“In Exchange for Sorrow” by Damien Walters Grintalis
Lilita did not get her wings at ten, as expected. Nor at eleven. Doctors were called. Her parents paced in nervous circles. Perhaps a late bloomer, one doctor said. Perhaps she doesn’t have any at all, one didn’t say, but Lilita’s mother saw it in his eyes and saw the pity behind it.
Her mother blamed the recreational drugs her father had used in school; her father blamed her mother without reason.
“After all,” he said one night when Lilita was sleeping, “she spent nine months in your body, not mine.”
Her classmates called her a freak. After school, when the others took to the sky and shimmered in the sun like faceted gems, Lilita walked with her head down.
More doctors were consulted. They injected her with vitamins, added supplements to her diet, and prescribed a UV light treatment, which consisted of several hours a week tucked into a glowing chrysalis-type structure. But her back remained as smooth as the models from a hundred years in the past, the skin pale.
Her father’s wings, dark blue fading to pale at the tips, and her mother’s, golden yellow streaked with white, resulted in the usual green eyes for Lilita. Her wings might have been lime, or emerald, or moss.
At night, Lilita prayed to the Scientist Gods. In her mind, she saw them–four men in long white coats. Bearded, spectacled, serious men. In her mind, she saw them turn away.
At twelve, she was given an inoculation against her faulty gene — surely that was the only explanation, the doctors said, for Lilita did have the genetic markers necessary — but it didn’t take.
All save her wings developed in the usual manner. Her waist turned in. High cheekbones replaced rounded. Her limbs remained long and thin and delicate — the necessary framework.
The doctors told her parents there was nothing more they could do, other than euthanasia. A kindness, one doctor said, against a lifetime of ridicule.
Instead of the cold blue liquid in a cold sterile needle, Lilita’s parents pulled her from school and kept her at home. They pulled the drapes shut and built a high fence around the perimeter of their property.
Lilita turned thirteen on a cloudy day in June. Her parents went out for dinner, leaving her at home alone. Lilita believed they had forgotten. They had not, but they saw her wingless back as their own private failure. Over dinner, they discussed euthanasia again. For her, a mercy, a doctor had said, when they spoke to him. You cannot keep her locked up forever.
While her parents spoke of her future over red wine and warm bread, Lilita packed a few things into a backpack, covered her wingless back with a bulky jacket, and slipped out of the house. She did not leave a note. Instead, she opened all the drapes and left the gate swinging in the breeze.
As the clouds lowered their bulk and carried the sun below the horizon, she wandered until she reached a forest far from town. A place of shadows and tall trees and secret hiding places within the trees and without. When the wind blew, the trees did not whisper freak. They did not discuss doctors or cold needles. They did not know she was supposed to have wings.
She climbed a tree and nestled between two branches, her forehead resting on the rough bark. Tears filled her eyes and spilled over lash and lid to dampen her cheeks. Butterflies came to dance through the air, swooping in ballerina circles. They landed on her arms and brushed against her skin with their soft wings of cerulean and citrine and blood orange. She waved her hands and they flew away.
When she fell asleep, her breathing joined the night music of the forest, a soft sound of crickets, rustling leaves, and tiny feet moving through the underbrush. A butterfly with citrine wings landed on the tree, next to her head. Then another, dressed in orange and black. And another. They flew around her head, and landed on her cheeks, dipping their proboscises in the salt of her dried tears, tasting her sorrow.
In the morning, streams of sunlight cut their way through the leaves. Lilita opened her eyes. A butterfly sat on her leg, its wings closed. As she stretched away the stiffness in her body, the butterfly darted away. A soft breeze pushed through the air; she could see the edge of the town between the branches. A flicker of yellow darted here and there, tiny specks of color and nothing more. She wiped away her tears before they fell.
With her mouth set into a tight line, she explored the forest. Here and there, patches of warm sun filtered down; in each spot, butterflies spun and flew in the air. She stumbled upon a cluster of blackberry bushes and ate until her mouth turned purple. In the dark heart of the wood, she came across a pond. After slipping off her clothes, she sank down beneath the warm water. If she had gills, she thought, she could remain under the surface forever and no one would ever find her. Or she could travel to the ocean and let the tide carry her out and away.
When she came up for air, a cloud of butterflies hovered at the edge of the pond. She splashed water in their direction. They dispersed. She submerged again, holding her breath until her chest ached. When she emerged, the butterflies had gathered again. They flew away as she climbed out of the water.
That night, she curled up under the roots of an old tree and cried herself to sleep. A butterfly with wings of pale blue emerged from its hiding place, flew to her side, and landed on her hip. Crickets stopped in mid-chirp; leaves paused their gentle rustle. Silence reigned in the forest, broken only by the soft breath of the slender girl hiding within. One tear emerged from beneath her lashes. The butterfly rose, touched the tip of its proboscis to the tear, lifted it up, and carried it away.
The next day, Lilita climbed high into the trees and gazed out toward the town. She longed for her room and the softness of her bed. Were her parents saddened by her disappearance? Were they out there now, searching for her, or had they breathed a sigh of relief when they returned home to find the house empty? Pushing away the thoughts, she returned to the berries and the pond and, after her fill of both, stretched out in a patch of sunlight.
When night fell, she slept in the same spot, hidden behind the twisted roots. The blue butterfly returned, still holding her tear at the tip of its proboscis, like a crystal ball atop a stem. Lilita sighed. The butterfly found the hollow of her navel, lowered its proboscis, and dropped the tear. It shimmered in the moonlight, a tiny gem of sorrow.
Drawn by the scent, the remembered taste, more butterflies gathered in a fluttering swirl above Lilita’s head. She slept on. When her body absorbed the glistening pearl of moisture, the butterflies all landed at once. On her cheeks, her arms, her belly.
The blue butterfly stretched its wings flat against Lilita’s skin. The others did the same until every inch of her flesh hid behind a kaleidoscopic pattern of overlapping wings. Two butterflies with wings of pristine white covered her eyelids. A monarch gave itself to her lips, orange and black fluttering with each soft breath. The forest silenced. Lilita moved in her sleep, but did not wake. As night turned to day, the wings hardened and took on a golden sheen. Within, Lilita slept a deep, dreamless sleep.
For a month and a day she remained a living statue, unmoving skin and unblinking eyes, inside a butterfly womb, her heart an imperceptible beat.
On a warm afternoon in July, Lilita woke and stretched her arms. The shell around her broke into a thousand glittering pieces. She sat up, blinked, and lifted a piece up to the sun. The outline of a butterfly’s body was clearly marked. She sifted through the pieces; each one bore the same shape. She blinked back confusion as a strange weight settled on her back, between her shoulder blades.
All the noise of the forest rushed in at once. Birds sang from the tree tops, cicadas buzzed, and leaves danced in a soft breeze. She took a deep breath and tasted the wind, sweet, like honey nectar. She climbed from her hiding place, and her wings unfurled, tissue paper delicate.
The wind pushed by, brushing her hair off her forehead and ruffling the tips of the wings. She ran to the pond and stood by the water’s edge with wide eyes. Her reflection gazed back. The wings spread out past her shoulders, larger than either her mother’s or father’s, and not the expected green. They shimmered, sapphire blue with orange tips. She moved them back and forth in a gentle arc and the colors intensified. Against the wings, her arms gleamed marble pale.
She moved the wings again, and her feet lifted off the ground. Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes as she moved in a lazy circle above the pond. Higher and higher she went, mindful of the tree branches.
“Thank you, thank you,” she whispered.
Inside, the butterflies whispered in return.
She returned to the forest floor and gathered up the gold fragments of her former self. She flew over the pond and dropped them in, watching as they swirled to the bottom of the water. When the last fell from her hand, she cried, her tears dropping down like gentle rain.
By the time her eyes had given up their last kiss of bittersweet, darkness had fallen. Lilita took to the air and flew past the forest. She flew over the houses, the hospital, the school, her wings wide and brilliant in the sunlight. She moved through the air, turning circles, hovering and swooping with no need for pauses of rest in between. And finally she flew in circles over her house. Only one light burned — an upstairs window. Her old room. She flew to the window. Inside, all of her things remained as they had been. A book lay on the bed, still open to the last page she’d read. When she pushed the window, it slid up without a sound. She crept in.
Her mother’s voice drifted up the stairs, like a ghost. Lilita froze in place. Footsteps sounded on the stairs. Lilita stood with one hand on the windowsill, her wings tucked down. The bedroom door swung open.
“Lilita?” her mother said again, her voice thick.
“I’m home,” Lilita said.
Her mother closed the distance between them with hurried steps, her face damp with tears. She reached her arms around Lilita’s back and when her fingertips touched the wings, she cried out. “They — you — ”
“Yes, Mother. I have wings now, just like everyone else.”
Her mother cried for several long minutes with Lilita’s hands clutched in hers. When Lilita’s father came into the room, he smiled, but not before Lilita caught a hint of a frown.
Later, when all the tears and hugs were finished, her parents tucked her into bed and retreated to their own. Their hushed voices took shape through the vents in Lilita’s room.
“They are the wrong color,” her father said. “We should call the doctors.”
“Be quiet,” her mother said. “We should be grateful.”
“Perhaps they switched her with another baby when she was born.”
“Accidents do happen.”
“Be quiet. She’ll hear you.”
They fell silent and not long after, Lilita fell asleep.
In the days that followed, Lilita remained close at home, flying only in her backyard. She pretended not to see the questions in her father’s eyes. Her mother doted over her as if she were an invalid, fixing elaborate meals and bringing her glass after glass of iced tea.
One night after dinner, Lilita walked to the front gate and stepped outside. She opened her wings and took to the sky.
Her mother’s voice followed her up. “Don’t be too long. I’ve made your favorite dessert.”
Lilita flew to a park near her home and landed on a bench. Several children who had yet to grow wings ran in circles, chasing a red ball. Their shouts and squeals hurt her ears. She missed the quiet of the wood and the warm water in the pond. The ball rolled over to her feet. She took to the sky and flew home.
When she walked in the front door, her mother was seated in an armchair, weeping. “I tried to stop him, Lilita,” she whispered as two doctors emerged from the kitchen. “But he wants to be sure that nothing’s wrong.”
The doctors took Lilita by the arms. She struggled and pushed, but one produced a small needle. Inside, the liquid was clear, not blue, but it burned like fire when the doctor pushed it into her skin. Her mother cried harder. Her father’s face, set in a stoic mask, was the last thing she saw before spots of dark bloomed in her eyes.
When she woke, bright lights danced chaos in her vision. She tried to move, but pain flared with each attempt. She lay on a hard surface, her wings open beneath her. As the drug haze lifted, she swung her head from side to side. Metal pins anchored her wings in place and canvas straps circled her wrists and ankles, holding her still, keeping her prisoner.
She cried out. A woman in a white gown entered the room. Without a word, the woman slid a needle into Lilita’s vein. She pulled the plunger back and withdrew a vial of blood. Not the expected red, but pale gold in color. The woman’s brow remained smooth, but her eyes narrowed at the sight. “What are you?” she said and left the room.
What am I? Lilita asked the Scientist Gods.
They turned away, unable to answer.
Deep inside, the butterflies whispered, “You are one of us. One of many. Many into one.”
Doctors and nurses came and went, drawing more and more blood. No one opened their mouths, but their eyes spoke volumes. They injected her with drugs to make her sleep.
She woke in darkness, her limbs weak and trembling. I did not ask for this, Lilita told the butterflies.
“We gave you flight,” they whispered back. “They wish to take it away.”
Fear and pain shifted inside Lilita and turned to anger. She pulled against the straps, bruising her flesh to no avail. She strained against the pins, ripping tiny tears in her wings. Tears burned in her eyes and spilled down over her lashes. As they touched her skin, her flesh turned gold. Hardened. A river of sorrow poured from her eyes.
The nurse who found her let out an airy scream. Doctors flooded the room. Instead of a living girl, they found a girl-shaped shell with a smile etched where a mouth used to be. Before they could lift their scalpels and part the gold, it crumbled into a thousand butterfly-shaped pieces.
And inside a dark wood, a pale girl emerged from a pond, shook the water from her wings, and opened her butterfly eyes.
|Damien Walters Grintalis lives in Maryland with her husband, two former shelter cats, and two rescued pit bulls. She is an Assistant Editor of the Hugo Award-winning magazine, Electric Velocipede, and her debut novel, Ink, will be published in December 2012 by Samhain Horror. You can visit her blog, dwgrintalis.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter @dwgrintalis.|