By Charlotte Gutzmer,
The needle sinks into the mounting board hot and precise as a bullet. I am slow and gentle when I fix the wing down with glass sheets. It is a deliberate thing, pinning an insect—one summer night you called it an obsession, but I think it’s part faith, part practice. This is not fanaticism. This is art.
You float behind my shoulder as I work, Vivaldi filling the air between us. You swirl a glass of merlot.
“Chimaera birdwing,” I say. “Ornithoptera chimaera. Male.”
“You don’t usually do butterflies.”
“No,” I say. “But they’re popular. And they’re beautiful.”
“I like this one,” you say.
It’s a rather large butterfly, with black and yellow wings that glint a bright and sour cat-eye green. Underneath, the wings are transparent. Scratch the pigment off and you can see through their scales like glass, crystal creatures that crumble into dust instead of shards. When I tell you this, you hum, something low and soft that buzzes through me.
We first met in the museum, where I wore nitrile gloves and pressed my fingertips against the glass like I expected a pulse. Dozens of insects strategically littered the showcase, dead and poised, waiting to strike or fly away.
“You look ready to steal something,” you joked, tapping the security tag nestled into your shirt. And maybe I did look ready to steal with my gloves, my dark turtleneck, my cardigan threatening to swallow me whole.
“I don’t need to,” I said. “These are mine.”
“You’re the bug donor? You made all these?”
You’re beside me quickly, and I see you ponder the creatures below the glass. I can’t tell if you’re feigning interest in them or me.
“I pinned them. Caught some, was given others. I only source ethically.”
“That’s cool,” you say. “Bugs kind of freak me out, but I always thought these were pretty.”
“They’re easier to manage when they’re behind glass, I suppose.”
When you flashed me that wolfish grin, I knew I was in trouble. Your eyes and teeth gleamed in a way I found irresistible. It was all I could do to invite you to my apartment—I could show you the collection I’d been working on, I said, a series of jewel beetles imported from Thailand.
“The process is fascinatingly precise. I think you might like it,” I explained, having no idea what you did or did not like.
“Not even out to drink first?” you teased, and I didn’t know it was a joke until you laughed at the brandy decanter I’d set up on the coffee table that night.
The swell of violin and cello makes me nauseous now. There is a tide rising within me as I oh-so gently unfold the chimaera’s hindwing with my thumb and forefinger. You are drawing absentminded circles on the back of my neck.
I know you want me to forget the insect, so I indulge in the unspoken wish, turn towards you, and loop my arms around your neck. Your smile is smug, holy, and I might as well feel sick with prophecy. Something in my stomach feels hot. Viscous.
I turn up the record and you tip the wine into my mouth. Winter air bites at us through the window. Distantly, as if through a pool of water, I can hear the sounds of traffic. You laugh breezily into my neck.
“Why insects?” you asked one day. I didn’t know what to say—maybe because the world underestimated them, dismissed them as pests or parasites. They deserved better. “Do you see yourself in them?”
“No,” I said. “I see you.”
Insects are brittle little creatures, especially in death, and cannot be pinned before they’re relaxed. There’s something intoxicating about the fine line between fragility and strength. One day I watched your jaw clench and undulate as the tears welled in your eyes but did not spill. Another time I saw the wing of a rhinoceros beetle snap from its stoney shell but not crumble.
Tonight there is a bite of metal to the merlot, a knife pressed against my tongue. I toss my head out the window. Steam crawls out of me like an animal, snow falls like ash. I take the glass and let the rest slide down my throat. A bit of courage never hurt anyone, I think, but I know it’s a lie.
When I pin you down against the floor, you don’t flutter. You stare up instead, jaw and teeth razor-sharp in a smile, eyes glinting like the rusted bronze of a beetle carapace. The wine glass tumbles beside us but does not break—I almost wish it had.
I wanted to feel the thrum of fear and lust in your veins. I wanted you to know that I could be strong, too. I wanted to see you roll on the hardwood, back arching in ecstatic desire. I wanted to feel something between pity and love. I wanted to press my lips against yours so you wouldn’t be as nervous, so you would see that I have my moments of mercy, too.
If you could grant me this small kindness, please. If your lips could at least quiver, please. Your skin is hot to the touch. My fingers wind up your jaw and I half-expect to find needles already laced through your silhouette.
There is a brief moment where I want my thumbs to sink through the soft parts of your flesh. Where I want my nails to tear. I want my teeth to rip. I want to use my body as intended—killing machine, lover, ghost. Hunt, capture, lacerate, maim, mourn.
Your teeth are already grazing my wrist. I hope you don’t see me shudder. But your eyes flick towards mine, and I know you have. It’s so unfair to be known. I don’t want to cry, but the tears already scatter across the wood like damp stars flickering in the light. Don’t look.
“What’s wrong?” you murmur, twisting your fingers into my hair, and you’re gentle, too gentle.
I think of the chimaera birdwing, half-pinned with sliver-thin needles and wax paper. I imagine it loosening itself miraculously from the mount and twirling out the window, finding first a refuge, then a certain death among the frosty city streets. Of course, it was dead long before it was boxed and mailed to me. International, first-class, red ink seeping FRAGILE into the small cardboard bundle. I wonder if the creature can hear in death. If it knows I am pinning you to the ground unspectacularly.
“I can hear you thinking,” you say, sliding your palm up and down the forearm that holds your shoulder against the hardwood. How dare you comfort me like this, I want to say. Instead, I melt into the touch, sagging over you.
“There are so many things I want,” I say. My hair falls into my eyes, and it does not matter. We’ve known each other long enough that you do not need to see my face to feel when the tears are creeping in.
“Tell me,” you say. There is a hint of something in your voice. Exasperation? Craving? Kindness? Anger? I do not know, and it makes me want to dismantle you. I curl my fingers in the fabric of your shirt.
“I don’t know where to start,” I say. I am careful to keep the waver out of my voice. I play with the rhythm of my words like I’m manipulating an insect—I am calculated, I am tender, I am forgiving.
“You want to stop?”
“No.” Of this I am certain. I think the chimaera turns its head towards us. I will have to secure it in the morning. For now, I will let it struggle. It deserves that. “I want—”
Your eyes are sharp and black and relentless. But they are quiet, placable. Prying in the best way.
“First, I want to know you,” I say. “Like you know me.”
And there’s that wolfish smile, all sharp angles and glee. Even as I pin you, I feel like I’m the one who’s trapped under that heavy stare.
“Well,” you say, putting your lips to my wrist. The words play against my pulse. “What do you have so far?”
“You are caring,” I say, gripping you tighter. “You are lonely. You are confusing.”
“You can do better than that.” And your other hand is still twisted in my hair, pulling me towards you. Close, but not close enough.
“You are somehow cruel,” I mumble, and you laugh, tugging me so I fall against your chest. “You are warm.” The words muffle in your sweater. “You are easy to intrigue and impossible to break.”
“Sounds like you know me pretty well.” And you are peppering kisses across my cheeks, down my neck—
“Second,” I say, “I want to touch you.”
“Not like that.” I unwrap my fingers from your sweater and run them up your neck. I let them graze your earlobes. Let them sneak over your cheekbones and trace the hollow of your eye socket.
“What am I, a specimen?” you ask, eyebrow tilting up. There is a lilt to your voice. I smooth my fingers softly against your throat to feel the purr of vowels and vocal chords. I card them through your hair, still rough and damp with the season. I even allow myself a moment to thumb your eyelashes. They are long enough to kiss your skin. Even with my hand this close, your eye does not twitch.
“Why aren’t you nervous?” I ask. “I could press my thumb into your eye, if I wanted.”
“But you don’t want to,” you say, “and you won’t.”
“It would not be hard.” I lower my thumb slowly to your eye. You smile as if daring me, and I can imagine it. The cornea like something between rubber and cartilage, first resisting then bursting against my fingernail. The blood buzzing over my fingers, dripping onto skin and wood, spidering down the drain when I wash them. What I cannot imagine is the sound you would make. Too quickly, I sigh and run my hands back down to your shoulders.
“See,” I say. “You know me better than I know you.”
“And yet you know me better than anyone,” you grin. “Tell me—what else do you want?”
“I want,” I say. A gust of wind carries a swell of snow through the window. It falls over us silently, and I watch a flake melt over the corner of your lip. Vivaldi’s record is still playing somewhere in the room, and I can hardly differentiate the strings from the brass, the percussion from the woodwinds. I am thrumming. I am careening. “I want.”
“Tell me,” you say. I imagine the chimaera perched on your collarbone, wings trembling. How would you still them? Would you use your thumb and forefinger as I do? Or would you use your teeth, sharp and deadly?
“I want,” I say, and the words are stuck in my throat, driven through by pins. I want to sob. Your hands curl around my shoulders.
“What if,” you say, “I tell you what I want? Would that help?”
It’s as if my skin is covered with a layer of the wax paper, wrapping me in an unnatural milky haze. I am silent, but you hear me just fine.
“I want…” you say, tracing my collarbones with the edge of your nails. “Just one thing. I already know you.” This is where you would push me against the mounting board. “I’m already touching you.” This is where you would take the pins, line them up just against my skin, metal-on-flesh, keeping my wings and limbs in place. “But what I really want isn’t any of that.” And I feel your knuckles press against my chest.
“I want,” I say again, a choked half-confession that I myself am not sure I understand. You are both listening and not listening, intent on savoring the waver in my voice or perhaps on pulling me apart. Do you want me behind glass, too? Is that it?
The imaginary chimaera birdwing on your collarbone flaps its wings once, twice. It somehow manages to hang in the air for a moment, still and precise, before dipping into the darkness of the night. I swallow thickly along with the city. The chimaera will not survive. Do not pretend or hope that it will, please.
“I want.” My words are thick, hoarse. Your eyes flit to the window, where only the snow is left. It is okay, I want to say, but I cannot, because it is not. The empty wine glass still lies beside us, and it is broken. How hadn’t I noticed? The glass litters the hardwood, where pins jut up from the floor, holding us down like dried-and-pressed flowers.
When you finally kiss me, the record skips in place, cellos and violins stuttering over a fault in the disc, or perhaps in the needle. It does not matter, not now. Your lips are hungry, and the heat seeps into my mouth, tasting of iron and wine. I imagine the empty socket of your eye. I imagine the shards of the glass beside us splintering into my tongue. I imagine the chimaera birdwing dismantled on the tarmac. More than anything though, I imagine what I want, and I let myself fold against you like the brittle creature I am.
Charlotte Gutzmer is a nonbinary 22-year old undergraduate writer at UW-Eau Claire fascinated with all things magical and bizarre. In their craft, they explore themes of fantasy, identity, environment, and myths—they especially adore creating uncanny worlds that explore obscurity and realms just beyond our reach. Charlotte’s goal is to draw readers into the surreal and to help them realize that it’s okay to face the darkness. It’s often there that we find the most obscure and precious magic.