Discovery of Flight

by Zilla Jones

Zilla Jones is African-Canadian in Treaty 1 (Winnipeg.) She has been longlisted for the fiction competitions of CBC and shortlisted by the Fiddlehead, Missouri Review Perkoff Prize, Masters Review Anthology X, Freefall, and the Writers Union of Canada. She won Honourable Mention in the Room contest and first place in the GritLit contest. Her fiction appears in Prairie Fire, the Malahat Review as the winner of the Open Season award, and Prism as the winner of the Jacob Zilber prize.

I first notice him in the elevator, its air sharp with urine as it creeps from floor to floor. There are no princes at the Salvation Army, but he is reasonably nice-looking.  As clean as you can get in this place, where all the showers and sinks are communal. Hair cropped close to his scalp, clinging to his neck in u-shaped licks like little scales. He smells sober.

As soon as my eyes land on him, I remember the rules. There are two sets of them at the  Salvation Army. First there are the official rules, meant to keep your body safe. No alcohol. No drugs. Abide by the curfew. Sleep only in the room assigned to you, and no overnight guests. Then there are the unofficial ones, the ones I figured out for myself, the ones that I hope will keep my heart and my mind safe. Mind your own business and never take sides in any arguments. Avoid the front of the building where people laugh and gossip in the evenings. Don’t have a lot of stuff in your room and keep your clothes folded in your suitcase so you can move on as soon as you find somewhere better to go. And most importantly, do not make eye contact with anyone. That was easy when I wore the hijab, but it’s much harder now.

I look down at the floor of the elevator, spackled with dark stains and grey wads of gum, but I am unable to completely stifle my curiosity about this intriguing stranger, so I let my eyes roll up from under my lowered lids. I see him in my direction just as I drop my gaze again, and stare at the creaking cables heaving us upward. When the door opens, he waits for me to exit instead of brushing past me, like most of the residents do in this building. I squeeze my way out without glancing at him again, but as I stand at my door searching for my key in my purse, he passes me, and I notice that he enters the room three doors down from mine, also on the window side.

The next time I see him, he sticks his foot into the elevator just as it is closing. He is wearing battered work boots, and a wire cage swings from his hand. Inside it, a green budgie huddles in a corner with its head under a bedraggled wing. Again, he smiles at me, but I look only at the bird. It would be nice to have some company in these lonely rooms, I think. But I hate keeping birds in cages. It’s cruel, and unnatural. A pet dog can still run, a pet cat can still hunt, but a pet bird cannot fly. This man has stolen his bird’s greatest pleasure out of a selfish desire to tether it to the human world of earth and stone for his own entertainment. I think, this guy might look all right from the outside, but he has no heart.

I see him yet again a day or two later, in the elevator as usual, but this time without the bird. “Hi,” he says.

I don’t want to seem rude. “Hi,” I say back. I know that I am breaking the rules. But I’m just saying hello. I’m getting out of the elevator soon. And I am so lonely. Sherry, my probation officer, said that I should try to make new friends.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

“Bilan.”

“That’s pretty. What does it mean?”

“It’s Somali for a first-born girl,” I murmur, already searching for ways to exit this conversation.

“I’m Gus. Want to go out for a drink?”

I’ve been sober 33 days so far. “No thanks,” I say.

“Well, come to my room, then,” he offers. “No booze, but I have pop.”

I want to say no. I should say no. But I haven’t had a conversation with anyone in months other than with Sherry. I don’t count the muttered, rushed interviews with my social workers, pleasantries with store clerks, or the brief exchanges with Salvation Army staff when I pay my rent. So I tell him, “OK. But just for a bit.”

He flops down on his bed and I take the one chair in the room. The bird in its metal home sits on the dresser, swinging backwards and forwards on a stick of wood suspended from the top of the cage—a makeshift swing that was not there before.

“So, Bilan,” Gus asks, “how did you end up here?”

I take a deep breath. “You first.”

“Sure,” says Gus. He eases his boots off and lies back on the bed. “My wife kicked me out.” He manages to look both forlorn and hopeful as he says this.

“Why?” I ask despite myself.

He sighs. “I don’t know why. She just did.”

I gaze at him, searching his face for signs of deception. He regards me with a steady watchfulness and a vague hint of laughter, and I look away first. “She must have said something,” I stammer. The bird hops off the swing, takes a tentative step onto the cage floor, dips its beak into the dish of water. I gaze upward to the cracked ceiling where the plaster has peeled away from the wood and strips of paint hang down around the dim lightbulb suspended from a black cord. “There’s always a reason.”

If I let the words out, I will also have to release the ocean of tears that has stayed stoppered inside me the entire time I have lived at the Salvation Army.

Gus sighs again. “I swear I don’t know. Maybe she had another guy. I have no idea. But she kicked me out. And she kept the keys to my truck, so I couldn’t get to work. I pretty much lived cheque to cheque, so—” He gestures around the room. The walls speckled with water spots. The stained, crusty grey carpet. “Now you.”

I study the floor and the bare patches where the carpet has rubbed away from the linoleum. “My baby died,” I whisper. “Then my mom died. And then my best friend killed herself. And I—” The drinking. The drunk driving charge. The police officer they say I assaulted, only I can’t remember that part. Losing my job, my house, my dignity, my faith. I escaped jail for probation, but sometimes I think I might have been better off sitting in a cell, my days regimented for me by someone else. It all spirals through me and sticks in my throat. If I let the words out, I will also have to release the ocean of tears that has stayed stoppered inside me the entire time I have lived at the Salvation Army.

“It’s okay,” Gus says. “I get it.”

Blinking, I look back at the bird. It has its head cocked in my direction. It is green, but there is a blue patch on its head. The green of the grass and the blue of the sky, here in this shabby room.

Gus follows my gaze. “That’s Jimmy. Just got him a few days ago.”

I remember what Sherry told me about speaking up if I feel strongly about something. “You shouldn’t keep birds in cages,” I say. “It’s cruel. Did you clip his wings too?”

“No, they’re not clipped.”

“But he must be dying to fly.”

“Where’s he gonna go?” Gus asks, jerking his thumb to the window. Smoky clouds scud through the navy-blue sky. “He wouldn’t last a day out there. At least I got him out of the pet store. I’m giving him some attention.” He pats the bed. “I’ll give you some too, if you come here.”

There’s no Salvation Army rule that says I can’t go over to Gus’ bed. As long as I don’t sleep there. But my rules for myself say that I shouldn’t start another relationship until I am fully healed from the last one. It makes sense, but I’m tired of rules. My head aches with the weight of them and I crave the feeling of my face against a warm chest, arms laced across my back, the pulse of a heartbeat next to my own. I lie down beside him and let my limbs drape themselves over his.

                                                           


Gus and I are dating now, in a way. Despite my initial determination to keep a safe distance from everyone in this building. It is amazing how quickly I cracked at the first sign of tenderness. How much I had been starved for the touch of another. Gus does manual labour, and he lines up across the street at five in the morning in his work boots, waiting to be sent somewhere to do something for someone. I spend my days going to group, attending my programs, reporting to Sherry at Probation Services. In the evening, Gus and I meet for dinner. He sometimes has a beer he smuggles into his room while I drink pop. Then we spend the rest of the evening in his bed or mine until it is time to sleep, each in our own room.

I am following the Salvation Army rules by sleeping in my own bed, but I am also trying to protect myself. If I don’t let the relationship get serious, don’t let myself feel too much, then I can cut ties and move on once I find a place to go.

Gus is easy to talk to, and he draws pieces of my story out of me that I never intended to share. I tell him that I have no family left in Winnipeg. We arrived here as refugees from Somalia, but over time, they either drifted back home, dissatisfied with the cold whiteness of this city, not just in winter but year-round, or went south to Minneapolis to join other friends and family chasing their American dreams. I stayed for love, but love did not survive the loss of its fruit to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at ten months old.

Gus is interested in Somali culture. While he has the look of a Somali in his long, brown face with its full lips, straight nose and high forehead, his roots are all in Florida and Arkansas. It is Choctaw and Creek blood combining with his African-American ancestry that gives him that look, which in Somali people comes from a mix of East African, Arab and Eurasian heritage. Any ability he might have to fool people into believing he is Somali disappears the first time he tries bariis maraq and has no idea how to use the canjeero bread—stuffing it into his mouth instead of tearing it into pieces to scoop up the meat like a spoon. I feed him as a Somali mother teaches her children, and bite back the rush of emotion at the reminder that it is my son I should be nourishing.

Gus isn’t heartless, as I had first assumed, but it still bothers me that he keeps Jimmy as a pet. Now that the weather is warming up, Gus sometimes puts the cage on the windowsill so Jimmy can feel the sun. The windows here are supposed to be sealed up, so no one can jump out or climb in, but whoever soldered them shut didn’t bargain on Gus’ handiness. He has loosened the frame so that the screen can be removed to let air enter the room and banish the dusty smells clinging to the corners, and it can be replaced so that if staff do an inspection, it appears to remain firmly shut.

Jimmy dances around in his cage, twittering, and a flock of sparrows flits past, returning from its fall migration to settle on a sprouting branch across the street. The snow melt has exposed the garbage, has pasted Slurpee cups, wrinkled condoms and discarded Big Mac wrappers against the trunk of the tree in which the birds perch. I wonder what Jimmy is thinking as he watches them; if he longs to feel the sweep of the sky beneath him, to have his squeaks and whistles echoed back to him by others of his kind. To be able to rise into the wind at will and swoop down to alight where he chooses.

When the window is closed, Gus and I sometimes take Jimmy out of the cage. He perches on our fingers and steps from there to the table, but he never tries to fly through the room. “You see?” Gus says. “He doesn’t know what he’s missing.”

                                                                       


I haven’t worn the hijab since I started drinking. In Islam, alcohol is haraam—forbidden, so it seemed wrong to wear a sign of piety while consuming such a vile substance. But after being sober two months, I decide to cover my head again. I have never been comfortable without the hijab. Without its protection, men meet my eyes in the street and women marvel at the abundance of my black, tightly-waved hair: their attention exposes me like a flashlight roaring onto my face through the dark, when all I want is to be anonymous. It feels like reconnecting with an old friend when I pull the folded fabric from my suitcase and pin it around my ears.

I don’t give Gus any warning. It is too difficult to explain without seeing him in person. When I walk into his room, he looks up and says, “Didja wash your hair or something?”

“No,” I say.

“Wait, so you’re wearing that on purpose?”

“It’s a religious thing,” I say.

“What, you’re a Muslim?” He seems to shrink from me as he says it. I try to remember if I mentioned it. I thought I had mentioned it.

“Well, yeah, most Somalis are. Is that a problem?”

“Well, no, I guess not,” he shrugs. “Just looks weird. I gotta get used to it, I guess.”

“It’s for my two-month anniversary,” I say, hearing my voice rise, twisting into something close to self-pity. The danger zone, Sherry calls it, when you start feeling overwhelmed and allow others to dictate your feelings.

I dream of my son’s chubby brown legs, his little fingers locked around one of mine, his dark curls soft beneath my palm, and I wake screaming into my pillow …

“Oh. Oh, yeah,” he says. “Two months clean, that’s great, sweetie. We should have a drink to celebrate. I’m kidding! A soft drink!” he says, laughing at how quickly my face fell at his suggestion. But it isn’t funny. Some mornings, alcohol is still all I think about, and those are the mornings when I have slept. If I remain awake, then I yearn throughout the night for the peace that comes in a bottle. When I do fall into an uneasy slumber, I dream of my son’s chubby brown legs, his little fingers locked around one of mine, his dark curls soft beneath my palm, and I wake screaming into my pillow, already wet with the tears that I keep inside all day, that slide out as soon as I close my eyes. I reach out for the glass that I still expect to be beside my bed, but my fingers grasp only air. Unmoving, dead air. One drink would be too many, but a hundred could never be enough.

I go to Jimmy’s cage so that Gus cannot see my expression, bend down and look inside. Jimmy comes hopping towards me, chirping, and the pain in my chest softens. I place my finger between the bars and Jimmy pecks at it. I laugh at the hardness of his tiny beak, the way he cocks his head to look at me, his black dot of an eye unblinking.

“Hey,” Gus says from the bed, “you kinda look like an Arabian princess there. Sexy. Don’t worry, I’ll get used to it.”

                                                                       


Gus comes back late from work one night and hammers on my door. I can smell whisky mingled with beer as soon as I put the chain on the latch, but he appears to be standing straight. He must hold his liquor well, which would explain how he managed to get past the staff at the front.

“You’re drunk,” I say, stating the obvious. I have been waiting for this, I realize. My broken edges found his and they fit together, but it was only a matter of time before they split apart again. I was drawn to Gus’ fractured parts just as much as the glue we tried to spread over them, but that glue is peeling away now.

“I just went out with a couple of the guys after work,” Gus replies. There is a slight slur to his speech, barely perceptible, but I recognize it, after all the time I spent faking sobriety to my partner, my boss, my co-workers.

“Well, you can’t come in here like that. Go sleep it off,” I say.

“Whoa, you took that thing off your head,” he notes. “You’re not a raghead anymore.”

In the privacy of my room, I have removed my hijab and my hair, freed of its constraints, has sprung into cheerful disarray.

“Go to bed, Gus,” I say, and after I hear him stomp down the hall, I lie down on my own bed. My mind whirls with jealousy that he is drunk and I am not. I cannot bear to witness him enjoying the release I cannot have.

The next morning, Gus is contrite. He doesn’t go out to work, but appears at my door again. “My head hurts so bad,” he complains, as he lies down on my bed. I get up to wet a facecloth for him to place on his forehead, fumble in my purse for Tylenol.

I flip the light switch off, remembering how the brightness used to feel like long knives slicing through my temples after too many bottles. “You have a drinking problem.” Emotions churn in my chest and stomach. I am sad that he has the same demons I do. They are an adversary I would not wish upon anyone. But I am also happy to have company in the struggle.

“I don’t,” he groans. “I didn’t. I only drink every once in a while. But when I do, it’s a lot.”

“That’s binge drinking,” I inform him, as I have learned at AA. “It’s considered an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.” I begin winding a purple scarf around my forehead. It is not my place to judge him, I remind myself, though my instincts are begging me to run from his weakness in order to keep my own at bay. As Sherry says, we are all fighting a hard battle. We all slip up. “You can stay here if you want, or you can go back to your room,” I say, “but I have to go report to probation.”

“Can you go to my room and give Jimmy some water and bird seed before you go?” he begs. “I don’t know if I can get up again.” He holds out his hand, and I see that a small bloody gash runs along the side of his finger. “That asshole bird pecked me.”

Gus must have been bumping into things last night, because the room is a shambles, with furniture knocked over and the floor littered with items from his table and nightstand. Jimmy’s cage is lying on its side and Jimmy cowers at one end. When I go to scoop some birdseed from the bag, there is a scrabbling sound and I shriek as a mouse, fat with feasting, bursts out of the opening, leaps past me and onto the table. For an instant I consider tracking it with my eyes, trying to find it and stomping the life out of it, or setting a trap for it later, but then I think, it’s just another being trying to survive in this place. I stand motionless as the mouse scampers towards the wall and plunges through a crack to safety. Jimmy’s glittering eyes seem to watch it go too and for a mad moment, I see myself opening the window and Jimmy’s cage door. I picture Jimmy vanishing into the sunrise and the mouse scrambling through the guts of this building. But reason returns and I straighten Gus’ room up and get ready for my probation appointment. Gus has slipped up, but I must not.

                                                                       


A few days later, Gus and I walk beneath the underpass to the strip of pawn shops further down Main Street, where Gus has said he wants to pick out a ring for me. People bring jewelry to pawn shops all the time, he says. You can get some good deals.

“But that’s really sad,” I say. “That means people were either so desperate for drugs, or they had nothing left for their rent or to feed their kids, that they gave up the most beautiful, valuable thing they had and then couldn’t get it back.”

“So what?” he demands. “That’s their problem, then.” This is so unlike him that I stop and stare, and then I smell the mouthwash. The gum. The coffee.

The words sob from my lips. “Maybe we should do this another time.”

“I want to get you a ring today,” he shouts. “You’re my woman now.”

“Can we just—” I get no further before he slams me with his bulk against the wall of the underpass. The traffic sounds are muted by layers of concrete that the sunlight does not penetrate. I look at the graffiti scrolling above, on the underside of the roof—gang tags, Black Lives Matter, hearts with initials inside, This is Indian Country, Land Back Now. With Gus’ breath hot on my cheeks, I can smell the booze now. He presses an arm against my neck and my breath gurgles.

“You do what I say,” he rasps, blowing whisky, beer and menace into my nostrils. They crowd out the rank scent of vomit wafting from the walls.

A car horn honks beside us. “Hey!” A guy in a baseball cap leans out of the passenger side, the face and flapping tongue of a large black dog visible behind him. “Hey, what are you doing? Take your hands off her or I’m calling the cops.”

Gus steps back and my hands fly to my neck as I gulp fetid air. “No cops,” I wheeze. The guy glares at Gus and the car moves off.

So, I think. Now I know why his wife kicked him out.

                                                                       


When I open my eyes, there is more light in the room than I expect. I squint against the razors of its glare as I try to piece the previous day together. I went to the pawn shop with Gus and let him pick the ring that now adorns my finger. We came back to his room, and then everything went blank. It is the same fuzzy blackness I remember from the months after my son died: the blanket of oblivion that can only be found in a bottle. 

I fumble for my watch and see that I have risen an hour and a half past the time I needed to. If its little chiming alarm went off, I didn’t hear it. Looking around, I see that I am in Gus’ room, not mine. Gus is not here and his boots are gone, so he must be at work. I have broken the Salvation Army prohibition against spending the night in another resident’s room, and I must hurry back to mine before they catch me. If I am evicted, I will have nowhere to go; I will have to sleep in a bus shelter or under a bridge. My head feels like an overgrown pumpkin lolling on a stalk of grass. When I stumble down the hall to the bathroom, I see a purple bruise on my cheekbone. I squint under the fluorescent lights, trying to remember how it got there. There are bruises above my clavicles too; a gruesome necklace of dark smudges.

“Shit!” I shout suddenly. I have missed my probation appointment. I rush back to Gus’ room to look for the hijab I had on yesterday. I didn’t bring many with me to the Salvation Army, and that one matches the shirt I want to wear. I can’t find it, and I remember—I am not worthy of wearing the hijab anymore.

Before I leave, I notice that Jimmy has no seed or water. He is looking into the little mirror I bought him that dangles from the wall of the cage. At his feet is the little ball with a bell that I bought at the same time. I wonder if the mirror lets him believe another bird is there with him to relieve the endless void of his solitary existence. Reaching into the feed bag with a scoop, I hear a clinking sound. Buried in the birdseed are several empty beer cans, many more than I remember. Shit. Shit. I run back to the bathroom, the bile already bubbling on my tongue.

Sherry is busy with other clients. “You missed your appointment,” her administrative assistant scolds. “You’ll have to wait until she gets a break.” I sit on the plastic chairs, my head throbbing, my tongue leaden and dry, for almost two hours, until the assistant tells me there is another no-show and buzzes Sherry. She comes out to greet me, her government ID dangling from a lanyard around her neck tangled with the beaded ends of the dreamcatcher earrings she apologizes for wearing every time she has them on; an Ojibwe client made them for her and she likes to honour the spirit of the gift, but she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s appropriating their culture. I wonder what she would do if I presented her with a hijab.

“Bilan!” she beams. “You made it.”

“Did you issue a warrant for me?” I gabble. “I’m sorry, I slept in—”

“No, not yet,” she assures me. “You’re so reliable, I thought something must have happened. Come and sit down and tell me what happened.”

I haven’t tried to hide the bruise with makeup. A partially-concealed bruise is more obvious than a naked bruise, especially on dark skin. Sherry frowns. “Oh, my,” she says, “what happened to you?”

“I fell,” I say, and then I cry, because I have fallen in every other way than the one I just lied about.

Sherry tries to soothe me. “Bilan,” she says, “this is normal. People have relapses. They have setbacks. You’re trying to be strong, but it’s okay to be weak sometimes.”

I bury my face in a handful of Kleenex. The pawn shop ring flashes on my finger—a tiny heart made out of little chips of diamond. I wish I knew who it first belonged to. Whether they still love the person who gave it to them.

“You are one of the smartest, most determined people who has ever sat in that chair,” Sherry tells me. “If anyone’s going to make it, it’s you.”

I sob, “I just can’t believe I’m in this place. How did I get here?”

“You’ve been through a lot,” Sherry says. “Why don’t we take it one day at a time?”

But one day at a time is not enough for me, I realize. I need to reach for what lies beyond the expanse of the months and years that one day at a time eventually become. I have been asking myself the wrong questions all this time. What I did to get here is not as important as what I must do to leave.                                                                       


I have been asking myself the wrong questions all this time. What I did to get here is not as important as what I must do to leave.


Gus is out. Jimmy’s cage sits on the windowsill and he is perched on his swing, staring through the glass. I push back the screen so that there is nothing between the cage and the sun-warmed air outside. The sound of twittering comes from the tree across the road where sparrows flutter like paper bags, and Jimmy jumps around, uttering his own peeps and chirps. I finger the paper Sherry gave me with the phone number for the women’s shelter. I swore I wouldn’t leave this place only to go to another shelter. But Sherry says to take baby steps. The women’s shelter is a safe place to start fresh, to heal.

I wonder if they would let me bring Jimmy to the shelter. I could disappear with him, and Gus would never find us. I could put the diamond ring on the dresser where Jimmy’s cage used to sit: my final message. But watching the sparrows dip and dive through the leaves fills me with the conviction that Jimmy deserves his freedom. Real freedom, not just moving his prison from one place to another. And he can have it, if I open the cage door and let him soar out into the waiting expanse.

I hesitate, knowing that Jimmy is a domestic bird. His colour stands out against the drab coats of these northern birds, and he has no experience of living independently. He will not know the dangers of cats, or cars, or bigger birds of prey. He will starve. He will freeze. It would be cruel to release him: an act of vengeance perpetrated upon Gus through an innocent creature. I turn to go, but then I reconsider. Even if Jimmy’s life is shortened, dying outside is preferable to dying in a cage. The joyous sensation of using his wings, even once, is worth weeks, months of feeling them slowly atrophy behind bars.

I open the wire door and turn the opening towards the open window. Jimmy continues to prance around behind bars. A sparrow lands on the frame of the window above us, looking down at him. It chirps and Jimmy chirps back. I am holding my breath, covering the ring I still wear with one hand. “Go on, Jimmy,” I whisper as Jimmy stands, his head turned towards the sparrow. But Jimmy doesn’t move. After being locked up so long, he no longer desires freedom, I lament. His instincts have been tamed out of him beyond recovery.

One second more and I will close the cage. But then Jimmy bounds through the door and stands on the windowsill, amazed at his own daring. He ruffles his feathers, opens and shuts his little green wings, testing them. He still does not fly, and I despair. What will happen to him if Gus finds him pecking around here in the gutter? I reach out my hand to grab him, but he hops out of reach. Then he turns his head to look back at me one last time as if to say, “You’re next.” He takes off without a sound, lifting into the cobalt sky. A flash of green settles among the sparrows: they seem to accept their new bright-coated friend without question. But he is still too close to the Salvation Army.

“Get away from here, Jimmy, go,” I urge, and as if he can hear me, he rises again, at the edge of the flock. He doesn’t know what he’s missing, Gus said. Jimmy lifts with the breeze and wings away with his cousins, over the pile of plastic forks, plastic wrap, Styrofoam containers and old sneakers: all the detritus scattered beside the Salvation Army by careless residents. Gus was wrong. Jimmy did know. He watched the sparrows dart past the window dozens of times a day, exulting in the wide blue cavern of the sky. Inside his cage, he longed and he waited, until I gave him his freedom. I had the power to do that.

I twist the ring off my finger and place it on the floor of the cage. The diamonds fracture the circle of light from Jimmy’s mirror. I look through the window one last time as Jimmy glides over the underpass, and I touch the tender spots on my neck with my newly naked finger. Jimmy is following a path invisible to anyone but him, and yet it is something he has known how to do all along. Something that has been patiently dwelling within his bones, always believing that one day, it will get its chance to take flight.

 


Zilla Jones is African-Canadian in Treaty 1 (Winnipeg.) She has been longlisted for the fiction competitions of CBC and shortlisted by the Fiddlehead, Missouri Review Perkoff Prize, Masters Review Anthology X, Freefall, and the Writers Union of Canada. She won Honourable Mention in the Room contest and first place in the GritLit contest. Her fiction appears in Prairie Fire, the Malahat Review as the winner of the Open Season award, and Prism as the winner of the Jacob Zilber prize.

☝ BACK TO TOP