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Constructing Birds

Story by Jo Mortimer (Read author interview) September 15, 2008

Art by Robinson Accola

Today, there are hot-air balloons in the distance.

Dorothy sits in a tethered rowboat near the shore of a lake, cutting and folding paper sails for six paper boats. The sky splits to pink and blue with long twists of barely-there mist, grey clouds shift to the left; the lakewater washes back and forth, like breathing. The boat stretches out as far as the rope will allow, telling Dorothy it would like to be a proper boat, get out there and have a catch hauled into its hull. But Dorothy is not for the fish; she’ll be sticking with these paper boats; waxed paper. They don’t sink.

She breathes with the boat and only cuts the paper when they inhale. Drops paper boats over the side when they exhale. When she leaves for home, she’ll panic a little; it’s so empty there these days.

Occasionally, her boats drift over the far side of the lake. They may have passengers waving at her so she waves back, just in case.
That’s just how it goes. Come and go, so they do, like the balloons up there.

One balloon sneaks up on Dorothy’s sky like a white shadow; she shivers as it covers the sun.


Peter, up there, thinks that only beautiful women make paper boats. He is so busy thinking, he forgets he is in the sky. He thinks he would like to be with that woman down there, rowing them both round the still lake.

Then, as Dorothy makes her final cuts, Peter’s balloon tumbles from the sky. He forgot to fire the flame. There is a splash; the basket creaks and groans before giving itself up to the deep water.

And Dorothy’s last sail has ripped. She looks up now to see the balloon hang in the air for a few seconds…and cuts the last piece of paper wrong.

She will leave the ridiculous man where he has put himself. She screws up her spoilt sail and stares at the prow of her row-boat.

Dorothy squints at Peter and wonders if he is waving, swimming or drowning. Peter flounders and flaps; the swans are in no position to help.

Dorothy jumps onto dry land, concentrating hard on her breathing. The rope is thick, slimy and tightly knotted; her hands persuade it loose, but there are no oars.

Then it comes to her – make a sail, quickly. She has made a hundred little boats with unfathomable detail; there is nothing she doesn’t know about their structure. She grabs at her stack of paper. It unfolds in her hands. The creases are flimsy, the lines don’t match; it is all too big. Her hands are too small. She can hear Peter shouting now; the sail must take to the wind.

Feet hip-width apart in the middle of her row-boat she holds the sail aloft… it fills and she steers forward. A kind breeze takes her to the middle of the lake but she feels cold and bewildered. The shuddering reflections make her feel nauseous and too tall.

Peter heaves himself into the row boat and Dorothy turns them for the shore. They hardly speak; words, as is often the way for Dorothy, fail her.

She wants to know what Peter will do now but cannot talk to him without cutting and folding at the same time. She’s done making boats and starts to construct birds instead.

Peter tells her that he will make his way over to the other side of the lake, get himself a ride in another balloon. Could he perhaps get dry first? Dorothy nods.

“I’ll be back with some dry things” she says.

She leaves him to change behind trees. When he returns, they talk about wild horses and sudden rain while Dorothy makes fourteen paper birds.

Peter says he’ll tip them into the sky for her, no problem. He hopes she might say something about stopping for tea. Instead, she says yes, she’d like to see them fly.

Dorothy’s hands are still that afternoon as she waits in her row-boat for a balloon to break the horizon. It does and heads away from her. There are no paper birds in its wake.

She climbs out of her boat, loses her footing and nearly falls. But then she looks up, and sees a perfectly white balloon moving along the skyline. And behind it fourteen birds dive and wheel, wings stretched wide, heading towards her.

About the Author

Jo Mortimer lives in the UK, down South right by the sea. Her recent publications include Alba and Tales Of The Decongested.

About the Artist

Robinson Accola creates artwork for SmokeLong Quarterly as needed.

This story appeared in Issue Twenty-Two of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Twenty-Two

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