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Birdie in the Forest

content warnings: child neglect, domestic abuse, brief description of malnourishment.
Matthew O'Rourke | prose

Birdie floated into my life at an art gallery, where white lights blinded me and her golden warmth served as a balm. Wildflowers in her wisps of honey hair, freckles across her nose. She still sparkles now, two years later, but more lunar than solar; colder, quieter. Flower stem turned gossamer. I remember her on that day like a dream I’ve woken up from, but here she is. Still awash with floral holiness, still intoxicating. Unbound out of nature, not out of choice. Or at least that was how she carried herself.

She doesn’t like to talk about her family. I know her dad isn’t in the picture, but that’s about it: frail bare-bones facts from the lips of rumour-passers rather than secrets whispered in my ear. When we spend time together it’s at mine or in public, never hers. I never thought anything of it, didn’t want to, because as long as I’m the person Birdie chooses, I’ll be whatever she wishes for, no questions asked. I would gladly be blinded by the trails of stardust she leaves behind.

So when she asks me to run away with her, I barely hesitate.

“Where to?” I ask lightly, assuming she’s joking. She smiles at me, her green eyes alight.

“The forest,” she replies hushedly. Mischief plays a game along her lips that props up her dimple.


I fabricate the truth for my dads, not for the first time. Camping with friends, I tell them. Just for the weekend. And they let me go, mostly unquestioning, not for lack of care but for fear of the answers. I assume they’ve heard of Birdie—her reputation precedes her magic—so I always do what I can to limit their proximity to her. She is whirling skies and sparkling glitter but she would crumble in a heartbeat, so I let her be, keep her held at arm’s length from them. Just for the weekend, I repeat to myself as I leave. That’s as long as it’ll take for her wild instincts to flatten themselves for another while.

We begin our venture towards the trees that lay east of our misty town and cover the dusted hilltops: green stark structures which hold a quietness distant to me and craved by my companion. My rucksack is filled with what I considered to be the necessities, and Birdie’s crossbody contains her version: hair barrettes, poetry collections, colouring pencils. I thought to bring a tent, and when she first spotted it she laughed whole-heartedly, stomach bubbling, hands clapping. Tears glistening. Part of me knows that she intends to magic up some shelter for us.

We pick our way in, stepping over streams onto beds of sodden leaves. Mist falls around us and moss extends from the roots of trees to cushion our careful strides. The looming trunks hold branches that shadow our path. Phone signal disappears. The farther up we move, the more our bodies tug at us to turn around; our hands turn white, our teeth chatter. At times Birdie skips ahead, giggles, pulls me after her, honey hair whirling and her slim build uniform with the surrounding trees. My name on her lips shines like a cold night sky; a velvet blanket that twinkles with spoonfuls of magic. I let myself sink into her spell and believe that it’s keeping us safe from the world we leave behind.


We reach a tiny clearing canopied by dark branches, the first dry spot in hours. Birdie sets down her bag in the middle of this uneven circle.

“Is this the place?” I ask, knowing the answer.

She nods firmly before floating into the mass of trees that borders us, carried then covered by mist. She reappears moments later laden with damp logs, pine cones, fallen branches. My eyes ask her a question.

“For the treehouse,” she explains plainly, like I should’ve known, like she’d already told me. She drops the sodden wood at our feet. Our hands are ice and our teeth chatter, but we’re too deep into the mountain’s blanket now to find our way out from under it. We have to set up camp.

So I stay. As the mist thickens, Birdie and I build a house, or rather a hunk of structurally unsound dampness. I know in the back of my logical mind and in my chest seizing from the cold that tonight, when we are on the brink of sleep itself I will put up the tent, spread a blanket on its floor, and invite Birdie in. And I know that she will lie steadfast under her natural ceiling, slowly turning blue.

‘Clearing’ is a generous term for the part of the forest we have settled in—a mirage, maybe, an allusion to or an illusion of what should be there. A mere representation of what a brief escape from the mass of leaves would look like. Instead of a clearing, we have a circle of mirrors: the mist followed us in, and the moss still reaches out to us from the roots of the surrounding trees. The dampness in the air is so dense I can almost feel it trickling into my lungs with every inhale. There is hardly any sunlight, any cloud. Just the dark green, and Birdie, and our tiny, wobbling home.

Suddenly being so close to Birdie at all times means that I see her not in the way I remembered seeing her at the art gallery, nor the way I remember her right before the forest, but the way the trees force her to reveal. She’s slim, this I knew, but when she turns her back I can see her shoulder blades protruding, like wings, like daggers. Her fingers could etch poems into tree bark without too much exertion, owing to their sharpness, but in the process they would most likely splinter: brittle, icicle things. Bone-white from the cold.


Early on the third morning, body aching from the mulch bedding and creeping damp, I wake to the sound of Birdie weeping beneath her wooden tent. I inch towards her entrance. As my eyes adjust to the pre-dawn light we sit in, three stones of recognition lodge themselves in my back: she is hugging her knees to her heaving chest, her face glows red like a phoenix in its own flames, and I’ve never seen her cry before. She glances up at me, then away.

“Mara,” she whispers. Her honey hair’s silhouette is jagged, wild. I don’t understand what she’s said, so leave a silence for her to venture into. “My father named me Mara. My mother hated it, but he wouldn’t let her change it. It means ‘sorrow’. Luckily, he left so soon after I was born that she never had to use it.” A twitch of irony snags on her dimple; it looks like it hurts. “She tried calling me Em, refused to leave a label of sadness on me, especially not one left by the man who’d left scars and heartbreak in her. Then when I got a little older I became fascinated by birds, how they fly and all the different families and colours, how the only names they have are the ones we give them. So I told my mom that I liked the sound of Birdie and I didn’t need to explain. But it didn’t make her happy the way it made me. I think she knew it gave me a freedom that she couldn’t get back.”

I look at her glistening eyes, their nakedness. I take in her wooden surroundings, how she sinks into the dampness, now, crying in this mirage of escape. I wonder if she knows how beautiful she is, how well sadness paints her face when it visits and she lets it. I reach for her hand—words are nothing in this circle of leaves and moss—but she wrenches away, into the shadow of her little house. The melancholy hollowness of her eyes morphs into a pulsing fear.

“I don’t need you here,” she spits. Despite the chill, she has become a ball of flames in a split-second, skin turned to scalding metal. “I shouldn’t have brought you.” She raises her voice to a yell and her words are swallowed by the trees. “You’re useless to me! If you weren’t here, I wouldn’t ever have to think about any of this!”

I scramble for my bag, but leave the tent standing: all I can do is hope that she’ll make use of it. She goes on throwing insults in the language of superlatives at my back, the first time she’s shouted at me embedding itself into my memory, my stiffened bones, my flaking lips. She stands up, telling me to leave, telling me she’s supposed to be alone. Supposed to be; not that she wants to be. The longer I ignore her, the angrier she gets.

“I’m going to build a new treehouse,” she proclaims defiantly when I eventually turn to look at her. “And you’re never going to see it.” She begins to feverishly dismantle her house: stubby logs, spindly boughs, wads of moss, and chips of bark go flying all around her, her haphazard deconstruction of the forest letting it reclaim itself on the floor. Branches topple onto her bare arms and hands, the bark grazing then cutting, but Birdie, now, is laughing. Wild and undignified, she releases her mania into the dark green damp as I move away from the centre of the chaos.


I don’t say goodbye for fear of having a bough thrown at me, but I know it’s the last time I’ll see Birdie. Birdie, murmuring freedom. Birdie, who worships the idea of flying, with no tethers to a home or a family or even a friend. Birdie, believing she could create a livable house out of a mess of stale wood. I wonder if she knows that it’s impossible to be okay by yourself—that freedom and aloneness are not synonymous. That humans must fly in flocks.


As I descend hills and cross streams—finding my way out from under the mountain’s blanket—Birdie’s echoing hysterics quieten. I stop walking, after a while, and allow my boots to sink slightly into the moss, allow the mist to briefly claim me. I lift my gaze to the opaque white sky and see a murder of crows on their way farther east, deeper into the forest. Searching for a meal with which to fill themselves.

Matthew O'Rourke is an Irish poet and short fiction writer whose work has been recognised by Healthline Zine, Crow of Minerva, VIBE, and Chinchilla Lit. His writing traverses cursed settings, matters of healing and release, and identity. If he is not writing, you can find him treating his dogs like children and trying to play the piano.

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