On the wings of time

Submitted into Contest #102 in response to: Start your story with a metaphor about human nature.... view prompt

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Fiction

As a butterfly ages, its wings crumple up or wear down, scale by scale, until it can no longer fly and is starved to death or eaten alive by a spider. The colour fades and the beautiful shape is lost, leaving behind a tattered tissue paper that once enabled this creature to fly. As it has its most prominent feature ruined with passing time, it becomes more insignificant to our eyes. We search, (or at least the majority of humans do), for the most awe-inspiring patterns and colourful designs, something to captivate us and make us wild with aesthetic bliss. Most humans don’t seem to care for the dying butterfly as she has joined the ranks of the moths at this stage of her life, a crumbling fall from grace that is irrevocable. Thus, the butterfly sees her wings break and fall apart as the bells of death sound her hour. Some may say that Nature is cruel, but are we not part of Nature as well? And if so, are we not cruel as well?

Now I’m not invalidating the existence of altruism. It is a curious thing; just when the butterfly has begun its descent into oblivion a child or a well-intentioned human picks her up and feeds her watery honey, puts her in a box with holes poked on all corners for it to breathe, and asks for advice for how to care for it. However, these people are rarer than those who will let outward appearance sway them into ignoring the dying creature who has done nothing more than to age. We are not cruel, and Nature isn't either – it’s just that the world doesn’t work by any moral codes, it doesn’t follow rules of propriety. And humans can't help being attracted to beauty and beautiful things. Some are able to overlook these superficial attributes and to think rationally with an alert and conscious mind, or to be guided by feelings of deep affection and appreciation towards others. They understand that ranks and social scales are all made-up, that a butterfly and a moth are two different species of insects who make their appearance at different times of the day. There are humans who would rather ask themselves why the wings of a butterfly are deteriorating instead of omitting the animal because it has lost its aesthetic appeal.

We form attachments with the elderly – they’re events from the past, they give good advice, they are family and friends, they are we and we are then at different points in our lives. My grandmother is a wonderful human being, who cooks and cleans and listens to audiobooks. Far removed from the image of an old butterfly with decaying wings to me. Yet it would seem that I as a human am more drawn to help a younger person, subconsciously avoiding the wrinkles and old smell of an unknown origin – a stranger! Perhaps I do this out of instinct, or I tend to remove subjectively inferior people from my surroundings, but in any case, it does not fit with my moral values. I proclaim out loud that all humans should be equal, that a dying butterfly is of the same worth as a young adult or a caterpillar, but my aesthetically driven eye can trick me into distancing myself from others out of fear.

Even though I have been volunteering at a care home for years I still feel this way – subconsciously afraid of getting infected by someone’s weaknesses or flaws. I feel deep compassion and respect for the elderly that I chat with and sing for. There’s a woman who looks at a void, her blank stare eating emptiness. Her ghostly demeanour brings about a wave of shivers that tickles my bones. She scares me, even though I pity her sometimes. Her plump body always glued to a wheelchair that a caretaker drives around, detaching her bum from the seat only when it’s time to change her diaper. I shudder to think that a lucid human being could be degraded to such a deplorable state. She is more than a wingless butterfly – she lacks awareness and seems lost. I’ve never heard her speak, not even to reply to a caretaker or to greet us. In my regards, she is a shell of what she used to be. And I hope to never become as much of a turnip-brain as she is.

On Saturday I visited the care home with my guitar. The skinny ninety-year-old granny stooping over her cane grinned and clapped wildly. She’s still in one piece, the charming madame Bernard. Extraordinary woman. The wheelchair-bound void-gazing elder looked deflated and empty under the wrinkles and purple veins. Camille, a stout androgynous human being, had collected their arthritis-ridden hands, all erythematous and gnarly like tree roots, in their lap. I’ve never had the courage to ask if they are a man or a woman, so I assume that ‘they' works when speaking about them. Camille has a voice that deepened with old age, which makes it harder for me to attribute a biological sex to them. They are like a tortoise in appearance; the skin on the neck hangs loosely from the chin to the collarbones, three hairs are all that remain on their wrinkly, spotted scalp, their wide mandible juts forward, they have a squashed nose made of only thin cartilage and two flaring nostrils, their short legs never touch the ground when they are sat on a normally sized chair, and the nails at the ends of their fingertips are blackened with blue bruises. I took their solemn expression as a nod towards me to play on, so I didn’t feel as intense a fear of approaching them to ask what song they would like me to play next. The old men who were still aware of reality and had not yet become vegetables in this boring care home either clapped along or whistled happily at the end of every song. This spurred me on, so I didn’t feel so uncomfortable playing my guitar as the empty eyes of the wheelchair woman bore into me. Her dead stare made me apprehensive of her.

When a butterfly gets caught in a spider’s web, it usually struggles to escape before the spider wraps it up with its thin filaments, but this old timer was the sort that wouldn’t have even realised they were caught in a trap – she would have just stayed there, unaware of the danger, until the spider came along and gobbled her up. I really think that. Her mind is long gone, whatever she might have been is no more. And it scares me to think that one might not only lose their wings with age, but their head too. I am terrified of how ugly her blank expression is, it just doesn’t say anything. As the song passed through the chorus, her eyes met mine and I trembled. I hid away my fear and kept up my performance, but all the while I held her pupils in my eyes like an animal sensing a danger in its presence. She was dead but her body still functioned normally. I guess this is what scares us so much about zombies and living forever. Our bodies rot and change with time, and that is terrifying, but not as horrifying as the decomposition of the mind. When that is gone, something inhumane is left walking around in a human garb, a skin that shouldn’t belong to them. They are dressed up as living beings, but they are just three steps away from their coffin. There is no sense to a butterfly if it cannot perceive the world through its eyes, taste the nectar with its feet, or smell pheromones with its antennae. It is just as good as a dead insect.

My callous fingers strumming the guitar strings, I let the music take over my fearful thoughts. I couldn’t have a panic attack in the presence of such a lovely audience. Camille nodded here and there, closing their eyes and swerving to the music, madame Bernard clapped and stamped her foot joyfully, the old man Paul grinned and sang along, as well as the rest of the crowd. I ignored the corpse in the room. I played on and on and on, tapping and slapping my guitar where percussions should have been, and loudly chanting the chorus of a well-known song. The anxiety swelling in my chest fought go get out and scream, like a caged tiger pawing its way out of my throat, ready to roar. I could feel my throat clenching and the blood rising to my temples. At some point, I almost choked on my own saliva distractedly. The mad beast was clawing its way out of me, scratching my vocal cords in its ascent. To keep myself from wildly shrieking, an act that would have provided much relief, I gulped noiselessly and smiled stupidly as I would have as a kid to hide any minor crimes I had committed (such as eating cookies or breaking an expensive vase). I swiftly ended my performance with a bow and, having finished my volunteering trip for the day, wished everyone a good afternoon and almost ran out of the care home and into the safety of my car. Immediately, I grabbed the steering wheel (don’t worry, the guitar was tucked away in the back, I didn’t leave it behind) and slammed the accelerator. It’s easier to run away from an awkward situation with an automatic car that doesn’t require you to switch to first gear after you turn the motor on. Just press start and speed away. Soon enough I was back home, in my comfortable den, preoccupying myself with paintbrushes and an empty canvas. I used the acrylics to create an impression of my anxiety as I beheld that old woman with the empty eyes – a dash of royal blue sprinkled with yellow panic and red anguish. I jabbed at the canvas violently with a brush while screaming. It helped. The end result of my creative endeavour was beautiful, a brilliant manifestation of my emotions. Who knew such a fearful experience could inspire such beauty? I beheld my work in awe, then horror as I noticed the dying insect stuck to my blue streak. Its crumpled wings were of a faded grey, like the old woman’s hair, its eyes just as dead. It stood there transfixed, then died. I don’t know how to describe it, but there was a noble aura surrounding it as it took its last stand, then dropped. It felt like as if it had accepted the end. An act so beautiful as this couldn’t vanish forever. I pulled out my sketchbook and recreated the moment as faithfully as I could with charcoal. It didn’t produce the same effect, but it did twist my heart enough so that I cried at its elegance. Satisfied with my drawing a mere ten minutes later, I checked the time – half past five. Time to rest.

On Sunday I visited the care home again. I usually went only once every weekend, but I was feeling better since my art session. When I beheld the crowd that had gathered before me, I noticed that she wasn’t there. I played for two long hours, all the while wondering where she was. At long last, I finished my mini concert and asked a caretaker where she was.

“She died,” the caretaker said solemnly. “Just after you left.”

“At what time?” I asked.

“Twenty past five.”

July 13, 2021 06:37

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