The tunnel was looming and empty, cut with streaking scratches in the dull gleam of the concrete, and the platform was smooth and still as a pane of glass, save a skittering of crumpled candy wrappers on the pavement, or a rattle of empty tin soda cans rolling in the drafts. Rippling coats of butterfly wings dripped up from the cracks, fluttering like coppery flakes of rust. They dripped water, letting a crystal drop plop onto the floor and echo about the walls, like stalactites in a slick limestone cave. They were walking on the hard platform of a subway tunnel, towards the small tent of sheet draped from a steel column and stuffed between the slats of a wooden bench. It was peppered with boxes and hung with some spare clothes and shoes.
The bulging roof brushed the top of Ciana’s head as she shuffled a thick deck of playing cards, the rim of the stack rippled with the silty set of card edges that wrinkled in her hands. Patterns of red and black flashed in her hands.
“Ciana,” said Daffodil.
“You’re back! What did you find?”
“Yeah, we’re back. That’s why we came.” She swallowed. “We found something. Something that might mean you might be the missing piece of the puzzle.”
Ciana caught her breath.
“What do you mean?”
“We’re not sure yet. But the thing you do with the moon, it’s important.
"We just have to figure out how.”
* * *
The sky was a dim blanket of gray clouds, and the air was thick and moist, buzzing with a cold that froze your bones. There was a slight musky smell.
An old, rickety house propped up at the edge of town, striped with creaking wood planks peeling with white paint. They were old bones, a skeleton. The windows were dulled with layers of dust and spread with webs of white cracks, with wind whistling through the gaps and over broken pieces of glass. No one ever went near that house. A baby had fallen out the window there and was never even buried. There was also the weird musky smell, and layers of rotting leaves and pine needles in the yard. Birds and insects avoided it like the plague. A few teens had dared each other to go in once and saw a weird mildew coating the walls, flakes with growths like butterfly wings. No one tried to go in there again.
But someone had come out. Him.
A fungus like butterfly wings bloomed from one eye socket. They’d eaten away the jelly inside. When he breathed, he could feel them fluttering. Under the ripped t-shirt cloth knotted around his shoulder, Some of the skin and layers of tissue from his arm were missing. It was a bloody rose blossoming on his shoulder, a meaty blot of lichen. Bits of bone had been chipped away by rat’s teeth. His blood flowed sluggishly under bleached skin that gleamed dully, as if it was made of polished white wax.
As he stood in the shadow of the old, worn house.
The lawn was tangled with weeds, that writhed between the cracks in the fence and waved in the soft wind. He walked up to the front door. It jung ajar, and creaked in the drafts. He pushed it aside with a tense palm, took a deep, musty breath of air, and walked in.
His footsteps creaked up the rotten stairs. He hadn’t paid much attention to the bedroom, the bedroom where he’d found the clothes, the mildewy clothes that somehow fit him exactly. It was a small, bare bedroom, with a bony bed frame with a moth-eaten mattress over it. There was the wardrobe. When he looked inside, it was empty. There were some photos resting on top, covered with dust. He brushed away some of the dust with his hand. There was a photograph of a child. Something about it unnerved him.
He stepped back down the stairs. The wallpaper was rippled with butterfly wings, that grew out of every crevice, every crack. More than he’d ever seen on anything.
Other than himself.
He opened the glass door in the kitchen and stepped into the backyard.
Two young oak trees were there in the yard. Their leaves hadn’t been raked for years and years, and they’d piled on each and layered over and choked out the grass, which was now a withered carpet rotted beneath. The leaves were brown and crackled under his footsteps. There was a layer of them lifted away where he’d risen up and awoken, and some bones.
He walked closer, the brittle leaf stems snapping under his feet.
The leaves were a crackling, moist sheet that had been lifted away like a blanket, and some of the dead, rotted grass was showing. There were some bones, old deer bones, cracked yellow bones. Hooves, black and solid. Even the matted, age-old remains of fur. It had a few butterfly wings growing from it, making it crawl with webs of roots like ivy tendrils.
Beyond the wiry, chain-link fence was a forest. A pine forest whispering with thick, wintery-green needles.
Just like the one in his dream.
The pines stood in a dreamy quiet, like clusters of smooth spiral shells popping from sand rolled over by the tides and ocean waves, or ice cream cones carelessly splattered on the sidewalk. The trees seemed to breathe, with soft, vegetive lungs that made the needles shift with a delicate, silky life like gossamer. The pines smelled fresh and earthy, like grass or leaves baked in the sun, like green-feathered candles burning softly on a fragment oaken wardrobe. The forest seemed to swallow all light and sound.
A tingling chill shuddered through his body, and an airless, noiseless gasp floated from between his lips. Did this mean he was in another dream? Did this mean he wasn’t fully awake?
Or did it mean, when he’d been here, he wasn’t fully asleep?
The chain-link fence rattled as he climbed over it. The trees seemed to swallow his vision. There was a tension tingling in his bones, as if the silver deer might emerge from the pines. Maybe it would, he thought. Maybe it would.
But there was only a forest. A pine forest whispering with thick, wintery-green needles.
He began walking into the forest, slowly being reeled in like a hooked fish.
The pines swallowed up behind him and closed in over his head. He kept walking. The cool air whistled over his skin. The trees swallowed up the sound, and the soles of his feet slid listlessly over the needles. Fingers of pine brushed over his arms, more and more of them, catching their green thorns on his clothes.
He saw a butterfly.
It was stitched from the wings that grew from his insides, a butterfly wing butterfly. It was ghostly, a mystical spectre, and seemed to glow. It flexed it wings on a pine bough, as if beckoning him closer. He came closer.
The butterfly was gone. It didn’t fly away or crumble into dust, it just wasn’t there anymore. Maybe it’d never been there.
Under his feet, he felt a hardness, under the pine needles.
He dropped to his knees and started digging at them. They pricked at his fingers and slid over his palms. He plunged his fingernails deep, and sent scooped handfuls flying like flecks of earth.
Knuckles of white began to show. He brushed away some more needles and pulled. The line became rotted and needles and earth was blurry.
A skull. A deer skull.
Needles fell away from it and clumps of earth hung as if from roots. The antlers were broken off, with cracked stumps where they’d used to be. Butterfly wings were growing from the calcium. Well, they had been, at least. They were just brittle husks now. He dug out some more bones. Circlets of rib. The antlers. Smooth, flat shoulder blades. Knobbled pieces of spine.
All covered with butterfly wings, that crackled off and fluttered to the ground like wilted petals.
A thrill of fear throbbed through his stomach.
He put the bones back, and scooped the pine needles back over them, smoothing them and patting them down. He stood up.
The pines stood in a dreamy quiet, like clusters of smooth spiral shells popping from sand rolled over by the tides and ocean waves, or ice cream cones carelessly splattered on the sidewalk. The trees seemed to breathe, with soft, vegetive lungs that made the needles shift with a delicate, silky life like gossamer. The pines smelled fresh and earthy, like grass or leaves baked in the sun, like green-feathered candles burning softly on a fragment oaken wardrobe. The forest seemed to swallow all light and sound. There were more butterflies, flexing their wings on the pine boughs. Like stars showing him the way back. He followed them. The pines began to thin. He kept walking. He kept walking across the soft, silent needles. The cool air whistled over his skin. The trees swallowed up the sound, and the soles of his feet slid listlessly over the needles. Fingers of pine brushed over his arms, more and more of them, catching their green thorns on his clothes.
* * *
He dreamed about the forest again that night.
The smooth, black highway was under his heels. It gleamed dully from the moisture in the air. The forest was on the side of the highway. The air was cool and stirred slightly in the wind. The pines stood in a dreamy quiet, like clusters of smooth spiral shells popping from sand rolled over by the tides and ocean waves, or ice cream cones carelessly splattered on the sidewalk. The forest seemed to swallow all light and sound. It was dark. Soft. Quiet.
And he stood. Waiting.
He saw the deer. It was silver in the moonlight, a bright moonlight that dipped the tips of the fur coating its pelt in melted pearl. Its eyes glittered in the tar-like blackness like cold diamonds, and seemed to pierce his soul. A thing of light in the dark, quiet forest of pines.
And he stood. Waiting.
He saw the deer. Its antlers were like young, thick oak saplings frosted over with a thin layer of moss. It was right in front of him. Its eyes were burning stars that seared his very core. The deer, the silver moonlit deer with the fur dipped in melted pearl. It was bathed in a harsh, powdery light like a camera flash, that made the once-thin shadows drip black and stretch like tar, and the minute fur coating the pelt stretch like stars through hyperspeed spaceship windows into blooming streaks, rippling like a hurricane.
But there was only the calming sound of wind, blowing and buffeting his ears, under an overtone an audible, buzzing silence, muffled like a distant thunderstorm. He looked right into its eyes, and it didn’t seem quite so strange, or scary.
“I saw the bones. I saw the photos,” he said. “I know that fifteen years ago, an infant was dropped out the window here.” He paused, taking a deep slow breath.
“What are you trying to tell me?”
I THINK YOU KNOW.
SAY THEM, THEN.
“I was just wondering, if-”
“-IF I WAS THAT CHILD, THAT WAS DROPPED OUT THE WINDOW, ALL THOSE YEARS AGO!”
He saw the deer. It was silver in the moonlight, a bright moonlight that dipped the tips of the fur coating its pelt in melted pearl. Its eyes glittered in the tar-like blackness like cold diamonds. It was bathed in a pale, powdery light like a camera flash, that made the once-thin shadows drip black and stretch like tar, and the minute fur coating the pelt stretch like stars through hyperspeed spaceship windows into blooming streaks, rippling like a hurricane.
The air seemed cold and damp.
“But-but why? Why is it so important?”
YOU FIGURED ONE THING OUT. HAVEN’T YOU FIGURED THAT OUT, TOO?
He couldn’t see the deer anymore. Only the black, whispering pines. The trees were out of focus. They slipped and slid around, splicing into shaky halves and flickering like strobe lights. There was no noise. Only the cool air and the shifting breeze whispering over the needles.
THE BUTTERFLY WINGS TOOK ROOT IN THE DEER, YOU KNOW. THEY FILLED IN THE CRACKS AND ATE AWAY AT THEM UNTIL THEY WERE HOLLOW, HARDLY ANY GOOD PARTS LEFT, IF ANY. IT WOULD’VE BEEN FINE, YOU KNOW. ONLY FLIES CARE FOR THE DEER. IT WOULD HAVE, YOU KNOW.
LET ME TELL YOU A STORY.
NEAR THIS FOREST, THIS FOREST OF DEER SPROUTING WINGS, THERE’S A TOWN. IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER WHAT IT’S LIKE.
ONE OF THE DEER HAD WANDERED INTO A YARD THERE, AND DIED WITHOUT A BREATH IN THE SOFT GRASS.
NOTHING HAPPENED TO IT, REALLY, IT JUST DIED AND ROTTED. FLIES LAID THEIR EGGS IN THE SKIN AND MAGGOTS ATE AT THE FLESH. CROWS PLUCKED A FEW SINEWS FROM THE FLANKS. BEETLES ATE THE FLESH OFF THE BONES, LEAVES FELL AND PETALS ROTTED AND THE MONTHS AND YEARS PATTED A THIN LAYER OF GROUND OVER IT.
IT WAS ONLY A THIN ONE.
BUT IT WOULD’VE BEEN FINE, YOU KNOW. THE SPORES HAD NOTHING TO FEED ON. NOTHING LEFT AT ALL.
UNTIL SOMEONE DECIDED TO FALL OUT THE WINDOW.
* * *