[content warning: reference to domestic abuse]
It begins with an itch.
Right between your shoulder blades, that part where it’s hardest for you to reach and scratch. You fidget for a while, trying to get to it, but he frowns in annoyance soon enough and pushes your hand away, roughly, tells you to leave it alone. So you stop, but the itch keeps coming back.
After a few days, you learn that you can get a little relief if you rub your back up and down against the door frames just so. When he’s out and can’t see, you stand there, grinding your spine over the wooden frame, sighing contentedly. It’s more difficult when he’s at home, and one evening you risk a scratch in the kitchen doorway while you should be making his tea; but he catches you in the act. You should have known better than to give his requirements anything but your undivided attention. You pick yourself up from where he threw you down with a roar, noting the places where the new bruises will join the existing ones. Black and blue.
Your arms have started itching too.
The first signs appear soon after. He drags you out of the shower cubicle one morning, shoves you in front of the mirror. “What do you call this?” You can just make them out, straining to see over your shoulder: two rows of spiky, keratinous lumps bordering either side of your spine. Apart from the itching, you had no idea they were there. More appear over the next week or so, rows of them, radiating out towards your arms. When he forces you to undress, instead of using you in the usual way he now takes off his leather belt and lashes your back until it feels raw. “What the hell do you think you are? Who else would want you looking like this, freak?” You know better than to say anything, and besides, you don’t understand where the lumps have come from. Curiously though, the harder he lashes the more you identify with the strange, spiky landscape forming on your body. Here is something that he can’t control.
The spikes start to get longer and your whole body itches.
You have always shrunk from him when he is violent, but now you are visibly, physically shrinking. Your clothes begin to sag on you, even as they catch on the ever-lengthening growths that have now spread further: down your arms to the backs of your hands, up your neck to your cheeks, along your torso, elongating and protruding from your coccyx. They have begun to darken wherever the skin was not already the shade of ripe bruising, slowly blackening you all over – except your chest, still as pale as your skin and gradually becoming softer, downy. You feel weaker, clumsier, and he grows more impatient with your faltering body. You find it harder and harder to speak, as if your lips themselves were stiffening, sealing in the protests you dare not utter.
One day, when you have failed to complete some barked instruction or other, he snaps and drags you into the spare room. “I can’t bear to look at you any more, you filthy little freak. You can stay in here till I decide what to do with you.” You realise through the blur that behind the disgust in his eyes is fear. He is afraid of you. After he hurls you to the floor, you hear the door lock behind you and the front door slam. You are tired, so tired, so you huddle into a corner and close your eyes.
You aren’t sure how long you are locked inside, but you find yourself awakened by dawn light through the blind slats one morning and you feel… different. Tentatively you stretch out your arms, but where there were hands are now wingtips. Your arms are a span of black feathers, glossy and new. You walk gingerly towards the mirror on the far wall, but it’s too high for you unless you hop up onto a nearby stack of boxes. From there, you survey yourself in the glass. Smooth white belly, eyes dark and glinting, blue-green flashes on your black body catching in the morning light. This new version of you feels lighter, slicker. With your long beak you reach to preen a feather or two into place. Black and blue.
Your skin is no longer itching.
As you preen, the front door slams and you hear his footsteps climbing the stairs. Little time to think, but it’s now or never, and you are ready. When he opens the door you fly straight for his face, beating into him with wings and beak. Cursing, he raises his arms and as he staggers backwards, loses footing: the crack of his head on the banister is audible.
You head straight for the tiny bathroom window he never bothers to close. You don’t look back. Outside, you fly for a minute or two, marvelling at how it feels, before alighting on an old oak in the centre of a field.
You are alone for only a few moments before another of your kind appears, alighting at your side. We’re so glad you made it, she says happily, and somehow you know that she knows, and you say thank you. The two of you sit for a while before others begin to arrive, to add their own welcome, to show their solidarity. And if anyone were to walk by they would see the seven magpies in the old oak, hear you chattering in chorus to each other, but they would never know the truths of which you spoke.