You Could Only Know Us

Boyce Upholt

Winter 2018

Every evening, without fail, Fennimore Peterson took his seat in the tavern, ordered a whiskey, and read aloud the news of the world: a notice about a railway, the first one built in New Zealand; dispatches from Memphis, where troops were beginning to lay siege to the city. Even in the months after the visitors left town, he never found word of what they thought we were, or what it meant. Constable Dolliver would stand in the corner, leaning on a beam, chewing his lower lip. His eyes stayed cold and steady. He was young then, still impatient, and he often took his leave while old Fennimore had pages left to go.

Time churned on. Fennimore and his generation passed, and the constable retired. Our town grew: the empty blocks were filled, the roads tarred, the first snuffling cars appeared. And when they buried the constable—survived by his wife, and a shame, everyone thought, that the couple had no children—no one spoke of the wings. They just said that he was one in whom we ought to take some pride: our former sheriff and longtime clerk, a man whose steady work and quiet valor had been essential to our town’s survival in its early, tenuous days.

The first was Mrs. Gavins, a widow. Two boys wandering in the after-blizzard snow found her body in the fields. By the time Dr. Thompson performed the autopsy, the weather had turned and an April sun was speeding the melt. As he pressed the scalpel to her puckered skin, sweat was tickling his ribs. The doctor used his back shed as a morgue. Being there reminded him, as always, of his advancing age.

There was something odd about the alignment of the widow’s spine, so he turned her on her belly. Cutting into the muscles below her shoulder blade, he felt an unfamiliar tissue, thin and brittle like old waxed paper, as if a reed was wedged into the flesh. He sliced another line down the back, made a connecting horizontal incision, then peeled back the skin.

A hinge unfolded and two stalks rose up, trembling and bent, like legs of a spider grown to human size. Two jointed, brittle rods—twenty inches long, he guessed, translucent and almost silver in the light.

Constable Dolliver had delivered the body, and was sitting on the doorstep rolling a cigarette in the new sunshine. When he heard Thompson shout he raced inside. At first he assumed the doctor, a known drinker, was playing a bad joke, or had assembled these desiccated appendages in a misguided bid for fame. But that was not the doctor’s way. He was an important man, a friend, a patron of sorts—one of the elders who’d pressed on Dolliver the lawman’s badge.

“What on earth?” the constable asked.

The appendages did not look like a bird’s wings. There were no feathers, just skeletal frames, barren and fragile, their gray-white pallor almost glowing in the dim light angling through the slats in the walls. The doctor said nothing. As they stared at each other, a bead of sweat fell from his forehead onto the shining muscle.

Boyce Upholt received an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and his writing has appeared in, among other publications, the Atlantic, the New Republic, USA Today and the Bitter Southerner. He is working on a book about the Mississippi River and its batture.

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