“Thin Slats of Metal, Painted” by Alex Dally MacFarlane
On Tuesdays, Jess wore measuring tapes in her hair. They twisted and coiled like toy snakes: yellow, red, blue and white.
We are thin slats of metal, painted.
We are birds.
The glass door to the hairdresser’s clicked shut at Jess’s back. With careful fingers she untied a red and white measuring tape from her hair.
So early in the morning, no one walked through the small shopping arcade. Most of the shops were permanently closed, hidden behind shutters and metal sheets, or bare-windowed, postered, the glass revealing dust and a few empty shelves and months of letters scattered across the dark floor. Only a few waited for their employees. Jess avoided those.
Usually she stayed near the hairdresser’s, at the shops covered in shutters. She enjoyed measuring the slats, finding the small differences between them: seven centimetres and three millimetres wide on this shop, six centimetres and six millimetres wide on that shop. Sometimes people had painted and tagged the slats. Sometimes the paintings were pretty: a hot air balloon over mountains, bright, tall cities, four women wearing foxes that bared their pointed teeth.
Jess measured the paintings only one time. She did not want to impose upon them by repeating the act.
Ignoring the familiar slats, she walked towards the far end of the shopping arcade and around the corner, where an exit led out to a small park. Jess knew not to go outside, knew that she shouldn’t really come this far. Every week she promised her grandmother that she would stay near the hairdresser’s, but there were several more permanently closed shops here, before the exit, and they had the best paintings on their shutters. She wanted to see if there was a new one.
Four bird-people stood on shutters painted near-white, all previous images and words and posters hidden. Jess approached slowly, the measuring tape in her hands almost forgotten. The birds were beautiful.
“Where have you come from?” she asked them.
The birds didn’t answer.
They had bodies like people, tall and lean, clothed. Blue-grey trousers with yellow patterns – three dots in a circle, like ice cream in a yellow-rimmed bowl – billowed out around their legs and tapered at the ankle, above small black shoes. White shirts matched their tall white hats. Their arms were the same near-white as the shutters and they held them out in front of their long, grey wings.
There were four of them, the largest on the left and the smallest on the right, receding under a canopy of oval-shaped leaves.
They seemed to be dancing.
Jess sat on the floor and watched them.
We are grey and white, teal and yellow – spread wide and static. We are caught here.
Only a god could have done this to us.
“I’m Jess,” she told the birds. “What are your names?”
They didn’t answer.
“That’s sad. Everyone needs names.” It had taken two visits for her to find the courage to talk to the birds again, after they had ignored her first question. They looked so proud and beautiful – surely they wouldn’t want to listen to someone as little as her.
But they did not ruffle their feathers in displeasure or shush her for speaking out of turn.
“I’ll give you some.”
The only names she knew were her friends’.
“You can be Em,” she said to the lowest bird, whose legs were almost lost in the floor. To the second she said, “And you can be Ameesh,” and to the third she said, “You can be Star.” Finally, to the highest one, whose pointed hat nudged the leaves, she said, “I would like to call you Nuriyah.”
The birds remained still. Jess imagined that she saw smiles on their faces.
“Why aren’t you flying anymore?” she asked. “You have such beautiful wings. I think your feathers are fifteen centimetres wide at the ends.” She hadn’t measured them, too afraid they would be offended. “They’re perfect for flying.”
Their wings did not flap. Their eyes did not fill with tears.
“You’ve forgotten that you once flew, haven’t you?” She pulled her knees up to her chest. If I was trapped, she thought, I hope I wouldn’t forget I measured things. I hope I would remember to escape.
Her watch beeped: five minutes until her grandmother finished in the hairdresser’s and would expect her at the glass door. Jess got to her feet quickly. Before she ran back across the shopping arcade, she said Goodbye to each bird, repeating their names.
In the hairdresser’s, her grandmother was saying goodbye to her friend, an old, bald woman with a warm smile and a tattoo of a hare on her shoulder.
Every Tuesday morning, the same routine: Jess’s grandmother came to the shopping arcade, where her friend washed her hair in a gleaming sink and kept her short curls a pale shade of blue.
“Are you ready for school?” her grandmother asked as they walked to the car.
“Yes, Granny,” Jess replied.
Her grandmother never asked about the measuring tapes in her hair. Jess imagined instead: You could measure a whole shelf of plant pots with those! or Does that bow have loops exactly seven centimetres long? How clever!
They drove out past the small, empty park and along several quiet roads until they reached a bigger road, where there were lots of cars and people.
The route to Jess’s school was a familiar one, though she still liked to puzzle at what some things along the way might measure – flower pots and windows and bricks, all tantalisingly beyond her reach. Her fingers brushed the tapes in her hair.
After five minutes of looking outside, she looked at her grandmother’s hair and asked, “Why don’t you have to pay for that?”
“You’ve already heard the answer,” her grandmother replied, frowning. “Please don’t continue to ask such a rude question, Jess.”
“Sorry.” Jess hoped that if she kept asking, she would eventually be told more than Because once I did a great thing for the salon’s owner, and she is thanking me. Surely her grandmother would get fed up with the question one day and give it a proper answer.
As they approached the school, Jess tried a new question. “Why did you do a great thing for her?”
For a moment it looked like her grandmother wouldn’t answer, but she did. “Because it is always good to do great things for people. Not because they might thank you. If you do great things out of the kindness of your heart, expecting nothing in return, it means you are a great person. Come on, out you go.” She leaned across Jess and opened the door, admitting the sound of several hundred children walking or hurrying into school. “I’ll see you this afternoon, little one.”
Jess walked slowly towards her classroom, thinking about great things.
We do not remember when we stopped flying. There was a time when our grey wings stretched out against the air, when the wind ran across our feathers. And now we are paint and the only wind that touches us is cold and smells of dust and rain.
Before we flew, we lived in warm, red ovals, curled up tight against walls of shell. We did not expect that to end, but we grew to accept that it was not meant to last forever.
Is this not another stage?
“I saw a bird this morning,” Jess said. “It had grey wings. I thought of you.”
She stood in front of the painted birds, her hair filled with almost-forgotten measuring tapes.
“You should fly again. I’m going to help you.”
They did not flap their wings in excitement, but of course they could not. When Jess freed them, when she helped them return to the sky, they would flap then, and soar, and she would watch them play games with each other.
She moved quickly. Last week there had been flimsy metal chairs stacked outside one of the empty shops; to her relief, no one had moved them. She carefully lifted one off the lowest stack and positioned it in front of the birds. Then she opened her school rucksack and took out the wire cutters she had borrowed from the out-of-bounds cupboard in her grandmother’s utility room in the middle of the night.
Even when she stood on tiptoes on the chair, stretching up with her arms as high as possible, the wire cutters were five slats from the top.
“Oh,” she whispered.
When she had held the wire cutters, felt their centimetres in her small hands, she’d thought they would be enough. They were so long, how could they not reach the top?
She sat down on the chair and tried to think, not cry.
A while later, with salt still clinging to her cheeks, she looked at the shutters and decided that she didn’t need the top five slats. They only had leaves on them. The birds wouldn’t be offended if she didn’t rescue all of their leaves, she hoped. She stood back up on the chair and reached with the wire cutters.
Parallel wires ran vertically through the slats. Jess cut them at the right end first, then moved her chair to cut them at the middle, then the left. By then the shutters were sagging, and when she cut the final vertical wire they crashed loudly onto the floor.
There was nobody in the shopping arcade to hear, except for her grandmother and the bald woman in the hairdresser’s.
Jess wrapped her arms around the slats and dragged them awkwardly, their ends screeching across the floor, to the nearby exit. The wire cutters hung from her thumb.
Outside, there were no people and no cars, just as she had seen when driving to and from the shopping arcade. Still, Jess looked both ways before dragging the slats across the road to the little park. She was already panting and tired, like after a PE class. Fortunately it wasn’t far to the big bushes in the park, which hid her from the road and the pavement on one side and the buildings on the other side.
She spread the shutters carefully on the grass between the bushes, aligning the slats with as much precision as the uneven ground allowed. “Are you siblings?” she whispered while she worked. “Will you make rude faces and pull each other’s wings?” Sometimes she wished she had a sister or a brother.
They did not rise, wings flapping, from the metal. Only a slight shiver of the slats in a morning wind suggested life.
Maybe, Jess considered, they could not break free while she watched. Maybe it was such a beautiful, wonderful thing that they wished for privacy, for only the company of each other while they jumped up and wept with joy.
“I understand,” she said, giving a weak smile, and patted Nuriyah on her hat. “I’ll leave you. But please,” and tears stung her eyes at the thought of not seeing them, “say hello to me before you fly away.” She knew that she should not expect anything in return for freeing the birds, but surely this was not rude to ask. “I go to the big primary school. Just fly overhead and I’ll wave. That’s all. Okay?”
Another gust of wind made some of the slats rattle.
The topmost slat slid about twenty centimetres down a small incline. Jess saw that some wires running horizontally behind the slats, thinner than the vertical wires, had been damaged. They slid out from behind the slats like hair. I must have done that. She ran her fingers over Nuriyah’s left wing. “I’m sorry about your leaves. I hope you don’t mind that I couldn’t bring them.”
It was difficult to leave them, so painful to accept that she would not watch them play. “I’d like something to remember you by,” she whispered, and untied a green and white measuring tape from her hair.
Nuriyah’s feathers were twelve-and-a-half centimetres at their tips. Star’s were thirteen-and-a-half centimetres, Ameesh’s were fifteen and Em’s were seventeen.
A hundred other possible measurements tempted Jess, but she couldn’t bring herself to delay the birds’ freedom by staying any longer. With a final Goodbye to each of them, she walked back to the shopping arcade, clasping the wire cutters like a blanket.
She wondered where they would fly.
She wondered if her grandmother would see it written on her skin: her great thing.
A dog ran up to the slats, curious. It sniffed at them, marked several as its possessions, and tried to drag some away with it. Four came away easily, like socks tucked into shoes. Several more clattered down the incline.
We are thin slats of metal, scattered.
We lie across grass and clover and daisies. We are carried away in pieces – a wing-tip here, an eye there, a small black shoe still wet from a dog’s mouth. We are metres and metres apart.
Surely a god has done this. Only a god could possess such power.
We sink into the earth, lost.
About the Author
Alex Dally MacFarlane lives in London, where she is pursuing a MA in Ancient History. When not researching ancient cities and warrior women, she writes stories, found in Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer and the anthologies The Mammoth Book of Steampunk and The Other Half of the Sky. A handbound limited edition of her story “Two Coins” was published by Papaveria Press. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters (Prime Books), forthcoming in June 2013.