The Girl Who Eats Lightbulbs by Helen Rye

The girl who eats lightbulbs, she sits alone in the bus shelter with the red velvet hatbox full of the feathers she’s rescued, the white and the silken, pure from the dirt of sidewalks and showgrounds. Her raincoat’s shrugged back like folded wings about her corset, her sequins moon-bright. Her headdress sashays on the night breeze. 

She drinks pink rum from the flask bequeathed by her grandmother, Elvira, who flew like a hollow-boned swift between high trapezes, legendary. Its metalwork’s engraved around with paradise birds; long pinions stretch towards the sides, their tips worn away by the hands of the World Famous Birdwoman, who read to her, from her caravan nest, legends of goddesses worshipped and wild Aurae, fleet-winged daughters of the north wind who filled sails, who shipwrecked men, of air spirits not tied to sawdust and sweat and whiskey-drunk pawing.  

In between sips that blush warm through her veins, she scrolls through messages. From the sword swallower, back at their motor-truck home, who wants to know whether she wants the stew he has left on the stove, since she is so late. From the aerial silks girl, who wants to walk with her under stars that remind the aerial silks girl so of her mountainous home country that the flat farmland beneath makes her weep, although last Thursday night she was happy enough to lie in the flat farmland with the girl who eats lightbulbs, so maybe the grief is a little manufactured. From the art lecturer at the after-show bar who asked for her number and wants to lick the blood away from her mouth – a misjudgement of glass strength, the lights were so bright on the gantry: a momentary lapse – and attempt a few other things for which he gets full marks for inventiveness, if nothing else. He tried to buy her dinner, back there, but she slipped away from him light as a paradise bird, as aether. Everyone loves her body, and also everyone wants to feed her, and she is not falling into that trap; she’ll not be weighed down. 

She tastes salt on her lips and feels the sting of the tiny cut that bleeds freely, and of the knowledge that she can still make such rookie mistakes. She can take razors into her mouth, pull six-inch nails from her nose, walk on broken bottles. If she stays with him, the sword swallower will teach her his craft, but she half knows it already, and she is not sure it’s worth the constant pressure of his gaze, of his comments on the prominence of her ribcage, of his cooking. She’s heard him boast around the crew campfire of how he can circle her waist with his hands, thumb-tip to fingertip. 

The world is full of such double standards, she says to the wind spirits gathering around (she can hear the rustle of feathers). You have to own yourself alone, teach your thoughts to become air so you do not feel it when you step on broken things, when the sharpness of everything pierces your softest flesh, penetrates toward your heart. A diet of water and pink rum and your mind will grow wings and your body will control people and not the other way around, not like when you were solid like everyone else and they did with you as they pleased and you didn’t stop them. 

There is rustling and sighing all around her now, and something soft brushes her face. The girl who eats lightbulbs shuts her eyes and she rises, she flies on the swift-coursing breezes beyond the bus shelter and she is a sylphid, and she has the power to carry off ships and she wipes her own blood from her own mouth, a tiny cut, and nothing can hurt her.

Helen Rye lives in Norwich, UK. Her stories have won the Bath Flash Fiction Award, the Reflex Fiction prize, been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and nominated for Best Small Fictions 2017 and 2018. She is a submissions editor at SmokeLong Quarterly and a fiction editor for Lighthouse Literary Journal, and is part of the Ellipsis Zine editorial board.

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