Plumage

Plumage

Plumage

Nadine Rodriguez

 

Illustration by Lauren Raye Snow

Alejandra had not dreamt of becoming a groundskeeper when she was a child. Even if she had, there was no possible way her parents would have let the dream bloom. They had always pushed her towards a series of career options, filling her bookshelf with books about science when she was in elementary school, history when she was in middle, and law when she was in high school. None of them ever really stuck. Alejandra’s attention would bounce in between the spaces of overly complicated words on the pages.

When her mother brought home a book with a detailed illustration of half of a man’s face on the cover and painter’s tape holding the spine together, Alejandra had finally found her calling—for just five dollars from the thrift store by the bank her mother cleaned on weekdays. She was thrilled by the human body, the way the unseen came together in her own body, keeping her alive. When she announced to her parents she wanted to become a doctor, and that the university she had applied to had accepted her, they were thrilled.

“La primera doctora en la familia,” her father said, “¿lo puedes creer?”

It was difficult to pinpoint where exactly everything had derailed. She knew it wasn’t one singular point. Realistically, there was a series of points one could connect in an unfortunate line. Her father, a groundskeeper for the last thirty years of his life, had passed in her sophomore year at college, during a microbiology lab final. Her professor, a thin woman with curled blonde hair that sat close to her scalp, had offered Alejandra an encouraging smile when she turned in her exam. Two minutes later, when she was waiting for the elevator out in the hall, her mother called.

Alejandra envisioned his warm terra-cotta skin as her mother spoke, trying to remember how it felt as a young girl, trying to trace the sunspots that dotted it during the summer when the two would sunbathe in their backyard.

An accident, her mother had said, “un accidente horrible, mija. No lo creo, no lo creo.”

Her father, her father whose heart had been beating and lungs had been working only hours before, had fallen. Not only that, but he had fallen from a second-story window onto the rough, unforgiving stone of the Espinoza estate’s patio.

As Alejandra’s hand mechanically pressed the elevator button, her mother continued, as if she wanted to know more. They hadn’t found him immediately. According to his coworker, the Señora of the estate had asked him to fix a window on the western side, far away from his coworkers. No-one had heard the sound that Alejandra imagined his skull made as it shattered over the whir of their machinery grinding and digging up dirt. They had found him because of the ravens. Dozens of them, her mother explained. They were squawking and chirping obscenely. The daughter of the Señora found him, his body cooling, pecked, and nearly torn apart from the birds.

It was a closed casket funeral.

The points in the line marking Alejandra’s decline continued to emerge, like darts on a board, each landing further and further from the center. She failed her Physics II course and barely passed Biochemistry. The day after she found out she received a ‘C’ in the class, the curve to the letter stark and permanent on her laptop screen, her mother told her that she needed to get a second job to keep their home. Alejandra, an immediate witness to the way grief had settled under her mother’s eyes and cemented lines by the sides of her lips, said she would get a job to help. Before the start of her senior year, Alejandra chose to drop out.

Her mother had cried, and Alejandra sometimes wished she had too.

She wasn’t a bad groundskeeper. It had taken some time, of course. The scratches and cuts on her palms and the dirt in her eyes were something she had to get used to, but once she had, she excelled. Maybe it was genetics, maybe it was how she could be with her father again. Her mother disliked the notion at first, even rejected it. Those months were the worst, but eventually, she accepted it, as far as to even joke that maybe one day, Alejandra could open her own company. Iglesias Landscaping Inc., in honor of her father. They made plans to overcharge the rich white men that built hotels and resorts on stolen land and undercharge the families with overgrown yards that lived by them.

That never happened. Instead, Alejandra easily took over her father’s role at the Espinoza Estate. She never really saw Señora Espinoza, only saw her outline behind the curtains of windows, watching them occasionally. A raven would perch on the window sill or the tiles above, and Alejandra would look away. Her coworkers, some of whom had worked with her father and welcomed her fondly, said they hadn’t seen the Señora either. On a day when they were upgrading the sprinkler system, overturned earth revealing white and blue pipes, sweat beading on their brows and coating the backs of their necks, Alejandra asked about her.

Jose, a short man with a proud gut that always peeked out from under his shirt, answered.

“Hay cuervos viviendo en su cabello.”

There are ravens living in her hair.

Beatriz, her daughter, was who Alejandra interacted with. She was a strange girl, but Alejandra didn’t feel uncomfortable around her like some of the men did. She even tried to joke with her sometimes. They were the same age, and it felt like a victory whenever Beatriz’s semi-permanent solemn expression cracked with muffled laughter or a hint of amusement. Her skin was almost as brown as Alejandra’s, and her mouth was a quiet, pretty thing that fit her dark, almond eyes. More than once, Alejandra tried to put together how the Señora must look, but the mysterious illusion always faded into a shadow looming behind, signing the checks that went into Alejandra’s bank account. Sometimes, she’d stare at the handwriting and try to envision the hand that wrote it, imagining how the bones inside would grip a pen and move.

The Señora passed only a year after Alejandra was officially hired. She wondered how Beatriz would react. Would she spiral, the way Alejandra had, or would she continue seamlessly, uninterrupted by the disarray that was grief?

“Alejandra,” called Beatriz’s willowy voice. “Do you know how to fix a sink?”

Alejandra, washing away dirt from her hands with a hose, looked up at her.

“I do.”

“Follow me then, please.”

Alejandra had never gone so far into the home before, not beyond the back door in the kitchen where she’d wait as Beatriz retrieved a check or a glass of water. She felt out of place in the unsullied white and blue kitchen, a moving stain splattered against the tiles. Yet when Alejandra took a look at her surroundings, glanced up at the vaulted ceilings of the hallway connected to the kitchen, passed her hand over the wooden staircase, she felt how worn the house was. The floor creaked under her weight upstairs and the humidity made her shirt stick to her sweaty back.

Grief, during its infancy in Alejandra’s home, had been devastating. Her mother cleaned less and less, as did Alejandra. Dust collected on tabletops and treasured porcelain figures that had never been anything but pristine before. The only immaculate area in the home was her father’s side of the bedroom. Her mother kept everything clean and organized, a lit San Lazaro candle stayed on his nightstand throughout the first month after his death.

Beatriz’s home wasn’t in disarray, it was hollow.

No pictures were hanging on the walls, no art. Various rooms had no doors—just open, curved doorways that led to vacant spaces. Alejandra was guided to the bathroom, to a sink that was leaking. The floor was glistening and the dark blue rug rolled up by the tub was soaked.

“How long has it been leaking?”

Beatriz raised her shoulders in a shrug, “I’m not sure. Mother refused to fix things inside the home during her last few weeks.”

“This isn’t your bathroom?”

Beatriz shook her head, “No, it’s hers. My room is on the east side, where the sun rises.”

“Oh,” Alejandra said. She felt her curiosity nudging at her to ask more, to find out why her mother was so solitary, but decided against it. Instead, she kneeled by the sink, looking behind the surprisingly light counter to find the plumbing. The water was cold as Alejandra wrapped a hand around the connection, testing how tightly it was screwed. It was surprising, considering the heat outside, but Alejandra paid it no attention. She unscrewed the connection to make sure there was no clog forming that would become a problem later on. She saw something black peeking out from the end.

She reached into the pouch hanging on her hip for pliers and used them to pull out wet black feathers from the metal pipe. She brought them into the light and turned the pliers around in her hand to look. They were coated in some type of scentless black guck.

“What is this?”

Beatriz stared at them, a hand held to her chest.

“I’m not sure. Mother used to bathe Perla in the sink, maybe her feathers went down the drain.”

“Perla?”

Beatriz nodded before motioning for Alejandra to follow her out of the bathroom. Alejandra shuffled to her feet, took off her wet boots, and set them down by the sink before trailing after her. Beatriz led them to a bedroom two doors down from the bathroom, the furniture covered by white and black sheets, except for a singular large birdcage in the center. The light filtering through the teal curtains barely illuminated the large raven perched inside. It stared at Beatriz before squawking and looking over at Alejandra. Its body seemed to expand as it opened its wings once and then twice before flying towards the cage, banging its head against the bars.

“She doesn’t like strangers,” Beatriz said. “Forgive her behavior.”

Alejandra didn’t look away from the bird.

“Why is she in this room?”

Beatriz stepped towards the cage and placed a hand against its black metal frame, the bird relaxing somewhat at the closeness.

“It’s her room.”

Alejandra saw the inside of the home more and more after that day. It seemed Beatriz’s mother left things to rot and rust without telling anyone, so Alejandra was in charge of it. She fixed faulty light switches, air conditioning that only blew hot air and rusted plumbing. Sometimes she had to ask her coworkers for help, but when she would tell Beatriz that they were all coming in, Beatriz would say to forget about whatever it was. It was strange, but the paychecks were hefty. Alejandra read books and learned how to fix other things like cracked wooden floors and the oddly colored mold that grew in the crevices of cupboards. The house, in its strange way, was beautiful. Something was alluring about its haunting architecture and lack of light, and Alejandra found herself thinking that Beatriz was just as fascinating. She was beautiful, too, and she was trusting her with something, but Alejandra didn’t know what.

When Alejandra was startled out of sleep one night, her ringtone shrill in her ear, she hadn’t expected to see B. Espinoza on the screen. She groaned as she sat up, but answered regardless.

Beatriz immediately spoke, “Could you come?”

Alejandra ran a hand down her face, “What’s broken? Are you alright?”

She could hear Beatriz breathing through the phone, the noise faint and trembling.

“I can still feel her. It’s as if she’s never left.”

“Give me a minute, okay? I’ll be there soon.”

Alejandra didn’t once pause to think or reconsider as she drove to the Espinoza home. When she parked her car by the main door, the house was dark. There wasn’t a single light on in any of the windows, only dark ledges dotted with the empty, black windows greeting her. She had never been on the property alone at night. When she knocked on the door and looked up, she saw ravens perched on the window sills that had been empty moments before. She looked to the trees that surrounded the home and saw beady, glowing eyes watching her.

She took a step back, ready to leave, when the door opened and Beatriz emerged, illuminated in yellow by a lantern she held in one hand.

“You came, you really came,” she said.

“Why aren’t the lights on?” Alejandra asked. She stepped into the home when Beatriz moved to the side, the lantern swaying.

“The power goes off sometimes at night.”

“Why haven’t you told me? I could have fixed it by now.”

“No, you couldn’t have.”

Beatriz turned then, walking away from Alejandra to the staircase. The thought of going home crossed her mind. She could imagine her mother and her father screaming at her, furious, yet she stayed. She followed, and Beatriz led them into the bedroom with Perla. Her feathers looked blue in the lantern light, her body an unmoving lumpy shape at the bottom of the cage.

“Is she dead?”

Beatriz nodded, and Alejandra hadn’t realized how close together they were standing. She could see Beatriz’s mouth quivering and noticed that the hand holding the lantern was shaking. She imagined what it must be like to have something else from your parent die, and felt her chest ache.

“I’m sorry,” she said, softly.

She placed a hand on Beatriz’s shoulder, and felt her unease from before return in the hand touching Beatriz. The shoulder she was touching felt strange; it shifted, like the flesh underneath the fabric of her sweater wasn’t held together just right. Alejandra moved her hand away and exhaled shakily.

“I wanted to leave for so long, ever since I was a little girl, but I was born in still water, just like her.”

Alejandra took a step back, “What?”

Beatriz turned to look at her, and Alejandra gasped. Her face, from what Alejandra could see in the dim light, was misshapen, her skin impossibly tight and her eyes resembling those of a raven.

“I thought about leaving. I was going to, tomorrow. My bags were packed and I was ready but then she died.”

Her last word oozed venom. Alejandra managed to turn and look at Perla; the bird’s body was decomposed as if it had been deceased for weeks. Parts of its body were concave, others were covered in maggots.

“Beatriz?” she said, her voice unfamiliar to her ears. Had she ever been this afraid before?

The sounds of bone splintering and flesh tearing were her answer. She didn’t want to look back at the woman she knew. She didn’t want to face whatever was breathing so jaggedly next to her, but she did. She stepped back, mouth ajar, silent. Beaks and talons were emerging from Beatriz’s hair, catching on and knotting the thick strands. Feathers were pushing through her lips as the heads and bodies of ravens pressed against her skin, moving under it in frenzied manner, seeking a way to escape.

She ran out of the room when the ravens began to screech, the high-pitched sounds piercing her mind, the beginnings of a nose bleed dribbling out onto her lips. They sounded so human, somehow, as if Beatriz was the one screaming. The sounds of wings flapping and beaks opening and closing began to follow her through the house. Alejandra screamed.

She remembered her father, suddenly. She remembered her coworker’s words and began to cry as she finally made it to her car. She pulled away quickly, only looking back once. She saw the front door was open, Beatriz’s still silhouette watching from the doorway, her face too far off to truly recognize but still adorned by the warm glow of the lantern.

Story by Nadine Rodriguez

Nadine Rodriguez is a queer, non-binary Cuban-American writer and photographer born and raised in Miami, Florida and presently based in Marquette, Michigan. Currently, Nadine is an MFA candidate for Fiction and a graduate assistant at Northern Michigan University, and interns for Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal. They have had photographic and written work featured in various blogs and zines.

Illustration By Lauren Raye Snow
Lauren Raye Snow is an illustrator and fine artist from South Texas. Through her art, she explores intangible, uncanny visions and feelings that are ill described in language – and the anxiety that this obscurity can cause. She is inspired by the Symbolists and the Pre-Raphaelites, by the Catholic and Indigenous religious icons of her native South Texas, as well as works of horror, romance and beauty in literature and music. Find her on Instagram and Twitter at @laurenrayesnow and on her website: rayedraws.com.