The Rose and the Butterflies
By M Regan
I. Black Lady, Black Lady, I’ve stolen your baby!
The creature alights upon the tree’s girth, flittering, blindingly white against the moss. It is a puny thing. It is not pretty, it is not strong. It is not like those butterflies the child has heard tell about, those who can summon storms by flapping their wings. No way this one could be up to storm-summoning snuff: Tossed hither and tither by damp spring drafts, it is almost too delicate to have survived the banality of perching.
A derivative of chaos more than a chaos deriver, then. The butterfly splays itself open, unimpressive.
The boy is suitably unimpressed.
Balanced atop a gnarled root, the child rocks back and forth and considers the gossamer thing, pudgy fingers laced and rubber galoshes squeaking. Someone had told him that, in certain places, killing the year’s first butterfly brings twelve months of good fortune. He can’t remember who said this. Neither can he remember who told him the opposite, but he knows he has heard that, as well: That killing the year’s first butterfly brings bad luck. What to do, then, what to do? The contradictory directives are paradox enough to keep him from doing anything at all, sans to roll on the balls of his feet.
The excess length of his scarf flirts with the mud.
“Oh, look at that.”
Puffing, the boy’s mother comes up behind him, pudgier than her son but prettier than the butterfly. It had taken her some time to catch up on the path, but now that she has, she takes a moment to admire the imago herself. It nearly glows against the oak. “I believe that’s a cabbage white.”
The child wrinkles his nose, stepping instinctively away.
“I don’t like cabbage.”
“And most people don’t care for cabbage whites,” his mother chuckles, sweeping a hand across her brow. The motion stirs the forest air, which in turn stirs the butterfly. When they both again settle, she adds, “It’s a real pest in these parts.”
“Oh. Well then, should I kill it?” the boy wonders once more, but aloud this time, so that his mother can weigh in with her opinion. “If it’s a pest, it should be okay. Nobody wants it here. I can crush it, easy.”
His proposal seems to disturb the woman. Her face contorts like his had at the mention of cabbages. “I can hardly think of what good killing it would do.”
“It’ll bring me luck, maybe.”
“The awful sort, perhaps,” his mother contends, frowning. “Rarely does murder improve one’s fortunes.”
The boy gasps in disappointment, his arguments rendered moot by the butterfly’s return to flight. His palms itch within his gloves, and he regrets having asked at all; it had lost him the opportunity to embrace the godly. It is not often that a child has a chance to feel powerful, but the heartbeat flurry of life being crushed beneath a hand gives precisely such a thrill. He mourns the loss of that rush as the creature itself rushes off, bumbling through the brush and into the distance.
Above, the sky is a rumbling slate.
II. Black Lady, Black Lady, I’ve stolen your baby!
“You don’t think she’s really out there, do you?”
“Oh my God, Suzana, seriously?”
Her friend makes a show out of rolling brown eyes, tongue cracking in exasperation. Thunder cracks, too. Brontide rumblings resonate over the earth, their distant echoes reminiscent of falling bodies, decapitated heads. Suzana winces, the light of her torch torn into strips by the clawing branches of the trees.
It is late afternoon. The sun had been shining only thirty minutes ago. But then clouds had rolled in, along with the threat of a deluge, and suddenly this ghost hunt of theirs is no longer any fun.
Suzana swallows, wishing that the lump in her throat would dislodge itself and crush the butterflies in her belly. Instead, that fluttering becomes kaleidoscopic, swarms stirred by the moist winds that whisper through the hawthorns and tickle the back of her nape.
She thinks she might be sick.
“I just… It’s stupid to risk our lives on a dare,” Suzana mutters into the gloom, shooting her friend a baleful glance. When the other responds with a louder scoff, running a hand through dark hair, the ginger begins to grind her teeth. “No, seriously, Minori. The weather’s getting bad, the paths are already mushy, and… I dunno. Maybe this was a bad idea. When I was a kid, my father was always saying how the Black Lady takes children away.”
“Well, it’s a good thing we’re not children, then,” Minori drones, tromping with ever-more purpose down the trail. “Or I’m not, anyway. Not so sure about you anymore.”
“Shut up,” Suzana mumbles in rebuke, albeit half-heartedly. The other half of her heart is threatening to asphyxiate her. “Okay then, fine. Whatever. Let’s die out here in the woods like two idiot teenagers in the opening of a horror film.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“But before we do that,” the redhead presses, nearly tripping over a rock that the shadows had concealed, “or before we try to call her, anyway, can we at least find some holly?”
“I did some research on the ride over. Some sites were saying that holly can protect against witchcraft and stuff. And since the Lady is supposed to be a— holy shit!”
Minori jolts at Suzana’s outburst, whipping around in a frenzy of mussed braids and skirt pleats. Panicked, gawping, her attention darts here and there, there and here, looking at everything but seeing nothing. She is just about to demand what apparition her friend had witnessed when something quivers in her own peripheral.
Hefting up the dropped torch, Minori shines its golden beam upon Suzana, glowering in frustration when she spots what had so spooked her friend.
“Jesus Christ, Suzana!” Minori growls, sincerely tempted to whack the other upside the head with the handle of the light. “It’s a damned butterfly!”
The imago flaunts its paper wings, decorative black eyes staring at Minori from atop Suzana’s shoulder. Those eyes do not blink. They do not need to blink. In the tempestuous dim, the effect is markedly unnerving. Even still, Minori has little sympathy for the way that Suzana squeals and squirms and bounces in place.
“It came out of nowhere!” Suzana is whining, voice pitched in dismay. “There was movement in the corner of my eye and then it was on me, oh my God, I can feel it, it’s so gross, get it off, get it off!”
“It is off, you idiot,” Minori sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose. “You scared it away with whatever interpretive dance you’re in the middle of.”
Suzana freezes. A breath is caught within flared nostrils. She is as pale as the butterfly had been, and nearly as shaky in the breeze.
“…my… my grandma used to say that butterflies are witches in disguise,” the redhead whispers after a time, the tremor in her throat an homage to the wings of that insect. “D— D’you… Do you think that could have been…?”
Minori says nothing, but the look on her face is answer enough.
III. Black Lady, Black Lady, I’ve stolen your baby!
It is not Christmas Eve. It is not even December. And so, even if the rumors were true, it is unlikely that his shouts would have garnered the attention of nearby specters.
This does not stop him from waiting. Nor does it stop him from hoping. Unafraid, the man loiters beside moldering fence posts, anticipative but decidedly unsurprised when a woman fails to appear.
“Well? Won’t you come save him this time, either?”
The man holds aloft his captured prize, a streak of lightning illuminating the rounded edges of a breeding box. Within its plastic walls, a cabbage white whirls like a funnel cloud. Its beady eyes are that same color as the void that it searches.
“No?” the man calls again, his tone affable. Curious, almost. The first of the rain drops in frigid tears upon his cap. “Don’t you recognize him in this form?”
Bradley Woods rustles, animation granted to boughs and foliage by clammy gusts.
“He’s going to stop coming to look for you, at this rate.”
The night is as black as a mourning gown. Leaves whisper like crêpe. Like widow’s weeds.
“Does that mean I can add his body to my collection this year, as well?”
Within its tomb, the imago flails, its tantrum silent. Or if not silent, it goes unheard. Shrugging, the man lowers his proffered breeding box, resting it gently against his thigh.
“Your loss, Lady,” he says, turning to leave. The walk back to his car is uneventful.
He does not see the black butterfly upon his rearview mirror, quietly flapping its wings.