Feathers ~ 2
When a baby dragonfly is born, its mother drops it in the water. Then it hatches into a naiad, an alien-faced water bug. Then it crawls out of the water, clings to a stem, and evolves into an adult dragonfly. Here is how Ellen evolved:
When I first met her, Ellen reminded me of a sparrow, the kind with a drooping ruffle of gray feathers on its breast, and faded tan ones on its back and wings. Her skin, hair and eyes were all the same shade of dull brown; her loose sweat suit, which hung from her long, thin bones like an elephant skin draped over a giraffe, was gray. She had a way of folding her limbs up like a collapsible chair, and tucking herself into the darkest corner of a room.
The only time Ellen spoke was when, during certain moments in our graduate thesis class, someone mentioned philosophy. Then her eyes would begin to sparkle, she would lean forward slightly as if against her will, and people would turn and see her for the first time. Her voice was as soft as breeze, fluttering over grass. Our professor was slightly deaf. He would glance around the classroom with his brow furrowed in confusion, wondering why no one was speaking. Then he would rattle his papers and cough, creating a rasping wind that snuffed out the breeze. The discussion would shift to another topic.
One day, Ellen met Rupert. Rupert was sleek, smooth: skin like coffee, voice like cream. If not all women found Rupert irresistible, Rupert found Rupert irresistible, and made up for it. His lips were enormous, like prunes left to soak overnight. Over them he wore a mustache that was barely visible, thin as thread. He could never quite manage a beard, but three curling hairs dribbled down his chin like something spilled.
Ellen and Rupert became friends. Rupert spotted Ellen’s lack of self-esteem and called it by its name, which Ellen found comforting. It was a relief to be told in plain words that she lacked the spine to stand up and say her name out loud. Other people tiptoed around Ellen’s shyness like a deformity.
Who knows what Rupert saw in Ellen? Maybe it was her pale brown eyes, or her kindness, or the fact that she fed him. Ellen did not cook, but she bought stacks of frozen food –frosty steaks, triangular wedges of ice-cold pudding– which she obligingly stuck in the microwave, when asked. Rupert shoveled them down with uncritical satisfaction. Perhaps Rupert liked Ellen’s generosity, or perhaps what Rupert appreciated about Ellen was the fact that Ellen so obviously appreciated Rupert. He needed appreciation then, having just emerged from a three-year relationship that ended badly. The girl, he explained, simply could not handle Rupert’s lady killer lifestyle. In reality she could not handle Rupert’s proposal of marriage, but she still liked him. In fact, she claimed, she loved him; she might very well marry him some day, but not now, not when she was in another college in another state, having fun. She still flew in on weekends sometimes, to visit Rupert and sleep with him. In between, he slept with Ellen.
Or perhaps what Rupert saw in Ellen was something else entirely. With her shyness identified, packaged and labeled and neatly stored away on the proper shelf, Ellen found it easier to step out its shadow. Outside of her dark corner, there were things about Ellen that sparkled. Light poured down from the ceiling and caught on her hair, welled up in the sockets under her eyes, reflected off the tips of her pale fingernails. And her muted skin, delicate to the point of transparency, became translucent when the light was just right. You could see through it entirely. Rupert looked through and saw colors inside Ellen that made him stare. It was as if Ellen had a flock of tiny birds inside her, with glittering, jewel-bright wings. When she finally spoke her thoughts out loud, the birds flew into the room one by one, until Rupert sat in the midst of a soaring, flapping, fluttering aviary with birds on his shoulder, birds on his hands, birds pecking his feet, while he blinked in pleased astonishment.
This week’s poll is about your thoughts on Ellen. It’s probably impossible to write a character without biasing readers towards your perception of him or her. At the same time, readers bring their own experiences to reading that end up giving us different experiences of the same words. I’m curious: what do you think of Ellen so far? It’s hard to include all the possibilities in a multiple choice format, so feel free to leave a comment if I haven’t captured your opinion here!