Once when Gail was very young she got left behind in church. Because she was so small and her brown coat camouflaged with the scores-old bricks on the wall, no one noticed she was alone.
When all the lights went off and the last patter of a lay-man's footsteps was heard, Gail took one of the slender, white prayer candles from the holder and pushed a 20 pence through the donation slot underneath it. She walked up to the altar, dragged one of the altar-boys' chairs, placed it against the wall, and climbed up onto it. Digging her shiny flats into its blue velvet seat cushion she tiptoed to reach a red vase attached to the wall. She touched the tip of her candle to the flickering yellow light inside of the vase. Soon the flicker grew.
Holding her newly-lit candle tight in her hands, Gail bent her knees and snuggled her rear end into the velvet. There she sat for 15 minutes staring at the flame burning relentlessly, watching the blackened wax crawl down the smooth white sides of the candle. She held the candle at an angle so that the flame arced and its tip became sharper.
It looked like a gorgeous butterfly with wings of flames, Gail thought.
Mesmerised and inspired by what she saw, Gail promised herself then and there that she would live her life like a butterfly with wings of fire. Seconds later her mother came rushing in, huffing and panting, and apologising.
MANY YEARS LATER...
Gail decided to walk home from her friend's house instead of taking the bus. It was after 10pm and the cold air tickled the parts of her skin that were naked. But she was never afraid of the night and never lamented the cold, or the weather in general. Her walk was always almost a skip, her arches high because she used her toes so much when she walked. She was thinking about what a wonderful evening she had with her friends, and celebrating the tastes left in her mouth from the smiling potatoes and the infused spices in the salmon. Every separate taste that she could identify, bitter or sweet, was a gift that reminded her of the joys of friendship, of feeding each other with food and with love.
Gail felt a sharp blow to her back. A skinny, small girl had collided with run into her and for a second, looked into Gail's eyes until she caught her feet and continued running. The brief gaze exposed Gail to the substantive emptiness that gaped from the girl's dilated pupils and the dying flame on her broken wings. No one was chasing the girl, but she was running from something and Gail had to find out what that was. So she ran after her.
'Stop running. What's wrong. I can help you,' cried Gail, who was getting further and further away from her home. But the girl's knees clashed and trembled as she threw her feet as far as her stride could take them. Gail's chest and thighs started to burn and her breath shortened to a wheeze. Despite the disturbing sound she made when she fought with the air for oxygen, she pulled her body forward with even more haste, the heat from the fire in her wings her fuel.
Before crossing the bridge that would take them into the next town, the girl stopped running and turned to face Gail.
'Because I know something is wrong and I want to help you.' Gail stepped closer to the girl and put her hand on her shoulder -- when two flames touched they became equally bright, she believed. 'Why are you running and where are you running to?'
'Away. Away, away, away, away,' said the girl.
With every away here eyes changed shape, from constricted fear, to reddened boldness, to short glimmers of a dilated plea for something to run to. Gail looked straight into those eyes like spinning marbles and searched for any clues.
'Whatever it is, I promise you everything will be ok. Don't run, just let me help you. Talk to me.'
Without any resistance from the girl, Gail wrapped her arms around her bony shoulders and pulled her head into her chest, stoking her flame meanwhile. The sound of their synced heartbeats in the silent night was interrupted by the girl's grated voice as she pushed herself away from Gail's hug.
'I have to go back, to get something, but meet me here tomorrow night. I want you to help me, but not tonight. I need one more night.' And just like that Grace completely let go and allowed the girl to run away.
The following night Gail carried her warmest clothes, some dinner and a blanket and waited. The darkness thickened and the number of cars and pedestrians decreased until there were none. She picked a soft patch of earth to sit down on and covered herself with her blanket, holding her eyes open and standing up for a few seconds every time she felt herself falling asleep. The girl never came.
The sun came up, though hidden by an unbroken layer of clouds. Gail stayed there all day looking left and then right like she was watching a never-ending tennis match, anticipating the arrival of the girl. She remembered the girl's olive skin and round cheeks, and the faint semblance of a smile that though negligible, held the beauty of a year's worth of sunshine. She couldn't wait to hold her in her arms again, squeeze the back of her tense neck, kiss her forehead and settle her flame. Gail stayed there for three straight days waiting, standing up, while people passed, greeting them and asking them if they had seen a girl of that description. But no one had. Fewer and fewer people responded as Gail's body odour grew pungent and saturated the air around her. Many crossed the road to avoid going too close to her, or looking at her in her soiled face that was starting to break out. Some threw coins at her and when she followed behind them to give back the coins, to tell them that she didn't need money, that she was just waiting for a sweet little girl, they hastened their steps and closed their ears.
Late into the third night Gail was flexing her feet that stuck out from under the blanket and was identifying all of the parts of her body that ached. She stretched and rubbed them one by one, caring for the tissues, limited in their stamina, always ready to give up before the thought even crossed her mind. Her stomach rumbled so often it sounded like it was humming a long, sad song. Her temples tapped out the slow beat of her heart like they were reminding her of her thirst, hunger, and impending surrender.
For a second Gail let her mind roam and it came back with a heap of negative propositions. The girl will never come. What if she were dead? What if she lied to Gail? Not everyone can be helped. Not everyone can be saved. Some people will always be hopeless. And for the first time Gail's wings of fire flickered so violently they almost outed.
'What brings you to live on the street? You're a new one aren't you? You look like your wounds are very fresh. Let me tell you, I've been homeless for eight years now, so if you have any questions shoot them my way,' a man said to Gail as he put down his cardboard box next to where she was sitting.
'I have a home. I'm here because I'm waiting on a sweet little girl who needs me and if I sleep or go home she might come and I won't be here to take her into my arms. She said she wants me to help her. But maybe she didn't. Maybe she prefers to be hopeless. Perhaps I should head home and accept the fact that not everyone wants to be a butterfly with wings of fire.' Gail felt uncomfortable when she dropped her chin and shoulders, it took effort to do so as she had no muscle memory of this action of surrender.
The man raised his arm and the layers of cloth fell to reveal his thick fingers with blackened nails. He rested his heavy hand on her shoulder, and said, 'Would you know how to hope if you never saw what it looked like? Not everyone sees or recognises it, so they have no way of imagining it. But if you did all you could to reveal it to her, she will come back.'
Gail's wings of fire blazed again, the tips reaching up towards the top of the tree. She stood up, stretched her arms out and closed her eyes. When she opened them again the girl was standing right in front of her, a smile an inch wider than the one Gail saw that first night. She helped Gail pick up and fold her blanket then put her hand into Gail's, ready to be taken wherever, to be helped in whichever way.
The man didn't say anything, he just nodded and smiled and watched as they walked away, one with large, fiery wings, and the other with bright orange wings growing steadily with every step forward.
Written by Bianca Alice Walker