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Flight Reflex

Story by Rachel O’Cleary (Read author interview) September 12, 2022

Art by Mitchell Orr

‘You’re an animal, Mummy!’ he shouts, though I am in the doorway, only a few feet from where he stands, ankle-deep in the detritus of his upturned toy box.

And I say, ‘Well, yes, sweetheart, we’re all animals.’ But that’s not what he meant, so he screws up his face and shouts, ‘No! You’re a wild animal. You’re a bird!’

And I want to laugh, but I am already tightening my trapezius muscles, already contracting my pectorals, already lifting out of the window and smelling the sharp chill of spring, reveling in the wild lift of air beneath my flight feathers, forcing me up, up and up until he and his brother and sister are just specks I can barely make out through the glare of the glass, their wide-open mouths indignant, their teeth sharpened in fury. Until I hear him cry, “No! You’re an emu!”

Like a cartoon roadrunner, I glide for half a second longer. Soar, victorious, until I catch sight of my stumpy vestigial wings, unable to hold me aloft, but still, I think, still, I can run. Just look at these muscular legs. And I am still sailing, still feeling the wind in my feathers, my feet just barely touching the ground. I am kicking up a trail of dust in my wake, and through the reddish haze there is nothing, nothing behind me but the faintest cry.

“You’re an emu being eaten by a tiger!” he cries, and I can feel the gleam in his eye as he plays his final card. I can tell he is a little sad to do it, but he does it. Because it is clear that I am not coming back either way, only a choice between me getting away clean or him finding me split open on the side of a dirt track, the slick, pulsing guts of me bulging out in the clinging dirt, the last thought in my head that I wish I’d turned around when I’d had the chance.

But I am still running. I’m running because he doesn’t know that tigers don’t eat emus. He doesn’t know that they live on different, faraway continents. He doesn’t know that it is the daddy emu, not the mummy, who sticks around to raise the babies. That it is the daddy emu he would be angry with, and that I would be the stranger he doesn’t even know. And then my tiny bird brain begins to fill with the things this angry little boy does not yet know, things like how to tie his shoes, or how to spread peanut butter on toast, or how to say, “I need you and it scares me.”

I stop in mid-stride, my talons leaving jagged furrows in the sunbaked earth, and I am home before I know it. I am standing in his bedroom doorway as he paces, warm and pink-cheeked and still so soft and small. I lean against the door frame and feel the hollow heat crawl up from my belly, feel the weight of myself return, feel the flight go out of me.

About the Author

Rachel O’Cleary grew up in Wisconsin, but now lives with her husband and three children in Ireland, squeezing her obsession for flash  fiction into the spaces between school runs with the help of Writer’s  HQ. Recent and forthcoming publications include Fractured Literary, The Forge, Milk Candy Review, and Wrongdoing Mag. She occasionally tweets @RachelOCleary1.

About the Artist

Mitchell Orr is a photographer from Wirral, UK.

This story appeared in Issue Seventy-Seven of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-Seven

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