The History of Wings

The history of wings is the story of a playground.

It was a place where the younger would laugh and the older would rest, and it was full of trees. Early one autumn as the metal of the benches chilled and day got darker, on the ground beneath the swing set and scattered around the trampoline and mixed up in the sandbox were hundreds and hundreds of dark dry leaves. That is, at least, what they looked like if you didn’t look too closely. If you did bend down to inspect more carefully – and no one did – you might notice the echo of an antenna, the ragged film of the tip of what once was a wing.

Some time late in September, the butterflies changed. Their life cycle took on an extra metamorphosis, as they perished and were reborn again – not, this time, into a riot of flight and color, but instead into a kind of living death. It might have been a fungus, or a virus, or a killing shift in the light. Whatever the cause, the playground became a graveyard for the butterfly undead.

Their new forms lent themselves to an ingenious kind of mimicry, and they masqueraded as dried leaves and waited on the playground floor for changes in the wind while warm bodies were near – people, dogs, the occasional squirrel or pigeon. A butterfly zombie would gust up and slowly float down to land on a little girl’s braids, gently making its way to her ear, crawling over the ridge with its little zombie antennae until it reached the canal, there pushing all of its energy into its zombie wings and with one, two, three pumps fluttering right inside, traveling up into nose and burrowing down and staying there, feeding on her breath. Or it might drift down the collar of a young man’s shirt, wings beating themselves into a powder that insinuated itself into his pores and eventually absorbed its way into his lungs.

No one realized this was happening, and so no one thought twice about the coughing fits that overtook those who came to the playground: the air was getting cold, and their bodies were simply adjusting, they thought. Hell of a rhinovirus, they thought. Allergies!, they thought.

And as they coughed, the butterflies fed and slowly reconstituted themselves. Out of breath they made their bodies, cocooning themselves in lungs and nostrils and throats. They drew the cold out of the air and used it to feather and filament their antennae. They took pulls of the smoke of burning wood, drew the scent out into fine long threads and veined their wings with them.  Out of the moisture of rainy evenings they made a scraggly down to line their airy bodies. And slowly they breathed themselves back into being. Their unwitting keepers never realized what had been incubating, though they would have been able to smell or taste or hear their winged tenants if they knew what to pay attention to. As it was, the people soothed the odd taste in their mouths with mints, drank hot tea to clear their sinuses, listened past the slight wheezing in their chests. Things proceeded this way for a while – all of it virtually invisible – until, after escaping on the force of a particularly strong cough, a butterfly would head outward and upward and just keep going.

If you look up and turn your head just right, you can almost see entire cities in the sky made of tiny patterned wings, dissolving into and out of one another.