One day a long time ago while fishing off the rocks of a Westerian beach an old mariner found a little baby with feathers like a tern. It must have been washed ashore earlier in the morning because its skin was wrinkled and red and its feathers were oily from the sea. But it was a baby all the same. When the mariner reached down to claim the child it screamed for its mother but no mother tern ever came. Being a sympathetic old light guard, the mariner took the child to live in his lighthouse.
He washed the baby clean of its salty ocean smell and plucked its feathers so no one would ask questions. Babies used to wash ashore all of the time in Westeria, but the mariner didn't want to draw attention to himself by keeping a fat feathered one. "I will name you Oscar, after my bird," he said to the child. "He has been dead for many years, but I still talk to him before going to sleep at night." The child didn't seem at all dejected by his new name. The mariner put Oscar in the top sock drawer to sleep and wrapped him in his favorite blue blanket.
Oscar was a playful young boy with oceanborn ambitions. The mariner would take him down to the shore and watch him catch fish with his bare teeth. He would praise Oscar and give him treats when he caught enough for the both of them to eat. He would talk to Oscar at night like he was his own son. He'd never raised a child before. If he had not been a child himself long ago he would not have even recognized the abnormalities of this one.
Oscar liked to sing lullabies, but only in a language the mariner didn't understand. Unelma lapseni koskaan herätä. When they played chase on the shore the boy would try to fly away but his animal instincts were deterred by the fact that he was still a fat young child with no wings. He flapped his stubby little human arms and cried out to the sea.
"What is it?" said the mariner.
"Äiti," said Oscar.
"I know what you mean."
He held the child's arms and begged him not to be reckless. That was the day the mariner decided never to clip Oscar's feathers again.
It was strange watching him grow. By the time he was five Oscar had a full set of wings but he was too afraid to fly. When they went fishing together or watched the sun set from the lantern room the boy would stretch out his wings to better feel the ocean breeze. It was especially nice when the misty tide washed up and splattered them. Sometimes the mariner would just watch Oscar watching the sunset. He was like an angel that couldn't fly away.
Soon it became difficult for the mariner to hide Oscar from his nosey seaside neighbors. When they came down the mountain to see the boy with wings the mariner would hide him and tell him to wait. He'd put on his best lonely light-guard face and say, "There ain't no angels here. God don't send nobody my way."
"But you fish with him every day," said the mariner's brother Gordon. "And sometimes the women in town see a cherub settling the lights at dawn."
"When I catch him I'll cook him up. I'll invite you the women and the whole town down for supper."
"I like my angel wings fried," said Gordon.
The mariner had never been so happy to be a father. When the people from town stopped coming to say asinine things about angels and flying monsters he decided to build Oscar a little house of his own. The boy even painted it red like a barn. He squeezed the old man and told him he loved him in the finest Danish available. His feathers tickled the mariner when they were close to his chin.
Some nights when the mariner thought Oscar was asleep he would go down from the lighthouse and check on him. The boy slept with his knees up to his chin with great white and black wings covering him like a silk blanket. He didn't snore or moan. But he often spoke a familiar word that the mariner could not understand. Äiti.
The last night in his little red house he spoke äiti in his sleep and dreamed away. His feet softly kicked beneath his wings and the mariner knew that in some world the child was soaring across gray mountains far from the lighthouse.
"Goodnight," he said. He walked down to the beach where he had found Oscar so long before. The tide was out and the world was ominous. It was a black pit stretched out for a million miles. He looked up to the moon and thought he saw something passing over. The figure flew down to Oscar's red house. The mariner ran for his son but stopped when two objects emerged and flew into the air, towards the stars and heavens where they could be safe and nothing would ever harm them.
That night the mariner went to an old tavern in Westeria and confided in Gordon. His brother wouldn't judge him. He explained everything that had happened and drank until he couldn't see straight.
"Guess the mother tern came down to get her baby. I'm glad she left you alive though. You should come up here more often."
The mariner knocked back his ale and let it drain down his hairy wrinkled chin. "Didn't even say thanks," he said.
Garrett Ashley lives in MS and studies English at The University of Southern Mississippi. His work has appeared in over a dozen journals including Brain Harvest, Bloody Bridge Review, and the Smoking Poet.