This piece from Black Static #22 was Alison Littlewood‘s third appearance in the magazine, and she’s since gone on to greater things, with a novel titled A Cold Season due out from Quercus imprint Jo Fletcher Books in January 2012. (In parenthesis, I’ve read it and it’s very good, so you should definitely keep an eye out for that.)
‘Black Feathers’ is a mash-up of fairy tale and The Monkey’s Paw, written on the theme of ‘be careful what you wish for’ and with a tip of the hat in the direction of a certain Stephen King. It’s the first person account of Mia, whose world view is shaped by the fairy tales she believes in, but who finds that life is more like a horror story, and they all lived happily ever after simply doesn’t come into it.
Our heroine’s real name is Miranda, and when they get upset her family refer to her by that name, but most of the time they accept her self-designation as Mia, which she feels is ‘a name fit for a princess’. Mia sees everything in fairy tale terms – a walk in the forest brings to mind Hansel and Gretel, she kisses her little brother to turn him back into a frog, and birds like the swan and raven are special to her, magical creatures with powers of transformation.
The story opens with Mia seeing a raven and picking up the single black feather it leaves behind. She and the other young kids in a gang that brings to mind the various groupings in King works, especially novella The Body, go into the forbidden woods and play in a clearing where the big kids hang on occasion. A rite of passage is to jump out and swing from a rope suspended over a deep drop, and Mia is the only one of the gang who will not attempt this.
The leader of the gang is Davey, Mia’s younger brother and the bane of her life, the usual sibling rivalry translated into fairy tale terms. Time and again Mia has tried to change him, as with the kiss referenced above, and various potions that she concocts, believing in the transforming power of magic. She wants him ‘to be a girl. They would have been princesses together’. Unfortunately Davey is all boy, and only interested in boy’s games and pursuits, leaving Mia feeling even more isolated (later in the story she says of the others in the gang ‘they had always been Davey’s friends and not her own’) and reliant on her fairy tale fantasies.
And yet there is a bond between brother and sister, seen in the admiration Mia can’t help but feel at the way Davey grabs the rope and soars out over the drop, as if he is flying, as if he has his own magic. In recognition of that, and with the raven feather as her inspiration, Mia fashions for him a cloak for flying, sticking more feathers to an old skirt, but her creation is a poor thing when seen through eyes not filled with magic, and Davey scorns her gift.
And then he jumps and fails to catch the rope, apparently falling to his death. Mia scrambles down to where his body rests and wraps it in the cloak, for the first time recognising and accepting that ‘”You’re my brother, Davey”‘, now that it’s too late.
Except before Mia can tell their mother what has happened, something staggers in the door, something that makes her scream – ‘It was Davey, but not Davey. His face was white and expressionless; only his eyes stared, dark and bright.’ Mia thinks that he has been transformed into some monstrous fusion of boy and bird, but ‘it was only a cloak, her cloak, the one she had made for him’. Davey casts off the cloak and is himself again.
Only he isn’t. In the days and weeks that follow ‘He wasn’t even the same. He was like Davey and yet not like him. He was too pale, his eyes too bright. He didn’t smile.’
Davey’s old friends no longer want to play with him. He makes everyone uneasy, even his mother, though nobody will admit that anything is wrong, and Mia is the only one who knows that her brother really died. The birds brought him back, only they weren’t as altruistic as the avians in fairy tales – ‘they left a part of him behind them, in whatever dark place they had been’.
The assumption to be made, though the word is never used, is that Davey’s soul has been lost, the story’s resolution bringing to mind The Monkey’s Paw and King’s Pet Sematary.
But Littlewood takes it a step further than that. For Mia the horror isn’t just to do with Davey’s transformation, but with the way in which the realisation comes crashing in on her of how much she loved and cared for her brother, despite all her wishes to change him to some fairy tale template, of how much she wants him back the way he was. And with that realisation she starts to grow up, to put behind her childish things.
The moral of the story seems to be to value those we love for what they are and not what we want them to become, that in attempting to change them we all too often destroy the thing we cherish most. Mia doesn’t so much use her imagination as allow it to use her, in a way that blights rather than enriches her life. The wish to make the idyllic fantasy real undermines what she already has.
‘So many times she had wished, and she wished again now, but she knew it wasn’t any use. The magic had gone.’