by Tracy Heather Johnson
The birds are talking about you again. Black-jacketed, jet-eyed crows twitch in the gloom, caped in grey skies. Their judgement is harsh. Your time is up. You throw off a shudder and walk on as you glance away. They say birds know when they are observed, even when the watcher is concealed. You are in full view, exposed. Every eye leaves its trace on your coat as you exit the scene. Your gait stumbles under the weight. Inelegant, you affect to be careless, but they know your secrets. You trail them behind you with every step, a dark mantle you can never let drop. No one else sees. The old man resting tired limbs on the bench, its dedication to the dead now a tarnished plaque and wilted blooms. The smokers tuck their bodies against the wind, protecting their flames. But the birds know. And they won’t stop talking.
Yours is the trudge of the paranoiac. Head down, scuffling along, trying not to be obvious, hiding in plain sight. But your darkness gives you away. People feel it, are drawn to it and then pull away. Like a plague, you fascinate and then repel. A young girl, chattering banalities into her phone, passes too close and veers towards the road with a muttered ‘sorry’, her guilty expression suddenly replaced by something like disgust. How does she know? How does anyone know? You keep moving up the hill, the winter sun setting up high, the sky blood-clot red, wondering how long you can carry this weight. The stress comes not with the knowledge of the crime, but the length of time for which you drag the guilt behind you. You shudder and hurry towards safety.
Home. Into the kitchen to unpack the small bag of items for tonight’s meal. It’s been a long time coming, this honesty, this pared down-ness, this ownership of what is purely yours. Not ours. Not done to please. You look at the food on the counter with some degree of satisfaction away from all the eyes. There is less shame alone. You wash your hands and enjoy the warmth of the water, the scent of your chosen soap. A ritual to rinse away the pressures of coping with the day, acknowledging the evening and the release it brings. You start to prepare your meal, gently paring away skins, revealing vegetable treasures, salting, herbing, heating. You stop suddenly and turn. The curtains are open, the darkness outside impenetrable while you are floodlit in your domestic performance. You feel eyes. Can you? The birds are hidden away for the night. No one sees. You pull the curtains tightly closed, ensuring an overlap. No gaps. You take a sip of wine, wrap your layers more tightly around you and return to your work. The satisfaction of laying a table for one. The glass, the fork, the knife. The knife.
There is enormous satisfaction to be taken in the balanced weight of perfectly calibrated blade. Forged with care and perfectly purposed to shred, to rend, to carve away. You take a breath and place it carefully by your plate. A steak knife, a gift once in another life, an object of beauty in the right eyes. Returning to the hob, you heat the pan, oil the meat and sear it before letting it rest. With the bitter leaves already dressed on your plate, it is a simple and perfect meal. You pour more wine, inhale deeply and drink, quietly toasting freedom, for this is liberty. Hard won and not yet enjoyed, the guilt shimmers into view but you are succeeding more frequently at pushing the phantoms aside. Enjoy this moment, this private victory. The eyes will return soon enough.
A bath. You take the wine with you, inhaling the steam from the shifting water and settling in deeper, the back of your neck crooked just so on the tub’s edge. Everything is locked. Every entry point secured. It is the only way sleep can ease its way through your body, allowing muscles to relax and unconsciousness to drape itself around you. So many nights of tension, poised to listen for the slam of the front
door, the stumble up the stairs. Ascension to whatever scene would then have to pass before sleep for one but not the other. The morning seeing the night wiped clean of its dark traces. Everything’s fine. Everything’s fine. Smiles over breakfast. Mostly smiles. But sometimes other things.
Memory makes you tense and you realise with a shudder that the water has cooled unpleasantly around you. You push back with your feet, shifting to release the suction that has held you comfortably in place, but somehow you are still held. Carefully, you round your shoulders and start to peel yourself away. There is no pain but the sensation of a tear. A distinct feeling like the slow peeling away of a plaster, softened by its soaking, but something coming away nonetheless. Then you are free and step onto the mat, turning to look at the draining tub and the very fine, very sheer layer of skin that remains glistening and stuck. Curious, you pinch the edge of the onion-skin film and gently pull. It comes away easily and you hold it to the light for just a moment before you hurriedly crush it into your fist. Is this it? Is this the process? You look over your shoulder and into the mirror to see a square of pinkish new skin over the upper part of your back, from trapezius top to the lower tips of the blades. Sensitive when you dress for bed but not sore. You fold yourself into the sheets, seeking comfort, and sleep finds you surprisingly soon.
The dreams come and each night they are stronger, more visceral and intense. You feel the vertiginous pitch and roll deep in your belly as you scale new heights, finding fresh perspectives. The previously unused muscles ache with effort, the newness of contraction and expansion until you find a regular pulse that carries you along. You are being prepared, taught somehow deep in your unconscious how to do it, how you will rise. No more guilt. No obligation. Just you and the expansive freedom that awaits.
Awake. Suddenly with that snap of adrenaline that jolts your nervous system into life, sounding the alarm to be alert. Just in case. Always watchful, listening for cues. A twist of temper at the table not laid quite so. Silence over the eggs and cereal in a previous life. You got off easy that time. But who knows what the evening brings; the slate wiped clean by a day at work – the best scenario – or a sour rage fed by a day spent simmering. Now, the table is yours alone. The radio talks quietly to itself in the background while you toast your bread, spread the marmalade and savour the bitter scent of brewing coffee. Will you miss this, if you can’t come back? You have come so far but what price is there still to pay? You shrug on your coat and shoulder your bag, letting yourself out into the day, dressed carefully around your new skin. A crow, perched solitary on a bare tree, stares. This time, you stare back. Soon, you say. I am coming.
Another solo meal. Another night. More vertiginous dreams. This time, though, pain. Turning to find a position that doesn’t interrupt your sleep as being on your back keeps waking you. It feels like lying on marbles between your shoulder blades, rolling you to each side to settle again before you slip back to face the ceiling, the mattress pressing into tender flesh and bone. You jolt again to the sound of the alarm and walk to the bathroom, confused and sore, exhausted on the inside, drained by thought of another day. A stifled yelp as you pull your t-shirt over your head. The flesh on your upper back is tight and sore, angry from stretching and shaping. You send an exploratory hand behind you, feeling up and up and up. The catch of your breath as you feel the first nub of bone protruding from the tip of your shoulder blade, no longer integrated but protruding smartly, the surrounding skin not broken but still somehow giving way to accommodate this new anatomy. You change hands and yes, the other side is the same. You shower carefully, patting the pink flesh dry. Time to settle in and accept. Your time really is up.
The process began as autumn laid its chill on the city, as your patience wore down and your hope for change never took flight. Accepting at first, this sour-faced man you had not known until you said yes and entered his domain, you thought it was fear of the commitment he had made. It would pass. It was normal. But the fear was other, of the other in his house. The charming man had left on the day you made your vows. You were now his project, his subject to poke and prick. He catalogued your fears and returned them to you piece by piece. No rationale. No pattern. Random controls to stop complacency, destroy certainty. Not enough. Too much. Too ugly. Trying too hard now. Never quite what he told you you should be. On and on, every day, until you reached enough, reached for the knife.
But the birds had seen. High in the trees their bright eyes watched the man as he tormented and raged. They considered their position and made their intervention. As you palmed the knife they turned their razor beaks and offered you escape. Wait, they intoned with their cocked heads. Wait and be ready. You released the blade. Took a breath and applied a smile. Yes, of course it was your fault the meal was spoiled again. Of course. Of course. The next day, you considered. What did you think you had seen? A fantasy to convince yourself to depart, to run from a marriage, from a Janus-faced creature who could do no wrong in the eyes of the world but delivered cruelties in his private domain. What shame and incomprehension would you hoist upon your shoulders to leave this angel, this public darling? What ignominy to drag with you into some newer age. How could you? How dare you? But the crows still sat in the boughs. They stared and made a promise. Leave now. We look after our own.
You packed and you ran. The birds guided your path. Not far away, they gathered on the roof of a small house that you entered with ease and closed the door with grateful relief. A home, temporarily vacant, but you would not need long. To ensure your release, more crows assembled outside the man’s place of work, preventing anyone’s departure, a curiosity of nature that made the day’s headlines: a murder by any other name, this gathering. The death of an old life and a woman made new.
And now, you understand. So much pain since those tips appeared but now, now, the wings finally unfurl and skim the floor with their majesty. Gleaming, black, and perfectly feathered. No more drag. No more weight. Just the promise of rising into flight with the new day. The birds are talking about you again. They nod their satisfaction and tuck their feathers for sleep.