Chandra Prasad in Sterling Library

One of the Gang

Enjoy this excerpt from On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad (pictured).

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“You’re late again. I swear you do it on purpose,” Charles said gruffly, eyeing the lunch pail. I removed a second sandwich and offered it to him. He snatched it like a street urchin stealing fruit from a stand. At the same time some of the men looked up, noting my arrival. A long, low whistle escaped from the other side of the shed, followed by laughter. Girls were a rarity here. And even girls like me, perch-pole thin, sun-browned, and dressed in patched clothes, roused their interest.

“I can’t keep waiting for you,” he chastised.

“Sorry. I was just—I was talking with Pa.”

I noticed that my brother’s hair was damp. The blacksmiths must have dunked his head in the cooling barrel again, a common enough prank, but one usually reserved for tool boys and newcomers. Charles, a year older than I, had worked in the quarry every summer since he was eleven. By now he should have been one of the gang.

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“Why do you let them do that?”

“It’s not up to me,” he charged, struggling to keep his voice low. “If it were—if I had any choice at all—I wouldn’t be here. You know that.”

“You shouldn’t separate yourself.”

Mid-chew, Charles glared at me. “And what would you know about that? You, who prance around like you’re in some kind of fantasy land?”

I heard echoes of Mother in his talk. She, too, frowned upon the stonecutters, and all the quarrymen for that matter, even though she had married Pa, even though our lives were weighted with granite. “Their ribald talk, how it tires the ears!” she would say, always in front of Charles, who already eschewed the stonecutters’ company, who already courted their ire. He acted like he was better than they were, but that would mean he was better than Pa, and surely he couldn’t claim that.

“I should get going,” I hastened. “Mother expects me back.”

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I wanted to say something else, something that would dampen the flicker in his eyes, which threatened to spark, to explode into flame. But I couldn’t say what I truly felt—that he could burn us all with his discontent.

“Isn’t it nice to have that luxury? To leave when you want? To do what you want?”

“We all have duties.”

“Duties? You have simple chores—things I could do blindfolded. You’re so provincial, Adele. You don’t even know how small this place is. When I think about all the things I’ll do when I get out of here, all the people I’ll meet and plans I’ll make… it makes me want to throw in my tools this very instant.”

His voice had risen and he was motioning broadly with his arms. But I didn’t know what he was waving at—the dust clouds, the machinery noise, the resentment of his peers?

“We all have duties,” I repeated, a little ashamed, knowing that I wasn’t convincing anyone, least of all myself.

* * *

On my way home I walked slowly. By now Mother would be watching the clock, but the shoreline was simply too beautiful to rush past. Once again I took off my shoes, my toes sinking into the wet sand as I wandered the beach. The sharp salt air caught in my lungs and I felt heady, almost reckless as I dug into the lunch pail and unearthed the last sandwich. This I tore up and fed to the gulls that spun and dove overhead, suspended as if on marionette strings between sky and sea.

I’d always had a fondness for sea birds. When I was very young I’d found a fledgling huddled on the beach, unable to fly. Its delicate, downy feathers had been soaked with sea spray. I’d cupped the bird in my hands gently, determined to make it my pet. Then I’d noticed its straw-thin legs, half-crippled, snarled in fishing line. For how long, I’d wondered? I’d spent hours untwisting and unknotting. Underneath the tangle, the bird’s feathers had matted, the quills digging awkwardly, viciously, into its flesh. These I’d plucked with great reluctance, for by then the gull’s pain had also been my own.

I didn’t know if the animal would live, lame as it was. When at last I removed the line, it hobbled away, wanting nothing more to do with me. Wings beating frantically, it struggled to fly. I didn’t think it could, but after tottering down a stretch of beach, yellow legs regaining purpose, it lifted. Aloft, it lurched, making desperate, lopsided bids to right itself. I thought it would careen into the water, but it found its way, somehow, growing bolder, more confident, as if the fishing line I’d tucked into my apron were nothing more than a bad dream.

I’d smiled, joyous. But envious too. I’d wished my life could be so suddenly changed. Despite what Charles thought, he and I weren’t so different.

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On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad
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