Issue 98, Winter 1985
“It had Wings” was originally commissioned by composer Bruce Saylor, who asked Allan Gurganus to write “a very short story ” to be set for mezzo and soprano. The opening of the score is above. The piece had its premiere in Rome in April, 1985.
Find a little yellow side-street house. Put an older woman in it. Dress her in that tatty favorite robe, pull her slippers up before the sink, have her doing dishes, gazing nowhere — at her own backyard. Gazing everywhere. Something falls outside, loud. One damp thwunk into new grass. A meteor? She herself (retired from selling formal clothes at Wanamaker’s, she herself—a widow and the mother of three scattered sons, she herself alone at home a lot these days) goes onto tiptoe, leans across a sinkful of suds, sees — out near her picnic table, something nude, white, overly-long. It keeps shivering. Both wings seem damaged.
“No way,” she says. It appears human. Yes, it is a male one. It’s face up and, you can tell, it is extremely male (uncircumcised). This old woman, pushing eighty, a history of aches, uses, fun —now presses one damp hand across her eyes. Blaming strain, the lustre of new cataracts, she looks again. Still, it rests there on a bright air mattress of its own wings. Outer feathers are tough quills, broad at bottom as rowboat oars. The whole left wing bends too far under. It looks hurt.
The widow, sighing, takes up her mug of heated milk. Shaking her head, muttering, she carries the blue willow cup out back. She moves so slow because: arthritis. It criticizes every step. It asks —about the mug she holds, Do you really need this?
She stoops, creaky, beside what can only be a young angel, unconscious. Quick, she checks overhead, ready for what?— some TV. news crew in a helicopter? She sees only a sky of the usual size, a Tuesday sky stretched between weekends. She allows herself to touch this thing’s white forehead. She gets a mild electric shock. Then, odd, her tickled finger-joints stop aching. They’ve hurt so long. A ptactical person, she quick cures her other hand. The angel grunts but sounds pleased. His temperature’s a hundred and fifty, easy—but, for him this seems somehow normal. “Poor thing,” she says and —careful —pulls his heavy curly head into her lap. The head hums like a phone knocked off its cradle. She scans for neighbors —hoping they’ll come out, wishing they wouldn’t, both.
“Look, will warm milk help?” She pours some down him. Her wrist brushes angel-skin. Which sticks the way an ice tray begs whatever touches it. A thirty-year pain leaves her, enters him. Even her liver spots are lightening. He grunts with pleasure, soaking it all in. Bold, she presses her worst hip deep into crackling feathers. The hip has been half-numb since a silly fall last February. All stiffness leaves her. He goes, “Unhh.” Her griefs seem to fatten him like vitamins. So, she whispers private woes: the Medicare cuts, the sons too casual by half, the daughters- in-law not bad but not so great. These woes seem ended. “Nobody’ll believe. Still, tell me some of it,” she tilts nearer. Both his eyes stay shut but his voice — like clicks from a million crickets pooled —goes, “We’re just another army. We all look alike—we didn’t, before. It’s not what you expect. We miss this other. —Don’t count on the next. Notice things here more. We wish we had.”
“Oh,” she says.