The guys get a real kick out of the bird. There’s a cougar and a whale and one I think is an armadillo, but it’s the crow they’re all looking at—the way her black feathers shine against the white skin stretched over her collarbones. It’s clear someone put a lot of effort into crafting the masks—their frightening realism—which is funny, because otherwise the girls are entirely nude. They’re strutting and prowling and breaching and scurrying around and it looks like at any second the girls will topple over from the sheer weight of their heads.
Last week all the girls were foxes.
The guys all received massive inheritances, so they throw these bachelor parties every weekend. It’s my turn in the rotation as groom-to-be. This week, I’m the nice guy—that’s why, with all these dozens of bachelors to choose from, the bride picked me. Only there is no bride. Instead there’s the crow. She swoops over and starts bobbing across my lap in beat with the club music. She flaps her pink elbows and pecks sensually at my belt buckle. The guys are cheering me on, so I return the girl a peck on her feathery cheek. I don’t touch her with my hands. The guys rented out the whole club. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, no one around but the guys and the animals they paid for, who probably can’t see much of anything through their headgear anyway, but still I end up blushing. The crow one-eighties and sweeps her bare ass across the fly of my slacks.
Me? I could never afford all this. I’m not like those guys. My father was a copper miner or a clockmaker or the manager of a Red Lobster or something. My poor mother’s not even dead yet.
The song changes. Suddenly the crow flutters away from me. The animals join human-girl hands. They contort their bodies into one multi-species, multi-shaded skin-Cerberus. It turns into this sort of Ferris wheel stunt where the girls are one circular, roiling body cartwheeling around the room. I lose count of limbs and boobs. There’s a whole whirling ecosystem of them—it’s all very sexy in a very natural way—until the guys get too close, reach out their fingers to touch and, all at once, the structure collapses, a scatter of fleshy spokes on the floor of the VIP.
The girls pop up and rub their masks. All the guys are making sure the bird’s all right, hands patting skin to be sure no seams have split. Meanwhile the armadillo stays down. Maybe she’s not an armadillo, instead something unarmored, something not meant to reel end over end. An anteater. There’s a dark pool of liquid gathering under the anteater’s giant head. I take a step toward her, but one of the guys cuts me off. It’s my supposed last night of freedom, after all. He leans down and scoops her up and her limp proboscis drags on the floor. He carries her outside where, I assume, he calls an ambulance.
We join hands and disappear. Or maybe it’s truer to say we dissipate.
First, we are in our bodies, in a room, in space, and once we’re spinning
we are the room. We four, for a moment: infinity. Imagine this magic:
a house on fire from the inside, burning, until its walls evaporate,
and everything is outside. I am not supposed to be here.
These women raise me, because they must. We make this heat
because we must. The men erect, with their hands, wooden framing
like an instinct. Even when the oldest of us disappears, the rest survive
to torch the crafted bounds. These men know
whose money they’re spending, no matter what
they say. Trust, no matter the language
I mutter, I am never sorry.
The girls carry on as a perfect trio, like maybe they’re used to losing a member, maybe it’s all part of the show. We all dance under the multi-colored strobes for a long time, till the guys are good and drunk and horny and in love. One of the guys—this week’s best man—puts on the song that tells us it’s last call, pick a mate and run. The guy who helped the anteater never came back. It’s just the three girls and the whole gang of bowtied guys. They’re used to sharing the animals.
The crow beelines to me and leads me to a chair. With her hands she claps my knees together, then straddles my lap between her flickering thighs. On the other side of the VIP, the whale and cougar hold a sort of mock draft, point their lady fingers one at a time at the guys. No one’s paying attention to the crow and me, so when she runs a fingertip across my chest I close my eyes and take the tip of her beak in my mouth. I twirl my tongue like a clock hand around the woody spire of it and she leans closer, closer. Her heat radiates through my shirt-pleats. Soon she’s grinding her chest against me hard and offbeat, so hard her beak teases the back of my throat. I almost gag, and swoon at every close call until the song ends and the floodlights swell through my eyelids. Only, when the music stops, the crow keeps churning. I open my eyes and behind her see the guys shit-talking and punching each other’s shoulders, debating the merits of team cougar versus team whale. I try to spit the beak out, lean back, but the crow leans with me, and more. The searing point catches my uvula and I feel my last Redbull coming up. I jerk my head to the side and the beak slices the inside of my cheek on its way out. Vomit douses my shoulder. I hear a wet slap against the floor and then, in my opposite ear, muffled through the crow head, what sounds like the girl laughing. Her arms are locked across my back, bird-chin resting on my dry shoulder, chest still convulsing against mine with the force of her lungs emptying and filling.
A handful of guys plod over, giddy at the raucous success of the party they’ve thrown. “You good?” they say. “You’re good.” I nod. I’m so embarrassed I could die. The crow’s entire weight, which isn’t much, is resting on my thighs. She’s started using the length of her beak to swipe the puke from my button-down. “What a doll,” the guys say and go back to their respective teams grinning, high-fiving.
“I’m sorry,” says the crow, sounding far away.
“Quit laughing,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” she says and her voice cracks, a twig under too much weight. That’s when I realize she’s not laughing, but weeping and, boy, am I relieved.
“What is it?” I ask. “Aren’t we having a good time?”
The guys are trailing their animal queens out of the club. The crow stands, hovers while I lift my tuxedo jacket from the seatback. I drape it over her shimmering collarbones and she cinches shut the lapels in front.
“It’s not your fault,” I say. “It’s not anyone’s fault.”
Outside the guys are piling into limousines behind their animals. The hotel is only two city blocks away, but no expense is spared, no cost too great to achieve this bliss. I move to board the last limo, but the crow stops at the curb. “You coming?” says the best man.
The crow is looking down her bone-bare, bone-thin legs at the ground. “I think we’ll walk,” I say, and before the taste of the words is out of my mouth the car door shuts, exhaust pipe gurgling acidic smoke toward the rooftops. I trace the line of the crow’s glass eyes to her feet, where a dark puddle stains her curled toetips red. I lick the raw metallic inside of my cheek. Slowly, the bird tilts her head, her beak drawing a trail between blood drops on the sidewalk, like a child’s game, a map we follow away to someplace better.
I don’t care if he follows me—I’m going to find Harleigh,
who is the same age my mother was. This time last year,
mother brought me golden jewelry in her beak, nested
her magpie’s findings in my muted palms. For some time
I wore gold under my clothes. Mother said she had a man.
And then she didn’t come home. The landlord knocked
and I gave him my necklace. The landlord knocked and
I gave him all my rings, stripped my banded fingers,
undressed my weighted lobes. When Harleigh found me,
unwashed in my mother’s apartment, she held in her
hands all that remained of my mother: her head,
the one I wear now pacing alleyways and underpasses
seeking the only woman left I recognize outside her mask.
In the asphalt night, this man lags a wingspan behind
in his spit-stained dress shirt, wishing for a hotel suite
to lay me in. I hesitate under a fire escape, let him
catch up to me. He lands a hand on my jacketed arm
and asks where I’m taking him. I don’t say a word,
instead, point my beak at his copper-plated wristwatch.
He says it’s late, he’s sure she’s fine, all his groomsmen
are good guys. I click my beak on the watch’s glass face.
He unclasps the band and slides the precious heirloom
off into my breast pocket, which is his breast pocket.
I wonder if when she said she had a man, my mother
meant a man had said she was his, implying the inverse.
Ahead, a streetlamp spills its light. This man points along
the dotted line of oil-slick blood-drops blinking against
the black like violent, wet stars. Will I find her, in time?
None of this is in line with what we’d all agreed upon as love.
The watch ticks. When the landlord knocked again, I was gone.
My buzz is wearing off, on account of the booze sludged down my sleeve, and suddenly I’m too aware of how naked the crow is. Luckily she’s small enough that my jacket reaches past the creases at the bottom of her ass. God, she’s small. Her tiny bare feet are pink from the cold and each time one of them pads against the pavement I can see her toe knuckles blush white under her weight. And why won’t she take off that massive mask?
“I could carry that for you,” I say, but she doesn’t seem to hear. I wonder how birds’ ears work, whether they’re just tiny feather-covered holes in the sides of their heads. One of the guys told me once that crows are up there with chimps and dolphins. They can use tools and perform addition and sometimes even speak. The guy is a biologist, or his father was and he passed along the knowledge in his blood.
I imagine what the guys are up to, in their hotel suites with their animals, getting their money’s worth. I cram my hands in my pockets. I’m not like them. I can help this girl. This girl of my own. I want to help her, to earn her.
The crow disappears into an alley. When I catch up she’s crouched beside a dumpster. There, crumpled on a mound of bursting trash bags, is the anteater. And not far away stands a man in a tuxedo. No, I don’t recognize him. He is looking at the anteater, just looking. He looks nothing like me.
I make her name a mantra. Harleigh’s mask is caved in
on one side, where her human ear would be. I know
she hears her name, her favorite, unknowable word,
because her glass eyes lock with mine. Did I say mask?
These are our faces, the only ones these men will ever see.
I speak quietly so they won’t hear the name we keep secret.
They might call her aardvark, antbear, Orycteropus afer,
burrowing foot. She could eat ten thousand tiny bodies
in one night. She flies into earth and I mirror her, dig
through stilted sky. We spin away from our own natures,
animals risking their own opposites to survive the taint
of love these bachelors build. One of the men says a name
we understand to mean one of us, but it is a mistake,
a mispronunciation as egregious as calling Harleigh Carly.
This is how they try to kill us, by naming. But this word
is not a reference to the world. This word is an erasure
so we reject it, skulk and soar and breach and burrow,
lift our heads like a mantle we inherit. We let our masks
blur language, so instead we hear fucking hunt, and obey.
“Hey, man,” I say, “you good?”
The anteater moans at the crow’s touch. The crow is saying hardly over and over and over again. The tuxedoed man growls in a familiar way, almost words, but the meaning’s in the step he takes toward the girls. From the opposite side, I do the same, but before I can get between them, this man flings the crow to the asphalt. He straddles the barely-conscious anteater, claws at her neck, working to remove her mask, I think. “Cut it out,” I say. “Hey, knock it off.” He doesn’t stop, but glances at me, betrayed, and in that diverted moment the crow arcs her coated arms, beats her limbs against his body, topples him to the ground. He stays down for a moment, groping in the garbage until his hand finds an empty bottle. “Easy,” I say and step closer. He rises up. “Listen.” He’s right here. “Hey—.” The bottle hits me in the skull.
I can’t describe it.
Gravel pocks my back, the alley blurs and—
The girls’ heads come to life.
The anteater’s miles-long tongue lassoes the man’s ankle, rips his foot from under him.
His weight lands next to me.
The crow perches on his chest, coattails flayed across his torso like rectrices and—
Where did I hear that word? One of the guys? From my own ornithologist father?
He is roaring and, with one deft peck, the crow silences him. Her beak knifes through his throat. Blood fizzes from his collar, glosses his white shirt the color of rust. The air smells like waste and pennies. His blood swarms the asphalt, a queenless colony.
My head reels and all there is is the retched emptiness of my stomach, my useless open mouth.
The anteater picks through the trash with her snout, the crow with her scissored jaws, delicately sorting precious morsels from refuse.
I’m losing bits and pieces. I can’t remember now who I was last week.
The bird places a foil-wrapped pat of butter in my palm. Her arms stay sleeved at her sides, reserved for flight. She pinches the wing of my bowtie in her beak and pulls it loose, to let me breathe. Lightly, she unfolds the pat. She dips her bloody beak in the melted, waxen smear and brings the salty-sweet point to my lips.
Even though we’ve done it all before, the future always astonishes me.
Who will I be at next week’s end—next, will I be—?
Even though he thinks he saved us—like I couldn’t
give any man what he wants in order to penetrate him,
like I haven’t, like Harleigh and I haven’t saved each other
every day since we met—he need not fear us. He is so small.
I wonder, do you want to be saved, you slight man? I am
only a child, but I could mother you to death. Come here.
Lap up whatever we can find: Harleigh, me, this impaled man,
the contents of this lonely trash heap. We might mend you
even though, you know, you are just like him. Unjust
like all those other men. Like all those other men,
adjust your morals to the price of precious metals,
the pace of a master clock, a taste of luscious butter.
David Joseph is writing about masculinity, which is hard because masculinity wants you to think it’s so strong. He is writing about whiteness, but whiteness keeps trying to erase itself. A novel is hard at work on David.Writing @ Monkeybicycle, Entropy, Cheap Pop, Hobart, & elsewhere.Gratitude @ Susquehanna University (BA) & Arizona State University (MFA)Twitter @dfhjoseph