Black Feathers


by Richard J. O’Brien


Throughout my life, I suffered from acrophobia: a fear of heights. At forty years old, I landed my dream job; the only problem was that my new office was on the fifty-fifth floor overlooking downtown Philadelphia. The executive recruiting firm that had helped me secure my new job knew about my acrophobia. They set me up with a therapist in the city—allegedly some kind of miracle worker who had, over more than two decades, helped numerous people cope with their fear of heights.

The first thing that struck me during my initial visit to my therapist’s office were the bird feathers—lush large black ones strewn over the dark hardwood floor. Along each of the walls were recessed shelves lined with old books, some of them ancient by the looks of them, but my attention kept returning to the large black feathers on the floor. The lighting inside the office was low. Dr. Varna, my therapist, seemed unaware of the bird feathers. Was this a test? I wondered.

His office was located on the twentieth floor of a building near Washington Square. After I had entered the office that Thursday afternoon, Dr. Varna insisted that I sit in a chair that faced a large window that overlooked the square.

“Not much of a view, I am afraid,” he casually remarked.

“That’s fine,” I said. “I have a thing about heights.”

“Today, we talk about your past, Mr. Smith,” said Dr. Varna. “Next week, we begin work on managing what troubles you.”

“Albert,” I said.

“How’s that?”

“My name is Albert.”

“Fine,” he said. “Tell me about yourself.”

I told him about my upbringing, my college days, my employment history, and about how I had landed a new job that included an office fifty-five stories above the street; the thought of being that high over the city crippled me with fear.

Dr. Varna nodded, scribbled some notes on a tablet. He was a little man, no more than five feet tall. His dark brown skin and accent made him foreign in my eyes, but I could not tell from where in the world he hailed. Dr. Varna’s hair was black and combed straight back. He had a prominent forehead and a hawkish nose beneath which he sported a handlebar mustache with tips at either side waxed and curled. In the low light of his office his eyes appeared to have no pupils. It made me uncomfortable the way he cocked his head and stared.

“Are you distressed?” he asked.

“I thought you were going to ask me to go to the window,” I said.

“Why would I do that?”

“To help me get over my fear of heights.”

Dr. Varna loosed a nervous laugh. He waved a slender hand, dismissing the notion.

“In time,” he said. “What else is on your mind?”

“My life doesn’t matter.”

“To whom?” he asked. Then, before I could answer, he waved his hand a second time. “Never mind,” he went on. “It’s just that it all sounds so vague.”

“There’s nothing noble in it,” I offered.

“Did I say there was? Now, tell me the real reason.”

“Camus said something about suicide being a logical act in an illogical world.”

He scribbled on his notepad some more.

“Just so I am clear,” said Dr. Varna, “you base your approach to suicide on a quote you cannot remember? Do you have any idea of how much of a poseur you sound like?”

“What kind of therapist are you?”

“For you? A good one.”

“And insulting me is part of my therapy?” I asked.

“Our time is up, Albert,” Dr. Varna announced.

I stood up, and turned my back to him and the window. When I opened the door to leave his dark little cave he stopped me.

“Albert?” he said.

“Yes?”

“We will meet same time next week.”

“I’ll be here.”

“I would like you to consider something to think about.”

“And what is that?” I asked.

“Everyone possesses some fear or feeling of inadequacy,” Dr. Varna told me. “Never mind Camus and his existential bullshit. Forget about money and spiritual enlightenment. These are traps that lend to this feeling. Everyone is screwed up in that sense. That’s the secret terrible beauty of this world. If human beings were not like this, they would not be human.”

***

In the days following my first appointment, I couldn’t bring myself to go to the office. This development did not please my new employer, but I begged off occupying my high-rise office and worked from home. I stayed in bed while everyone else in the city went to work and carried on with their lives. At night I couldn’t sleep. Some nights I went out to drink, but it didn’t help. I lived in a third-floor apartment at 22nd and Chestnut Streets; a rear unit where I had blacked out my bedroom window with a blanket so I would not have to chance looking down into the alley below. Everything—my apartment, the neighborhood, the city itself—seemed to shrink with each passing day that first week.

By the second week, I called my employer and told the person in Human Resources about my fear of heights and that I could not work there. I was hoping for sympathy, but by the end of the week a letter came in the mail announcing my termination. My former employer claimed I had falsified my application since I had indicated that I had no disabilities that would prevent me from performing my duties. A week later, I had contemplated taking my own life.

***

“What’s holding you back?” asked Dr. Varna one Thursday afternoon.

It was six weeks after my first visit to the therapist. We sat in his office. Dr. Varna’s peculiar ways intrigued me. It was difficult sometimes, but through the bleakness of my own life I tried to focus on certain aspects of my therapist’s. For instance, he kept no clock in his office. Also, I never saw another patient coming or going from his office. And here and there on the floor, like always, were errant black feathers.

“A big part of me wants to jump out the window right now,” I said.

“What about the small part of you?” he asked.

“I am serious.”

“Good luck,” he said.

“You’ll just try to stop me,” I said.

“You shouldn’t kill yourself,” he said. “But I cannot stop you.”

Dr. Varna stood up and went to the window. He unfastened two latches and swung the window open.

“All yours,” he said.

I jumped out of my chair. Moving toward the window was one thing. I could handle the view of the buildings across the park. Looking down twenty stories to Washington Square below was something else.

“You shouldn’t tempt me,” I said.

“Do it,” Dr. Varna said. “Go ahead and jump. But be quick about it. I have another appointment soon.”

“This goes back to what I said earlier.”

“Which was what? You told me many things.”

“No one cares.”

“Yes, of course,” he smacked himself in the forehead. “Perhaps you should stay put and I will jump.”

Dr. Varna climbed onto the sill, and braced himself as he leaned out the open window.

“I am serious, doc,” I said. “No one cares about anyone.”

He looked at his watch, climbed down from the window, and took his seat once more.

“Time’s up,” he told me.

***

It was a warm spring day a few months after my therapy first began when I learned the truth about Dr. Varna. I was in his office, trying to avoid looking at the big window that my therapist had opened at the start of the session. I complained that despite what world religions had taught us we were all just food for worms; that, despite what the sacred texts said, our lives were utterly meaningless; that I had chosen investment banking as a career, but I could have just as easily become a rock band roadie because nothing mattered; in the end, I told him, no one would remember me. Dr. Varna yawned as his pen hovered an inch above his writing pad.

“Do you know how many times I have heard this tale?” he asked. “It’s as old as mankind.”

“I am not interested in anyone else’s story,” I told him.

“I can sympathize,” Dr. Varna said. “It gets tiresome listening to people go on and on about their pathetic lives. They only talk about what’s bad. No one ever mentions what’s good, what’s magical in this world.”

“Then why do what you do?”

“This is my calling,” he replied. “It’s my nature. I didn’t ask for it. It’s just who I am. My job is to remind people of the magic within them.”

I felt tired listening to him. Slowly, I made my way to the window. My stomach knotted as I drew close. There were people walking through Washington Square. Traffic around the square was heavy as rush hour approached. Had I the intestinal fortitude, it would have made for a fine exit.

“Are you going now?” Dr. Varna asked.

“It would be so much easier,” I said.

Suddenly, I felt his little hand on my shoulder. Over the din from the street below, I never heard him cross the room.

“If I show you something you have never seen before,” he said, “would you reconsider?”

“Like what?”

“Patience, my good man.”

When I turned to face him he removed his cardigan sweater. Next, he loosened his tie and pulled if off over head. He unbuttoned his dress shirt, removed it, and tossed it aside. After that he took off his v-neck tee shirt and let it drop. His upper torso was in remarkably good shape for his age. Lastly, he kicked off his shoes and removed his trousers.

“Step aside, Albert,” Dr. Varna instructed me.

He shimmied like a dog shaking water from its body. Wings sprung from his back—magnificent blue black wings I glimpsed only for a moment before he leapt through the open window. Before he slipped out of view, his wings spread wide as he kicked his feet adorned in mismatched argyle socks.

Dr. Varna glided over Washington Square. He arced left toward Walnut Street and gained altitude as he came back toward the building. Next, he executed a few tight loops before shooting straight up. I had almost lost sight of him when he began his descent. He nose-dived straight for the square. His wings spread wide, allowing him to loop back toward 6th Street before he changed direction yet again and glided straight for the window. At the last second, his wings collapsed along the length of his body. I barely had time to step aside as Dr. Varna flew through the open window, and executed a simple somersault past his chair. He rose to his feet just shy of the office door.

His wings vanished; a few stray feathers stirred on the hardwood floor. Dr. Varna retrieved his clothes and dressed quickly. He took his seat and gestured to the chair where I had sat earlier. I took one last look at the square below before I left the window.

“You don’t seem bothered by the distance from this office to the ground below,” Dr. Varna remarked.

He was right. My stomach felt fine. I even stuck my head out the window and looked down along the building’s façade. Then I returned to my seat.

Dr. Varna took up his daily planner, opened it, and placed it in his lap. He stared at me now as he held his pen an inch or so over a blank page.

“I am afraid we’re out of time,” Dr. Varna told me.

“That’s too bad,” I said. “I was kind of hoping—”

“Not to worry,” he assured me. “Next week you will get a turn.”

“I don’t think I—”

“Nonsense, Albert,” said Dr. Varna. “You will do just fine.”

A black feather lay at my therapist’s feet. He bent over and picked it up, regarding it for a moment. Then he handed the feather to me.

 

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