Contest #146 shortlist ⭐️

Junebird and Love

Submitted into Contest #146 in response to: Set your story in an unlikely sanctuary.... view prompt

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Coming of Age Lesbian Speculative

Love crept in through the window silent and unannounced, like a mouse tip-toeing its way along the shadows of a dimly lit room. Or at least, that was the effect that she had been aiming for. What happened instead was a clumsy maneuver that involved stumbling over the roughly hewn wooden sill and landing on the floor of the treehouse in a crumpled heap. 


That was the way she made her entrances— it was the same way she had entered my life and it was the same way she greeted me everyday— stumbling, and messy, and beautiful. 


She smiled at me, straightening up from where she lay toppled over in a mess of limbs. Gangly frame, olive skin, blue-black hair that caressed her shoulders and back in flowing tangles: a vision. 


“Junebird!” she exclaimed, as though it was our first time seeing each other in many days. Every morning was like this, as if it were our first. It was a wonderful way to live.


She came in through the window every time, the one that I had built and sawed the timber for myself, until splinters stuck to my fingertips like needles in a pincushion. I had built this place for us, and I had built a door too, though she didn’t like to use it. 


“There’s no fun in making yourself known in the way that people expect you to,” she would say defiantly. So she somersaulted through the window like a hapless little fairy bundled up in giggles, and I would pretend to be surprised by her presence every time. 


There were two windows in the treehouse. One that I had built: the one that Love liked to use, and another that had one day appeared without any rhyme or reason: the one that Love avoided at all costs. 


Unlike mine, it was sealed over with a sheet of frosted glass, and the hazy images that we saw moving about in it did not match the world that we knew lay on the other side. But the most peculiar thing about the window was the light— a soft golden glow, always humming to us, always illuminating the treehouse even in the dead of night when the air was quiet and pitch black. 



“Have you tried looking through the window, Love?” I asked her one day. She avoided my eyes and mumbled under her breath. 


“What is there to see?” 


I knew the answer, though I didn’t say it out loud. 


A window of possibilities.


I myself had peered through the glass many times, the visions never the same from one day to the next.


Sometimes I was an artist, sometimes an architect, other times a stay at home mother, bustling around a quaint little home and spooning mush into crying mouths. A faceless man would come slouching through the door, placing a distracted kiss on my cheek. 


It was this particular vision that turned my stomach especially, and it was the retelling of it that flipped Love’s wide mouth into a downturned crescent, a weighted emotion pulling her features lengthwise down her face. 


“That’s not really you,” she whispered. “Those are versions of you that have kept on lying to yourself, and with each lie that you create, another reality is born. Worlds of lies. Beautiful lies.” 


She was wrong. Some were appealing, I had to admit, but they were not beautiful. Not to me. Because in each possibility I saw through that window, not a single one contained love. Not a single one contained her.


Love turned away from the window, and the light slid off of her back and fell at her heels.


“Don’t look through that window anymore,” she told me solemnly. Her voice was a low, melancholy note. “Not unless you know exactly what you want to see.”







When we were little, Love would bounce into my garden on her polished patent-leather shoes, shucking them off as soon as she came to a stop in front of me. The soles of her pale stockings would blacken within minutes, but she had always prioritized freedom over being seen as pristine. 


In her hand was a jar of glue that I had a sneaking suspicion she had pocketed while perusing the aisles of an arts and crafts store. It was the harmless type of glue, the gooey white kind that was only strong enough to bind thin sheets of paper. When applied to the skin, it only left a mildly tacky residue that pilled off into sticky little grains of rice. 


It was with this glue, the neatly piled leaves that had been raked against the side of my house, and a fiery sense of determination that Love set about building my wings.


“Junebird will fly, Junebird will fly,” she sang under her breath, sticking leaf after leaf along the line of my arm. 


The stems of scratchy foliage pricked at my forearms, but I held still as she glued on one after another, building, layering, crafting the appendages that would catch the wind and carry me into the sky where freedom lay. 


But no matter how fervently she glued, no matter how tightly her brow knit in concentration, the makeshift wings would disintegrate and crumble apart at the slightest movement of my elbows.


I couldn’t bear to look at her crestfallen face, which reflected a disappointment that was far greater than my own. It’s okay, I wanted to tell her. I wouldn’t want to fly anywhere anyway, if I could not take her with me. 



Those were the days when my mother grudgingly watched us play from the window that looked out over our yard. Love’s presence was allowed, but never embraced. 


“She is wild,” my mother would mutter under her breath. “Like an animal.” 


“She is free,” my grandmother would comment in confused glee, entirely missing the context of the conversation yet hitting the mark all the same.







In fairytales and princess movies— the ones we would watch huddled around my boxy little television set, an array of cassette tapes spread around our feet— true love was always sealed with a kiss. 


Meet, fall in love, kiss. Happy ending. This was the sequence of events as they played out on that grainy convex screen. 


Our growing-up was marked by the realization that life was not a fantasy. 



I didn’t know that I wanted to kiss Love until it happened. We grew up together and we grew into each other, and though Cupid had not struck me with desire right away, my love for her had merely been an arrow waiting in his quiver, at the ready. 


It was on a day where instead of glue she brought a jar of honey, and we sat in my garden on a mattress of peonies, sucking sweetness from our fingertips. A wisp of hair caught on her sticky mouth, a dark line against soft pink. I reached forward to tenderly extract the stray strand, and I saw a drop of honey pull away with it. Honey hair. Honey mouth. 


Without thinking, I touched the tip of her hair to my tongue and kissed it away, and then I leaned in and kissed the sugar from her mouth. 


That was the scene my mother walked in on: two wild girls sitting in the middle of a flower bed with an open jar of happiness beside them, and their lips tasting it together.


It was like a fairytale, from the beginning to the middle. Love, sealed with a kiss. But before we could reach the happy ending, the tape skipped and stuttered, and the screen went black. 


My mother was silent and still, composed and dignified in the moments before it came time for her to deliver the mortal blow. She didn’t speak until after Love had left, scampering off at a single look that was fierce enough to drive away even the most stubborn of birds. 


It occurred to me that this woman who had raised me was much like a scarecrow: stuffed with straw, solemn and watchful, waiting in the shadows to expel anything or anyone who dared peck away at what she had grown. 


She stooped down to gather up the jar which Love had abandoned in her flight and disappeared into the house, leaving me to trail after her with doom blooming in my gut. She was waiting with her back turned when I stepped inside, and I prepared myself for a ruckus of screaming and hurled objects.


Instead she just said quietly, “You will not see her again.” 


That night she served tea with our evening meal. The liquid was bland on my tongue as I sipped away at it, and I wondered if in her hatred, she had simply thrown all of the honey away. 







I began to scheme and plot away at how I could be with Love again without facing repercussion. I got out my pencils and sketchbook, my ruler and my charcoals. With trembling hands I sketched out my plan until my fingers were smudged with black, and veins of silver graphite spidered across my palms. I paid it no mind. I valued love over being pristine. 


In the massive oak tree bordering the fence between her land and mine, I built our home. The tree leaned heavily over to her side as if cowering away in shame, and it was just outside of my mother’s field of vision from inside the house. Love would climb up the fence and tumble in through the window, and within those four walls we would be hidden, and safe. 


“Junebird!” she would exclaim, landing on the window sill with bare feet like a flitting little bird. Her face would light up as if we hadn’t seen each other in days. Each morning was our first. It was a wonderful way to live. It was a good enough way to live. 


And then, the window appeared. 




To Love, there was no such thing as a strange occurrence or a supernatural phenomenon. She welcomed the presence of the mystical window as naturally as she welcomed everything else, and seemed puzzled at my own puzzlement. 


“It’s simple,” she said slowly, as though I were missing something painfully obvious. “Magic. Don’t you believe in magic?” 


“Well sure,” I replied uneasily, though I wasn’t sure what I believed in anymore. “But where did the window come from?” 


“You tell me,” she said. “You’re the one who built it.” 


I had built a window, a plain wooden one that looked out onto open air. Not this other one. Not the cloudy glass, not the dim but beautiful light that emanated a comforting warmth, not the blurry images that moved just behind the surface like the films we used to watch on my old television. I had not created any of that, but she looked at me as if I had, as if I were the source of all things magical and unique in the world. 


We would steal away to the treehouse during the day when my mother was distracted, or in the hush of night when the trees swayed their heads in judgment and the thin flannel of our pajamas was not enough to protect us from the chill of the air. 


Her skin was always cool to the touch; I wanted to take her in my hands and pour all of my warmth into her until she was soft and golden like honey, I wanted to drink from her lips to satiety so that some of her sweetness could flow into me. I wanted to do that for her, but sometimes I felt cold too. Then I could only shiver and watch as she sat in the light of the window, seeking its brief and gentle comfort. 


I had not kissed her since that day my mother caught us, not even within the treehouse, hidden from the eyes of outsiders. There were eyes inside of me too, always watching, always condemning. She noticed it, though she didn’t say anything. 



“If you could be anything in the world, what would you be?” she asked me quietly. She had her hand spread out in front of her, the light passing through the cracks of her fingers and splintering across her cheeks. 


“What would you see, if you looked?” I forced myself to ask her in return, avoiding my own answer. “What would you want to see?” 


She did not turn towards the window, but snapped her fingers shut instead, closing her hand into a fist so that the shadow turned solid and eclipsed her face. She spoke delicately and with precision, like reciting a poem from memory. 


“I would be putting flowers in your hair, and building your wings from leaves and glue.” 


I blinked slowly. “Is that all?” 


She looked at me with a certain shade of sadness, something like resignation. 


“What more can there be?”







It was the hottest day of the summer. Everyone was too exhausted to move, and the only sound that could be heard was the melodic thrum of the air conditioner at work. I spoke less and less to my mother those days, and I could tell that she noticed. But I couldn’t help it. 


She had caged me up and clipped my wings, and it would do her no good to regret now that her bird would no longer sing. I drifted through the house like a lonely wraith. I felt her eyes follow me around, like a gargoyle who seems to track your movements even as they remain inanimate. 


I was listless and irritable. The heat clung onto me like a plastic film, wrapping around my arms and legs, adhering to my nose and mouth. Every breath I drew in suffocated me more. It would be torture to enter the treehouse at this temperature. In that small enclosed space, Love and I would slowly boil like frogs in a pot of hot water. 



I went to my grandmother instead. 


Her door was slightly ajar as it always was, and I slipped into the room quietly. When I entered she was already looking over her shoulder, twisted around from where she’d been gazing out the window. 


“Junebird,” she said, sounding delighted. I sat down by her feet, my fingers weaving through the spokes in the wheel of her chair. 


“Grandmother,” I said. “Do you ever feel trapped?” 


She raised a teasing eyebrow and I bit my lip as I realized my blunder. She barely left her room these days, and was physically unable to leave her chair. I couldn’t remember the last time she had left the house. Maybe it had been way back when my father was still here. 


“Tell me what’s troubling you,” she said. I hesitated.


“I built… a box,” I explained in halting phrases. “It keeps me safe, but it also traps me. I feel like a coward, constantly hiding.” 


How could I explain that my refuge had become a prison, and that I had chained my love to me? But her eyes were already widening, looking at me knowingly. 


“I know it may be hard to believe,” she began, “but your mother does not know hatred. It’s not that. Her problem is that she sees the world in black and white, and when something crosses her vision that does not fall into either of those categories, she becomes confused, and stubborn.” 


My stomach churned. Which category did I fall into? 


“So what do I do?” I whispered.


Somewhere in the house, the old generator groaned in sympathy. A loose floorboard creaked. Heat climbed up the walls, listening in. 


“Do as you do,” she answered simply. “Live in color, love in color, and the world will follow after. Why should you have to bleach yourself bland for them?” 


Pristine white stockings. Tea without honey. Pure and bland.


A figure lurked silently in the hallway, under the impression that they were unseen and unheard. I saw the shadows of feet moving beneath the door. 


Maybe all this time, it had been like this.


Maybe my mother and I had been two elusive ghosts living in the same house, haunting each other. 







I flashed my bedroom light, once, then twice. Pause. Once, twice. Then I crept down the stairs and out the back door, across the garden and up the oak tree where I would be liberated from my cell that night.


I counted the minutes that passed by. I had not yet run out of fingers on one hand when she crawled through the window, maintaining a few seconds worth of balance before falling in head first and rolling into my lap. She straightened up quickly, her hair sticking up in all directions like she’d been electrocuted. 


“Junebird!” she grinned, right on cue. I felt my heart fracture into a kaleidoscope of hues. 


Beads of sweat clung to her collarbones like a necklace of pearls. Her heat radiated off of her, even though the night had cooled the air into a tolerable warmth. 


I kissed her. 


I kissed her and held her until she was trembling against me, and even then I did not let go. 


Behind us, the window had gone empty and dark. 


We could have become anything or anyone, done anything and everything that we could ever dream of.


Instead, we chose ourselves. I chose her. 



We were birds with honey mouths and wings of leaves, and we would not be frightened away so easily. 


We would claim the garden as ours, we would throw our shoes over the fence and dance and twirl figure-eights into the dirt. From inside the house, a statue of ice would look on, slowly thawing away in the summer heat.


May 18, 2022 03:51

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12 comments

Felice Noelle
17:15 May 27, 2022

Gem: As a lover of words, I just love the way you put words together, prose that is almost poetic. IMO, I think this would be wonderful read aloud. Some of the sentences are so beautiful, with striking metaphors and vivid descriptions of almost fairytale qualities. Great writing. Maureen

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Gem Cassia
05:22 May 28, 2022

Your feedback means so much, thank you for taking the time to leave a comment!

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Michał Przywara
23:50 May 24, 2022

An interesting story! It seems to blur the lines between reality and fantasy. I love the name Love for a character. The lesson this covers is very fitting for the coming of age tag. What particularly appealed to me was Junebird's conflict with her mother, and the wisdom of her grandmother. In the heat of the moment, the mother's actions definitely could look malicious, but if she's stuck in a world of black and white, of strict rules, we understand that she just doesn't have the tools to process this. It makes me wonder if she faced a simi...

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Gem Cassia
05:23 May 28, 2022

Thank you so much for this detailed comment, I loved your analysis of the story. And congrats on the win!!

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Michał Przywara
16:25 May 28, 2022

Thanks! And congratulations on the shortlist!

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J.C. Lovero
01:39 Jun 06, 2022

Hello Gem! I'm finally coming around to both my Reedsy TBR list and my past due critique circle partners, so here I am 😁 😆 😅 First, your prose throughout this story is elegant. I loved how the words just flowed, almost mystical like a fairy tale as you described the different scenes throughout. The characterization and relationship between Junebird, her mother, and grandmother was excellent. I particularly liked the segments of the story pertaining to black and white vs living in color. Such a sweet coming of age story. Congrats on the s...

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Riel Rosehill
20:32 Jun 01, 2022

This is the second story I've read of yours - your writing is beautiful. Makes me really envy this beautiful style, and the stories are also very touching - congrats for making the shortlist with this, it was truly well deserved!

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L. Maddison
18:30 May 27, 2022

Hauntingly beautiful. A coming of age fairytale. A worthy shortlist.

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Gem Cassia
05:21 May 28, 2022

Thank you so much!!

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Emma G.
19:12 Jul 21, 2022

This really tugged on my heart. The window metaphor was a nice magical touch. You have a beautiful writing style that flows effortlessly! Congrats on the shortlist :) Much deserved.

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Kevin Broccoli
16:27 Jun 02, 2022

The story was over and I was still going back and rereading certain parts because of how well you work with language. Well done.

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16:53 May 29, 2022

Gem, I fell in love with your tale from the first paragraph. I was in a trance, reading every sentence and shaking my head in awe. The rich imagery, metaphors, the range of emotions packed in each sentence was almost overwhelming. I don't know how you write so masterfully at 20 years old. It's mind-boggling. You probably write instinctively. Without overthinking, strategizing, structuring etc. I wish I could single out one sentence that touched me the most, but there are too many. The first one that I adored was the description of love: ...

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