n the freezing dark of our first winter together our wings solidify and grow. The fragile tissue-paper transparency thickens and turns rubbery, making us slow and awkward. Making our movements as sticky and uncertain as glue. During this first phase of new growth we are crepuscular. We exist in between dark and light. We sleep in heavy, deathlike trances and only venture outside during the gloaming or when the moon is full. In the beginning, I am sedated in order to keep from leaving the school. I gnash my teeth between wing-growing spasms. I hold myself separate from the rest of the girls.
Rani is our teacher and our surrogate mother away from home. She does her best to make us comfortable while we undergo our transformations. The dim warmth of the boarding house cocoons us against the frozen Himalayan winter. The air is perfumed with smoky incense haze, and piles of grouse-down pillows litter the polished floors in case we are stricken with exhaustion walking to and from the common area and our shared bedrooms. We suffer growing pains and homesickness in synchronized waves. We sleep in identical quilt covered beds. Delicate wing buds unfold from our shoulders while the mountains creak and groan outside the walls that contain our new selves. The wind dusts the rooftop with the music of falling stars and snowflakes.
In the beginning there are seven of us. However, while we are still drowsy with change and slow with transformation, the most disoriented moth girl wanders off and disappears into a blizzard. Rani assures us that she has likely been taken in by friendly Sherpas, but all of us secretly suspect the paralysis of sudden avalanches or the deadly silence of prowling snow leopards. Becoming a moth girl is fraught with its own new brands of unaccustomed peril. Danger lurks at every twist and turn. Rani paces our development. We huddle together in timid, knock-kneed, weak-winged groups.
To pass the time, we learn celestial navigation by candlelight. We chart and explore the dim boarding house, bumping into things and misgauging distances. Many of us bruise. Some of us scar. For the longest time we are so easily bent and dented that it is hard to imagine anything else. And then, almost overnight our new appendages become strong and supple and covered in a soft fur. The group mentality fractures as the corners of Rani’s house collect piles of glowing, moon-white moth dander. No matter how we try to groom ourselves it embarrasses us all.
“I know this is yours, Gurdeep,” Rani says, toeing a coppery-colored fluff ball towards me. She smiles like she is making a joke out of it. As if to say: molting is something that unites us all together.
It does no such thing. Rani’s smile doesn’t dull the savage scorn of the other moth girls. They avert their eyes. They want no part of my personal disgrace. My face prickles with humiliation. I pick my wing lint up quickly and stuff it down into my pocket. The first molting is always the worst. Fur and hormones all over the place. This is what Rani tells us anyway.
“Relax,” she says. She touches my shoulder so close to my new wings that I jump. “Be proud of it. It is part of you now. It sets you apart and makes you an individual. Embrace it.”
Her outpouring of motherly moth-woman advice makes the other girls giggle and ensures that I will be teased for the rest of the day.
“Embrace yourself, Gurdeep,” Shobha says with a snicker. “No one else ever will.”
Shobha has quick become the bully of our pack. She elbows Pomegranate in the ribs and they both crease forward into wild laughter. I could point out the several wisp tufts of silver-green that float down to the floor from their movements, but I don’t. I am too much of a lady.
As a group, our wings firm into strong, lightweight, whiskered propellers. They purr and vibrate against our spines. By the time the sun rears up over the ice fields in early spring, we are different creatures entirely. Shobha no longer looks like herself. She is truly terrifying. Her hair has been bleached white by the thin Himalayan nights. Her skin glows. Her black eyes glitter. Pomegranate is frosting pink and magenta where she used to be an awkward ginger color. Now her tangled curls are a sugary shock of color that is obscene against the frozen landscape. She exudes a terrible wanton-ness that worries Rani and awes the rest of us. The Sherpas follow her around like hypnotized animals.
The other girls have made similar transformations. Daya and Deva, twin sisters who speak to each other in serpentine whispers, have become icy, mountain wraiths. Their hair coils out from their cold faces in frozen corkscrews. Their fingers and toes are pale purple. They smell like the sky and eat popsicles made of marmalade. Candle is less terrifying than the others. Her eyes have turned the color of honey. Her wings drip with the sticky shade. She is a distant cousin of Rani’s, which makes her act superior to the rest of us, and she is quick to rat us out for any minor moth girl infractions we might commit. She spends the days gazing at herself in a mirror above her bed and only comes outside for the required flight training regiments.
I can only imagine that I have changed into something in some way similar to the others. I try hard not to glimpse my own reflection in the frosted glass of the windows. I am terrified at meeting an unfamiliar face. I am the only one of us who is having some heartsickness over losing my former self. The others shiver and shine with winged sky greed. They shriek like frozen mountain banshees.
“Yip! Yip! Yip!”
The hills echo with this sound. Voices of moth-girls bounce off the glaciers and crack the clear ice near the edge of the stream. We are practicing wind-running today. There are icy swells running down off the snow caps and rippling the air in giant blasts that gasp for the sea. Our wings spread out from their cramped crouches to taste the evergreen breath of the mountains. Our feet pound the ice and snow trying to keep up, combining ancient rhythms with familiar ones. Rani has forbidden us to be completely airborne yet. We are still in the fledgling stage.
“There is nothing worse than premature flight,” she tells us. There is such vehemence in her voice when she says this that we all believe her. Even Shobha follows directions with a discreet roll of her eyes.
Contrary to popular belief, flying is not something that comes naturally as soon as you have wings. It takes lots of practice before you attempt the real deal. Throughout the winter we studied aeronautics and memorized stellar navigation co-ordinates. Now Rani leads us in simulated flight patterns. We buzz beneath the frozen sun, our feet trilling across the ground, the wind filling our heads with false freedoms and frozen promises. The other girls practice restraint to keep from taking off. Me, I am quite the opposite. I don’t like heights. I hate the altitude. The air up here is so thin it makes me dizzy.
My sky-bound destiny keeps me awake most nights and torments me throughout the day. I never run out of things to worry about. There are all kinds of dangers to real flight: downdrafts, blizzards, frostbite, disorientation, snow blindness, and wing freeze. I click them off in my head like a recording as I run. It causes my feet to stick to the ground. It makes my breath wheeze and sputter. I carry onions in both pockets for moments like these. The fleshy aroma restores my equilibrium and replaces the ground beneath my feet. It is an old trick. One that Rani told me about. I try to draw on the strength of ancient moth girls who may have been more like myself. Girls who relied upon totems to channel the solid strength of the earth.
“Gurdeep is holding us back,” Shobha says when we stop for a break. She is panting lightly. She very nearly touched a cloud. Tendrils of it are impaled on her icicle spike hair. As soon as she points this out, six pairs of glowing, slanted eyes turn towards me. I drop the onion that I’m holding up to my nose. The rest of the group looks disgusted.
“Some people don’t deserve wings,” Pomegranate mutters.
“Some people didn’t ask for wings,” I say in my own defense, but it falls on deaf ears. The girls turn away from me as a group and move off again. I huddle close to myself and pick my onion up out of the snow.
Most of the girls are from around here. Shobha was born on a nearby mountain. Pomegranate was raised in a grey city that curves alongside the Ganges River. Daya and Deva are from Kathmandu. Even Candle grew up among ice and snow. They have spent their lives preparing for the moment they would grow wings and receive their training.
I am different. I was born in the Sundarbans. The ocean forest. I was raised among the salted roots of the mangroves and the gentle swells of the sea. My mother fled these mountains when she was my age. The only part of the story that I know is the shape of the cauterized scars on her back. Wingless, she delivered me into a world that was hot, and poisonous, and slow. Back home I know how to watch out for the strong jaws of the water monitor, the low growl of a hungry Bengalese tiger, or the knobby hide of a crocodile’s back. These are threats that announce themselves in their every movement and appearance. Here everything that is beautiful is dangerous. I toe my way along miniscule fissures in crystal pure glacial ice like I am walking a tightrope of hot flames and certain death.
About the time that the rest of the girls booby trap my flight pack with a rotten banana, demagnetize my compass, and shave patches of fur off of my wings while I am sleeping, Rani pulls me aside for a chat.
“Listen Gurdeep,” she says, her smooth skin furrowed with concern. “I know you are not adjusting here. Tell me if there is anything that I can do to help you along and I will do it. I hate to see any of my girls having such a tough time.”
“Send me home,” I tell her. Home is where I belong. I miss the memory of my mother. “I’m done molting now. The worst of it is over, right? I don’t even want to fly. Please let me go home.”
I can see by the tears swelling behind the polished black of her pupils that this is not going to happen.
“You belong here,” she says. “Moth girls belong to the snow cold moon. They belong to the ice and the sky. It is a part of your destiny.”
“My mother left,” I say.
Rani is the same age as my mother. They were in flight school together when they were girls. My mother didn’t tell me much about those days, but she spoke of Rani as a friend. I try to picture Rani as a young girl rather than my teacher but I can’t.
“Your mother tried to escape her place in the world,” she says. “It never works that way. Moth girls belong to the mountains.”
I feel the mangrove forests receding from me as she says this. I feel my mother becoming farther and farther away. The heat that has swirled beneath my skin all this time suddenly evaporates. My veins turn to threads of icy tinsel. Rani’s face is sad but impassive. She touches my wings and then touches her own.
“This is your new family. This is your new home.”
I refuse to accept her words. Instead I keep watch for some kind of way out of here.
omegranate is having a lusty affair with a Sherpa. This is strictly forbidden. Moth girls are to stay celibate for the duration of flight school. Rani says that our new identities are too fragile. Our concentration is too important for carnal distractions. The Sherpas pose a constant threat with their sinewy climbing muscles and almond shaped eyes. They watch us with something akin to reverence. They build our landing platforms. They mark the white mountain tops with flight pattern flags. They call us the Astomi. The Apple smellers. They believe we are an ancient race of mythological monsters rather than a pack of adolescent winged girls.
Pomegranate’s Sherpa is from the village of Pangboche. Whenever he visits, the frosted air fills with the scent of old mysteries and conifers. He looks at Pomegranate as if she is a goddess or a beast. Enraptured. She becomes bigger than the horizon.
“Ang says I am more beautiful than the sun,” she brags as she combs out her curls before supper.
The other girls hang on her every word with a combination of envy and anger. We would all like a Sherpa, but we don’t dare face Rani’s wrath. Her disappointment is terrible.
“Moth girls don’t need mountain climbing men,” she is fond of saying. “For what? Soon you will be able to fly on your own. Don’t make ties to the ground. You have bigger things in store for your lives.”
Rani has a bum wing. That’s how she got stuck here with us rather than becoming the queen of her own mountain range somewhere. She makes a wonderful teacher, but the look in her eyes as our feet begin to lift off the ground is more painful then windburn. I recognize this look. It is in my memories of the Sundarbans. I fantasize scenarios where I yank off my own wings and hand them to her. She stitches them to her back and flies me home. In my fantasies Rani flies like she is made of fire. She swoops and dives and glides and somersaults before returning me to my marshes. My mother is waiting at the edge of the ocean forest surrounded by hog deer and smiling crocodiles.
But this is only a dream.
“Come on, Gurdeep,” Rani says after a particularly grueling flight practice. “Why are you so stuck to the ground?”
“I am a hog deer,” I tell her.
She gives me a questioning look. There are no hog deer in the Himalayas. There are only snow leopards and the occasional wandering yak.
“They are little things that bark and run like heavy pigs,” I tell her. “They duck under branches and high roots rather than soaring over them like other deer.”
“There are no hog deer here,” she says.
It is just as I suspected.
No one will save me. I know I have to hatch my own plan. I decide to go after Pomegranate’s Sherpa.
n order to talk to Ang I have to catch him away from Rani and from the rest of the girls. I don’t relish the thought of Pomegranate’s rage if she discovers I am trying to steal her man. I tell myself that it is only for survival’s sake. I don’t acknowledge the petty thrill that the idea gives me.
The Sherpas camp together in a clearing of snow-covered huts. They are the only men who can breathe the air this high in the mountains. Over many generations, their bodies have adapted to the altitude. They are a funny mix of mountains and ground. They speak in old languages peppered with new. They wear traditional woolen bakhus and bright colored thermal jackets. They worship us. We are a part of their mountain religion.
Ang moves apart from the other men. His bakhu is somber and he wears an embroidered cap lined with yak fur. While the other sherpas are keeping warm in huddled groups around fire pits with mugs of chang and instant coffee, Ang prays alone at a makeshift gompa. I don’t know what he prays for because I am always watching him from behind large snowdrifts. I know his prayers make my wings flutter.
After weeks of covert spying with no results, finally I decide to fake an illness in order to be left alone in the boarding house. Rani takes the other girls out on an all day flight expedition and they leave me behind after I pretend to have cramped wings. Shobha and Pomegranate are particularly delighted.
“Try not to bore yourself to death while we are gone,” Pomegranate says.
It takes away any guilt that I am feeling.
After they leave I strut around the empty boarding house, rifling through the other girls’ belongings and speaking to myself in confident tones.
“I am a temptress. I am a mountain goddess.”
I force myself over to the mirror by Candle’s bed. I prepare myself for a shock. I hold my breath, still my thoughts, and look square in the face of it.
I have changed.
Black eyes and black hair. Eyebrows like arrows. Skin the color of salted mangroves. My wings are spotted ochre. They shimmer in the faded sunlight, dusting the air with miniature prisms.
I think of the hog deer to regain my composure. They are unflappable and small and strong. I pull an onion out of my pocket and sniff greedily. I have no more baby face, only a wild sorrowful look. Like a marsh witch or a hunted animal. I pull Candle’s makeup palette out from under her bed and with a steady hand I draw exotic shades of experience and mystery on my face?
The Conclusion of “Thinking Like a Hog Deer in the Himalayas”
will appear this Wednesday, January 25th.
* * * * *
Kimberly Lojewski is an MFA candidate in UMass Amherst’s Poets and Writers Program. She has her MA in English from Florida Gulf Coast University, and comes from the swampy parts of Florida, where whippoorwills sing and alligators crossings are commonplace. She has been published in Mangrove Review, PANK, Aesthetica Creative Works, and has work forthcoming in Gargoyle, TOAD, and Blood Lotus. She is also the founder and Editor in Chief of Belletrist Coterie, a new Literature, Arts, and Culture magazine that focuses primarily on storytelling through different artistic mediums.This is her first contribution to Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure.