Tuesday 1 September 2015

Short Story 2015, Featured Writer Anushree Nande

L’Effet De Papillon

There are few sadder sights than that of a crushed butterfly. I moved on. But the image created a heavier dent in the layer of numbness I was wearing on top of my only suit, than seemed possible with something as delicate as a butterfly. It had been a beauty. A Large Blue Butterfly, an average wingspan of up to 2 inches, with dark brown speckles on its wings which resembled irregular polka dots. My hands started to twitch and I instinctively slid them in my pant pockets. They touched a small velvet box. I had forgotten I’d put it in there before leaving my apartment. Almost an afterthought.

The collar of my shirt suddenly seemed to tighten. I felt the first drops of sweat from my armpits staining my shirt, but couldn’t be bothered removing my jacket, which hung reluctantly on my shoulders. The tie felt even more like a noose now than it had when I got dressed, and pulling at it or loosening it didn’t get rid of the trapped feeling. I wished I could just keep on walking, and yet never get any closer to the destination. My entire body ached, as every muscle and every cell resisted each step forward.

My route was taking me through the woods. It had always been the part of the city I enjoyed the most. There was a shorter way around it but this was my first choice, whenever possible. One of the things that fascinated me most about nature was that it changed constantly – miniscule changes every micro-second that most of us are never aware of. I was still amazed at how people felt the need to induce or create change artificially. My sister and I were lucky that our father ensured we never indulged in such ignorance.

“Oi, no peeking!”
     “They’re closed, Dad! I swear!”
     “Beth, hold on to his blindfold just in case.”
     “But Dad! I swear my eyes are closed tight! Look!”
In my strong desire to show Dad that I wasn’t cheating, I had forgotten to try and deepen my voice like I’d started doing the past few months, and my voice ended up sounding a lot higher than my sister’s. I stood on tip-toes partly to show my father how tight the blindfold was, and partly because it made me seem a bit taller. By the time Dad was convinced I really couldn’t see anything, I had already recognised the resinous smell of the pine needles he held in his hand, but at the same time, was confused by the unfamiliar bitter perfume of what I assumed were leaves of some sort. I was annoyed, because it was something I prided myself on, even as a nine year old boy. I may not have been able to distinguish between the smells of Magic Markers or Play-Doh, but I could always differentiate between a coniferous and a deciduous tree. I knew the scale-like leaves of the cedar tree that I had crashed my first bike into, and could identify more species of trees and plants than any other kid from my school. In the end, I was partially soothed to know that even though I couldn’t place it as a western sweet shrub, I had rightly guessed that Dad was holding the leaves of a deciduous plant in his hand.

I was concentrating hard on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. So it was not until I went past the old bench by the oak tree that I noticed the sudden narrowness in my throat. It was like all my throat muscles had decided to move in towards each other at the same time. As I took a long, deep breath, I inadvertently inhaled the dry, slightly sharp smell of the moss. I had learnt long ago that it was the easiest way of knowing that I was in a forest, or nearing one, even with my eyes closed, or from a mile away. All my impulses told me to retrace my steps and go sit on our bench, and I unconsciously took a step back. But the next moment I forced myself to move on. I was still unable to stop my mind from lingering around the bench.

“The sandwiches are getting soggy, sweetheart; I’m not the one who hates it when the mustard softens the bread too much!”
Her oval eyes had looked almost violet in some angles; straight, long raven hair perfectly framing her high cheek-bones. Her slender frame had looked particularly fragile against the solidity of the faded teak bench – an oddly matched couple that still somehow managed to make a right fit. I’d always wondered whose idea it was to build all those benches with teak. But we’d loved the one by the massive oak. On one of our picnic outings, we’d even joked about how corny it would be for me to carve our names into the yellowish-brown backrest.
“Don’t forget the heart around them, with Cupid’s arrow through it!”
That laugh. She had really distinct ones for her different moods – there was her tinkling charming laugh when there were ‘rainbows and ponies in her world,’ as I would tease her. Then there was the soft, thoughtful laugh to herself if she read or remembered something funny. And the loud peal which was whimsical, teasing and fun at the same time.
It took a considerable amount of effort for me not to turn my head again and look back at the bench. The last memory of her sitting on that bench cross-legged in her denim skirt and a stripy black and red top. I couldn’t rid my mind of it. The masses of red, gold and yellow leaves that hid the spongy earth on this part of the track, scrunched under my reluctant feet. I just couldn’t do it. Go where I was supposed to be going. Red roses and shiny wood against the rain-soaked earth, amidst all her family, and the many familiar faces that had once been a part of my world. The vacuum that had followed me like a raw shadow, threatened to take over my existence. I just couldn’t go where I was supposed to be going.
It was in the split-second it takes to do something, even while meaning to do the opposite, that my feet made the decision. I found myself turning around, trying hard not to disintegrate on the way back. It was all a blur, and I didn’t even realise when I leaned against the backrest – yellowish-brown timber, faded in bits, solid. I closed my eyes, taking slow deep breaths, leaning back further. The sun felt hot and made my eyes appear red from the inside. After a while, I felt less fragile, but didn’t want to open my eyes just yet. When I finally did, with my head resting on the edge of the backrest, I was looking up at the sky and the branches that arched over my head. It was then that I saw it. It was tiny, black, and clinging to the chrysalis for what must have been a fair few hours, because within a few seconds its orange wings started to flutter. Weak and slow at first, but persistent, until it finally separated from its shell and flew away, even as I willed it to stay for a moment longer.
I don’t know why but I followed it. I lost track of the tiny blur of orange and black after the first few minutes, but ended up following a path I knew very well. It brought me to the river. A place I had been coming to since I was twelve. Here I could be alone with something that wordlessly answered me. Ironically finding peace in a surrounding where change was the only constant. A pacy walk among the trees or just sitting by the river offered better solace than talking with anyone.
Yet, I could not stop wondering what she’d have said had she known that I walked away. Everything in my apartment reminded me of her. I thought I had gotten rid of sufficient things to get through the hours of the day that I was awake and moving around. But she was everywhere - the small olive settee in the living room we’d sat on, for most of our first official date, and where I’d spilt the spicy home-made pizza sauce on her new pearl-coloured dress. It had left a faint but distinct stain that we couldn’t get rid of even with copious amounts of water and numerous cotton napkins. She had repeatedly tried to make it into a very insignificant occurrence, but I had secretly worried about whether she would call me the next day and tell me that she couldn’t make it for the walk we’d planned in the woods if the weather was nice.
Then there was the small replica of the famous gold-domed theatre where she had performed her first international solo, in Manaus. I had flown all the way to Brazil to watch Irene dance and in the process, managed to get some of my best shots of Amazonian wildlife for the show at the LBN.
There were also the light blue curtains with the tiny star imprints on them. I couldn’t make myself give them up to the charity shop down the road. I remember her coming home with them. It was the first time since we’d lost Kara that Irene had managed to get herself out of bed, dressed and out of the house. Even in her most worn pair of jeans, wearing her favourite purple ‘Hobbit with a dancing problem’ hoodie (my first birthday gift to her), with her hair hastily tied up and with no make-up but the hurt and the pain to accentuate her features, she had looked achingly serene.
I never told her this, but I had been late for our very first meeting. I had been working over the prints for an upcoming black and white show. Her performance was well underway by the time I reached the theatre. Ballets were never really my thing. I was primarily there to impress the owner of one of town’s hottest new galleries. But in those few moments where she seemed to float across the stage, Irene had unknowingly converted me. She always laughed later on at the fact that she succeeded in changing me, before our first official meeting; something she couldn’t manage later despite conscious effort.

     “You know the first thing that I thought on meeting you? Floats like a butterfly.”
     I paused for a breath and a cheeky grin in Irene’s direction,
     “… I was so wrong!”
     I usually had to duck from her throwing a pillow at me if there was one near her, or dodge a few punches that were more playful than anything, and pretend that she’d hurt me.

My sleep had consistently shortened. I didn’t dare to look at myself in the mirror apart from when I brushed my teeth, and when I could be bothered to shave. I spent most nights going over her old photos and then spent every morning trying to forget, with long and tiring runs wherever my feet led me. Once at work, I would immerse myself in the world I’d always loved being a part of. I knew all my photos down to the tiniest of details – it came with the territory of spending countless hours in their company to make sure that the light, the angle, the expression or the frame was right – capturing and freezing a moment in time, with no visible imperfections. All the tiny, tedious things I had always loved about photography, after twenty years of breathing and living the passion. But none of it did anything to pierce the shield of numbness I seemed to be wearing permanently these days.
I could never have predicted what I would find one morning as I returned from my run. It was an unusually hot and sunny day for that time of year and my t-shirt stuck to my back. All I did before fumbling with my keys was pick up the small envelope. In a sealed plastic bag, there was a delicate, silver, filigree butterfly pendant modeled after a Blue Morpho Butterfly - electric blue, with tiny ice-blue stones on the borders of its wings. Hung on a silver chain made out of tiny links.
I had not seen it since that day in Paris all those years ago. We had been walking around aimlessly when we came across it in the display windows of one of the many antique jewellery shops in the old part of the city. It was meant to be Kara’s christening present. I had forgotten about it. But Irene had saved it for all those years, despite the tragedy; remembering to leave it to a man she had refused to talk to for so many years.
I wish I’d found out about her illness sooner, rather than the dry message her sister, Amy, left on my answering machine informing me of the funeral. I had barely any time to digest it. It was sandwiched between my boss’ message asking me to hand in the photos I’d shot on my latest assignment to South America, and Mum’s message reminding me about accompanying her for the appointment with Dr. Barnes.
I needed to see her. The pendant finally pierced through everything and I just had to see her. My legs were working on pure adrenaline as I stepped out. There was no recollection of the walk later, apart from that of mentally preparing myself. My first clear memory was the smell of the freshly-turned earth, as I stared at my own image in the shiny stone. But nothing could have prepared me for it. And yet again, there it was. A Large Blue Butterfly, an average wingspan of up to 2 inches, with dark brown speckles on its wings which resembled irregular polka dots. But this one was very much alive, its tiny wings fluttering in a blur of blue and brown against the cool black of the headstone. It had settled itself right above the carved inscription - Irene symbolised the dance of our lives.
It was then that I felt the first tear roll down my cheek and my nose; it was soon followed by more. For the first time in nearly ten years I did not stop them. Just before I said goodbye, I took the small box from the inside of my jacket and placed it among all the flowers, half-hidden. The ring it protected should have been hers. A pair of her favourite gossamer butterflies flying together was inscribed on the inside of the simple thin platinum band. What if I’d asked her sooner?

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