“Flight Feathers” by Kerry Cullen
Volume #3, Issue #33 • August 18, 2015
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.
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.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
Where did the idea for this story come from?
I was plucking my eyebrows one night, and I started thinking about a weird self‐mutilation ritual in which a woman might habitually pluck all of the hair out of her body. I loved the image—the painstaking element, and the balance between acceptable and not, necessary and not. And that meshed naturally to me with the lengths teen girls go to for beauty.
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.
A number of your stories have to do with transformation of one kind or another. Specifically, the transformation of humans into animals. What is it about this that interests you? (And is “transformation” the right word?)
Transformation is a great word! I tend to describe it as metamorphosis, but that’s because I had grand notions of an Ovid‐inspired project that started disintegrating as soon as I started bragging about it. Serves me right.
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.
A multiple choice question: Which word best describes the ending of “Flight Feathers”? A) Happy; B) Sad; C) Hopeful; D) Desperate; E) All of the above. Please elaborate, regardless of your choice.
I gravitate toward both ‘desperate’ and ‘hopeful’—mostly because that’s such an interesting balance of emotions. And I think they’re two emotions that both fuel and dilute each other.
Ha, I just realized I used “hoping desperately” in my answer to the previous question. How weird and fitting.
Can you tell us a little about how you came up with Kite? And where do you envision Kite in, say, twenty years?
In some ways, Kite and Evie are wildly stylized versions of my 12‐year‐old self and my 16‐year‐old self hanging out. Kite has a lot in common with my kid self—both nerdy homeschoolers who hang out in treehouses—but he’s also experiencing a grief much bigger than I ever have, and I think he needed that in order to recognize the bizarreness of Evie’s trauma in the way that he does.
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.
Answer this as obliquely or mysteriously or indulgently as you wish: Where does Evie land?
It takes her a while, but eventually she lands back home. Don’t we always? (This answer feels obnoxiously coy/glib/flippant but is also true, I think.)
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel about five friends who met as teenagers at a Christian rock festival and are in their twenties when they decide to go back to the festival simply for memory’s sake. Of course, the memories aren’t simple. Big themes include: religion, queer identity, shame, family, and worship. I guess it’s your classic trifecta of sex, god, and rock & roll.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
John Biguenet (who is fantastic; if you haven’t read The Torturer’s Apprentice or Oyster, I highly recommend both) was my thesis advisor at Loyola University. I was lolling around his office complaining about how I didn’t know how to write a story that felt true. He told me that in order to do that, I had to tell the truth—specifically whatever truth I most wanted to avoid, because the thing that I wanted to grapple with the least would always be the thing that I needed to write the most.
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.