There was a time when Barbara had believed in mystery. When she slushed through the gray grit of old winter snow, looking out at the huddled, prosaic buildings, she saw not a sleepy North Dakota town but a hushed facade of ordinariness hiding an astonishing beauty. Every day she waited for a breathless moment, a miracle.
But now, at forty, she had lived in Antler her whole life and married gentle Bob, who smiled shyly and brought her coffee and said little. She waitressed at Maggie’s Diner, two blocks from her white clapboard house. She surveyed the horizon of grey downy clouds blanketing the thick mattress of snow, and realized that she was not the princess in the fairy tale, but the pea. Though lately, she wondered if she had not flattened and greyed so much that she was just another fiber in the endless stack of bedding. Barb’s particular despair was that she was comfortable and unsurprised.
Until the day of the wings.
The wings appeared quite suddenly overnight behind Maggie’s Diner, next to the dumpsters. They were grotesquely huge, glossy brown with white-tipped feathers. The bones that would have attached them to the body of the unfortunate bird now anchored them as firmly to the frozen ground as teeth to a jawbone.
A hammy man’s bristly neck was bent over them. Barbara could see the puffs of his labored breath when she arrived at work, but kept her distance. Grunting, he pulled on the wings as if they were stubborn weeds.
It was her boss, Patrick Chud. She could almost taste his thick onion smell. Every morning, Fat Pat ate an onion the way most people would eat an apple, glancing with enjoyment at the gouges his teeth made in the layers of pearly flesh. It was ironic he would eat anything from the onion family, since he was a laughter vampire. Fat Pat sucked out vials of his employees’ laughter to feed his ravenous ego. Chud loved clowning and doing impressions of customers, and expected laughs in return. Employees who did not at least giggle or chortle could expect merciless nitpicking about their work, threats of losing their jobs. Not laughing was a sign of disrespect.
Barb hated herself for laughing, hated him for making her. Just a few weeks ago, a man had creaked into the diner on prosthetic legs. Nobody had ever seen him before; strangers did not often come to Antler. When she took his order, she heard the accent of the deaf: the flat, indistinct sound of the wind speaking. She liked the deep brown puddles of his eyes that seemed to absorb every detail of the place and make it new.
But later, she saw Chud mocking him: he stiffened his knees and teeter-tottered across the room like a fat flamingo, imitating the stranger’s voice when he ordered:
“Gimme some ‘take and fies’, Barbie! Extra-rare take, and extra-French fies!”
The waitresses bleated their laughter; it even trickled out of Barbara, a false and ugly thing. She had avoided the manager ever since, though she hadn’t seen the legless man again. But now Fat Pat spotted her watching him.
“Barbie! Go grab the salt. These things are just frozen solid. Who’s gonna want the turkey and dressing special if they see Big Bird here?”
Obediently she fetched the salt that they used to de-ice the walkway, and poured it around the wings.
“We’ll just let that set. Should be easy to pull up once the ice is melted.”
But he was wrong. Two hours later, the wings stuck just as ferociously. Weeks passed, and then a month. Fat Pat tried to dig them out with a shovel and hack them to bits with a cleaver. His cousin Joey brought a jackhammer. Yet the wings were impervious to any effort, breaking the cleaver and denting the jackhammer. The North Dakota Gazetteer featured a picture of them in a fluffy article, and soon flocks of bundled North Dakotans came to gawk at the scene near the dumpsters at Maggie’s.
Barbara watched the crowds with wry amusement. Fat Pat had finally put Maggie’s on the map with some amputated bird parts. Every day he grew fatter with authority as he greeted the spectators and answered their questions. She couldn’t complain. The tips were good. She had just grabbed her coat and stepped out of the back door, noting how many had come out today, when she saw him.
Slowly, awkwardly, the legless stranger she had encountered months before stilted his way to the knot of onlookers. He appeared to be in a trance, for he paid no attention to the crowd but lasered his eyes to the spot where the wings must be. Barbara approached him. She had to redeem herself in some way for her unwitting cruelty toward him. But when she tapped him on the shoulder, he paid no attention. He had seen the wings.
A cry escaped him, and he fell face-first into the thick snow. Barbara thought to help him up until she noticed he was sobbing, his whole back shaking. The crowd murmured uncomfortably around him, a few picking their way discreetly back to their cars. After several uncertain minutes, he carefully pushed himself up with his hands, and Barbara helped him plank himself into a standing position. His whole snowy, runny face radiated his joy. He unzipped his heavy coat, then removed sweater after sweater, and finally his woolen undershirt.
He bent over the wings and plucked them up like flowers. Then he snapped them easily next to his shoulder blades, as though they were magnets. His wingspan was glorious, but he stayed hovering above the ground until, with a final shout, he detached the dead metal legs and threw them into the snow.