by Mary-Jane Holmes

Edith stopped pulling spear-thistle from the top field, rubbed the small of her back. It was that time of year again, summer squalls threatening and the roof black with starlings. Shitlegs Tom had called them as they blanched the ridge tiles guano-white. Off he would stride to the shed for his pellet gun until the day he could only curse them from his bed in the attic while they skittered the skylight above his head.

Edith watched the flock swoop to feast on froghoppers hatching from the cuckoo spit that drenched the pasture. She knew that Tom would’ve wanted her to scare them off, but she hadn’t the energy, in fact she found their chitter-chatter a sliver of company now it was just her, the forage harvester, the bailer, the silage pit.

That night she felt the skale of rain spatter through the lattice of holes left from Tom’s attempts at shooting the starlings away. She thought of the windrows she’d just raked, soddened and moulding, felt the damp creep towards her from the empty side of the bed.

Next day she pulled the ladder up to the gable of the house and hoiking nails and underfelt, climbed on to the roof. She thought the starlings would scatter with a crackling lift of wings, but instead they made room for her, carried on their preening, their constant chirping. A few of the juveniles nibbled her earlobes. It was so intimate it made her laugh, the first time in a year. It was warm up there now that the front had passed. It felt good. She looked down at the spoiling hay and closed her eyes to it all. When she woke it was dusk, the starlings were roosted about her. She should’ve gone inside but it was a long time since she’d heard the flutter of another’s heartbeat so close to hers.

The next morning, she wasn’t concerned to find sprouts of tufted down covering her torso, her armpits hollowed to quills sheened with black feathers. She flapped her elbows and backflipped into the air. Her surprise was voiced in the up-soar of the flock funnelling dark and tight-waisted into the sky. At first, she couldn’t keep up with the ripple of bodies perfectly syncopated, but following the tipping wings either side of her, the dip of tails almost touching her beak, she found her place in the pulse of the whole. Oh, what it felt like to be part of something again. She looked back at the empty farm, its windows dark as storm clouds.

Summer yellowed the fields hard, the flock clamoured the neighbours’ bird feeders, compost, rubbish dumps, bickering and fighting over what they found. Edith tired of the squabbles, longed for dusk, the quiet of the roost—the farm roof that shone now like butter under the moon. One night she peered through the skylight, there was her bed, eiderdown smooth and crisp, the nightstand with its sidelamp and pile of books, the photo of Tom and her when they first bought the place. The sun would rise soon; she tucked her head under a wing and tried to sleep but then she heard the skylark bullet into song, saw it hover then dive into the swath of hay she’d left a season ago. And as it belted out its solitary ascendant tune she thought Perhaps, yes perhaps, I can do this alone.

Mary-Jane has been published in such places as The Best Small Fictions Anthology 2016 and 2018, Mslexia, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Prole, The Tishman Review, The Lonely Crowd, and Prole. She is the winner of the 2018 Mslexia Flash Fiction Competition, 2017 Bridport Poetry Prize, the Martin Starkie Poetry Prize, the Bedford International Poetry Prize and the Dromineer Flash Fiction Prize. She was runner up in the 2019 Doolin Poetry competition.

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