This story contains references to loss of limb.
My first feathers came in just a few days after my granddaughter Sima was born. Black as a raven’s, but that doesn’t mean much in the beginning. I could end up black all over, or a stormy grey color, or violet with blue speckles, for all I knew. The turning never brings the exact same form twice, just as no two children need the exact same monster to help them come into adulthood.
To no one’s surprise, it was my son-in-law who had tears in his eyes when he saw them. Yermiyahu was his parents’ fifth child and never had to slay an Ancestor. His four elder siblings had taken care of them all. One by one, the children were born; one by one, their grandparents grew horns, or scales, or wings, and fled into the hillside; and one by one, the children went to hunt them down when they came of age. Until Yermiyahu. Fifth children are sometimes called pine daughters (among less favorable names) because pine is a soft wood from a tree that grows up without ever having to drop its leaves. And he was no exception, fine son-in-law though he was.
“Come on, Yeyeh,” I said to him at his daughter’s naming ceremony, when he still couldn’t look at me without his lip quivering. “This is supposed to be a happy occasion! We knew one of us would turn, and now you can look forward to the strong climber she’ll have to become to face a flying Ancestor. I’m proud of her already. There’s no reason to pity me.”
“It’s not you I’m scared for, mom,” he whispered. “It’s Sima. What if she can’t…. You know. Can’t do it?”
“Can’t slay me?” I allowed myself the smallest chuckle. “It’s not fatherly to be so afraid for your daughter’s failure, Yeyeh. You can’t protect her from the dangers of the world. Not even when they look like her grandma.” I extended my arm outward — no feathers there yet, but we both gazed up, toward my fingertips, imagining the powerful wing it would soon become.
“Promise me,” he said. “When she comes of age, you won’t fight her. Let her take you. Please, mom. I can’t stand to think of losing her.”
When my daughter, Rivkah, was five, just going to her first fencing lessons, the realization came to her that I myself might become an Ancestor one day. Every parent dreads this conversation, no matter how many books we read to prepare us. I could never forget the look in her eyes, the sound of her voice, when I answered her questions and tried to reassure her that it would not happen for a long, long time.
This talk with Yermiyahu brought those sensations back into focus, as if he were my five-year-old daughter instead of my grown child’s husband. And so I talked to him as I had talked to her, back then. “I can make you all the promises in the world,” I said. “And they will be the promises of an old woman. Whether the monster will hold herself to them is not for me to say.”
“But it’s still you,” he insisted.
I nodded, though I couldn’t stop my gaze drifting away from Yermiyahu and out the window to my right. “Yes, but only in the same way that I am still the seventeen-year-old girl who slew my grandmother. Now, I am on the other side of the equation. Time and age shift one’s perspective in ways one can never anticipate. Parenthood involves a great deal of such reversals. You’ll get used to it. This is just the final reversal for me.” I placed my hand on his cheek, covered in bristly beard but still smooth underneath. “I’m not afraid for myself or little Sima. It’s you I’m worried about, Yeyeh. Are you sure you’re ready for all this?”
He sighed. “I thought I was, but I’m not so sure, these days.”
“It was a rhetorical question.” I smiled. “You don’t have a choice in the matter anymore.”
A deep breath. “You’re right, of course,” he said. He wiped his eyes, straightened the lapels on his jacket. “This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Do I look composed?”
“Hardly,” I said, “but thankfully we’re here for your daughter, not you.”
He nodded and returned to Rivkah’s side.
I let my eyes return fully to the window, imagining that I could feel another pair of eyes, great orbs of midnight, each one as big as my entire frail old body, watching back. “I’m coming soon,” I whispered, then went to take in as much of my infant granddaughter’s smile as I could.
The most irritating thing about turning is that there’s no one to talk to who understands how much it hurts to feel your own bones hollowing themselves out for flight. As my full plumage comes in (tawny and sleek, like a kestrel), the floor of my home becomes littered with the little fuzzy pin feathers that preceded them. As if I were a newborn chick. I don’t bother cleaning them up.
Sometimes they throw a celebration for the grandparent, but I wouldn’t have it. They feel too much like a funeral, with polite relatives pecking at casserole and bobke, and music that alternates between nostalgic and somber. I don’t feel either of those things. I’d be more suited to battle hymns, soaring requiems, screaming arias. The younger folks wouldn’t get it.
The women in my family have always seemed oddly eager to turn, when the time comes. My parents used to tell me that, on the very day I was born, my grandma had sprouted big tufts of fur from her ears. Within a month, she had run into the hills on all fours, covered in a slick brown pelt. What she did for the next seventeen years is her business. I only know that she was still waiting when I came up there after her with a new shield and an old boar spear over my shoulder.
She was no more prepared to go down peacefully than I imagine I’ll be. She had claws like spades and could fit her whole great, hulking body into the tunnels she dug with them. The first time she went underground, I made the mistake of climbing a tree to see where she emerged. Before I knew it, the ground I watched was rushing toward me as the tree fell into the tunnel she had dug beneath it.
I was fortunate not to break a leg in the fall and smart enough to make her chase me upslope, where the ground was all rock. Those claws weren’t much good against boulders and cliffs. Then, she had nowhere to hide.
Rivkah was my only child. When she was born, it was my mother whose skin turned to scales, whose teeth and neck grew long before she skittered eastward, toward the desert. If anything, she turned even quicker than the stories I’d heard of my grandma. Rivkah never would talk about what happened out there, the week after her seventeenth birthday. I only ever knew that she came back with one less arm but nonetheless walking with her posture a bit higher — ready, at last, to learn a civilized trade.
It takes children and outsiders some time to understand that we aren’t sad when our elders become Ancestors. We are not losing them, the way it happens with a disease or an accident or a war. When it happens, our fates are intertwined. It ensures that our moment of parting will be personal, that it will be self-determined, and that it renders the child an adult, if they survive.
I lost my husband to a kick from a draft horse. I’d rather have watched him grow these feathers and sent him off into the sky with a kiss on the beak.
My house has been empty ever since, mostly. Rivkah comes by every week to help me keep the place clean. On rare occasions, I do entertain another guest, but she only visits at night and never comes into the house. I watch the trees through my window, after sunset, not for a shape so much as an absence among them. A conspicuous darkness, sometimes punctuated by the glimmer of an eye in the moonlight. My guest doesn’t talk much, and all I ever say are my little taunts. “I bet you’d like me to let you in, wouldn’t you?” Or, “A little longer. Wait just a little longer.”
Each morning, now, I get up and count the feathers that came in during the night. I take heart, knowing that I will not waste away. In my old age, I will grow strong again. And when little Sima comes for me, on the cusp of her adulthood, I know we will reach an understanding.
When Rivkah visits, now that she’s recovered enough, she finds me in my place by the window, facing the hills, waiting for the day I will disappear skyward. We talk about Sima, clean the kitchen, make the bed. When she leaves, she hugs me a long time and says, “Goodbye, mother,” as if it is the last time, because you never know. I’ve already grown enough that her arms no longer reach around my torso.
I tell her I love her, and that I’m proud, and all the things I’ve been promising to tell her in this moment, since she was small. But even she does not know what is in my thoughts. How could she? I never told her my whole story.
For I spared my grandmother, all those years ago. Upon the rocky hillside, I looked into her eyes as she waited for the killing blow, and I saw that this was not the path for me. Somehow, behind that inhuman visage, I recognized the details of the portraits I had been shown, the letters I had been allowed to read from before she changed. I couldn’t say just what it was that I saw, except that it was a resemblance much deeper than a nose or a browline or any of the other similarities between parents and their children that we often remark upon. Our people’s poems and stories are full of such sentiments, but I never imagined that the familiarity would be so complete, so exacting and inexplicable at once. When I felt that, I knew that killing her would not make me understand what it is to grow up. There was a great journey between the woman who wrote those letters and the one who lay prostrate before me then, one that was invisible to me despite all I had been taught. She had more to teach me yet. She still does.
What I told Yermiyahu was not entirely true. I am still that seventeen-year-old girl. And I always keep my promises.
We don’t really know what happens to the Ancestors who survive the coming-of-age rite. She is out there still, somewhere. Soon the turning will reach my feet, and make them talons; my arms, and make them wings; my heart, and make it hungry. I will fly back to the place in the hills I remember. I will find my grandmother. I will look into her eyes again. And I will finally give her what she has been waiting for, all this time.
Then, it will be my turn to wait. On the day Sima comes for me, I will look in her eyes as well, and we will reach an understanding of our own. I don’t know yet what it will be, but I know that I will be so, so proud, and my talons so, so ready.