Up North
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 wind.

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 millipede.  

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 Saperaud 2005.