Velvet Wings

by Kalie Burton

Straight up in the milk blue haze, the fierce sun squirmed and tugged, as if trying to pull itself loose from its spherical hell. It glared downward with its hot, mad eye, scorching the meadows. Not a blade of grass stirred. It seemed he could almost hear the parched grasses gasp in pain. Where the ground sloped downward stood a row of stark, black poplars, the trunks twisting in waves of heat, roots helplessly rotting in a stinking pool of ooze, only a few brown leaves still dangling from the twisted branches. Apart from that stagnant enclave, the land was dry. Overhead, ravens circled, waiting, it seemed, for something else to die.

At the far edge of the sky, he noticed a mass of ugly, dark clouds slowly creeping forward. A shiver rode down his back. He scanned the meadow again, this time, more carefully. The thick, sickening sweetness of living and dying clogged his nostrils. The unified buzz and hum of millions of tiny organisms hidden in the jungle of stems and leaves intensified his senses. His heartbeat seemed to meld with the rhythm of their oxygen pumping bodies, their invisible frantic lives. The fierce flow of life around him rushed through his ears like a torrential river. Like countless quivering skeletal packages of energy collectively indulging in the primal activity of transferring other bits of energy into themselves. Millions of legged creatures, crawling, hopping, and consuming everything in their path, in an unceasing, fervent whirl of transformation, the apotheosis of existence. An existence he would never know.

For a long time he merely stood there, transfixed, perspiration streaming down his forehead into his eyes. His face was less a face, and more like a patch of old cracked leather, with a mouth, a nose and two small, pale green eyes. His eyes had a strange, hypnotic look, a look that was somewhere between revelation and madness. His shirt hung wet and limp on his thin frame; his arms were like two dry, brittle twigs hanging from his shoulders. The insane whirling and vibration of atomic brains was growing louder. It had an ominous tone. A doubt entered, tweaking his anxiety. Had he gone too far? Had he overstepped his bounds? Were they plotting against him? He emitted a bark-like laugh to shake the feeling away. Perhaps he had been in the sun too long.

He gave his face a nervous wipe with the back of his large hand, then grabbed the canteen from his side. He jerked it to his paper thin lips and let the cool water gurgle down his throat, and spill from his chin. He splashed some water on the back of his neck. For a moment there was clarity. There was a glimpse of something beyond the reach of his vision. For a moment, he felt a connection, as if he and the world were one, and his fear receded. But then the violent roar of life around him grew stronger again, broke his concentration. Insanity wailed from every leaf, every blade. His face contorted, his eyes narrowed; he again felt like an interloper, like someone who did not belong.

The dark clouds were advancing. The sun was falling toward the horizon. There was not much time. He wildly looked around, colors chaotically spilling into his head. Then finally he caught sight of what he had come for and his blood boiled with anticipation. His eyes locked onto his target: a flutter of dark velvet wings. The wings he yearned to possess. Yes, to possess, to make himself a part of what he was not, a part of what he could never be. Perhaps that was it. A way to extend himself beyond himself, perhaps to complete the burning insufficiency in his soul. Was that it? Could one ever understand one's passion? One's desires? One's motives? We were strangers even to ourselves, he thought. A plight that was purely human. No bug, no other animal had to contend with that unalterable split of the mind. An image of his home momentarily flicked into view. His museum, his trophies: butterflies and moths of every color, large and small, from all corners of the globe, pinned through thorax, expertly mounted row on row, lifeless and perfect. The rooms reeked of decay, but he had stopped noticing long ago. He would one day have a specimen of every butterfly existing on the planet, he thought. He would like to be remembered as the greatest collector the world has ever known. Something seized his heart, and his hand grabbed his chest in a panic, but it was only a thorn.

The dark wings were moving toward him, and he dared not breathe. His heart fluttered more quickly. Then it turned and started moving away, zigzagging, dancing through the air, like a ballerina. He mechanically grabbed his net and took chase, stomping through the buzzing world under his feet, oblivious to everything except his need. To capture the Velvet Wings was all he wanted. It taunted him, darting this way and that, momentarily hiding in the grass, then dashing upwards toward the sun. He stumbled over a root and cursed as he missed with the sweep of his net. He must not let this one escape. Drenched in sweat, he thrashed forward, like a rabid dog, his rage building with every failed plunge at his prey. It mocked him. It sailed over his head and disappeared behind him. It reappeared ten yards away and then it vanished again. He yearned to feel the forbidden pulse of those deep, black wings in his grasp. There was no hunger greater than the hunger that twisted inside him now.

He anxiously glanced toward the sky, and saw that the clouds had grown ink black, the sun half eaten, now quickly falling apart. A strange kind of eclipse, he thought, feeling half crazed. An eerie dark-red glow was shimmering in the air. The field had become like a single dangerous shadow. The roar of insect life was painfully pressing on his eardrums, like the point of a nail. Then, suddenly, the Velvet Wings materialized again, like a silent explosion before his eyes, electrifying the space around him. He gasped. Luck was with him. The elusive creature now settled on a twig. the thick rich velvet body expanding and contracting, the dark wings wavering, shimmering like a jewel--a black diamond. He felt a sinful twitch, a mingling of lust and fear. The moment had come. His body coiled tight, his legs trembled, his brain throbbed with choked excitement, as he prepared himself for the final assault. The blood vessels in his head felt like they were about to burst. He took a final breath, and then charged with savage precision. With a resounding crack, the net descended on a blur of black wings. The meadows were screaming. Blackness burrowed deeper into the dying sky. A drop of rain crashed on his face. A world of chaotic shapes swam before his eyes, as he twirled his trap shut and grinned an intoxicated grin. The ground pulsed wildly under his feet as he nervously readied his killing jar and deftly slid his probing fingers toward the black, smoking prize -- the goddess of night. As he touched the forbidden wings, he felt a hot, ecstatic jolt. An orgasmic unfolding of time and space. A communion. A consummation. An experience beyond words. The blackness flowed through his veins, into his soul, like a wonderful poison.

Then the world collapsed. Total black.

When he again became aware of the world around him, it was still dark outside. He was lying on his back, paralyzed. Frozen terror filled his brain, but he was powerless to do anything. His legs would not move. Not even his eyes would move. He was neither alive nor dead, but somewhere in between. The room looked unfamiliar, like some place he might have known once in a dream. The grey walls were bare. Was it his room or someone else's? His velvet arms were spread out. A large black needle penetrated his velvet chest, pinning him against his soaked bed. There was a howling in his ears. The howling of a million Velvet Wings.

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