The Christmas Butterfly – Short story

EN(French translation: here)

At first, I thought it was a moth. In the dusty old library my grandfather didn’t use anymore, among dark cobwebbed Victorian furniture, the translucent insect fluttered so quickly I couldn’t manage to touch it. I had come here at dusk, to study for the Probability and Statistics midterm exam I would need to pass in January at the University, reassuringly surrounded by ancient books and smelly, familiar old leather. After half an hour spent in vainly chasing the evanescent moth, I decided I should get back to my mathematics books and I soon forgot the elusive animal.

But on the next evening, I was sitting comfortably in the mellow crimson armchair and was just reaching for my inkpen when pale wings appeared soundlessly in front of my eyes. I had the unexplainable feeling that this was the same insect than the day before. My grandfather had let me light a fire in the hearth and the crackling sound of burning wood felt suddenly threatening. I was afraid the moth would fly towards the warm gleam but it didn’t seem to be interested in it. Instead, it was circling around an imposing mahogany globe as if trying to cause a hurricane over this miniature world.

I dropped my pen on the table and rooted myself out of the deep wing-back chair, scanning the bookshelves until I found some entomology books. I carefully extracted a heavy leather bound tome from its polished shelving and searched for white moths. Could my small library neighbour be an Agreeable Tiger Moth? “Spilosoma Congrua, the book said. Flight: from april to august.” Indeed moths were not supposed to fly in winter, that much I could remember from biology lessons, and anyway the tiny creature looked much bigger than a white moth. I thought of asking my grandfather but it was getting really late and I suddenly felt squeamish at the idea of telling him about my new friend, so I decided to keep it a secret. After all, it was clearly harmless, not like clothing moths or other bugs.

It had landed on the dried burgundy roses I had brought a few months ago and that my grandfather had neglected to water. It was so sad to see it half-heartedly gathering some imaginary nectar from the dead petals, as if out of sheer habit, as if it actually knew there was nothing to eat but couldn’t help trying. I managed to draw nearer and compared it to the pictures in the entomology volume. It definitely looked like a butterfly more than a moth, with its strangely white golf club shaped antennas, but the next day, when I came back right before noon, I couldn’t see it in the library anymore.

There were no butterflies in my grandfather’s garden either. Apart from me, no being moved over the snow covered plants, frozen like alabaster sculptures in a modernist museum. Shivering in the cold December morning, I thought nothing would before spring. I was glad I didn’t tell my grandpa about it, as my aunt might have overheard and told me: “Butterflies in winter, at night? Do I need to call a psychiatrist, my dear girl?” and then she would have laughed as though she were joking, but it would still have stung.

On the night before Christmas, I decided to stay awake. As a child, I had spent a few Christmas eves sneaking out of my bedroom, then slowly, silently tiptoeing down the stairs, carefully turning the ornate brass handle outside the library door so I would hide behind the black leather sofa where I could see the fireplace, hoping I would spy on a magically soot-free Father Christmas, his arms full of gifts he would bring to the dining room. Of course, I always fell asleep before I could behold him. In the morning I would wake up in my bed and when I would join my family downstairs my grandmother would wink at me.

This time, I was old enough to stay in the library as long as I wanted to and I felt determined I would not fall asleep. My combinatorics lessons were here to make sure I had something to do until dawn, when I would know at last where and how the winter butterfly was spending its days.

I had also brought from the kitchen a huge purple bone china teapot filled with a very good Ceylon tea flavoured with cinnamon and cloves.

The milky wings were already adorning the room, dancing over my steaming mug and mathematical formulas. I carefully extended my left hand, inviting the butterfly to land on it. Quietly approaching my palm, guardedly letting itself be tamed, it went still on my skin, as eerily weightless as if it were not here at all, but glowing beautifully. It was so transparent I thought I could see my fingers through its shining wings, but then it took off again and hid behind the heavy velvet curtains.

I sat and focused on my studies, seeping delicious, warm liquid from my mug and scribbling on leftover paper. I glanced at the old fashioned tarnished silver clock on the mantelpiece without thinking until I realized hours had slipped by as it was already three in the morning. “Merry Christmas, little white butterfly”, I whispered, and here it appeared again, raising itself over the ticking clock until it was facing the enormous Venetian mirror over the mantelpiece.

It seemed to recoil in horror, flying haphazardly backwards, but I couldn’t fathom how such an iridescent, graceful being could frighten anyone or anything, including itself.

But it kept on moving randomly through the room, until it vanished straight through the fireplace, frightfully invisible among the golden flames. Almost immediately, the fire died as the overhead light bulb broke simultaneously and I gasped, alone and completely blind, fearing my nocturnal comrade had burnt itself, that only ebony ashes would be left from the once pearly creature.

I soon came to my senses and I stumbled over scattered pieces of furniture as I tried to reach for a light I could switch on. I thought I had found the big oak desk and I groped around for the study lamp that was supposed to be there. Instead I grabbed the curtains, their sudden tingling, velvety feel startling me. I was on the verge of parting them, hoping the new moon sky would allow me to better distinguish shapes and objects, but I stopped as my small friend darted out of the left curtain, back into the library. Astonished, I stared at it for what felt like hours, the only visible thing in the whole room, its usual white shimmer now painfully bright like a hundred fireflies gathered together in a cloudless, moonless night.

How could this already unlikely apparition be glowing neon white, phosphorescent in the winter early morning? At last, I managed to switch a lamp on while the acrid smell of the cooling hearth was slowly filling my lungs. The butterfly landed on top of the lampshade. It was less bright but still not dull at all, seemingly looking expectantly at me, as if asking whether I could like it after what I saw. I did. I felt even more curious about it.

I was beginning to feel light headed out of sleep deprivation but I didn’t want to miss dawn. I sat back in the armchair and sipped some cold tea, its spicy taste a prelude to the Christmas feast my grandfather, my aunt and I would soon share, my aunt still gossiping over my parents spending Christmas in a faraway, sunny island. The library pet stood guard on me as I finished studying and it perched on the right armrest while I took a worn mystery book from the closest row. It fluttered before my eyelids each time I felt my head drop sleepily and a few minutes before dawn it raised itself over my head, waiting for me.

I stood excitedly, all pretence of tiredness evaporated at the idea of discovering the butterfly’s day lair. Dim light began to pour out of the tiny opening between the thick curtains as my ivory butterfly flew slowly, almost reluctantly, towards a shabby looking wall covered with tilted sundry frames that might have been hung during my grandmother’s youth.

I stared at the pictures as if it was the first time and here was, clumsily obvious between two herbaria, the frame bearing pinned butterflies that both fascinated and repelled me as a child. I loved those magnificently vivid, motley things, but I felt sorry they were so lifeless, killed by my great grandfather on some long gone summer day, or bought from shady insect hunters. All those shapes and colours, artificially united on a yellowing sheet, made me think the vibrant blue Morpho butterfly would look much more impressive while flying through a forest, and the sophisticated red Peacock one would make me happier if I could see it scour a meadow. Now they were all desperately motionless in their glass coffin, except for my Snow White butterfly approaching this morbid display, hovering in front of a shiny black, yellow edged corpse a faded blue label described as a “Camberwell Beauty / Mourning Cloak”.

Before the flitting butterfly disappeared, absorbed in the still body, they were fleetingly superimposed and I could see how similarly shaped they were, their contrasting colour the only difference, like two conflicting chess pieces.

The chilly room was starting to warm under the shy December sun and all the butterflies were resting, the undead one sleeping, waiting for dusk. But I wouldn’t be here anymore, as my train was leaving at three in the afternoon, after the Christmas lunch.

***

I couldn’t forget my ghost butterfly when I returned to the university. Some nights when I became lost in my studies, I thought I could perceive a flickering light from the corner of my eye, but each time I rose my head I could only see my small student room, the window overlooking a suburban neighbourhood mostly lit by the headlamps of passing cars.

A new winter found me waiting for the train that would lead me to my grandfather’s house. I spent the whole journey hoping I would see my tiny flying ghost again.

So when I finally opened the library door, a shiver of cold dread spread through my spine, not because the room looked cleaner than it had been for years, but because a damp stain on the striped wallpaper greeted me instead of the butterfly’s frame. Did my grandfather burn it? Was my poor friend lost forever? I didn’t dare ask him, afraid of what the answer might be, and tried vainly to forget it, avoiding the library.

When Christmas day came, my grandfather and my aunt were waiting for me in the dining room, in front of green and red present-laden Christmas socks that hung near a glittering, enormous Christmas tree. My grandfather held out a rectangular parcel to me. I took it inquisitively, it was heavy and wrapped in an angel patterned paper. I tore the gift wrap, my heart beating painfully in my chest as I began to guess what I would find inside.

I was right: the black butterfly rested inconspicuously among all the dead insects, and I clutched the frame as I tried to repress tears of joy.

My grandfather smiled when I asked him shakily how on earth he had known what I wanted.

“I have had enough of dead things”, he answered. “And last year you forgot to put the entomology books you were reading back in the bookshelves. So I thought you might like it, as awful as it looks to me.”

I burst into tears at last. My aunt was glaring at me disapprovingly. “You’ve always been such a nutter, my girl” she muttered. But it didn’t feel as bitter as it might have before. I really didn’t care what she thought, for my friend was still here and it wouldn’t have to stay alone in a cold, empty room anymore.

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