By Celia Coyne

Celia Coyne's moving story "Superhero", about a daughter's relationship with her mother who suffers from ill mental health, impressed the judges enough to be one of the grand winners of this year's competition.

You say you have the power to control the weather; but you whisper it, so that no one else can hear. You look me straight in the eye and draw in closer, saying that if any man should lay a finger on me you’ll summon the clouds from all four corners of the earth and whip them up into a terrible storm. A lightning bolt will come straight out of the sky and strike him down. You can do this because you have “powers”. I’m lost for words. The truth is, I don’t like it when you look at me that way. I smile and say thanks. You relax a little and sip on your mug of tea. Then suddenly you ask me why I’m not at school. I lie and say, “It’s okay, Mum, I have two free periods this afternoon to revise for my exams.” Then you pull in close again and tell me that you’ll “know” if I’m lying. You scrutinise my face, we lock eyes for a moment, but I’m practised at this deceit. You look away and tell me to best get on with it, then.

I hate it when I see her in your eyes – the stranger who comes to visit us from time to time. She’s lively and demanding. She refuses to cook, clean or even take a shower. She says there are more important things. “You’ll have to sort your own food out,” she says, as she eats baked beans from a can. “And don’t disturb me while I’m working.”

She does all the talking, while you disappear somehow. When I see her in your eyes, I know that trouble is coming – because she can’t help herself. She always gets you into trouble – and I mean real trouble, smashing glass cabinets and wrestling-with-neighbours kind of trouble. That was on Wednesday. The next morning you are up at 5.30am – at least that’s when I wake up and find you in the garden. Still in your dressing gown, stooped over the flowerbeds, picking around with a trowel. Even though it’s pouring with rain, you haven’t bothered with a coat and your slippers are slick with mud. I know what you’re doing, of course. You’re looking for worms. You need them to feed the chick – a blackbird you brought into the house a few weeks ago. Ugly little squab it was; all gaping beak and bulging eyes. You reckon you can heal it and it won’t die. At first I was doubtful. I’d brought in several rescued chicks when I was a kid and they never made it. Huddled on cotton wool in an old margarine tub in the airing cupboard, they lived at best two days, no matter what we did. But this one hung on – thanks to your constant vigil. It looks like a scruffy blackbird now, its feathers mottled and brownish, but it’s easy to see what it’s going to become.

You keep it in the bathroom. It’s the most sensible place in the house since you won’t have it in a cage. So when I see you messing about in the mud, I go into the garden. And I say: “Okay Mum, if you can control the weather, why don’t you make it stop raining?” (I can’t resist saying it.) You pause for a moment, straighten up and say you like the rain. It’s a gift from heaven and it makes the flowers grow. I manage to get you to come back inside after some persuasion.

You’re up early the next day, too. This time I find you in our sitting room – paper, pens and envelopes splurge out across the dining table and you’ve got your head down, writing with concentrated intent. I ask you what you’re doing and you tell me (or rather the woman in your eyes does) that it’s important work for the government. You’ve been chosen for this work because of your special superhero powers. “I’m the saviour of the universe,” you say without a hint of a smile, looking up from your paperwork. You tap your nose with the pen and tell me the rest can be divulged on a “need to know” basis. I stifle a laugh – I can’t help it – but you’re too busy to notice. I’ve been in touch with the doctor and he has prescribed some sedatives. It’s all he can do at the moment because you haven’t been violent or threatened to harm yourself. But you’re not interested in taking them – the tablets dull your mind and you need all your faculties, apparently. Eventually I persuade you to take a sleeping tablet, so we can both get a good night’s sleep.

On Friday I have to go to school – I have an exam. It’s important – if I get the grades I can go to college and my life will begin. It’s what you always wanted for me. I know that it’s bad timing, but there’s no way round it – and I leave you alone in the house. It’s early afternoon when I come home and I can see an ambulance and two police cars parked outside our house. I know what this means. I reach the house and the front door is smashed – it’s the seventh time it’s been broken and I wonder why we always replace it with glass. A solid wooden door would be more practical. I weave my way among the policemen, neighbours and old Dr Dinn and find you grappling with an ambulance man on the kitchen floor. Strangely, I feel a sense of pride – you won’t go anywhere without a fight. “I have superhuman strength!” you declare. “You have been warned. Persist at your own peril!” The ambulance man smirks – before he gets your fist in his face. Then his expression changes and two more blokes bundle in. It takes four men to get you into the ambulance. Once you’re in there you go quiet so I reckon that they must have given you an injection. I follow you in. You’re sitting there, but like a captured animal your eyes are constantly darting around, looking for your chance. An ambulance man makes small talk to me about the weather. Hasn’t it been raining a lot, and yet we’re still in for a drought. Isn’t it ironic? He places his hand on my knee and it lingers just a moment too long. I’m waiting for the clouds to gather and that lightning bolt you promised.

The next day, Saturday, I visit you in the hospital. You’re so drugged up you can hardly open your eyes. It’s no surprise to me – it always starts this way. The other patients are in various states of oblivion. Some sit quietly, others wander around, muttering to themselves. There is one elderly man who always seems to be in here. He walks the corridors asking for Sarah. He’s in another world. It’s as if the doctors can’t quite pull him back into reality. I’m getting ready to leave, when you grip hold of my arm. Have I fed the bird? Of course I have, I say, but it will be able to feed itself soon. It looks beautiful. This makes you smile. “It should have fledged by now,” you say in a slow, deliberate voice. It’s the drugs they have you on. “But with me in here, I don’t know how …” Your face is like a child’s; worry lines crease your brow. “Don’t worry, Mum, I’ll see to it,” I say. You smile and, for a moment, I glimpse the old you – still in there, finding your way out.

Back home the house is oddly still. It’s always too quiet while you’re in hospital. I put the TV on and they’re announcing a film that’s about to come on: Flash Gordon – Saviour of the Universe. Your very own words and it makes me smile. Because to me you are a superhero – I’ve seen you in action. Sometimes you go off the rails, lose your mind, but then somehow you find your way home. You always drag yourself back to this duller, quieter world, where there are no special powers to save you and for most of us, life has little purpose. It must take superhuman strength to do it, but you always do. And I know what I’ve got to do. I go up to the bathroom and I open the top window. The young blackbird flutters to the window ledge. A little wary, it looks out into the blue. Then in one swift movement it dives out into the sky. I watch it fly up and over next-door’s roof and it doesn’t look back.

About The Author: Celia Coyne

Celia Coyne, a freelance editor specialising in natural history, came to Christchurch seven years ago and intends to stay – in spite of the earthquakes. She has been developing her fiction writing, and her short stories have appeared in various anthologies. The story “Superhero” comes straight from the heart as Coyne grew up in a chaotic household with a mother who had bipolar disorder. Coyne hopes one day to have a collection of short stories published. Meanwhile, you will find her sitting on her deck, notebook in hand, gazing at the view. You can find her photography and more of her writing on her website



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