Winner of the Cambridge Flash Fiction Prize 2020
I feel your love in the triangle of air between the blades just before they close: chop/snip/clip. I feel it in your patting, shaping, arranging. I press my old, strong limbs against you, as the evening wind occupies me. My finished sisters cast long, black-green shadows across the trimmed lawn, but my own shadow is only half-shaped, my head still wild. You always leave this part until last. I will be done tomorrow.
Inside my chest there’s a ruffle and a flutter. I feel the nest shift as the sparrows – babies still – flop and tussle. Your snipping has disturbed them and they undo your work; the mother dives, bringing my strewn stems back inside me, weaving them into her cradle. The babies’ wings beat-beat-beat and chirrups pulse within their beaks. There’s an unborn warmth in my chest cavity, too: eggs.
At night I keep the birds in a thicket of safety. I’m sure the owls can hear the sparrows’ pips of hearts within me, under feathers, inside shell. When you give me arms, I’ll bat the predators away. I already know where you will carve my shoulder. I feel its strength and structure.
It’s dark now; the boy Tom is here to carry your easel back to your borrowed shed. (He has never loved me; he chews my fallen branches, grimaces at the bitterness of my sap.) I try to hush my birds, but they flap and chatter. His ear is at my chest now. You haven’t noticed, busy collapsing your easel, rolling up your sketch of what I will be. He reaches his arm into me, elbow-deep, deeper. His fingertips brush an egg.
Within me, the sparrows quiver. Inside my clipped sisters, other birds pack the cavities; they crescendo. They know.
‘Tom!’ You see now, recognise the hidden, grasping hand that wants only to take. You raise your shears like a weapon, furious. ‘Stop!’ He withdraws his arm, scowls and kicks my trunk with his boot as though he wishes I were you. He runs.
You watch him go. There have been others, boys who lean against me, us. Boys who lean against you. Boys who snap at the thought of a woman with shears.
You come close, whisper something the wind carries away. The lace of your dress catches on my splintered branches. The birds are quiet and I wonder if the owls can hear your heart.
Johanna Robinson is an editor/proofreader from Liverpool, and has been writing since 2016. Her short fiction has been featured in a number of magazines, including SmokeLong, Ellipsis Zine, Reflex Press, Strix and Mslexia. Her novella Homing, set in Norway in WWII, was runner-up in the Bath Novella-in-Flash 2019 competition, and is published by Ad Hoc Fiction. She is currently working on a novel, and more of her work can be found on her website.