The searing summer sun shines through a wall of windows and into the eyes of a young woman seated at a round reception desk. She squints. She closes her eyes for a minute and her face seems serene. The phone rings. It startles her and she grabs it quickly to stop the noise, her eyes now open wide. As she replaces the receiver, she pulls at her high collared shirt and adjusts the long sleeves, which stick to her skin slightly. She stops abruptly and pretends to be writing a note as a woman walks down the stairs above her, across reception and through an internal door. Her head lowered; she says nothing. The receptionist resumes her fiddling with the shirt, shifting uncomfortably in her seat and switching on a small, white, plastic fan. Another woman descends the stairs, but this time stops to chat. The conversation is stunted, awkward; the woman’s eyes are probing, quickly darting back and forth from the receptionists face to her blonde hair, to her shirt. The receptionist blushes, worrying that the woman has noticed how sweaty she is in the stifling shirt. The woman is wearing a cotton vest; her light brown hair is pulled up into a high ponytail, exposing her neck. She stands with her hands on her hips and laughs a little too loudly. When she leaves, the receptionist rushes to the toilet to splash herself with cold tap water and to hide for a while. She looks at herself in the mirror, the fluorescent strip lights only exacerbating her insecurities. She presses powder on her pale face and sprays deodorant inside her shirt. She stares in the mirror and frowns, then opens the door and returns to her desk.
Her afternoon alternates between half-hearted chatting with women who stop by to waste time and hours of staring at the trees outside the door. She watches them move in the silent breeze, a breeze she cannot feel. Her fan is a poor substitute.
She smiles and welcomes each visitor on arrival. She brings them a drink and talks about weather, and laughs at the same jokes she hears every day. She bids them goodbye when they leave with warm-hearted wishes. She packs up her things and walks home at the end of the day in the thin lines of shadows wherever she can.
In the coolness of night, she sits in the dark, on a large wooden bed. She stares at strings of tiny round mirrors that hang from the ceiling. She pats her wet skin with a coffee coloured towel, then looks at herself in the dressing-table mirror and cries. Her whole body stiffens as she lets her towel fall and twists her torso around to see her back in the reflection. Two ivory coloured wings protrude from broken skin, so delicate, diaphanous. She pulls at them. She scratches and tears at the surrounding skin. Her husband enters the room quietly, and watches her for a moment, then comes to sit on the bed beside her and takes her hand in his, holding it for a moment, before letting go to pick up a tube of cream from the dressing-table. He rubs the cream on the wounds. She winces, not just at the pain but also at the sight she sees in the mirror. She studies his face as he tends to her, searching for a hint of the disgust she’s sure he feels, of the repulsion he must be suppressing. She closes her eyes to escape the image, to escape the panic that threatens to overtake her. Hot tears leak from her closed lids with every gentle stroke of his fingertips. She weeps silently. He puts away the cream, then turns her around and wipes away her tears, which only creates more. His tenderness touches her so deeply she can hardly bear it. But she does. This ritual is a nightly one. She has had this affliction for many years.
When they first fell in love she was normal, or at least she looked that way. She even wore halter-tops, her long hair swaying and tickling her back when she walked. One night she felt a strange sensation, a burning, throbbing feeling. She went to bed in pain and dreamt of butterflies, trapped inside her body, fluttering under her skin, drowning in her blood. When she woke the next morning, she had wings. Only her husband knows.
She used to beg him to try to tear them off, but he refused, so she did it herself; just once. In a hot bath one night, she contorted her body to reach them and ripped and tore at herself, screaming in agony. She finally fainted from the pain; slumped over the side of the bathtub, immersed from the waist down in crimson water, with tattered translucent gauze floating on the surface. The wings grew back, slowly and painfully. She didn’t try again.
So now she just covers them up and hopes no one notices anything strange. She goes to work and pretends every day, except for the really bad days when she calls in excuses, then hides inside and cries.
It’s late one afternoon, another hot and humid, hellish one; she is setting up a meeting room. She drags the tables and chairs into place and begins to secure the heavy panels of the room divider that she has pushed aside for the meeting. She is running late; the room is filling with women, they’re watching her, waiting to take their seats. As she struggles with the metal winch, it jams inside the lock. She twists and tugs at it in desperation, everyone is looking. In one forceful pull, she frees the winch at last, but the panels start to rock and swing and grind. A screw falls from the ceiling rail and she lifts her head to look, the panels start to shift and groan, then tumble onto each other like deafening dominos. She leaps out of the way but moves too late and the pile of panels throw her to the floor. More embarrassed than hurt she lets two older women help her up and checks that no one-else is injured. Uncomfortable she tries to move away from the old woman still holding her by the arm. She turns to tell her she’s just fine and notices the woman’s look of shock. The woman is reaching out fingers towards her back. She shudders and then she sees, her shirt is ripped and soaked with blood. She cranes her neck to look and horrified, a sob escapes her. She cannot breathe. Her shirt is hanging from her back, her skin is cut and there, in this room of women, all gaping in undisguised terror, her nightmare is realised, her wings exposed.
Panic overpowers her, distraught, she tries to flee the room. The old woman stops her. She grips her arm; she blinks to clear the tears that flood her eyes. What torture can they have in store for the freak that walks among them? She still can’t breathe. The room is turning white. The old woman is saying something; she focuses her eyes again and looks. She’s pulling up her skirt. She’s hoisting it up above her knees, has she gone mad? A gasp, uttered in unison, as every woman in the room makes sense of what she’s seeing; a tail, a stripy tail, all gold and black, as if she were a tiger. The room is silent, still. Suddenly the atmosphere is charged with something; something strange and new. Slowly another woman moves, she pushes back her heavy fringe and timidly reveals two tiny horns. She waits for a reaction but instead another woman steps forward and starts to lift her shirt.
In the coolness of night, she sits in the dark, on her large wooden bed. She stares at strings of tiny round mirrors that hang from the ceiling. She pats her wet skin with the coffee coloured towel, then looks at herself in the dressing-table mirror and smiles. She lets her towel fall and twists her torso around to see her back in the reflection. She stares at her ivory coloured wings, so delicate, diaphanous. She touches them. They feel so soft, so sheer. Her husband enters the room quietly; she senses him and turns around. He smiles at her, she laughs and then her wings begin to flutter.