The Outcast by Gray Winsler | Art by Graham Franciose

Spotted Nonetheless by Graham Franciose

The Outcast
By Gray Winsler
Art by Graham Franciose
Published Issue 124, April 2024


That’s what she had said. Her own mother. How could she? I saved her. 

Shut up, Liwen thought, chastising herself. This was not the time. She took a deep breath, trying to focus on the world around her. You cannot drift in the jungle. Its forest of entangled mirrors, life crawling upon life. If you let yourself drift, you will lose the day trying to find your way back to where you have already been. If you make it back at all.

Capo mrrrped from a branch high above. Liwen tried not to anthropomorphize life in the jungle. It was a game of survival. Instinct. There was no right or wrong — no scorn or guilt or condemnation. Only life, and death. But she had known Capo too long to not feel the judgment in her gaze, reminding her to keep her focus. She felt cats had perfected the glare of disappointment.

“Are you sure this is the way back?” one of the members of her group asked.

Tourists. Always afraid, Liwen thought. Fear can lead you to pick up on subtle cues, a moment’s hesitation that can betray indecision, a lack of confidence. She was their guide in the jungle. They looked to her as a light in the darkness. If she flickered for a moment, their stomachs would lurch with apprehension. They came here claiming they wanted adventure. But Liwen knew they wanted the adventure they see in movies. Scripted. Choreographed. Planned. And she knew as well as anyone that the jungle does not care about such plans.

She turned and smiled, shouting to the group, “Just another half hour! I hope you’re working up an appetite — we’ve got a big feast planned for you tonight.”

Unforgivable. Her mother’s words returned, echoing in her mind as they had for years. Liwen shook the thought away once again and followed Capo’s lead as she leapt from branch to branch overhead. She wondered what she would do without her feline companion. Would she have made it this far? Or would she have drifted too far from the river one day, lost herself in the jungle, and slowly starved until her flesh was eaten away by ants and beetles and worms? Would Mom miss me then? This was the real reason oncillas were sacred to her people. The elders might tell stories of how oncillas were the spirit animals of the Earth, physical manifestations of the Great Spirit that guides all life. But Liwen knew better. Oncillas were sacred because without their feline companions, her people would be as aimless as a compass on the North Pole.

Together, Liwen and Capo led their group back to XPLOR’s basecamp. The camp was made up of a collection of million dollar tree houses, suspended in the air like giant ornaments on a Christmas tree. They were complete with all of the modern amenities — air conditioning, Wi-Fi, VR. Her people thought these luxuries did not belong in the jungle. They thought they were abominations, given to man by wretched spirits who wished to enslave mankind. Liwen had believed this for a time, but her opinions began to change when she discovered soft serve ice cream.

She preferred ice cream to water after a long day in the jungle. After guiding her guests to the main dining hall, she and Capo found their way to the staff kitchen. She made her companion a plate of fresh fish and thanked her for her assistance, then levered herself a mugful of ice cream.

“I’ve never seen someone eat ice cream quite like you,” Matthew said, appearing in the entryway behind her.

“Thank you. It’s one of my many talents,” Liwen winked.

He laughed uncomfortably. Matthew was a biologist at XPLOR. He was also a full-blown nerd, which Liwen found endearing. Choices of companions in the remote jungle were slim, but she enjoyed his company.

Later that night they found themselves lying in bed together, bodies slick with sweat, practically sticking to each other as they stared absently at the fan above.

“What do you have against A/C again?” Matthew asked.

Liwen shrugged. “Old habits.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he sat up in bed to face her, “do you like your job?”

“You want me to be honest?” she traced her hand along his arm.


“I love it.”


“Of course. I get paid to share my home with people. What’s not to love?”

“I don’t know … I guess I just assumed there was something weird about serving outsiders.”

“I don’t serve anyone.”

“Of course, that’s not what I meant— ”

Liwen smiled at him, bemused. “It is easy to make you squirm.”

“Oh. Ha, ha.”

“There are assholes, sure. The know-it-alls are the worst. The ones who think they know what they’re doing because they’ve led some Boy Scouts down a paved hiking trail in Indiana. They’re the dangerous ones, the ones you need to keep an eye on lest they drift into the jungle never to be seen again.”

“Has that happened? Have you lost people?”

“Me? No. But I’ve heard stories.”

“I can’t tell if you’re just fucking with me.”

Unforgivable. I don’t ever want to see you again. Her mothers words a constant intrusion, ordering her thoughts in a new direction like cordyceps ordering an asant to water, threatening to drown her. She saw her mother’s face in her mind’s eye. The contempt. The disdain. Their last moment together was like a nightmarish GIF on loop in her head. I saved you! She screamed inside at the pulsating image of her mother. Was she screaming? Or was she pleading? Begging her to understand? She had done what she had to — she must know that?

“Liwen?” Matthew asked gently.

“Hm? Sorry. Did you say something?”

“Where do you go?”

“Doesn’t matter,” getting out of bed she went to the railing, beyond which was the infinite jungle, screaming with life. A nightly orgy and massacre led by millions of organisms, some still to be discovered.

He joined her, rubbing her back softly. The touch warmed her. She liked Matthew. He was kind, comforting. Their relationship wasn’t serious, but it was good. Like a cup of tea on a cold winter day — something Liwen hoped she could one day experience. They both stared out into the black, listening to the symphony of life.

“Does it ever scare you?” he asked.

“No. It’s my home.”

“My home scares me sometimes.”

“The jungle is only scary because you don’t know it like I do.”

“I know that out there even a frog may be my undoing.”

“Frogs are sacred to my people.”


“They represent fertility. People believe that if you eat a poison dart frog it’ll make your penis grow bigger. I could try finding you one?” Liwen teased with a crooked smile.

Matthew feigned a scowl. “What do your people find sacred?”

Liwen glanced to Capo who sat on the railing not far from them, seemingly deciding whether or not to venture into the night and find herself a midnight snack. 

“Ah, the oncilla. I’ve heard they’re— ”

He was interrupted by the screams of a human, cutting through the jungle like a knife. They looked at each other for an instant, more cries of pain echoing in the night, closer now. Without a word they threw on their clothes and set off toward the wails, ending up at the small med center in XPLOR. 

Bursting into the room, she had expected to find a tourist who decided to go out for a midnight stroll. What they found was far worse.

Liwen stared at the man writhing on the table. She knew him. She recognized the paint on his face in an instant. He was one of her people. 

Carlos, their doctor, glanced over his shoulder. “You should go,” he said, before ripping off part of the man’s shirt, exposing his wound.

Liwen walked to the table, trying not to stare at the blood that oozed out of what looked like bullet wounds in his stomach. “I know him,” she said quietly, brushing sweat-soaked hair from his face as Carlos tended to his wound.

“Gael?” Liwen asked tentatively.

Gael’s eyes drifted to her. “Liwen … ”

Carlos wiped the wound clean. Liwen reached to hold Gael’s hand as he winced in pain. She leaned in closer to him. 

“What happened?”

Gael moaned.

“Gael,” she asked again, “What happened?” more forcefully this time, knowing her people were not likely to travel alone, knowing that whatever happened to Gael likely happened to the others.

“Poachers … ” he whispered.

“Poachers? Why would poachers have done this?”

“We … had to stop them … ”

Liwen clenched her fists. Idiots. For her people, poachers were the devil incarnate, killing oncillas indiscriminately for their pelts. But she never thought they’d try and stop them on their own.

“Where are the others? Are they okay?”

Gael groaned in agony as Carlos plucked a piece of shrapnel from his stomach.

“Where are they Gael!?” Liwen shouted.

“You mom … ” he began, before more pain seemed to shutter through him, too much for him to bear. He blacked out.

“What about her? What about my mom!?”

“Liwen!” Carlos yelled over her. Liwen turned to him, his hands covered in blood. “You need to go.”

She stared at him, scared, furious. But before she could think to say anything, to do anything, Matthew guided her out of the room.


“Let me come with you.” Matthew said.

Liwen shook her head. “I’ll be fine.” She slipped her pistol into her backpack.

“I can help. You don’t know who’s out there, how many there are.”

“I don’t have time to hold your hand.”

When she looked up moments later, she saw Matthew had gone. She had not meant to be so harsh, but she could not worry about that now. She strapped her hunting knife to her thigh, tossed her bag over her back, and set off into the jungle. Capo traced her steps from above as the first light of dawn broke through the canopy. 

Liwen knew the way to her village well. She had made the trek many times before, contemplating whether or not confront her mother or to steal a secret visit to her little brother. He’d be five now. Was he okay? Poachers were desperate, but they wouldn’t kill a little boy, would they? Liwen quickened her pace, sweat streaming down her face, tracing faint lines in the mud she used to keep the mosquitos at bay. 

She emerged into the little clearing of her village hours later. Capo dropped down beside her, sniffing the trampled ground. Liwen crept quietly toward the main pavilion. She found the body of one of her people riddled with bullets, eager flies already buzzing. She knelt beside him and closed his eyes, whispering, “You are with the jungle now.” Not far from him was the body of an oncilla, barely recognizable without its pelt, skinned to little more than a thin slab of pink, grub-covered meat.

She saw no sign of life but crept silently still, going house by house until she reached her childhood home. She paused just outside the door, images of her mother’s desiccated corpse flashing in her mind’s eye. Taking a deep breath, she pressed the crooked wooden door open. Their home was empty. It looked just as she’d remember, every board, every groove of wood. For a moment she was still, remembering glimpses of the childhood she’d spent here. But the thought of poachers chasing her mother and brother into the jungle, the thought of them being shot somewhere she’d never find quickly broke her reverie. She turned back to see Capo on the other side of the clearing, sniffing something on the ground. Liwen went to her, finding blood-stained leaves and broken earth. Without hesitation they set off back into the jungle, following the clumsy trail the poachers had left behind. 

It was a few hours of tracking before they found another clearing dotted with shelters. The sun hung high above, beaming down on rusted scraps haphazardly slapped together into a small collection of homes. Liwen surveyed the land, once again finding it still, quiet. She crept up to the first house, then stopped abruptly. Something rustled inside. Liwen slipped the pistol from her backpack and held it in front of her as she slowly approached the door. Then swiftly she slammed it open holding the weapon out in front of her.

Her eyes flicked quickly across every corner until they landed on a person, hands and legs bound to a chair, mouth gagged. Ravi. She rushed to him, setting her pistol down on the table, and pulled the rope gag from his mouth.

“What happened Ravi? Where is everyone?”

He hesitated for a moment, and Liwen felt her rage prickle. Now was not the time to worry about her being an outcast. Ravi seemed to agree and eventually said, “I don’t know. We were supposed to go to the temple. Everyone scattered … ”

“Did you see my mom and brother?”

He paused again, though this time his expression seemed almost sympathetic.

“Liwen … your mother returned to the jungle months ago.”

She could not say anything. It was as if someone had suddenly sucked all the wind from her lungs. That can’t be true … 

Before she had a second more to think, the corrugated metal door swung open. Liwen spun to see a poacher standing in the entryway, both of them momentarily frozen in place. The poacher reached for the gun slung around his shoulder just as Liwen lunged instinctively at him. He clumsily fired three rounds into the floor before Liwen threw her full weight into him and the two of them fell backward, crashing into the earth. 

The poacher gasped for breath, the air knocked out of him. Liwen reached down for her knife, slipping it from its pocket — but the man slammed his fist into the side of her head, knocking her off of him. Dazed, she found herself beneath his weight, his arms suddenly around her throat. Her hands clasped madly, gripping nothing but fistfuls of dirt as she felt desperately for her knife. Her lungs ached. She swung her hands at his face, trying to push him off, but she could feel her vision constricting. She wondered distantly if this was all her life would come to.

There was a flash of movement then. She heard the poacher scream, her neck freed from his grip as he fell backward off of her. Liwen gasped for air, turning over in the dirt. She saw the dull glint of her knife in front of her. She grabbed it and quickly pushed herself to her feet, turning to see the poacher sieze Capo and violently fling her off of him. His face was dripping with blood, deep claw marks carved into his skin. Before he could recover Liwen lunged at him, plunging the knife into his stomach. There was a moment of stillness, of shared surprise. She looked at him, her face inches from his, seeing the fear in his eyes as he choked and fell backward into the earth. 

“Liwen!” Came a shout from back inside the house. She ran inside, finding Ravi still tied to the chair.

“They will have heard the gunshot. We must go.”

Liwen nodded absently and went back outside to the poacher, whose eyes were already vacant. She pulled the knife from his stomach and carried it inside. Ravi looked at her warily as she began cutting through his binds, the poacher’s blood leaking into the strands of rope, staining them just as it had her skin. 

Once freed Ravi took her hand and looked her in the eyes. “Thank you, sister.”

Liwen was momentarily brought back to the present by his choice of words.

“Now we must go,” he said, and led her back outside where Capo sat, seemingly unfazed by their encounter with the poacher. “We will go to the temple. I am sure the others will be there.”

She followed Ravi into the jungle, grateful not to have to think about where to put her feet. Her mind was far from here, and no amount of breath work or admonishments from Capo could fix that. She had killed someone, yes. This was a fact now. Something she would carry with her for all of her days. But that is not what weighed on her, not now. All she could think was that her mother was dead. And yet, it still didn’t feel true, didn’t feel possible. She had always known, deep down, that she would see her mother again. That in her old age her mother would soften, would want her daughter back in her life. Liwen had longed for that day. Now that was impossible. The hate of their last moments together forever etched in stone.

Art by Sommersby

The sun was setting when Liwen and Ravi arrived at her people’s temple. The temple itself was no manmade construct, but a waterfall that crashed down into a thick mist. Many of her people were there, all of them eyeing her reproachfully as she walked with Ravi. But she was too worn down to be angry at their visible disdain. 

Then, sitting on a boulder not far from the water, she saw her brother, Joao, sitting, staring off into the distance. For a moment she felt happy, grateful he was alive — and mad at herself for having forgotten him. She went to him now, ignoring the others, and sat on the boulder beside him.

Joao did not look up at her. A part of her wondered if her brother hated her too. But he was not leaving, either. She sat with him in silence for a time, then asked, “Do you remember me?”

Her brother frowned. “Of course I remember you,” he tossed a pebble into the water.

“That’s good. I wasn’t sure if Mom pretended like I never existed.”

“She tried,” he said absently. 

Liwen sighed and closed her eyes.

“But I could hear her cry at night,” he continued. “Sometimes she’d mumble your name in her prayers.”

Her brother had spoken with distrait indifference, and yet the words loosened a knot that had been tied deep inside her heart, tied by the strands of thought that had convinced Liwen her mother loathed her, despised her. That her mother had died carrying the same hatred she had expressed in their last moments together. But that wasn’t true, was it?

Liwen put her arm around her brother then, looking out at their temple, following the water as it rushed over rocks high above. She remembered her mother taking her here as a kid. She remembered standing in the stream, splashing in the water, looking back at her mother on the shore. And for the first time in years, Liwen saw her mother smiling back at her. 

Gray Winsler is the first ginger to be published in Birdy Magazine, Issue 091. He loved living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun and is now based in Ithaca, NY. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.

Graham Franciose grew up in the forests of Massachusetts. His work reaches back to those times of exploration and imagination, where anything was possible. His whimsical, sometimes emotional, illustrations show a sliver of a story, a moment between the action, leaving the exact circumstances and narrative up to the viewer. There is sense of familiarity and honesty within his characters and scenes, as well as a sense of mystery and wonder. He received his BFA in Illustration from the Hartford Art School in ’05.  He originally wanted to pursue Children’s Book Illustration as a career, but his personal work has taken center stage over the last few years. He currently lives and works as a professional artist and illustrator in Austin, TX. See more of his work on his site and follow him on Instagram.

In case you missed it check out Gray’s last Birdy install, The Exile of Ballastar, and Graham’s March 2024 Index, Quiet The Roar, head to our Explore section to see more of their work.