Beautiful, Terrible – Jessica Wang

Content warning: Light gore

It’s in the dust of my childhood memories that I find the bird. Beautiful, pure white with amber eyes. It regarded me tranquilly from its perch on the playground, serene and sure in its place. Its jeweled claws tightened around the railing, and every single feather glowed like brushstrokes made of starlight.

I stood stock-still, transfixed. The strangest notion had crept into my mind, with absolute certainty: that if I moved, I’d ruin the moment. I could not move — I must not move. To move would be to commit sacrilege. So I remained riveted in place, and eventually the timing of my breathing slowed to the pace of the ocean’s tides. I wasn’t breathing. The earth was breathing.

It truly was a beautiful bird. I would keep telling myself this, after. How was I to know that it was so dangerous? 

Maybe I should have known from the way it captivated me from the moment I first saw it. It was something ancient, unearthly and wild. It was not something to be protected, nor was it something to understand. Even as we stood there, eye-to-eye, suspended among specks of dust and locked by time, I did not understand it. I only knew that it was wise beyond my years. Those eyes of liquid amber unraveled my thoughts with a single glance; they spoke of times I’d never seen and held me mesmerized in rapture. That was wisdom, and those were the eyes of a hunter.

Strange is the dynamic between hunter and prey. With its gaze, it made me feel wanted. It made me someone special, someone worth looking at. With its gaze, I was held trembling like a child at the feet of a god, offering my knowledge in exchange for the chance to just stand in its presence. With its gaze, it gave me wonder with no promise of protection, a delicate balance of symbiosis as it slowly absorbed everything I ever was and everything I would be. We were harmony itself.

It was still daylight when I felt the Other come up behind me. At that point, everything about me had left my mind. I knew the Other, but I didn’t remember his name. In my foolish wonder, I reached out to him, yearning to share my experience.

Do you see it? I said. Isn’t it beautiful?

And he looked, and he froze. I knew he saw it, too. The bird. 

Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it?

In the presence of the stranger, the bird shifted, shattering the stillness of the moment. I felt its mind move away from me, withdrawing coldly. It was my fault, I know. I let the Other in. I let him see it. I shared something that never should have been shared. It was a secret too old to be known.

The bird lifted its wings infinitesimally, letting feathers slide over feathers, white playing over white as it turned its head to face the other. It was mesmerizing and soft and so beautiful that I wanted to cry. In that moment, I would have laid down my life for the bird. I knew I would have. But it was focusing on the Other instead, and for that I felt a small part of myself begin to hate the Other, just a little.

He was moving forward. The Other. I don’t know why. I stared at his feet, battered old tennis shoes, shuffling one step after the other with effort, and then I stared past his soles and through the holes of the graham cracker grating and saw nothing on the other side. We were no longer in a memory. We were in space. Here, there were no rules. Here, what was done could never be undone.

Stop! I cried. Stop moving!

But I found no sound came out. My teeth were interlocked.

Stop! I tried again, but it felt as if the words only reverberated deafeningly within my head. The Other kept moving forward, his eyes greedy. He wanted it. He wanted to possess it. He wanted its beauty. He wanted it for himself. In his eyes I saw the feathers, moving over feathers, pure and beautiful, blooming like a kaleidoscope. 

Triumphant, he reached out and grasped it, like the man and the golden apple. But beauty slipped through his fingers, and the bird rose up, beating its magnificent wings in a fury.

Unearthly, the scene — air and dust swirled, lifting up like stars, glittering and floating. They, too, were suspended in the glory of the bird; they, too, felt its majesty as wings stirred air and eyes pierced eyes. We were in the bird’s realm now. There was no escape. 

It faced the Other with cold, impassive eyes laden with judgment — and judgment struck with talons of steel. Once, twice, thrice — his pale skin tore, ivory spilling into vivid scarlet, wine splashed against marble. Blood arced through the air, staining the white feathers red, and that great and mighty beak opened into a call of resounding terror. 

I watched, horrified, willing the Other to move, to get away. But he just stood there while the bird attacked, wonder written in his eyes as blood spilled down his legs and through the holes in the floor. 

It’s beautiful, he whispered as his knees gave away. Too spellbound to cry out in pain, too entranced to feel regret. 

He was right. It was never more beautiful than it was in that moment, ripping his heart from his chest, tearing into his guts, great and powerful and godly. Even as it killed him, those glittering, wrathful eyes made him fall in love, transfixed by the kiss of a beautiful hunter.