Perched on a plastic chair as though indifferent to the bitter stink of antiseptic and cacophony of voices, the clawing in Ava’s stomach sharpened. Scrutinising the swinging doors where her dad had disappeared on the gurney, she chewed her inner cheek at her mum refusing her pleas to stay.
Ava exhaled a protracted breath at the sight of Grandma Femi pushing through the congested waiting room; her floaty dress sashayed, and she wore a smattering of makeup whilst wafts of vanilla scent followed her like a heady cloud.
As Grandma Femi gestured to her daughter, Ava discerned the anguish exchanged between the pair, and her heart hammered.
‘Gabrielle, my sweet… Go, be with Daniel… I’ll get these two back home safe,’ she said, embracing her daughter before bobbing her head at Ava and her sister.
Following quick kisses, and with corrugated creases on her brow, Gabrielle rushed to the emergency ward.
‘Ava, sweetie, will you grab Gertie for me? We need to hurry; I’m parked on double-yellows.’
Ava grunted her ascent before reaching for her sister who sat sprawled on the polished floor. The corners of Ava’s mouth upturned as Gertie yanked at the tail of a plastic chick causing an electronic squawking followed by Gertie’s giggling.
At the car, Grandma Femi paused to flick through her phone; messages flying back and forth from family and friends.
Ensconced at the dining table, Ava’s gangling legs rocked. She scanned her feather collection with acuity, separating each plume by size and style.
‘Don’t you want to go outside and see your friends?’ Grandma Femi asked before popping a rogue curl of dusky hair behind Ava’s ear.
‘Maybe later,’ Ava replied without stirring from her feathers.
Grandma Femi turned to the pile of encrusted dishes. She motioned with a head swish to the open window where yelps and squeals echoed from the village green. ‘Your mum told me you need a bit of sunlight,’ she said, clanking the cutlery into the ceramic sink. ‘Nesting inside for so long won’t do you any good.’
Phasing out her grandma’s voice, Ava chattered in a low tone whilst preening a plume with one of Gertie’s discarded doll’s hairbrushes. With a head bob, she turned to the pencil drawing she’d honed for months; erasing where necessary, adding when required. This pursuit often ensued after a trip to the hospital where they would follow the flashing ambulance with its whirring sirens, speeding past gardens with greenery drained to a sickly shade of straw by the sun.
Upon her dad trudging into the house a week later, Ava flew to him. ‘Welcome home,’ she said. ‘You’ve got to see my latest drawing.’
Despite his pallid face, sunken cheeks and bones sticking out of sallow skin, he beamed. ‘I can’t wait,’ he said, ruffling her halo of hair.
‘I need to get your dad to bed for some rest. I’m sure he’ll look at it tomorrow.’
Ava’s head wilted as though a sunflower lacking light. But when she peeked, Ava spied her dad’s brief gesture of eyeing the ceiling and she dipped her head.
An hour later, ‘Quiet,’ he told Ava, ‘if your mum hears, we’ll get in trouble… Now, where’s this amazing drawing of yours?’
Unfolding the paper, flattening it out on the crisp duvet cover, she watched as a spark ignited in her dad’s tawny-coloured eyes.
‘Brilliant,’ he said, studying the diagram. ‘I can see you’ve lengthened the wings… and added another layer to the bottom… those changes should do it.’
‘I don’t want to be Icarus again,’ she said, flashing a grin, remembering his favourite story.
He chuckled, causing his face to shed the years his illness had added. ‘It won’t happen, not with my special glue… no wax for my girl… When do you start making them?’
‘Tomorrow, if mum doesn’t force me outside with the other kids,’ Ava said, raising her eyes at the idea a parent might require their child to venture out in daylight.
‘Want some help?’
‘Your mum’s taking Gertie to the clinic in town. We’ll have a few hours.’
Ava beamed which morphed into a frown upon noticing her dad wincing. ‘What’s wrong…?’ she asked as a beak seemed to peck at her heart.
‘Just a little twinge, nothing for you to worry about,’ he said, grasping his concaved belly. ‘But can you get your mum for me?’
Flitting to the sofa, Ava caught the words winding down the stairs: ‘Sorry, Daniel, but we’re going to have to take you back to the hospital and see what’s going on … It might be time to consider a hospice.’ The doctor’s tidings followed the raw sobbing of her mum leaking into the lounge. This dirge intersected with the incongruous squealing of Gertie as she stared at the cartoons with their crashes and boinks. All the while Ava fumbled through her feathers, teardrops wetting the plumes.
Waking at the blue hour, Ava rubbed her blurry eyes. Detecting the raven-black dress in the emerging light, she respired. Shifting her gaze to the well-worn orange sweatshirt and denim dungarees crumpled in the corner, a memory of nestling beside her dad in his hospital bed scratched at her mind.
‘Promise me, Ava,’ he said with a croaky voice, ‘you’ll finish your wings.’
Ava watched him for a moment, seeing the grimace at the slight adjustment of his body. ‘I can’t do it without you, Dad.’
‘You can and you will… I remember making a wooden spitfire with my dad… I’d just turned twelve, like you. When he’d gone, I finished it… took the plane to the top of the glen. I swear I heard my dad’s laughter in the wind, blowing the wings higher, letting the spitfire soar.’
‘I don’t know…’
‘We of the Arundel line, we’re engineers… flyers the lot of us… it’s in the blood.’
‘You’re the engineer, Dad, not me.’
He offered a chortle which turned into a rasping cough. After a few sips of water, ‘Those wings… your drawing,’ he said in a serious tone, ‘you’ve got the makings of a great engineer.’
‘I’ll try,’ she said, her head flopping to her chest.
He lifted her chin and gave her a peck on the head. ‘You’ll do more than try, you’ll succeed. Think of me when you fly, my sweet Ava. I’ll laugh you into the air.’
‘What about Mum?’
‘I’ll talk to her…’ he said, offering a swift smile. ‘Besides, you had those gliding lessons… you became quite the expert. The instructor said you had an instinct for flying.’
‘She won’t let me.’
‘When I’m gone, explain to her, she’ll listen… It’s not like you’re gonna jump from the attic balcony.’
A chirp erupted from Ava at the notion.
In the kitchen, the hollow quiet caused a stabbing sensation in Ava’s abdomen as she waited.
Peering at her parent shuffling into the space, ‘Mum,’ Ava asked in a tentative tone, ‘do I have to wear the dress? Can I put my wings over it?’
‘Ava, we’ve talked about this… Nanny Lilian, she’d get upset.’
‘Okay,’ Ava said as her shoulders slumped. With tears on the brink of striping her cheeks, she shifted toward the stairs.
‘Besides,’ her mum said, suspiring, ‘I thought you hadn’t finished them.’
Hovering in the doorway, ‘But if she does, can’t she try them out later after everyone’s left?’ Grandma Femi asked.
Ava halted, staring at her mum as she closed her eyes, rubbed her neck, and wiped away slow-running tears. ‘Alright, tonight, once everyone’s gone home.’
Friends and relatives, as though trying to grasp a fleeting fragment of Ava’s dad which seemed to have infused itself into the house’s bones, drank and talked long after the heavens had morphed into an inky hue. Hours earlier Ava had escaped to her room, pulling out her precious box of plumes from beneath her bed.
She fell into a fitful slumber; dreams filled with floating feathers and her dad’s hooting. Ephemeral images blew by of when he had the breath to run alongside Ava or the strength to carry her on his shoulders.
Waking at the hour of the owl, with soft feet, Ava trod the squeaky stairs towards her dad’s workspace. Grasping onto her box, she clicked the light switch, blinking at the amber glare. The redolence of peppermint and bitter orange conjured her dad slipping out onto the balcony for a respite. Wiping the wetness from her cheeks, she shunned the gnawing at her insides.
Tiptoeing across the area, her stomach flipped at the framed photograph of her dad in his blue and gold gown. Focusing on her dad’s last words, she halted in the centre of the stuffy studio, setting the container on the floor.
‘Fly, my sweet Ava… fly for me when I can’t fly anymore.’ His eyes slipped shut, and he wore a slight smile on his lips which had parted with his final exhalation.
When her mum arrived with a steaming plastic cup, it thumped to the floor, splashing the sugary tea about Gabrielle’s jeans. She stared, palm covering her mouth, skin as ashen as her dead husband. All the while Ava clung to her dad’s chilling fingers, bawling into bed sheets suffused with a chemical stink, irritating her nose, and clinging to her throat.
Resting on the carpet, she peeled back the lid of what had once housed an artificial Christmas tree, which now brimmed with plumes. Her drawing lined the base, and beside her sat a jar of clear glue, her dad’s top-secret formula.
Like a fairy-tale elf, she laboured through the night. With precision, she positioned her myriad of feathers: crow black, swan white, pigeon grey and two treasured umber-coloured eagle plumes her dad happened upon while hiking in the Scottish Highlands before his illness. These she interlaced with contour and flight feathers of duck and grey goose. Each a found feather from family, friend, and Ava’s astute eyes, where she would alight on potential plumes.
Working on her wings, she did not notice the hours clicking away on the clock formed from oak into an aeroplane. As the sun slinked into the summer sky, each wing measured over a metre. She completed the task by interlacing arm-straps fashioned from braided multicoloured ribbons; squirrelled away from celebratory gifts. Smiling through the tears, Ava raised her wings to the curtainless glass, as though an offering to Acanthis.
Rolling up her sleeves, she moved to attach the plumage to her snowy-coloured pyjama-clad arms.
Wearing the wings, she caught a vision of her dad; the sheen of his skin; his inch of neat hair; his long, lean limbs, solid with a runner’s muscles.
As she flapped her arms, the feathers, glued with the lightest of adhesives, seemed to merge with her skin. With a shimmer of what appeared to Ava like an electric spark, she gulped away the metallic taste in the air.
Considering the glen in the distance, she shifted toward the balcony. Reaching the sunrise scene, she spied the ladders used to reach high-shelved books, and her heart drummed.
The call of her mum’s voice saw Ava grabbing the stepladder which she dragged to the door. Sliding the panel, the collective chorus from the garden and grove saw Ava’s eyes turn owlish. Advancing onto the bare boards, she secured the wooden steps against the metal of the balcony with a soft thud.
Sweet morning air pulled at her rumpled hair, tugging at her wings. Ava would swear she heard the rumbling laugh of her dad, seeming to cause the feathers to ripple as though in reply.
‘Ava, where are you?’ Grandma Femi called as she stepped into the garden, the breeze causing a shift in her greying curls as though a waving wheat field.
To the sound of her mum’s hollering, Ava climbed the rungs as the eggshell blue hue of the sky framed her vision.
Drumming her wings, Ava elevated a few inches, and in response, she emitted a soft squeak.
Clamping her eyes closed, she caught a distant murmuration and her head bobbed with the certainty of a seasoned flyer.
Ava leapt into the air in time to her mum’s swift slipper-clad feet and Grandma Femi’s screaming. Fluttering her wings, she somersaulted toward the cumulus clouds, as her mum shrieked her name.
‘Oh, my bloody God,’ Grandma Femi bellowed, an edgy giggle to her tone. ‘She’s like that bloody superhero in the films. What’s his name…?’
Ava, gliding on the thermals, caught her dad’s chortling, and her wings swished. As the mirth elevated, she ascended with a grin on her face and bubbles bouncing in her belly.
‘Fly, my sweet,’ she heard him whisper on the wind. ‘I’m watching over you, Ava. You won’t be Icarus again.’
As Ava soared towards the heavens, she laughed in tune with her dad’s chuckling.
Author Bio: Rachael Burnett hails from Yorkshire but lives in Somerset with her husband and diva cat. In 2021 Rachael was awarded a Master of Arts, Pass with Distinction in English Literature from Bath Spa University (Rachael’s MA thesis focused on posthuman representations in the work of Surrealist writer and artist Leonora Carrington). In 2020 she was awarded a Bachelor of Arts, First-class Honours in English Literature from The Open University. Since 2013 Rachael has worked as a freelance writer. Rachael has three published works: the novel, Don’t Play with Fire, the non-fiction, Secrets of Sacred Sound, and the children’s book, Glastonbury Gnomes. Find her online at rburnett.co.uk.