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Mama Cuckoo

Photograph by Raphaela Rosella, Story by Liz Mistry


Tearing along the dirt path through the field of buttercups, my breath hitches, choking me, my head fills with an alien buzzing sound. “She did it. She did it.”

     I have to escape… got to get away from there. Through my tears, I see the tree … my tree. Not far now. Once I reach it, I’ll be safe.  In my haste, I stumble and land on my knees. I jump up, ignoring the smarting pain and set off at an angle, cutting through the flowers and finally fling myself at the tree trunk. My sobs are great heaving things; loud and laboured. The gnarled bark presses into my forehead, earthy and hard - reassuring. I wrap my arms around it and inhale long slow breaths until I’m ready to climb.

    When I get to my usual spot, I’m not alone.  Cricking my neck, I peer into the nest. Three chicks, no feathers, mouths gaping in a soundless ‘chirrup’. With trembling hands, I move the nest until I can perch beside it, my bottom nestled in the ‘Y’ of the two branches, my upper body haloed in dark green foliage that rustles in the morning breeze. My legs dangle, but no one will see them. I’m too high up, cocooned in the clouds. The sounds from below contort, as if I’m on a different planet.

    What’s to hear anyway? Nothing but the birds and the whisper of the wind caressing my legs. Beams of light from the rising sun pick up the pollen dusting my legs. I try to brush it away with my palm, but it smudges and paints my legs yellow, as if I have a disease. A trail of blood trickles towards my trainers. Arm hooked round a branch, I heave my knee up till it nearly reaches my chin and inspect the cut. It stings and I wish I had a tissue … a plaster.

    “Should get that cleaned.” Mama would say … but she’s not here now. Not since…

    I pull my sleeve down till I can grip the cuff in the palm of my hand. I spit on it before wiping off the blood. It leaves a dark mark on my sleeve. Lowering my leg, I peer through the leaves. It’s like looking through scattered jigsaw pieces. The gaps in the leaves fragment the image before me, so I see it in sections.

    The house, cream walls all fresh and clean, is set back from the road. The smell of paint hits my nostrils as I drift backwards in time, to the beginning of the summer … before everything changed, before everything went wrong; laughter and barbecues, cold drinks and ice cream, games and singing. Perfect! Now, the only singing I can hear is the ripple of the leaves and the whisper of the buttercups. I loved their delicate petals cupped protectively around the stamen … their brightness ensuring their continuance.

    Now, I hate them. The wind picks up and their whispering begins. “She did it. She did it.” 

    Covering my ears, I block out their taunts. Over by the house, I can see the balloons bouncing above the porch, tugging gently against their ties.  Two large pink ones attached to curly ribbons. A glittery, baby-pink, “It’s a Girl!” emblazoned across them.

    The buttercups’ whispers get louder. “She did it. She did it.” They’re hurting my ears. The pollen on my legs like acid, burns my skin. I want to scream … but I can’t. They mustn’t know I’m here. No one must know.

    The balloons are still bouncing. I should’ve snipped the string, set them free. Instead, they’re there taunting me. The balloons and the buttercups and the silent chirping birds.

    At first, the noise in the distance doesn’t penetrate. It can’t compete with the buttercups’ haunting taunts. It gets louder. Through the jigsaw, a figure runs from our porch across to the Jacobi’s. It’s holding something … Dad’s carrying something.

    They’re all running back … back to our porch, past the bouncy balloons, into the house. The noise is louder now. Sharper more jagged. The sirens compete with the buttercups; screeching, lungs open, volume up. “She did it. She did it.”

    I open my mouth releasing a long baying yell. It bounces back almost knocking me off my perch. Blue lights rotate … round and round … hurting my eyes. Buttercups and sirens hurt my ears.

    “MAKE IT STOP!”  No-one hears.

    “She did it. She did it.”


    Their song is taken up by the electricity pylons and buzzed past all the houses. People, like busy little mice swarming. The balloons tug, reaching for the stars, stretching out, desperate to be free.  Why don’t they let them go? They don’t need them now … they’ll be happier if we let them go.

    There’s Dad again, still wearing his pyjamas. Mrs Jacobi has her arm around his shoulder. Mr J pats his back. “She did it, Ben.” That’s what they’ll tell him. A woman in a blue uniform takes his arm. Dad looks across the field and his finger points straight to my heart. He’s saying it too. “She did it.”

    My heartbeat stutters and I pick up the nest, crying.

    Walking along the path my tears blur them, but they soon become defined shapes. My Dad and a police officer. He’s staring straight through the foliage, straight to me. Like a homing pigeon, he knows where I am. When he reaches the bottom, he says just one word. “Why?”

    I look at the chicks in the nest. One of them is bigger than the others. The cuckoo!

    I say, “The cuckoo will knock the smaller birds out of the nest. That’s what mummy told me.”


    Cuckoo opens its eyes and squirms, squashing its siblings. Their beaks open and shut, panic in their eyes.  I touch their wrinkled featherless heads before placing the nest back on the branch. Then, I climb down in time to see two pink balloons bob up to the clouds.

Liz Mistry is a crime writer based in Bradford. She studied at Stirling University and taught in Bradford inner-city Primary schools for many years. She writes gritty crime fiction drawing on the richness of Bradford's diverse cultures. Find her on Twitter @LizMistryAuthor 

Raphaela Rosella is an award winning Australian artist creating long-form documentary storytelling.  Raphaela has spent a decade documenting the women in her life as they grapple with the complexities of motherhood, trans-generational trauma, turbulent relationships, bureaucratic violence and the cyclical nature of social disadvantage in Australia. Raphaela’s work has been exhibited and screened extensively both nationally and internationally including: Photoquai (France), International Centre for Photography (USA), UNSW Galleries (Australia) Noorderlicht Photofestival (Netherlands), Photoville (USA), In/Out Transylvania Photo Festival (Romania) and will be exhibited at the QUT Art Museum in 2019.  Follow her on instagram @raphaelarosella

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