It is winter, but the butterflies don't seem to realize it yet. They move aimlessly in corkscrew patterns behind the glass. I watch them as, one by one, they shiver under winter's onslaught and drop lifeless to the ground.
They should have known better. They should have known to flee south before winter disintegrated them.
If I had wings and the liberty to use them, I'd be miles distant from here. I'd be stretched out below fragrant fruiting trees, drowsing in the aftermath of sunny days.
But there is no light to revive me, no sun or warmth to comfort. There is nothing but the window, a thin line between what lies outside and the other.
The skies hang heavy with potential storms. The trees are naked against the muddy daylight, and branches reach out to snare passersby. Outside, one's face is slashed by the knives of wind until lines melt across one's skin like scars. It creates old age, hardens the skin into furrowed ridges as bloody as thorns.
Entropy breaks reality into smaller and smaller bits. The pieces drift down like snowflakes, a constant precipitation of might-have-beens. The bits don't last long, but one can pick them up and look at them in ephemeral glimpses—like sticking out your tongue and having the ice of winter melt on it in a brief, cold kiss. Open your mouth—I'll show you—
The girl wears my face. Her teeth are too white, her eyes bruised with a cosmetic hand. "Good morning," she says to someone walking by, someone who sees nothing in the space she occupies. The words she speaks are empty, but behind each phrase is the sound of a coin dropping into the bank, the soothing clink of money piling up against snarling commercialism. "Good morning," she repeats to the next person and the next. She is background to the daily people who pass, a dog-eared corner on the page of their harried lives, until...
...the girl, become the winter mirror. Her eyes are hollow, her cheeks lined with the cuts and slashes of the wind. The girl is a crone, dressed in white and pressed down into the smallest version of herself. Her arms hug her thin sides as she crouches on the floor. The window is covered in bars. She whispers to herself, but one cannot hear what she is saying unless one squats down next to her and presses an ear against her lips to feel the soft caress of breath.
"Good morning," she says.
The vision fades into the window, and the butterflies die, superimposed over my image. The reflected features, the fathomless eyes that see through the glass mirror of my prison.
The girl's life haunts me.
I blink, and the crone blinks back at me.
Despite the cold, I lean against the door, exhausted with thinking in corkscrews. The door to my prison leans back against me like a reluctant lover, pressing against my body, and I turn my face to it in relief. But even it rejects me—unexpectedly, it springs away from my caress.
The prison gate—open. Winter beckons like the blade of a knife.
Escape, it says.
Pulling a mask over my face, I suck the molecules of warm air deep into my diver's lungs, holding them tightly as the precious clock starts ticking down. I take the first step through the door.
Outside, I stretch my legs, tapping down the frozen street in a grotesque dancer's pantomime. The gate is no longer guarded by Cerberus, who has lain his head down to sleep.
Until I hear a sound behind my back. The hunters, dressed in white lab-coats, nipping at my heels.
Before, they put a butterfly in a jar. Now, they will stab it with a pin for display.
The wind slashes my cheeks open so that blood runs from my face like tears. I would scream, but the shards would slip between my lips like knives, so I pant through wide, bleeding nostrils, a red trail of breadcrumbs left behind.
There are people, but they are frozen motionless on the walks, a row of antiquated statues. Their outlines are fluid with the shifting cold, resembling nothing so much as stationary cocoons, gently pulsing with a lack of motion. Someday, perhaps, a butterfly might emerge from these giant forms and fly to freedom. But not today.
I can feel the white coats dogging me. Occasionally, there is a tug—fleeting claws grasp, but I twirl out of their deceptive embrace.
Buildings flash by, odd assortments of glass and twisted metal, until I run out of streets. There is only the mountain ahead, the trees leering. The hunters bay, now that they've tasted blood. I turn to look—the city has disappeared as I've run past, only grasslands behind me, a wide open field containing nothing but brown stalks left over from an earlier season. As I watch, the grasses bow down in a wave as something forges a new path through the center of them.
I turn again to run.
A scream escapes me as I see movement ahead of me, but I realize what it is and feel my throat unclench. The hunters are further behind—these pursuers will not harm me. These are the insects, blue from the cold and attracted to the warmth of my passage.
I didn't realize so many of them had survived this long. Sheets of butterflies appear in a cold, mocking dance. They hover over me like storm clouds, shifting and swirling in an ageless pirouette. Now they separate, forming an arrow pointing up towards the mountain.
The butterflies have some understanding, some intelligence I've never grasped. With no other options, I begin to climb.
The insects keep pace, although I am slower now with the ascent. The calls of the hunters grow louder behind me as they throw themselves at the mountain. The pursuit is tireless, unstopping, and I wonder what would throw them off, what would trip them up and make them abandon the chase. What feeble effort on my part—if I turned and snarled, would I suddenly shoot up twenty feet into a giantess and step on them one by one, as on troublesome pests?
My mouth fills with salt, open with breath. The ice air cuts my throat and I swallow down gobs of blood and saliva, nourishing myself in the Ouroborosian tradition.
Several of my flying guides drop to the ground as the air grows colder. My thighs are slowly turning to stone, but there is no stopping or they will catch me, and I will never have this chance again, never.
I don't realize the betrayal until the summit appears. It is a flat slash of rock with only one path leading to it, the way I've just climbed, and no exit. I creep to the far edge and look down into a pit of night.
Time has stopped. Sound has stopped. There is just the blink of my heart, falling down into that void in front of me, the endless realization of failure.
The wheel turns, and suddenly I realize that time has regained its foothold. The flying creatures surround me, the soft patter of their wings becoming a thunder of sound. I wonder at their mocking insistence. I know they are trying to tell me something, but I cannot understand. My mouth is open, and I try to speak, but it is like asking the wind for a reply.
One by one, they flutter around me. Their movements become urgent as the hunters bay with triumph. Any moment, the bloodthirsty will be upon me and it will be over.
The insects collect in a group, as if conferring. In consensus, they form a line spiraling over the edge of the cliff.
I peer over the precipice. Are they deserting me?
The creatures begin to glow like firecrackers, throwing off sparks of indigo luminescence as they drift in idle curlicues towards the bottom. There is no more darkness in that pit. With the butterflies' passage, it has become filled with light.
The cries behind me are frantic with success. I turn from the light to see darkness flowing towards me, filled with the savage glow of hungry eyes.
The answer is simple, and I understand it now. They have shown me how to remember.
There is an exit here. There is a choice, and a way to freedom.
My legs carry me the few necessary steps towards the darkness pursuing me before I turn my back on it. The claws of the hunters try to hook into me, but I am already gone—following the butterflies down, down, down into a shaft of light...
...and a purple butterfly drifts gently down among the blues to feast on the corpse below.
lives in Connecticut with her husband and two point five daughters. She has work published/forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, FLAPPERHOUSE
and Saturday Night Reader
, among others. You can follow her on Twitter @AlisonMcBain.