I watched him flap helplessly between the teeth of a barbwire fence, screeching for help.
"Papa, look Papa! A boy!"
My papa stood dazed for a moment, dust billowing at his legs, his eyes teetering along the field. It wasn't until later that evening he told me he hadn't understood what I had seen. What he had seen.
With grass tickling the backsides of my legs, I bounded toward the boy, "What are you doing? Are you okay?"
As I approached him, I felt his skittish eyes rake across my every movement. With his ten-year-old arms slung inside the gaping maw of a fence and darkened feathers pasted along the creases of his face; he looked squarely at me. I could hear his bird-bones quaking at my voice, he pushed harder against the fence. I winced for him.
"Hold still, we'll get you out," I turned back to my papa who stood alongside the road, "Papa," I pleaded, "Please! Help him!"
Reaching out, I touched his shoulder, "Don't be afraid. We're going to help you."
He didn't pull away from me. I thought I saw the edges of a smile behind all those feathers. I kept my hand against his spindly frame as best I could as my papa worked to free him. He kept recoiling from my papa's hands, I wanted to find the right soothing words, to calm him. To tell him that my papa was going to help him, but I couldn't pull my thoughts away from the scattered feathers and blood.
"Evelyn, hold this back," he guided my hand to the bloodied fence, I strained to keep it in place.
Papa pulled his arms out, first one then the other. The boy stared at me, he bored holes and ate away the shine in my eyes and I couldn't look away. My grip slipped and the barbwire bit into me, I focused my intent on the fence instead of him.
My papa asked him, "Can you climb out?"
It was a hollow question. As soon as my papa finished speaking the boy gurgled and grasped at his arms, fingers clawing and scraping to pull himself free. Papa was patient; he let the boy draw blood from his sturdy, sun-broiled arms. He let him scream and twist until the boy was panting.
Papa held him like a glass bird, dingy feathers clinging to a fragile surface. His eyes looked broken, stomped out and I felt a boundless sadness. As if every heartbeat pumped tears into me. I felt his gaze fasten to me again. I tried not to cringe when Papa wrestled the barbwire into submission, gouging his own arms as he scooped the boy up.
Papa laid him down in the grass, the boy curled up against the ground shuddering and gazing up at the sky. Papa glanced over the boy's wounds, making sure not to touch or startle him. I realized my hands were shaking and that I hadn't let go of the fence. I don't think I remembered how to.
"I'll have to get the Doc to look him over, but he should be all right. Evelyn?"
I heard Papa repeat my name as I freed myself, "Evelyn. Evelyn, sweetheart, you're going to be fine."
I tried to think of Papa's warm voice and how safe I was when he hugged me because I did not want to think about broken eyes or sadness or blood.
Papa took him home with us.
Papa washed him, took away all his feathers, but the boy didn't seem to care. Doctor Heron came later that night, pressing his stethoscope against the boy's papery skin and making various humming noises each time he came across the barbwire bite marks.
"They're mostly superficial Adir, though a few of them are deep. I'll bandage him up. He doesn't seem dehydrated; probably wasn't out there for long. Where did you say you found him?"
"Down by the road, caught up in the fence and covered in feathers. Strangest thing I ever saw," Papa smiled a little, "But you know Evelyn, always watching out for any creature she can help."
They both laughed, Papa ruffling up my hair, "Sweetheart, why don't you go bring him in the living room?"
"I'll get him some blankets too," I turned to the boy, "Are you cold?"
He blinked and opened his mouth, as if to speak, but hopped off the kitchen chair instead, sulking while following me. I pressed my hand against the boy's, he flinched but took with an airy grasp. I led him into the living room and placed him in front of the fireplace. He curled up against the hardwood, letting his summer-eyes be consumed by the fire. I took the steps two at a time, afraid that he might somehow fly away if I wasn't quick enough.
Upstairs I could not hear anything, not Papa, not the Doctor. I grab whatever blankets are in my reach, frowning at myself as I trip out of the room. With blankets spilling over my arms I lingered at the bottom of the stairs. I heard Papa and Doctor Heron speaking again, their voices soft and secretive. When I glanced back at the boy he had curled closer to the fire, Papa's old clothes dwarfing him even further. He said nothing as I set them next to him, instead pulling at their edges as if he was unsure what to do with them.
"Evelyn, can you come back in here?"
A slim hand wrapped around my wrist and I soon found myself face to face with the boy on the floor. He opened his mouth a few times, swallowing air and the space between us. I could feel the wing beats of his pulse and hear the sadness of the silence. I tried to will my legs to move, but I was a doe inside my own house with this bird-boy clinging to me for comfort.
"Evelyn?" Papa called out to me again and my legs found their grounding.
Doctor Heron's medical bag scraped the side of the table as he began to pass me, he gave me a sullen smile and patted my head. Papa and I spoke for some time. I knew in the next room the Doctor was trying to speak to the boy again so I didn't pay much attention to Papa.
The Doctor's familiar shuffle came within earshot again, "Adir, I will come back tomorrow, he needs some rest and lots of water," he paused, "See if he will eat anything."
Seeing my chance to exit Papa's talk I stole out of the kitchen and into the other room. He sat in the middle of our living room, blankets piled up around him like a nest. I sunk into Papa's reading chair, being careful not to look at the boy. I swung my feet a few times, pressing the tips of my toes against the wood floor. I still wasn't tall enough, even though I was eight.
"What are you doing?"
I sat up straight, my cheeks searing red at the sound of his voice. He hadn't spoken before, he had only screeched and squawked as Papa freed him from the barbwire.
"Nothing," I managed to mumble.
He wouldn't speak again for three weeks.
My hands ached as I practiced my formulas, and then my heart, as he spoke, "What?"
"Galen," he repeated.
I saw Papa look up from his chair, lips pressed together and forehead piled into tracks of surprise.
I looked back to Papa, but he had started reading his book again as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I felt Galen draw closer to me, his talon fingers grazing the edges of my paper. I watched him examine the paper and bring it closer and closer to him.
He traced my half wobbled numbers and asked, "Math?"
"Yes. Papa says I should practice all the time."
I smiled a little. He didn't say anything else as he handed the paper back to me, eyes flitting around the room. I began writing again because I was not sure what else to do, but inside I was trembling and I could feel the sadness clutching at me again.
He would only speak to me, but he gave Papa polite smiles and thanked him often. It was closer to autumn and the leaves were beginning to wail as they fell. Papa bought Galen proper clothes; though everything he wore hung loosely about him.
I did not try to ask him where he was from. Papa tried asking him when he began speaking, but Galen only screeched his answer, "no", until his voice was hoarse.
Instead we sat among the trees and each time a bird sang he told me their names before softly calling back to them. He began to smile often, the scars on his arms hidden by new feathers.
With the undersides of leaves stretched above us, I told him that I could hear him sing in the middle of the night. That his voice would carry through the house, resting on the fringes of his blanket, and only just out of Papa's earshot.
I called him my nightingale boy and, for a time, he forgot what fear was.
Even though Papa will not say it, I know that he was starting to love Galen too.
When the tendrils of winter sunk their claws deep into the fields, he ran away.
"Birds are not meant to stay forever."
"Neither are people."
I was sixteen when he came back to me, with hands covered with thorns and a heartbeat almost too small to feel. He would not tell me what had happened; instead he pulled away and all I could feel was sorrow. I took the pliers from my nightstand and I took away the barbed plants and hardship.
He stood by my window and told me that we would be married and we would have bird-children. We would be happy.
"I'm not a bird."
"But I am," he cooed.
He left again that day.
Because birds are not meant to stay forever.