Sonora looked in her rearview mirror for what must have been the hundredth time since she and her daughter had left their house in the middle of the night. She wanted to get there before any of the other nervous mothers. She didn’t need to be reminded of her own fear.
They had been parked at the dam for nearly twenty minutes, the car still running, facing the path to the lake. The sun would be rising in a little less than an hour. Umbria was still strapped in her car seat, her legs kicking slowly and distractedly up and down, sucking her thumb, and looking out the window at the lightening sky.
Sonora took a deep breath before opening the door to her Jeep. When she got out, she stretched her arms above her head and unfurled her wings which had been cramped behind her for the entire four-hour drive. As she walked around to unstrap her daughter, fighting back tears, and trying to calm her nerves, she thought to herself: I did this. My mother did this. Every woman I know has done this. She will too.
Umbria had been so small when she was born, fierce and bloody when finally laid upon her mother’s chest, the two small nubs at the top of her shoulder blades, bald and featherless. It didn’t matter then if she could fly or not. She had years before she had to worry about that.
Sonora couldn’t get this image of her tiny child out of her head as she picked her up out of the car seat, her daughter’s wings beating in excitement at being taken to a new place. But those wings. They were so small, so frail and the feathers so sparse. Over the past few months, when she was supposed to be exhibiting signs of flight and developing her weightlessness, her tiny form seemed magnetized to the earth. Every time she had tried to skip around the house, she couldn’t get more than an inch or two off the ground. Sonora smiled and cheered her little girl on with every effort, but inwardly, she panicked.
What if she couldn’t do it?
The dam had been built centuries ago, by men taller than trees, stacking the stones wider than houses, one on top of another, stopping the river to create the lake. And it was here, at this sacred space where daughters proved to their mothers they could fly. They had until they turned five. If they flew before then – they would make it, they would live, and they didn’t have to come here. If not, like Umbria, they received one final chance to soar over the dam and across the magic water on the eve of their birthday. But sometimes, they didn’t. Should a girl not fly, there eventually would come a day, after falling asleep, their useless wings resting softly behind them, they would not wake. Remaining silent, in sudden sleeping death.
Sonora could feel the impatience in her daughter as they approached the dam. She set Umbria down, and placed the soft, woolen blanket on the ledge to wrap her in if she failed and fell. Umbria, however, was not afraid. She bounced up and down as she peeked over the edge. With each eager hop, the lights in her shoes blinked a fluorescent red. She was just tall enough to see the lake, glassy and dark beneath the surface.
“What’s in there, Momma?” she asked, looking up at her.
Sonora smiled, remembering what her own mother had told her. She remembered fearing what lay beneath the surface. She wanted to save herself and prove she could fly so she could return quickly to the safety of home. Umbria, however frail, wasn’t fearful like her mother.
“Mermen and whales. Seaweed and sunken ships. Entire cities made of shells and glass.” She told her, tickling her chin. Her daughter’s eyes got wide and then a small smile crept on her lips.
“Nu-uh, Momma. I don’t believe you.” However, Umbria quickly looked back at the lake, looking for a swish of a tale.
The sun had just crested over the edge between the lake and the sky, cutting it in two.
“Ok, my darling.” She lifted her up to stand on the ledge. She turned her small body and placed her hands on her face, cupping it and drawing it close so their noses almost touched. “Are you ready to fly?” Umbria nodded, her cheeks flushing and her thin wings trembling behind her in anticipation.
“Remember, push the air down, towards the earth and away from you. Breath in as your wings come up and breath out as you rise.” Umbria was trying to turn away from her mother, shifting impatiently, straining towards the lake. Sonora was petrified her final words of advice would be missed and her last chance at ensuring her survival would be wasted.
“Ok! Can I go now?” Umbria begged, her blinking toes stomping eagerly towards the edge.
“Yes. Yes, you may go. I love you. Remember, I’ll catch you.” And with that, Sonora let go. She wanted to cover her eyes, swing her hands to her face and bring the warmth of her daughter’s cheeks to her own and miss the fall she was almost certain she was about to witness.
Umbria turned and launched herself from the ledge, her wings fanning out so much wider than Sonora had ever seen. As quickly as her body had flung forward, it disappeared, plummeting down towards the water. Sonora leapt to the edge, her own wings wide and ready to dive. When she looked to the lake, searching directly beneath the space where her daughter had fallen, she didn’t see the water swallowing up her child as she had expected, but found her when she looked straight ahead at the increasingly shrinking form of Umbria, riding the air inches above the lake, gaining speed towards the place where the sun split the water and air.