by Cheryl Pearson
I’ve seen nineteen winters. This will make twenty. Twenty times I’ve heard the geese sound their leaving klaxons, watched the trees turn gold, then brown, then moult. It’s just shy of a week since I woke to a moon-bright ceiling, and silence – three feet of snow in the garden, full of shuttled light, a drift piled up against the main house. If things had been different, I’d have begged my mother for a single handful, cold and clear, pricked with the small forks of a robin’s feet. But things are how they have always been, and here I am in my high room, away from the world and its weather.
So many things are a danger. Nuts. Rubber. Unfiltered water. Pollen brought on a gust of air. But there is my mother, who loves me. I have—in the confines of my round room—my health.
You’ve hair for birds to nest in. That’s what my mother tells me, combing it out from crown to ankle. Hair for flowers to climb, and cubs to tumble in. Foxes as red. Bears as wild.
I’ve never seen a fox or bear, except in the stack of magazines my mother brings each morning with the pills and the cling-filmed plates. This is how I travel the world: on a raft of glossy pages, fingertip by fingertip. Plains and glaciers. Ribbed deserts. Great Lakes. I’ve seen them all, though I’ve never left—will never leave—this place. Have dreamed for years of crisping my skin on a long beach, of slicing a frozen river on skates. There is a long list of wishes. Longer than the braid my mother makes of my hair each night before bed.
If wishes were horses, my mother chides. I imagine them, then, muscled and gleaming. Rainbows and continents in their streaming manes.
I write stories to pass the light hours. Girls who turn into birds and sing in the trees. Girls with gills and tails, who live underwater, have no need for breathing. At night I dream of water buffalo, blue-black, and swaying. Of cruise ships hauling lights and ballrooms over far horizons. I keep my fancies from my mother. Any time I long out loud, she is rougher. My scalp sings with each pull of the brush.
Hunger: I had forgotten it. I sit in the window watching the snow fall, local thunder growling in my belly. A week, and my hips are weapons. A week, and my heart is a hummingbird’s. I sweep my last plate again: still no crumbs.
Another evening arrives without my mother. I try to comb my hair with my fingers but they stick in the snarls, so I stop. I put on pyjamas, climb into bed with my favourite brochures. Thumb the blue roofs and flowering trellises till sleep finally tows me under.
More snow in the morning. The ceiling dazzles. Hunger rings in my bones like a bell. When I stand, stars swarm, and my hair drags on my skull.
I sit in the window all day watching the sky sift itself down, watching the drifts build against the house. The chill comes through the glass, and I lick the clear lines of condensation, imagine this is how ice tastes. No pills for a week, but my throat hasn’t closed. My skin hasn’t broken open into sores. Perhaps the snow has frozen the allergens my mother says would kill me in a minute. Perhaps they are waiting under the cold, like flowers stowed in their seeds.
I know enough of science to know there must be a father. My mother swears she made me alone, one wish and a womb. The one time I pushed for answers, she left me three days without food or water, without pills or magazines or brochures. On the fourth morning, her steps came, and I put away my questions, though sometimes they needle in the night, still; prick like loose wire in an old bra.
That had been bad, but this is worse. My tongue has swelled and furred. My lips are split at the corners. Worst of all, my hair has begun to drift to the floor in a rain of red sheaves, like the leaves I watch fall each October.
It is day nine when the idea comes. My own body shows me the way. I strip to dress in sweat-free clothes, finger the sudden rungs of bone at my breast. Like a ladder, I think. And a light goes on.
I work all day, gathering my own driftings from the floorboards, braiding the strands, then knotting the braids together. The hairs slice my fingers, and I suck my own salts from my hands. Six times, I dizzy and stop to rest, napping on the ropes of my own making. I wake each time with twists printed on my cheeks, resolve burning low in my belly. When evening comes, I heft the rope from my lap. It winds twice round the room, and is heavy.
The window glass is reinforced and I am thin as a sapling. Still I manage to swing a chair with enough force to smash the pane. The cold pours in like water, a shock of clear air, and my skin thrills. My twentieth winter; the first one I’ve felt.
I wait a hundred heartbeats. When I do not blister or turn blue, I knot one end of the rope to my bed, and throw the other over the sill. It lands with a whump in the snow. The moon is out; the garden glitters. I throw one leg out, then the other. Hold the red rope of my hair and go.
In my head, the horses are stamping. Their breath is steaming.
Down and down I go. Hand over hand. My throat stays open. My skin is still pink.
And then I am standing at the foot of my tower. The snow crunches under my feet. There are no walls, only the world − more of it wherever I look.
I bend to scoop up a handful of snow. It is so much colder than I had imagined. I touch it to my tongue, and it tastes of moonlight and sky, of water and wildness. I laugh with delight, close my fist until the melt runs through the gaps in my fingers.
I cross the garden. Each step sinks and creaks. When I reach the drift by the house, I kneel beside it, use my hands to tunnel down through feet of white. Finally I find what I’m looking for. The slope of a shoulder. The rim of a plate.
It takes some time to dig her out completely. She is stiff and silent, one clawed hand still groping at her chest, the way it had when I saw her falter and fall in the grass. Nine days. It seems like a lifetime, now.
Her fur coat is strung with ice. I work her out of it arm by arm, then beat the pelt against a tree. It isn’t dry but it will dry out. I swoop it around my shoulders, and the pocket rattles. I fumble in the lining, hands swimming through silk. Find a glass bottle half-full of pills. My prescription pills for my killing allergies.
The label on the bottle reads multivitamins.
I look at my mother for a long time. She wears glasses. Wore glasses. The moon sits like a bright full stop in each eye.
In my head, the horses are pawing the ground. They are wild and beautiful. They are mine.
I leave my mother in the snow. I head for the wood at the boundary line.
Cheryl Pearson lives in Manchester. She was Highly Commended in the Costa Short Story Awards 2017, and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has stories forthcoming in TSS, Spelk, and Confingo. Her first poetry collection, “Oysterlight” is available now.
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