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.