White Feathers, Scarlet Heart

Sarah McPherson

Pristine snowfall; the familiar made unfamiliar by winter. The early morning light touches each heap and hollow lightly. She is alone, but even if there was someone to hear she wouldn’t speak; silence lies heavy on the snow, heavy on her tongue.

The field is a ghost of itself, and she haunts its edges, not willing to mar its unblemished expanse. Her footprints are shadowed pockmarks, morse code she doesn’t understand—dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot.

It’s cold but not freeze-your-fingers cold. Not burns-your-lungs, can’t-feel-your-toes cold, not like it has been. She welcomes the break in the weather, a chance to walk the world, and yet she hesitates, feels like an intruder here for daring to leave the house. Her pulse thuds in her ears, loud, too loud in all this quiet.

Up ahead a shadow dimples the snow. She is not the first creature to break its surface. 

Closer, light and shade resolve into a shape, a three-dimensional relief of wings. Each feather is outlined, so clear she might reach out and pluck them from the ground; she struggles to accept they are nothing but hollow air. Between them, the darker cavity of the body sinks down, drawing her eyes. At its centre is a splash of red; the only colour anywhere.

She hears the owls every night, even when the cold bites. They scream into the dark, and she pulls the blankets over her head and pretends to sleep, pretends her heart doesn’t thump like a frightened rabbit kicking her ribs at the noise. 

Now, staring at perfect, impossible white wings, she understands. She marvels at the sharpness of eye, or perhaps of some deeper sense, that allows the owl to pinpoint the presence of tiny, warm-blooded prey beneath the snow; wonders at the precision of its deadly dive and how delicate its flight, to leave its image so crisp for her to find. She breathes deep, suddenly dizzy, the sound of her heart in her ears like wingbeats and she looks up at the sky, afraid that the owls will come for her next, that it will be her heart’s blood staining the space between a pair of wings outlined in light and shadow.

Sarah McPherson is a Sheffield-based writer and poet, with work published in Ellipsis Zine, Splonk, STORGY, The Cabinet of Heed, and elsewhere. She has been long/shortlisted in various competitions, and had a story selected for Best Microfiction 2021. She tweets as @summer_moth and blogs at theleadedwindow.blogspot.com.