The dragon painter came to Jvir

and drank the sea, sang with the sands,

swallowed the sun and breathed it out

on Rowanhill

– Song from Jvir

Gabrielle’s face had always needed improvement. In the mornings, she worked face cream into her skin, smoothing over bumps and cracks, over the too-dry and too-moist places. She layered foundation. It shone on her fingers like a beautiful mirror glaze, but crumbled into dry flakes on her cheeks. Still, there were many steps to go. Powder. Bronzer. Highlighter.

“You’re taking too long,” complained Margaret, whose face never seemed to need that many steps.

Since arriving in Jvir they’d been snapping at each other. The hotel hunched on the outskirts of the city and shook with every train that crossed the nearby overpass; the room was uncomfortable and unromantic. It was only when they left the hotel, when they strolled down café-lined streets, past colorful townhouses, that their spirits lifted and the holiday truly began.

That day, their argument ran so long that Gabrielle found herself walking alone toward the sea.

Jvir was beautiful, but smaller than Gabrielle had imagined. In the months before this, their first holiday in five long years, the city had grown in her mind: a tangle of sun-soaked alleys for her and Margaret to kiss in, a series of sharp turns into unexpected vistas, a jumble of blues and yellows so bright they’d force her to pick up a paintbrush. There was truth to this vision; but at dusk, when shadows crawled along the streets, Gabrielle thought she glimpsed another, darker city.

The weather changed, as it often did here, with no warning. A cloud brought on by a gust of wind, like some great winged creature passing over the city; then warm rain soaking through Gabrielle’s clothes within seconds. It caught her next to a small, dingy shop called Beauty and Wings. In the window, dusty lotion tubs lay in front of an antique mirror, and the peeling door was ajar. Gabrielle ducked inside.

“Can I help you?” asked the clerk, lifting dark, murky eyes from her phone. Before Margaret, she’d have been Gabrielle’s type. “We have a great sale on today. You should have a look.”

“Oh, I will,” said Gabrielle. She studied the shelves self-consciously, stealing glances at the rain outside. In the face cream section, she picked up a dusty jar that smelled of woodsmoke. The clerk appeared at her side with a bottle of makeup remover.

“You should get this. It’s perfect for your skin type.”

She held out the bottle, and her fingers with their uneven, black-painted nails brushed Gabrielle’s.

“You’ll see improvements in a day. They all say that, but trust me, with this one it’s true.”

“Okay,” said Gabrielle. “I’m running out, as it happens.”

The rain had stopped and sunlight trickled in, picking out dust bunnies along the skirting boards. Gabrielle paid and put the bottle in her purse.

“Enjoy,” said the clerk, and Gabrielle heard, or imagined, her voice drip with hidden meaning.

Out in the bright sun, she wondered at herself. Buying things on a whim was more Margaret, who’d grown up in a cushy home with a well-stocked fridge, who thought money could always be made again. Through the early years she’d showered Gabrielle with gifts, driving her to exasperation.

At the thought of Margaret, the grudge Gabrielle had held onto since morning melted away. She took out her phone and, in a rare occurrence, called her first.


That night, Gabrielle opened the bottle of makeup remover with a pang of guilt that she couldn’t quite explain. The liquid smelled like the shop she’d bought it from – old and musty, with a note of perfume. She dabbed at her face, tentatively at first, then forcefully. After she rinsed it, her skin felt cool and fresh, though it looked the same as always.

She untied her hair and combed through it with her fingers before leaping into bed. She curled up next to Margaret, who kept zapping through the TV channels.

“Can you stop that?” Gabrielle asked, her eyes closed. She was feeling a little light-headed.


When the burning feeling woke her up, Gabrielle thought she was having an allergic reaction. She went to the bathroom and looked at her face under the yellow lights. There was no rash, no lump; nothing to explain why every bone felt hot and painful under her skin. It wasn’t normal, Gabrielle thought, to feel one’s face bones. She grabbed the bottle of makeup remover and read the label, which, Margaret would say, she should have done in the first place.

If you experience a burning sensation, it means the product is working as intended. When this happens, reapply and rinse for best effect.”

No advice to see a doctor, or even to keep the product away from eyes. There was no ingredient list either, no barcode or expiration date. All it said was Made in Jvir. Gabrielle poured some in her hand and rubbed it into her face.

Her skin peeled away. She didn’t believe it at first. She thought it was something else, maybe a layer of dead cells so thick it curled onto itself, but soon she could no longer ignore it, what emerged from underneath. Jutting bones, covered in scales. Shades of tarnished copper.

The light-headedness came over Gabrielle again. She ran the tap, put her face under it and stayed like this, eyes closed, water streaming over them in rivulets. When she finally dared to stand up, to look in the mirror again, she was unrecognizable.


Standing under the streetlight in front of the hotel at 5 a.m., Gabrielle messaged Margaret that she couldn’t sleep and had gone for a walk.

It was lucky that Margaret slept so deeply. Gabrielle had tried to put on makeup, which hadn’t helped, and had settled for a wide-brimmed hat drawn over her forehead and one of Margaret’s light scarves to wrap around her chin. She’d snuck out before Margaret woke up.

Gabrielle walked down the sloping streets toward the sea. It would be hours until the cosmetics shop opened, and that was her only hope. She was sure the clerk would know something.

Soon, the night thinned and the air quivered with the first bird trills; and as she walked, Gabrielle saw, for the first time, the true face of Jvir. It stretched across street corners full of huddling figures, across bars whose doors blew open for people to stagger out. Its eyes stared from the many windows of the city, windows to bedsits above the quaint shops, too high up for tourists to notice. Its open mouth let out a sea-salt breath.

When Margaret phoned, the sun had risen and Gabrielle was sitting on the wall of the seafront promenade.

“I forgot to tell you,” said Margaret, “that I met someone yesterday. A professor at the university here. His work is very close to mine. I wanted to write him before we left, but since we were going on holiday –”   

“We’re still on holiday,” said Gabrielle.

“I’ll only be a few hours, half a day at most, to see his lab and talk about the sypa bird work. Why don’t you go climb that hill you talked about?”

Gabrielle paused.

“Rowanhill? I wanted us to go there together. It’s where Kavran –”

“Painted all those sunrises, yes,” said Margaret. “But climbing’s not my strong suit.”

“Fine,” said Gabrielle. It was just as well. She’d have time to fix everything.


It took her a while to find the cosmetics shop again; Jvir streets had a way of tangling together like streams crisscrossing in their rush to the sea. Gabrielle’s reflection in the window looked worse than before, or maybe she’d forgotten just how bad it was. Her new face protruded from under the hat, all hard angles and scales that shimmered like spilled gasoline.

The shop was closed. Gabrielle tried the door and knocked loudly, making passers-by stare. Next to the shop, a door opened onto a staircase. The owner, she thought, might live upstairs. She walked up and peered through a half-open door on the first landing.

“Sorry to disturb you – “

She stopped to take in the small living room, the floor-to-ceiling shelves full of patterned porcelain. A young boy sat cross-legged on the floor, pencil in hand, sketching a vase of lilac.

“You look cool,” he said, grinning up at her. “Is that your real face?”

Gabrielle considered this. Before she could reply, an old woman came into the room, a tea towel slung across her shoulder.

“Can I help you?”

“I hope so,” said Gabrielle. “I’m looking for someone who works at the shop downstairs. Beauty and Wings?”

“Oh, Beauty and Wings. No wings yet, no?”

The woman laughed, showing teeth black with tobacco. She had a thick accent Gabrielle couldn’t place.

“Sorry?” she said. “I bought something from there –”

“The products always work,” said the woman. “Great job on you. Coffee?”

“No, thank you. You don’t understand – I can’t go around looking like this…”

The boy said, “I think it looks great. Do you mind if I draw you?”

“What?” said Gabrielle. An odd stiffness spread around her eyes, as though a migraine was looming. “Oh, I suppose not…”

The old woman pulled up a chair. “Sit down,” she said. “I bring coffee.”

It wasn’t a bad idea, sitting down for just a minute, while Gabrielle’s host brought black coffee in a cup painted with roses. For a while, the only sound was the scraping of the boy’s pencil. Gabrielle could tell from the way he held it, from the swift sharp strokes, that the boy was good, or at least fond of drawing.

She remembered Margaret, reclining for hours on her mustard sofa while Gabrielle painted her. Margaret’s eyes would stay wide open, with that vacant look they got whenever she thought about her latest bird obsession. It had been egrets back then. That was, of course, before they’d moved in together. She hadn’t painted Margaret much after that.

The old woman sat down next to Gabrielle.

“If you really want help,” she said, “go to this gallery opening. Tonight. Magda will go – she works at the shop.” She gave Gabrielle a card, a small violet thing with a Jvir address and a time, but no name.

“I’m done sketching,” said the boy.

It was hard to define what Gabrielle felt when she looked at the drawing. The boy had made her face look ominous and almost beautiful. Yet at that moment, all Gabrielle could think of was how long it had been since she’d painted.


By the time she stumbled into the sunlit street, Gabrielle’s eyes burned. She leaned against the wall, palms pressed to her face, watching bright spots divide endlessly in the semi-darkness. Something pulled at her eyelids, pried them open, stiffened the skin, and milky fog filled her vision when she tried to blink.

She couldn’t even cry. She fumbled in her bag for a compact, lifted it to her eyes. Narrow, slit-pupiled, red-rimmed eyes, grown too wide, too bright. Eyes without eyelids, covered in transparent scales, like a snake’s.

“Gabi?” called a voice.

Margaret crossed the street toward her, followed by a man with a drawn face, dodging the tourists and the green taxis, and Gabrielle wanted to melt into the wall. She pulled her hat down so far that her vision flattened into a slash of sunlight.

“This is Antim,” said Margaret. “With the sypa bird lab. We just went to see the birds at the beach.”

“Margaret has a marvelous theory about them,” said the man. “I’ve been an admirer for years. I will see you again tomorrow, yes?”

The visible strip of Margaret’s face flushed. She watched the man walk away through the crowd.

“I thought you’d be climbing the hill today,” she said to Gabrielle. “The sypa birds here make the most incredible sandcharts. I’ve just seen them, down at the beach. They last really long too, days even. You should come see, they’re beautiful.”

“Sure,” said Gabrielle. She lowered her scarf a little. “I have to tell you something.”

She took off her hat and waited for Margaret’s eyes to widen, to travel all over her face. She explained about the makeup remover, and all the while the shop loomed just behind, dark and quiet in the daylight.

“It’s not that bad,” said Margaret after a while. “It’s probably just a temporary reaction. Everyone knows things can be a little odd in Jvir.”

She opened her arms and Gabrielle fell into the hug. Yet even as she breathed in the familiar smell, as her face pressed against Margaret’s neck, right up to the small ear and the rogue strands of hair, she felt it – her face all wrong, digging into her lover’s skin. She pulled away and Margaret rubbed at the red patch on her neck.


For the gallery opening, Gabrielle wore a silky, soft dress, as though to defy the scales that crept farther and farther down her neck. Her new fascinator hid the worst of it. “You look stunning,” Margaret said, momentarily distracted from her laptop. Under the fishnet veil, Gabrielle felt naked without her old face, without the many steps of her makeup routine.

The gallery was in north Jvir, huddled between townhouses like crowding teeth, its façade black with old fire, its windows gashes in the dark. It didn’t look like a gallery until Gabrielle opened the front door; then the bright lights and soft music carried her into a room full of people clustered around paintings. At first she looked for the clerk from Beauty and Wings, but soon she found herself pulled from wall to wall by the beautiful art, so well curated that the neighbor of each piece drew her irresistibly onwards like the next line in a poem.

“Beautiful, no?” said a stranger, a bird-faced man with glassy eyes. “Every piece created right here in Jvir. It was time for our city to have its own gallery, don’t you think? Have you seen the Kavran halls yet?”

“No,” said Gabrielle, and a stream of sparkling, whispering people parted them. Gabrielle hurried past the rest of the paintings. To see Kavran, to see the originals! They’d been lost for an age, and Gabrielle had spent her youth poring over photographs, trying to see what the cameras had inevitably missed.

The rooms grew smaller the farther she walked inside the gallery. In a round burrow-like room she found the first Kavrans: sketches and a few watercolors from his youth overseas. Even here, his obsession showed in the tender attention he’d paid to the sunbeams.

The Rowanhill paintings began in a corridor so narrow that Gabrielle couldn’t view the art from a distance. She stood uncomfortably close to each, her skin prickling in their golden glow, until the walls fell away and the oils shimmered with morning breeze. He’d painted the hill, at first, bathed in light, yet recognizable, bristling with angular birds and pine trees slanted like rain. With each painting the hill grew smaller and the sky grew bigger, until she turned a corner into a corridor lined with his sunrises and squinted in the blood-red light. Each painting was different. In some, violent streaks of orange reared up from the canvas like snakes; in others pure light rippled as though viewed through water. Gabrielle smelled pine and dew and brisk morning air, and the sunrise lay fractured all around her, reflected by a dozen mirrors.

His greatest failure, Kavran had called his sunrise series. And even though it took her breath away, Gabrielle could sense the despair, the unfinishedness of it.


When the corridor ended, Gabrielle waited for her eyes to adjust to the dull electric lights. A wave of conversation and music rose around her, and she realized that the Kavran corridors had been completely empty. She was in the first room again, and in the middle of the crowd stood the Beauty and Wings clerk in a long red dress, with the boy who’d sketched Gabrielle.

“Magda,” Gabrielle called, the name rolling uncertainly off her tongue. The woman turned her head and watched with half-closed eyes as she approached.

“Ah, it’s you,” she said. “Finally, I can see what you look like. You’re beautiful, if you don’t mind me saying. Didn’t I tell you it would work?”

Gabrielle stared at her, at her maddening smile. “That thing you sold me ruined my face.”

“Ruined? My dear, it’s cleansed your face. Ask anyone, it’s the best face remover there is. Makeup remover. Of course it can feel awkward at the start, but you have to understand it takes a few days for the full effect. You just have to power through until you get your wings, so to speak.” She picked a wine glass off a tray and held it out. “Drink this. You’re not from here, are you? You’ll get used to things soon enough.”

She walked away, towards a bright red canvas that swallowed her bright red dress, and Gabrielle followed without thinking. They stood shoulder to shoulder, looking at it.

“What are you going to paint?” asked Magda after a while.

“Oh, I haven’t painted in a long time. How did you know?” Gabrielle looked at the paintings around the room, each one a step in the ladder leading to Kavran. “I want to paint Rowanhill,” she said at last. “And you. Can I paint you?”

She waited for the answer while Magda cocked her head and smiled as though she only half-believed what she was about to say.

“You’ll have to paint me well,” she said.


That night Gabrielle woke up with a feeling of blades pushing up against her spine. She drew her knees to her chest, steadying her breath so as not to wake Margaret, while pain burrowed in the spaces between her vertebrae. Spikes sprouted there, stronger than bone, and when she reached for them, she found it comforting, the way they punctuated her back. It felt good once they’d burst out and settled in place; as though they’d been uncomfortably knotted under skin, scraping at bone, and now they could breathe easy. Gabrielle arched her back, testing the breadth of her new shape, the strength of her scales. She could no longer feel the mattress springs that had been poking her ribs since their first night in Jvir.

Margaret drew closer in her sleep. Gabrielle tried to move away, but her body was too big now, too clumsy. Only her palms, still soft and fleshy, could tell Margaret’s skin from the threadbare sheets.

“You’re a dragon,” whispered Margaret, stroking the scales on the back of Gabrielle’s hand. “That’s almost like a bird.”

It took Gabrielle a long time to fall back asleep, her lidless eyes open.


The sun coated the sea in hazy gold when they arrived at the beach to see the sandcharts of the sypa birds. They’d had a slow start that morning, with Gabrielle’s new body bumping into things, not fitting into clothes, her new spikes slashing the curtains and scratching Margaret’s arms raw. With Margaret crying in the bathroom and pretending to be fine, and Gabrielle pretending to be upset, yet feeling something like joy.

“You’ll find a cure,” Margaret said, and Gabrielle’s stomach tightened at the thought of shrinking again, of hiding behind skin. Yesterday she’d wanted nothing more than to change back. She told herself she still did, over and over, as though this would make it true.

Margaret pointed in the distance, where circles covered the sand and a man crouched over them, thin and hawk-like. “Antim is taking pictures already.”

The scarf around Gabrielle’s body danced in the wind. She could no longer feel the sand underfoot, but the air hung full of flavor on her tongue, a salt-and-seaweed weave bursting with sunlight, with the trails of birds.  

“There are new ones,” said Antim when they approached. “Maybe a dozen. Might be the best ones we’ve had so far.”

At their feet, the beach lay bejeweled in swirls of pink and white and green. Sunlight bounced off the mother-of-pearl pleats of scallops set in spirals, gleamed on the smooth humps of cowries, collected in the open mouths of abalones. Gabrielle’s gaze followed the intricate shapes, the starfish surrounded by augers, the galaxies of sea urchins, the fish bones grouped around great conches. In places, it seemed to her that a pattern ended and another began, as though the creations of different artists lay side by side in a collage.

Margaret bent low over the sand. “This must be a large colony. We’ll track their flight, see if I’m right.”

“You are,” said Antim. “They’re maps. I’m sure of it.”

“Maps? So beautiful?” said Gabrielle. Her vision swam with the lacework of the sandcharts, and there was a shape in them all, something her mind only guessed at, as though the beach was a riddle.

“The birds don’t care that they’re beautiful,” said Margaret. She was sketching the patterns in a notebook. “They use anything they find on the beach to chart their flight routes.”

“Then why would they group the yellow murex like that among the lilac clams?”

Margaret smiled. “Gabi’s a painter,” she said to Antim.

The man raised a thin eyebrow. “No wonder you love these. Such pretty colors.”

His tone was polite, but the words gnawed at Gabrielle like rodent teeth. Before she could speak, Margaret shouted, pointing at the sky. There glided toward them a sypa bird, growing from a grain of sand into a mass of murky feathers. When it slowed down it became ugly and ungraceful, feathers encrusted with dirt and sticking out at odd angles, legs too long and thin for its body; but when it rose in ever-tightening spirals and the sand stirred beneath it as though longing to follow, it was nothing short of beautiful.

“It never flies straight,” said Gabrielle, shielding her eyes from the sun to watch it.

Margaret nodded. “They’re known for flying in circles, and we don’t know why.”

The sypa bird danced over the shell-encrusted beach, stooping every now and then to pick up a shell and move it somewhere else.

“If I were a bird,” said Gabrielle, “I think I might like it better too, flying in circles.”


Gabrielle entered the apartment above Beauty and Wings that evening with a guilty flutter in her stomach and a canvas under her arms. She had Magda sit under the window, her arms and legs folded in an old armchair. Dusk lay shadows under her sleepy eyes, between her clavicles, in the crooks of her elbows, and Gabrielle mixed colors quickly, racing against the nightfall.

“Drink,” said Magda’s mother, setting a teacup on the table. “You are still growing.”

Gabrielle breathed in the warm steam and the smell of linseed oil. She painted while the shadows lengthened, the brush slipping often from her claw-like fingers. She gripped it harder and broke it in two. It took three brushes to find a way that worked, to stop her brushstrokes from trembling on the canvas.

“After this,” said Magda, “you will paint Rowanhill, yes?”

Gabrielle added navy and brown to Magda’s eyes, a dark streak across her eyelids. She said, “I saw Kavran’s paintings at the gallery that day.”

“What are you talking about? Kavran’s paintings have been lost for decades. They’ll never be found again.”

The brush shook in Gabrielle’s hand. She dotted deep red in the shadows on Magda’s skin, violet in her hair. She only stopped when the windows had grown black.

While she packed up her brushes, Magda’s son brought her a drawing. “I finished your portrait,” he said, unrolling it. He’d painted the scales on her face in greens and yellows, added horns that jutted out of her hair, and in the background the shadow of wings.

“It’s beautiful,” said Gabrielle, and meant it. Her body swelled like bellows over a fire, pushing and piercing through what was left of her human skin, and Magda’s mother smiled watching her.


For the first time, the next morning, Margaret asked Gabrielle to do her makeup.

“You might not like it,” said Gabrielle. “It’s more difficult with these hands.”

Margaret ran her fingers along Gabrielle’s scaly wrist. “I’ll like it,” she said. “I missed you in bed last night.”

Gabrielle had slept on the floor so that she wouldn’t hurt Margaret with the rough and sharp parts of her, and maybe also because of Magda and how little Margaret knew about her.

She said, “Fine,” and had Margaret sit on the edge of the bed. Morning light flooded Margaret’s face when Gabrielle lifted her chin, gently, so as not to hurt her.

First she spread foundation across the skin, like gesso on canvas. Then she brushed Margaret’s cheekbones with highlighter, her cheeks with blush, so that her eyes would shine brighter under the severe eyebrows. She contoured her eyelids, gave them a faint shine, so that her gaze would draw one in like beautifully framed art. She painted the quivering, heart-shaped lips, parted the dark hair, looking at her work from a distance, at how Margaret’s features leapt out more than ever – the crooked smile, the deep-set eyes, the strong cut of her face. Gabrielle bent to kiss her and a spark pinched her lips.

“I don’t think we can do that anymore,” she said, extinguishing it with her finger.

“No,” said Margaret. She got up to look in the mirror. “It’s beautiful. Don’t you miss it? For your own face?”

Gabrielle considered this.

“It was different for me,” she said, “and I don’t need it anymore.”


They extended their stay in Jvir for another week. Margaret got them a room with a door into the backyard, where Gabrielle could curl up to sleep. She’d started coughing flames, and one night the rug had caught on fire.

“I’ll change back, I’m sure,” said Gabrielle without conviction, and Margaret nodded, hunched over her laptop. The sypa bird work wasn’t going well.

“Their flight patterns don’t follow the sandcharts at all,” she told Gabrielle. “Listen. How would you feel about staying in Jvir a while longer? I’ll figure out the sandcharts and you can explore the city. It’ll be like the old days.”

Gabrielle got to her feet, bumping into the ceiling. She didn’t miss the old days. Margaret’s endless field trips, the barracks and bunk beds, the temporary jobs, and especially not the way she had no time or zest for painting, her only joy watching Margaret chase after the birds she loved.

“Besides,” said Margaret, reaching for her hand, “you’ve started painting again, no? Don’t you want to stay here a while longer?”

A rumbling started in Gabrielle’s stomach, heat scraping her throat. She doubled over, retching, and Margaret yelped. Flames caught in her hair and filled the room with smoke.

“Go,” said Margaret, patting her hair and rushing past Gabrielle into the bathroom. “Get out before you set everything on fire.”


The afternoon hung like a glittering stole over Jvir; the rooftops sparkled, and the air shimmered with heat, and the city was made of layered light. It seemed to Gabrielle that every beast had come out to bask in the sun – the bird-headed, the snake-bodied, the giant and the rat-sized. In the distance trotted a cavalcade of white horses ridden by disembodied hands, and bat-winged women flew out of open windows. Jvir was naked, and she would paint it all.

Grudgingly, she thought it wouldn’t be so bad to stay a while.

She met Magda by the sea. The painting was finished now, and all the better, Gabrielle thought, showing Magda what had become of her hands.

“You won’t miss them,” said Magda, “trust me.”

She put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder and red pain burned along Gabrielle’s shoulder blades. It whittled them sharp, sung them into submission, bent them until they pierced her skin and drew blood. Magda gripped Gabrielle’s arms and lifted them high. “Let them stretch,” she said, her breath warm on Gabrielle’s face. “Don’t be afraid.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes and a sudden weight winded her – her shoulder blades bursting through skin, growing into arms. No, not arms; she knew it before the serrated shadow stretched at her feet. Wings.

She swayed on her feet, unbalanced. “What now?”

“Try them out,” said Magda. She pointed at the sky, where the sypa birds danced in swirls and loops. “Follow Kavran’s birds.”

Gabrielle stared at her, and Magda smiled.

“In Jvir, that’s what we call them. They draw the sun, like him.”

She nodded toward the beach, where the sandcharts gleamed in the distance, and Gabrielle wondered what Margaret would think about this.

It was time. Gabrielle squeezed Magda’s hand and took a deep breath. She kicked off the ground and stretched her wings, her ears full of their leathery sound, her chest hollow with fear. The world fell away, everything but the beat of her wings, thumping, pulsing, ringing in her bones. After that, she flew.  


Before she went to Rowanhill, she told Margaret about the sypa birds.

“Where did you hear this?”

“That’s what the locals think,” said Gabrielle. “The sandcharts are drawings of the sun.”

“Nonsense,” said Margaret. “Must be some kind of legend.”

Gabrielle shrugged and kept packing. She threw all the things she no longer needed in the bag she’d leave behind.

After she’d finished, she stood in front of Margaret and did the hard thing of telling her no. No to staying with Margaret while she continued her research; no to returning home after that as though nothing had happened; no to finding a way to grow her skin back, to cover up scales and wings and claws. Her new body made it easier, because she couldn’t touch Margaret without hurting her.

When they were done talking, she gripped a large roll of canvas in her claws and flew. She learned to glide in slow circles, wings stretched wide, Jvir laid out below like a painting. The laughter that came out of her mouth was new and hoarse, and with it flames rippled out like banners. In the darkening sky she breathed out spirals of fire; she rolled in the air, trailing a golden helix. She knew then that Magda had been right, that she wouldn’t miss her clumsy hands, her brushes.

It was still night when she circled Rowanhill like a falling leaf and alighted in a spot sheltered from wind. She rolled out her canvas there and weighted the corners with stones. She looked down at the city, the fields ringed by the sea. She waited for the sun.

It came first as a glint in the sea, then spilled over, multiplied in streams and ponds, in windows and rooftops. Light and color veiled the land: pearl-white, red-hot, bruise-violet, bluer than blue. Standing at the top of the hill in the roaring wind, Gabrielle understood Kavran’s failure. She faltered; she almost let the moment slip away; but she had something Kavran didn’t, and she would use it. She had fire.

She hovered above the canvas and rained sparks on it first, then flames, pressing golden shadows into the canvas. She danced in the air, measuring the distance, the wind, the strength of her breath, so that the fire would scar but not burn, so that she’d capture that moment just before destruction, on the knife edge of night and day. The most maddening quality of sunrise was how quickly it thickened into daylight; so that was what she painted, almost failing when a corner of the canvas crumbled into ash, when a hole bloomed in the center, but in the end, it was just right, the canvas alive with wisps of gold, the imperfections only bringing it closer to the truth, or her vision of it.

When day bloomed, the sunrise still lived in Gabrielle’s painting. There, tongues of flame flickered, trembled, as though about to consume it, forever on the cusp of rage.


The Rowanhill painting stayed in Jvir. It belonged to the city, Gabrielle felt; to Magda, who kept her company as she prepared to leave; to the many beasts of the city who prowled the streets in broad daylight, now that tourist season had ended. And though for Gabrielle Jvir was a certain kind of home, she had grown restless. There was an ache in her joints, as though her body was not done growing, and there were cities up north whose names called out to her, and mountains high enough for what she had become. Places closer to the sun, places to let the fire burn until it ran out.

She said goodbye to Magda and her son on the promenade by the sea. The sypa birds had migrated south and their sandcharts were gone; the beach lay empty, drained of color under the cloudy sky.

Margaret, she thought, must have followed the birds, or else gone home to think and write about them. Magda would go back to her shop, to her customers, strangers with layers to peel, to her family, to her galleries. Jvir, girdled by the sea, would molt its skin with every season, showing a new face to those who would come like she had, for the sea, for the light. And what of her, of Gabrielle? Did she still have skin to molt?

She took flight. The wind beat at her face, tearing her breath into rags of flame, and the city fell behind. Ahead, across the sea, she could see mountains. 


Copyright 2024 Diana Dima

About the Author

Diana Dima

Diana Dima is a writer and neuroscientist living in Canada. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, khōréō magazine, The Deadlands, and elsewhere. You can find her online at www.dianadima.com.

Find more by Diana Dima

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.