We are forever being schooled in the nature and discipline of our species. We understand the synaptic rush that allowed us to observe the stars and planets, and to grasp the subsequent knowledge that flowed therefrom. And we are aware of the evolutionary leap that outdistanced our physical features; expanding our bodies and leaving us cloaked in the fading evidence of our primitive identity.
There are the wide swatches of fuzz that circle our torsos and much of our heads, a weatherproofed reminder of a time spent solely in the elements and yet, with strips of vibrant colors entwined within the soft brush, an enticement to comely appearance and decorative distinction.
There are the black, slender rods that protrude from our foreheads. Left over from an extinct antenna system their pulse is dormant, save an occasional twinge. Some suggest these wiry projections endow them with telepathic powers, while others contend mystical gifts of unusual variety. Though most of us find that ridiculous and unproven, they do flex with subtle movements that, to a discerning eye, can communicate intimate emotions.
Other remnants from our archaic past such as lumps and patchy spots are less noticeable and easily tolerated. It's only our wings that are difficult to accept. These dry, withered appendages with their roots buried into our backs hang from us like cast shackles on a condemned life. Sometimes they discharge an odor of rotting bark; other times become rigid and curl at the edges, slicing into our bodies as we sleep. Periodically they scale and flake and, if not properly groomed, leave behind an unsightly pile of yellowish dust.
Repulsed by their hideousness, we devised our fashions to conceal their outline. Our spun fabrics are created into broad capes and gowns that flow and spread with exuberant style. Bright, intricate designs are woven throughout to channel our interests, perfumes of delicate scents to divert frigidity. Bedecked in our silken finery, we preen and parade past one another in grandeur. We ennoble ourselves with pomp and ceremony. We pretend our wings don't exist.
Yet, despite the therapies and teachings and languid bravado, they still manage to rear their undeniable presence. Just to have them glimpsed sends some into a fit of hysterical humiliation while the cruder amongst us deliberately expose them as an insult and enticement to violence. Our wings are the dark impetus of our society. Rules, religions and cults circulate around their suppression, and, where once this openly spawned inquisition and persecution, there now festers the unspoken bias of hidden superstitions. To discuss their existence is offensive to most, though I'm sure there are many of us who secretly wonder at the trade off of intellectuality for a social order of indifference and self loathing.
But of all the vexations provided by our affliction, the worst are the tremors; uncontrollable seizures that come without warning, bringing wave after wave of depression, doubt and the maddening siren call to yield to an ageless claim. There are words we chant, images we conjure, remedies we ingest to ease the shaking and repel the notions of eternal loneliness. But no matter how deeply we purge our thoughts and strengthen our resolve, the void is always present - the door always open. Never could I imagine a time when I would willfully cede to that abyss.
This morning, the beginning of our sixth week in search of a marauding species, we came upon a watery barrier that threatened the progress of our mission. Hanging low over the north slopes were the clenched fists of dark clouds with bluish veils dangling beneath them, dumping a torrent of rain upriver. Without hesitation, I ordered a crossing, and although the water in the deep places came to our chests, not a soldier nor an animal was drowned.
I felt reassured as we assembled safely on the muddy banks of a wide flat land - until I turned to survey the terrain. We were seventy meters from an inverted V-shaped tree line, with the broad side of its shadowy thicket spreading out like a waiting embrace, beckoning to us across a sandy stretch of sparse grasses, mud holes, river debris and an ominous hush. I ordered the troopers to mount and proceed, and as we began our advance, the woods erupted with fire and smoke.
A multicolored barrage of vaporous trails came from the dense green, and the animals bucked wildly, throwing some riders and scampering off along the water's edge. A half dozen soldiers were blown out of their saddles and thrown back into the river. I watched as their flailing bodies bobbed over the quickening rapids and headed toward the river's bend. There, concealed beneath a layer of strewn bushes, glistened the taut line of the collecting net that had been strung across the water.
It was a well laid trap. Despite our jammed sensor detectors and clogged feeler pads, the diabolical twist of their plan was that it hinged on my decision to forge the river at this place and time. They must have been watching us along the trail of our long march, dissecting our abilities and gauging my strategies. How else could they have exploited our impulses toward punctuality and persistence?
Those remaining of us dismounted, tied our animals to beached logs and took cover behind boulders and in low ditches. Plumes of yellow smoke streamed over our heads and a flaming ball hit a rock in front of me, bursting into a halo of falling sparks and burning embers. I threw two security emitters into the air, but they only hovered a few seconds, then sputtered away in erratic directions. They were from the previous hostilities. In fact, everything in my kit was from previous hostilities. Hive elders! I couldn't remember the last time they made a decent trade.
The howls and manic squeals started up and soon the woods sounded like the guttural growl of one enraged beast. Our return fire was met with a cackling taunt at our ineffectual weaponry. We could hear the shattering of wood, the cracking noise of thick branches and small trunks as they prepared to advance on our position.
There could be no surrender, and retreat into the swollen river would assure our capture in their collecting net. We were out of options and in danger of losing to their superior mass. I could not bear the thought of my brave soldiers being carried off to the enemies' nests - dragged through the slimy corridors of their underground grottos - dumped into the fetid holding pits where their young and their nurturing mothers could pick over the paralyzed bodies floating in the sticky soup of regurgitated others. I was determined that our carcasses would not become the staple of their nourishment.
Against all laws and declarations, against all sacred and ceremonial rites, against our inured disciplines and forced suppressions, I resorted to the primal instinct - I ordered my soldiers to unsheathe wings and prepare for flight. A sad moan echoed through the ranks, and I myself wavered in the face of transgression. But the situation was so dire that it took only an affirming nod to repeat the order.
We threw our garments to the ground and shivered with convulsions as our arms moved feverishly over our wings, massaging the arid veins and pulsating stiffness into the limp, silvery cloaks.
There came a great sense of freedom to the whole grooming process, but, when my stretching wings began to tense and twitch, I was overwhelmed by a soaring elation that seemed unending. My strength increased tenfold, my reflexes responded with an astounding quickness that transformed nature itself. Another fiery ball came streaming toward me and I merely stepped aside and watched it float past until it fell into the river with a long ripping sizzle.
How glorious and omniscient it felt to invoke the ancient lore. What a magnificent acceleration! And yet, this was the forbidden journey, the portentous gateway to an insane labyrinth no one should dare travel. But others had. I saw one of them myself.
Long ago, in the central hexagon, I came upon a startled crowd, transfixed, gazing upward, watching the absurd acrobatics of a 'mutant cross-over'. She was zigzagging along the upper levels, stopping to examine the dark depression of a balcony or the lit crack of a closed doorway, then racing off through open corridors and circular stairways. In a frantic search for some unseen pathway, her frustration mounted and she panicked like a lost bird, grazing abutments and banging into transparent partitions until she stunned herself and fell to the marble floor.
We drew into a close circle around her, certain of finding a fractured and bloodied heap. But she was whole and uninjured, and in a motionless state that gave us the courage to lean closer and gawk at her nakedness. Of course, it was her wings that fascinated us. Wings that billowed with symmetry and glowed with firm ropes of purple arteries that branched into a maze of tiny, throbbing vessels. Suddenly, her body jerked, and we jumped back as she began squirming on her belly, gyrating in the throes of some long forgotten circle dance. It was an obscenity to me and I tried turning away but became enraptured by her fixed stare. It was a crazed, insightful glare that both pleaded and condemned, binding me to the common link of our half dreamt confusions.
I stood helpless and weak as she was subdued, covered with heavy cloth and carried off. The usually reclusive elders appeared from nowhere to explain her disposition. They said there was nothing left for her in the hive, that our world had become alien to her. They told us she would be taken to the far wilderness and released to live out her life in exile. 'To forever labor in the repetitive cycle of her diminished perceptions,' they said.
That night, my comrades and I huddled around small flames, swearing vows and sealing covenants never to forsake the elders teachings; never to yield to the primal tug that was our constant craving. But, as I stood on the shore, engulfed in that dazzling wash of unleashing energy, I was convinced that what I had witnessed long ago was only a ruse, another demonstration designed by the lecturers of control who continuously created new methods to remind us of the primitive sin. Did the elders covet their stature so that they conspired to deny their own citizenry their culture? Were they that fearful of rebellion? Then fearful they should be! My army would rise here and make quick and brutal work of the floundering enemy massed before us. I would return home as conqueror and sage. I would right the wrongs and settle the scores and deliver my brotherhood from the elders' oppression. I would serve all domains and subjects with generous beneficence. I would receive adoration with humility.
While strutting along the shoreline, ranting the praises of our new doctrine, it came to me in the form of a blunt, solid fear. I understood with radiant clarity that this would be the last time I understood anything. On the horizon of my consciousness fluttered the inky shadows from our ancestral dark, obscuring the delicate strands of reasoning and the fragile increments of a gathered logic. Loyalty and duty slipped behind a lazy haze, and the enemy I had come to engage became nothing more than a threatening object to avoid.
No longer could I fathom the desire I once had for burdensome possessions: for properties I had to defend, for goods I had to store, for a social order of convoluted rules protecting the hoax of prosperity.
Simple patterns emerged, and a new calm descended, free of the bonds of corrective assertions and petty obedience. Shadow and light shifted and meshed as they crossed through each other, then settled upon a glittering world of altered illuminations. Colors that were once bland unfurled with lavish markings like secret maps to lost treasures. The air thickened with telltale scents and whispering vibrations. A million fluorescent pathways went weaving into the tranquil foliage. I wanted to go tumbling through each one of them, immersing into the green fuse, inhaling every fragrant particle until I dispersed like a droplet returning to a stream.
After the layers of civility fell away like molted skin, only the homing urge lingered as the final necessity. A loud, whiny buzz shrieked along the shoreline as our powerful wings flexed and rattled, revving up to an intensity that blurred their own motion.
We rose upon a storm of dust and assembled into a swarm over the roiling brown water. As we slowly moved inland we could hear our enemies' profane wail, and through the canopy of the dense woods, we saw the flickering images of their black, shiny bodies scurrying in agitated chase. Some came climbing up the trees and perched on the high thin limbs, while others conjoined with them to reach beyond the tree tops; their drooling jaws chopping desperately at their escaping prey. Perhaps the threat of starvation would lead them to cannibalism and self destruction, or they might learn to cultivate for themselves and become docile and content. Whatever their fate, I remained blissfully unconcerned.
Home is an instinct, and by the time we arrive the metamorphosis will be complete. The warm and familiar places we all knew will be as unrecognizable to us as we will be to friends and family. Instead of rejoicing at the return of a victorious army, they will grieve for the lost and bewildered minions hovering in the scream of a chaotic swirl. They will subdue us with smoke and nets and take us to the wilderness and lay us dazed amongst the clover and brier.
One by one we will shake off the anesthetized fog and ride the winds in search of forest clearings and sun-flowered plains. We will fly a nomadic course and follow the sole beacon of our ancient calling: to sift through the saturated air of drifting atoms; to labor ceaselessly in the garden.