Trigger warning: descriptions of gore, graphic violence, death, and hate crimes.
ορνιθοπανίδα | ornithopanída | avifauna;
- the birds of a particular region, habitat, or geological period.
- hence, the eternality of wings, and of flight, as the hurricane of time rages on.
It begins when the world is made of stone, and her lips are the warmest thing you’ve ever felt.
Your fingers guide one another. You have no words, but you do not need them: you need only her just-more-than-black eyes, her broad lips, her rough nails, her stringy hair. Together, you kindle fires, and the young ones gather around you, watch the sparks fly with parted mouths.
When you move together in the night, it is almost like language. Her throat and yours convulse, your lungs launch forth desperate questions and proclamations, whispered into her hips, the sandy-rough base of her throat, the scratchy-soft warmth between her legs. You crest with pleasure the color of sunrise, and you wonder, within a mind that craves only sensation, how to tell her that you love her.
The men, for men you now may call them, give and take: they are to push and pull and move through musculature’s unjust scrawls, lips crushing lips like grapes for wine. But you take her, her ochre skin and black hair’s waterfall, and you invent a shrine of delicacy: together you lie, she that fain would fly and you eternally rooted, in the cotton-folds of that mist which wreathes the isles of the poetess. It is now, with salt from the sea breathing across the marble floor, that you may speak.
And speak you do, to watch her smile, watch her head tilt fast as a bird’s: upside-down laughter. You cup her soft breasts in your hands, and she murmurs that your fingers are long, perfect for the lyre; you coo back that you are, after all, more Artemis than Apollo, and she scarcely mouths a teasing golden word about chastity before you’re on the ground again, her wordless gasp a memory of broad rock caves. The glassware glimmers in the languishing dollops of endless-afternoon sunlight, stained amaranthine where you carried indulgence to her begging lips.
You trail your tongue and paint verse down her collarbone while her sweet gasps harmonize beneath your hands’ insistence. You are giver and receiver alike; together, you are the unspoken instrument of the moon’s goddess, her bowstring, her star-headed arrows. Eternity sprawls before and behind you, and you hold onto her swan-bone wrists, the beginning and end of the universe.
It is a time that will come to be called the Dark Ages, but the aeneous brocade of her skirt against the cold stone floors is light enough to imbue your memory with nothing but sun.
You know each other, this time, through dinner alliances. Long oaken tables groaning like the backs of aging peasants beneath dish and dish and dish of venison, quail, sauce-drenched asparagus: silver platters garnished in sweet red berries and cuttings of pink boars’ flesh thin as parchment. The first time that her father, honored guest, holds his broad silver knife and breaks the flaking crust of one of your pies, she claps with delight, and her eyes sparkle the color of the blackbirds’ feathers as they erupt, flooding the dining hall, earning a cheer of delight all down the long table.
It’s the first of many feasts. Duchess, you christen each other, and smile: her teeth are golden. The dogs whine at your feet. She is her father’s favorite, and she wears only the finest garments, sewn with petals and fleur-de-lis of bronze and silver thread. Her hair is spun straw, something that you forget each time until you see her. Because of her, you at last understand the mournful tunes of the bards. The longest laments and odes, through whose wandering notes you used to doze, now paralyze something just below your breastbone, trapping your breath beneath your throat like the birds beneath the pie crust.
Some misted night, when you are both brushing the age of fifteen and know the names of your husbands, a supper passes in a hurl of light and then you’re both in a corridor near the armory, and both of you are touching the freezing wall and she says, with honey mead falling in clouds from her lips, that she’s cold; you remind her that the fireplace purrs in the banquet hall where your families await, and she half-screams that she seeks no crude flame.
When you look over, pearl tears adorn her powdered cheeks.
You think that this must be the time to tell her that, though you’ve lived in this valley all your life, you can smell the seaside in your dreams; before you whisper three words, she flashes around the corner, and you’ll still be hearing her sobs on your wedding day, when the crown is placed atop your head.
You wake next on a new side of the world. She now relishes the outdoors, free from the stone bindings of your swift-fading memories, and spends all of her time striving for softness. She finds the sweetest glens, far from the bustle and clamor of the bright red-and-gold marketplaces, and stretches out on her stomach, chin settled in the moss, eyes cast to the golden ginkgos above.
She proclaims in this new voice—a voice of silver brooks, as silky as the gold-touched inkspill of hair around her slender shoulders—that she loves the birds, and that they remind her of something, though she cannot quite say what. Green shadows dance across her lips and cheekbones; her fingers trail in the pond, bloated by last night’s rain.
Legs crossed, some feet away, you take down what she describes. You do not know how to write, but you need no training for your brush to echo what she claims to see: the velocity of their wing-tips traced in broad arcs of black on cream, careful layers for each feather. They spin through miniature infinities, a flock of them: some large as dragons, some small as the fireflies that soon light upon your hidden grove. They part the air like water or time, invisible trails unfolding from where they’ve glided, and her voice—no longer for your ears—murmurs of how she imagines them to never quite know when it is that they’ve flown through the same cloud: to them, she insists in her star-vast way, there is no language, no constant thought, only that familiarity that lies somewhere between scent and taste and heartache.
When you show her your half-dry paper, she laughs, and at first you expect her to tease you that you haven’t, after all, painted birds. Instead, she kisses you on the lips, both of your eager mouths sharing the same scarlet paint, and declares that she has never seen anyone’s brush and ink capture motion the way yours do.
The first time that the two of you are allowed to be right in your entirety, through nights and years while the stars track the clouds across the endless sky, it is good enough to feel like fantasy—even as you know, with morning-dew clarity, that this is the surest reality you’ve ever lived.
You are named for a sparrow and she for a fox, and she reminds you, with her sharp little teeth in your throat, of all the old fables. You’re trapped; you’re helpless; your wings are broken, and you weep with relief. You’ve never before seen her this fiery: red edges to her black braids, darting fingertips through still-smoldering ash for the very burn it delivers, following the men out to hunt with her voice raised to the amber autumn sky. She is the favorite of them all, but they know she’s yours alone. You will never have children, but you are nonetheless celebrated, and you twine yourselves together all the same, still fraught with the thick imbuement of smoke as the night’s final sparks glitter up to greet the gods.
She warns you to never fly away, little sparrow. You shoot back that you would hardly be sorry to find yourself between her silken jaws, and that surprises a laugh out of her.
Silver threads your hair, and the two of you watch the world change, and you tell each other stories. She speaks of cold caves and ocean crests; you, of the bats and the gulls. Eventually, even recollection recedes to mist, as you learn that you need nothing but each other and the blue constellations above, the wind’s whisper as the grass drinks up the last heat of the day.
Lightning bursts from between your hands and erupts across the battlefield. Red falls in streaks like scarves across thirsty grass, and you can never tell whether the men who fall are your own doing. You’re a different creature out here, not the girl whom your father raised you to be: sweat and starched fabric and hard gray powder tracing the seams of your skin. Heat hazes, casting God’s playful slow-motion, and you clench your teeth and fight harder, shoulders quaking and bucking with every shot, your breasts aching and bruising beneath their hard bandages, neck prickling under the curious sun, come out to watch its subjects play.
A punch in the side. That’s all it takes.
You open someone else’s eyes to see a girl with star-colored hair bent over you, her slim fingers busy at work in the gap that has grown between your ribs. She says, without looking up, that it’s a wonder it took a shot to fell you, with those wrappings around your chest. When you struggle, she smacks the flat of her hand hard into your wrist, paralyzing you with the sting. She tips brandy between your lips, forces up your chin when you try to look down. She has brown eyes. Strange on such a pale girl.
You warn her that if she tells a soul, you’ll kill her. You know how to.
She retorts that your life is in her hands right now, not the other way around, and if she thought you had no value in the battlefield, she wouldn’t be bothering to save it.
When you groan from the pain, she kills it with her mouth on yours. You’re motionless from shock and brandy and her doe-bright eyes. She adds, quite carelessly as she sits back knit your skin back together, that you make a very handsome soldier.
You write home that night that you’re going to fall in love with a nurse—that you haven’t yet, but she saved your life and kissed your lips, and you wonder what a woman is if she’s also a sodomite. You add a note in the margin: the birds, first driven off by cannonfire, are landing around the field again. Surely they can smell the blood, but they don’t seem to mind. Perhaps they’ll come and go through every skirmish, until the war is over and your lives are over and even the dry grass forgets it was once brown with blood.
You burn the letter in the campfire, like all of the others.
There’s a clear difference between you and the men who sit around the smoke-opaque cafes, draining whiskey after whiskey after wine, but it’s Paris, the economy is soaring, the nights are endless, and none of them care. They leave you alone, perhaps because they know that they could never have you; you, with your scattering of freckles, tufty hair under that battered green cap, slim suspenders over gray pinstriped button-up—you only have eyes for one, and she is a dancer.
She spins in feather-fledged surrealism, painting new colors with her mahogany fingertips, bedecked in false diamonds from the ankles to the smooth throat. She glints beneath the candles and gaslights, she whirls with the ease of poetry, and once a night, near when the clock strikes one, her eyes find yours—black on black on black—and she tilts that smirk, that smirk that drives you wild and hot in your too-stiff bed at night, floods your dreams with dark rich chills, brings you back to the club each evening with more precious francs and a craving for that music, those cheers, that one o’ clock smirk of erythrean lips on pearl-white teeth.
You write about her, madly, feverishly, running out of pens again and again. Language is a wonder and a gift, the only one you have. Men buy you drinks because they love to laugh with you, and they’ve long since learned to stop complaining when you peel away and find yourself back in your rented attic room, under the sloping ceiling, watching the star-stained rooftops outside as you scrawl frantic verbs, verbs, always verbs—adjectives aren’t enough for her, and a sufficient noun hasn’t been invented, but the verbs carry it all: sway, sigh, tease, swirl, glitter, glint. You don’t know her name, and she doesn’t know yours, but you write verses for her, then lean out your window and let them float away on the post-war wind like handfuls of doves, rippling into the endless smoky sky, carried on your heavy breath and the strains of jazz leaking out of the windows below, new and vivacious and yet somehow salted with the midnight blue prickling of a chest ache you call la nostalgie.
After tonight, and after tomorrow, history books will dryly chronicle this evening’s story. Black text on white paper, stamped clean, with notes scrawled in the margins. You don’t know that now, not up against the wall with the man’s snarling face in yours; not when the cold cuffs snap onto your wrists, not when the lights spin from something more than just a couple of drinks.
The word sanctuary rings in your mind, as false as anything in your life. The speed at which your life, lives, life is spinning by is enough for bitterness to flood your mouth and vomit to splatter the pavement in front of you—a slap across your cheek and your spine is shoved back against the bricks as your unfocused eyes seek something in the onslaught of voice and light and chaos, and your heart batters and pecks your chest, and you are looking at the blue shoulders of the men who were never meant to protect people like you, and you are afraid.
Somehow, within all this, your eyes find her, and hers were already on yours, and she smiles, and she’s wearing broad glittering red lipstick tonight, scarlet and vivid, you taste blood in your own mouth, her wig is askew, you know she would hate to be seen like this, you want to touch her again, you want to make promises, you want to get away, you don’t want to fight, not tonight, you want to be with her, you want to be alone.
Sanctuary. You never imagined you were safe, even behind stone walls, and yet you are sick with shock, and the bellows and shrieks inflame your eardrums. You—
She mouths something at you. Red shines on her ivory teeth, flashed with hard blue light.
Shush, little finch.
You want to make promises, but your lips are as mute as your mind.
Her long lashes flash.
You watch her break apart into blood and bullet holes, serenaded by screams and machine gun staccato.
You feel death breathing down your neck, and it tastes like metal, and this is what your final thoughts look like, before you are only a name on a list posted to the website of a police division:
You never wanted this. You craved the past; you read the poetry of Sappho and you could smell the salty waves. You thought of the American Revolution, and how you wouldn’t care to find yourself on the wrong end of a rifle if it only meant that you could taste history in the making.
And now you are here, and you are tied up and trapped by whatever sticky substance those Moirai or Norns are weaving around you, until you can’t breathe.
Love should not be revolution. Love should not be legend. Love should be as simple as the times before you had a word for the fire that grew between your twining bodies.
The bullets take flight. You do not.
Written for the 49 eternities cut short by the Orlando nightclub shooting of June 12, 2016.