On the Wing

He wakes up to the smell of baking cotton. His wife is already ironing a white shirt, choosing a tie based on the pattern of the clouds which scud past the window. She’s a glean of herons, long-legged under an oyster-pale silk slip. Slippery and pliant.

While she makes breakfast, her husband scrolls through the day’s headlines and spoons runny egg into his mouth. As a kid, he’d thought that fried eggs looked like vulnerable suns; as an adult he knows better. This shade of orange, tiger-bright, would indicate that the sun was dying, which wouldn’t suit his plans at all. He’s a realm of kingfishers, flashing blue blazes—the hottest colour a flame can be.

 When he checks his phone, he frowns at the screen. For another man, a frown might herald a coming storm. With her husband, she knows, it’s simply the way he reacts to all news, whether good or bad. He’s a parcel of penguins; black and white and stoic all over. 

When she leans over him to pour more coffee, he swipes the message away, but not before she glimpses the contents. A body—nude—neither his nor hers. A clamor of rooks clanging inside the vast timpani of her chest, echoing rounded copper notes. She turns the tap on, soaps the dishes. The washing-up liquid is not clean and sharp, like lemon, but rather a frothing apple-scent, concave, like a smell collapsed.

When he performs his ablutions, he’s a drum of goldfinches; scrubbing the bristles against his teeth in time with a familiar melody in his mind, washing his face and patting it down with a musky, pine-needle aftershave more suited to the wolf than the woodcutter. She kneels on the hardwood hallway floor and buffs his brogues to a brilliant shine until she can see the pale oval of her own face.

When she hears the smack of his wet towel against the bathroom tiles, mere feet from the laundry basket, she’s a quarrel of sparrows—a thousand-fold origami flock, each a darting, stinging papercut. When she walks into the bedroom he’s dressing and belting, buttoning collar and cuff. She pools the words, gathers them together like goslings under the trembling wing of her tongue; he kisses her on the cheek and exits the house, whistling, neither noticing nor caring. 

When he swerves onto the motorway with practiced ease, he’s a pride of peacocks. Switching the radio to a popular channel, he drums the steering wheel to the beat and chimes in at the chorus to a song last sung while nine-pints-sunk. The house he left behind is a silent sentence, punctuated by the full-stop smashing of crockery, the commas of curses, the semi-colons of sobbing.

 When she packs her suitcase, she takes only what she needs. Layering neon t-shirts on top of pajamas too modest to please him; a bright lasagna of her own style. She’s an unkindness of ravens, pouring a full jar of honey into his sock drawer. Spraying shaving cream into his closet, graffiting her name in bursts of citrus foam.

When he waits in line for a free coffee from the company-owned machine, he hits the button twice. Strutting down the hallway, he’s a prattle of parrots, exchanging jokes with the janitor, ribbing the guys in accounts about the latest football score. Holding both plastic cups aloft; common libations to double-faced gods.

When she locks the front door behind her, the key is stiff and unyielding. For a moment she wonders whether to retreat inside, to unpack her bag, to hibernate for a season or two of denial. A single caw sounds from above. She counts the birds perched on the gutter pipe, doffs an imaginary cap like her grandfather used to do. She’s a gulp of magpies; one for sorrow, two for joy.

When he stops at the front desk to chat with his mistress, he slides one coffee over with a smile and keeps the twin. She answers a phone, holds up a finger to indicate that she’ll be right with him. He’s a charm of hummingbirds, hovering steadily. The thrum of his desire is almost too low to hear, like whalesong—mournful, ribbed, fathomed. Still, the mistress is attuned to the crackle and hiss of his frequency by now.

When the woman who was once his wife turns the key in the ignition, the rumble starts in front of her knees and wriggles down until the car is purring under the soles of her boots. Flushed, blistered, she’s a ruby of robins. Rubies, after all, are the gemstone of home and hearth. These things were important, once upon a time. She’d left the ring on the front doorstep—right in the middle, so the man who was once her husband can’t miss it like he misses everything else. The expensive jewel fizzles in the sunlight. Colour, clarity, carat, cut—the four qualities men look for in a rock and a woman.

 When he texts the woman who was once his wife to tell her he’ll be home late, her silence doesn’t alarm him. He’s already busy making plans, fortifying his arguments, loading lies like crossbow bolts, each capable of slamming through the sternest defenses. He’s a pitying of doves, clustered snug and peacefully in the driver’s seat of his car, watching his mistress unbutton her blouse, her skin coated with the last gasps of a brilliant, bloody sunset.

When she turns the radio on, miles later, it asks her hey what’s going on, it asks what have you done for me lately, it asks have you ever seen the rain, and she drives out of town and the sky is new-wound-pink with not a single cloud in sight and above the road a solitary black dot hovers above an open field, hovers, hovers. Flaps once. Plummets. Rises again with nothing in its open beak, not even a question. She thinks that’s how she’d like to be from now on—not a kettle of hawks, but a tower of falcons. Unlimbed. Torched. Rebuilt.



Originally published in Bear Creek Gazette, October 2022. Reprinted here by permission of the author.