[by S. L. Scott]
I see her each day: the woman with the feather in her hair. On my way to work in the morning, I catch a glimpse of her. A black trench coat is always hugged tightly around her, each strap and buckle drawing the eyes down her figure, which shifts like smoke as she moves. Auburn curls collect at her neck like flames fluttering away in the wind, and tucked amidst them is the feather. Streaks of orange and yellow blended into the bright red; a phoenix’s feather plucked from the bird right before it burst into fiery oblivion to decorate the fire of her hair.
Some days I see her strolling slowly through the crowd that hurried past her as if the wonder of her could be missed so easily. They didn’t pay attention to the way she walked close to the buildings, peeking into lobbies and windows as she passed them. I imagine she’s wealthy. She holds herself with such grace and poise, she couldn’t be a trust-fund baby, spoiled and obnoxious. A young widow, perhaps, wandering the route she took with her late husband every morning. Each day she would look in at the building he worked and trace the path he took across the clean tile floors to the elevator where he would disappear behind closing doors. His smile would be the last thing she saw. Now she waits a moment, wanting to see his face again, but finds only her own reflected back in the polished glass.
Other days I barely catch sight of the feather trapped in the hair streaming behind her as she leads the rushing horde down the street. On those days she’s a leader, a changer—a woman of power determined to make the world better. She has so much to do; she hurries to her office where a small throng of doe-eyed volunteers work late into the night. Her voice would be strong and certain, inspiring those beneath her to continue the fight. Or maybe she is running off to stand at the forefront of a protest, that red feather a rallying sign of defiance against those who would demean or oppress. She would stand there calling out their crimes until the greedy and powerful would strike out with the law and then she’d sit in the center of a crowded cell in silence. Her serenity would give the others strength to weather the storm until morning.
Once I had to go to the regional office and saw her on the metro. The car was filled by the time she walked in, me in a dirty seat a few feet away. Without complaint or searching eyes, she raised a hand to the center rail and waited. Despite the cramped quarters, no one stood near her, as if they, like I, knew she was someone more than she seemed. An actress or singer, who still enjoyed the simple pleasures of a normal life. She would soon walk into a marble-floored building and a half dozen people would swarm around to attend to her every whim before she even made it to the top floor for her meeting. But for now she was ordinary, riding the metro with nothing but a bright feather to betray her true identity. I almost stood to offer her my seat, but to speak to her would break the spell she cast on me each morning.
One morning, I left early; I had a long day ahead of me and did not expect to find her on the way, but there she was in a place I’d never seen before. A low fog hid most everyone from nosy eyes, but the red feather stuck out like a knife cutting through the distraction. She sat at a small, white table by herself. There, with a book in her hand, the world stopped existing. The bustle of walking feet, the chatter of morning phone calls, it all faded away from her. She sipped her coffee and turned a page. She was a businesswoman, hounded every day by a thousand different people with a thousand different priorities, but before she entered that world of conference calls and legal speak, she took a moment for herself. No calls, no voices, no demands—just a drink and a fantasy world in broken binding.
Sometimes I wonder which woman is true: the widow, the protester, the actress, or the business woman. Or is it none of them? Is there another woman hidden behind the feather more amazing than anything I could imagine? Did I really want to know if there was?
I don’t know why she struck me so profoundly that day. Perhaps she didn’t leave my mind, because this time I’d envisioned her close to my own world. I sat in the dull conference room, picking at the cracked sugar coating of my yeast donut worried that the woman with the feather in her hair would walk through the glass door and introduce herself. The magic would be gone and she would become real. She would be a name with a job that I would never be able to forget the next morning when I saw the red feather floating amidst her curls.
I was relieved when she didn’t show. Chuckling to myself, I brushed off the trepidation, only for it to return with each woman’s voice speaking through the phone. Thoughts crawled in like termites burrowing deep into my bones until I feared every stranger would be her. But it never was, and my colleagues jeered my nervous spirit.
At the end of the day, my supervisor leaned against my office door like a fat cat on a couch and invited us all to dinner in thanks for the early start. I found myself searching for red among a sea of dull black and brown coats huddled in motion. Not that she was there. Relieved, or maybe disappointed, I followed them to a small, brick building I didn’t know existed. It wasn’t where we normally went. The tablecloths were clean, but torn and frayed at the edges and displayed a myriad of over-patterned primary colors that assaulted the eyes as much as the taste. A haze of smoke threatened to smother us as the host snaked his way through chairs too close together to lead us to our table.
Ten minutes passed before a tired woman with a notepad finally approached us. Her hair hung in limp strands around what once might have been a controlled bun at the nape of her neck. Circles darkened puffy eyes that struggled to focus even as she rubbed the exhaustion from them. Her white shirt hung loose over a pair of mom jeans stained with ketchup and a green substance I couldn’t identify. The only thing that remained of this worn-out woman’s energy was a smile that didn’t quite do the job.
“Sorry for your wait; we’re a bit busy today. I’m Julie. I’ll be your waitress. What can I get you?”
Once she’d taken our order and left again, my colleague rolled his eyes. He’d already determined she’d get no tip from him. I gave her double to make up for it. It wasn’t her fault she was stuck in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant.
The wind had picked up by the time we left, a cold whip that stung my skin through the cotton pants. I turned to speak with my companion and over his shoulder I saw the overworked waitress, hair still amiss and a black trench coat slung over one arm as she pocketed her meager tips away in her purse. I don’t know what kept my gaze, but the drone of my friends soon fell away. She pulled on her coat to bar the bitter chill and wrapped it tight enough to reveal a figure lost in her bulky uniform. As the stiff collar turned up, the tangled strands of hair at her neck gathered into a wistful dance behind her that drew me in. A familiarity settled like the glimpse of a long forgotten dream.
From her pocket she pulled a red feather. It sat in her hand like a single stroke of lipstick: striking, bold, but incomplete. Julie placed it in her hair, turning what was once a mess into the wings of a phoenix. She turned and in her playful gaze we shared a secret no one else understood. She was no longer Julie the waitress, an overworked, stressed-out person of the world. This was the woman with the feather in her hair, and, as she disappeared into the ignorant crowd, she could be anything.
S. L. Scott has a Master’s degree in Professional Writing and Publishing. She placed Honorable Mention in the 2012 Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction for her short story “The Morning Star,” which appeared in Eyes that Pour Forth and Other Stories, and received an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future 2014 First Quarter. She has been published in Bewildering Stories magazine, The Rogue’s Gallery anthology, and was editor of Helix: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Research in 2013 and 2014. Currently, she writes about the craft of world-building in her blog, Woman in the Red Room.