Flight Instinct

by Liz Falkingham Temple

Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Flash Fiction 2017

It’s almost exactly two miles down the track to the main road. Maggie knows this, knows too that it takes eight minutes if you negotiate the twists and turns, the gouged, fraying surface, at the 15mph suggested by the faded sign at the lane end. She’s not doing 15.

Beneath her, the car bucks and protests, the steering wheel wrenching like a horse snatching at the bit. The headlights rear wildly over broken stone walls and onto sloping pasture, so sheep are caught in the skittering beam, pale as gravestones. Their eyes are glow stars, phosphorescent and astonished.

Tapetum lucidum. The phrase rises through her brain like a gas bubble, releasing a schoolroom memory: her biology teacher with a cloth-covered tray in front of him, the cotton shrouding what turned out to be bulls’ eyes, ready for dissection. Some of the girls had shrieked, predictably, but Lilian had gazed in fascination at the marbled sclera and dark, dulled centres.

“When you cut into the cornea, be ready for the aqueous humour to be released,” the teacher had warned them, then: “Try not to cut your finger off, Bottomley.”

Hidden deep within was the tapetum lucidum – “translation: shining layer, or bright carpet for those of you who passed Latin last term, source of the cats’ eye effect” – its blue green iridescence like a world viewed from space, thrilling her with a sense of myriad, unfolding possibilities.

Her left eye is closing up. Jolted out of her seat as the car bounds onto the road, Lilian catches sight of the swelling in the rear-view mirror; its puffed, aubergine shine split by the angry red furrow from his wedding ring.

She thinks: This one will be impossible to hide from the children.

Her bare foot thumps the brake. The car lurches, indignant, then whines into reverse. There is a sharp smell of burnt rubber, scorched brakes, the bitter stink of guilt and regret. She can’t leave the girls. Their small faces, pearlescent in the dim night light, adrift in heedless sleep, pull at her. The 15mph sign blinks from the choked verge. An owl flares in her returning headlights.

Last year they’d had a family outing to the fair. There was a man with birds of prey, hunched, feathered forms with Aztec yellow eyes, each tethered to metal hoops driven deep into the earth. It was the goshawk she had noticed, its slate blue poise in the churned field, while the girls dragged at her, yearning for the Ferris wheel’s giddy terrors, and her husband charmed the cake stall girls. Lilian watched as the hawk unfurled vast, barred wings and launched away, jesses trailing, until the taut jerk of the leash brought it back. Again and again, until the man had pressed a plumed hood over the bird’s head and finally it had stilled, the world shrunk to the feel of cold metal beneath its feet.

Ahead, Maggie sees the waiting shape of the farm and, over everything, the vast, indifferent night.

 

Liz Falkingham Temple

 

Flight Instinct was Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Flash Fiction 2017, as chosen by Naomi Booth.