Chapter 8: Flight

In Door of Return by Aseja Dava

On my flight back home,  I clutched silvery and blue feathers for my life, riding on the back of a bird the size of a moon. We soared through a current of storm clouds as the bird spoke anxiously over the sound of thunder. 

“I’d like to express that I have several concerns,” said the bird. 

“Uh-huh,” I muttered, more preoccupied with the streak of lightning that cut a bright line across the clouds below them. The bird spread out her enormous wings, dark blue and threaded with unearthly silver, arcing upwards to avoid crashing into the snow-crusted tip of a mountain.

My stomach swooped to my toes, breakfast rising in my belly. 

“Firstly,” the bird continued. “Where would you say is the best place to construct a nest?” 

“A nest?” 

“You know,” she snorted incredulously. “A nest. For eggs.” 

The bird nods pointedly downwards, beak razor-sharp and gleaming. I peered over, catching sight of a large golden egg, resting in a crocheted web of vines like a grocery bag from the bird’s talons. 

“I know what a nest is for,” I argued. “I just—you’re, uh, having a baby?” 

“I am!” the bird confirmed genially. “She will be the first born into the new world—a blessing from Creator. She will be strong and powerful and free!” The bird laughed. More lightning cracked excitedly around us. “Why, if anything were to happen to this egg, I would destroy this whole world and then myself—”

The sudden stiffening in the bird’s body was the only warning that I got before a burst of electricity ricocheted hot past my face. 

Too hot. Way too close. 

“What are you doing?!” I yelled.  

The bird let out an ear-splitting shriek. It was a battle cry, a triumphant call to arms. 

“Hold on tight, doorkeeper!” the bird announced. “This is a surprisingly resilient adversary.” 

“What adversary?”  

 I peered into the thick shock of clouds ahead of us, just as the pale nose of a passenger airplane cut through the fog right ahead of us.  

“Have you come to meet your fate?” The bird challenged. 

“That is an airplane!” I shouted. “There are people inside! Don’t hit it!” 

On instinct, I yanked the bird’s feathers toward me. 

I screamed. “Turn turn turn turn!” 

The bird released a surprised squawk before her whole body cut into a vertical. Just barely avoiding splattering against the plane, Caribbean Airlines, written across its side. 

The world turned on its side. 

I caught a glimpse into one of the small square windows of the plane. Passengers slept on within, wholly unaware of me. 

And then my hands came loose from the feathers. The blood in my body rushed to my head. Gravity, sending me back to the ground. 

As I fell, I saw the shining egg come loose from its bed of vines. 

Lightning screamed, the mother bird cried. 

It was golden, bright amongst the sea of grey. 

A shooting star, tumbling down from the sky alongside me. 

It was just past midnight in Bridgetown, and I still felt like I was falling.

The rain was hitting heavy against the roof of the family car as we drove home from Grantley Adams Airport. The car was too loud after two weeks of just me and my sister, Sade, in her apartment. Abe was sitting next to me, making weird noises every time he died in his Nintendo game. Ma and dad were chatting it up in the front seat. I felt loose from my body, dizzy like I’d just stepped off a carnival ride. 

A dream, it must have been. They’d been rising up like weeds in my sleep lately. 

But dreams were the least of my problems. 

For one, the whole crying-joy-oh-my-baby’s-home thing had lasted for exactly ten minutes before Ma launched into a spiel about how successful and bright and studious my sister Sade was, and why couldn’t I be more like Sade etcetera, etcetera.  

(The spiel was ongoing.) 

“How’s Sade doing, Akeelah? Does she look like she’s been eating enough?” 

“She’s doing well, I guess,” I shrugged. “She recently got more funding to continue her research.” 

“Ah,” Ma glows. “That’s our girl.” 

Sade was five years older, and the eternal benchmark to which my mother compared me. She was the twenty-three year old chemist prodigy full-ride scholarship kind of girl. Eldest child, shiny and bright one. I’d just gotten back from a two-week visit to her place in Toronto. 

“If you want to do studies in Canada eventually, I’m sure Sade can help you make arrangements,” Ma was saying. 

“Yes, Ma,” I agreed absently. 

Grandma was sitting on my other side, smelling as she always did, of sandalwood and citrus, holding my hand in the dark. She leaned in close to me all of a sudden, nose twitching. 

“Why do you smell burnt, baby?” 

“I do?” I brought the fabric of my sweater to my nose. 

Nothing beyond stale airplane cabins and deodorant.  

Grandma sniffed at me again, clucking her tongue. 

“Smell like you walked through fire,” Grandma said, “Or like you got struck by lightning.” 

A flash of electricity burning past my face. Airborne. Flying, falling.

The fantastical dream—the impossible memory—barrelled into the chatty car. I stared at Grandma in shock. She looked at me expectantly. 

“Akeelah just needs to shower, mama,” Ma insisted from the passenger seat. “She’s been travelling all day.” 

A flash of light catches, blurring past the window closest to Abe.  

“Oh my god,” I gasped, leaning up to the window on instinct. 

Golden like a comet, disappearing like a dream. 

“Did you see that?” I exclaimed. 

Abe looked up from the screen of his DS to raise an eyebrow at me. 

“See what?” 

I shook my head, disbelieving. “It was like…gold.” 

“Heh. What, like a streetlight?”  

“You must think you’re so funny,” I hissed.

“I am hilarious,” Abe retorted. 

“Did you say something, Keelah?” 

Fabulous. Now Ma was involved. 

“I just…saw something outside.” 

“She was pointing out a very pretty streetlight,” Abe laughed. 

I sighed, tired. Grandma squeezed my hand tighter. 

The next morning, when I padded down into the kitchen, the household was all in its usual state of chaos. 

“You are up so late,” Ma said. Her purse was hanging from her shoulder, a grocery list dangling between her fingers. “We need to go.” 

“Go where?” 

My dad was standing at the kitchen counter, stirring something about in a big pot. Abe was sneaking spoonfuls of the food while my dad was distracted. 

“We’re making pepper pot for dinner,” he chimed. “A celebration to welcome you home.” 

“Oh, Dad,” I said. “You didn’t need to do that.” 

“That’s what I said,” Mum goes on. She’s got her Principal Greaves voice on. “I said, it’s only been two weeks, and you missed classes to go visit Sade, but your father insisted, so to the market we go.” 

“Why can’t Aunty Julia go with you?” 

“Aunty Julia is busy!” Aunty Julia piped up from the living room. Grey’s Anatomy was playing on the television. 

“Aunty Julia is useless at the market,” Ma added. “Can’t haggle for her life.” 

“I heard that,” Aunty shouted. 

“You were meant to!” Ma shouted back. She turned to me. “Go call grandma—she’ll want to come.” 

I found Grandma in the backyard, bent over her small garden. The air outside was humid, humming like it was anticipating rain, tinged with the scent of something strange.

“Grandma,” I called. 

Grandma rose to her feet, carrying a pile of leaves and twigs in her arms. 

“We’re gonna go to the market now,” I said. “What’s all that?” 

“Oh, you know,” Grandma said. I waited, but she never continued. Instead, she dumped her findings by the shed and walked up to me.  

“You see that, doorkeeper?” Grandma asked, nodding pointedly up at the sky. “The sky is angry.” 

“It’s just going to rain,” I said softly, clutching my necklace. I paused. “Wait. What did you say?” 

Grandma looked at me, wrinkled eyes bright and full of secrets. She was about to say something, lips parting on the words—

Ma burst into the back. The moment cracked. 

“Ready to go?”