This story is by our newest regular contributor, Sef Churchill. Sef is a lifelong writer from the UK. She won a national writing award at age sixteen, and promptly did nothing about it. Nowadays, she writes fantasy and reimaginings of classic tales, and is active in the Write Practice community. On her website she offers wry creative guidance. Her story “The Porthole” won the Grand Prize in our Spring Writing Contest. Welcome, Sef!
We studied for this marriage. You needed to learn how to live in my world, and I needed to learn how to be married. We’ve both lost a few feathers, but there was more to gain, and we try to stay fixed on that. This visit from Immigration is just the latest test.
The woman from Immigration narrows her eyes at our living room walls. “What is that?”
“My art,” I say.
She pulls her chin back into her neck. “Very nice I’m sure.” Her lip twitches.
You say, “It’s not meant to be nice.”
Since you and I met, my art has bloomed. I dream in paint. My fingers wake to the feel of smooth beechwood and badger’s bristle. I once saw a man walking past my shop freeze, turn his head slowly, and approach my canvas from the side, inching towards it like the omega wolf towards the alpha.
My art is definitely not nice.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” I ask. It is the most normal thing imaginable. Everyone knows that. And we must appear normal.
“Can I see the bedrooms?” she says. Not even a No thank you. I stiffen, but you shoot me a look. Stay calm.
Obviously you and I sleep in separate rooms. A lot of couples do, especially at our age. Well. My age. Your age is measured in starbursts and lost plumage.
I take the woman upstairs. On the way past the front door, I see her automatically check our anti-crawler devices: locks, seals around the edges, sprays and repellents: everything that might help to prevent an infestation. She gives a grudging nod of approval. The crawlers won’t get in here without an invitation, that’s for sure.
You stay downstairs, sitting in the living room sofa under a picture of a lightbulb with the caption, Buy more lampshades—crawlers want our light!!! in a humorous font.
The Immigration woman sniffs through the house for signs of fraud. We are ready with the lies: my holiday abroad to the Mediterranean, our whirlwind romance . . . We have pictures, you and me on a Greek beach, laughing because you are wrapped head to toe in a massive towel. There is a snap of our wedding in the Greek registry office: you in black, wearing a trilby hat, me wearing my sundress and holding some sea thistle you plucked from the top of an abandoned watchtower on the way there.
The woman glances at these souvenirs as if she knows they are photoshopped. My heart thumps in my chest but I say nothing. Everyone’s pictures are photoshopped. Who wants to look fat and pasty?
“What’s that?” the woman asks, pointing her pen at your hanging bar fixed to the shadowy back porch.
“For pull-ups,” you say, your voice crackling with the effort of our dry human speech. “Fitness.” You smile, and I watch the woman drift into your blackbird eyes.
“. . . Hmmn.” She coughs a bit, pulls herself together. “What about work?”
“I am also an artist,” you say. “The urge is strong in my people.”
The woman frowns, checking her clipboard. “Your people. You’re from . . . Albania.”
You do not look Albanian. You look like nothing anyone has ever seen. When I first opened the hatch under my house and saw your world, I thought I would never recover from such beauty.
We answer more questions. Beneath us, the ground teems with your banished kin, willing to risk all for a glimpse of the light. Above us, fighter jets burst across the sky, a thunderclap of noise and then gone. The humans fought for the surface of the Earth, and won.
“You travelled a lot, before,” says the woman to me. “Our investigation shows you socialised heavily, and had a number of previous partners. A real party animal.” She says this as if she has just stepped in dung. “Now you’re just at home. Don’t you miss it?”
Oh yes. Of course I do. But I cannot risk my marriage. This is my cause, now. “I grew up,” I say. “I think I was just waiting for the right person to come along.”
When you emerged, black and gleaming, from the space under my floorboards, I could not reconcile your dignity with the images on the news, of crawlers clawing at the border fences, shrieking in cavern-voices and climbing over each other to reach the light. You told me the footage was all from one area, where starvation had made your people desperate. Shaking, I held up the spray, but you asked me if you could see the sun, before I put you down.
We stood on the porch and your breath came quickly. Tears glistened on your cheeks. I knew then, that I could not shut you back in.
How to explain? I can’t. Only that you look a little like us, but then you take off your human clothes and you are not us, with your black carapace and single burred wing and your weird black petrol-splash eyes. Only that you do not crawl but walk upright with dignity. Only that like us, you crave the light.
Now we are under investigation. Everyone new in town is under suspicion, and you arrived as suddenly as the ring on my finger. The Immigration woman opens our kitchen cupboards and starts taking stuff out. She has sent you of to fetch passports, ensuring that I am trapped with her alone at the back of the house.
As soon as you are gone she leans towards me and hisses, “I know what he is.”
“Sorry, what?” I tidy up her mess slowly, putting tins back on shelves. “I wasn’t listening,” I add, to buy more time. My hands are sweating.
“Stop pretending. He’s clearly a crawler sympathiser.”
I almost laugh. “My husband?”
“He has you under his control. You don’t go out, you agree with his every word. I have a phone number; there are people who can help you escape.” She holds out a tiny card.
I take it.
“You can come with me now. Get away from all this. It’s obvious to me how your life has changed since you got back from Albania. He’s controlling. That’s abuse, you know.” She lays her hand on my arm sympathetically.
For a second I see my future through her eyes—freedom, a place all my own, my life back, no more lies.
You appear, holding the passports.
“Sleeping arrangements,” snaps the Immigration woman without hesitation. “Two bedrooms?”
“I’m insomniac,” I say. I already gave her the tour of the bathroom, and let her glimpse my medication. “I try, but . . .” I shrug.
Her face tightens. “We’re cracking down on fake marriage. People still sympathise with the crawlers. We’ve caught activists, trying to share our daylight with them. Since the war, the penalty’s ten years.”
I cannot think what to say that will not sound guilty. I dare not look at you.
“Fakers fail,” she says. “Language, eating habits, sexual incompatibility. . . .”
You place your gloved hand on my shoulder. “These things affect all marriages,” you say. “And her eating habits are not so bad. . . .”
“You shouldn’t have said that,” I tell you later, as we undress. “She was suspicious already.”
You shrug, releasing your hands from their disguises. “We are clearly eccentric.”
I say, “Do you think she believed us?”
The Immigration woman’s tiny card is on the dressing table. You’ve seen it, but are waiting until I tell you.
We descend to the porch. Claw marks on your bar gleam bare metal in the lamplight.
“Well, goodnight,” I say, pulling my dressing-gown around me. “Will you be out long?”
“Long enough to hunt,” you say. You kick off your boots. Your face is already angled towards the sky.
“I’ll read for a while,” I say. I sigh to myself. I don’t like sleeping while you are out. I worry about you being seen, being shot at.
You clatter across to me, and lay your cheek against mine. “You are free to seek other companions.”
“Not every wife is faithful.”
I wave you away with my book.
“One day,” you say, “my people will be free to live here as they once did, and they will honour your bravery, but also your sacrifice.”
I say, “I’ll see you later.”
I watch your wing unfurl like a giant black umbrella. You launch into the sky, a jagged silhouette against the moon, strange and exquisite. My heart beats, quick but steady. You are right. We have passed the test—we must have. Because whatever the Immigration woman made of our odd marriage, we are not faking.
I ignore my book to watch you fly, and I’m glad.