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Bird of Paradise

Story by Alexander Lumans (Read author interview) June 15, 2015

Art by Alexander C. Kafka

After the Kravian flu laid waste to the suburbs of Denver in only a matter of weeks, we go to work. I—an undertaker born of a family of undertakers descended from griffins who guarded the mysteries of life and death—dutifully consume the dead all over the city. Yet, because we’ve arrived on the tails of the plague, as in the days of yellow fever, we must be its source as well as its mode. People will wring our necks to cleanse the land—when, in fact, that is what we do: me, my mate, my young, all us brothers. We make Edens of mass graves. I enjoy the slick taste of dead things. Boar, antelope, human. The more rotten, the better. Instinct cannot be denied, my father told me, only honed. Yet when crowds see us circling over City Park’s heaps of dead, they prime their ballistas and makeshift trebuchets and long bows. It is inevitable. I am chased away by boys with chlorine bombs and women with tomahawks. The boys yell, “Carrier! That Which Snatches!” The women yell, “Back to Hell with you, Harbinger!” They give me little chance to demonstrate that Hell is already around them. Et in Arcadia Ego. They do not consider art, history, the sciences. See that I am the Pharaoh’s Hen. How alchemists call me the sole bridge between volatile life and the fixed cosmos. Did any other bird volunteer to touch the sun when it was too close to earth? Did they push it away? Did they burn off their once-heralded mantle of feathers? No, Cathartes aura did, with only our boiled heads to show. I once had a mate who told me these encouragements before every flight; an arrowshaft that missed me brought her down in a playground. That day, I returned home to my three, motherless chicks with a crop full of doom. Still, I disgorged the food to my young. I did not have the heart to tell them where I had found the meal, or why their mother had disappeared. I wonder for how long will I have the strength to face criticism and rocks? It’s everywhere I turn. I am cursed. But messengers and cenobites are nothing if not patient. Only it is difficult to teach my young perseverance when there is no ground to gain, nothing to change. One morning a pair of twins winged me with a sling and a crystal ball; I was trying to turn my chicks into fledglings with both flying lessons and stories of our heritage. Instead of fleeing, I stood and felt my patience burn away. I turned on the twins, who ran. I caught one of them and there in that back alley I taught my young how best to tear flesh from bone. If no one will believe that we are the purifiers, not carriers, of disease—if I cannot prove that I am good, then I must be the other.


Notes from Guest Reader Cynthia Reeves

I’m not even sure how I’d categorize this story: magic realist? fantasy? modern fairy tale? Beyond all these wonderful aspects, the story develops multiple threads of meaning as a metaphor for certain disturbing aspects of contemporary life—especially the way in which marginalization can lead to violence.

About the Author

Alexander Lumans was the Spring 2014 Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University. His fiction has been published in Story Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Cincinnati Review, Blackbird, and The Normal School, among other magazines. He received the 2013 Gulf Coast Fiction Prize, 3rd place in the 2012 Story Quarterly Fiction Contest, and the 2011 Barry Hannah Fiction Prize from The Yalobusha Review. He has received scholarships to Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and RopeWalk Writers’ Conferences. And he has been awarded fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, VCCA, Blue Mountain Center, ART342, Norton Island, and The Arctic Circle Residency. He graduated from the M.F.A. Fiction Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

About the Artist

Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist, photographer, and composer in Bethesda, Maryland. He created the cover image for Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems by Diann Blakely (Salmon Poetry, 2017). His work has also been published at All Things Fashion DC, BuzzFeed, Fast Company, Juked, Vice, The Washington Post, The Writing Disorder, and many other periodicals. He has been on the documentation team for the Washington Folk Festival at Glen Echo and is a contributing concert photographer for DMNDR. Kafka studied fine-art figure photography with Missy Loewe at the Washington School of Photography and portrait photography with Sora DeVore at Glen Echo Photoworks.

This story appeared in Issue Forty-Eight of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Forty-Eight

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