(The Winged Creatures of) Zebjudar
By Tony Rauch
You can't sleep. So you sit up on your bed and watch the night from your bedroom window. You wonder at all the blackness - at the dark clouds passing above, at their blank outlines, like castles in the sky; at the silvery stars blinking on and off; at the fireflies looping around the edge of the backyard. You watch the fireflies scooting about in the indigo darkness like little lanterns balancing and skittering on the breeze. They disappear into the dark bushes and trees, reappearing again and again. Gradually you grow tired and return to bed, laying down and falling asleep. A few days later the same thing happens - you can't sleep again, so you check out the fireflies again, watching their golden sparks loop and whirl, around and around like a miniature circus. Then you get curious and want to see them up close. So you wander out back and watch them. The cool night air is refreshing. Tons of silver stars wink above in the clear night's sky. The sky looks the way lake water does at night - just a shining and sparkly mirror you could just dive right into.
At first you watch from a distance, the flies' golden sparks zipping back and forth at the edge of the backyard. Gradually you make your way over to the enormous wall of nature that borders and defines the entirety of your backyard - the lilies and lilacs, the bushes and tall grass, the willows and scrub, the weeds and thickets - all leading to the eventual meadow with the pond beyond, the tall prairie grass field dropping off to a ravine, then rolling hills and farm fields, and finally a forest.
As you get to the wall of nature - leaves, branches, tall grass, and thick brush - the flies encircle you as bright dots, surrounding you in a blanket of light. You hold out your arms and slowly turn, watching sparks and arcs of light playfully looping around you.
You watch some sparks dart into the curtain of leaves and vines. Others pop from this veil of dark roughage. They seem to form a vortex, leading you into the brush. So you reach to part some of the branches. You step into the thicket to see where the lights are going and coming from. You see a stream of flickering lights dancing before you, as if a miniature city in the air is waiting for you. So you step into the tangle of branches, following the flow of tiny golden dots wiggling into the darkness beyond. The tiny golden lights seem to narrow, as if to form a twirling glow of rope, or a mini-stream of lights in the air, as if to lead you somewhere.
You follow them, the string of waving flickering lights leading you through the rough undergrowth and over a hill and down into a small valley, then over a narrow brook and back up a hill to a clearing in a wooded area. You've never been this far to the east before. You stand in the clearing. The lights flash around you, whirling lazily. Around and around they go, faster and faster until slowly they lower themselves, gradually descending to the ground at your feet. You bend to your knees. The lights collect themselves to gather in a swirling ball just above the ground. They illuminate a small area below. You watch as one of the bigger flies drops to the ground. It becomes brighter, glowing an amber sphere of fuzzy light. The light seems to thicken and then melt, like an intense heat. The light dims and shrinks from the gold color to a smaller fuzz of white. Suddenly you can see through the light. You see the firefly lay on its back in the dirt. The bug grows a little, then slowly turns into a tiny person, right before your eyes. The bug fills out into a human-like form, but with more arms running down its sides. Its bug legs inflate to form human arms and legs. Its bug head shrinks to the shape of a human's head.
The white ball of light fades. Then the others lower themselves to dance in the air and illuminate this patch of dirt. You keep your eye on the one that landed, the one in front of you. But then, as your eyes adjust to the darkness, you notice more surrounding the one on the ground. There are more of them - all spaced out in rows. They look like little people, the size of your finger, little stick people just lying there. Suddenly you notice two of them walking into view. They are dark as shadows and they each carry a set of wings. They walk up to one of the other little figures lying on the ground and bend to affix the wings to that one's back. Then they walk off, disappearing into the shadows. A different one on the ground lights up and begins filling out, as if inflating. It gets bigger and bigger, right before your eyes. As it slowly grows, it slowly lights up, as if transparent. Because of this bright light, you can see through the figure's skin. These creatures appear to be human-like, but with digital circuitry on the insides, and detachable bee-like wings. You can't tell if they are insects or people, or some kind of small machine, or a combination of all three.
The thing grows to about the size of your fist, then stops. But it is still illuminated by its internal circuitry. It flutters in the air before you, several arms wiggling at its sides. Another one in the air, a small one, flies from the floating swirl of lights. It slowly descends and lands on your arm. It balances there, then burrows under your skin with a pinch. You see the light inside, under your skin, a soft glow slowly moving up your arm. You watch as it reaches your shoulder, then loops around and travels down to the middle of your chest. There it stops, its light throbbing with the beat of your heart. And then it begins to grow as well, growing inside your chest. And then you get this feeling, a feeling of understanding. Not a voice in your head, just a realization, as if you were remembering an old dream you had forgotten about but now suddenly remember. They are transferring their circuitry to you, or their genes maybe. Something is going on. An exchange. Somehow you seem to know this. They are giving you their digital cells, attaching them inside you for safe keeping. Then the light inside you begins to shrink and fade. You feel warm all over. And suddenly you can see things that you couldn't before. You see a person walk by, a transparent person carrying a long, transparent spear. Slowly you look around. Several more transparent people with spears pass in the distance, each crouching and creeping carefully, as if hunting or out on patrol. You see a hut, one that wasn't there before, but is right here in front of you now. The stone hut looks to be hundreds of years old. Someone walks out of the structure and steps over to you, as if expecting you. It's an older woman. She extends her arm to greet you. “Hello,” the woman says. And you see several more vague stone huts appear in the shadowy background. They are mere lumps or mounds, yet with crude wood doors, small windows, tall, steep grass roofs, and stone chimneys. The woman is wrapped in what appears to be thick wool blankets tied together by thick leather belts.
“Hello,” You nod, shaking her hand, “It's good to meet you.”
“We have to get you out of here. It isn't safe to be out in the open this late, on the path alone like this,” the woman looks around. And just then you hear a thundering and rustling. The woman pulls you out of the way, off to the side. A wagon streams by, right where you were standing. And then another. And then yet another. Six white horses harnessed to each wagon are galloping along at a fast pace. But they're horses made of smoke. The white smoky horses rush along. They make a rumbling roar as they pass on the sudden sandy path beside you.
“Where are they going?” you ask the stranger.
“Like I said, it's not safe out here this late. They're just passing through. This is the wilderness,” the figure looks about, “There are land pirates and monsters about. Come along, let's get you inside,” she waves and you step into the woods, “You're a new one, aren't you? We have so much to show you, so much to tell you about.” Just then the woman dives to you, knocking you down. You both roll on the hard ground as three dogs made of fire flair over you, leaping into the darkness beyond.
You feel the heat from their fire. You both roll over to watch as they flicker into the rough foliage of the forest, running like mad to who knows where, disappearing into the leaves and shadows and darkness beyond.
“You see,” the woman climbs to her knees to sit up, “It's not safe all by yourself out in the open here. Not at this hour. Now let's get you inside, where it'll be safe until morning.”
You both jog through the weeds and grass, under a wild, ragged tangle of trees, to the stone hut. The hut is partially sunk into the ground so the windowsill line is at the ground. The woman opens a small wooden door with the top curved. You both duck to shuffle inside. You descend several steps. Inside, the main room is small, but with a high ceiling. There is a line of dormer windows on the opposite roof slope. In a corner there is a small table lit by a single, large candle, the only light in the place. Two small, pig-like creatures sit side by side at the table, reading a book. They look up at you. They wear bib overalls and knitted sweaters with wide stripes. One has blue stripes on a light green background, the other red stripes on light green.
The woman gestures to a small bed in the corner, as if they'd been expecting you. The bed is thick and bloated with plaid blankets. “You can rest here until morning,” she nods, “It's not safe to be out. They shouldn't have brought you here this late.”
You step over to the bed, finally feeling tired for the first time in days. You stand before the bed, considering it, then you look back to the others. The woman is cleaning up in the small kitchen in the opposite corner. The pig beings have their heads down, reading. One of the pigs looks up and over to you, watching you for a moment, then waves at you. You wave lazily back to it. The little pig thing looks back down to its book. You turn to look down at the bed, then you step closer to it.
- - -
Tony Rauch has three books of short stories published – “I’m right here” (spout press), “Laredo” (Eraserhead Press), “Eyeballs growing all over me . . . again” (Eraserhead Press). He has additional titles forthcoming in the next few months. He will have a new story collection out in March or April, "as I floated in the jar"
Labels: Tony Rauch