by Karin Gastreich
A chilly mist rises as Jenn and I trod up the mountain path. Sunlight flows in thin ribbons through a thick canopy of ancient oaks, illuminating the understory of spindly bamboo in pale shades of green and gold. We pause at the usual place, a small valley where a stream cuts through a grove of wild avocado, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Resplendent Quetzal. This morning we are not in luck, but it does not matter. We have walked this path for several weeks now and have seen the bird’s iridescent flight on many occasions.
It takes another hour to reach the spot where my malaise trap hangs in loose folds over the forest floor. I remove the nighttime catch from the collecting bottle while Jenn goes to work trapping what few insects still flutter against the fine mesh. Suddenly she lets out a sharp gasp. I turn just in time to see her open her kill jar and send the contents tumbling into a plastic bag: a mess of dead insects with splayed legs and hard heads twisted at odd angles, all impregnated with the sweet almond scent of cyanide. An unusually large specimen thrashes in their midst. Visibly relieved, Jenn picks him out as if he were a frog, pinning one handsome thigh under her thumb.
“It’s a little man!” she exclaims. “With wings! I thought I had killed him.”
Using her free hand she produces another Ziploc.
“Can you put some leaf litter in it?” she asks.
“Why leaf litter?”
“Well, I don’t know. He looks froggish. Maybe he likes it moist.”
I find it odd he would look like a frog to her. He reminds me of a moth, a giant saturniid with broad velvety wings and bushy antennae. But I oblige with a handful of damp rotting leaves and she puts him carefully in the bag.
“Let’s show Ruth,” she stuffs the package into her backpack.
Jenn moves with the fresh enthusiasm of a young graduate student. She bounces back down the path toward our campsite with her prize, anxious to please her supervisor. Ruth and I have been colleagues for a long time, however, and I have yet to discover what would please her.
Ruth pulls the fairy out of the bag and examines him under her hand lens.
“Put it in ethanol with the rest of the collection,” she suggests.
She has always wanted to pickle a man.
“In ethanol?” Jenn objects. “But he’s beautiful!”
His skin is a translucent jade that pales at his chest revealing the beat of his burgundy heart. His hair, deep brown like the volcanic soils of these neotropical highlands, falls in loose waves to his shoulders. His opaque emerald eyes have no whites at all.
“We put a lot of beautiful things into ethanol,” Ruth replies.
I set up a butterfly cage, a collapsible cube of fine mesh, and layer the bottom with musky leaf litter, placing a few well-branched twigs for perching. Then I find a round stone to sit on and some soft moss so he has a place to lie down.
“See, Ruth?” I say. “All those years of playing with doll houses have finally paid off.”
Ruth manages a thin smile.
Jenn puts the fairy in the cage and starts taking pictures. Whenever she clicks the shutter, he darts. In every photo he appears as a pale green smudge.
“They will assume it’s faked,” says Ruth. “If you want to report him, put him in ethanol.”
“So I won’t report him,” I counter, getting out my sketch book. “But I’m going to draw him, at least, before we release him.”
Ruth does not insist. She would not risk her reputation by reporting a fairy, though I suspect she might enjoy seeing me crash and burn trying.
I don’t understand her envy. By all measures Ruth is the more successful scientist. Yet she exudes bitterness with every gesture, disdain with each remark. I watch her return to sorting the booty from her pitfall traps: tiny beetles from tiny ants, tiny ants from tiny spiders. I see myself reflected in the tight focus of her eyes, in the tense edges of her lips. She has built her career like this: by reducing magnificent forests into tedious detail.
So, I suppose, will I.
For the rest of the day I try to commit him to paper. I produce ruby dragonflies, glass frogs, dusky sphinx moths, multi-colored tanagers. He inspires a thousand images from my pencil, except his own. The effort exhausts me.
Toward the end of the afternoon Jenn sifts through my drawings.
“They’re lovely,” she concludes. “But where’s the fairy?”
I rest my cheek on my hand and stare at him staring at me.
“You did capture the eyes,” Jenn lays a few sketches in front of me to prove her point.
“Can you spend another day with us?” I ask him. “I’d like to give it just one more try.”
“She’s talking to her specimens again,” snips Ruth.
It is late and pitch black in my tent when I open my eyes. The fairy hovers, phosphorescent, in front of me.
“I always escape.”
His voice is deeper than I expect, melodious and silky at the edges. He alights so near I cannot focus on him. My eyes close and he tickles my lashes, leaves a thin sheen of sparks along the bridge of my nose. He smells of soft earth and crushed pepper leaves. When his hand traces my lips my breath stops, my eyes sting with tears.
“I’d like to show you something,” he beckons, lifting away.
The night forest rises in a mass of thick shadows crowned with patches of star-brushed sky. My boots crush soft beneath me, stirring up odors of damp wood and laced moss. A pale floating lantern in a formless world, the fairy guides me to a towering old oak with a fresh ring of white mushrooms bursting about its twisted roots. Shimmering just above the ring, a miniature aurora conceals fleeting hints of movement. I hear a murmur of voices and music, an odd amalgamation of crystal bells and primitive drums.
“You should take off your shoes,” he says.
“I’m not going in,” I reply, though my eyes remain fixed on the aurora. “I know how this works. If I cross that threshold, I’ll indulge in a timeless bout of luscious revelry, and you…”
His night glow accentuates the contours of his sinuous muscles. At my height, or something comparable, he would be like an angel: mesmerizing, irresistible.
“You will turn me into your size, or turn yourself into mine, and then we will have fantastic, other worldly sex, and then…Then I will wake up 300 years from now with the worst hangover of my life.”
He shrugs, folds his arms.
“Everyone I know will be dead. Civilization may have crashed into another Dark Age, or advanced to distant planets, or disintegrated into a race of mutant zombies, thanks to some environmental disaster. This forest may be gone, or it may have expanded down the mountains to the coast, which means I will be lost in these woods forever. Or everything might be the same…”
This seems the most distressing thought of all: that nothing will have changed.
“…except I will have forfeited all hopes of tenure.”
The music fills out in rich, multi-layered tones. Its rhythm wraps around my heart, pulling tight, until it aches.
He settles upon my shoulder. I feel the air from his wings sift through my hair, the soothing river of his voice upon my ear.
“The possibilities are endless,” he agrees.
So I remove my boots, and I follow him in.