Eliot was not like other boys. On a dare he once ingested a firefly, having been told he would gain its power by a bitter girl who had a crush but found her affections unreciprocated. Within the week his toenails began to pulsate like electric milk beneath the bed sheet at night and sometimes very early in the morning. It being winter, he found it easy enough to hide the contagion of the glow — which had begun to spread like neon wildfire from heel to clavicle — from his parents and students at school with layered clothing, scarves and hoodies, and by generally avoiding the lightless places of the world. In time he learned that it was the darkness itself that triggered his affliction to expose itself. Crying himself to sleep in a well-lit room became his ritual, and he began to believe he would die alone with the knowledge of his embarrassing deficiency, until the night the bitter girl never came home, having slipped and tumbled into a cave. The neighborhood search party came up short except for when a naked, glow-in-the-dark scrawny boy ascended the hill carrying her in his arms, alive and safe.
Eliot was not like other wolves. Born without a tail, the wolf shaman foretold he would be a great blight upon his tribe, and so he was exiled from the forest forever, carried in the jowl of his mother as a pup to the edge and told he was forbidden to behold the trees. It was assumed he would die very quickly by all in the tribe, who knew what the curse entailed: a tailless wolf was also a toothless wolf, and without teeth you might as well not call yourself a wolf. The outside world, so full of humans, would claim him, as Mother Night claims the long light of day. A young gatherer, collecting for his village’s supper, found him curled around the trunk of a tree starved but still alive, and believing him to be anything but a wolf, took him home. This is no wolf, the village elder confirmed. And so the young gatherer was allowed to keep Eliot as a pet. Within the village the wolf was loved and cared for, fed leaves and soft bugs. There came a day the village declared war on the wolves of the forest. The night before the hunters were to set off, Eliot slipped back into the sea of trees. You are in great danger, he warned the wolves, who now looked upon Eliot with revering eyes. But what can we do? The tribe knew there was no place else to go. So Eliot instructed them to cut off their tails. When the hunters poured into the trees they found not one wolf to slay. Come home to us, the wolves then begged Eliot, but he refused. I am not a wolf, he reminded them, and returned to his loyal gatherer boy.
Eliot was not like other clouds. He neither puffed nor could he bend his body into impossible shapes like the rest of the flock — all of them great and venerated artists of the sky. His coat was not white but an ignoble gray. All day alone he hung in the atmosphere while the others attracted wind, parading through the kingdom of the sky a majestic caravan of cumulonimbi contortionists, the gazers gathering below in awe of their elastic splendor. I am without a use, Eliot finally decided, and began to drift dangerously close to the sun. At that moment, his skin began to bristle and he began to thunder. All the other clouds and gazers trembled to behold him, but they couldn’t take their eyes off of him either. Not all clouds are meant to be artists, he then understood: some are meant to be warriors, and the sky needs both.
MATTHEW BURNSIDE’s work has appeared most recently or is forthcoming in > kill author, Gargoyle, PANK, Juked, elimae, Contrary, Pear Noir!, decomP, NAP, and Danse Macabre, among others. He is managing editor of Mixed Fruit, an online literary magazine (http://mixedfruitmagazine.com/). Beginning in the fall, he will be an MFA fiction candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.