The Horrid Glory of Its Wings

The Horrid Glory of Its Wings

illustration by john jude palencar

This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.


“Speaking of livers,” the unicorn said, “Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back. The true witches know that.”

—Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

* * *

My mother doesn’t know about the harpy.

My mother, Alice, is not my real mom. She’s my foster mother, and she doesn’t look anything like me. Or maybe I don’t look anything like her. Mama Alice is plump and soft and has skin like the skin of a plum, all shiny dark purple with the same kind of frosty brightness over it, like you could swipe it away with your thumb.

I’m sallow—Mama Alice says olive—and I have straight black hair and crooked teeth and no real chin, which is okay because I’ve already decided nobody’s ever going to kiss me.

I’ve also got lipodystrophy, which is a fancy doctor way of saying I’ve grown a fatty buffalo hump on my neck and over each shoulder blade from the antiretrovirals, and my butt and legs and cheeks are wasted like an old lady’s. My face looks like a dog’s muzzle, even though I still have all my teeth.

For now. I’m going to have to get the wisdom teeth pulled this year while I still get state assistance, because my birthday is in October and then I’ll be eighteen. If I start having problems with them after then, well forget about it.

There’s no way I’d be able to afford to get them fixed.

* * *

The harpy lives on the street, in the alley behind my building, where the dumpster and the winos live.


1. mamculuna
Wow. That story. It's amazing. Thanks.
Francesca Forrest
2. Asakiyume
I love what the harpy says about turning rot into bronze, and I very much like when Desiree first starts wondering about whether the harpy can fly, and thinks about whether she can help the harpy.

The illustration is beautiful, too.
3. Grey Walker
That's gorgeous. And that illustration will haunt me.
4. Caitrin a puxill
Beautiful picture.

The story is very compelling. I was drawn into this girl's life, her thoughts, her musings. That made the ending all the more disappointing. I had hoped that she could soar, while life lasted; suicide isn't an answer.
Francesca Forrest
5. Asakiyume
@Caitrin a puxill (4.)

I hadn't thought it necessarily suicide--we don't know if she falls or is transformed.
Elizabeth Bear
6. matociquala
Caitrin @4: so you think she killed herself? That's a very interesting interpretation.

Thank you all so much for your comments.
8. very moving
as someone with lipodystrophy and who takes or has taken those meds i could relate to that aspect.
(tho i turned poz as a male adult)
the viewpoint is nicely done.
the non-happy but non truely tragic ending ,merely grim and offering a choice, is the kind of thing i like about your writing.

i understand wanting more than just the safest course as well.
it's why i left sf and moved back to europe despite being poz.

i expect this will show up in some best of collection next year.

beautiful painting as well.
is this storie for a ya collection ?
Anita Croft
9. AnitaCroft
I love this story, very grim and yet hopeful. I do feel that she was somehow transformed at the end.
Thank you for this!
Elizabeth Bear
10. matociquala
very @8 I have and have had friends with HIV/AIDS, so this story is very close to my heart on that front.

I have no further plans for this story at this time, but of course I am open to developments.

Anita @9 I think so too. But I could be wrong.
11. A'tuin
Oh, just lovely. it's dark and sad, which is kind of what I need just now. Thanks.
12. Amal El-Mohtar
This is an amazing story. Your prose -- this is so weird to say, and yet it's how I feel about it, and I mean this as a synonym of awesome -- is like lifting weights. Every sentence feels so thorough, so deliberate, and in reading it I feel myself going through that exertion, feel muscle fibres tearing to remake themselves more tightly. The physicality of it awes me.

I love the ending. I love that it's poised on the edge of as many possibilities as she is. I love the examination, the back and forth on that last page, the connection to the opening quote. It's just so GREAT.
Eric Marin
13. ericmarin
I really enjoyed this story, and I particularly liked the ending.
Glenda Wilson
14. glinda
As usual, when reading your work, I have no words.
Tex Anne
15. TexAnne
I have discovered the thing people will write dissertatons about someday: all of your characters have agency. It's been obvious for years, of course, but this story brought it home to me.

And the picture is unutterably beautiful. If I had a decent printer I'd put it on my wall.
Julia Rios
16. Skogkatt
Both the story and the picture are gorgeous.
Elizabeth Bear
17. matociquala
Thanks again, guys.

Amar @12, that's kind of how I felt about it too--I have always felt like you can choose the harpy's life or the mundane life, but you have to pick one--and they are both valid and valuable choices. It's the Peter Pan thing: you can be Pan, or you can be Wendy. There is no middle road. Alas.

TexAnne @15 ... how would one write a story about somebody with no agency?

And make it interesting?

Okay, now I feel challenged!
Tex Anne
18. TexAnne
Bear @17, you wouldn't. Other people have done it, but not made it interesting.
19. Edmund Schweppe
Gorgeous writing and gorgeous artwork. Not comfortable writing, by any means. But gorgeous.
20. thereallinda
the story is wonderful, thank you so much for writing it and making it available online.
i have a special attraction to vultures, so the vulture-like quality of your harpy made it that much more special for me. the illustration is gorgeous.
soaring with those bronze wings...
21. Tanya Avakian
There are many levels to that story. It's extremely powerful and the end is heartbreaking for reasons I do not entirely understand. Your interpretation--that one is mundane or not--is one I hadn't even thought of.

It owes an obvious family resemblance to "The White Donkey" by Le Guin, and there's also some of "The Women Men Don't See" by Tiptree, but it's all yours.

And it reminds me a little of "Grave of the Fireflies." I don't quite know why.
Elizabeth Bear
22. matociquala
Tanya @21, I don't mean to imply that that is the ONLY way to spin the ending. That's just the one that kicks me in the swuid, so to speak.

thereallinda @20, I had wanted to write a Harpy story for years, and then in 2007 I was privileged to meet a vulture and listen to a presentation about her, and I knew I was in business.

It only took me two more years to write the story after that.
23. Tanya Avakian
Yes, there are lots of interpretations one can give the ending. It always amazes me how much a story can be about.

I meant rather that I just never thought of it that way, though it's obvious in some ways--it also makes it a companion of sorts to "The White Donkey" to see it that way, because the girl doesn't go off with the unicorn in that story and in this one she does choose the harpy (I think--even that isn't entirely clear).

Oh, and I also think of "The Ring" by Isak Dinesen. Which may be online somewhere (it's quite a short story). That got me on a similar level.
24. Tanya Avakian
Maybe it gets to me to think of it with this interpretation because I'm working on a piece of fiction where this comes up. That one can get what one wants, in the form of some unusual power or at least an unusual, set-apart way of life, and the implications can still be heartbreaking. I've got a duel of sorts going on between two equally matched people who chose the harpy, so to speak.
J Dalziel
25. BunnyM
Beautiful, unease-granting work, as always, Bear.

Wonderfully evocative artwork to go with it, too.

Anita @9: I do feel that she was somehow transformed at the end.

I'd argue that from the end point of the story, whether she chooses to jump/chooses magic/chooses the mundane life/slips and falls without making any choice at all, she will be transformed permanently.

Myself, I like the liminality of the way this story ends most of all, which is saying something, as I adore everything else about it, too.
Anita Croft
26. AnitaCroft
I think that every time you make a choice you are transformed in some way.
Bobby Stubbs
27. Valan
Wow. Its a very moving story, thank you for posting it online. Completely Wonderful.

I especially love the imagery of the sunlight transforming the harpy, and image of the sunrise that complete's Desiree's transformation at the end.
Jeff Youngstrom
28. jeffy
Heartbreaking and inspiring, terrifying and exultant. "Horrid glory" indeed.

In the interest of polishing, there's a typo in the second paragraph of page five: "with" where "which" should be.
29. dwg
Powerful stuff, Bear.

For me the question is, does she need to become the harpy, or is she already the harpy.
Joe Iriarte
30. JoeIriarte
I wonder if anybody else identified with Mama Alice a bit? I'm an adoptive parent of medically needy kids from DCF custody. For what it's worth, I think you did a good job of capturing the conflicts endemic to that situation.
31. rpresser
Bear @17: Given that there are (at least) millions of actual live people on the planet who have no agency, or at least believe and act as if they have none, it should certainly be possible.
32. rpresser
Wait -- "act as if they have no agency"? What gibberish am I spouting?
33. DCS
So from my entirely mundane point of view: Efavirenz can cause hallucinations (and depression). What if this is all in her head? Oops. At least her hallucinatory world is interesting.
34. Reziac
I had the other posters' thoughts, like, is this real? or is this suicide?

But the one that sticks with me is, "What if the harpy lied?"

(And if so, what did it lie about?)
Ron Beffa
35. Tarzanofthecats
Ms Bear, thanks for this powerful story that has been stuck in my head since reading it yesterday. I'm not sure about that end. Did she fly, did she die, was she escaping into fantasy? College would seem to have the potential for her to break out from her small existence - but instead she perhaps leaps into a fantasy world to escape.
36. Katathome
It's in reading a story as powerful, as fulfilling, as this, that I realise why I so love reading, and why I find trying to write so irresitable!

Beautiful, ugly, but always moving. Thank you!
37. bluecimmers
I agree with Katathome. Beautiful and ugly. And moving.
Philip Schneider
38. Ghost63368
Interesting story. If she falls does she become a harpy or does she die? Good use of legend surrounding the Harpy. I enjoyed the picture as well.
39. harel
amazing story , makes you fly :)
great drawing too .
40. goshawk
Beautiful, troubling story, as ever. I love how Desiree isn't just the sum of her labels, how she's her own person with her own choices, and the harpy is wonderful. I have a thing for immortals and mythic beasts who aren't human and don't think or act or care like humans do.

The illustration is gorgeous, too. Wow.

Oh - as for writing a story about a character with no agency, it's been done. It's called L'Etranger, by Albert Camus, and I would beg you not to add another book of the like to the canon. I'm not generally one for physically showing displeasure with a book, but I think I actually did throw that one across the room when I finished.
41. MysaNal

Stunning and heartrending and achingly beautiful.
Mary Kay Kare
42. MaryKay
Nothing like being the last to the party!

This is the kind of story Ellison talked about when he talked about Gerald Kersh and the haunted ones among us.

Very visceral, gripping, haunting. I would disagree with a choice to become the harpy, hunting for magic. Escaping into fantasy is an escape, a running away. Turning our back on reality doesn't mean it ceases to exist. It only means we can no longer affect it. It may still affect us.

Perhaps it is my insistence on reality and my reluctance to tear at my own liver that keeps from achieving what I'd like to. But it's the world I live in.

43. BrianH
Fine story.

But the illustration is a typical marketeer's cop-out. The girl in the pic looks nothing like the physical description in the text. I hate that kind of gutless garbage.
44. Edward Oleander
Hauntingly brilliant... More words apply, but since I'm late, they all got used above.

A certain Lioness told me I would love your work; she is a fine judge.

You captured something that many of my patients would understand, that I can only glimpse and guess at. The ending was so... real... that's the best word I can find. When fiction feels real, you've hit something good.

Thank you for sipping at the cup of formula, and wrinkling your nose...

45. inkgrrl
Salvaging beauty from pain, so beautifully done. Thank you.
47. logankstewart
Wow, what a powerhouse story. Awesome picture, too.
48. L.G. Vazquez
I just read this story in the 2010 Best Of... I'm new to this type of writing, and I feel very amateur about asking this, but what does "the characters have agency" mean?

My interpretation of the story was that she was the harpy all along.

I'll agree about the illustration. While it's a great image, it doesn't match the character description. Perhaps another solution would have been just the wing, or if there MUST be a human image to connect with, maybe show her from behind, showing her back, the new old coat, or just her head or arms spread out along with the wing.

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