Living with the Harpy
By Tim Pratt
27 October 2003
Living with the harpy presented certain difficulties. Her feathers clogged the shower drain, and the smell of unsavory meats cooked over chemical fires drifted from her room. She screamed profanity sometimes, as if afflicted with Tourette's, but with obvious glee. I occasionally found drowned mice in the coffeemaker.
Even so, I'd had worse roommates -- during college I shared a house with three boys who were always trying to catch me naked in the bathroom (though I wasn't as beautiful back then as I eventually became). The harpy seemed content with our living situation, too. It is in the nature of her kind to roost, if not to nest.
Besides, I loved the harpy. I always loved the fact of her, and sometimes, when she was in her pleasanter moods, I even loved the particularity of her.
I met Jocelyn at a dyke bar in the city. She had clearly never been in such a place before, smiling awkwardly, dressed in glittery club-clothes that didn't seem to fit quite right; I later learned that no clothes hung on her properly, that she always seemed ill-attired, that she only looked comfortable when she was naked.
I knew she wouldn't approach me, or anyone else, not tonight. She was trying to get the lay of the land, not to get herself laid. I liked her right away, if only because she was so different from the other women in the bar -- her hair was all crazy nut-colored curls, held in a clump on top with a clip, as if she'd given up hope of taming it, and despite her stylishly sequined black top and short skirt, she carried a big purse, rainbow-striped, clearly homemade. I found the unself-consciousness of her fashion clash endearing, but it just drew sneers from the rest of the crowd.
I drifted through the bar, toward the pillar she leaned against. She was drinking a gin and tonic. Before the night was over, I planned to taste the gin on her lips.
We'd go to her place, if she was amenable, or else go no place at all. I couldn't take her home. Because of the harpy.
I mostly worked as a voice actor. In television commercials about new yeast-infection treatments, I was the soothing female narrator. Every few months I'd adopt a sultry tone and read erotica for a books-on-tape company run by a pair of feminist lesbians who enjoyed dressing in Victorian garb, corsets and all. They said I got the breathless sighs just right. Sometimes I got movie work, and though several directors offered me access to their beds as a route to screen time of my own, I always declined. I didn't like the spotlight any more than the harpy did, I suppose. We were a lot alike.
My voice used to be nothing special, dull, a bland Midwestern accent, but after I started living with the harpy, it grew mellifluous, polyhymnal. I worked for a phone sex line at first, before I got into more respectable voice work -- that was an experience that put me off dating men for a long time, though I've always been attracted to both genders. The harpy liked my voice. When I sang in the shower, she didn't screech. She listened.
"So what's this mystery roommate's name?" Jocelyn asked, one night while we were out at the movies.
"Harp," I said.
"Harp? Like the beer?"
"I suppose," I said, watching the screen. I had a part in the film, as the disembodied voice on the loudspeakers, warning of imminent core meltdown, just another threat for the hero to overcome.
Jocelyn giggled. "Harp? Like the type of seal?"
"Like the musical instrument," I said, strangely offended.
"Do you ever call her Harpo?" Jocelyn said.
"Shh," I said. "You'll miss my line." From the theater's vast speakers, I counted down the moments to destruction.
I'd never seen the harpy's face. The nearest thing was one day when I came home early from a recording session and caught her in the living room. She rushed into her room straightaway, of course, but I saw her stained white housedress and the mass of dirty, pigeon-gray feathers on her head.
Mostly I saw her in the bathroom. Our shower had pebbled glass doors, so everything viewed through them was distorted, transformed into blobs of color, angles rendered round, lines turned curvaceous. Sometimes when I showered, the harpy came in, and sat on the toilet, and talked to me in her raucous, cawing voice, her head a gray blur through the glass, her body white. We talked about inconsequential things, usually; repairs that needed to be done around the apartment, items I needed to pick up at the store. Sometimes she talked about the history of her kind (or perhaps the history of herself; it was never clear), about forests of twisted trees in caverns underground, women who wept blood, men without eyes, the futility of suicide. Sometimes she spoke Greek, or guttural Latin, or the lost tongues of mountain hordes. The harpy often spoke wistfully of flying, and eating fresh raw livers, but said she was too old for such pursuits now. These were generally monologues, and if I tried to respond, she simply ignored me and talked on.
The day the harpy first moved in, when I was afraid of her, she came into the bathroom and told me how she would pay her rent. "The coin of a better life," she called it. "Sucking the poison out," she said. I'd never been really beautiful, really lucky, really brave. I knew right away I couldn't reject the harpy's offer. She'd known the same thing before she even asked.
The poet Ellen Bass has compared two women making love to armfuls of lilacs wet with rain, among other things, and that may be true, sometimes, but sex with Jocelyn was more like being in the briar patch. She was fierce, scratching with her nails, nipping with her teeth. I'd never had such a rough lover, but I enjoyed it, the way she held on to me so tightly, the way she dragged her fingernails along my skin, and I reciprocated, leaving suck marks on her breasts, scratches on her shoulders.
One afternoon, lying in bed at her place (always her place), after, she touched the unbroken skin of my back. "I can't believe I didn't leave a mark on you," she said, a soft note of sadness in her voice.
"I'm thick-skinned," I said, though the truth was more complicated. Since I'd been living with the harpy, I didn't bruise, or scar, or burn. Nothing left a mark on me. It was part of the rent. The harpy said if I lived with her long enough I'd become indestructible. Even suicide would cease to be an option, not that I'd ever really considered it.
"Sometimes I wonder if I've left any mark on you at all," Jocelyn said, and began to cry.
She let me hold her, but she wouldn't talk about it, she wouldn't explain what she meant.
When I told the harpy I wanted to invite Jocelyn over for dinner, the only response was the sound of shattering glass from her room, something heavy and fragile thrown against the wall.
"Is that okay?" I asked, leaning my forehead against her door. "If it's not okay, say so, and I'll tell her she can't come."
"Sing to me," the harpy said.
So I sang "Frank Mills," that song from Hair, because it's one of the few songs I know by heart, and the harpy likes it. I hesitated over the line about loving someone, but being embarrassed to walk down the street with them. My voice might have broken, if it were capable of breaking anymore. I don't think the harpy noticed.
When I finished singing, after a moment of silence, the harpy said, "Do whatever you like." Her voice was like something gnawing itself in pain.
"You're too perfect for me," Jocelyn said.
"Oh, stop it," I said. "You'll embarrass me."
"It wasn't a compliment," Jocelyn said. She sighed. "It was a statement of fact. You don't need me. I don't know what you need. Maybe nothing. Too perfect."
"That's a pretty strange thing to complain about," I said.
"If you think so, then you don't know me as well as I thought you did," she said.
I'd been hesitant to invite Jocelyn over, but I could tell it was a crucial step, that Jocelyn's reservations about me -- her sense that I kept secrets, her fear that I was using her somehow -- were growing. I had to show willing. I had to let her in.
And the harpy was quiet. Jocelyn and I made dinner, drank wine, nuzzled on the couch. There were a few feathers here and there, but I told Jocelyn that my roommate Harp raised pigeons, that feathers got stuck to her clothes, and Jocelyn believed me. I should have felt guilty about lying to Jocelyn, but I didn't -- I felt guilty for lying about the harpy, as if I were ashamed of her, when really I was just keeping her identity a secret.
After half an hour of long kisses, Jocelyn took my chin in her hand, met my eyes, and said "Thank you for letting me come over. Can I stay the night?"
"Of course," I said. I wondered if the harpy was listening.
When I came home the day after the first night Jocelyn slept over, I found coffee grounds dumped all over my pillow, and telltale feathers everywhere, and the glass cracked in my favorite oval hand mirror with the tortoiseshell back.
I went to the harpy's door (I was even thinking of her as "Harp" by then, though she'd never needed a name in the days before I needed a lover), knocked gently, said, "We should talk."
There was only silence. Not even the rustle of her feathers. Not even weeping.
"So why have I never met this Harp?" Jocelyn said. "I know she raises pigeons, and she's shy, and I hear her thumping around back there, but why doesn't she ever come out of her room?"
I shrugged. "She doesn't like people."
"There's got to be more to it than that," she said. "A . . . a pathology."
"It's not a pathology. Harp's an albino." I improvised wildly. "She has a port-wine stain on her forehead and across one cheek. She doesn't like people to see her. Even I hardly ever see her." I wondered if the explanation was too outlandish, and waited for Jocelyn to laugh, but she didn't, so I guessed it was so absurd that Jocelyn assumed it must be true.
"Poor thing," Jocelyn said.
One day when I came home I discovered that we had a fireplace, which we'd never had before. The hearth was made of rough gray stone, the bricks stained with the ash of a thousand fires. There were feathers scattered all around, and I pictured the harpy kneeling there for a long time. I knelt, too, and in the fireplace I saw shards of glazed pottery, scraps of thick paper, and bundles of dried flowers, all partially burned. I put out my hand, and the stones still radiated heat. I supposed the harpy must have been working a spell. I wondered what kind. Probably something to make Jocelyn leave me, which more and more seemed like the saddest of all possible outcomes, and which more and more seemed like something that would happen whether the harpy worked her dirty magics or not.
I hadn't talked to the harpy in weeks, not since Jocelyn brought up the subject of moving in with me. That day I told the harpy what Jocelyn had suggested, and asked what would happen if she did come to live with me, with us. The harpy answered me in Greek. I couldn't understand her. It sounded like she was choking on something as she spoke. I hadn't tried to communicate with her since, had only seen the indirect evidence of her continued presence -- the wads of bloodied tissue paper in the kitchen, the piles of white sand in the hall.
I knocked at her door, once, twice, thrice, and she said, "Come in."
I stared at the grain of the wood. She had never asked me to come in before. I had never seen the inside of the harpy's room. Before she moved in, my apartment only had one bedroom, mine; when the harpy came, she brought her own space with her.
"I just wanted to talk," I said. "I don't have to come in." My legs were shaking. I could barely stand. I couldn't imagine passing through that door, seeing the harpy's face, seeing her nest, her home within our home.
"I'll be here," the harpy said, and her voice seemed smoother than usual, though perhaps she was only being quiet. "When you're ready, come in, and we'll talk. But not before."
I went to my room. I called Jocelyn. I asked her to meet me for a drink.
The next time, I didn't knock. I just turned the knob, and pushed open the harpy's door.
Inside was a cave, I think, but it was so dark, I couldn't really see -- there was just the underground smell, the distant plink of water, the rustle of wings in the shadows, the sense of cavernous space. I stood in the doorway. "Harp," I said, and winced, because that wasn't her name. She didn't have a name.
"Harpy," she said, somewhere far back in the shadows. "I am here. You've come to tell me. To tell me what you're giving up, and what you're giving it up for. Me, for her."
"It's not that simple," I said. "I just . . . I feel so isolated, like I can't let anyone in, can't let anyone get close. Before Jocelyn, I felt so alone, and now that I have her . . ."
"You have me." Her voice was harsh, but it was always harsh, and I'd never been good at understanding her moods, her emotions, based on the sound of her voice.
"Yes," I said simply, because there was no way to deny that, and no changing the fact that, even so, I always felt alone. "You know I love you," I said, the beginning of something, some soothing sentiment, but the harpy interrupted.
"You know I love you," she hissed, and I couldn't tell if she was mocking me, throwing my words back in my face, or making a confession of her feelings. "But you'd rather grow old and die with Jocelyn than live forever with me."
"It's not an easy choice," I said.
"The only easy choice is suicide," she said. "At least you aren't one of those. When I leave, you know . . . I'll take it all with me. The balance -- my ugly for your beauty, your melody for my cacophony, it all goes away. You'll be what you were, before. Not so beautiful. You'll bleed. Your voice will crack. Dandruff. Loss of nerve. Crying fits. Bad cramps. Failure."
"I know," I said, thinking of Jocelyn, of her imperfections, and how they made me love her even more; thinking of the way Jocelyn had described my eyes, once, as being like the mirror-side of one-way glass, impossible to see into.
"She might not love you, then," the harpy said.
"You did. Didn't you? You told me yourself, you never really changed me. You just sucked the poison out, stripped the ugly things away, shielded me from harm."
The harpy sighed, and I heard a heavy rustle, like a woman at a fancy-dress ball gathering her voluminous skirts. "I'll be gone by morning. I wish I could say I wish you well."
"Harpy. Thank you. Thank you for understanding."
She laughed. "If I understood, I wouldn't live alone in a cave. You should leave, shut the door. This place won't be in your apartment for much longer."
I hesitated. "The things in the fireplace," I said. "The things you were burning. Were they some kind of a spell?"
"No," the harpy said. "They were gifts for you. A vase of flowers, a sheaf of letters. I was going to give them to you. For the fifth anniversary of my moving in. But I was angry with you, and I destroyed them."
My heart felt like a snail's shell, crunching under someone's foot. "I hope you find another place you like," I said.
"Go away," the harpy said.
That was the last time we spoke. The door to her room didn't disappear, but the next time I opened it, there was just a dusty, empty room on the other side.
The night after the harpy left, I was slicing carrots to make dinner for Jocelyn, and the knife slipped, cutting my finger. It hurt horribly. It was just a tiny cut, but the pain was unbelievable. A bead of blood welled up, and I put my finger in my mouth and sucked.
I realized I'd forgotten the taste of blood, the taste of pain, and I closed my eyes in horror at what I'd done to myself by sending the harpy away.
Then Jocelyn put her arms around my waist, and cooed soothingly in my ear, and I leaned back against her, and let myself bleed.
"You should invite Harp to the wedding," Jocelyn said a few months later.
"I never hear from her anymore," I said, and I think I was too quiet, and reserved, all the rest of that night. Jocelyn went to take a bath, probably just to get away from me. I thought about going to sit by the tub so I could talk to her while she soaked, but I didn't know what I wanted to say. In the end, I didn't say anything at all. But that night, snuggled under the feather comforter, I whispered an apology into her sleeping ear.
Jocelyn and I were married in the summer, in a park, the ceremony presided over by a pagan priestess friend of hers. Jocelyn and I both had flowers woven into our hair, and we both wore white. As we exchanged vows, the sky went dark, a shadow passing across the sun, and all the guests looked up. A cloud of feathers drifted down like a slow gray snowfall. One feather fell onto Jocelyn's head, sticking up among the flowers and braids.
"I don't see any birds," she said, looking up, looking around. "That's so weird."
"It's a wedding gift," I said. "From Harp."
She looked at me, her nose crinkling, her eyebrow quirked as if she knew I was making a joke, but one she didn't understand.
I plucked the feather from her hair, and let it fall to the ground. I nodded to the priestess to start again. I had promises to make.
Copyright © 2003 Tim Pratt
Tim Pratt lives in Oakland, California, where he works as an assistant editor for Locus and edits Star*Line, the Journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. His last story published at Strange Horizons was nominated for a Nebula Award. His first collection, Little Gods, is out from Prime Books this fall. To contact him, send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on his work, see his website.