“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said, “in these corridors you’re an angel.”
Mom and Dad were stiff as crinoline. My sisters were paper eggshells, Russian dolls that never took off their layers. We existed in separate worlds that only touched occasionally, such as when Mimi told me I looked like a butterfly standing out there on the edge of the garden, hesitant and shy and unwilling to spread beautiful, beautiful wings, or when Dad took me out hunting once and he let me look at the diluted universe through the crosshairs of his rifle. He shot a fox inside that universe with a little, invisible iron ball that tore its neck apart. I broke out in a run toward the fox as Dad called toward me to stop. I fell to my knees and tried to keep it breathing and stop that gaping wound from bleeding as the fox snapped and growled. It choked on arterial blood and died between my sticky red fingers. Dad carried me home in my ruined gray pinafore. The fox bit my hand, a curve of a bite like half a coffee ring – Dad had to put its mangled body in plastic and take it to the vet to test for rabies.
He never took me hunting again.
My three sisters agreed I was the wild one, like Mimi was the bookish muse, the poet, Jordan the one who carried feminine anger visible even clothed in pink patterned church dresses, or Angela, the twelve-year old sieve, running memories out between her fingers, those thoughts that belonged to her darker than we ever really comprehended. And if I was not a butterfly, I was a monkey clinging to the dark-rooted Louisiana god trees in the swamp, chasing away the fear of alligator eyes, messengers in green, but always on the lookout for the sunshine man.
Angela told the story to me. The sunshine man lived in a dilapidated, two-story house hidden in the swamp. You would know the house by its blackness like faux-Halloween face paint, windows blacked out furiously like children’s scribbles, wooden slats rotting, roof sagging, the whole thing either about to collapse or burst. The sunshine man resembled his house in the way that old people resemble their pets, dressed in a black coat, boots, a velvety fedora hat, the kind of man who if he opened his coat you expected to find either blades or bats.
“Why is he called the sunshine man?” I asked.
“It’s like why they call it Greenland when it’s covered in ice,” Angela said, “It doesn’t have to make sense.”
She told me the sunshine man walked the swamps at night; searching for women so he could bury his hands into their hair, make love to them not with skin but with needles and blood finger-painting, transform them with wounds and later dissect them upon his tables. He collected these women like butterflies beautifully pressed between pins, and his sunshine house hid a labyrinthine cellar maze underneath full of freezers and tubes and monsters that lived in family portraits. He killed delicately, spread out bones and skin like wings, preserving them in ice and serum, stored inside locker rooms that he visited sometimes like favorite poems, counting off delicate, torn paper haloes. Freckles and indigo eyes were his favorite lines, and he gently touched the places he drained of blood, sensual but not exactly sexual, like the smell that lingers after rain.
“You’re just trying to scare me,” I said, but after that I always watched out for the sunshine man. He visited my dreams, faceless as a shadow, always wearing his fedora hat and an old-fashioned coat with heavy, brass buttons. He let me touch them. Afterwards he kissed me and broke my spine.
And the four of us grew older in our separate universes and barely let our feet touch the ground. Mimi still called me butterfly even when I became awkward and chunky in adolescence, when I stopped climbing trees and started to hang out with my boyfriend after school so we could smoke cigarettes behind abandoned gas pumps and spray paint our names in visceral red underneath bridges. I learned most people might as well be faceless shadows, that forgetting is sometimes more healthy than learning, that sex felt nothing like rain. When I turned eighteen I broke up with my boyfriend, said goodbye to my parents, my sisters, and took off to Texas in a broken down jalopy that barely made it across the border. I got a job as a waitress in a diner that would have been best suited to an appearance on daytime television than in real life. I met an older man so shy he had to write Will you go out with me? on a napkin after he finished his coffee and sausage. He wasn’t beautiful, but he was charming in a subdued way, and four years after our first date we married in a rundown local chapel. He wore his father’s suit eaten away by moths, and I saved for months to buy a yellowing, vintage wedding dress – after I tucked it away in its box in a dresser drawer I had nightmares of it decaying, decaying, decaying, the lace turning black, roach-like insects crawling over the collar.
And though I never admitted it, I still dreamed of him, the sunshine man, holding up the moon and stars between candy spoons, smiling without quite smiling, whispering seductive things.
We divorced after seven years. He packed a suitcase of clothes and left in the middle of the night, leaving me alone to ruminate through the ashes without a phoenix to rise up and claim me, or perhaps, devour me. I picked up smoking again. I remembered that old boyfriend once telling me, “You must have been an injun in a past life. What you trying to do, see gods in the smoke?” I went through so many packs of Marlboro I thought I would drown. Mimi’s butterfly girl grew thin and sick and eventually forgot she had wings. I stopped making house payments. My house went up for foreclosure.
I lay in an empty living room floor, contemplating just how many pockmarked dots there were on the ceiling, when I got a call from Jordan.
Angela was dead.
In an hour I packed a few clothes, got in my car, and went back to the Louisiana swamp I had not visited in nearly fifteen years.
A funeral is much like a wedding in its frosted extravagance. Even in the presence of death we were so many parasites feeding off the silver cakes and white lilies and each other. Jordan and Mimi wore blue dresses, an awkward juxtaposition to my large and ill-fitting black suit. They were thinner and smaller than I remembered, their kisses like sandpaper, their ghostly touches reaching right through me. We said little. None of us cried. Crying would pull us out of our separate universes, our barriers, and allow us to crash and burn on another’s shore like dying stars or sirens drying to the bone.
“What happened?” I asked Mom. She hadn’t changed. Forever a luminous faery, a numinous scar.
“Cancer,” she said. And I thought, it’s always cancer, that black and white animal disease.
“It couldn’t be helped, Butterfly,” Mimi said.
I watched the funeral procession like a voyeur. Angela was dressed in white, her face thin and waxy, her lips red like too-ripe cherries. I was afraid to afraid to touch her as I passed by her body. I couldn’t speak because all the words I wanted to say were hollowed out of me after years and years and years by separation, deadbeat boyfriends, divorce, disappointment. We were all hollow here, walking dead. We sharpened our teeth on the backs of our knuckles, fought each other like insects, and consumed skin that would never satisfy us. I knew if I opened Angela’s mouth and pulled out her secret universe it would dissolve like a sugar ribbon in my hand. All of this amounted to nothing if we were all alone.
Halfway through the funeral I excused myself to go to the restroom and never came back.
I went to the swamp.
The Louisiana god trees never looked taller as they hung in the early morning mists with dormant birds in their branches. I remembered the paths I used to walk like the ache people sometimes get in broken bones that have long since healed. That’s what this swamp was – a deep ache, and as I walked little pieces of me, memories, skin tissue, faery dust, peeled away until nothing remained. I found my skin hanging on a tree branch waiting for me, a little child’s skin marked the wild one, dressed up in a bloody pinafore. I took it down carefully and put it on, then kept on walking until the vines were so thick in the center of the forest they roped off the light from the sun. A cool calmness descended. I lay down in the moss underneath the tree behemoths, protected from sunshine, and waited for him.
His footsteps were softer than I imagined.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
He spoke. “I’ve been here.”
“I didn’t think you were real.”
“No,” he said, “You did.”
He knelt over me, his breath cool, his face a shadow underneath his black fedora hat. When he opened his mouth into a rictus it expanded wide, a black gap full of frozen teeth. I slipped under darkness like ether. He bent low and breathed into my ear.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” I said.
“Is it like when they call it Greenland when it’s covered in ice?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
I couldn’t see his eyes. “Why they call you the sunshine man. Is it like that?”
“No,” he said, “It’s really nothing like that at all.”
He bit into my neck with his razorfish teeth and I clung to him, desperate, puerile, just like the bloody girl that once clung to a dying fox because for just a moment she saw death’s gray trajectory and the gray loneliness like death that lived inside her. I spilled out on the sunshine man’s shoes and drank him close. The gods I never found were in his hair, clinging to the inside of his hat, gods like smoke, gods of somewhere else than this gray world.
After I was dead he took me in his arms and away from the swamp, down stairwells that reached the gutted out bottom of the world, past lockers of frozen women pinned up like butterflies. Their bones glittered in blue and red and monarch melanin scales and their eyes filled with dry crystal sugar. He laid me on an operating table in the dark. The only light came from the one he unraveled from my organs, a dully glowing bezoar, and I watched as he slit his skin apart with a fingernail and tucked it inside his ribcage cavity.
He found my wings I thought lost. He reached underneath me and spread them out from my shoulder blades, tattered and cold on the operating table, pressed my skin against needles until it stopped hurting. He turned me into a monster with his breath, his coat enveloping my face, his touch sterile, dry, clean, nothing like smoke in velvet blackness, the blood drying between my fingers, a crumbling tongue.
“Let me be close to someone,” I said, reaching for my bezoar as it glowed inside of him, “anyone. Let me be close to you,” and then once more, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
He pressed his finger against my lips and whispered gently, “shh… I know, Butterfly,” he said, “I know.”
The sunshine man took my hand and I sat up and he helped me off the operating table. He pulled me into his embrace and I pressed my hand against his chest, and he was warm. I felt the pulse of that bezoar shudder against his skin.
“Dance with me, Butterfly,” he said. He kissed my forehead.
I danced with him underneath the earth, underneath the cooling wires, warm and empty, and he gently pressed his fingers into my hair.
Autumn Christian lives in the dark woods of the southern United States with poisonous blue flowers in her backyard and a set of polished cow skulls on her mantel. She is an egalitarian, a humanist, and a garage philosopher. She can be found at autumnchristian.blogspot.com. She says:
Sunshine, Sunshine was my response to what I perceived to be an impersonal, isolated universe. I thought if I could not find the love and understanding I wanted through the acceptable means , which had failed for me so far, that I would search for love and understanding in the labyrinthine pathways of my head and the darkest recesses of humanity.