Leena Likitalo is a writer from Finland, the land of thousand lakes and countless untold tales. As a Master of Computer Science she knows how to create new, but is much more efficient in breaking old. She draws her inspiration from years spent on horseback and on bottom of chilly pools playing underwater rugby. This is her first published story in English, originally appearing in the recently published Weird Tales #359. The spark for it came during a workshop we taught while in Finland in 2011. Likitalo has completed a heroic fantasy novel in English, which she will soon be sending to agents. - Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
If we weren’t confined by the grey walls, they would fall off the edge. There was no choice but to obey the Watcher, to stay inside in the cool, while the Butterflies kept walking along the glittering edge of the disc, day after day, night after night.
I envied the Butterflies nevertheless, their long delicate limbs and quick steps, the smoothness and effortlessness of their movements. Light made their translucent hair and wings glimmer in shades of red, silver and gold regardless whether it came from the stars or sun. I desired to be one of them for it was always twilight inside.
The memory of my kind is short, but we knew the herd wasn’t always the same. It was better not to think about it. We were all safe if we just sat on our chairs in the oval-shaped room and pretended to listen.
The dim room was devoid of any details except the two opposite doors, tall and small, each rivaled in darkness only by the other. Me and my kind were forbidden to open the doors, but we couldn’t stop wandering near them or imagining where they might lead. The tall door was locked anyway and only the Watcher could open it. The small one was unlocked and it tempted us all because there was a window above it.
The lanky towering creature that we called the Watcher was always there, observing, asking us to gather around him, always prompting us to listen, but he couldn’t be trusted. He was not one of us. The Watcher smelled different, of unhealed wounds and burnt flesh. His face was hidden behind a metal mesh mask and his body was covered in a smooth silver armor that made his awkward steps creak and click. At rare times he seemed almost gentle and caring, though even then he couldn’t understand the need to see the Butterflies.
Sometimes the Watcher failed in his task. He was just one and we were many. When that happened I would creep with my chair next to the small door where the grey walls threw almost black shadows. If you climbed on your chair and rose to your toes, you could see outside through the narrow window. If the Watcher would still not notice me, that’s what I would do.
The sight blinded me every time, made my heart beat extraordinarily fast with the greatest fear and anticipation. Sometimes the Watcher would notice me just then, lift me down, grasp me by my tail, but if I evaded him, the window would reveal a view to another world.
The Butterflies always walked along the edge of the disc, always the same circular route, day after day, night after night. They often looked sad despite all their magnificence. It might be that they didn’t understand how privileged they were, how free they were compared to me and my kind. They could smell the shades of the wind and feel the sun caress their ethereal faces. They weren’t confined inside grey walls.
But such was the way things were. Me and my kind were destined to sit in the oval room and listen to the Watcher. When he spoke of duty and necessity his voice echoed mechanically from the walls and we didn’t question his words, not anymore. The older ones in the herd said that a long time ago we had, but nothing good had come out of it. The walls had just turned darker and floor cooler beneath our bare paws.
We did remember Watcher’s warning. He wanted us to understand that we all had our own place and if we would break the balance others would suffer. The Watcher had said that if we weren’t confined by the grey walls, the Butterflies would fall off the edge. We tried to believe him, but the temptation to open the small door and walk outside was greater still.
We all hated each other, though hate was not quite a strong enough word for we detested everything and our life was full of pain and agony.
We could not quite decide which were worse, the days or the nights. Sunlight made balancing on the hard diamond path easier, but during the days the sun tore at our useless wings and whipped our backs so that we bled and cried.
Yes, the light made our tears glitter, but that was a meager consolation. And the nights… the nights were cold and we shivered so much that our hair twisted and danced in strange ways. It was so chilly that our tears froze and dropped over the edge into the black abyss below. It reminded us that one of us had to fall and that we hated even more.
But, we hated those in the grey round House more than we despised each other. We could not see them, but we knew they were there, watching through the narrow window, keeping track of who passed by, waiting for a mistake, an excuse. They were ever creeping there behind the grey round walls.
We had to walk all the time, step after step, rough diamonds prickling our feet so that it was almost unbearable to touch the ground. We could never rest, never stop. We were always tired, always anxious. All the time they were watching and we lived in fear. We had to walk for if one of us halted the door of the house would open. Thus we kept circling the disc, going around the house so many times a day that it was impossible to keep track of the laps.
And time after time the door would still open despite all our efforts. First there would be a warning gust, but the wind would soon grow incredibly strong. We would hang on to whatever we could, the path, the edge, each other. The wind would punish us, tear our skin, shred our wings into tatters, rip off our hair, until one of us would fall. Those that were the slowest or unluckiest would end up hanging from someone’s arm or leg. Those who were new might even try to help, reach out and offer one last chance.
The wind would stop after our sacrifice. We would find our places in the circle and where one of us had fallen there would wait a new one. They were always the same, big eyes filled with wonder, touching their unspoilt fragile wings, playing with their smooth silky hair, clueless as to why we had to walk. For walk we must, each day and night. And as days went by they too would learn that to save yourself, to save us all, you never grasped anyone’s hand.
I stand in the middle of the oval-shaped room and call the rodents to gather around me. Some of them obey immediately, others linger in the shadows of the grey wall. I try to be gentle when I herd them together, but sometimes they don’t listen and I have to grasp them by their tails. Then they squeal and whimper like they’re in pain, but they don’t really know anything about pain.
The real pain is to know, to wait for your time to go. Remembering makes my bones ache, my hands tremble beneath the metal shell though my body has already healed. I pity the rodents and envy them although I know they fear and hate me. The rodents forget easily and have to be reminded, but even so they never understand that I’m protecting them.
Most of the time the small creatures seem happy enough. They play on the floor, chase their tails, rub their whiskers together and don’t listen to me. Their minds are elsewhere. They adore the Butterflies, consider the creatures outside the lucky ones. They think that it is freedom to walk the diamond path underneath the merciless sun and cold stars. They don’t know how tormenting it is to wait for the eventual fall, to wait for someone to push you over the edge.
Lately my pain has grown stronger;the burden of knowledge is too heavy. Like always I ask the rodents to come to me, to listen to my words and some of them come, but not all. I know one of them is near the small door, but I can’t make myself to stop it. My agony has become overwhelming.
As I start repeating the same words all over again the small rodent opens the door. He steps outside, squeals with excitement and then the wind begins. The rodent reaches out for the door, but it’s too late. The Butterflies are screaming. I can hear their pleads for help, asking us to close the door, but I can’t make myself do that either. It is my time. One of them must fall.
Then the door closes. Someone scratches the door outside, begs me to open it. I ask the rodents to come to me and they obey. They whimper behind me, quiver tails between their hind legs, hope I’ll protect them like I always do. Soon enough the scratching sounds became fainter, cease. The grey walls turn darker and the floor becomes cooler, but I speak softly to my herd until they forget and fall asleep.
When it’s safe to leave the rodents alone I walk to the other door. The tall door slides open and I walk through the archway, enter the narrow corridor. Then I follow the curve of the wall until I come to the chamber.
There is no other furnishing in the white room except a low table. On the table lies a fallen Butterfly, limbs broken, hair tangled, body mangled. I have seen the sight so many times before that it doesn’t make me shiver anymore.
It is time to undress. I step down from my metal heels, unhook my mechanic gloves, open my silver belly, strip off everything. Finally I lift off my helmet. All that time the Butterfly lies still, unknowing, not remembering. Yet.
I work carefully as I dress my armor on the Butterfly. I gently fold what’s left of the wings against its back, straighten the broken limbs, cover the burns with skin of metal. When I put on the helmet, the Butterfly jerks, once, twice, remembers.
The new Watcher awakens, stands up. He stretches his artificial limbs, moves in agony, moans soft metallic hisses. He walks around the room in circles, habit well-learnt too difficult to stop.
I wait, but I can’t stay still. I move my healed, shortened limbs. I can’t resist touching my fur, so soft after the days in metal prison. My tail curls up to my side like it has a life of its own and the ground feels cool under my paws.
After a hundred circles the Watcher stops, comes to me and helps me up to the table. The Watcher stays silent as I close my eyes. He has been though the same cycle as many times as I have.
I lay still and wait for the deep sleep. When the darkness comes I will forget, for there must be a balance. We are all the same and nothing will ever change.