In a Windless Calm
The bird-woman whistled at me through the darkness, her call more beautiful than the unfolding landscape below. Miles down, Blocrade, a city larger than I'd ever seen, twinkled with life: houses, towers, landing zones, all of them like fallen stars blinking through the night. I gripped the wrought-iron railing, steadied myself. I could resist. She tried again.
"I'm not coming over," I said, my knees buckling. The air tasted cool, arctic, something I'd have to get used to. Not like Curh at all.
"In time," she cooed.
"Find someone else to fuck." I didn't mean it, and my mother would've slapped me twice to hear such filth, but Phil taught me the phrase—and others—before I left home. It's how a stepfather and son bonded, I guess. Empty-handed, it was my only defense. Other than jumping ship.
As Claustrophi glided on, I scoured the shadows. The bird-woman remained hidden. Only the china-white tips of her feathered ankles exposed her in the blackness. She stood in a crate-made alcove, and no one else roamed the ship's top ring but me. I'd come up for air, cold but smoke-free air, and a look at the city we'd be drifting over for the next two hours; she must've followed me from the bar.
"I have no money," I said.
A pause, which didn't last long in the windless calm. "That's right," she said. Even her speaking voice carried a lure to it, soft, inveigling me. I inched closer to her. I hated myself for it. "Spent it all on glasses of honeyed water? Doesn't matter, really. I'm not after your money."
"No?" I swallowed. "What is it then?"
"What is what?" She giggled, a sound like the fluttering of wings. It was girlish, cute. Absolutely devastating. I groaned, but found myself peering into the darkness, curious. As if drawn out, the bird-woman emerged. She was the opposite of young. Short, with pale skin that wrinkled in on itself and hair grayer than my mother's, she allowed her true self to be seen for a blink—and then she shifted. From weathered to rainbow feathers, from rags to a front slit dress with a plunging neckline. Her eyes glimmered, pulled me in. I went to her.
"I'm interested in your memories, young man," she said, taking my hand. "The early ones."
I staggered around the hospital, feeling undead, unable to find a door. It's not that I was blind or dumb or handless; walls to my left, walls to my right, and a hall that went straight and back around like a snake swallowing its tail, places to go at every turn; there was simply nothing to go through, and I couldn't make sense of it. But I was in pain. My skin tingled, burned, and it tingled even more when I thought about it tingling or that woman.
Bruises everywhere. Discolored marks that spoke of beatings, of abuse. Of a fall.
And there was foulness in my mouth, the taste of a feather.
If I had a chair and a desk, a place to sit and think, maybe some paper and pens, I could figure it all out. Write my freedom, my reason. I just knew it.
But first: a door.
Her name was Maryanne, and she liked to talk as we fooled around. I didn't stop her. Her breasts were too nice. Full and featherless. The rise and fall of her voice melted in with the sex, the pressure, and when she whispered in my ear, it was as if all the stress within me evaporated. No more worrying about how I was going to pay the first few months' rent once Claustrophi landed in Blocrade's Southsetty, no more restless nights spent hating myself over dead friends fighting in Calhok, no more disappointed frowns from home about me leaving and wanting to start over, no more trying too hard to be someone I never wanted to be.
Just no more.
I swam in the emptiness, the warmth washing over me, a mindless fish. The bird-woman kept me awake. Through a slit of cabin window, stars snailed by.
"Tell me," she huffed as she bounced on top of me, "of your birthday parties. Tell me of your childhood friends and what you did together, your favorite treats." Her feathers tickled my skin, teased me. She licked the tip of my nose.
Hastily, hurriedly, I told her about my best friends Connie and George and Tommy and Tommy's older cousin. About how my mother, bless her, every year, would make a dog out of straw and stuff it with cheap corner-store candy and how I'd cry as I beat it down with a bat and how the other kids would laugh and eat my candy, complaining it was cheap and bad and not worth a chew.
Maryanne frowned. "That's . . . not what I expected."
I told her about the time, as a kid, I formed a car washing enterprise, walking the streets of the neighborhood and charging people hard coins for me to use their water and soap to wash their cars, how absurd it was to think myself a soon-to-be millionaire and how my mother and Phil—the man she married after something like three dates—would take dozens of photographs of me in my makeshift uniform and post them to every relative within a fifty-mile radius.
"Better," she said, rubbing her hand down her stomach.
I avoided Maryanne's eyes the entire time. She absorbed my words with an intensity that was missing from the dance our bodies were doing. Surprisingly, the mix worked, albeit with some eccentric hiccups. She felt great; I couldn't believe I said no at first. The tingling alone, heaven-like.
"Tell me more," she demanded when all we were doing was fucking. "More, I want more. Your first time in a pool."
"Why?" I shrugged. "Not much to tell. It was wet."
She smiled, resting her hands on my chest. "We're not born like humans. Us bird-women, as you call us. So wet, so new. We come from eggs and live without a childhood, without ever knowing."
"Is that how it is?" I'd never thought about it much; back home we had the likes of nagini spies and wightworkers, neither ever prostitutes, but like bird-people, they just were. No questions asked.
"Sort of," she said. "We're made to a specific age, see, and from there we go on not knowing. And I want to know. Don't you want me to, too?" Wriggling, Maryanne asked me again, and I fought not to pass out from the ecstasy churning behind my eyes. I was close to finishing. I almost did, the long hunger in me taking over and imagining Maryanne grilled and seasoned, served for dinner; books purported that some cultures still did that to bird-women shot from the sky.
"Tell me something first," I managed, breathing in big gulps. The disturbing image of cooked bird-woman would not leave me alone. "I need a moment."
Maryanne leaned down on top of me, her wings and feathers drowning out the candlelight in her cabin room. She smelled of sweat and a cold breeze, of good sex, of cooked meat, and in a whisper that nearly cost me my erection she said, "Let me tell you of the morazein, then. The memory drinkers."
"Are you all right?"
A voice. Kind, but not sweet. Nice, but old.
I opened my eyes. A nurse, dressed in yellow-whites and scribbling on a clipboard, leered at me. Her face was round, so round. A nametag read: Good Samaritan Hospital, Katherine.
"Yes?" I slowly got to my feet. The walls around me, the same that I had searched and ran my fingers along before, were now filled with things: paintings, sensor lights, certificates, doors.
"What room are you in?" the nurse asked, studying my numerous bruises and bandages.
"I don't . . . remember."
"Your name then?"
Silence, something missing.
"Wait, I remember you now," Katherine said. "The faller. You're definitely not supposed to be up and walking around."
I reached for the closest doorknob, but the nurse slid to block my way. She stood straight, clipboard at the ready. I itched, tingled. Growling, frustrated and dizzy and falling apart from the inside out, I said, "I need a room. A place to think, please."
"What you need," she whistled, "is some rest, actually. Momma's orders." The shrill sound brought out two orderlies from behind their desks. Both were large, big-handed. I tried to run, but they tackled me and took me away, threw me in a room with an oblong door on the outside but none on the inside. Only padded walls there, and a recording overhead that spoke soothingly of imagining myself as a bird, freedom as far as I could fly, the sound of the ocean below, the world at my feathertips.
I screamed until someone came in and gagged me.
Maryanne watched me dress. She spread herself across her bed, her wings tucked beneath her like a blanket. Her skin had slowly turned from its fresh pink to a grayish shade, wrinkles and brown spots back. The stink of half-finished sex drifted above us, and her smile was arid, depressing.
"I'm not." Voice steady, she went on. "We've been breeding with memory drinkers for some time now. Ever since the wall went down. Maybe before; it's not important. A little unorthodox, sure, but it's the way the wind blows. We still come out of our eggs old, but now we're eternal. Now we thirst."
"Serves you right," I muttered, desperately trying to cover my feet with socks and then tie my shoes, "for sleeping with vampires."
Maryanne leaned on her elbows. "Silly boy. We do not want blood, and we do not allow ourselves to be bitten. It's a strange love, sure, but dogs and cats learn to live with each other and so have we. Still, we thirst—for memories—and it is something hard to come by."
Buckling my belt, I said, "I already told you plenty. Suck on them."
Maryanne laughed, a caw if anything. "You can go, but I wouldn't walk near any railings for the rest of the night," she said with caution. A finger waggled. "Straight to bed, young man."
I balked. "You're not my . . ."
A tingle, then. I scratched at it, but it remained, fizzing at the back of my head. Something disappeared. A noise, an image, a thought from years back. Whatever. Stupid bird-slut. She used me.
"What . . . what did you do to me?"
"Go to bed."
Glaring, I threw on my jacket, said another Phil phrase that would've melted my . . . someone's face, and left the cabin.
Hurrying down the ship's inner hallways, I found my feet moving in an odd rhythm. One took a long stride, and the other had trouble keeping up. I couldn't make sense of it, and even when I tried everything tingled and turned from warm to hot to blistering hot. I needed air. Cold, sweet Blocrade air.
I made for Claustrophi's top ring again. A few late night drunks wandering the halls mocked me as I went, but stayed out of my way. The elevator was empty—at first. After climbing a couple levels, someone got on for the rest of the ride; I tried not to look. A bird-woman. Not Maryanne. This one didn't hide her age, her smell.
"Are you married?" I asked her as the elevator climbed, seemingly no longer in control of my mouth. The itching refused to relent. She nodded. "To a bird-man?"
"Of course," she said with a sneer.
We got off on the same floor, and I quickly walked a different path than she. She made for the shadows, I went for the railing. Sickness bubbled in me, a spell of dizziness and something else. Maryanne had poisoned me. I felt my legs racing, my feet in turn racing the nastiness that was storming up my throat. I made it just in time. Bent over, the railing digging into my stomach, I heaved and watched the mess through blurry eyes disappear between dark clouds. It was gone before I knew it.
The flicker of an image, a portly woman with auburn hair, eyes the color of steel, and a smile wide enough to connect towns, vanished with the vomit.
Longingly, stupidly, I reached out; the itching made me.
And I fell overboard.
"Are you going to behave?"
"You didn't last time." The nurse showed me the palm of her hand, bandage-wrapped. Nothing came to me. Katherine was trying to trick me, make me her pet. Steal my money. Something like that.
I nodded again.
"You've got twenty minutes then."
She left. Soon after, the male orderlies entered my room. They brought me a pad of paper and a pencil. From the secret slit of door, they watched me listlessly as I stared at the whiteness of the first sheet, never writing, only digging in my brain, trying to remember where I first came to be and who made me this way.
Memories petered out as I fell, still sick, still aware of my surroundings. I was going to meet my death, a quick slam against something—a building, a car, a person?—and it was just as that woman I once knew said it would be. Blocrade or my trip to would be my unmaking, and I'd be back home before the month was out.
Home? The word was remarkably empty.
As I dipped through a clump of clouds, I knew this to be right. That I'd be going home very soon, wherever that was, home to that woman so foggy in my head, a steel-eyed something, someone I knew, a friend perhaps, but home nonetheless.
I didn't look back at up Claustrophi. Didn't need to. The city, with its blinking lights and towering spires, took me in. Welcomed me. It was all I had now.
I shut my eyes, the wind washing over me, and I flew.
For eternal minutes, I lifted and dipped, I dropped with the best of stones, and only as the skin of my shoulders pinched in did I realize I was no longer alone.
"Maryanne?" I looked up, past her open legs. She gripped me in her talons, carried me like a hot air balloon carried a basket. Her wings were arced and stark in the darkness. Wind drowned out my voice. "Maryanne, drop me. Just drop me. I'd rather die than have you steal more of my memories."
"I'm not going to do that," she shouted down.
"Why? Please, I'm asking for it."
As the bird-woman stretched her wings she muttered something I couldn't hear. We turned away from Blocrade's brightly lit buildings, making for a dark patch in the middle of all the liveliness: a park. I kicked my legs in a child-tantrum.
"I'm sorry," Maryanne shouted eventually. "I feel very sorry for you. I took all these moments, these people and happenings, and I don't know how to handle them. You're my first, actually."
I could hear an element of regret in her voice.
"Your mother, she's your mother, and now I have her and you'll never remember anything great about her, not unless you go back to see her. So I'm saving you, so you can go back."
"Liar, I don't have a . . . mother," I said, knowing it to be true.
"You do, back in Curh. That's where you need to go."
"Drop me." I trembled. "Drop me drop me drop me."
She tightened her grip as I squirmed. We slowly drifted into the park, and the closer the ground got to my feet the more I wanted out of the bird-woman's hold. I hated her, hated her for whatever it was she did to me, was doing to me. The itching, the vomiting. It had to be her. I never had a mother, never knew a place called Curh in all my days. I'd been away, off, and now returned to Southsetty for work. Maybe. The bird-woman had used me, teased me with false words.
"Let me go!" I shouted, and with that I twisted. From Maryanne's position, she was unable to stop what I was about to do: I clawed at her legs, pulled handfuls of feathers out, felt her twitch in constricting pain as I plucked them from her skin. She dropped me instantly; I aimed for bushes, plummeted into a tree thick with branches. My body seemed to go in a hundred directions, and every branch connected somewhere, the last being against my forehead, and then I saw the grass, the dark, shining grass, and I was done.
Katherine came back and took my paper and pencil away.
"Nothing?" she asked. "After all that fuss, not a word?"
I shrugged. "I don't know where to start."
"What do you mean?"
I pointed at the empty page, my twenty minutes spent.
"Well, that won't do. You can't leave until you're better, and you won't be better until we know more about you. Like why you were climbing that tree in Hoggins Park in the first place. Three separate tests confirm there's no concussion. But start at the beginning."
"Yeah, the very beginning," the nurse said softly. She ruffled my hair, which brought back the itch. Something was missing. "Write about your parents, what they did. What kind of woman your mother was and so on."
"I don't have one."
Katherine was taken aback. Doubt stirred behind her eyes, and I dropped my shoulders. "No. That's not true. Everyone does. Even the freaks."
After she and the orderlies left, I sat in the middle of my doorless room, shamed, thinking, thinking about things I could no longer remember clearly: like beginnings, birthdays, and birds.
Paul Abbamondi spends his nights in a small studio apartment overflowing with books in northern New Jersey. His short stories have appeared in such magazines like Shimmer, Murky Depths, Farrago's Wainscot, and Kaleidotrope, among other fine publications. In his spare time, that is when he's not editing for the day job, he enjoys drawing comics. Admittedly, he knows nothing about birds.