Twilight, Choking on Owl Feathers
by Kendare Blake
Artemis is dead. Torn apart, mud-streaked and mad amongst the trees. She died screaming, purging her lungs of wind until she was empty of pain, filled instead with rage and exhilaration. With purpose and insanity.
Her death is the death that she craved, the death that she chased on four limbs, her nails cleaving into the bark and dirt. The only death that befits a huntress. I’m grateful to have seen it. It came to me as I slept, her end presented in barbaric flashes, her mad laughter and final secrets folded up and smashed into a kaleidoscope of leaves and dirt and blood against my closed eyes.
My icy, inhuman sister, whose irises were as luminous as those of the beasts that she ravaged, as the beasts that licked her seeping wounds, the beasts who lent her their hides, lustrous with grease.
I wake. The moan that might have escaped me is muffled and dusty, impossible to make from a throat filled with owl feathers.
But I am not mourning. My moans, my tears, are the choked rage and defiance of a cornered she-bear, betrayed by her fur coated brethren who circle and snap, and bay their idiocy into the wind. Artemis was not the first. She will not be the last. We have all fallen through the mirrors. What once was immortal will not survive.
I walk the deserted beaches in the heat of the midday sun. I see the bloated corpses of Nereids, once silver and iridescent green that cut through the salt water like jeweled knives. Now they loll upon the shore, the waves licking at their embarrassing decay, pushing their limp forms and robbing them of their last, cracked scales. Such creatures should have disappeared into the deep in a cloud of obsidian ink. I walk closer and peer into an oily, blurry eye. Not a Nereid after all; it is only a fish. So perhaps Poseidon’s daughters have found better deaths.
These days, my days are days spent waiting. Pointlessly wandering, listening to the resolute sound of stopping hearts. If I press my palms to the heated earth, I can hear the whispers of Demeter, like the precarious skitter of dried leaves along stone. She, I think, will be next. Or perhaps not. She has survived in her present state for centuries, stretched across the land like the skin of a drum, tight and paper thin, her mouth pried open in a noiseless yawn, slowly drying out, a horror of brown teeth and halting, quaking breath. There is no richness. There is no substance. No trace of mother remains.
There was a time when she would speak to me. When she would caress my cheek of cold marble flesh and cover me with kisses that tasted of black soil. All winter long she would croak into my ear as she curled her fingers into the trees until they grew stiff, as she froze the ground until it cracked. She would warn me about the other, the abductor, whose touch she said would shrivel me. As if I needed any warnings. As if I could ever be touched. As if I hadn’t seen her blushing, corpse-faced girl many times for myself, a slave to lust, hiding in the shadows of her pomegranate trees, as ripe and dying as the fruit above her head.
But those days are long past.
If I stand before the mirror now I see my own decay in the whispers of shadow under my skin. I see hair; short, purple, punk. I see holes, strung through with metal; nose, nipple, ear. These are the things that I have done to persist. This is what has become of warriors. It is a good thing that shame cannot make a goddess weep.
I am suddenly choking; my breath comes as through a pillow. The quills pierce my throat like so many spears, and I spit feathers into the basin, where my blood blossoms against the porcelain. The only drops of my virgin’s blood ever spilled.
I prick my ears for the sounds Demeter ripping, or for the grunts of AphroditeHera, that bloated beast of cunt and sweat and eyes, conjoined and blistered and worshipped in the yellow sand. I wait for them to swell, to burst, to leak their life away in blood and sour, watery milk. But they are stronger than I, because they were clever and became one out of two, their old differences dulled by centuries of time. Now they are four fat, shining arms. They are three jerking legs. And endless flesh; their beauty, once powerful, has been made monstrous and vulgar. But they are worshipped. And they are strong. The whore and the bitch will outlive me, after all.
I work my tongue against the roof of my mouth and itch. I chew and taste the inside of a birdcage. If I stay here, they will find me, they will dream of me. The feathers will break through and they will see a soft pile of silent white and gray and brown, scattered through with dried skin and sinew, and bits of purple hair. I do not like to be dying. I don’t think that I will like to be dead.
I blink into the mirror, reach up, and poke at my eye, coax out a feather by its quill, small, but there, wet and white and blood-tinged. The sigh that escapes me flutters inside my down-filled lungs. We each go in our own way. Gruesome, sorrowful, and forgotten.
Kendare Blake lives and writes in the United States. She enjoys food of all types and has been known to take late night road trips to KFC in her pajamas with several dogs in the car. Her short fiction can be found in places like The Momaya Press 2007 Annual Review, Tower of Light Fantasy, and Arkham Tales. Her novel, Sleepwalk Society, will be released in July 2010. Recently, she has signed a two-book deal with Tor. ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD, a teen horror novel, is to be released in Summer 2011, with the sequel to follow in 2012. She is also working on a novel-length version of this short story. She can be contacted via her website: www.kendareblake.com
What do you think is the most important part of a fantasy story?
As a reader, I think that the most important part of any story is characterization. Creative interesting and compelling characters. If you can get that, sometimes they don't even have to be doing all that much to be great. But, for the fantasy genre in particular, care must be given to world building. Whether it's through syntax or through vivid description, the reader has to be immersed into a fully dimensional space or your creation. It's a great challenge, and a great thrill of writing, feeling an entirely new place come up around you and swallow you whole.