I Have Always Been This, Sarah Salcedo
CW: violence & body horror
I awake in the moment of fleeing for my life although I can tell from the ache in my muscles, I’ve been running for some time. Consciousness is a weak thing wriggling its way through the fragile eggshell patina of the present. My awareness is limited to me: my breath, my pain, my panic. I am alone and have no knowledge of myself beyond this instinct to run.
The sound of my steps slap against the oil-slicked street ricochet off the brick-walled alley. A woman, no a man, no a thing—screams behind me. I must be fleeing for my life? I pant, thin and ragged, digging tiny graves along the inside of my throat for each breath.
Another shriek cuts through the damp night air.
“Stop that monster—watch out!”
The voices behind me are aimed at me, not cast at something behind them. Am I the monster? I don’t remember—I search for memories of myself, a knowledge of who or what I am. All I know is this chase—an adrenaline-born inception of self. I look at my hands. They look normal? Not that I remember what normal looks like.
Is “normal” claws? Is it fingers? What color is it, what length? Does “normal” have fur or talons or feather or bare skin streaked with the beaded sweat of fear?
I do not know and I can’t afford to care. I don’t feel like a monster. But as I run, I find myself caring, despite myself. I reach up to feel my head, feel for fangs or molars, to try to discern what my findings would reveal about me—and my foot catches. I want to turn to look, but I feel my body fall—my skull cracking against the alley floor. It isn’t the sound of an eggshell breaking delicately over the rim of a hot skillet before its yoke slides reluctantly down. No, this is the crunch of boot on a can, the crumpling of something fragile that’s designed to look solid.
Nothing is ever as solid as it seems.
A flash of light strobes along my body as I push myself up. I hear the voices and screams pursuing me getting closer.
I stand and grab my torn head with both hands and hold the pieces together. My doubled vision coalesces into a single sight of a mob heading towards me.
“Monster!” some cry, other’s shout “Fire!”
Still more shrief, “It’s undead!”
My head is throbbing. I’m undead?
I shake myself and turn to run. I am undead. I don’t know how, but my head is knitting itself back together—laser-like heat sears itself along the broken pieces that I am forcing together. I feel my skull plates reach for each other like long lost friends, like they are embracing for a hug, and interlocking, feel like one. Each piece clicks in, fusing. I feel a shiver down my spine—what am I? Nothing normal could survive what should have meant death—is survival a monstrous act?
I look down. Fingernails or claws?
“Monster!” they scream. They’ve nearly caught up.
I stumble to my feet. My head is renewed, every hair electrified by adrenaline and the rebirth of whatever has happened. I take a breath of air with my whole, unbroken mouth, and feel it fill my lungs with an exhilaration I’d never felt before as a rush of air replaces the pinch of asphyxiation.
I reach the end of the alleyway, flinging my body around a corner, dodging cars whose high beams light up my long body, whose horns holler me down with the same anger that the mob had, whose brakes screech to a halt before hitting my body, and then—I’m above them.
I am above them all—I am hovering in the air, my shoulder blades on fire, held aloft by wings—do I have wings?
Are they glorious?
They’re WINGS. No one else has wings. Oh god, I am a monster.
The mob has caught up, and as I wonder how this all began—why can’t I remember?—chains begin flying up towards me, their links whistling and clattering as they unfurl, slicing through the air.
I dodge, my wings stretch back and then thrust forward towards the crowd—pushing me back and upwards—creating a gust of wind that knocks the mob back.
I was at home.
I had been at home when this began. I had discovered my wings on my own. They had been glorious. I had told my mother, my father, my friends—they reacted—
—they are there. Below me. I can’t remember much beyond the wings and the discovery of them. They had burst from my shoulders. The wound had healed right away as my bones extended into the arches behind me and continued into the fragile feathers that wove their way from my body to the wingtip. When they’d found me, transformed—
I flex my wings and they push me higher. I am high enough to be out of the reach of the streetlights and fully caught by the gibbous moon. My wings sing back that pale ghost to the sky. I laugh. I spin around, a draft from the cars and city breathing out below me catches me and flutters against my feathers, caught by my wings like sails, pulling higher up into the ecstasy of flight.
Not a monster.
I hear the screams below, but something in me hums now with the realization of my newness, with my transformation—I know the truth. I had never been normal before. I have always been this.
The mob’s screams die away beneath me as I tear through the night sky, my entire form glowing as I leave the fragments of the city street below me—now away from me—now on a distant horizon, until they blink out of view. I am singing—no screaming? I am calling myself new names. I am shouting I am not a monster! as the chill wind I fly against fills me up.
A warm breeze rises up above a forest canopy. I do not know how I arrived, but I feel a pull. It’s more than gravity, it’s a joy welling up in my gut.
This is the place.
I cast my light down upon it as I look for a place to land—a place to find shelter—so I can focus on what comes next; are there others out there being chased like me? For now, I fold my wings against my body and dart down towards it. I stretch my wings out once more to slow my approach, the earth welcoming my feet back to its surface as they make contact. I collapse each feather against the other until the wings are tucked up safely against my shoulder blades. They are still radiating a light that casts shadows from all the trees around me. The trauma of transformation is receding—like those shadows, like those memories—as I turn and admire the beauty and strangeness of my new form, of my new surroundings.
Where, and who, am I now?
Sarah Salcedo (she/they) is a writer, illustrator, and filmmaker based in the Pacific Northwest. Her prose has appeared inHAD, The Future Fire,Hypertext Magazine, Pacifica Literary Review, and Collective Realms Magazine. Her poetry has been featured at The Daily Drunk and in their Marvelous Verses anthology. Her first feature film documentary, Promised Land, won multiple awards. You can find her on Twitter at @SarahSalcedo or on her website, sarah-salcedo.com.