The Butterfly Killer by Carolyn Weisbecker
The cardboard box sat high on the top shelf of my bedroom closet, shoved behind a mountain of fabric scraps and a snow globe that held a bride and groom in a passionate embrace—a wedding gift from twenty years ago. I was searching for a belt for my new pair of jeans when my eyes rested on the box. I felt a pull, a force that cajoled me to come closer. The belt forgotten, I jumped up first to grab the statue, a second time to shove the fabric aside, and with my third jump, I managed to knock the box to the shelf’s edge. Then stretching on my tiptoes, I gave the box a hard shove. Things happened fast. The box tumbled into my outstretched hands like a happy toddler jumping off the monkey bars into his mother’s waiting arms.
I plopped on the hardwood floor and untied the twine that held the box hostage. Dust greeted my nose, and I resisted the urge to sneeze as I yanked the lid free. I blinked. Piles of crinkle-edged black and white photos gazed up at me. They pleaded for me to take a look. I picked one up and smiled.
The photo of the little girl showed baggy shorts to her knees, a tank top, and two pigtails resting on thin shoulders. Although in black and white, I remembered the flowered shorts—her favorite—and behind her, the garden diligently tended by her father bursting with corn that tickled the clouds, tomatoes, and bell peppers that didn’t ring. She never understood why. The girl beamed up at the camera, her small hands holding up a large mason jar that held a blotch of gray. I imagined the blotch was a flaw, a smudge from dirty fingers, or the result of poor photography. Then I remembered. It was none of those things.
The smudge was a large Monarch butterfly, its black; its claw-like feet clutched the shriveled-up twig the girl had placed inside hoping it would make the butterfly feel at home. She was proud of her find, that much was sure, based on her upward grin and the defiant tilt of her head. If I could ask the girl what she thought at that moment—after her mother snapped the photo on a whim—she would say that she had just caught the most beautiful butterfly in the world. Throughout the summer of 1973, she said that often.
I remember her.
Running from flower to flower, skipping through the peony bushes that separated her yard from the neighbor’s, she hovered and crouched and sprang onto unsuspecting butterflies like a sleek, hungry lioness hunting her prey. She thrust the butterflies into jars, one after another and then used old coffee cans until she ran out of those, too. Soon, the garden shed at the rear of the yard had no more shelves to hold her butterflies, so she began setting the jars and cans on the floor. She crossed her fingers and hoped her mother wouldn’t stop by the shed to check on her as she twirled around, her arms flung out to embrace her butterfly sanctuary.
The girl loved butterflies ever since her grandfather pointed them out to her while he sat in his flower garden, a hose in one hand, a beer in the other. His eyes lifted to hers as he recited the different species. He’d nod and say, “That one there is a black swallowtail. And there? That’s a tiger swallowtail. The prettiest one, I think.” That’s when the girl saw something different. “What’s that?”
Her grandfather furrowed his brow. “That one is a monarch. Lots of them around here cause of the milkweed.” The girl’s eyes grew large from awe as the distance between her and the monarch grew. Her grandfather told her everything he knew about the monarch.
The monarch butterfly, sometimes called the tiger butterfly, boasted glorious orange patterns on its wings; the patterns encased by perfect black lines sprinkled with white dots like pebbles tracing a familiar path. These were the butterflies, with their vibrant colors and happy prancing, that the girl watched with tender eyes. When she told Miss. Kramer, her fourth-grade teacher, about the monarchs, Miss. Kramer said, “Did you know their wings are covered in pixie dust?” Then she laughed. “No, I’m teasing. But if you touch their wings, you’ll end up with glittery dust on your fingers. They’re scales. They have millions of them that keeps their wings colorful.” When the girl boasted that she collected monarchs and kept them in glass jars, Ms. Kramer made her promise to free them right away. “Butterflies are special, honey. You don’t want them to die, do you?” The girl promised to let them go.
Her classmate, Patrick, overheard them. He pulled her aside. “Don’t listen to her. They’re just bugs, like crickets and spiders. My brother and me catches them and pins them to a cork board. Do you do that with the ones you catch?”
She shook her head, horrified by the thought of it.
“Oh, you will.” Patrick smirked. “All butterfly catchers do that.”
She gasped because she couldn’t imagine such a thing. The next morning, she rushed to the shed to fulfill her promise to free the butterflies, but when she opened the door, a hand from the heavens reached down and struck her with such great force she cried out and staggered back.
Perhaps she always knew it would happen. That one day she would skip to the shed only 6 to find that the old mason jars and coffee cans held a grim finding—not the fluttering sound of butterflies—but instead, a pile of faded wings and curled black legs. She carried the jars and cans outside, one by one, and set each on the grass. Then, she opened the lids to shake out the insects. As the pile grew, a late summer breeze stumbled past, lifting the dried insects high into the air, until they, like her heart, tumbled back to the ground.
Her brother jogged over to stand beside her. “You killed them all. You’re a butterfly killer.” He sighed. “Wait until Mom finds out what you did!”
She pushed herself up and ran straight to her bedroom, ignoring her mother’s calls that lunch was ready. It was her favorite—tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches—but she ignored the ache in her stomach and crawled under her bed, not caring about the dust balls, dead bugs, or broken toys that dug into her back. In the dark silence, the words butterfly killer echoed through her mind. She couldn’t ignore them. It was, at that moment, that her whimpers turned to sobs, and her sobs turned into a wail. Her mind nudged her, urging her to accept the truth: she had killed all the monarchs in the world. They were gone forever, and it was her fault.
The silence goaded her. You’re a horrible girl. How could you do such a thing?
The girl squeezed her eyes, hard, and wished she could go back in time. She remembered when she first saw them while standing at the kitchen window, her arms propped up on the windowsill, and the sun urging her to join it. Robins, flitting wrens, and an occasional cardinal took turns at the backyard birdbath. But it wasn’t the birds that caught her attention.
Two monarch butterflies fluttered and swayed from daisy to daisy, peony to peony, rose to rose; each flower more enthralled than the last by the pair's antics. She remembered rushing out the door, down the porch steps, and to the flower garden where the butterflies still played. Without thinking, she inched her way closer and hovered her hand over the butterfly’s wings until she could squeeze them together. She caught it. Her breath came to a halt, and nothing mattered but the butterfly in her hand and the nudging of its wings as it fought for freedom.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “I won’t hurt you.”
Her memories shattered as the bedroom door flew open.
Her mother got down on her hands and knees and peered under the bed. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”
The girl crawled out from under the bed and wiped her face with one sleeve. “I killed all the butterflies, Mom.”
“I know. Your brother told me. You can’t expect a living creature to survive in a jar, honey. Especially a butterfly. But, don’t worry. You’ll see more of them.” Her mother wiped the girl’s face with the edge of her apron. “Why don’t you go outside and play? You’ll feel better.”
Didn’t her mother hear her? She killed them all. They wouldn’t be back!
The girl trudged out of the house, careful to avoid looking at the waving flowers in the back where she often caught her prey. She wandered into the front yard instead, picked up a stick, and dragged it across the chain-link fence that separated the yard from the street. The whirling of a water spray caught her attention, and her head jerked up to look for the source.
It was old Mrs. Howard, the neighbor across the street. She just turned on the water sprinkler so her herbs could drink. The girl’s heart perked up at the sight of the old woman, and she raced over to join her, hoping Mrs. Howard would offer a few of her prized peanut butter cookies and maybe a glass of milk. Cookies might help her feel better, she thought, even if she didn’t deserve them.
“Hello, Mrs. Howard,” she called to the old woman’s back.
Mrs. Howard turned. “Hello, sweetie. Have you seen any butterflies today?”
The girl’s heart felt sharp and jagged, like the chipped concrete steps of the abandoned church down the street. She swallowed hard, hoping Mrs. Howard wouldn’t discover she had killed them all.
The girl shook her head.
Mrs. Howard kneeled to pluck a stray weed. “Don’t worry. You will. They come to my yard later in the afternoon. They always do, you know.”
The girl’s eyes burned, and she felt the familiar weight of tears. “I don’t think that’ll happen. You see,” she took a deep breath and decided to be honest. “I’ve killed them all. But I didn’t mean to do it.”
Mrs. Howard squinted. “Killed them how?”
“I put them in jars so I could keep them,” the girl said. “I didn’t know it would hurt them.”
Mrs. Howard groaned as she stood. She dug into a pocket of her housecoat. “Maybe this’ll make you feel better. I found it at the dime store.”
The girl blinked, surprised by this unexpected gift.
“It’s a nice little booklet on monarch butterflies. Your momma told me how much you like butterflies. Now you can be an expert.”
“I don’t deserve any presents, Mrs. Howard. But thank you.”
“Now, don’t be shy.” Mrs. Howard pressed the booklet into the little girl’s hand. “Read it. And going forward, catch them with your eyes only.” She grinned. “That way, other folks can enjoy them, too.”
As soon as the girl ran back to her yard, she plopped onto the top of the picnic table, legs crossed, and began to read. “In May and June, the Monarch lives for anywhere from fifteen to fifty days after metamorphosing into an adult butterfly. This generation lays their eggs in milkweed plants, but the next generation are the lucky ones. They migrate to a warmer climate as the weather changes and live for six to eight months until they return.”
The rest of the summer passed, and the girl didn’t see any more butterflies.
That is, until the next summer. She stood at the kitchen window, arms propped up on the windowsill, watching the birds—mostly young robins with a few bossy sparrows—flutter around the backyard birdbath. Her mouth curved into a smile. Two large Monarch butterflies hovered before her eyes before climbing the morning breeze.
I set the photo back in the box and returned it to its original resting place. I haven’t forgotten the little girl who loved butterflies, who watched them prance from one flower to the next, who dreamed in orange and black wings amid the rolling green hill of her backyard. I never caught another butterfly again.
Carolyn Weisbecker is an online graduate student at Southern New Hampshire University where she is pursuing a masters in English and Creative Writing. Her writing appeared in the Midlands Business Journal, the Omaha Newspapers, Martial Arts Success Magazine, the Penmen Review, and Leisure World Community News.