Leave it to Elizabeth Bear to take a monster tale and break my heart–dark fantasy, indeed. A girl on the verge of adulthood has been told her entire life, she is going to die–maybe not in words, but in actions. Consciously or not, she is held at arm’s length. And from this, her self-worth is determined.
Desiree’s birth mother died of AIDS, as she was then supposed to. But antivirals got better and she persevered, albeit with disfiguring side effects that make her less than attractive. Her kindly foster mother, Mama Alice never bothered to adopt the child that was supposed to not survive.
Desiree lives a lonely life, with the exception of her daily visits with the harpy she sees and converses with in the alley behind her building. The harpy is hideous and foul and immortal; and when the light hits her, she glistens a beautiful bronze.
“I’m dying,” I yell, just as [the harpy] starts the downstroke. I’d never told anybody. Mama Alice had to tell me, when I was five, but I never told anybody.
The harpy rocks forward, beats its wings hard, and settles back on the railing. It cranks its head around on its twisty neck to stare at me.
“I have HIV,” I say. I press my glove against the scar under my coat where I used to have a G-tube. When I was little.
The harpy nods and turns away again. The harpy says, I know.
It should surprise me that the harpy knows, but it doesn’t. Harpies know things. Now that I think about it, I wonder if the harpy only loves me because I’m garbage. If it only wants me because my blood is poison.
This tale of loneliness slices deep and true. From the horrible yet realistic circumstances of Desiree to her possibly fantasized interactions with the mythic beast. Few bother to relate to Desiree, but through the harpy, she understands truth.
“Mama Alice would say that God never gives us any burdens we can’t carry.”
The harpy says, Does she look you in the eye when she says that?
This story was included in the anthology The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2010 edited by Paula Guran. I’ve previously read and reviewed a few other of Bear’s short stories. They are consistently very good:
“The Hand is Quicker–“–4 stars
“Madam Damnable’s Sewing Circle”–4 stars
[w/ Sarah Monette]–“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward“–4 stars
[Check out my other reviews here.]