Marie first noticed the butterfly outside her window while writing in her diary.
She’d just written, This room is like my own cocoon these days, though I wish it weren’t, when she happened to turn her head to see the butterfly perched on a bough of the oak tree just beyond the sill. She briefly returned her attention to the opened book before her, but then set her pen on the crease of the pages and stared from the window again.
The butterfly, adorned with blue and silver wings of an intricate design, was unnaturally large. No butterfly she’d ever seen in any book displayed such dimensions, or possessed wings as great as a hawk’s; but the butterfly beyond her window did, yet bore lines and features as delicate as any butterfly that ever perched upon her finger. Long antennae trembled over its small black head, and its blue and silver wings, as artfully apportioned as the great fans of an ancient Chinese emperor, moved slowly across its thorax in a gentle motion.
She wasn’t frightened, though the size of the insect might frighten another. Instead, she felt mesmerized by the motion of its wings as they swept back and forth in the bright sunlight. She wondered if she should tell someone of this phenomenon, but really didn’t know who she might tell; her family was too pragmatic to perceive the beauty of the creature—they were more likely to skewer it on a board and sell it to some museum as a natural monstrosity. This thought disturbed her greatly, but then she let it pass and simply sat watching the beautiful, impossible insect as it fanned its wings.
In a few moments, and suddenly, it lifted from the bough, disappearing beyond the leaves of the tree.
She sat gazing at the bough on which it had alighted, but then the loss of its beauty saddened her, and she returned her attention to her diary.
I have just seen the most marvelous sight, she wrote. But how could I possibly express in words the beauty of such a thing? They would call me a liar, and tell me that I’ve always had a childish imagination, and to grow up, to leave it behind. But I don’t believe it’s merely imagination. It’s something else.
She closed the book when she failed to conjure some deeper meaning of it in her mind. She should be going down to dinner, anyway, though she wasn’t hungry. She would have loved to sit at the table conversing with her family of the event she’d witnessed, but they would only laugh, as they’d laughed so many times before.
So she went down to dinner and said nothing, as usual, as the conversation passed unnoticed by her; she ate very little that evening.
A few days later Marie noticed the butterfly again perched upon the bough, seeing it just as she had finished writing in her diary:
Father speaks to me of my future after school, though I don’t know what to say. Mother says that I should marry and have children of my own, but there are too many other things, beautiful things, to see in the world. Why should I embrace a common life?
This time she moved away from the little table in her room and stood by the window glass. Her presence failed to excite the butterfly, which rested on the bough opening and closing its wings leisurely. She smiled at the sight of it, happy that it chose to return to the tree by her window. But then she noticed something different about the insect, and bent to verify her perceptions. Yes, it seemed as if the wings were smaller than before; could this be the same butterfly? Perhaps it was another, though the blue and silver wings bore an identical pattern. Another detail left her wondering—the wings seemed smaller, but the butterfly’s body seemed the same size as before. After a few minutes, just as before, it flapped its wings prodigiously and vanished beyond the leaves of the tree.
She stood staring at the bough curiously, until she noticed her own reflection in the glass. Her small face stared at her indifferently with large, dark eyes; dark hair and brows framed the sad face reflected from the glass. She’d avoided seeing herself in mirrors lately, so she couldn’t see the sadness in her eyes.
She returned to her diary, reading what she’d written, and decided to mention the return of the butterfly.
If it’s the same butterfly, she wrote, why are its wings diminishing?
After this she watched for the butterfly every day, and every time the insect lighted once again upon the bough its wings were smaller, and its body denser, coarser in the sunlight falling through the leaves. This saddened her immensely, for she felt the creature was reverting to something quite small, and ugly. When the wings upon the insect’s thorax were little more than silver nubs against the bluish keratin, she ceased watching for it through the window and opened her diary.
I think I understand, at last, she wrote, that those I love would only have me lose my foolish imagination, and grow into someone they might understand. But all the love I’ve found in my imagination would be lost, like the wings of my poor butterfly. They are afraid for me, because I see things others can’t. But I am sad for them, because they lost that gift. I think I may be losing it, as well.
That night she dreamt of blue and silver wings, and woke with tears upon her face.
The next time she saw the butterfly it was a butterfly no more.
She happened to be passing by the window, having been preoccupied by thoughts of future days, of schools to be attended, or families begun, the lecturing of her parents echoing through her mind, as a gravedigger’s song echoes through the fields of the dead.
She’d glanced up suddenly to see the bright blue caterpillar perched upon the bough, having reverted to its infant state, though still impossibly large and unnatural. She first felt sorrow at the sight, but then another feeling rose in her, nebulous, undefined. She wondered what it was she felt, and thought of writing of it in her diary, but realized she no longer had any desire to lock up her thoughts in words.
On impulse, an impulse born from deep within her spirit, she raised the pane in the sash and leaned out toward the bough on which the caterpillar rested; nearer, she saw its beauty then, its azure flesh rippling with motion, and knew she’d been mistaken all along. The caterpillar raised its head to appraise her with its compound eyes. There is much unseen beauty in the world, it seemed to say to her in a language only they could share.
Then the caterpillar twisted away from the window and undulated across the bough, and down, and disappeared into the leaves.
When Marie turned away from the window she realized that she, too, once had wings, beautiful translucent wings, azure wings which had lifted her spirit beyond the bedroom window to travel where she pleased in the world. Her wings, too, had diminished, returned to the spirit that unfurled them before the world. But like the caterpillar, she thought she was just as beautiful without them, and finally knew that she would never yield her imagination to those who couldn’t appreciate its dimensions.
The last words she wrote into her diary, before surrendering reflection for experience, were these:
I have no desire to entertain another’s illusions—
Header photograph: By Neil Phillips from uk (common blue butterfly Uploaded by ComputerHotline) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons – Common Blue butterfly