The Picture House
She’s a frozen one. Sometimes she sits in ice for hours and only her own ears hear her. She does not speak aloud: her lips are a door to inside her—things fly both ways, witches fly both ways, go wherever they like.
Each afternoon, the girl is allowed to leave the hospital through white swing doors. She walks alone past terraced houses, orange lights flickering through rain into the corners of her eyes. They all call me mad.
Each afternoon, she returns to the cinema, pushes through brown swing doors, surprising herself, and sits at the end of a row of plum seats in the sooty dark.
As usual, the Mom has followed her in and settled itself on its compost heap to the left of the screen. Hallucinations they say. But its livid purple torso throbs with fury. Luckily, it can’t move closer; it has no arms or legs. And the girl knows better than to look into its eyes.
She does not see the pictures or hear the words coming from the screen. She stares at the floor and listens to the dark, the yellow rustling of corn, the orange sigh of leaves, until all the colours compress into white, so bright that there is nothing left to hear.
The day the Mom sends out its eyes along the floor of her row, the girl panics. She pulls up her knees and looks straight into the screen. Her eyes are trapped. Another door for witches.
Two men lower a woman into a coffin. The woman is tall and slim, like a ballerina. The film is Kill Bill 2, but a woman, not a man, is in the box. Billyrina.
They have bound her hands and feet, but she has a heart that beats the bones hard.
Forgotten ears of stunted corn crouch on the stage in front of the screen. They have memories, they say, dreams of waving in hot, lost sun. When can we grow? they ask.
But the girl hardly hears them. The men are putting Billyrina under the ground. Clods fall on the box and the screen overflows into dark furrows.
Her seat bangs as she leaps up. She rushes out the cinema and runs until she is safely behind white swing doors.
But the girl can’t help coming back; what will they do to Billyrina?
Take off your shoes, whisper the ears of corn the next afternoon. They plot revenge, how they will grow up into the girl’s feet, how they will clog them with golden shoots.
But the girl is watching the men lower Billyrina into the box. The lid closes to the thump, thump, thump of Billyrina’s heart, and the screen fills with icy furrows.
The corn shrieks when a shadow rises from the clods. But the long furrows catch it, pull it back into shade. The screen goes blank.
In the ward, the girl sits inside cold silence, her lips tightly closed. She thinks about Billyrina buried in dark earth, while she disappears under bright lights.
Today, it’s easier to push through the brown swing doors. The girl watches until the men nail down the coffin lid.
But furrows cover the screen and the dark shadow rises. Another witch! The Mom has lent her its eyes. It will make me look into them. She runs.
The next day the girl is back. She creeps down to the front row. She stares at the floor.
The men are throwing earth onto the nailed-down coffin when the witch’s borrowed eyes force her to look up. The witch is coming towards the girl. She drags her bulbous skirts across the icy furrows, her face a thousand cracks. The shadows cower. Run! cry the birds flying round her head.
But the girl only sinks deeper into her seat. She can’t look away. She can’t hide.
The witch lights a pipe and sputters out streams of warm air. Winter berries wink at her, bright in the hedgerows, like fiery tears she has never wept. She puffs and puffs at the compost heap.
The girl smells smoke mixing with sweet rot and turns to see leaves spinning around the Mom in columns of red and orange. Its torso fills with warm smoke as it grows arms and legs, before it rises, a tall, thin ballerina.
Like Billyrina. She presses her lips together. The witch is the worst kind; a smoky fisher, attracted to Billyrina’s thumping heart.
But the witch is stretching her hands towards the Mom, and the Mom is dancing up onto the stage, crushing the traitorous corn, twirling towards her.
Behind them on the screen, Billyrina lies under cold earth.
Shut the door to inside you! the girl wants to scream. She clamps a hand over her mouth. Too late. Sparks shower out of it and catch at the witch’s hems.
Billyrina has her hands free and is thump, thump, thumping on the lid of the coffin.
The girl presses her fists into the seat cushions, her mouth shut tight.
The witch grasps the Mom’s hands and pulls her close. Come in, my arms are swept.
Billyrina punches a hole in the coffin lid; an avalanche of earth slides in over her face, clotting her mouth with soil
Billyrina claws upwards.
Billyrina. “Billyrina!” The girl’s mouth screams fire. The witch and the Mom shoot into the air, entwined, a roaring flame of orange, green and gold, as Billyrina thrashes into the open air.
At last, the heavy human heart is flying.
Something is spinning towards the girl on the witch’s last breath. It hangs in the smoky sweet air, holding the earth and the sky trembling together: a seed, coated with a witch’s tear.
The girl gasps. The witch was not a fisher, she was a sower.
The seed drifts down through the shaft of light from the projector. The girl slumps in her chair, melted, warm. She opens her mouth wide to let the seed in. She breathes shadows in, shadows out.
’s debut short story collection, Mammals
, I Think We Are Called
(Salt, 2022), was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2023. Her short stories have been widely published in journals, magazines, and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories 2017 (Salt), Ambit, Mslexia, Litro
and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet
. She is an assistant editor at Reckoning Journal
. She grew up in South Africa and lives in Nottingham.