Darby Murnane is a graduate student journalist with the University of North of Texas, and holds a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maine at Farmington. When she’s not writing hard news, she’s scribbling lines for a short story or personal essay in the middle of the night. Twitter: @DarbyMurnane8
The city is hungry. The appetite is for soft sighs, poppy-petal blushes on cheeks, lips, legs and things in between. Everything here is drenched in color–rich colors like wine reds, twilight purples, the pink of dawn, or the blue of a flame’s core.
You see no one but for quick glimpses of tangled limbs; tangled in the same way as the streets. Everything here is entwined.
The people are hungry. The hunger comes as stirrings in the belly- the stirrings of butterflies, of course. Blow a kiss and butterflies slip through parted lips, spinning like petals
scattered by a breeze. They twirl and dance as one, seeking and finding other people’s butterflies where they entwine again in the air.
You don’t speak the city’s name. Rather, it exists in the sighs, the whispers, the giggles, and the rushes of heat in the silence between those pretty sounds. It exists in the soft ℎ𝑖𝑠ℎ-ℎ𝑖𝑠ℎ of butterflies’ wings as they drift past your ears.
The butterflies always flutter close enough to whisper invitations, but not so close as to touch, only to have their presence be felt and wanted, only so close as to tease before darting away in the hope that you’ll chase after their colors.
You come by chance, a wrong turn down an unintended path. Or maybe a right turn, but of that, you’re not yet sure. Though you know that most seek out this place. Many come to the city starved and craving a taste of its refreshments, aching to feel fuller in the oneness of being entwined with its people.
You have known hunger— fleetingly. There and gone so fast that the wings in your belly did not know even to twitch. And so the wings never spoke of their presence. You were too distracted and a weak, momentary appetite did not prove interesting enough to hold your attention.
Now you wander the city streets, guessing at the nature of the place. The shadows are plentiful, drawn by the closeness of the walls and the abundance of doorways set deep within those walls, like hiding places. The shadows do not reach out as if to catch you, but to show you, or to invite you. The shining whites of eyes and teeth, glimmering sheens of sweat on skin flash from the darkness and beg you to come take a taste, to take a bite. You keep walking. Your stomach still does not growl.
The alleys grow more narrow as you walk, the city’s walls pressing closer to brush against you as you slip through. The city’s sounds creep closer, the sighs and breathless giggles kissing the delicate skin of your neck and cheeks as you pass. You flush under the heavy press of the heat where each breath lands on your skin. Twisting through the maze of streets, you look for some open space amid the tight tangles of alleys and limbs darting from the deep set doors and arches, desperate for a cooling breath to temper the growing heat.
Until the unmistakable feel of fingers trails across your waist, around your back, then a hand clasps yours, giving it a gentle tug. Distracted by the sudden touch, you let your arm sway in time with the tug and meet the eyes of a stranger, pondering the feel of skin against yours.
Something in your belly leaps. You jump at the sensation, yanking your hand away. A million fluttering things are brushing and swiping at the inside of your abdomen and now climbing up to your chest, towards your throat. Your mouth opens on instinct. You snap your teeth shut against it. The fluttering quiets to an eager thrum.
The stranger eyes the empty air with a tilted, curious head. They begin to depart.
“Wait,” you say. “Come back.”
The stranger obeys and turns.
The thrum inside your belly has grown into a demanding tickle. You’re overcome with the need to know what it is. Something’s alive inside you and you want to let it live. You know it was the stranger’s hand that gave this feeling a pulse and you crave another rush. This must be what hunger is and you want to be full.
You reach your hand out. The stranger takes it again, and blows a kiss. Butterflies burst from their mouth and take to the air around your heads.
That thrum in your stomach turns to a fury and this time you let your lips part wide open, certain that you have butterflies too. You feel them now at the back of your throat, rolling over your tongue. You wonder what color they’ll be.
The swarm erupts from your mouth and—they’re moths.
They don’t float like the butterflies do, but whirl around your head in wild frenzy, moving in time with spastic cadence of your blood and breath. They dart to and fro, colliding in the air and reeling back from the butterflies, confused where to go and what to do. You’re caught in the cloud of jittering, gray creatures, disappearing and reappearing in your vision like softly furred puffs of smoke. They have no color but ash and bruises.
The stranger pulls you in closer, their butterflies crowding in too. Everything’s gone blurry in the manic press of wings and hands. The weight of the heat and burn of the closeness is suffocating now and your breath comes in broken fits and starts.
It’s too much, too fast, too intense.
“Stop!” you gasp.
You fling out an arm to push the stranger away. As you shove your hand against the stranger’s chest, something is crushed beneath your palm. It was a moth. You stare as all the other moths go still. They drop to the ground.
“Stop,” you say again, quieter now. “Do not touch. Not there, not now.”
It is quiet. The stranger steps back. A soft intake of breath breaks the silence, and the
butterflies disappear. The stranger walks away.
It is cold now.