Having been born in vinegar and conceived by a viper, cockatrice girl knew how to hurt people. The fact that statue boy was immune to her signature trick was no great obstacle. She had a dozen poisons in her snake eyes, a hundred conversational traps hidden beneath her skirt, between her long chicken legs. None of these were as reliable as transforming someone to stone, of course. Statue boy’s invulnerability made cockatrice girl want to hurt him even more. She stayed up much too late, chewing her claws as she drew diagrams of stone-crushing machines and plotted stratagems.
Oh, how she loathed him. But there was something else about statue boy, something which made cockatrice girl want to cuddle with him, to gaze into his calm grey eyes. These urges, as unexpected as watermelons in the dead of winter, were more dangerous than stone which could move and speak and see. So, as much as she wanted to hurt him, cockatrice girl instead decided to avoid statue boy, to keep to her familiar paths and haunts.
* * *
Cockatrice girl had met statue boy on one of her spontaneous middle-of-the-night jaunts. Sometimes she needed to be in motion, fast, to feel wave after wave of night wind caressing her cheeks. To be someplace completely new, where the people had not yet learned to guard themselves against her poison, her sly tongue, with their preemptive silences or impenetrable politeness.
On this particular night, she drove west out of the Valley, over the tridge, past the Grove of Heads and unto a wide plateau. In the untrustworthy glow of her headlights, the ground appeared to be featureless, a grey repetition. The roads in this place were all perpendicular, they formed a grid, but cockatrice girl could see no reason for any of the crossings. Back home, in the Valley, the roads were serpentine or strangely angled. She could remember the quirks of those roads, savor the unfolding of each path’s unique squiggle. Here, she became hopelessly lost.
* * *
Once she realized how lost she was, she resolved to simply drive in a straight line until she reached somewhere, some edge. This proved to be impossible. Straight lines were anathema to her, child of a viper that she was. After ten minutes, she began to sweat uncontrollably and soon the wheel slipped in her hands, forcing her to turn.
Finally, her eyes almost a blur, she came across an all-night diner, its sign glowing colorful against the grey. Statue boy was her waiter. Then, his stone skin had been nothing more than a curiosity, an interesting tidbit to relate to her sisters later. After a restorative meal of poached eggs and strong coffee, cockatrice girl asked him for directions. (She intended to humiliate him in some small way later to balance out his knowledge of her imperfection, his help.) He sat across from her, drawing a map on a napkin.
But when he looked up, his eyes caught hers and held them for a full minute. His eyes were grey and stone, but there was such movement in them—the slow, relentless crawl of mountains across centuries and continents, the steady dance of the sea on a calm day, the stately procession of clouds across the sky. She had always thought of stone as completely motionless, she had stilled many lives by turning them into stone, and yet these eyes. Stone dripped, she had heard, in slow motion metered out in decades. The thought, his eyes, were abhorrent to her, and yet she could not stop looking. She was intoxicated. Paralyzed. Infuriated. He returned her gaze as intently. What did he see in her eyes?
“Your eyes are beautiful,” he said, at last releasing her, “They’re green like waterfalls, like snakes curling and uncurling with new skin, like the grass unraveling.”
“My eyes are poisonous,” she hissed, “and I will devour you with them.”
“Let me suck the poison out of you with kisses.”
She threw her plate at him but it shattered harmlessly. Statue boy stood up and bowed to her. “I have seen you. I will not forget. And neither will you.”
Cockatrice girl leapt up, bruising both shins against the table. She hurled her glass! her fork! her knife! her spoon! the salt shaker! at his retreating back. None of them made a dent. She grabbed the table and began to lift it.
A loud cough brought cockatrice girl back to her senses. The fat woman at the next table was staring at her, horrified. She let go of the table. What she should have done was feigned boredom; and that should have been easy, effortless, a response as conditioned as a knee jerk. The map that statue boy had drawn for her lay there still, audaciously white, the black lines dividing it into teeth, a mocking grin. Her fingers, her sharpened claws, longed to shred the napkin into meaningless pieces but she needed the map to find her way home.
* * *
She did not tell her sisters about him, after all.
Her sisters were older than she, and had been born human. The shattering of their mother, the bizarre violence of cockatrice girl’s birth, had hardened both of them into kindred spirits. Beatrice, the eldest, had refused to cut or comb her hair until it tangled into a solid mass around her, a permanent veil. Flannery, the wilder of the two, had locked herself into freezer after freezer. Now, her skin was as pale and as cold as ice, and her breath white clouds even in the summer.
Instead, cockatrice girl asked her sisters what they thought the most dangerous thing in the world was, and how one could defend oneself against it.
“Eyes,” Beatrice said. “Stab them out. Even yours.”
“But,” cockatrice girl pointed out, “you haven’t gouged your own eyes out.”
“No one’s perfect.”
“I think that the most dangerous thing in the word,” Flannery said, “the deadliest, scariest, most treacherous thing I’ve ever heard of . . . is a butterfly. And the only way to be safe is to move every three months, so that you always live in winter.”
“Couldn’t you just live in the arctic?” cockatrice girl asked, irritated. She could never tell how seriously Flannery meant anything. The cold seemed to have addled her brains.
“Oh, no. No, no, no, no. The arctic butterfly is the worst of them all, spring’s spy in the fortress of ice, like a dagger of melting.”
“What if,” cockatrice girl said, “the danger is a person?”
“Other people,” Beatrice said. “Goes without saying. They’re the most dangerous thing.”
“You shouldn’t live in your house,” Flannery added. “You should live in ours.” Her two sisters lived in a cave beneath the abandoned school, and amused themselves by playing ghosts for the terrified, delighted children who snuck in at night. Cockatrice girl had neighbors, which horrified her sisters, although in her neighborhood the yards were all immense. “We make all the people we need,” Flannery always said. She spent hours at a time illustrating imaginary companions with intricate frost.
But cockatrice girl needed people to turn into statues, people who would believe her lies, people to betray. Paradoxically, the least human of the three sisters was the most social.
“What if,” cockatrice girl said, “the most dangerous thing is inside of you somewhere?”
* * *
The next time cockatrice girl encountered statue boy, he was working at her favorite coffee shop, the Bitch’s Brew. The Bitch’s Brew was a riotgrrl coffee shop slash ’zine distro slash neo-pagan shrine. She found the politics and the spirituality insipid. But she adored the atmosphere, loved to look at the girls with their bright metal piercings, to marvel at how they were simultaneously scars, souvenirs of pain, and weapons. Her own skin was impenetrable.
When cockatrice girl saw his unmistakable grey flesh behind the counter she once again flew into an uncharacteristic rage. She launched herself at him, as if she believed her chicken legs gave her the ability to fly. Precarious, perched on the counter, she grabbed his head. His skin was astonishingly warm. She could not force him to move, could not smash his head down into the glass.
“Cassandra,” he said, the trembling in his voice as much a surprise as his warmth had been, “please don’t.” She had thought him completely solid, an exoskeleton without organs.
“I can hurt you.” She pressed her claws against his scalp, to see if it would have any effect. Liquid, like wet concrete, oozed out.
Statue boy grimaced. “Yes. Please don’t.”
“But I can’t move you against your will.” She released the pressure from her claws, but kept her fingers on his head, arrayed like the spokes of a crown.
“And you can’t stop me from moving.”
“I know.” For a moment, she could not recall what she was doing here.
“Cassandra? Please don’t leave me.” On top of the counter, her vantage point on the world was different. She sensed something important on the horizon, and scoured the corners of the room for its approach. Could it be the danger, could it be the defense against it?
Before she could see anything, a door slammed shut.
“Cockatrice girl! Get the fuck down from there now!” It was Shannon, the owner.
* * *
“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you not to come back for a while.” Shannon stood, much calmer now, arms crossed, her back firm against the back door of the Bitch’s Brew. Cockatrice girl did not have friends, but Shannon was a fond acquaintance, a woman she respected for her grit, her skill in the art of dueling tongues.
“I can’t believe you hired a man,” cockatrice girl hissed. “What about smashing the patriarchy?”
Shannon rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so second wave. Men aren’t the enemy. Plus, it’s an interesting question: is statue boy a man? He wasn’t raised by humans so he hasn’t had the years of patriarchal conditioning, which is what really matters, not the shape of your genitalia.” Clearly, Shannon longed to discuss the implications for feminist theory. Cockatrice girl tuned out her ramblings. She wanted to say, I’ve turned many men into stone, and you never wanted to analyze that. “So, like I said, he’s a feminist.”
“He came unto me the first night we met. How feminist is that?”
Shannon grinned. “He told me about meeting you.”
“What?! What did he tell you?”
“Oh, no. I know better than to tell you something which’ll piss you off.”
* * *
A letter from statue boy containing his words, silent ambassadors, arrived at her very doorstep. It was a love poem. She burnt it immediately. But she couldn’t bring herself to throw the ashes away. They sat in a small urn, like the remains of something neither alive nor dead. For the first few weeks, each Friday, another envelope would arrive, bearing the name “Cassandra” in statue boy’s steady, blocky handwriting. (Her name was not Cassandra; the only name she had, needed, or desired was cockatrice girl, vixen of the Valley, mother of a thousand stillborn statues.) The intervals between the letters grew smaller; two a week, three a week, one every day. Cockatrice girl imagined that the tempo would continue to accelerate until an avalanche of white letters poured out of her mailbox. This did not happen. Each time she found a new one, a delicious anger would fill her. She piled up the unopened envelopes in a box in front of the urn.
Though statue boy had somehow managed to invade both her coffee shop and her home, the rest of the familiar landscape of her life was still safe. However, she now found it boring. Hanging out with the vampires, the black-market plastic surgeons, and the professional brides, she discovered that the verbal repartee had become a stale dance of the same three steps, over and over. Even standing beneath the tridge with her sisters to gossip and watch the suicides fall had lost its thrill.
She spent more and more time in her sprawling garden of statues, despite the fact that sitting there, in the rows and rows of frozen grey figures, she kept imagining motion at the edges of her vision. One day while she stood in her garden, her heart beat faster and faster, until it was leaping from beat to beat, from fear to hope, from hope to fear. She expected it to reach a crescendo, for her very heart to fly out of her chest, up into the air, and unfold into some miraculous new shape, like origami with organs. All that happened though was that she got lightheaded and had to repair inside for some snakescale tea and a biscuit.
Things could not go on like this. So cockatrice girl threw a party. She invited everyone she knew, Shannon and the Bitch’s Brew girls, the exiles hiding out in the castle next door, those few of her ex’s who were still mobile, her sisters, the museum curators who paid her gobs of cash under the table, her rivals, enemies, and colleagues, the floating mask she wanted to kiss, her specially trained pedicurist. Everyone. Even the good fairy with her ridiculous pink wings. Even statue boy.
She dusted off all the statues, aired out the secret passages. Beatrice hung bones from ribbons and covered every available surface with candles, while Flannery sang to herself and snuck into the walk-in freezer. Cockatrice girl dismantled all the traps, except for the ones protecting her bedroom. She brought down the skullcups from the attic. At the Crossroads Market, she bought the most extravagant carnivorous plants she could find and an assortment of exotic grey fruit from the far North to make Stone Punch. For the punch bowl, she fed an enormous seashell to a boa constrictor, and then petrified the snake. Most importantly, she bought a vial containing the distilled essence of one hundred years of rain.
* * *
Cockatrice girl stood on her staircase, which curved like a neck twisted out of shape by desire, and surveyed the party. Beatrice, of course, sat in a corner by herself, unapproachable even in this gathering of freaks, improbables, and predators, cut off from the world by her own unmanageable hair. Surprisingly, Flannery appeared to be engaged in a friendly, animated conversation with a boy whose balloon head floated several feet above his collar. A cluster of vampires attempted to drain a leather-covered man into the punchbowl. In the courtyard, the good fairy and a few of the more wide-eyed Bitch’s Brew girls had attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to start some kind of circular, flowing game involving glowing orbs of light and pastel-colored scarves.
The party seemed to be going well, although cockatrice girl did not care much either way. She was looking for a certain type of person; she needed to make sure the liquid in the vial worked. She spotted a used heart salesman named Victor, who considered himself to be wily. She sauntered over to him.
“Well, hello,” Victor said, his smile widening.
“Victor,” cockatrice girl traced the edge of his glass with one long, arched finger, “have I ever told you that you look like a perfect devil in that suit?”
“I feel like a fox in the fox house,” Victor replied, “So many villains! If only we were united by some visionary leader. Think of the scams we could pull, the epic deceptions.”
“Now, now, Victor,” cockatrice girl waggled her finger in front of his face. At the same time, with the slightest flick of her other wrist, she poured a drop from the vial into his glass. “Be good.”
With that, she walked away. Before she had gotten far, Victor cried out, “My bones! They’re melting.” Cockatrice girl turned around. He was a puddle of flesh on the floor.
* * *
Drifting through the party, cockatrice girl saw a woman with the strangest haircut she had ever seen; most of her hair hung long, behind her head, like a cape, but parts of it were short and spiky, and there were several floppy mohawks running diagonally across her scalp. The woman sobbed inconsolably, and cockatrice girl paused to watch. The punk barber responsible stood there, still holding the scissors, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
“Chill out,” he said. “It’ll grow back.”
“Not the same!” the woman wailed. “It won’t ever be the same.”
The punk barber implored cockatrice girl with his eyes, and the woman took notice of her.
“Sister!” the woman cried, and it was Beatrice, her sister, whose face cockatrice girl did not remember, could not look at now. “Don’t you recognize me?”
“You cut your hair?”
“I didn’t! He did. Never asked me. Just started chopping away. A lawnmower.”
Cockatrice girl could think of nothing to say. Seeing Beatrice’s face, she realized now, was like seeing her sister’s privates, as if some foolish child had pulled down her pants as a cruel prank. Her sister’s face was impossibly pale, surprisingly expressive, causing cockatrice girl to wonder if Beatrice had been smiling and winking and crying behind her hair all these years, like a play performed with the curtain still drawn. Beatrice’s face was as vulnerable and soft as any person’s naked face, without make-up or mask. Cockatrice girl felt something rising in her throat, something she had to fight to keep down, she did not know if it were a laugh or a rising tide of vomit. Instead of finding out, she walked away.
* * *
She waited for statue boy to approach her. He did so a little after midnight.
“Good evening Cassandra,” he said cheerfully, setting his glass on the table beside her. He wore a tuxedo.
Though it grated her, she didn’t bother to correct him about her name. “Oh. I didn’t realize you had come.” In fact, she had been watching him all night, a snake eying a hawk.
“Are your enjoying your party?”
“Why—” she let her drink slip out of her hands. The glass landed in the carpet, askew but not spilling.
“Let me get that for you,” he offered, as she had known he would.
“Oh, you don’t have—” He handed the glass back to her. “Thank you.”
“What did you put in my drink?” he asked.
“Put in your drink?”
“I saw you. Remember?”
“Well, since you don’t trust me, why don’t you take my drink? You rescued it, after all.”
Cockatrice girl grinned. “You’re good,” she said, and walked away. She poured her drink down the toilet.
* * *
Cockatrice girl spotted Flannery, still talking to the boy with a floating balloon head. She stood behind a wide-leaved potted plant to eavesdrop.
“I dream about it,” the balloon headed boy said, “the buildings shrinking to doll houses, the people becoming ants, tiny and harmless, the Valley itself no more than a crack in the sidewalk.”
“And it would be so cold up there, above the clouds,” Flannery said, shivering with delight. “And if we reached the moon, it would be cold all the time, it would be an Eden of winter.”
“And there would be so little gravity.”
“Would you—I mean, I hope this doesn’t offend you, but what if we rented a hot air balloon?”
“I would love—” the balloon headed boy cut himself off. “But wouldn’t the heat be unbearable for you?”
“I could pack ice,” Flannery said gallantly, “suitcases and suitcases full of ice.”
* * *
Statue boy found her again, later.
“Won’t you tell me if you’re enjoying your party?” he said.
“I’m having a blast,” she said, “a smash, an absolute crash.”
“Your smile seems frozen,” statue boy said.
“Part of me has been frozen,” cockatrice girl replied, astonished at herself, “for as long as I can remember. That’s how I can turn people to stone.”
“I wasn’t a person turned to stone. I’m a statue who’s come to life.”
“But how is that possible?”
Cockatrice girl snorted. “That’s like saying, how did humans land on the moon? Technology.” She understood her outburst now. Some deeper, wiser part of her, some ancient reptile within her brain, had realized that the only way to beat statue boy was to pretend to play his game, to act as if she loved him. She would walk, hand in hand with him, deep into the tender temple of his heart. And then she would tear her way out with her claws.
“Let me show you something,” he said.
“Of course,” she said. “Take me by the hand.”
* * *
As they walked and chatted, cockatrice girl was surprised by how easy it was to pretend. She had assumed that she would have to fight, breath by breath, to mask her rage, but she found that her laughs were genuine. Though statue boy did not reveal the mechanism of his transformation, he did tell her about the days following. He described the painful process of teaching himself to move, the humiliation of birdshit in the eye, the double-takes and rude questions she knew so well.
His narrative, while honest to the dark, did not neglect the lighter moments. Once, he told her, he met a blind man who, after exploring statue boy’s face with his fingers, had exclaimed, “Great Sir, tell me what noble deed made you revered in the Valley! For there is a statue of you in Three Feathers Park.” And how he, laughing, confessed that he was the statue, come to life. Statue boy made his learning to walk into a humorous epic. He rhapsodized about the joys of swimming, the feeling of the river flowing against his stone skin, his limbs gliding through the water, he and the river in a dance of motion.
When they passed through the entrance of the maze, cockatrice girl smiled smugly to herself. Statue boy caught this, and said, “Don’t be so sure.” Her mood soured. As they got nearer and nearer to the center of the maze, and statue boy evaded the spikes, the arrows, and the crocodiles, she grew more and more anxious. Her replies became shorter and more vague. How could he know this maze?
They were mere turns from the center. Cockatrice girl thought she would faint. She wanted to scream, she wanted to rip off this pleasant mask and turn the world to stone. But statue boy was stone and he could still move, and he was moving, his hand towards hers. “It will be okay,” he said, “I promise. I’m living proof.”
She stopped walking, stood perfectly still. She had never been this far into the maze, she did not know how to move here, with a living statue holding her hand. She put on a wide smile, a wink and a weapon hidden in its corners. “I want to touch you,” she said, pulling his hand towards her breast. “I want to feel your smooth stone. I want to discover how anatomically correct you are.”
Statue boy pulled his hand away, sighed. “Cassandra . . . I may be stone, but I’m not a fool. The only person you’re outwitting is yourself.” He left her there, in the maze, which she had built but which not even she had been able to solve. She began to cry, to take random turns. Somehow, through the haze of her tears, she found her way out.
* * *
The next day, of course, another envelope from him arrived. She stared at the white rectangle. Such a commonplace object, such a dangerous object and yet she could not turn it to stone. She could not poison it, could not flatter it, trick it, weave elaborate lies to it, or in any way stab in it the back with her tongue. She had the same options available to everyone: she could burn it, hide it in a box, or open it. Cockatrice girl was tired of burning, tired of waiting for someone, even herself, to open a lid, a door, a window, tired of waiting for the entrance of air and light. She opened the envelope.
Willow Fagan is in the middle of moving from Ann Arbor, Michigan to somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. Other than escaping from the icy clutches of winter, he enjoys singing, reading the Tarot, and staying up too late having passionate conversations. He’s never been to a riotgrrl coffee shop slash ‘zine distro slash neo-pagan shrine, but he would love to someday.This story, which was selected as an Honourable Mention in the 2006 ChiZine Short Story Contest, is his first fiction publication.