Alex climbed out and slammed the car door. The sound hung there, short and sharp, and they came. On wings of flame and long graceful necks they came, blazing in the sunset light, bending their heads as if their own beauty did not burn. They arched out of the water from the tips of their beaks to the ends of their long slender legs, their eyes winking.
They rose up from the water of the little lake, behind Alex’s long dark hair and her furious eyes. He raised an arm, and pointed. “Look,” he said, his voice wavering.
Alex’s eyes flashed, her cheeks reddened. “Mack,” she said.
“No,” he said. “Look!”
She turned automatically, to see them flying away. Her hands went to her hips, and she turned back to him. “Mack,” she said. “I can’t believe you would try to distract me!”
“But I — ” he said. He spread his hands. “I’m sorry.”
“The money, Mack,” Alex said. “The mortgage. What the hell do we do now?”
Behind her the herons were still on the wing, almost invisible. The sun had gone down, and they could hardly be seen in the dusk. He squinted his eyes to see them.
“They’re just birds,” Alex said. “They’re just goddamn birds.” Her stiletto heels crunched on the gravel. Her hands fumbled at the lock, and he followed her into the house.
Mack made veal parmigiana, thinking to soften her; it was one of her favorites. The meat-and-garlic scent spread through the kitchen. He set two places, hoping she would come. But Alex ignored the clinking of dishes and sat in the bay window, drinking glass after glass of red wine and looking out at the moon shining on the trees and the lake.
Mack took a bite, but the veal was tasteless and tough and his stomach stopped rumbling. She leaned against the window seat, drowsy with the wine and her fury. “I’m sorry,” he said, not knowing if she could hear. “I never meant to hurt you.”
Alex did not move. He walked to the window seat and picked her up. She stirred in his arms. “Why didn’t you tell me you had a problem?” she murmured, and slept.
That night he lay awake, the click of dice and shuffling of cards looping in his head. How could he have done this, all those years? Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. Toward dawn he dozed fitfully, and in the doze, he dreamed.
He swam naked in the lake, the water like silk against his skin. He breached for air, drawing in large lungfuls. Through his water-blurred eyes he saw them settle around him in a ring. Their legs drifting in the water. Their feathers a muted blue-gray like the sky at the first rays of dawn.
He hung there, treading water, drinking in the movements of their slender bodies. To his left one of them winked its little black eye. “Tell me,” he asked it, his voice choked from the water, “what can I do? How do I fix this?”
To his right one of them let out a croak, guttural and real. He reached out his hand to it, slowly. It did not move away, nor bite, but nudged his palm with its head. The feathers were sleek under his fingers. “Yes,” he said.
The sun was rising, and as he watched it touched their eyes and their black plumes with light, making their masked faces glow. The herons at his sides inclined their heads to rest on his shoulders. He stopped treading water, and floated, and queasiness overtook him. He retched, and the spasm rippled along the length of his entire body, compressing him.
His neck elongated, his face. His legs reached and reached. He stretched his arms and found that they were wings. Blue-feathered wings, jointed and tapering at the tips.
He woke, opened his wings, and flew.
Emily K. Iekel is a teacher and translator currently living in Galicia, Spain. She grew up on Rowling and Tolkien, as well as Garcia Marquez and Rimbaud, developing a healthy curiosity about the boundary between reality and fiction. She has had prose published by Gardy Loo, and nonfiction published by The Breeze, Sister Speak, and English Teaching Daily. Her poems have appeared in Fugue, Gardy Loo, Elfwood, Salome, Troubadour21, The Boiler Journal, and, most recently, The Voices Project.