The doctors had explained to Loretta that even with the sub dermal supports her frame could not withstand the weight of the wings. Not for long, anyway. Sooner or later, her joints would break down, and the two mechanical hearts would wear out. Her original heart and lungs, her immune system, were being much too stressed. “You can take this trip,” they had told her. “But you must return within the year so we can make sure your organs are not damaged and to replace any necessary parts.” They were wrong, of course. She’d only been on the island for three months and already she felt her body crumbling from within. Her hearts beat erratically, and she struggled to catch each breath.
Only the young woman, the lover, stayed with her now. The rest questioned the Bird Queen’s ill health, wondering aloud why she couldn’t fly, why she couldn’t make the plants grow. Often, her mother would visit, but only to bathe Loretta or polish the detailed tin feathers that made up her wings and had begun to rust in the ocean air. Her mother rarely talked, choosing to soothe the Bird Queen with songs, the same songs she had sung to Loretta as a child.
One day, the pain of her deteriorating flesh and the realization that she was nothing but a farce to these people became unbearable. Loretta couldn’t control herself. She cried, her sobs coming violently.
“My poor Bird Queen,” her mother said. “You must have lived a difficult life, a painful life. How did you get your wings back? How did you find us again? Oh, don’t cry! Be happy for us. We are free. I was lost for many years, like you, and I made my way back. If anything, your suffering is my fault and I’m deeply sorry.” She grasped Loretta’s hands tightly in her own and covered her face with motherly kisses until both women stopped crying.
That night, while everyone slept, Loretta left the cave. She stumbled through the narrow passageways, placing her hands along the stone walls for support. Outside, she gulped in the cool, fresh air. Above her the moon shined brightly in the clear night sky. Its silver light created a path for her to follow, from the base of the cave up to the hillside. She followed this path, walking slowly at first, then hurrying around boulders and stepping on rocks as she climbed. When she reached the very top of the hill, she stood tall at the edge of the cliff, studying the world below her.
Loretta saw that her lover was watching her, so she held out a hand, palm flat, telling her not to follow. “I love you,” she mouthed to her, even though she knew the young woman couldn’t read her lips from that distance.
Loretta unfolded her wings, held them out so that the cold, night wind pushed her back. She still had no answers. “No one remembers Loretta, not my mother, not me. I can never go back,” she said to herself. “Not even to save my life.”
A gust of wind carried her off the ground. The wings weren’t meant for flight, but that didn’t matter anymore. She angled her wings, trying to gain as much lift as she could. She looked to the moon, wondering if it would bless her with a new life, as it had the original Bird Queen. She twisted her body as the wind strengthened, raising her higher. And she steered herself through the air, flapping her wings forcefully.
“Goodbye,” she tried to say, but instead a deep howl, a cry cleaved from her core, escaped from her mouth, rousing hundreds of birds, crows and gulls, large and small, from their slumber. She drifted away from the hill, the avian swarm surrounding her, the thunderous hum of a thousand beating wings blocking out all sound except for the wind.
The wind kissed her face, whispering secrets in a language so old it sounded like tiny bells ringing. Above her, the moon flickered and beckoned and winked.
All three of her hearts beat in unison and then stopped.
The young woman sat on the edge of the cliff, watching the sky, waiting for the Bird Queen to return. Days had passed since she left.
“I saw the Bird Queen fly away,” she told the others. But most of them didn’t seem to care.
“What did she do for us anyway?” they asked. “We’re still dying.”
But the older woman, the one who had stayed with and cared for the Bird Queen during her final days on the island, said, “Don’t be angry with her. Sometimes we leave those we love in order to save them and ourselves.”
The young woman didn’t know that she needed saving. She wanted to be with the Bird Queen, to hear her name spoken, to love and be loved in return. She wanted to know that her people would continue, that they would live and thrive for generations to come. But now they were all alone again. She was alone again.
“When she’s ready, she’ll come back,” the older woman had said to her.
The young woman shook her head. The elder didn’t know. And how could she? With her damaged eyes, she hadn’t seen the Bird Queen in her full glory that night. Hadn’t seen the stars dance. Hadn’t seen the look of peace on that sad and suffering face. The Bird Queen had flown, forward and onward, never once looking back at her dying people.