Sarah Gillett February 2024 Highly Commended

An experiment on a bird in the air pump (after Joseph Wright of Derby)

by Sarah Gillett

Anna so wanted to stroke its soft white body that she poked her fingers into the cage when Maria wasn’t looking. The cockatoo stabbed, drawing blood with its curved beak, tongue waggling. They both screamed and it went back to preening itself, nibbling under its downy parts, closing its wings with a dry snap, smoothing down its combed head with grey claws. Maria said she deserved to get pecked, it wasn’t a pet and if anything happened to it then Papa would be filthy furious and lock her in the box under the stairs until they all forgot she was there, until she died. Anna, yelling, wished she could be a ghost and haunt Maria forever and ever and always. Shrieks crumpling to giggles, they washed their faces and fumbled each other into pale lilac silk dresses.

Downstairs the parlour table was set with wooden instruments, connected by brass tubing, polished handles, glass vessels. When Anna asked Papa what the gnarled slimy thing in the amber liquid was, he said it was a diseased human skull. The sisters shivered. Papa’s important friend placed the cockatoo inside a large glass jar and demonstrated the effects of something called a vacuum, counting seconds on a silver watch.

The white bird shone in the candlelight. It looked fragile and heavy, its feathers wide, its feet scrabbling then twitching slower. Maria hid her face but Anna could not look away. She wanted to touch the glossy black eye staring right at her. Around her, moving splashes of cheek and hair and cloth caught the light in time with the thumping of her heart. She had thought it was only in the shadows that everything was dark and treacherous. Time was slower there, the box had taught her that. She held her breath and waited.

About the Author

Sarah Gillett is an artist and writer from Lancashire, UK. She currently lives in London, where she investigates the life of things across space and time. She has a soft spot for meteorites, the colour blue, old dictionaries, glass paperweights and early postcards. In another life she would have been an astronaut.


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