Chapter 4: Nightfeathers
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
Yes, I have feathers on the back of my right hand, short black feathers. Nightfeathers. My mother must have been psychic or something when she named me.
They started to grow when I was eleven. I was already wrestling with puberty and acne, and didn’t really need a new problem in my life. My strategy from the beginning was to hide them. I was not going to be the “Girl With The Feathers On Her Hand.” So I took to wearing a glove on my right hand. And quickly learned that doesn’t work. Everyone asks why you aren’t wearing a glove on your left hand. So I wore gloves on both, which made me look weird and still didn’t keep the questions away. Finally, I took to wearing gloves on both hands with the fingers cut off. I never take them off in public.
The nightfeathers didn’t help my family life either. My mother/aunt and I had managed to get along well up to that point. But she freaked out at first, and I’ve never quite forgiven her. And I was miserable for most of my teen years because of the nightfeathers and what they did to me. Leaving for college was my dream. Well, that dream turned into a nightmare, and I left college in my boyfriend’s car after only one semester, only to have him abandon me here.
I had planned to keep my oddity a secret here in Farnham. And most of the time, it was easy. The feathers lie flat, and any sort of glove will keep them covered. I just told people I suffered from a circulatory problem when they asked about the gloves. Simple. The problem is that the feathers become agitated when I become agitated, and when I’m really worked up, they stand straight up and are razor-sharp. They’ll cut through the glove material, no matter what it is. And they’ll cut up anyone but me who comes in contact with them. It was after one such episode that Doc Helen found out about them, and she told Mac. And then I used that hand to raise a ghost from the corpse of a murder victim to help Mac out, and that was that. They’re the only two who know, here.
But they don’t know everything about me. They don’t know how I use the power from that hand to entrance my fortune-telling clients.
Not that I knew everything, myself. It’s not like there’s an instruction manual for people with feathers growing out of the back of their hand. So I’ve learned, sometimes by experimenting, other times, like when I put one of my college’s star football players through a window, by misadventure.
So now: psychometry. I picked up the catnip toy with my right hand, and tried to concentrate on it, to see if there was some way I could find the cat who had mouthed the thing many a time. It was sort of like the way that I put my clients in a trance in that it required concentration. (Not that I show my clients my bare hand. Enough power leaks through the glove to do something that simple.) I sat there, for I don’t know how long, a picture of Blackie in my mind, the toy in my hand, trying to connect the two with magic. And, ever so gradually, I got a sense of a direction, and of some sort of distance. It wasn’t far away, though I didn’t know what “far” meant in this context. The cat wasn’t in the room with me, and it wasn’t in China. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you. But I thought it was alive, though I couldn’t be sure.
Time for part two of Sanderson’s brilliant idea. And this was another thing I’d never mentioned to Mac or Doc Helen. I stuffed my keys and my cell phone in my pockets, along with my gloves, grabbed the toy, and went out behind the house, where I wouldn’t be seen. It was after dark. There were stars in the sky. I reestablished the connection between the toy and the cat. And then I took to the air.
I don’t know what I look like when I take to the air. A large black bird, I suppose. How this works, I don’t know, but it does work, though only at night. My clothes and whatever is in my pockets stays with me, though I’ve discovered that the heavier the stuff in my pockets, the more effort I have to make to fly. And this evening, I found out that a sore back also made it harder to flap my wings. The toy? It was in my hand before I took to the air. Now it felt like it was in my right claw. I couldn’t figure that out, so didn’t try.
Just because I had turned into a magical flying creature didn’t mean I was immune to the laws of physics. I’d never flown in Farnham until this evening, so I spent the first few minutes just sorting out the air currents. There were those from the town, from the cogeneration plant in the northern part of town, from the Interstate to the south, and there was a big wind shadow from the hills to the west. I was curious about how the ravine that separates the hills from the town might affect the air currents, so I flew west to see.
And that’s when I saw them for the first time. Ghosts. Definitely more than one. I swung in closer to see, because it was an unusual sight. Ghosts aren’t common in the world. Most people just move on out of this world when they die, and after a while you can’t pull them back, ever again. (At least so I had found.) Only a few people hang around. At first, ghosts tend to look like they were used to looking in life. But after a short while, they begin to lose definition, and become vague, shadowy things that only speak in toneless whispers.
That’s what I was seeing, which is why it was so hard to make out how many there were. I got in closer, close enough to see that there were at least twenty of them. They looked as if they’d just emerged out of the ravine, and in fact three more came over the lip of the ravine just as I swung by.
And then I got out of there, fast. One of them had seen me, and had tried to do something to me. I felt my body start to sink when it shouldn’t, and immediately turned away and headed back to town. Whatever was going on, I didn’t know. Ghosts are generally harmless. They’re dead, they don’t have much power. But one of them in that mass of old ghosts did have some sort of power, and I didn’t know whether I could handle it in this state. So I headed back into town to answer the pull of the cat toy. Business before curiosity.
I’ve seen satellite pictures of the town, but, trust me, it looks different when you’re actually flying over it at maybe one hundred feet up. As near as I could figure, I was less than half a dozen blocks from the Smith trailer when I dropped down and took to the ground in a backyard. There was a dog on a chain in the back yard, a big black thing, and it started barking its head off at me. I had to move fast. But the toy led me to a shed with a padlock on it. Lock picking is not among my skills. I quickly circled the shed, looking for a way in, or at least trying to figure out how Blackie could have gotten in.
I was coming back around from the rear of the shed when a bright light went on. Someone over by the house yelled, “Don’t move, I’ve got you covered.” And I could see the long barrel of a gun reflecting the light. It was pointing directly at me.
You have created a fascinating subject here. Are feathered hands and night-flyers etc part of the Amerindian culture? Is this something well-known in America, of which I am woefully ignorant? I confess I am not well read in the native mythology, much less the folk-lore.
Ms. Sanderson has a complicated genealogy.
Shapeshifters, human-to-animal transformations, crop up often enough in Native American folklore. In fact, coincidentally, I was just reading a novel about a brujo who transformed into an owl sometimes. (Probably will review that, too, sometime soon.)
The idea of feathers emerging out of the skin I can trace back, at best, to a Michael A. Stackpole trilogy, The Age of Discovery, which relied heavily on Chinese mythology. However, in that book, the feathers were on the backs of barbarian magician-warriors and had different properties.
Ms. Sanderson’s rather lengthy name, which is coming up in the next chapter, emerged out of compartment 23-B in my brain . . . in other words, I don’t know. She was annexed into the Sillyverse as an incidental character in the story of a aging ex-Hollywood actress and also ex-sex magician, which I’ve never managed to complete. I constructed Farnham to “house” Sanderson, and then spent months unable to write her story. (One of my readers, who never comments here, has seen the fragment that describes how Sanderson, Mac, and Doc Helen first met.)
So Sanderson is an idiosyncratic combination of Native American folklore, an idea stolen from a fantasy series (which may have taken it from Chinese mythology), the Sillyverse, and her own unique self. Her name and her abilities reflect each other quite a bit.
And the fact that she’s in the Sillyverse, and in the western part of the U.S., probably means your first guess as to who one of the ghosts turns out to be is wrong. (My turn to tease, and also in good spirits.) 🙂
A little poking around Wikipedia reminded me that shape-shifters in Native American folklore are sometimes referred to as “skinwalkers.”
I’m familiar with the term. I have to admit to not using it because I’m not as familiar with that legend as I should be to use it, and was afraid of dragging something in that might not work in this story.
They are usually evil.
One reason not to go there, given how this story works out. But then again, there’s always the possibility of a sequel. 🙂
At the end of chapter 3, I was curious about the right hand itching and the feathers..but forgot to ask. So the explanation is here. The evolution of Sanderson’s character is very interesting specific to the revelation of her shapeshifting powers. I do not know of an American Indian story with a feather symbol imparting the owner with supernatural powers, but anytime I see a feather like the image you are using in it always will have Indian feel to it, justified or not. Even from afar the feather links in the mind to American Indian imagery. Maybe there is a story?
I enjoy your new background as it is perfect setting for telling scary ghost stories of Christmas’s long long ago!!
Sanderson doesn’t always explain what she says, right off. For example, what did she mean when she said her mother must have been psychic when she named her? Sanderson doesn’t say in this chapter, but gets around to it in the next.
I’ll explain about the new background tomorrow. But know that you’re spot on!
Yes we have to just wait and follow the bread crumbs!