“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
As Nobby Nobbs awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.
„Well bugger it for a lark,” he said. “Bloody wizards!”
It came out as “zzzzsssss…”
Nobby remained lying quietly on his back, until the world around him came into sharper focus. He wasn’t quite clear on what had happened, but it seemed that he had been transformed from a mostly human-shaped individual into something that was best described as a bloody big bug. He had many legs – he wriggled them experimentally – and many eyes. And he also had wings.
Nobby twitched the bits of him that only yesterday were his shoulder blades and felt the wings expand beneath him. That was interesting. He rolled off his cot, landed on all fours – all sixs – and fluttered his wings. They made a pleasant buzzing noise. Well, that was certainly something else.
Using his topmost legs, he pulled at his head and turned it all the way round to take a look at his own back. There they were, a truly beautiful pair, shimmering greenish in the morning light. Nobby sighed with delight. This was the prettiest body part he had ever possessed. He had never felt more attractive. He wondered what Verity Pushpram would say if she could see him now. But then she remembered how viciously she used to swat the flies that hovered around her fish monger’s stall and reconsidered.
There was one nagging worry. Nobby himself had never been much attached to his own body, and he found the new one quite good replacement, but he was aware that many people were rather more conservative in their outlook when it came to this kind of thing. Why, he knew that there were one or two people in the Watch who thought that his going undercover in ladies’ clothes was ecksentric at best and intolerable at worst. He wondered what they would say when they saw him like this, all green and shimmering. Mr Vimes would do his nut. Nobby found he didn’t mind much. It seemed that as an insect he did not have a heart that could clench nor a stomach that could churn with fear. Perhaps – a hopeful thought blossomed in what Nobby currently considered his brain – Mr Vimes would assign him to the air squad, once he got the hang of flying.
He buzzed excitedly and bumped his head against the window for comfort, wondering idly if his landlady would scream and drop the tray humorously when she found him.
Fortunately for Nobby Nobbs he lodged with Mrs Cosmopilite, who had tea twice a week with Mrs Cake and had therefore heard many stories of lodgers taking on a different appearance overnight. On the whole, she found, the replacement wasn’t too bad. Nobody could accuse her of not being a broadminded woman and of not going with the times, and in the multicultural city that was the modern Ankh-Morpork, there were many species that made better lodgers than humans. A large fly, Mrs Cosmopolite mused, could have its uses. Perhaps she could put him in charge of the privy? If he could be persuaded to take care of only half of the daily input, she could save on the bills paid to Harry King. And as everyone1 knew, a penny saved was a penny earned.
1“Everyone” in this instance included an obscure sect of yellow-clad monks living in a secluded monastery in the Ramtops, eschewing the company of females of any species. They had had no concept of money, so when a young monk had come back from Ankh-Morpork with the exciting new koan, nobody knew what a “penny” was. That didn’t stop the senior monks from debating the issue very earnestly, and, eventually a schism divided the sect, with one group arguing a “penny” was a stage of spiritual insight and that when enough of those stages had been completed, the respective monk would finally achieve enlightenment; and another that it was a small red-tailed singing bird that was seen migrating over the Ramtops every second spring and autumn and should be protected at any cost* because it was so pretty. There was also a hermit who maintained that it was an edible fungus, but he had gone to live in a cave many decades ago and edible fungi were pretty much the only thing on his mind.
*They didn’t know what “cost” were, either, but they understood it was a good phrase to emphasise one’s point. In local parlance, it was pronounced “shabt ut uny oosh” due to a lack of the relevant sounds in the language and the monk’s poor handwriting, and it had been inscribed above the altar in the third-most important side alcove in the second-largest temple.
“I have ‘eard of things like this ‘appening in them foreign parts, Mrs Cosmopilite,” said her neighbour Mrs Thing, nodding wisely over her dish of tea-and-biscuits. Mrs Thing had popped over an hour ago to borrow an ounce of flour, three dusters and a large casserole. “Ooh, that’s a luvely cuppa, that is.” She poured the brown liquid from the saucer back into the cup, put four lumps of sugar in and topped it up generously with the thick, sweetened milk Mrs Cosmopilite got sent perennially by an ardent acolyte from Uberwald.
“Ooh, yes, ‘em foreign parts!” echoed Mrs Entity, another neighbour, excitedly. Mrs Entity had popped over 50 minutes ago to tell Mrs Cosmopilite that there was a monster living in the small room out the back.2 “They ‘ave all sorts there! I hear this sort of things ‘appens a lot in foreign parts.”
2Mrs Entity lacked the subtlety and cunning of Mrs Thing.
“Oh yes, that’s why they’re foreign parts, you know, Mrs Entity. Because this sort of thing ‘appens there a lot,” reiterated Mrs Thing. Both ladies were on their fifth biscuit each, which they dunked vigorously into their respective tea cups. Mrs Cosmopilite watched them nod their curler-encased heads and exchange their philosophical remarks, and she was thinking.
“…I ‘eard that there ‘ave been cases of spontaneous wing growth in Ankh-Morpork, too,” said Mrs Entity after a while, giddy with sugar. “I ‘eard of it happening in the Blue Cat Club, Mrs Thing.
“No!” Mrs Thing dropped her biscuit into her tea. “The Blue Cat Club? My, my… What did Mr Harris say?”
“Ah, you know Mr Harris, Mrs Thing,” said Mrs Entity. Mrs Thing nodded. Everybody knew Mr Harris, even though respectable housemakers like themselves would never admit to it to anyone but their closest friends. Mrs Thing had once found a magazine published by that gentleman’s establishment in her husband’s potting shed; she didn’t say anything3, but she certainly learned one or two interesting things from the stories. “‘e grumbled at first, but then ‘e decided that employing broad-shouldered young men with powerful wings could be good for business.”
3Mrs Thing adhered to the Sergeant-and-Mrs-Colon school of marriage and believed firmly that happiness in marriage was best achieved if one only saw one’s husband once in a blue moon. She spotted him occasionally from the window, pottering about his corner of the garden. At least she believed it was him – he appeared to have lost weight recently.
“And beautiful wings they were, too, Mrs Entity,” said Mrs Thing. “White, feathery-like, and gleaming like the purest snow in the sunlight. Shame young Nobby did not get a pair like that.”
The women fell silent, each one alone with her own thoughts. Shame it might be, but it would have seemed wrong for Nobby to walk around with pure white wings. It didn’t seem natural. Also, it was unlikely that they would stayed white long. He would end up shedding feathers wherever he went. No, all things considered, the wings he had got suited him much better. One could say a lot about young Nobby – and indeed one did – but he had never been one to get ideas above his station.
“Well,” said Mrs Cosmopilite. “I’m off to Pseudopolis Yard. Must inform Commander Vimes about young Nobby’s mishap.”
“Shouldn’t we take his, whatsit, affadavid off him?” Fred Colon whispered. He was eyeing his comrade-in-arms cautiously, twirling his helmet in his hands. A hush fell as everyone considered the matter.
Carrot spoke first: “What exactly does it say?”
Angua was already unfolding the grubby scrap of paper: "…following affidavits from the midwife and a doctor, I confirm that the bearer is, in all probability, human."
“It is no longer true,” said Carrot. “I think if he keeps it, Nobby could be charged with the crime of falsifying an official document.”
“But it is so obviously not true,” said Angua, “that surely this doesn’t matter? I mean it’s like when someone walks around telling you the world is round, you simply don’t pay any attention to something that is so obviously an untruth.”
“We should put it to Lord Vetinari,” said Carrot. “After all, it is he who signed the document. He should decide what to do with it.”
In his seat on the windowsill, Nobby stopped rubbing his mandibles and directed his multi-facetted and rather worried gaze at the speaker. He did not like the idea of Lord Vetinari getting involved. At least not until he had figured out how to use his beautiful new sparkly wings to carry him away, far away from the Patrician’s potentially very focused interest. So far, he had tried jumping off his bed, but he found that he did not know how to coordinate his wings properly. After several crashes into the window, he gave up on flying for the time being and concentrated on figuring out how to focus his many eyes on one object. The fragmented vision made his head spin, but it would certainly save him the effort of getting drunk.
“Bzzz…” Nobby said, attempting to be as clear on the issue as possible. “Tsssszz.”
“I think,” said Carrot. “I know someone who can help.”
“Ook.” The Librarian scratched his left ear with his right hand, his arm curled around his head. “Ook. Ook-ook!”
“I don’t think this will work,” said Carrot. Angua could tell he was worried; his honest face was very earnest, from the tips of his ears to the dip of his chin cleft. “They don’t appear to be able to communicate.”
“What did you expect, they’re two completely different species,” said Angua, shrugging. “The Librarian is almost human, whereas Nobby…” four pairs of eyes turned to him. Hundreds of pairs stared back.
“Ssssz?” Nobby said. He rubbed his wings with his legs. They were lovely, delicate yet firm. He really enjoyed rubbing them, it felt right somehow.
“Perhaps the Archchancellor will help.”
“Hm,” said Angua. Sometimes one might think Carrot had never actually met the Archchancellor – or indeed any of the UU wizards. But something had to be done, and it couldn’t hurt to have a professional have a look.
Well, no, it could hurt. Angua wondered briefly if the Archchancellor had been the type of kid who would run around with a large net and pin butterflies to boards. There was a fifty-fifty chance. Insects might have been too small a fry for young Mustrum Ridcully’s consideration. But that wasn’t necessarily reassuring: in his present form, Nobby was certainly not too small for anyone’s consideration, and his translucent green wings certainly looked very pluckable. Oh dear.
There was a knock at the door.
“Oh dear!” Mustrum Ridcully repeated, in a rare display of true anguish and contrition. “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!” He patted the thin, pale hand awkwardly that rested on the counterpane. “Oh dear.”
All other occupants of the room shuffled their feet and averted their eyes and generally pretended they were not there and even if they were, that there was nothing to see. Certainly not an emotional scene by the cot. All but one.
“Coo-ee!” Nanny Ogg poked her head around the door, grinning like a Greebo cat4.
4“Greebo” had become an official cat breed and, indeed, the Animal of the Year in the Year of the Distressed Kitten.
“Don’t worry, Mr Archchancellor!” She put the tray she was holding on the rickety table and patted Mustrum Ridcully’s bald patch. “I brought some cold water, that’ll help a treat. If you just pry open the mouth and pour in some drops… Careful! I added some tonic, for med’cinal purposes.” She tapped against her thigh where, as was common knowledge, an emergency supply of Scrumble slowly corroded a bottle that was hidden in the knicker leg.
The Archchancellor put the ewer aside with a shaking hand and wiped his sweaty brow. “Oh dear,” he muttered again.
“Ook!” the Librarian agreed anxiously.
Sergeant Colon, petrified beyond all human endurance and fountaining sweat from all pores, stared unblinkingly at the skinny figure on the cot. Only his lips moved, as though he was praying. Carrot looked more worried than Angua had ever seen him. Nobby… well, Nobby looked green, but that was hardly surprising.
The thin, pale hand shot forward like a viper, steely fingers wrapped themselves around the Archchancellor’s wrist. “Mustrum Ridcully!” boomed a horrible voice. “May you be forgiven!”
“It seemed such a good idea!” The Archchancellor was a broken man. “We all know how powerful she is, I was sure she would be able to help.”
“Guess we have now learned the limitations of her power,” Nanny said cheerfully.
“Bzz-“ said Nobby in a small voice. “I mean, s’rry.”
“There, there, young ma- chap-, young person,” said Nanny. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Angua raised her eyebrows and waited. Three… two… one…
“Well, it was a bit,” said Carrot. “What on disc did you think, Corporal, that caused Mistress Weatherwax such distress?
“I never thought nuthink,” Nobby said petulantly, falling back on the tried-and-tested strategy. He had shrunk back into a corner in a vain attempt to hide away from scrutinising eyes, shrugging and twitching his shoulders. He missed his wings already. He had been looking forward to flying away.
“A breath of fresh air will do her a world of good,” said Nanny. Six pairs of eyes swivelled to the window, outside which the Ankh-Morpork air did all it could to make its presence felt. “Or perhaps she’s just having a drop of brandy with Mrs Cosmopilite,” Nanny conceded.
“I thought it would be a good idea,” the Archchancellor continued muttering, ignoring everything that went on around him. “I’ve seen her Borrow a beehive, for Offler’s sake! A fly should have been nothing in comparison.”
“But it wasn’t a fly, Mr Archchancellor, was it?” said Nanny gently. “It was a… a Nobbs.”
“S’rry, Mrs Ogg.”
Angua cleared her throat. “Captain Carrot.” He looked at her like a man coming up from a deep trance. “I don’t think we’re needed here.”
“Oh. Yes. Sergeant Colon!”
Colon dropped his helmet. “Sir?”
“Those streets don’t patrol themselves. Off you go!”
Sergeant Colon, with his soul trembling on his shoulder, slunk down the stairs. He was praying in earnest now, praying that the horrifying witch with the blazing eyes would not cross his path as he was making his escape. She would haunt his nightmares for weeks to come as it was.
“And you, Corporal!” barked Carrot. “What are you waiting for? You’ve wasted everybody’s time long enough.”
Nobby scurried out after Colon. Angua and Carrot saw him scratch his shoulder blades before he disappeared through the door.
“I think we had better leave as well,” said Angua, looking pointedly from Carrot to the Librarian and back again. She exchanged a last glance with Nanny Ogg, who had made herself comfortable by the Archchancellor’s side and was pulling up her skirts. The last things they heard when they shut the door was the elastics of her knicker leg snapping back into place and the reassuring words “…well, mainly apples…”
“What do you think she saw going on in his mind?” Angua asked against her better judgment.
“We will never know.” Carrot’s voice seemed to come from a distance. “But it’s a good thing that Mistress Weatherwax has managed to make him human-shaped… to bring him back again.”
“I wonder why he had turned into a fly in the first place.” She couldn’t help herself. It was like probing a sore tooth with the tip of one’s tongue.
“You’ve heard the Archchancellor,” said Carrot. “The young chaps in the High Energy Magic Building have made a considerable breakthrough in their cottage-cheese research, in collaboration with the Verrückter-Doktor-Ha-Ha-Universität in Uberwald…”
“Are you sure it’s about cottage cheese? I thought the Archchancellor lost the plot a bit there.”
“I think that’s a direct translation from Uberwaldian. Anyway, the magical fallout…”
“Yes, Carrot, I heard all that. But he didn’t really give an explanation, did he?”
“Well. I think that was the morphic field asserting itself, trying to find the perfect shape.”
“Hm.” Angua pondered for a while and decided to leave the subject alone. “I guess you’re right and we will never know.”
Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs stood by their favourite hippo on the Brass Bridge and whiled away tedious hours of patrolling duty by dropping sticks on the upstream side. It was their favourite game, as it didn’t require the players to do much.5
5In theory, they should be running across the bridge to see whose stick would come out on the downstream side first, but modern Ankh-Morpork was a busy city, and crossing Brass Bridge when it was teeming with traffic amounted to a minor expedition. They had long decided the game was not worth risking their lives.
“They’re called Poohsticks,” Nobby said after a while. “A wizard told me the other day.”
“Well, they are now,” said Colon, watching the brown, for lack of a better word, water crawl sloppily under the bridge.
Nobby dropped another stick into the river. “I miss my wings,” he said.