One: my grandmother was a Russian countess.
She smoked gold-tipped cigarettes that jabbed from her mouth like blackened twigs.
She told me the tales her Nyanyushka had told her: the forest’s thicketed heart, the hut strutting on its scaly chicken leg, the witch Baba Yaga sucking on the bones of men. Her grip striped my arm some time after the telling.
When the city caught alight, Nyanyushka sewed rubies red as gunshots into the hem of my grandmother’s coat and threw her on the last train out. The train never stopped, steaming over bridges, under mountains, through day after day of trees, past countless arms outstretched from countless villages. The guard sealed the doors and pulled down the blinds. By the time she reached Berlin, my grandmother’s family were dead. She never heard from Nyanyushka again.
The year my father was born, new flags were raised, and the marching began. My grandmother sold her last ruby, lifted the baby onto her hip, and fled west once more, her eyes fixed to the sea. War flattened the earth behind her.
She had me stack and unstack dolls with endless faces, each wooden smile narrower than the last.
I remember her ringless hands, the veins like silting rivers.
Two: I once killed a soldier in the woods.
He followed me under the trees like a pig snuffling truffle. He laid his coat on the wormy ground. His polished buttons winked deceit. His skin smelt metal. His red-rimmed eyes brimmed ruin.
He never dreamed I would strike, still less strike first. I needed to burrow beneath, to feel the why, to taste the marrow of it.
A woodpecker drilled as I walked away. Rat-a-tat-tat rat-tat-a-tat. I strode steady until I heard the creak of the hut, the bony cackle crackle through the undergrowth. Then I forgot the path and ran. I stumbled on the refuge of the open road, briar-scratched and breathless. My cheeks were torn from looking back. The thorns knit tight behind me.
I learned only that my hands on the soldier’s face looked like my grandmother’s hands.
Three: I had to get some balance in my life, so I bought a unicycle.
Sit straight and pedal light. That’s the trick. Root your spine deep into the spin. Don’t look down. Do not stop.
I taught myself from YouTube. They juggle, those unicycling YouTubers. They play the violin. They solve the Rubik’s cube with quick, complacent fingers. Their hands are free, you see. They do not watch where they are going. They do not glance behind to see what follows.
I fell and fell until I got the knack. I speed along the highway now.
I travel westward. The sun sets like a ruby. Whichever route I take, my way leads through the woods. In the wheeze of the winded branches, in the hush-and-rush of my one wheel, I catch my grandmother singing.
Through the forest, do you hear?
The trees thicken and gang the verges.
Baba Yaga is coming near.
My coat tails flap like a clipped hen.
Turn the wheel: one, two, three.
With each swoop of the road, my shadow rears and crouches. Keep moving.
Don’t look back, don’t stop to see.
The dolls break open their wooden embraces. Keep moving.
You’re only ever three turns of the wheel ahead.
I fix my eyes front. To the narrowing road. My fists ball deep in my pockets. My nicotine nails spike my palms. Blackened twigs clicker-clack in the spokes, their knots like knuckles, circling round and round and round. Thick through my blood, I feel the truth of what my grandmother told me. Keep moving.
Sharon Telfer lives in East Yorkshire, in the north of England. Her flash fiction has won prizes including the Bath Flash Fiction Award (twice) and the Reflex Fiction Prize. Her stories have also been selected for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions and the BIFFY50 lists. Her debut flash fiction collection, The Map Waits, is published by Reflex Press in 2021. She is an editor at FlashBack Fiction, the showcase for historical flash.