Birdie by Nuala O’Connor

For a heavy woman, I have oddly slender and agile fingers. These help when I pick out Chopin’s mazurkas. I play him as a gift to myself, he turns my guts to vapour. Today I play Opus 33, and the first part, as always, makes me rise above myself, like a revenant.

‘Your playing is muddy, Agatha,’ Mulgrew says, tramping across the floorboards with that intrusive gait of his. ‘And your mouth turns down unattractively when you’re at the piano.’ A familiar refrain.

I switch to Schumann, slow and mellow, and very swiftly begin to enjoy the music’s dense heart. Schumann doesn’t work on me like Chopin, rather he opens me wide, wires me into what is outside my body: the piano stool hard under my buttocks; the house martins that swing and scream past the window; the blackbird chiming in. Everything without and below my room.

Mulgrew withdraws to the fireplace, stares into the flames and shuffles disapproval with his feet. I turn back to Chopin – a nocturne, with a glorious swell of rippling notes; I know that Mulgrew loves the flourishes of this piece. I also know that I no longer love him.

The birds continue their raucous accompaniment and I tilt my face, the better to see them. How they scurry through the sky, how unburdened they are. Their upsurge is seductive, the startling plunges they take, the sound of their song.

I stop my playing, push back the stool and rise. I go to the casement window and lift the crank; I free the brass stays and let them drag. The windows flap wide – glass wings. I hear Mulgrew’s heavy step behind me. Lifting my skirts, I get one foot over the sill then the other. The house martins soar and beseech, the blackbird trills. I stretch my arms to the sky, my fingers reaching for cloud, and hear my name called as if through a wind tunnel, ‘Agathaaaaaaaa!’

I launch forward and out I go. Schumann drums through me, makes me buoyant. On I go, air-kept and light. Music rises and rushes, past and within me. The house martins chime their approval, the blackbird too. Down, down I drop until I hit ground. There I sprawl, broken but whole, singular as a feather fallen from the sky.

Nuala O’Connor AKA Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, Ireland, she lives in East Galway. Her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter was published by New Island in June 2017. Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. Miss Emily was shortlisted for the Eason Book Club Novel of the Year 2015 and longlisted for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award. Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, will be published in 2018. Find out more at

a flock of birds in the sky
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