The man was mumbling to himself again.
Glancing at him out of the corner of her eye, the girl silently slid on her headphones, wary. It wasn’t the fact that he talked to himself that weirded her out, people did that all the time; it was the words that he said. They were confusing yet beautiful, and extremely personal. She felt as if she should cover her ears and squeeze her eyes shut like a child hearing something uncomfortably vulnerable. Some days he talked about his daughter, others some man he had met in high school. But a few times he would mention wings. He would talk about how he used to have them but some “being” had come and plucked them from his back.
On those days she couldn’t keep herself from listening.
The mumbling man had been on the bus with her for as long as she’d ridden it. Every morning when she got on, there he was, in the same window seat, hands wringing in his lap, lips flapping with the mummerings of a madman. That first day she had sat down right in front of him, unsuspecting of the stories that would soon flood her ears. It had so happened that she had forgotten her headphones that day, much to her irritation. As she resigned herself to the fact that she would have to ride the bus in silence for an hour, his soft, hoarse voice drifted into her conscience. He seemed to say something about going to see his daughter and her good for nothing fiance, who had forgotten the man’s birthday. The girl had paused, waiting for the complaint to continue. She was not disappointed. The man went on to say that this was not the first time an atrocity such as this has occurred. It was so common that he had, in fact, brought this up with the boy, asking him if he thought it funny not to offer somebody congratulations on living another year. Apparently the boy vowed never again to forget a birthday, and promptly failed the next year. The man had practically given up hope. Smiling to herself, the girl reached for her phone and began the mindless scroll through Instagram, thinking the story finished. After a few minutes of silence the man said “I bet he’ll starting counting my birthday’s when I’m dead”. Stunned, the girl had burst into laughter, but stopped when she realized the other bus riders were staring at her. She winced in apology then turned to the man behind her.
“Don’t give up hope,” she’d said, “He’ll remember someday.”
The man had frozen had at her response like a deer in headlights. His dark eyes flickered about her face, as if to gauge her intent. She smiled. He had opened his mouth once, as if to reply, but had promptly closed it and turned to the window. Questioning the reaction inwardly, the girl turned around in her seat and continued scrolling through her phone. A few minutes later the man’s voice began anew and repeated what he’d said all over again. It was then that the girl realized the man must have been mad.
She did not respond again.
The next day, there he was again. Same seat, same worn leather jacket, same green Eagles hat sitting on top of his tight graying dark curls. The only difference was his mutterings. This time he didn’t mention the fiance, only the love he had for his daughter. The girl had remembered her headphones this time, to her relief, so she thought it all right to sit in the same seat. She didn’t pay much attention to him that day, slightly hurt by the snub from the day before.
And so it went. Everyday the girl would get on the bus, notice the man, but pay him no attention. She figured it would be best for them to exist separately. It wasn’t until the second week that he had brought up the story about his wings.
“They plucked them from me one feather at a time.”
The girl had jolted up from a nap at the words. What the hell?
“I loved my wings,” the madman had continued. “But all I have left is one feather.”
The only thing that registered in the girls mind was that having only one feather left of once loved wings was indescribably tragic. The girl did not turn, but did not go back to sleep. Instead, she began to listen. She listened as the man talked about the beauty of flight, of the strain of muscles and the power of flapping. She also listened to him describe the pain of losing his wings, one feather at a time so that day by day he could fly less and less until finally he could not fly at all. By the time she had arrived at her stop a few tears had slipped down her face. She did not look back as she left.
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and soon the girl had been sitting in the same seat, right in front of the man, for almost a year. She had heard so many stories by then; most were the same or variations of the same story, but every once and a while she got a new one. Sometimes he continued his complaints of the fiance - now son-in-law. Sometimes he talked of his high school friends or his childhood dog. But her favorite days were the days where he talked of bank heists, or cowboy shootouts or, most importantly, his wings. The story of his broken wings stayed the same. The descriptions and feeling was told in the same words. And yet every time it never failed to bring tears to her eyes. Just the thought of loving something so much but only to be left with a single piece, useless but for memories of what could never be had again, tugged on her soul. It was as if she could feel his pain, his loss. Feel the freedom that the wings had once been and the newfound oppression that remained in their place.
She longed to help him.
This day, after a year and three weeks of riding the bus and listening to his stories the girl couldn’t take it. She warily slid on her headphones, blocking out his words with the soft tones of her song. She couldn’t take listening to his stories as everyday as they seemed bleaker and bleaker. How could she let this man suffer alone and do nothing?
It finally came to her she stepped off the bus.
The next day the girl returned again, but instead of going to her usual seat she broke the barrier she had been too scared to touch since that first day and sat down next to the man. He didn’t react at first, the only noticeable thing was the slight tension in his shoulders. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t mention the time she had talked to him, or the fact that she had been sitting right in front of him for a year and was listening to every word he said.
This man, the girl thought, is a talker. But he’s not a speaker.
Carefully, so as not to startle the man, the girl reached into her bag and pulled out what she had done. She looked at the man straight on.
“I made this for you. Would you like it?”
The man met her eyes but said nothing. He glanced at the newspaper in her hand only once.
“I promise it’s not trash. I’m a student at the art school. I’m an artist, I swear.” The girl smiled again, reaching out the gift.
The man watched her for a moment, then slowly reached out a rough brown hand and touched the package, running his fingers across the surface. Carefully, as if scared it might break, the man lifted the gift out of her hand and cradled it in his own. Peering down at it curiously, the man began to peel back the paper, looking once at the girl as if for permission. She nodded to go on.
He let out a breath as he saw what she had done. It was a small glass sculpture in the shape of a feather. It was as wide as his hand and just longer. The detail in each piece of feather was intricate enough to keep the girl in awe of her own work. She had never made anything like it before and she knew she never would again. But it felt right.
As if in a trance, the man ran a fingertip across the middle of the sculpture, dipping into the center of the feather.
“Do you like it? I know I could never get you your real wings again but I hope this is at least something. If you only have one feather left it might as well be the most beautiful one.”
The man looked up, tears shining in his eyes. “Thank you.”
They were the first and only words he ever said directly to her.
It was enough.
Tearing up herself, the girl only smiled. Then faced forward again. They rode in silence the rest of the way.
The next day, the girl returned again to her usual seat and waited. He muttered but he did not talk about his wings that day. Or the next. Or the next. Finally, a week later, he once again talked of his wings. The girl couldn’t breath as he said “I loved my wings,” he paused. “But they took them from me. Now I have them back.”
The girl covered her mouth as she smiled.
The next day the girl returned once again and sat down in her usual seat.
She leaned her head against the cool window and smiled.
The man was muttering to himself again.