EXTERNAL PARTS OF A BIRD | Through rich metaphor and burgeoning strength, Harriet Thacker’s protagonist frees herself.
Please note, the following piece of writing contains references to domestic abuse and violence.
by Harriet Thacker
Her body is alive with pain. She lies in bed assessing herself, listening. The tap is dripping in the bathroom and somewhere a clock ticks steadily counting seconds, but the house is quiet, he has gone. Gently she begins to move, feeling the sheets run over her body pinpointing pockets of pain on her arms, legs and torso.
She sits up on the side of the bed and holds herself. She feels something soft on the top of her arm – a feather. It blossoms out from her skin, a bright, luminous blue vane with a downy white and blue after-feather. The feather’s calamus has grown from a fresh bruise at the top of her arm. When she presses it, it doesn’t hurt.
The church bells toll seven times, their peals distant and comforting. She goes downstairs and fills the kettle. Her reflection gazes back at her from the kitchen window, the dark morning giving it clarity. Her hair is messy, her pyjama top ripped. She leans forward to inspect the colour developing under her eye. There is blood on the bridge of her nose. The kettle boils.
On the kitchen table he has left a bunch of flowers. Even filled an old vase with water and put them in, the cellophane discarded on the table top. She wonders when he had the time to buy them. Garage flowers, probably. Still flowers none the less. Sitting down slowly, she carefully cradles the cup of hot tea in her hands, looking at the lilies, irises and baby’s breath in front of her. They look tired. An envelope is nestled at their centre. She opens the card. His scratchy, black handwriting has scrawled a message: ‘Keep smiling,’ it says.
She can imagine him writing it. Quickly, bent over at the table in the dark, without care or thought. He doesn’t really mean it. He doesn’t really think about what he’s done. He just thinks it’s what he should do. He doesn’t know or care why. And, in a way, hasn’t she encouraged him in this? She has endorsed his behaviour time and again. Forgiven him. She has grown a skin of numbness, laid it over her body and her mind and let him press his fists, boots and teeth into it with no consequence. Armour has disadvantages.
She shudders, gripping the card and his message in her hand, a surge of emotion cascading through her body. Keep smiling. Keep smiling? In a rush of movement, she picks up the bouquet in its cheap vase and flings it across the kitchen, smashing it into a thousand, thousand glittering pieces of glass and petal and stem.
A plume of feathers erupts on her breasts, pure white, glossy and soft. They rise and fall with her breath, slowing as her hand comes up to stroke them. Her sternum feels raised, rounded. She can feel the movement of the feathers ripple in her skin like water, soothing her as they stir in the air.
The sun rises weak and pale. Mist gathers in hollows shrouding skeletal trees. Little birds, fluffed up in the cold, land on the bird table to peck at toast crumbs. She taps the window so they look up, pause for a fraction of a second and notice her. Suddenly, as one, they burst away from the table, a flurry of wings spreading out into the morning.
She decides to get dressed. Their bedroom is wrecked. She picks up a shard of the broken mirror. Seven years’ bad luck. She tries to remember the cause of their argument. What did she say? What did he say? Did it matter? It had started and ended the way it always did. It wasn’t always like this. When she first met him in the pub, a nice country pub that served good food, he seemed normal. More than that, he was endearing, enticing, funny and kind. They had clicked. She remembers thinking that she had never loved anyone as much as she loved him, in the early days. Things change.
“She feels the air flow beneath her wing and through the feathers. She feels the promise of flight.”
He wrote, ‘keep smiling’. There, again, she feels the rage, the outrage, her outrage flare inside her and, again, a change. A burst of feathers down her arms, now wider and flatter.
She looks at the beautiful blue feathers shimmering in the light. She twists her arms, letting light dance across the vanes. A new feeling solidifies inside her, a certainty of sorts, a decision.
The phone rings downstairs. She lets it call out into the empty house and hears the answer machine click on. Hears his voice, recorded, mechanistic, asking the caller to leave a message but to be brief. She cocks her head to one side, listening, catching pieces.
‘. . . did you get them? . . . probably not awake but I just thought . . . rry. You know? But . . . have to understand . . . not me . . . make me . . . Why can’t you . . . just . . . cks sake!’ The message ends, he has slammed the phone down.
There is a cramp in her arm so she stretches it out, lengthening her fingers. Her shoulder pops and there is a strange movement in the bones, then a wonderful, sweeping feeling like running a hand through flowing water. She looks down. Her arm is gone and in its place is a wing. Her feathers are a beautiful exotic blue; she can see the tones rippling under the light – here is cyan, sapphire, turquoise. She flexes, and the alula and coverts spread and move. She feels the air flow beneath her wing and through the feathers. She feels the promise of flight.
She goes back downstairs and with her remaining hand presses play on the answer machine. His voice begins. ‘Hi, it’s me. Look, I feel bad about our fight. I got you some flowers, did you get them? Just something small but I wanted you to know I was thinking about you. You’re probably not awake but I thought I’d call. I’m sorry. You know? But I shouldn’t be the one apologising . . .’ With one wave of her powerful wing the answer machine falls from the table and smashes onto the floor. She has heard this message before. It is boring.
In the kitchen she walks barefoot over the broken glass. She feels no pain and lifts a foot to inspect it. Instead of soft skin, punctured and bleeding, she sees tiny, rounded reticula like dragon skin, armouring her feet. Her talons tap on the tiles. Her heart thrums in her chest like a hummingbird, beating, beating away those most human strings that bound her to him.
Keep smiling. The ink on the card has run, doused in water from the vase. It bleeds through the paper, words transforming, losing meaning. After the card and the call getting no response she knows he will come back to the house soon. He cannot stand silence. She must see him, hear him, feel him. He is like a small child screaming for attention.
She waits for him in the bedroom. She opens the window wide. His car pulls into the driveway and she draws back, not wanting him to see her yet. She strokes the feathers on her wing, slipping her fingers between them, tracing soft down and hollow calami. His key is in the door, cramp spreads down her remaining arm. His step is in the hallway, her shoulder pops and there is a strange movement in the bones. He calls her name and her second wing unfurls, azure and shimmering. Powerful. His feet pound up the stairs, he cannot stand her silence. Her wings span the width of the room, she feels her muscles strengthen to support them. She feels the promise.
She gets up onto the windowsill. The winter air is cold, streaming under her beautiful, blue feathers. Her body is protected by down, her own heat wrapped around her. The bedroom door opens. He stands framed in the doorway staring at her. What does he see? Her armoured feet grasping the sill? Her feathered head and beak? Her beautiful, powerful wings? Her long, sapphire tail feathers? Has he ever really seen her?
She looks back, one black, infinite eye searing into him. He is opening his mouth to speak, a hand reaching out to her. The wind blows through the window, ruffling her feathers, calling her out. He steps into the room.
And she is gone. Flying from the window, soaring and singing into the free, blue sky.
Harriet Thacker | @Harriet_reads
Harriet Thacker is an aspiring writer, scribbling away in her garret after work. Her work focuses predominantly on women’s voices exploring both historical and contemporaneous issues. When she isn’t writing you’ll most likely find her with her nose in a good book.