Sisters of the Revolution, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and recently published by PM Press, delivers exactly what it promises: an anthology of feminist speculative fiction. It includes giants of the broad genre like Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler as well as relative newcomers. It is diverse, fascinating and, of course, resolutely feminist. All of the stories, in one way or another, examine the oppressiveness of gender division in stunning, fantastical and often haunting ways,
"Detours on the Way to Nothing" originally appeared in Weird Tales magazine in 2008. It is included in Sisters of the Revolution and is republished here with permission from PM Press. It is described in the anthology as a story in which "we learn more about attraction, reactions to another's desire and how quickly one can change to please someone." And in this system, in which love can be used as yet another lever of power, the most intimate moments can surely be the most disturbing. – The Editors
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It's midnight when you and your girlfriend, Elka, have your first fight since you moved in together. Words wound, tears flow, doors slam. You storm out of the apartment, not caring where you go as long as it’s far away from her. When you step off the front stoop onto the sidewalk, that's the moment when the newest version of me is born.
You get on the subway heading toward Brooklyn and ride until the train rumbles out of the tunnels and squeaks into a familiar above ground stop. The neighborhood isn't good, but a friend of yours used to live a few blocks away, so you know the area pretty well. At least you won't get lost while you work off the rest of your anger. You disembark, let your feet pick a direction, and start walking.
That's how the logic seems from your perspective, but there is another explanation: I want you to come to me.
By a series of what you think are random turns, you end up in an alley between high rise buildings. reinforced doors protect apartments built like warehouses; skulls grin on rat poison warning signs nailed beneath barred panes. Abandoned mattresses and broken radios decay in the gutter, accumulating mold and rust.
In the spotlight of a street lamp, an old Puerto Rican man hurls bottles add a fifth story window. “Christina!” he yells. “Open up!” A voice shouts down, “she doesn't live here anymore!” But the man keeps throwing. Translucent shards collect around his feet. None have flown back into his face yet, but it's only a matter of time.
The distraction stops you, as I intended. I wanted people around you so you'd be less likely to spook.
You look up and see me. I'm the girl on the roof. The edge where I stand is flat as the sidewalk and has no guard rail. You gasp when you notice my toes edging over the precipice - then gasp harder a moment later when you see my hair floating in the wind. It looks like feathers. Just like feathers.
The Puerto Rican man runs out of bottles. he rubs his sore palms, repeating, “Christina, my Christina, why won't you open the window?”
Looking up, you gesture between me and the Puerto Rican man, asking: are you Christina? I shake my head and make walking motions with my fingers to say I'll come down. not knowing quite why,You put your hands in your pockets and wait.
When I get down to street level, you're shocked to see it wasn't an illusion: my hair really is made of feathers. They're bright blue, such a vivid color that it's obvious they weren't plucked from any real bird. They remind you of the ones you and your sister decorated carnival masks with when you were children: feathers dyed-to-match the way people think birds look.
You reach out to touch them before your sense of propriety kicks in and pulls your hand back. You shuffle your feet with embarrassment. “Hi.”
I find your shyness endearing. I take one hand out of the lined pocket of my ski jacket and wave.
“I'm Patrick,” you say.
I smile and nod, the way people do when they hear information they don't find relevant.
“What's your name?” You ask.
I step closer. You tilt your ear to ward my lips, assuming I want to whisper. It's a reasonable assumption, but wrong. I take your chin and gently lift your face so that your gaze is level with mine, then open my mouth to show you where my tongue was cut out.
You back away. another second and you’d bolt, so I act fast, pull a card out of my pocket and give it to you.
“Voluntary surgery?” You read. “What are you, part of some cult?”
It's more a philosophy than a cult, but since it isn't really either, I wave my hand back and forth: in a way.
Debate wavers in your expression. You still might go. Before you can decide, I take your hand and pull your fingers through my hair.
You breathe hard as your fingertips touch skin beneath my feathers. “All the way to the scalp,” you murmur.
That’s when I know I've got you. I can see it in the way your eyes turn one dark color from pupil to Iris. you're thinking, how can this be real?
The fantasy has been with you since adolescence. Maybe it started with the feathers you and your sister glued on the carnival masks. they felt so soft that you pocketed a pair - one blue, one white - and took them back to bed with you your vision of a bird woman appeared soon thereafter. Beautiful and silent, she wrapped you nicely in the sky-colored feathers that smelled like wind.
In the nearby park, I recreate this. Behind us, Olivia black rocks stands against the East River. Reflected Manhattan lights for machine on the water, shimmering like a fluorescent oil spill.
I strip off my clothes and stand naked for you, my shadow falling onto gravel cut with glints of glass. I'm skinny with visible ribs, but soft and fleshy around the belly where you like to stroke your lovers as if they were satin pillows - all the conflicting traits you prefer, combined in one body. Your eyes never leave my feathers.
You will never know how I am possible. My philosophy - my cult, as you called it - is old and secretive. We have no organization, no books of dogma, no advocates to harangue passersby with our rhetoric. each initiate finds us alone, deducing our beliefs through meditation and self reflection period only in the magic of our sacrificed tongue this unifies us.
Our practices have few analogues in Western thought, so you could call us philosophical cousins to the Buddhists. We believe there is no way to lose the trappings of self so completely as to become someone else's desire.
If you see me again, I will not be a bird. I will be a figure made of jewels or a woolly primates with prehensile lips. My skin will be rubber. My cock will be velvet. Each of my 6 blood-spattered breasts will be tattooed with the face of a man I've killed. The goal is endless transformation.
I'm still distant from that goal. Though I’ve been transforming for decades, I'm only inching along the path to self dissolution. I cling to identity; indulge fantasies like this one of telling you my story. Cutting out our tongues is supposed to silence us. Instead, I speak internally. Can you hear me?
I tease you with my feathers, encompassing your face, hands, and cock in turn. When you tire of that, you pull me up against the rocks with my legs around your waist. I throw my head back to let my plumage stream in the wind and you come. I don't know if you think of Elsa, but don't worry. You can't be unfaithful with a fantasy.
You recline against the black rocks.
“Wow,” you say, “I'm not the kind of person that would ever do this. Elka and I were together 3 months before…”
Your eyes glaze. This could be bad. There are two possibilities now. You may pull back, stammering her name, or:
You reach for my shoulder. “I know you can't talk, but can you write? is there someplace we could go? I have so much to ask.”
I've done my job too well. It's time to leave. I shrug away from your grip and raise one hand to wave. Goodbye.
“Hey wait!” You shout.
In your fantasies, when you're done, the bird woman dissolves into a shower of feathers.
Unfortunately, my magic isn't that versatile. I have to walk away.
You try to chase me so I maneuver through sharp turns and unexpected byways. You don't know this area as well as you think you do. Soon, your footsteps grow distant and faint.
I retreat to my rooftop and watch from above as you pace in circles around the neighborhood. I hope you will go soon. If you don't, it may be a sign I've done you permanent damage. Some people can't survive getting what they wish for.
Finally you head back to the subway. I have to admit, I'm a little sad when you go. A little jealous, too.
I climb down the building and discover the Puerto Rican man huddled next to a fire escape, muttering and soft Spanish. Tiny cuts bleed on his arms and calves. I consider remaking myself for him, but all he wants is his human Christina. I catch an impression of her: short and blonde, she hates dancing, speaks seven languages badly calls him The Man She Should Have Loved Less.
As his yearning for this specific, clumsy, jovial woman flows through me, I realize how little I am to you. What is a fantasy? A scrap of yourself made into flesh. An illusion to masturbate with.
Moving away from the Puerto Rican man, a shelter in a doorway and will myself to molt. My feathers float away on the wind and something I was clinging to flies away with them, carried on the same breeze.
I say goodbye to the girl with feathered hair and wait for another desire to overtake and shape me. In the few seconds before it does, for one moment, just one, my soul becomes pure essence without form.
It's the closest I've come to nothingness yet.
Rachel Swirsky is an award-winning American writer, poet and editor of literary, speculative, and fantasy fiction. Her short fiction has been published in publications such as PANK, the Konundrum Engine Literary Review, the New Haven Review, Tor.com, Subterranean Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Weird Tales and other outlets.