This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Body transformation
- Drug use
- Self-harming behaviors
Many a phrase has the
I have heard but one—
Low as the laughter of the
Loud, as the Thunder’s Tongue—
Murmuring, like old Caspian
When the Tide’s a’lull—
Saying itself in new inflection—
Like a Whippowil—
Emily Dickinson (F333A, J276)
When out of the massing that bodes and bides
In the cold West
Flew a waxwing who froze and died against my breast
And all the while rain like a weed in the tide swans and lists
Down on the gossiping lawn, saying, “tsk, tsk, tsk”
Joanna Newsom, “Autumn”
WAXWING, COME HOME.
I spell out my message in seashells, broken and brittle in my chapped hands. I kneel on the beach, circling each letter so he can’t miss it, so he’ll be able to read my words through layers and layers of waves.
I never learned to swim. I could have learned to fly—it’s what my parents wanted—but not me. I only ever wanted one thing.
Sand reddens my knees and hands. I carve my message as deep as my trembling arms allow.
I NEED YOU BACK.
I dig my fingers into the sand, a makeshift moat holding the tide temporarily at bay. I can’t follow him into the depths.
Exhausted, I sit down in dried-up tidepools and watch the ocean take my words away.
Will they find him? Will he catch a shell and know it’s from me?
The surf rises, cold foam sucking at my toes, urging me to follow my words and join Waxwing at the bottom. I shake salt away, pushing myself further up the beach, my butt dragging in the sand. I stare at my feet, dull and pale and useless here.
He was the one who wanted to change. He was the one who could swim, even before he grew a tail to replace his legs. I rub sand between my toes, feel it grate against my skin, reopening old cuts. Blood drips from me like seawater.
I’ve left my blood everywhere on this beach, catching my ankles in rocks and ripping my toes open on the blades of seashells. Barnacles bite my heels, crabs creep up on me from behind. This beach isn’t friendly. At least, not to me.
I pick up a stick, barkless and smoothed by the ocean, and write in the sand.
waxwing. waxwing. waxwing.
As I watch, the rising tide takes my words away, leaving me with nothing.
“Let’s move to the coast.” Waxwing tugged on my hair, braiding it over my shoulder. I swayed with the motion, unable to see his face.
“I can’t swim, Wax.”
He shrugged. I felt it in my scalp. “I’ll teach you. Come on. The Pelagio is next month. I’ve always wanted to see it.”
I tried to turn, but Waxwing started another braid, pulling my head the other way. “We don’t have to move to see the Pelagio. We can go to Cambir for, like, the weekend. I’ll pay. It’s close to your birthday. Consider the trip my present.”
Waxwing tugged my hair hard, pulling my head back against his chest. I looked up into his eyes, the color of wet rocks. “You mean you didn’t get me a present yet? Whippoorwill, really.”
His breath smelled like lychee. His favorite candy. I grinned, my gaze snagging on my favorite tooth, sitting crookedly in his bottom jaw. “Do you want a weekend in an Airbnb at the Pelagio or not?”
“If I say yes, it’s not a surprise.” His face folded into a pout. “You know I hate knowing my presents before I get them.”
It was my turn to pull his hair. I dragged him down to me, tasting lychee on his lips. When I released him, I could see my eyes in his. “Don’t worry. I have another surprise planned.”
Waxwing braided his hair with blue ribbons. I watched him, wishing I could twist my hair into French braids like he could, hands behind his head, face set in beautiful concentration.
He pulled golden charms from our jewelry box. “Can you help me with these?”
He dropped them into my palm, slightly warm from his touch. I climbed onto the bed behind him and fastened them in place. Starfish, crabs, coral, fish. They flitted between his black extensions and the blue ribbons, swimming in an ocean stretched across his scalp. When I leaned close, sliding a swordfish into place, I could smell him—argan oil and Replica Beach Walk. My birthday gift to him last year, worn every day since.
“There.” I sat back, exhaling his scent, light-headed and horny.
Waxwing pivoted on the bed. His lips were golden, his eyelids expertly blended: violet, copper, turquoise. He looked like a god of the sea.
“Your turn.” His thumb traced the line of my jaw, tickling my stubble. I drew another short breath. He knew exactly what he was doing.
“We … we don’t have to leave right away,” I breathed into beach-scented air. “Check-in isn’t until three.”
“I still need to do your makeup.”
“It’ll get messed up if—”
Waxwing’s fingers covered my mouth. His lips brushed my ear. “Setting spray.”
We barely caught our train. He sailed through the closing doors, dragging me behind. I was sweating, my heart thumping in my chest, but he looked radiant. His hair and makeup were still perfect; he assured me mine were too. Really, I didn’t care. I was focused on this: a weekend away, just the two of us in a new place.
Cambir was a two-hour trip by train. We had to change once, but the ride was otherwise smooth. The closer we got, the more people joined us, standing in the car draped in blues and whites, their arms covered in glitter and gold. As we neared the coast, I felt it: the Pelagio.
A cloud of excitement filled the train. Everyone seemed to flicker, moving faster, voices sounding far away. Looking at Waxwing, I saw his face opening wide. As if his pores breathed as definitely as his lungs, soaking up light and sea smells. He didn’t just look like a god anymore. He felt like one.
Next to him on the train, clutching overnight bags, I wished I felt the same.
“NOW APPROACHING: CAMBIR. ALIGHT HERE FOR THE PELAGIO FESTIVAL, AUGUST 16—24.”
The train slowed. Waxwing stood before it had stopped, his fingers lacing in mine. I felt a current jolt through me, and I swayed, stumbling with the brakes. He looked at me.
He glowed. Not the makeup, not the beauty—truly glowed. I opened my mouth, but no words came out. He smiled, covered my silence with a kiss.
“We’re here, Whip.”
The doors rattled open. People flowed off the train like the tide. The scent of salt wrapped around us, and we stepped out into the sun.
Our Airbnb was two blocks from the beach. I navigated from my phone while Waxwing trailed behind, looking everywhere he could. His backpack seemed both weightless and the only thing holding him down on the ground. He kept stepping on my heels, his Birkenstocks peeling back my skin.
“Ow. Wax, really?”
“Sorry,” he breathed, grinning like a child. He inhaled, sliding his arm through mine. I passed my phone to my other hand, keeping one eye on Google Maps.
I’d been to the Veer, up in the mountains. I remembered the same energy in the air, people lining up to watch the show. That was back before I’d met Waxwing. Before him, I never considered visiting the coast.
I slowed, but didn’t stop. My feet hurt, and I was hungry. After sorting through distant train sounds, and the beat of an outdoor concert accompanied by seagull vocals, I heard what he did: waves.
I smiled at him. “Happy early birthday.”
When he looked at me, I felt like I could fly. “Thank you. Thank you so much,” he said.
I tripped, chipping a toenail. “Shit.” Waxwing steadied me. I focused on my phone again, then pointed to a pink house in front of us.
He squeezed my arm, his voice almost lost on a gust of coastal wind. “Thank you.”
I got the key from the lockbox and messaged our host to say we’d arrived. Waxwing followed me inside and went immediately to the windows, shedding his backpack like an ill-fitting skin.
“There it is. Whip, it’s the ocean.”
I dropped my bags on the couch and joined him. Just visible in a crack between the houses on the next street: a sliver of blue. My heart fluttered.
It looked calm now, sparkling and serene. Today was the first day of the Pelagio.
“Let’s go down,” I heard myself say, my feet already protesting. But I could see Waxwing’s excitement, feel his joy at reaching this place he’d dreamed of for so long.
We lived on the border of this purlieu. On our side: the Veer and the Flock, flight in our DNA. The Pelagio was similar in many ways, unfathomably different at the same time. I wondered what it was like to live with the ocean in your veins instead of the sky.
Now was the time to find out. I took Waxwing’s hand, sweat resting in his lifeline. “We can grab dinner on the beach.”
He stared at me, eyes wide with wonder. “Can we?”
“Babe, of course. This is your trip. We can do whatever you want.”
He practically dragged me outside. I just managed to snatch the key from the door before it swung closed behind us, locking automatically.
Two blocks, a steady downhill wrapped in heavy ocean air. I could feel Waxwing’s pulse in his palm. We rounded a closed ice cream parlor and he shuddered to a stop.
The beach spread before us, pearlescent and sparkling in the afternoon sun. Sweat snaked its way down my back. Waxwing kicked off his Birkenstocks and walked into the sand.
I removed my sandals and followed, putting my feet in his footprints.
Around the beach, glittering structures foreshadowed what was coming. A stage adorned in gauze. A bar painted with waves, the bartender putting the finishing touches on the cocktail list. A dance floor surrounded by sandcastles.
Out beyond the rocks, a floating dock as large as our Airbnb trailed shimmering nets in the water. Waxwing’s feet splashed in the shallows, his eyes fixed on the dock.
I was surprised at how cold the water was. I stopped behind him, admiring what would become the center of the Pelagio. A banner rippled in the wind—Swim with Cambir’s Shoal.
“Imagine, Whip.” Waves splashed around Waxwing’s calves. “Breathing underwater, dancing without sinking, being one of them.”
I thought about telling him then, but I waited. Part of me wondered if I’d gone too far, spent too much on this weekend …
It was worth it all to see the shine in his eyes, feel his elation when he looked at me.
“I can’t believe we’re here for this. I can’t wait.”
I remembered the Veer. Watching the Flock through glass, shadows flitting over snow. I tried to superimpose that image over the gentle waves, the floating dock. They didn’t match. The Pelagio was so far from what I’d experienced years ago.
And Waxwing, standing radiant in the shallows, his eyelids glittering in the sun. I wanted to go back to the Airbnb, kiss the gold from his lips. Instead I held out my empty hand, the other holding my sandals. “We’ve got a couple hours, and I’m starving. And my feet are freezing. Dinner first?”
Some of the sparkle left him, pulling him back to now. He waded back to me, kissed me harder than we’d ever kissed before. I could’ve sunk then, melted under the water and died content.
He released me, dazed and hot and lost. “Whatever you want. This vacation is for both of us.” He grinned, the sea god of my dreams. “It wouldn’t mean anything to me if you weren’t here.”
I clung to him, knowing that last bit was at least partially a lie. Waxwing had been yearning to see the Pelagio since before we met. I’d also wanted to come, but not the same way he needed it, longed for it.
We were here together, but this was Waxwing’s dream.
Neither of us were made to swim.
I write my thirtieth letter to Waxwing at the kitchen counter in the Airbnb. I can’t afford to stay here much longer. I’ve extended my stay by nearly a month, and our host sent a message this morning that she has the place booked for next weekend. She says I’m welcome to leave for the weekend and check in again after the other guests have left.
She’s been more than accommodating. If anything, that makes staying here harder.
Neither of us were made to swim.
I grew up in Himmel. You were raised outside of Clud. Our parents named us for flight. We should have found ourselves in a ski lodge, watching the Veer over mugs of cocoa.
How did we end up so far east, on the flanks of a cold beach? You told me you always wanted to see the Pelagio, ever since you were a child. But your skin was never made for water. You shouldn’t have ever learned to swim.
It’s not right. If you wanted to change, why scales? You were made for feathers.
Why did you ignore the gulls in favor of fishes?
I fold up the note without finishing, pressing the paper into the same lines as all the others. I cram it into an empty Sprite bottle, watching it change from white to green on the other side of the plastic.
Some of the notes I sent to him in glass. Some in metal. I don’t know what’s best to withstand the waves. Should it sink, or float? How long until water finds a way in, blurs my words to nothing?
I hate you, I’ve written more than once. It’s awful. He doesn’t deserve it. And what I hate more than the thought of him never finding my letters is the image of him reading one like that and thinking it’s true.
I tear another paper from the pad I bought in a touristy boutique three blocks away. The letterhead has an image of a seahorse, with the words Wish You Were Here.
I don’t hate you, I write. I could never hate you.
And that’s what I hate more than anything. More than the damn sea or this trip or the way you left, the way I never said what I wanted before you were gone.
I hate that there was never anyone else.
I hate that I never learned to swim.
I hate that you never taught me how.
I hate that I met you.
I hate that I didn’t meet you sooner.
I hate that this happened to us.
I hate that it only happened to you.
I hate that you left me alone.
I hate that I was too scared to follow.
We ate dinner at a little café with a view of the sea. I had chicken. He had mussels.
I was signing the receipt when the music started. He stiffened across from me, turning towards the strip of blue on the horizon. I loved his profile, soft and full of awe.
I finished adding the tip and got up. “Let’s go.”
He grabbed my hand and led me down to the beach.
It was already packed. Bodies in nets and gold wire. Bodies jingling with shells, barefoot and smelling of salt. Bodies pale as bleached coral, paler than us.
We weren’t the only ones visiting Cambir from another purlieu. I saw ashen-skinned people wearing fish scales instead of lichen, red-bodied people sporting fishing nets in place of beetle shells. And us, featherless and facing the sea.
I went to the Veer before meeting Waxwing. I’d be lying if I said I never imagined myself flying with the Flock. But it was an idle thought, never a destination. I liked arms more than wings, no matter what my parents named me.
The music was rising in a tide around us. I felt the excitement of the crowd rise with it and I clasped Waxwing’s hand, afraid to lose him in the surge towards the water’s edge.
Taller than me, he could still see the dock. His hand tightened around mine. “There they are.”
I tried to glimpse the Shoal between shoulders and braids sparkling with glitter. The music nearly deafened me; I lost a sandal in the rush down to the shore. Then, as people shifted in front of us, I saw the water.
It churned, foam boiling along the surface. Something rose, spraying drops to the darkening sky. I caught sight of scales and fins, shimmering hair and slick skin. Then the crowd closed in again, and all I could see were the bodies in front of me, silhouettes bathed in purple light.
“Cambir is proud to present the 113th Pelagio.”
I shifted in front of Waxwing and gained a narrow view of the floating stage. The announcer was shirtless, top scars shining silver on their chest. A sea serpent tattoo wound around their left arm. They held the mic in their hand, rings filling their fingers. “Whether you hail from this purlieu or another, we invite you to join us for a week of watery magic. Tomorrow, a lucky few may get a chance to swim with the Shoal, enjoying for an hour the magnificent transformation of our people. Tonight, the Shoal has their own show for you.”
The bass beat dropped and Waxwing released my hand. My pulse spiked, afraid I’d lose him. But when I turned to where he’d been, he was crouching down.
“Get on my back.”
I grabbed onto his shoulders, wrapped my legs around his waist. I worried for a moment about the people behind us, but as he straightened all other thoughts left my mind.
The Veer had been distant. Bird-like shapes pirouetting in the sky, their shadows darting over untouched snowy peaks.
The Pelagio was right in front of us.
Bodies somersaulted in the shallows, scales sparkling rainbow in the lights from the dock. I saw fins, flippers, fish parts I didn’t recognize perfectly fused with human bodies.
Nothing looked unnatural about the Shoal. They were exactly the shape they were supposed to be, gills on their necks and blowholes parting their hair. With my hands looped across Waxwing’s collarbones, I felt his breaths brush my knuckles in spurts of warmth. I rested my chin on his head, a gold charm tangling in my hair.
I stopped worrying about how I’d pay for this vacation, or Waxwing’s present. This sight before us was worth everything.
That night was unlike anything I’d experienced before. We were both drunk—on happiness and Sex on the Beach cocktails we downed in a crowd of bodies dancing on the sand after the show. We stumbled back to the Airbnb, my other sandal lost somewhere between the beach and our door.
Our clothes didn’t make it past the welcome mat.
We awoke sweaty and naked the next morning, mascara smeared on our pillowcases. I tried to wash them while Waxwing dozed, until he called me back to bed and I forgot to worry about how our host would rate our stay.
It was lunchtime when I told him.
“Your present,” I began, wiping peanut butter from the corner of my mouth. English muffin crumbs covered the counter.
Waxwing smiled at me, traces of purple eyeshadow caught in his lashes. “It’s perfect. I don’t mind that it wasn’t a surprise.”
“Actually, there is something else.” I finished my last bite and picked up my phone, opening my emails. The Eventbrite receipt was at the top of my inbox, flagged with a blue star. My stomach fluttered as I turned my phone around, sliding it across the counter to him.
He stared at the screen, forehead beautifully creased. I watched his mouth open. I thought I should have taken a screenshot instead, so he couldn’t see how much it cost. He would’ve been able to Google it, anyway. I held my breath.
When he didn’t say anything, didn’t look at me, I started to worry. “Wax?”
His throat rippled with a gulp. Finally he lifted his face, tears shining in his eyes.
“I—” He covered his face, a gasp escaping between his hands. I slid off my stool and rounded the counter, putting my hand on his bare back.
He collapsed into me, sobbing. I held him, feeling confused and guilty and wrong. Between gasps, he said, “I—love—you. S-so—much.”
My phone screen dimmed, locked. I lifted Waxwing’s chin and pressed my forehead to his. His face was wet. Glitter leaked from the corners of his eyes.
“Th-thank you,” he said at last, voice thick. “Whippoorwill, you’re … I don’t deserve you.”
“Don’t be stupid. Happy birthday.”
He glared, nose running. “You shouldn’t have spent all that money. On an hour. On me.”
“I wanted to.”
“You didn’t get a ticket for yourself.”
“Of course not. Didn’t you see how much it cost?”
He laughed; his voice cracked. “Fuck you. I love you. Thank you. Fuck, thank you. I don’t—”
I kissed him, tasting salt. When I leaned back, he was glowing again. I tapped my phone screen, revealing the time.
“You can thank me properly later. We better get down to the beach. The swim starts in an hour, and participants need to be there early.”
Waxwing put on his golden bathing suit. It was a glittery one-piece, hugging his hips and crisscrossing his chest. I put on my Vans and a pair of white shorts that always made him reach for my ass.
The beach was less crowded than the night before, but it buzzed with a new kind of anticipation. I smoothed down my hair, conscious of the strands that had freed themselves from my braids since yesterday. I’d applied some of Waxwing’s gold lipstick before we left, but his face was bare. Any makeup would get washed away by the waves.
We walked along the sand hand-in-hand. Three kayaks bobbed in the shallows, their sides adorned with shell decals. I saw the announcer from the previous night standing ankle-deep in the water. Their white mesh shirt reflected the sun.
“Spectators or participants?” they asked us. I pulled out my phone, pointing to Waxwing.
“He’s got a ticket.”
I showed the Eventbrite. The announcer pulled down their sunglasses. They looked at Waxwing’s skin. “You’re sure you can swim?”
He nodded, radiating anticipation. “Taught myself as a kid.”
“Okay. You can hang here for a bit. We have to get the doses ready.”
They walked back to the kayaks. I wondered how many times they’d entered the waves to swim for an hour with the Shoal. Changing temporarily, trying on another body like a costume.
I’d never joined the Flock at the Veer. The doses there lasted for two hours. It would’ve been easy to take one and fly over the snow. If I’d wanted, I could get therapy to change permanently. My cousin did—grew blackbird wings and sang a song to the clouds.
Not me, though. I never wanted to change.
I put my hands in the pockets of my shorts, squinting against the reflections flitting across the waves. “Are you nervous?” I was.
Waxwing jerked like he’d forgotten I was there. “No. I mean … I feel terrified, but, like, in a good way. I’ve been waiting so long to try this.” He leaned down and kissed me; my arms relaxed. “Thank you.”
Gazing at him, my nerves returned. I knew he could swim. I’d seen him do it, sitting on the bank while he dove and did somersaults in the river on our side of the border. The dose would make him able to breathe underwater. There was nothing for me to worry about.
Will it work on him? I didn’t want to see him disappointed. But I remembered people flying in the Veer who weren’t from our purlieu. People who should’ve been swimming, breathing waves instead of clouds.
We weren’t as different as it seemed on the surface.
Time passed too quickly. The kayaks rowed out to the waters around the dock and people flooded the beach, adorned like last night in symbols of the Pelagio. I picked out familiar bodies as my palms sweated in my pockets.
“All participants, please make your way to the shallows.”
My heart cramped in my chest. I grabbed Waxwing’s arm. “Please be safe.”
He grinned, glowing again. He kissed me long and hard, his hands pressed to my naked back. As he pulled back, he handed me his phone.
“Take some videos. Get my good side.”
I managed a laugh before my throat closed. “You don’t have a bad side.”
He smacked my ass. “Neither do you.”
I watched him walk away, his bathing suit shining like the sun. Other participants surrounded him, almost all of them from this purlieu—pale and partial to water. I caught sight of one other dark-skinned participant. It did little to allay my fears.
The participants waded out waist-deep in the sparkling, chilly waters. Bodies pressed around me, pushing me closer. I dug my heels into the wet sand, clutching Waxwing’s phone to my chest.
There were twelve of them. The announcer passed them each a clamshell filled with sparkling blue liquid. They drank as one.
I watched Waxwing’s back, my eyes aching with strain. The others shifted first, the ones suited to waves. I’d started to wonder if it wouldn’t work—and hated myself for the relief I felt—when his arms changed shape.
Yellow fins grew from his elbows. Scales flowed down from his shoulders—green and blue and violet. His legs widened, seeking each other until they fused, and Waxwing pitched forward into the water.
After that, I couldn’t tell which of the twelve was him.
I left the Airbnb today. I packed up both our bags and walked barefoot to the beach.
The Pelagio ended weeks ago. The sea absorbed most of the evidence, but I still find fragments buried in the sand. Streamers, jewelry, wristbands. I nudge a glowstick from a dune with my toe. It doesn’t light anymore.
At the water’s edge, I drop everything.
I remember when the hour was up, eleven bodies rising from the shallows, coughing and spluttering to the shore. None of them were Waxwing.
I stood here and screamed his name.
I stood here and hugged the announcer, cried into their white mesh shirt.
Would it be better if he drowned? Would it be better if he died?
I asked the participants—I tracked down the one like-skinned person and asked them if they’d remembered who they were while they swam. They said they did.
Somehow, that’s worse.
Waxwing knows who he is. He knows, and he’s still out there. I don’t know why he didn’t turn back. I don’t know how. The announcer told me it’s happened once or twice, but never to an outsider. Never to someone who should’ve been a bird.
I pull out the pad I bought in town. One sheet’s left.
I sit down in the sand and write.
I used everything I had to buy a dose. Just one—like what you had.
It might last an hour or it might not work at all. I can’t swim like you. I don’t love the sea like you. I might walk out into the waves and sink and sink.
Maybe I’ll find a pile of bottles screaming your name. Maybe I’ll find nothing.
Maybe I’ll find the Shoal, and you with them.
This isn’t my dream. You know that. I don’t want to fly and I don’t want to swim. I just want to walk. I just want to live the way I’ve always lived.
But I can’t do that anymore, Wax. I can’t do any of that without you.
So. I spent everything I had left on this one chance.
When the sun goes down, I’m going to drink it. I’m going to seal this letter in a Ziploc and put it in my pocket. I pray the waves don’t ruin it.
If you’re out there, if you remember me—us—I want another chance. I want to see you again.
If this is the life you want, I’ll throw everything away to share it with you.
And if it works, maybe next year we can swim back to this beach. On your birthday, we’ll celebrate our first anniversary: Waxwing and Whippoorwill, aged a year by the sea.
Editor: Hebe Stanton
First Reader: Rachel Ayers
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors