© Feech -- all rights reserved
Gabriel clicks off the connection on the phone. I've been hanging around, toying with my hair and rubbing my earlobes and generally doing other useless things while he talked. It's all really his department, anyway. For someone so solemn, Gabe sure has a lot of friends. He's been eager to have a place and the time to do something like this, but it seems like half the time I only know people or help people because Gabe knew them first. Only Jesymyn, back at Hayden Heath, has really been my friend. It's funny, too, because people always expect the opposite. Maybe I drew it out of Gabe a little; I don't know. I do know that I feel distinctly useless in serious social situations a good lot of the time. But he's excited about this, and in a way I am too. Heck, I'm a lot excited. Nervous excited, but excited.
Gabe looks at me. "Ready?" he asks me.
"There's a girl... not talking, depressed, but eating and otherwise healthy... Other than the SCABS, that is."
"Of course," I say. I lean down and toy with my shoe.
"They want her in a home to see if she'll open up a little bit; it's been months in a large place with lots of people and barely any progress. Apparently this lady has a lot going on and she'd like to see Jezalyn in possibly permanent surroundings."
"There's an aunt and uncle or something, but they're not up to taking her. Whether they're anti-SCAB or not I don't know. Kent..."
"Kent, Wuffie, are you sure?"
I straighten up. "Jezalyn? Is that her name?"
"And you, Gabriel. You want this. I can't ask myself just about me."
He looks so dark, like always. He wears his solemnity well, anyhow. "You and your girls..."
He blinks and gives a bit of a bemused smile. "My girls? They're the ones who charm me and then claim I help them."
"But you do. You do help them. I knew when someone called saying they needed us that it would be a girl. You attract lost girls like moths to flame."
"Well, it's a simile. Get over it." I laugh at him a little, but then rub the back of my neck and look at him submissively. "Jezalyn."
Could be a good sign. I take the few steps towards my 'beest-morph that it takes to hug him, mostly because I want to but also just to buy me that few extra seconds it takes me to make up my mind. "Yeah, let's go through with it. It'll do me good to contribute to society for once."
Gabriel chuckles in that incredibly low tone that must be just like something African only I can't think of it right now. My hair is teased up in front because I needed something to do, and he smashes it down probably because he knows that since I'm within range I'm going to ruffle his mane and he might as well get even.
I do ruffle his mane. "So, She-Beest--"
"She-Beest," I insist, "Do they expect a call back this evening?"
"No. Let's go to the library. I need to find out a little more about Jezalyn's form."
"Macaw." He looks down at the pad near the cordless phone's resting place. "Hyacinth macaw."
"Full-morphic. About three feet long, more or less, I think. Big, for a bird."
I nuzzle into his neck. I almost don't want to think about it right now. Every question brings on too many more. I'm sure Gabriel can handle this just fine whether I actually participate or not.
At the same time, I know I signed all the papers and did all the questionnaires and sat in at all the meetings for a reason that has something to do with me, even if I wouldn't have done it without Gabe. I used to think it had something to do with wanting to be a mother, but that's not it. Not exactly. It has to do with we SCABS sticking together, perhaps. Maybe I want one more on our side. Whatever it is, I know it's not simply because I need to make this lovely wildebeest-person happy. I would do a lot to do that. I would probably take in a foster SCAB to do that. But something else about it excites me, too. I was honest when I said we were in this together.
Jezalyn the Hyacinth macaw. "How old?"
"Sixteen, when she changed less than a year ago."
He grins. "Let's hope so."
"Awww..." I tug at his beard until he tosses his head up in irritation. "She will be. And if she's not, well then I'll just be sure to let everyone know that it's because you are such a poor influence on her."
"You know I will be."
Gabe sounds rather serious. Once in awhile it can be hard to tell, and this time I opt for not-joking. "Come on, Gabe! Who better? If anything you'll be the only sane one she comes in contact with, among our friends. You're too worried to be a bad influence. It's us blithe persons you have to worry about."
"You blithe persons are too perfect to worry. You have nothing to worry about."
"We worry about you serious persons."
"All right, fine. I gotta shake this funk before it starts-- I need to read up at the library. This is something I want to do, Kent. I love you for letting me try."
I kiss him. "I love you, too."
Gabe stands there a minute more like a timer has been placed on his position and he has this moment to think and the next instant to move. He breaks, grabbing his stuff for the car on the way to the door, and I sneak my arm in around his waist so he doesn't forget we're going together.
Gabe is always, it seems, even in private, just a little embarrassed when I wrap an arm around him or follow him around; he gives that signature smile now, and I almost think he's going to remove me before we get to the car, but he doesn't.
I drive on the way to New York. We couldn't possibly have forgotten anything in the preparations of the past weeks, but on the other hand I just know we're going to be making harried trips to pet supply and grocery stores on many occasions in the weeks yet to come. I'm sure I'm going to suck at this. Gabe, now Gabe will be marvelous. Gabe showed me in the books we were skimming-- he found a good picture of our girl's form, and although I was tempted to fix it in my mind I figured that wasn't such a safe thing to do, so I wouldn't have any preconceived notions. Naturally, the main item playing in my head since then has been that one photo. Behind its sweet, psittacine face with the bright black eyes tumble supplies and advice and all sorts of other superimposed questions and set-ups and difficulties... Maybe nothing will go wrong, maybe everything will. How will we know if we've really done our best? She's not talking, they said. If we can't get her to respond, have we failed or is it something that was meant to be that way? Is anything less than perfect ever meant to be that way?
I ask around about God, sometimes, and I get the most interesting answers. Most of them have to do with there being some reason for "bad" things, but whether that reason is due to God's blessing or to God's wrath, or both, varies from person to person and sometimes even within the same person's replies.
There shouldn't be young girls turned into Hyacinth macaws, should there? I tend to lean towards the affirmatives holding the burden of proof and question the ones with a God. None of them seem happy with the idea of suffering being random or meaningless. Of course, whether you have a God or not, it's not meaningless. It means something to the person undergoing the suffering. I guess the question is what it means to God, if anything.
There aren't supposed to be lesbian girls born into male bodies, are there. Do you believe in God? What does it mean to God?
Oddly, they all seem to think that God did it, and for a reason, rather than that He let it happen... Or, you get the dark reply that God didn't do it at all but demons did, and God let it happen because we asked for it.
Jezalyn asked to be turned into a Hyacinth macaw? I asked to be transsexual?
The drive is conducive to thought. Thought-voices provide the soundtrack to the images of steel, powder-coated macaw cages and pamphlets and emergency doctor and vet numbers and, solid, through the slightly smeared windshield, the road unrolling in forested and variously paved increments under the just-checked tires. Gabriel watches out the window, and I wonder what he's thinking. I don't ask, though. He'd ask me in return and I'd have to untangle all of the myriad associative ideas and attempt to give him some honest answer.
Mentally, I reach out and touch him on the shoulder, the knee. Maybe I'll get a chance at the next stop sign to spread my concentration around a little bit.
Jezalyn. No, some of the questioned God-people would reply, she didn't ask, and you didn't ask, and Gabe didn't ask. It's mankind that's evil. Somehow Man made a choice, without the current generation's say-so, and now we're all treated to rides like SCABS and AIDS and God only knows what next.
So God made my body the way it was, the way I felt and grew and became when I was a child, before the SCABS. He did not make, but allowed, the-- gasp-- transsexual orientation, an orientation which was beginning to shimmer at the edge of my consciousness before the virus. That, and the SCABS, are the "bad" parts. The rest is good.
I didn't know, until I began my impromptu explorations into Faith, that you could pick apart God's creation like that.
I feel Gabe looking at me; I smile at him, supposing my own road-hypnotized eyes are blank as his as they refocus. "You okay, 'Beest?"
He shrugs. "Yeah."
I blink a few times. The car buzzes along, occasionally clicking over tar strips in the highway. "So."
Gabe draws in a deep breath, the kind that comes after sitting in one place too long. The reels of cut-and-pasted macaw advice and macaw possibilities and girls and SCABS and wolves and God-fearers play merrily on. I grip the steering wheel nervously, then relax before Gabriel can see. I'd best not be nervous, if he is.
"How you feeling?" I ask, not nervously.
"You okay, Wolf?"
I nod, sort of.
I sigh. "Gabe... I love you."
"I know. I love you, too."
We drive. He waits. The green on some of the lower parts of the trees outside the passenger-side window complements his blue-grey, short, fine coat in such a way that I want to take a photograph. I try to slot the image into the series of thoughts crossing my cortex anyway. Gabe.
Now we're adding one. Can we even do it? Are we ready for someone else who is hurting the way Gabriel was... is, sometimes, even now? Won't his life be emptier without someone else, though? Hasn't he wanted this?
"I just don't know if I'll be good for you in this, Gabe."
"Do you want to change our minds? Say so."
I shake my head no, vehemently. "I just don't know if I can do what you need me to. I mean, it's going to be hard, isn't it? And all the equipment, and the watching, and the thinking and... and mistakes, because I'll make them, you know I will, and I wasn't raised with other kids like you were and I never real-- I never really had any, you know, friends, as such..."
Gabe's eyes on me feel so warm as to be almost hot in their caring. It's a dangerous gaze. He's used it on his girlfriends before. "I don't care that the rest of the people in your life before Hayden Heath were stupid enough to divest themselves of your company. I don't care if you do nothing but get in the way, but I know you won't. Trust me. I want you and I want to take care of that girl."
"I want to help you."
Add into the pictures in my head the image of Gabe in the Black Box Theatre at Hayden Heath, doing everything he could to divest himself of our company as his classmates and Department-mates; the smells and quiet, almost menacing sounds of the hospital where the only real colors were from the visitors and Gabe's new fur and the best, and only important, scent was his dusky wildebeest-ness that I clung to and saved for identification of the man for ever afterward. Before that, the only consistent identifying smell of Gabe Carter was that of blood, and never, it seemed, the same blood twice. Always somewhere on him.
He never had his family turn away. He did it himself. I guess we'll all find our hate and despair somewhere. He came out to his grandmother, finally, though, and with that admission and return to his family he was letting the wall down, because they knew, they knew all along, and they wanted to do nothing but support him.
So, he was his own homophobe and anti-SCABS activist and with it all turned inside into the cracking and shifting he never paid the rest of us any mind at all.
But he wasn't stupid. He was scared.
Angry, and scared.
I could excuse my parents, then, from stupidity, by noting their fear.
They feared me, and it turned to abhorrence.
I look Normal. I do look... Different, but I appear Normal.
Their knowledge is what changed things, not me.
Gabe says, they were stupid. They were all stupid. He says he was stupid not to give in to the affection everyone tried to show him. I was sent away to Hayden Heath, while Gabe ran from his family to a school willfully branded by SCABS.
Something doesn't quite finish the cycle, though. Something in Gabe's current reassurance and most welcome adoration of myself (eagerly returned) just doesn't cut the whole shape out and show it for... Whatever it is.
I can't stay quiet and road-dazed for long. Anything fiercely encouraging on Gabe's part makes me giddy. He wants me. Maybe the girl, Jezalyn, maybe she won't ruin things for us and maybe I won't ruin them for her. Maybe, heck, of course life is wonderful and perfect and I might as well sing.
I sing most of the way there, excluding at stops, some of the time. Gabe tells me, sometimes, that I sing in my sleep. I highly doubt it.
Then again, dogs paw and whimper and sometimes howl when they're asleep. So perhaps I do. It would be just like me. I just sing. It feels good.
The house is huge.
It's mostly white, like the kind you'd expect to find on a hill unless the hill were in a Gothic graphic novel. Even before we step up the gravel drive to the red stonework leading to the front doors, we hear birds. Gabriel flicks his ears, pausing as though to identify various species from among the babbling many. I don't see that he can actually do so, but his demeanor is so professional that I can't help but be impressed.
Standing too long without announcing our presence to the household is going to make me antsy in a moment, however. I unlatch the driver's side back door and remove the slate-colored, "quality, long-lasting plexiglass-fronted" travel case, ordered in the size said to fit Hyacinth macaws. We couldn't very well strap a bird into a seat belt, and I hope fervently that this will suffice, will please and not in any way offend our silent, new companion. It is, I suppose, a first offering to Jezalyn. If she accepts it, then at least any unacceptable further offers were not the first impression.
I wonder how much she's been told about us. I wonder... Whether she cares, beneath the depression and the unnatural quiet, that she's meeting us or going anywhere at all.
I shut both doors on my side and at the second chunck Gabe vibrates his neck muscles and shakes out of his bird-listening. We give each other one more quick look, I think, with an odd excitement and sinking feeling simultaneously, our last look before we are three in the family instead of two.
I may be just a little bit jealous. All of his other girlfriends go home after their visits, or sign off the chat channel on that Transformation List at some time every night. Our home will be Jezalyn's home. Yet, my fear is more for her and Gabe than it is for me. I know he loves me. I just hope she likes Theatre People-- and that a she-wolf arriving at unspecified times won't send her into a mental relapse. My seizure-transformations could be more than a little disconcerting, to someone with not much for a sense of smell and an evident lack of ability or desire to communicate.
The house has been washed or painted within the past year, and its whiteness does not diminish up close. Gabe clicks the blazing-brass knocker in its holder two or three times and we wait.
Amongst the ever-present bird chatter footsteps approach the door and the latch is undone with a rich, soft "chik" that is nearly muffled by the seals around it. What a big, expensive, quiet place. The only extraneous noise is from the birds; it could almost have been planned that way, except that their exuberance and occasional testy tones confirm that the aviaries that must be inside and also, from the sounds of it, around back of the house, are in keeping with the will and tendencies of the animals themselves. So far, I like the place. I pat the carrying case absentmindedly. If the type of lady who lives here is being shown to us accurately by her house, then if she says we will be good for Jezalyn, it could most likely be true.
"Ah, hello! Come in! You can set that down near the cages, I'll show you where. Rhoda will be here in a moment."
I glance at Gabe, whose eye-whites are showing slightly. The butler, looking pretty much butlerish and grinning broadly in a genuinely pleased greeting, ushers us along the impeccable foyer, under an arch into a large reception room with a live tree growing among various polished white and gold tables over black-and-white tile, and into a hall from which emanates a somewhat insistent voice:
"I'm TEll-ing YOoooouu, I don' WANNA STAY OUT TOonIGHT when there's a FIRE in the GRATE by your siiiiide..."
"What the heck song is that?" Gabe wonders agitatedly, obviously unsure of himself now that he's here.
"An old one," chuckles the butler, "and I'm afraid I was a little too fond of it. It's too late now, though. He picked it up from me and he has far too much fun with it to let it go."
We enter the hall and the singing stops; we are greeted instead with the sight of two enormous welded steel bird cages, one forest mottled green and the other black. The brilliant green, yellow, navy, sky-blue and touch-of-red parrot in the green cage clings to the uppermost bar in his ceiling and contracts and dilates his pupils swiftly in his orange eyes.
"Hel-LOH!" he says in a woman's voice.
"Hello," mutters Gabriel to the bird, and it makes self-satisfied clicking sounds while chewing gently on the foot it is not using to hold onto the cage.
Really, Gabe and I barely look at him after that one glance at his enthusiastic demeanor and flashy colors. The other cage, the black one, is silent and may as well be full of mere toys and equipment as with anything living, for all the motion or sound coming from it. However, there is a gentler psittacine scent from this cage than from the musk-pervaded green bird's cage, and once we focus beyond the bars, on a shape pressed up against a large cotton knot chew toy, we see Jezalyn clearly.
Pictures could not begin to describe her. Indigo feathers, black beak and eyes, and sun-yellow skin surrounding and accentuating the black. She seems to be smiling, because of the way her beak is made, and the whole face has an air of serenity and extreme sadness. If we could just fire that spark of intelligence, get those obsidian eyes brightened and alert rather than so shining with some impossible sadness.
You see, I am already bound and determined to make this child happy. So there it is. Gabriel, too, is spellbound. I suppose we came here expecting to love her, so perhaps we are seeing things that are not there, things present in any person anyone likes and not anything particularly special.
But she is-- something.
Jezalyn holds perfectly still. While we stand there staring at her, unthinking for the moment of any shyness we might be sparking by gazing so unabashedly, the other parrot climbs to peer between the bars closest to our girl's cage and helpfully asks, "You gon' talk, Jez-yn?"
He speaks respectfully, but with a touch of expectance and impatient hope, again in the woman's voice of his greeting.
Gabe whispers, "Are you going to talk? Should we quit looking at you?"
I realize then how rude the staring is and turn away, embarrassed; Jezalyn is spellbinding and seems to show no body language of irritation or fear; it makes her seem like a piece of art.
"What's your name?" I ask the parrot in the other cage.
His orange eyes flash with the motion of his pupils. "Ollie," he says, cocking his head at me. "Ollie. What's yours?"
"Kent Dryer," I tell the bird, smiling.
"Who are you?"
I am about to reply to that when the same woman's voice comes from the entrance to the hall: "Hello! Ollie, they're friends of Jezalyn's. Visitors. They're the nice people who are taking Jez home with them." A woman with white hair, bleached whiter yet from the scent of it, enters beaming and ready with a handshake.
Ollie clouds for just a moment. He stares, making some breathy sound that could be either a hiss or a considering mutter. Then he brightens.
"You gon' talk, Jez-yn?"
"We'll see if we can get her to talk," I offer.
"See, Ollie, I warned you she would be leaving."
Ollie pouts. Gabriel and I shake hands with the decidely casual and at-ease homeowner. "I'm Rhoda," she says, "as you have been told on the phone, and as you can see, this is Jezalyn. She's an absolute darling, but I'm afraid we aren't doing what she needs here-- I feel she could certainly socialize if she felt she had a reason to. Jez, honey, these are the men I was telling you about. They're going to see how you like it at their apartment in Pennsylvania. They don't mind if you don't talk, but they'd like you to."
Jezalyn makes no response, although she seems to gaze at each of us in a remarkably penetrating way.
"Jez," I begin, almost finding it hard to speak with her bright black eyes so steadily sad in front of me, "I'm Kent, and this is Gabe, and we're going to Pennsylvania where we live; we came to take you with us, if you want to go. I brought a carrier--" I hold it up-- "and we have a cage like the one you're in now, only grey instead of black. Everything else has been set up just like it is for you here and you can ask for anything you want. We'd be honored if you'd consider it."
"We would," affirms Gabriel.
Rhoda waits a moment to see whether Jez will reply, or maybe just to sense how we feel together. Whereas Ollie starts, flaps, and then shows curiosity at the carrier being lifted up to the birds' level of sight, Jez makes no reaction whatsoever. Her smooth, blue feathers never shift nor ruffle and her only sign of life besides that gentle smell is a perfectly timed, slow blinking. Depressed. Deeply.
Rhoda takes Gabe by one arm and guides us back up the hall, telling Jezalyn, "I'm going to talk to Kent and Gabriel in my study, and we'll be discussing you, so if you want to know what was said just ask. I'm going to tell them about your family, Honey."
I look back at the macaw, but there is no response.
"We'll come back soon," Rhoda says, "and you can think about the offer to go with them in the meantime. Ollie, thank you for being a good bird. I'll be back soon."
"Good bird," says Ollie, bobbing happily.
As we leave for Rhoda's study, the musk-scented green parrot finds his singing voice again and begins treating Jezalyn and the entire front area of the house to yet another old verse, clashing joyfully with the other species' chatters and calls in the backyard and other aviaries.
I know what they're going to hear; what Rhoda has to tell them.
I wish she hadn't said it, even to be polite. I don't want any right to hear what she's going to tell them. It reminds me every time. I can't move. I freeze in place like I did that night, like I'm stupefied or just stupid, like there's nothing I can do now or ever.
It's over. But it's not. I'm still stopped cold by it.
And if I talk, what then? Do... Kent, and that other man Gabe, do they know enough about birds to know I'm not stupid?
That's why Rhoda brought Ollie. To show I could be like him if I wanted, to prove to me birds aren't dumb. I don't think she knows that I talked, before. When I was in the hospital, before anyone felt I was stable and safe to send... home... in the hospital, I talked to the doctors, or tried to. It's a parrot's voice, but clear. Like Ollie's but deeper.
Ollie is a blue-fronted Amazon. Rhoda will be telling them that. She'll tell them how I wouldn't eat anything but what I had to eat out of duty to keep alive, and how she brought Ollie in so I would see him eating his fruits and vegetables and treats and hear him talking and singing and maybe be stimulated to try it myself.
I was so quiet, you see, it was spooky.
It was easier just to eat what I had to. I have to keep alive, because otherwise I'll die and Rhoda would have failed and that wouldn't be fair because it isn't her fault.
It's so much harder with Ollie here. Sometimes I want to laugh at things he says and I just can't do it because it's as if a spell would be broken... I could never go back... If I go with them to Pennsylvania, there will be no Ollie. No other birds at all, and no people but those men and their friends and it will be kind of like living at-- home.
It might be quiet enough and they might be distant enough that I will never have to change anything and I can stay just like I did that night, still and alone. I don't see how I can do anything else. The world hates SCABS.
That big one, Gabe, the SCAB, has fur that reminds me of my mother. My mother had-- had a sweater that color. They said I could have a cage, and certainly Rhoda will know how much I like this knot to hold and will tell them to get one for me. I won't have to say anything, and I can crack pelleted food in my beak and get it into my crop and digest it and not do anything else.
It's disgusting, I know. I know it's disgusting to be a SCAB. Maybe Rhoda wants to give me to those men so that all the SCABS are in the same place.
No, I know that's not true. She helps lots of SCABS people. They called her when they had patched my wing and needed a safe place for me to go. She has so many birds that they call her the "Bird Lady" or the "Parrot Lady", which is why the veterinarian my doctors found recommended her, but she also does things for SCABS. She helps college student researchers and a designer to work on some kind of voice equipment that some SCABS use, only they're trying to get the vodor machinery to convey emotion.
Ollie conveys emotion. Maybe they could learn something from the animals that are clean and good, the born animals, like Ollie, instead of the BAD ones like SCABS who turned into them from the disease. I'm a disgusting animal, because I was a person first. Ollie commands a high price and is very charming, because he was a born animal. All of Rhoda's birds right now besides me are born animals, but she has helped many others. Birds don't need voice enhancement; we just need... to want to talk. But other animals, like Caitlin, sometimes they need help. They're working on different equipment for Caitlin.
Rhoda and her inheritance send Caitlin to school. I don't know if her family died too or whether they couldn't afford to keep her with medical bills and sending her to school. Caitlin changed only partway, and is in a wheelchair that she operates with her paw on an electrical joystick. She drools. I don't do anything. I just sit here. I mean, I have to preen every day because my beak itches at the base and my skin feels like it's being sucked dry by my feathers if I don't. And after the helpers spritz me and Ollie with water for our shower I need to preen. I eat. I go to the bathroom often. Birds have to.
Caitlin always tries to talk to me when she's home on vacation. They try out different prototypes of vodor and she tries to get me to talk; she drools and chuckles and teases me that if she's talking with all this equipment, doing what I could do with my own syrinx, could she trouble me for a little praise of her efforts?
I feel sick; I really do. I don't mean to make them worry about me. But, really, what else is there to do?
Maybe if I refuse to go, throw a fit like Ollie when Rhoda tries to put him in the wrong carrier, they'll decide I'm not worth the effort and they probably already think I'm stupid anyway, and they'll let me be and not get involved with me.
I wonder if Gabe has been attacked, or if he hasn't, if he thinks that he will.
He will, you know. Or Kent will, for being with him. Maybe... Maybe in the City they come from it's not like it was in my family's town. But I know Caitlin is not Rhoda's relative so she had to come from somewhere. I'm not the only one who ever got diagnosed with SCABS at the hospital outside our town, but I never saw a SCAB besides me, until Caitlin. Nobody wants to be seen with a SCAB. No SCAB should ever be seen. It's not right. The hospital should maybe have euthanized me. Then no one would have failed and I wouldn't have to keep myself alive and silent like this, endangering those men as I did my own-- my own-- did my parents ever think of this when they said they wanted me home as soon as possible? They're gone, it's over, I'm as bad as I ever was because I am still a SCAB, but they're gone. Two for one. Where do other SCABS go? Won't we be killed just driving back to their apartment, if I ride with Kent and Gabe? How did they get here safely? No one could mistake him for a born animal or for a normal person.
Things must be different in the City where they live... Or they've just been lucky.
But most people are nothing like Rhoda. She would never let anything hurt me.
Especially not if I stay real quiet...
Didn't my parents know they would be killed? It was suicide to keep me! They should have known! No one in our town would stand a SCAB. They found out about the diagnosis. The word got around. They could have injected me with something, and two would be alive instead of one, and no one would ever hold it against them.
I have an uncle.
I have an aunt, too, but she has no say. They were supposed to take me in in the event of anything ever happening to my parents. The arrangement had been on ever since my mother found out she was pregnant. They sent me a card with a check, same as every year, for my sixteenth.
I have an uncle, and one time, when we were all in the car, he saw a spotted cat running into the road too late to do anything about it. There was a thump and a kind of a creaking sound and the motor never stopped accelerating to make the next hill, and I said, "Stop! Stop, you hit the cat!"
"I hit it, yes, I couldn't do anything about it."
I started crying. I was young then.
After a few heartbeats my aunt said, very low, "Please, Howard, it might have been a SCAB."
My father was clenching his jaw and making tight fists in the back seat. He never trusted my uncle, not as his sister's husband. But he trusted his sister with me; it never crossed anyone's mind what might happen if any of us got the worst disease.
"Howard," whispered my aunt. "It could have been a SCAB."
My uncle said, "All to the better."
I don't know what happened in the phone call to my relatives when the doctors tried to find a place for me, but I remembered the cat low and running in the dark and reaching into the headlight beams with one white leg while its spotted body followed in what couldn't be enough time to escape. I don't know what was said. But you see, I am here. I don't know whether my aunt tried to do anything.
It's safer, for them, of course, if she can't talk my uncle around. The same thing would probably happen to them if I came into their home.
Nobody knew, in all the gossiping and outrage, what form it was that I had supposedly taken, and that saved my physical life. They thought I was a bird, a real bird, not a disease one. I only got grazed with a bullet, and it hurt like hot wire or a burning infection with fever. The police got there in time to save me and stop the bleeding and arrest some of the gunmen. I stayed still and quiet. The blasts and cracks of guns and light and smoke never reached me, never really. All that reached me were the screams; they were the only real thing, and they were sad, not frightening. My mother screamed and sighed my name until she didn't anymore. My father was killed instantly with a bullet to the head that came with the first spurt of breaking glass. He had gone to see why headlights were swinging into our driveway.
If I had stayed still enough, if I had never moved and never been ready to take home from the hospital, then my parents would never have been accused of harboring a SCAB. No one knew what I was. They ransacked the place looking for a monster, until police came. They were taken away frothing and shouting and screaming that they had had to take action-- there was a SCAB, a SCAB, didn't the police realize.
"Jez-yn, you gon' talk?" Ollie tries, switching his grammar to see if it will be more effective.
He's bright and active to look at; he likes me. I could have been part of one of the aviaries if I had been a born bird. Now I am a disease, a virus, a shape like a bird that only avoided burning and slugging to death by bullets by holding perfectly still.
I know they're hearing the story. I don't know what they're feeling about it. I suppose I should go with them, when they go. Maybe there are things to do there that I don't know about yet. Perhaps someone else thinks I'm okay besides Rhoda and her employees and her friends.
Perhaps, on the other talon, I can be silent and still and there will be no noisy, friendly Amazon and I will be able to fade into a paler blue. This color is altogether too noticeable. If someone knew I was a SCAB, they would have an easy shot.
Caitlin could never be mistaken for anything other than a SCAB. Maybe there's some way to tell with me, too.
Maybe my silence gives me away.
Rhoda knows birds, and she says I'm too quiet. I don't know what to do. I can't break the spell. It's sad and dangerous not to and I still can't do it.
Caitlin scares me, the way she always travels and talks and draws attention to herself because she's so sweet. I hate to hurt her feelings. I could talk to her. I could. I can't. She has that motorized wheelchair that calls attention in and of itself and she can't even hold her own head up because it's a huge black Newfoundland's head and the rest of her is skinny and small. When she next comes home from school, I could be gone. Rhoda could write and tell her what a nice place I got. She could see it with her big brown eyes in her safe SCAB school and I would never have to look at her again.
Is there a way to tell, with me?
Am I as obvious as Caitlin?
Am I worse because I hide?
But isn't she endangering people...
Ollie speaks quietly for some time, but I'm not listening and he knows I'm not. Finally he wraps one foot around a bar across from my perch, so we're sitting next to each other but in separate cages. He fluffs up and trills softly, then closes his white eyelids and relaxes.
I huddle behind the rope knot on the side where I will most be obscured from the garden outside the window.
Just in case.
Jezalyn stepped directly and serenely onto Gabriel's arm and from there to the dowel perch in the painstakingly selected and ordered carrying case.
This was, I felt, a good sign. I was still reeling from the story Rhoda had to tell us. I know Gabe knows that I threw up. I don't have to admit it openly; I know he was aware of the sour smell and there was only one reason I would have asked to be excused to the restroom at that time anyway. I'm not often so gut reactive to these things.
I mean, it happens to thousands of SCABS, right? Of course it does. Lovely thing, isn't it. But we deal. We can be removed from the news, or, if we can't, we remove ourselves from the SCABS. That's what my parents tried to do, and what so many SCABS victims do each year when they slash their wrists or eat boxes of unsweetened cocoa blocks or retreat into behavior they feel is truly animalistic, so there is no SCAB but an "animal."
Only, of course, it's not. Look at Ollie, back at Rhoda's, reaching out, talking, singing, eating and playing and generally doing. Jezalyn, next to him, was a human turned into a bird; no other truth can ever be the one.
I've been fortunate; I know what I am, and it defines itself by shifting back and forth between man and she-wolf so that there is no doubt of my being a man, turned into a wolf, a SCAB and there you go.
And, for whatever reason, I don't load up on cocoa powder or blocks and I never use a razor except on my light beard.
I'll tell you why I threw up. I may as well tell you.
It's because I realized.
I had never let it occur to me before...
Now, I sit in one of the director's chairs in the audience space at the Thim and Rosemary Kelly Theatre. Perched, silent as in the weeks since she came with us, on the arm of the next chair to my right is Jez. She does nothing but blink at me. I brought her here to show her around in a fairly quiet time, so that when we start bringing her to visit parties and rehearsals she'll know the place, if not the people. A few couldn't resist and came over to meet her right away. It was the same as with Gabriel and myself; they were mesmerized, completely bewitched. They spoke to her and complimented her and she just gazed at them with those abyssal eyes and looked pretty.
In the chair to my left sits Francis. He has one leg crossed over the other and grips the well-shined shoe with his impeccably smooth pink-white hand. I regard him warily. I have a lot on my mind. This may or may not explain or excuse my inexplicable distrust of this man.
"Hi," he said enthusiastically when I came in through the lobby to watch Larry and German work out some musical intricacies with a borrowed orchestra. "I'm Francis, and I'm a friend of Larry's." His voice was the type I would normally like to listen to-- high and delivered from just under the cheekbones.
He held out a slim hand and I took it, but my mind and nose were in a frenzy. Something about his cologne seemed wrong and still does, as I sit next to him now. I could kick myself for being inwardly so untrusting, but there's something deceptive about him, or dangerous. Jezalyn was on my left forearm, which I held close to my chest as taught by Gabe so that she would feel comforted and balanced. We have to take the bird-care experts' word for these things until the child offers us some kind of feedback. She never makes use of avian body language, not anything we could read to see to it that we make her happy. We have to just assume. And since we can't assume someone else's happiness, we take occasional moments to fret before getting on with things. It's been an intense few weeks.
I introduced myself to Francis and then, out of some morbid curiosity I have yet to pin down, I followed him in here and sat sociably next to him.
He quirks his neck, presumably so that the loud-patterned grapefruit-and-red-colored scarf set into his collar will fluff and stand out a little bit more. He has snapping dark eyes and black hair tousled as if a stylist started something and forgot to finish it, and angled but fine features.
Not even this alarming creature seems to get a rise out of Jezalyn. She lifts one foot ever so slowly, nibbles it with calculated pressure and rhythm and sets it back down on the chair arm, itch or whatever it was taken care of. All around us are blue-canvas seats with the blue doors in the back corners, and these artificial colors have nothing on Jez's shining midnight blue with its twilight shadings and glossy strips of light-catching texture trimmed with impossible yellow. This is punishment? SCABS is not a degenerative disease, not in the way all the classical "God's wrath" punishment diseases are. So what's the deal? How is it that some Christians say that we are marked by the Beast or whatever, when the original beasts themselves are created and blessed by their God? Somewhere in South America there are Hyacinth macaws to perhaps rival Jezalyn in her beauty. Of course, I don't think they could quite match her. I admit my bias.
"So, are you from Pennsylvania originally?" Francis asks, seemingly unaware of my inner desire to ask him what the heck about him could be bothering me so much.
"Uh-- no. Cali-- Minnesota."
"California, eh? I'm not from there originally, but I live there. Larry and I met in Egypt at an art exhibition and we re-met in Calif, if you believe that. Who's your friend?"
Oh, shit. I forgot to introduce Jezalyn. Now I feel really stupid. Maybe it's just as well Francis snagged that one would-be avoided word; I know now at least part of the problem. California. I don't need to think about California right now. It had never occurred to me...
"I'm sorry," I reply, "Jez, I'm sorry. I guess I'm just so preoccupied lately. Francis, this is Jezalyn, Jez, Francis."
"Hello," smiles Francis.
Jezalyn moves her wings carefully into a slow stretch, but it doesn't seem to be any kind of reply. She's obviously listening, as she does at home. We're almost certain she watches the TV and sometimes Gabriel sits with her on his lap while he works at the computer, and she watches the screen. But as for making any of her own opinions known, Jezalyn may as well be an expensive toy bird, clockwork like the Emperor's other nightingale.
Funny, though, I don't feel like we're failing. Jezalyn haunts an apartment in the pleasantest way. It's hard for me to call up the same feelings of apprehension I had before I actually saw her. That's all for the best, I suppose, since her story gave me something else entirely to think about.
Francis waits a moment, and when Jezalyn does nothing, he inquires bluntly, although friendlily, "Is she a SCAB?"
Ah, the age of SCABS and pet etiquette. I do believe there was a time when people accompanied by birds and dogs and horses were presumed to own a companion animal. I should be grateful for Francis's bluntness; Gabe says we all need to be more open about a lot of things and maybe then the world would be a better place. It probably would. Deception is a hard habit to break, though.
"Yes," I say, and as Francis nods in acknowledgment I add, "are you gay?"
He laughs, and again I feel guilty for my mistrust of him; it's the bubbling laugh of someone who finds themselves so obvious that it's amusing anyone should ask. "Yes," he says. "Are you?"
Then he adds: "Are you a SCAB?"
Shit. California. He's like some gremlin from the past or something, as if I needed any. I'd rather pick through my memories at my own leisure, thank you very much. Leave it to this guy to catch my mistaken mention of my home state and then bring up the one topic that I've been forced to think on since I met Jezalyn.
On the other hand, much as I distrust him for something tugging at the edge of my senses, I like him. He's the kind of gay man Gabriel expresses jealousy of; specifically, the male-at-heart kind. I should, except for the nagging at my conscience that's been going on since I knew what I have to do, be enjoying this conversation.
I wish we could identify others and make them be what we see... But if we could do that, then there would be no improvement in interaction even if we made the effort to be more honest. There is advantage in that, which is why he asked about Jez and why I took his example and asked about him. We need to get in the habit, Gabe says. He claims you can weed out the people who wouldn't be honest with you anyhow, if you tell them about yourself right off the bat.
The dark eyes, lively as Jezalyn's are not, regard me closely for a moment.
German and Larry, down on the stage, are talking about possible repeatable passages in a piece of music to buy time at pre-show. I hear the words they're saying for a minute, out of context, and glean the main idea as if it will be important to me sometime. It won't, but I do it anyway. Francis looks at me and I look at him, and I get the distinct feeling that we are sizing each other up. Jezalyn sighs.
Francis nods. "Hm."
Wait a minute--
I test it. "Interesting cologne."
At that, he grins. "Canid of some sort?"
I feel myself blush. "Wolf."
"It's not my favorite," he admits, "this cologne, but with most people it does the trick. I scare you though, don't I. You've smelled something."
I am about to reply when he quickly continues: "So have I. On you. You're hard to place, as well."
I don't know what to say to that... I guess I've never been in the same situation I used to put people in back at Hayden Heath. I never said anything if I could help it. Why admit to being a SCAB if it doesn't matter when they look at you? But I made them nervous... Because there was something, and they couldn't define it. As with Francis. He's tried to cover it up so he won't make strangers nervous, but my sense of smell is too good to make even strong cologne distract me from something out of the ordinary.
I decide to just out with it. Somehow, over the years, I believe I really have hidden it in some way from people who don't need to know. As if, sometime, it might go away. Then I could go home.
As if it's the SCABS that's the problem, with my parents.
I never separated the two, an easy seam to make in my logic since the virus turns me into a she-wolf. And an easy way to protect the idea that at some point before the SCABS my parents actually accepted me.
I don't know why Jezalyn's story in and of itself pushed the right buttons in my brain. It could be because I had already defined her as our daughter, ours to care for, and there was only one thing that determined that attack on her home and family. SCABS. There doesn't need to be anything else. This means something which has always been true but which my naive and fairly happy mind-set had not allowed me to absorb: that transsexuality is separate from SCABS. I was, before the Flu, separate from the SCAB I would be. It's not one and the same thing. Even if the SCABS got "better", there would still be the question of... just Kent.
"I've acquired a seizure transformation condition with my SCABS," I tell Larry's-gay-friend-from-California. "I have a little mental warning and then I change fully into a she-wolf. The only outward changes otherwise are the amberish eyes and the brindling in the hair; plus I'm a little skinnier than before."
Having told Francis, it's done. That part of it, anyway. The part that has always been filed in my brain with "things left unsaid because they may go away." My friends had known before, and then the Theatre People, and now a just-made acquaintance. I have a condition. I will have a condition. It's not going anywhere that I'm not.
"God, you're kidding," says Francis.
I shake my head.
I look at him quizzically, and I think Jez may actually pause within her stillness. "I... Rather like the wolf myself," I say.
He chuckles. "This is wonderful. I had supposed I was the only one. It's just that way, as you described it."
"You're kidding! What species?"
Francis offers his right hand again as though we are being re-introduced. "Rabbit."
I smile and shake hands, more firmly this time. And, as I guess... It must have been for anyone that knew me before but could not define the wolf, with the identification any apprehension concerning Francis vanishes. It's an unexpected relief; I have a desire to spread it to the rest of my life, make it last and apply it to everything.
Maybe Gabriel is right; maybe you make enemies faster if you're straightforward-- and friends faster, too. It probably hasn't paid me anything to assume the status of myself with my family.
It's just that I like to think that I get along with everybody, even people who disown me.
If I get another Christmas card, their one acknowledgment of my continued existence since high school (aside from enough money to ensure I could afford to stay out of their sight at college), this year, so help me I'll tear it up and do something rash. I don't like to imagine myself doing something rash. I have to make things clear, and soon. They don't send those cards to their son who managed to come down with SCABS, which was easy on his parents because he was queer before.
They just couldn't see enough reason to disown me. SCABS makes it easy. All they have to do is find the wolf hairs, note the significance of the earlier changes, and remove the SCAB. No further worry about the kid the other students teased for nothing he could recognize in himself. There just wasn't enough before the wolf.
But they knew it was there. They wanted me to do something girlish enough or disturbed enough to give them the permission of the neighborhood, the city, the state the nation to abhor me.
My own parents never liked me. I disappointed them. I, not the SCABS.
At Rhoda's home, I excused myself and got sick. Here with Francis and Jezalyn and the undertones of talking down on the stage I just sit in unnatural silence while I run over it again, and Francis appears concerned.
"I'm... All right. I'm usually not like this. I've just had some kind of brain switch lately, I think."
"Oh... Can I ask what about?"
I grin. "Sure."
He clicks his tongue as if irritated, but smiles and says, "Okay: What about?"
I make a pretense of working up to some kind of performance. "Let me ask you a question, Sir. I tend to ask it of people and it sort of ties in with my thoughts of late."
"Is there a God?"
"Because if there wasn't, there is by now. Human willpower is very strong, I have found."
"Cool. Okay. So, what does this God have to do with SCABS?"
"Depends on you. Since you created the creator, that is, since all the people who thought of one did, his involvement would be defined by your belief."
"So... It all depends."
"Is the majority belief the deciding factor, then?"
"That, or there's more than one God."
"Interesting." Chalk another one up on the Faith survey. I may be able to work that into my own decisions somewhere. "So it's possible that I have a God in my head who created me the way I am and the reason I would have done this to myself is why God did it?"
"Sure, why not?"
"Here's what I've been thinking about. I never came out to my parents."
"They know about the wolf."
"Mine know I'm gay. They don't know about the rabbit. It's something that's happened since I left home and I really don't..."
"Don't think it applies."
"But are they anti-SCAB?"
He admits, "I don't know."
"Here's what I've been thinking: that my parents are anti-SCAB, and they keep sending me these damn Christmas cards. They don't know from me, directly, that I'm transsexual and that even if I were a woman I'd be lesbian. I've always combined the two. My wolf is female."
"So?" Francis folds his hands over his black-slacked knee. "They then send a Christmas card to their dear, thankfully departed transsexual kid as well as to the SCAB kid they had before."
"That's just it. I'm not going another year receiving those damned Christmas cards if they treat a SCAB better than they'd treat the kid they had all along. I've always been gay. The SCABS is an extra, to them an extra curse. If I can't send a card back with a picture of my transsexual lover, also a SCAB, and our absolutely lovely friend Jezalyn, and still get the same cards every year, I don't want them. They're not a concession to me. They're a concession to themselves."
"You sound angry," observes Francis.
I hadn't realized how very rarely I actually do get angry, that even a new acquaintance would see that it sits rather crookedly on me. "I probably am. At myself. I haven't even told my parents about Gabe. Because Gabe is a SCAB. I think... I've been waiting..."
Francis leans forward, still keeping that leg crossed. Jezalyn watches us, and I wish I knew what she was thinking, but she doesn't have to say. That's her choice. She knows that whether we ask or not we're waiting for her to communicate whenever the inspiration to do so might strike her. "Waiting for the thing that's wrong in their God's mind to go away. What's their God?"
"Money," I say. "Society."
He rocks back again, nodding sagely. "There you go-- unless you become a nationally-known, flamboyant and intriguingly controversial transsexual, most likely one sin of being is as bad in their eyes as another."
I sigh. "Yeah..."
"Not to say anything bad about your parents, you know, but it comes to mind."
"I know. No offense."
"So what are you going to do?"
"I don't know. I have to come out, I guess. But I don't like it."
"So put up with the pretense."
"I-- really don't think I can anymore. Those cards bother me. I remember things all the time, but not like that. Not like when they send you something with their handwriting on it-- well, Mother's handwriting, anyway."
Again a knowing nod. "I still visit my parents. I don't know how to go about explaining the rabbit. It's not even like something many other SCABS experience. You're the first one I know of personally, besides myself. Larry knows, and Alexander Leaf, but nobody else, because I figure if it happens so infrequently and it doesn't apply to them--"
"Yes," I nod, "I know."
"So you live here so you can be out and they don't have to worry about it?"
"That's the trick, see. It's easy to forget you're hiding something, when in your immediate surroundings you are out."
"Yep, it is."
We sit there nodding wisely to each other for a minute more before Larry hops down off the stage to come greet us and talk. He makes a beeline for the indigo Macaw he saw enter with us, and I know by now that it's not necessary to request that he be quiet or hang back. Jezalyn can handle herself. Outwardly, that is. Gabe and Rhoda and I suspect that a lot of effort goes on inside, building that silence. But on the surface, nothing bothers her.
Gabe walks in with one arm supporting a grocery bag, his jacket and some library books in a library bag; he holds his keys in his dark lips and hangs up his jacket with one hand while kicking the door shut.
"Hi, 'Beest," says Kent. Kent is stretched out on the couch, only off the front, so his head is squished back against the cushions and his legs are out in the middle of the carpet. He's been sitting like that through two or three vid shows, since he stopped pacing the apartment like a caged wolf. It looks relaxed in an awkward, depressed sort of way.
"Hey," says Gabe. "And hey, Rhapsody in Blue. I got you some walnuts and Brazil nuts. Eat them-- they keep your feathers glossy. How's he been today, Hon? Did he give you any trouble?"
I peer out between the bars of my cage even though the door is open and I could perch in the open space. Sometimes I like the bars. In my mind, I express some amusement at Gabe's question, maybe a smirk or something in his direction, but of course I do nothing.
"Well, Kent, she's not talking. What did you do to make her so shocked that she won't even complain?"
"Very funny, Blue-boy."
"All right, what's wrong?"
"Same thing as always."
"Nothing's ever wrong with you."
Except that there has been something wrong with Kent, what he told that man Francis about when we toured the theatre and watched some of the work.
Kent puts a hand over his face just so he can raise up one edge of it to look out from underneath and appear more dejected. "There is now. I have realized that I am repressed."
"What are you being repressed about?"
Gabe snorts, turning from the steel bowl that he's filling with mixed nuts for me. "You?"
"Yeah, what's so odd about that?"
"Nothing-- I guess... What happened?"
"Those damned Christmas cards."
Gabe turns back to the bowl, stirs in it with a finger to make sure he gave me an even mix of the varieties of nut, and comes to my cage to affix the bowl to the side. "I never understand why your folks send you those things anyway. What do they do it for?"
"It's also traditional to visit your offspring or update them on your phone number once in awhile. Isn't it, Jez," he says the last part to me. "As soon as you use the phone we'll keep you updated. Maybe you'll be off to high school before graduation time, yes? We can transfer you to one here in town-- I looked into it." His bluish hands brush my rope knot as he replaces the full steel bowl; it reminds me that I'd like a hug, but he leans against the side of the cage and looks at Kent. I press into the soft end of the knot.
"They changed their phone number when I got into Hayden Heath."
Kent sort of rolls and falls off the couch, picks himself up with a heavy sigh and trudges over to Gabe, bumping his head against his chest and leaving it there as if Gabriel is part of a wall. "Bleah."
Gabe pats his back gently. "So. What did happen? What about the stupid Christmas cards? I didn't even know your parents were Christian, come think of it."
"You could stop mailing return notes with our new addresses on them."
"Then it'd be my fault, not theirs."
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. I have to tell them so they have the chance to disown me the rest of the way."
Gabe thinks. "They may not; they may keep sending the cards, and it would be just as hypocritical then as now."
"But... Yes, but if they'd treat me worse for being with you, than they would for being a SCAB--"
"Send a picture."
"I want to! That's just it. You two are beautiful. You're my family, and you're both SCABS. They're already anti-SCAB, I know they wouldn't like to show off a grandchild as lovely as Jezalyn on their mantelpiece, just because her loveliness happens to be, well, macaw-ish." Kent leans around Gabe's side and smiles at me. I listen to him. "And you--" he pokes Gabe gently in the chest-- "you, She-Beest, are who you are, and on both counts you lose. A transsexual and a SCAB and, oh, third thing, you've got poor enough judgment as to have entered into a relationship with me, their less-than-optimal kid. So."
Gabe breathes on him. He has a way of doing that when he doesn't know what to say and just wants to impart something friendly. When he does it to me it blows my feathers just a little askew and warms the skin underneath. I'd kind of like to join that hug; maybe they'll care to hold me later. I don't know exactly why they keep me anyway. I mean, I know, it's a good and generous thing to do, and they keep complimenting me and their friends seem to like me, but no one here seems quite so... Afraid as I expected. As if they forget about the shapes and the disease, sometimes, or even as if when they remember it's normal and everyone else who thinks otherwise (like Kent's parents-- I wouldn't want to meet them) gets a look or a word like the one my father had on his face when Uncle Howard ran over the cat and kept on going.
It's not the SCABS who are wrong.
Gabe says, sometimes, that people are stupid. In general.
I'm not so certain.
This is a very difficult spell to break. I don't know how to retract the bullets that cast it. Or any of the things that have been heard or said or thought, either.
I remember history class. I enjoyed it. I wonder whether the curriculum is the same at the school here in their City.
Kent sighs and stands up taller, rumpling his grizzled hair with his long fingers and grimacing. "They never wanted the one they got. So the God in their head, if it created me, was either punishing them or somewhere along the line I turned from the perfect kid into awkwardness incarnate when it comes to nosy socialites and business partners. And if I did that..." He looks up with a kind of triumphant grin that makes him slightly intimidating unless you're used to him. "Then I created a God, and it went ahead and redefined perfection! Yes?"
Gabe chuckles. "See. So much for repression."
Kent sobers. "I was born this way, Gabe. Not the wolf, but the gender."
"I like it."
"I know," says Gabe. "I've always counted you lucky."
"I know! Isn't it something? So much for punishment. I got to be kinda sorta female, in a physical way. And there are so many people that wouldn't know each other or even get anywhere if it wasn't for SCABS. It's either just coincidence, kind of going alongside of God while he does something else entirely, or it depends on us and there's a reason for each of us and-- and-- well... Well, that's just it. Jesymyn and I are in the same sort of situation as each other. What is it, the sex or the SCABS? The SCABS gives them an excuse to relegate us to the realm of revealed Sinner or the just plain physically sick... But..."
Kent paces around a little bit with his hand on his chin, but he's looking a good deal more lively than he was this afternoon. He seems to play bubbly to Gabe's blue haze. I like both of them. A lot. "Jesymyn... Jesymyn, back at Hayden Heath, whose name sounds a lot like yours, Jezalyn, is a skunk and a woman. What if she had been transsexual in her original form? If they had found out? What if I had tried to come out to my parents and they had had no place like Hayden Heath to send me? What would we have been stuck with? Who knows what? Any kind of abuse or neglect. But we're free, because the SCABS caught us and... Well, for Jesymyn it's harder, because she accepts something that wasn't there before.
"But she does it. And that's the important thing."
Gabe pulls at his beard thoughtfully. "Ad campaign: Kent Dryer's 'SCABS is Good For You' Self-Realization Seminars."
"Go on with you," laughs Kent. "You know what I mean."
"It does. It's also a Blessing."
"It pretty much sucks, Kent."
I reach into my bowl with one foot and grip a nut in my toes, turn it over to find a good starting spot and crack it easily with my big, black beak. I'm getting good at it, for someone not a born bird. They say Hyacinth macaws can exert something like three thousand pounds of pressure with their beaks.
"Jezalyn," says Kent, "I have yet to ask you. Do you think there's a God?"
I mull it over, picking out walnut-meat with my tongue and beak-tip. Not that I'm going to answer, but it seems just as well to mull the matter over. If I ever come up with anything really good to say on the topic, maybe I'll be able to get my voice back.
"There," says Kent, motioning dramatically towards me with both hands. "Wisest answer I shall ever receive."
Gabriel's lips turn up in a smile along the dark sides of his face. "So you going to send your parents a picture?"
"You bet. I'm nervous thinking about it, but that just makes me hyped up to sing or go join in some improv at that place across town or somesuch. We gotta make us all an appointment. I want to be in it with you. No weaseling into looking at it and thinking, 'Well, our son wouldn't really be living with people like these.'"
"Agreed," says Gabe. "I don't like to see you upset over anything. That's supposed to be my department. Whatever you say, with this, goes."
Kent leans close to the bars of my cage and whispers mock-conspiriatorally: "I still say SCABS needs another classification amongst those God's-wrathers and Beast's-branders."
"Oh?" inquires Gabe, who has, of course, heard. "And what should that be?"
"Oooohh... Um... Along the lines of a list of Things That Happen Because They Happen, Akin to Stepping in Gum on the Sidewalk That Nobody Intended to Torment You With... Or, Things That Suck But That Can Turn Out Really Good and if There's a God Then He Had a Hand in Making Them Blessings and if There Isn't Then They are What You Can Make of Them."
"Ah-hum," comments Gabe. "All right, in that case, I'll take column C: Things That Suck But That You'll Put Up With Because Your Crazy Boyfriend is on Another Kick Right Now."
Kent wrinkles his nose ingratiatingly and wraps his fingers into Gabe's. "Aww, come on, you know it's true and you're just being angsty."
"Angst is all the rage."
"Ha-ha, very funny."
I think about Ollie and Rhoda, and Mom and Dad. In a way I've had a serious one and a more outgoing one in each... Family, so to speak, even though Rhoda and Ollie are both outgoing and they're not really a pair. They just spent more time with me there in that house than anyone else, and I saw them in their roles with me. Kent and Gabe together... Match. And they knew each other before they brought me here; same as my own parents when they were married and then decided to have a child. Me. Maybe I'm not intruding. Is it possible for me to fit in as the same girl I was before, the girl I was as I grew up and began to take driving lessons and spent half a year in the school choir (that was frustrating; I'm not nearly as good a singer as someone like Kent is) and flirted with some of the boys in dance class and then... Then got sick? I fit into a place before I got sick. Here I am now. I don't know where I fit, but these men remind me of my parents. If I could possibly be myself again, in some way...
"I'll... Grant you that good things come out of SCABS. Good things come out of war, too."
"I didn't say they don't," says Kent. "I said, or I meant to say, that I don't think people can pick apart the world and define what belongs to the Good and what to the Bad. I think, if they try, they'll start judging people like what happens to some of the war veterans and to some SCABS. Or... Or to your parents, Jez. I'm not saying war, or the Martian Flu itself, is or are good things. I'm saying that there are people living better because of them."
"You know you'd be treading on dangerous ground with some Fundamentalists, there, Kent," Gabe notes in his low voice. "They'll tell you it's false good, or that the ones gaining from it are Sinners. Trademark."
"Well, I haven't trademarked my Sins," Kent smiles. "I'd just as soon do without them. And if Sin is forgiven, why am I or any of us wearing these SCABS forms? Doesn't seem right to mark someone permanently for a Sin they could be at that very moment Repenting for."
"And since when did you get so religious as to ask any deity for forgiveness?"
"Don't assume what I think."
"Anyway, I don't think transsexuality is my Sin. God, of whatever sort it or he may turn out to be, made me this way. And you, too. And he made you who you are, Jezalyn, whether at first or now. And if you two, as in one theory, made yourselves, well then I admire your artistic ability very much indeed."
Gabriel chuckles and hugs Kent tightly in a way that suggests he may be offering the hug in thanks for the compliment rather than admitting he likes to be admired. This time Kent remembers me, and reaches into my cage with one arm so I can step up and be settled in between them with one foot on each chest. "Hey Sweetie," says Gabe.
Kent smoothes a feather that's out of alignment on the top of my head. "There. Perfect."
I like both of you. A lot. Thank you.
I don't know how much I can convey with my eyes. I hope my expression comes close, if at all possible, to theirs when they look at me or each other. I hope somehow that Rhoda knows they speak the truth in those phone calls where they tell her that I miss her and Ollie and the others and appreciate all they've done for me.
Sleeping Beauty. That's what it's like.
Funny, I never thought of myself as Beautiful before.
Some things are the same month after month no matter what. Maybe that's what makes the silence so easy, even when I don't want it to be, and what makes the temptations to speak so frustrating.
The silence has become one of the things that stays the same. Like the night, like the darkness coming every evening and the morning coming right on schedule no matter who dies or what changes. Kent sits very still on a chair near my cage, looking over some scripts and music and wanting to be with me at the same time; only one light is on in the room, making the darkness accumulating outside more apparent even within the apartment. He pauses and rubs his eyes, and I stretch my beak-joints in a yawn. He yawns too, catching it from me.
"Sooo..." he says, clearing his eyesight with a little shake of the head and flipping idly through a few pages as if he is not really seeing them. "It's darkish, isn't it. I don't really feel like getting up and turning on another light. Come think of it, I don't really feel like working on this anymore tonight."
I walk a few inches further along my perch in what I want to think is a random movement, but which I think perhaps I had better start admitting to myself may be some kind of attempt to assert that I have heard Kent speaking.
"You all set and all right here, for the night? I'll leave your cage open and the night light on in case you need anything. Are you okay with the door open?"
I make no reply. I sort of want the cage open, so that if I need anything during the night I can climb out and go to their room, instead of calling out like I would have to do with the bars latched. But I like the bars. It's a toss-up, really. He can do as he will.
"All right, I'll leave it open. Good night, Jez." Kent leans in under the beam in the doorway of my cage and moves to kiss me lightly on the beak for goodnight, and I know he's expecting me to hold in place and not reciprocate. He or Gabe does this or gives me a hug every night, so he knows from experience that I won't do anything in return.
He's very close, though. I know perfectly well what I'm doing, and it makes me deathly nervous. In a moment I will have done it. It will be there, in the past, a change in this night from all the other last-nights. It won't be fair to me, what I've done. I will have forced myself to remember that I can do it, that I'm me and I'm part of something. I'm scared. I'm almost sick. I'm doing it anyway. I'm not stopping myself-- I don't know if I can. I don't know if Kent is ever going to realize what it's taking, inside of me, to do this. I don't know if I even realize how hard it's going to be to live with it. No more sleeping. Contact. Before he can reach me and finish it and leave the chance unused, I extend my neck and shoulders enough to tap Kent on the face with my beak.
I'm breathing hard from the effort and I can't believe I did it. I feel ashamed of being so distressed over such a little thing. But it's not little at all. Not at all.
I believe, for a moment, that Kent has not noticed that I moved to reciprocate. If he hasn't noticed at all, then it was just practice. Somehow, though, it hurts to think that he might not have noticed. I pull back into myself and watch him as he blinks several times in my direction.
"Good... night, Jez."
I cock my head.
That does it. It didn't even take any effort, I didn't realize until after I'd done it, but I notice with some alarm and a vague, distant giddiness that this is the first time I've ever openly responded to his voice. Kent has made me realize this, because he has fallen to his knees in front of the cage and is staring at me, wide-eyed.
I'm not certain I have it in me to climb down and offer to step onto his arm, and he can't quite tell whether I want him to pick me up. Perhaps we both want to touch. I can't move. I'm motionless once more, but my mind is racing and my heart is just beginning to calm down into its regular pace after that simple goodnight kiss. Maybe tomorrow, Kent. I can't move. I'm sorry.
We stare at each other for a long time. He doesn't seem concerned about my stillness. He's just wondering whether he should hold me or speak again, or remain still himself or leave the room.
This considering goes on until the time passes when we would have hugged. The sky outside is very comfortably dark.
His question now answered, that we will wait and see what happens tomorrow, Kent rises with a hand on my cage and thinks for a moment, then closes the door and latches it with a pause before he lets his thumb drop the latch, as though there was a moment he might not have done it.
They know I like the bars feeling sturdy and safe around me. He's not leaving it open. He trusts me. He trusts me to call them if I require anything.
He smiles in at me one more time. "All settled, Jez."
He goes to the door back to his and Gabriel's own room. "Call us if you need anything."
And he walks out.
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