Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2013
Painted Birds and Shivered Bones by Kat Howard
The white bird flew through the clarion of the cathedral bells, winging its way through the rich music of their tolling to perch in the shelter of the church’s walls. The chiming continued, marking time into measured, holy hours.
Maeve had gone for a walk, to clear her head and give herself the perspective of something beyond the windows and walls of her apartment. She could feel the sensation at the back of her brain, that almost-itch that meant a new painting was ready to be worked on. Wandering the city, immersing herself in its chaos and beauty would help that back of the head feeling turn into a realized concept.
But New York had been more chaos than beauty that morning. Too much of everything and all excess without pause. Maeve felt like she was coming apart at the seams.
In an effort to hold herself together, Maeve had gone to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine,. There, she could think, could sit quietly, could stop and breathe without people asking what was wrong.
Midwinter was cold enough to flush her cheeks as she walked to the Cathedral, but Maeve couldn’t bear being inside -—large as the church was, she could feel the walls pressing on her skin. Instead, she perched on a bench across from the fallen tower, and pulled her scarf higher around her neck.
Maeve sipped her latte, and leaned back against the bench, then sat up. She closed her eyes, then opened them again.
There was a naked man crouched on the side of the Cathedral.
She dug in her purse for her phone, wondering how it was possible that such a relatively small space always turned into a black hole when she needed to find anything. Phone finally in hand, she sat up.
The naked man was gone.
In his place was a bird. Beautiful, white feathers trailing like half-remembered thoughts. Impressive, to be sure, especially when compared to the expected pigeons of the city. But bearing no resemblance to a man, naked or otherwise.
Maeve let her phone slip through her fingers, back into her bag, and sat up, shaking her head at herself. “You need to cut down on your caffeine.”
“You thought what?” Emilia laughed. “Oh, honey. The cure for thinking that you see a naked man at the Cathedral isn’t giving up caffeine, it’s getting laid.”
“Meeting men isn’t really a priority for me.” Maeve believed dating to be a circle of Hell that Dante forgot.
“Maeve, you don’t need to meet them. Just pick one.” Emilia gestured at the bar.
Maeve looked around. “I don’t even know them.”
“That’s exactly my point.” Emilia laughed again. “Take one home, send him on his way in the morning, and I can guarantee your naked hallucinations will be gone.”
“Fine.” Maeve sipped her bourbon. “I’ll take it under advisement.”
Surprising precisely no one, least of all the woman who had been her best friend for a decade, Maeve went home alone, having not even attempted to take one of the men in the bar with her. She hung up her coat, and got out her paints.
Dawn was pinking the sky when she set the brush down and rolled the tension from her neck and shoulders.
The canvas was covered in birds.
Madness is easier to bear with the wind in your feathers. Sweeney flung himself into the currents of the air, through bands of starlight that streaked the sky, and winged toward the cloud-coated moon.
Beneath Sweeney, the night fell on the acceptable madness of the city. Voices cried out to each other in greeting or curse. Tires squealed and horns blared. Canine throats raised the twilight bark, and it was made symphonic by feline yowls, skitterings of smaller creatures, and the songs of more usual birds.
Silent Sweeney was borne on buffeting currents over the wild lights of the city. Over the scents of concrete and of rot, of grilling meat and decaying corners, of the blood and love and dreams and terrors of millions.
And of their madness as well.
Even in his bird form, Sweeney recognized New York as a city of the mad. Not that one needed to be crazy to be there, or that extended residency was a contributing factor to lunacy of some sort, but living there -—thriving there -—took a particular form of madness.
Or caused it. Sweeney had not yet decided which.
He had not chosen his immigration, but had been pulled over wind and salt and sea by the whim of a wizard. Exiled from his kingdom in truth, though there were no kings in Ireland anymore.
On he flew, through a forest of buildings built to assault the sky. Over bridges, and trains that hurtled from the earth as if they were loosed dragons. Over love and anger and countless anonymous mysteries.
Sweeney tucked his wings, and coasted to the ground at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The ring of church bells set the madness on him, sprang the feathers from his skin, true. But madness obeyed rules of its own devising, and the quietness of the cathedral grounds soothed him. He roosted in the ruined tower, and fed on seed scattered on the steps after weddings.
He had done so for years, making the place a refuge. There had been a woman, Madeleine, he thought her name was, who smelled of paper and stories. She had been kind to him, kind enough that he had wondered sometimes if she could see the curse beneath the feathers. She scattered food, and cracked the window of the room she worked in so that he might perch just inside the frame, and watch her work among the books.
Yes. Madeleine. He had worn his man shape to her memorial, there at the cathedral, found and read her books, with people as out of time as he was. She had been kind to him, and kindness was stronger even than madness was.
Maeve stood in front of the canvas, and wiped the remnants of sleep from her eyes with paint-smeared fingers.
It was good work. She had gotten the wildness of the feathers, and the way a wing could obscure and reveal when stretched in flight. She could do a series, she thought.
“I mean, it’s about time, right?” she asked Brian, her agent, on the phone. “Be ambitious, move out of my comfort zone, all those things you keep telling me I need to do.”
“Yes, but birds, Maeve?”
“Not still lifes, or landscapes, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Well, not worried exactly.
“Look, send me pictures of what you’re working on. I’ll start looking for a good venue to show them. If it doesn’t work, we’ll call this your birdbrained period.”
It hadn’t been the resounding endorsement of her creativity that Maeve had been hoping for, but that was fine. She would paint now, and enthusiasm could come later.
She could feel her paintings, the compulsion to create, just beneath the surface of her skin. She gathered her notebook and pencils, and went out into the city to sketch.
Sweeney perched on a bench in Central Park, plucking feathers from his arms. He had felt the madness creeping back for days this time before the feathers began appearing. Sure, he knew it was the madness. His blood itched, and unless that was the cursed feathers being born beneath his skin, itchy blood meant madness.
Itchy blood had meant madness and feathers for close to forever now, hundreds of years since the curse had first been cast. Life was long, and so were curses.
Though when he thought about it, Sweeney suspected curses were longer.
Pigeons cooed and hopped about near the bench’s legs, occasionally casting their glinting eyes up at him. Sweeney thumbed a nail beneath a quill, worried at it until he could get a good grip. The feather emerged slowly, blood brightening its edges. He sighed as it slid from his skin. Sweeney flicked the feather to the ground, and the pigeons scattered.
“Can’t blame you. I don’t like the fucking things, either.” Sweeney tugged at the next feather, one pushing through the skin at the bend of his elbow. Plucking his own feathers wouldn’t stop the change, or even slow it, but it gave him something to do.
“The curse has come upon me,” he said. Blood caked his nails, and dried in the whorls and creases of his fingers.
And it would. The curse would come upon him, as it had time and time again, an ongoing atonement. He might be occasionally mad, and sometimes a bird with it, but Sweeney was never stupid. He knew the metamorphosis would happen. A bell would ring, and his skin would grow too tight around his bones, and he would bend and crack into bird shape.
Sooner, rather sooner indeed than later, if the low buzz at the back of his skull was any indication.
“But just because something is inevitable, doesn’t mean that we resign ourselves to it. No need to roll over and show our belly, now.” Sweeney watched the pigeons as they skritched about in the dirt.
There were those who might say that Sweeney’s stubbornness had gone a long way to getting him into the fix he was currently in. Most days, Sweeney would agree with them, and on the days he wouldn’t, well, those days he didn’t need to, as his agreement was implied by the shape he wore.
You didn’t get cursed into birdhood and madness because you were an even-tempered sort of guy.
“You guys all really birds, there beneath the feathers?” Sweeney asked the flock discipled at his feet.
The pigeons kept their own counsel.
Then the bells marked the hour, and in between ring and echo, Sweeney became a bird.
Dusk was painting the Manhattan skyline in gaudy reds and purples when Maeve looked up from her sketchbook. She had gotten some good studies, enough to start painting the series. She scrubbed her smudged hands against the cold-stiffened fabric of her jeans. She would get take out -—her favorite soup dumplings -—and then go home and paint.
The bird winged its way across her sightlines as she stood up. Almost iridescent in the dying light, a feathered sweep of beauty at close of day. Watching felt transcendent—-
“Oh, fuck, not again.” In the tree not a bird, but a man, trying his best to inhabit a bird-shaped space.
Maeve closed her eyes, took a deep breath, opened them again. Still: Man. Tree. Naked.
“Okay. It’s been a long day. You forgot to eat. You have birds on the brain. You’re just going to go home now” -—she tapped the camera button on her phone -—“and when you get there, this picture of a naked man is going to be a picture of a bird.”
Sweeney watched the woman pick up her paintbrush, set it down. Pick up her phone, look at it, clutch her hair or shake her head, then set the phone down and walk back to her canvas. She had been repeating a variation of this pattern since he landed on the fire escape outside of her window.
He had seen her take the picture, and wanted to know why. The people who saw him were usually quite good at ignoring his transformations, in that carefully turned head, averted eyes, and faster walking way of ignoring. Most people didn’t even let themselves see him. This woman did. Easy enough to fly after her, once he was a bird again.
Sweeney wondered if perhaps she was mad, too, this woman who held the mass of her hair back by sticking a paintbrush through it, and who talked to herself as she paced around her apartment.
She wasn’t mad now though, not that he could tell. She was painting. Sweeney stretched his wings, and launched himself into the cold, soothing light of the stars.
In the center of the canvas was a man, and feathers were erupting from his skin.
“Oh, yes. Brian is going to love it when you tell him about this. ‘“That series of paintings you didn’t want me to do? Well, I’ve decided that the thing it really needed was werebirds.’””
It was good, though, she thought. The shock of the transformation as a still point in the chaos of the city that surrounded him.
The transformation had been a shock. The kind of thing you had to see to believe, and even then, you doubted. Such a thing should have been impossible to see.
And maybe that was the thread for the series, Maeve thought. Fantasy birds, things that belonged in fairy tales and medieval bestiaries, feathered refugees from mythology and legend scattered throughout a modern city that refused to see them there.
She could paint that. It would be a series of paintings that would let her do something powerful if she got them right.
Maeve sat at her computer, and began compiling image files of harpy and cockatrice, phoenix and firebird. There were, she thought, so many stories of dead and vengeful women returning as ghost birds, but nothing about men who did so. Not that she thought what she had seen was a ghost, or that she was trying some form of research-based bibliomancy to discern the story behind the bird (the man) she kept seeing, but she wouldn’t have turned away an answer.
“And would it have made you feel better if you had found one? Because hallucinating a ghost bird in Manhattan is so much better than if you’re just seeing a naked werebird? Honestly.” She shook her head.
Though it wasn’t a hallucination. Not with the picture on her phone. Why it was easier to think she was losing her mind than to accept that she had seen something genuinely impossible was something Maeve didn’t understand.
She printed out reference photos for all the impossible birds she hadn’t yet seen, and taped them over the walls.
In the beginning, when the curse’s claws still bled him, and Sweeney had nothing to recall him to himself or his humanity, he would fly after Eorann, who had been his wife, before he was a bird. She was the star to his wanderings.
Eorann had loved Sweeney, and so she had tried, at the beginning, to break the curse. Unspeaking, she wove garments from nettles and cast them over Sweeney like nets, in the hopes that pain and silence spun together might force a bird back into a man’s shape. Even had one perfect wing lingered as a reminder of his past and his errors, it would have been change enough. More, it would have been stasis, a respite from the constant and unpredictable change that, Sweeney discovered, was the curse’s true black heart.
When that did not work, she had shoes made from iron, and walked the length and breadth of Ireland in an attempt to wear them out. But she was already east of the sun and west of the moon, the true north of her compass set to once upon a time. Such places are not given to the wearing out of iron shoes.
Eorann spun straw into gold, then spun the gold into thread that flexed and could be woven into a dress more beautiful than the sun, the moon, and the stars. She uncurdled milk, and raised from the dead a cow that gave it constantly, without needing food nor drink of its own. If there were a miracle, a marvel, or a minor wonder that Eorann could perform in the hopes of breaking Sweeney’s curse, she did so.
Until the day she didn’t.
“A wife’s role may be many things, Sweeney. But it is not a wife’s job to break a husband’s curse, not when he is the one who has armoured himself in it.”
Those were the last words that Eorann had spoken to him. From the distance of time, Sweeney could admit now that she was right. Still, from the height of the unfeeling sky, he wished that she had been the saving of him.
“Well, they’re different. That’s certain,” Brian said, walking between the canvases.
“If different means crap, just say so. I’m too tired to parse euphemisms.”
Maeve only had one completed canvas -—the man transforming into a bird. But she had complete studies of two others—- a phoenix rising out of the flame of a burning skyline, and a harpy hovering protectively over a woman.
“They’re darker than your usual thing, but powerful.” Brian stepped back, walked back and forth in front of the canvas.
“They’re good. I’ve a couple galleries in mind—- I’ll start making calls.
“You’ll come to the opening, of course.”
“No,” Maeve said. “Absolutely not. Nonnegotiable.”
“Look, the reclusive artist thing was fine when you were starting out, because you didn’t matter enough for people to care about you. But we can charge real money for these. People who pay real money for their art aren’t just buying a decoration for their wall, they’re buying the story that goes with it.”
Maeve was pretty sure no one wanted to buy the story of the artist who had a panic attack at her own opening. No, scratch that. She was absolutely sure someone would want to buy that story. She just didn’t want to sell her paintings badly enough to give it to them.
“Well, then how about the story is I am a recluse. A crazy bird lady instead of a crazy cat lady. I live with the chickens. Whatever you need to say. But I don’t interact with the people buying my work, and I don’t go to openings.”
“You’re lucky I’m good at my job, Maeve.”
“I’m good at mine, too.”
Brian sighed. “Of course you are. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. But I don’t understand why you don’t just buy yourself a pretty dress, and have fun letting rich people buy you drinks and tell you how wonderful you are.
“Let yourself celebrate a little. It’s the fun part of the job, Maeve.”
It wasn’t, not for her. Of course, Brian wouldn’t understand that. Maeve worked too hard to keep her panic attacks hidden. She had an entire portfolio of tricks to keep them manageable, and out of view.
Out of the apartment was fine, as long as she didn’t have to interact with too many people. Crowds were okay as long as she had someone she knew with her, and she didn’t have to interact with the people she didn’t know. When she had to meet new people, she did so in familiar surroundings, either one on one, or in a group of people she already knew and felt comfortable with. Even then, she usually needed a day at home, undisturbed, after, in order to rest and regain her equilibrium.
A party where everyone would be strangers who wanted to pay attention to her, who wanted her to interact with them, with no safety net of friends that she could fall onto, was impossible.
Even after Eorann had told Sweeney that she could not save him, it took him some time to realize that he would need to be the saving of himself. More time still, an infinity of church bells, of molting feathers, to understand that saving himself did not necessarily include lifting the curse.
In search of himself, of answers, of peace, long and long ago, Sweeney had undertaken a quest.
A quest is a cruel migration. This is the essence of a quest, no matter who undertakes it. But Sweeney had not known what to look for, save for the longing to see something other than what he was.
The Sangréal had been found once already, and though lost again, it was the kind of thing where the first finding mattered. The dragons were all in hiding, and Sweeney had never particularly thought they needed to be slain.
Nor had he known the map with which to travel by, save for one that would take him to a place other than where he was. He took wing. Over sea and under stone and then over the sea to sky.
Maeve saw the bird at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine again.
Cathedrals, churches, museums, libraries, they were useful sorts of places for her. When the walls of her apartment pressed too tightly, these were places she could go, and sit, and think, and not have to worry about people insisting that she interact with them in order to justify her presence.
“I came here for peace and quiet, you know. Not because I’m hoping to catch a glimpse of you naked.”
The bird did not seem to have an opinion on that.
When she sat, Maeve specifically chose a bench that did not have a line of sight to the bird’s current perch. Not like it couldn’t fly, but it was the principle of the thing. And she really didn’t want to see it become a naked man again.
Stories about artistic inspiration that came to life and then interacted with the artist were only interesting if they were stories. When they were your life, they were weird.
The bird landed next to her on the bench.
Maeve looked at her bird, at her sketchbook, and back at the bird.
“Fine. Fine. But do not turn into a man. Not in front of me. Just don’t. If you think you’re going to, leave. Please.” She tore off a chunk of her croissant and set it on the bird’s side of the bench. “Okay?”
Maeve was relieved when the bird did not answer.
There was a package from Brian waiting for her when she got home. The card read, “For the crazy bird lady.”
Inside was a beautiful paper bird. A crane, but not the expected origami. Paper made sculpture, not folded. Feathers and wings and beak all shaped from individual pieces of brightly colored paper. It was a gorgeous fantasy of practicality and feathers.
Maeve tucked it on a shelf, where she could see it while she painted.
He hadn’t answered her today, the red-haired painter.
Sweeney could speak in bird form -—he was still a man, even when feather-clad -—but he had learned, finally, the value of silence.
This had not always been so. It had been speaking that had first called his curse down upon him.
He had called out an insult to Ronan. Said something he should not have, kept speaking when he should have driven a nail through his tongue to hold his silence.
Ronan had spoken then, too. Spoken a word that burnt the sky, and shifted the bones of the earth. A curse, raw and dire. That was the first time the madness fell upon Sweeney. The madness, and the breaking of himself into the too-light bones that made up a bird’s wing.
When it came down to it, it was pride that cursed Sweeney into his feathers as sure as pride had melted Icarus out of his. Pride, and a too-quick temper, faults that dwelt in any number of people without changing their lives and their shapes, without sending them on a path of constant migration centered on a reminder of error.
Curses didn’t much care that there were other people they could have landed on, just as comfortably. They fell where they would, then watched the aftermath unfold.
Some days were good days, days when Maeve could walk through her life and not be aware of any of the adjustments she performed to make it livable.
Tuesday was not one of those days.
She had taken the subway, something she did only rarely, preferring to walk. But a sudden hailstorm had driven her underground, and sent what seemed like half of the city after her.
Maeve got off at the second stop, not even sure what street it was. Her pulse had been racing so fast that her vision had gone grey and narrow. If she hadn’t gotten out, away from all those people she would have collapsed.
Her notebook, her most recent sketches for her paintings, was left behind on the Uptown 2 train. It had to have been the train where it went missing. She had been sure it was in her bag when she left her apartment, and it was clearly not among the bag’s upended contents now.
Forty-five minutes on the phone with MTA lost and found had done no more than she expected, and reassured her the odds of its return were small.
And though it had smelled fine -—she had checked -—the milk with which she had made the hot chocolate that was supposed to make her feel better had instead made her feel decidedly worse.
The floor of the bathroom was cool against her cheek. Exhausted and sick, Maeve curled in on herself, and fell into tear-streaked sleep.
The bird was in her dream, and that was far from the weirdest thing about it.
The sky shaded to lavender, the clouds like ink splotches thrown across it.
Then a head sailed across the waxing moon.
Sweeney cocked his own head, and shifted on the branch.
Another head described an arc across the sky, a lazy rise and fall.
Sweeney looked around. He could not tell where the heads were launching from, nor could he hear any sounds of distress.
Three more heads, in rapid succession, and Sweeney was certain he was mad again. He wished he were in his human form, so that he might throw back his own head and howl.
Five heads popped up in front of Sweeney, corks popping to the surface of the sea.
Identical, each to each, the world’s strangest set of brothers.
They looked, Sweeney thought, cheerful. Certainly more cheerful than he would be, were he suddenly disconnected from the neck down.
Each head had been neatly severed. Or no. Not severed. They looked as if they were heads that had never had bodies at all. Smiling, clean-shaven, bright-eyed. No dangling veins or spines, no ragged skin. No blood.
Sweeney supposed the fact that the heads were levitating was no more remarkable than the fact that they were not bleeding. Still, it was the latter that seemed truly strange.
“Sweeney,” said the heads.
“Er, hello,” said Sweeney.
“It?” Their faces were the picture of benevolence.
“Indeed it is,” said Sweeney.
As they seemed to be doing that already, Sweeney simply bobbed his head.
“Us?” The heads circled around Sweeney.
He tried to focus, to imagine them with bodies attached. Nothing about them seemed familiar. He could not see past their duplicated strangeness. “Please forgive me, gentlemen, but I don’t.”
“Met.” They slid into line in front of him again, the last one bumping its left-side neighbor, and setting him gently wobbling.
“Can you read the future, then?” It seemed the most likely explanation, though nothing about this encounter was at all likely.
Sweeney appreciated the honesty of the answer almost as much as he appreciated the thoroughness.
“So does life,” said Sweeney.
The heads cracked their jaws so wide, Sweeney wondered if they would swallow themselves. Then they began to laugh, and while laughing, whirled themselves into a small cyclone. Faster and faster it spun, until the heads were nothing but a laughing blur, and then were gone.
Sweeney, contemplative, watched the empty sky until dawn.
Maeve sat up, her head and neck aching from sleeping on the tile, her mouth tasting as if she had licked the subway station she fled from earlier that day.
Legs still feeling more like overcooked noodles than functioning appendages, she staggered into the kitchen, and poured the milk down the sink. It was a largely symbolic sort of gesture, performed only to make her head feel better -—it certainly wouldn’t undo the food poisoning or the resulting fucked up dream, but seeing the milk spiral down the drain was still a relief.
Talking heads flying around Central Park and conversing with a bird who was sometimes a man. It was like something out of a Henson movie, except without the good soundtrack.
Becoming involved enough in her work to dream about it was, on balance, a good thing. But there were limits. She was not putting disembodied heads into her paintings.
Maeve painted a tower, set into the Manhattan skyline. A wizard’s tower, dire and ancient, full of spirals and spires, held together with spells and impossibility.
She hung the surrounding sky with firebirds, contrails of flame streaking the clouds.
Dawn came, but it was neither rebirth nor respite. Sweeney was still befeathered. He turned to the glow of the rising sun, and the tower that appeared there, as if painted on the sky.
Every wizard had a tower, even in twenty-first century New York. It was the expected, required thing, and magic had rules and bindings more powerful than aught else. It had to, made as it was out of words and will and belief. Certain things had to be true or the magic crumbled to dust and nothingness.
Sweeney cracked open his beak, and tore at the promise-crammed air.
A wizard’s tower is protected by many things, but the most puissant are the wizard’s own words of power. Even after they have cast their spells and done their work, the words of a wizard retain tracings of magic. Their echoes continue to cast and recast the spells, for as long as sound travels.
The words do not hang idle in the air. Power recognizes power, and old spells linger together like former lovers. Though the connections are no longer as bright as the crackle and spark of that first magic, they can never be entirely erased. They gather, each to each, and in their greetings, new magics are made.
Ronan had been a wizard for centuries now, perhaps millennia. A few very important years longer than Sweeney had been a bird.
He had fled Ireland in the coffin ships, with the rest of the decimated, starving population. His magic, the curse’s binding, had pulled Sweeney along in his wake.
In the years since his arrival, magic had wrapped itself around Ronan’s tower like fairy tale thorns, a threat, a protection, and a guarantee of solitude. A locus of power that sang, siren-like, to Sweeney, though he knew it was never what he sought.
Sweeney flew around the tower three times, then three, then three again, in the direction of unraveling. The curse, as it always had, remained.
“How many paintings do you have finished?”
“How long will it take you to do, say, five or maybe seven more?”
“Drowned Meadow will give you gallery space, but I think these new pieces are strong enough you’d be better served if you had enough finished work to fill the gallery, rather than being part of a group showing.”
“When would I need them finished by?”
Brian’s answer made her wince, and mourn, once again, the loss of the sketchbook, and the studies it contained. Still.
“It’s a good space. I’ll get the pieces done.”
“Excellent. I’ll email you the contracts.”
“Wait, that’s what the naked bird guy looks like?” Emilia stood in front of the first painting in the series, the man transforming into a bird. “No wonder you keep seeing him around the city. He’s hot.”
“He’s usually a bird.”
“Still, yum. And is that drawn to scale?”
Maeve snorted. “Fine. The next time I see him, if he’s being a person, I’ll give him your number.”
Emilia laughed, but she looked sideways at Maeve while she did. “So, are you seeing all of the things from your paintings?”
Emilia had moved to the newest painting in the series, a cockatrice among the tents at Bryant Park’s Fashion Week, models turned to statues under its gaze.
“Do you think I would be here with you, discussing the attractiveness of a werebird, after having consumed far too much Ethiopian food, if I had really encountered a bird that can turn people to stone just by looking at them?”
Maeve looked at Emilia again. “Or no. It’s not actually that you think that. You’re just doing the sanity check.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy. But you know you don’t always take care of yourself before a show. And this one did start with you thinking that you saw a bird turn into a naked guy.”
“Which, I admit, sounds odd. But you don’t need to worry that I’ve started the New York Chapter of the Phoenix Watching Club.”
“That sounds very Harry Potter. You haven’t seen any wizards wandering around the city, have you? I mean, other than the guys who like to get out their wands on the subway.” Emilia twisted her face into an expression of repulsed boredom.
“And you wonder why I don’t like to leave the house.”
There were wizards in New York City, nearly everywhere. War mages, who changed history over games of speed chess. Chronomancers who stole seconds from the subway trains. And the city built on dreams was rife with onieromancers channeling desires between sleep and waking.
Even the wizard who had set the curse on Sweeney looked out over the speed and traffic of the city as he spoke his spells, shiftings and transformations, covering one thing in some other’s borrowed skin, whether they will or no.
But though Ronan was here, and had been, he was not the direction to which Sweeney looked to break his curse. Wizards did not, under any but the most extreme circumstances, undo their own magic. Magic, magic that is practiced and cast, is at odds with entropy. Not only does it reshape order out oif chaos, but it wrenches the rules for order sideways. It rewrites the laws, so that a man might be shifted to a bird, and back again, no matter how physics wails.
To make such a thing happen, though it might seem the work of an incantation and an arcane gesture, is the marriage of effort and will. And will, once wielded in such fashion, is not lightly undone.
But just because the wizard would not lift his curse did not mean that the spell might never be broken.
It just meant it would require a magic stronger than wizardry to break it.
Maeve’s apartment was full of birds. Photographs papered the walls, layered over each other in collage, Escheresque spirals of wings that had never flown together fell in cascading recursive loops of impossible birds.
The statue from Brian was a carnival fantasy among articulated skeletons in shadowboxes, shivered bones set at precise angles of flight.
Her own bones ached as if wings mantled beneath the surface of her skin and longed to burst forth from her back.
The canvas before her was enormous, six feet in height and half again as wide, the largest she had ever painted. On it, a murmuration of starlings arced and turned across a storm-tossed sky.
Among the starlings were other birds. Bird of vengeance, storm-called, and storm-conjuring. The Erinyes.
The Kindly Ones.
More terrible than lightning, they harried the New York skyline.
Cramps spasmed Maeve’s hands around her brushes, and her eyes burned, but still she layered color onto the canvas.
It was a kind of madness, she thought, the way it felt to finish a painting. The muscle-memory knowledge of exactly where the brush strokes went, even though this was nothing she had painted before. The fizzing feeling at the top of her head that told her what she was painting was right, was true. The adrenaline that flooded her until she couldn’t sit, or sleep, or eat until it was finished.
Madness, surely. But a madness of wings, and of glory.
The skies of New York had grown stranger. Sweeney was used to the occasional airborne mystery. It wasn’t as if he had ever thought himself the only sometimes-bird on the wing.
But a flock of firebirds had taken up residence in Central Park, and an exaltation of larks had begun exalting in Mandarin in the bell tower of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
He thought he had seen the phoenix, but perhaps it had only been a particularly gaudy sunset.
Magic all unasked for, and stuck about with feathers.
Though perhaps not magic unconjured.
Sweeney paged through a notebook, not lost on a train but slid from a messenger bag. He had wanted, he supposed, to see how she saw him.
Of course, he was in none of the sketches.
But its pages crawled with magic. It was rife in the shadows and shadings and lines of the sketches. Sweeney didn’t know if it was wizardry or not, what he was looking at, but there was power in her drawings.
Perhaps enough power to unmake a curse.
“You’re sure I can’t convince you to come to the opening?” Brian asked. “Because I think people are really going to want to talk to you about these paintings, and Maeve, do not say ‘“my art speaks for itself”’.”
“You have to admit, you pretty much asked me to.”
“They’ll sell better if I’m not there.”
“What would make you think that?”
Because if I’m there, I’ll spend the entire evening locked in the bathroom, occasionally vomiting from panic, she thought. “Because if I’m not there, you can spin me as mysterious. Or better yet, perfect. Tell them what they want to hear without the risk that I’ll show up with paint still in my hair.”
“I have never once seen you with paint in your hair. And even if I had, artists are supposed to be absent-minded and eccentric. It’s part of your charm.”
“You told me I wasn’t allowed to be absent-minded and eccentric anymore, remember? Not in this gallery. Not at these prices.”
“I suppose I did. Still, this is your night, Maeve. If you want to be here, even if there is paint in your hair, you should come.”
“I can assure you, Brian, I won’t want to.”
Sweeney could, if he concentrated enough, prevent the shift in form from man to bird from happening. Usually, he didn’t bother -—the change came when it would, and after all of these years, he had made peace with his spontaneous wings.
But he wanted to see the paintings. To see, captured in pigment and brushstroke the birds that Maeve had made a space for in New York’s skies.
He wanted to see her, just once, in the guise and costume of a normal man.
More, he wanted to see if the magic that crackled across the pages of her notebook was in the paintings as well, to see if she could paint him free. A request that might allow him to once again be a normal man, instead of what he was: a creature cursed into loneliness and the wrong skin, whose only consolation was the further loneliness of flight.
Sweeney’s difficulty was that while he could, by force of will, hold himself in human form, it let the madness push further into his consciousness. The longer he fought the transformation, the more he struggled to be shaped like a man, they less he thought like one.
Sweeney slid on his jacket. He checked to make sure his buttons matched, his fly was up, and his shoes were from the same pair. He hailed a cab, and hoped for the best.
On the night of the opening, Maeve was not at the gallery. She had been there earlier in the day to double-check the way the paintings had been hung, to see to all the last minute details, and to tell Brian, one more time, that she was absolutely not coming to the opening.
“Fine. Then at least put on a nice dress at home and have some champagne with a friend so I don’t get depressed thinking about you.”
“If that’s what will make you happy, of course I will,” she lied, offering a big smile, and accepting Brian’s hug.
As the show opened, Maeve was wearing a t-shirt with holes in it, and eating soup dumplings. Which she toasted with a glass of the very fine champagne that Brian had sent over. Emilia had texted from the gallery that the “paintings are your best thing ever. So proud of you!” Comfort and celebration and a friend, even if far from what Brian imagined.
Strange to think that this show, which Brian thought could be big enough to change her career, began with seeing a bird turn into a naked man. Which was certainly the one story she could never tell when asked what inspired her work.
She hadn’t seen the bird for a while now. Or, thankfully, the naked man. Some parts of the strangeness of the city were better left unexplained.
Too many answers killed the magic, and Maeve wanted the magic. Its possibilities were what made up for the discomfort and worry of every day life.
The lights were too bright and there were too many people. Sweeney bit the insides of his cheeks and walked through the gallery as if its floor were shattering glass.
The paintings. He thought they were beautiful, probably, or that they would be if he could ever stand still long enough to really look at them, to see them as more than blurs as he circled the gallery. He felt too hot, his skin ill-fitting, his heart racing like a bird’s.
Sweeney clenched his fists, digging his nails into his palms, and forced his breath in and out until it steadied.
Almost comfortably human.
Sweeney walked the room slowly this time, giving himself space to step back and look at the canvases.
Feathers itched and crawled beneath his skin.
And there he was.
The still point at the center of the painting, and feathers were bursting from his skin there, too, but there, it didn’t look like madness, it looked like transcendence.
Sweeney heaved in a breath.
“It does have that effect on people.”
Sweeney glanced at the man standing next to him, the man who hadn’t seemed to realize it was Sweeney in the painting hanging before them.
“Are you familiar with Maeve’s work? Maeve Collins, the artist, I mean,” Brian said.
“Ah. A bit. Only recently. Is she here tonight?”
“Not yet, though I hope she’ll make an appearance later. But if you’re interested in the piece, I’d be happy to assist you with it.”
“If I buy it, can I meet her?”
“I can understand why you’d make the request, but that’s not the usual way art sales work.”
And now the man standing next to him did step back and look at Sweeney. “Wait. Wait. You’re the model for the painting. Oh, this is fantastic.”
Feathers. Feathers unfurling in his blood.
“But of course you’d know Maeve already then.”
“I don’t.” Sweeney braceleted his wrist, his left wrist, downed with white feathers, with his right hand. “But I think I need to.”
He unwrapped his fingers, and extended his feathered hand to the man in the gallery, beneath the painting that was and wasn’t him.
Brian looked down at the feathers. “I’ll call her.”
“I don’t care how good the party is, Brian, I’m not coming.”
“Your model is here, and he would like to meet you.”
“How many vodka tonics have you had? That doesn’t even make sense. I didn’t use any models in this series.”
“Not even the guy with feathers coming out of his skin? Because he’s standing right in front of the painting, and it certainly looks like him, not to mention this thing where I’m watching him grow feathers on his arms, and what the fuck is going on here, Maeve?”
“What did you say?” The flesh on her arms rose up in goose bumps.
“You heard me. You need to get here.
Maeve took a cab, and went in through the service entrance, where she had loaded the paintings earlier that week.
“Brian, what is -—you!”
“Yes,” Sweeney said, and in an explosion of feathers and collapsing clothes, turned into a bird.
Maeve sat with the bird while the celebration trickled out of the gallery. She had gathered up the clothes he had been wearing, and folded them into precise piles, stuffing his socks in to the toes of the shoes, spinning the belt into a coil.
At one point, Brian had brought back a mostly empty bottle of vodka, filched from the bar. Maeve took a swig, and thought of taking another before deciding that some degree of sobriety was in order to counterbalance the oddity of the night.
The bird didn’t seem interested in drinking either.
Maeve dropped her head into her hands, and scraped her hair back into a knot. When she sat up again, Sweeney was pulling on his pants.
“I am sorry about before. Stress makes me less capable of interacting with people.”
Maeve laughed under her breath. “I can relate.”
Brian walked back. “Oh, good. You’re, ah, dressed again. Have you two figured out what’s going on?”
“I am under a curse,” Sweeney said. “And I think Maeve can paint me free of it. There is some kind of power in her work, something that I would call magic. I’d like to commission a painting from her to see if this is possible.”
“That’s—- “” Maeve bit down hard on the next word.
“Mad? Impossible?” Sweeney met her eyes. “So am I.”
“I’m not magic,” Maeve said.
“That may be. After all this time and change, I am not a bird, though I sometimes have the shape of one. Magic reshapes truth.”
Maeve could see the bird in the lines of the man, in the way he held his weight, in the shape of the almost-wings the air made space for.
She could see the impossibility, too, of wthat was asked.
“Please,” said Sweeney. “Try.”
“I’ll need you,” Maeve said, “to pose for me.”
“This has got to be the weirdest contract I have ever negotiated.”
“Brian. You negotiated with a guy who had been a bird for a significant part of the evening. Even if it had been straight up sign here boilerplate, it still would have been the weirdest contract you ever negotiated.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t ask for a deadline.” Maeve picked up one of the white feathers from the floor, ran it through her fingers. “Some way of marking whether this will work or not, rather than just waiting to find out.”
“You say whether like you genuinely believe it’s a possibility, Maeve.
“And yes, this has been a night of strangeness, but magic is not what happens at the end. The way this ends is that you’re going to wind up painting a very nice picture for a guy who is, I don’t know how, sometimes a bird, and he is still going to be sometimes a bird after it is signed and framed, and once it is, we will never speak of this again because it is just too weird.
“You’re good, Maeve. But you’re not a magician. So stop worrying about whether there’s magic in your painting, because there isn’t.”
“You said people don’t buy paintings just because of what’s on the canvas, they buy the story they think the painting tells,” Maeve said.
“Sweeney bought a story where magic might be what happens at the end. He’s bought that hope.
“And that much, I can paint.”
Maeve took a sketchbook and went back to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It seemed like the right place to start, even if she didn’t put the church itself into her painting. Full circle, somehow, to try and end the transformation in the same place she had first witnessed it.
Spring had come early, the buds on the trees beginning to limn the branches with a haze of green. The crocuses unfurled their purples in among the feet of the trees, and an occasional bold daffodil waved yellow.
And this was transformation, too, Maeve thought. More regular, less astonishing than a man suddenly enfeathered, but change all the same.
Maeve sat beneath a branch of birdsong, and cleared her mind of the magic she had been asked to make. If the bird -—if Sweeney was correct, it would be there anyway.
She opened her sketchbook, and began to draw.
Sweeney walked the streets of his city. It wasn’t often that he wandered on foot, preferring to save his peregrinations for when he wore wings. But tonight, he did not want to be above the grease and char scents of food cooking on sidewalk carts, of the crunch of shattered glass beneath his shoes.
He wanted the pulse and the press of people he had never quite felt home among. They would be his home, if Maeve succeeded. Perhaps then he would feel as if he belonged.
He should have, perhaps, spent his night on the wing, the flight a fragment to shore against the ruin of his days once he could no longer fly. He would miss, every day of his life he would miss the sensation of the air as his feathers cut through it. But he would have a life.
Sweeney bought truly execrable coffee in an “I love NY” cup, because at that moment, with every fiber of his being, Sweeney did.
“Can I ask,” Maeve hesitated.
“How this happened,” Sweeney said.
She looked up from her sketchbook. “Well, yes. I don’t want to be rude, or ask you to talk about something that’s hurtful, but maybe I’ll know better how to paint you out of being a bird if I know how you became one in the first place.”
“It was a curse.”
“I thought that was the kind of thing that only happened in fairy tales.”
Sweeney shrugged, then apologized.
“That’s fine. I don’t need you to hold the pose.
“And I’ll stop interrupting.” Maeve bent back to her sketchbook.
“It is like something from a fairy tale. I was angry. I spoke and acted without thought, and, in the way of these things, it was a wizard I insulted. He cursed me for what I had done.
“For over a thousand years since, this has been my life.”
“I’m sorry. Even if it was your fault, over a thousand years of vengeance seems cruel.”
Tension rippled over Sweeney’s skin. He shrank in on himself, fingers curling to claws.
“What is it?”
Sweeney extended his arm. Feathers downed its underside. “I had hoped this wouldn’t happen.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Only in my pride. Which was the point of the thing, after all.” He schooled his breathing, and Maeve watched him relax, muscle by muscle. Except for a patch near his wrist, the feathers fell from Sweeney’s skin.
“May I?” Maeve asked.
Maeve stroked her hand over the feathers, feeling the softness, and the heat of Sweeney’s skin beneath. Heart racing like a bird’s she stepped closer and kissed him.
A beat passed, and then another.
Sweeney’s hand fisted in her hair, and he shuddered a breath into her mouth. She struggled out of her clothes, not wanting to break the kiss, or the contact.
Feathers alternated with skin under Maeve’s hands, and Sweeney traced the outlines of her shoulder blades as if she, too, had wings.
As they moved together, Sweeney was neither feathered nor mad. Maeve did not feel the panic of a body too close, only the joy of a body exactly close enough.
White feathers blanketed the floor beneath them.
Maeve looked at Sweeney. “I don’t think the painting is going to work.”
“Why?” He tucked her hair behind her ear.
“I mean, I think it will be a good painting. But I don’t think it will be magic.”
“I’m no worse than I am now if it isn’t. All I ask is for a good painting, Maeve. Anything beyond that would be,” he smiled, “magic.”
The parcel arrived in Wednesday’s post. Inside, the sketchbook Maeve had lost. In the front cover, a scrawled note: “Forgive me my temporary theft. It’s long past time that I returned this. -—S.” There was also a white feather.
She flipped through the pages and wondered what Sweeney had seen that convinced him her art was magic, the kind of magic that could help him. Whatever that thing had been, she couldn’t see it.
Maeve kept the feather, but she slid the notebook into a fresh envelope to return it to Sweeney. Even if she couldn’t give him freedom, she could give him this.
That done, Maeve took down all of the reference photos of mystical, fantastic birds that she had printed out and hung on her walls while painting the show for the gallery. She closed the covers of the bestiaries, and slid feathers into glassine envelopes, making bright kaleidoscopes of fallen flight.
She packed away the shadow boxes, the skeletons, the figurines, reshelved the fairy tales.
The return of the sketchbook had reminded her of one thing. If there were any magic she could claim, it was hers, pencil on a page, pigment on canvas. It came from her, not from anywhere else.
The only birds Maeve left in sight were a white feather, a photo she had downloaded from her phone of a naked man perched in a tree, and the sketches she had made of Sweeney. Finally, she hung the recent sketches from the Cathedral. She would have to go back there, she thought, before this was finished, but not yet. Not until the end.
At first, Sweeney thought it was the madness come upon him again. His skin itched as if there were feathers beneath it, but they were feathers he could neither see nor coax out of his crawling skin.
His bones ground against each other, too light, the wrong shape, shivering, untrustworthy. Not quite a man, not wholly a bird and uncertain what he was supposed to be.
The soar of flight tipped over the edge into vertigo, and he landed with an abrading slap of his hands against sidewalk.
And then he knew.
Maeve was painting. Painting his own, and perhaps ultimate, transformation.
Dizzy, he ran to where he had first seen her, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Maeve hated painting in public. Hated it. People stood too close, asked grating questions, offered opinions that were neither solicited nor useful, and offered them in voices that were altogether too loud.
The quiet space in her head that painting normally gave here became the pressure of voices, the pinprick texture of other people’s eyes on her skin.
She hated it, but this was the place she had to paint, to finish Sweeney’s commission here at the Cathedral. The end was the beginning.
On the canvas: the shadow of Sweeney rising to meet him, a man-shape greyed and subtle behind a bird. Sweeney, feathers raining around him as he burst from bird to man. A white bird, spiraling in flight, haunting the broken tower of the cathedral, a quiet and stormy ruin.
The skies behind Maeve filled with all manner of impossible birds. On the cathedral lawn, women played chess, and when one put the other in check, a man in a far away place stood up from a nearly negotiated peace.
Behind Maeve, Sweeney gasped, stumbled, fell. And still, she painted.
This time, it felt like magic.
The pain was immense. Sweeney could not speak, could not think, could barely breathe as he was unmade. Maeve was not breaking his curse, she was painting a reality apart from it.
Feathers exploded from beneath his skin, roiling over his body in waves, and disappearing again.
He looked up at the canvas, watched Maeve paint, watched the trails of magic in her brush strokes. In the trees were three birds with the faces and torsos of women, sirens to sing a man to his fate.
The church bells rang out, a sacred clarion, a calling of time, and Sweeney knew how this would end.
It was not what he had anticipated, but magic so rarely was.
Maeve set her brush down, and shook the circulation back into her hands. A white bird streaked low across her vision, and perched in front of one of the clerestory windows.
She turned, and Sweeney the man lay on the ground behind her. “Oh, no. This isn’t what I wanted.”
She sat next to him, took his hand. “What can I do?”
“Just sit with me, please.”
“Did you know this would happen, when you commissioned the painting?”
“I considered the possibility. I had to. Without the magic binding me into one spell or the next, the truth is I have lived a very long time, and I knew that death might well be my next migration.”
Sweeney’s next words were quieter, as if he was remembering them. “No one chooses his quest. It is chosen for him.”
Sweeney closed his eyes. “This is just another kind of flight.”
Maeve hung the finished painting on her wall. Outside, just beyond the open window, perched a white bird.