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“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.
I come out in the morning before school, after I’ve eaten my breakfast and taken my pills (nevirapine, lamivudine, efavirenz). I’m used to the pills. I’ve been taking them all my life. I have a note in my file at school, and excuses for my classmates.
I don’t bring friends home.
Lying is a sin. But Father Alvaro seems to think that when it comes to my sickness, it’s a sin for which I’m already doing enough penance.
Father Alvaro is okay. But he’s not like the harpy.
The harpy doesn’t care if I’m not pretty. The harpy is beyond not pretty, way into ugly. Ugly as your mama’s warty butt. Its teeth are snaggled and stained piss-yellow and char-black. Its claws are broken and dull and stink like rotten chicken. It has a long droopy blotchy face full of lines like Liv Tyler’s dad, that rock star guy, and its hair hangs down in black-bronze rats over both feathery shoulders. The feathers look washed-out black and dull until sunlight somehow finds its way down into the grubby alley, bounces off dirty windows and hits them, and then they look like scratched bronze.
They are bronze.
If I touch them, I can feel warm metal.
I’d sneak the harpy food, but Mama Alice keeps pretty close track of it—it’s not like we have a ton of money—and the harpy doesn’t seem to mind eating garbage. The awfuller the better: coffee grounds, moldy cake, meat squirming with maggots, the stiff corpses of alley rats.
The harpy turns all that garbage into bronze.
If it reeks, the harpy eats it, stretching its hag face out on a droopy red neck to gulp the bits, just like any other bird. I’ve seen pigeons do the same thing with a crumb too big to peck up and swallow, but their necks aren’t scaly naked, ringed at the bottom with fluffy down as white as a confirmation dress.
So every morning I pretend I’m leaving early for school—Mama Alice says “Kiss my cheek, Desiree”—and then once I’m out from under Mama Alice’s window I sneak around the corner into the alley and stand by the dumpster where the harpy perches. I only get ten or fifteen minutes, however much time I can steal. The stink wrinkles up my nose. There’s no place to sit. Even if there were, I couldn’t sit down out here in my school clothes.
I think the harpy enjoys the company. Not that it needs it; I can’t imagine the harpy needing anything. But maybe . . . just maybe it likes me.
The harpy says, I want you.
I don’t know if I like the harpy. But I like being wanted.
* * *
The harpy tells me stories.
Mama Alice used to, when I was little, when she wasn’t too tired from work and taking care of me and Luis and Rita, before Rita died. But the harpy’s stories are better. It tells me about magic, and nymphs, and heroes. It tells me about adventures and the virgin goddesses like Artemis and Athena, and how they had adventure and did magic, and how Athena was cleverer than Poseidon and got a city named after her.
It tells me about Zephyrus, the West Wind, and his sons the magical talking horses. It tells me about Hades, god of the Underworld, and the feathers on its wings ring like bronze bells with excitement when it tells me about their mother Celaeno, who was a harpy also, but shining and fierce.
It tells me about her sisters, and how they were named for the mighty storm, and how when they all three flew, the sky was dark and lashed with rain and thunder. That’s how it talks: lashed with rain and thunder.
* * *
The harpy says, We’re all alone.
It’s six thirty in the morning and I hug myself in my new winter coat from the fire department giveaway, my breath streaming out over the top of the scratchy orange scarf Mama Alice knitted. I squeeze my legs together, left knee in the hollow of the right knee like I have to pee, because even tights don’t help too much when the edge of the skirt only comes to the middle of your kneecap. I’d slap my legs to warm them, but these are my last pair of tights and I don’t want them to snag.
The scarf scrapes my upper lip when I nod. It’s dark here behind the dumpster. The sun won’t be up for another half hour. On the street out front, brightness pools under streetlights, but it doesn’t show anything warm—just cracked black snow trampled and heaped over the curb.
“Nobody wants me,” I say. “Mama Alice gets paid to take care of me.”
That’s unfair. Mama Alice didn’t have to take me or my foster brother Luis. But sometimes it feels good to be a little unfair. I sniff up a drip and push my chin forward so it bobs like the harpy swallowing garbage.
“Nobody would want to live with me. But I don’t have any choice. I’m stuck living with myself.”
The harpy says, There’s always a choice.
“Sure,” I say. “Suicide is a sin.”
The harpy says, Talking to harpies is probably a sin, too.
“Are you a devil?”
The harpy shrugs. Its feathers smell like mildew. Something crawls along a rat of its hair, greasy-shiny in the street light. The harpy scrapes it off with a claw and eats it.
The harpy says, I’m a heathen monster. Like Celaeno and her sisters, Aello and Ocypete. The sisters of the storm. Your church would say so, that I am a demon. Yes.
“I don’t think you give Father Alvaro enough credit.”
The harpy says, I don’t trust priests, and turns to preen its broken claws.
“You don’t trust anybody.”
That’s not what I said, says the harpy—
You probably aren’t supposed to interrupt harpies, but I’m kind of over that by now. “That’s why I decided. I’m never going to trust anybody. My birth mother trusted somebody, and look where it got her. Knocked up and dead.”
The harpy says, That’s very inhuman of you.
It sounds like a compliment.
I put a hand on the harpy’s warm wing. I can’t feel it through my glove. The gloves came from the fire department, too. “I have to go to school, Harpy.”
The harpy says, You’re alone there too.
* * *
I want to prove the harpy wrong.
The drugs are really good now. When I was born, a quarter of the babies whose moms had AIDS got sick too. Now it’s more like one in a hundred. I could have a baby of my own, a healthy baby. And then I wouldn’t be alone.
No matter what the harpy says.
It’s a crazy stupid idea. Mama Alice doesn’t have to take care of me after I turn eighteen, and what would I do with a baby? I’ll have to get a job. I’ll have to get state help for the drugs. The drugs are expensive.
If I got pregnant now, I could have the baby before I turn eighteen. I’d have somebody who was just mine. Somebody who loved me.
How easy is it to get pregnant, anyway? Other girls don’t seem to have any problem doing it by accident.
Or by “accident.”
Except whoever it was, I would have to tell him I was pos. That’s why I decided I would sign the purity pledge and all that. Because then I have a reason not to tell.
And they gave me a ring. Fashion statement.
You know how many girls actually keep that pledge? I was going to. I meant to. But not just keep it until I got married. I meant to keep it forever, and then I’d never have to tell anybody.
No, I was right the first time. I’d rather be alone than have to explain. Besides, if you’re having a baby, you should have the baby for the baby, not for you.
Isn’t that right, Mom?
* * *
The harpy has a kingdom.
It’s a tiny kingdom. The kingdom’s just the alley behind my building, but it has a throne (the dumpster) and it has subjects (the winos) and it has me. I know the winos see the harpy. They talk to it sometimes. But it vanishes when the other building tenants come down, and it hides from the garbage men.
I wonder if harpies can fly.
It opens its wings sometimes when it’s raining as if it wants to wash off the filth, or sometimes if it’s mad at something. It hisses when it’s mad like that, the only sound I’ve ever heard it make outside my head.
I guess if it can fly depends on if it’s magic. Miss Rivera, my bio teacher sophomore year, said that after a certain size things couldn’t lift themselves with wings anymore. It has to do with muscle strength and wingspan and gravity. And some big things can only fly if they can fall into flight, or get a headwind.
I never thought about it before. I wonder if the harpy’s stuck in that alley. I wonder if it’s too proud to ask for help.
I wonder if I should ask if it wants some anyway.
The harpy’s big. But condors are big, too, and condors can fly. I don’t know if the harpy is bigger than a condor. It’s hard to tell from pictures, and it’s not like you can walk up to a harpy with a tape measure and ask it to stick out a wing.
Well, maybe you could. But I wouldn’t.
Wouldn’t it be awful to have wings that didn’t work? Wouldn’t it be worse to have wings that do work, and not be able to use them?
* * *
After I visit the harpy at night, I go up to the apartment. When I let myself in the door to the kitchen, Mama Alice is sitting at the table with some mail open in front of her. She looks up at me and frowns, so I lock the door behind me and shoot the chain. Luis should be home by now, and I can hear music from his bedroom. He’s fifteen now. I think it’s been three days since I saw him.
I come over and sit down in my work clothes on the metal chair with the cracked vinyl seat.
Mama Alice shakes her head, but her eyes are shiny. I reach out and grab her hand. The folded up paper in her fingers crinkles.
“What is it, then?”
She pushes the paper at me. “Desiree. You got the scholarship.”
I don’t hear her right the first time. I look at her, at our hands, and the rumply paper. She shoves the letter into my hand and I unfold it, open in, read it three times as if the words will change like crawly worms when I’m not looking at it.
The words are crawly worms, all watery, but I can see hardship and merit and State. I fold it up carefully, smoothing out the crinkles with my fingertips. It says I can be anything at all.
I’m going to college on a scholarship. Just state school.
I’m going to college because I worked hard. And because the State knows I’m full of poison, and they feel bad for me.
* * *
The harpy never lies to me, and neither does Mama Alice.
She comes into my room later that night and sits down on the edge of my bed, with is just a folded-out sofa with springs that poke me, but it’s mine and better than nothing. I hide the letter under the pillow before she turns on the light, so she won’t catch on that I was hugging it.
“Desiree,” she says.
I nod and wait for the rest of it.
“You know,” she says, “I might be able to get the state to pay for liposuction. Doctor Morales will say it’s medically necessary.”
“Liposuction?” I grope my ugly plastic glasses off the end table, because I need to see her. I’m frowning so hard they pinch my nose.
“For the hump,” she says, and touches her neck, like she had one too. “So you could stand up straight again. Like you did when you were little.”
Now I wish I hadn’t put the glasses on. I have to look down at my hands. The fingertips are all smudged from the toner on the letter. “Mama Alice,” I say, and then something comes out I never meant to ask her. “How come you never adopted me?”
She jerks like I stuck her with a fork. “Because I thought . . .” She stops, shakes her head, and spreads her hands.
I nod. I asked, but I know. Because the state pays for my medicine. Because Mama Alice thought I would be dead by now.
We were all supposed to be dead by now. All the HIV babies. Two years, maybe five. AIDS kills little kids really quick, because their immune systems haven’t really happened yet. But the drugs got better as our lives got longer, and now we might live forever. Nearly forever.
I’m dying. Just not fast enough. If it were faster, I’d have nothing to worry about. As it is, I’m going to have to figure out what I’m going to do with my life.
I touch the squishy pad of fat on my neck with my fingers, push it in until it dimples. It feels like it should keep the mark of my fingers, like Moon Mud, but when I stop touching it, it springs back like nothing happened at all.
I don’t want to get to go to college because somebody feels bad for me. I don’t want anybody’s pity.
* * *
The next day, I go down to talk to the harpy.
I get up early and wash quick, pull on my tights and skirt and blouse and sweater. I don’t have to work after school today, so I leave my uniform on the hanger behind the door.
But when I get outside, the first thing I hear is barking. Loud barking, lots of it, from the alley. And that hiss, the harpy’s hiss. Like the biggest maddest cat you ever heard.
There’s junk all over the street, but nothing that looks like I could fight with it. I grab up some hunks of ice. My school shoes skip on the frozen sidewalk and I tear my tights when I fall down.
It’s dark in the alley, but it’s city dark, not real dark, and I can see the dogs okay. There’s three of them, dancing around the dumpster on their hind legs. One’s light colored enough that even in the dark I can see she’s all scarred up from fighting, and the other two are dark.
The harpy leans forward on the edge of the dumpster, wings fanned out like a cartoon eagle, head stuck out and jabbing at the dogs.
Silly thing doesn’t know it doesn’t have a beak, I think, and whip one of the ice rocks at the big light-colored dog. She yelps. Just then, the harpy sicks up over all three of the dogs.
Oh, God, the smell.
I guess it doesn’t need a beak after all, because the dogs go from growling and snapping to yelping and running just like that. I slide my backpack off one shoulder and grab it by the strap in the hand that’s not full of ice.
It’s heavy and I could hit something, but I don’t swing it in time to stop one of the dogs knocking into me as it bolts away. The puke splashes on my leg. It burns like scalding water through my tights.
I stop myself just before I slap at the burn. Because getting the puke on my glove and burning my hand too would just be smart like that. Instead, I scrub at it with the dirty ice in my other hand and run limping towards the harpy.
The harpy hears my steps and turns to hiss, eyes glaring like green torches, but when it sees who’s there it pulls its head back. It settles its wings like a nun settling her skirts on a park bench, and gives me the same fishy glare.
Wash that leg with snow, the harpy says. Or with lots of water. It will help the burning.
With what harpies eat, the harpy says, don’t you think it would have to be?
I mean to say something clever back, but what gets out instead is, “Can you fly?”
As if in answer, the harpy spreads its vast bronze wings again. They stretch from one end of the dumpster to the other, and overlap its length a little.
The harpy says, Do these look like flightless wings to you?
Why does it always answer a question with a question? I know kids like that, and it drives me crazy when they do it, too.
“No,” I say. “But I’ve never seen you. Fly. I’ve never seen you fly.”
The harpy closes its wings, very carefully. A wind still stirs my hair where it sticks out under my hat.
The harpy says, There’s no wind in my kingdom. But I’m light now, I’m empty. If there were wind, if I could get higher—
I drop my pack beside the dumpster. It has harpy puke on it now anyway. I’m not putting it on my back. “What if I carried you up?”
The harpy’s wings flicker, as if it meant to spread them again. And then it settles back with narrowed eyes and shows me its snaggled teeth in a suspicious grin.
The harpy says, What’s in it for you?
I say to the harpy, “You’ve been my friend.”
The harpy stares at me, straight on like a person, not side to side like a bird. It stays quiet so long I think it wants me to leave, but a second before I step back it nods.
The harpy says, Carry me up the fire escape, then.
I have to clamber up on the dumpster and pick the harpy up over my head to put it on the fire escape. It’s heavy, all right, especially when I’m holding it up over my head so it can hop onto the railing. Then I have to jump up and catch the ladder, then swing my feet up like on the uneven bars in gym class.
That’s the end of these tights. I’ll have to find something to tell Mama Alice. Something that isn’t exactly a lie.
Then we’re both up on the landing, and I duck down so the stinking, heavy harpy can step onto my shoulder with her broken, filthy claws. I don’t want to think about the infection I’ll get if she scratches me. Hospital stay. IV antibiotics. But she balances there like riding shoulders is all she does for a living, her big scaly toes sinking into my fat pads so she’s not pushing down on my bones.
I have to use both hands to pull myself up the fire escape, even though I left my backpack at the bottom. The harpy weighs more, and it seems to get heavier with every step. It’s not any easier because I’m trying to tiptoe and not wake up the whole building.
I stop to rest on the landings, but by the time I get to the top one my calves shake like the mufflers on a Harley. I imagine them booming like that too, which makes me laugh. Kind of, as much as I can. I double over with my hands on the railing and the harpy hops off.
“Is this high enough?”
The harpy doesn’t look at me. It faces out over the empty dark street. It spreads its wings. The harpy is right: I’m alone, I’ve always been alone. Alone and lonely.
And now it’s also leaving me.
“I’m dying,” I yell, just as it starts the downstroke. I’d never told anybody. Mama Alice had to tell me, when I was five, but I never told anybody.
The harpy rocks forward, beats its wings hard, and settles back on the railing. It cranks its head around on its twisty neck to stare at me.
“I have HIV,” I say. I press my glove against the scar under my coat where I used to have a G-tube. When I was little.
The harpy nods and turns away again. The harpy says, I know.
It should surprise me that the harpy knows, but it doesn’t. Harpies know things. Now that I think about it, I wonder if the harpy only loves me because I’m garbage. If it only wants me because my blood is poison. My scarf’s come undone, and a button’s broken on my new old winter coat.
It feels weird to say what I just said out loud, so I say it again. Trying to get used to the way the words feel in my mouth. “Harpy, I’m dying. Maybe not today or tomorrow. But probably before I should.”
The harpy says, That’s because you’re not immortal.
I spread my hands, cold in the gloves. Well duh. “Take me with you.”
The harpy says, I don’t think you’re strong enough to be a harpy.
“I’m strong enough for this.” I take off my new old winter coat from the fire department and drop it on the fire escape. “I don’t want to be alone any more.”
The harpy says, If you come with me, you have to stop dying. And you have to stop living. And it won’t make you less alone. You are human, and if you stay human your loneliness will pass, one way or the other. If you come with me, it’s yours. Forever.
It’s not just empty lungs making my head spin. I say, “I got into college.”
The harpy says, It’s a career path.
I say, “You’re lonely too. At least I decided to be alone, because it was better.”
The harpy says, I am a harpy.
“Mama Alice would say that God never gives us any burdens we can’t carry.”
The harpy says, Does she look you in the eye when she says that?
I say, “Take me with you.”
The harpy smiles. A harpy’s smile is an ugly thing, even seen edge-on. The harpy says, You do not have the power to make me not alone, Desiree.
It’s the first time it’s ever said my name. I didn’t know it knew it. “You have sons and sisters and a lover, Celaeno. In the halls of the West Wind. How can you be lonely?”
The harpy turns over its shoulder and stares with green, green eyes. The harpy says, I never told you my name.
“Your name is Darkness. You told me it. You said you wanted me, Celaeno.”
The cold hurts so much I can hardly talk. I step back and hug myself tight. Without the coat I’m cold, so cold my teeth buzz together like gears stripping, and hugging myself doesn’t help.
I don’t want to be like the harpy. The harpy is disgusting. It’s awful.
The harpy says, And underneath the filth, I shine. I salvage. You choose to be alone? Here’s your chance to prove yourself no liar.
I don’t want to be like the harpy. But I don’t want to be me any more, either. I’m stuck living with myself.
If I go with the harpy, I will be stuck living with myself forever.
The sky brightens. When the sunlight strikes the harpy, its filthy feathers will shine like metal. I can already see fingers of cloud rising across the horizon, black like cut paper against the paleness that will be dawn, not that you can ever see dawn behind the buildings. There’s no rain or snow in the forecast, but the storm is coming.
I say, “You only want me because my blood is rotten. You only want me because I got thrown away.”
I turn garbage into bronze, the harpy says. I turn rot into strength. If you came with me, you would have to be like me.
“Tell me it won’t always be this hard.”
I do not lie, child. What do you want?
I don’t know my answer until I open my mouth and say it, but it’s something I can’t get from Mama Alice, and I can’t get from a scholarship. “Magic.”
The harpy rocks from foot to foot. I can’t give you that, she says. You have to make it.
Downstairs, under my pillow, is a letter. Across town, behind brick walls, is a doctor who would write me another letter.
Just down the block in the church beside my school is a promise of maybe heaven, if I’m a good girl and I die.
Out there is the storm and the sunrise.
Mama Alice will worry, and I’m sorry. She doesn’t deserve that. When I’m a harpy will I care? Will I care forever?
Under the humps and pads of fat across my shoulders, I imagine I can already feel the prickle of feathers.
I use my fingers to lift myself onto the railing and balance there in my school shoes on the rust and tricky ice, six stories up, looking down on the street lights. I stretch out my arms.
And so what if I fall?
Copyright © 2009 Elizabeth Bear