On a shelf in a room in the dust there’s a box full of ash and stone that was once a nightjar.
She was born in conflagration, pluming open from a mouthful of lava spit from the earth. Orange eyes, orange feathers, a creature of hot destruction. She had been baptized in bloody names. Butcher-bird. Murder-bird. Fire hawk, death owl. She cried over this, and her tears turned to steam in midflight. She screamed over this, and her throat burned raw with the song. She tried to destroy herself by plucking out her own feathers with the bite of her beak, but they returned in bursts of flame that only grew back longer, sharper, more dangerous.
Hearing her call boiled the senses into madness; her feathers, if touched, turned the fingerblood to smoke. To dream of her was to burn the gaze of the dreamer. And so she was a creature unheard, unheld, undreamt.
She was the loneliest of creatures. But she was beautiful and strange, and there was one who loved her nonetheless. He had come to her, and heard her call, and gone half-mad. And he came back, and stroked her feathers while his flesh burned. And still he came back, and fell asleep next to her, and woke blinded. Always, he came back.
One day she realized she was destroying him. And so one night as he dreamed, she drifted on a breath into his open mouth and settled in his chest and laid her eggs there. The eggs were blue cool roundnesses inside him, and he held them, and he slept. On the wind of another soft breath she drifted back out of his body and into the night. So that he wouldn’t follow her – so that he might survive – she returned to the place from which she had come, flying into a volcano to spare him the destruction she embodied. As she burned up in the lava, her eyes turned to sapphires and the rest of her powdered to ash.
He dreamed of all of this, and woke into the cold of her absence. Feeling the shelled hollows in his chest, he understood that in her love she had left him a gift. She had left him her voice, broken up into a chestful of echoes, with each tiny egg holding a piece of her in sound: a vibration of deep notes, a lilt and fall, a bright soft churring, a sigh. One by one the eggs hatched, and as they did she sang to him in fragments that spoke to him and shook through him as the feeling of her feathers in his chest.
When the shells had all cracked and he was full with hearing her, he pulled his failing body off the floor and followed the scent of burning rock to the place where she had come into the world and then left it again. He lay next to the volcano and listened to his body – listened to her – while the lava spit above him. And his hair singed, and his skin crisped and peeled, and he listened and he listened and he heard in the cloud and cacaphony of her voice the light bright sound of two stones falling to the ground beside him. He felt for them, and swept them into his hands along with the ash that covered them, and took them home, and put the sapphires and the dust of her into a box, and closed the box, and sank to the floor, all the time listening and listening, and still he lies there, a chest full of eggshells, wrapped up in the fragments of a voice.
[You can return to The Elizabeths this way.]