by E. Catherine Tobler
I curled my talons deeper into the chair back, the wood creaking; my wings gave a dry rustle against the slat ceiling above us. “No.”
At my single word, the man in the chair arched, trying to get closer to the voice. The ropes strained, and so too did his muscles. This room could have been anywhere, anywhen; I could not count how many had come to this place to be so tortured.
I spread my wings, sheltering us for a moment from the sunlight which stole in through the half-shuttered windows. The shadow blotted out the faint bars of light and the man in the chair shuddered. Softly, I began to sing.
The chamber which held us was a special thing, a place created just for this act. My contralto rose from my throat to slip through copper channels in the ceiling, flowing up and out. It returned to us as I began the second verse, twined with the voices of my sisters. The man exhaled, his head dropped forward.
This was why they came, to experience the song. They might ask to be released — some even went so far as to scream — but being denied was all part of the inherent pleasure.
The bound man had never graced this house before. The song deepened and his body shook and just when it seemed he might truly fall apart, he became utterly still. I watched him in the shadow of my wings and sang a final note, letting it taper off. A final breath of sound echoed down the copper channels.
It was that moment I lived for, the moment when the tremble became stillness. In that stillness there lingered a hundred poems and had I the words for them, I would have committed them to parchment. I couldn’t latch onto them though, let alone know them well enough to preserve, for they were as fleeting as the songs we sang. You might experience it, but it was a thing you could never truly possess. Once it had passed, it had passed.
Where did he go in those moments after? What thoughts claimed his mind? I peered at his face and found it peaceful, where only moments before there had been a tension, a desperate desire to flee and not-flee. The lines of his brow smoothed, his breathing eased, and he rested heavily in the ropes.
I left him for the time being. I leapt from the back of the chair, talons clicking on the rough floor as I picked my way toward the nearest window. I peeked out, to stare down into the harbor where all manner of ships converged, old and new alike. The house was busy today. The water lapped against their hulls like a tongue.
Gifted with wings, my sisters and I were not bound to the water, though many of us could not escape its call. Some among us called that ironic, for how many men could not escape our call? That we should be drawn by such a thing amused some, terrified others.
Though I was not bound, I found it hard to leave. I had flown inland enough times to know the water had its own pull on me; even in the rocky foothills, I could feel the slosh and beckon. When I slept on the ground or in a tree, it was the coastline I dreamed of, soft sand under foot and wing.
“My — Book.”
I turned to find the man had roused, though his head was still bent. I crossed back to his side and loosened the ropes before retrieving the pack he had brought with him. He drew out a leather-bound book, inkwell, and quill. I snapped my wings at the sight of the feather.
“Not from your kind,” he said, and dipped the quill into the ink, placing it then to the page.
He wrote. He wrote with such speed I could not decipher any of what flowed from the nib — not that I would have done much better had he slowed, for I was still learning the ways of words.
“I w-wonder,” he whispered, “if you hear it the way we do.”
The song. I crouched across from the chair, watching the way the light fought its way through the shutters to gleam upon his tangle of gold hair. There was a song in that, too, the light and the gold and the battle to reach a thing you couldn’t fully. I opened my mouth and sang a note that spoke of this; the quill ceased its motion upon the page and the man looked at me with such a hunger.
Normally, we did not sing to men if they were not bound. This had put sisters in peril over the years, for one never knew how men would react to the song. Besides, if we freed them, we would rarely feast. Still, I sang the note again, curious. Curiosity was the devil’s domain, but I supposed I had been courting it from the moment I came to this house. I sang again.
For a moment, all was well and we sat as we were, his quill poised over his page. And then, he shoved the book to the floor and leapt for me. I didn’t know what he intended and didn’t let him get close enough to find out. Instinct took over and I struck out with one wing, tumbling him to the floor. His shoulder made a firm thud against the planks and then he was up and charging me. I turned and lifted a foot this time and though I was careful, his tunic showed bright blood when he hit the floor for a second time.
I pinned him and spread my wings over us.
He tried to speak, but could not catch his breath. I sat in silence, watching my reflection swim in his wide pupils. Was it like a drug, this song? I sang again, enough to allow my voice to reach that of my sisters. He flinched beneath me as the song poured down the copper channels like water; when I fell to silence, he calmed.
I should have feasted then, but his book had fallen upon the floor, spreading a new page open. What I glimpsed made me pause. I slid off him and moved for the book. The leather was cool in my hands, the page smooth. My fingers skimmed over an inked sketch, a curved female form. This woman stood naked, her hair streaming back over her shoulders and across —
Magnificent wings spread behind her, arching out of her back. Every feather was detailed, the shaft, the vane, the delicately rounded tips. A blush of color stole across them, too, and though I pressed my nose to the page, I could not tell which berry he had used.
“What is this?” I asked. I turned the book to face him, showing him the sketch.
“A dream,” said he, and slowly pushed himself to sitting. His fingers prodded at his chest in a careful exploration of the wounds my talons had done him. “So few return, everyone wonders.”
I cocked my head, as if listening to a new sound. It was not difficult to discern what he meant. “So few see us.” Men would always be curious, it was a thing the gods had long cursed them with, but this — Did he mean to take this back and show people? Had he presumed he would live so long?
“I didn’t—” He slid backward on the floor, plainly seeing something in my face that upset him. “I wanted to ask you…” He swallowed, his throat working hard. “There is a piece of marble in the ruins. I think you are inside it.”
I closed the book. The ruins were off limits to humans and I wondered that he had been there and had explored enough to discover the slab of marble. I thought I knew the one of which he spoke; it was flawless, like cream made solid, the color of my wings.
“Is this me, within your book?” I placed it flat on the floor and pushed it toward him. It whispered against the floor until it hit his leg. His hand curled protectively around it.
“The dream of you, perhaps.”
I shifted on the floor, still crouched, from foot to foot. I tucked my wings behind me, chilled though it was a midsummer’s day. If he was curious, I was even more so. What did this human mean?
“Tomorrow at dawn,” I said. “I will take you.”
• • •
When we have had a long evening of singing and feasting, it is rare to see anyone up with the first sun. Thus, the house stood silent as I draped myself in linen and picked my way down the stairs. Yesterday, one of the men had brought us sweet fruits and these still cluttered around the hearth. Had this man been released thanks to his offering? We were not in the habit of letting men go; most who came to the house knew and understood this. Some welcomed it.
I picked up a small watermelon and broke it open, to feast on the golden flesh inside. I spit the seeds as I left the house, walking around the porch to look down at the harbor. I counted three older boats that would soon need selling, and made a note to speak to my elder sister. We did not ruin every man who journeyed to this island, for how would we survive? The island did provide water and grain, and a handful of fruit trees with the occasional net full of fish, but there were things we desired that we might not otherwise have. We could fly anywhere, true, but we do not go among humanity if we can help it. The marketplaces and cities are far too dangerous for our kind. It is best we remain a myth to the masses.
The young man of yesterday already awaited me, lingering near the dock. I paused to stare at him while I devoured the melon. I was spitting more seeds when he looked up to see me. His face brightened with the joy I usually only see inside the house when we are singing. He ran to me. He carried no weapons, only the book he had brought yesterday. He made a sweeping bow before me and when he looked up, I offered him half the melon.
“Ladybird. My thanks.”
“Come,” I said, and turned without looking to see if he would follow. I knew he would, lest my sisters find him and think him a convenient way to break their fast.
He was surprisingly quiet as we crossed the meadow, until he saw the first bones. I took him the cluttered way intentionally, wanting him to see exactly what he dared. His sharp intake of breath proved to me one thing: when he visited the temple ruin, he had gone the longer way, probably taking the coastline. He had likely watched us longer than I previously thought, avoiding the meadow where we liked to lounge and feast.
“Most don’t return,” I said, and his steps caught up with mine. I glanced at him, not surprised by the horror upon his young face.
“The stories say as much, but I…” He trailed off as we skirted a fresher corpse. My youngest sister had not yet learned how to savor every bite. “It’s extraordinary to see why most don’t.”
“We needs must eat.” I felt it needed explaining, but he shook his head and held up a hand.
“Of course you do. We humans prey on those smaller than ourselves, so why wouldn’t you?”
If he realized his peril, it didn’t seem to bother him. I held my silence and bent my head back to the melon, taking another sweet bite. The scent of the melon warded off that of the meadow and kept me from thinking of sweeter flesh as we neared the ruin.
Where the meadow rises in terraces, the crocus fade away, running to shorter grasses before they give way to time-worn stones. The ruins rise over these three levels, mostly broken now. Moss grows on the north side of the marble, bird nests dot the taller columns, and sometimes you can find turtles sunning themselves on the flat rocks.
The young man had finished his own melon by the time we reached the ruin and he tossed the rind to the meadow. I ate the rind of mine, savoring the tartness which burst against my tongue in sharp contrast to the sweet of the yellow flesh.
“Outstanding,” he said, and began to climb the stones, picking his way toward the slab of marble in which he said I resided. The stone was taller than him and five times as wide.
I curled my taloned toes into the dry ground, watching him. His brown fingers slipped over the marble and that same joy illuminated his face, the joy he had known in the house with me. It was a thing worthy of poetry, too, that expression, but still I had no words.
“Do you see here, the shape of your wing!”
He was careless, as I would tell myself for years afterward, and I could not be blamed. This piece of marble was not new to him, so his words and reaction said. He had courted this marble for weeks perhaps, for he was well familiar with it. How long, I wondered as I walked toward him; yesterday he had summoned the courage to enter our house, but before then, how many times had he walked through the olive trees to reach this ruin?
“You would coax me from this stone?”
I hated to admit that the idea appealed to me, that I wanted to see what he would make of this block. He opened his book and laid it flat upon a neighboring column, opening it to the page the quill marked, the sketch he had made. From his pouch, he withdrew a horn of ink and dipping his quill, began to draw anew.
“I would,” he said, not looking up from his work. “Does this place belong to you? Your sisters?”
“Yes.” I stepped onto the first terrace and plucked a seashell from the dirt. “But you have been here before.”
“Oh, yes.” His smile was quick, like a fish before it vanishes underwater; his hand never slowed against the page. “Can’t you see — look here.” The line of ink spread down the page, mimicking the curve of my hip. He added a fold of fabric over the line where feathers turned to flesh. “And this.” The quill moved to add my hair, loose in the wind and spreading over the high ridge of my shoulder and wing, and then the slight dip in the bottom of my chin.
I lifted my hand to cover my chin. How long had he studied me? When his quill at last paused and he looked up, my skin had grown heated under the idea of his scrutiny.
“Will you allow it?”
“If I say no, surely you will still return.”
I dropped my hand and moved up to the second terrace, closer to him. I kept my wings lifted, so they wouldn’t drag through the dust, my back straight. The wind picked up and took with it my hair, spreading it backward, though not half so elegantly as his ink had done.
His expression faltered as if to say of course he would return. He said nothing, only watched me as I approached the broken stone wall and carefully set the seashell atop it.
“I will,” I said. It was folly, this venture.
“And will you sit for me?” He gestured to his book. “Translating from page to marble can lack fire, but if you were here…”
“Do you not fear me?” I rounded the wall, crossing the temple ruin to stand near him, keeping the marble square between us. “You know the fate of men who come to this island.”
The young man nodded and gestured toward the meadows behind me. “You walked me through them intentionally, did you not? I know well the fate of men here.” He waited a breath and then, “Is it true what they say, that if a mortal man does pass your kind by, you perish?”
I flinched as if struck. “Who tells these stories?”
He returned to his book. “The men who write history. Your sisters — or rather, your sister-kind, sang for Odysseus, did they not? He escaped them and they perished for want of him.”
My laugh was startling even to my own ears in the otherwise quiet clearing. As the sound faded, a distant bird seemed to pick it up, singing. “Is that the story?” I leaned into the marble, pressing my cheek to the shaded side of the stone. “Would every woman perish because a man leaves her for some better adventure?”
Still, he had half of the truth of it. If refused, we did tend to grow angry, hateful. We were vain creatures — how like Narcissus — for didn’t this young man appeal to my own vanity with his marble folly? Didn’t refusal prick the spine of every living creature, be they mortal or no? His eyes met my own.
“What is your name, ladybird?”
No one had ever asked me such a thing. Just as refusal might prick, so too did regard. I pushed away from the marble. “Leave before sundown,” I said and with that, returned to the house.
• • •
“That mortal smells sweet, of ink and sweat.”
“What are you doing with him?”
“Playing,” I said, rather than admit to my own vanity and curiosity.
“If he doesn’t leave by sun—”
I drew in a breath and reached for another melon. I brought the melon down hard against the edge of the hearth to spilt it wide open. “I know.”
They smiled, for men had been warned before. Being allowed to stay was one thing. So many believed they had been given sanctuary, but come sundown —
I sang with my sisters over the course of the day, thinking I could feel the progress of the sun as it crossed the sky. It was a steadily moving line of light along the curve of my skull, the dip of my back, down to my very talons.
By the time the sun dipped below the horizon, we had left the house, tracking the three mortals we had given up to the meadow. These men were drunk on mead and laughing, trying to mimic the songs they had heard us sing during the day. They would never have seen us coming, but we shrieked, because we loved to see them run.
There was always a moment, just as in the room with a man, when he changed. When the song slipped into him and the tremble became the stillness. So too on the hunting field, though it was the reverse. When the man realized he was in peril for his life, he changed. His feet no longer operated as he remembered; the mead seemed too sweet on his tongue and he cursed himself, because the night-dark meadow was a blur around him. One stone looked much like another. Had he passed this patch of crocus and anemone before? No, that wasn’t a stone, but a — A body?
My prey’s scream pierced the night. I dove, the warm night air skimming over my wings. As I neared the man, he stumbled over a pile of bones. My talons in his back sent him fully to the ground.
Dust rose in a cloud around us as we struggled. Though he was drunk and well-pleasured, he fought as though clear-headed. His fists caught me in all the soft places and once across my jaw, which had me biting my tongue. I snarled, spat blood, and dug my talons into his gut, pulling to feel the warm spill of blood. I disliked this part, for surely Zeus in all his wisdom should have created us with beaks. I wanted to tear this man apart with beak and mouth, but had only hands and talons.
As I rested my head against the now-still man and pulled a strip of muscle away from the bone, I prayed that the young marble cutter had left the island. The day had been long and I was hungry.
• • •
It was peculiar to watch my face materialize from the stone. Only once did the young man come to my column perch, to touch his marble-dusted fingers to the line of my cheek as if confirming the way it sat beneath the skin. After that, it seemed he knew every line of my form. His tools coaxed these lines from the marble, somehow adding shadow and light to the folds of linen, and wind to the rising arc of my wings. It was like looking in a pool of water on a still day.
My sisters grew curious about the statue and the young man. I warned them away from both, yet still found my youngest sister poking around the temple ruin after one hunt. The sight of her fingers against the line of my marble cheek was chilling; she stroked blood over the marble and her teeth flashed when I discovered her.
“Vanity,” she said, then spat. The globule of bloody spit landed against the emerging marble bosom, trailing down the curve of one linen-covered breast. “Does he worship you?”
The idea was intriguing, but I didn’t think it was true. It wasn’t worship, the way one would bend a knee to the gods. It was study, perhaps, examination. The careful transference of a thing from body to stone. Was it my spirit he captured? I did not know.
My sister found the hammer lying in the dirt and she curled her fingers around it. She swung her arm, sending the hammer into the uncarved marble. Small bits of stone rained outward and pattered on the ground. I drew back, feeling as though I had been struck.
“Leave it alone,” I said. I felt protective of the statue, as though it were somehow mine, or truly a part of me.
She lifted the hammer again. “Would you harm me over this?” She swung the hammer again, letting it work a little divot into the stone. “This thing is only stone, as the gorgons might create — but theirs comes in an instant. How flawed this mortal design is.”
Her arm came up and I lunged. I struck her as the hammer came down, this time into my shoulder. The pain was blinding and my wing snapped tight against my body. I lowered my head against her throat and bore her backwards, down into the dirt. Her shriek carried across the olive trees, down the island cliffsides, and into the cool ocean; she called to our sister-kind, but they did not come.
As we were vain, so too were we argumentative, and rarely did we wedge ourselves into an argument that was not our own. We knew how sharp siren talons were; we knew how clever the hands. My hands came around my sister’s throat now, to press until she went limp and the hammer fell free. Her face darkened, her eyes rolled up, and only then did I release her. She squirmed out from under me, all legs and wings, and huddled against a broken column.
“This,” she whispered, “is wrong. Choosing a mortal over your sister-kind?” Her eyes sought mine in the darkness.
I found I didn’t care and it filled me with despair, but only until the young man returned. When he was there and working, my sisters were far from my mind. The house seemed a distant memory and I let the rhythm of hammer and chisel and stone lull me into another place. What is your name, ladybird? he would whisper, and I would give no answer.
On the warmest days, the scent of rotting flesh carried to us from the meadow. The young man didn’t seem to notice or if he did, it wasn’t of any consequence. His face was set in a grim line as he worked, focused wholly on the task before him. Every so often he paused, to stroke his fingers over the lines of marble, down my throat and chest. It seemed as if I no longer existed in flesh for him, but was completely entombed within the marble.
It was a foolish thought, yet still some part of my brain embraced it. There were nights I woke struggling to breathe for it felt as if a part of me were missing. As more of the form emerged from the marble, I felt more of my own self chipped away. In the later days, I didn’t join the young man for the day’s work; I buried myself in my work, destroying man after man in the meadow as if it might heal my aching heart.
There came a day when I did venture back to the ruin, to discover the young man’s work complete. The statue stood on her block of marble, wings and arms raised to the sky, head thrown back and eyes closed, hair streaming in the wind. And yet, this woman was not me, not the me I knew. I approached her slowly, taking in the way the linen clung to her belly and down her legs. Legs as any mortal woman would possess, her feet hidden amid the folds of blowing linen. These were not my legs, nor my feet. No talons, but toes, barely visible beneath the fabric. I had once dreamed of such feet and legs, dreamed of stretching in a bed without my wings pinned beneath me. Caught between two forms — bird and woman and never truly either one. Somehow, the young man had captured this thing I had never told him.
The hammer rested near her feet and I closed my hand around it. I pulled myself onto the statue’s base and stared the thing in the face. My cheekbones, my lips, still smudged with the memory of blood.
The sickening smack of metal against marble was comforting this time. Time and again, I brought the hammer down against the marble, indifferent to the chips that flew off to nick my cheeks and shoulders. Her arms came clean off, and when at last the head came free, I shrieked in triumph and followed it to the ground, obliterating it. Face and hair and beautiful cheeks turned to dust beneath the hammer’s swing.
“Gods, no! No!”
My head jerked up and I stared at the young man as he ran across the temple ruin. He reached for his creation, as if he might yet piece her back together, and then for me, trying to claim the hammer. His hands and fingers bruised under the assault but eventually he pulled the tool free and flung it away. He grabbed me next, holding me by my shoulders. I shrieked.
“It was you, ladybird—”
Ladybird, two things wedged together, but never their own selves.
“Wanted this to remain after — After you —” He released me. “What is your name, ladybird?”
I rocked back, free of his hold and stared at him, seeing in his eyes the truth. He had always known this piece of art would be his last.
“No one may know this thing, not even you.”
I reached for the young man and he let himself be taken. I drew him into my arms and down into the flower-starred meadow with its grisly treasures. Showing him these things yet again did not bother him nor did he make an effort to escape when at last I took him to that place all men eventually find here. I made certain it was swift, to save him any agony and when he breathed his last, it was with a smile. Only then did I whisper my name into his unhearing ears.
• • •
© 2012 E. Catherine Tobler, all rights reserved