By Erin Keating
Way up on the mountaintop, just before the spruce firs finally surrender to craggy rock and sky, stands a grove of mulberry trees so dense the trunks knot around each other. And in that thicket, tangled among the branches and the sweet fruit, are panes of glass, buckled wood, a rusted bed frame. No one can recall how long it’s been since that lonely house fell—on the account that no one was there to witness it—but there are stories. Oh, there are stories.
* * *
Ira lived alone on the mountaintop, with no man to love and no woman neither. Most mornings she woke above the clouds—the spruce-dotted peak breaking through the fog that blanketed the mountainside and valley below. Her parents had died years ago, though how many exactly had been lost to the cycle of snow and fog and trepid spring.
All Ira had for company were the creatures of the woods—cottontail rabbit, flying squirrel, and bugling elk, that she hunted more often than she befriended—and the crawling critters in her garden.
The ladybugs flitted between the fennel and yarrow and dandelion. The earthworms crawled among the parsnip and wild carrot and beetroot. The silk moths laid their eggs on the leaves of the mulberry tree. Ira would speak to them as she tended the garden, if only to keep her voice from shriveling and dying from disuse. She complimented the ladybug’s fashionable red-spotted coat; she thanked the earthworm for its diligent work; she wished the moths blessings for their newly hatched young.
That was how Ira lived, from the thaw to the frost to the thaw again—utterly and irreparably alone.
* * *
One day in late summer, when the daylight had begun to dwindle and the treetops on the mountainside below were turning the faintest shades of amber, Ira noticed the silk worms spinning their cocoons in the branches of the mulberry tree.
The white, bulbous bodies crawled back and forth between the branches, weaving a sling to cradle themselves through the winter. In the spring, these same worms would emerge as silk moths with brown hairy bodies and wings patterned with blinking hazel eyes. How did they know, Ira wondered, that it was time to become something new?
Ira gathered up her skirts and sat in the dewy grass beneath the mulberry tree, intending to rest only a few minutes in the sweet shade. Her eyes followed the slow, methodical movements of the silk worms—back and forth, back and forth.
As she watched them, time seemed to unspool around her, the memories of her parents flung farther away, and the lonely future on the mountaintop stretching on endlessly. She ignored the work that she had done unquestioningly for years. What did it matter to her that weeds sprouted in the vegetable patch, or that crows soiled the laundry line, or that rabbits burrowed under the fence, when each day was like the next and the next and the next, with no promise of change? So, Ira sank deeper into the dewy grass. The silk worms wound their thread tighter, until their fleshy forms disappeared beneath the spun strings.
Ira had only intended to sit a spell, but for three days as the silk worms wove, she watched, hardly thinking of food or water or sleep or the damp seeping into her skin.
When the silk worms had finished spinning their cocoons and the steady rustling inside them stilled, a want, sticky as raw silk clung to Ira’s skin. She squirmed beneath it, this strange desire to be wrapped up in a cocoon herself. Winter would be here again, that long, unbearable season of darkness and silence. How she envied that the silk worms would sleep through it, would wake in the spring as a fearsome creature, and would fly away before the sticky summer heat clung to the mountaintop. The silk worms would become something new, but Ira would be ever the same, tending to this lonely house on the mountaintop, winter after summer after winter.
She wanted to be something new, like the silk worms and the silk moths. She wanted to leave here on wings with hazel eyes. Ira rose, head spinning, knees wobbling, and plucked one of the cocoons from the branches. The silk stuck to her fingers, soft as the blurry edges of a dream.
The wad of silk twitched as the silk worm inside stirred. When it became a silk moth, it would fly away, and Ira would stay. Ira would stay and stay and stay. But not alone—not this time. She would hold this changing thing close—hold it inside herself—until the day she could find wings of her own.
Ira swallowed the cocoon.
The wad of silk stuck in her parched throat. Her face turned to flame as she gasped for air, disgusted and mortified by what she had done. She coughed and coughed, and it would not budge. Only after drinking handfuls of clear spring water did the cocoon slide down, down, down the whole length of her throat.
That choking fit brought her back to herself, into her body that needed food and water and sleep. She drank until her thirst was quenched, then stumbled into her bed where she slept dreamlessly.
* * *
For weeks afterward, Ira went out of her way to avoid the mulberry tree, the sole witness to her shame. Instead, she watched the tree’s leaves turn golden from a safe distance as she busied herself harvesting the root vegetables.
Winter settled all at once on the mountaintop, sharp and sudden as a gasp. Ira woke to find the spruces encased in ice, and she knew it would be months before she felt warm again. She prepared herself for long dark hours, where sleeping and waking were distinguished only by the light of a tallow candle.
But this winter was different.
As the days grew shorter, a flutter began in her stomach. She would have thought nothing of it except that her monthlies, which had been as predictable as the moon since her girlhood, had stopped altogether. Ira spent days wrapped in her blanket, crawling out only to be sick in a bucket she kept by the bedside.
Sprawled on her bed, Ira demanded of the cracked ceiling, how had this happened? How had her body—which had never known the touch of man or woman, only her own steady hand—become with child?
Still the fluttering persisted. It beat within her, faint as a phantom pulse or—Ira clutched her stomach, finally understanding—a moth’s wing.
* * *
Ira slept for days as snow piled up beyond her frosted windows, dreaming of the abomination she carried, of her stomach cracking down the middle like the husk of a cocoon, of her child’s unfurled wings.
When Ira roused herself from bed, it was only to ease the hunger gnawing on her ribs like a stray dog. She cooked over the wood stove filling the house with the scent of broth and salt. Stirring slow circles, her face tilted into the steam, a strange calm swept over her. Outside, the world was blanketed in the hush of snowfall. But, inside the house—insider her—where, for so long there had only been silence and stillness, there was the promise of something new.
“Hello,” Ira whispered. She pressed her palm to the slight swell of her belly.
Her child fluttered in response.
Ira’s heart leapt into her throat, and the spoon clattered to the floor. “Hello,” she whispered again. One hand rubbed small circles on her belly, the other dried her eyes which spilled over with tears.
For the first time in a very long while, Ira was not utterly and irreparably alone.
* * *
It was the shortest winter Ira remembered. The dim days sped by as she spoke to her growing belly and felt her child listening. She sang the lullabies and told the monstrous stories her mother would whisper in the dark. By the time Ira heard the robin’s heralding, her stomach had swollen ripe and round.
The cramping began the day the silk moths returned to lay their eggs, as though the child inside her recognized its own. The pain shot through Ira, a white-hot bolt of lightning. She doubled over in the garden among the violet-headed crocuses. She thought she’d be able to do this on her own, like her family’s farm animals back in those golden-hued days before she was the only soul on the mountain.
But that first wave of pain disillusioned her of such an idea. When it ebbed, she began to trek down the mountainside, following the path of the bubbling spring as it spilled over the rocks into a wide creek bed. Surely, the water would lead her to a town, and the people there could help her find a midwife. Once—twice—three times, the pain crested so strong in her belly she had to catch herself on a tree to breathe through it. At last, she spied smoke tendrils above the treetops, then shingled roofs, then a packed dirt road lined with houses and slack-jawed people.
A young woman, her own child swaddled to her chest, took Ira by the arm. Ira imagined how she must look, a sweat-drenched stranger in labor walking right out of the woods. Still, this young mother let Ira lean on her all the way to the midwife’s house. Her hand was the first touch Ira had experienced in years. She did not have the language for her gratitude.
The midwife’s eyes drooped so that Ira couldn’t see the color of them, but as she explained her half-day journey down the mountain, those eyes opened wide and brown. The midwife didn’t ask about the man, and Ira guessed she wasn’t the first woman to come through here, unable or unwilling to name her child’s daddy. Instead, the midwife began boiling her tools and set to work.
* * *
Ira’s daughter was born near midnight under a new moon, but the sky was so bright with fireflies that the midwife didn’t even need to light a candle. The lightning bugs had emerged so unseasonably early that, through the windows, Ira could see the townsfolk marveling in the street.
“Mighty strange,” the midwife muttered.
And Ira’s child rushed out of her.
The midwife made a soft gasp as she caught the baby and remained completely silent as she cleaned it, even though Ira begged to know if the child was well. The baby did not cry—the whole room was thick with the scent of blood and the heavy quiet. When the midwife placed the swaddled child in Ira’s arms, she turned her head so her droopy eyes could not meet Ira’s own.
“I don’t know what you’ve done, but you’d best leave first thing in the morning.”
Then the midwife went to join the folks in the street, blessing herself on her way out.
Ira’s daughter looked up at her with all-black, bulbous eyes. Downy brown hair covered the girl’s entire body, except her moon-white hands. In the center of her palms, two birthmarks like hazel eyes seemed to blink as she balled and stretched her tiny fists.
And Ira loved her.
She curled around her daughter. The two bumps on her daughter’s head, like antenna stumps, pressed into Ira’s cheek. Ira’s fingers roved the downy skin of her daughter’s back, searching for any sign of wings and, when she found only the curve of shoulder blades, warmth spread through Ira’s chest like a summer sunrise. Without wings, her daughter couldn’t fly away.
While her daughter breathed contently against her chest, Ira watched the shimmer of fireflies blink in and out, in and out, and Ira decided she would name her daughter Lucy, after the lights.
* * *
The next morning, Ira and Lucy were climbing back up the steep creek path in the pink dawn light. Lucy, swaddled against Ira’s swollen breasts, never cried, but instead hummed soft and low, sending a buzzing through Ira’s chest.
“That’s right, my love,” Ira murmured in response. “We’re going home.”
As they hiked the long way up, the insects of the creek followed them. A flight of dragonflies winged in their wake; caddisflies skated across the surface of the shallows, heading upstream; earthworms crawled out of Ira’s hollow footsteps in the soft ground. Lucy hummed, and the world around them seemed to hum in answer, the air filling with the buzzing voice of every fly and beetle, mosquito and worm.
The mountain felt more like home than it had in a long while.
* * *
Lucy grew like knotweed. That first night home, Ira admired the impossibly tiny spiral of her daughter’s ears, the perfect pearls of her fingernails. The next morning, she’d risen to find Lucy doubled in size—a day-old child now the size of a weeks-old child. And again the next day, and the next. Soon Lucy was crawling, then walking, then running through the gardens with Ira racing after her. Lucy’s delighted buzzing filled the air as Ira grazed the downy hair on her daughter’s shoulders before the girl ducked behind a row of bean sprouts.
One day, when Lucy was both two weeks and two years old, the silk moths gathered on the mulberry tree. Ira found her daughter staring up at them with her all-black eyes. Lucy, that child of constant motion, stood impossibly still.
Until she raised her arms.
The silk moths landed, blanketing her in wings like hazel eyes. They beat those many wings in unison, and, inch by inch, Lucy rose off the ground.
Ira watched, stunned, as the silk moths frantically swarmed around her daughter. They had always seemed gentle, fluttering around the mulberry tree for only a couple of weeks in the late spring, those miraculous days between the biting winter cold and the suffocating summer heat. Ira had always wondered where they went and had longed for her own wings to fly alongside them.
But there was something desperate in their spasmic flapping. Lucy hummed to them, a quiet drone of acceptance. Understanding washed over Ira, icy and clear as creek water.
The silk moths flew off to die. And they were trying to take Lucy with them.
“No!” Ira screeched, lunging at Lucy. The silk moths scattered, powder from their wings puffing up in a cloud of dust. Lucy landed with a thud, stumbling backward and falling onto her bottom. Sprawled on the ground, her eyes tracked the moths as they flew over the treetops and vanished from view. When Ira brushed Lucy off and gathered her against her chest, her daughter hummed a low drone that was the closest to weeping Ira had ever heard from her. She rubbed her hand over Lucy’s back, feeling only soft fur and shoulder blades. “It’s alright,” Ira cooed. “I’m here. You’re here.” She repeated until she was no longer sure who she was trying to soothe.
They didn’t see another silk moth that season.
* * *
Time had always moved too slowly on the mountain, days tracked merely by the dirt under Ira’s nails or the sun blisters on her shoulders. Now, time hurtled forward, and Ira didn’t know how to stop it.
At night, Lucy slept curled against her mother. Ira folded herself around her daughter until they nested together like the young lettuce leaves out in their garden. While Lucy breathed evenly, growing so quickly her joints groaned and popped, Ira lay awake telling her stories. The crickets had amassed on the one window of the house, blotting out the moonlight and deafening Ira with raucous song. Still, Ira spoke the story of a mountain woman so lonely that she swallowed a cocoon, if only to know change; she spoke of the baby that grew from the cocoon and the fireflies that presided over her birth; she spoke of a girl growing up too fast.
The crickets reached a fever pitch as Ira pressed a kiss to Lucy’s fuzzy forehead and traced her bony shoulder blades. How strange, that she had once longed for wings and now dreaded to find them on her daughter.
“You’ll stay, won’t you? Please, stay,” Ira whispered her prayer into Lucy’s skin. In her sleep, Lucy hummed as though she understood.
* * *
That summer, Lucy grew to a girl of six, then nine, then twelve. The days stretched longer, then shorter, and the mulberries ripened from white to black. Ira never took her eyes from Lucy, afraid that, if she looked away from the girl for a moment, she would miss days of her life.
All at once Lucy was fifteen and tall as Ira, her body lean as a willow branch. Her fur shone a richer brown, the eyes on her palms a brighter green. At night, Ira held her daughter close and sobbed silently into Lucy’s long hair, wishing time would stop.
* * *
When the treetops on the mountainside below showed the first hints of amber, the silk worms began their weaving. By the time Ira noticed, Lucy was already sitting beneath the mulberry tree, her skirts gathered up, her eyes tracking the hypnotic motion of the worms.
“Lucy!” Ira snapped. Her daughter didn’t even blink. Dread lodged itself in Ira’s throat—thick and sticky as the cocoon she had swallowed a year ago. “Lucy, come here,” her broken voice insisted.
And still, Lucy watched the silk worms.
Ira grabbed Lucy by the wrist. If only she could get her daughter inside, where she could bolt the door against the silk worms, against the crickets and caddisflies and lightning bugs, against anything that tried to tell Lucy she was more than Ira’s flesh and blood, more than a human girl, but a creature of silk and wings and sky.
It was already too late.
Lucy struggled against Ira’s grip—the girl had grown as strong as she had grown tall—until she pulled Ira down to the dewy grass. Ira thrashed like a snared rabbit, eyes wide and chest heaving, as she wrestled her daughter.
“Stay,” Ira commanded through gritted teeth.
Lucy buzzed in response, high and sharp and angry.
The world flipped. Ira sprawled on her back, and Lucy climbed on top of her—brown hair tangled with leaves, dress grass-stained. Those all-black eyes brimmed with tears as she looked down at Ira, a sad hum passing from Lucy’s chest to her mother’s.
Lucy reached under her tongue and pulled out a strand of raw silk.
Her daughter tied the thread around Ira’s littlest finger, a silk ring glistening against her sweaty skin.
Lucy kept weaving. Ira’s little finger, then her ring finger, then her whole right hand were bound before Ira formed the words to protest.
“Please—please—what are you doing?” Ira whispered.
But Lucy narrowed her all-black eyes in concentration, pulling strand after strand of silk from under her tongue. Ira struggled against the string, trying to pry her fingers apart. It would not give.
“No!” Ira’s voice tore from her throat. She tried to buck Lucy off, but her daughter stumbled forward, pinning Ira by her shoulders. Lucy buzzed again, a tinny whine of frustration.
That’s when Ira noticed the strange sensation on her legs—a soft itch, a tingling, a crawling across her skin.
The silk worms had wriggled down from the mulberry tree, away from their cocoons, and crept over Ira’s shins. She tried to kick, but her ankles had already been bound fast.
“Why?” Ira pleaded.
Lucy, in response, looked up at the sky, over the treetops where the silk moths had vanished before the summer heat.
Ira howled with a mother’s fury. “No—you need to stay—you must stay—please—please—you cannot leave me—”
Lucy and the silk worms only kept weaving.
Lucy would abandon her here beneath the mulberry tree, bound by silk while she slept through the winter in a cocoon. Ira would perish under the snow, frozen and blue, and Lucy would leave. Lucy would leave.
“I’m sorry,” Ira begged the silk worms, as though they could understand. “I only wanted wings—I only wanted wings.” And when that did not work, she wept, “She is mine—you cannot have her—I will not let you.”
She pleaded and swore and begged until the silk worms stuffed up her mouth. Ira gagged, the sticky strands on her tongue terrifyingly familiar. She should have never swallowed that cocoon—no.
Even now—even betrayed—she would not give up Lucy.
She longed to reach up to stroke her daughter’s downy cheeks, but the worm’s work was almost done. Ira’s legs had been pinned together; her arms trapped at her sides. Her mouth—now her nostrils—stopped up. All that was left were her eyes. Ira met her daughter’s all-black gaze, which reflected the evening light. The hair on Lucy’s cheeks were damp with tears. Lucy wiped them quickly with the back of her wing-patterned hands, like she did when she was a little girl.
Ira fought the exhaustion that settled in her bones, the warmth of the silk stealing the little fight she had left. She could no longer speak, but she hummed low and soft—a question, a comfort.
Lucy answered in kind—gentle and firm, a promise that would not be broken.
Ira understood. Lucy was not leaving Ira behind; she was taking Ira with her. Ira would fly at last.
Lucy’s lips pressed to Ira’s brow, her breath hot against the night’s chill. Ira closed her eyes, and let the silk worms finish their work.
A cocoon for Ira. A cocoon for Lucy. A warm winter. A crack to let in the light. An unfurling of wings with blinking hazel eyes.
* * *
Way up on the mountaintop stands a dense grove of mulberry trees. And in that thicket, thousands of silk moths hatch every spring, rising up above the treetops like a brown storm cloud; and thousands of silk worms spin every fall, cocooning the trees and corpse of some long-forsaken home in a blanket of raw silk. No one can much agree on when that lonely house fell, all tangled now in the roots and branches, but we can agree on one thing.
That house fell all at once, like it was blown over by the beating of two great wings.
Erin Keating earned her B.A. in creative writing and literature at Roanoke College and her M.A. in history at Drew University, mostly so she could continue to surround herself with old books. She currently works as a grant writer at an arts education nonprofit. When she isn’t reading or writing, she is rock climbing, playing video games, or learning bass guitar. Her fiction has appeared in Aseptic and Faintly Sadistic: Anthology of Hysteria Fiction, It Was All a Dream: An Anthology of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right, and Tales to Terrify, among others. Find her online at erinkeatingwrites.com or on Twitter @KeatingNotKeats.