Communication

“This one.” I show him a blank sheet of paper.
“Fish, in a balloon.”
“This one?”
“The funeral of an astronaut.”
“Hm. This one.”
“Fingers with angry faces.”
“Angry?”
“Scowling. Little noses, twitching.”
“Right. What about this one?”
“Cat, lying on a bed of money. It wants to talk to you.”
“Oh. Good.” Progress at last.
“The bills… sort of… flutter up. Fold up. Wait, they are spelling something out. In origami.”
“Spelling out what?”
“L – I – V – E – R. Is that good?”
“It’s… not bad. It’s not too bad.”

Casey was a good receiver, if new. I liked a fresh mind for a new project. Give me a Jack Keller and we will get there, sure, but the guy is primed. He’s top notch if we are talking to the Centurions, or the Glue. If one can ever really talk to the Glue, there’s some debate about that. But all that just gets in the way when you’re tuning into something brand-frigging-new.
Behind the screen, things like mandibles twitched. I shook out of it. We had to move on.

“Casey, can you try and – change something? Affect the picture?”
“Um… Okay… There: the money’s on fire. I think that was me.”
“Good. What’s the cat doing?”
Casey stared at the paper. “The cat is… it’s throwing up.”
I thought that was a good sign.

From what I can tell, we’re the laughing stock of the Galaxy. As far as that can be established, what with the whole concept of laughter being pretty much untranslatable, and us having only met seven species so far. Eight, if you count the mandible guys we were all trying not to call anything yet because those nicknames stick: just look at the Fishfingers. But anyway: mother Evolution has not been kind. Humans were at the wrong end of the wrong queue when they handed out telepathy.

Well, most of us.

“Casey, you’re doing great. Keep talking.”
“It’s hacking something awful – ah, there is something. A furball… no, it’s a little guy, a tiny, furry man.”
“And?”
“He says…’We-come-in-peace.’ In, like, a robo-voice.”

I was right, Casey Wheeler was a wiz. Six months later, there’s still no other telepath who can understand the Mandible Guys.

I know, I know. But I swear I never said “Mandible Guys” out loud. Bloody psychics.

Church

We should never have called him Church. We thought it was clever to name him after the cat in Pet Cemetery: it wasn’t. He was cute enough as a kitten (all kittens are) but once he could roam the neighbourhood things changed.

That’s when he started bringing things home: found things.

At first they were small: an odd sock, an old toothbrush, half a porn magazine. He would lay them reverently on my bed; carefully consider the final position and then meow once. We all laughed about it. It was cute; we even encouraged him.

Inevitably, the situation got worse.

I wasn’t really worried when he brought in that huge bath towel, it must have weighted as much as him. I took a photograph of him lying among the fluffy folds of pink before I returned the towel to my neighbour’s washing line. At least I assumed that’s where it came from; and the neighbours never said anything so it must have been theirs.

That summer I began to suspect we had a serious problem.

It was one of those perfect orange suburban afternoons, still with a hint of braai smoke and the far off shrieks of children in the air, when I heard Church noisily entering our kitchen window with a chicken. Not a live chicken; nor even a dead pet chicken: a beautifully glazed and roasted chicken – fresh out of the oven.  A fine sage and onion stuffing aromatically teased the senses. I could have gone door to door among my neighbours, but I could hardly return their lunch (Church had helped himself to the best part of the left breast and my housemates had eaten most of the rest). And a sincere apology does little to replace your family’s Sunday lunch.

It was the day we found the money that I started to sweat.

Church brought it back wrapped in a dirty yellow plastic bag. There was about R6000 in all; neatly bundled with elastic bands; the serial numbers in sequence. By the time we realised what it was he had strewn it about my bed and rolled in it with near human glee. We considered calling the cops. We discussed it. But I couldn’t imagine them believing my story and we really needed the money that year.

I suppose we should have told someone; it would have made things easier the next month when Church dragged home a human hand.

The Third Task

She wore brown angora and carried folded paper bags from Macy’s. A shawl cascaded down her back, a profusion of warmth. She peered at me over oversized sunglasses. “David?”

“Ma’am.” She was magnificent, in an Audrey Hepburn sort of way.

“Would you…?” I took her bags and held them as the elevator creaked its way to the fourth floor, her shoulder pressed softly into my chest in the tiny space. Her flawless skin smelled like powder.

The apartment was stylish, furnished in dark woods and dusky velvets. Intricate lanterns cast complicated shadows, revealing little of the cabinets which lined the walls. Behind their thick glass, darkness moved.

The woman settled into a deep armchair with a sigh. “How are you getting along so far then?”

The bags smelled like mushrooms and fresh bread. I set them down, careful not to look inside. “It’s… not bad. You are the third – “

“David, David. Never tell a lady!” Shadows deepened around her as her brow creased. My face fell, but she added: “You are sweet. I will take you on.”

And so the third task began.

* * *

I looked after her moths.

After the first week, my eyes adjusted to the perpetual twilight. The glass terrariums, alien and strange at first, gleamed with dark colours: blue like starlings’ wings, red like dried blood. Moths are a glory of muted tones, of subtle expression, impeccable taste. I learned to discern their moods, to tend to their whims. I brushed them and stroked them, carried their messages; sorted discarded scales by colour and size. They were pleased with me, taught me their ways: to disappear in darkness, to discern certain scents.

* * *

The woman came and went in her own ways. She did not speak to me, but the moths said she was not displeased with my work. One day, without warning, she looked at me.

“That will be all, David.”

I shied away, surprised at the sound of a voice.

“You have done well.” She held out her hand, gloved in silk. Two emperor moths fluttered from her fingertips into my cupped hands. “They will be your guides. Beware: the fourth task is hard.” She smiled at me.

I did not know what to say.

The moths, familiar friends, wove through my fingers, whispering wise words.

Anthrophobia

That, darling, is a grotesque idea! There is no way I’m touching that.

You’re being silly dear, just because they look different to us you’re scared of them – your great uncle says we’re all part of the same biosphere.

Those things excrete through their skins. They’re dirty; and they have diseases.

Now try to be rational, that is simply prejudice! It’s not urine, it’s just water and some salts. It’s how they keep cool. It’s perfectly natural.

I don’t care: it’s still nasty. All those gooey drops squeezing from their pores; the mere idea makes me twitch.

Well if you weren’t so afraid you’d know they’re not gooey: it’s more oily actually. It makes their skin feel smooth and pleasant to grip; they aren’t nearly as rubbery as they look.

How would you know anyway, you’ve never touched one either!

Well, I’ve heard about it – and I’m not scared of them. Actually I think they’re kind of beautiful – smell the heat shining off them – there are little suns inside them.

Living things should be cool and soft like us – warm is just creepy.

Well, I’m not afraid of it. And I want to touch it.

I can’t believe you’re doing that. You’re insane! It’s so huge: that hand could crush you any moment.

What? No – they might be big but they’re very slow. Fly over here, it feels smooth and silky. You’ll like it – stop being such a ninny.

Oh my, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I really can’t believe I’m doing this.

There you go dear, not so terrifying is it? Look at the big guy: so majestic, so gentle. I think he likes us.


Moths

I saw you first in the dance, the bright flame to which I was drawn, helplessly fluttering. I saw him first as my enemy, a rival. We were both young, strong, manly: we locked glares across the torchlight while you twirled out of reach. When the dance stopped we reached your side together. You laughed and took his hand as the music started once more, but your eyes watched me over his shoulder to tease me with your choice.

I struggled through the brambles to your house, and heard him crashing stubbornly through behind me. You gave us wine, admiration, the gift of your gaze; you set us tasks. You flirted, but we never knew which of us you preferred. I was the first to return with the tree’s teeth, the hound’s crystal bell, the sparkling dust from the floating stones; he brought the giant’s shoehorn, the malachite harp and the blood of the wayward knight. We fought, shoulder to shoulder, the bristled, sinuous creature which guarded the grotto, and staggered back together with the sacred pestle, jewelled and heavy with gold. Our blades became strange and scintillating, bathed in blood and ichor and spider-silk. I never knew what enchantments you wove with our trophies. It didn’t seem to matter.

By then we were brothers, fellow captives. We beat our wings against your indifference, and were burned. For you we overcame the doughtiest foes – the invisible basilisk, the earthquake owl, the twelve shrieking ghost-damsels escorted ruthlessly back to you while we spelled each other in wincing, ear-stoppered shifts – and in reward you allowed us to touch your fingers, no more. We would have it no other way.

But our quest was always for this eventual respite. Our wings are dusty, now; that last tangle with the thorned phoenix left us tattered and lame. And tonight I watch you shine in the dance, while the eager young chevaliers challenge each other, drawn inexorably inward in hopeless rivalry, fuelled by desire. I hope they are strong and determined. We have taught you to demand much, and have it fulfilled.

Outside the glittering circle we flutter our wings in the darkness, and hope only to be allowed to alight for a moment on your fingers one last time. Perhaps you will pause for a careless instant of gratitude or even tenderness before we are burned utterly away. It will be enough. We ask for no more.

Flutter By

Flutter By

It never ceased to amaze David how fragile life was.  It was like holding a butterfly in your hands.  Too much strength and it would be crushed, gone forever but even with the most delicate hold it was fade quickly, gone forever.  As if it had never been.  With little impact on the world around it.  A bit like being in love, he felt.

The life of the living…

Fragile as the wings of a butterfly…

David frowned at the words.  A poor choice indeed.   How was he ever going to put this thoughts and feelings into poetry that would dazzle and delight if that was the best he could come up with.  He drew careful lines through the words and started again.

The life of the butterfly…

He paused again.  Butter – fat from milk.  Fly – sits on the butter.  That’s what he thought of after thinking about the word ‘butterfly’ for the past few hours.  Why did Sarah have to like them anyway?  What else did she like?  Dogs.  But dogs were hardly romantic.  But puppies.  Puppies were a bit romantic, he had see them on cards, along with kittens.  He raised a brow in though, puppies – I wuf you.  A nightmare.  David tossed the pen down with annoyance.  Surely words of love should not be so hard, he was in love after all.  Shouldn’t they just sprout from his pen as he guided it across the paper?  It would appear not.

He held the expensive sheet of paper with its awful words up to the light.  He could see the texture of the hand crafted paper, could almost imagine them to be veins in the wings of a butterfly.  He smiled to himself at his silliness, returned the page to his desk and began to write.

Dear Sarah   

 Above you will see my attempts at putting my love for you into poetry.  They are a poor reflection of what I truly feel and so I shall write out in plain script that will leave no doubt in your heart as to my feelings – I love you, my beloved.  

Lepidoptera

Jason met her after the aircraft accident, when he’d moved south to live with his Aunt Sheila. There was little for him to do except recover, but the writing and speech exercises frustrated him, and the intensity of his headaches were frightening. He was ten years old and tired of being kept indoors, so he dragged a chair to a window, pushed his crutches through, and carefully slid out after them.

He was sitting at the lake on a dilapidated wooden pier when Anna found him. He told her, in his broken, halting speech, that he wasn’t crying — he was scratching at his eyes because they itched. She showed him how to fish with a length of nylon and a bent safety-pin.

He never told Aunt Sheila that he was sneaking out of the house. The speech exercises remained frustrating, and the growing number of pills didn’t help with the headaches.

Two weeks later his Aunt told him that they had to move. We need more money, she said. There are better jobs in the City. Better speech therapists. The day before they moved, after most of the packing was done, he saw Anna for the last time. Jason was no longer in a cast, and walked down to the lake without his crutches. Anna grabbed his hand, wouldn’t say where she was taking him, and showed him to a stunted tree covered in colourful butterflies.

They’re not butterflies, she said. They’re moths.

But moths only fly at night.

Some like the day, too!

She held them in her hand, put some in his. Their little feet were ticklish, their wings were warm, and they seemed unafraid. Jason laughed.

He’s thirty-five now. He has friends and has sometimes been in love. Occasionally he has felt loved in return. He remembers her name was Anna, but he can’t remember her face. He still dreams of her hands covered in butterflies.

Drift

The strap of my bag, heavy and final, chafes my shoulders, and a trickle of sweat runs down between my shoulder-blades. My arm, still held awkwardly, has stiffened, and the blood-stained fabric of my shirt rasps against my skin. The late summer’s sultry harvest dust and smell of cut grass are remote and unreal, deadened by the curtain of exhaustion. Somewhere in my bubble of pain I’m grateful for the shade of the trees.

My vision is already clouding, my gut clenched around the days without food. I drift in and out of focus: somehow the drone of the distant combine harvester is also his voice, a hateful snarl of rejection. I tune it out fiercely, and hear instead the cry of seabirds.

I blink. There are small birds twitting sleepily in the trees, and a gentle shushing of the wind in the branches, like waves on a beach. I can smell the sea, the sharp, cinnamon tang of wrack and driftwood and something stranger, like musk. My feet sink into the sand and an unseen hand steadies me gently. The road catches my feet: unsupported, I overbalance, sink to the sticky tar, jarring hands and arms still bruised and grazed by the gravel when he knocked me down. I stand painfully, and carry on.

The air is hazy with sunset, the slopes of stubbled fields complacent in the evening calm. The city rises out of the haze, spired rose and umber in the dawn light. The breeze from the golden ocean is crisp and cool and tinged with vanilla and musk.

I drop my bag onto the ground, kick off my shoes. Lightened, I walk down the beach towards the glass spires. In the empty road my bag and shoes sit on the tarmac, dusted with lemon-scented sand.

To be Free

Kate’s face darkened at the sight of the mist.  Her eyes narrowed in hate and her fists clenched at her sides.  It was always mocking her.  Lingering on the road, coming and going as it pleased – it wasn’t bound to anything.  And worst of all, it concealed the fork in the road and hid the destination of the few travellers that passed by.  Those that were free to come and go.

Kate stood glaring at the mist, feeling the injustice of her situation gnaw at her heart causing weeping wounds that hadn’t time to heal before the chafing started again.  Just like the chain around her ankle.

The clinking of the chain as she unconsciously shifted her stance brought her back to the task at hand.  Picking up the bucket she headed off to the hen house to collect eggs.  As she drew close to the hen house she paused and glanced back at the mist and its taunting presence.  One day she would free and move as she pleased.  To come and go like the mist.

The Ancient Path

The basket was well packed, with sausage and fine mead. But Nan still looked concerned.

“Where does she live, your cousin?” asked Kirsjan, taking charge. That was his way.

“Oh, you are good children, helpful and well raised. Follow the road that starts by the west gate.”

Lily was rapt: “The misty road, the road that calls your name?”

“Hush, Lily, now. Your nonsense is amiss.” Kirsjan was stern.

“Your sister’s right, that road is full of wiles. Mind you don’t stray, don’t dally or detour, and you’ll be safe.” But Nan looked unconvinced.

Kirsjan sensed this: “That misty road, winding between the ancient sycamores, smells of good mushrooms and of partridge nests. Were we to stray, we would be quite safe.”

“Kirsjan, my boy, you have your city ways. But mind my words: that forest is not mild. The vapours hide mysterious things and stuff from fairies’ tales. Creatures that weave their mounts from morning dew; that harness foxes and sing to fallen stars. An ancient path it is, agreed and safe: but step outside and you are fairies’ prey. They’ll turn you into starlings and teach you how to fly.”

Kirsjan and Lily were thoughtful then. The words rang true. The path was of our world; the woods were not. They looked upon each other, and a choice was made.

And to this day, upon the ancient path, you may still hear a starling’s crystal laugh.