Generations of Women With Wings Who Flew Across the Ocean
Meet Prudence and Aušrinė in this inter-generational story of magic, family bonds, and redemption
Excerpted from Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone
When I was born, the doctor said, “I’m sorry.”
I had a full shock of dark hair and long legs like the rest of the women on Freddie’s side of the family, but no one noticed these things. No one saw anything but the wings, which were heart-shaped, crinkled like a paper fan.They were smaller than Freddie’s palm, slick with primordial ooze, compressed accordion-style against my back. The doctor whispered, “Some kind of birth defect.” Defect. “How some kids are born with tails and others with cleft palates.” He mopped his brow. “But I’ve never seen anything like this.”
My birth was not particularly pleasant. As a matter of fact, I think that as a fetus and then a baby and then a human being, I came between my parents. Before I emerged, Freddie and Veronica were in love, and they might’ve remained that way if it weren’t for me. But it’s not my fault that they had unprotected sex. It’s not my fault or my doing that they mixed this mad concoction that produced a Prudence Eleanor Vilkas. My father chose the first two names. Vilkas is my surname, my Lithuanian birthright, the name I share with the Old Man. This story is as much about him as it is about me. We are mixed up, tied together by twine and twig, the stuff of nests.
Freddie said, “Little bird. Our Prudence is a little bird.” If I’d been a boy, I was to be Paul or John. He wasn’t sure. He hadn’t wanted to choose between them: Paul McCartney and John Lennon. He’d wanted a girl, and here I was. He was smitten even while I was slimy with bird wings and birthing. He loved me. Like a male bird, he had a maternal reaction. He loved me more than he’d ever loved anyone. I was from his loins, from his high-functioning sperm. He was in awe of what he had wrought. I’d been caged inside my mother’s womb and now I was let loose upon the world. Upon him.
On the day I was born, I usurped my mother’s importance. These things happen. Freddie wasn’t letting me out of his sight. He insisted on helping the nurse clean me up. “Just look at that,” he said. “She’s amazing.”
“This is highly unorthodox,” the nurse informed him.
“Leave him alone,” the doctor scowled. “The poor bastard has a bird for a daughter.”
My father’s Caribbean-blue eyes were probably my first clear image outside the womb. Freddie was a looker, which is one of the reasons he and Veronica got together. He’s the kind of man that women know they should stay clear of, but they never do. He isn’t a bad guy, just his own man with his own dreams, so monumental that they supersede the rest of the world, including any woman. Not me. I wasn’t a woman. I was part of the dream, part of him, a contributor to his life’s accomplishments.
As the nurse tried to discern my Apgar score, Freddie cooed. The nursing staff would’ve never allowed him to participate in this initial examination, no matter what the doctor said, but they were alarmed, taken aback by my wings. Do the wings, they must’ve wondered, give her a zero score for appearance? Do they affect her respiration? They’re seemingly close to the lungs. There should be a battery of tests. Someone should telephone
Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
I was swaddled and my Apgar score recorded at one minute and again at five minutes, both times as six out of ten, due to my appearance and a general concern for my future ability to breathe. Freddie followed me to the nursery, where he remained, making faces at the glass. Hours later, he held me in the recovery room. The doctor returned smelling of vodka. Veronica was being administered drugs for the episiotomy and follow-up stitches. She was not going to nurse because “there’s something wrong with it.” She meant me. She didn’t want to hold me either. I don’t blame her. Not really. Freddie said, “What’s wrong with you? This is our baby.” Veronica was twenty years old, with no clue that there are sometimes babies born with wings. Freddie gave me my first bottle of formula. If he’d had mammary glands, he would’ve nursed me. The doctor said, “There will be no tests.” Having overheard the nurses, he added, “No one is calling Ripley.” He cleared his throat. “It’s not a big deal. We’ll incise the bifurcated protrusions when she’s a little older.”
From then on, they were bifurcated protrusions and not wings, to everyone but Freddie. And me. And later Wheaton and the Old Man.
Freddie didn’t know that our family birthed birds. The Old Man, Freddie’s father, my grandfather, had never told him, or if he had told him, my father hadn’t listened.
The doctor told my parents, “If there are no emergencies in the meantime” — I guess an emergency would’ve been if I’d started flying around the house — “we’ll operate when she’s five months old. I’ll take some X-rays.”
“The sooner the better,”Veronica said.
On September 10, 1973, my wings were surgically removed. They weren’t biopsied, stored in formaldehyde, or shipped to a freak show. They were discarded as medical waste.
For the next seven years, I lived wingless in Nashville. I was a good kid, or at least a caring one. I tried to resuscitate road kill. I had a first- aid kit and pretended to be a veterinarian and sometimes Florence Nightingale. I wore a white handkerchief over my dark hair. Taking care of baby birds, feral kittens, and squirrels fallen from their nests, I got cat scratch fever twice and had to take a monthlong course of antibiotics both times. I kept toads, turtles, and Japanese beetles for pets. I liked getting along. I didn’t want to upset anyone, not Freddie or Veronica. I always had this feeling like I was standing on a precipice and if I did something wrong, we’d all topple over. Because I was in the middle, I was the glue holding us together. I was grateful for the smallest things, even the starlings who, unable to nest in my hair, defecated there in- stead. Freddie called me little bird, even though there were no wings, just scars. He played acoustic guitar and sang, “The sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful and so are you.” There were instruments strewn and stacked throughout the house. Freddie played whatever was closest.
Those first seven years were good. In fact, compared to the next seven, they were downright stellar. I remember watching Saturday morning cartoons, Freddie still half-asleep, drinking coffee and tickling me. Veronica liked Bugs Bunny. On Saturdays, when we were all home at the same time, we did what I’d later consider normal family activities. We played kickball in the front yard. If it rained or there were too many mosquitoes, we piled on the couch and watched an old movie, whatever was on TV. In the evening, Freddie made homemade pizza or chili. He and Veronica kissed a lot and said how much they loved each other. After I’d gone to bed, Freddie left the house to play music. But before I went to sleep, when they were both in my room, Veronica or Freddie reading to me (they took turns), I pretended Freddie wasn’t leaving to play music. I pretended that every night would be like this, the three of us together.Then, just as I’d doze off, I’d hear the car door squeak open and shut. I was happy. I was just a kid.
I attended kindergarten through half of second grade in Nashville. Freddie played his music, and Veronica worked thirty-eight hours, just shy of the forty-hour week that would’ve gotten her health insurance, at the Piggly Wiggly. Punching a clock, she rang up pork chops and potato chips. I don’t know if things would’ve ended like they did if John Lennon hadn’t been shot and killed. It was not only the end of a man’s life but the end of my parents’ love song. I wonder how many other relation- ships came to an end on December 8, 1980.
Already, even though it was four months off, I was looking forward to my birthday. We were going to rent a trampoline. I was inviting six girls to my party. Freddie had Monday Night Football on the TV. Mostly, he just listened to the games and tinkered with his instruments. On this particular night, the sports announcer, Howard Cosell, interrupted the game. He said, “John Lennon was shot; John Lennon was pronounced ‘dead on arrival’ at Roosevelt Hospital.”
December eighth was the end. Seeing Freddie bereft, on his knees riffling through albums and crying, convinced Veronica that she’d made a mistake. In Freddie, she suddenly saw her own father, a man obsessed with form and scales, a piano teacher puzzled by emotions. Not that Freddie was cold. But he loved music more than he loved her, and she was tired of competing when there was no chance of winning. That night, she packed our possessions more carefully and far more slowly than she’d packed the night she ran off with Freddie. She was still debating what to do, folding T-shirts, flipping through our only photo album, and eavesdropping on Freddie in the living room. I don’t think she wanted to leave. I think she wanted to get his attention, but sometimes when you start something, you end up following through with it no matter your intentions and the repercussions. I think that this is what happened to Veronica, and by extension, to me.
The next morning, the three of us stood in the driveway. Freddie and Veronica smoked cigarettes. “What are you doing?” he asked. His face was red from crying all night, not because of us leaving, but because John Lennon was dead. He said, “Don’t go, Veronica. Come on. What the hell are you doing? Seriously?” I think that if he had said, “Don’t go,” and “I love you,” and left it at that, she might’ve stayed. We might’ve stayed, but he said the wrong thing, and she responded, “I can’t do this anymore.” She held back tears as I held out hope that we wouldn’t leave. In 1980, she was beautiful in that good simple way: sunny blond with brown eyes, like the state of California.
“Tell me what you want,” Freddie said. “Tell me what I can do.”
She didn’t say anything, but even at seven years old, I knew what she wanted. She wanted The Brady Bunch, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver. She wanted a husband who worked nine to five, who came home for dinner, who took his wife out to the movies and dancing, who had time to do what other families were supposedly doing: bowling and camping. Those normal family activities. But thinking back, half of my friends’ parents were divorced in 1980. I don’t think anyone had it as good as what Veronica imagined it was supposed to be. After Veronica got in the car and started the engine, I was still standing in the dirt. “You need to go with your mom,” Freddie said.
“I don’t want to go.”
“You better go.” Freddie reached into his jeans and pulled out his pocket watch. “Keep this for me.” Holding it, I could see my reflection in the polished gold. At seven years old, I didn’t know that a watch could tell not just time but a family’s history. I didn’t know the significance of the gold timepiece my father nightly set by his bed. I slipped it into my pocket, thinking it was a stupid gesture. He might as well have given me a mint. I wanted my dad, not some piece of men’s jewelry. On that cool December morning, I thought we’d be gone for a day or two. At most, a week. I had no concept that my life was changing forever.
Two days ago, my Oma telephoned to tell me that the Old Man had been hospitalized. She said, “He doesn’t have much time, Prudence.”
The last time I saw him was six months ago. He’d looked slight, half his former self, his beard scraggly, his face jaundiced. His blue eyes had lost their luster. When I asked him how he was feeling, he said, “Fit as a fiddle.” We sat together in his study, and he lit a cigar.
“You shouldn’t be smoking,” I told him.
“Don’t lecture me!” He pulled on his cigar. “Are you up to no good?” he asked. “What good do you know? Are you teaching the kids birds? What do you do this month?”
Interpreted, he meant, “Do you still have a job as a teacher of ornithology?”
I teach budding zoologists at the Eastern Coastal Aquarium. I run the aviary, lecturing students from middle-school to college-age about birds: mating, roosting and nesting, diets and migration. I teach my students about environmental impacts; why some birds are louder than others. Why some birds don’t mate forever but find a new mate every couple of years. I love my job.The Old Man thinks it’s peculiar that birds have their own science. He thinks birds have more to do with art than science. He’s a smart man.
I know that old people die, but the Old Man has been old since I met him. He’s not supposed to die.We used to talk a lot about history, about the notion that life loops over and eventually you’ll catch up with your younger self. Things repeat. Life keeps happening. Maybe that’s what’s happening now, maybe the Old Man is slowing down to catch up, and he’ll leave the hospital a younger Old Man. All better.
He used to say that the observers, people like us who like to watch the birds, are far wiser than the TV watchers. We learn more from the birds, including how to nurture, how to sing, and how to adapt and change.You don’t learn anything watching wars play out on the evening news.
When we take the boats out to tag migratory birds on their way to warmer climates, I always think about my first visit to Lithuania with the Old Man. He was amazed that I knew the names of so many birds. His mother was loony for vast-winged birds like gooneys, big birds that can traverse a whole ocean. The Old Man didn’t know that I’d been studying coastal birds since I was eight. On the phone, I asked Oma, “What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s old, Prudence.”
It’s June 1, 2005, so he is eighty-four. When I met him, he was sixty- eight.
“He should live to be one hundred.”
Oma sighed deeply.
“I don’t want him to die,” I said.That’s not how theVilkas family rolls. We don’t lie down in some hospital bed.We take a bullet to the brain.
Oma sighed again. I knew I was being ridiculous. She’s spent her life with the Old Man. If anyone has a right to be upset, it’s her.
“If you’re going to come,” she said, “you should come soon.”
There’s this quickening and breathlessness at night that calls to mind the baby birds we’ve rescued. The insides of their mouths are pink, nearly the color of the setting sun. They are the most vulnerable creatures in the world, which is how I feel now. Exposed, ravenous for life, for one more trip to Lithuania, one more adventure with the Old Man.
I called Oma this morning. “How’s he doing?”
“Not good, Prudence.” Her voice broke. “Are you coming?”
“Of course I am.”
When I met the Old Man, I was sixteen, rubbing my scars like pieces of flint, praying for a spark. As it turns out, I come from a long line of leggy bird women, women to whom I am allied by blood and birthright. The Old Man knew our history. When we finally met, he told me about the birds.
The first one we know about was named Aušrinė. She was the Old Man’s grandmother. Her name is Lithuanian for the morning Venus, the Sun’s daughter. According to the Old Man, she was a girl hiding beneath the thick Lithuanian forest, her own wings bound by strips of cloth. She was an only child, always within reach of her parents, living under brush and pine, in trenches, battling Czar Alexander II’s Cossacks in the dark- est night, hand to hand, knife to knife. Aušrinė crouched beneath her mother’s skirts, three of them — khaki, dirt brown, and potato-colored — sometimes all worn at once. Every few days, Aušrinė’s mother washed one of the skirts in a stream and beat it against a rock, and then she wore two. Once that skirt had dried, Aušrinė’s mother made it the top skirt, and Aušrinė’s worldview alternated from khaki to dirt brown to potato. After midnight, nearby villagers, supporters of the freedom fighters, ventured toward the forest and left baskets of food, but it was never enough.
In January, the fresh skirt froze along with Aušrinė’s mother’s hands so that none of the skirts was particularly clean or warm. Within this frozen cocoon, Aušrinė held fast to the heat of her mother’s thigh.
The Old Man heard these stories from his mother, who heard them
from Aušrinė. These stories are as much a part of me as my own life experiences. When I feel the warmth of an injured dove in my hands, its tiny heart pounding, I think of Aušrinė, vulnerable, terrified, holding fast to her mother’s thigh.
According to the Old Man, the trees came to life back then, shaking black dirt from their roots. They marched forward, a brave effort to bolster the freedom fighters; their tall piney boughs turning into knobby arms, they tossed the Russian soldiers from their midst.The pines meant to protect their people, the Lithuanian freedom fighters, but it was not hard to light a match or follow a trail of boots to a hole where a man, woman, and little girl hid. Eventually, all the freedom fighters would be shot or rounded up. Aušrinė’s parents were killed because they wanted to be Lithuanian and not part of Western Russia. Aušrinė would be dragged from the forest. Her body was limp. Her parents were dead. Her head was shorn to protect her from lice and rape. It was January 1864, and she was walking beside other orphaned girls, girls pretending to be boys, their faces smudged with dirt. She was taken to her grand- parents, who were already walking away from Lithuania. She would now walk with them. No one told the exiles where they were going, only that they were going.
Day and night, men and women begged the Russian soldiers to go home. They were shot and fell to the snow. There are tales passed down from one generation to the next that recount how the snow remained white, that no one bled, but these are stories, fantastical rememberings, or if fact, maybe the men and women were too frozen to bleed.
Aušrinė walked in her mother’s shoes, much too big for her, her wings itching under a wool tunic that was cinched beneath a man’s coat. It dragged the ice.
As she walked, Aušrinė remembered the Lithuanian music her parents and grandparents had taught her. She pictured the scales and notes, their ascent and descent. She was thirsty, licking her lips until they were twice their size, blistered and numb, the skin flaking black. She remembered her mother on violin before the great uprising, before they fled to the forest.The year was 1863. Her parents had explained to Aušrinė that as they were born on Lithuanian soil, so too they would die on Lithuanian soil. They would not abandon their country. Aušrinė thought that she was not as fortunate as her parents. She was forcibly leaving the Lithuanian soil they so loved.
Her grandparents were nervous and old. Aušrinė thought that they would all succumb to the snow and die in some no-man’s-land between Lithuania and nowhere, but her grandfather kept patting the wool cap on her head, assuring her, “We will walk home again. Do not worry, little bird.” He didn’t mean him, that he’d walk home again. He was going to die of exhaustion and frostbite in a foreign land. He meant Lithuania would walk home again. He meant Aušrinė.
When I met the Old Man in 1989, he told me that I should be proud
of my Lithuanian heritage. “We Lithuanians are not shirkers.” The Old Man was lively, smacking his fist in his palm. “We are fighters, Prudence Vilkas.” He pointed his cigar at me. “You are a fighter.” Up until the day the Old Man first telephoned me, I had no idea that I was Lithuanian, that other girls had been born with wings, or that I was born a fighter.
When Aušrinė’s grandfather fell to the ice and could not rise, he pressed the gold pocket watch, the same watch my father passed on to me, into Aušrinė’s palm. She slipped it in her coat pocket. The watch was real gold, and all that was left of their estate. Aušrinė concealed it as carefully as she hid her wings, telling herself that she carried nothing, not wings, not watches, not dreams. When her grandmother disappeared in an icy mist, Aušrinė considered falling to the ground. It would be easy to sleep; she could join her mother and father in Heaven. But then she felt a gloved hand from this world, the cold desolate one, squeeze hers. Nearly frozen, she squeezed back. It was all she could do. She had lost her voice.
During the day, Aušrinė walked without resting, and at night, the soldiers herded her and the other exiles into makeshift jails. All the while, the gloved hand that belonged to a boy two years her senior reached out to hold hers.This boy’s parents were also gone, fallen victim to starvation.They had given their last bits of food to him. His name was Steponas, and every time Aušrinė dropped, because she wanted to give up, he pulled her to her feet. He wasn’t letting go. At times, he held her from behind, feeling her shrunken wings against his chest, his hands clenched in a fist, to keep her from falling down.
Their caravan of sleighs broke down on the steppes of modern-day Kazakhstan. The exiles were told repeatedly that they would never re- turn to Lithuania and so they worked to make a new home. Lithuania was a memory in their muscles and bones. Lithuania survived in the sweat on their brows as they shaped bricks from hay and mud to build houses before the next winter arrived. Steponas and the other boys erected a cross. As the Old Man explained to me, “They made a small Lithuania away from their Lithuania. They made it their own. In secret, they sang and danced and recounted their Lithuanian history.”
Over many years, the exiles built farms and schools where they spoke Lithuanian. Outside their homes, they spoke Russian, but behind closed doors, always Lithuanian.They lived this way, reaping what they’d sown, making babies, building fences to keep thieves at bay. In 1874, Steponas married Aušrinė. She gave birth to two sons. Their younger son, Petras, was the Old Man’s father.Their older son was called Juozas, but later he would Americanize it to Joseph.
Fifty-four years passed. In between, one generation died and one was born.
As the First World War neared its end, Aušrinė’s husband, Steponas, and their two sons, Juozas and Petras, made plans for their return to Lithuania. Petras had dark hair and blue eyes. Like the Old Man. Like Freddie. I am tied to all these people by more than wings and watches. If I ever think to forget where I come from, my scars itch and my breathing quickens.
The Old Man said that as an old woman, Aušrinė stopped concealing her wings. Instead, they bulged and quivered beneath whatever shift she wore. The townspeople in the village in Kazakhstan called her Paukštis, bird.Their village thrived.The farms produced crops. Not everyone was making plans to walk back to Lithuania. For many, too many years had passed. It was too risky to leave. For some, they were too old for the long journey, and for others, they couldn’t find proof of their Lithuanian identity. The children and grandchildren of the exiled knew Lithuania only through stories and music. Aušrinė and her husband hadn’t seen Lithuania in more than half a century. Petras had never seen it. Papers had to be drawn. It was a difficult undertaking, but they all agreed that they must return. Aušrinė and Steponas and their children, Juozas and Petras, and Petras’s wife, Aleksandra (the Old Man’s mother), gathered all the possessions they could stow in two wagons and began the year- long trek back to Lithuania. Aušrinė and Steponas never doubted returning to a land they knew from distant memory kept close in the bone because the land itself, the rich soil, belonged to them. Lithuania was their birthright.
Aušrinė’s grandfather’s gold watch was hidden inside a mattress along with what valuables the family had acquired over five decades.The mattress, piled with a chest, carpets, and bedding, was in the bottom of a camel-drawn wagon. According to the Old Man, when they first saw the ancient Lithuanian forest, Aušrinė’s wings expanded, slicing through her wool shawl.The group wept at the sight, not of Aušrinė’s wings, but of something even more spectacular: their homeland.
In 1918, when Aušrinė sat on Lithuanian soil, drawing lines in the dirt she remembered so well, she was sixty-four, the same age as her grandfather when he died in the snow. As predicted, she had walked home again.
In the 1920s, Petras, who taught music at the university, and his brother, a tailor, purchased a plot of land.The earth was thirsty for Lithuanian sweat. Everything Petras planted grew as if fertility spells had been cast.The Old Man told me, “Nothing died, Prudence. I whacked a stick at the flowers, because I was a stupid boy, but nothing died. The stalks grew to spite me. The gardens were lush with vegetation. The ladybugs like jewels.” According to the Old Man, it was a magical place.
Last night, I tagged white pelicans, the first I’ve seen this year. Later, I
called Veronica to ask if she knew about the Old Man. “Your father told me a few days ago.”
“What do you mean? Why didn’t you call me?”
“I figured you knew more than I did. I figured you’d call me when you were ready.”
Although the Old Man still refers to her as the “woman who is not Lithuanian and not German,” Veronica likes him. It’s hard not to like him. Last night when I put a band on a toddler pelican, it flopped around in the nest and the female and male pelicans shielded it with their feathers. There are fewer toddlers this year. Usually, we see three per nest, but this year, there are only one or two in each nest. We don’t know if there is a new predator or if the pelicans are laying fewer eggs. On the phone,Veronica said, “Are you going to fly up and see him?”
“I can fly up with you. I can drive your way and we can fly up together.” When I didn’t respond, she took my silence to mean yes. I know that she is trying to be nice, but this sadness feels like my own, not something to be shared.
Next week, I have a group that’s supposed to take a charter boat to see the purple martins flock in the tens of thousands to roost under Mariner’s Bridge, one of their many stops, en route to South America. I won’t be able to go this year because I need to get online and buy a plane ticket. I have to find a replacement to tell the students and visitors about the importance of building and protecting the man-made structures that the purple martins call home. Their homes are no less important than anyone else’s.
I know logically that I met the Old Man in 1989 when I was sixteen, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like we’ve always known each other, like we’re spokes on the same bicycle wheel. We’ve been part of this vehicle for as long as Lithuania has been a nation, since our homeland was a grand duchy, the wealthiest land in Europe. At the wheel’s center are Aušrinė and all the other Vilkas birds who blurred the line between grounded and free, between imprisonment and flight. In that way, the Old Man is also a bird. We are Lithuanian freedom fighters, and now is the time to stay and fight.
When I see the Old Man, I will remind him of this.
An excerpt from Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone, reprinted with the permission of the author and Simon & Schuster. For more information, or to purchase a copy, visit Simon & Schuster, or visit MicheleYoung-Stone.com.
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