THE SIGNAL BIRDS
Shift change was always marked by the same roster call. “Sugar-plum, feather-plum, come get your coats on! Fall in, ducklings all!”
There were minor variations. We weren’t always ducklings. It was “goslings” when the raids were high, with night-time Spitfires over the Channel, and “little magpie twits” when room inspections had seen too many rinsed out panties hanging in the dormitory bathrooms.
I don’t know what else she expected. The south coast in winter was not a place we could hang out our washing and reliably expect it to dry. It was knickers strung round the bath like bunting or nothing.
“I’d rather nothing than damp,” said Polly. We’d both taken shifts in front of the radar with underwear that hadn’t fully dried before, and it had been an unpleasant, squirming experience.
“Not what I imagined when I got my wings,” she said. “Somehow I thought there'd be more glamour with it.”
She wasn’t the only one, but looking back what glamour we thought we’d find in war work I don’t know. Men off to battle, probably, young and handsome and us in our Wren uniforms, neatly starched and with the surface scars of sacrifice about us, a pleasant ache that didn’t cut too deep. It was probably touching and very tragic, back when we thought tragedy was a romantic thing.
Now, war work was mud and marching and exhausting attentiveness, fabric that caught against itching pock-marked skin, a too-cheerful supervisor, and a roll call to set teeth on edge.
“Does she think she’s funny?” muttered Polly, as the six of us splashed behind in our rubber boots, trailing into the signal building for another evening of frozen fingers and concentrated silence, the discovery and clipping of wings.
Other people’s wings, that is. Not ours.
Our wings were too hard to cut.
“If they get damaged you’ll have to pull them out,” said the Chief, in the early days of our surveillance. We couldn’t risk the potential decrease in reception when a feather was less than perfect. There were too few girls coming through basic training with wings to waste. I still remember a trip to the medic that left us both puzzled, the hard tiny stippling of steel when I reached behind, the first feather coming through bruised flesh. He’d tried tweezers first but it soon became clear that there was structure beneath, pressing against the skin as he pulled. All queries brought were secrets and reassignment, the half-pleasurable thrum of radio, the way it raised feathers from flat like cold and goosebumps did to little hairs.
Tin snips didn’t work any better than tweezers, neither did hedge trimmers. “My Dad’s got some lopping shears that might do it,” said Martha, but there wasn’t petrol to spare to send a car to Devon and I wasn’t too thrilled about having those long blades near me in any case.
“We could try soldering it back into position,” said the Chief, and instantly a dozen backs smacked hard against walls, a dozen girls flipped to the edge of mutiny.
“I’ve got enough problems with curling irons as it is,” said Polly. Her hair wisped in the cold weather, wouldn’t stay smooth and the pretty waves never lasted long. “You’ll be keeping that fire away from me, thank you very much. And from Aileen,” she added, as afterthought.
Stunned into silence at the thought of open flame, I was pitifully grateful.
“But-” said the Chief.
It was the first thing we all agreed on. The first thing to give us hope that we’d become a unit in truth, instead of twelve very different girls only brought together by the sudden and unexpected growth of metal from shoulder blades.
“Then, my little ducklings, you’ll have to pull them out,” said the Chief and that was it, my poor broken little feather yanked from flesh and me left like a bird at Christmas, goose-marked and with blood welling up where the absence broke skin.
“Don’t make such a fuss, poppet,” she said before trotting to the door, and to be fair, I was snivelling by that point. Not so much from pain as shock, at the new indignity of transformation. First adolescence and now this. God, it never ended.
“What a miserable woman,” hissed Mary-Ellen, bringing a blanket over to wrap me up. “You’d think she’d be nicer. Doesn’t she know there’s a war on?”
The miserable woman only smiled when she left, secure in the knowledge she’d given us something to kick at.
We had the Nazis, of course. But they were a distant threat, and it was so much more satisfying to sulk and pout at someone whose response we could see.
Lebensraum. The spread of the so-called superior into surrounding lands.
“And here we are, locked into little places,” said Polly.
She didn’t say that we were superior too. She didn’t have to. Instead she filed down the edge of her feathers to razor-sharpness, claimed it improved her reception. “Don’t you ever want a night off?” she said. Our rooms were small and unwelcoming. It was easy to feel trapped.
“You are silly, selfish girls,” said the Chief, whenever she heard such talk. “You should be proud to be able to help. To put your bodies on the line. Like our boys do.”
Like the German women did.
It was hard to think of them. German mothers, giving birth to pilots, and we were death to pilots.
“It’s not the same,” said Cecily. She was the kind one. I cried, Poll fought, but Cecily was a sweetheart all through. “The war will be over by the time their little ones grow up. Surely.”
“Fingers crossed,” said Polly. “But there are so many babies...” With all that room to fill, with medals given out to the German women who bred one after the other, a series of small blond children. Their bodies swelling up, deflating, making milk for the state. A national production line.
All we were encouraged to produce were feathers. The airmen from the nearby fields came to visit sometimes, for amusement and luck and attraction to curiosities that were at least partly flesh. We were always heavily chaperoned, lest pregnancy ruin our bodies and make our plumage dull and useless.
“Suits me,” said Polly. “I’m not sure I ever wanted children anyway.”
I was torn between jealousy and admiration. That she could look for the positive so easily, that our own fleshy swellings were to her taste. They weren’t to mine. I wanted children – wanted them badly. They were supposed to be compensation for mood swings and bloat and the horrible nuisance bleeding.
It was a point of similarity between us and the German women, the cessation of that bleeding. Theirs was stopped from pregnancy, the conveyor-belt of their uteri blotting up all the mess and waste. Like them, our iron was needed elsewhere, funnelled through pores and ribs to make us fit for Bletchley and the Y Service, to make us see in the dark.
“It’ll come back,” said Cecily, comforting, but it was all right for her, with two little kids of her own back in Hertfordshire being looked after by her mother. If these wings made us sterile it’d make no difference to her.
“I hope so,” I said, but Polly only laughed, kept filing until her fingers were dripping and blistered. I could hear her of a night, sucking on them when she wasn’t filing, keeping all her blood within her.
The iron was a point of contention. Every meal was red meat and spinach, with giant horse pills to keep our levels up. Mugs of Bovril to keep us warm during the shifts searching for signals.
“We should be grateful,” said Cecily. She ate in neat, plump little bites. “Everyone else would be glad for the food we get.” With the whole country on rationing, meat especially was scarce.
That it was true didn’t make it any less tiresome. Polly and I shared a glance and even Mary-Ellen rolled her eyes, and her spending half her nights in Cecily’s bed so you think she’d have warmed to optimism. The twins were, as usual, wrapped up in each other and said nothing.
“I’d give anything for a nice big pile of roast potatoes,” I said. Crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle. Yorkshire pudding and gravy.
“I want Mum’s rhubarb pie and custard,” said Mary-Ellen. “With nice big dollops of clotted cream...” She pushed disconsolately at her spinach.
“Polly really does want a bloody cracker,” said Polly, darkly, and was sent from the table for swearing.
“I’ve never heard such a complaining lot of little chits,” said the Chief, and she was still lecturing when it came time for us to leave the mess for the signal room, fifty yards away through mud and pouring rain, and the other shift waiting for replacement.
“Sugar-plum, feather-plum, come get your coats on! Fall in, ducklings all!”
“What I would do to a duck,” said Polly, under her breath and shivering.
Set it free, probably, and I didn’t need Cecily to tell me what a waste of good food that would be. Someone else would have shot it down anyway, shot it for the pot and plucked it, and then the duck would be just another creature that had wings too, once.
We called them wings. It was a lie. For there to be wings we’d have to grow the bones for it–they’d have to bulge and build under our skin, burst out all pale and bald like the wings on little hatchlings, with feathers to follow.
But there was too much calcium in bones, and too little in planes. It was the Spitfires we took after and they were all metal. Our wings, when we grew them, were superficial things. Feathers extruded through the skin, they would have covered our backs like cloaks had they not grown in so patchy. The feathers themselves were lovely–metal and shining but heavy, so heavy that we were grateful for our cut-down wings, grateful that we had the appearance of half-plucked creatures. The feathers were the only lovely bits.
“Let’s be honest,” said Mary-Ellen critically, with a towel wrapped round her waist after her bath and staring at her back in the mirror. “The whole effect is really quite revolting.”
It wasn’t just the change in textures, the way that the metal played off against the skin. The red marks where it pressed in, the bruised-purple lumps that showed where a new feather was about to poke through. It was the smaller lumps, the new-formed oil glands seeping so as to keep the metal strong and safe from rust. These got blocked often, had to be squeezed and swabbed and they wept always, a slow stinking trickle that we got used to but other people didn’t.
We could see it in the Chief’s face as she sat behind her desk, as she escorted us through shift changes and took our reports. It was the face of a woman who smelled something unpleasant. Something rancid, and though she tried to hide it, we were conscious and took to scrubbing. The only soap available was lye, and the effects of repeated application on the bits of skin that were left didn’t make our backs look any prettier.
“As long as we win it doesn’t matter what we look like,” said Polly. She stared every night, when even Mary-Ellen gave up in disgust.
“If it doesn’t matter then why are you always looking?”
“I think I’m getting used to it,” said Polly. As if the skeleton-build of surveillance was something to get used to. As if the transmission travelling down through barb and quill and into gooseflesh, the sharp vibration that we felt all the way down in our bones, was something to become accustomed to, instead of something to be suffered.
“They feel like the planes do,” said Polly, reaching back to stroke her own metallic parts. “Did you know?”
She’d come back from the airfield, come back from sneaking off with the pilots who turned up sometimes to take us away from signals in our off-hours. I think it was David took her this time. Or Andrew. No, it was definitely Andrew. She wanted to see his plane. To learn the touch and smell of it, to be allowed to sit in the cockpit and learn the controls, even if she never got to leave the ground.
To run her hands over the hard polished framework of it and make unkind comparisons.
“Like those boxy things?” said Martha, wheezing into her hanky. “I hope not.” We didn’t see her often, what with being on the opposite shift and all. But all the supplements hadn’t stopped her blood thinning and she was run-down–confined to bed with a cold, being stuffed with liver and concentrated orange juice. “That’s not something that gives a lot of hope for the figure.”
I didn’t want to be shaped like a Spitfire either. It was an alarming thought–bad enough that we’d grown iron in patches, that we were seen as counterparts with pieces of us taken away for superstitious good fortune. There was only so much bodily sympathy I was prepared to offer.
(I hoped none of the German women were having their tummies patted and being compared to tanks: stuffed full to bursting and with track-marks along the side. I hoped none of their flanks had seeped armour-reinforcement. I wanted to think that some of us, at least, were changing in ways that weren’t degrading.)
“I refuse to be an airplane,” I said.
“And here I thought you wanted to have a pilot inside you,” said Polly.
She was like that sometimes. Indelicate.
When a feather needed to be pulled out, we got one of the others to do it. It was hard to get a good grip on something hanging from your own back. We’d already discovered that with grooming.
“It’s blocking the Morse.” Mary-Ellen sat in front of me with her legs folded under her. “Like an echo. I can feel it in the other feathers.” The little dot-dash-dot reception that we’d note down as quickly as we could, wrap up in packages at the end of shift to send to Buckinghamshire for decoding. “But it’s sort of blurred, somehow.” Because one of her feathers was bent, because some of the tiny little barbs were broken.
Her hair was pinned up. We all wore our hair up now, bar the brushing at night-time and again at morning. A hundred strokes each time, and all bent over with our hair hanging down over our faces, brushing forward so the strands didn’t get caught in metal.
“My Dad says we’re miracles,” she said. “Sent straight from Saint George.” It was the closest to explanation that we ever got. London burned every night; help had to come from somewhere. Half of us didn’t believe in God anymore and the rest were reaching. Mary-Ellen twisted her head to give me a sour look. “I don’t feel very miraculous, do you?”
I didn’t. Miracles seemed like they’d be cleaner, somehow.
“I thought it would be different,” she said. “When they started coming in. I thought it’d make us special. A bit like super-heroines.” She winced as I pulled the feather out, a quick hard tug and then some cotton wool with witch-hazel pressed to flesh to stop the bleeding. “Instead it’s a series of small humiliations.”
I squeezed out some of her oil pores. There were three of them just beneath her left shoulder-blade, the pores blocked and looking like giant blackheads.
“Punctuated by long periods of boredom, and taking signals till our hands cramp,” I said. The oil leaked and oozed and I’d be scrubbing my hands with lye afterwards to get rid of the smell, slathering her poor pockmarked back with cold cream.
“I don’t think you smell bad,” said Andrew. Of course he didn’t mean me specifically. He was talking about all of us, though his eyes were on Polly.
“You smell of oil and engine grease,” he said. As if it was a good thing.
I didn’t want to smell like mechanism, like the things that fly. I wanted to smell of things that grew in the earth, like roses and violets and peonies.
I wanted to smell of milk.
“You smell of metal wings and cockpits and Spitfires,” he said. “You smell of gunpowder.”
It wasn’t the same. We were the metals of the earth made flesh, the motherland rising up, but it wasn’t the sort of motherhood I wanted.
The feathers rusted when they came out, but slowly. They stayed gleaming and pretty for a while–indefinitely if polished with linseed and soft cloths–but most of the time they never stayed around long enough to rust.
Our pilots liked to take them. They thought the feathers were good luck charms. Those on our backs certainly improved reception–our signal station intercepted more transmissions than any of the traditional bases. Our information was more accurate, our coordinates better plotted. The pilots who had our wings behind them had a better chance, but “better” wasn’t “good”.
The pilots still liked to take the cast-offs, but the pilots never lasted very long; the good luck charms fell in burning Spitfires to the sea.
“We never said the luck was theirs,” said Polly.
It didn’t much feel like ours, either. But it made us feel special, and attention covered up ill-luck.
They were always so grateful. For our work, for our feathers, for what our bodies could do for them. “You girls deserve a medal for this,” they’d say, and it was hardly the time to tell them that I’d rather have a medal like the German women did, for home and babies and a lovely smooth back even if the stomach was all over marked.
“Play your cards right, and you might get a husband out of this,” said Cecily. If she didn’t say “if any of them survive” it was because she truly believed that some of them would. “The war won’t go on forever.” I’d been helping with knitting for her little ones, and she gave me her own cast-off feathers to give to the pilots in return.
I still never gave away as many as Polly. I think she pulled feathers that weren’t even broken, just to increase her chances.
“I thought you weren’t interested?” said Mary-Ellen.
“I’m interested in a lot of things,” said Polly. There were pliers in her hands, manuals in her lap and a bleeding spot on her back where a feather had just been plucked.
We took pieces of their planes sometimes, too. Little shavings the pilots would sneak to us, slivers of metal thin as a needle.
“To put under your pillow,” they said. “So you remember us for your luck.”
I’d touch them sometimes, in the middle of the night while all the others were sleeping. The smooth sharp surface, the way they’d prick my fingers in the middle of the night, leave spots of blood against the sheets. If I’d had a snapped off barb under there with them, I’m not sure I would have been able to tell the difference.
On clear nights we heard the planes in the distance, a faint, fighting rumble over the Channel that set nerves and feathers on edge.
“I wonder if they’re ours.”
I wondered if there were German women wondering the same thing. If they woke in the night as well, with their children crying and the noise underscored by echoes in the sky, the crash and rumble at the edge of hearing.
I wondered if they reverberated with lullabies as we did for Morse. “Sleep now,” they’d sing, as their children’s brothers went down in flames, their airplanes burning around them.
“Sleep now,” we crooned, with reception in our wings, with the ability to take down and send on for decryption and location and ambush, the shooting down of those who would have shot at us.
Sleep in the cold dark seas, in your burnt out wings, in the silences before shifts and sugar-plum calls.
When our pilots crashed we threw their splinters out. Cecily buried hers in the garden, with flowers. The twins wrote letters to families, enclosed theirs with tissue paper and proper thanks.
Polly tossed hers into the ocean. “They got to fly once,” she said, her own wings heavy and useless. “But they’re no good to me now.”
I was never sure if she were talking about the pilots or the planes.
When the war was over, the pilots who remained came to say their piece. For some it was goodbye, but some came with the hope of more.
Many came for Polly. They said her feathers were the best luck of all.
I always thought it was Andrew she favoured, but her attraction was based around distraction, around the ability to disrupt and disturb and thieve.
He still had his plane; still had access to it at least and Polly had learned access and theory and flight.
“They owe us for what we’ve done for them,” she said, and there were dreams of Spitfires in her eyes.
Some of the pilots had come back so terribly burned. It was hard to see how they owed us for anything.
At least my scars could be hidden, and surely the stench would fade with time and anaemia, the pulling out of feathers and the no-longer need for oil. They’d be there, but I could cover them.
“Make sure you do it on your back,” said Cecily. “Or face to face. I don’t regret what we’ve done, but no man’s going to want to see the evidence of it. At least not in the marriage bed.”
I’d blushed at her words, felt myself grow warm and crimson, but in truth, it wasn’t anything I hadn’t thought myself.
If any of them wanted to marry for love, it might have been different. Mostly, though, they married to forget. To slim down the borders of their experience, to make their worlds narrow again, and safe. To forget what their bodies had done in the service of King and country, in survival and anger and the lightning-long swathe of hate.
They married to be small. To be restrictive. All except Andrew, who loved expansively, poor boy, and never suspected that he wasn’t nearly expansive enough.
“He loves you,” I said.
“And I love his plane,” Polly replied, heartless to the core, as if the feather spine of her had leaked through into vertebrae, rigidified her resolve. “Don’t worry so,” she said. “There are so few of them left now. They’ll have their pick. There are so many more women than men. He’ll forget me soon enough.”
I wasn’t sure that he would.
“Not my problem,” said Polly. “This is my chance to fly, to get out. I’m taking it.” She sat on her suitcase to close it, bouncing to get the latches shut and looked at me, considering. “You can come too, if you like.”
We were friends. I should have considered it – should have wanted to consider it. But going with Polly would mean I’d have to keep my wings, and I’d had enough of signals and surveillance for one lifetime. Enough of spies and secrets and an imagined soundtrack of screams as the planes went down, one after the other and falling. Burning. Besides, the planes only had a single seat each. There wasn’t room for the both of us. Perhaps she meant for us to meet in other places, or perhaps she had access to more than one. It didn’t matter. I didn’t want to be crammed into a small cockpit, strapped in with my wings strapped down behind me, chafing against the seat. They were already too much trouble.
“I’m going to pull them out,” I said. I didn’t know how. Pliers, maybe, or I’d take Martha up on that long-ago offer of pruning shears, see if the lever of long handles could snap the things off at the base. Perhaps there was a doctor in the Royal Navy who could cut them out. Perhaps I’d have to pull the feathers out myself, one at a time for as long as they grew. For the rest of my life, maybe, in a larger, grotesque version of plucking my eyebrows, of shaving my legs.
The war was over. We’d get nylons again, eventually. I’d have a reason to shave then; to dress up and dance, go beyond dormitories defined by signals and sisterhood. Might as well be smooth all over.
“I remember you cried when she pulled the first feather out.”
“I’ll get used to it,” I said. “I’m never eating red meat and spinach again. That’ll make them easier to shift.”
“There’s still your skin, sugar-plum,” said Polly. “You’ll not be able to forget so easily.” The little bumps along our backs where the feathers grew, the mounds in flesh covered over with silver stretch marks, with the purple stains like those that Cecily had on her belly, the remains of child-bearing.
“I bet those be-medalled German women are all over scars, too,” I said. The marks of production; iron and blood and skin stretched out of shape. All least I’d need a mirror to see the sagging.
“No,” I said. “I’ve done my bit. My body is my own again.” And if it took little bloodied pits all along my back to make it true then I’d take the blood and be done with it, hope that all the iron remaining in me came out in other ways. I’d take the cramps without complaining now; take them over itching any day.
“My body has always been mine,” said Polly. When she moved, her wings brushed against each other, a slow silvery sound like scissors, the metal edges sharpened too much for silence.
“What will you do?” I said. “You could join a carnival, show yourself off that way. Or the stage. I suppose you’d be a pretty good pin-up girl, too. They’re in all the magazines now. It’s a living.”
“It’s not what I’ll do, it’s what I want,” said Polly.
“The sky is such an open place,” she said.
©2016 by Octavia Cade
OCTAVIA CADE is a New Zealand writer. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, and The Book Smugglers, amongst others. Her latest novella, "The Ghost of Matter", was published by Paper Road Press. A sci-fi poetry collection, "Chemical Letters", about a woman who wakes up in the periodic table, has recently been published by Popcorn Press. Her short fiction has been BSFA and Sir Julius Vogel shortlisted.