White Petaled Wings
by Anna Yeatts
"Ile," Emari picks up shells from the beach, her skullcap of white hair and her ivory skin making her appear to be made of sand herself. Perhaps she is. We are both birthed of the island. “Don't fight me for the next one."
Who else would I fight for the Travelers? There is no one else on our island, only she and I and the endless current of time. I whirl on Emari, shoving her into the ocean’s spray. My broken teeth saw against my lips, making my words into rasps. “Go away.”
She grabs my arm. Amidst all her paleness, my sister’s honey-colored eyes suck me in like the poisonous flowers that grow under the banyan trees. "They always come to me in the end." Her fingertips are cool on my forehead as she tucks a hank of matted hair behind my ear.
I slap her touch away with a scabbed hand. My fingernails are torn from fighting Emari only this morning. The rest of me is no better. Scars zigzag my forearms; my skin weeps blood.
She makes me want to smile at her, my beautiful sister. That's her power. Her finger is smeared with rusty-red from touching me. She wipes it on the smooth skin of her thigh.
"They’re mine first," I say, but she doesn't listen. Her gaze flickers over my shoulder to where the sea grape trees crouch against the sand, monkeys chattering in the branches and shaking the white berries into the waves.
There’s no need to wait for the telltale heartbeat to announce itself in my mind. Sometimes Emari hears it first, sometimes I do. Either way, Emari always has the advantage.
Shoving my sister away, I run down the beach. There's a grove of mango trees over the next rise where Travelers often end up — perhaps it's the comfort of the fallen leaves and sprawling shade.
Emari follows. Her breathing is thin and reedy over my shoulder. “You can’t do this forever.”
Bending my head into the wind, I run until I no longer sense Emari. The sand ends. I pick my way through tangled roots and loose bones, bleached reminders of my defeats, hating each one with a singleness that can't be denied.
The mango grove nestles low in a small valley, peaceful and still. This Traveler’s thready heartbeat marks him as old, far older than any we’ve had in a long time. He sits cross-legged beneath the largest mango tree, a ripe fruit cupped in his gnarled hands. His dark skin hangs in vellum thin wrinkles from his shrunken frame.
But somehow Emari is there ahead of me. She kneels beside the Traveler and whispers into his ear. He nods with half-closed eyes, chin drooping to his chest. My urge is to seize her by the neck and fling her backwards, but upsetting the Traveler won't help my cause.
I drop to my knees beside the Traveler. He wears a saffron yellow tunic that drapes loosely on his old body. Emari cups his cheek in her hand so he cannot look at me.
It doesn't matter. Rusty red handprints smear the back of his tunic. This Traveler was mine once and I feel a thrill of victory no matter how small. He has visited our island before, only then I held him like Emari does now. Perhaps he will choose me again and go back. Go back to his wisdom-gathering once more.
I pinch the skin above his elbow. It doesn't give me pleasure, but the discomfort breaks through Emari's spell. He closes his eyes. "Not yet, Traveler." I twist the knot of skin and he grunts.
Holding out my hands, I try to hide the trembles in my hands. How I want this one. No, I lie. I am a greedy goddess who would keep each Traveler for herself if she could make it so. But so would Emari. Our desires are equally matched -- one sister as ferocious as the other.
My longing for this Traveler is reflected in the blood my skin weeps for him. My outstretched palms glisten in the dappled sunlight like crimson petals. His gaze flickers to me, but he makes no move against Emari's soft grip.
"Come to me." I clutch his arm and dig in my jagged nails. He shudders and clings even tighter to his mango.
A white butterfly drops from the trees above to perches on the Traveler's shoulder, its wings opening and closing a hand's-breadth from Emari's pleased smile. It is decided.
Sticky sweet anger clogs my throat, my nostrils, my belly, and I lurch to my feet. The mango grove fills with butterflies, white-winged snow that covers the Traveler and Emari. The wings rustle and flap as the insects fight for space on the Traveler's flesh, their long proboscises uncurling.
My flesh burns. Blood stained leaves mark my footprints as I flee the grove. Flee the funeral feast. Emari's victory is my scourge.
I wash myself in the ocean, scouring my skin raw with handfuls of sand. Above me, Emari crouches atop the cliff face, a black silhouette against the fading sunlight. A butterfly zigzags around her head. What greater deity set us into play, moving us into opposing positions, when it would be so much easier to destroy one, or both of us, as easily as crushing Emari’s butterfly? I submerge myself in the waves, honoring the sting of salt water in my broken skin, acknowledging my failure. Promising myself that next time I will succeed.
The heartbeat comes, sweet and fragile as frangipani nectar. I stand, water rushing down my body, and see Emari has as well. We both swivel to the north, inland, where the jungle is thickest.
The waves push me toward shore, but Emari is gone from the cliff already. I follow the path until the jungle is too dense for paths, the air thick with moisture, the ground a mat of rot-slick leaves. The ground slopes upward, and devil’s ivy tangles my ankles. This Traveler's heartbeat is frantic, stuttering and stopping in my mind like a trapped mouse. Perhaps Emari will not be so welcome after all, and I can earn a respite.
Through the dark green canopy, I glimpse white. Emari. Keeping my eyes on that patch of white, I redouble my pace, ready to claw my sister away from the Traveler.
But it's not Emari. A white silk parachute is tangled high in a stinging tree. Wrapped in a complicated set of ropes, the Traveler's body is bound to the tree's thick trunk. The Traveler struggles to free himself with his arms, but his legs hang useless inside his olive green flight suit.
On me, a smile will look like a grimace and frighten the new Traveler even more, so I keep my face expressionless. “You’re in the beyond, but you won’t stay here. No one does.”
The Traveler twists his helmeted head toward my voice below.
“Well, no one but Emari and me stay, and you’re lucky I got here first.” I climb the stinging tree, and his heartbeat steadies. The stinging leaves are covered in tiny hairs that break off in my skin and burn like broken glass. Booted feet dangle overhead, close enough to touch, and the tang of urine’s strong. I climb higher and straddle the thick branch where the Traveler is caught. He grunts, reaches, and I take his hands, his gloved fingers twice the size of mine. The Traveler doesn't seem to mind I'm covered in blood. I like this one.
A butterfly lands on the tree trunk above us. Emari is here. I look down and spit. The glob falls between the branches, gaining speed like a tiny plover, before pinging Emari’s arm. She frowns and wipes my spit away. I smile even at such a tiny victory.
“How cruel, Ile,” Emari says. “His back is broken. Let him pass to me.”
I knock my forehead into the tree trunk, letting the stinging needles burn away the tedium of Emari’s chastisements. But the Traveler's heartbeat spikes. “Don’t listen to her,” I tell him. “When she stops yelling at me, then worry about your back.” I burn from the stinging tree, but it's nothing compared to what the Traveler endures. That makes us companions. I like that too.
Emari climbs the tree. The top of her head reminds me of a soft white egg. I pluck a handful of waxy red fruits from the limb above and pelt my sister. The fruits bounce off her shoulders and leave tiny pink welts.
“If you want a fight, you’ll have one,” I say. "He's not for you." The Traveler clings to me. My reflection, a grotesque fright face, is mirrored in his helmet. Even I cringe and look away.
Emari stops halfway up the trunk, mouth twisted in a cunning line. “Pretend all you want.”
I keep my gaze on Emari. "He chooses me."
She slides down. The stinging tree leaves jagged stripes on her pale belly. "Then why is he still here?"
I clutch the Traveler, leaving rusty-red handprints on his sleeves.
All night, the Traveler stays in the stinging tree. I cling to the branch, my limbs aching and my flesh puffy with welts. When the sun awakens over the horizon, I creep reluctantly from my perch. The path takes me through the mango grove. My footprints are sticky with blood, the soles of my feet broken from the stinging barbs, and the slick green leaves slide underfoot. The old man’s body is unrecognizable. Emari's butterflies have picked him clean of flesh. His skeleton has fallen over, ivory bones stretched across the loamy ground.
I straighten his crooked body and lean him against the mango's trunk. Perhaps this is how he sat the first time we met. There have been so many Travelers, too many to remember. Even when they choose me, when they go back and I win, they always return. My victories are as ephemeral as the flesh on their bones.
In the end, they all choose Emari.
There’s a new heartbeat, faint, but close. Like a specter, Emari glides through the undergrowth to my left, headed towards the shoreline. She breaks a path and I follow. This new heartbeat skips in and out. Already white butterflies dart about Emari's head.
We reach the sandy dunes where palms and seagrasses fight for territory. The breaking crash of the ocean dulls the heartbeat, or perhaps the heartbeat has stopped all together, I can no longer tell. Emari crouches in a natural crevice between rising dunes. She cradles an infant to her breast. The child is covered in sticky, red placenta that can't mask the translucent blue sheen of her skin. Emari starts to rise, but I kick her feet from underneath her. The child tumbles from her arms onto the soft sand. I throw myself over the tiny girl.
Emari beats at my back. The infant's breath tickles my cheek, and I tremble. I want her to be mine. "Go back," I whisper, "go back."
Tiny fingers move against my neck, and I sigh. She is everything I want -- so much potential.
"Look at her," Emari says.
"No." I bend my neck and kiss the top of her head. I don't know if the coppery tang of blood I taste is mine or hers.
My arms empty, and in the infant’s place are crimson petals. A shiver of bliss washes through me. I sit up. The white sand is covered with red -- the red of my blood and red flowers and streaks of afterbirth where the infant is no longer cradled in the sand. I turn a triumphant smile to my sister. I lift my hands and let the petals run between my fingers.
Emari turns away, but not in defeat. The heartbeat is back. She walks to the tallest dune. The infant waits there. The petals are withered. I scoop them up and crush them in my fist. Emari lifts the infant, cradling the small head in the crook of her elbow.
I crawl on hands and knees across the sand, leaving bloody indents in my wake. "Give her to me."
But Emari shakes her head. She puts her finger against the infant's mottled purple lips. The infant suckles weakly, her eyes closed. I reach for the child.
“Would you be so cruel?“ Emari bends, holding out the tiny body with ropes of intestines looped outside her shrunken belly.
I draw my hand back. Tiny fingers and the sweet whisper of breath -- the fragility of life beckons me like a siren's song. My need caves in on itself. “No.”
"I am never cruel,” Emari says.
I cover my face as Emari takes her due. But I cannot hide from the papery rustle of butterfly wings. I imagine needle-thin insect legs walking on the exposed coils of the infant’s belly. I choke my scream into the sand.
Dried tears make tight lines on my cheeks, but perhaps it is my own cruelty that keeps the Traveler bound in his tree. His broken legs swing like the eels I fish from the sea, their skins dark and slick as they hang from the smoking rack. Perhaps Emari is the kind one, giving her blessings, while I deal out my curses. No wonder they all choose Emari in the end.
My hands and feet are a mass of red welts from climbing the stinging tree again, but this Traveler will choose his own fate. His head flops to one side. With gentle fingers, I explore the helmet until I unfasten its latches and slide it off, letting it drop to the ground.
The Traveler is a young woman. Red hair, slick with sweat, covers the right side of her face, and I brush it aside. Beneath is a large purple bruise, swollen like a rotten fruit. She leans her head into my palm. I hold very still, afraid she'll remember my scarred skin, my torn nails, and yank her head away, and I like the soft weight in my palm.
She mumbles, a name, perhaps, and drifts into unconsciousness. I sit, cupping her cheek until my arm is numb and my heart hurts. When I can no longer distinguish cruelty from kindness or Jenna from myself, I slip quietly away and climb down the tree.
As always, Emari waits at the bottom. Wordlessly, I put on the Traveler's helmet. It smells of sweat and old perfume. The visor tints Emari yellowish-brown, the color of an infected sore. I laugh at my twin's frown, and the sound echoes inside the helmet as if there is an army of Ile's.
Passing back through the mango grove, pale green caterpillars swarm over the old man's skeleton, building their cases. Slick yellow chrysalises hang from his ribs. I pick one off and hold it up to the light. Inside, the insect is metamorphosing from one life to the next.
I put the chrysalis between my front teeth and bite. It's thick yet tender as I rip it apart. A wing, soft and slick, not fully formed, hangs from my bottom lip, the caterpillar flopping against my chin. I spit the dying insect into a pile of bones and wipe my mouth with my hand.
The midday sun scorches the top of my head, baking a crust of salt and blood into my matted hair. I bring a sharpened bone to the Traveler's tree and hold the makeshift blade between my teeth as I climb.
“Who are you?“ the Traveler asks.
"No. I’m Life-giver.” I hook my legs around the branch and wedge my crude tool beneath the topmost layer of tangled rope. For once, my slippery hands are useful in softening the ropes and working the bone into the knots.
The bruise on her face is blue around the edges. “I’m not alive?” Some questions can’t be answered, and this is one. She twitches. Her legs bump against the trunk. Her expression registers emotions as tightly wound as the ropes I'm working on. “I’m dead…down there.”
Remembering the infant girl on the beach, the loops of her intestine crusted in white sand, I loosen a coil of rope and toss it aside. “Yes. Not dead. Different.”
Her heartbeat flutters, and I slam my fist into the tree trunk. Bark splinters under my knuckles, skin splitting in bright spurts of pain. She cringes. My mistake is written in her eyes.
Cupping the Traveler's face, I press my thumb into the swollen bruise. She struggles, but her heartbeat thuds louder. She opens her eyes and they are full of unshed tears. "Your face is bloody,” she says.
“And you’re not dead.”
Her heart beats once. Twice. Slow liquid pulls in-between as the muscles gather up the blood, shove it out again. Three. I push harder into the bruise's sensitive flesh. The Traveler gasps. Her heartbeat steadies, but still she remains, tangled in the stinging tree, her silken parachute wrapping the branches tight as a second skin.
I crawl down the trunk, the needles sting my already torn skin, but I pretend the pain is a salve. I smear it over myself willingly, searching for the sore spots that mark my weaknesses, the thinness to be sloughed away, the callouses yet to be blistered.
Ferns encircle a nearby tamarind tree. The fronds tremble, and a swarm of white butterflies erupt from underneath, setting the tamarind’s dusky pods swaying as the creatures flit upwards through its branches. I snatch a single butterfly from the air. Its wings beat stronger than expected against my cupped palms.
“Mine.” I smash the butterfly into the stinging tree's trunk, tearing the wings into shreds before I'm satisfied.
In the mango grove, the old man’s bones drip with butterfly cases, each pulsing as the growing insects prepare to emerge. Running a bloodied finger over each chrysalis, the rusty smudge left behind makes me smile. The skull watches with empty eyes so I paint the sockets red with my forefinger. I break a slick, ivory chrysalis from the chest and clutch it in my fist.
Ropes creak as the Traveler swings. Her eyes are closed, lips parted.
I put the chrysalis between my teeth and climb. Through the chrysalis, the butterfly moves against my tongue, strange and separate, and I fight the urge to swallow it whole. I'm almost there. Her feet are within arm's reach. Using her belt to pull myself up, I lock an arm over the branch, savoring the stings, and hold on so we are face to face. She tries to turn away, but I won't let her.
When I spit out the chrysalis and show her, it's slick with spit and blood, and my torn lips taste like ruined grass. She looks, but her eyes are cloudy. Her heartbeat skips in and out. I want to grab her heart in my fist and pin it down, make it steady. Or shove her through to the other side, but I can't.
“You stole a butterfly, Ile.” Emari’s voice comes from the tree above us. She's beautiful, my sister, a poisonous orchid amidst the jungle's canopy.
“Watch.” I squeeze the chrysalis. The insect inside pushes back. Even it refuses to die easily. “They’re more my creature than yours.”
"Give it back." Emari beckons. Her eyes are gentle and warm.
Every inch of my body screams to take my sister’s hand. I grind my face into the stinging tree's leaves. The tiny hairs pierce my skin like a thousand needles. The sharp brutality brings tears to my eyes. I grab a fistful of the Traveler's hair and pull. She screams, but clarity comes back to her eyes. I hold up the chrysalis. In the sunlight, the butterfly inside strains to break free. "You're trapped. Neither alive nor dead. Now go back." Closing my fist it, I grin at Emari, not caring if my face is a gruesome leer. "Don't die."
The Traveler grabs my arm, her heartbeat fast and loud. "I don't understand.”
Emari crawls down the trunk from above, eyes shining. "I can help you. Turn away from that one." She jabs at me with a delicate finger.
The Traveler wavers, her eyes on me. Her heartbeat pit-pats faster and faster.
“Face it.” I shove the chrysalis into the Traveler’s hand and close her fingers around it. “Everything alive hurts.”
Emari reaches the branch. Lashing out, I rake my nails down Emari's face and snarl. The Traveler flinches, tries to wriggle away, but she’s trapped. Emari reaches for the chrysalis, but I fling myself past the Traveler at Emari and wrap my arms around her waist. Emari shrieks and struggles for balance. I shove with my legs and push her into the stinging tree's trunk. The needles burn us both. I don't care. I'm torn and scared and broken already. Emari writhes in my arms. We are a mass of limbs with nothing to hold onto but each other and we fall.
We land among the roots. I burn with pain. My vision glazes red. Rolling on top of Emari, I squeeze my hands into her head, trying to crack her skull like a shell. Her fingers dig into my eyes, but I lift her head and bring it down onto a tree root. Her mouth is open in a pale circle. She is laughing. Her face is smeared red and I smash her head again. She kicks her heels into the ground, bucks her hips, and tries to shove me off, but I’m slippery and bloody, and crack goes her head again. A thin trickle of blood leaks from her ear and this time it isn’t mine, but her eyes are laughing eyes even as the first white butterfly lands on her forehead.
And the pain is like nothing I’ve felt before. It scorches me from the inside out like all the salt in the ocean ground into my rubbed raw skin, forever and ever. And I’ve done this to Emari, my sister, the untouchable, unstoppable Emari. Her body is covered in butterflies, more than I’ve ever seen, and the rustling makes my ears thrum.
But did she feel it? My face tingles and I clutch my fingers over my mouth, biting down on the soft flesh on the inside of my hands. I look up into the stinging tree and the Traveler is gone. Her ropes swing empty, but there are so many butterflies, the air is thick with wings, that for a moment I’m dizzy with them all. I roll to my knees and crawl to the base of the tree.
The ground is thick with crimson petals. I squeeze a fistful, the heady scent of hibiscus filling the air, but my stomach is hollow. Leaning against the tree, the barbs pierce my back with their thousand tiny attacks. I place a single, bitter petal on my tongue. I chew the petal slowly, grinding it between my teeth.
“Even you chose yourself in the end, sister.” The mangled petal slides from the corner of my bloodied lip, but I welcome the pain.