The monarch’s wings are striking—freshly inked calligraphy lines cutting a mosaic on a maple’s most dazzling autumn leaf, as if all those summer days spent fluttering between the salvia and the milkweeds absorbed the sunshine’s warmth to rival the Sun’s own fiery performance at the end of the day. The monarch is well aware of her magnificence. She is grace. She is beauty. She is an icon of flower gardens and summer, fleeting, flitting on the breeze, fanning her orange wings at the Sun’s face when she alights on a fresh blossom.
I dwell in the dark. Art is for admiration; no one cares for a blank canvas. Perhaps I was meant to be a masterpiece, but I own no brushstroke on my wings, no inspiration, no hope of fruition. Sun’s sister watches me instead, but like the Moon, I am pale and colorless. I try to convince myself that I am pure and there is beauty in that, but the night’s shadows dull my glow.
I am drawn to the floodlights and lanterns where color seeps into the darkness. It is empty color, but it’s all the night has when the Moon goes to sleep in her cycle, and I am mesmerized by it nonetheless; I circle . . . circle . . . circle . . . half-mad by the beacons in the night.
The houses let a warm glow seep into the shadows. They are mysterious places of light and danger, but they beckon me every night. I drift close and cling to the screen. Inside, a candle burns on the windowsill. Its flame curls in a duet with its twin reflected in the glass.
The door creaks open. A swirling current of air in the wake of a giant’s passing stirs under my wings, encouraging me to lift them and take flight. I flutter inside, eyes on the candle breaking the blackness. I alight on the windowsill.
The flame sways in a hypnotic dance like a cobra. It lures me closer, closer still, casting its golden glow on my paper wings when I creep into the pool of light. It’s beautiful. Orange-bodied, yellow-fringed, ruby-hearted, light and color that puts even the monarch’s wings to shame.
I extend a wing. It’s not white anymore; it’s shifting with the faint glow of pastel yellows, and when I lift my wing closer, the flame’s light turns my pastel wings to vibrant buttercup . The closer I draw to the sizzling heat, the prettier my colors become. If I could have that color, I could be beautiful, too.
My wing kisses the flame.
With a spark, I ignite. The shock of it steals my breath. I face my reflection in the window. The colors—my colors—so marvelous, so pure, burn away my white in the night. For just a moment, I am magnificent like the Sun herself.
And then my singed wings are gone in smoldering cinders that fade into the darkness. My colors were there and gone in a heartbeat, vanished in smoke. A second of beauty has cost me the unspeakable bliss of flight.
What have I done?