Weight of Wings


Bailey Cunningham

            The wings appeared on New Year’s Day. You were in the kitchen, bare feet dancing across icy tile floors, when you felt something fall from your shoulder. You saw a tiny, papery object flutter to the ground through intermittent layers of gravity and air pockets. It was a butterfly forewing, blue-grey with veiny lines traversing its delicate surface, marking a map to something unknown. You licked your fingertip and stuck the wing to the wetness, then blew it out the kitchen window as if making a wish.

            You moved slowly through your old apartment, picking up post-party artifacts; empty beer cans, some crushed in failed endeavors to prove masculinity, wine glasses for the girls, streamers hanging limply from the ceiling, exhausted balloons bobbing on the floor, used paper plates and utensils. You were thankful that returning your apartment to its antiqued simplicity would take all day. These tall white walls and bay windows inspired deep thought, and today was not a day for reminiscing.

            Your friend Sophia walked in from the guest room that she had loudly dibbed the night before. She gave you a kiss on the cheek.

            “We’ll talk later,” she said before tiptoeing out the front door in her spiked heels that made her walk like a newborn fawn.

            You found three more of the dull-colored wings. An ashy blue specimen perched on your collarbone, a ginger brown in your hair, and an eggplant purple stuck to the fibers of your wool sock. They only appeared on your own clothes and skin, as if you had some magnetic pull. You shut the windows and closed the vents of the old apartment, wondering where they were coming from. And in the middle of winter too.

            By mid afternoon the apartment was spotless and the only messy thing left was your own mind, swirling memories of last night like ink in saltwater.

            Anna wouldn’t mind, would you Anna? Not every day a man gets a chance with a supermodel.

            He had been drunk. Very drunk. And everyone had laughed like you were really as plain as he was making you feel. That woman, Hayden, had laughed along, leaning in to him like maybe she really would make a move. And then Sophia had grabbed your arm and said, “fuck all y’all,” because Sophia was the type of person who could shut a conversation down like that. But he stayed close to Hayden the rest of the night, giggling about more than small talk. If only your brother hadn’t brought her along, like some surprise treat for all the men. A real live model.

            You flicked another butterfly wing off your shoulder and went to the mirror above the mantle. You poked and stretched your skin, distorted your features to show faces that weren’t your own. When you looked down you saw that five wings were hanging from your sweater. A dark blood red one caught your eye. It was about four centimeters in length and with black seeping into the color at its outer edge, like it had been charred by flame.

            When you were little you spent hours running through the rows of your mother’s flower garden, trying so hard to catch monarchs in your nervous cage of fingers. You’d put them in your mother’s canning jars, with holes poked through saran-wrapped tops. You couldn’t believe that anything so gorgeous could come from those gross little worms that wrapped themselves in layers of saliva and let their bodies dissolve in enzyme-dense sludge.

            You went over to the window and retrieved an old jar filled with sea glass. Carefully, you poured the pieces out, and then plucked the wings from the fibers of your sweater and put them in the empty jar. You stopped at the red one. It reminded you of something, a shade of lipstick you used to own. Cherry Crave. You bought it three times in a row, because David always complimented you when you wore it.

            The lipstick was in your makeup bag under the guest bathroom sink. You also found your old foundations and favorite mascara. David wouldn’t be home for another hour. It was with a strange delight that you faced the mantle mirror and got to work.

            When you were done you felt a little more relaxed. Why had you stopped wearing makeup? No wonder David was making those jokes; he was just trying to tell you to keep up your maintenance.

            When you looked down you were surprised to see so many wings had appeared. On your sweater, your pants, your socks, your bare arms and your neck. They appeared to be quivering ever so slightly, like little bombs nearing the end of a countdown. You pulled them off one by one and put them in the jar, sealing the lid.

            When your husband returned home from work he stopped at the kitchen table.

            “You look nice.”

            You smiled. You wanted to take him in your arms and promise him that you would never let yourself go again. You wanted to tell him that you forgave him for last night, that you understood. Instead you showed him the jar.

            “I think there must be some infestation problem,” you said as he examined the jar.

            He turned it over. The wings clumped together as they fell against the top.

            “What am I looking at here?”

            “Butterfly wings! They’ve been showing up all day.”

             “There’s nothing in here, Posy.”

            You took the jar back and stared at the inches of wing.

            “Right here— ”

            But he was staring at you in such a hard way that you stopped.

            “Are you feeling all right?” he asked.

            “Fine,” you said, wondering if he was playing a trick on you.

            “That’s an empty jar, Pose.”

            You looked at the wings. “Yeah—”

            “Good. You really do look good today, honey.” He kissed you on the cheek and walked down the hall.

            That night you dreamed in pastels. The colors moved around you like water. Your husband was there too, calling to you.

            “Posy! Posy!” he yelled frantically. His favorite term of endearment. You searched, but you could barely see through the thick hues. Layers of sticky paint-like substances enveloped you. You felt your fear cease. You were insulated. You were warm.

            As you waited in the comfortable darkness you felt a strange sensation, like you had been sitting in a pool for too long. Your skin began to loosen. Your nails oozed along your cuticles, sliding down and dissolving in a warm liquid that had developed along the walls of the space. The air reeked of chemicals. You tried to wriggle your way out of the layers, but with every movement your skin burned. Your back had it the worst against the wall. It felt rubbery, loose. Then suddenly you felt it fall away. The rest of your skin followed, softening, and then dissolving in the sludge.


            When you woke you found that hundreds of wings had conglomerated over your eyes, your mouth, your nose. You frantically jabbed your husband awake. Several seconds passed as you felt him stir beside you.

             “Good morning,” he said.

             You remembered that he couldn’t see them. You stumbled into the bathroom through wing-obscured vision, keeping your lips locked tight for fear they would cascade into your mouth. They smelled of rotting wood. They peeled off in one giant piece, your features perfectly preserved in bits of lined and dotted butterfly remnants. You leaned over the sink and scrubbed until it hurt.

             When your face was clean and your heartbeat had calmed, you dabbed on some makeup and brushed your hair. You returned to the bedroom, and lie back down beside David.

             “You doing okay, Pose?”

             “Yes, of course,” you said. You shook several dusty yellow wings off the bedspread and snuggled close to him.

            You tried to continue collecting the wings in the jar, but after a few days it was packed full. They now appeared with such severity that they layered over your clothes and skin an inch or two thick. You struggled to move with the weight of them and began taking hourly showers to wash them off, scooping the piles of soggy wings from the drain with a garden shovel.

            Sophia had called the apartment a few times, but you hadn’t called back yet. You weren’t sure why, you just didn’t want to talk to her right now. Instead you focused your time on David, making sure he realized how important he was to you. You wore his favorite dresses, sprayed his favorite perfume. You told him how grateful you were for him, peeled the butterfly wings away as the two of you made love in the center of your queen size bed.

            On Tuesday you had to go to work. The temperature was below zero. You hoped the wings would fall off in the cold, but instead they hardened around you like a suit of armor. You preferred them this way, you supposed. They felt more like a costume than an unwanted epidermal growth.

            You arrived at the clothing store right at eight o’clock. Rita was at the front step, propping open the front door and dragging out an open sign.

            “You look nice!” she said. She couldn’t see the wings either.

            The store was warm and bright. You loved working here. You had friends here. You had part-time hours and a boss that never got mad. It was nice that David had his high-paying job so that you could take something more low-key.

            You were folding t-shirts, when you felt a tap on your shoulder.

            “Excuse me,” said a familiar voice, “I’m ready to pay.”

            You turned to see the woman from the party. Hayden. Tall and gorgeous model Hayden. But you weren’t bothered. Really. You saw that your husband was just using her in a desperate attempt to get you to understand. You really, really did. The wings thickened around you as you smiled.

            “Hey, Hayden.”

            Her eyes widened. “Oh, hi. I, uh, didn’t realize you worked here.”

            “Yup,” you said, leading her towards the register. “Hey, how did you like the party the other night?”

            “Oh it was fine.”

             “You know, we were really glad you came.”

            She was staring at the floor. Her long golden hair fell magnificently around her perfectly angular face. As soon as you were done she took her bag of clothes and left. Two guys stared unashamed as she strutted past them. You felt a sudden ache of jealousy that wouldn’t dull. No matter how hard you tried you’d never be that.

            You left at dusk. It had begun to snow, but you couldn’t reach under the wings to button your coat. People moved past you, ignoring your hunched form, inches deep in pounds and pounds of butterfly wing. When you glanced at your reflection in a store window all that you saw was a featureless blob. The last block home took you a half hour. Inch by inch you dragged your shaking legs across the cement. When you finally arrived, someone was waiting at your doorstep.

            “Anna.” It was Sophia, arms crossed and frowning at you. The wings lifted just enough for you to hobble to her. You felt a cold, slithering dread settle in your chest.

            “Anna, what’s going on? Are you okay?”

            “I’m fine.”

            “I’ve been trying to reach you for days.”

            “Sorry, I’ve been busy.”

            “Let’s go inside. It’s fucking freezing out here.”

            You both sat down at the kitchen table.

            “So, did you talk to David?” she asked.

            “About what?”

            She looked at you like you were crazy. “About him kissing that woman!”

            You felt something slip in your brain. The image that you had been evading for days projected itself on your skull. In the shadowed recess of the hallway, the distant sound of music, and friends talking, and two bodies in the dark. They didn’t notice you. You could hear the sound of lips joining and breaking apart, that distinct gooey sound of tongue.

            The walls of the hallway were closing in, swaddling the three of you where you stood. You couldn’t breathe. Liquid was dripping off the walls and onto you and him and her. They didn’t seem to care, but you were burning. You felt your skin begin to run, to dribble down your legs and feet, and pool on the carpet. Then a whisper.

            “You are so beautiful,” your husband said. He was obviously saying it to Hayden, their bodies still entangled in confusing ways, but it felt like the words still belonged to you. Maybe you could take them back.

            The hallway walls released their hold, your skin re-coagulated. You felt a headache start that seemed rooted in something deeper than brain matter. Something felt different inside you. You turned your back on them and returned to the party. It wasn’t until hours later that you told Sophia. If only you hadn’t.

            “About that, I honestly think I imagined it. I mean I was so drunk,” you laughed.

            Sophia’s eyebrows rose. “No you weren’t. You barely drank at all.”

            “No, I totally was—”

            “Anna, don’t do this.” She was tapping her foot against the table leg. The wings vibrated with each pulse.

            “Okay, Sophia, yes he was flirting with her. But that’s really all there was. I think I made up the rest. None of it’s his fault. I haven’t been trying. I mean, you’ve been around, you’ve seen that I haven’t been a good wife to him lately.”

            She was shaking her head. You took her hand.

            “David’s going to be back soon. You should probably head out.”

            For dinner you made tomato pie with goat cheese sprinkled on top. Your husband ate slice after slice, but you hardly ate any. It was difficult; the wings were getting worse. Each movement felt like you were lifting weights. They swayed over your plate, sometimes dropping in your food. Your lips would be covered again almost as soon as you cleared them. You stopped when one entered your mouth along with a bite of food. It tasted like bitter herbs, but its texture was even worse. Smooth like tissue, but when chewed you could feel nets of fingernail-like segments. Tough and dried out. You spat it into a napkin.

             “Are you doing okay?”

             “Fine,” you muttered. You had tried to look good for him, wash the wings away, put on some lipstick, smile big, but it felt different today. Heavier. Sophia had ruined everything, bringing up things that didn’t need to be brought up. She was obviously trying to ruin your marriage. Pretty Sophia, thinking she could compete with Plain Jane Anna. Not anymore. You were back in the game, proving to your husband that he picked right. That you could be his pretty, little wife.

             “Jake wants me to go to Bremerton this weekend,” David said. You frowned. David had never been asked to go on a business trip before.

             “All weekend?”

             “Yeah, he needs a guy down there to meet with an exec.”

             “Are you sure you’re not just going to visit Hayden?” The words came out so suddenly, so effortlessly. It was like they were waiting in the back of your throat for days. But they could not really be yours; this was not something you wanted to be said. The wings stiffened around your mouth. You could no longer open your jaw.

             “Why would you say that?” The words were meant to reassure, to make you feel silly for even thinking such a crazy thing. But his face looked alarmed, caught. Silence filled the apartment. It felt vacant. It felt like the two of you were intruding on this space.

             He got up abruptly, almost knocking over the chair. For a second you thought he would embrace you. Kiss you. Tell you no, you were all he needed. You were perfect. You were beautiful.

             Instead he turned and walked right out the front door and into the hazy blue night.

            You ran into the living room, ignoring the heaviness of the wings. They wanted you to sit still and ignore it. They wanted you to pretend things were fine, to pretend you could save this marriage by making yourself desirable. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Pretty. But that woman was prettier. That woman would always be prettier.

            You took the jar of butterfly wings you had left on the mantle and threw it against the ground. Thousands of tiny wings spread out across the wood floor through fragments of sparkling glass. A shard fell against your toe, making a small cut that blood immediately filled. The wings had been scrapped off. Your bare skin looked strange to you. You made a decision.

            No longer easily cleansed off, the wings papier-mâchéd to you as the steaming water of the shower hit. You took your husband’s straight shaving razor, the one that always scared you. So easy to hurt.

            You put it to your stomach and carefully dragged it against the wings. Clumsy, unpracticed, your hand shook just the way you wanted it to, nicking the skin here and there, leaving scratch marks. The damage was meager. You could barely feel it. But the wings scraped away quickly and soon your abdomen was free.

            You continued on, scraping, pulling, irritating every inch of skin. When you got to your face you carefully avoid your eyes and lips, but everything else your razor attacked. Soon your body was red and marked, but it was your body and you were real.

            You stood under the water for several minutes, waiting for a wing to appear. You ran your hands on the back of your neck, felt your cheeks, checked the back of your legs. Nothing. Your own skin felt safe and reassuring. You were insulated. You were warm.

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