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.

A little bit of responsibility

“Our hero is a shy, mild-mannered, kid. Matt Millward. Thick glasses, nerdy. Works on the school paper. Official photographer. Uses the badge to take snap shots of the girl he’s sweet on. Sara May Halford. Redhead. His neighbour. Know each other since they were kids. She’s gorgeous. He’s quiet. Unrequited love. You get the idea.

“School trip. The zoo. Class is walking around the insect room. Door to the lab is ajar. Cut to inside of lab. One of the White Coats is panicking, shouting. A Suit is trying to calm him down, find out what the big deal is. Pan across and tighten focus to show container with shattered glass, radiation warnings, hole in the corner. Sounds of fluttering from behind. Fast zoom back and flip to show moth fluttering away, down the corridor. Camera tracks moth through door, up into high ceiling, looking down onto school trip. Look down to at hero, nose against a spider display. Look back up at moth; it divebombs down into the crowd.

“Moth lands on Matt’s hand. He looks at it, chuckles. It bites him. Zoom in on hand, microscopic level. Rushing of blood, pounding of heart. Zoom out, Matt yelping, swipes at moth, misses. Sara May rushes over, grabs Matt’s hand, glowing red.”

“We’re going to have to stop you there,” one of the panel says, holding a flat hand up.

“What?” he wipes the sweat from his brow. His cheap suit shows large dark patches under his arms and on his back. “But this is just the origin part of the story. This is just the first part.” He grabs at his notes, sending paper flying in all directions. “Wait, this next bit. This is good. Let me just…”

“Son, it’s okay. The job’s yours.” He stands up and offers his hand. “Welcome to Amazing Comics. Cigarette?”

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.