Yea, He Did Fly
And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.
He made darkness his secret place . . .
— From the Eighteenth Psalm
FOR an eternity he struggled in his narrow prison. The walls inside were smooth, but also they were very firm, and the damp sluice at which he thrust his buffeting head seemed as unyielding as the rest. . . .
Little by little he drove his head past the shriveled fibres of silk that rimmed before him. Squeezing his body, aching, striving, driven by some force more sturdy than the filament of his coffin, he lunged out of the tiny darkness.
His feet, clammy with fluid, felt the coarseness of bark beneath their spurs. Forcing his legs tighter against the branch, the escaping prisoner battled upward. Green leaves brushed him; the hot June sunshine swept in a yellow blast, to dry the hairs of his back into distorted tufts. Moving rapidly like one who travels a well-accustomed path, he pushed out along the branch until he reached the first intersecting twig. There he fastened himself, ruddy legs embracing the smooth thorn bark, while his body quivered, panting from all this torturing exertion.
More than eight months he had lain in that coffin.
The lush forest spread around the thorn tree. Dotted with natural clearings and marshy glades, it fell away toward isolated farmhouses on one side and prairie pastures on the other, bisected by a gleaming sash of concrete highway. Insects droned and leaves trembled in the tingling warmth of midday. It was shortly past eleven o’clock when the prisoner began his assault on the woven walls that hemmed him in. Now the sun swam high in the south.
This creature which quivered, wrapping the twig with spurred legs, could not have been called beautiful. He was too bizarre, even macabre. The small, shriveled wings which fell from his flanks disclosed a damp, sloppy body larger than a human finger joint, covered with moist fur and gleaming with circular bands of red and white.
An odor of oily richness, almost visible in that green gloom, hung about the thorn tree. It was the royal scent which swells out in such a struggle and never vanishes until death claims its owner: the body musk of Samia cecropia. This specimen was a male, and a scientific observer could have seen at a glance that he was enormous, even for that rugged and showy family, for there were no eggs to weight the abdomen — nothing but the yellow blood which he was struggling to force into the hollow structure of his wings.
Whipping them rapidly back and forth, the newly escaped Red Legs felt his wings sprouting more broadly with every muscular tremor. From pulpy flaps they expanded into stronger area with each frenzied second. Red Legs grew like a Japanese paper flower opening its crumpled beauty in water. His broad orange antlers, soaked with the damp fur of his body, protruded knowingly as he fought for the maturity to which months of waiting entitled him.
Rapidly he reared himself out of dishevelment. His body, above the cottony bands of the abdomen, wore a gay saddle of dusky scarlet enveloping the thorax and spreading like a miniature shawl over the pattern of his wings. Those gaudy flaps were swollen into great flat wafers of scarlet and rust and gray, as the pumping juice unfurled their structure and the warm air dried the down with which they were covered. They quivered like autumn leaves. They were strong and large. Red Legs, ready for the unknown life ahead of him, was equipped with planes fully seven inches from tip to tip.
In the middle of each of Red Legs’ four wings glowed a big moon-shaped spot — not the hyaline transparent panes of lesser moths, but opaque and luxuriant with the same flower dust that covered his entire being.
He was a courtier of the wild, no longer swaddled by the husky cerements which he had abandoned within his gaping cocoon. Like a tropical orchid he hugged the thorn twig as his wings folded and unfolded in the broken sunlight. He could never have returned to his woven jail, now, if he had wished to. The warm life which filled his body had gushed into those spreading glories which grew from his sides. His abdomen was narrow and compact at last, his back coated with a light-weight armor beneath the glossy velvet, his antennæ spread like pine branches.
There were other cocoons: huge, weathered pulps woven on water sprouts at the base of the tree or fastened like overgrown cigar butts to the higher twigs. A female Cecropia, weighted with eggs, had passed that way the previous June. Of the hundred oblong pearls which she pasted on the leaves, and of the hundred voracious black caterpillars which had eaten their way from the transparent shells, six had survived to march in green and gaudy brilliance along the branches and spin their cocoons in September.
But Red Legs felt no curiosity concerning his brethren who still lay muffled in waterproof silk. He was seriously intent on the business of drying himself, preening his red fur, stretching the taut tendons which bound him.
Most captives, released by summer from their long durance, would have been sniffing the air for food. Not Red Legs, or others of his kind. Nature had not equipped him with a frænulum — that greedy trunk with which moths suck up the richness of flower hearts. Honey and attar and more prosaic sweets could not tempt him; he had no sense of their existence.
As a larva, in that forgotten earlier epoch, he had eaten his fill of tender leaves, eaten and gorged and chewed his ravening way among the branches until his skin split itself time and again outside his growing plumpness. From his winter chamber he brought the vitality to live, and a khedive’s rose garden would never have lured him.
He clung passive, the last moist scales of his wings drying into gray fluff, content to clutch the twig and wait for darker and more interesting hours.
There was a faint chattering in the black oak which reared above the stunted haw tree. A fox squirrel gave a piece of his mind to a mottled bird which dared dispute with him the free rights of a certain limb. The flicker shrieked angrily and swung down and out over the underbrush, the white patch beneath his wings glaring through the gloom.
Red Legs wiggled his antennæ, and clung tranquilly to his patch of bark. If he heard these creatures, they did not interest him. Already he felt a growing concern for vague adventure, a desire to fly somewhere and find something, but he was wearied from his struggle and the world was too bright a place for him. A later world, gray with the hush of winds, would be more to his liking. He dozed contentedly.
The fox squirrel cursed the flicker again; then he found a broken acorn in a crotch of the oak and sat down to examine it. He sniffed the relic, turning it in his claws. Obviously it was unfit for consumption. With a baffled snort, he tossed it overboard and continued leisurely down the black trunk. He was not starving, but he would not ignore any choice morsels that Providence might place before him.
Ten feet above the ground, in the whorl left by ancient amputation of a branch, a red-headed woodpecker had battered out a dwelling. The irregular hole showed like a tiny cavern, pocked by a thousand beak blows. It was an old hole, a sort of transient rooming house, occupied in past seasons by woodpeckers, bluebirds, and other gentry.
It seemed to the fox squirrel, although he could not be certain, that this particular hole was associated with a summary banquet of dainties — fresh bluebird’s eggs, for instance. He sniffed loudly, and clawed his inquisitive way along the lichened slabs of bark . . . bluebird’s eggs, or tender young bluebirds; even woodpecker’s eggs. He was not starving, but —
He barked, and withdrew precipitately. From somewhere within that apartment a keen sword had stabbed his prowling nose. The squirrel was no hero — in fact, only the most skulking and hyena-ish of marauders. The defender of the domicile did not show itself and the squirrel made his remarks to an unseen audience. He raced along a lower limb, sat down, fluffed his tail, rubbed his nose, forgot the hole in the trunk, ran his eyes over the banks of greenness beneath, and considered a tour of the ground.
That was bad. Danger lurked on the ground — he knew that all too well. There were scars on his fat rumps. Sharp tines had clutched at him more than once; there was a BB shot in the muscle of a hind paw. No, the strata of saplings and taller bushes and hedgy growths which struggled for life between huge trunks of hard wood would offer a safer prowling ground.
The fox squirrel swung easily from the end of the oak bough and dropped toward an exposed branch of the hawthorn tree.
Red Legs hung there, slumbering, his pinhead eyes opaque, his antennæ frozen with sleep. Above him, the russet squirrel scouted and capered. There was a smell here, a very interesting smell. Warm succulence . . . he had known that before, too. Something with wings. That was it, said the squirrel. Something with wings. . . .
Headfirst he descended the slender trunk, picking his way past the barriers of thorn that bunched close at hand. A thorn tree was a very safe place; and in colder weather there were thorn apples, if anybody wanted to eat the seeds. He had tried them; not often. Only a fool would waste his time digging out the maggoty, trivial seeds of a red haw when there were harvests of hazelnuts in every thicket and hickory nuts studding the ridges. . . . But here in this tree: something with wings. There was a smell —
A bare yard away he glimpsed the great red moth. It was a slice of crazy color against the afternoon shadows. The squirrel became a wooden squirrel, all of an instant. He measured the distance. Red Legs did not stir; he dreamed away the warm seconds; there was the barest ripple of crimson fur beneath his folded wings. Like live shoe buttons, the eyes of the squirrel fastened against his gorgeousness. One leap and —
There was a movement on the ground beneath the tree. The squirrel whirled. In the gloom of the close-grown thicket a common gray house cat glared at him. Her tail lashed to and fro, and there was all of an intent tigress in her gaze. The squirrel could not see them, but the nipples on the underside of her body were bare and pink, gnawed often by eager little mouths. Mother of a belated litter, she was ranging the woods for lawful prey, and she did not account a squirrel too formidable an opponent.
With a stream of angry consonants, the squirrel vaulted to a higher branch. Red Legs stirred anxiously and wriggled his wings. He took a few brief steps up the twig and paused again, his antennæ twitching slightly. There was noise, and he did not care for the great mild light of the sun, but after all nothing had really bothered him. He relapsed into his doze and did not move again, not during the long hour when the fox squirrel chattered about in the oak, fuming at the cat, when the cat glared and peeked and flattened herself amid the hazel brush, and finally caught a fat brown mouse in long grass of the clearing.
Red Legs was forgotten; the forest world passed him by; he did not move again until the yellow light was gone and the green gloom of late afternoon washed his wings.
As the sun crawled lower beyond the feathery rim of trees, Red Legs began to feel restless. He crept up the twig, lost his balance, and fluttered heavily to a lower limb of the haw. This quietness was more to his liking: the shadows that lay in the thickets were mingled with a velvet dusk, a visible fog which seemed to rise from damp earth with the approach of night.
You could not have told Red Legs from a flat clump of last year’s leaves. The shadows were dense in that forest. Frogs set up an oily, humid grumbling in every reedy glade; swarms of millers and mosquitoes twisted among gnats in the flowery air; there was a faint memory of blossoms, of late-blooming shrubs that pierced the darkness with their message.
Red Legs was not hungry; he could never eat if he wanted to; but the wave of odors that swam amid the foliage set his impulse on edge. His antennæ bent and curved themselves. His bulbous eyes glowed like fox fire through the gloom.
He began to march nervously along the twisted branch. His wings shivered in a delirious blur, but still he kept to his feet, gripping the bark with sharp spurs. He left a last stain of yellow on the twigs — the dregs of the fluid which had ballasted him, which had softened the fibres of his cocoon and filled the veins of his wings. At a broken fork of the branch he fell into space before he knew it. The great planes of crimson swept out and fanned the air — he was rising, he was a winged creature strolling the element where he belonged, and it was all easy and natural, and still quite the most wonderful thing in the world.
He swam boldly up into the sultry murk. It was cooler suddenly, and Red Legs looked down to see the forest spread beneath him — a close, hummocky carpet of blackness in which marsh lights glowed and where warm mists were twisting and alive. Far beyond him, there was a faint blush of pink washing the inverted bowl of sky, and nearer than that moved strange glimmers of whiteness, fanning beyond the summit of trees. That was the highway, where headlights of cars swung in intermittent curves. Red Legs did not know what it was, but in some way the brush of light beckoned him.
The whole world was gray—a deep, umber grayness that lay in mattressed thickness over the forest. And it was growing darker every moment. Now there was purpose in his creation. It seemed reasonable to consider — could he have considered — that he had lain for months in his dark shell, had squatted half a day in a haw tree, solely for this wheeling entry into space. He kept his tough legs folded carelessly beneath his body; the wings flapped tirelessly back and forth — a heavy, bat-like flight, yet at once effortless and graceful.
Far above him, guiding up and down in the dusk, broader wings than his fanned the air. The woodland caught occasional shrill cries and flung them up again toward the stars. Nighthawks were out, searching the gloom.
Beside Red Legs the atmosphere exploded with the rush of a feathery torpedo that plunged toward him with open beak, its pinions slicing the dusk like knives. The heritage of cloudy, forgotten ancestors spoke in that quick second to the great moth. He leaped aside, tumbling in the drift of air that cut behind the nighthawk’s flight. In another instant Red Legs was swinging up and down, out and across, whirling through bewildering circles, startled and wary all at once.
The hawk looped after him. A shriek of bafflement broke from its open beak, and a score of its fellows echoed the high-pitched yell. They were around Red Legs like dusky vultures, swooping and planing after him. Their thin bodies whirred between blurry wings; their echoes stung the night. But the Cecropia fell by leaps and bounds; he seemed to break into flaky bits, catch himself together again, his rubbery muscles flexing in insane gestures until he was only a dark whirligig tumbling toward the trees beneath.
In a black avenue between the oaks he straightened his course and sped quickly down the path, ten feet above the ground, angling among branches that bent toward him, but running a moderate race compared to his dizzy antics of a few seconds past. The hawks rode up to the stars again, and left him, and forgot him.
Danger waited above; that much was proved now. He would wander in his element, but not so carelessly. There was no need of lifting far above the tree tops. Danger was up there. Here were warm gloom and mingled odors, and some vague voice crying its summons. . . .
Already he had traveled far from the little thorn tree. But leagues were nothing to this creature. Other moths, not of his kind but no larger, spanned the Gulf of Mexico every year; they came from palm-dressed islands to whirl across the sea, to hang above Mississippi swamps, to march fervently over prairies, to halt and quiver and die above snowdrifts in the Rockies. A mile was but a moment.
Red Legs glided on.
Beyond the farthest fringe of underbrush into which the path poured itself, a white light glowed — something rushed and hummed — the forest was blown away. The Cecropia hovered cautiously in a poplar thicket; he felt as if a great suction were straining at him, and yet he wanted to be sure, be sure. . . .
Another hoarse blast and squeezing of wind: another car sped along the highway. Its wide beam lanced the bushes and roadside grass; the blackness turned to white gold in one solid tunnel.
Impelled beyond any restraint, Red Legs flapped from the last barrier of trees. He hung silently, wondering about it all. That light was a moving wall; it was gay and appealing, not like the sultry mildness of the sun lamp which he had shunned at his awakening. All the lure of ages seemed bound up and concentrated in a retreating fan of whiteness, yet it was moving too fast and he could not hope to overtake it.
The hills began to give birth to another motor. It sang nearer and nearer. Now Red Legs could feel the edge of diffused light rinsing across him. He curved his wings and shot straight into the heart of the glare: a double heart where two circular panes fired their torrid blast. Surely all was good and wonderful in the centre of that brightness. The increasing growl of the engine annoyed him; he wavered; but the beam was intoxicating, maddening — it had him in its fatal stimulus.
Another sword pierced from behind him. It was coming faster than the other. Two lives, two lovers, two areas of insanity quickening all about and crushing him between them. He was blind, but there was no blindness — only light, light, light all about him, spinning and burning, whitening the universe forever.
A wall of wind caved upward, stunning him. The wake of mutilated air cast him aloft like a fluff of cotton — he tumbled, and caught himself, and fell once more. Then he was twirling foolishly, staring at the unexpected darkness, drifting with leaves and dust and noxious gases where the two cars had passed. He knew nothing except that the wonderful whiteness was gone, and the woods were once more at hand . . . had there ever been any whiteness? He did not know that death had missed him by the margin of a wind’s breadth, that the gushing current between the two machines had swept him up and saved him from pasting his beauty against glass and steel.
A child in one car said, ‘There was a big butterfly.’
‘Nonsense. No butterfly out at night, Sonny.’
‘But I saw it. It was a great big, beautiful —’
’Must have been a bat.‘
Red Legs hurdled the elms and launched himself toward the distant pinkness of the sky. The urge to gallop, to keep moving, to traverse distances, was eating within him. Perhaps in that glow to the west he would find whatever it was that he wanted.
Tirelessly he waved his way over the countryside. More forests, more clumps of hazel, more bushes dotting the blankness of open fields. Once there was a wide sweep of water bending across the earth, where fireflies spattered into being, many and tremulous.
That color of the sky was stronger, and broken into gradations, a hundred depths and intensities. Single lights appeared, spotting the blush of the town. There were stout smells, and drifting smoke, and more noise than any moth could ever countenance. Yet the tangle of electricity held him in its embrace, as surely as had the attraction of automobile lights a few minutes before.
Red Legs wavered from one possible shrine to another, poising, dazzled and delighted, above the parapets of brick buildings; hesitating, deciding to plunge into the glistening lure beneath, and yet always drawn aside by some new enticement which his aching eyes discovered just beyond. Then, bursting up beyond a distant rim of masonry, appeared a greedy rush of light which drenched the Cecropia in a second’s spasm; he teetered, and fell toward the magnetic shimmer of this blaze.
It was a gasoline station, its stucco walls whitewashed to the color of snow, its concrete studded with dizzy bulbs. One huge globe of angry intensity hung above the doorway to shout brilliance in every direction. Around this shrine buzzed and danced and crawled a host of tiny night wanderers — sand flies, June bugs, Microlepidoptera of countless varieties, all gasping upward, clawing stupidly, writhing over the glass until their tortured bodies shriveled and fried in its infernal heat. Yet more came on the drift of every moment: bewildered myriads butting against one another in their eagerness to reach this monumental seducer.
Into the wretched assemblage fluttered Red Legs. The hosts tottered away from his cumbersome advance, and swept back to join him. He was grotesque and elephantine — an ogre of cinnamon, pounding his head against that glass, the dust of his wings clouding about him as he beat a frenzied tattoo on the hard, hot surface.
There were other beauties grouped in a mad swarm: tiger moths, their tiny-paned wings flaming in the glare, a belated hawkmoth or two, a battered and veteran Pandora sphinx. But there was nothing unusual in their size or degree of gaudiness. Red Legs, reeling his shadow in blurry circles over the concrete, caused the knot of human beings to cease their contemplation of ethyl gasoline and look up at him.
‘That’s a damn big bug,’ said one man.
The attendant nodded. ‘We get a lot of them around here every night.’
‘But certainly not like that one,’ insisted someone else.
‘Don’t believe I ever saw any that big before. He is big.’
‘Gosh,’ said the first man, ‘I think that’s something unusual. What is it — a butterfly? Too big. Gosh!’
The attendant climbed up on the running board of a car which stood beneath the light. Bracing one foot against the fender, he made a wild, sweeping snatch at Red Legs. His fingers scratched pollen from the great moth’s body; the circling swarm broke in amazement, and Red Legs swooped away. He swung in consternation above the driveway. Something had bothered him, something had pushed him, bruised him, brushed him away from the centre of all things good.
‘Missed him,’ said the attendant, and climbed down.
‘Here,’ said the other man. ‘I’ll use my hat. Gosh, I ’d like to get that bug. Bet he’s something remarkable — new to science, maybe.’
Yet, it appeared to Red Legs, the light still lived. The smaller fry came back and clustered in their delirium once more. There was still the light — and it was more wonderful than anything which had ever occurred before or would ever occur again. . . . Whiteness, hot whiteness. It seethed to meet him. It said, ‘Come.’ It said, ‘I am here . .
Once more he hurtled toward the charm. His feet touched burning glass; he drew back in pain; he could not cry out. He could only beat his frenzied wings and hope that somehow this evil barrier would be melted away, burst asunder, and he could gorge himself forever on the utter brilliance within.
The man, standing on the car’s fender, drew back his hat. He gashed it through the sticky swarm. Its circular sweep gobbled Red Legs — ho was caught, he was falling, something was crushing him.
‘Got him!’ shrieked the man. He held the hat tightly, its brim mashed together. The attendant and a woman and another man came to peer at it.
‘He’s inside. Wonder how you kill these things?’
‘Stick them on a pin, I guess. Just a minute.’
In the sweaty confines of straw, Red Legs sat motionless, his wings cruelly bent but undamaged. His eyes glowed like phosphorus in the darkness. He must get away. He must fly. He must crawl. That was it. Crawl. . . .
Fingers came in to find him. They pushed upon him, crowding, squeezing. The edges of the hat were slightly ajar. There was light outside. It would be better outside, out of that place forever.
He tumbled wildly about. The fingers came together, but Red Legs was not between them. He angled his way toward the aperture. Something slipped — the hat fell. Red Legs, scratched and disarrayed, but still unhurt and beautiful, swept into space like an angry comet.
Behind him there were yells, laughter. He did not know what the sounds meant; he knew only that he must get away. Vaguely he felt that his wings were tired. Not since he left his native thorn tree had he perched to rest. The baffled moments inside the hat were no rest for him — every cell had been shivering, every sense alert.
Away, away. The ferocious glow of the big white light was behind him. The air swam with smoke and gases — there were more lamps burning down there, but Red Legs must go away. Away, away. He charged across parapets, past chimneys and signs and trees. Hot blasts came up to set him giddy and trembling, but his broad wings stroked the air in unending cadence.
Then he was in cooler spaces, darker and quieter, and it was a relief to find them. He crossed the band of water, drove through a wall of cottonwoods that lined it. Night meadows stared up at him, a-grumble with frogs and rasping with the noisier insects of blackness.
Deeper woodland lay ahead, a soft and far-reaching hedge penetrated by the twinkle of fireflies. It sent its elixir out to meet the tired wanderer. Flower smells, tree smells, the breath of flowers he could never taste and of trees he could never understand. Something, whatever it was he sought, might be resting in those thick oaks, serene and quiescent for his homecoming. Another moth? He did not know. But . . . another moth —
And in the wash of odors the barest suggestion of a peculiar scent drifted out. Red Legs altered his course suddenly. He was hunting that scent, as eagerly as he had ever hunted light in his short life. The smell dripped out of those woods where he was born; it was thinner than any other memory; it was distilled through night mists, and yet he sought it up the trickling wind with headlong certainty.
Something coursed out beside him. Another moth . . . Red Legs danced and reared between his wings. He hovered in concentric circles, he and this other creature, bewildered, alarmed and wondering all the time. Another moth — almost as large as Red Legs, but showing a cottony gray in the gloom. Long tails filmed down from his moving wings; in the light of day he would have been green, piped with tan and lavender, a fairy image. He was a Luna, and he and the Cecropia did not understand one another. . . .No, perhaps this was n’t it, after all. Maybe not even another moth.
They swooped about for a moment, wary and cautious, and then each flapped away in his separate path.
The strange odor was stronger. It set Red Legs on edge; he forgot that he had not rested for a long time. He forgot everything except this mighty musk that came at him out of the hissing trees. He flew sturdily on, past the glades of flag and swamp grass, the fringes of hazel brush and gooseberry, past the deeper oak shadows.
Beside a remote tunnel in the forest stood a small hawthorn tree. From it was emanating all the power of universes. It was the tree where Red Legs had crawled and eaten and slept his way to maturity, but he could not recognize it as such. ... He was aware of the odor, the happy current that pulled him there.
Other creatures, and they were like him, fluttered about the branches. They were dark smoke rising and settling and twisting up again from one stiff stem of the hawthorn. Red Legs was larger and heavier and mightier in all ways: he swept them aside. His feet clutched a twig and he crept upward, his eyes alive with the wonder of night. Another cocoon had become vacant that day, another dungeon had yielded forth its prisoner. He had known nothing about it before — his senses were not ready for her message; but now he came to her, rudely brushing away a dozen other suitors.
She clung among the leaves, her wings folded. The air was warm and musky in the heart of that thorn tree.