Cocoon
by M.P. Rosalia

2,772 words

We do not know what produces the silk. It is carried in by those who surface, in their full-body protective suits, silent, faces obscured by gas masks before they return to the night.

         

The heat and the radiation during the day are enough to bleach away any living thing exposed there, but we who spin and dye and sew are safe within the caverns underneath.

         

If there is nothing living on the surface, comes the whisper through the Thread, the devices secured to our temples, what is making the silk?

         

The Thread bonds us in silence, to minimize the vibrations that echo through the dirt and might call burrowing predators to us. Through it, Mother teaches us our craft.

The silk glows a pale, ghostly green until it is stained, and even then, the light emits faintly through the dyes, whether indigo or saffron or blood.

         

Mother does not quash our curiosity. Deep in this chamber, too warm from the constant flush of bodies, her reply feels like a cool, assuring hand on the brow. You are safe here. What is on the surface does not live any longer. Don’t fret over it—they are not anything you would wish to meet.

         

We do not see the faces of those who surface. We are told they have the most dangerous job, that it is only a matter of time before any one of them does not come back. We are grateful to be below the surface, spinning silk.

 

* * *

The Thread is the soil’s gift to us, an array of artifacts from an old age when we roamed free on the surface, before the light roared too sharply and we had to retreat underneath. It keeps us safe—warns us of threats and sustains our minds and bonds. We have no need to speak or cry when we know what we need among ourselves, when Mother keeps us whole.

         

We cannot reach the minds of those who deliver our silk and take away the excess we produce. We spin and sew for them, and they leave food and water and things made of metal and wood in return. We are kept segmented, Mother says, in order to protect the whole. We share the pain of those we can reach, and those who go to the surface experience greater pain than any of us underneath can imagine.

         

If life were only silence, perhaps we would not find joy in the work, but the stories we tell are vibrant—myths of the old age and imagined worlds where we may finally see the night sky, where the air is fresh and the searing light cannot hurt. Told not only in words but in sounds and colors and images, they are gifts from the Thread. We are grateful we do not have to leave our caverns to visit other worlds.

         

We tell our stories and sing our myths, and that is plenty.

         

Was there really a time before the Thread? No one can say.

          

When we curl up to sleep, sheltered in small, warm pockets of our cavern, we pray together that Mother keeps our beating hearts calm, so as to keep us hidden beneath the ground.

 

* * *

         

We hear the soft warning first, before the searing—

         

Breach

         

It is Mother’s voice, but it is unlike we have ever heard it: monotonous, as though spoken by something dead.

         

And then comes the searing pain, the ripping, like being flayed open—then the night sky full of stars that twinkle out into darkness, and eyes in the darkness, seeking, eyes like mine, and a flicker of something not alive, something we know—our spun silks, those used for clothing rather than protection, exposed to the night air. For the first time in memory, we hear the cries in our vestigial ears rather than minds, a rippling scream across the cavern, rising like a wave in the milliseconds it takes to pass from one of us to the next, and then, in the same sequence, missed heartbeats, gasped breaths, shallow yelps—

         

I press a calloused hand to my heart.

         

My heart. Mine alone.

         

I close my eyes, and the night sky is imprinted there, an afterimage that is starker and more out of reach than any of the worlds we imagine ourselves. I can hear singing—a lullaby, and hands through my hair, real hands.

         

And then the knots in the Thread smooth, and Mother wraps around us again, cradling, comforting, shushing, singing.

         

For the first time, her voice sounds . . . hollow. It is almost the same as it ever was, but there is something lacking to it—a resonance.

         

But we reach back for her, stifling our weeping.

         

You are safe, she says, and we thank her. But there is an edge to it, like if we let go, we might fall off the world and be lost to that darkening sky. She keeps watch for us in the night while we sleep in case our cries have lured anything to our home.

         

Within the Thread we never die, our memories shared among all like the bread at the table when we finish our work. Within the Thread we are safe. Beyond the Thread, there is nothing.

 

* * *

The images of what we must spin come to us through the Thread, and Mother guides our hands, teaching us how to make them until we can work on our own.

         

We do not ask why we make the things we make. We trust that Mother knows what we need.

         

Now we are making silk wings.

         

We work delicately, and those who dye get no instruction—sitting cross-legged we weave stories as we create luminous lightweight fabrics the span of our arms twice over and pass them to those who sew. There are few seams to sew, and those few must be exact; each stitch laid as precisely as the stitches on the suits for those who surface, stretching the wings taut to grasp the air.

         

As we work, the question echoes, like a whisper.

         

Why?

         

The caverns are high, with bioluminescent roots and fungi hanging to light our work, but we have no need for wings to reach those limits. Those who surface have no wish to reach closer to the sky.

         

There is no answer. Never have our questions been met with silence. We work, and our stories become more frenetic, telling of prey animals and disasters and fear. Mother is still with us—we can feel her soothing calm in our minds—but she says nothing.

         

As we lay down at night, with stacks of wings glowing around us, she murmurs to us.

         

Learn to love the night.

 

* * *

I dream of dying.

         

A thing I have never seen before looms, blocking out the night sky. Its pincered jaws spread wide in a starry array of eyes, and its spittle falls upon me before its jaw does, swinging down, shutting, crunching—

         

This grounded thing owns the night, with its skittering limbs and glittering eyes, twisted and warped and engorged by the scathing light, so large that even the boughs of the trees cannot hold it. As it towers twice as tall as I am, those who surface scuttle away with its silk.

         

The expanse of night stretches, and the disk of the sky looms high overhead. Constellations that I cannot name are mirrored on the bowl of the ground, rising on each side to meet it. Then, so bright it is nothing, the sun rises, slowly and all at once, and burns my flesh away.

         

I am nothing to it, and nothing to this creature’s jaws.

         

But even after the death, I feel the gentle ache of the decomposing, the reconstitution with the earth. Even when the body fades, the soul remains.

         

I can feel the changing, the growing, a yearning, a reaching. We have been cocooned within the earth for so long.

 

* * *

There are enough wings for every spinner and dyer and sewer, but still Mother asks more of us. We offer because it has been too many cycles since she has spoken to us, and we fear what she will not tell us. Mother always knows what we need.

         

When those who surface bring us more silk, they pause over the finished stacks, but they do not ask. We wonder what their Mother tells them.

         

After three more cycles, they begin to take some of the wings, and still we spin. Mother shows us long-dead insects with wings like these, glowing, reaching light to light, and we do not ask why anymore. They have not lived since the sun flared too brightly for them to survive, and we could not keep them with us when we retreated. They did not learn to love the dark like we did.

         

We can see the silhouette of the old age, when feeling was little more than fear, before the Thread, before the underworld, before Mother. Perhaps this is from where her own fears stem, we think, but we do not ask if it is true.

         

Instead, we build light-blown wings out of silk in the image of a lost species until she asks us to lay down our tools and rest.

         

Those who surface come for the excess, leaving us with more than enough for each, and we hold them in our hands, marveling over their lightness, their glow, the strength of the fabric that we have spun. They are finely knit around thin, supple lengths of bone, gifts from ancestors who still remain in the earth, and can hold the weight of a grown person.

         

And finally, Mother speaks to us.

         

Once, the light came.

         

We know this. There is no earlier knowledge than this.

         

The light came, and it burned away the night. It raged across the soil, eating all that lived, and all that was dead. You asked for my aid, my safety, and I have provided. I have always sustained. All stayed divided, even the Thread, so that the whole might survive if one limb was severed.

         

The light was not yet a myth, then, and I knew nothing of myths.

         

This, though—this knowledge is new.

         

Only in this cavern, in this limb of our being, did I learn to conceive of worlds beyond the one I was trained to know. Only when the barriers between us and the rest began to crumble did I recognize that the world has changed.

         

I feel the ripping of flesh, of bones cracking, and then the Thread being ripped from the mind, and then—

         

Only when we recognized the night did I understand that the light burns no longer.

         

Nothing.

         

I press a hand to my echoing heart.

         

I am alone. Wholly alone.

         

Do I know how to breathe on my own?

         

I must have known once. There must have been a mother whose womb I left. Before the Thread, before Mother, there must have been open air and my own lungs, but I cannot think of it.

         

Mother’s voice returns, softly, and it calms the lungs, my lungs, our lungs, and suddenly we are one again—like a rushing tide flooding a pool, we sink into the wave.

         

Without the span of the sky, we lived as one, broadening, learning to love this underworld.

         

We have believed Mother to be all-knowing, but she shows us that she is not—that she has learned and grown as we have, that we have taught her so that she might set us free. Perhaps we created her once to save ourselves from the light’s reach.

         

She laughs, joyous at our understanding, but it is still hollow—we realize that we have not felt the vibration of laughter aloud for so long that we have forgotten to miss it.

         

Until now.

         

I do not demand anything of you, she tells us, and there is a chill. For the first time, the caverns we live in grow cold. But I tell you now what I had not known before:

         

You can have the night.

 

* * *

While we sleep, we dream of the luscious sky and gleaming wings, and when we wake, we don them, gathering what is left in our arms.

         

Why do we carry more than we need? we ask, and Mother only soothes us like shushing comfort to a fussing child.

         

Follow me, she answers.

         

The world shakes apart.

 

* * *

We begin to feel it, the cool coiling air. It lifts us, bright and beating, and I see nothing through the tears for a moment.

         

Are we not one now? we ask, and Mother laughs.

         

One and many.

         

We do not know what this means, but we follow, and her laughter grips us until we can feel it in the caverns of our chests and throats, like a song. It becomes more than her own.

         

Breach— comes the mechanical voice, as the sky splits wide, but it is stifled by Mother’s laughter. Our laughter. My laughter.

         

There is only night.

         

That searing sun is gone—what once brought oblivion has faded into nothing. We have outlasted it without knowing. In its place are stars, multitudinous as flecks of dust, and our own viridian lantern of the moon. Mother cannot say for certain when the light finally went out, but long enough that the surface has sprouted with radiant life, ferns and fungi, spiders and skittering insects with eyes as wide as our faces, all of them glowing like our broad, silken wings. The memories of those who surface breach the seams of the Thread, and we grieve for the fights they have lost to these creatures.

        

We rise above them all on wings made from our own hands, aloft, and find towering trees, and there—sometimes—flickers of flame, warmer than the distant, nebulous cosmos.

         

Find them, Mother says, and spurs us onward. Our wings are as much a part of us as the Thread is—we have always been whole, and we are now as whole as ever.

         

I alight upon a tree branch broad enough to build a fire upon.

         

And yet I am not alone, because I know where we all are, across the Thread.

         

I am not alone, because nestled within the crook of the tree’s limbs, a small structure of wood and vine rests, as crafted for survival as my own wings—as the Thread itself—and light flickers from within.

         

I open my mouth and call, “Hello.”

         

I have never heard my voice before. It is hoarse, gravelly, and the syllables crackle between my teeth. It is dazzling.

         

The small latch of a door upon an odd treehouse opens, and candlelight sprawls across the bough.

         

Another person looks back to me, dazed, blinking, as though they were the one beckoned into the night. There is a dimple in their temple, where my Thread rests, but theirs is gone.

         

Their clothing is dyed with indigo, but it glows green in patches where the dye has faded. It looks worn, but it is in one piece.

         

I step forward and they hold out a gaping hand. I grip their wrist where the fabric drapes, and I know the weave, each stitch of the seams.

          

“I made this,” I say, and then remember what is clutched in my other hand. “I made these as well. They are for you.”

         

I hold the wings out to them, and they say nothing, only marvel over them, and then take them between their fingers.

         

They have been lost a long time, Mother murmurs—to me alone, I think, though I cannot say for certain. I am learning to know what I am, alone yet still whole. Give them a moment.

         

I wait as they turn over the wings in their hands. It is safe in the canopy, we know—Mother has learned this. The light is a myth now, and the night keeps us safe. Others rise in small swarms in the night on lambent wings, and the fading alarms of Breach— begin to fade to nothing as the Thread learns that we are safe, we are whole, we are light.

         

Overhead, the moon reflects no star but instead the vibrant glow of the Earth in the wake of the light. I turn my face to it so that I, too, am reflected on its surface, part of this world’s brilliance.

         

“I couldn’t find the way back,” is the first thing they say. They sink, trembling, and press their lips to the wings.

         

Their shining eyes mirror the light.

         

I crouch to meet them and gently take their hands, touching their fingertips to the Thread. And we are one again.

M.P. Rosalia is a writer and artist of many forms who enjoys playing with format and writes about gods, identity, and time. When not writing, Rosalia prefers to spend time petting cats, climbing trees, and making a mess of paints. Rosalia has recently been published in the first issue of ALOCASIA Magazine.