The Harpy

by Josie A. Okuly © 2001

My son and I sat down behind the hateful woman at the monthly Parent and Teacher Meeting in the school auditorium. I avoided this woman religiously, never made eye contact, and walked in the other direction when I saw her coming. The reputation she had for cruelty was well known and well deserved. Tonight I could not avoid her. I wondered if I had made a serious mistake.

I thought about her as I drove my son home from school. Why were we all afraid of her? I did sense the fear that I shared with everyone else, even thought I smelled it sometimes. It hung over the elementary school like a bloated cloud. Whatever it was, it added up to one thing. She had us all cowed like a pack of beaten-down dogs. She rules us, I realized. She is the Alpha Male, or in this case, the Alpha Female.

The woman hated kids, except for her own monstrous brood. She castigated mothers and children alike with gusto. Her evil mouth spewed out words that were meant to wound the victim. Words that were as sharp, powerful and painful as a knife wound. In my imagination, I almost saw the knife dripping with blood as she pulled it out of her prey.

Now here I was at the meeting sitting behind this harpy. I arrived late and there were no seats left, except for the two directly behind her. Wouldn't you know it? As I sat down, I saw a couple of women I knew casually and nodded to them. They gave me just the barest acknowledgment, the look you might give to a person about to be executed if he happened to catch your eye. Their looks told me that I should know better, because everyone knew that you didn't sit near her if you brought young children with you. That was asking for trouble. No child on this earth could be quiet enough for her finely-tuned ears. Every fidget, every whisper would be caustically commented on by her. She had no regard for anyone's feelings. I knew all this. Everyone knew this. How could I be so stupid, their eyes told me.

What should I do? Should I pretend my little boy had to go to the restroom and hide out in the back of the auditorium till the meeting was over? Or creep out of the school as unobtrusively as possible, like the beaten dog that I was? What to do, what to do?

I decided, perhaps foolishly, that one of the mangy mongrels would take a stand, not turn tail and run away. I felt a slow bubbling anger start rising upwards, demanding release. How long would we allow her to run the school, the school board, the town really? I didn't try to stop the anger; I knew I would need it for the battle.

As if she sensed the waves of negative emotion searing the back of her neck, she turned around to face me. Her tan and rather muscular arm rested on the back of the seat. My attention was held by the sparkling bracelet on her wrist and the red sculptured nails which gripped the chair as if gearing up for battle. There was a controlled fury in that gesture. Her body vibrated with it. Her green eyes glistened with a secret triumph as if the encounter were already won.

As I stared at the tight grip she had on the chair, her knuckles turning white with the effort, I saw ridged, unyielding, reptilian skin lurking just beneath the soft, healthy-looking flesh of her arm. I closed my eyes and when I looked again, she was the same beautiful but cruel woman that we all knew. An icy tentacle snaked up my spine, flash-freezing the hot anger I had just felt. She seemed to understand and accept my confusion. As she turned around to face the front, she smiled at me with pearly-white teeth. In my confused state, her teeth appeared almost sharp and pointed.

I looked around; everyone was listening to the speaker as he laid out our next school fundraiser. I felt nauseous and sick to my stomach when I thought about her face in that one instant. Had I really seen anything at all? I couldn't help thinking that my anger had allowed me to see her clearer, to see that she was really something different from us. Something that was only covered by a thin veneer of skin. Something that looked human but was not.

A second later, I fell backwards in the chair, cracking my head on the floor. Red fingernails scratched across my face, drawing blood. I tried to scream but it was happening too quickly. Why was no one helping me? My friends stared down at me with pity. There was also a terrible relief in their eyes because this horror was not happening to them. Even my little boy seemed to be frozen in shock, his eyes glassy and staring. I threw my arms up to protect myself from her wickedly sharp talons. No longer nails as I knew them, too thick, too bulging. The last thing I knew before losing consciousness were those pearly-white teeth ripping into my unprotected and tasty throat.

"Can you hear me ma'am?" asked the disembodied voice.

"Yes," I croaked out. My throat felt like it had been buffed with sandpaper.

"Your in Mercy General Hospital. Can you tell me your name?" I could make out the shape of a woman coming into focus.

I realized I didn't remember my name or anything else.

"Why am I here?" the effort to speak hurt my throat.

"You were brought in about a week ago and this is the first time you've been conscious. You were left in the emergency room parking lot and there was no I.D., no wallet, no nothing. Your picture has been on the news but no one has come forward to identify you yet."

She smiled at me with the professional caregiver's smile. "You had a nasty bump on your head and a severe wound to the throat. It looks like you might have been attacked by some kind of animal. We weren't sure you would make it but your a strong lady."

I listened to her voice but stopped trying to make sense of anything. My attention was riveted to a small spot on my arm where I thought I saw ridged, leathery scales just below the surface of my skin.

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