In desperation and black hope he had selected himself for
the mission, and now he was to die for his impetuosity, drowned in an amber vinegar sea too thin
to swim in. This didn’t matter in any large sense; his comrades had seen him off, and would not
see him return — the very essence of a hero. In a moment his death wouldn’t matter even to
himself. Meanwhile he kept flailing helplessly, ashamed of his willingness to struggle.
His head broke the surface into the white air. It had done so now three times; it would not do
so again. But a small cloud just then covered him, and something was in the air above his head.
Before he sank away out of reach for good, something took hold of him, a flying something, a
machine or something with sharp pincers or takers-hold, what would he call them,
He was lifted out of the waters or fluid or sea. Not his fault the coordinates were off, placing
him in liquid and not on dry land instead, these purplish sands; only off by a matter of meters. Far
enough to drown or nearly drown him though: He lay for a long time prostrate on the sand where
he had been dropped, uncertain which.
He pondered then — when he could ponder again — just what had seized him, borne him up
(just barely out of the heaving sea, and laboring mightily at that) and got him to shore. He hadn’t
yet raised his head to see if whatever it was had stayed with him, or had gone away; and now he
thought maybe it would be best to just lie still and be presumed dead. But he looked up.
She squatted a ways up the beach, not watching him, seeming herself to be absorbed in
recovering from effort; her wide bony breast heaved. The great wings now folded, like black
plush. Talons (that was the word, he felt them again and began to shudder) the talons spread to
support her in the soft sand. When she stepped, waddled, toward him, seeing he was alive, he
crawled away across the sand, trying to get to his feet and unable, until he fell flat again and knew
She (she, it was the breasts prominent on the breastplate muscle, the big delicate face and vast
tangled never-dressed hair that made him suppose it) was upon him when he awoke. He had
curled himself into a fetal ball, and she had been sheltering him from the nightwinds, pressing her
long belly against him as she might (probably did) against an egg of her own. It was dangerously
cold. She smelled like a mildewed sofa.
For three days they stayed together there on the horrid shingle. In the day she shaded him
from the sun with her pinions and at night drew him close to her odorous person, her rough flesh.
Sometimes she flew away heavily (her wings seeming unable to bear up for more than a few
meters, and then the clumsy business of taking off again) and returned with some gobbet of
scavenge to feed him. Once, a human leg that he rejected. She seemed unoffended, seemed not to
mind if he ate or not; seemed when she stared at him hourlong with her onyx unhuman eyes to be
waiting for his own demise. But then why coddle him so, if coddling was what this was?
He tried (dizzy with catastrophe maybe, or sunstroke) to explain himself to her, unable to
suppose she couldn’t hear. He had (he said) failed in his quest. He had set out from his sad
homeland to find love, a bride, a prize, and bring it back. They had all seen him off, every one of
them wishing in his heart that he too had the daring to follow the dream. Love. A woman: a bride
of love: a mother of men. Where, in this emptiness?
She listened, cooing now and then (a strange liquid sound, he came to listen for it, it seemed
like understanding; he hoped he would hear it last thing before he died, poisoned by her food and
this sea of piss). On the third day, he seemed more likely to live. A kind of willingness broke
inside him with the dawn. Maybe he could go on. And as though sensing this she ascended with
flopping wingbeats into the sun, and sailed to a rocky promontory a kilometer off. There she
waited for him.
Nothing but aridity, as far as his own sight reached. But he believed — it made him laugh
aloud to find he believed it — that she knew what he hoped, and intended to help him.
But oh God what a dreadful crossing, what sufferings to endure. There was the loneliness of
the desert, nearly killing him, and the worse loneliness of having such a companion as this to help
him. It was she who sought out the path. It was he who found the waterhole. She sickened, and
for the length of a moon he nursed her, he could not have lived now without her, none of these
other vermin — mice, snakes — were worth talking to; he fed them to her, and ate what she left.
She flew again. They were getting someplace. Then, one bright night of giddy certainty (Was he
mad? What possessed him?) he took hold of her in the cave where they hid, and, cooing
wordlessly as she did, he trod her like a cock.
Then at the summit of the worst sierra, down the last rubbled pass, there was green land. He
could see a haze of evaporating water softening the air, maybe towers in the valley.
Down there (she said, somehow, by signs and gestures and his own words in her coos, she
made it anyway clear) there is a realm over which a queen rules. No one has yet won her, though
she has looked far for one who could.
He rubbed his hands together. His heart was full. Only the brave (he said) deserve the
He left her there, at the frontier (he guessed) of her native wild. He strode down the pass,
looking back now and then, ashamed a little of abandoning her but hoping she understood. Once
when he looked back she was gone. Flown.
It was a nice country. Pleasant populace was easily won over by good manners and an honest
heart. That’s the castle, there, that white building under the feet of whose towers you see a strip of
sunset sky. That one. Good luck.
Token resistance at the gates, but he gave better than he got. She would be found, of course,
in the topmost chamber, surmounting these endless stairs, past these iron-bound henchmen. (Why
always, always so hard? He though of the boys back home, who had passed on all this.) He
reached and broached the last door; he stepped out onto the topmost parapet. It was littered with
bones, fetid with pale guano. A vast shabby nest of sticks and nameless stuff.
She alighted just then, in her gracile-clumsy way, and folded up.
Did you guess? she asked.
No, he had not; his heart was black with horror and understanding; he should have guessed,
of course, but hadn’t. He felt the talons of her attention close upon him, inescapable; he turned
away with a cry and stared down the great height of the tower. Should he jump?
If you do, I will fall after you (she said) and catch you up, and bring you back.
He turned to her to say his heart could never be hers. She was, simply and absolutely, not his
You could go on, she said softly.
He looked away again, not down this time but out, toward the far lands beyond the fields and
farms. He could go on.
What’s over there? he asked. Beyond those yellow mountains? What makes that plume of
I’ve never gone there. Never that far. We could, she said.
Well hell, he said. For sure I can’t go back. Not with — not now.
Come on, she said, and pulled herself to the battlements with grasping talons; she squatted
there, lowering herself for him to mount. It could be worse, he thought, and tiptoed through the
midden to her; but before he took his seat upon her, he thought with sudden awful grief: She’ll
die without me.
He meant the one he had for so long loved, since boyhood, she for whose sake he had first set
out, whoever she was; his type, the key that fit his empty inward keyhole, the bride at the end of
this quest, still waiting. And he about to head off in another direction entirely.
You want to drive? She said.
The farms and fields, the malls and highways, mountains and cities, no end in sight that
You drive, he said.
[ THE END ]
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