Dec. 6, 2021

Episode 16: METAMORPHOSIS

Episode 16: METAMORPHOSIS

Wren takes a road trip. A divorcee spots an odd insect. Conway tries to shake a rock out of his shoe. Featuring the voices of Nathan from Storage Papers (), Jess Syratt from Nowhere, On Air (, and Rae Lundberg of The Night Post (). (CWs, mild...


Wren takes a road trip. A divorcee spots an odd insect. Conway tries to shake a rock out of his shoe.

Featuring the voices of Nathan from Storage Papers (https://thestoragepapers.com), Jess Syratt from Nowhere, On Air (https://nowhereonairpodcast.weebly.com), and Rae Lundberg of The Night Post (https://nightpostpod.com/).

(CWs, mild spoilers: LOTS of insects, body horror, fire, car braking sound)

Transcript incoming, here's the rough script for now, which mostly follows the episode.

“Now let’s get to the weird stuff…”

WREN: We humans generally like stability. Predictability. We like to figure out patterns and stick with them. I think that’s why change can be so frightening for us. It throws the future--which once seemed so certain--into chaos. Anything could happen. We could be on the verge of destruction at any moment. But we could also be inches away from utopia. If you can learn to live with this change, this constantly revolting present, you just might make it out of the apocalypse with your sanity intact.

Or so that’s what I hoped. I had little else to count on. I tried to flow like water with the shifting tide. You can be the judge of how that all turned out. That’s why you’re here, right?

Pockets of shadows remained in the cave, about a dozen or so people, seemingly oblivious to the life outside. They toiled under The Boss’s directives, worked day and night for the Dead Letter Office. To what end, I couldn’t really say. Seemingly just to perpetuate the office itself. If I could show them the way out, maybe they would help me take on the Boss. One shadow, Liz, was receptive to my offer. She still had some kick left in her diminished form. Her girlfriend, though, was blind to the world, just a single atom in the bureaucratic monolith.

In Liz, I had someone on the inside. If she could go back and agitate from within the machine, we might stand a chance of turning a few more souls back to the light. It would be risky, though; if even one shade suspected outside forces were at work, they might alert the Boss. Even given all my experience with the paranormal and extranormal, I have no idea what would happen then. My gut feeling told me that facing the Boss prematurely would be...ill-advised.

If I wanted to find more of these shadows, I’d need to search through the dead mail, find the stories that might have caught Conway’s attention, and seek out their writers. The problem was that I had just walked out of my job, and I had a suspicion that if I showed back up unannounced, the Boss would take notice. Where, then, would I find these letters if not the office?

I’d need to find the place that Conway kept all of the clues. I’d need to find Aisling. I’d need to find the vault. Would anything be left in the old vault, or had the Boss already figured out my plan and purged it? Only one way to find out.

Yes, change can be terrifying. Yes, the future is in flux. But the scariest part is that the past can be made just as uncertain as the future. Memories fade, records burn, and witnesses pass on. Entire decades lost, cultures lost. Lessons unlearned. Mistakes repeated. If a place loses its history, how can its people know the present? Without a past, how can we make sense of the future? As a butterfly forgetting it was once a worm, who are we without who we were?

Driving through the clogged artery highways of the state was a challenge, given that time appeared to be at a standstill for most of the world.

If all the postcards and letters were to be believed, I was looking for a lakeside town. Somewhere along the Erie was a town full of shadows, a place haunted by its own history. And within that town was a lighthouse. This lighthouse was my metaphorical beacon. I kept the postcard printed with its image folded and tucked into my pocket. It was among the few items I took with me on this road trip: a cassette player with some of Conway’s old tapes and a furry little friend also jostled around in a cardboard box on the passenger seat. I couldn’t just leave the poor thing in the office after all we’d seen.

The morning air was silent and stiff, only the sound of my rumbling engine accompanied the pink rays glancing off rows of glass and steel. I turned the stereo’s knob, but the radio was entirely dead air. I loaded up one of the tapes to see if it would be of any help.

The enormous hand still hung overhead like the executioner’s ax. What was our crime, Conway? What did we let ourselves forget?

*on tape* OLD INTRO MUSIC

This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of Aisling, Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public.

Dead letter 11919. An SD card found in a condemned building. The house caught fire in fall of 2011, but card was mysteriously undamaged. The fire department contacted one of our carriers, who brought it back to the office for investigation. The contents of the SD card are as follows.

*off tape

A month after my divorce I took up photography. Call it a midlife crisis if you want. I needed something to keep my mind occupied now that I was perpetually alone again, and a camera is a hell of a lot cheaper than a sports car. Photography’s really for lonely hearts; you’re by yourself, but surrounded by people. You watch them through the lens, feed on their fleeting touches. I threw myself into it fully without thinking too much, like I do with just about everything. Like I did with her.

Three months after the divorce, I went to the butterfly house. To see things so wet and new enter the world, so hopeful, was healthier projecting my turmoil onto the world around me. The insects’ colorful wings rendered through the lens like stained glass, and there was so much variety. I started shooting at the conservatory whenever I could, and gleaned a lot about butterflies in the process.

Monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus, migrate long distances, from the great lakes to the gulf, then come back again when the weather warms up. How they remember the path back home, no one’s quite sure. Almost romantic. On the other end of the spectrum, some moths only live for a week. Actias luna don’t eat anything during their brief week of existence, because they can’t: their mouths are vestigial. Instead, they rely on what they ate in their larval state to sustain them throughout their lives. They eat, change, mate, and die. Also kind of romantic. In a sense.

Six months after the divorce is when I saw it. The reason for this video.

I was kneeling in front of a coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, waiting for one of the little powdery things to alight on a petal. A kid running through the conservatory was scaring off most of my subjects, but I could be patient. What else did I have going on in my life? My friends were mostly married and mostly busy, my family...well, I’d rather not go there. So I waited. Crouched, holding the hefty camera, lens focused, my mind was sharp but my body was getting stiff. I was about to call the day a wash when something interesting came into view.

A large butterfly landed on the purple flower. Its folded wings were pure ashy black, and it looked sharper than the objects around it. This one had a sort of presence, a portentous aura, as if the events of the world waited on every flap of its wing.

In my time here, I’d never seen anything like it. It held my attention in a vice, like it wasn’t a bug at all, but a treacherous cinder in a pile of dry leaves. Like it demanded a watchful eye, else the ember might be stirred by a breeze to glow again and burn and burn.

I snapped a few photos of its dusky form. Then it turned, its back now facing the camera, and spread its wings. There smudged across its span were three bars of color: white over red over brown on black. Like three chalky rectangles floating in the void. The thing that worried me most about this creature was that it was somehow familiar, like somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind I had seen this before. But not on a butterfly, no, it had to be something else.

Six years ago, we drove up to canada in a cheap rental car. We threaded a trail up and east, across the Erie border, into the marigold hills of pennsylvania, through the vineyards and thin eastern pines of new york, up across the border.

We were spending a long weekend in Toronto, taking in the sights and sounds of a real city, a place where public transportation isn’t just a pipe dream. We bought fresh pears from a bodega in and took the metro across the river. We walked through the financial district and saw a seagull pick at fries in a discarded styrofoam container.

I say we. I can see the places in my mind, remember the sounds and smells, but she’s not really there in my memory anymore. My mind erased her from the picture, but the empty space she occupied is still there. Like a citation to a book that doesn’t exist, an overexposed blob on a film negative haunting every frame.

This was our last trip together, not that we knew that at the time. We were both worn out, a wordless static swelling between us. Radios tuned to different stations. We were growing apart, but neither of us wanted to admit it. That would be too brave. Easier to let it wither away until it’s a dry husk of what it once was. We had exhausted just about every other method of holding this thing together, so in a mocking reflection of our first date, we went to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

We casually wound through the hallways going through the motions, pointing out something interesting here, gently nodding there. In a dark room near the end, among the abstract expressionists, was that pattern I had seen before. A Rothko, white and red something, on display. It shook me more than I had anticipated that day. Something about the frankness of it. There was no obfuscation, no dalliance. It just was. I knew then that we had to split, come what may.

The camera fell from my eye as my arm went limp. This couldn’t possibly be the same pattern I’d seen six years ago. I must have been remembering the painting wrong. Or maybe some sicko had meticulously painted its wings. A cruel obsession. But the nausea welling inside me told me that I was flailing for a rational explanation for the irrational. That to know the thing was to unknow all else. That I was throwing darts at the tide. Putting a leash on an acorn. Crying over spooled milk.

I pulled myself from my stupor and shot a few pictures of its outstretched wings before it flew off. I showed the photos to the head of the butterfly house, almost just to reassure myself that I hadn’t imagined it. He had no idea where it had come from or what it was, but he did see the pattern, too. He guessed it was a rare genetic mutation occurring in a more common variety of butterfly. He went with me to look for it, but we didn’t find a trace of it in the conservatory.

Once I got home, I searched for the painting. There it was, Mark Rothko’s No.1, White and Red from 1962. It was identical to the pattern on the butterfly’s wings.There had to be some kind of connection between the bug and the painting, but even after hours of research, I just wasn’t seeing it. Eventually, like anything else, the novelty of that day wore off and I went back to my usual routines as if it had never happened.

One afternoon weeks later I stepped out of the humid greenhouse into the glaring september sun. The courtyard was hot and white. Sweat was dripping down my forehead, rolling into my eyes and stinging my vision. I squinted against the salt and light, and in my periphery saw a bird eating its dinner under an oak tree. A blackbird, large iridescent green-black, a white streak dripping down one wing. I rubbed my eyes to clear the sweat. The bird had something sticking out of its mouth: its poor prey hadn’t been completely devoured yet. Poking out of the black beak was a butterfly. It didn’t look like one from the conservatory, though. I took out my camera and zoomed in on the bird. The wing dangling from its mouth had a stunning pattern. Swirling blues and whites, tangerine globes and black spires. Before I could even register what I was seeing, the bird took off into the thick air.

That sickening deja vu hit me again, but this time I didn’t need to look it up to know what it was.

Eight years back on our trip to New York we explored the Museum of Modern Art. It was the first household-name-famous painting I’d seen in person. Not as big as I expected, but stunning nonetheless. Van Gogh. Starry Night.

I ran through the conservatory and out the door, tracking the blackbird as best I could. Jogging with my camera and bag wasn’t ideal. By the time the bird landed, I was red and puffing hard.

The shining bird with the dripping wing had landed on a branch next to a shuttered house. The surrounding houses were also condemned, and this one seemed to be in the worst condition of the bunch.

The white paint on the doorframe was peeling, revealing the wood grain underneath in stripes like the teeth of a great beast. The shutters were drooping eyelids, hanging crooked from their hinges. The windows were dusty and glazed over with cataract grime, those that weren’t shattered anyway. It was falling apart, a relic leftover from a more prosperous time, but it had an austere dignity that so many ancient and forgotten things do.

The tree next to the slouching old shack had crashed through the roof at one point. There the blackbird perched, inviting me into its home.

The door creaked open with a push, and the smell of wet wood and rotting fabric flushed out and spread over the brown lawn. Vines and mold reached in equal measure up the splotchy walls. Sunlight falling in through the hole in the ceiling stepped lightly down the stairs and caught dust in its place. An offwhite couch sat mouldering in one corner of the den, a table with a broken leg had years ago spilled its contents onto the floor. Green tendrils wrapped around lamp cords and stretched across rooms. A gentle drip in the stained kitchen sink rang out through the silent house.

And all across the ceiling through the house hung little crystalline pods. Hundreds of cocoons dangling from the stucco, from fan blades, from mounted pots and pans and light fixtures. A few butterflies were already emerging, casting aside their comfortable skin to face the new. These cocoons continued up the stairway and onto the ceiling of the second floor.

I crept up the uneven stairs, testing each one with a press of my foot just in case the whole thing was about to collapse. More chrysalis dotted the ceilings here, and so too did the pudgy little bugs that make them, inching their way across the abandoned home. Some bright and colorful, some drab and fuzzy, the caterpillars had moved into this space that people no longer wanted.

The hole in the ceiling up there had been worse than it looked from the outside. A section of the wall had been caved in as the tree grew through it. Its boughs outstretched along the broken wall as if cleaving it open, a large ovular hole in the trunk  nearby slack like a hungry maw. Living branches and leaves intertwined with the dead lumber planks and leaden drywall. Caterpillars nibbled at the corners of the vibrant green foliage fanning out across what was once a bedroom, crawled up and down the bedposts and nightstand. I shudder to think what might have been festering under the mildewy comforter. The tiny creatures here covered nearly every interior surface after the mold and water damage had taken their parcels. A faint hum reverberated from somewhere within its walls.

Now that I had taken in the place, I could start examining the insects themselves. The caterpillars were mostly typical: short, rotund, many brightly colored like little tubes of acrylic paint, but they were hardly exceptional. They went about their business with a casual disinterest in my presence in their reclaimed home.

The butterflies, on the other hand, were illogical, inconceivable, exquisite.

Every lepidoptera had painted wings. Gently fluttering clouds, each point engraved with some classic or another; a monet here, a frankenthaler there. My mind reeled at the implications that this suggested. Did we influence them somehow, affect them to grow with these patterns? Or were our artistic hands subtly moved by some unseen force to create these great works? That’s what a lot of the ancients thought. Certain gods and muses could be literal in their influence. Divine inspiration.

On the other hand, what if there was an outside force affecting us, but it wasn’t helping us? What if it was indifferent to us, like the rest of the universe? Or actively malevolent? What if it wanted to reclaim the land from us, like the insects had taken this home?

I knew that if I thought too much about the big questions of the universe I’d lose myself, forget I’m a person and feel that cosmic unreality in the pit of my stomach. It struck me as odd that other people could perceive me. Odd that I existed at all.

I knew I should go home, but I couldn’t leave for fear that it might vanish just as quickly as it had popped into my life. I briskly walked to the truckstop up the highway to grab snacks, drinks, and a travel blanket. I was going to stay and document what I saw for as long as I could.

The insects in this house behaved quite differently from the ones outside. For one, they rarely traveled beyond the yard. The overgrown lawns dotted with wildflowers and tall grasses surrounding the place provided all that they needed. They also seemed to function as a unit, like a school of fish: when one moved, many moved in a cascading wave.

The artwork on their backs spanned ages. I saw greek pottery imprinted on their wings, the birth of venus, carvaggio’s light and shadow. Many of the works I recognized, some I didn’t. Who knows how many photos I took of the butterfly with the Last Supper on its back.

It must have been weeks that I slept on the dusty floor with a thin blanket and my camera bag as a pillow. The excitement and wonder kept me in place. I subsisted on empty gas station calories and sugary soda. The wrappers and empty bottles started radiating around me in a ritualistic circle as time wore on beyond my knowledge. My skin grew pale and oily, my hair matted, but I hardly noticed. I ate, observed, and very rarely slept.

I was so enthralled I had hardly noticed the change. The recent hatchlings had been trending toward modern art: no longer DaVinci’s and Gentileschi’s, the butterflies flitted about with more post-industrial design on their wings, Mondrian’s squares, Picasso’s blue period. The hum within the house had grown as well, but I hardly took notice at the time.

Then came the seismic shift. I was feeling weak, lightheaded and nearly delirious, when I saw a horse and rider mid-gait painted on an eggshell white body. No, not painted, I realized after some inspection. Photographed. Days passed and more butterflies emerged with film on their backs: images of war, recreation, winston churchill and che guavara.

The hum was loud enough now that I couldn’t ignore it. My head was pulsing and the noise was only exacerbating it. I needed to get out for a minute of fresh air.

I walked the abandoned neighborhood, then beyond into the former arts district. The stars were crystals hanging in deep blue velvet overhead. The streets were empty and still. I crossed the old craft store and paused to look in the window. I felt an irresistible compulsion to paint. But I had no money left after abandoning my job for weeks. I tore a section of my greasy shirt and wrapped it around my fist. The window shattered more easily than I’d expected.

I absconded back to my hideaway with tubes of oil paints, turpentine, brushes and rags, canvas.

Wading through the trash filling up my own little cocoon, I began to paint. I started on the canvas, but soon found it confining. My paint spilled off the page and onto the walls, the floors, the ceilings, the trash. I couldn’t say how long I painted. I never grew tired or hungry. I didn’t need or want. I was in the flow. I simply was.

The house was only so large, though. Two floors entirely covered in paint, dirty rags scattered about and turpentine dripping down the stairs, and yet I wasn’t satisfied. I’d have to make something else my canvas.

I started on my free hand, red and purple spots along my fingers, then green up my arm. Black along the torso, white stripes near ribs. I stripped off my remaining clothes that got in the way of my brush. Blue around my eyes, yellow bands across my head.

Once I was entirely encased in paint, I felt my mind relax, deflating like air let out of a balloon. I grew aware of my surroundings again. The hum had grown so loud it was shaking the remaining furniture in the bedroom. I had been so preoccupied with the transformation of the creatures that I hadn’t even noticed where they were actually coming from: caterpillars were pouring out of the hole in the encroaching tree. Swaths of crawling, squirming bugs spilled from the crooked mouth of bark and writhed in the dark room.

On the wall opposite the tree, butterflies gathered. They stationed themselves in a square on the white paint. They flapped their wings and moved in unison. This patch of living color formed a pointilist image of her face. An image I had taken. My own photograph of my former wife. The insectoid screen undulated and shifted, forming new images in succession like a flipbook, each one displaying a moment from my past that I had captured. New York, Toronto, chopping vegetables, hiking through shale caves, the first snowfall of our last year together.

I could feel the change curling inside me. Was I destined to take these photos, to mirror the natural patterns of the world? Or were these insects somehow directed to grow in accordance with my life? The swirling thoughts surged forth in waves of vertigo. My brain was swelling, pushing up against my skull.

I smelled smoke from the stairway, acrid chemical flame and burning cloth. Flames of every color rose and licked at the blackened walls, dancing and fluttering. Thick smog was filling the room. I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled to the only place that seemed safe, into the buzzing tree. I nestled down into the bark as far as I could, only the top of my head peering out through the opening. I felt my new brethren creeping and slinking in the darkness all around me.

I set up my camera and recorded this testimony with the last of its battery.

Oh my stomach is pulsing, moving, as if something is crawling inside. I can feel it bubbling up like gold from deep within. My back is splitting with wet folded wings. The photographs on their wings flip faster and faster until it’s a moving image, a film, streaming through the striations of black smoke. I can’t stifle my laughter as I see my life playing out before me on the living screen. Loud full body spasms. How else can you react to the absurdity of life laid bare so bluntly before you?

If a caterpillar can become a butterfly, what might I look like after my metamorphosis? What glory might humanity ascend to in its next phase? I envy you, because if you’re watching this, you know.

We’re ready to reclaim what you have taken. I am hatching. I am ascending on painted wings ablaze. But I am not in pain. I am beautiful.

CONWAY ON TAPE:  Well, I...I’m gonna need a minute.

CLICK

***

CONWAY: Nothing stays the same, no matter how hard we try. Something somewhere is always changing, like the water to vapor. Hell, even electrons are always moving around, can’t quite pin ‘em down. The changes inside are the hardest to spot, though. And you’re usually the last one to notice you’ve changed. You’re you, after all.

As I slipped my influence into every corner of this state, I could barely recall most of my life, such as it was. Didn't miss my body all that much either, never really felt like I fit in it anyway. But for a moment, I felt a bit nostalgic for my old job.

This nostalgia is a warning sign that something isn’t what it once was, that some part of you is no longer there. I hadn’t seen the cracks forming yet. I was still intoxicated with my new position. There was a rock in my metaphorical shoe, though. A lingering thought I just couldn’t shake, even with all this.

It started with the phone call from the fisherman. “You’re not real.” What the hell was that all about? Of course I’m real. “I think therefore” and all that. I’m the Boss. I’ve got buildings full of people who listen to me. Doesn’t get much realer than that.

But there was that itch somewhere in the vast and ever expanding recesses of my consciousness I couldn’t quite scratch. I felt like I was forgetting something, or like I was about to remember something big.

“How’s Lucy?”

***

Outro--interrupted

*brakes screech*

I fell asleep at the wheel and woke up at the bottom of an off-ramp. With no one else around and nothing to distract me, I dozed off. Just for a second. I’m not proud of it, but it’s the truth. I caught myself quickly enough that I somehow managed to avoid smashing into any of the parked--well “parked”--cars on the highway. I was at a stop sign, and ahead of me was a one-lane country road. I couldn’t see anyone in either direction for as far as my eyesight allowed. But below the stop sign was a bright green plaque, emblazoned with a path to what I’d been looking for:

AISLING - FIVE MILES.

Conway, here I come.

***

LIZ: Is anyone here?

*muffled response*

LIZ: Hello? I know you’re around somewhere.

LIZ: Hey. Hey!...hmmm...hail and well met, shadow, I mean you no harm. *under her breath* “Hail and well met”? Jesus, what’s wrong with me.

SHADOW: *anxious* What was that?

LIZ: I’m Liz, who the hell are you?

SHADOW: *slowly, with effort* I...I don’t know. It’s hard to think. I’m...where am I? What am I?

LIZ: I know, I totally felt the same. Just take a minute. Relax. I’m a friend.

SHADOW: I can’t feel my...anything.

LIZ: Yup, that’ll happen. Corporeality’s kinda messed up here. So it goes. If you focus really hard, you might be able to keep yourself solid. See?

SHADOW: I’m dreaming. This isn’t real...I must still be asleep.

LIZ: Sure, you sort of are. Anyway, what do you say we get out of here? See your friends again.

SHADOW: But...wait, I remember something. I can’t go yet. The Head Office. The Board Room. There’s...there’s something there. It’s...oh god. The tower. We can’t just leave it there.

LIZ: Board Room? Can you show me?

SHADOW: I think I can lead us there. But...

LIZ, to WREN: Wren, this could be big. Could be a whole lot of shadows there for us to recruit. I’m going in. Good luck out there.