By SJ Sindu
I sat behind him the day he grew wings. I always seemed to be behind him — in class, in line during morning prayer — maybe that’s why I noticed him in the first place, before the wings, before everyone else did.
He was in my third grade class. Red sand always coated his legs, garish against his blue-black skin. He took off his shoes to play in the courtyard at recess, and kicked up the sand where grass refused to grow under the tropical Sri Lankan sun. His friends played cricket. They ran and yelled and boasted under the watchful eyes of the girls who stood by the swings. But he just kicked and kicked at the sand, watching the dusty clouds his feet made.
My body wasn’t strong enough to play outside at recess, so I sat at the classroom window and watched his feet, the way the sand slowly stained their bright, pink undersides.
His name wasn’t Peter. That’s just what everyone called him after his wings grew in. Peter, because the white, downy wings made him look like an angel. Peter, because after he grew wings, his mother converted to Christianity and joined the Catholic Church in front of our school. Peter, because everyone forgot what his name used to be.
I know now that in the Bible, Peter isn’t an angel. We should’ve called him Gabriel. But Peter was the most popular Christian name in a town full of Hindus who had never even seen a Bible, so Peter was the name that stuck.
Every morning before the wings, he stood three rows up from me during prayer, when we would gather with all the other Hindu kids. The Christian students went to mass in the church across the street, and the Muslim students prayed in the empty gymnasium where they could lay out their prayer rugs.
That early in the morning, I felt strong enough to stand in line. I had drunk the raw egg that my mother cracked into my coffee before breakfast in the hope that the protein would fill up my shrinking body. I stood at morning prayer with my heart jumping in a rhythm-less pace, and watched him eyeing the sand. He shifted his weight and held his fists at his sides, holding in the urge to kick it away into a dust cloud that floated up and up and up.
The day that Peter grew wings, I sat behind him in class, watching the way his shoulder blades pushed at the white fabric of his uniform shirt. A little pool of yellow sweat formed along his spine.
Miss Virginia wrote long division, her chalk clicking against the board, the tail of her white sari trembling with each movement. She barked out names. For right answers, a tight nod of her head as she whipped around to scratch chalk on the board. For every wrong answer, the student had to walk up to her and present a hand, palm turned upward. She rapped it three times with her wooden ruler.
She called on me. I kept my eyes glued to the sweat creeping up Peter’s back and fought off the way the walls tilted. I gave the answer I had scribbled on my graph paper. Miss Virginia nodded and went back to the board.
She called his name. His shoulder blades rippled as he sat up straighter. His voice quivered. Wrong answer.
He walked slowly up to her as she tapped her Bata slippers against the cement floor. He held out his left hand, palm facing upward. Red sand coated his legs up to his knees.
Miss Virginia brought her ruler down on his hand. He flinched with his whole body and whimpered at the back of his throat. The force of it knocked him backwards, twisting his shoulders and back like he was about to fold in two.
The ruler came down again with a sharp crack. His back popped open like a ball of yarn come undone. His crisp white shirt ripped. His shoulder blades shot out, white and slimy with blood.
Miss Virginia took a step back and covered her mouth with her hand. One of the girls in the class screamed. I clutched the edge of my desk. The walls tilted and I hoped I was still sitting upright. A sharp pain poked me in the chest. No one else moved. Miss Virginia’s chest heaved. Her eyes flashed wild. She brought the ruler down again. Crack.
Peter’s little body convulsed. His shoulder bones grew and bent downward.
Crack, crack, went the ruler. Fuzzy little feathers sprouted on the bones and filled in. Crack, and Peter had wings. White feathers coated the floor near him. Miss Virginia stood in front of him with the ruler. Her mouth hung open and her body heaved. She fell to her knees, her sari pooling around her, and pushed her face into her hands.
After that day I didn’t see him for two weeks. My skin turned cold, and I wasn’t strong enough to go to school. At night I closed my eyes and watched him leave again and again through the school courtyard, the red sand puffing up around his feet with each step, the wings gleaming in the hot sun. Even his mother was too afraid to walk near him. He walked in a space all his own, his back stiff, his starched white shirt hanging in two strips from his shoulders.
When I showed up to school again, Peter had golden hair, the kind of hair we only saw on white Red Cross workers and actors on TV. He didn’t come to morning prayer, but showed up afterward in class, trailing behind the Christian students. The other kids avoided him. Miss Virginia wouldn’t look at him, and never called on him in class. We all took our turns with the ruler, but he was allowed to sit in the back, quiet. He sat on a stool and wrote on a little desk. The other kids had already started calling him Peter.
At recess he stood in the shade of a mango tree and watched the boys play cricket. He curled his toes into the red sand, and straightened them again. When one of the boys hit a sixer, the ball hit a branch of the mango tree and fell at Peter’s feet. Peter leaned down and picked it up, his wings unfurling to match the shift in weight.
The boys stopped playing. They stared at Peter and his new blond hair. One of the Christian boys drew himself up and walked down the field to the mango tree. He held out a bony arm, and Peter dropped the ball into it. The boy bowed his head, and Peter’s wings shook themselves. A few feathers floated to the ground and into the sand.
In a few days, the three Christian boys in our class clustered around Peter. They followed him back from morning mass at the church across the street from the school, and again from the school to evening mass. They sat around his stool at the back of the class. When he stood under the shade of the mango tree, they sat at his feet.
Miss Virginia didn’t call any of them to answer questions. They didn’t talk. Silence trailed behind them.
Parents began to linger after dropping their kids off in the mornings, loitering outside the wrought iron gates of the campus to catch a glimpse of Peter.
One day, a bully in our class taunted Peter. Krishna the bully, large-faced and gangly-armed, was a year older than the rest of the kids in our grade because he had been held back. He pointed at Peter under the mango tree at recess.
“You’re a demon child,” Krishna said.
The other kids stopped playing. Krishna had broken the silence that Peter and his wings demanded.
“You’re a demon child,” Krishna said again. He put his hands on his thin hips and looked around at the crowd of kids.
I watched through the classroom window, nursing a light dizziness and hoping that Krishna wouldn’t see me, one of his usual targets. My body offered a variety of opportunities for him to make fun: my pale skin that he said made me look yellow; the way my muscles sometimes refused to work like they should, giving me a limp when I walked or ran; the fact that I often stayed inside during recess.
I rubbed at the spot where my chest hurt.
Peter didn’t turn around. He continued to watch the cricket game, though the boys had stopped playing and had turned their attention to Krishna.
The three Christian boys flanked Peter and stared Krishna down. Krishna walked toward them, his hands never leaving the sides of his uniform shorts.
Anton, small and pale with a nose like a sinkhole, balled up his fist and shook it. Peter didn’t turn around but his wings shivered and shook loose some white feathers that floated to the ground.
Krishna stopped a few yards away from the mango tree and pointed a thick finger at Peter.
Anton ran at Krishna, his small fist flying, his face pulled tight in toward his nose. Krishna’s hands dropped from his hips and rose up to catch Anton’s fist. In one hit from Krishna, little Anton fell, his body sending up a cloud of red sand.
Peter’s wings unfolded above his head, whipping him around, shaking the branches of the mango tree. The wings stretched out behind him, gathering the air, and snapped forward, sending it gushing toward Krishna. The wings flapped once, twice, three times. Air and sand lashed around Peter.
Krishna stepped back. He shielded his eyes against the wind and ran.
Peter’s wings stopped flapping and folded back behind his body. Anton lay still on the ground, his head nestled in between rocks. A white feather landed on his chest.
Peter’s two other boys knelt down, scooping up more and more of the feathers that had fallen and dumping them on the fallen boy. Feathers and red sand, and little Anton coughed and coughed and sat up.
This was Peter’s first miracle.
The next day at school, I heard a rumor from my best friend Meena, who heard it from another girl in our class, who heard it from her mother, that Peter had given one of his feathers to the homeless man who stood outside of the Hindu temple near our school. We knew of this man, with his crutches and the dirty bandages wrapped around his legs. But after Peter gave him one of his feathers, the man disappeared from his usual haunt, and the rumor went that his leg had been cured. He had cleaned up, converted, and now had a job cleaning the pews at Peter’s church.
I wasn’t convinced. Anton could’ve sat up anyway. There was no saying that the feathers were involved. And the man from the temple — well, no one had seen him at the church without his bandages and crutches, and until someone did this was just a rumor.
But everyone else seemed to go along with it. More and more parents hung about the school gates, and even some of the local townspeople. The school’s new security guard eyed them all day, his hand on the baton that he was allowed to carry. A teashop down the street sent its delivery boy running back and forth to the gates of the school, carrying sweet tea in little glass cups for the crowd.
The crowd parted for Peter and the three Christian boys when they went to the church across the street, no one daring to come too close to the wings. The Hindu and Muslim women hung back even further on the edges of the throng, whispering behind hands and the frayed tails of their saris.
One day Peter and the other Christian boys didn’t show up to class after morning mass. We watched through the classroom windows that faced out into the courtyard while Miss Virginia went to fetch him.
Peter stood on the church steps with his wings folded behind him, flanked by his mother and a priest in a white robe. The boys stood off to the side. The dark mouth of the church looked, for a moment, like it would swallow them.
The crowd surged forward, filling up whatever space was left between the school and the church. A man broke free of the crowd and carried a little girl up the church steps. He laid her down by Peter’s feet.
Peter’s mother stroked one of his wings. It unfolded and stretched out. With one yank she plucked out a feather. The wing folded itself back up. She handed the feather to the man, who placed it on the little girl’s chest.
“She moved,” one of my classmates said.
I tried to squint to see but the little girl at Peter’s feet was too far away for my eyes to see movement.
I still couldn’t see anything but my classmates pointed excitedly at the little girl who hadn’t moved.
The man in front of Peter fell at his feet, and the crowd cheered.
The monsoon clouds chased each other out of town. The sun drummed on our heads when we stood in morning prayer. Peter’s place in line was empty, as if his wingless body had left imprints in the sand. No breeze came from the ocean. The sand got dustier and settled into the space between our toes.
Peter stopped standing by the mango tree at recess. Instead he went out the school gates, stood on the church steps with his mother, and entertained petitioners. The tea stop made a roaring trade.
Every day Peter had a new miracle. His mother plucked a feather off a wing and bestowed it on each petitioner. Often the petitioners brought gifts — clothes, sweets, sometimes small pieces of jewelry. They laid these at Peter’s feet, and Peter’s three Christian boys gathered them up under the watchful eye of Peter’s mother and the white-robed priest.
Many days passed before anyone noticed that Peter’s feathers weren’t growing back. The stark white bones of his wings started to show where Peter’s mother had plucked too many feathers. She became more and more selective. Meena’s aunt, who had seizures, was turned away. Miss Virginia’s nephew got a feather, but only because he had been in a coma for a month. The size of petitioners’ gifts doubled, then tripled in the space of a week. Some people tried to buy Peter’s feathers. Sometimes it worked. There was a rumor that Mrs. Chandra, the Hindu widower of the once-richest man in town, got a feather for her Muslim housekeeper’s son, who was almost five years old but hadn’t said a word.
I listened to my parents grumble about it at night when they thought I was asleep. They wanted a healthy kid, but no matter how much they prayed to the gods and goddesses at the temple, and no matter how many doctors we waited in line for at the free hospitals, I didn’t get better. My body continued to shrink. My heart beat erratically, sometimes painfully. My mother wanted my father to petition Peter.
“We don’t have anything to give,” my father said. “They’d turn us away. We’d be humiliated.”
I wanted to tell them it wouldn’t work. I wanted to tell them it was all lies, that Anton would’ve gotten up anyway, and that the paralyzed little girl hadn’t actually moved. Instead I shivered underneath my heavy blankets. My nails had started turning yellow, and my lungs wouldn’t fill even when I drank down the air. And I thought maybe, just maybe a feather couldn’t hurt.
After that, I watched the front of the church closely, wondering if I would see my father’s lithe body climbing up the church steps to kneel at Peter’s feet.
When I’d imagined the scene in my head, I hadn’t imagined rain. I hadn’t imagined a crowd soaked through to their bones, taking shelter under newspapers and the overhang of school buildings, people pressed up against the walls of the school, black umbrellas held against the onslaught of the second monsoon season. My classmates stayed inside for recess, watching Peter on the church steps.
My father’s yellow shirt clung to his back, the muscles visible underneath the wet fabric. Even from the classroom, I recognized the way his shoulders rolled forward and back as he climbed the steps.
Peter and his mother stood at the open mouth of the church doors, dry under the awning. My father squared his shoulders. His body looked solid. Slowly, stiffly, he fell to his knees. He spread out his hands and looked up at Peter. He was too far away to hear over the steady drum of rain.
Peter’s wings unfolded and extended themselves out. The feathers hung ragged and limp. The tips of the wings tapped Peter’s mother in the arm, but she didn’t pluck out a feather.
The priest walked out through the church doors, his white robe wet at the hem.
The wings snapped shut.
The priest puffed out his already protruding stomach and said, loud enough that we could hear him at the school, “Only members of this church, followers of the Lord, can receive the blessings of our angel.”
My father’s hands dropped to his knees. The crowd swelled with silence. He looked up at Peter. The wings quivered but stayed folded.
Thunder boomed. The lightning got brighter and the crowd swayed on its feet.
My father put his hands up, still on his knees, praying to Peter. The wings opened again, unfolding behind Peter’s dark little body like he was going to take flight.
Peter’s mother turned to the priest, who raised his hands as if he were going to gather up the crowd in his embrace. The three Christian boys shrunk back into the dark mouth of the church.
“Only members of the church,” the priest said again in his booming voice, “can receive the blessings of our angel.”
My father pushed himself off the ground and stood, squaring his shoulders. Solid.
The crowd pressed closer to the church steps, their umbrellas held tight. The wind howled through the spaces between bodies.
Peter’s wings hung, statue-like, in the air.
Someone shouted from the crowd. Other voices joined in, their words lost to the wind.
“I’m going to go see,” Miss Virginia said. “Everyone stay here.”
She took her umbrella and walked out into the rain. She weaved through the densely packed crowd, but didn’t make it to the stone church steps. The crowd pressed closer to Peter, too dense to let her through.
“Let’s go see, too,” one of my classmates said.
“She said to stay,” said another.
“Well, I’m going.”
For a tense moment, no one moved. Then a couple of kids walked toward the door. I stood at the window. I didn’t want to face my father in the rain. I didn’t want to hear him plead with Peter. But I didn’t want to be left alone, either, and my classmates moved as a whole piece. If one went, we were all going. I joined them at the door.
The cold rain bounced off our skins and into our uniforms. We shivered, and moved as one unit, a long trail like a snake, toward the front gates. The lightning distracted the guard and we wound our way through. I struggled to keep up with them, but my legs refused to move at a normal pace. I held up the line and we scattered. We squeezed our small bodies in between the others but the dense crowd slowed us down to a stop.
Voices grew more distinct. Snippets of sentences floated to me.
“He belongs to all of us,” someone said.
“All of us,” others echoed.
The priest took a step toward the crowd but stayed dry under the awning.
“He belongs to this church!” the priest said.
I stood in the thick of the crowd — bodies pressed in from all sides, blocking out most of the rain. The wet sand ate my slippers.
“All of us deserve feathers.”
My father stood in front of Peter and looked down at the quivering wings.
“Members of this church—”
“All of us.”
My head spun and my heart jumped to the thunder. I swayed with the crowd.
My father reached out his hand and stroked the top of one wing, slowly, following the direction of the feathers, down to the very tip.
I tried to push at the crowd to get to my father but the bodies around me wouldn’t budge. I pushed and pushed at the fat man in front of me. My hands sunk into his back, soaked with rain.
I wanted to shout but my voice clenched around the pain in my chest and did not leave my body. I struggled to keep my head up.
My father looked out over the crowd. His eyes swept over me. He grabbed a feather from the wing and yanked it out.
The crowd’s cheer answered the rumble in the clouds.
The priest tried to snatch the feather away. My father was faster, stepping back into the rain and down the steps. The crowd swallowed him, cheering still.
We all moved forward. I stumbled along. The crowd surged against the stone church steps, pressed and pressed until the very edge of it moved to the open mouth of the church and engulfed Peter.
Peter’s wings lifted up and beat air and rain at the bodies around him.
Strong arms pulled me around my midsection and lifted me. My father put me on his shoulders and bore through the crowd, away from the church and the school. I strained to keep sight of Peter.
As a mass, the crowd pulled Peter out into the rain. Thunder clapped and the wings beat at the sky. The arms of the crowd reined in the wings and pulled Peter to the ground. Peter’s mother and Miss Virginia tried feebly to push their way to Peter. The priest stood in the open mouth of the church and watched.
I struggled against my father’s hold but my head was too dizzy, too full of thunder. The cold rain sank into my skin. I shivered.
“You’re going to be healed,” my father said. He held me tighter and pushed through the crowd.
Umbrellas circled in the air, abandoned. Peter kicked at the sand, but the rain had already drummed it into the ground. Lightning split faces into shadows. The crowd swayed to the thunder as it plucked and plucked and plucked at the wings.
SJ Sindu is a writer and activist who focuses on traditionally silenced voices — the immigrant, the poor, the queer, the female-bodied, the non-Christian, the non-white. Sindu has an MA in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and has published in Brevity, Water~Stone Review, Harpur Palate, The MacGuffin, Sinister Wisdom, and elsewhere. Currently Sindu is finishing up a novel about a Sri Lankan American lesbian in a marriage of convenience. Find out more at sjsindu.com.