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magazine coverJeff Sturgeon also did the artwork for this, our penultimate issue, #38. I bought the striking image (on aluminum) at a local art auction and was happy to get it after someone bid up the price. Jeff, trooper that he was, said I could also use it for a cover. This was Patricia Russo’s third story for us, and easily my favorite. Well, maybe. Because the other two could easily have made the cut. As always, her fiction is wonderfully strange. She told us at the time that “Swoop” was mostly a true story.



It had been an eleven-story mixed-use building, before it burned.

Now, it was a gutted shell, empty except for charred beams and heaps of smashed glass and the hovering stink of ash and blackened plastic. The roof, flat and tar-papered, had buckled and crimped, rippled and heaved; in the middle, it had collapsed, leaving a gaping, ragged skylight. The family, or the tribe — we argued still over what to call ourselves, and I imagine we always will — were sitting on the roof, just hanging about, up to nothing special. Shooting the shit, messing with the pigeons, watching the world, playing with threads a little. That last led some of us into philosophy, always a good time-killing topic. If you could unravel the world, would you pull the first thread? Cam said Yay, for sure, in a heartbeat. Start fresh, clean slate, a chance to get it right, or righter, anyway. Li was more on the better-the-devil-you-know side. Most of us weren’t paying a great deal of attention to the chit and the chat and the back and the forth and the deep, deep thoughts. It was a pleasant day. Not too sunny, but warm, and we caught a nice breeze up there. The stink didn’t bother anybody but Vale, but Vale always found something to be bothered about. We were all sitting around the edge, but no one was concerned, since we all had wings. They were plastic grocery bag ones this week — Ana Helena’s idea. Besides, if there was one thing we all shared, it was a talent for falling well. A family attribute — or a tribal characteristic.

We’d come to see if the building felt sorrow. Pure anthropomorphism, of course, attributing such a trait to a structure. But some of us were of the animist persuasion, and Ana Helena’s plastic grocery bags were amusing to play with, and none of us had anything better to do. We never had anything better to do. The constant challenge was to find anything to do at all. So we flew to the building and perched and tried to feel. The building had stood for decades. Many people had worked and lived inside. Made coats, made hats, made phone calls, made love, made babies, made plans, made discoveries, made decisions, done deals, done drugs, done good and ill, done well and badly, done come and gone. If the walls could talk, they say. These walls only stank.

“How many people died in the fire?”

“Six or seven.”

No ghosts, either, or none that we could sense. Personally, I’ve never sensed one, ever. Some of us insist they have, and of course lots of people believe in them. But people believe in all sorts of absurdities. Am I saying that some of the family aren’t much better? I’m afraid so. It arises from boredom, I believe. Boredom and hope. An unchancy combination, but prevalent in the tribe. All of us, to my knowledge, can feel boredom, and most behave as though they possessed hope.

Clouds scudded. The sun shifted. Time passed, as it did, or didn’t. All days were one day, all nights the same. Cam suggested we find a child and tickle it, to experience laughter again. Vale countered with the proposal that we should torture it and experience pain. Laughter, pain . . . the words were empty. Our memories can hold the words, but not the sensations.

“Let’s swim. The river is nigh.”

“But this is not time for water, it is time for air.”

“There is no time but time. All time is one.”

And so philosophy broke out again. The wind blew. Someone began threading clouds. “Don’t make it rain,” I said, and for spite, soon fat gray drops began to fall. Spite we can all feel.

“What’s that below?”

As it stands, some of us can spell, and most of us can riddle, and curiosity is yet rife. When we lose curiosity, I think, then our existence comes to an end. We will lose it, of course, for eventually all things are lost. Most of us have already gone. I believe their fading, their final dwindling, occurred when the spark of curiosity each had once nursed did, at last, wither. What happens to the flame when the candle is blown out? Our memories hold the names of those who have gone, but not their faces.

We looked down.

There was a woman in the street below, a human woman, stick thin and middle-aged, wearing clothes that flapped on her the way our plastic grocery bag wings flapped on us, wearing long yellow hair streaked with gray, wearing glasses with narrow lenses, and wearing silver rings on all her fingers. We could taste her from eleven stories up. Her emotions were unfiltered, maskless, raw. She had been riding a bicycle, a pink thing with long handlebars, a child’s toy. This she lifted over her head and hurled into the traffic, making cars screech to a stop, making horns blare, making men and women curse.

We all swept to the edge of the roof directly above her, nudging and jostling and rustling each other. A sigh ran through the whole of us, what remained of our bodies and what we speculated might be our souls, and for a moment we were all one, no dissension or dispute, our own names almost lost in the swing and crash of desire. If we could taste her up here, how much stronger would the sensations, the feelings, the aliveness be should we get close, should we . . . take her.

We didn’t do that any more, or not often. Humans were not so difficult to take, but always more trouble than they were worth to keep. A lesson learned, repeatedly. A lesson not forgotten.

“It’s grief.”

“It’s rage.”

“It’s despair.”

We hunted for the words, chased after wisps of memory more insubstantial than smoke.

“It burns,” Vale said, with longing.

“There’s more,” Cam said. “Wait, feel. She yearns.” Cam always claimed to remember feelings more than the rest of us, to have them, even, but now was no time for argument, because the woman below did yearn as well as burn, did long as well as rage. But for what, for what?

She was a whirlwind, electric, a storm contained and restrained by flesh scarcely more solid than our own. She threw back her head, yellow-gray hair wild, all animal and entirely human, and screamed at the people screaming at her. She leaped into the traffic, arms flung out.

“She wants to fly.”

“She wants to be rescued,” I said, and for a moment everything stopped as the sigh went through us all again, for we all had the same thought then: if we swooped down now, all together, and took the woman up, we could feast on the spectrum — the rage and grief now, the terror when we took her, but then, too, possibly . . . joy?

“Let’s make her laugh,” Li said.

Ana Helena was the first to jump, but within an instant the rest followed. The air roared; our wings flapped and snapped, catching the current, fighting the wind. Graceful we were not. More like clumsy kites than birds. But some could yet spell, and the glamour we wove was good enough for these modern times. We called down a cloud, and took her under the cover of the gray, and when we were all aloft again, the people below glanced at each other, and looked around, and said that was strange and that fog came out of nowhere and the crazy bitch is gone, at least. A young man picked up the pink bicycle and tossed it back on the sidewalk.

The woman screamed for several minutes. It was delightful. The intensity, the vividness. We took her to the roof of the burned-out building, away from the edge, though not close enough to the hole in the center, that gap like a bite made by a giant rat, for her to get the notion of jumping that way. On a buckled ridge of tar paper, touching her lightly, a fingertip each, we felt her fury, her fear, her confusion, her lostness. “What is this, what is this,” she kept saying.

“You wanted to fly, didn’t you?” Vale said.

“You wanted to be rescued,” I said.

Cam and Li, who were the strongest, took her arms and flew her up a few feet above the roof, then in a moderately fast swing around the building, once, twice. Now it was jealousy we felt, those of us below, for what Cam and Li were getting that we were not, and we murmured to each other: that comes from inside us, that is our own, that jealousy.

“Rescue?” the woman cried. And we felt, we drank, we experienced, partly in words and partly in threads, her grief, a lover dead, an apartment gone, a child never born, possibilities destroyed, opportunities missed. All these human things, we licked as we once licked cream. Cam and Li landed, to rest, and we all touched her again, tasting wonder, exhilaration, confusion still, grief still, but more muted. The fear was very pale now, that flavor thin. “Why me?” the woman asked.

No reason, none at all. Curiosity, boredom, hunger. Every reason in the world, every reason throughout time. All time is one time, and nothing ever changes.

Again Li and Cam lifted her, straight up, high and higher.

“You’re not angels,” she said. “You can’t be. Plastic grocery bag wings?”

Of course we were not. Never were, never had been, never would be.

“I’m dreaming this,” she said, as Cam and Li brought her back down. What she did not understand, what none of them ever understood, was that we did not care what she thought, what she believed. We did not care about her. All we wanted was to feel. There must have been a time when we hadn’t needed people for that. How else would we know what we lacked, if we had not once had it? Li and Cam lifted her again, soaring, then looping backwards, an amusement park ride, and that did it, it happened, what we craved the most. The woman threw back her head, long yellow-gray hair wild, the way she had done on the street when she screamed, but now she threw back her head to laugh.

She laughed, and we laughed, all together, in chorus, in harmony, gleeful with her glee, manic with her excitement. We laughed until our dwindled bodies ached; Cam and Li, our strongest, kept her in the air, looping, kept her laughing even as they laughed and ached themselves. Our laughter fueled hers, another loop; almost, it went on forever. We tasted the wildness in her laughter, too, and we knew that the terror would break through again soon, but that flavor was wonderful as well. And I knew, when we were laughing, what we all thought: let’s keep her. This one we’ll keep. It’ll be different this time. We knew, though, that this hope was forlorn. Tears burst from her, then sobs and shrieks; we huddled around her on the roof, drinking it in, drinking all of it in.

We let her go at sunset, just before twilight overtook the sky. We left her on the sidewalk in front of the burnt building. She was composed, tears wiped away, unsmiling, unhappy. They are never happy with us, not for long. “We mean no harm,” we could say, and it would be only half a lie. We mean no harm, and we mean no good. We said nothing, and neither did she. Someone had stolen her pink bicycle, but she simply shrugged at the spot where it had been, then walked away.

Time passed, or didn’t, as time does, or doesn’t. Some time later, or perhaps before, we saw the same woman again, in the same overlarge clothes, in the same stick-limbed body, but she had cut off her long yellow-gray hair, shaved her head to the scalp.



“Is it?”

“It is.”

We were not flying that day, that season, that era. Flying had grown wearisome, plastic grocery bag wings puerile. Or had not yet become so. We were sliding and smoothing in shadow, glamour-gray, playing childish games — duck, duck, goose, spiral hopscotch — languorously. Tripping and pinching. Some of the old games never went out of fashion.

The woman with the shaved head jumped out into the street, into the traffic, windmilling her arms, screaming at the sky.

“Should we?”

“Should we?”

“What does she want, what does she want?”

“She wants rescue,” I said.


“Why not? Are we ourselves not the same, ever pining for rescue from our own insipid, lingering existences?”

And so we slithered in and out of the shadows, arguing, waiting to discover if we had enough hope left in us, as well as a sufficient amount of curiosity remaining, to rescue the screaming woman once more.

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