My Eyes Leak Pus
and My Toes Feel Gummy
by Leonard Schlenz
My fingers and thumb stick together when they touch; Lizzy taught me to rub them in dry dirt to keep them useful. I guess you’d call them tacky. Or gluey. Maybe pasty, but not slimy — I’m holding on to the ancient words, using them like Mom says to, before they’re lost forever. My eyes leak pus and my toes feel gummy. It’s colder lately, and I can’t wear shoes no more.
We all run over to the tree line where the tall grass ends in sparkly gray jagged granite, not sheer but steep enough, before dropping into the abyss of pink poison mist; and that’s where the latest crop of exactly twelve cocoons cling like Egyptian mummies to the boughs of big maples. It’s weird. Peculiar. Grotesque. It’s cool.
“She’s a-bustin’ open,” Lizzy says. None of us remember who it is inside this particular cocoon, but we’ll know soon enough. There’s squirming inside, and I hear crackling (but not crunching) maybe more like crinkling... which is just what you should hear.
“I think it’s Eddy inside,” Lizzy says, “Be out by sunset.”
But I’m thinking more likely long before that. I know the pattern now: what’s inside needs daylight to fly. You don’t want to be born into the darkness.
Mom says our generation, we’re all shallow, we should be doing something useful, gathering firewood or stones. Collecting mushrooms for winter. But me and the guys say this is the future and for now we really got to sit in the tall grass and watch, and learn, and wait our turn. It never does get boring for me.
Personally I, too, think, from the size of the cocoon, it’s Eddy inside, because he leaned toward being fat, and that’s the fattest cocoon up there.
Mom told me that it’s time for us all to be what we can be, and I said to her, “You mean like an army of one?” She said she supposed so, the expression ringing true from something passed on, but both of us unable to place it; maybe it was from the Bible or Mark Twain or something.
None of us understands what this is all about. We don’t pretend to. It’s a mystery. Enigma, is my guess. All this because of the war that ended war. It was before my time, and Mom’s time too. They used to name wars.
My glands have been oozing a smelly secretion for some two weeks now. My hair looks oily when I take the trouble to look, like 50’s Grease... I know it from the silver screen, the old moving pictures. When I say that to Lizzy, she says, “There ain’t been nothing new — as far as moving pictures — in seventy years,” and I say, “You think I’m stupid? That I don’t know we don’t have machines, can hardly find players and batteries to play the old movies?”
And she just goes on to say, “You ever seen anybody come out of a cocoon dead?”
“You mean like stillborn?” I shake my head, and she says, “Me neither.”
It’s just one more thing to worry me and I don’t need that. Anyway, I don’t want to dwell on negativity or darkness right now. The fact is, I got to be open-minded.
The cocoons are pretty in their own way. Mom says she can see silver clouds in it all, but I never saw no silver clouds. I think it’s one of those things she remembers people saying. I know she means there’s goodness in everything, like the prettiness of the cocoons. They hang on trees against the sky. Even the killer mist that has filled these valleys my whole life has its own prettiness.
And I think this evening is prettier than most — it’s always special when the sun is low. Dad wonders how there could be so godawful much of it, reproducing its own self and filling every nook and cranny on earth. He says there wasn’t always these islands in the sky where we live now; he says there was land everywhere, and where there wasn’t land there was ocean. But even he thinks I don’t know from nothing. I already knew that from the silver screen too, before the batteries went dead.
My family home he says was a place called Texas near something called an Alamo which I think used to hire out cars by the thousands. Mom came from Kansas, where they grew yellow flowers ten feet tall and big as your head.
Now, as to this level where the pink swamp settles and sometimes waits to kill a careless kid: it is 2,456 feet, given no breeze, above sea level, a no-meaning term now that you can’t see the sea, and there’re no boats, no fish, no living thing inside.
I suspect looking at this old map, there’s no Alabama, no this no that, no Texas, like I said, except what lies under. I know nothing of skyscrapers but for the old pictures, but I suspect you can see the tips of the building that King Kong climbed; I suppose it still peeps above the mist. It would be a pretty thing to see.
There’s a storm of activity inside the cocoon which we think is Eddy. I don’t think he’s going to break loose from the tree, but I’d hate to see him come falling out on his head, or worse, roll into the mist. I give him ten minutes to bust loose.
“Put away that damn map,” Lizzy says, “and watch.” The others already are keen, and mumble among themselves, so I fold my Map of the USA and put it in my back pocket. Of course, there could be no Connecticut or Delaware; or Iowa, Nebraska, Kentucky, as near as I can figure. You can’t see the sea, so you sure can’t see those places now. On a good day you can see clear across, to the other islands on the horizon, especially when they’re backlit. The smell of dead rot seeps through at times, and you know some fool got too close.
It’s peaceful now. Quiet. I’m around thirty-four as near as Mom can remember. The world’s a very strange place to me.
Dad went off this morning, finally. It happens. He was too old for cocooning anyway. We think he’s taking the pink road back home to Texas. That’s how we say it, only back to Colorado, back to Montana. You know, like that. Mom didn’t say it, and I sure didn’t say nothing, but we both knew he was tired of it all. He said God didn’t mean for this, meaning that only angels were meant for wings. He said he felt empty, that all these changes creeped him out.
My skin itches. I’ll be glad when it’s over, when the change is absolute. Lizzy’s oldest brother changed last week. He had no trouble that I could tell in getting off the ground. It was a beautiful thing to behold, seeing him sink down beyond the hill and swoop up just when we thought he was a goner. And you could still tell it was him because of his eyes just before, and his voice was still the same though all we could hear was the yahoos and the whoopees twenty feet up. Lizzy cried.
They say it’s probably worth it, even for one good flight, even if it kills you... And sometimes it does, if the wind decides to get tricky. There’s no training. It’s a do-or-die thing, like with baby birds. We’ve only been doing this a while now.
I don’t know the name of the first one I saw with my own eyes, but he was one of the first in the neighborhood. We don’t know why people grow wings, other than we need wings now. We ask, was it the mist itself that caused some chemical change, or unlocked some hidden gene? Or was it the need alone? Who knows? Maybe it was destiny, our horizon already a pink mist in Adam’s eye from day one — war and wings in the cards all along.
Mom says at first they thought it some sort of plague following on the heels of the war. But that first time for me, four years back, this fellow broke out of his cocoon in a burst of blacks and yellows, and a touch of orange, and the crowd cheered, and I thought I’d die from joy, maybe delight.
And so we live simple lives. We gather and we grow what we can; we marvel at machines we can’t use; and though we look ahead and marvel at the new wings we can grow, we know too that our children won’t know any such thing as the silver screen but from stories told round the fire about such things. Our elders will sit on the carcasses of the old devices and fiddle with the cogs of the machinery and, as they speak, point and say, “now was that a hoist or was it a piece of some old elevator?”
But so what? I’ve seen maybe fourteen by now; they all unfurled and dropped as if sensing the breeze, as if daring the poison mist. It was so very cool. And ever since I’ve watched and marveled with my friends the undoing of those cocoons, the wings unfurling, and we think of those drifting over the cliff out of sight never to be seen again. But you got to stay above the pink.
You want to think they’ve found a better place, some better island. In my mind, it’s a better way than Dad’s way, daring the mist. I don’t think he’s coming back either. I wanted for him to see me with wings. I hope he comes walking back and my suspicions are all wrong. But I don’t think so.
I don’t look forward to my own cocoon, but they say you just sleep for six months and dream a lot. They say quite a lot, they who know nothing. This is all so new. The ones who come back live higher up on the mountain. They don’t mingle much.
I can feel the scab on my lower back, and I want to scratch, knowing better. Mostly I just secrete a lot. I don’t like the smell. It all led Mom and the neighbor to get into it the other day, with the neighbor saying it all had something to do with Darwin, how folks could fly all of a sudden and everything because nature kind of pushed them to it, you know, like having to fly from one island in the sky to the next in order to survive, and Mom said, darwin shmarwin, saying it wasn’t natural at all to go from walking to flying in such a short time even if nature did require it, it being more a leap of faith, just some sort of blank cell God lets you use for wishes.
When the cocoon starts to form around the mouth, they say it’s hard to breathe, and that’s when you climb into the south side of a tree and let nature take its course. I don’t want to think too much, as it might ruin things. I suppose I’ll know when the time’s right. I think I see part of Eddy’s wing poking out, and I wonder: What is Eddy thinking?
I can’t help but study the situation and sort of plan ahead. It’s not as though I have a choice. Lizzy says her lips seem real gummy, so I hope I can lead the way for her. Mom wishes us both well, says she’s too old for wings, says she missed the boat. She’s real squeamish anyway, not thinking her children should turn to cotton candy. She says she’ll love us no matter what, or where we are. I don’t know cotton candy from sand, though I think it likely points to one of her silver clouds.
Copyright © 2009 by Leonard Schlenz