2017 Short Story Third Place

Of Baking and Blackbirds

K.C. Allen

A punch to the gut. Impossible to breathe. No physical impact, yet searing pain. Words, a confluence of thoughts, a convergence of letters that beg to be unscrambled, turned back into their secret gibberish. Instead, she insists, “I’m not scared of it, Mom,” she says, her voice strong.

Breathe. I must stop my hands from shaking. Grab an egg. I look her in the eye, hoping to distract her from her own thoughts, hoping to smooth those thoughts nimbly away. Cradling the egg gently, I glance down, notice my trembling thumb seeking blindly to level out an already perfect egg shell.  Over and over. Smooth it away. Maybe if I keep the egg intact, everything else will stay that way too.

“What aren’t you scared of, Sweetie?” I ask, knowing the answer already.

“You know,” she says, smiling gently, “it …” I crack the egg’s bald head against the cold metal bowl, letting the yolk plop heavily into the pale dust below – what was once a stalk bursting with light and life, now ground to a powder, an insipid remnant of itself. Another egg, lifted ever so gently from the carton. “Want to crack this one?” I ask.

“Sure”, she says, giving it a satisfying crack against the bowl. “Ooh, look! Pretty!” Two yellow eyes stare dully up at me, blind to the comfort of their white bed. “They’re all jiggly,” she says, wiggling the bowl. “You know,” she says again, a little smile on her blood-red lips, her eyes gentle.

Glancing over, I capture her steady gaze. A kaleidoscope of blues and greys, long—criminally long—eyelashes, a smattering of yellow. “A pupil of pain,” I think to myself, “in more ways than one.” Silently hoping my knees won’t buckle, I nonchalantly say, “Hand me the butter, would you? The next ingredient is butter … No, what do you mean by ‘it’?”

“You know,” a third time, flat-voiced. “I DON’T WANT TO KNOW!” I scream with all my might within the four stifling walls of my head. Please, please stop the cacophony of noise in here. My breath, in its infinite invisible grace becomes ever shallower, struggling, searing my chest to the point of pain.

I stab the yellow eyeballs, breaking the ovoid stare I can no longer avoid. Burst their perfect, smug bubble. I must beat them into submission. “Tell me,” I manage to choke out, looking at the disarticulated batter, adding milk, and trying to carve out figure eights. Maybe scrambling them will make the letters forming the words filling my ears crumble away. Maybe if she says the broken words out loud, we can add them to the cake batter, like a secret ingredient—a bitter chocolate chip of sorts—then beat it to a pulp and burn it to a crisp in the oven. Maybe that would work.

“Dying,” she says, as if it were just any other word. Without skipping a beat, she adds, “Can I stir now?” Dear God, that means letting go. “How am I supposed to let go?” I wonder. Must. Hold. On. Tight.

“Here, Mom. I want to stir. Let me take the spoon,” her warm, still-little-girl hand brushes over mine, taking the wooden spoon. “Wow, the handle’s really warm, how funny. Like this?” Eight million, eight hundred and eighty-eight thousand, eight hundred and eighty-eight. She stirs perfect figure eights into the batter. We stand mesmerised by the repetitive motion. The figure eight. Infinity. She stops, sniffs, swipes the back of her hand up her nose, leaving a crease across its freckled bridge.

“In fact, I look forward to it like you might look forward to a long, hot bath after a hard day,” she adds, shrugging as if there were no weight there at all. I see it, though. I see that ugly, dark weight clinging to her shoulders, a sticky presence strangling her life-force like a scarf too-tightly wound, leering at me, stroking her hair, whispering into her ear, “Hello My Pretty. I see you, My Child. Let me sink into you.”

I shout over the predator whispering thickly, goading me from his perch on her shoulders, “What, like it’d be a relief?” I ask, way too loudly. “A relief because you wouldn’t have to think about things anymore?” I whisper. Mustn’t show the panic, and hopefully my trembling kneecaps won’t be a dead giveaway. Oh God. Dead. Dying. Death.

“I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” she says, casually adding, “Now’s the vanilla, right?” she asks, folding it into the batter, as I watch this strange play unfold before me. I don’t know my lines, and all I can think of doing is breathing through the contraction of pain around my heart. Like a woman giving birth, breathe through the contraction, just try to pry my heart from the stabbing, squeezing fear sucking the air out of my lungs.

So here I am, shoved onto this stage, lights burning down on me, no lines, and no-one to whisper them to me. Freeze. Think. Breathing in again, hoping desperately to suck inspiration out of the heavy air around me, I say, “They said it’d take time, but that you’d get better.”

“Batter,” she says triumphantly, “the batter’s done, I think.” Scraping the loaf pan across the kitchen countertop towards herself, she butters it carefully, tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth, just like when she was a little girl, drawing, laughing, creating, crafting, making “lotsa bootiful tings, Mama”. Better, batter, butter. But.

Fifteen, a dawning young woman, forever my child. My little girl. Fifteen, this beautiful little blackbird, in pain, struggling to lift her delicate foot to take a step forward, out of this voracious quagmire—a languid, sludgy monster that belches with glee every time she stumbles and her foot squelches back in, her wings fluttering as she struggles to find her centre.

“I love that Beatles song, you know the one? ‘Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night’?” I say, as I open the oven door, a blast of hot air singeing my dry throat as I place the loaf pan on the rack. “It’s such a pretty song, don’t you think?” I ask, turning to look at this little-big girl-woman standing in her heart-adorned fluffy socks, loose pyjama pants, a rumpled AC/DC t-shirt, sporting tumbleweed hair. A contradiction in terms—“Chiaroscuro”, they call it: darkness and light.

“That’s random, Mom,” she says, giggling. “But yeah, that is a really good one,” she acquiesces.

“Yes, it’s one of my favourites,” I say out loud, then continue, rapid-fire in my head, “See, it’s about hope defying the odds. It’s about the sun coming up always, and the blackbird singing in the dead of night – that time of night that’s the darkest. There’s even a saying about that—something about the darkest hour being just before the dawn. The blackbird, he defies that darkness, he takes this big breath despite feeling so little in the darkness, and he lets his song break through …”

I cough, hearing myself say out loud instead, “Is there any way—do you think …?” The peanut butter of words stuck to the roof of my mouth will not budge. I fight the desire to gag, running my tongue hard along the arch of my palate, willing it forward, as it butts thickly up against my teeth. Licking my lips, I proceed with caution—a builder with no protective gear, trying to build her up with no instruction manual on how to put the pieces together.

“So, maybe … Do you think you could think about that little blackbird instead?” I venture.

“Instead of what?”

“Well, um …” Fight it. Fail. Just try to sound as normal as possible, “Well, suicide.”

As I say the word, my stomach flutters. “Suicide”. “The deliberate killing of oneself. From the Modern Latin ‘suicidium’” says the dictionary. Funny how you can learn to talk about things like they’re normal. My stomach flutters again, like a Mama Blackbird trying desperately to shake off the oily raindrops of grief plopping relentlessly down on her feathers, feeling lost.

“I guess …” I hear her say, her tired voice trailing off. Seeking her gaze, a barrier of long, dark eyelashes blocks my passage. No entry. She’s looking deep into thoughts I cannot know and do not want to see, “Hey, how long does the cake have to bake before it’s done?” says my Little Blackbird.

“Oh, about an hour, I guess?” I say matter-of-factly, mustering a smile. “It’ll start smelling good in no time!” I chirp, trying to be cheerful.

“Cool,” she mutters, turning on her teenage heel, “I’m gonna go take a bath, then.”

“Okay, Sweetie, you do that,” I chirrup as cheerfully as I can, and please-God-don’t-let-her-think-of-razors in there. To the waning draft she leaves behind, I continue, “You see, Sweetie. That Blackbird? He’s a light in the darkness. He sings the dawn out of its sleep. When he does, everything stops to listen—the leaves, the trees, the other animals, the city. It reminds me of that time you sang the song you wrote in front of 800 people, like it was nothing? And how they all sat dumbfounded, in the split-second silence between the first and second lines because they couldn’t get over the beautiful sound coming from you in the darkness?”

From the bathroom, the sound of warm water crashing into a pristine tub. Then silence. Then the gentle warbling from within the steamy cocoon, punctuated by a frustrated moan, “MOM??? We’re out of shampoo!”

“Please, my Little Blackbird. Please, keep singing?” I whisper, then yell, “In the third drawer! Brand new bottle!”


K.C. Allen, 3rd place

After globe-trotting for years and living and working in multilingual and multicultural environments, K.C. Allen returned to her birthplace—Switzerland—some twenty years ago. Fascinated by words in general, she works in and out of various foreign languages in marketing and communications. Whether it’s creating, editing, or translating communications content, her mission is always to find the ever-elusive perfect word. Allen spends her free time hiking mountain and lakeside trails with the family dog, is determined to leave no cheese or chocolate behind, and loves trying to capture Mother Nature’s beauty through the


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Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist and poet, social entrepreneur and content coach. Co-Founder + Co-Creative Director of The Woolf Quarterly; Co-Founder of WriteCon and The Powerhouse Zurich.

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