Contest #206 shortlist ⭐️

Despair is also a Thing with Feathers

Submitted into Contest #206 in response to: Write about someone facing their greatest fear.... view prompt

27 comments

Contemporary Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

CONTENT WARNING: This story contains themes of suicide and self harm which some readers may find confronting.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -


And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

And sore must be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm -


I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet - never - in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of me.

--Emily Dickinson


“Elodie, baby, I’m just going to hide the knives. I’m not judging you. I just want you to be safe. You don’t have to come out,” I call through the bathroom door. 

It’s silly, I know. No, not silly…Foolish? Maybe, but that doesn’t cover the gamut of emotion: stupid to do it, terrified not to, terrified it won’t be enough anyway, shame that I couldn’t raise a child happy, shame that I think more about what her death would make me than I do about the loss itself. Shame shame. But still I push the pile into the deep shadow of the shelves in the garage, all of them; every knife, box cutter, and sharp scissor in the house. I can’t cut a tomato until she crawls out of her cave.

Then I go inside and click on a link to an article. I’ll read the first paragraph 47 times while I keep my ear cocked up to the bathroom. Has the water been on too long? I put into coherent mind words, hoping the rational side won’t be able to see around them to the picture of blood leaking into the water that the other me knows is in there. 

The faucet turns off and the sound of her definitely moving causes some kind of relief hormone to wash through my body, as if the valve on the tub upstairs diverted the flow to my veins. Then the silence of a tub soak. Relaxing for her. I read the first paragraph twelve more times, distracted, I tell myself, by the rambling nonsense Andrew is watching on Youtube. Not, of course, by the question of whether it will be important to put clothes on her while I wait for the ambulance or if I will be able to lift her from the water.

“Elodie, are you all right?” I ask, reaching to feel the top of the door frame for the needle-like tool that unlocks this door. Just in case. 

Elodie responds, annoyed, “yes, mom I’m fine.”

I try to resist snapping back, but I fail, as usual. “Honey, you just now ran into my arms and told me you weren’t safe with yourself. You asked me to keep you safe; you can’t be annoyed that I do it.” Yes she can. Of course she can be annoyed. She’s fifteen.

But I ask her again, at least three more times that night, through closed doors. I send Andrew to have a sleep over in her room. I can’t cope with what it might do to him if she hurt herself in front of him. I just place all my bets on her worrying more about that than I can. 

We’re in the kitchen in the morning. She’s watching me tear Andrew’s go-gurt open with my teeth, making her smug little crinkle-cheeked “what the hell are you doing face” as she pulls open the knife drawer.

“Oh!” she says, a weird mixture of accusing me of overreacting and laughing at herself for making me hide the knives, with just a little dash of self-loathing for inconveniencing everyone: everyone who prays to be inconvenienced because the alternative is that she doesn’t reach out and ask. Everyone who would work like galley slaves to keep her alive,. 

Galley slaves? Gallery slaves? What does that word mean? Something about a boat. Do boat slaves work the hardest? I should know this. Shame shame shame. I’ll have to look it up. There’s quarry slaves too…that’s in a poem. Why is my brain like this?

But she laughs, and it’s real, all the way to the eyes. I can see her teeth fillings, the white not quite matching. My fault; when she was little and resisted me helping her brush, I let her do it herself and then didn’t know how badly until she needed fillings. Most things are my fault. But not her dad leaving rather than accept having a queer daughter. That’s squarely on him.

I put my arms around her and let out a little cry of joyful relief that she’s herself again. She releases the air through her mouth in an annoyed sigh. Yes, she can breathe irritation. And then I go get the knives from the garage. She follows me and hovers at the door. “You didn’t hide them very well.” She seems maybe disappointed. Is there anything she won't criticize me for? She thinks I didn’t love her enough to hide them well? I didn’t think she was clever enough to find them here?

“That’s not the point.” I’ve explained it before, but I can’t make her see. She thinks that her suicide is something looming on the horizon, some inescapable t-rex at bay only because it hasn’t yet scented her. I think it’s a little black thing with feathers, hope’s opposite, a crow that lands on her heart, easily scared away. 

She can find the knives. Of course she can find the knives. But in the ten minutes she spends hunting for them, the crow will have flown. I can’t just not have knives. These won’t be her weapons anyway if it turns out it is the t-rex instead. These are just for the cuts. The painful punishment, the endorphins, the marks so we all know that she isn’t just whining, her pain is beyond what we have imagined or can relate to.

Except of course, that I can. I know it exactly. People think it comes from trauma, but I didn’t have any trauma, yet it was there, always. At eight years old, I cried in the bathtub after church because I'd found out that even the reward for a life well lived was more life, as if anyone wanted that. 

And now I’ve given it to her.

Elodie will take the meds, when we get them. That’s a five-hundred-step process of changing insurance, getting a therapist, getting a recommendation from the therapist to the primary, getting a referral from the primary to the specialist. In the meantime, I try to convince her exercise helps. That’s just more pressure. Shame shame.

Running keeps mine under control. I don’t have therapy or medication. I just outrun mine. But you can’t outrun it. You can only ever be outrunning it. It catches up when you stop, that other thing with feathers that perches in the soul and whispers cruel words without the tune.

Elodie thinks I should get meds, too. Maybe I could help her more if I weren’t always outrunning my own predator.

She’s safe at school, with teenagers and activity. I look at the knife drawer and wonder if I’m overconfident. I have two acquaintances whose kids killed themselves. It’s an epidemic, I should say, clicking my tongue and shaking my head. But all I want to know is were they asleep at the wheel or did they see it coming and just couldn’t stop it, like an onrushing train? Carnivorous dinosaur with the scent of their child, their own pathetic attempts to slow down such a beast just leaving them crushed in the path? You can’t ask anybody: um pardon me, did this happen to you because you didn’t love your kid enough? Because I do love mine, see, so I don’t deserve this. Even thinking it makes me a terrible person. I pick up all the knives and go shove them in the back of my bathroom cabinet. 

One of the knives gets hung up between the tile cleaner and a stack of toilet paper rolls. It points straight up, but I can’t see it in the gloom. My hand comes down on it, in the fleshy pad of my lower palm. I snatch it back in pain. It doesn’t bleed, but I can see the mark where the point has pierced flesh layers. Of course I would never have knives nice enough to stay sharp or enough initiative to keep them sharpened. Shame shame. Pressing on the little wound is a comfortable kind of pain, like stretching deeply or rolling the knots out of my feet with a golf ball. 

Crouched by my bathroom cabinet holding the knife in one hand and that feeling of pleasant pain in the other, I just wonder. Why does she do it? I look at my upper arms, the spot she picks, but everyone can see my arms. I lift up my shirt, take a second to deplore rolls of soft flesh on my belly before setting the knife against my ribs and dragging it across several inches. It isn’t sharp enough to slice the flesh, not at the pressure I’m using anyway. But it leaves an angry red scrape. It will scab over in the coming hours, one of those thin track scabs that break into tiny sections, even though it doesn’t actually bleed.

I’m lost for a second in the moment of feeling some kind of control, maybe the power to slash at the crow, and if not to kill it, maybe to scare it off a little longer. Maybe to let it drink its fill at this wound so it forgets and leaves the heart alone. There’s power in a knife blade. A cloud passes across the sun, changing the way the light is reflected off the blade and I react quickly, shoving the knife into the cabinet, dropping my shirt and hurrying on my way. I have to get to work. 

**

Elodie has Andrew wiggling on her lap when I come in. He’s trying to escape; she’s trying to feed him cheetos baby style with airplane zooms. They aren’t really doing those things, just pretending because it’s funny. I stand in the corner and watch, heart filled with the sweetness, knowing that the spell will be broken the second they see me. Elodie will close up, Andrew will turn his attention to me and leave her cold. I can’t control it. The crow lands on my soul. 

I slip out before they notice, going to collect the knives from their hiding spot now that I’m home to keep an eye on her, now that I need to cut tomatoes for dinner. 

Crouching to retrieve the blades, arm sunk shoulder-deep in the shadow, my jaw bangs against the edge of the counter. Serves me right. It was stupid to hide them anyway. The fingertips of my right hand tiptoe to the scratched line at my ribs and press in. My left comes out with a reclaimed sharp, a longer fiercer weapon than made the scratch, heavy red handle satisfyingly molded into my hand when I shift it to the right. I lose the thread of my day again as the sun glints on the blade, slanting in from the opposite side from this morning. The crow in my soul whispers some squawking tuneless version of “shame shame shame.” This one demands crumbs. And I feed it. 

I raise my shirt, again feeling over the rolls of fat for the spot where this knife really will bite through. I’m glancing around for what I’ll do with the blood, when a sharp rap on the door startles the crow away, and I’m just crouched on the bathroom floor, inexplicably holding a knife to my own ribs.

“Mom? Are you in there?”

“Yes, baby.” 

“I thought I heard you come in, but you didn’t say hi. Are you sick?”

I look at the knife, pulled back from my ribs and shake my head at my reflection. “No, honey. I’ll be out in a minute.”

When I think about losing Elodie, it isn't about losing her. I think about how to deal with her body. I think about the other parents keeping solemn faces on while they blame me and congratulate themselves on their well adjusted kids. I think about her father feeling vindicated. Because actually thinking of the hole punched cleanly through our lives by just not having her would kill me too.

I had a nightmare about her drowning when she was little. In the dream I swam down after her through deep, clear water until her little body settled on the bottom. I could feel the pressure mounting in my ears and my lungs burning as I went after her until I knew that it was surface or die trying to reach her. I woke up with my heart thudding in my ears, because there was no choice to make. Surviving her would be the same as dying.

I thought about that dream for weeks, shifting the little dress she wore to her watery grave down to the bottom of the pile until I finally gave up and just threw it in the trash.

“You have to come look at what Andy is doing. He puts on the shark mask and then he totally believes it when I act scared. It’s so cute.”

“I’m coming.” I reach in for the rest of the blades.

She’s there, looking at me like I’ve lost the thread when I emerge with the armload of knives. “Oh, yeah, like I’m the only crazy one here,” I say.

She smiles to the fillings again, “like two halves of a pecan. Complete nuts.”

It helps, the inviting me in, even if it is inside a nutshell.

She follows along with me, wanting to show off Andrew’s new trick. One sockfoot padding impatiently against the back of her calf, she waits while I select the smallest dullest knife and one pair of child’s scissors to put back in the drawer and dump the rest in the trash.

She looks. Lots of commentary on her face but none on her lips. 

“We’re going out to dinner.” Then like I’m trying to convince her, “I can just not have knives. I can do whatever I want.” She looks up into my face, skeptical eyebrows uneven until she decides she approves of whatever she finds there. 

“Not unless what you want is to see what Andy does.” She takes a prowling step forward, suddenly in character with her whole slinking body. She calls out much too loudly to be for my benefit, “But watch out, because I think there’s a shark in there!”

Something about her stalking posture, like a CGI velociraptor, reminds me that dinosaurs, too, had feathers. Not things you could outrun or frighten off. But maybe something you could refuse to feed. Maybe something there were some weapons against.

I fingered my phone in my pocket. I’d call after all about the meds for myself.




July 08, 2023 11:06

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27 comments

Shea West
16:01 Jul 21, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist. In all honesty this should have been the winning story, it was unique and honed in on the intrusiveness that is the mind in parenting and how it's hard as hell—in so many damn ways.

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Angela Ginsburg
18:40 Jul 21, 2023

I’m so glad it resonated with you. I haven’t read the winning story yet, but u was surprised to be shortlisted — i read so many good stories this week!

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Delbert Griffith
11:29 Jul 15, 2023

Let's just get this out of the way; you have serious writing chops. Top notch. This tale feels like "Diary of a Mad Housewife" meets "Trainspotting." Immersive, captivating, chilling, heartbreaking, genuine, layered. It really does have it all, and it meets the prompt well. One of the best stories I've read this week, if not arguably the best. I read your bio. As an ex-teacher in Texas, I can relate. I used to have a blog, with a pen name, for the same reason. Sad, isn't it? Terrific writing, my friend. Absolutely stellar skills, coupled...

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Angela Ginsburg
22:16 Jul 15, 2023

Thanks for the kind words! Glad you enjoyed it. Yes, hard that teachers have to hide that they are the voices behind things that might really help their kids mature, cope, feel less alone. On the flip side, kids googling everything I write is also not comfy for me, so good to have another name!

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Story Time
16:03 Jul 26, 2023

I think being able to allow yourself the freedom to let this kind of powerful writing come through you while still keeping it polished and succinct is really difficult, and you did such a great job with it.

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Angela Ginsburg
17:22 Jul 26, 2023

Wow. How kind of you.

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Kelsey H
05:29 Jul 22, 2023

This is so well written and you really delve into those deep emotions of being a parent, especially how strongly linked you feel your own wellbeing is to your child's wellbeing. I especially found the thoughts on 'shame' insightful and relatable, and I loved all the crow metaphors. - Maybe to let it drink its fill at this wound so it forgets and leaves the heart alone. - great line.

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Angela Ginsburg
07:10 Jul 22, 2023

Thank you! Parenting is so hard, and you seem to have gotten everything I was trying to say. Thanks for reading

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21:44 Jul 21, 2023

-I cried in the bathtub after church because I'd found out that even the reward for a life well lived was more life, as if anyone wanted that.- Even as a child, the whole notion of an afterlife terrified me. Just that still having to be around people for eternity... Ugh It's why I've only been able to find peace in agnosticism. This is incredible. Thank you for writing this. Well done on the shortlist! ❤️😊

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Angela Ginsburg
21:51 Jul 21, 2023

Same! The whole point of reading is these little unexpected ways that we find we’re not alone! Thanks for reading

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21:53 Jul 21, 2023

My reedsy may have bugged. I couldn't see my comment just now. And thought I failed. So um I left another. 😅😅 I am glad you got this one.

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Michele Duess
17:14 Jul 21, 2023

She smiles to the fillings again, “like two halves of a pecan. Complete nuts.” It helps, the inviting me in, even if it is inside a nutshell." I really liked that line. Congrats

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Angela Ginsburg
17:58 Jul 21, 2023

Thanks—im Proud of that one

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Sarah Martyn
02:13 Jul 21, 2023

A story I wish to keep reading! So enjoyable. Vivid, imaginative.

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Angela Ginsburg
15:32 Jul 21, 2023

Thank you!

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Kevin Logue
09:20 Jul 16, 2023

Your imagery and emotion are simply astonishing. The opener line where MC is basically arguing with herself as to whether it is silly, or stupid, or terrifying, is so parental and sets up everything that follows. Masterfully constructed, I think this may be a winner!

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Angela Ginsburg
11:08 Jul 16, 2023

Wow! Thanks! Glad it resonated.

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Ellen Neuborne
20:51 Jul 15, 2023

A powerful story. I was very drawn to the MC's mix of fears -- for her child, for herself.

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Angela Ginsburg
22:15 Jul 15, 2023

Thanks for reading and leaving a kind comment.

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06:11 Sep 04, 2023

https://exampledomain.com/?u=XXXXX&o=YYYYY

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Amanda Lieser
05:27 Aug 11, 2023

Hi Angela! This was a gorgeously tragic piece. I loved the different POV-the mother who is deeply struggling while worrying about her child because she knows that pain all too well. I loved the dialogue in this piece because it felt so perfectly parent-child. But those scenes where she was all alone were gut wrenching. It was a well deserved shortlist! Congratulations!!

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Angela Ginsburg
16:49 Aug 17, 2023

Thanks so much, Amanda! Gut-wrenching was the target!

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Philip Ebuluofor
18:56 Jul 22, 2023

Congrats. You are gainng status here.

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Angela Ginsburg
19:08 Jul 22, 2023

Thanks

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Philip Ebuluofor
13:04 Jul 23, 2023

Welcome.

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21:51 Jul 21, 2023

-I cried in the bathtub after church because I'd found out that even the reward for a life well lived was more life, as if anyone wanted that. - Incredibly well written and deeply emotive. Thank you for writing this ❤️

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Mary Bendickson
18:11 Jul 21, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist. Well deserved.

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