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Poem: "Moulting" - The Wordsmith's Forge — LiveJournal
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Poem: "Moulting"

This poem came out of the October 2, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by a prompt from siege.  It also fills a square on my second Cottoncandy Bingo Card for "reluctantly accepting help/comfort."  It has been sponsored by janetmiles.  For this poem, I researched the symbolism of sparrows in Christianity.  It belongs to the series Fledgling Grace, which you can explore further via the Serial Poetry page.


It began as an itch,
prickling along the leading edge
of the devil's wings and down along
the ribs that supported the leathery vanes.

To be in Hell was to be in pain,
all of the time and everywhere,
so the devil was accustomed to discomfort
and tried diligently to put it out of mind.

But the itch was different from
that familiar misery, strange and new
and nettlesome as the points of pins
pricking through his sensitive skin.

Then there were actual pins,
or something like pins,
hard thin shafts under the skin
that rolled beneath nervous fingertips.

When they broke through,
the devil scratched at the quills
until one snagged and bled -- and kept on
bleeding and aching, for hours.

After that the devil left them alone,
hoping they would go away;
but what began to shrink instead
were the wing membranes themselves.

The bones thickened, muscles changing,
as the wings reshaped themselves
incomprehensibly while the devil hid
from his fellows and wished for oblivion.

Then between one beat and the next,
his wings ceased to function altogether
he found himself falling up,
out of Hell and into the mortal world.

The devil fell hard and landed badly,
crashing onto a wooden floor
that knocked all the wind from his lungs
and left him helpless for gasping.

Another  of the damned pins
had broken in the fall,
leaking blood everywhere
and throbbing like a pulled talon.

Footsteps and words sounded --
the devil tried to scrabble under cover
but was too weak to escape in time
and lay, shaken, awaiting the worst.

"What in the world?" said a voice,
and then softer, full of awe,
"Or perhaps not of this world, after all."
The footsteps drew close.

Gentle hands rolled him onto his belly,
careful of the battered wings
with their bizarre quills
and the one painfully broken stub.

"Looks like you've lost a blood feather there,"
the voice said sympathetically.
So that's what it was called.
Wait, what?  Feather?

"Devils don't have feathers,"
he croaked.  "We have wings like bats."
He missed the soft, furred span
of his nimble night-dark wings.

"That's true," said the voice.
The devil turned his head to see
shiny black shoes, trousers,
a neat shirt and a white collar.

He'd been captured by a priest.
How had that happened?
Colorful splinters of light caught his eye.
Oh.  He was lying in a church.  Well then.

The devil tried to panic quietly.
It only made things worse
if you let them know how much
they were scaring you, hurting you.

"Rest easy," the priest advised.
"I need to find a few things."
The devil heard him rummaging somewhere --
definitely time to make an escape.

He dug his talons into the floorboards
and pulled himself toward the door,
but the energy of the church clung to him;
it was like trying to swim through tar.

Then the priest was back
with a large bottle of something
and a handful of soft cloths.
So much for escaping.

"This will help bring out your feathers,"
the priest said.  "Brace yourself;
it will feel unpleasant at first."
He stroked a cloth over the devil's wings.

Something slick soaked into the skin
and all along the quills, something
that killed the itching at once
but left the devil feeling horribly exposed.

Holy oil.  It drained the last of his energy,
left him lying helpless and limp
under the human's hands.  More oil
spread over his back, his arms, his legs.

The priest murmured words of comfort,
but the cloth was coming away dark, and surely
there couldn't have been that  much blood
pouring out of one little quill.

Then the devil realized it wasn't so much blood
as it was something else, for the burnt brick red
of his skin was bleaching to a pale copper
and black wings to mottled gray and beige.

"There now, aren't you a handsome fellow,"
the priest said as he worked, long fingers
grooming the numerous shafts on the wings
and the tender skin around their roots.

The shafts began to crumble at the tips,
dry flakes falling away to reveal
the ends of sparrow feathers
opening to test the strange new air.

The devil felt as if every one of them was
attached directly to its own screaming nerve,
and he hated it, but the hands helped, a little,
giving him an anchor to his changing body.

Cloth again, smoothing over the fresh feathers,
moving them delicately into alignment,
like the scales of ancient armor, so that he
no longer felt like he was lying there with his skin all off.

He didn't want the priest and his compassionate hands,
the holy oil rubbing away all that he had been,
nothing familiar left but the glossy black of his hair.
The priest held him anyway and tended his moulting wings.

Slowly then, as slowly as the feathers unfolding,
the devil started to feel a little different.
The oil warmed between their skin, almost soothing,
and the tight knots of muscle began to relax.

The priest kneaded his way around the base of the wings,
easing the muscles into their new configuration,
and the devil fluttered a bit because it felt good to stretch
as the priest cupped a hand underneath to support the weight.

It was inconceivably intimate, that touch, finger-feather-nerve.
The devil could not believe that it didn't hurt, yet
the sensitivity had sunk to something more bearable and
the priest had never purposely hurt him while he was vulnerable.

Well, that was a first.  Hell was all about advantage.
Perhaps Earth was different in some ways.
The devil trembled in the priest's grasp
and wondered what would happen next.

"You're all right," the priest said.
"Sit up now, and try those wings."
He lifted the devil up onto both knees,
and the sparrow wings opened like autumn clouds.

The air tickled and hummed along the edge of each feather,
so much more informative than fur, electrifying and --
oh, there was something there,  just past his pinions.
The devil stood, twisting around and around trying to find it.

The priest chuckled then.  "That's grace,"
he told the devil, "and you won't catch God
by chasing yourself in circles until you're dizzy."
"What does God have to do with a devil?" he mumbled.

With an arm around his waist, the priest led him
to a small room with a cot in one corner, the kind of place
where an overworked human might catch a quick nap.
"Here, put these on," said the priest, handing him some trousers.

The devil flushed as he pulled them over his legs.
He'd never cared about going naked in Hell,
because it was so common there, but next to the priest
he suddenly wanted that layer of fabric over his skin.

It was one more favor to owe, and that made him nervous.
Plus the priest hadn't answered his question,
and the feeling of being watched and touched
hadn't gone away.  So he asked again.

"God has nothing to do with a devil," the priest said,
"and everything to do with a brand new angel."
"Why am I suddenly an angel?"  he wailed.
"I don't know," said the priest.  "You'll have to ask God."

His knees buckled, and the priest caught him
around the waist, still mindful of the wings,
then sat down on the cot.  Shaking again,
the angel crawled into his lap and clung.

Sometimes there were no answers, or else
there might be but one did not dare ask for them.
The angel pulled his virgin wings over them both
like a blanket, hiding his face against the priest's shirt.

The priest eased him down flat on the cot.
Familiar fingers combed through his hair,
and he finally surrendered to the touch.
It felt better than being alone.

"I know what it looks like, when a devil
moults into an angel.  I'll help as best I can,"
said the priest, "but I don't know why it happened."
"I need to know why," the angel said.

"Perhaps we'll find the answer together,"
the priest whispered to the angel,
"but that's work for another day.  Rest now."
This time, the angel obeyed.

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8 comments or Leave a comment
laylalawlor From: laylalawlor Date: November 22nd, 2012 05:21 am (UTC) (Link)
I like this a lot. This is a fascinating concept, and a very sweet story. Despite not knowing these characters at the beginning, I feel like I know them by the end.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 22nd, 2012 05:38 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>> I like this a lot. <<

I'm happy to hear that.

>> This is a fascinating concept, and a very sweet story. <<

I wanted to explore the idea of a challenging transformation that was still a positive experience. I'm glad it turned out that way.

>> Despite not knowing these characters at the beginning, I feel like I know them by the end. <<

Yay! That's very much what I was hoping for, that the reader's experience would parallel theirs. They don't know each other at all to start with, except by category -- devil and priest -- but you don't go through something that intimate without getting to know each other.
(Deleted comment)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 22nd, 2012 06:03 pm (UTC) (Link)


Don't pick at yourself if you're not ready then.

I'm glad you found the poem powerful. You can always come back to it later, if you find yourself thinking about it in context of things you are processing at that time.
(Deleted comment)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 23rd, 2012 06:09 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: *hugs*

>>I may well. I was unable to stop reading it even tho it was hard, which often indicates something on the edge, but not quite there.<<

0_o I had not realized that the flypaper-for-eyeballs effect was quite that strong.

>> Edit: I also just noticed that the url for this comment has a 666 in it. Just caught my eye, given the subject matter of the poem. <<

*LAUGH* I guess somebody down there found it entertaining.
From: rhodielady_47 Date: November 25th, 2012 10:39 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: *hugs*

"I had not realized that the flypaper-for-eyeballs effect was quite that strong."

Errr, all your work has a pretty good dose of glue added to it but this one has more than most with your unique treatment of redemption. We're talking about glue traps for wild hogs here...!)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 30th, 2012 05:20 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: *hugs*

I know about it in general. I've learned not to leave out stories for my_partner_doug to read right before bedtime or errand time.

The redemption theme does seem to be growing as this series continues. Minds me of something I picked up from my Waterjewel characters: "No one is unsalvageable who does not choose to be."
From: rhodielady_47 Date: November 30th, 2012 06:46 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: *hugs*

"No one is unsalvageable who does not choose to be."
That in of itself is a potent magnet.
A fascinating idea I once read from something Piers Antony wrote meshes well with it:
'Only those have souls who care about them.'
Sometimes in my darker moments, it's comforted me as well.

ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 30th, 2012 08:42 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: *hugs*

>>"No one is unsalvageable who does not choose to be."
That in of itself is a potent magnet.<<

Yeah, they have caught a lot of people with that one.

>>A fascinating idea I once read from something Piers Antony wrote meshes well with it:
'Only those have souls who care about them.'
Sometimes in my darker moments, it's comforted me as well.<<

I have found that an excellent rule of thumb. The ability to wonder about things is an important aspect of sentience.
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