The shaman’s magic was used to strike down enemies and win tribal wars, but the butterfly keeper had something nobler in mind.
He had spent three months searching for the shaman in the hidden valleys and thick forests of Arunachal Pradesh, enduring devious insect bites and nights without sleep, often traveling days in one direction only to discover he should’ve been heading in the other. He was hungry and thirsty, and had lost money to guides who lied to him. But all of this was worth it to find the man who held nirvana in his hands.
He had heard rumors of the infamous warlock while sipping tea in an alleyway café. He was intrigued and canvassed the streets and local shopkeepers who offered up more information, including the glassblower who told him that the shaman could steal a person’s soul and resurrect it in another being. That was the spark that kindled the butterfly keeper’s plan and started him on his journey.
The shaman with smoke-stained skin glared at the keeper with narrow yellow eyes, half-veiled in shadows cast by dancing firelight. He knew little of the intention behind the keeper’s visit, only that he sought one of his most potent enchantments. He waved his hand, telling the keeper to go, that his enchantments were not for the inexperienced and that he was seeking something he would later regret. But the butterfly keeper had come prepared. He opened up a silk handkerchief and offered the wrinkled old man a solid gold necklace bearing a carved jade pendant in the shape of a dragon. The shaman took the gift with curious eyes and, after examining it, agreed to give the keeper what he desired.
His conservatory back home was a work of botanical art. Azaleas, Egyptian Star Flowers, French Marigolds, New England Asters, Purple Coneflowers, and Zinnia grew on a lush sea of verdant grass surrounded and interspersed throughout by perfectly sculpted bonsai trees. All of this resided under a gentle wash of classical music, always Boyce or Bach, which poured into the air from hidden speakers. One would have thought that this nature-scape had arisen from the talent of a large team of professional gardeners. But it was the sole work of the simple butterfly keeper from Hangzhou.
Simple in one sense, yes, but lofty and eclectic in another. He held several higher degrees in psychology and botany, was an outstanding flautist, award-winning kite maker, and avid Bridge player. He loved hiking, gazing at the heavens through his telescope, reading classic literature, and collecting rare wines – not the typical achievements of a man who had been an orphan for the first fourteen years of his life, until he was taken in by a wealthy couple and given the world. This new world being a mansion of a house, personal servants, lavish gifts, and a tutored education. The only thing missing was friends, but neighbors were scarce on the otherwise rich, tree-laden hills that his bedroom window overlooked.
Memories of the orphanage were still seared into him. He remembered being beaten with a stick, berated by the ‘nurse’ – a towering woman with one eye – locked in a tiny windowless room for ‘misbehavior’, and falling sick often. His childhood in that place had been lonely and broken.
Then Bejie came. Her tender smile and jubilance made him feel like a spirit soaring above the dark, confusing world. She took him by the hand and showed him tiny plants shooting up from the concrete; saplings seeking freedom from their imprisonment – defiant and beautiful in the midst of confinement. Yes, he remembered, she had a way of discovering joy and beauty in any place and situation.
So he hadn’t been surprised when she told him about the hidden butterfly garden on top of the hill that rose up over the orphanage’s backyard, concealed by overgrown trees and bushes. She took him there secretly, during the brief time they’d been allowed outside. They sat holding hands beside sweet smelling bushes, watching yellow, white, and brush-footed butterflies dance and play. The pain of being abused and neglected disappeared there. The butterflies swept it all off him and carried it away.
He wanted to share the secret of the garden with the other orphans. But Bejie scolded him, saying if word came to staff that they were sneaking off orphanage property, they’d make sure no one ever visited the garden again.
His visits to the butterfly garden with Bejie filled him with joy and brought meaning to his life, but gloom enveloped him just the same; he wished he could tell the other children, so they could all experience the garden together.
The strange sorrow of keeping Bejie’s secret lasted for months, until the day he found out he had been adopted. The night before he left he gathered a bunch of children together after supper. He pointed out the window toward the hill, revealing Bejie’s secret. Bejie wasn’t there, and he didn’t care what she would have said. He was leaving, and they needed to know that happiness existed just up the hill.
That night, lying in bed, he felt like he was floating. He felt like a part of his purpose in life had been fulfilled.
But in the morning his contentment melted when an announcement was made – under no circumstances were children allowed to climb the hill during outside time, and there would be staff placed close by to make sure.
When his new parents came to pick him up, Bejie did not say goodbye to him. She didn’t even look at him. To the butterfly keeper, that memory was more painful than the lashes, even after all these years.
Back to now. It hadn’t been hard to acquire waifs. The back country of southern China was littered with them and the overcrowded orphanages, lacking formal processes, or any kind of official oversight, welcomed his money. His conservatory needed new butterflies. His original ones – the Crowned Hairstreak, Fiery Jewel, Purple Emperor, Cephus Satyr, Julia, all of them, he had euthanized with ethyl acetate. It pained him to do so, but he knew the winged beauties needed to die in order to be resurrected with new life, so he found comfort in the fact that they would not be dead for long. Soon, they would inherit the souls of the orphans, allowing him to share with them what he couldn’t as a child. He had prepared an area of the conservatory beforehand, spread with blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals.
At just past midnight, while the children were asleep, he lit a candle and burned incense. He dabbed each child’s forehead and the chosen butterfly with the crimson ash the shaman had given him, and began to recite the words he had written down at the back of his travel journal. The air turned indigo and went cold. His heart pounded and his mouth grew dry as he recalled the shaman’s warning. The butterflies, in their glass petri dishes, pulsed and twitched and the air lightened. The children now lay still, breathless. He was relieved how quick it had been for them. The butterflies continued to wake, then took flight, seeking the comfort of plants and bushes. The whole experience frightened the keeper but then brought a rush that even the rarest of his wines had yet failed to produce.
In the morning, he dug up the earth on the far side of the conservatory under an overcast sky and laid the bodies of the orphans there.
Back in the conservatory his philanthropic achievement was bright and soaring. Everything was lovely; the resurrected butterflies brought an explosion of life to the conservatory and his heart. They alighted on nectar-bearing plants in the sweet, humid air, then took off to dance with each other above the garden; a kaleidoscope of wings that made the keeper cry out with glee. He hadn’t experienced such joy since his days in the garden with Bejie.
But his joy did not last. With each sip of his treasured Chateau Lafite, his delight waned like an approaching eclipse. Doubts slithered through his mind like vipers invading the conservatory, making him tremble. How did he know they were pleased? How did he know for sure they were experiencing the utopia he believed they were? Were they flapping their wings because they were happy, or because they were tormented? Were they playing and dancing together, or trying to comfort each other?
The keeper sought to reassure himself by reassessing and fine-tuning every aspect of his conservatory; checking every nook, adjusting water temperatures, replacing feeders (even though the food was as fresh as could be), but the unwanted thoughts would not leave him be.
He stayed up late, watching their every move, every flight, every landing, every flutter. His nights became sleepless, filled with a sinking fear he couldn’t put to rest. The shaman visited him in his dreams, bearing bent crimson wings, echoing his warning within the cave walls of his mind.
Nighttime he feared, but daytime he dreaded. He spent more time outside, away from the conservatory. He turned to the wind and the sky and the sound of birds for relief, only to have these very things become the all-seeing eyes of the shaman, heaping accusations and curses upon him for using his enchantment against innocent ones.
He went to the far side of the conservatory, the area among broken pots and unused planters where the gentle mounds of soil lay. He stood, gazing down upon them. He thought he heard them whisper, why? and felt the earth’s anger and bitterness towards him for making it an unwilling accomplice of his ill-conceived vision.
Each new morning took him further into misery and closer to madness. He turned to his wine, which numbed him for a while, but the gnawing thoughts and the shaman’s accusations came back with a dark ferocity when the effects of the alcohol wore off. He went deeper into his bottles to escape – swallowing dark valleys of rich, potent juices from elixirs that hadn’t been opened in centuries – letting the nectar sear him as hot as his memories.
The lush beauty and sweet air of the conservatory faded as the butterfly keeper sank deeper into dark confusion; a despairing sloth that stole away years of botanical thought and creativity. Cut off from his meticulous care, the butterflies withered, but not before huddling close together on a hanging vine, like brothers and sisters hugging each other for the last time.
With the sounds of the birds outside filling his ears, the keeper went to the back of his lifeless conservatory carrying a bottle of his favorite wine, and entered the room where the ethyl acetate and herbicides were stored. Soon, he’d be climbing the hill once more, to hold hands with the orphans in rhopalocera paradise.