Black Wings by Adrienne Clarke

Once upon a time Adelina was happy. She and her mother formed a perfect, secret world of two. There were no marble floors, closets filled with designer clothes, or even meat on the table very often, but they were safe and loved in each other’s company. When the snow fell, as it often did in their wintery corner of the world, she and her mother chased each other under a grey sky until they collapsed on the ground, laughing and dizzy. They lay side by side, shoulders touching so they formed a human chain: strong, unbreakable. The idea that they might one day be separated was more fantastic than her mother’s fairy tales: impossibly tall, elaborate confections, dripping with sparkling confetti and spider’s webs; each one more outlandish than the last.

Adelina’s mother was a heady combination of steely strength and whimsical, delicate softness. A heart-shaped face, long slender neck and skin so pale it appeared almost translucent might have given her an angelic appearance, if it were not for a pair of hard, glittering black eyes. No one who’d beheld her mother’s dark gaze ever forgot the strength that emanated from her slight frame. The competing aspects of her personality seemed to be contained in the black winged choker she always wore on a silver chain around her neck. “What kind of wings are they, Mama?” Adelina used to trace their delicate shape with her fingertip, her path straying to the soft white hollow of her mother’s throat. “Are they butterfly wings?” Mama shook her head. “Swan wings?”


“Angel wings?”

Mama smiled. “I like to think the wings belong to my guardian angel. If you and I should ever become separated, the wings would fly me home.”

“I wish I had a guardian angel.”

Mama gave me a butterfly kiss on each cheek. “You do, Adelina. Whenever you’re lonely, close your eyes and imagine the tips of my wings caressing your face, just like this.”

Adelina’s parting from her mother happened so quickly she was at first too bewildered to be frightened. Her unexpected aloneness in the world couldn’t last, surely. Somehow, her mother had forgotten she’d left Adelina behind. Her first night alone, she curled up in her mother’s bed, the sheets still scented with her mother’s blackcurrant-rose perfume and closed her eyes. But no matter how hard she thought of her mother she couldn’t feel her wings. Her mother had forgotten her promise to fly back to her.

For six days and seven nights Adelina waited impatiently for her return, her faith never wavering, but on the seventh day came a knock at the door. Adelina’s heart grew wings and then crashed inside her chest. Mothers didn’t knock, but social workers did. Adelina opened the door to a youngish woman whose startlingly pale complexion and stick-straight curtain of dark hair made her look like a raven.

“Hello Adelina,” the woman chirped, her lipstick-caked mouth opening and closing strangely, like she held a worm between her teeth. “I’ve come to take you somewhere safe.”

Not wanting to leave the only place her mother would know where to find her, Adelina told the woman with as much confidence as her eleven -year old self could muster, that she was somewhere safe. “My mother will be home soon,” she told her in the kind of haughty tone the women on TV used to great effect.

The woman gave her the kind of smile that made the corners of her mouth go up but failed to capture the light or warmth of the real thing. “Poor darling,” she said in the same chirping tone. “Your mommy can’t come home. She’s dead.”

Adelina shook her head so violently the raven-woman laid a talon-like hand on her shoulder to steady her. “You’re lying,” she said in a high, tight voice she’d never used before. “Mama isn’t dead. She can’t be. Her guardian angel will bring her home again.”

The raven sighed, but it was a sigh of exasperation more than sadness. “I’m sorry, Adelina, but I have something of hers to give to you.” The raven opened her palm to reveal the winged necklace. The sight of its inky blackness against the raven’s too white skin made her knees go weak. Nothing but death was powerful enough to keep her mother from her. There could be no other reason for her absence. In the end, Adelina had no choice but to follow the raven out the door, away from her books and toys and dolls, and her favourite juice cup with silver stars etched on the side.

Inside a shiny black car that smelled like cherry cough syrup, the raven pulled a phone out of her purse and tapped on the screen with long red fingernails. The sound made Adelina’s palms itch. Alone in the backseat, the backs of her thighs sticking to a booster seat she didn’t need, she watched her house grow smaller and smaller until she couldn’t see it anymore.

The house the raven took her to was not like a real home at all. Ugly and dark, with low ceilings that pressed in on her, Adelina felt like she was trapped inside one of the troll caves in her mother’s stories. The couple who lived there, Mr. and Mrs. Crumbly (Big Bill and Mama C she was told to call them) didn’t look like trolls. They were far too tall and wide—but they acted like trolls—communicating with grunts and groans and slaps to the side of the head. Once, Adelina tried to tell the Raven she’d made a mistake—that she didn’t belong with the Crumleys—but Raven just gave her a vague smile. “Be a good girl, Adelina. You should be grateful the Crumleys took you in. Give it time. You’ll get used to your new family, I promise.”

If getting “used to” her new family meant getting accustomed to being treated like a slave during the day and beaten at night, then perhaps Adelina had adapted to life with the Crumleys. Every waking moment she felt the hope slowly seep out of her, like the blood that oozed from the sores on her red, roughened skin. At night, she held the winged necklace in her hand and willed her mother to come back to her. Night after night, she waited for the sensation of wing tips on her cheek, but they never came. Sometimes, she dreamed of going back to the house she shared with her mother and camping out in the backyard underneath the maple tree, but as she grew older, she understood she couldn’t go home again. Another family lived there now. Adelina had seen them. She’d risked the Crumleys’ wrath to take a forty-five-minute bus ride, so she might remember what happiness felt like, even for an hour. She hoped to see her mother’s blue-veined roses that she still dreamed of every night. But when she got there her mother’s roses were gone, replaced by pink and purple pansies, and a set of blonde-haired twin boys who regarded her with unblinking blue eyes. Aching with disappointment, she missed the bus and had to walk home, caught at the front door by Mama Crumley who blindsided her with a fist to her face.

The “somewhere safe” the raven had promised never materialized. Danger lurked in every nook and cranny of the Crumley house, and most treacherously, inside the Crumleys themselves. To protect herself, Adelina mastered the art of invisibility. She learned to hunch her shoulders until they ached, her eyes cast downward at the floor she constantly scrubbed. She made everything about herself as small and insignificant as possible. Most of the time this seemed to work, but the times it didn’t were too terrible to think about.

After the winged necklace’s failed attempt to return Mama, she lost faith in its power. She didn’t think Mama had lied, but with her first glimmer of adult insight, realized that Mama was not the all-powerful goddess her child’s imagination had created. The cold fact of her death was proof of her vulnerability. Still, the necklace was all she had left of Mama and she lived in fear of Mrs. Crumley coming into her room while she was sleeping and ripping it from her neck. Desperate to protect it, she buried the necklace in the back garden below her bedroom window where she could still feel its nearness. The delicate skin at the hollow of her throat felt naked and exposed, but she took comfort knowing the only possession she had was safe.

One night, after a particularly bad beating with a wire hairbrush, she went outside, wanting to feel the necklace against her fingertips. The light of the moon revealed the hiding place with the tiny pile of stones on top, but instead of putting her hands in the dirt, she knelt and watered the earth with her tears. She returned to her room, her heart still heavy, but when she closed her eyes in bed, she thought she felt the whisper of wings against her cheek.

The chill of fall turned into the hard, bitter cold of winter and Adelina wept for the thought of Mama’s necklace buried in the frozen earth. You should have dug it up when you had the chance, she reprimanded herself between Mr. Crumley’s never-ending list of chores. The cold outside, however, was nothing compared to the bone chilling iciness inside the Crumley’s house, especially in the heart of Mrs. Crumley, whose hatred took Adelina’s breath away. The woman’s anger would not abate no matter how many toilets Adelina scrubbed or back-breaking loads of laundry she carried up the treacherous basement stairs. Adelina’s only comfort came to her at night when she felt the sensation of wing tips on her face grow steadily stronger. She longed for Spring’s thaw when she would be able to retrieve her mother’s necklace.

Finally, after the endless blanket of snow receded from the ground, and the air began to swell with the promise of spring, Adelina waited breathlessly for nightfall to rescue her mother’s necklace. The effort of digging made Adelina gasp with pain. She had no gloves and her hands were red and sore, the palms covered with seeping white blisters from the harsh cleaning solutions she was forced to use. Still, she pressed on, digging deeper and deeper, panic invading her lungs, making her struggle for breath. Where was the necklace? Surely, she hadn’t buried it so deep? She searched and searched, her bloodied hands upturning a small mountain of earth. When dawn’s first light broke across the sky, she sat back on her heels and raised her tear-stained face to the feeble sun. The winged necklace was gone.

Her energy spent, loss and disappointment spread through her body like a stain. She crawled up the stairs, her limbs moving like she was an old woman instead of a girl of nearly thirteen. She lay down on her narrow cot, heavy with the knowledge that in less than two hours she would have to get up and start another day. She squeezed her eyelids until they ached, but no brush of wings came to comfort her. Tears leaked slowly from her eyes, soaking the single coarse blanket on her bed. How could she go on without the necklace? Her one comfort in the Crumleys’ dark, wingless world.

Sleep refused to come, and when the clock on her bedside table blinked 6:00am, she summoned every ounce of strength to push herself into a sitting position. You must get up. She didn’t think she would survive the day if she took another beating. That’s when she heard it; a soft, gentle tapping at her window. Barely perceptible at first, the sound grew steadily louder, until the pane of glass shook with the force of whatever pushed against it. Excitement, tinged with fear, coursed through Adelina’s body. Her exhaustion forgotten, she ran to the window and yanked open the curtains. What she saw on the other side of the glass made the breath still inside her chest. Staring back at her was a black, winged creature, half bird, half human, whose black eyes were startlingly familiar. Adelina watched, fascinated, as the creature spread its shimmering blue-black wings, so large they blocked out the sky, making the room grow dim. She longed to caress the length of those wings until her fingertips reached the hollow of the creature’s throat where the feathers gleamed pure white. As if reading her thoughts, the creature swiveled its graceful head, so the fierce black gaze could study Adelina more closely. “Mama?” she asked, her frozen heart now warm with wonder.

Open the window, Adelina. I’ve come to take you home.

The voice was inside Adelina’s head, but she knew who it belonged to. With every beat of her mother’s wings, Adelina felt the last remnants of fear and sadness leave her body. Her mother had come back for her. Winter was at its end; Spring had finally returned. She was going home.


Adrienne Clarke writes: A past winner of the Alice Munro short fiction contest, my work has appeared in several publications including, New Plains Review, Silly Tree Anthologies, and in the e-zines The Devilfish Review, Rose Red Review and the Long Island Literary Journal. My first YA novel, Losing Adam, garnered a silver medal in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was selected as a finalist in the Eric Hoffer Book Awards.

Author's note

The mother of two girls, I’m constantly aware of the intense, sometimes frighteningly so, bond between mother and child. While classic fairy tales often explore the tests of romantic love, my experience of motherhood prompted me to create an original story that celebrated the unconditional love between mother and child. Drawing on the recurring fairy tale theme of transformation, "Black Wings" dares us to imagine the lengths a parent will go, to keep their promise.