All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
My world is a tent. A dirty, gray, worn canvas tent. I saw the outside of it once. It reads “Westley Brothers’ Circus” in cracked and faded paint. That was three years ago, before the Westley brothers started loading me into the back of their canvas-draped truck under the cover of darkness. They don’t like me to go outside. They don’t say why, but I am not as naive as I once was. Not as naive as they think I am. They would like to keep me always in the dark about the world outside my tent. They want me to be small enough to keep under their thumbs. I already know what the world thinks about people who are ... different.
I was too young to know when they found me. Then, I was happy to have a place. A home. A family. I was a star, the headline act. Every spotlight in the circus was trained on me as the crowds poured in to see me, their hands outstretched to touch. But slowly they grew bored with me, the Westley brothers, the crowds, and the others who shared my life at the circus. I was old news, no longer a novelty. My world began to shrink. The spotlights turned away. I faded from their thoughts, a star dimmed now to only a lonely girl.
My name is Tierra. Ironic, isn’t it? That I, of all people, should be named for the earth. I can’t recall my parents, those who gave me my name. When I was small, only a fledgling, they tried to cut my wings. My new feathers were then barely long enough to wrap around my shoulders. They held me down and sliced with knives that clawed and bit. Stab after stab, slice after slice they hacked at me. I screamed. I cried. I begged. They said nothing. They left me beside the road, broken and bleeding, but a winged thing yet. My only memories of them now are the scars upon my shoulders. As long as I live, I can never forgive them. My new family has never tried to take away my wings. Not even after all they have done and left undone. They understand, a little at least. I am one of them. Part of the freak show. What else can a girl with wings be, if not be a freak?
Tonight we’re in some backwater town in the middle of somewhere flat and dry and dusty. I don’t know where exactly; I’ve never seen a map. It’s dark outside, and darker still inside. The only light filters through the canvas from the other freak-show tents and the stars above. I peek through the dingy gray canvas curtains of my tent. Families, each like the next, wander past in the twilight. Suddenly a darker figure looms. I hurriedly step back, it’s Martin Westley. A man whose heart is as stained and calloused as his hands. So thickly and grotesquely shaped, he is only a few dollars away from making a living as a freak-show performer himself. Perhaps that’s why he hates me so. There’s no question in my mind why I hate him. Martin would have left me to die by the roadside, crumpled and bleeding in the ditch. It was his brother Tom who convinced him to take me in all those years ago. I try to shut Martin out. I wrap my wings around myself, a comforting pressure. An embrace. I can hide inside them, if only for a moment. Martin glowers.
“Show time,” he grunts. Martin never speaks. He grunts, and occasionally mumbles, as if he just stepped out of that cave in ancient Africa where fire was first discovered.
I wonder sometimes how he and Tom can be brothers. They are as unalike as a robin and the worm it pulls from the earth. Tom is the robin, small and shrewd and clever. He has none of his brother’s heavy-handed ways, but he is as quick with his tongue as Martin is with a blow. In truth, the circus belongs to Tom. He has a knack for business, for finding those of us who can pay his bills. He knows how to keep us too, bribing and begging and blackmailing. I am different, I hope. I am his favorite among the circus freaks. Perhaps Martin is jealous of me. Does jealousy make one so cruel?
I have forgotten that Martin still stands before me, until he grunts again and points at the curtains behind me. I say nothing, just nod and turn to the second set of curtains, this one slicing the interior of my tent in half. On the other side a low stage awaits, and a crowd of curious onlookers. I can imagine them now, all eyes on the barker in his striped suit standing on the stage, ready to introduce me. The barker begins his speech, telling a made-up story about a made-up person. The person he describes sounds strange and exotic. I wonder if anyone would come to see me if the barker told a story about a frightened and lonely girl. He finishes. I push through the curtains, step onto the stage, blink in the harsh lights. I try half-heartedly to look strange and exotic.
A mass of people stare, their outlines blurred together by the darkness beyond the foot of the stage. They stretch their already overextended necks, trying to see what I have hidden beneath the grimy cape of my costume. I sigh, then stretch my wings, shaking them free of the cloth. The feathers, the same soft russet as my hair, whisper like old friends. I stand tall, stretch my wings as far as they will go. They fill the tent, brushing the canvas yards away on either side of me and casting strange shadows on the walls. The children in the crowd press forward, hands outstretched to touch my feathers. I want them to. I want to see the wonder on their round faces when they feel the downy, silken warmth. I want them to bury their hands in the softness of my wings, and hear their cries when they realize that the feathers live and breathe. But Martin is still watching from behind the curtain, and I don’t dare. My leash is short, as if they fear I will fly away. Slowly I kneel, sweep my wings upward, lay my hands palm up upon my knees. Tom tells me to do this; he says it makes me look like an angel.
Do I look like an angel? I wonder, eyes half open to watch the crowd push toward the stage. They whisper to one another, a sound like the wind brushing on the canvas of my tent at night. Have they ever seen an angel? I saw one once. In a book that one of the other freaks showed me. That angel was tall and beautiful, with wild dark hair and a gown made of endless white silk. I wonder what that angel would think of a bony, grimy, barefoot girl, hair matted and tangled, wrapped in a coarse dress made of what was a bed sheet.
Tears run down my cheeks; I don’t know why. I close my eyes and wait. I can only wait. Slowly the voices dim, then vanish. I open my eyes. The lights are out. I am alone. I cross back through the canvas curtains into my side of the tent and sit down on an upturned crate. Martin is gone. I feel blindly around my feet, groping through the dark. I have left it here, I think ... I find what I am searching for. My book. My own possession. Martin and Tom do not know I have it. They would take it away if they knew. They like to keep me in the dark, and books hold light.
I run my hands over the cover, feeling the brittle, plastic some librarian in a bygone town taped lovingly into place. In the dark I let the book fall open in my lap, to the place where the spine broke long ago. I remember, without needing to see, what is written there.
A story. A boy, and his father. They are locked together in a tower on a rock in the sea. I have never seen the sea. Before I die, I want to go to the sea.
The father builds wings, out of wood, wax, and feathers. He and his son fly away from their prison.
I want to fly. I have never been allowed to fly. Inside my small tent, there isn’t even space to stretch my wings out. I watch the birds sometimes, as they flitter past my doorway. I’ve seen their nests in barren trees as we travel through the winter. I’ve watched the hawks sail overhead, their wings stretched wide. What must it be like?
The son in the story was a fool. He allowed the sun to take his wings and died for it. I will not allow anyone to take my wings. I would die for it as well. I nearly did once. How long ago now? Ten years? Twelve? That is closer, I think. Twelve years since I lay in the brackish water in the bottom of the ditch. How old was I then? Four? Five? I do not know.
I press the book to my chest and cry, but softly, for Martin may still be nearby. He listens, always, as if he might catch me in some stolen moment of happiness. Why should the girl be happy? I can almost hear him think. She must be grateful. I am grateful, I suppose. But I am hollow. Empty, like a bird’s bone. Brittle.
I stand. My book tumbles to the dust, falling open where the spine has broken. Outside there are still voices. Families go past. I push open the curtains, timidly, then farther. I step through. My wings drape around me like my costume cloak. In the dark, the people cannot see me. They do not stare. I am like them, an anonymous stranger in the dark. Two go past, hand in hand. I ache to see them. A family comes close. A mother, a father. A son. A balloon, colorless in the evening, trails on a string. The boy trips over his dragging shoelace, falls. The balloon unwinds itself from his fingers and drifts away into the night sky. He scrambles up, reaching for the trailing string as the sky pulls it away. The twine slips through his fingers; he cries out.
In that moment, I am no longer hollow. With strength I do not realize my thin legs possess, I leap skyward. A spiral of crackling feathers surrounds me as my wings stretch away toward the horizons to my left and right. Down they sweep, forcing the air away; I rise higher and higher. The wild wind whips my hair and dress, whistles through my feathers. Stars surround me like fireflies. I could dance on the clouds. The moon smiles, a crooked crescent. Just above me, the balloon is adrift. My fingers wrap around the trailing string. Again I beat my wings, reveling in the wild tempest I stir up amidst the clouds. I look to the skies. White stars brush across my cheeks, snag in my eyes until they must look like a diamond-dusted ocean, dark and blue and strange. The wind stirs my feathers as I drift in the sky. They are singing now, no longer whispering. First this way then that, I flex my wings, reveling in their strength, the kind of strength I never thought I would possess.
But now I am descending, slowly, slowly falling. I step lightly out of the sky onto the earth again. I fold my wings. The matted grass is slick with dust and dew beneath my naked feet. I wonder at the feel of earth after the lightness of the air. The string, balloon bobbing at the end, is still entwined in my fingers.
Before me, the boy stands stunned. Each of his parents rests a hand on his shoulders. I kneel, hand him the balloon. His tiny fingers clasp the string, but he doesn’t move, eyes wide, staring. I hardly see him. I am still flying, still lost in the sky.
A hand wraps around my arm, enveloping my shoulder in a vice. It is as cold and heavy as wet earth. Martin. What an earthbound wretch. I smile. He cannot touch me now. He cannot hold me.
“Inside,” Martin grunts, points at the tent. I shake my head. I will not. I have flown too close to the sun now, and I am set aflame.