We Never Asked for Wings

by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Himalayan legend says

there are beautiful white birds

that live completely in flight.

They are born in the air,

must learn to fly before falling

and die also in their flying.

Maybe you have been born

into such a life

with the bottom dropping out.

—from “In Flight,” Jennifer K. Sweeney

It wasn’t too late to turn back. Driving through the fog at a quarter past midnight, Letty waited for the exit signs that appeared without warning, willing herself to swerve off the freeway and return the way she’d come. But at each split-second opportunity she wavered just a moment too long. The exits came and went, and she was left with nothing but a wall of fog and the tequila in her water bottle, pushing her forward—past San Jose and Los Banos and Coalinga and through the sour cloud of Harris Ranch, accelerating until even the short length of yellow line she’d been following for over two hundred miles transformed into a rush of white.

She’d left her children.

It wasn’t premeditated, she told herself, as if this made it any less criminal. And it was true that it had happened quickly—too quickly for her to think, or to wake them up, or to take them with her. She’d come home to find her two children asleep in their beds in an empty apartment, a hastily scrawled letter on the kitchen table. Reading it, panic overwhelmed her, and Letty had done the only thing she could think of to do: she added her name to the bottom of the letter and ran out the door the way she’d come.

Her youngest, Luna, slept diagonally. Letty imagined her now, stretched across the bed they shared, searching for her mother in the darkness. Luna’s hands would be cold, the covers a tangled mess on the floor. Across the room, in his small bed beneath the window, Alex would be snoring softly, or talking in his sleep—a scientific babble that only Letty had ever heard, and no one, including Alex, believed occurred.

“I’ll be home before you wake up,” Letty whispered, wanting it to be true.

But she kept driving, away from them.

At the base of the Tahachapi mountains, Letty dumped the remains of the tequila-water out the window and squinted into the night. Somewhere ahead of her, a Greyhound bus lurched toward the Mexican border, its pull as strong as a rope tied from the bumper to her beating heart. Once, she might have cut that rope and taken off running in the opposite direction. But that was a long time ago, now. A lifetime of mistakes had taught her what everyone around her already believed: that she couldn’t do it; that alone, she wasn’t enough, and so she’d long ago surrendered her life to the one person in the world capable of holding it all together.

She needed her mother.

The edge of the mattress dipped as Alex sat down. Luna was curled into a ball, doing that thing she did when she wanted someone to believe she was still asleep: eyes scrunched too tightly closed, lips pulled down at the corners because Alex had told her once that she smiled when she faked sleep, so now she overcorrected. Wisps of long black hair had escaped her braids and tangled around her gold earrings; a smudge of drool flaked white off her cheek. Checking to see who was there, she squinted at Alex through crusted eyelashes and then snapped her eyes shut again. Where she’d recently lost her two front teeth, her gums were swollen and red.

How could he possibly tell her?

She was only six. Only six and tiny too—even with their grandmother cooking constantly, there were weeks she lost weight instead of gaining it, and she didn’t have any to lose. What would he feed her? He felt again the despair washing over him, as it had when he’d first woken up and read the letter; with puffed cheeks, he held his breath until it passed. Everything is going to be fine, he told himself. Everything is going to be just fine. He was fourteen years old, fifteen in a month. He’d been watching his grandmother long enough to know what to do. But it wouldn’t be easy. Luna wasn’t the kind of kid who just listened. Getting her to do anything took extensive negotiation, distraction, and occasionally—even with his grandmother—bribery.

Alex decided to skip straight to the bribery.

“Too bad Luna’s not awake, because I’m about to have donuts for breakfast.”

She pressed her face into the pillow to muffle a squeal and clamped her hands over her ears as if this might prevent their grandmother from hearing. It was breaking three rules, at least: (1) Stopping anywhere on the way to school, (2) Eating sugar before noon, and (3) Eating donuts, ever.

“Don’t worry, she isn’t here.”

Luna peeled away from the pillow. Her brown eyes studied Alex, looking for clues as to how she should feel about this unfamiliar state of being. “Where is she?”

He forced himself to smile. “Mom took her to get Grandpa.”

“They found him?”

Alex paused, then moved his head in a kind of circle, a motion that Luna would interpret as a yes but that was ambiguous enough to get Alex off if he was ever questioned for lying at the gates of heaven. He’d hidden his grandmother’s letter behind the tip jar his mother kept in the kitchen cabinet, which he’d hoped would be full (she’d taken most of the money, though, leaving only three inches of coins at the bottom of the jar) and estimated the time it would take for them to return by the miles to Oro de Hidalgo and back, calculated at seventy miles an hour. Best case scenario: “They’ll be back on Friday.”

Luna was quiet, and for a minute Alex thought she was worrying, as he was, about how his mother would get his grandparents, Maria Elena and Enrique, back across the border—or whether they would get back at all. But then she asked what day it was.


She hummed the days of the week to the tune of “Clementine” and counted on her fingers. “Three days.”

“Exactly. Three days of eating whatever we want and staying after school with our friends.”

They didn’t have any friends; Luna did not look convinced.

He squeezed her feet through the blankets, trying to think of something to comfort her. “We’ve been alone before, remember?”

She nodded, fear in her eyes for the first time, and he realized too late that it was the wrong thing to say. They’d both gotten stomachaches from the potatoes he’d half-baked, and she’d cried, inconsolably, the whole night through. That time, Maria Elena hadn’t meant to leave them alone. She and Enrique had gone out of town and hired a babysitter, but the girl got sick and left, and even though they’d called Letty in a panic, she hadn’t come home until six o’clock in the morning.