I, the Feather Warden, realized my sweater wasn’t in my backpack as our school bus roared away. A hot dust cloud hung over the road all the way back through the hills—the sweater was for my shoulders, not the weather. Our rental contract specified temperance and modesty, which Mama said meant covering our shoulders when Howard the landlord could see or else we’d be out of the best house we’d ever had. I slid my notebook in where the sweater should have been.
“Hurry up,” I told my little sister. “I forgot my sweater.”
She followed me across the cattleguard, still humming. I had found the rarest speckled feather this morning, but Audrey was a cursed blonde poppet, and the whole ride home, not even a Feather Warden could keep her from humming “What if God Was One of Us, Just a Stranger on the Bus.” Instead, I spied on the other kids and wrote everything backward in my notebook so they couldn’t read over my shoulder. None of them guessed a fifth grader was paying attention and had a feather in her pocket. Rehtaef Nedraw. Now I felt cross-eyed and slime-bellied from the potholes.
At the top of the gate, I spread my bare wings and jumped, the wind puffing my sundress, drying my armpits. Howard might come check the cattle anytime, so I stopped to give the wire latch six extra knots. That would slow him down.
It was a resplendent sundress that showed how thoroughly I belonged in a house like ours. Two hundred years ago they dug up the pasture to make clay for the bricks, laid the bricks three deep for the walls and a chimney at each end. I had the braids, the woolen sweater when I didn’t leave it behind, and then last Saturday at Mercy House I’d found this calico sundress when Mama finally took a break from practicum to get us school clothes. Someday I might even find an Old Order dress at the thrift store, but the odds weren’t good since they made all their scraps into quilts.
When I told other kids I wasn’t that kind of Mennonite they didn’t believe me. I’d done such a good job with the calico and braids. But the Old Order had their own school, and they didn’t have even a hand-me-down Apple IIe or books about dragons and ansibles with sex parts that I mainly skipped. They could never take calculus, even if they already knew algebra. Even in normal school nobody wanted to teach me algebra; they just sent me to the hallway with pages of long division for the math lessons I already knew. Nobody needed to worry because I always got the work done. Noisivid.
The steers were staring at us, and I picked up a branch and charged, roaring. At the last minute they realized I was serious and turned, lifting their crusty tails to poop as they ran.
There was a beast among the cowpies where they’d been standing down on the bridge. It was big as my backpack, moving, but more like dragging. A turtle. But no, those ankylosaurus spines, the hooked wyvern’s beak weaving side to side. Its eyes were already fixed on mine, and I heard my brother’s voice in my head: from the swamps of Murder-Gore, from the murky stygian shore. Quieter, quieter so we had to lean in: ancient terrors now unbound while darling children wander near, innocent of mortal fear. Just a whisper, until CRACK he’d pummeled me into the carpet, CRUNCHAY MUNCHAY DINTARR CHEW.
I stopped well back from the turtle. My socks poked out the holes in my shoes, thin like Keds but the K-Mart brand. Everybody else wore white socks, but I had these turquoise hand-me-downs from the eighties, shining out like candy.
“Stay back,” I told Audrey. She stopped humming, looking too small in my old sandals and the stretched-out socks around her ankles. Her hair was so white and fine it was like trying to braid cobwebs.
I held out my pretend cattle prod, waved it in front of the turtle. Its eyes stared out sideways and its face cracked open to hiss at me.
“Vile fiend!” I shrieked and lifted the stick to scare it like the steers, but it just looked at me and hissed again. I stamped a foot toward it, and the head, wide and sharp, sprung for me like a jack-in-the box, hissing. I gasped and ran, pushing Audrey up the hill with me. It swung about, tasting for where I’d gone.
“What do we do?” whispered Audrey.
I didn’t really know, but I was good at plans.
“We can push it with a bigger branch,” I said, and found one by the fence line.
The turtle’s head was tucked back inside its wrinkles, and I nudged its shell with the thick end of the branch. Its head flung out all the way behind its elbow and cracked down. I yelped but hung on to my end, pushing the turtle toward the ditch. It was silent, not shaking the way dogs bite, just one direction of crunching until my branch cracked in its mouth and I skipped back. It was close enough to the ditch.
“Run!” I screamed, and we skidded past it, over the bridge and up the far hill, gravel rolling backward under our shoes. I stopped to look back, and the snapper had already disappeared into the creek. It would always be there for us. Reppans.
I checked the feather in my dress pocket. Gone. Gone to a better Warden. My belly went small as I heard a truck engine gear down over the hill. There were junipers nearby to hide my shoulders, but I needed toast. And jam. And cheese. The junipers meant sitting on needles, trapped, hungry, waiting for Howard to leave, with the bagworms getting in my hair.
I turned and bolted for the house, already out of breath. Audrey couldn’t keep up, but her shoulders were covered—she only ran to not be left behind. I reached the cattleguard where Marble sat wagging, slowed across it then dived behind the pokeweed as Howard stopped for the gate latched six times around. Marble was the only one home, a good dog, even with a pasture full of steers to tempt her.
I was already spreading grape jam over my cheese when Audrey came in panting but still humming and threw down her backpack. Music was a useless skill I hadn’t mastered yet.
Howard’s truck buzzed the cattleguard and rattled straight through our yard to the back pasture. He looked like my grandparents: Conservative Mennonite, the women in white coverings and dresses but driving cars—halfway between us and the Old Order. Maybe I didn’t count as Mennonite at all, though, since it was pretty clear the world didn’t need a god to explain any of it, on a bus or in the sky. It was good to be ten, double digits, realizing things. The trick was to let the cheese melt into the toast’s butter before you spread the jam.
After my toast, I hauled the vacuum upstairs. Flies filled the attic in fall. They blackened my window, scummed it opaque, speckled the mirror, licked my toothbrush. I sucked them all up and stuffed the end with toilet paper. When Eli got home he had an idea to tape newspaper over a box fan and throw flies in one at a time to hear their tiny blood snap. Noitatsefni. The -ation words were beautiful. I did them through sermons while folding the church bulletins into boxes. Noitaerc, noitanracni, noitavlas.
Such a good house, but infested top to bottom. Even the root cellar had its spiders turning white, a pom-pom of mold on each joint and just a trace down their skinny legs dangling over the applesauce and peaches and jam jars. I got toilet paper wet in soapy water and sculpted a toothbrush cover. The soap made it dry up firm and waxy.
▴ ▴ ▴
I had to interview Papa for a worksheet called “Nine to Five Jive.” Stupidly I’d raised my hand in class to ask what Nine to Five meant. It didn’t mean negative four.
He came in after dark, smelling like sawdust. He made coffee while Mama finished cooking, took it to the living room and sat down with the cup on one knee and his Bible on the other. By the time I got out “Nine to Five Jive” he’d fallen asleep, another coffee stain on the wool carpet from forty years ago. He’d never stop drinking coffee in that chair, though, not with the way Mama kept asking him to.
“Suppertime!” she yelled. Eli and Audrey came galloping downstairs. Papa’s chin was on his chest as we squeezed around the table. Venison stew in the pressure cooker, potatoes and green beans.
“Dave!” she said, “We’re ready to eat.”
“Mmhmm,” he said, the patient voice for when Mama got exasperated.
We sat on our folding chairs, watching the steam rise.
There was a long silence, then his chair squeaked in the living room.
“No need to get all bent out of shape,” he said, and came into the kitchen, sat down beside me, held out his hands. I put one hand in his, Eli’s hand in my other.
“Thank you, Jesus, for this food.” He paused, sighed, thanked Jesus for the roof, the hands, the blessings.
Nine to five. What did kids even do with parents around all the time. I stretched my toes, claustrophobic.
▴ ▴ ▴
On the last day of hunting season, Papa got up before work and shot a deer right by the juniper woods. It was so close he didn’t field dress it, just carried it home to gut in the driveway. I was reading about the Enchanted Forest, but Eli said I had to see it, for serious, the grossest thing ever.
The deer had a tapeworm longer than I was tall, just lying in the driveway with gravel sticking to it. It didn’t matter; we didn’t eat the guts, and anyway venison was tough enough that Mama always pressure-cooked it.
“They say venison used to be sweeter,” Papa said, “back when the deer ate chestnuts. Less wormy too I expect.” But chestnuts got blighted and now we had cows and junipers.
Mama sawed down a juniper at Christmas. The bagworm cases dangled like ornaments before she clipped them out. Papa said Jesus didn’t have a Christmas tree, so why should we. A bagworm’s method of camouflage was to be extremely sticky so juniper needles covered it. Mrowgab.
▴ ▴ ▴
Winter wasn’t gone yet when Howard started fertilizing. I gagged on the chicken-litter air.
“Hoof it, sluggard,” Eli said. He chucked a piece of wood over the fence.
Litter sounded too kittenlike for the raw, stale death smell glittering out from Howard’s spreader. It was chicken poop and peed-in sawdust and ground-up sick birds, whatever was left in a chicken barn when the birds were slaughtered. They couldn’t fly, couldn’t even move, but look how high their feathers went when they died. Nekcihc—that was something a chicken would say.
I hoisted another piece of firewood. We had to buy it this year. The whole logs were cheap, but they didn’t fit in the yard, so we had to throw the split pieces over the fence every day and come pick them up with the wagon. I wrapped my scarf over my face, but the rot burnt straight through.
We steadied the load along the rut to the outdoor furnace. Mama leaned into the sparks with the poker, shoving the pieces around. She’d been hanging the wash in Eli’s room all week so it wouldn’t smell.
“Come on, help unload,” Eli said. But Marble lay under the steps, not playing. Her ears bunched up when I knelt, but she didn’t lift her head. Slow breaths, her black curls rising and falling, up and down.
Howard’s tractor engine idled just across the fence. He crossed the cattleguard and lifted a hand in greeting. My work coat bulked up my shoulders.
“Nice fresh air, huh?” That was his joke. “I saw Marble wasn’t looking too good.”
“She’s sick,” I said.
He knelt beside me, lifted her muzzle in his gloves, looked in her eyes. He took off his woolly hat to lay his ear on her side. The chicken-litter smell was damp all over him.
“Yup, that’s pneumonia,” he said. “I’ll bring some penicillin over.”
“You think she won’t just get better?” Mama said. She believed in just getting better.
“Naw, she won’t see next week at this rate.”
He came back over with a cow syringe, and she was perkier two days later. Then her paws flopped under and she walked like that, wearing them bloody.
“Just temporary,” Howard said. I believed him, that she would have died without penicillin, and Mama did too now that she didn’t have to worry about the vet bill.
A couple of weeks later I couldn’t breathe enough to sleep. I sat in the dark trying to lift my chest up over the emptiness. Maybe it was the chicken litter. Maybe it was the mold on the spiders. Maybe I’d always known a terrible illness would ravage me.
The doctor said I should be in the hospital, but he knew about the money so just call him right away if it got worse. Eli sat on my quilt to play Magic cards where Papa couldn’t see because it was probably satanic like Halloween. I wrote letters and drew pictures of the stuff I coughed up. Even the Feather Warden was infested.
Ainom-uenp. I had to chunk the bigger words to get them backward. If I could’ve done the words whole, I wouldn’t have needed anyone to teach me calculus. When I got back to school there were more division problems.
▴ ▴ ▴
On a fair morning in May, I was clad in armor—work boots, pants, sleeves—even with the sunlit steam rising off the pond.
“Die, die, Poison I! We’re gonna getchu, make you cry. Lopper lopper lopper lop.”
I snicked a thick poison-ivy vine, and its whole bouquet toppled into the pond. How green it grew wherever people dug things up. And that was everywhere, all the forests into fields, the clay into bricks, the streams under hooves. The bagworms came for the junipers and the poison ivy came for us.
“Die, die, Poison I! I’m gonna—”
“Shut up!” Eli’s hiss slid right across, startling. His boat pulled out from the willow branches. “You scared all the fish away.” Howard stocked the pond so his grandsons could fish.
“Sorry!” I yelled. Sometimes Eli let me come along to bail, but today he’d stuck an innertube around the prow to hold the boat up.
“Oops, I forgot. Your face alone is enough to scare the fish!”
“Diputs daeh ttub niarb.”
The trick was to hold the word in your head then walk around and look at it from the other side. Pronunciation was a big issue, though—all the words that now started with HT and TN and the syllable ends falling in new places. It didn’t sound like English, or even human, and nobody understood what I said, not even me.
Eli ignored me, braced the fishing rod with his foot and pulled his shirt off over his white shoulders. He was too blond to tan; he’d get a sunburn like that, but Howard wouldn’t care.
It didn’t matter how the poison ivy grew. Shady and lustrous, swelling out of its mitten lobes, or dull in the sun and pointed like holly. Even turning red in the fall and hiding in the Virginia creeper, or blistered and broken into ones and twos—I knew it all. Nosiop yvi.
It got me anyway. My ankles were a heaving crust, itchy blisters that ran together and leaked golden sap that stuck me to my sheets at night. Poor Audrey had it worse, sitting inside by her radio, her face all scaly pink with calamine and puffed up so she could hardly sing along and had to take steroids. Probably from nuzzling her cat. Nightshade liked dawdling through the ivy on his way to the pond.
I heard my brother swallow a breath and looked up to see his fishing pole curling toward the deep end, the little rowboat sliding forward while he strained to turn the reel. Then the line whipped loose and he stumbled back.
“Freaking snapper!” he moaned. “You should have seen, just rose up out of the depths. Leviathan.” He held out his arms. “This big around. I’m over this scum.” He rowed for shore, and I thought of all the snappers circling that rotten old boat.
“Die, die, Poison I, I’m gonna getchu, make you cry. Lopper lopper lopper lop.” There were blisters on my palms, the good kind, not the poison kind. “Leaves so shiny, leaves so green, leaves come meet my guillotine.” I needed a machete. I needed a scimitar. I needed TNT. I needed this horrid sweaty shirt off, but such was the Feather Warden’s geas.
▴ ▴ ▴
That same week I noticed someone was putting ants on my pillow. The winged ones lurched around slowly and I swept them off, but there they’d be again, more each time, and I had to pick them out of my hair in the morning. I asked Eli but he really didn’t know.
I got up at the ceiling with a flashlight. Tiny wings flickered deep in a joint of the rafters. I traced them with the light down to the beam. A million infesting wings but they stayed in line all the way to the cracks by the window.
I hung an open umbrella upside down over the bed. Now the ants pattered against it as I read into the night. Atuan. It sounded like backward but was actually just a place in a girl’s head.
All June the fertilized grass grew green as enchanted moss, bled green into the pond, slicked flat across its surface. We circled the pond, twined the algae in our fingers, stirred the duckweed with willow twigs. At last, the fish swelled up white and melted on the green algae and the whole valley stank of pond, low and sick.
Papa looked at it on a Sunday afternoon, the only day he didn’t work.
“It’s the fertilizer, see,” he said. He took a long explanatory pause. “The pasture runoff comes down here and fertilizes the algae, and the duckweed and those plants block off oxygen from the air. The fish don’t have any oxygen.”
Papa knew how a lot of things worked, although he was wrong about God and coffee in the living room.
Yes, the fish were suffocating. Howard was drowning his fish in water. I perched on the fence and watched the snappers fighting for the waxy fish bodies, just a little splash when one lost and soon it would float up to be a feast for the others to fight over. After that there wouldn’t be anything left in the pond for them to eat. Turtles were made of algae and fertilizer and each other. Rezilitref.
▴ ▴ ▴
The grass went muddy under summer rain and the snapper came up from the pond—foot, lurch, foot, lurch—hooked face snaking back and forth, tasting the humid air, its shell dragging algae and dribbles of duckweed. How would it feel caving in my ribcage or cracking through a wrist bone. I saw it from the back steps and yelled for Mama and put on my work boots. She came down with the tree loppers. It hissed and pulled in when we walked up. Mama planted her boot on its slimed back.
“Get a stick,” she said.
I knew just how big a stick I needed and not something fragile like willow. Mama opened the loppers right over its wrinkled head hole, and I stood way to the side and reached out with the stick—a little wiggle and the wyvern beak cracked down. Mama pruned at its neck, but the neck was too hard; it pulled in, hissing and pawing.
“Further out,” Mama said, “so the neck really stretches.”
I wiggled the stick further than I thought the snapper could reach. It waited; we waited, the end of the stick hovering until the head launched out and I flinched. But Mama clamped straight on the neck, and it twisted, cracked, like seeing a rock bleed, so red for a creature so cold and green.
We made turtle soup, using a hatchet for the shell. Now we were made of turtles too, but they kept coming. We shrieked, stumbling over them in tall grass and crunching them under our car on the lane. Nobody told Howard it was all his fault.
Even so, I had a plan. I had a garret room with a lamp hanging on the bricks, and its light shone last from the highest window. I wore dresses in the cow pasture and my feet were tough and clever. Someone would figure me out. I wasn’t hiding; I was right here on top of the hill where the wind could catch my wings and anyone could fall in love with me.
▴ ▴ ▴
Quartz, a tilted white hexagon, glassy in my sweaty fingers and cool against my lips. I was sculpting algae when the land had noticed me and sent its tribute: a milk-white crystal in a hoofprint by the stream. Algae was extremely superior to toilet paper for sculpting, and now I’d make a basket for keeping crystals. Latsyrc, like a wizard name, like a Feather Warden’s gaze.
Marble wagged up, panting. Poor girl, her thick curly coat filled up with ticks in the summer. She licked them out of my fingers as I worked them loose, snapping her jaws to pop the fat ones. There wasn’t a scrap of land or fur or water around here that wasn’t infested with one thing or another:
—Algae & Snapping Turtles
—Junipers & Bagworms
—Litter & Pneumonia
—Chicken Barns & People Who Owned Chicken Barns
But then some of the people who owned chicken barns, like Lynn’s husband, were extremely handsome. Anyway, we ate their chicken because what else was ninety-nine cents a pound. It wasn’t like we’d ever lived anywhere we were supposed to be, and it was just one drumstick each. We cracked the bones for marrow.
There was a slow cattleguard rumble, and Howard’s tractor reared up, dragging the mower behind it, and here I was in the calico sundress again, every way home in plain view. I dove flat and pulled Marble’s collar down with me. He’d mow right over us. He’d kick us out of the best house. Here he came out over the grass, doing laps around the field.
“Go home,” I told Marble. She at least could live, but all she did was nose under my hand. I’d figure it out. I squeezed the crystal sharp. I was good at plans, and realistically it was stupid to think he’d mow here by the stream.
I peeked up when he passed and heard shouting over the sound of his engine. My name, Mama shouting my name hoarse. She was going into town for ice cream, pizza, to drop me at the library or a friend’s house. Someone had called me on the phone. Someone had lost a crystal and needed the Feather Warden who’d found it, and here I was trapped in a sundress way down in the pasture.
Howard was already turning, looking back my way to see how the mower made the bend, and the rest of the lap he’d be facing me full on.
Mama stopped shouting. Maybe she thought I was dead.
I went for it on the next pass, hauling on tufts of grass up the hillside. The wire fence cut into my feet as I flew over into poison ivy and thistles. I bent low along the dam breast, out of sight behind the crabapple. I was safe; my shoulders were safe; our house was safe.
Papa was picking up some tools, that’s what she’d been hollering about. He’d moved into town, but most of his stuff was still here. It wasn’t a big deal; the stars didn’t care.
At suppertime Mama invited Papa to stay, so we sat down to eat like before, my left hand in Papa’s rough right. He blessed the hands that prepared the food, and we ate, just zucchini and tomatoes with cheese on top but Papa said how good it was. At his house he poured half-and-half on his cereal and ate venison jerky for supper.
“So, Howard stopped me on the way in,” he said, and I didn’t let my fork clink. “He wanted to know if he should let you all keep living here.” Mama’s throat sucked in. He’d seen; he’d seen my shoulders. “Of course, I told him he should let you stay. He said husbands and wives shouldn’t be sundered, and he wasn’t keen on harboring sinners. Quite a way with words. Anyway, I told him it’s probably just temporary till we get things figured out.”
“But it’s not,” said Mama. It wasn’t, and it had nothing to do with my shoulders. Nobody had to worry because I always got the work done. If I had feathers, they were gray and sticky like a bagworm.
Later, even the lamplight was too hot. Sweat dripped, curling my loose hairs, and the bricks behind my bed were still warm. I couldn’t stay up there. I laid my crystal between the pages and the words shone right through it.
Out past the cattleguard the steers were heavy shadows, the mowed grass smooth and open to the moon. The mowed, The Mode, that’s what I would call it. Not a median, see. Legs bare, belly bare, wings bare, everything scraped on blunt grass, nothing but haze between the dull stars and my skin. And still nobody had figured me out, thought to worry. Eventually someone would come for me across the pasture, and we’d lie under the bagworms hanging from the junipers. We’d talk about stars and calculus, and they’d write sex parts about us. Suluclac.
▴ ▴ ▴
We couldn’t find my sister’s cat anywhere. He was no tattered fighter like mine or ranging hunter like my mother’s. Just a lazy porch sleeper, plush and loud, but he hadn’t been to the food dish since last week, hadn’t blinked at us from under the grapevines or swayed down to the pond to lap at the inlet. We checked the pump house, the cellar, the road and ditches. We ran to the places buzzards landed.
▴ ▴ ▴
Howard brought us ducks for the algae, farm mallards with their right wings clipped. They babbled and gobbled up the duckweed, followed each other back and forth across the pond, nibbled in the shallows. Sir Drake and Malinda. The algae didn’t care. Scoop it up, twirl it on the tines of your fingers, and more just bubbled up to take its place. The hills had too many chicken feathers for a pair of ducks and one Feather Warden to manage.
Marble found the eggs and ate them all, so Howard got us an incubator. We hooked it up by Audrey’s bed and lifted the Styrofoam to add an egg each day.
We held them to our ears until we heard them pipping. Then they rocked, cracked, and unrolled wet and blinking in our hands, a duckling a day for weeks. They followed my sister in a flock of descending size.
A weasel came one night and left all the duckling heads behind. Not long after that my sister found Sir Drake all bloody, head-down in an old muskrat hole. That’s what happened when turtles ran out of fish and you couldn’t fly. Malinda didn’t stop quacking until she died too. Ducks were made of duckweed that was made of chickens and they were all infested.
If I were lying on the juniper needles with someone, looking up at the bagworms and the stars above that, they would say that from the star perspective infestations were things in the wrong places, things that didn’t belong, but really there weren’t wrong places, just new places and changing things. Even stars didn’t used to be there. And I would say that change was fine—calculus was the math of change—and a star was rats, anyway. But I’d never get to calculus because there’d been an infestation of long division. And I always got the work done.
▴ ▴ ▴
Audrey found Nightshade floating in the shore grasses. There was still enough black fur on the tail to tell us who he’d been, how he’d been down to the inlet for a drink, what had dragged him down in the mud.
After supper she sat on the back steps with the .22 across her lap. I heard her through the screen door, humming “If You Wannabe My Lover.” The shots cracked and echoed in the willows, again in the juniper hills. When her silhouette grew too dark, she slid the bullets out of the gun and hung it up in the closet. Her throat and shoulders glowed white in the hall light over a purple tube top stretched taut on her flat chest. I pictured it small and wadded up on the thrift store counter, maybe with the price tag on top so the cashier wouldn’t have to shake it out.
Audrey would have pointed at a gaudy plastic necklace beneath the glass so Mama could sniff and wrinkle up her forehead while the top went crumpled in a plastic bag.
I fled upstairs where the winged ants were massing. I vacuumed them up, but more fell into the umbrella as I read. One landed on the pages of Eldwold, another on my shoulder and I smeared it off. What did they even have wings for.