by Elizabeth Hand
She left him in the hotel
asleep, curled in bed with his fist against his mouth, face taut
as though something bit at him. Cigarette ash on the carpet,
laptop’s eye pulsing green then fading into darkness. Outside
on the sidewalk, shards of broken glass. The night before the
streets had chimed with the sound of bottles shattering,
laughter, men shouting. Women stumbled along the curb, boys
pissed on storefronts.
This morning, nothing. The broken glass was gone. There were few
cars, no other people. The sky was gray and rainlashed, clouds
whipped by wind so strong it tore the beret from her head. She
stumbled into the street to retrieve it then stood, gazing at a
rent in the sky that glowed brighter than the sea glimpsed a few
blocks to the north, between blocks of apartments and
construction equipment. Overhead a phalanx of swans hung nearly
motionless, beaten by the gale. With a sound like creaking
doors they swooped down. She saw their legs, blackened twigs
caught in a flurry of white and downy grey, before as one they
veered toward the ocean.
She headed east, to the outskirts of the city.
The streets were narrow, cobblestone; the low buildings a jumble
of Art Deco, modernist boxes, brick spidered with graffiti in a
language she couldn’t decipher. In the windows of posh clothing
designers, rows of faceless mannequins in hooded black woolens,
ramrod straight, shoulders squared as though facing the firing
squad. No dogs, no cats. The air had no scent, not the
sulfurous stink of the hotel shower, not even diesel exhaust.
Now and then she caught the hot reek of burning grease from a
shuttered restaurant. There were no trees. As she approached
the central intersection the gale picked up and rain raced
through the street, a nearly horizontal band that filled the
gutters to overflowing. She darted up three steps to stand
beneath an awning, watched as the cobbles disappeared beneath
water that gleamed like mercury then ebbed as the rain moved on.
In another half-hour she reached the city’s edge. Beyond the
highway, a broad manmade declivity held a stadium, scattered
concrete outbuildings, a cluster of leafless trees. She stood
for a few minutes, watching SUVs barrel past; then crossed the
street and started back to the hotel.
She had gone only a few blocks when the wind carried to her a
sweet, musky smell, like incense. She halted, turned her face
toward the sea and saw set back from a row of houses a tangle of
overgrown hedges, their formless bulk broken by a dozen or so
trees. Frowning, she tugged at the collar of her pea coat, then
walked towards them. In the distance she could see the frozen
lava fields that ringed the city, an endless waste of ragged
black like shattered tarmac, crusted with lichen and pallid
moss. Here, sidewalk and cobblestones gave way to sodden turf
ringed by skeletal bushes thick with plastic bags, crumpled
newsprint; spotted, diseased-looking leaves that rattled in the
Yet despite the coming winter, the trees—birches—had shafts of
pliant green growth at their tips. It was these she had
smelled, and as she drew nearer their scent grew so strong she
could taste it at the back of her throat, as though she’d
inhaled pollen. She coughed, wiping her eyes, looked down and
saw something in a tufted yellow patch at the base of one tree.
A dead bird, a bit larger than her hand and lying on its side,
head bent toward its breast so it formed a pied comma, roan and
beryl-green. She crouched to look at it more closely.
Her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth, the taste of pollen
froze into copper, saltwater. She picked up a twig and
tentatively poked the small form, instinctively recoiled though
its sole motion was in response to her prodding. Its skin
jeweled with scales that gleamed palest green in the light, tiny
withered arms folded like a bat’s wings against the russet
hollow where its chest had been eaten away by insects or
rodents. Its face sunken, eyes tightly shut and jaws parted to
bare a ridge of minute teeth and a black tongue coiled like a
When she stroked it, strands of long reddish hair caught between
her fingers. Long afterward, her hand smelled at once sweet and
faintly sour, like rotting apples. Where she touched it, her
finger blistered then scarred. It never properly healed.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Hand is
the multiple-award-winning author of numerous books and
short story collections. The trade paperback edition of
her most recent novel, Generation Loss, will be
published in April by Harcourt Harvest.
Poem © 2008 Elizabeth Hand. Photo by