Featured image is a detail from La Divine Comédie by Gustave Doré showing harpies in trees (19th century, public domain).

FICTION: The Harpy — or She Sought to Shatter Her Bovine Complaisance

by Gabriela Denise Frank

The new girl, Olive, was stealing my food. 

She was introduced to our firm as an efficiency expert, but I could tell: Olive was a hatchet woman hired to trim the fat — and bone. She swooped in on a Thursday, shedding oily black pinions on the polished floors. On Friday, the first senior account manager disappeared. No farewell card, no frosted sheet cake. One by one, Olive picked off the old-timers suckling at the teat of repeat clients and retainers. Each Friday, another private office came available, albeit the walls smeared with blood.

“It’s time to name the next generation,” said Stu, our COO, at the monthly staff meeting. 

Six young men in slim-cut suits shook Stu’s hand in turn. Each winked at Olive and she winked back. Grr-ack! Her necklaces jangled as she applauded. 

Stu didn’t have to explain: the younger staff worked long hours without complaint. They billed more. They were eager. Hungry. They didn’t expect to be fed, they ate what they killed.

Olive’s gaze swept the room and fixed on me, drool dripping from her scaly lips. 

“Good thing us admins don’t matter,” I muttered to Shayla, but I wondered. 

I had been there twenty years.

On Olive’s second day, my lunches began to go missing.

I couldn’t get over the carnage: my pork loin plundered, my gnudi gnawed, my spinach salad strewn in puddles of thick saliva on the break room floor. My poor cock’s combs of cresti di gallo — spoiled. Until Olive, I never had to defend what was mine. 

Behind a curtain of flaxen locks, her maiden’s face was haggard with hunger — not only for the fleshy senior staff but the food I toiled over. 

“No one’s safe from her wet works,” I warned my colleagues. Her talons were perfect for shredding Tupperware and golden parachutes, her long forked tongue for slurping sauces as much as blood — but only I was hung up on her savagery. 

To my surprise, Olive was popular. People admired her. She’s a straight-shooter, they said. She gets the job done. You always know where you stand with Olive. 

“You know, she’s plotting to kill you,” I told them. “She’ll shred you like my osso buco.”

Why couldn’t they see Olive was a dreadful beast? Why weren’t they distracted by the ragged, scaly patches of skin peeking through her cold-shoulder tops, or her knobby knees hunched in bunches beneath her A-line skirts?

“Don’t be mean,” Shayla said. “Try talking to her. She’s pretty cool.”

“What would I have to say to a bloodthirsty bird-beast bent on our destruction?” I sniffed.

Shayla shook her head. “Watch out, Alice. You’re starting to sound crazy.”

I usually heated my lunch at 11:45 to beat the microwave rush. One day, I couldn’t find my bolognese. “Maybe it got pushed to the back of the fridge,” Shayla said. Olive leaned against the wall, watching. She picked her teeth, seemingly amused by my archeology expedition. 

“Have you seen my pasta?” I said.

“Nope,” she burped. An incriminating cloud of thyme lingered after she left. 

I photographed the Tupperware shards I found around the corner and the savage smears of sauce on the hallway walls. When I tried to show the photos to Shayla, she turned away. 

“Look what that harpy did to my lunch.”

“Stop it. Stop calling her names and talking trash behind her back. Do you hear yourself? You’re the one who’s acting like a monster.”

“But she’s here to gut the office — to get rid of all of us. Don’t you care?”

“You always do this,” Shayla said. “Everyone’s either your best friend or your enemy.” 

One night, I had a delectable dream: I caught Olive stealing my lunch—and everyone saw. Not so fast, bitch! I shouted, throwing her to the ground. I tore off her ragged black wings and butterflied her breasts. Stop blubbering, I commanded. Her cries were distracting and I was trying to recall the recipe for pollo alla diavola fire-roasted bird with lemon and pepper. I wasn’t sure how harpy meat would taste with lemon. Turns out, pretty good. I devoured Olive to the last bite. 

In the morning, I awoke, triumphant. I pulled on a cropped moto jacket and my favorite black dress, the one with pockets and fluttering godets. I strutted into the office like a superhero in my tall black leather boots. This was my house, goddammit. No efficiency bitch was gonna push me around. At four, Stu buzzed me to join him in the conference room where, in my dream, I had cooked Olive over an open flame. Good times. 

“Alice, please sit,” Stu said. 

I dropped into a chair, shivering. It was always cold as hell in there. I opened my steno pad, grinning at the memory of my dream. 

“You don’t need to take notes,” Stu said. “This is hard to say, Alice, but we’ve decided to make a change. You’ve been here a long time, and we’ve appreciated everything you’ve done, but you just haven’t grown.”

“Is it the steno pads?” I said. “I can use a laptop.”

His smile was withering. 

“It’s not the steno pads. We need an administrative manager who’s a wiz at digital media. Someone who … doesn’t get rattled by animations.”

Ugh. The slideshow. 

I had convinced him to pitch to a new client using printed boards rather than a Keynote presentation. The truth was, I couldn’t figure out how to make one, at least, not one that looked good. In a digital world, we differentiate ourselves by being more tactile, I had insisted. 

It was a disaster. We lost the account. 

“Please, don’t fire me. I can learn. I can change,” I stuttered.

“Oh, you’re not being fired, Alice. You’re being laid off. We’ve changed the duties of your position and you’re no longer qualified.” Stu leaned to whisper, “This way, you can collect unemployment.” He slid a stack of papers across the table and an empty cardboard box. “Here’s information about your severance and COBRA benefits. Please clean out your desk by five and leave your key card at reception. You can say goodbye to the staff, if you want.” 

I was dumbfounded. Two decades of work gone in two minutes. What was happening? I showed up every day, pitched in when people needed help, worked nights and weekends, said yes to everything — I wasn’t the COO, but my job was my life. I never demanded promotions or raises; I took what they gave me. I was a loyal employee. Easygoing as a motherfucking breeze.

“Trust me,” Stu said, rising from his chair. “This will be better for both of us.”

I stepped into the hall without looking and accidentally hip-checked Olive to the ground with the door. Boom! She tumbled ass-over-teakettle, spilling the cardboard box in her arms. Strangely, hitting her wasn’t as satisfying as I imagined. When it sunk in, what her box meant, I couldn’t believe it. “They sacked you, too?!” I said.

Olive leveled a glare at Stu, her pupils narrowing to black slits.

“Well, now that we’re efficient, we don’t need an efficiency expert anymore,” Stu said with a nervous titter. He skittered down the hall in retreat.

“I’m sorry,” I said, helping her pick up the papers. “I should’ve made you feel welcome.”

Olive shrugged. “It’s okay. I stole your lunches.”

“Fuck. I knew it was you.”

She chortled. “Who else would it be?”

“It’s funny. I thought you’d be the one to end me,” I admitted. “I sort of wish you had. At least you’d have finished me off. Put me out of my misery.” 

It was going to be humiliating, wading through the whispered goodbyes, the mock-sad smiles and half-waves, and worse — the people who’d pretend I was already gone. They’d keep their heads down as I shame-walked to the elevator, my cardboard box like a severed head in my hands. That’s what I’d done when the other poor souls got sacked: pretended they had mysteriously disappeared rather than witness their departure. I reduced them to smears of blood on the eggshell white walls. 

“Stu always said we were a family,” I said. “Why would he lie?”

Olive shrugged. “The world has its monsters. We need to eat, too.”

“I should’ve seen this coming. Everything got so competitive. And fast. I was the only one still using notepads and pens. I spent hours on tutorials but I couldn’t — I tried to —”

Olive touched my arm. “It’s not your fault, Alice.”

“What? That I’m a dinosaur? Who’s going to hire me now?” 

Salty tears scalded my face.

“Poor Alice. You can’t beat them at their game, you know. You need to learn their game isn’t the point,” Olive said. 

At first, I recoiled when she drew me in, then I thought, Fuck it, I could use a hug. Her cracked skin smelled of lavender. It was kind of nice. 

“Aren’t you angry, Alice?” she whispered in my ear. “I’ve seen the woman strangling inside you. I kept trying to help her escape, but you’ve got her pinned down tight. Look at you. Polite to the last, and for what? What has this job ever done but take from you? You’ve given it everything — your time, your energy, your ideas — and you’re no spring chicken anymore. You’re coq au vin. They don’t put us old gals out to pasture. We go straight to the slaughterhouse.” 

I didn’t say it, but Olive was right: not a day passed that rage didn’t scour my insides. I was tired of laughing at old-boy jokes that weren’t funny. Of pretending it didn’t matter that I was “just” an admin, one of “the girls” as the account managers called us. I was tired of taking notes, nodding supportively, acting demure and enthusiastic so the men who got the big bonuses would feel good. 

I was tired of smiling when I wanted to scream. 

“It’s terrifying to know what you’re capable of, isn’t it? The strength of your will?” Olive said, her death-breath hot on my neck. “Imagine what you could be if you stepped into your power. The world of men pits us against each other, but you and I aren’t enemies — that’s the lie. The real reason I’m here is to liberate the woman inside you,” she said, licking my tears dry. “I’ll let you in on a secret,” she whispered. “Harpies aren’t born — we’re made, one woman to another. We set each other free. There’s plenty of work to do here, Alice, and I could use a wingwoman.” 

I peered at her shyly. Shayla was right. Olive was pretty cool. And smart. She led me by the hand down the hall, pounded on Stu’s hollow-core door, and rattled the handle. A muffled shriek came from within. 

“Adorable. Stu thinks a locked door can keep us out,” she said, popping her jaw. 

I liked how, when Olive cocked her head, she looked utterly savage. Half bird, half beast. Not at all human. She rubbed her palms, cracked her knuckles, puffed out her leathery wings. 

“Watch, my dear, and I’ll show you what talons are really for. What do you say?”

I tried to say, “I’m in,” but it came out guttural — Gr-ack! 

From behind sounded a crack, a pop, a rustling — a ruffling of wings. 

I turned, but it was only us in the hall. That’s when I caught my reflection in the glass of the empty office across the way — not the fake-Alice but Real Me looking back. The woman’s scaly lips pulled into a hideous grin, drool dripping from her open, laughing mouth. For once, her smile was genuine. 

Olive winked at her in the glass. Gr-ack! “The best part is, you can set your own hours,” she said. The pain was delicious and thick — glorious — as the first glistening pinion feathers broke through my skin.

Gabriela Denise Frank is an Italian American writer, editor, and creative writing instructor. Her essays and short fiction have been published in True Story, Superstition Review, DIAGRAM, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is working on her first novel. Learn more on her website.

📸 Featured image is a detail from La Divine Comédie by Gustave Doré (19th century, public domain).

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