Keir knew the world lay just outside the door. Three steps away from where she sat life started again. One point five metres, one hundred and fifty centimetres. She could almost taste the air that filtered underneath, through the worn, dirty carpet. The door was one inch thick, almost three centimetres if you included the layers of paint crusted onto the wood. She ran her fingers through knotted hair and leant towards the mirror, misting the glass with her breath. Her index finger traced through the moisture.
“It is an ancient mariner
And he stoppeth one of three.”
No, not hers. Someone else's words, tasting like regurgitated food. Her hand brushed the wall, trying to centre herself, ground herself.
Woodchip lined the room. Maybe the wallpaper and door are relatives, distant cousins one forest removed. Closing her eyes she could almost hear the endless highland wind sing through their now shredded branches.
“Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace, four happy days bring in”
Shakespeare always tasted of apples.
“Out of this wood do not desire to go:
Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.”
Especially the middle. The middle crunched like toffee apples. Apart from Richard III. Maggots.
She twisted the blanket in a thin hand, picking strands of multicoloured lint. One for sorrow, two for joy, three for sorrow, four for sorrow.
The light outside started to fade and the branches of the sycamore clattered against the ceiling window.
She smiled and stood on the bed, sinking slightly, tapping on the glass. The leaves stroked the tiles and she listened to their dusty words, scratching her reply into the mildew.
She asked the Sycamore to pass on her message, sing her call for help on the autumnal breeze. The tree shook it's giant head and turned its gaze above the roof.
Footsteps came up the stairs and a key turned in the door. The writer walked into the room. One point five metres, one metre, fifty centimetres, his sweating hand now on her arm.
Once she tried running past, pinning him to the wall against the woodchip, and bounding through the doorway. But the stairs were lined with fine steel wire. Steel tasted of urine and mouldy furniture.
He plucked a feather from one of her wings, its black sheen dulled by scraping against the magnolia wall. A sharpened sliver of flint appeared in his hand. Last century they believed her cousins had shaped these tools, rather than their own ancestors. She remembered watching old men and women with scarred hands knap tools around fires of wet oak. The smell of spitting bark lingered. She cowered slightly as he shaped the hollow shaft to a point.
When she first woke up in this room, the walls weeping patchouli, he tried to quill her feathers with an iron knife and she watched them wither to dust.
Her left wing was almost bare now. He preferred that side for some reason. Clipping her flight as he took her words. He spoke to her, his voice shaking, hand playing with the necklace of rowan berries hung round his neck. He was always nervous round her, feared her, even while he kept her imprisoned, like a small boy poking a swan.
The room filled with the smell of burning wax as the writer melted the ink. His verse burned on the page. Each syllable tasted of singed hair. She closed her eyes and remembered coasting on the warm breeze of the Adriatic, being buffeted by gales around Scottish Munros, the setting sun catching on her elegant wings. Now she cowered in the corner of the small single bed as the writer plucked her bare like an apple tree in autumn. She had tried using broken glass to escape, but her kind died hard. She watched through half closed eyes as the quill in his hand turned to dust, exhausted of phrases. Grasping like an addict he pulled another from her. The feathers were emptying quicker these days, his desire draining the inspiration from them faster.
To distract herself she turned words over, feeling them appear on her tongue; sand, Cartesian, dryad, lemon. She swallowed, but the ashes in her mouth remained
The writer hunched over his manuscript, using the old wooden dressing table as a desk. When he first caught her, in an alley behind a bargain sportswear shop, he looked like an overstuffed sofa, every inch of skin straining with the good life he indulged in. Now, after six months of stealing the gifts hidden inside her feathers, he looked like a ghost of a temple, angular and pale.
She focused on the sweat that slipped down his face, pooling on his upper lip. He mumbled words as they flowed onto the page. She caught the occasional phrase, but he hid the manuscript from her in case she could leech the words back.
“I need more.” he said as the latest quill evaporated in his hand. “I need to finish this chapter.”
She rolled over and stretched out on the bed, stroking her hair.
“But if you take them too quickly I'll have nothing left, nothing to give.”
His body shuddered, “I have to.”
A shaking hand reached out to her, stroking the barbs, smoothing down the vanes. She circled his wrist and pulled him slowly towards her. One metre, one hundred centimetres, one thousand millimetres. Fingers playing up and down his arm she whispered in a voice of sweet honey.
“Take off the necklace and I can give you all the words you will ever need.”
Doubt swam across his face, conflict between common sense and addiction.
Slowly, hands trembling, he undid the cotton. The berries spilled on the floor. His foot crushed them, staining the threadbare carpet with bitter red juice.
He leant forward and her hand slid round his head, holding him as their lips touched.
She felt the stories flow into her. First she took the words he had stolen, then the stories he had created. Finally she felt the stories he had lived run down the back of her throat. Her hand was empty now and a new black green feather shuddered as she moved. It would take a hundred years to regain her plumage, maybe two. But time was one thing she had plenty of.
Steve Toase is an author who writes unsettling fiction while living in North Yorkshire, England and occasionally Munich, Germany.