It’s common for writers to experience rejection. We send out our poems and stories, or novels, and often wait months only to receive an email that says, ‘Oh, we loved your work, but…’ or ‘This is beautifully written, but it’s not for us.’ What do we do when we really believe in a story? Well, we read over it again and try to make it as perfect as possible. And we read the target magazines and anthologies, to try to ensure our story is a good fit for their style. Sometimes, though, I think there’s an element of luck. My story ‘Her Body was an Aviary’ deals with difficult themes. It was rejected fifteen times, but I believed in it. Imagine how I rejoiced when it was accepted by the prestigious annual anthology of new writing from Scotland published by the Association for Scottish Literature! Here is an excerpt of 1100 words from the 2500 word story.
Her Body was an Aviary
an excerpt from the story
…she already knew how to fly: by now at night she dreamt of nothing else…
Emma hadn’t been right since the man came.
Now, she and Mo were sitting on the sofa: Nihal on the radio, the sun well up in the sky. She tugged Mo’s arm, because he wasn’t even listening. ‘I’ve got a temperature.’
His eyes remained fixed on his phone.
He freed his arm from her grip and took a long look at her, his dark eyebrows meeting in the middle. ‘You’ve a runny nose and a sore throat. It’s hardly bird flu.’
She thumped her body into the sofa. ‘But feel!’
At last he skimmed the backs of his fingers off her forehead. ‘Take a couple of pills for it.’
‘Could you get me some? At the shops?’ She squeezed out two feeble coughs and pulled her feet up. They were pink and bare with the nails painted orange to match the stripe in her hair. My bird of paradise: that’s what he called her. She was wearing her black and orange onesie and a scarlet towelling bath robe. He said he’d bought that specially for her, though she found a paper hankie in a pocket. ‘Please?’
He jabbed a finger into her upper arm. ‘The things I do for you!’
He lifted her foot and kissed it. ‘Why are there no pills in the jungle?’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ It was an old one. ‘The parrots eat ’em all.’
‘That joke doesn’t work in Canada, did you know? They call it Tylenol there.’
‘Just as well they don’t have bird flu, then,’ Emma said, and closed her eyes.
Mo had travelled. That was one of the things she liked about him. He had done so many interesting things. Not like her. She’d stayed all her life in this one little town. She was going to travel – as soon as she hit sixteen. Or sooner, with Mo, if he’d take her.
She cleared her throat again. ‘Will you go and get me some? Otherwise I think I’m going to die from this.’ She rubbed her hands over her lower abdomen, the memory of what the man did not forgotten.
‘Drama queen!’ he said, and stood up. ‘Can you lend me a fiver?’
‘I’ve only got the tenner you gave me.’
He pushed his hands into his pockets and turned over the change. ‘In that case, can I take a tenner?’
She went to bed and dreamed she was flying. The sky was light blue above her, deeper behind her, and, at the horizon she was flying towards, wispy clouds glowed blue-black, with a halo of golden rays. High in the sky, she felt liberated from the heavy dragging feeling. She felt buoyed on rising air. She held her arms out to let the warm wind flow over her breast-bone, under her arms and all along her body and legs. It was the lightest she’d felt since ….
‘Good morning,’ Mo said.
She opened her eyes to see him leaning over her. For a moment she thought he was a brown feathered buzzard, but he was an ordinary man with a glass of water in his hand.
‘You were sound,’ he said. ‘You okay? I brought you up another couple of Paracetamol.’
She leaned on one elbow, took the pills and swallowed them. He’d let the water run till it was cold and she relished the cool flow of it inside her gullet.
He sat on the edge of the bed, dressed in his brown pullover with the cream Fair Isle pattern below the V-neck, and skinny jeans, watching her. ‘I think you’ll need to give yourself a day or two to get over this,’ he said. He ran his hand through her hair then stopped at something.
‘What is it?’
‘Just a crumb or something.’
Her hair was thick and long and must be tangled. She couldn’t remember when she’d last brushed it. Mo pulled up a lock and let hairs drift on to her cheek while he tried to isolate what he’d spotted in the strands. He breathed a soft laugh. ‘Maybe you have got bird flu. Look.’ He held up a small white feather. ‘Then again, it’s probably just feather-pillow-it is.’ He let it fall into the bin beside the bed then laid his hand on her shoulder, his thumb caressing her cheek. ‘Stay in bed for a while, okay? Shout me when you’re peckish.’
‘I don’t want anything,’ she said, her voice breaking. ‘I’m not hungry.’
‘But you have to eat, Em. You know you have to eat. Starving yourself won’t get you back in shape.’ He stroked her cheek some more. ‘The pills’ll help. And don’t forget your water.’
He kissed her hair, the sound smacking in her ear, then went downstairs again. Later, she heard the hoover. He must be worried if he was doing the hoovering. Or maybe his mates were coming. Though surely not with her poorly.
She spent the morning between sleep and wakefulness, flitting from one to the other till she didn’t know which was real. She dreamt, again, that she was flying, but this time in rhythmic formation with others, forming the two arms of a long V-shape. She woke to the drum of seagulls on the roof.
Her throat felt dry. She dreamt she was a goose being force fed through a funnel. She woke retching, and reached a shaky hand towards her glass. She lost all track of time. Then she dreamt she was darting through water, sleek and slender, breaking the surface with a fish in her mouth and scattering water droplets from her plumage to dot the surface with spots and ripples.
Maybe she called out. Mo’s heavy tread sounded on the stairs. ‘Hiya,’ he said, massaging her shoulder. ‘Want something to eat?’
He brought her a sandwich, cut into triangles with the crusts removed the way she liked it, and stayed with her while she ate a few bites then lay down again. He turned her hand over between his and nuzzled her fingertips, his black beard and his mouth soft on her skin. ‘How are you now?’
‘I dreamt I was flying. It was really nice.’ She thought for a minute. ‘Remember I told you Mrs Johnstone read us a story?’
He traced the outline of her lips with his finger. ‘You stayed at school long enough to hear a story?’
‘It was about a girl my age who turned into a bird.’ She caught his hand and held it to her cheek. ‘She got an itchy back and a fever, and when her mum felt her shoulder blades, they were covered in feathers. Maybe I’m turning into a bird. Maybe that’s why I’m dreaming of flying.’
 Primo Levi, ‘The Great Mutation’, The Mirror Maker, Minerva, 1991. Translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal.
‘Her Body was an Aviary’ was published in New Writing Scotland 39: Break in Case of Silence edited by Rachelle Atalla and Marjorie Lotfi and published in 2021 by the Association for Scottish Literature.