“Oh me, my King, let pass whatever will, Elves, and the harmless glamour of the field.”
– Alfred Lord Tennyson
“God damn! God damn him to hell!”
Karen smacked her fist against the bathroom countertop. Then she snorted in laughter — a derisive laugh, in spite of herself, and at herself — because of the language she used. You adopt the mythologies of another culture without even trying, so you end up cursing in the name of a god and an afterlife in which you do not believe.
She leaned forward, chin angled toward her throat, eyes on the mirror, and parted her hair near the crown of her head. She shifted the dark strands from right to left, then reached up and pinched a gray hair held between the teeth of the comb. She yanked the hair from her scalp.
She wrinkled her lip in disgust and tossed the hair into the wastebasket.
But there were more.
Not so long ago, Henry had described her hair as ruddy gold when it caught the sunlight. But now she found dirty brown hairs faded to gray at the roots, twisted dishwater-gray hairs, and, most disturbingly, white hairs that stood out like birches in a conifer forest. She could color her hair. She did color her hair. But she had reached the point of diminishing returns.
She accidentally pulled out a few brown hairs along with a white and winced at the loss.
“How could he?” she thought. But Henry had never been one for tact. Even when he thought he was being tactful.
The din of the downstairs party percolated up through the tiles of the bathroom floor. The voices chirped and boomed like frogs competing for mates in the springtime. It was so noisy she couldn’t make out the music, only feel the bass vibrating through her bones. The song was familiar, from one of Henry’s party mixes, and Karen tapped her foot to the rhythm.
“Oh Jesus!” There was an eruption of white and gray hairs toward the back of her scalp. She imagined bush-whacking through her dark forest again, the pine spires, the soft needles underfoot, and coming unexpectedly upon a grove of birches, branches twisted and bark disheveled with age, the ground ripped and broken so the trees pitched obscenely.
That must be what Henry had seen.
Without a second thought she ripped the clump of hair from her head.
There was a brief spasm of pain.
She glowered at the crinkled hairs pinched between her fingers. The flesh that clung to their roots was pinkish but dry and fibrous like lichen. There was no blood.
She dropped the hairs into the wastebasket and ran a brush across her scalp. She brushed until her hair rippled with static and ascended, weightless, into the air to form a nimbus around her head. She then took a can of hairspray and sealed her hair in the caustic mist. Finally, she touched up around her eyes — she had found an eyelash floating in her glass of chardonnay two days ago — and applied a fresh layer of lipstick. She blotted her lips on a tissue, then crumpled and discarded the smudged kiss, letting it float down to join the nests of hair in the wastebasket.
Suddenly, unexpectedly — although by now she should be used to how the most innocuous of events could recall her past — she thought of Roland. Her breath hiccupped in her throat and for a moment she thought she would cry. It had been more than a decade since she had last seen Roland and now, more than ever, she wondered what had become of him.
She took a deep breath, offered up a prayer to the god in which she did not believe, and unlocked and opened the bathroom door. The drunken din enveloped her. “Go to hell, Henry,” she said again, although, through the pounding beat of the music, no one could hear her.
The song was “Satisfaction,” by the Rolling Stones.
Once upon a time, Karen could fly.
One of her earliest memories was of a warm day in June thirty years ago. No, almost forty years ago now. She had worn the glamour of a mayfly and, one more glittering speck in a swarm of thousands, danced to the thrum and whir of wings in the currents of air rising from the pond.
The foolish male mayflies had nothing on their minds but to find a female, and the females, once inseminated, to return to the water and lay their eggs. One clasping couple, skimming too close to the water’s margin, was speared by the sticky tongue of a bullfrog. Others were victims of a sparrow that dived through the swarm, returning time and again, the cloud of mayflies reassembling each time it was ruptured by the attack.
Evening overtook the afternoon, then night eclipsed evening. Karen danced on. The mayflies were gone but she was not alone. She knew those companions that remained for what they were and, knowing them, she danced harder. She created hieroglyphs. She etched her signature on the air. The others brushed against her wings, her legs, her thin quivering body. A hundred wings rasped, echoing and re-echoing in celebration of their spiraling dance.
Then a sharp atonal note as one of the Chosen tumbled through the air, twisting end over end in a chaotic downward path.
“Watch out!” Karen cried.
He crashed into her. Legs scrabbled for purchase. A claw ripped a crystalline wing panel.
She fell. Wings strained to catch balance.
Laughter followed her down and, when she righted herself, he was hovering by her side. He flipped lazily backward, wings expanded to catch and reflect moon glow.
Karen buzzed in accusation. Cool air streamed through her rent wing.
He stilled, hung his head in false chagrin.
She beat her wings and rose above him, climbing the air to join the others, to weave her way back into the dance.
He followed. He called out her name. “Chhrrrr-ennnn,” his wings trilled. “Chhhhrr-nnnn.”
How did he know her name? She slowed, prideful in spite of herself.
Again he was beside her and this time she did not hurry away. Together they ascended, wing tip to wing tip, beating to the same rhythm.
He extended a leg and, at the touch of his barbed hairs, an erotic spark traveled the length of her body. It seemed she might burst into fiery bloom.
“What’s your name?” she asked, gasping.
His wings whispered against hers, and her wings took up the vibration and resonated with his answer: “Rrrrol-annn.”
They hunted. Together. He as a bluebottle and she as a deerfly. Roland was the first to attack. He launched himself from his superior station so their prey, a dragonfly, had no recourse for the sky. The dragonfly lurched from its leaf and dropped past the nook where Karen hunkered. Its lacy wings bumbled against leaves and marsh grass.
Karen drifted down alongside the dragonfly. “Greetings,” she buzzed. The dragonfly’s head swiveled, its fear an acidic cloud. Before it could reply, Karen latched onto the creature’s neck. She located the joint between neck and head, instinct leading her to the weakest spot in the armor, and drove a claw into its meager brain.
The dragonfly did not know it was dead. Its wings continued to beat. Its body writhed. It ascended, breaking free of the netted grasses as if it might once again challenge the sun. Karen clung to it, an innocuous reminder of gravity. The dragonfly’s flight faltered. It lost control and fluttered earthward. Roland now joined Karen and, grasping the thorax of the dragonfly in his own claws, he rode their hapless steed to rest together with her.
They worked where the dragonfly landed, hidden within a grassy bower, and had the carapace slit open before the body ceased to twitch. Then, while Roland peeled back the dragonfly’s exoskeleton, Karen turned to the glamour she wore. She ran a claw the length of her body, neatly bisecting her torso. The remnants of her glamour fell in fragments about her feet. Naked, but strangely alive, excited to feel the tingle of air against her secret self, she turned to Roland. “Don’t you love to be naked?” she said. She twirled, balancing on a toe, her nerves raw, exposed, the pain bordering on ecstasy.
“Don’t be silly,” Roland said, busy with his dissection. “Your new glamour is almost ready. Then we hunt for mine.”
A dragonfly settled beside Karen. “Hello sister,” he said. “Promise you won’t eat me.”
“You know it’s only your dumb cousins who need fear me.” Karen’s green smile spread from ear to ear. “What do you know of the house?”
On the hillside above the pond was a red farmhouse, recently renovated and framed by a close-mown lawn. Surrounding the house and lawn were fields overgrown with burdock and milkweed. The owners were not farmers and had not bothered to repair more than the house. At night a raccoon slipped from the ruined milk shed and prowled the pond to hunt frogs.
“Last year the man and the woman drove off together each morning and returned together at night,” Karen said. “But this year, when the man leaves in the morning, he leaves alone.”
The dragonfly smoothed the hairs on its forehead. “I flew up there yesterday afternoon and looked through the window. The woman was seated on the couch in the living room. She was singing along with the radio. She’s not a very good singer — not like you — but I listened.”
“I think she was singing to her companion.”
“She was with another man?”
“In a manner of speaking.” The dragonfly clicked its mandibles in laughter at a private joke.
A pink flash out of the corner of Karen’s eye. The leaf beside her was suddenly empty, trembling as if ruffled by a breeze. From below, she heard staccato clicks and whistles, the dragonfly’s shrill curses as it disentangled itself from the weeds. From above, laughter.
He dropped from his overhead perch and landed beside Karen, the leaf blade bending with his added weight. “There wasn’t room for the three of us.” He giggled, dusky throat pulsing. “Did you see him fall? He never knew what hit him.” He raised his voice, trilled: “You better watch yourself if you want to make it through another year. You’re so stupid you don’t have to act the dragonfly.”
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Karen said.
“If he doesn’t learn, he’ll just be a snack for some passing robin.”
“I was talking to him. He was telling me about the house. He flew up there yesterday.”
“Flew.” Roland snorted. “Just wait until I take back my wings. I’ll show him real flying. I’ll show you real flying. I’ve been a frog for way too long.” He lifted one of his webbed feet and flapped it awkwardly in the air, as if imagining that he already wore the glamour of a bird.
“Let’s go swimming,” Karen said. “That’s almost like flying.”
“Not even close.”
The resentment in Roland’s voice surprised Karen but, when she dived, he followed her, his broad strokes keeping pace with her descent. She reached the bottom, turned, and set out for the far shore, legs kicking in unison as she plowed through underwater grasses and algae blooms. Roland nipped at her toes. “That tickles,” she said, her words a stream of bubbles that ascended toward the wavering sun.
Then they were out of the water and flopping about in the gray muck. Karen twisted beneath Roland, bringing herself belly to belly. Twined together, they wriggled among the rotten grasses. Cattail fluff floated down to fur their mud-smeared bodies. From above the hiss and suck of the mud, Karen heard the buzz of the dragonfly’s wings. She glanced skyward but did not see him. But she heard the words carried by his wing vibrations.
“The woman has a baby boy,” the dragonfly said. “That’s why she was singing. She was suckling her baby. She called him Henry.”
The Saab drove up the country road on the long golden evening of the summer solstice. It passed the weed-choked pond and the red house perched on the hill, and continued along the dirt road for another half-mile. Karen and Roland, wearing the glamour of crows, flew behind the car, high enough to avoid the dust raised by its passage, close enough to read the license plate. It was a New York plate, a visitor to Vermont.
“Is that them?” Karen asked. Roland did not respond.
The Saab pulled over where the power lines crossed the road and parked beside a gate secured with chain and padlock. A sign read SERVICE VEHICLES ONLY. A man and a woman stepped out of the car, he in a black tuxedo, she in a knee-length black dress, pearls thick as baby’s thumbs strung around her neck.
They hiked up the overgrown track, accompanied by the hum of the power lines. The woman wore stiletto heels but never stumbled. They brushed past flowering woodruff, vetch, black-eyed Susan, scrubby blueberry bushes not yet come to fruit. The man stopped and examined a paw print in the dirt.
“Coyote?” the woman asked, peering over his shoulder.
“Just a dog.”
“Perhaps.” She looked out into the woods as if expecting to hear the wavering call of the coyote rise like smoke among the pines.
They turned off the trail where it dipped, the rise shielding them from view of passing cars, crunched across the lichen carpet on a granite outcrop, then stopped to disrobe. They hung their clothes on the branch of a withered apple tree, the remnant of a century-old orchard.
“Cider apples,” she said, “Remember?”
The man stroked his palms together as if they were calloused, as if he were one of those long-dead workers who extracted the juice with wooden presses. She laughed, a peal of tiny bells that rose through the brittle branches.
The man and the woman slipped naked, hand in hand, among the shadowy trees. They moved like twin white flames, an entourage of insects, birds, and animals gathering and growing in number as they continued deeper into the forest. Wreaths of fireflies encircled their hair. A buck deer, twelve points to his antlers, capered like a fawn beside them. A coyote sniffed and rolled in their footsteps. The woman smiled at that.
Karen could contain herself no longer when the two entered a clearing, the air sweetened by the scent of crushed clover. She dropped to a landing in front of the woman. “You are the most beautiful person I have ever seen,” she said. “I would happily give you any gift you desire but I have nothing worthy of you, not even my life.”
The woman reached down, offering her forearm, and lifted Karen up to eye level. “Do not sell your life short,” she said. “You can be whatever you wish to be. But that is not always a blessing.” Then she kissed Karen on her long black beak and threw her into the air.
Karen flapped away, keeping one eye on the woman and the other on her trajectory. She joined Roland in his spirals above the clearing. “She said I could be whatever I want,” Karen said, even though Roland must have heard the conversation. “But what I want to be is her. I want to wear the glamour of a human. Of a woman.”
Karen was whisked out of the water, spitting, crying, and at a loss for breath. The boy gripped her so tightly that her ribs ground together and she almost threw up. She had been stupid. She had gone swimming without her glamour.
She twisted in the boy’s grasp, tried to bite his hands and, failing that, to bring her fingernails into play. But her arms were pinned and the boy avoided her scrabbling legs.
“I caught a fairy!”
Karen hissed, arched her back, and choked out the cry of an angry crow.
Startled, the boy glanced around, suddenly fearful of whatever else might be watching him. He backed away from the pond and its hidden depths, the elongating shadows of the forest trees. Then he paused. “No. I caught you fair and square. You got to give me three wishes.” He squeezed harder. “Otherwise I’ll kill you.”
Karen did not know the meaning of the boy’s words, but understood his intent. His fingers dug into her gut. Bile burned her throat. But even as her eyesight smeared, the boy’s face hovering like a monstrous moon, Karen realized she knew his name. She used to hear the name chanted as a lullaby to a drowsy baby, but nowadays the name was more often shouted than spoken, and never sung. Without thinking, Karen adopted the tone used by the boy’s mother when commanding him to stop pulling the legs off a grasshopper.
“Henry,” Karen cried, voice raw in her throat.
In years to come, she would realize that Henry’s name was the first word of English she ever spoke.
Henry almost dropped her. But, although his grip loosened, her escape was not to come easily. She drew another breath and repeated his name. Again she aped his mother’s voice, but this time from once when his mother tussled his hair after carrying him half-asleep to bed.
“You know me?”
She recognized the tone of a question, but not the content, and could do nothing but repeat his name. There was no magic this time, just a puzzled frown, a petulant jut to Henry’s lower lip. She tensed, waiting for the retribution she was sure would come. Henry surprised her.
“You don’t know what you’re saying, do you?” He knelt on the beaten grass that marked his trail from house to pond and set her down. She fell on her side while he remained kneeling, his fingers spread to cut off her avenues for escape.
An earthworm slipped across her fingers and disappeared into nuggets of upturned soil.
Henry’s heart boomed within his chest.
In the distance, a crow, a real crow, called out that it had found a road-killed raccoon.
Karen rose unsteadily to her feet. She was winded, her silvery-gray flesh bruised. But Henry did not know her capabilities. It was now her choice, not his, as to whether she ran or stayed. She clenched and unclenched her hands, prepared to slash her captor with her fingernails.
Henry lifted his hands. Nothing blocked her escape. He tapped his chest. “Henry,” he said. He pointed at her but did not move too close. “What’s your name?”
Karen breathed heavily — in and out, in and out — tasting the musty aroma of earth and decayed plants, the tang of the boy’s sweat. She placed a hand on her naked chest. “Karen,” she said. Then gaining confidence, she repeated herself more loudly, “Karen.” Her voice, she noted with pride, did not contain even a hint of an insect’s buzzing wings, a frog’s peep, or a crow’s rattling caw. It sounded altogether human.
Roland hopped to the precipitous edge of the crow’s nest. “I don’t understand you.” His feathers were in disarray. “You didn’t ask me. You just went ahead and did it.”
Karen hugged the branch below Roland, claws sunk into the bark. Tufts of her fur were glued together with dribbles of pine sap. She wasn’t used to climbing at this height but Roland had refused to descend any lower. “I knew what you’d say.”
“You know me that well?”
“You always say that a crow is the perfect glamour.”
Roland dropped onto the branch next to her. “You made a fool of me. I didn’t think you were trying to grow. I didn’t think that you would take on a new glamour.”
Karen wiped an orange and black paw across her nose. “You don’t have to say ‘grow’ like that. It isn’t a bad word. You knew what I wanted.”
“I knew what you said you wanted. But I never believed that it meant that much to you.”
“You didn’t think it meant anything to me?” Her tail twitched in anger.
“I knew it meant something.” His voice dropped to a hoarse croak. “I just never believed that growing up could mean more to you than I did.”
Karen’s anger melted. “Oh, Roland,” she said, and shuffled closer to him on their shared branch. She tried to rub a furred shoulder against his feathers.
Roland hopped aside. He screeched, “You’re a cat now. A cat. I’m a crow. A cat doesn’t sit next to a crow.”
“No one can see us.”
Roland jerked his head from side to side as if battling gnats. “I thought I could talk to you but I can’t. I’m a crow. You’re a cat. If you don’t think there’s a difference, then follow me.” He stepped off the branch. He plummeted fifteen feet before spreading his wings to fly off into the forest depths. He cawed once. It was a caw devoid of the Chosen’s language, but its meaning was clear.
Roland had nothing left to say to her.
Climbing down the pine was harder for Karen than climbing up. Dead branches cracked beneath her weight. Bark crumbled like sun-dried mud. She dropped the last ten feet, not by intention, and landed on all fours, legs trembling. The rest of the way was easy. She leaped across the mossy rivulets that fed the pond, skirted the marshy northern edge of the water, and climbed the hillside to the house.
Henry was playing with a cap pistol in the yard. He pulled the trigger twice when Karen stepped through the wall of bordering grass.
“Bang! Bang! You’re dead.” Two puffs of smoke drifted up from the pistol’s hammer.
Karen rolled over and lay still.
Henry swaggered over and poked her with the toe of his plastic cowboy boot. “So youze the varmit that’s been poachin’ my sheep,” he said, imitating an accent he had learned from Bonanza reruns on television. “Well, pardner, you just met your match.” In spite of his tough talk, he dropped his pistol and buried his head in Karen’s fur. “I love you,” he said.
Henry dug among the road gravel and, finding an appropriate stone, hurled it at a NO HUNTING sign nailed to a telephone pole. There were already dings in the sign’s orange plastic but, this time, the rock missed both sign and pole and crashed into the brush, raising puffs of dust. A loud squawk and a crow exploded upward.
Karen, frisking at Henry’s ankles, barked in excitement.
“Karen,” the crow cried, then awkwardly pirouetted in mid-air and settled within the cover of a birch’s yellow leaves twenty feet distant. The crow’s molting feathers exposed patches of scabrous skin. One of his eyes was cloudy, the other sealed with a gummy leakage.
Karen growled. “Have you been following me?”
“No. I mean, yes.” Roland twisted his head to fix Karen with his good eye. “I want to talk to you.”
Roland gestured with his beak. “The boy. He hurts things.”
As if to corroborate Roland’s verdict, Henry hurled a rock at the crow, forcing him to mount higher in the tree. “He’ll hurt you too.”
“As if you never hurt anything.”
“It’s not the same and you know it. Meet me at the leaning pine this evening. After the moon rises.”
“You know I can’t climb.” Karen wasn’t about to let Roland forget how he had abandoned her the last time.
“I will come down to you,” he said, and then with one last diminishing caw, flew off with limping strokes of his wings.
Karen trudged along Route 5, sometimes stepping off the road to hide behind a tree or a wind-sculpted snowdrift when a car rolled by. She was cold — her breath a trail of clotted white, her cheeks icy to the touch — but not too cold. She could have spent the night outside if necessary. But she had other plans. She turned onto East Road, passed a rafter of wild turkeys squatting among the severed cornstalks of a farmer’s snowy field, then turned north onto Bayley Hazen Road. Only a mile to go. She called out, the cry of a human enchanted by a world cloaked in white, the timbre and melody alerting the Chosen to her presence. “Look at all that snow!”
There was no answer. Wind raked the fields and whipped the forest trees. Three crows lifted from the pines, black cinders against the white-flecked sky, then settled back into the branches’ embrace without uttering a call. There was no way of knowing if they were of the Chosen. Karen chastised herself for not meeting with Roland following his invitation two years earlier. At the time, his appearance and attentions had been an embarrassment. She resolved to do better, by both him and the Chosen, in the future.
By the time she reached the house, afternoon had dimmed to evening, the snow still falling with infinite constancy. The lights of a Christmas tree shone in the living-room window, the snow outside dappled with reds, greens, yellows, and blues. No path was yet dug to the front door and her boots buried themselves to their furry tops. She climbed the steps to the landing, slapped her mittens together, and threw back her hood.
She knocked, loudly.
Muffled voices, a curtain shifting to expose a sliver of face, then Henry’s mother cracked the front door open. The outrush of warm air carried with it the lingering smells of dinner. “Who’s there?”
“It’s me. Sarah Martin.” She had almost said Karen. “I came to see Henry.”
Henry’s mother opened the door another six inches and looked down at her, taking in the golden hair, the flushed cheeks, the blue jacket trimmed with synthetic fur. “Why it’s a girl,” she said, voice raised so those inside could hear. “What are you doing out on a night like this?”
“I came to see Henry.”
“Henry!” His mother’s voice could have shattered glass. “It’s someone for you.”
“Who is it?” A laconic voice, barely discernable above the NBA announcer on the television.
“What did you say your name was?”
“It’s Sarah Martin!”
“I heard you the first time.” Henry stuck his head around the doorjamb. “What are you doing here?” There was genuine puzzlement on this face. Sarah Martin was a grade behind him at Blue Mountain Union and there was no reason she should appear at his house in the middle of a snowstorm.
“Can I come in?”
“I’m so sorry,” Henry’s mother said. “I shouldn’t keep you outside in this weather. You must be frozen to death.”
Karen stepped onto the floor mat and unzipped her boots. “Thank you very much. Where should I put my coat?”
Henry’s mother took her coat and disappeared through the kitchen door. Henry’s father had noted her entrance but was now engrossed in the basketball game on television. Karen turned to Henry. He hadn’t said a word while she stripped off her winter wear. “It’s me, Karen,” she whispered. “I came to see you the first chance I could get away. I couldn’t bear to wait until the end of Christmas vacation.”
Henry’s jaw dropped. “Oh,” he said, then leaned forward, when awareness dawned, and pressed his lips against her curls. “I missed you. I didn’t know when you were coming back.”
“I missed you too.”
“Look at you now. You’re so pretty.” He smiled and added, “Sarah.”
Henry’s mother hadn’t yet returned and Karen saw that she was on the phone in the kitchen. She was speaking in a whisper but Karen could hear both her and the squeaky voice on the other end of the line. She was talking to Sarah’s mother, Mrs. Martin.
“I’m so relieved,” Mrs. Martin said. “She hasn’t been herself all this past week.”
“I think I know why,” Henry’s mother said. She glanced back to where Karen and Henry stood, hands clasped together. She beamed, happy to share a secret. “Puppy love.”
“What God has joined together, let no man separate.”
Henry’s hand on Karen’s was sweating.
“You may kiss the bride.”
Henry smashed his lips against hers.
“One more time!” someone shouted. It was Julie, another associate from Hemmer, Davidson, and Crake, the law firm in New York City that Henry had joined after graduating from Dartmouth. Julie had red hair, freckles, and perpetually pursed lips. She looked as if she were the intended recipient for Henry’s kiss.
Henry bent Karen backward, her shoulders no more than a foot off the floor, lace headdress dragging against the boards. He kissed her with his eyes closed. Karen did not close her eyes, the pose too uncomfortable to relax into.
Something smacked flesh against glass.
Karen twisted her head but saw nothing. She reached a hand down to brace herself.
Again. Claws scratched but found no purchase.
Karen still could not see what was happening. But she saw Julie’s expression. Julie was looking at a place above and behind Karen’s head.
Henry lifted Karen up, hand supporting her back, lips still joined to hers, and steadied her on her feet. Some of the audience applauded. Others, like Julie, searched the upper reaches of the church for the cause of the disturbance.
This time Karen saw a dark flutter out of the corner of her eye. She whirled toward the stained glass window left of the altar. The window depicted John the Baptist down on one knee among the wild beasts of the forest, a fawn nuzzling his blue robe, a lion and a hare crouched at his feet. The rays of an orange sun perforated the leaded clouds.
A black shadow threw itself at the window.
Feathered flesh smacked glass.
The glass vibrated.
The crow made no cry, but the vibrating glass carried his message, a word that only Karen could understand: “No.”
Repeated again and again and again.
Karen and Henry celebrated his new position at Richardson and Sons with an afternoon at Coney Island. The Saturday was cool and drizzling. Many of the shops and rides were closed but Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs was open. They each ordered a frankfurter, Henry’s piled high with chili and cheese, Karen’s plain but for a squiggle of mustard. They ate these braced against the railing of the boardwalk, anoraks zipped to their chins, a chill salt spray blowing in from the Atlantic.
Karen pulled apart her bun and tossed pieces to the seagulls that ranged above the choppy waters. The gulls, shrieking and hissing, congregated about her, some landing on the boardwalk, some on the railing, and others hovering in mid-air. She threw out another handful of doughy fragments and the gulls lifted off, performing acrobatics to capture the treasures, then looped back as if she were the gravitational center of their world.
Karen turned to see Henry with his finger leveled at the clouds. A seagull dropped from the sky, for all the world as if it had been hit by a bullet, and slammed into a trough between the waves. The gull then rose into the air, water pitching from its wings. The pink nub of Henry’s hot dog protruded from its beak. Henry blew against his upraised finger as if to dissipate smoke, then holstered it.
Suddenly Karen felt like crying. It was the bird. The gull’s deathlike plummet had raised the specter of Roland in her mind. She had heard nothing from him since his impassioned plea at the wedding.
Her dark nostalgia was soon erased by a shaft of sunlight that penetrated the cloud cover — “God’s voice,” Henry called it — and washed over them with a golden radiance. Henry’s hair, mussed by the wind, glowed like wisps of caramel. There was a smear across Henry’s cheek.
“You’re such a klutz,” Karen said and used her finger to wipe his cheek clean of the chili sauce.
After that they found a bumper car ride and stalked each other around the arena in the whirring cars. Sparks flew from the ceiling. The air turned acrid with ozone. Then, hand in hand, they prowled the dirty streets of Coney Island, discovering sticky pink billows of cotton candy, a man who swallowed nails, a giant rat from Brazil, and an oversized teacup ride.
Best of all, and last of all, was the thrift shop they found on their way back to the subway station. Through the fogged window, they saw a dreary display of Andy Williams and Herb Albert record album covers. But, once inside, beneath layers of velvety dust, they discovered the exotic flotsam of a lifetime’s intemperate acquisition: cricket cages, felt birds, antique glass doorknobs, filigreed hand-mirrors…
Something for everyone.
For Karen that something was a rack of fur coats. “What do I look like?” she asked, twirling on the toe of her white sneaker while she clasped a camphor-infused fur against her throat.
“The Easter Bunny?”
“No silly, I’m a raccoon. It’s a raccoon fur coat.” She circled her thumbs and forefingers and pressed these against her eyes to form a mask. Then, discarding that coat, she pulled on another. “Now I’m a fox, stealing chickens at night.” She sunk her head between her shoulders and looked around with shifty eyes, fingers curled into claws. She then discarded the ratty red fur in favor of a third. “And now a mink, pure as the snow.” She stretched her pale neck high above the frothy white collar, bared her teeth.
“Whatever you are, you’re still my girl.” Henry pulled her against his chest. She enveloped him within the billowing fur, her hands searching out and finding his ribs. Henry kissed her hair, her forehead, her nose, and her waiting lips.
That would have been the perfect end to the day. But the day was not over. When they arrived home, they found a flowering geranium beside their apartment door, its pot cradled in gift-wrap, a small envelope taped to the side. Karen snatched the envelope and shook the card free. “Congratulations,” she read aloud. “Stay in touch.” The card was from Julie, Henry’s former co-worker.
Stupid! How could Henry be so stupid?
Karen stared at the computer screen. She should just ignore the message and close the window without reading any further. But she couldn’t do that. She set her coffee cup down on Henry’s desk. Coffee sloshed and pooled milky brown around the cup’s base. She blinked twice. She placed her hand over the mouse and scrolled down.
The message was a disappointing amalgam of little girl talk, sexual innuendo, and garbled quotes from the Song of Solomon: “My stag comes dancing across the hills. You are my lord and master. Master of the bed and bedroom.” Did the woman really intend to wait for Henry naked on Egyptian cotton sheets wearing only a necklace of myrrh? Could Henry read this without laughing?
It took Karen all of two minutes to dress, retrieving the clothes she had worn the previous day from the closet floor. The lump beneath the bed sheet stirred while she was slipping on her shoes, knuckled its betraying eyes, and sleepily asked, “Is that coffee I smell?”
“Yes, dear. Your cup’s by the computer.”
She then grabbed her purse and walked out the door, not slamming it, simply walked out without saying goodbye. Soon enough Henry would realize there was no reason for her to leave so early in the morning. At Henry’s urging, she had given up her job at the women’s health clinic. He needed her, he said, to help him with his own work. They were in it together, he said.
Her cell phone rang five times during the drive to Vermont. There may have been more attempts but, after the fifth, she turned the phone off.
No one lived in the red farmhouse now that Henry’s parents had moved to Fort Lauderdale, and it had been almost four years since Karen had last parked her Jetta by the lilac tree. She had a key to the house but did not go inside. Instead she beat a path down to the pond, now a marshy soup choked with cattails. But, in the twist of a grass blade, in the decomposed body of a frog, in an overly symmetrical spider’s web, she found signs of the Chosen.
She followed the mossy trickle that fed the pond until she came to the old leaning pine that housed Roland’s nest. The pine had fallen, cutting a swath of broken branches among the nearby trees. Saplings grew between the projecting mass of torn roots. She rested her hand against the bark, its roughness a reminder of her long climb to Roland back when she was a cat.
“Roland, I’m home!” she called, realizing even as she did so that she had forgotten to add the tones of the Chosen to her English.
“I’m home,” she tried again. An improvement, but only what one might expect from a child.
“Home!” Now she had it.
There was no answer.
She tried every other name she could remember but received only barking echoes from the hills. She called until she was hoarse, until she had to admit that the tears in her eyes could not be explained away by the wind.
The drive from Vermont to New York took forever, and she did not reach the George Washington Bridge until well after midnight. The Hudson River stretched out below her like two dark wings and she imagined herself as a crow, flying alone back into the city of eight million. Without Roland, without the Chosen, Henry was her only friend. She knew what she had to do.
By the time she crawled into bed next to Henry, the clock on the nightstand read 3:48. Henry’s eyes were open. “I knew you’d come back,” he said, his voice angry, pouting. He threw an arm over her and clasped her against his chest, forearm jammed into the sweaty indentations under her breasts. “We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
Hours later, when the sun crept beneath the window shade and extended a thin rectangle of light across their bed cover, Henry released her and rolled over. He raised himself on an elbow. “Holy cow,” he said.
Karen had red hair, freckles, and a mouth pursed as if it had just blown a kiss. She had not slept while waiting for this moment. “I can be whatever your heart desires,” she said. “Whatever you want me to be, I will be.”
“I kind of liked it back when you were blond.”
“What about that girl at Starbucks?”
“The one with the purple streak in her hair?”
“God no. She looks like mashed potatoes. The one with long black hair. Works the evening shift.”
“Three earrings in her left ear?”
“That’s the one.”
Henry insisted on carrying Karen across the threshold of their new home in Briarcliff Manor. The commute to work would be a half hour longer now but it was an honest-to-God house, not an apartment, with two lilacs bordering the flagstone walkway and trellises of tea-roses framing the front door.
The movers had come and gone, arranging the major appliances and furniture, but boxes were still scattered about the floor. Karen steadied herself against an oblong box that contained an elephant’s lower leg, the grapefruit-sized toenails cracked and peeling, the hollowed interior lined with pounded brass. It was an umbrella stand picked up at the Coney Island antique store, a conversation piece because, as Henry told it at dinner parties, the elephant had been shot by his grandfather while on safari in Tanzania. This was a lie, but an entertaining one.
Henry kissed Karen. Then, discovering a loose hair on her shoulder, ran this across the nape of her neck.
“That time of the year, is it?”
“Yes.” She always lost more hair when the weather warmed.
“A new house demands a new you. Don’t you think?” Henry’s requests for her to take on a new glamour occurred with increased frequency, and, often as not, he expressed disappointment with the results. They both knew she had to be recognizable as Karen to their friends, but that didn’t satisfy Henry.
“What are you thinking?”
“Breasts, like so.” Henry cupped his hands halfway down the front of his shirt, hefted air. “Just kidding.” But he wasn’t.
“What the fuck?” Henry stood in the doorway, backlit, mouth agape. His tone betrayed him. He was shocked, yes, but not surprised.
Karen looked up from where she knelt in the open closet of the spare bedroom. She dropped the woman’s body. The head, twined in tendrils of blond hair, flopped against the floor and squished like dough.
“I tried,” Karen said, “but I just can’t do it. Not like before. Now it’s too late.” Her eyes filled with tears. One shoulder shook free from the neck of her nightgown.
“How stupid can you be?” Henry crossed the floor and slapped her, the pain exploding across her cheek. Her head snapped and bounced against the doorjamb. “Do you realize what this is? What will happen if anybody finds out?” He prodded the body with his bare toe, choosing a portion still wrapped in trash bags and crisscrossed with duct tape.
Karen rubbed her ear, nodded. Henry had probably hit her harder than he intended. “I tried.”
“Why didn’t you finish?” He looked with distaste at the skin sagging from an exposed arm of the body.
“I don’t know.” The naked body had been hidden in the closet for a week now. Each evening when Karen unwrapped it, thinking to assume her new glamour, the same nausea had resurfaced. “It didn’t seem right.”
“You picked a hell of a time to discover empathy.” Henry grabbed Karen’s nightgown and dragged her to her feet. “We’ve got to get this body to the car.”
“What will we do?”
“Go to Vermont.”
Once again, Karen made the long drive north. This time she sat huddled in the passenger seat, still in her nightgown but with tennis shoes jammed onto her feet. Henry drove their Audi at five miles below the speed limit to avoid encounters with the police. The dead body thumped against the side of the trunk whenever they swerved or hit a pothole.
There were shovels in the garage of the red farmhouse, and a plastic tarp, once used for gathering autumn leaves, from which Henry fashioned a sling to drag the body down to softer ground by the pond. He chopped out chunks of turf beneath the willow and piled these in a sloppy pyramid. Karen shined a flashlight on the dirty water that filled in beneath his shovel strokes.
The darkened forest was noisy with life. In the garbled calls of insects, bats, owls, and coyotes, for the first time in years, Karen heard the voices of the Chosen. But not the voice of Roland. The Chosen now spoke in a hateful alien tongue, from which she could only decipher curses and condescension.
“Faster,” she said, the flashlight trembling in her hand.
When finished, the grave was two feet deep and swam in pudding-thick mud. “Good enough.” Henry dropped the shovel, swiped at the mud that slathered his arms, and turned to the encased body. “We’ve got to cut this open.” He pulled out the blade on his Leatherman tool and sliced through the plastic bags and duct tape.
The dead woman looked barely human. Her gelatinous flesh had shifted and repositioned itself during the drive so that her right side was plump to bursting, her left side flabby and wrinkled with one leg twisted like a molten corkscrew.
Henry tried to roll the woman’s body into the grave. “You could help,” he said.
Karen pulled at the woman’s hair. The woman’s neck stretched but her torso did not move. Pinkish slime puddled from her mouth. She stank of rot.
“My God, but you are useless.” Henry dropped to his knees and, by bracing his shoulder against the bag-draped corpse and bulling forward, shoved the central portion off the plastic and into the hole. He then lifted the head and legs, each in turn, and dragged these over to join the rest of the body. The woman floated half in and half out of the sludge, face up like she was taking a bath. Henry filled dirt in around her body then plastered it over with wedges of turf.
“That’s one more mess that I’ve gotten you out of.” Henry slapped the shovel and the grassy mound quivered beneath the blow.
“Thank you.” Karen wanted to hold Henry, to have him hold her, but dropped her arms when she saw his narrowed eyes.
“I hope you’ll be ready for our party this coming weekend.”
“You know what I mean.”
The song was “Satisfaction,” by the Rolling Stones.
From one of Henry’s party mixes.
Karen pushed by five guests clotted in the dining-room doorway and, across the shimmering ocean of gelled and styled hair, saw Henry minding the bar. He distributed ice cubes into a dozen squat glasses, his sleeves rolled to the elbow, and told jokes to a young blond slicing limes on a plastic cutting board. Henry was up to his old games again.
Henry waved Karen over and kissed her cheek. “Have you met Tanya? She’s my new assistant, another Dartmouth graduate. I’m showing her the ropes.”
“How to make a margarita?”
“Master a margarita, and you can master the universe.”
Tanya giggled like a teenager.
“Don’t you just love that laugh? Don’t you just love her hair?” Henry gestured with his free hand, tracing the outline of Tanya’s sunny curls in the air.
Henry’s intentions were so transparent that Karen wondered if she had missed a dead patch of hair in her earlier pruning. In spite of Henry’s anger and urgings, she had still not assumed a new glamour. Karen ignored Henry’s gambit and, turning to Tanya, assured her that Henry would make her apprenticeship an easy one. All she had to do was to anticipate his every thought at least two minutes in advance. Tanya giggled again and said, “Isn’t that the wife’s job?” Then, perhaps because she was more politic than Karen had given her credit for, asked, “How did you two love-birds meet anyway?” From there it was just a matter of five hellish minutes before she asked the inevitable, “What was your wedding like?”
“There was a good turnout,” Henry said. He could have left it at that, but he chose not to. “Plus one uninvited guest.”
“Uninvited?” Tanya twisted a lime against the central cone of the juicer.
“A love-bird you might say.” Henry smiled at his joke, and Karen felt suddenly sick to her stomach. “A crow flew into the window when we were exchanging vows.”
“A fucking big crow. It damned near broke the window.” He smacked his fist into his palm, the resulting sound altogether too close to reality.
“Was it hurt?” Tanya asked.
“Hurt? Of course it was hurt. Or rather I knew that it had to be hurt and I knew that I had to do something about it.” Henry turned to Karen with an obscene grin and said, “Remember how long the receiving line was at our wedding and how I had to make a pit-stop before we drove to the reception?”
Karen nodded. Henry had never said anything about this before. His words reverberated in her skull. She knew he was about to say something horrible but, like a dumb animal trapped in the headlights of an approaching car, was unable to turn and run.
“There was a little hallway by the bathroom. And a side door. I ducked outside and went to see what was going on with that damned bird.”
“Did you find it?” Tanya asked.
“It was lying in the pansies beneath the stained glass window. The same window it crashed into.”
“I couldn’t tell at first. I didn’t want to touch it. Those things are full of mites and it was big enough it could take off my finger. I found a stick and poked it. It was like a bundle of rags. Dirty black rags and filthy as all hell. Then it made a noise and I knew it was still alive.”
“It cawed. Very faintly, but it cawed. Several times. Only it wasn’t like any caw I’d ever heard before. I suppose you could call it a cry of pain.” Henry glanced at Karen, looking to see how she would respond. Her forehead was clammy, her breathing shallow. She felt like she was a foot tall once again and being squeezed in his giant fist.
“That cry,” Henry continued, never taking his eyes off Karen, “it sounded more like it was speaking. It sounded like it was calling a name. Can you guess whose name it was calling?” Karen did not answer. She could not answer. She had no breath in her lungs, no control over her strangled tongue. That didn’t stop Henry. “Your name, dear,” he said. He then dropped his voice to a lower register and imitated the crow’s painful croak. “Karen,” he said. Then, to leave no doubt, he repeated her name in the same hoarse voice. He turned to where Tanya stood, her mouth open, a lime forgotten in her hand. “You can guess that freaked me out.”
“What did you do?”
“I did what I had to do. I crushed the crow’s head with my heel. Someone had to put it out of its misery.”
For a moment, Karen could not understand what she had just heard. All she could think of, all she could hold on to, was how once upon a time she and Roland had flown together. They had ascended wing tip to wing tip, body on body, moving harmoniously through the air. Love? At that time she had not known the word, only that there was a connection, a fixation. But now she called it love. The two of them had danced as one, parting but never parted, every movement finding its counterpart in the other. They had danced together and might have done so once again if Henry had not…
If Henry had not…
“That poor bird.” A tear trickled alongside Tanya’s nose. “You poor man.”
“Don’t cry, dear.” Henry placed his hand on Tanya’s shoulder and stroked her hair with his thumb. “You’re young. You’re beautiful. You don’t need to think about such things. Don’t you agree, Karen? Isn’t she young and beautiful? Shouldn’t we all think about other things?”
Karen watched Henry’s lips move. The lid of Henry’s right eye drifted shut then opened. A wink. She knew what Henry wanted. She knew what he was asking of her.
Karen was surprised to hear her own voice respond, and still more surprised to hear it sound so calm. “Yes, she is young. Young and beautiful.” Then, asserting her marriage in front of Tanya, Karen kissed Henry full on his horrible lips. Her nails slid across the downy skin on his neck. She held, she realized, knees almost buckling at the insight, Henry’s life in her hands. She was no longer the tiny creature he had captured years ago. She was bigger, stronger, and far more deadly. She knew what she wanted to do, and she could do it easily.
But not here. Not now.
Perhaps tonight, after the party guests left, when Henry and she were alone together. When Henry, tipsy from too many margaritas, his sweat stinking of liquor and limes, crawled into bed and tried to hoist himself on top of her.
“That tickles,” Henry cried, laughing, and slapped her hand. “Save some of that for later.”
“I will.” She smiled up at him, smiled because he had detected nothing of the change that had come over her, smiled because he had not seen the blood that now crested the nail on her forefinger. Yes, later tonight, when Henry thought to play her conqueror. Then Karen would once again wrap her hands around his neck and draw him into an embrace. She would extend her nails and rip through his skin as effortlessly as she might the thin pinkish membrane of a blister.
“Will you wear a new glamour?” Henry whispered. He glanced at Amanda who now, all demure courtesy, busied herself applying salt to the rims of the margarita glasses.
“I will.” Karen squeezed his hand.
“Swear to God?” His pulse raced in her grip.
Karen smiled, letting the fantasy take over, the anger in all its glory. Tonight she would open Henry up like the husk of a mayfly, or a dragonfly, or a spring peeper. She would cut and rip and flay him. She would swim in his blood and, when morning came, she would rise to greet the fledgling sun, alone, but wearing a new glamour.
“I swear to God,” she said.
for James Tiptree, Jr.
|Eric Schaller’s fiction has appeared in such magazines as Sci Fiction, Shadows and Tall Trees, Postscripts, and A cappella Zoo, and is forthcoming in The Dark and Beyond the Bandersnatch: A Modern Beastiary of Untrue Tales. His stories have been reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best of the Rest, and Fantasy: Best of the Year. He illustrated Hal Duncan’s wonderful An A to Z of the Fantastic City, which can be ordered from Small Beer Press. He is an editor, with Matthew Cheney, of the on-line magazine The Revelator.|