By Nicholas Beishline
In recent history there existed a small town situated deep in a dense forest. The people of this town, much like the town itself — more of a village, really — were nearly born of the forest itself, their lives and their senses of purpose inextricably tangled with the living monoliths all around them. The shelters that protected everyone from the rain were in fact built entirely in tandem with the trees, the floors constructed to balance across the strongest branches and the roofs densely woven into the canopy overhead. Verdant flora decorated the floors and ceilings in arabesques, and natural light illuminated daily activities. No walls divided the people of this village from one another, for they understood that true community requires no separation from one another.
Within this village lived a young woman whom everyone regarded as something of an anomaly. Her childhood was spent in a curious state of limbo created by the difference in treatment from her peers and her elders; the former treated her as something to be wary of — the newcomer who cannot yet definitively be trusted — while the latter were always careful to instill in her the sense of communal sameness that all of the other children so easily enjoyed.
Much to her elders’ chagrin, however (like everyone else in the village, she had no true parents, as child rearing was considered an all-inclusive task), the differences in the girl were unable to be ignored. She became known by the elders as “little pupa,” not because of her young age but because her behavior and mannerisms began more and more to resemble those of the tiny cohabitants of the town that, had the townspeople known the word, would have been called “insects.” Her movements were somewhat jerky; her hair was thick and tangled, resistant to any attempt to tame it, and was a strange brown-green color, not unlike the thick carpet of fallen leaves below the dwellings that had not yet lost their color. When she would exert herself — which she often did, as her energy seemed to know no limits — and began to perspire, she smelled of the damp forest on a humid summer’s day, and at night, from a hiding place she’d found and made into a sort of second home, the rest of the village could hear a melancholy tune created by a strange chirping sound made, presumably, by a singular instrument of her own invention.
Sometimes those passing by could also hear the mournful lyrics accompanying her music, telling stories of “roots and wings, soil and sky,” and “burning sunlight ’gainst the eye.” Her singing was never forceful, never especially confident, and always seemed to lament experiences that only she had the privilege or curse of knowing.
As she grew into young adulthood, she began to be approached by others her own age, of both sexes, who attempted to court her in various ways. She was resistant to each of these advances, however, because she knew that she was somehow different from the others. Perhaps this flat refusal of affection was a result of the strange space she had occupied as a child, that liminal space of neither acceptance nor rejection inadvertently created by others to be inhabited by her alone; it is equally likely that she was daily made painfully aware of her strangely developing body. In any event, she chose to be alone, to live apart from the others and occupy a space completely her own.
She first realized that she was physically maturing differently from her peers when she stumbled upon another girl who was bathing in a river not far from the village. Hiding in the brush a safe distance from the riverbank, she watched the girl rise from the water, shake herself off, and turn to disappear into the woods on the opposite side of the river. The strange girl gave herself away by stepping on a stick that cracked underfoot, however, and when she was discovered she fled into the trees with the bather’s surprised voice still ringing in her head: “Seanene? Is that you?”
Seanene: the name meant no more to her than the world beyond the woods in which she dwelled. Seeing the naked bather confirmed once and for all that she was maturing differently from the other girl. For months already, she had felt a burning along her back—not painful, exactly, but distracting, and usually accompanied by the impossible sensation of her skin pulling against itself. Her body remained angular and her movements sudden and jerky, and she kept her thick hair piled in such a way that the thin appendages growing from the crown of her head could not be seen. The insides of her arms and legs were still lined with a single row of tiny ridges, but they had grown harder; she could feel them with the lightest touch of her fingertips, ridged like the bodies of the fish she could so easily catch. She had often run her hands the wrong way along their bodies, from tail to head, in order to compare the edges of their scales to the rough inside planes of her limbs. She understood instinctively that she was something other than the others, something new, and the only name by which she could understand herself to exist sounded wrong in her head.
It was one night not long after the bathing incident that a boy her own age visited her in her hiding place. He was tall, though not as tall as she, and smoothly muscled; she had often furtively watched him as he hunted or swam. She knew his name was Cole but, like her own name, she did not care to know him by the distinction of his name.
He advanced slowly, clearly unsure of himself, looking around in wonderment at the small alcove she had created beneath the roots of a particularly old and massive tree. He thought she smelled like the earthen walls when she ran, but he did not say this; did not, in fact, say anything until he was standing squarely before her. Even then, he merely breathed her name, and raised one hand — to cup her cheek, touch her hair, or strike her, she did not know, but she did not flinch.
His hand seemed to lose its power as it neared her face, and it came to rest instead on her bare shoulder. “I heard you singing,” he said at last, and looked around the small space a bit awkwardly. “Where do you keep your instrument?”
“Instrument?” Although Seanene had known Cole her entire life, it had always been from a distance, and she thought this was probably the first word she had ever spoken directly to him.
“The one that makes that chirping noise. Its sound is always stuck in my head, buzzing around like an insect’s song I can’t forget.”
Seanene shook her head and tried to push him away, suddenly afraid, but he did not fully retreat, coming instead to stand at the edge of her space: still solidly there, but at a safe distance, as though he meant to tell her that he would do her no harm. Possessed by a sudden, brazen anger, she kept her eyes fixed on his and very slowly, in a thrall of defiance she had never before known, extended her arms in front of her and rubbed them against one another. The resulting sound was a short, mournful chirp from which Cole did not flee, as she had perhaps expected; instead he took a single step toward. She held her ground, and when, without breaking eye contact, he breathed a single word — “again” — she obeyed.
Their coupling was nothing like she could ever have anticipated. It was clumsy and awkward, but pleasing, as well, although she found herself entering into the act with the same guarded distance with which she had always approached everything in her life. She was, in fact, only just beginning to lower her guard a bit when she felt the familiar pain in her back once again, but worse than before, making itself known in an incarnation she had never before imagined. It was excruciating, and in the midst of it, as she tried to pull away, Cole’s eyes opened and she watched his expression change from bliss to something very nearly approaching horror, and in the next instant he was gone, fled completely from her dwelling beneath the tree.
Her vision was altered, too, in this rush of confusion and revelation that followed the single most momentous event of her life. Where previously she had always seen the world as one image, an aperture made clear by the cooperation of both of her eyes, now the world appeared to her several dozen times over, as if she were gazing at a reflection badly fractured by a cracked looking-glass. Through this terrifying, dizzying new sense of sight, she thought she could glimpse something flittering just at the edges of her fractured vision. She screamed, and continued to scream, and finally fled her space and, from there, the village itself.
She did not know how far she had fled, or in what direction, but the next morning found her in an unfamiliar clearing with a motionless pond of water in the center of it. Her vision still scared her, but she thought she was beginning to adjust to it, and when she crept to the pond to stare at herself in its reflection, she almost did not recognize the image presented to her in the still water.
She was still herself, but so much was different. Her eyes appeared prismatic in the reflection, multi-faceted and possessing countless arrays of color. The appendages she had long felt growing from her skull were now fully visible — two of them, each nearly a foot long, and capped with a tiny bulb which, she now realized with a start, were alerting her to vibrations and sounds she had never before perceived. And, as she bent farther over the water, she finally saw the result of the continuing pain in her back.
Seanene stared in mute amazement at the delicate wings that now stretched from her back. Like so many of the insects and butterflies she had enjoyed watching for as long as she could remember, she now possessed wings of her own: studies in gossamer that shimmered in the sunlight raining down from the clear sky above her, one color changing into another in the glare, so that it was impossible for her to tell whether they were one color or several at once.
The boy known to Seanene as Cole crouched at the edge of the clearing in the forest and saw a strange and beautiful creature crouched over a small pond, studying itself in the water’s reflection with an intensity that seemed consistent only with one’s initial moment of self-recognition. He watched her — for, in spite of the strange entomological appendages, the creature was still unmistakably female — slowly straighten, rising to her full height in the young sunlight of a new day, and stretch her arms to heaven, seemingly in sudden understanding and acceptance of some long-sought truth about herself. As she turned round and round, he stood frozen in place and watched those brilliant wings twitch, then flutter back and forth in clearly intentional movements, until they quickened into a blur and the girl was lifted, just for a moment, off of the ground. He recognized her as the strange girl from the village, but she was clearly something different now, something somehow more, as if in the course of a single night she had fully matured into the woman he was seeing now.
The sound of her new, unburdened laugh astonished him, as did the relieved sob that closely followed it. It was the laugh and the sob of a creature never before seen: one that finally understood its place in the world, and was only too happy to claim it at last.
Later, after she ran off to lose herself in the trees once more, Cole abandoned his voyeuristic study of the stunning creature and moved instead to inspect the grass and leaves on which she had earlier awoken.
There, under close inspection, he found dozens of dimly shining, nearly translucent orbs, no larger in diameter than the smallest nail of one’s smallest finger.
And he wondered if possibly, just possibly, they did not curiously resemble eggs.
Nicholas Beishline is a doctoral candidate in Victorian literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His writing has appeared in such ezines as Chronogram and, most recently, M.E. Sharpe’s Encyclopedia of Global Social Issues. When he is not writing, he is being harassed by his cats, Milo and Penny. In addition to reading and writing, Nicholas loves teaching English and playing the electric guitar.