The Harpy’, Laura Heron

Illustrations © 2012 Rebecca Whitaker



 [ The Harpy at the window, © 2012 Rebecca Whitaker ] I drop my cup of tea and shriek. The harpy at my kitchen window shrieks back. The mug bounces on the lino floor and I am glad we chose lino over the harder and more expensive tile. Hot tea splashes my leg, soaking into the trouser fabric. It burns, forcing me to jump back out of the puddle and bump into my pine dining set.

The creature peers into my kitchen, head cocked to one side like a bird. Her enormous tattered wings block out the dull light from the close. What am I going to do? Should I ring my daughter? The police. Of course. I run round the table to the wall-mounted phone and dial 999.

“Hello, emergency service operator, which service do you require? Fire, police, or ambulance?”

“Police,” I say.

“I’ll just connect you now.” The woman on the phone sounds very brisk and no-nonsense. My mouth goes dry.

“Hello, where are you calling from?” If anything, this woman sounds even fiercer. Fiercer than the monster, who doesn’t seem to have moved after that one cry. I cannot get enough breath, and my heart is too loud.

“Home.”

“Do you know the address?”

“Er, 23 Juniper Way, Coventry.” Stupid, of course she would need my address. The direct stare of the bird-woman must be getting to me.

“Thank you, Madam. What is the nature of your emergency?”

“There’s a harpy outside my window.”

Silence.

“Hello?”

“Excuse me, Madam, I must not have quite understood, can you repeat that please?”

“There is a harpy outside my window.”

“Can you describe this, um, harpy for me?”

“She must be nearly seven foot tall, with long hair that doesn’t seem very clean and very large wings. They are beautiful. Oh, and she’s naked and quite old.” My mind catches up with my voice. She must think I am crazy. A crazy, hallucinating old woman. How can you tell when you’re hallucinating anyway?

“Madam, what is the harpy doing at the moment?” She sounds kind, as if humouring a small child, or talking a madman off a ledge. What do I expect her to do exactly? Other than send me to the loony bin.

“I am so sorry to waste your time, I was mistaken. It’s just a big crow. Sorry. It won’t happen again. So sorry.”

I put the phone down very quickly, hoping that they don’t arrest me for wasting police time.

I push my shoulders against the wall, trying to make myself small. I want to get away, but I am scared she might get into my kitchen if I am not watching her. She still has not moved. She is just staring at me. I raise my hand to pat my hair back into place and check that my clothes are still neat. Stupid to care what a monster thinks of my personal grooming. I jump when a claw strokes my face. The creature can reach me even through the glass. It is oddly comforting. When was the last time anyone touched me like that? The last time anyone touched me at all?

I walk up to the window above the sink, pulled by an invisible string. In a dream, I open the window a little bit. The harpy shifts to accommodate the wooden frame, but otherwise is still. The stink of it washes over me, a strange mix of old female sweat and the sweepings of a birdcage. It should be deeply unpleasant, but it is not.

Her eyes don’t seem to have pupils. Or any white. They are just black and shiny like a bird’s. Her wrinkled face is framed by a dark grey tangle of hair. I touch my own sagging cheek and my sensible, clean bob of greying brown hair. She looks at me, sees me watching her. She doesn’t seem to mind, so I stare as much as I want to. To tell the truth, I cannot look away.

I lean forward, and the obsidian black of her eyes is all I see. The blackness engulfs me and sends me back to that day last March.

I am watching myself and Tom from above. He was wearing his old blazer and pale trousers, the ones I bought him from Marks and Spencer’s, before they tried to be trendy and the quality went downhill. He was standing in our living room, in front of the television, rocking back and forth on his heels, hands clasped behind his back. Secretly, I knew he thought he looked impressively martial. I knew because I once caught him pretending to acknowledge salutes from imaginary soldiers in the bedroom mirror. I never told him I saw him.

I was sitting on the sofa, looking up at him, and I wasn’t listening. I was worrying about the roast I was cooking. Tom didn’t like dry meat. I nodded at what he was saying, and realised from his response that it was the wrong answer. I shrank back a little; I couldn’t help it.

“That’s what I mean. You always do this, Emily. Are you even listening to me?” His voice was raised, and his cheeks flushed an ugly red. “You have never really understood me. The fact is, well, I’ve met someone else.”

What was he saying? I felt dizzy, even my hands and my feet went numb.

“I love her. I’m sorry...”

I doubted it. I stopped listening to him when he started to talk in clichés. I focused on the pink rose pattern on the wallpaper border behind his head. I had never really noticed the way you can see mocking faces in the spaces between the petals before. When he seemed to be finished I stood up and said the first thing I thought of.

“I must go and check on the chicken.”

“Damn the chicken! I cannot believe you, even you, can be so...”

It is here that I return to my kitchen and the black eyes in front of me.

It is ridiculous to think that something so alien can show emotions I can understand. Despite this, the birdlike eyes seem to be sad and angry all at once. In their inky depths I see my own feelings reflected. Feelings hidden so deeply inside myself that I thought I didn’t have them. When I was a girl, it wasn’t acceptable to be angry. “Don’t stamp and shout like that, it isn’t ladylike,” my mother used to tell me. After a while I learned not to be angry at all, but now I am shaking with it. Tears prickle my eyes. I don’t want to cry. Tom used to tell me that crying was manipulative and it made my skin blotchy. I believed him.

On my cheek I feel a slight pressure, a light scoring across it. I open my eyes as a rush of spicy air flutters my hair back from my face, leaving my skin cold and tingling. The wings beat loudly, and the harpy leaves me.

The kitchen is a mess. I pick up the mug, mop the liquid and re-wash the whole floor in bleach. Harpies do not exist. It must have been a bird, a crow maybe. I’ve been alone a lot recently, and perhaps it is getting to me.

The mechanical action of the mop and the bleach across the beige floor of my kitchen soothes my nerves. I stop crying, and my hands become steady. I go to fill up the kettle, and I find a solitary bedraggled feather. Disgusting thing. I throw it away. It must have been a pigeon. No, a crow; that was it. No one sane sees legends in daylight, not in suburbia.

My afternoon continues as Sundays normally do. I pop out and do a bit of shopping for my neighbour; the poor dear cannot manage anymore. She likes me to have a cup of tea with her a few times a week. I am too distracted to feign much interest in her extended family today, but she doesn’t seem to notice.

That evening I put on the radio and do the ironing. I like to have my shirts ready for the week. I work methodically, pleased with how the pale cotton becomes tidy and starched. The hiss of the iron and smell of the hot cloth soothes me with its familiar scent. Monday is always a little busy; my employer often thinks of things over the weekend and needs meetings arranged, notes and letters typed, and stationery ordered. I reach for another shirt to iron, a white men’s shirt, before I remember. Does that woman put enough starch on the collar and cuff?

The phone rings.

“Mum?”

“Rebecca? What’s the matter?”

“It’s Dad. He’s in hospital. Daniel and I are there now. I thought you should know.”

I fall onto a wooden chair.

“What’s happened? Is he alright?” I cannot bring myself to say his name.

“He’ll live.” Rebecca is having trouble with the words. Her normally brisk voice is hesitant. “He was set on by a gang... of kids, I suppose. No one saw them and Dad can’t remember much. But it must have been kids, animals they are. He’s been beaten badly. The doctor said he’ll live, but, well, his testicles, they seemed to have... they’ve had to be removed. Can you look after the kids while I stay here tonight? I’ve left them with the neighbour, but I can’t put her out for too long.”

“I don’t know what to say. Of course, I’ll be over in ten minutes.” I wonder if I should buy him a get-well card.

I should be sad, or upset, or worried. I am not. Instead, I think about the harpy and her black eyes and pale skin. I wonder where she comes from. Was she a woman before a creature? What changed her? I think I will get him a card, maybe one with footballs on it. He always liked watching sport on the TV.

A week or so later, I wake up early. I roll over and look at my electric alarm clock. Its pale green face tells me it’s four in the morning. I feel bone tired, but the soft comfort of my duvet feels like it is trapping me. I don’t sleep much at the moment. Mainly, I chase worries instead of sheep. At dawn I feel that I am allowed to stop pretending, and at least go and get a cup of tea.

I push back the curtains and look out at the familiar view. Small grey cars parked on driveways leading to neat redbrick houses, next to patches of green lawn. Every other lawn seems to have a bicycle or plastic toy nestled in the grass. It is alien this morning. My eye is caught by movement in the small playground at the end of the close. I open the window so that I can stick my head out.

In the playground is the harpy. She is dancing, her ungainly stumpy legs and ugly arms following a complex rhythm of their own, her great tattered wings moving as a gentle counterpoint. All the breath in my body leaves all at once. The shouting of the birds serves as a musical accompaniment to the lone figure. There is a swing set, and a stump which used to be a see-saw; it has been removed as it contravened health and safety. The ordinariness of the council-maintained equipment highlights the numinous nature of the dancing monster. I can feel my heart pounding and I gulp, hungry for the cold taste of the dawn. The harpy whirls faster and faster, swooping with her body, snaking her hips, throwing her ruined face up to catch the sun. I pant as if it is me dancing. I cannot look away. The creature is glorious, her wrinkled flesh and dirty feathers adding a texture that no smooth nymph could hope to match. She is fierce and proud, and her rage is righteous.

I turn and run out of my bedroom, unlocking my door hurriedly. Ignoring my bare feet, I race to the end of the close. I see the deserted playground, but still I run until I am in the circle of the equipment. My lungs are on fire, and I have no more breath, but still I turn around and around. She isn’t here anymore. I slump onto a plastic swing, and ignore the wet dew soaking into my nightdress. I close my eyes and hang there. The rest of the day is grey and lonely by comparison.

Rebecca will not stop talking about Tom’s accident. She thinks that I should visit him, so I go to the hospital. The place smells of institutional food and disinfectant, and there are liquid hand wash dispensers on every wall. I cannot find a nurse to ask where his ward is, so I have to check a map and follow an orange line painted on the wall. He has a small room to himself. I knock.

“Come in.”

I slip through the door. Tom is sitting up in bed, propped up against the wall. He has put on the blue pyjamas that I bought for him two years ago from BHS. Did he wear them on purpose, to remind me that I used to take care of him? They are missing a button at the neck and are fraying slightly at the cuff. That shade of blue seems to wash him out. He might have done better to wear a pair that he looked good in.

“Emily, I’m so glad you came.” He smiles at me, and puts his hand out, an invitation to embrace him. Instead, I hand him a card and sit down on the hard chair next to him. I put my handbag on my lap as a shield.

“How are you feeling?” I say, when I cannot take the hurt silence anymore.

“Alright. The infection has cleared up; this lot of antibiotics seem to have done the trick. I was worried that it was MSRA, but no, nothing so glamorous.” Tom laughs a little. My lips thin into the approximation of a smile. “Good for me, anyway, they didn’t have to take off any more skin. The area is healing well; Doctor Thompson is very pleased. The stitches are coming out next Wednesday. They say I can go home soon.”

“That’s good.” I say.

“And you? You’re looking well. Is that a new dress?” Tom is pathetically eager to compliment me.

“No.”

“Ah. Well, it looks nice anyway.”

I don’t respond. Tom has not managed to shave completely, and there is a little tuft of hair on the side of his face. I cannot believe that this little man has hurt me so much. When I close my eyes the harpy dances for me in the dawn.

“Emily, love,” Tom starts to say.

“You are not allowed to call me that anymore.” My eyes jerk open. “Not now.”

“Look, I made a mistake.” Tom reaches out to grasp my hand. I stand up to get away from him so quickly that the chair scrapes against the floor. “Emily, please. I made a mistake. In here, it made me realise...”

“Shut up, Tom. I know she left you.” Rebecca told me. She seemed to think that I should care.

“Oh. But I wanted you back before that. I missed you. Do you think, with time...”

“No.” I walk to the door.

“But I have nowhere to go!”

I turn and look at him. I pity him.

“No.”

I shut the door behind me. My hips swing a little as I walk, following the orange line back outside.

I dance through my chores that day. I put the radio on and sing along to Bruce Springsteen. That evening, although I get ready for bed at my normal time, I don’t go to sleep. I wait.

There it is, a tap at the window. I am not sure what I am expecting when I open the curtains.

That’s a lie; I know what I am hoping for.

“What do you want?”

The harpy says nothing, but her eyes lock onto mine. Tonight, the rage seems banked, a glowing ember rather than a flame. My breath becomes shallow and rapid. I open the window and let her in.


 [ Having a Harpy as my lover, © 2012 Rebecca Whitaker ] Having a harpy as my lover has changed me. There are stubs on my back. They will grow full and strong, but for now they are working their way through tendon and muscle and skin. My lover seems to think that they are sweet. She strokes and grooms them often. My nails are turning into claws and already can rip into meat. My feet are crooked, tearing themselves apart, the soft skin sluicing off to become hard scale. It is a painful process, to become harpy. I talk less and feel more. My guilt at leaving the children is beginning to pass, and I watch them and the grandchildren from a distance sometimes. I will protect them if necessary; and their children, and their children’s children.

I miss ironing, but at least I no longer need to cook; flesh is better dripping and warm and fresh. And my lover is with me. We dance in the dawn, and raise our ruined faces to the sun.


© 2012, Laura Heron

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