Feather Girls
‘You have to catch their coats whilst they’re young.’ That was the saying he’d been brought up with, in a village full of thin, white haired women who saw nothing wrong in telling their sons how best to trap a girl, as they themselves had once been trapped.
The sun sparkled on the peat coloured lake below, making magic of dun. He took his time on the long road down to the village. Avoided pot holes and sheep muck and loose chips of stone tumbled from the walls. Midges rolled in clouds overhead. He tugged at the long grass that sprouted at the roadside and bent it, twisted it, threaded it through his fingers, snapped it. All these years of going to meet her and yet still, every time, he felt like a lad. His stomach might as well be in a boat out on the lake.
The sign outside the Hare and Anchor was cracked, and the paint so faded you could barely make out the image of a brown hare, its ears wrapped around a silver anchor. It was a locals’ pub, sandwiched between crumbling cottages with mildewed net curtains, further up the steep hill than outsiders cared to venture. Tourists were catered for beside the lake, where they swarmed off ferries into gift shops and outdoor clothing shops and took cream tea in cafes where the lacy nets were clean. She would pass all that on her way up the hill. Had she left the lake already? Crossed the narrow shingle beach, stepped on to the pavement, webbed feet becoming toes, dripping feather coat hung over what was her wing but now an arm.
“Usual Bill?” Mary, the landlady, put aside the television listings magazine she’d been reading.
“And a glass of tap water and a—”
“Packet of salt and vinegar crisps. Meeting her tonight are you love?”
He didn’t reply, just waited for his pint of mild to be drawn and watched the empty table by the fireplace.
“You know,” said Mary, “you should have caught her coat whilst she was young.”
A collection of regulars cluttered the bar, all grey haired men a similar age to him. He knew many of them had caught themselves feather girls. On summer evenings when they were lads they would gather beside the lake and try to gain favour by lobbing in the biggest pieces of bread. Home baked worked best. His cousin Johnny had walloped a whole loaf in once but that had backfired when a greedy girl near choked on it. He married her though. Eileen she took as her name.
He handed Mary the exact change and carried the drinks and crisps over to the table. It wasn’t like her to be late. He placed the glasses on the already sodden beer mats and shook a dribble of mild from his fingers. The fire wasn’t lit. Mary was stingy with the coal, still too early in the year for a fire whatever the chill in the air said.
Collections of one kind or another littered the pub, whisky boxes, empty wine bottles, framed pictures of 1930s film stars who would never have visited a place like this. There were three dart boards on one wall, but nobody remembered where the darts were. On the mantel piece there were stacks of glass ash trays, scorched and lined with grit. A monument to times past, or testament to the fact Mary could never throw anything away.
He hadn’t heard her come in but there she was. The pale skin of her cheeks looked damp, her dark eyes nervous. She was tall and slight in her downy white under dress, and she compulsively twiddled her fingers, as though when she had them she couldn’t bear not to be using them. She tucked her feather coat beneath the table and perched on a stool. He shifted his legs back so he wouldn’t have to know the feathers were there, brushing against his trousers.
He opened the crisps, split the foil of the packet and pulled it apart so they could share.
Delicate lines appeared around her eyes and mouth as she smiled. She tried to speak but her voice was too hoarse, she dipped her head.
He nodded. It always took a while for the words to come out right, for her to find her human voice. He didn’t have that excuse.
She plucked at the crisps with her fingers. He always found this movement intriguing to watch, it was as though her fingers became her beak and her long thin arm took the place of her graceful neck.
As they found their voices they talked of the lake, the speed of the boats, the damaged reed beds, squabbles with her neighbours, unruly coots and forever diving cormorants, the quality of the waterwort, the spread of swamp stonecrop.
“I’ll take these for you shall I?” Mary intruded, fingers already grasping the not quite empty glasses. “I’ll bring you some more, and another packet of them crisps too.”
She nodded, she wouldn’t speak to Mary, or to anyone else but him as far as he’d ever seen.
His Grandmother had been a feather girl, strict and cold. She’d never found where his grandfather had hidden her coat. He’d heard people from elsewhere tell other tales about white feathers; if you found one it meant an angel had visited, or there were rumours about young girls giving them to men in civvies during the war to show them up as cowards. In the village a found feather meant one of the girls was itching to fly away. They sometimes grew back in the crook of an elbow or at the back of the neck, but they soon fell out. He had found one of his Grandmother’s in the bread bin once. Stuffed it in his pocket, then kept it for weeks tucked between the pages of a precious Dandy. Finally he’d set it out to sail on the lake, on a December day as the cloudy surface was beaten with rain.
His wife came from the south, she’d had no time for the ‘silly swan stories’, said the abundance of white haired women in the village was down to inbreeding. She’d said a lot else as well. She’d flown off herself as soon as the children were grown.
Mary plonked the glasses down. Foam and water coursed from the soggy mats and pooled on the table. Mary waited for a moment, but soon gave up and stalked back to the bar.
He split the packet, as before. The tips of her fingers touched his knuckles as they both reached for a crisp. He pulled away.
He already knew how the evening would go. How the dusk would settle outside as they talked in hushed voices. How, when they had sat for too long with the empty glasses and the empty crisp packet between them they would know it was time to go. She would clutch her feather coat and they would say a quick goodbye on the doorstep of the pub, between the abandoned hanging baskets. He would try not to watch her walk down the road towards the lights that twinkled on the water at the edge of the lake. He would try not to worry about the chill in the air and her shivering because she would not put her feather coat back on until she’d reached the water. He would try not to linger on the buckled moorland road, watched by his stern faced sheep, their coats grey in the twilight. He would try not to hear his plodding footsteps matched by the sound of wings beating overhead as he made his way towards the squat stone building that was home.
For now, he would watch her fingers peck at the last crumbs in the crisp packet, and listen to the collection of voices drone beside the bar, and the clink of glasses as Mary pretended to tidy up.

CLAIRE MASSEY’s fiction, poetry and articles have appeared online and in print in an assortment of places including Cabinet des Fées, Enchanted Conversation, Flax, Rainy City Stories, Magpie Magazine and Brittle Star. She is the founder and editor of New Fairy Tales, Assistant Translations Editor at The Adirondack Review, and she blogs about fairy tales at ‘The Fairy Tale Cupboard’. Claire lives in Lancashire, England, with her husband and two young sons.