Your cart is empty. Go to Shop

Songbird

SongbirdI wear armor under my skin

It grew there, over my squishy snail self

Rose-bloom bruises, a whole bouquet

A callus on a callus on a callus

Fractals spreading like chain mail, hard and yellow

Indelible, impossible as

Your indifference that glances right off

Shailaja sings, you know. They claim she is a bird trapped in a human’s body, that she has never forgotten what it means to have wings, to soar aloft with clouds for companions. But no one remembers her voice.

Yesterday I saw her petting the trunk of a tree as though it were a friend. It was our lunch break, and, bored, I followed her outside. There is only so much compiling of reports one can do before one’s head shrivels like a walnut, after all.

The springtime sun smeared us with yellow like pigment. I found a bench and unwrapped my cheese-tomato-and-chutney sandwich. “Hello,” I said.

While I chewed, she stroked the bark and began to cry.

* * *

You’ll find me folded into that cloth

The curtain you let dry without hanging

Bits of me secreted in every wrinkle

In each tiny trench, I whisper tiny truths

But you pull down the curtain and—

Steam making all things clean—

Iron it

Shailaja had come to us some years before, when I was not yet an adult. Her aunt and uncle adopted her out of a thatched hut, where she sang as naturally as her heart pulsed, without thought, without effort, and settled her in their luxurious house with its manicured gardens. They clothed her in modest fashions, fed her delicacies, gave her pocket money, and encouraged her to invite friends for tea.

We were all so envious.

In return, they asked only that she curtail her singing. It was, said her uncle, a pastime ill-suited to young ladies. Surely, said her aunt, she wished to secure a good position in society? Everyone had to make sacrifices.

Why, her aunt added, she’d had to stop dancing and focus on business, and she had no regrets!

Like many in our town, Shailaja’s aunt and uncle had lived abroad, where they’d learned the finer things in life, and they’d imported those finer things when they’d returned home.

“But I am a bird,” protested Shailaja. “I must sing.”

“Nonsense,” said her uncle. “You are a girl with an overdeveloped fancy. Girls are not birds, nor are birds girls. It’s time to turn your attention to the things that matter.”

He found her tutors for languages, for needlepoint, and for penning elegant letters in perfect calligraphy. Her aunt taught her banking and behavior and how to bake a cake that would bring one’s guests to tears.

Such a lucky girl she was.

“All fine things to be certain,” Shailaja said, “but not skills for a bird.” Her voice was already softer, less certain. A lady’s voice.

“You must be cultivated, like a plant,” said her aunt, and clapped her hands for a maidservant to comb and plait Shailaja’s tangled hair.

And so Shailaja grew cultivated. She grew still. With time, she seemed to forget she might ever have been anything else.

* * *

When you dream and you dream and you dream

Yet your mouth is a desert

Abandoned oasis

Your tongue a deep well run dry

Only dirt now

Only

Desiccation

Shailaja became like us—polished, serene. She was surprisingly good at it, stepping with ease into the well-heeled life we all strove for.

She hosted garden parties, her long hair bound up and her curvy body bound back. After rigorous study, she was inducted into her aunt’s friend’s shipping company, where she performed her duties of public speaking and due diligence with great poise. She even allowed her uncle to betroth her to a man of his choosing. Her smile, when it came, was gracious, sweet.

And she never, ever sang.

Shailaja was perfect, one of us. A true lady.

Yet something was awry, and yesterday by the tree, I saw it. Her mask cracked, and something pounded within her rib cage, desperate to come loose.

I heard it in her tears. I heard it in her words: “Bird,” she whispered. “I was a bird.”

And I trembled, my own heart beating like a hummingbird’s.

* * *

I wear armor under my skin

It grew there, over my squishy snail self

Rose-bloom bruises, a whole bouquet

A callus on a callus on a callus

Fractals spreading like chain mail, hard and yellow

And it came to smother all I was

Heart, stomach, soul

Leaving only

A single stark cry like a quill

Today Shailaja stands before her family home, keening. Our town has gathered over the past hour, eager for drama. Her aunt and uncle, her betrothed, all cajole, threaten, and shout, even try to drag her inside, but it is as if Shailaja is beyond their reach.

At last, she falls silent, and her aunt sighs with relief.

Then Shailaja’s mouth opens once more, crimsoned lips bright. We wait for her to speak, to sing.

We wait for the rumored bird to surge free, to create a spectacle. She has failed. Of course she has failed. She was too wild, too rustic. Not cultured like us. We know when to speak and when to be still.

We watch, entranced, grasping shirtsleeves, necklaces, one another. We wait.

But it has been too long, or perhaps we just never understood, we who had been cultivated like houseplants.

No bird bursts forth. Only a song, so high, plaintive, piercing that it cleaves us in two. Our mouths gape as one.

From our throats emerge songbirds of all types: thrushes, cliff swallows, verdins. They are purple, green, brown. They sing, we sing. Our bodies, our jeering, all slip away.

Shailaja sings chains of glittering words, and they might have thawed icicles in the bitterest of hearts. She sings and sings.

When our birds fly away, they carry us with them. We are our birds, shedding sharp feathers in our wake.

We are song.

© 2021

Meet the Author

Become a Patron! Check our our NEW membership levels!

Sign up prior to March 31, 2021 to receive access to 365 Days of Flash Fiction Writing Prompts! (See Patreon for details)

FIREFLY

Receives weekly links to new stories, exclusive behind-the-scenes content, and our undying love.

WILL-O-THE-WISP

Receives Monthly discount code for a free download of our current issue, plus benefits from lower levels

SHOOTING STAR

Join our monthly chat/”ask me anything,” plus benefits from lower levels

AURORA

Get a shout-out in our monthly editorial, plus benefits from lower levels

LIGHTNING

Receive a monthly prize, which may include critiques, digital or physical swag, or other special events, plus benefits from lower levels

SUPERNOVA

Receive one flash fiction critique per month, exclusive polls, an opportunity to “sponsor-a-story,” plus all the benefits of lower levels!

17 Comments

  1. EbenezerLux
    November 8, 2016 @ 10:16 am

    Absolutely breathtaking! The theme of a unified community was remarkable and significant.

    Reply

  2. Aggie in NC
    May 14, 2016 @ 7:52 am

    The melody and imagery remind me of my brief time in India. The music, aromas and heat. Thank you for your gift.

    Reply

  3. ShvetaThakrar
    April 2, 2016 @ 2:05 am

    realsesmith <3333

    Reply

  4. ShvetaThakrar
    April 2, 2016 @ 1:36 am

    AnnakaKalton flashfictionmag <333!

    Reply

  5. AnnakaKalton
    April 2, 2016 @ 1:31 am

    ShvetaThakrar flashfictionmag Lovely story/poem!
    Poignant, dreamlike, beautiful 🙂

    Reply

  6. ShvetaThakrar
    April 1, 2016 @ 7:27 pm

    Wiswell flashfictionmag ❤️❤️❤️

    Reply

  7. ShvetaThakrar
    April 1, 2016 @ 7:27 pm

    Valya flashfictionmag ❤️❤️❤️

    Reply

  8. ValyaDL
    April 1, 2016 @ 6:21 pm

    Beautiful, Shveta. And poetry! <3 <3 <3

    Reply

  9. Stewart C Baker
    April 1, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

    So rare to see a story with beautiful prose AND poetry in it!

    Reply

  10. ShvetaThakrar
    April 1, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

    beguilingmerlin flashfictionmag U0001f618U0001f618U0001f618

    Reply

  11. ShvetaThakrar
    April 1, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

    JennWalkup Yayyy! Thank you! U0001f60d

    Reply

  12. beguilingmerlin
    April 1, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

    ShvetaThakrar flashfictionmag I loved that, Shveta! Excellent piece of #flashfiction

    Reply

  13. JennWalkup
    April 1, 2016 @ 11:37 am

    ShvetaThakrar gorgeous! I really love this one.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Support Flash Fiction Online

Flash Fiction Online is a free online magazine that pays professional rates. So how do we make that happen? It’s due to the generosity of readers like you.

Here are some ways you can help:

Become a Patron.

Sign up to become a monthly donor. Read more…

Subscribe to FFO.

Never miss an issue! E-reader formats delivered to your inbox. Available from WeightlessBooks.com

Buy our issues & anthologies.

Each of our issues and anthologies are available in convenient e-reader formats (epub/mobi/pdf). Available from the Flash Fiction Online Store, WeightlessBooks, and Amazon

Donate.

Consider a one-time gift that fits your budget.


Advertise with us.

Have a product, service, or website our readers might enjoy? Ad space available on the website and in our e-reader issues. Sponsored posts opportunities are also available. Learn more…

Spread the word. 

Love one of our stories or articles? Share it with a friend! 

%d bloggers like this: