As a child his mother tells him about the whisperingbirds of this desert, tells him how they live in cacti and offer secrets on their wingbeats. She says watch this and dips her fingers in honey and stands out in the backyard and lets a hundred of them consume her fingertips like flowers. Calls them a charm. Paints herself in honey and stands in the backyard and lets the charm consume her whole body. She is enveloped in whisperingbirds and he worries they will float her away from him. She returns to the sliding screen door with her eyes aglow and says she is filled with secrets. Fifteen years later he moves to a city in the east, hears nothing of the whisperingbird’s quiet languages and forgets they exist. Ten years after that, his mother dies and is meant to be interred, and he flies home into dry western emptiness. After she is inside the dirt he takes his spare key and opens up the front door to her house, his childhood home. Dust glittering. He recognizes the smell but it doesn’t carry him anywhere new. Inside the cupboard, a jar of honey half-filled—the lid sticks until he runs it under warm water. He dips his fingers inside and tastes them first, tries to remember. Dips them in again and stands out in the backyard and raises up his hands. Stands there until blue-peach twilight and sees no whisperingbirds. Feels none against his skin. Honey drips onto his eyelids and he wonders what he’s done with the forgetting. Honey still tastes the same, but everything else is changed.
The first time the girl and boy hellhounds see each other they stare into each other’s eyes and lose one of their three lives.
You are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, the boy hellhound says.
But I just killed you a little, the girl answers.
That’s exactly it I think, the boy says, and winks.
They separate for a hundred years, her on a century-long shift guarding a graveyard with loose soil atop a portal to hell and him to chase a lost soul for forty-eight years. The remaining years he waits for her, his bones turning to ash. An accounting for lives, losses.
The second time they meet, they can’t help but look into each other’s eyes again and lose the second of their three lives.
What are we feeling, the girl hellhound asks.
I think it might be what the humans call love, the boy answers.
To keep from looking in each other’s eyes again, they cuddle facing opposite directions: north or south. They stay there for twenty-two years in wait of a new mission. Their bodies are threaded together by pain alone.
When they part again, the boy says, Listen. The next time, we can’t look into each other’s eyes. We’ll die.
I know, the girl says, although she yearns to look, to give away.
During their missions all they can think about is each other. He haunts a decrepit castle for a century and she is sidetracked for five decades in a city made of light.
The third time they meet, they do not look into each other’s eyes. They stand side-by-side—bodies touching and newly-grayed fur mingling. Fire touch and quiet hellsounds.
I think we’re the only ones left, the girl hellhound says, coughing up blood.
There used to be so many of us, the boy says.
We have each other, she says and burrows her nose into his fur, thinks of swimming inside a world that is all him.
I just want to see your eyes again, he says.
They wait for an eternity within a paradox: love and look and die or wait and age and die. A thousand years and more. So much changes, disappears.
Maybe they look, maybe not. Love is the in-between, threads through the looking and the seeing. Love is the not-knowing, the everything. It bleeds but it lasts.
Bodies, not so much.
And there, the beauty.
The astral glider has spent its entire life among the clouds and is now falling through this new heavy air that cannot support its flying.
Upon striking dirt, the astral glider is broken twice over. No bone goes unspoken for. Every movement is a reconfiguration of old straightness and there is whole pain.
The astral glider squint-sees a gray figure nearing, its body sidelong. Body moving across the ground and the astral glider fails to understand the physics of it. All it knows is gliding.
The astral glider asks, What are you? What is this place?
This is the ground, the creature says. And I am a fox.
A fox? Are you going to eat me?
The fox nods as the astral glider leaks.
I don’t like it here, the astral glider says. I liked gliding.
It’s okay. This won’t last long, the fox says.
It feels like the astral glider’s heart has spilled from its own ribcage and it lifts its head for a moment, searches for a bloody mass extruded and still thumping and still threaded up, but there is nothing but its own swollen bloodlake and its legbones twisted into acute angles.
If you want, the fox says, I can wait until you’re gone.
That would be nice, the astral glider says. But how will you know? How will you know it’s time?
I’ll know, the fox says.
Don’t worry so much. This is how all things go, the fox says. Its soft paw on the astral glider’s chest. Now tell me everything you’ve ever wanted and I’ll eat the dreams, too, if that makes you feel better.
I’ll eat them all, the fox says. I don’t mind one bit.
Well, it starts when I was just a hatchling, the astral glider says, and dies.
Joel Hans is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and the managing editor of Fairy Tale Review. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Caketrain, West Branch, Redivider, Yemassee, Booth, and others. He is also a co-editor with Cartridge Lit, an online literary magazine devoted to literature inspired by video games.
Photo by Jeff Shewan