Tag Archives: short story

Flash Friday – ‘Judge, Jury, Executioner’

First woman jury, Los Angeles, 1911. Public Domain photo by the Library of Congress. Image sourced: flashfriday.wordpress.com

First woman jury, Los Angeles, 1911. Public Domain photo by the Library of Congress.
Image sourced: flashfriday.wordpress.com

Judge, Jury, Executioner

He looks so fine up there, his head thrown back, a thick pulse thudding at his throat. If it weren’t for his shackles he could almost be in church, a pillar of righteousness.

But instead he’s in the dock, and I’m here.

The judge reviews the evidence, making it sound even more damning than the prosecution had. Gruesome injuries, he drones. Overwhelming strength. I tremble, but the defendant doesn’t hang his head; he stays straight-backed, his eyes fixed in the crowd, on one face in particular.
I don’t have to look to know which one.

When I caught my husband sneaking out at night, I did nothing for the longest time. I waited. I chose my moment carefully, following on silent feet. When I saw him embrace another man – this man, whose life I’m about to judge – a rage like hellfire filled my bones and blood.

So I crept to his house. I murdered his wife. It was as if a demon overtook me.

And when they dragged him to trial, this fine innocent man, he confessed. To spare my husband, he confessed. To spare me the shame.

‘Madam Foreperson. Your verdict, please.’

Like a coward, I rise and condemn him, and his eyes never leave my husband’s face.

**

This week’s Flash! Friday (which I heartily recommend you try) asks participants to write a story between 190 and 210 words (I barely scraped in!) based around the image prompt, above, and the ‘concept’ prompt of ‘Man vs. Self’. The image prompt was of a jury of women sitting in judgement, and perhaps it’s because of my love of folksongs with their dark, twisty deeds, but the first place my mind went when I thought about interior conflict was this: what if you were judging someone for a crime you knew they hadn’t committed, but you had no choice but to convict them?

Well. And so, this tale was born.

Again, I make no claim to have written a ‘good’ story. It’s a story which didn’t exist an hour ago, and that – for me – is enough. I’ve been finding story-writing tough lately, and so any week in which I can get a story to coalesce long enough to capture it is a good one. Let’s hope it’s a good sign for the rest of the day’s endeavours!

Alors, my loves. I must fly. Happy weekend, one and all, and make sure to do some creative thinking over your down-time. It can only be, I’m assured, a Very Good Thing.

Wednesday Writing – ‘Eclipse’

Photo Credit: Prozac74 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Prozac74 via Compfight cc

Eclipse

Many things happened the year I turned ten. Mother died, Father chose another wife from among her sisters, my new brother was born, and the sun disappeared.

‘It is behind a cloud,’ clucked the old women. ‘A day, and it will reappear.’ But it did not.

‘It is lost beneath the earth,’ speculated the old men. ‘A day, and it will find its way.’ But they were wrong.

I do not know who first decided that my brother had stolen the sun, but once the idea had formed, and been spoken aloud, it ran around faster than a winter wind.

‘The sun is inside the child,’ the whisper started. ‘He has swallowed it, the worm!’

‘Cut him, then,’ said another mouth, another carbuncled tongue. ‘Cut him, and free it.’

My father told me they would come. When they did, they bore knives.

‘You must understand,’ they said. ‘It is him, or us.’

But my father refused them entry, and so they bled him. They took his wife and tormented her, but she said nothing. By then, I was several miles away, my brother strapped to my back. I was fast, and small, and quick. Silently, we watched the flames rise from our village.

Laying my brother down to rest that night, I stroked his soft face. He smiled, and golden light spilled from him, out into the darkness, from every pore of his body.

The next morning, the sun returned. None but we two saw it rise.

**

Apologies for the non-blog yesterday. Something went wrong with my computer and/or my Internet connection and/or the WordPress site; my techno-whiz husband fixed things, but not in time for me to post, I’m afraid. I’m sure not hearing from me caused widespread global upset, but it can’t be helped. Buck up, chaps, and let’s keep going!

The above wee storylet is one I’ve submitted to several places, without success. I wrote it a long time ago, and so technically I’m cheating, here, but I hope I’ll be forgiven for it. I’m not sure why Eclipse never found a home, but I’ve decided now it never will – not anywhere beyond this blog, at least. I like this tiny story, particularly the first line, and so I thought perhaps I’d share it and see what others think. Thoughts? Suggestions as to why it has collected rejections like a broom collects dirt? All suggestions gratefully received, but do remember to be kind above all else.

I’m a busy and somewhat under the weather woman today, so I’ll be off; there’s always another task to tackle. Have a happy Odin’s Day, and I’ll see you all tomorrow.

Wednesday Writing – The ‘It’ Girls

Photo Credit: OrangeCounty_Girl via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: OrangeCounty_Girl via Compfight cc

The ‘It’ Girls

‘Why is the box just plain white, Mum?’ She twists in her seat and frowns at it. ‘Did they change the packaging, or something?’

‘Must have,’ I say, swallowing a yawn. ‘Eyes front, Marie. You’ll get sick, otherwise.’

‘Whatever. I haven’t been carsick since I was a kid.’ She twists further, and I’m terrified she’ll lift the lid.

‘Wow. That long?’ I mutter as I flick the indicator.

‘Ha ha,’ she mutters, rolling her eyes, but she settles back into her seat. ‘Hey, I hope they didn’t, like, cost loads, or whatever.’

I wait for the throb in my heart to subside before I’m able to answer. ‘Why would you say that?’

‘No reason,’ she sing-songs. Sometimes she sounds just like the TV. ‘It’s just – thanks, you know. For getting them.’

‘Yeah,’ I say, pretending to be distracted by a passing car.

‘Georgia’ll have made such an effort, you know? To have the perfect party?’ I cut a glance across at her. She’s staring out the side window, chewing the inside of her mouth. Her hands are hidden in her sleeves, but I can tell she’s picking at her nails.

‘It’s just going to be a few of the girls from class, isn’t it?’ I say, looking back at the road. The turn for Georgia’s house is less than a hundred metres away, and the base of my skull begins to throb, slowly.

‘Well, yeah. But they’re the important girls,’ Marie sighs. ‘And don’t give me this ‘you’re all equally important’ stuff,’ she interrupts, loudly, right before I’m about to say those exact words. ‘You know what I mean.’

‘All right, darling.’ The turning light changes to red, and I fight the urge to swing the car into a U-turn and zoom back into town, but I know the shop is shut. Christabel’s Cupcakes, even though the woman who runs it was baptised Tracey and God knows where she got her notions about ‘cupcakes’ from, because they were simply called ‘buns’ when I was growing up. Christabel’s sell their wares in light pink boxes, not plain white ones, and they wrap them like Christmas presents, and there’s always a queue out the door. I should have just found the money from somewhere and slid it across the counter in return for twenty identically perfect cakes, buttercream with silver sugar accents in silver paper cases, delicate vanilla sponge, light as a dream.

I should have. But instead I stayed up till 2 a.m. trying to bake quietly enough not to wake my sleeping child upstairs, and I found a plain cake box from somewhere, and that’s what’s waiting on the floor of the car. I’m not even sure if any two of the buns I made would pass for the same in a bad light, from a distance, and this is what I’m sending my girl into a party with.

‘So, like – are they pretty? The cupcakes?’ Marie asks, and for a second I don’t know what to say. The light turns green, and she doesn’t press me for an answer as we wait for a break in traffic. We turn off up the hill towards Georgia’s, and I press the pedal too hard.

‘Whoa, mum,’ laughs Marie over the roaring engine. ‘Cool it with the F1 stuff!’

‘Sorry, love,’ I say, looking for a space to pull in. Georgia’s driveway is full, and the grass verges and pathway are crowded with 4x4s and Land Rovers. I double-park beside a Jag and something I don’t recognise and flick on my hazard lights, and Marie leans over to kiss me goodbye. She flings herself out of the passenger door, and she leans in to pick up the box of cakes, touching it like it contains a sleeping baby. I want to tell her then, but I don’t. My heart thrums as I stare at her, clutching the tiny white rectangle with its battered corners and its grease stains, gazing fearfully up at the house, and I know I have to leave. Lights spill through open doors and windows, and I see crowds of people who all look perfectly the same, and I have to concentrate on not throwing up. I haven’t even washed my hair.

‘Aren’t you coming in?’ calls Marie to me. I gesture at the traffic.

‘I’ve got to get home, love!’ I shout. ‘I’ll be back at ten, okay?’

She tries to smile. ‘Okay, mum,’ she says, and blows me a kiss.

I catch the kiss she blows me, and I indicate to pull out, and I drive away and leave her there.

 

Wednesday Writing – The Empty Vessel

Photo Credit: irene gr via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: irene gr via Compfight cc

The Empty Vessel

It was one of his little classmates, dusty and sweat-stained and wide-eyed with urgent excitement, who brought word that Rudi was gone. Papi was in the orange grove. Mama was pounding the bread. And I, I was standing by the window playing with my hair, hoping Nico would walk by.

But instead of wild-eyed, black-eyed Nico, I got a child whose mouth barely closed around the words he carried. It was far from a fair exchange.

‘He did not come to class, Senora!’ babbled the child, before he’d even come fully to a halt. ‘He did not come! The master sent me to fetch him, Senora, for a whipping! And you are to come too so that you may learn, he said, how to keep your pups in line!’

The words spilled across the sunlit floor. Spent, the child panted in the doorway, his eyes bright. My mother said nothing, and simply threw the nearest thing she had to hand, which happened to be the smallest of the scale weights. It smacked the unwelcome messenger smartly on the ear, and she nodded, satisfied. She always had a good arm, and a sharp eye.

‘Ow!’ wailed the child, rubbing his wound. ‘What was that for?’

‘You have upset my yeast, with all your yelling,’ declared Mama. ‘It will be flatter than a crone’s bosom at this rate.’

‘So what? Aren’t you going to fetch Rudi? I am to bring him back for afternoon lessons.’

‘Be off! Tell the master Rudi is unwell.’ Mama’d found her kneading rhythm again, and her words wobbled in time to the beat. ‘Tell him he has not left the outhouse all morning. Tell him even the pigs cannot stand to be downwind of him. Say that -‘

‘Oh! Can I see him?’ crowed the child, dancing from leg to leg with excitement. ‘Can I smell him, Senora?’

Mama picked up the next-heaviest scale weight, and the child whipped away from the door. He was gone, whooping, down the path before I could blink.

I sighed. ‘Aren’t you going to look for him?’

‘He’ll be with Papi, or your uncle.’ (Uncle had the farm next door). ‘I have better things to do than try to understand a seven-year-old.’ She flicked a glance at me. ‘As do you, Mariela. Nico will want more in a wife than hair. Go and find some work to do, and start to learn your trade.’

I felt my cheeks burn blotchy red as I stepped outside.

I didn’t want to feed the chickens, or the pigs, or bring water to the flowers, or sweep the steps. None of those jobs involved grace, and all of them involved sweat. When Nico rode by I wanted to be fragrant and flushed pink, hair shining and sweet, not covered in stench.

So I walked down to the harbour, hoping maybe that the wind would pinch my cheeks and make something beguiling out of my hair. Perhaps I would see Miguel among the boats and perhaps, this time, I might permit him to take the kiss he’d wanted from me for at least six months. Perhaps word of it might reach Nico’s ears.

I smiled at the thought, and walked faster.

But the harbour was deserted. The boats were in, and empty, the catch long gone. I scuffed my way to the water’s edge and sat, the tang of the ocean scrubbing at my lungs.

Far offshore – almost too far for me to see – a boat lay drifting. It looked unmanned. I could make out no trailing mooring rope, nor any oars nor movement, and the current carried it far out as I watched, too far for rescue, and almost too fast to believe.

There was nobody to tell, no alarm to raise. Someone’s livelihood would suffer, but what could I do? I was merely me, Mariela, and nobody was there to help me.

I walked home, unwatched and unwanted.

Dinner sang in the oven, and still no Rudi came. Papi returned from the grove, and no small shadow haunted his. Mama went to Uncle’s house but came home alone.

Then Mama packed some food for Papi and he went out from house to house, asking for his son. Mama ran to the square to search each face, to ask ‘have you seen him?’, and to spread the word. I stayed at home. I thought only of Rudi, but I brushed my hair until it shone like silk, just in case.

It was not until the night was at its thickest that I thought to remember the drifting boat, the one which had been deliberately untied and left to the mercy of the sea, the one which had looked empty – maybe because the person inside it had been smaller than a bundle of sticks, and hiding because the whole thing was a great adventure, like the ones in the comics he saw for sale outside the drogueria. Papi slapped me when I told him, but I kept my weeping inside.

We stumbled to the shoreline in the dark but all we saw was empty, open water, and one boat missing from the dock. We sat until the morning came, but all trace of boat and boy were gone.

Later that same day, I cut my hair up to my skull, like a small child’s. Nico never looked at me again. And Miguel? He found his kisses elsewhere, after that.

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘Good Things Come’

Photo Credit: Leonrw via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Leonrw via Compfight cc

Good Things Come

Leave the ‘ouse at seven-twelve; all good. Hop the train at seven-forty; all good. The gatherin’ crowd means I get shoved into someone’s armpit – not so good, but it could be worse. I feel like a slab of meat in an abattoir, my fingers goin’ numb around the bar suspended from the carriage ceiling, swayin’ gently with the clack-clack, just like every other poor sod.

But it’s all good.

We screech into her station, and I watch as she elbows her way on, knockin’ folk left and right. I hide behind some bloke’s newspaper, FTSE-this and NASDAQ-that lickin’ my eyeballs, but when I stick my ‘ead back out again I see ‘er, like she’s got an ‘oming beacon stuck to her forehead. She jus’ draws the eye, y’know? Face like one o’ them statues. Angled. Perfect.

She looks tired this morning, though. Can ‘ardly blame ‘er. You ‘ad a late night, eh? Oblivious, she flicks her finger up and down ‘er phone screen, swipin’ this way an’ that. Workin’? Sendin’ a very important email? I grin. Or checkin’ your dating profile, are we, love? Leanne6Herts, that’s you. Tweetin’ about your night on the tiles, yeah?

I look away before I want to. Any longer an’ she’d have felt it, like a weight. Any longer, an’ I might as well have screamed her name. I bite my lip and breathe, staring in the direction of the window, gettin’ an eyeful of some woman’s ear’ole, and beyond that, a spaced-out looking dropout with a nose-ring. Scum.

The ping as we reach the next station causes a handy bit of kerfuffle in the carriage, just enough to give me the chance to catch another glimpse. She’s leanin’ against the wall, her ‘andbag held tight, water bottle clutched like a baby. Still on the blinkin’ phone. In ‘er own world, this one. In ‘er own bloody world. Don’t I know it.

Eight-nineteen. We reach our destination right on time.

She’s ever so polite, stoppin’ to let folk off in front of her, smilin’ at some bint with a kid. Gives me a chance to slip out past her as she’s helpin’ to get the pram down from the carriage to the platform, all laughter and jollity. You can turn it on when you want to, eh?

The river of people bashes past me, umbrellas and briefcase-edges and cleared throats and mumbled conversations and excuse mes and muttered curses. I ‘ang about by the barrier, cradlin’ my ticket, ready to slip through. Just got to time it right.

‘Ere she is.

I slide up to the validator, an’ out I go. Carried along by the flow, we make our way up to the bridge like we’re all one tribe, y’know, all fightin’ the same fight. Suits and jeans alike, skin’eads and barbershop jobs. Nobody looks at anybody else. Nobody speaks. Nobody even notices me.

I make it across the bridge, no problem. Timin’, I warn myself, chancin’ a look back. I stop, ignorin’ the shakin’ heads and the clickin’ tongues all around me. Time it right, man!

She’s over halfway across – no goin’ back now, sunshine. She’s still clutchin’ that stupid water bottle, bags under ‘er eyes, face pale. I can barely keep it in long enough to let ‘er look up, in ‘er own time, an’ just when I think she won’t, she does. She finally does.

She looks up an’ sees me there, the press of people at ‘er back and the flow urgin’ her on. I smile my widest smile an’ hold out my arms, welcomin’-like, an’ she tries to stop walkin’ but someone bashes into her. Come on, darlin’. You ain’t got no choice. I tried it the nice way, and you weren’t ‘aving it. I’ve waited long enough.

She drops the water bottle, an’ it gets kicked away, quick as quick, as the press of people carries her to me like a reward, like a prize. Like nothin’ more than I deserve.

 

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘Memento Mori’

 

Memento Mori

I was hurrying down Morrison when he came at me, straight out of the alley beside the old grocery store. I put my head down and ignored him at first, sure he was just one of those guys who hadn’t taken to the process so well, but he was determined to catch my eye.

‘Hey,’ he muttered, shuffling over. ‘Hey, man. I gotta -‘

‘Can’t stop, buddy,’ I called, holding up a hand, wondering when the government was going to face facts and segregate these things. ‘In a hurry, y’know?’

‘Please,’ he said. ‘Just need a minute.’ A faint stink billowed out of him, a memory of breath.

‘Don’t you got a job to go to, friend?’ I asked. That’s the point, isn’t it? I didn’t say it out loud, but he had to know I was thinking it. Anybody would be.

He blinked and made no answer, swaying on his feet.

‘Man, I really am sorry. Okay? Really. But if I’m late for work I get to hear about it all week. You understand, right? Nothin’ personal.’ I’d reached out to shake his hand before I could stop myself, but his fists were buried deep in his rancid pockets. He froze. I glanced up at his face properly for an instant then, and he just stared at me out of wet, sloppy eyes. I couldn’t tell what colour they’d been; the process had washed it away.

I shook the guy off – his smell, his voice, the pallor of his face – as I kept walking, and by the time I finished work for the day I’d forgotten all about him. I walked home through empty streets. Apartment buildings rose into the dusk all around, dark and cold. My own building had thirty percent occupancy, and I knew I was one of the lucky ones. When I closed my door behind me I didn’t feel like something finally buried. I knew if I shouted, someone would hear me.

They might not come. But they would hear.

I saw him as I came near that old grocery store again, the one that had never been open during my lifetime. There he was, waiting in the shadows. Had he even moved since this morning?

‘Look,’ I said, before he could speak. ‘I told you before, all right? I can’t talk to you.’

‘Just, please,’ he said. He looked worse than before. Dark hollows beneath his eyes threatened to swallow his face.

‘Weren’t you at your job today? Huh? Did you just stand around here all day? Were you this useless when you were alive, too?’

‘Buddy, come on,’ he replied. ‘I gotta show you. Gotta show someone.’

I wasn’t sure why those words pulled at me, but thirty seconds later I was following him – a Refurb, an actual flesh-and-blood walking talking dead guy – into this alley. It smelled like hell.

Then, he stopped. I heard a noise, and looked down.

A kid. A kid lay on the ground, white-faced and wide-eyed, breathing hard as she stared up at me. She couldn’t have been any more than nine. It looked like maybe her leg was broken – certainly, she wasn’t going anywhere fast. This is good, flashed across my mind. The bounty for returning runaways was high. How she’d managed to escape from the Farm was anyone’s guess, but all I knew was they’d pay to get her back.

‘You animal,’ I growled, turning on the Refurb. I clenched my fists. This has to look good, I told myself.

‘No! Mister!’ The kid’s voice was like a whistle. ‘He helped me! I fell, and -‘

‘Enough,’ I told her, never taking my eyes off the Refurb. They weren’t supposed to hurt the living, but I guess you never knew. How can any of us be sure?

‘No,’ said the Refurb. His eyes were flabby. Blank. He’s just instinct, I told myself. Wrapped up in a body. He’s barely more than a machine. ‘No. Please.’ He took a shuffling step back and slid on something in the garbage piled there, falling back against the sacks. I took my chance.

A swift, hard jab to the abdomen, and he groaned so bad that I almost believed he felt it. Another, and another. There was barely any resistance in his soft flesh.

‘No! Arnie!‘ screamed the kid. ‘Stop hurting him!’

‘Arnie, is it?’ I said, bracing myself for another punch. ‘You’re a dead man, Arnie. No pun intended. You know that, right? Even if I hadn’t found you hurting this girl, or whatever it is I can make ’em believe you’d been doing up here, I’d probably have killed you just for being lazy. You’re going in the ground, my friend. Nobody needs a Refurb who won’t work.’

He looked up at me then, and his watery eyes overflowed. The barest twitch of his face could have been a smile.

I threw the killer punch. Arnie’s jaw shattered, and he lay still.

Is there a fine for smashing up a Refurb? I thought, shaking out my fist. Hardly matters. The money I’ll get for returning the kid will more than cover it.

‘Okay, little lady,’ I called, hauling myself up off the trash-pile, leaving Arnie’s twice-dead body where it lay. ‘Come on, now. You ready?’

I turned, but she was gone.

‘His name wasn’t Arnie,’ I heard her say. I squinted into the gloom, but there was no sign of her. ‘Well, maybe. It could’ve been. I call them all Arnie.’

‘You – what? Come on, kid. I don’t have time for this.’ I turned, looking, but besides me and the cold Arnie, there was nobody in this alley.

‘It takes years, you know,’ she continued, from her unseen perch. ‘The average Retirement application. And it can only be approved once a Refurb’s given at least twenty years of service. Don’t matter how many times it messes up – nobody cares. A Refurb’s gotta work until it falls apart.’ She sighed. ‘And they’re programmed not to hurt themselves, each other, or the living.’

‘So?’ I wished I could see her. The flesh on my back started to crawl. ‘What’s this got to do with you?’

‘Call it a public service,’ she replied. ‘They pay me whatever they’ve got, and I get them killed. Win-win.’

I looked back at Arnie. ‘You mean he – he wanted this?’

‘Wouldn’t you?’ She sounded angry, now. ‘Worked hard all his life, knowing that all he’d get for dying would be a day off?

‘I – but, it’s how it’s done,’ I said. ‘We need the labour.’

‘Right.’ The kid sounded further away now. ‘Tell yourself that when you’re on your deathbed.’ I heard a tiny scuffle, and a small grunt of effort, and a tiny shadow moving against the night.

‘Hey,’ I shouted. ‘Come back here! I’ve got to get you home!’ There was no answer. ‘Little girl!’

The wind skirled round the alley, tossing some papers and loosened trash. A cat flashed its eyes at me in the darkness, then vanished.

When I got home I called the authorities. Told ’em I’d seen a bunch of thugs harassing a Refurb near an alley off Morrison; I couldn’t intervene, because it was one against five. Possibly six. Said I hoped the guy would be okay. Mentioned a runaway kid, and asked about a reward.

Then I went to bed, but the darkness had a weight in it, and I was afraid to close my eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Writing

Photo Credit: Anoop Negi via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Anoop Negi via Compfight cc

The Bird-Baiter

‘Hey, Noosh!’ Siggy. Great. Just great. ‘You on late shift tonight, eh?’

‘Well, uh. I’m hardly here just to see you, friend.’ He fell into step beside me, long and lanky where I was twisted and frail. His arms swung free. Hands at the ready.

‘Sure, sure. Think you can catch somethin’ ‘sides starlight tonight, maybe?’ He laughed like a flung cat, all hssss and no ha.

‘Try my best, I guess,’ I said, wishing he’d go back to whatever it was he’d been doing before he spotted me. Spying on the women’s hut, prob’ly.

‘Yeah. Believe it when I see it.’ He clapped me on the back, fit to knock me flat. ‘See you at sunup, little man.’

‘Little man! I’m older’n you,’ I muttered, once he was well away.

Didn’t take me long to reach the Sand. It stretched for miles in both directions, the sea’s gentle kisses already lulling me. I wasn’t the first Baiter to dream on the job, and sure I wouldn’t be the last, but for fellas like Siggy, one slip-up was more than enough.

‘Noosh,’ nodded Barret. ‘You’re early.’

‘Sir,’ I said, slipping on my gloves.

‘Got your goggles?’ he asked, pointing towards the spares box, just in case. But who’d want goggles full o’ someone else’s sweat and spit? I fumbled in my pocket and drew out my own, facet-cut lenses polished clean, adjusters oiled and ready.

‘I’ll jus’ get started, sir. If that’s fine with you.’ I strung the goggles loosely round my neck and tried to look capable in my too-big gloves, made for proper hands. Barret hmmed and went back to his paperwork, waving me vaguely on. So I went.

I settled onto the perch, comfy as a cactus mattress, and watched the dying sunlight turn the sea pink. I grabbed up my rope, nestling it loosely between and around my gloved fingers. I didn’t bother with my goggles, not yet. They made the world look like a headache, unless it was full dark, and everyone knew birds didn’t come out at dusk.

I did check whether the Bait was in the net – the guy before me had done his job right, for once. Then my gaze roamed the sea for a while, watching the waves.

So, when the rope jerked, it fair knocked me off my perch. I pulled and tied it off instantly, though, without even thinking. The huge net at the rope’s far end clapped shut, just as it should, and it jerked, tautly, with the kicking of my prey. I closed my eyes, fumbling my goggles on with shaking, gloved hands. Then, I squinted through the haze and caught the flash of one giant white wing, the edges of the world shattering off into multicoloured planes.

I slithered out of my gloves and grabbed the knife at my belt. Throat, wings, feet, I recited as I clambered down. I’d never had to finish a catch; I’d never made one alone before. My knife was a stranger in my palm.

I slapped my way down the boards, approaching the net carefully. The catch thrashed about in it, a bird as white as bone and easily as big as me, which was big for a bird. Its beak was as long as my arm and it shone like moonlight on water. I’d seen, up close, the damage it could do.

‘Easy,’ I whispered. ‘Easy, now.’ The bird reared back its head and screamed at me. I tried to hide the knife behind my back, but there was no fooling it. Huge black eyes rolled, following my movements. ‘I don’t want to hurt you,’ I told it, because it was true. Cut just right, we’d always been told, and the catch feels nothing. It just dies.

I blinked, frowning, as pale, pinkish light started creeping in around the edges of my goggles. They began to steam up. I swore under my breath, but knew I deserved as much for hauling them on in a hurry. I stuffed my knife back into my belt and scrunched up my eyes before pulling my goggles away from my face. I started to resettle them, hoping the seal would take properly this time. This job had to be done right.

‘Please,’ said a voice. ‘Please, I’m begging you. Don’t hurt me.’

I held my breath. For a long second, I stood, goggles in hand, and then I made another move to put them on again. Get this done, and stop being stupid little-man Noosh, no-catch nobody.

‘No! Not those stupid things! Please! Look at me. With your own eyes.’ The voice was like soft cool sand sliding through my fingers. I chewed on my lip for a bit, feeling Barret’s gaze on me, hoping he wasn’t spying out the window of the Baiters’ hut, wondering what the hell I thought I was doing.

And then I cracked one eyelid, just a hair’s breadth, just to see. I wasn’t long about whacking it closed again.

Half a breath later I flicked my two eyes open and stared, my heart throbbing so fast it made my whole body shake.

A woman lay in the net – a white woman, pale as a pearl, with hair that looked like a candle flame. She had a vivid gash down one leg and she cradled one arm, like it was injured. She was wrapped up into herself so that I couldn’t see, but I could tell. She was naked.

‘I know what you want to do,’ she said. ‘Please. Don’t. Your people have killed so many of my sisters already.’

My mouth fell open. ‘Your – your sisters? But we kill the mountain birds. For food. We don’t kill no women.’

‘They are,’ she said, sadly, ‘one and the same.’

‘But I don’t -‘ I began. She shook her head.

‘I don’t have time to explain. Please. I will find it hard enough to fly with my injuries as they are; with every second, I grow weaker. I beg you – set me free.’

‘But – I can’t,’ I said. Her skin glowed even whiter now in the growing dark, and it drew my eye. ‘I have to finish a catch, or I’ll never be – I’ll never be good enough.’

‘I don’t want to die,’ she told me, fixing me with those large black eyes.

I leaned in close. Her pulse was hopping in her throat and I could hear her breathing, fast and shallow. I wrapped my fingers around my knife handle and drew it out; she flinched, a huge tear rolling down her moonlight cheek.

I slashed a hole in the net, hoping it was big enough, and then I turned around. I wanted to vomit, but I bent forward and breathed deep for a while, and it passed. Through the rushing of my blood I heard the fluttering swoosh as she clambered free, and out of the corner of my upside-down eye I saw her flying, skin like a coconut’s innards and hair like the sun.

I didn’t see the spear, and neither did she.

With a whoop, Siggy and his idiot friends, goggles all round, clambered out of the undergrowth. I didn’t see where she fell, and I couldn’t watch them bring her in.

When I wouldn’t join in the feast the next day, Barret called me over and told me I’d be a better farmer than a bird-baiter, anyway. He gave me three weeks’ pay and a handshake.

I looked him in the eye, and in his face I saw white-skinned women with bright yellow hair, and I knew nothing I could say would change his mind. I saw myself being laughed at as the village loon if I said a word to anyone else, and I knew he wasn’t going to explain.

So, now I grow beans and maize, and it’s a fine life. I go to the feasts, but I don’t eat, and at night I stare at the mountains and dream of star-pale skin and hair like fire.