Magic for Feathered Girls

Jen Julian

And for when you bloom early, at ten years old. Moon hips. Breasts like dough rising. In the pew at church, when you bounce your leg, the deacons and the pewter-haired ladies look on with concern.

Before now, you were a prankster, tomboy, little hellion. You carved faces in Christ’s body when the communion plate went around, drew gargoyles on the bulletin, changed the words to the hymns: “How great thou fart…” “Alas and did my Savior sneeze…”  But puberty has turned you quiet, as quiet as your longsuffering parents, and during the service you sit in back with them, hideously overstuffed into your dress, your face sealed off, far away. That’s dangerous, for a girl. When you enter and leave through the narthex, everyone sees you pause at the portrait of the mournful, blue-eyed Jesus, as if you’d like to tell him secrets. What secrets? What developments have been threading through your mind, while your body matures obscenely?

But no, you do not think of Jesus as your confidant. His portrait only compels you because he looks like a bird. Can you determine just what kind of bird he is? Something beakish in the nose and prehistoric in the eyes, and that feathery 70s hair, like your parents’ prom photo. Boys from Sunday school—whom you roughhoused with, considered friends—jiggle imaginary breasts at you as they pass. But don’t listen to them. Think your way through grosbeak, mourning dove, kestrel, osprey. Osprey is closest, for this Jesus. He has that same sad feral look you remember from the family trip to Wrightsville, the bird hunkered atop a telephone pole, bestowing a writhing eel to its raggedy young. Yuck, observed your mother.

Try hard enough and you can find a bird in everyone: chicken hawks in the church ladies; vultures in the Sunday school boys; your horrified father squawking like a jay when he finds you wrestling in the backyard with the Braswell brothers. You cannot wrestle anymore. Cannot jump or dance or sit in the dewy grass with your legs splayed. When you’re by herself, try practicing signature whistles, warning signals for grown men on the street. DON’T LOOK. DON’T TOUCH. Consider the extra padding on your body to be down, not flesh. The growing pains in the backs of your legs are turning the knee joints backward.

You will notice that new desires, too, appear, still light with the fantasy of childhood. Remember all those fairy tales about women turning into swans or sparrows, or being whisked away by owls, goblin princes in disguise? That could happen to you. Leave your bedroom window open at night and eventually, I promise, an owl will fly in, thrashing wildly, bewilderedly, down the hall to the living room, throwing off his feathers, shrieking, and on the couch your mother will scream and your father will say, Jee-zus Christ, and get a broom to swat him out the door. You will then feel your own heart fly off into the night, attached to the owl’s tail as if by a string, but be sure to gather the feathers left behind—tiny, dowdy gray puffs in the palm of your sweaty hand. Your parents will say you cannot keep the window open anymore. Don’t listen to them. Listen to the trees instead, their dark whispering.

Who, who-who, whooo?

Know this: a transformation—to bird or woman—is a radical act. Maintain hope that the owl will come back for you. Hide his tender feathers under your pillow until your mother strips the bed for laundry, wearily tutting, Filthy, just filthy, as she shakes the sheets.

Jen Julian is the author of a short story collection, Earthly Delights and Other Apocalypses (Press 53, 2018). Her recent work has appeared or is upcoming in hex, Pithead Chapel, Bourbon Penn, Third Coast Magazine, and swamp pink, among other places. She lives with her enormous ginger cat in the Appalachians of North Georgia, where she teaches creative writing at Young Harris College. Follow her on Twitter at @jennicjul.

Photo by Alexander Sinn on Unsplash

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