The light of Increase was unseasonable and green, replete and unstable. It held the city in a waxing fold of pre-rush traffic, every structure a syllable, the sky a heartless effigy above breathing floes of bodies electrical, natural, and shining. An entity fixed and bleeding beneath the pin of the scientist’s glass, the city trembled to life, roaring suddenly, violently in a swelling breath of exhaust, wings of a thousand iron factories illuminated and open, expectant for the flesh that would fill them. Buildings loomed, their beacons lit incessantly and light as Halogen or the Courtship Moon, opened constantly to admit the blood-like flow of workers and customers, prisoners and sages, an unending migration of skin and flesh, the living and the dead.
When the light hit Halogen Noon it thickened, a radiating wash of lemon gelatin that painted houses and shops in perspiration, left bodies restless and twitching like crabs without heads. Sweet and tobacco-filled, the noxious light assailed them: the ferrymen, the travelers, the dirtiest of professions who mined, welded, poured foundations for buildings whose shade they would never enjoy.
Deliberately under Noon light they smoked the paint-filled wreaths of colored tobacco, and the air was filled with blues, cyans, verdigrises and purples, a haze to combat the stinking black of the cigarette-lighter factory towers. They sang a low and thready melody, their tongues thick with unshed saliva and the cancerous sores of the mad or the incarcerated. They sang even as they died under Halogen heat, on sidewalks where none would go.
Yet it was into the flaming torch of Halogen Noon that Iris came, bearing no cover against the light. Deliberately, she veered away from the metallic factories and smoke-plumes. Trains curled around her, great arteries rushing across the street in tunnels stained black by coal. She remembered a one-time casualty on the tracks, a madman rushing against the beacon of the engines, his cries fading beneath the scream of wheels unable to cease against the press of his flesh. She turned away from the clanging arteries then, climbed stairs slimy in heat and coal dust. The dim purple door of the tobacconist’s greeted her across from Gare du Nord, and slipping to the head of an emerging column of newspaper-laden businessmen she entered.
“Four units of marzipan,” she said idly. When the shopkeeper turned to her Iris took the tiny chalk marzipan bag, feeling the flicker of the heavier bag within it, alive with breath unspoken.
“Sugar-water and indirect light for 3 spheres,” he told her in near-silence as she left, swiftly pocketing the money given him in case she changed her mind. But Iris smiled slightly, and ran fingers over the curling paper like embers. She stepped back into the street, holding her quarry between gentle hands.
The city breath intensified in a last trembling heave before Vesperides. In gasps red-skinned factories discharged workers like lovers from their bodies. A hundred thousand figures poured and melted into the streets of the commercial quarter, wallets full as abdomens waiting to expel, to take in, to gorge and vomit and dissect the leavings of each filigree shop-window. They washed through the streets in a mating flight of wings, a horde of masked dancers under the variegated light of the ghettoes. Vesperides clothing was carnal in color: scarlets, bloods, acid greens and blues, indigo mimicking the chitin of a thousand tropical beetles.
The lungs of the city trembled on a tide of tobacco smoke, pan’ta smoke, opium, quama, herefique, anise, all eagerly plied by the green-tongued toxicians in the grottoes, ignored, if not supported, by the dwindling herds of evening militia. Alleys were ovens and resorts for those escaped from the daytime labor gangs, grimy shops for acidic substances cold and burning in their metal pans over the trashcan fires, the green-tinged eyes of addicts and purveyors mixing in a heat that did not fade after the flicker of Halogen extinguished. Clients and keepers held hands in an inseparable bargain of blood and saliva, the money of a thousand transactions burgeoning in a wet-mouthed sonnet as, kiss to kiss, each substance was transferred.
Hallucination manifested divine in the darkness. Her beating heart became the purple glow of lanterns and mosquito candles, her lungs the painful breath of the toxician’s customer, her laugh the cruelty of the keepers as they disposed of their bleeding clients, acid-burned, on the edge of the alley. The magenta goddess opened her hands and extended bony fingers toward Iris as she walked. She opened her mouth, exuding the scream of combustion engines, and took two trembling steps toward the street, her feet a disheveled ox-hoof and a dog’s paw. But Iris turned with a smile, felt the building beneath her and slipped her onyx key, entering the blackness of the hallway as the door slammed.
The fly flickered across Rosselaire’s vision, until she did not know if it was a fly at all, or an eternal scratch on the lenses of her eyes. The air became tepid as bank after bank of lights flickered, and the exhausting sigh of the building beneath her ceased. The lingering heat of Vesperides remained, with its caustic smell and vaporous stickiness, and the darkness hung wasted and breathless, but with the tolling of Nox Bell it regained some of its crisp acuity. Colored lights were strung along the streets, doors opened, and waterlike clouds of green and gossamer smoke rippled gently in a perfume of the sweeter night tobacco.
Quietly, she arranged her hands, her limbs beneath the skin. The flash of fingers and the steel of her joints perplexed her, as they always did at this time in a composite haze of insect and flesh.
She had seen a moving statue in the museum that afternoon, a horse of red metal, hissing steam as it plunged haltingly about the interior, its hooves hopelessly tractionless on the resin floor. Its sinews were iron, its skinless body taught and gleaming. It stared at her with glass eyes discolored, one red, one black, paint and oil streaming like blood from its sockets, and as she had watched the mechanism gave a great and shuddering cry, the foot slipped from its proper joint, and with a popping sound of dislocation the great body tilted forward, careering precariously, before its terrible mass collapsed in the hallway before her.
There had been screams then, and a sudden pull from an unseen source, hands clasping her own to move her into quiet, a room without the mechanical horse, with open windows and light. He had apologized, a thousand times he begged her favor, asked her if he could summon a transport to get her home. She had thanked him gently and said No, she would wait in the gardens, she could find her own way home when the time came. Calmly she had accepted his hand as he led her from the room, his fingers clasping her wrist as though he needed more comfort than she. She had let him go at the entrance, past the disassembled remains of the great horse. He had fled rapidly, leaving the exoskeletal impression of his hands.
Tacitus sounded, its great bell dimming daytime impressions. With a snap the colored lights went out, the banshee-crowds along the evening street corridors evaporated, leaving only the smear of tobacco in the air. The street sounded its last funeral dirge as the iron-paned windows slammed shut, anticipating the invading light of next day.
It was a fly, caught confused, bumbling over glass sheer and invisible as its own wings. Rosselaire opened the window, watched it tumble to the air outside, vanishing.
They met wildly in the corridor, a profusion of skirts and limbs like birds caught inside, frantically fluttering in confusion and panic. No words, a simple shiver of skin overcome, washed sweaty and profuse, spreading everywhere in a rapid devolving of layers and textures. Again they swooped, trying to find an open window, a portal into the known yet forbidden outside. Their hands caught, displacing bones and clothing yet sounding no more than a whisper.
She met the lock, the seedy pulse of iron under her preternaturally summer fingers. Twisting, she pulled dexterously, and the pins turned and clicked like seashells as she sought to open the door.
“They will be finished with marzipan,” Rosselaire said then, ending the spell as quickly as she had begun it. The lock seized, complaining. Iron swelled morosely under her fingers, and she swept lithely with her other hand, catching Rosselaire’s fingers light with hollow bones.
“They are already finished,” she replied, and forced the lock, breaking the moment. With a gentle cry the door relented, and in a surge she pelted through the portal, Rosselaire held delicately under her palms, a shape afraid of fading.
The room rustled. It beheld them with its myriad of wings and compound eyes, and felt their vibrations with a mass of variegated scoping antennae. The room danced on millions of segmented legs, and chattered wing-cases of a thousand gently divergent varieties. The room breathed, and suddenly exhaled in a quivering pulse of bodies borne aloft, and the beetles flew brilliantly through shafts of moonlight from the windows in the ceiling. They scuttled across the floorboards and over each other and flew without pretentiousness to land on Rosselaire’s hair and body.
Rosselaire held, her eyes filling blue, her red hair undulating. Light danced from floor to ceiling, catching the brilliance of an elbow, a chin, a bone, a green or gold burnished carapace. The door swung shut trapping them all within, the flesh and moistening bodies and the thousands of inhuman segments flickering like candles in the light.
“Now,” said Iris, “now are you always mine.”
Iris slept lengthy through the cry of Courtship Bell, and still into the dull grey depression of Lamplight. Quietly, Rosselaire searched for the door’s iron key. She plucked gently-feeding bodies from her skin as she went, replacing them on the wooden floor, gathering her clothes about her as she slipped to the door.
She looked back before bending the key into place. Night hardened the room, and Iris within it, dark limbs and face and paper entrails of bedclothes colorless and drab, the scuttling beetles monochromatic in the dead wash of Moon’s light. Wraithlike, the insects rustled with the opening of the door, but they did not rise, kept silent the secret of her departure.
Morning light grew ponderously, filtered through the windows and barely registered on the ultra-violet analyses of her vision. During the night the surface of her body had grown hard and leathery, and now the faint rustling from beneath her shirt betrayed her, and for a moment she huddled vagabond beneath the remnants of her clothes.
Softly, Rosselaire opened the nearest window in the stairwell, loosening the folds of skirt and blouse as she did so. She perched incongruously, beautifully on the window ledge, and gazed at the desolate street beneath. Back inside, she heard the dull footsteps of Iris’ awakening. In response, she loosened the tight strings of the tunic of her skin and let the flesh, like the cloth above it, breathe away into morning, strands of a forgotten kite held on the tip of a jagged hand.
Effortlessly, she peeled the weight from her face, and felt the golden hair of the mask die to reveal her crown of quivering grey antennae. The faint softness of her abdomen distended, and fully she stood, glistening, and unfolded her wings.