At the end of summer, by Sarah Jasmon
artwork by Claire Massey

It had started with touch, the brushing of fingers in a talking group, a meeting of eyes behind the scenes. She had been untouched for so long that her skin was stretched and tight over the backs of her hands, and sharp bones scraped at the flesh of her cheeks; beneath her hair, the nape of her neck was resigned. Wherever his fingertips rested, an archipelago of warmth came into being and pulsed in company with her heart, demanding, needing, expecting more. And more there was. Soon, her very existence was bound within the memory of each brief encounter, and she perched tirelessly on the edge of her day in readiness for the moments when he would come to steal her away.

And for a time, it was enough.

For all the days of the summer she waited for his calls, for the snatched hours, the fluttered, precarious meetings. He promised nothing, had made his position clear from the start. She wordlessly stretched out in the warmth, allowing what she had to be sufficient.

Then, one afternoon, under the low ceiling of her forest-facing room, she watches him sleep. She notices the way that his hair falls back from his brow, follows the rise and fall of his breath with her own. A pulse beats in his eyelid. A foot twitches suddenly, and is still. She feels the warmth spread to her very core, reaching deep into her entrails. And she feels them move in her heart.

It is just a flicker at first, a tremor, a barely discernable, exploratory nudge. A moment passes, and when she exhales, she can feel them inside her chest: tiny, determined, demanding. They are words, yes, she knows this, but they have taken on shape and they want to fly; they are forcing their way out, their wingbeats rhythmic and insistent:

‘I love you. I love you. iloveyouiloveyouiloveyouiloveyouilove’

This cannot happen, this is not allowed; she lies motionless on the bed, her lips clamped hard. She will not let them out. She will keep them nested in her heart.

But already they are beating at her throat. Again she watches his chest rise and, without will or volition, reaches out to trace his eyelid with a soft touch. The wings are behind her mouth now, gathering force, the hard edges of the beaks peremptory on the back of her teeth. She leans closer, her voice a breath’s whisper, and lets the words escape: there is an imperceptible disturbance of the air as they scatter, to fill every fold of abandoned clothing, to lodge under fingernails and to settle in the dust of corners and undisturbed places.

He stirs, a mere shiver of the skin, a tremor of the eyelids, and then sinks once more to oblivion.


She finds herself drawn, over the days that follow, to forgotten shelves and sleeping books. Her fingers turn page after page of the coloured plates of Victorian ornithologists. She has no interest in the larger birds, the eagles and seagulls, the pheasant or grouse. Instead, her eyes linger on the wren and the goldcrest, the whitethroat and the warbler as they strut over the pages with their unblinking gaze. These are the birds that exist half-seen in the hedges that encircle her garden and border her walks. She leaves crumbs on the grass, feeling her own birds stir, shift and nestle.


She has been to his house before, to evening parties with wine and olives and discussions of schools and holidays and the financial situation. The kitchen in daylight is bright, a jumble of everyday toys and books spilling onto the floor as she sits and watches his wife. They are not more than socially acquainted, but this morning there was a chance meeting outside of the Post Office and an offer of coffee. So here she is in his kitchen, watching his wife as she pours coffee into mugs and searches for the biscuit tin. But, while they talk and laugh, discovering more than one interest in common, she is studying the photographs on the walls: the wedding, the babies, the family holidays. She thinks, I know that this is not enough.

And then her birds begin to stir. But she feels the drag of a damaged wing, a falter in their song. She looks at her watch, gasps an excuse, and takes them away. 

Her feet lead her to the museum where she sits in front of the glass case containing the collection of hummingbirds. The museum is quiet at this time of day, the empty space muting the comments of the only other visitors, who soon leave for the café and gift shop. They do not see her.

The hummingbirds are up on a gallery, a corridor with no exit reached by slyly elaborate marble stairs. The bench which faces the display backs up to the balustrade, and there is no way of sitting which avoids the bumps and curls of the carved stone. The hummingbirds are no less uncomfortable, hooked onto their foreign branches, so many together and all so still. Their feathers remind her of silken brocade chairs, the colours of the once-shining threads diminished by the passing of time; perhaps, hidden under the fold of a wing, on the reverse of a feather, the hummingbirds keep secret remnants of ruby and topaz, untouched by time or death.

Her birds fidget; they are confused: where is the movement, the whirring, effortless hover? She calms them by thinking of the collector, now reduced to dust and teeth, his grasping hands curled in fleshless surrender.  And then, just at the moment when the agitation in her chest begins to settle, she seems to see a movement from the carefully posed tableau behind the glass. It is hard to pin it down exactly. When she looks directly at the area from which the movement appears to originate, she sees nothing but a lifeless bird, its dulled feathers stretched in a simulacrum of flight. She keeps her gaze in place, only for something to shift on the other edge of her vision. And behind. And above.

Her first thought is that they have been mechanised, that there is a timer switch setting off a few moments of tortured flapping and nodding. She even searches for a penny slot. But this is no forced, metal-sprung action: with infinite grace and unbearable lightness, the hummingbirds begin to dart and hover, their passage fast and precise, their messages flashing out in a semaphore of resurrected colour. From within, there is the soft noise of chirruping. Her birds are happy, and they sit together and watch until, one by one, the Calliope and the Berylline, the Ruby-throated and Violet-crowned, Lucifer, Rufous and Magnificent return to their posts, settling, posing and stiffening, their brilliance dying down once more to the sepia shades of immortality.


It is late in the summer when she goes to his home again, his family having gone to the sea for an end of holiday treat. She watches him carefully, collating his sentences as he loosens his tie and reaches for her hand. Since the day that she watched him from the cover of trees as he left his office together with the girl with the sweep of golden hair, she has been vigilant. The evidence has mounted; she has been biding her time.

It is hot, and the air is heavy and presses down upon her head. She lies on the unfamiliar bed, listening to the hiss and splash of the shower, and wonders when the thunder will come. Is it her imagination, or is that the opening rumble now, far, far away behind the hills, the black clouds shouldering themselves upwards, readying themselves to make demands with menaces? When he comes back into the room, drops of water still clinging to his skin, she decides that she will, after all, make use of the shower.

The water is hot and efficient and she cannot discover how to change the temperature, so she stands and feels each jet as it needles and burns against her back and her scalp. When she can bear it no longer, she reaches for a towel and steps out into a room which is indeed darkening with the approaching storm. She walks carefully across the tiles and looks for her reflection, but the mirror is clouded and can tell her nothing. The shelf below the mirror holds pots and bottles of lotions and creams. She rubs the scent of roses into her arms, dips a finger here, strokes serum into the length of her hair.

When she comes back into the room, he is talking on his mobile and gestures to her for silence. She edges past and he pulls her down: we don’t want anyone to see you at the window, he mouths. As he drops his phone by the side of the bed, a message flashes.  It is not from his wife.

The sky is black now, the weight of waiting stalling time before the lightening rips its passage earthwards, thunder following with the split of an axe in a gnarly, fibrous log. The electricity pricks at her scalp; he is talking to her now, but the shapes from his lips make no sense.

The birds are coming again. She feels their strength as they rise in her throat, tastes their bitterness and welcomes their rage. Talons hard as tempered steel gouge at her vocal cords as each bird forces its passage out; her windpipe knows the passing stroke of wings. Hooded, glancing eyes scan the room with intent.

They do not have to confer; they are experts in their field. And they always start with the face.

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