Future of Birds
a novelette by Mike O'Driscoll
The story in its original
form was written in the early 90s, prompted by public and media reaction
to HIV and AIDS, and by my own coming to terms with a couple of friends
who were diagnosed in the mid 80s with HIV and who've since died of AIDS
I'd written a couple of stories prior to this about AIDS as a political
issue, and about the scapegoating of those infected with the virus.
The immediate catalyst for this story was watching a documentary on
television about the transsexual scene in Rio de Janeiro. The participants
in the documentary were, on the whole, motivated by financial need into
undergoing gender reassignment - the simple economics were that young
male prostitutes could make more money after gender reassignment than
if they had continued to work as males.
The programme prompted me into thinking about what else might provoke
such drastic surgery, and it wasn't too long before I came up with the
notion of a gender specific virus, one which, as in the story, targeted
only women. This allowed me to explore the ways in which those who were
unaffected might relate to or exploit those who were infected. Although
other factors such as poverty, ambition or sexuality might have motivated
the two main protagonists, the fact remains that in assuming a female
sexuality, they joined the ranks of the used and abused. Whatever other
horrors HIV has forced us to confront, at least it isn't, like my invented
virus, gender selective.
I'd written a couple of stories prior to this about AIDS as a political issue, and about the scapegoating of those infected with the virus. The immediate catalyst for this story was watching a documentary on television about the transsexual scene in Rio de Janeiro. The participants in the documentary were, on the whole, motivated by financial need into undergoing gender reassignment - the simple economics were that young male prostitutes could make more money after gender reassignment than if they had continued to work as males.
The programme prompted me into thinking about what else might provoke such drastic surgery, and it wasn't too long before I came up with the notion of a gender specific virus, one which, as in the story, targeted only women. This allowed me to explore the ways in which those who were unaffected might relate to or exploit those who were infected. Although other factors such as poverty, ambition or sexuality might have motivated the two main protagonists, the fact remains that in assuming a female sexuality, they joined the ranks of the used and abused. Whatever other horrors HIV has forced us to confront, at least it isn't, like my invented virus, gender selective.
The Future of Birds by Mike O'Driscoll
While Dr Kleinfeld carries out his gynaecological explorations, I try to recall a life beyond the Sanctuary. It is an old game, one whose necessity is greater than ever now that the parameters of existence are closing in on me. The old dream has become a sour and sterile reality; my new dreams are of the disease.
Dr Kleinfeld completes his probing and unhooks my legs from the stirrups. He makes notes in silence, ignoring me; his report is for Spengler's eyes, not mine. Seeking some reassurance, I ask him, "And how is my cunt, Doctor?"
He says, "Is it necessary to use such terminology?"
"That's what it is."
"No no," he protests. "Had you undergone reassignment surgery in Brazil, then such a crude appellation would be appropriate." And then he's off into his spiel about the techniques he developed to construct my labia, clitoris and vagina, and the breakthrough he'd achieved in being able to lubricate the vagina from the seminal vesicles and cowpers glands, on and on like some demented Frankenstein.
"I've been having dreams," I cut him off.
"Isn't that the purpose of dreamdust," he says, an attempt at sarcasm that doesn't become him. "Why do you need that stuff?"
"I've been dreaming about the disease."
I see the momentary panic in his eyes before it is replaced by a synthetic reassurance. "It can't harm you, my dear."
"It killed the woman who discovered it," I say.
He smiles and says, "A woman, Estela, which only confirms my point. What Dr Komatsu found in her tests on pre-cancerous cells from a patient's ovaries - the dysfunctional estrogen - merely served to illustrate what it was she would die from."
"She was an expert," I persist. "And she couldn't save herself."
Kleinfeld shakes his head, as if speaking to a capricious child. "It caught up with her too fast. By the time she discovered that luteinizing hormone was triggering an abnormal reaction in estrogen, and that symptoms were only manifesting in women, she was already at the haemorrhaging stage. She lived just long enough to establish the viral origins of the gonadotrophin mutation. It was left to others to prove that this Hormonal Dysfunction Virus caused the disease."
"But I carry the virus," I tell him, watching his reaction.
"Yes, as do eighty per cent of males; but there are absolutely no cases of activation of the disease in men."
"How do you know it will stay that way?"
"Our knowledge of HDV is still growing, but the latest research indicates that the presence of male hormones may inhibit the viral activation. It's apparent that HDV is hereditary, and lays dormant in both male and female until the onset of a premature puberty. When the pituitary gonadotrophins are at a high enough level to stimulate production of the sex hormones, this process triggers the virus which in turn causes the dysfunction of the estrogen in the ovaries. The indications are that when sex hormone production begins in males, the androgens produced somehow prevent the virus from becoming active."
"I produce high levels of estrogen," I say.
"Yes," he agrees, "but you still produce androgens in sufficient quantities to counteract HDV." He pauses, as if to savour a triumph. "A feature of the surgery I performed on you six years ago; you carry the virus but it cannot interact with your production of female hormones. The triggering process cannot take place."
Despite the words, I sense his doubt. "Am I to be replaced?"
He frowns. "What have I just told you? There are no reported cases of Komatsu's Syndrome in transsexuals."
Soon afterwards, Heinrich, my null, drives me back through the morning rain to my apartment overlooking the River Spree. As I undress I hear the phone hum but I make no move to answer it. He picks it up, listens, then informs me that Spengler wishes to speak to me.
Spengler owns The Birds of The Crystal Plumage. He had me brought to Berlin; everything I have, has come from him - this apartment, the car, the clothes, the dust and the body, most of all the body. Sometimes I feel I have as little free will as Heinrich. He is a eunuch in mind as well as in body, conditioned by hypnotics to respond only to my commands.
Reluctantly, I take the phone. "Estela," Spengler says, "Some business associates are stopping in town tonight. I want to take them to the club. They're keen to see your act."
"They always are," I tell him. "I don't feel well."
Mock concern creeps into his voice. "What is it now, my dear?"
Spengler laughs, a brittle, humourless sound. "Don't be stupid, you know they came for you." He goes on to tell me which costume to wear, which jewellery, which perfume. "I'll expect you at eight. Be in a good mood, Estela, don't disappoint them."
This life in paradise is my reward; it is the way I profit from the disease. I remember months of preparation, even after the surgery - instruction in oriental sexual techniques, as well more cerebral refinements, French, German and English languages; literature; art - I can hold my own in the most refined or debauched company. And I recall my first years in Berlin, when the bars of my cage remained invisible.
I enter the bedroom, searching my body for signs of corruption. I lay on the bed as Heinrich comes in with a crystal pipe on a tray. He loads the bowl with dreamdust. As he heats it, my anticipation is tinged with the hope that I won't dream.
Late afternoon finds me stronger, vaguely pleased at some dust-induced memory. This sense of well-being lasts only until Rudy Thessinger calls. "What do you want?" I ask him.
Laughter flows down the line, poisoning my brain. Rudy and I go back a long way, to Rio de Janeiro, more than six years ago. Rudy brought me to Berlin. He's Spengler's talent scout, my pimp.
As usual he enquires about my well being, then says, "I have some news about an old friend of yours."
"What friend?" I ask. I have no friends, only clients.
"Was Rio so bad you've forgotten who took you away from giving head on the Rua Princesa Isabel?"
I recall a name from the dream. "Cledilce."
"She's been in Paris a month, undergoing reassignment surgery."
"You've seen her?"
"The word is she looks stunning," Rudy says, ignoring my question. "You can imagine what-"
I hang up before his mindgames begin to sicken me. The new image is fixed in my brain, the face from my other life. Heinrich enters with a fix of dust and I surprise myself by refusing it. I'm not certain what I feel, but it is something strong.
Heinrich's skilled hands massage my dark flesh forcing tension from my limbs. I sometimes wonder why he allowed - why any null allows - himself to be surgically altered, his brain adapted so that the production of endorphins is tied to certain emotional states. Is it enough to have all feelings of self-interest sublimated into a desire to serve? To enslave the brain in return for the slow dripfeed of endorphins to its pleasure receptors? To be free forever of guilt and fear and stress?
Perhaps, in his rare moments of lucidity, he wonders about my alteration?
Images begin to clarify, take on meaning. I sift through the chaos of memories, seeking to impose on them a sense of order.
I was not always Estela de Brito. I see a young boy, nine or ten, living on the streets of Rochina, the stinking favela that sprawled up over the lure of the wealthy suburb of Saõ Conrado. And a sister, a year older, a pretty girl who sold her body so that they might eat. But already the teeth-marks of the disease were on her flesh; there were nights when the boy awoke in the corrugated iron shack that was home, to her cries of pain as blood poured from between her legs. There were no parents.
Gangsters ruled Rochina with machine guns and calculated terror; occasionally some City politician wanting to make a name for himself would send the police into the favelas to wipe out a few marginals - low life petty thieves; the politician's face would make the tv news and things would go on as before. Business-financed death squads would execute children; a cleansing process, ridding the city of future criminals, making Rio safe for gringo tourists. Their bullets spared the girl the worst ravages of the disease. The boy left Rochina and graduated to picking tourists pockets on Copacabana, and from there to the docks at Maua, where he learned to give head for ten dollars a trick. Soon, he was working the streets off Rua Princesa Isabel, discovering that he could double his take if he dressed as a girl. Evenings, he'd work the cars parked along the seafront, blowing the men on their way home from work; in one car, suck suck, open the door, spit it out and move on to the next vehicle; for an hour or two each evening, a prolonged chorus of slamming cardoors.
And all the while, the boy worked on his appearance, improving his make-up and clothes, avoiding the older hookers and pimps till one day he gave lip to a marginal who wanted his money. The man was going to cut him bad and would have too, if it hadn't been for the tall, raven haired figure who buried a knife in the man's ribs. That was his first meeting with Cledilce Macedo. He was sixteen, streetsmart, and was making more money than the boy had thought possible from giving head. Cledilce's johns - American and European tourists - were a long way up from the factory workers and dockers among whom the boy plied his trade. They had to be, because Cledilce was a Bird, a transsexual on a female hormone programme, and like any other route out of the gutter, hormones cost big money. He took the boy home to a shabby apartment on the sixth floor of a block on Rua Toneleiros. He got him on to hormones too and told him he needed a new name.
For three years he ... I learned, developing and refining my body, making contacts, saving money and loving Cledilce. At first, I worried that I would no longer be able to perform sexually, that it would feel like nothing at all, but the strength of Cledilce's erection soon put my mind at rest. There would be no loss of libido he, or rather she, explained, not until after the operation. And even then, we wouldn't have to ejaculate to experience orgasm; sex, she said, was mainly in the head. As my breasts grew and I lost my facial hair, I began to worry about the operation itself. I had heard tales of the awful consequences of the gender reassignments carried out in the Centro clinics, even saw the evidence of their botched surgery with my own eyes. Till Cledilce had finally shared the dream with me, the dream of escaping to 'sanctuary,' where Parisian surgeons - not Centro butchers - would sculpt us anew, transforming us so that we would feel what women were meant to feel.
As Heinrich sits me up to arrange my jet black hair into a dazzling coiffure, one that, like my body, will impress Spengler's important friends, I think: they lied to us.
Heinrich guides the Mercedes through rain slick streets, along Kanstrasse past shabby, smoke-filled kneipen, into Kurfürstendam, past sidewalk cafes with glassed-in terraces where unblemished middle-aged women sit alone with their drinks, past the Komödie theatre till it pulls up outside the 'The Blue Angel'. Young Babes - sexually precocious girls of nine or ten - flaunt themselves outside the entrance, some of them menstruating so profusely that, even through their heavy padding, blood streams down their stockinged legs. Images of Sally Bowles and Marlene Dietrich fill their minds, feeding the awful need that has drawn them here to plead with implacable doormen, seeking to gain entrance to the scene of their mentors' former glories. One crumbling, anaemic beauty falls to the pavement. The others start bickering over her as she crawls away to die. Then the doormen step out on to the pavement and form a cordon around Spengler, who comes out into the rain to greet me. The Babes try to grasp his arms and legs, but he strides through them, all lean arrogance and efficiency clothed in a black lounge suit. I get out of the car and he holds me at a slight distance, surveying my array of scarlet feathers and blue chiffon as if I were some prized possession. I move past him, into the club where a troupe of Birds re-enact a Sapphic orgy on the main stage, while in the discreet alcoves an assortment of Birds and Babes provide a range of sexual favours for the rich clientele.
Backstage, I pop an Aktive 'poule against my neck to blunt reality. A house null leads me down a blue corridor to Spengler's private suite, reserved for the entertainment of important friends. The null clips wires to my costume as Spengler introduces the queen of The Birds of the Crystal Plumage, and then a taped barrage of Brazillian drums heralds my entrance. There are twelve men in the room, seated on leather couches, their desires caged in refinement and respectability. I ruffle my feathers in time to the music as I strut across the marble stage, offering them glimpses into hidden dreams. Then Claudio swoops into view, suspended over the stage like a magnificent condor, the twelve inch penis that Dr Kleinfeld has crafted for him, erect beneath the black plumage that adorns his laburnum flesh. He sweeps me up in his arms and lust thrums in the air like the sound of swarming insects, hot and feverish, no different from the lust of the dockworkers at Maua who came to be blown by a half-formed Bird. We glide over the stage, Claudio and I, borne on sensuous rhythms as we act out an improbable seduction. Until finally, in mid-air, he plucks my feathers with exaggerated care and then plunges his meat into me. Whatever perfunctory pleasures I once might have derived from these performances has been worn down by soulless repetition. We fuck like birds on the wing, Claudio's precision tool grinding against the template of my vagina. The only thing I feel is numb. He withdraws before he comes so that the audience may appreciate the bounty he showers over my breasts, a seemingly endless rain of semen; another of Kleinfeld's miracles.
The applause is thunderous as Claudio flies from view, while I wait without curiosity to see which of his guests Spengler has selected for participation in the second act of my performance. I feel no surprise as all twelve men begin to undress and crawl up on to the cool, white marble like hungry dogs, ravenous for a taste of game.
Backstage later on, as Heinrich bathes my bruised and battered body, I reflect on the bitterness I feel; it's not the taste of semen or any sense of degradation - I became inured to such things long ago on the docks at Maua - it's the realisation of what I did to get here.
Spengler enters the room. "You pleased them, Estela," he says. "You may go now."
"Rudy called me," I tell him.
"You are looking forward to seeing him again?"
"He says Cledilce Macedo is coming to Berlin."
"So I hear. It's nothing for you to worry about."
"I don't feel well," I tell him. "I'm not sleeping."
He frowns. "Kleinfeld said you were in prime condition. It's the dust perhaps? You mentioned bad dreams."
"It helps me to remember," I say, wondering at his immunity to the poison in my words.
"There are things we can give you to help you forget."
"I want to remember."
Spengler sighs, a pained expression on his face. "You mustn't make things difficult," he says. "For either of us." Then he leaves and I tell Heinrich to fetch the car and drive me home.
Rudy is waiting, lounging on the bed, drinking my cognac. He smiles behind his wire-rim spectacles, then gets up and kisses me lightly on the cheek. I hate it when he does that, like a dog pissing against a tree, marking its territory. "It's late, Rudy, what do you want?"
In his white Chinos and loose, Hawaiian shirt, he looks like a lost tourist, lacking only a camcorder. He runs a hand through his thick, brown hair and says, "You have been wondering about Cledilce?"
I ignore the question and pour myself a cognac.
He follows me to the drinks cabinet. "In two days she starts performing for the Birds of Paradise," he says.
"So soon?" I ask. "What about refinements?"
Rudy sips his drink. "They don't place the same emphasis on refinements anymore. She had one week with a Chinese courtesan. You're unique, Estela, a jewelled Bird. But these days, there isn't the same demand for cultured conversation; nobody wants to discuss Günter Grass or the poetry of Ernest Newboy, they just want to fuck you. This bothers you?"
It does but I don't admit it, not to Rudy. "Spengler sent you?"
Rudy removes his glasses, holds them in front of him as if to magnify my features. "We talked. He's concerned about you, as an investment of course. I spoke with Kleinfeld; he mentioned you're worried about the disease."
"Shouldn't I be?"
Rudy shrugs his shoulders. "No, nor about Cledilce."
"I never wanted to leave her behind. That was you."
Rudy walks to the door, hesitates, and says, "There wasn't time, or have you forgotten what you did? By the time that mess was cleared up, our contract with her had lapsed." And then he is gone.
His parting words leave a fear stain on my mind. Faithful Heinrich brings the pipe. He heats the bowl and I hit on the dust, holding it down deep in my lungs, letting it flow into every dark corner of my mind, letting it illuminate the past. In the dream, I first see Cledilce, and then slowly, everything else begins to take shape around her.
Tall, copper-skinned and haughty, seventeen year old Estela de Brito sipped Caipirinha outside a streetfront cafe and listened as the rhythms of the batucadas drifted up from Leblon beach. She was on a natural high. Beside her, Cledilce, half-drunk, slumped against her shoulder, her long, dark hair flowing over Estela's breasts. "Honey, rehearsal done me in," Cledilce said. She kissed Estela's cheek and yawned. Rehearsal was for the Great Defile dos Escolas da Samba, the parade of competing samba schools which form the climax to Carnaval, and during which they would both dance at the head of the Salgueiro school. That was in two days time. Tomorrow, they would meet the German who had come to take them to Sanctuary in Berlin.
Night had fallen but the street still swarmed with participants of the local banda, a mass of two thousand swaying bodies moving in one continuous snake-like formation to a pounding samba beat, winding in and out of the bars and cafes, through streets and alleyways and across the avenue to the beach. Traffic had ground to a halt and many people had simply abandoned their cars and attached themselves to the banda for the duration.
Juan Griffiths ordered more drinks and spoke about the German, while groping Estela beneath the table. She felt like gouging his eyes out. Griffiths set up the deal. He was an asshole who drank cheap champagne and polluted the air with foul cigar smoke. Patagonian by birth, he went on about some place called Wales that Estela never heard of, and that she thought might not even exist. He was a freelancer who'd been drifting around the continent for five years, dabbling in arms, drugs and organs, utilising contacts he'd made in an eight year stint in the Argentine secret service. He'd been coming to Carnaval for five years recruiting whores for clients. A month ago he'd come down from Quito and met Cledilce. He told her he was looking for transsexuals who'd not yet had surgery, explaining how his European clients preferred to carry out their own alterations. When Cledilce had introduced him to Estela, he'd told them his partner would arrange for their client's representative to fly in for carnaval. Estela tolerated him only because he had set the deal up, but she had taken a Carioca's instinctive dislike to his Argentine arrogance. He was no better than any other punk who'd used her body; a lot of them had paid good money for the privilege, whereas she'd blown Juan Griffiths three times without getting paid.
But her attitude towards Deborah Hernandez, the fourth member of the group, was more ambivalent. Unlike Griffiths, who was merely a slob with pretensions, Hernandez seemed imbued with a cool poise that reminded Estela of dead yanqui actresses with names like Kelley or Michelle. She was a tall, elegant woman whose eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses and whose ash-blond hair seemed too perfect. Her aloofness would have irritated Estela had it not been something that she herself aspired to. This, and the air of fragility that clung to her pale flesh held an attraction for Estela that she was unable to explain. She wondered if Deborah had the disease, or if money had purchased her some sort of immunity. She had heard rumours of experimental drugs, illicit coagulents that stemmed - for a time at least - the flow of blood from those women who could afford black market prices.
With Cledilce only semi-conscious and the Patagonian oblivious to anyone but himself, Estela felt the heat of Deborah's hidden gaze. It gave her an unexpected thrill and she felt something more than just gratitude.
After midnight, when the streets had quietened, Griffiths hailed a taxi to take them all back to his hotel on Avenida Copacabana. As they approached the hotel, Deborah told the driver to pull over. "Walk with me," she said to Estela. Estela looked at the other two slumped against each other, then got out of the car.
They walked silently along the neon-lit promenade overlooking the beach where a few hundred people cavorted naked on the imported sand.
Deborah said, "When do they ever stop?"
Estela recognised the faces of friends and neighbours. Laughing, she said, "These ones will fuck all night. They belong to the Banda da Vergonha do Posto 6, my neighbourhood, you understand? Sex is all that matters at Carnaval."
After a while, Estela stopped and sat down on the edge of the promenade, feet dangling above the beach where a crowd of young Cariocas were playing soccer by neon light from the beachfront bars. "Sit down," she said, patting the ground beside her. "I used to play football. You?"
"No," Deborah said, sitting down. She removed her sunglasses and revealed her care-worn eyes. "Can I tell you something?"
"Tell me what, Sugar?" Estela said.
Deborah lit two cigarettes, gave one to Estela. "I have the disease."
"I already guessed that, Honey," Estela said, curious as to why Deborah felt the need to tell her now. "You don't show it."
"There are drugs that help."
Estela tried to picture Deborah naked; despite the fear of the disease, she found the image turned her on. She thought, does she realise what I am? Well she had to; she was Griffiths' partner.
Deborah said, "You don't have to be scared of me."
"What makes you think I'm scared?"
Deborah shrugged and went on, "Money I make from this deal, I can afford better treatments, maybe add a few years to my life."
"Yeah, well, I don't need to know about that," Estela said, wishing Deborah would talk about something else. Maybe Hollywood.
"You should know the things you profit by," Deborah said.
Estela smoked her cigarette, watching as one copper-skinned boy scored a goal. She felt an impulse to abandon Deborah and join in their game. What did Deborah expect? Guilt? Despite herself, she said, "What things, Sugar?"
Deborah spoke slowly and without bitterness, as if she were reciting the details of some half-remembered dream. "I'm thinking of girls of nine or ten having babies; twelve year olds whose periods go on so long they bleed to death; and of those few who survive the bleeding only to have their pussies dry out and shrivel so bad that nothing can get up there even though they still want it; they lose their hair then, Estela - you've seen that? - and get hair where they shouldn't." She paused to pull on her cigarette. "Their minds start to go - sure, you've seen that too - the way they still think of themselves as desirable right up to their Godawful, pathetic deaths, most of them by the time they're sixteen."
"Fuck it," Estela said, with a flash of temper. "Why you telling me this? It ain't my fault."
"I know that."
"Look at you - I don't see any of that shit happening to you?"
"Sometimes the virus doesn't start killing you till you reach adulthood. I guess that makes me lucky, huh?"
With an effort of will, Estela quelled her anger. She said, "How long have you got?"
Deborah stood up. "I'm twenty-four." Her voice was almost a whisper. "It doesn't matter."
Knowing Cledilce was with Griffiths at the hotel, they went to the apartment on Rua Toneleiros. Estela poured drinks and lit a macohna joint. Deborah took a glass and said, "They spent billions of dollars finding a vaccine for AIDS, took them twenty-five years. They haven't spent one tenth of that on HDV. You know why?"
Estela shook her head and sat beside Deborah on the sofa.
"There's an institute in New York," Deborah continued, "where they're transplanting wombs into young boys. That's where the future is, not in women." She struggled to maintain her poise. "It's cheaper now to alter people like you, people with so few alternatives you allow yourselves to be reconstructed so you can service those who want a risk-free screw. These sanctuaries are for them, not you. You call yourself a Bird, as if it means freedom. But in Berlin they'll cage you like some damned nightingale."
Estela stubbed out the joint and said, "You feel that way, how come you got mixed up with Griffiths?"
Deborah leaned her head on Estela's shoulder. "I was a call-girl in L.A. Guy I worked for ran an agency serving Hollywood big shots. I was doing well, enjoying the life. Then the symptoms started to show." She paused, to sip her cachaca. "First, it just blew me away - the heightened sex drive - God, screwing johns was suddenly something I enjoyed, some of them anyway. Then the bleeding started. Guys don't want to fuck a woman who's always on the rag, y'know what I'm saying? I knew as soon as Tony found out he'd dump me - bad for business. I also knew he'd been over to Europe a couple of times, where the clubs were recruiting transsexuals. Tony was an asshole but he had a good nose for business. He'd made some contacts there, where there was like forty guys to every woman. He planned to find them new flesh, send boys - pre-op transsexuals like you and Cledilce - to this gender reassignment clinic in Paris for surgery and hormonal treatments and contract them to the Sanctuaries. I took his list of contacts and flew down to Mexico City. I needed someone who knew their way round the continent, someone who'd know where to find what I needed. That's where I met Juan."
Deborah stroked Estela's face. Estela was certain the yanqui was attracted to her but she was confused as to whether these overtures were directed at the Bird or at the man. It had been a long time since she had fucked a woman and the vibes coming from Deborah were hard to ignore. She felt a moment of doubt, thinking of Cledilce, but the truth was, she was no longer sure what she felt for her. She said, "So this is more your deal than Juan's?"
"I don't give a shit who gets the credit," Deborah said. "All I care about is the money."
"You sure that's all?" Estela said, lightly kissing Deborah's lips. "You're still beautiful, Sugar."
Deborah's eyes searched her face. "Do you know what I want?"
Estela grinned, lasciviously. "Why don't you tell me?"
Deborah's voice was low and husky. "Maybe I can do that."
In the bedroom, when Estela pulled down her satin skirt and Deborah reached for her cock, she realised exactly what the yanqui woman wanted.
When it stiffened in her grasp, Deborah said, "I wasn't sure you could still ..."
"Get hard?" Estela said. "It still works, Sugar, at least till I get to Paris."
Deborah stood back then, and stripped slowly down to her panties. She saw Estela's gaze and said, "I'm bleeding. If you don't want to -"
"It's okay," Estela said, letting her gaze wander up from the wet padding, over the smooth stomach and the small, pale breasts, to the bruises lurking beneath the powdered flesh of her limbs. "Take them off."
Deborah removed the panties and the sodden towel. Blood oozed slowly down her legs. She did something to her hair then, and detached the ash-blond wig from her head. Her real hair was grey and cropped short on her skull. Somehow, this failed to detract from her beauty. "I've done many things, Estela," she said. "In many different ways. But it's been a long time since anyone touched me, any man. That's all I want. It's not so weird."
Estela led her to the bed. She watched rivulets of blood trickle on to the sheets as Deborah stroked her cock. It was no longer a question of desiring this woman: she wanted to be her, to be a beautiful, elegant white woman, a product of Hollywood, instead of a young, black male Carioca with a good pair of tits and a fine round ass.
Lubricated by blood, she slid into the yanqui whore and began to fuck her slowly. Deborah rolled and thrashed beneath her, as if she had come to the realisation that this might be her final coupling. The strangeness of the act made it more precious for them both.
"Ah, Jesus," Deborah cried, grinding herself against Estela, who imagined that she was fucking a reconstructed image of herself, a white-skinned, blonde-haired Estela, a Hollywood star that people might envy and wish that they could become.
Estela pounded against the fragile bones, gasping for breath. Deborah shuddered, then came in a frenzied rush, wrapping her brittle limbs about Deborah's body in a wretched configuration of death.
Afterwards, Estela listened to the batucadas that seemed more distant than they had all night, and found herself hoping that Deborah would somehow beat the disease. She imagined herself responding to sex the way Deborah had responded to her: in Berlin, cunt-equipped. Would she have the same strength of will? She wondered if she'd taken too much from the dying woman; maybe it was okay. Despite all the warnings about Berlin, she imagined that Deborah needed to feel that some small part of herself would live on in the Bird.
Griffiths picked the two Birds up from the apartment at eight that evening to take them to the Flamengo club. A thunderstorm had left the city steaming and tense. Estela wore a short, red satin skirt over a black leotard, and Cledilce was squeezed into a blue, lycra one-piece that stretched from her neck to her ankles.
"How come Deborah ain't with you?" Estela asked Griffiths.
"She's fucked up," he said. "Besides, I got things under control, so don't worry your ass."
After what Deborah had told her, Estela's loathing for Griffiths had intensified. "She was okay last time I seen her."
"Jeez, Estel," Cledilce said, annoyed. "Who fucking cares? Let Juan deal with it."
"Right," Griffiths said, patting Cledilce on the thigh. "Let's concentrate on Thessinger, put on a good show for him."
"Honey," Cledilce said, "I'll do whatever I have to."
The taxi slid through a crowded street where a wizened Babe in a red dress was reeling drunkenly in the road She was balding and one strap of her dress had slipped from her shoulder, revealing a dry, shrivelled breast. She glared at them as the taxi passed by.
Shortly afterwards, they pulled up outside the Flamengo club which was hosting the Vermehlo & Preto Ball. They forced their way through the crush of bodies on the stairwell, up to the second level balcony where Griffiths had booked a table. On the dance floor below, more than two thousand people heaved and swayed to hectic samba rhythms. Birds and Babes draped themselves from the balconies, posing and taunting the men in the crowd down below.
A dark haired man in jeans and a black, polo neck shirt sat waiting for them. He was wiping steam from his wire-rim glasses and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.
"Rudy, my man," Griffiths called. The dark-haired man looked up and smiled as Griffiths clapped him on the back. "Ladies," Griffiths said, "say hi to Rudy Thessinger. Rudy, meet Cledilce and Estela."
Thessinger rose and kissed their hands. "I'm pleased to meet you both. The pictures Juan sent don't do you justice," he said.
"He got a habit of selling us short," Cledilce said, sitting down next to the German. Estela sat opposite him. Griffiths lit one of his awful cigars and pawed at her incessantly while he gave Rudy his Carnaval spiel, promising him a good time. First chance she got, Cledilce hauled Thessinger away to the dancefloor.
Estela said, "Keep your fucking hands off me, Juan."
"Hey, you had a different attitude when I first came down here."
"Only 'cos you doing this thing for me and Cledilce."
Griffiths grabbed her arm and pulled her forward. "You were sweet on me then, remember?"
"I sucked your cock a coupla times - that doesn't mean I was sweet on you. Next time you pay like everyone else."
"You got a bad attitude. I can blow you right out of this deal."
"Maybe the deal's not all down to you."
"What you talking about?"
"Maybe Deborah's got something to say about this."
He released her arm and drained his glass. "What's that yanqui bitch been saying? Giving you ideas? Don't cross me, Estela. I say when the deal goes through, not that cunt."
When Rudy and Cledilce returned, the German asked Estela to dance. The crush of semi-naked bodies on the main dancefloor pinned them together. When she saw him staring at her breasts beneath the leotard, she shouted in his ear, "You wanna feel?"
Thessinger laughed. "How real?"
She placed one of his hands across her breasts. "No silicone in there, Sugar," she said, smiling. "Hormones."
"You work hard on your bodies, you and your friend."
"She's more than a friend," Estela said.
"Yeah?" said Thessinger. "And Juan is your friend too?"
Estela wondered what he meant, but for the moment she let it pass. He wasn't so bad, nice eyes, and he moved well, not slobbish like Griffiths. A drunken Cuban staggered into them and propositioned Estela. She shook her head but he groped clumsily at her crotch. Thessinger caught his arm and did something to it. The Cuban fell to the floor, howling.
"Jeez, Sugar," Estela said, surprised at what she considered an overreaction. "What you do to him?"
Thessinger smiled and guided her up the stairwell, where sweating couples made frenzied love. "You're a temptation, Estela, a beautiful one. Too much for a john like that."
"I thought you were gonna call me an investment."
Thessinger laughed and said, "Maybe that too."
Later on, Griffiths told Thessinger about the parade of samba schools, about how Cledilce and Estela would be dancing at the head of Salgueiro. The German winked at the two Birds, told them he was looking forward to seeing it. Despite giving the appearance of getting into the swing of things, Estela noticed that he drank little. She imagined what it would be like to feel him inside her, and wondered if that would happen in Berlin.
They left the ball after four, a taxi dropping the two birds at their apartment while Griffiths insisted on accompanying Thessinger back to his hotel. Cledilce ran a bath while Estela sat on the toilet bowl, skinning a joint. She remembered what Deborah had said about the Sanctuaries, about being caged, and tried to dismiss it as simply the envy of a dying woman. She said, "What you think of Thessinger?"
"Why, Honey?" Cledilce said. "You wanna fuck him?" She laughed and tested the water with her elbow.
"You know Deborah got the disease?"
"So," Cledilce said, losing her smile. "That ain't my problem."
"You don't feel sorry for her?"
"Sure, I feel sorry for all them bitches. But I'd feel a lot more sorry if it didn't give us this chance to do something for ourselves."
"You ain't worried 'bout the operation?"
"I explained that a dozen times, Estel, over there they do it right. It ain't just cutting a gash between your legs."
Estela's fears were not placated. She said, "You think we'll still feel the same way about each other?"
Cledilce smiled and hugged her. "Count on it, Honey." Then she peeled the lycra suit from her body, planted a kiss on Estela's lips, and took the joint from her. She lit it and stepped into the bath.
A sigh escaped Estela. Lately she had been wondering what exactly it was she felt for Cledilce. Was it love? Or had she simply mistaken gratitude and friendship for love? She said, "I fucked Deborah."
Stretched out in the water with one hand held up to keep the joint dry, Cledilce said, "Why?"
Cledilce shook her head. "Soon," she said, "you won't be able to do that."
"You didn't answer my question."
Cledilce reached out and squeezed Estela's cock through the satin skirt. "Remember Honey, when this is gone, I'll still be with you."
Estela stood and undressed. She climbed into the bath and slid down between Cledilce's legs, leaning back against her breasts. She felt wet kisses on her shoulders and neck, and hard flesh prodding against her back. She turned round, kneeling in the water and took Cledilce's cock in her mouth. In her mind she was already dreaming of Berlin.
Deborah came by to help them prepare for the parade. They sat drinking bottles of Pará beer as they made alterations to their gowns of feathers and silk. Tonight, bedecked in these extravagant costumes, Estela and Cledilce, would lead the Salgueiro school down to the asphalt at the Sambódromo.
Cledilce said, "Estela's worried 'bout the operation."
"It'll be okay," Deborah said. "They're investing a lot of money in you both."
"Will I be able to feel anything when I'm fucking?" Estela said.
"You should ask Thessinger."
"Would you do this, if you had the choice?" Estela asked her.
"She don't have that choice," Cledilce said, bluntly.
"Cledilce is right," Deborah said, draining her bottle. "I could never be a Bird like you."
Estela gave her a puzzled stare. She sensed a muted hostility and wondered if Deborah regretted sleeping with her. "I didn't mean -"
Cledilce cut her off. "You spent all this time fucking with your mouth; now you gonna have a chance to try the real thing."
"Well, I gotta go," Deborah said. "I told Griffiths I'd pick Thessinger up and get him something to eat before the parade." She stood up. "Now, lemme have a look at you." She draped the scarlet gown over Estela. Tall, black feathers sprouted from the back and shoulders creating a panoply of star-flecked night. She helped Cledilce into a black gown adorned with scarlet feathers, then stood back, staring at them. "You're like two creatures from a dream."
Estela leaned forward self-consciously and embraced her. "I'll be watching for your face in the crowd, Sugar," she said.
"Sure," Deborah said, then she nodded to Cledilce and left.
Ninety thousand people had crowded into the 1700 metre long Sambódromo to watch the competition. The Beija Flor had already completed their routine, as had the pink and black of the Mangueira school. Now it was the turn of the Salgueiro; fuelled by Aktives and amyl nitrate, they had worked themselves up into a state of feverish excitement and could hardly wait. When the signal came, the baterias began pounding out a relentless beat. Estela and Cledilce, leading a dozen or so magnificently arrayed performers, began to move slowly from the assembly area into the cauldron of the stadium itself. They were assaulted by a deafening roar and by waves of clammy heat; fireworks exploded in the sky overhead like a portent of some imagined apocalypse. Estela felt the blood begin to boil in her veins as the routines she had been practising for the best part of a year took hold of her limbs and set her cutting a sinuous swathe through the rainbowed night. Around her, Cledilce and the others flowed with liquid speed, intoxicated by complex rhythms as if they had freed themselves from invisible bonds. She too was aware of the sense of release, and as she danced she found it impossible to stick to the set routine. Alien manoeuvres were imposed on her body and brain as she instinctively moved ahead of her companions and abandoned herself to a display of raucous sexuality, a primitive, vital and threatening explosion of angry desire that exposed the sham hypocrisy of what Carnaval had become. Aktives exploded in her skull as heat consumed and transformed her into a creature of the air.
For an eternity there was only the music and the choreographed chaos of the dance as she lost all sense of place, time and identity; she felt herself raised up above the noise and light that comprised her universe, and she understood for once what it was to fly.
Coming down in the Sambódromo, cradled in Cledilce's arms, Estela felt no elation when she learned that her school had been awarded first prize; she felt only a sense of loss. Despite the desire to escape, this was still her home, and those who had danced beside her, were those she had called friends. It was too, she realised, her last dance at Carnaval.
It was eight-thirty in the morning by the time they had managed to fight their way from the stadium out into the crowded, steaming Centro streets. A thunderstorm broke overhead and cool but torrential rain battered their costumes and washed the heat from their limbs. A taxi slid to a halt beside them and Thessinger jumped out, opened the rear door and ushered them in. "Cafe Tudo Ben," he told the driver as he slid into the front seat.
Despite her exhaustion, Estela watched Thessinger's face in the mirror, wondering what he had thought of her performance. She told herself she would fuck him when she became a proper Bird.
Griffiths was already high when they reached the cafe. He hastily filled glasses of champagne, then raised a glass towards them. "Hey, hey, hey," he said. "I seen you both on the tv; you were fantastic."
Estela said, "Where's Deborah?"
"Who cares?" Griffiths said. "Maybe she was fucked again, huh, Estela?"
"You asshole," Estela said. She caught hold of Thessinger's arm. "She was with you?"
"Earlier, yes," Thessinger explained. "She left before the end, said she would meet me here."
"Honey," Cledilce said, "Don't worry 'bout it. Maybe she-"
"For Chrissakes," Griffiths snapped. "She knows where we're at. If she wants to come, then she will, right Rudy?"
"Juan is right," Thessinger said. "She'll turn up."
But an hour passed without her showing. Fatigue and a sense of anti-climax conspired to depress Estela. She rose and told the others she was returning to the apartment to get some sleep.
"C'mon, Estel," Cledilce said. "Don't go yet."
Estela forced a weak smile. "I'm gone, Sugar."
"What the fuck's wrong with you, you stupid bitch?" Griffiths said, grabbing her arm. "What'll Rudy think?"
Estela pulled free of his grip and glared at Thessinger. "When the contract's done, you know where to find me."
"You faggot," Griffiths sneered.
Estela spat in his face and before Griffiths could respond, Thessinger restrained him with an arm across his chest. "Enough, Juan," he said. "My people don't want damaged merchandise."
Griffiths slumped back into his seat. "Fuck her," he said, "She needs a lesson to be taught."
"Jesus, Estela!" Cledilce said. "What the Hell's up with you?"
Thessinger stood up. "I'll take her home."
He followed Estela out into the hot, morning light where traffic moved slowly north towards Copacabana. He walked beside her and she felt her anger ebb. He seemed to understand her need to be treated with respect. She knew it was a game, of course; he was just another pimp. "I appreciate that," she said.
He shrugged and stopped a taxi. In the back, he said, "You don't like the Señor." It wasn't a question.
"It was never part of the deal," Estela said, bitterly.
Thessinger wiped sweat from his forehead and nodded. "I have to see Ms. Hernandez before I take you home."
"What for?" Estela just wanted to sleep.
"About the deal." Thessinger watched her carefully before continuing. "What do you know about her?"
"She told me she set this up, not Juan."
"That's why I need to see her."
Estela felt relief that Deborah wasn't going to be cheated out of her cut. When the traffic slowed to a halt she grabbed Thessinger and pointed to a crazed old man stumbling in the middle of the road. In one hand he carried the skinned, decapitated corpse of a monkey.
"That's what I feel that fucking Argentine is doing to me," she said, nodding towards the dead animal.
Thessinger followed her gaze as the old man caught their eyes and leered. He lurched over to the car and raised his other hand. It held a clear plastic bag containing the monkey's head. He swung it against Thessinger's window and laughed.
"He's gonna cheat her," Estela said. "But you already know that."
Thessinger said nothing as the car pulled slowly away.
In her room at the Luxor Copacabana they found Deborah lying on her back on the bed with two bullet holes showing neatly in her white, cotton vest; her head was turned sideways and her eyes stared sightlessly towards the open window.
"Oh shit, man," Estela moaned. Deborah's close-cropped hair and pale skin gave her the appearance of a delicate child. An empathy she didn't understand made her wonder what was the last thing Deborah saw.
Thessinger moved to the bed, checked for a pulse, then began to go through the room turning out drawers and suitcases. "Quickly," he said, "we can't wait around."
Estela said, "That cocksucking bastard."
Thessinger said, "He left the parade about half an hour after her. Said he had to get things organised at the cafe."
Estela sat on the edge of the bed and stroked the dead woman's face. "Poor bitch deserved better than this."
"It's too bad."
"I told you he was gonna cheat her."
"There's nothing here to connect him with this," Thessinger said, as he moved around the room. "We better go."
"No," Estela said, bitterly. "He can't get away with it."
"Yes, he can," Thessinger said. "Just forget it. I have to get you to Berlin."
"I don't go before I see him," Estela said. "She was a friend."
Thessinger threw up his hands. "There's no time. You don't know where he'll be."
"With Cledilce. Listen Rudy, there's a place I know up in Rochina. I wanna take him there."
"Okay," Thessinger said, wearily. "I'll bring Cledilce and meet you there." He took a small handgun from inside his shirt and held it towards her. "Take it."
She stared at it for a moment, confused. Was this really what she wanted? Then she picked it up and stuck it in her bag.
She found Griffiths at the apartment, in bed with Cledilce. Both were unconscious from drink. "Hey Juan," she said, shaking him.
"Huh," he said, pawing at his eyes. "Estela? Where you been?"
"With Rudy. He straightened me out, said I owed you."
"What about the deal?"
"Later, at his Hotel. First, I wanna do you a favour."
"What favour?" Griffiths slurred.
Estela got up and searched in a drawer. She came back to the bed and told him to sit up. She popped an Aktive 'poule against his fleshy neck. "Jeez," he said. He reached up and grabbed her breasts.
"Not here," Estela said, nodding towards Cledilce. "We'll go out, pick her up later."
She took him to the Sayonara, a club on the second floor of one of the high rise blocks in Rochina. She led him up a dark flight of stairs to a dance hall. Paint peeled from the walls and the curtains at the side of the stage were dank and shabby. A band drowsed on stage and a few decrepit Babes sat perched on barstools painting their nails. They climbed a second flight to where an old woman sat dozing at a dirt-stained desk. Griffiths gave her money and she pointed to a door. In the room a bed with a single sheet stood in the corner.
Griffiths sat on the bed and began to remove his clothes. She kept her back to him and removed the gun from her bag. "You owe it all to me," she heard him say. "I want you to suck me dry."
"You didn't have to do it, Juan," she said, turning with the gun in her hand.
"What's that?" Griffiths said. "You gone crazy or what?"
She saw the fear in his eyes. "You wanted it all for yourself."
"What you fucking talking about?"
"Deborah, you cocksucker."
"Who gives a shit about that whore?"
"She's nothing," Griffiths said. "She's the disease."
Her body shook with ferocious anger as she squeezed the trigger. The bullet hit him in the stomach and smashed him flat on the bed. He groaned and with an effort he pushed himself up on one elbow. "You fucking bitch whore-cunt, you can't kill me," he said, his face a mask of incomprehensible rage as he pawed at the bloody hole. "I fucking own you. It's impossible for you to kill me. Fucking impossible."
"Yeah?" Estela said, then emptied the gun into his head. She ran downstairs and out into the street where Thessinger was waiting in a taxi. He told the driver to take them out to Galeâo airport and it was only when they were aboard the shuttle waiting for take-off to Paris that she remembered Cledilce.
"Where is she?" she asked him.
"The cops were there before I had a chance to get her out," Thessinger explained.
"What are you talking about? How the fuck did the cops find out?"
Thessinger sighed. "The Luxor is a big hotel, Estela, full of Americans and Europeans. If someone's shot dead in one of their rooms, then they have to be seen to be taking action if they don't want to lose business. So the cops make more of an effort than usual."
"But how did they get to Cledilce?
"They must have found an address or something."
"Jesus," Estela said, seeing that that made sense. "They'll pin it all on her. We can't leave her to answer for this."
"Someone has to."
"They'll kill her," which was probably true. But what could she do without Thessinger's help? "I owe her everything," she said, weakly.
"We'll protect her. Now think of yourself - you shot someone. I'm saving your ass. Remember that, remember in the future how much you owe to me." He talked continuously, trying to soothe her, holding her as the shuttle took off, telling her about all the wonderful things the future held. But Estela de Brito was no longer listening. Her thoughts had turned inwards, searching for whatever it was that had motivated her to do what she had done. She needed that hatred now, that strength. For a long time she searched, but there was nothing there, only the sweet temptation of flight, and of Paradise.
Thessinger plays Satie's Gymnopédies on the piano as Heinrich enters the room to inform me that Cledilce Macedo will meet me for lunch at the Kopenhagen. Patterns of fear distort my perceptions, undermining the solidity of my bones. It's difficult to distinguish between the past and dreams. This morning I dreamt I awoke to find the sheets scarlet with blood and instructed Heinrich to burn them.
"You must go," Rudy tells me, but I ignore him because he does not know how the dream will turn out. "She can't harm you."
"Harm me?" The idea both attracts and repulses me. "I never dreamt that."
Rudy smiled. "I never took you for a dreamer, Estela, a sad romantic clinging bitterly to the wreckage of what never really was."
Is that what I am now? A broken fairy doll? "My dreams are all of the disease," I tell him.
"We've talked about that before. You have nothing to worry about."
"Why has she come?"
"I don't know," he lies, shrugging his shoulders; it's what gives him away. He's been lying to me for a long time.
"You knew she was alive all this time?"
"We were unable to maintain her contract at the time. It lapsed and someone else bought her option."
Over the years I've grown to despise Rudy. It's more than the fact that he and Spengler never sent for Cledilce, more even than hollowness of this life to which he brought me. I ask, "You think she knows what happened in Rio?"
"It hardly matters now, I'm sure she-"
"Shall I tell her this life is a lie?" I interrupt.
"Say what you like," Thessinger says, "she is owned." He leaves without another word.
Cledilce Macedo is waiting in a booth by the window at the Kopenhagen. She is resplendent in silver and black, her hair plaited and studded with jewels. I feel this meeting is part of the dream and that in it, a solution will be revealed. I sense no threat.
"Cumo vai?" she says.
"I'm well," I say. "The police? They hurt you?"
She smiles and says, "They didn't kill me."
"I wanted to go back for you."
She waves her hand, dismissing the idea. "You look good."
"You shouldn't have come. They lied, it's not like our dream."
"I had no choice," Cledilce says. "He took you away from me."
"I had to go. I killed Griffiths."
"Juan was a fool. But why the Hernandez woman?"
Nausea hits me in the stomach. "What do you mean?"
Cledilce leans forward, touches my arm. "They were both killed by the same gun. It was in the reports; that's why they couldn't prove anything against me."
The truth infects and sickens me. I stumble to the bathroom, Cledilce close behind. She holds me while I vomit, uttering words of comfort, words I haven't heard since I left the other life. When there is nothing left to throw up I crouch on the floor, sobbing, searching for the words to beg forgiveness. But the words are dead on my tongue. Thoughts twist and reel in my skull and all I can do is sit and wait for the world to get back on an even keel.
In a room at the Kempinski Hotel, I watch the last of the daylight struggling through the blinds, falling on Cledilce's mahogany flesh. The surgeons have crafted a fine vagina for her and her fingers explore me to the full; even so I derive no pleasure from her touch. The truth is the sex we shared was more like that between whore and client than between two lovers, except in this instance, neither of us feels the need to fake anything. She's silent and still but not sleeping. Neither of us has spoken for more than twenty minutes and the claustrophobic silence crushes any understanding we might have had. The gulf of the past yawns between us as I knew it would. I realise that what we'd once shared, is now ashes.
I try to dream what is in her head. Once, we shared an intuition which was almost telepathic. I probe now but fail to penetrate the veil. Perhaps Cledilce has something to hide, doesn't want me inside her head. Anxiety gnaws my brain. Rudy has lied again, as he always does; she came to take my place. The disease wakens inside me as one day, it will awaken in her.
I get up and pull on my clothes, aware of Cledilce's silent eyes following my movements. We stare at each other for a few seconds, knowing that we have nothing left to say, and sharing a fragile confusion as we acknowledge the death of the past. The moment slips by and I leave the room.
Heinrich returns with the purchase, unwraps it and places it in my hand. The gun is dark, heavy and silenced, filling me with a sense of power. I sit by the dressing table, searching my face in the mirror for the first signs, pondering the mess a bullet would make. I try to accept that it is Cledilce's turn to live the dream and that my part in it is drawing to a close. But it's not that easy, not when I picture the uncorrupted faith she still has in the charade, a faith that will allow her to usurp my role as the Queen of Berlin.
Light streams in the window, casting mottled patterns on the bed. Rudy will be here soon, to scour my flesh for warning signs, perhaps to gloat. Shame and fear crowd my skull, but I draw strength from hatred. The least I can do for Cledilce is spare her his attentions, the almost obsessive concern he has shown me. In truth, ours has been a parasitic relationship: by allowing him to see himself as my protector, I give him strength and a sense of purpose; he in turn has organised my life in this city and, I realise now, protected me from certain, unpalatable truths. It is time to rid myself of such false protection.
I put the gun inside my kimono and suck on the crystal pipe, just a little, enough to keep the dream alive. In the lounge, I drowse on the sofa, memories flitting back and forth through my mind; unedited and out of sequence, they provide a telling representation of my life. I wish I could unravel all the threads, but there is so little time.
Heinrich rouses me and announces Ms. Cledilce Macedo. A pang of guilt spears my heart as she enters the room. This is someone who I have both loved and betrayed; what has brought her to me at this moment? I feel delirious and immobilised. I think, has she come to witness my atonement, or simply to record my decay?
She kneels on the carpet at my feet and tells me that whatever I believe, she's never blamed me for what happened. She knows Rudy manipulated me. I listen, and realise this is true. I see the clear beauty shining out of her dark eyes, remember nights of cool ecstasy, and wonder how she intends to spring the trap. She says she still loves and needs me, and her eyes hold me tight, screaming that this too, is the truth, and all the pain and bitterness of old betrayals well up inside as Cledilce tells me it is still possible for us to be together. And it is at this precise moment that I finally realise how I can atone for having sinned against her. I pull the gun from my kimono and, allowing her illusions of sanctuary to remain intact, I quietly shoot Ms. Macedo dead.
A short time later, Rudy arrives and finds me sitting on the sofa, the gun in my hand, the body at my feet.
Spengler let me live, after a fashion. At first I was puzzled but then I saw that I owe my preservation to that which made me unique. With what they know now of the virus, they no longer deem it worth-while to bestow refinements on Birds.
I'm a different creature now, virus sculpted, ever-changing. Kleinfeld's drugs have halted the hair loss and he treats me with synthetic Factor 8 to regulate the bleeding. Of course I no longer perform.
My new apartment looks out on the Siegessäule. I dream of climbing it soon to gaze down on the city from its magnificent perch; one day, when my strength returns. Then I shall swoop down on the Birds who stole my crown, to mock their preening beauty, perhaps to sing a lament for Cledilce.
Many months have passed since I last saw Rudy. I no longer wonder why I failed to exact revenge for Deborah by letting him live; perhaps, in those few minutes before he arrived at the apartment, the last vestiges of the dream tricked me in to thinking that there was still a place for me in the future of Birds. Or maybe it was just that I was scared and like so many times in the past, I knew he would take care of the mess. He took her body away and brought Kleinfeld to me. He left then, for the Far East, ostensibly to recruit new talent, but I was aware that he was running from the disease. Once, he sent me a pair of songbirds from Bangkok. But mostly he sends postcards, from places like Rangoon or Delhi, describing local customs and rituals as if he were some meticulous anthropologist charting the last days of a dying race. As time has passed, I've learned to read between the lines and have come to the conclusion that Rudy seeks redemption.
But even that is beyond me. Alone up here and caged, wings clipped like Rudy's songbirds, I hear no acolytes' prayers. The dream is my sustenance and my devourer; we two diminish, a little more each passing day.
© Mike O'Driscoll 1996, 2000
'The Future of Birds'
was originally published in the anthology Off Limits: Tales of
Alien Sex, edited by Ellen Datlow and published by St Martin's
Press in 1996.
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