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, claws.
He was lifted out of the water 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 nothing.
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 night wind, 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 sheltered 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 her 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 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 wing beats 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 water-hole. 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. One bright night of giddy certainty he trod her, like a cock.
Then past 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 fair.
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 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 thought 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, 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.
You could go on, she said softly.
He looked away again, not down 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 smoke?
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; the bride at the end of his 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 way.
You drive, he said.
© 1993 by John Crowley.
Originally published in Omni Best Science Fiction Three,
Edited by Ellen Datlow.
Reprinted by permission of the author.