Frailings

Ed Cottrell


By the water I freed them.

They flew up into the willows, the wilder ones watching, buoyed on the gently moving surface. I walked along the bank, they clustered at the close hems of mud, picked over scatterings of rice. They pinched the grains in their mandibles, threshed their antennae, glowed. All as one they lifted wings to reveal their backs, their bodies. Each like a veiled coin.

I had the speechlessness that comes post-release, with nothing to offer them. I watched them swim and ripple the water, measured their confidence by the increasing distances they allowed between us.

My instinct was to follow them, wade into the cold water. Weren’t these creatures mine? It was me that had summoned them – each burrow was dug within my body, each spectre adapted to my brow. They were my inhabitants, the bugs of my rotted trunk. When I started to disintegrate, they were the buds of life sprouting from me.

Now they belong to nobody. Out on the water, they are freed. I watch them toying with a plastic bottle, swimming in the reflected sky. They shine out of the rippled clouds, wrestling with the bottle – they darkle as that flotation device rolls under them, spins them back.

I could provide a taxonomy of their forms – heartworm, the ribbons tying up my circulation; the deathwatch burrowed in my vertebrae.

But I will not name or question them this way. To ask questions is to acknowledge their specific vacancy. To answer questions is dangerous. To store them unasked more dangerous still. I only say to myself, ‘You missed your chance, years ago. You have too many words at your disposal, now’.

I have become used to the feeling of being a walking carapace.

What is left behind is the knot from which they went flying.

What is left behind is only the burrows from which they flew into the water, swimming. I am that cunningly supported structure that is left, the rest hollowed out to form abandoned passages, the spaces where antennae brushed against me.

Once they hatched, it was only a matter of time until the advent of their wings. Curious tiles that opened on their backs, raised up through a matter of instinct.

Only to discover –

whatever an arthropod is able to record. From that point, our contact was less immediate. We diverged. Still, their voices could charm me, the singing of water, the tinkling of unlikely electronics. They transfixed me, their spectator, watching their blooms of growth, how each chitinous exoskeleton was scaled to encase them.

I watch videos online to recreate that moment. I study the way the abdomen of each creature is poised before take-off and then – .

How unlikely they are. It’s like watching a car convince itself to fly. But I cannot watch too long: the narrator’s voice, describing these creatures as ‘parasite’, is clouding the truth. To label them X or Y is to occlude a most basic instinct.

How shy they were in departing, those naked twigs installed in me, heads poking from their homes. They emerged with that same trepidation, inching out; only once they were gone I realised they would never return. I thought that: ‘They’ve left me’, standing at the water’s edge.

So I am forever at the water’s edge. Small birds go flaming in the sky. The fissures of their beaks shine. Each predator trills with the stolen voice of prey.

Post-release there came the predictable decimation. Hardly had they tested their wings before they lost their game. They were picked out and eaten, replaced by the empty spaces. I follow their gaps. The space they leave is empty and bright, reflecting the light of departure. I hear their silence, the cleared spaces of their voices. The birds swoop, the flock fills itself. Calling to each other, spotting survivors. What does it mean to see this hunt, to watch them feast beyond the point of fullness?

And yet many are left, great numbers that the birds are incapable of catching. Protected, perhaps, by an acrid sweat, a smell, the bright colours with which they are studded.

From time to time, I wish to contact these old inhabitants of mine, and? With what hope? Some communication, a touch, before again they will alight.

I think at night of them. Perceive them from a distance as they incandesce. I think I could capture them, return them to their roots. Could speak their names to send them mad. But, no, I make this pact with myself: it is enough to consider their phosphorescence, the impossible light that marks their breath.

But so much for acceptance. Lately I’ve been turning against these lines. I’ve shifted against my agreements, scratched them out with a pencil stub. I’ve met my inner co-conspirator in the unwatched cottage of my skull. We are aligned.

And why not? Have I even called home these errant twigs of mine? Have I said, plain enough, ‘My little chippings, it is time to return, come home?’ Have I tried to tempt them back from where they live amongst floating rubbish, sleeping on the underside of leaves?

My skeleton is briefly brightened, like this. Each bone flexes like bamboo. I feel at home inside my twisting body, the currents that turn through my hollow stems. But I am spun so easily back to the sensation of being a heap of rotting wood.

I return to the other conclusion I have so often reached: they will not come home, for love, begging, money.

No. I could hang cracked splints around my body, make tents of dark cloth to entice them – they will not come home. They are freed, printing air with their wings. The best I could hope for is they might appear, land on my skin, and in the exoskeleton I could perceive some answer. If they will not come back I would ask –

What to start sowing, what season?

What nourishment must I gather for the site?

What preparations should I make if I want this project sped along?

I go back to the water for this. Every now and then, on the surface of the simmering lake, a pimple blows up and ripples slowly out. I break an eclair into pieces, throw the crumbs as far as I can. Their hungry mouths cast patterns of rings.

I lie beneath the willow, shaded except for a triangle of sky, crinkled by leaves. It’s hot. I fold a cardboard box into a pillow, to slump against, to fall into almost sleep.

On such a hot day the surface of the world seems like a layer of skin. Not even that: a molten surface of fake leather. My dreaming, on such a hot day, is condensation on that leather surface. I am lying on my keys. They keep me half-awake; it is this that allows the half-insight into a dreamstate.

Everything flees this heat.

A beetle clambers into the mouth of an old glass bottle, meets the glass hoop with testing limbs, slips and dangles off it, then falls to the dry earth under the tree.

Thud.

Next thing, it crawls up the cord of my shoelace. It pauses in the shade, pinching the shoelace, and waits there; I think, to remember what it was doing, what it thought.

The beetle turns again, falls, lands with a thud, surprisingly weighty. The only sound in the stillness. It falls on its back, wriggling limbs in the air, takes a moment to turn over by splitting its back, using its wings. Now righted, it half tucks them away. It goes the other direction, crawls off like a piece of unsilvered mirror.

The stripe on its back grows –

the wings split –