by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, October 2018
Lee-a-lei had never been to a Wing Day party, much less thrown one herself. The butterfly-like alien crossed her uppermost pair of fuzzy exoskeletal arms and watched her clone-daughter scurry around their quarters, excited, sugar-crazed, and impatient for the guests to arrive.
Am-lei flapped her new wings, throwing herself into the air — she bounced off the ceiling and landed awkwardly on newly-long, spindly legs. A month ago, Am-lei had been a pudgy green caterpillar-babe. At least, Lee-a-lei had thought of her as a babe, even though she was nearly ten years old.
“When do my friends get here?” Am-lei fluted, stumbling over the words with her unfamiliar mouth-parts. Her long proboscis unfurled and re-curled, nearly tangling in her mandibles.
“Soon,” Lee-a-lei answered, rearranging the table of refreshments yet again. She hated throwing parties — never knowing which friends would come, which would cancel at the last minute, when exactly they’d arrive, or if they’d all get along. She might be a lepidopteran — a type of sentient butterfly — but she was not a social butterfly.
The door chimed and Am-lei flapped over to answer it, tumbling and tripping along the way. Her wings were beautiful — stained glass windows come to life — but they were ungainly and made her clumsy in the space station’s gravity.
Am-lei opened the door, and the human woman on the other side gasped. She put her hand to her mouth, and sparkles of tears sprang to her eyes. “You look just like your mother did before she replaced her wings.”
“Of course she does,” Lee-a-lei fluted. “She hatched from an unfertilized egg; she might as well be my clone. You know that.”
“I know,” Amy said. “A grandmother can still be surprised by how beautiful her granddaughter is.” Amy held her two fleshy arms out, and Am-lei folded four exoskeletal arms around her in a gentle embrace.
Lee-a-lei knew that Am-lei looked more like her than like her adopted human mother Amy, but it was still her identical daughter who looked strange to Lee-a-lei. Having been raised on a human space station, after being rescued from a wrecked ship by a human woman, Lee-a-lei had spent far more of her life looking at humans than her own species. In fact, until Am-lei had emerged from her chrysalis a few days ago, Lee-a-lei had never seen an adult of her species except in info-casts from a faraway home world she’d never visited. Or in a mirror.
“What can I do to help?” Amy asked.
“I think we’re all set up.” Lee-a-lei touched the edges of various bowls on the refreshment table nervously with each of her four talon-hands.
Amy stepped close to her daughter and laid a fleshy hand on one of Lee-a-lei’s mechanical wings. “I’m sorry you never had a Wing Day party,” she said. “I didn’t know.”
“Neither did I,” Lee-a-lei fluted. She didn’t blame her mother. Amy had done her best raising an alien child. And honestly, although Lee-a-lei looked nothing like other humans, she felt more like a human than a lepidopteran. She was trying to do better for her daughter, trying to give Am-lei some of the things she’d missed out on, save Am-lei from some of the troubles she’d experienced.
The door chimed again. This time, when Am-lei opened it, a crowd of children poured in — each of them a different species, all of them Am-lei’s friends, and each of them thrilled to see how she’d metamorphosed over the last month.
“What was it like being in a cocoon?” an avian boy chirped.
“Was it dark and quiet?” a reptilian girl hissed. “Peaceful?”
“It wasn’t a cocoon,” Am-lei fluted, flapping her wings so vigorously she rose into the air, tilted, lost balance, and crashed down again. “It was a chrysalis hanging from the ceiling, and when my head split open–”
“WHAT?” the avian squawked.
“My head split open.”
It took a while for Am-lei to explain her words to her crowd of friends. Lee-a-lei could sympathize with their horror and confusion. She remembered the metamorphosis happening to herself and had still been terrified as she watched it begin with her own daughter. Am-lei’s adorable caterpillar face had split down the middle, crumpled up, and been replaced by a smooth, crystalline shell of a chrysalis underneath. Lee-a-lei couldn’t even fathom how her human mother had handled watching that happen to her.
Even so, Am-lei’s chrysalis had been the most beautiful thing Lee-a-lei had ever seen.
Under the translucent shell, the lines of Am-lei’s caterpillar body had transformed — green curves stretched into blue arcs, growing longer, narrower, more aristocratic and serious over the weeks. Finger-like mouth parts coalesced into a swooping proboscis. In that sleep of metamorphosis, blue veins pulsed, and purple-wet wings developed from tiny buds to crammed-folds, filling the inside of the chrysalis so tightly, so very tightly, it had had to burst open.
Lee-a-lei had felt tentative and unsure at first when Am-lei had emerged in her adult form. She’d looked so different. Lee-a-lei had felt shy with her own daughter, a being who shared her entire genetic code and had spent every day with her for ten years, ever since hatching from an unfertilized yellow egg.
“Wait,” the reptilian girl hissed, breaking Lee-a-lei from her reverie. “How did you hang from the ceiling? Was there a hook up there or something?” The reptilian girl craned her neck, looking at every corner of the ceiling, forked tongue flicking.
“Of course not,” Am-lei fluted. “I glued my feet to the ceiling with silk-spit from the glands in my mouth.”
“Ewwww!!!” all the alien children cried in chorus.
“Now I’m not hungry for any of these snacks!” the avian boy complained. Although he still took a wing-handful of toasted berry-buds.
Lee-a-lei waited until all the guests had arrived and the snacks were nearly demolished before pulling her daughter aside and saying, “I think it’s time.”
Am-lei flapped her wings and clapped four talon-hands eagerly, practically vibrating with excitement.
She had no reason not to be excited — she’d known all along that the wings she’d grow were vestigial and would need to be removed. Unlike Lee-a-lei, she wouldn’t suffer through years of clumsiness, knocking down everything around herself, and slow-growing aches as the too-large wings messed up all the muscles in her back.
This was a good thing.
This was what Amy would have done for Lee-a-lei if she’d known, if she’d been able to locate the lepidopteran home world and get any basic information about her daughter. Instead, she’d muddled through, and it had never occurred to her that lepidopterans removed their wings shortly after growing them.
Even so, Lee-a-lei had lived on Crossroads Station with her natural, biological wings for years, being constantly praised by humans and other aliens for their beauty. She’d learned to value them for the way they turned her into a work of art that turned every human’s head.
And yet, she’d been relieved when she’d learned they could be removed — that it was normal for them to be removed. By then, Lee-a-lei had been so used to her wings that she’d commissioned a much smaller, more useful, mechanical pair to replace them. But Am-lei didn’t even want those. She’d read all the info-casts from their home world and had definitely declared: she was going to be a normal, wingless lepidopteran.
Am-lei handed her mother the knife.
With infinite care, Lee-a-lei pressed the metal blade to Am-lei’s back where the soft wing membrane met the hard exoskeleton.
Amy turned away.
Lee-a-lei pressed down with the knife and sliced the first wing off in one smooth cut. The membrane parted under the knife as easily as warm butter. The wing fell to the floor. The stained glass window had melted.
Am-lei laughed. “I’m lopsided now!”
All her friends laughed with her.
Lee-a-lei curled her proboscis tightly. It was hard to cut so much beauty away from her daughter, but she knew it shouldn’t be. Her daughter was wiser and better informed than she’d been. If she’d been raised in her own culture, this would be a joyous occasion for her too, instead of a bittersweet one.
“Cut the other one, cut the other one!” Am-lei led the other children in a chant.
Lee-a-lei’s hand-talon shook, holding the knife. She didn’t know if she could do that again.
A fleshy human hand steadied Lee-a-lei’s talon, and the lepidopteran looked up to see the face of her mother. “Let me,” Amy said. “I should have done this for you. Let me be a part of doing it for your daughter.”
“Thank you,” Lee-a-lei fluted, handing over the knife. She stepped back to watch.
Amy cut off Am-lei’s second wing, and it fell discarded to the floor. All the children cheered, and Am-lei pirouetted, spindly exoskeletal arms waving like she was leading a choir.