Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Detours on the Way to Nothing

It’s midnight when you and your girlfriend, Elka, have your first fight since you moved in together. Words wound, tears flow, doors slam. You storm out of the apartment, not caring where you go as long as it’s far away from her. When you step off the front stoop onto the sidewalk, that’s the moment when the newest version of me is born.

You get on the subway heading toward Brooklyn and ride until the train rumbles out of the tunnels and squeaks into a familiar aboveground stop. The neighborhood isn’t good, but a friend of yours used to live a few blocks away, so you know the area pretty well. At least you won’t get lost while you work off the rest of your anger. You disembark, let your feet pick a direction, and start walking.

That’s how the logic seems from your perspective, but there’s another explanation: I want you to come to me.

By a series of what you think are random turns, you end up in an alley between high-rise buildings. Reinforced doors protect apartments built like warehouses; skulls grin on rat poison warning signs nailed beneath barred panes. Abandoned mattresses and broken radios decay in the gutter, accumulating mold and rust.

In the spotlight of a streetlamp, an old Puerto Rican man hurls bottles at a fifth story window. “Christina!” he yells. “Open up!” A voice shouts down, “She doesn’t live here anymore!” but the man keeps throwing. Translucent shards collect around his feet. None have flown back into his face yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

The distraction stops you, as I intended. I wanted people around so you’d be less likely to spook.

You look up and see me. I’m the girl on the roof. The edge where I stand is flat as the sidewalk and has no guardrail. You gasp when you notice my toes edging over the precipice—then gasp harder a moment later when you see my hair floating in the wind. It looks like feathers. Just like feathers.

The Puerto Rican man runs out of bottles. He rubs his sore palms, repeating, “Christina, my Christina, why won’t you open the window?”

Looking up, you gesture between me and the Puerto Rican man, asking: Are you Christina? I shake my head and make walking motions with my fingers to say I’ll come down. Not knowing quite why, you put your hands in your pockets and wait.

When I get down to street level, you’re shocked to see it wasn’t an illusion: My hair really is made of feathers. They’re bright blue, such a vivid color that it’s obvious they weren’t plucked from any real bird. They remind you of the ones you and your sister decorated carnival masks with when you were children: feathers dyed to match the way people think birds look.

You reach out to touch them before your sense of propriety kicks in and pulls your hand back. You shuffle your feet with embarrassment. “Hi.”

I find your shyness endearing. I take one hand out of the lined pocket of my ski jacket and wave.

“I’m Patrick,” you say.

I smile and nod, the way people do when they hear information they don’t find relevant.

“What’s your name?” you ask.

I step closer. You tilt your ear toward my lips, assuming I want to whisper. It’s a reasonable assumption, though wrong. I take your chin and gently lift your face so that your gaze is level with mine, then open my mouth to show you where my tongue was cut out.

You back away. Another second and you’d bolt, so I act fast, pull a card out of my pocket and give it to you.

“Voluntary surgery?” you read. “What are you, part of some cult?”

It’s more a philosophy than a cult, but since it isn’t really either, I wave my hand back and forth: in a way.

Debate wavers in your expression. You still might go. Before you can decide, I take your hand and pull your fingers through my hair.

You breathe hard as your fingertips touch skin beneath my feathers. “All the way to the scalp,” you murmur.

That’s when I know I’ve got you. I can see it in the way your eyes turn one dark color from pupil to iris. You’re thinking, how can this be real?

The fantasy has been with you since adolescence. Maybe it started with the feathers you and your sister glued on the carnival masks. They felt so soft that you pocketed a pair—one blue, one white—and took them back to bed with you. Your vision of a bird-woman appeared soon thereafter. Beautiful and silent, she wrapped you nightly in sky-colored feathers that smelled like wind.

In the nearby park, I recreate this. Behind us, a levy of black rocks stands against the East River. Reflected Manhattan lights form a sheen on the water, shimmering like a fluorescent oil spill.

I strip off my clothes and stand naked for you, my shadow falling onto gravel cut with glints of glass. I’m skinny with visible ribs, but soft and fleshy around the belly where you like to stroke your lovers as if they were satin pillows—all the conflicting traits you prefer, combined in one body. Your eyes never leave my feathers.

You will never know how I am possible. My philosophy—my cult, as you called it—is old and secretive. We have no organization, no books of dogma, no advocates to harangue passersby with our rhetoric. Each initiate finds us alone, deducing our beliefs through meditation and self-reflection. Only the magic of our sacrificed tongues unifies us.

Our practices have few analogues in Western thought, though you could call us philosophical cousins to the Buddhists. We believe there is no way to lose the trappings of self so completely as to become someone else’s desire.

If you see me again, I will not be a bird. I will be a figure made of jewels or a woolly primate with prehensile lips. My skin will be rubber. My cock will be velvet. Each of my six blood-spattered breasts will be tattooed with the face of a man I’ve killed. The goal is endless transformation.

I’m still distant from that goal. Though I’ve been transforming for decades, I’m only inching along the path to self-dissolution. I cling to identity; indulge fantasies like this one of telling you my story. Cutting out our tongues is supposed to silence us. Instead, I speak internally. Can you hear me?

I tease you with my feathers, encompassing your face, hands, and cock in turn. When you tire of that, you pull me up against the rocks with my legs around your waist. I throw my head back to let my plumage stream in the wind and you come. I don’t know if you think of Elka, but don’t worry. You can’t be unfaithful with a fantasy.

You recline against the black rocks.

“Wow,” you say, “I’m not the kind of person that would ever do this. Elka and I were together three months before . . . ”

Your eyes glaze. This could be bad. There are two possibilities now. You may pull back, stammering her name, or:

You reach for my shoulder. “I know you can’t talk, but can you write? Is there someplace we could go? I have so much to ask.”

I’ve done my job too well. It’s time to leave. I shrug away from your grip and raise one hand to wave. Goodbye.

“Hey, wait!” you shout.

In your fantasies, when you’re done, the bird-woman dissolves into a shower of feathers. Unfortunately, my magic isn’t that versatile. I have to walk away.

You try to chase me so I maneuver through sharp turns and unexpected byways. You don’t know this area as well as you think you do. Soon, your footsteps grow distant and faint.

I retreat to my rooftop and watch from above as you pace in circles around the neighborhood. I hope you will go soon. If you don’t, it may be a sign I’ve done you permanent damage. Some people can’t survive getting what they wish for.

Finally, you head back to the subway. I have to admit, I’m a little sad when you go. A little jealous, too.

I climb down the building and discover the Puerto Rican man huddled next to a fire escape, muttering in soft Spanish. Tiny cuts bleed on his arms and calves. I consider remaking myself for him, but all he wants is his human Christina. I catch an impression of her: short and blonde, she hates dancing, speaks seven languages badly, calls him The Man She Should Have Loved Less.

As his yearning for this specific, clumsy, jovial woman flows through me, I realize how little I am to you. What is a fantasy? A scrap of yourself made into flesh. An illusion to masturbate with.

Moving away from the Puerto Rican man, I shelter in a doorway and will myself to molt. My feathers float away on the wind and something I was clinging to flies away with them, carried on the same breeze.

I say goodbye to the girl with feathered hair and wait for another’s desire to overtake and shape me. In the few seconds before it does, for one moment, just one, my soul becomes pure essence without form.

It’s the closest I’ve come to nothingness yet.

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Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky graduated from the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2005, and holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her short stories have been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Locus Award among others. She’s also twice won the Nebula Award, once for her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window,” and again for her short story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” Her first collection, Through the Drowsy Dark, is available from Aqueduct Press; her second, How the World Became Quiet, came out from Subterranean Press in 2010. Visit her website, chat with her on Twitter, or support her on Patreon where she posts one new piece of fiction or poetry each month.