Snow was melting, the baseball diamond flooded. In the tower, I imagined coming true a girlish fantasy of entrapment: The letter had been laced with poison. I fell into a deep sleep, my white pant legs spread out on the white-sheeted cot. A prince searched the castle, and, instead of a girl, he found a beautiful bird with the whitest feathers. He said: I love you more than anything else on earth. He opened the tiny window. I raised my ancient wings high behind me and pushed off from the sill.
I left the round room in undulating, snow-white flight. I crossed the avenue to the library. The stacks on the second floor were more hushed than ever before, the air papery. I could hear a heavy book fall to the carpet, the librarian stapling papers on top of her desk. My hands held open a thick tome. But I wasn’t reading. From my roost, I could see everything happening below. I saw when school let out for the day and the students moved like bees. I saw my knit-hatted cousin carrying his bike up the steps and arriving at the glass doors. I saw the three older girls skirt the sidewalk and stop at a bench. I watched one girl light a match for three cigarettes. I noticed how deeply into their lungs they inhaled. The payphone rang in the foyer. I ran down the metal stairs to see if it was for me.
The handsome boy confessed everything— The night before his mother had tried to kill him. He threw her into the air and landed in the mental institution. Come over, he beckoned. My heart folded inside, my bones knocked together. I should have been afraid—I wanted to be afraid, the way his mother was afraid. The handsome boy wasn’t a train that stayed on its tracks, but a car traveling anyplace. Even today someone like him could go to the movie theater and leave town on a highway. I doubted he cared for me. It was the same way I felt at church when the choir tunic hit my forearm, and I sat alone. What about the older girl? I asked. She’s a witch, he replied. She draws on herself to make things happen. Come, he said. I know where your cousin is hiding.
I ran on the carpet to tell my younger cousin: I had seen his brother a month earlier. My brother is dead, my younger cousin murmured. No, no, I said. He is not dead, he is very much alive. There was the possibility he was even still child-like. I thought my older cousin had crossed over, but there might be a way to get him back. I told my younger cousin all of this, but he was looking behind my hair—I knew it was the older girls he saw. His wide eyes kept shifting beyond my frame. I escaped the library and paved walkways and entered a patch of sky above the mental hospital and collecting leaves. I hoped to find my older cousin inside, behind the barred windows, so I could tell my aunt exactly where he was. I stayed in the trees until night. The handsome boy was expecting me.
Once it was dark, clouds mottled a deep blue. The air was fragrant with white pine along the precipitous driveway. I could hear a single plane. The minute I entered the lines of the institution though, I remembered my fear. The handsome boy felt it too: Perhaps you shouldn’t have come. I hopped to the carpeted floor next to a curly-corded phone, play-acting I belonged in this place. The handsome boy knew what I was up to. He said: In this town, there are those who are blessed. But he didn’t finish the thought. Sticks cracked down in the brushwood. I fluttered my wings. The handsome boy grabbed me and held me up by the window for the older girls to see. He stroked my feathers, my thin, hollow and holy bones fifty feet above the cluttered ground.
Throw her to the leaves, the first witch called. We’ll crush her with a rock, threatened the second. The third didn’t speak. Why had I dare come? It must have been the fairy tales kept in my bookcase. I read the stories again and again and believed they would find me if I became lost. In this town, it was easy to get lost. It was easy to get lost anywhere—the world was endless with streets, and on some of them men looked for girls the way people looked for pets. Now I was the handsome boy’s pet. Are you going to hurt me? I asked. Ambivalence pulled at his shoulders and shaggy hair. But there was my older cousin. He was standing in the hallway beyond the room. He recognized me and, in his southern drawl, told the handsome boy, Leave the bird be.
My shoes carried mud from the low forest into the library. My younger cousin was gone, his bike left at the rack. I rode it past the movie theater, the center of everything. I maneuvered tall sidewalks and discarded piles of snow to shadowy grass behind my aunt’s apartment. I rehearsed what I would tell her: how they’d found her son on the ridge of town cold and hungry and living like a fox. Living off a bottle. In he went, into the dungeon with the handsome boy. What she would feel was solace, and with that, I imagined, she would knit a lovely blanket. When I arrived at the apartment, no one was there. I rode back up the slope toward the constellation of buildings. The police station was just beyond the library. My aunt was with my younger cousin on the pavement. They were getting into her car.
Like leaves, I told my aunt, the mental institution collects boys with long hair. She didn’t even nod. Her eyelashes flickered. Her hands lay at her sides. Thick hedge clustered behind the station. Up the hill, in the darkness, the hospital was cleansing children of substance. Afterward, a family could visit. Until then, promises of spring and summer were postponed: dusky kick the can, long and humid lines at the high dive and ice cream truck, races through a string of backyard grass and on streets with bikes and skateboards. Even though it wasn’t something we did in my family, I took my aunt’s hand. She had seen many things I would never know. They were pictures an owl might see from a high branch with solid, blinking eyes: a child lost in the forest and never found, a child who was wandering and hard to love.
Sundays I sang in the choir. I sat next to a girl who laughed so hard at things, she cried. I didn’t get in trouble with the reverend for making my friend laugh. I was one of the angels in the rose window, the wheel made especially for our gray-stone church. I was quiet during the sermon, when light through the stained glass turned pink, and the church became a ship on the sea and colors of the wilderness. The pews were felled dark-wood trees, the vaulted ceiling a canopy. I sailed around from window to pillar and ducked into little doorways behind the altar. I didn’t look for dance-class boys. I rested my wings in a high corner. The custodian locked the church that night. In the morning, he used his long net to capture me and put me outside. But I was golden. I was free.
Elizabeth Brinsfield grew up in New Jersey, has her MFA from Montana, and lives in Iowa, where she teaches writing at Drake University.