The Papillons had ruled the spring for as long as I could remembered. We were always told not to touch them, because it would hurt.
“Them?” I asked my mother. “Or us?”
I was tiny back then, a paper-thin facsimile of a boy, no hint of my almost epic height to come. My mother was in the long, thin cotton sweater that she wore every day—or at least in my memory she did—and she tugged my slender hand to guide me around a flock of them. “What a silly question, Mark.”
It was the first warm day of spring, and the Papillons had come out in flocks. Beautiful and shining and resplendent, no sign of the unformed creatures they’d been in their cocoons. They were clustered in Persephone’s two parks and around the trees that lined the streets; caught in the flowers that grew in the highway median and in each other’s hair.
Annoyed that she hadn’t really answered my question, I said hello to one of them.
“Hello,” the Papillon said back, brightly, his hair on fire with the sun and his smile alight with the sight of me. The Papillon loved children, the same way we loved them. I wondered if they’d been told not to touch us as well.
“Mark,” said my mother, disapprovingly, not bothering to whisper.
“Mom,” I said back. I was always brave when it was just words.
“What did I just tell you?”
“Talking is not touching,” I replied.
Mom jerked my arm, leading me away from the red-haired Papillon. “It’s close enough. I’m going to tell your father you’ve been trouble today, and then what do you think will happen?”
I looked over my shoulder at the Papillon. He was singing to a group of girl Papillons, the simple delight of his face transformed to something more urgent.
My mother hadn’t answered my question, so I didn’t answer hers, either.
I didn’t see much of the Papillons next spring because my parents enrolled me in a Catholic school. Not only was I in school every day—and the Papillons, of course, didn’t go to school—but I was also in Mass twice a week, and if there was one place Papillons definitely didn’t go, it was into churches.
“Is it because they’re demons?” I asked my mother once.
“No,” she said. “Ask the nuns.”
So I asked Sister Therese, and she told me they were animals or angels or something in between and I didn’t need to worry about much other than their general lack of soul. There would be no Papillons in heaven.
“Will there be butterflies in heaven?” I asked her.
“Possibly,” she allowed. She liked me and knew I liked insects, so I’m sure she thought she was being kind.
The Papillons, as their name suggested, were very like insects. What else hatched from cocoons and lived for only three days? I persisted, “Then why not the Papillons?”
Her lips parted and then pressed together again, twice, and finally, she said, “Because they are made in the image of God, Mark, and they choose to deny it.”
Later that day, I tried to persuade one of the Papillons, a girl still shimmery and damp from emerging, to go into the empty church with me. She let me take her hand, and I stood there for a moment, thrilling to the illicitness of it—touching a Papillon, four feet from a church. Her hand was like a bird in mine; I could feel the bones through her smooth, damp skin, and it didn’t weigh anything at all. It was very, very warm, and her pulse tapped against me at the base of her palm.
“Your hand is so cold,” she told me.
“Actually, yours is hot,” I said. She had brilliantly rich hazel eyes, very large and round like those small dogs that you’re afraid of breaking. I was filled with the need to get this particular Papillon into heaven after she died.
“Well, it’s still a hand,” she said. “Both of them, I mean.”
It was true. There was nothing really to distinguish her as a Papillon aside from her pale skin, not old enough to have a tan, and her long, long hair, laying against her back like new butterfly wings.
“You should come into the church,” I said. “God’s in there, and I want Him to see you.”
“I’m not supposed to,” she said. “They said it would hurt.”
“It’s not that bad. Only if the homily is really long.”
She grinned at me. “I’m not that good at sitting still.”
It was such an ordinary, human exchange. I had expected her to sound more like an insect. More like a child. My eight-year-old self suddenly realized that he was holding the hand of an adult, an adult halfway between birth and death, and I lost my nerve. I released her hand and ran. I was a coward.
Three years later, it was cold for the Papillons, and most of them died before they ever lived; frozen, dried corpses inside papery cocoon coffins. The ones that did emerge were hungrier than they had been in previous years, and though they were fewer, it seemed they were everywhere.
That year, I learned a new word for Papillons: whore.
By the time I was in college, both the Papillons and I were well-managed. Some city dignitary had come up with the idea of shelters with glass roofs, and now there were fewer gruesome mornings after late frosts. My parents had realized that the only way I would stay in college was if they took away my car and gave me an apartment. Now there were fewer gruesome mornings after final exams.
So we all had a roof over our heads.
It was Spring semester, classes were just beginning to grow odious, and the weather broke. So, like every year, it was simply this: one morning they weren’t there, and then they were.
As a college student, the Papillons offered a different sort of entertainment than they had when I was a boy. The further I was from childhood, the easier it was to tell which day they were on. Day one: birth, discovery, innocence. Day two: the frantic search for other Papillons, the mad desire to pursue and be pursued. Day three: the weaving of new cocoons and then the countdown to death.
It seemed such a futile life. Such frantic scrabbling only to die before the week was out.
But I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. I had classes and exams and a campus full of college girls. The only time it stuck in my head was when I had to step over a body, newly minted and already exhausted, lying in doorway of my apartment building.
Then it was pretty hard to miss.
In my senior year, I broke my mother’s rule.
It was Spring, and it was late, past Papillon season. Summer was edging slowly onto campus, stretching the days longer, robbing the threat of night. Soon college would be out, I would join the ranks of the matriculated, and the real world would steal me for one of their own.
And yet, here was a Papillon girl, new and damp, hazel eyes huge in her face. There was no other Papillon for her to be wrapped around, none of her kind to flock with, and so she just sat on the sidewalk with her knees next to her chin and her arms wrapped around them.
I started to walk past her. Every other year, I’d walked past them. This year, even, I’d walked past hundreds of them. But this time, there was just the one. And next to her, the dead body of what had been another Papillon girl.
It was easy to be brave when it was just words.
“Hello,” I said to her.
She looked up at me. “Hi.”
She reminded me of someone eleven years earlier, holding my hand, looking into a church. I said, “Come to breakfast with me.”
So we went to breakfast. We sat outside and she sipped a juice while I made a tornado with my spoon in a cup of coffee. It occurred to me that I’d missed Western Civ II.
“Don’t you get bored?” she asked me. “If you don’t mind me asking?”
I blinked at her. “Bored . . . with . . . ?”
She twirled her hand around in a circle. “With all that time. What do you do with all of it?”
I looked at her, bemused. “Live? Party? Become wise and wonderful?”
“Are you wise and wonderful yet?” She was smirking at me. I’d known her two seconds and she was smirking at me. It had taken her no time at all to arrive at the same conclusion my parents had about me.
“Getting there,” I said. “Are you?”
“Naturally,” she replied. “I was wise and wonderful hours ago.” Again that wicked grin that reminded me of the Papillon outside the church.
“Aren’t you afraid of dying?” I asked. I thought about the dead Papillon she had left behind when she stood, looking down at it with an unreadable expression.
“That’s days from now,” she said, with a shrug. “Thanks for the juice. Would you like to go dancing?”
I should have said no, because I had more than two days left to my life, but she was holding her hand out to me.
So we went dancing. At first, we danced on the campus green, to the bad band that was playing a free concert at the other end. Then we danced on the sidewalks, to the music that leaked out of cracked car windows. And then, as the night came and she got older, we danced in my apartment.
Naked, you could not tell which of us would be dead by the weekend.
We went to church in the morning, because guilt pinched my chest like an ill-fitting sweater. She did not catch fire. She just looked bored and discontent at being indoors, and afterward, she asked me why I went.
“So I don’t go to hell when I die,” I told her. Her fingers were laced in mine and every so often she would stop to loop her arm round my neck and kiss me. We both kept our eyes open when she did, so I could look into her hazel eyes.
“How do you manage hell?” she asked.
“By doing something awful.”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” she said. “I’m disgustingly good.”
She hadn’t been around long enough to do something awful.
“Aren’t you afraid of what will happen, after?” I asked.
She stopped to kiss me again, only this time, she didn’t put her lips on mine. She just rested her forehead against mine and we stood quietly, both of us smelling of flowers and dancing.
“I’ll come back,” she said. “Do you come back, if you don’t go to hell?”
“No,” I said. “I believe I stay dead.”
“Why are you crying?” she asked me.
She was dead in the morning.
During the night, she had told me, “I feel old. I miss being young.” She’d curled her arms over her chest, looking already like all the dead Papillons I had seen littering the grass beneath the sycamores on campus. Unlike any of the other dead Papillons though, she was in my apartment, curled in my lap.
I missed being young too.
Only I had thousands of days left to go.
Author’s Note: Sorry I’m late! Internet is the devil. Just sayin’.
Image courtesy: Lin Pernille Photography