by Kerry Cullen
Issue #33 • August 18, 2015•Buy Now!
Every morning now, I wake up scared. I pat my skin: first my face, then my arms and chest. I get up, grab my tweezers, and sit down cross-legged on the floor in front of my mirror, ready to make myself presentable again.
First, there were just the few sparse tufts of down. Plucking them was easy; I barely felt it. The sensation was like easing out one strand of hair very slowly. Of course, now that my breast feathers are coming in it hurts. I’ve started waking up earlier to pluck, to apply medication, to bandage. What else can I do?
I’ve been researching the stages of aviary development all summer, so I know that next will come the flight feathers. They’re more powerful, and they will be much longer. At night, I steel myself by imagining it over and over, as hard as I can. I mime pulling a barb from between my fingers, the length of my palm, sleek and hooked. If the breast feathers leave me swollen, pocked in rash, I imagine that pulling the flight feathers will make me bleed. Also, I’ll probably need to get a set of pliers.
Kerry Cullen’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Cicada, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. She is an editorial assistant at Holt/Macmillan, and earned her MFA at Columbia University. She is writing a novel about queer families set at a Christian rock festival.
Patrick Ryan on Flight Feathers
Everything changes; nothing stands still. The reason you can’t step into the same river twice is because the river is constantly changing and you’re constantly changing. I’m paraphrasing both Plato and Heraclitus (and forgive me if I’m twisting their words a little) because that’s what comes to mind when I think of our new issue, Kerry Cullen’s “Flight Feathers.”
Adolescence is a time when we become hyper-aware of how our bodies are changing. I mean, sure, we change a lot between the ages of one and twelve, but most of us are too busy absorbing our surroundings to notice that we’re not staying the same. In adolescence, we start to notice. Our bodies start to change in ways that are universal and yet (extremely!) personal. With that in mind, you can read this story as a metaphor—or you can just read it as an amazing, alarming, and possibly scary tale about a teenage girl who is slowly turning into a bird.
Evie, the main character, can do her best to ignore the fact that her home life is less than ideal. She can do her best to ignore the fact that her mom keeps trying to land a new boyfriend but goes through relationships like tissues. But what does Evie do when feathers start poking through her own skin? Never mind an explanation for why this is happening; how does she even convey the phenomenon to someone who will understand?
I’m thrilled to be presenting you with “Flight Feathers.” Kerry Cullen has a remarkable talent for writing about metamorphosis and making you feel as if it’s happening to you. One Teen Story is delighted to welcome her into the nest.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
I feel like beauty in teen girls is inexorably tangled with identity and grappling for control over internal and external change, and I wanted to explore that sense of changing self with unusually dramatic circumstances that felt even more mythic and alienating.
Once I had the bird‐girl who plucks herself human in place, all of the other elements fell in and sorted themselves later. I particularly wanted the mother to be obsessed with birds in a different way, to both drive home and conflict the girl’s aloneness. But everything else just sort of happened.
For me, being a teenager felt scary and incredible in such a larger‐than‐life way that it didn’t exactly seem human. So when I write teenagers, they’re almost always a little bit “something else.” And that “something else” is always threatening to reveal itself, which is exhilarating and awful, especially since teenager‐hood is the time when you most want to just look human like the other humans. It often seems like everyone else is having such an effortless time of it comparatively, or it did to me.
And that means that the moments of vulnerability feel extra‐raw—not just like telling a life story, but really showing the non‐human parts of yourself to another person and hoping desperately that they’ll stick around.
Ha, I just realized I used “hoping desperately” in my answer to the previous question. How weird and fitting.
As for the second half of the question, funny you should ask! I have a drawer novel in which Kite‐in‐twenty‐years is a significant character. He’s still magical, but he’s also a bit dimmed as he works through his past. Evie leaving was hard on him, especially when he was already in a great deal of pain. She hasn’t exactly let go of him, either, but I’ll stop here in order to not ramble on too much.
The advice itself is fantastic. But I think a big part of what makes that moment so memorable for me is the fact that he was a real writer, talking to me as if I was a real writer, too. I felt as if I was being challenged to embark on a quest that would be hard and dangerous and make me a better person. Both Evie and Kite would approve.