Words with Wings

Isobel De Nooy

A lone fly buzzed against the grimy shopfront window, desperate to escape the musty air. The man behind the counter watched it flying into the glass over and over as he whistled quietly and sipped from a chipped mug of slowly cooling coffee. It was midmorning – the shop had been open for an hour already, and yet the man and the fly were the only living souls in the room.

Well. Except for the books, of course.

The books in the man’s shop were not ordinary. They were something else, they were special. The man could feel them like a phantom limb, lying dormant on their shelves, the very air around them humming with stifled potential. Brown ribbed spines, yellowed pages, gold letters, black letters, silver letters. Letters and words and stories.


Life, collecting dust on sagging shelves, with only a man and an insect for compan

The man smiled forlornly as he gazed at his lonely friends.

A waste. If only…

The bell on the door jingled as it was pushed open tentatively, and a boy poked his mop of curly black hair around the corner.

“Sorry, are you open?”

The man smiled stiffly and nodded as the boy crept into the shop, arms around himself, worn shoes scuffing the dusty, sun-bleached floorboards. The boy made a beeline for the back corner of the room, as far from the wry-faced shopkeeper as he could get. The man almost laughed as he sat back in his chair behind the counter, one eye on the boy and one still on that damned fly.

The boy ran his fingers over the books, touching every battered spine on the shelf in front of him. The shopkeeper knew what that felt like. Soft leather, peeling cardboard, smooth lettering. He’d done the same thing thousands of times before. He wondered if the books spoke to the boy in the same way they spoke to him. Words in lilting voices, pieces of dust sparkling like glitter.

The boy took longer than most to select his book. The man could feel the exact moment when it happened. Spindly fingers came to rest upon a particularly battered spine, the cracked leather like a chasm into the book’s heart. Carefully, the boy tugged it from the crowded shelf, the volumes on either side collapsing with relief at finally having space to breathe.

This was the shopkeeper’s favourite part.

The book slowly fell open in the boy’s hands, the smell of paper and mould mingling in the air before him. The boy began tracing the words with his fingers, marvelling at the language that was so old and yet so perfect, so right.

Any moment now.

The first of the letters began to lift off the page, ink seeping into the boy’s fingertips. Startled, the boy dropped the book, and the man winced at the heavy thunk as it hit the floor.

The boy stared at his blackened hand for a long moment. Hesitantly, he bent down and picked the book up again, holding it closed between two fingers, as if it might bite him. The spine creaked rather crossly as it was gingerly reopened.

As soon as the boy’s fingers returned to the page, letters disappeared from their twodimensional prison and bled into the boy’s skin, faster and faster. As the black ink neared his wrist, it began to swirl and writhe, forming patterns and pictures that were there only for an instant and gone the next.

The boy and the man both watched as, slowly, one of the swirls broke apart from the rest and began to form its own shape.

A body. Legs. Were those…wings?

A butterfly.

Of course. Another bloody butterfly.

The boy’s butterfly fluttered its dainty wings, glowing a silvery violet. Up and up it flew, perching on the boy’s shoulder. No sooner had it landed than another butterfly had taken form out of the ink that now reached his elbow, this one stained a midnight blue.

The shopkeeper watched as, one after the other, the boy was enveloped in a haze of rainbow bodies, wings rustling and humming with energy, with life.

There had been no butterflies for the man, of course. No, the first time he had opened one of the books in this room, his entire body had been crawling with spiders. Since then, he had seen a trove of different insects and arachnids born between these shelves – beetles, crickets, bees, ants – but the butterflies were never far away. They liked people, and people liked them.

As he watched, the man wondered where the butterflies had taken the boy. His body was still there, standing at the back of the shop, blanketed in tiny wings, but the boy’s mind was not governed by banal physical constraints. It could be anywhere, absolutely anywhere, in the world between the musty covers of the book still clutched in his hands, now free of their black stain.

The man remembered the world that his spiders had sucked him into.

A crowded street. People, so many people, jostling for space among the stalls and tents, vendors selling street food and flowers and silken scarves. Spices wafted in the muggy air, mingling with the fragrance of exotic perfumes and the slight odour of sweaty bodies. The man stood still in the sea of sights and smells and sounds, letting them wash over him as–

A sharp intake of breath from the boy at the back of the shop broke the man’s reverie. The butterflies were gone without a trace, and the boy merely stood, minutes ticking past. Finally, he collected himself enough to walk stiffly towards the door of the shop, book clutched protectively to his chest. The man didn’t ask him to pay for it, just waved him out, the smile on his lips small but genuine. As the door swung shut behind the boy whose soul was made of butterflies, a lone fly saw his opportunity and followed him out, buzzing away on the breeze.