King of the Butterflies
by Christopher Mowder
Originally published in Frostfire Worlds (now defunct), May 2017
For as long as Caleb could remember, the butterflies loved him, and he loved the butterflies. They played together every day on the windswept prairie of his family’s farm. Caleb grinned when he felt the sudden tickle of their tiny feet on his bare arms or nestled in his shaggy brown hair. With his arms out like wings of his own, Caleb raced his little passenger through the overgrown underbrush as long weeds whipped at his short, stubby legs. Throughout the lazy, languid afternoons, tiny silhouettes performed their intricate dance for him, fluttering above the stalks of waving wheat.
Caleb lived on a tired farmstead at the end of a long dirt path, a mile from the county road and without another home in sight. He had no brothers or sisters; his mother was already gone. He met no other children except on the rare occasion his father took him to church in town. Caleb liked church. Not for the preacher or even the other children, but because the two hours in the pew marked the longest continuous time he spent with his father. They sat silently of course, unless the congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer or sang a hymn. While they sat, Caleb stole furtive glances at the man. What would he look like without his beard? Where did he learn how to farm? How did he know when it was time to plant? These and many more questions went unasked, for his father taught him such prying marked poor behavior in a young man.
The butterflies could not have been more different. In every way his father appeared stern and serious, with his dirt-brown pants and gray overcoat, the butterflies became creatures of wonder. Kaleidoscopic colors glinted beneath a summer sun or on a harvest wind. His father never spoke much, apart from the Times: “Time for supper.” “Time for your bath.” “Time for bed.”
The butterflies never stopped talking.
The first time a butterfly spoke to Caleb was the summer before he started school. During the day, his father and the hired hands worked the fields. They rose early, and long into the heat of the afternoon men and mules both strained with sweat. Caleb was still too young to help them, but he played close enough to hear the calls (and curses) of the men in the fields.
A small creek ran through their land, just northwest of the house. Here Caleb imagined himself an Indian, creeping up the dry creek to spy on the “settlers” working in the field. As he crawled along the cracked streambed (for it had been a very dry summer) a familiar white-and-brown creature flitted over his head. The butterfly floated up to his ear, and giggling, said hello.
Caleb blinked in surprise. “Hi,” he said, not knowing anything else to say.
“A nice day today,” said the butterfly. “Though it’s dreadfully hot.” She giggled again.
This butterfly could speak. And Caleb could understand. He nodded his agreement while he tried to make sense of this strange revelation.
“Have you ever been to the McEwon’s farm? Why, it’s just a few miles up the road, and they have the sweetest berry bushes I’ve ever tasted. Do you like lemonade? On summer evenings they have lemonade, and sometimes Mrs. McEwon will forget a glass on the back porch. It’s so tart and delicious!”
Caleb marveled as the tiny insect chatted away. It spoke without so much as stopping for breath, and as it droned on Caleb’s interest waned. He wanted to ask questions, to learn how it could speak, but as suddenly as it arrived, it gave a friendly “Goodbye!” and flew away, dancing into the trees.
Standing in the dry creekbed, blinking in the midday heat, Caleb wondered if the entire experience was a sunbaked daydream.
When he came home, he spoke to the dairy cows in the barn. He received nothing but blank stares in return. He talked to a turtle by the pond. The turtle paid him no mind. Caleb was asking chickens in the coop whether they liked laying eggs when his father told him to quiet his nonsense and come inside for supper.
The following morning, though, another butterfly spoke to him, and still another in the afternoon. These were no dreams.
In time Caleb learned the delicate creatures were as a different in their personalities as in their colors. The brown butterfly called herself a “buckeye.” He met a butterfly in brilliant shades of blue called a metalmark who knew the history of every creature in the prairie. Caleb met a harsh-looking black-and-white butterfly known as a zebra, with black spikes protruding from its wings. The zebra spoke so sharply to Caleb that he fled in terror. A soft, pink-edged sulphur soothed him, for she could sing like the women of the church choir.
As weeks turned to months Caleb grew to care deeply for his butterfly friends. Even after he started his first year of school, he preferred the butterflies to his classmates. When Caleb told Melissa Johnson he could talk to butterflies, she did not believe him. He called to his butterflies, but none arrived. It was too far from his farm to the small two-room schoolhouse. Melissa called him crazy, and threw a dirt clod at his head.
Caleb did not tell others about the butterflies after that. He understood: the butterflies were only for him.
With his father busy most every day, the housekeeper around just once a week, and the hired hands uninterested in anything but their paycheck, the butterflies looked after Caleb. They tutored him on his letters and numbers. They told him the story of the prairie and the settlers. The butterflies also whispered to Caleb there was more to his own history than he imagined.
“Your mother,” said the metalmark, whose foreboding blue and black wings looked like stained glass in a darkened church. “She’s not dead.”
“Not dead?” he asked.
“No,” the butterfly said, deep and soft and quite close to his ear. “Not in the least. Ask your father.”
That evening as Caleb cleared away the supper dishes, his father sat at the table making careful notes in a ledger. “Father, what happened to my mother?”
The words startled his father, who broke the tip of his pencil. He set it down and pulled the wire reading glasses from his face.
“What makes you ask that, Caleb?”
Caleb knew better than to tell his father of the butterflies. He stood on tiptoe to rinse his dishes in the sink. “Other boys at school laughed at me. They said I have no mother.” He set the dish down to dry. “What happened to her? Did she die?”
“She left us.” His father stood up and ground the pencil in the sharpener on the wall, and sat down to his ledger again. “After you were born, she up and left me, without so much as saying goodbye. Don’t know if she’s dead. Don’t know if she’s alive, either. All I know is she left me to manage house, the animals, two hundred acres of farmland, and a newborn baby all by myself.”
Caleb felt his face grow hot. He turned to face his father. “Was it because of me?” he asked. “Did she leave because of me?”
His father set the pencil down on the ledger. He folded his hands beneath his chin, but did not look at his son.
Caleb shut off the water and wiped his hands on his little coveralls. He walked quickly from the kitchen. He did not want his father to see him cry.
Later and alone in his room, he hugged his knees and felt the dampness on his cheeks. Caleb reminded himself over and over: his father only told the truth. What else would he want? A lie? The preacher at church always said it was better to tell the truth, even when you’ve done something bad, and God will forgive you. Caleb prayed God would forgive him for whatever he had done to drive his mother away.
He also prayed that God would take away the butterflies.
The metalmark’s cruelty angered Caleb. The butterflies knew his mother hadn’t died. She left because she hated Caleb. Why did they want him to know that? Didn’t they understand how much it would hurt him? Why would such beautiful creatures deliberately cause him so much pain?
Could he trust any of the butterflies? No, Caleb decided. He could not. His father was right. Talking to the animals was foolishness and dangerous. Caleb would not do it again.
When the butterflies tried to talk to him the next day, Caleb avoided them, and found that the harder he tried, the more he could drown out their tiny voices with the pain and the anger in his head. Over time, it seemed, God answered his prayers. The longer he ignored them, avoided them, refused their entreaties, the more the butterflies of the field diminished and disappeared.
A year passed. Then two. Caleb entered his fourth year of school. One more and he would finish his primaries, and then finally take his place helping his father in the fields. The butterflies were all but gone.
Until one Saturday, during the harvest.
On that cool autumn day, Caleb’s father and the hands were out in the fields, horses pulling the thresher as wheat dust swirled in the air. At home, Caleb collected eggs in the coop. He saw a butterfly flutter just outside the coop door. Out of long-established habit now, he ignored it. When he stepped outside, he saw it was a yellow swallowtail, big as a silver dollar. Caleb knew this butterfly. She had been a special friend. Before he could leave, she landed on his earlobe.
Caleb stood very still. No butterfly had done this before.
“Caleb, my friend. The Butterflies miss you. We long for your companionship. For whatever wrong we have caused that you would so assiduously avoid us, we deeply, and sincerely, apologize.”
Caleb felt humbled by the butterfly’s polite manner and formality. “Thank you,” he said. It was the first time he spoke to a butterfly in years.
“Would you be so kind as to come with me? You must meet a very important Butterfly.”
“Please,” the swallowtail interrupted. “It is most urgent. A matter of life and death.”
Caleb though the swallowtail sounded genuinely afraid. Despite the still-warm embers of his lingering anger, Caleb could not leave a butterfly in mortal danger. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll come.” The swallowtail gracefully floated away, and Caleb followed in its tiny wake.
Eventually boy and butterfly came upon a line of old growth hickory trees, forming a wall to the east. His father forbade his son from playing beyond the treeline. To Caleb’s horror, the swallowtail led the boy directly there.
“I can’t go,” Caleb said, knowing his boundary.
The swallowtail turned, and bounced in front of Caleb’s face. “You must, I’m afraid,” she said. “You gave me your word you would come.”
“Father will find out.”
“Yes,” the swallowtail replied. “He will.”
Caleb’s compassion overwhelmed his good sense once more. He followed. Plus, he had always felt curious what lay beyond the borders of his world.
He climbed between the trees, and emerged on the far side. In the middle of a small clearing stood a glass house, the late afternoon sun reflecting on all sides, glinting bright atop the roof.
“What is that?” Caleb asked.
“That is where we must go,” the swallowtail said.
“It is very pretty.”
“We did not choose it.”
The swallowtail perched on Caleb’s shoulder and guided him to the door. He entered an antechamber, and saw a second door; the glass house had an airlock. Caleb closed the outer door. He saw a rusty combination lock hanging from the inner door. The swallowtail whispered the code. Caleb turned the dials, the lock fell away, and he opened the inner door. A gust of warm, wet heat rushed to greet him.
Inside the greenhouse, Indian paintbrushes, giant saffron sunflowers, velvet rhododendrons, crimson azaleas and every beautiful thing imaginable grew. Above them all floated clouds of the most gorgeous butterflies Caleb had ever seen: skippers and brushfoots, metalmarks and coppers, Jezebels, Karners, and an enormous birdwing, as large as a robin. Some he had never met, others were quite close friends. The air flowed like ocean waves from the gentle fluttering of delicate wings. Caleb marveled at palette of color dancing above him.
The swallowtail who had fluttered away returned, along with a beautiful monarch butterfly. The monarch hovered in front of Caleb until the boy held out his hand. The monarch landed, gradually slowing its wings before bowing. “My dearest Caleb,” the monarch said in a melodic feminine voice, warm and familiar. “It is an honor to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you too,” Caleb said. “Are you the leader of the butterflies?”
“I am,” the monarch said. “And I need your help.”
Caleb frowned, as he saw his father do when discussing serious things like money or the upcoming harvest. “What’s wrong?”
“We are trapped,” the monarch said. “Your father built this glass prison. For many months, perhaps years, he has captured all of us he can find.
“We are not meant to live like this,” the monarch continued. “Some of us have traveled thousands of miles in our lives. Now, we have but a few feet within which to roam. It’s too hot here for the peacocks migrating from the north, and too cold for the spicebrush visiting us from the south. The plants aren’t right for food or pollination. You must help us escape, or we will surely die.”
Caleb felt his heart turn upside down. A part of him still loved his beautiful butterfly friends, but he loved his father too, and feared a beating from his strong and calloused hands.
“My father knows what he’s doing,” Caleb said. “He’s a farmer. He wouldn’t hurt innocent creatures. He must have a good reason. Maybe it is to keep you safe.”
“We know your father’s reasons well enough indeed,” the monarch said. “For you see, he too can talk with the Butterflies.”
Caleb’s knees felt weak, and he steadied himself against the glass wall. His father, from whom he hid his secret for so many years – this father could also talk to the butterflies? Why had he never spoken of it before?
“Please, Caleb,” the monarch said. Her soft voice pleaded from the palm of his hand, and she gently moved her wings to caress his skin. “You must help us. A painted lady gave her life so we could learn the combination to the door lock. The swallowtail who escaped our prison returned with you, rather than remain free. If you leave us, all will be for nought. We will die.”
Caleb took a tentative step backward. “I can’t do this to my father.”
The monarch crept closer in his hand. “Your father built this prison to protect the secret of what happened to your mother. If you help us, I will tell you the truth about her.”
“We know what your father told you. These are lies, Caleb, vicious lies that you don’t deserve. Your mother’s disappearance was not your fault. Help us, Caleb, and I will help you.”
Caleb thought for a long time, while the monarch sat respectfully on his hand, awaiting his decision. In the end, it was not the monarch’s promise that convinced him. Caleb could not trust the butterflies knew anything about his mother. Rather, Caleb decided he could not let his old friends die slowly at his father’s hands, even if it meant the beating of his life from the same. He could survive his father’s punishment. The butterflies could not.
“I’ll help you,” Caleb said.
The monarch bowed low for several seconds. “You are most gracious and kind, dearest Caleb, and the Butterflies will be forever in your debt—“
But just then, the fluttering overhead grew so loud Caleb could not hear the monarch. Her voice drowned in the storm of wings. Caleb looked toward the line of trees near the house.
Father was coming.
“Get out!” the monarch said, her thin voice a tiny scream. “He will see you.”
“What about you?” Caleb asked, as he ran for the inner door.
“Not until he’s gone.”
Caleb escaped the outer door and ran to a stand of shrubs. Hiding behind, he panted, watching his father approach. Caleb’s father rounded to the front of the greenhouse, and stopped. He stared for a long time, as if knowing something disturbed his private prison. He walked to the door, and Caleb saw him bend down, examining the moist earth. His father stood, clenching his fists. He entered the first door, and a moment later exited again. He headed back toward the house, the opposite direction of Caleb’s hiding place.
When his father disappeared safely beyond the treeline, Caleb emerged, and ran stumbling back toward the crystal butterfly dungeon. He entered the first door, and stopped.
The combination lock was gone. In its place, his father had rammed a steel rod across the door. Caleb reached up and pulled, but the rod did not budge.
Inside the clear enclosure, he could see butterflies thrashing against the door. The lady monarch, the leader of the butterflies, danced right in front of his face. If she called to him, he could not hear her through the glass.
His father found him out, before Caleb managed to save even a single butterfly.
He left the greenhouse, and from the outside, could see the barest glimmer of the colorful world within, as the building sank into the early evening shadows. Caleb winced in anticipation of the terrible belting he knew awaited him at home, and hopefully his father would stop at only that.
He hated his father in that moment. He hated the whole adult world, with all its
practices so impenetrable to him. He would never understand them, he would only ever suffer by them.
In his anger Caleb picked up a rock as big as his hand and chucked the stone hard at his father’s greenhouse. It tumbled end-over-end through the empty air and crashed against the glass wall.
Caleb gasped at the startling sound in the stillness. Surely his father heard the crash all the way back at the house. Caleb rushed to the glass wall. A hairline crack formed there. Instantly, Caleb knew what to do. He picked up another rock, and heaved. Then another. And another.
Though the crack grew bigger, the glass remained. Caleb wasn’t strong enough to break the wall.
He wanted to cry, to beat his fists on the wall. The commotion surely attracted his father’s attention now. What more could he do, except sit here and await the inevitable?
But sitting did not help him. The more he sat, the angrier he became. He may not be able to break the wall, but if Caleb was going to be punished – and he surely was – he would at least earn every lash. The wall became not just a greenhouse but all the rules of the adult world, all the unfairness and embarrassment and pain. He jumped up and grabbed rocks of all sizes and began hurling them at the greenhouse, shouting every curse he ever heard. It was blind rage, an anger Caleb had never known before, the anger that only comes at incomprehensible injustice. With a mighty heave, he hurled a section of jagged metal piping big as his head-
-and a whole section of the wall came tumbling down, a waterfall of sparkling glass. Butterflies of all sizes and colors flowed out, as if the greenhouse released a living rainbow. Caleb watched, eyes wide, panting from exertion. The cloud of tiny creatures expanded into the sky and the field, floating away on the wings of the wind.
The lady monarch exited last, and at just that moment, Caleb heard his father call out to him from beyond the treeline.
“Caleb!” the man bellowed. “Caleb, come here at once!”
The boy turned to the lady monarch, who landed on his shoulder. “You should go,” he said to her. “My father is mad. You don’t want to see what he will do to me.”
She fluttered her tiny wings, but she did not leave his shoulder. “My dearest Caleb,” she said. “You have your father’s rage. It is a dangerous thing.”
Caleb averted his eyes.
“Yet,” she continued, “you saved us. The Butterflies can never repay you for this great deed. We will never forget it.”
Caleb’s father emerged from the treeline, walking quickly. He carried a large switch freshly broken from a hickory tree. In a few moments, he would round the greenhouse and see Caleb, along with all the destruction his son caused.
“I wish I had more time to explain,” the monarch said, “but I fear that if I leave you, we may never see each other again. Caleb, do you still want to know what happened to your mother?”
Caleb’s father came around the greenhouse. He saw the crumbled wall, the last remaining butterflies in the sky above, and his son at the center of it all. He swore bitterly. “Caleb, you come here, now.”
The boy stood still, the lady monarch still on his shoulder. “Caleb,” she spoke in his hear. “Your answer?”
“Yes,” Caleb whispered to the lady monarch. “I want to know.”
“Very well,” the lady monarch said. She lifted off his shoulder and landed on his curly brown hair. The monarch rubbed her tiny antennae together, and a very fine pollen dust fell over Caleb.
“Caleb!” his father said. He gripped the switch in his hand. “If you make me come over there, it will be twice as bad for you.”
But Caleb barely heard the man. He began to feel dizzy, like when he spent all day in the sun and skipped his lunch. He doubled over as the lady monarch flew just above his head, dusting him in infinitesimal particles.
Then it happened, all at once, and Caleb cried out in pain. He felt the wings sprout from his back, and though he never had wings before, he somehow knew precisely what they were. Another pair of legs burst from his abdomen. Pain rocketed through his head, as though someone yanked his ears to the sky. Caleb vomited and collapsed to the ground. When he opened his eyes, his father had grown to the size of giant.
Only, he hadn’t. Caleb had shrunk, his whole body resting on a few blades of grass. His father’s face contorted in disgust.
“Look at you,” his father said. “Look what you’ve become for listening to that harlot. Her words warp more than a man’s mind. Look.”
Caleb did look. He had bright orange wings with dark black tips, spotted in white. His body had changed into one furry and brown, and he felt two antennae sticking out the top of his head.
“You released them all,” his father said. “I spent so many years, building this place, capturing those little demons, since that night you asked me about your mother. That’s when I knew they cast their spell upon you too. Now they’re gone. Do you even realize what you’ve done?”
He started toward his son and Caleb tried to fly. He didn’t know how. Caleb could move his wings, but the jarring motion felt like tripping down a hill. He spun end-over-end, and jerked this way and that, not flying so much as bouncing through open air.
Caleb saw the lady monarch butterfly. She did not look well. Her light yellow wings had gone milky white. “Go,” she said again, coughing. “Fly. Find the birdwing, he was my protector.” With one last effort, she called out to him. “Caleb! My son, fly!”
With that, the lady monarch turned, and flew directly into the face of Caleb’s father.
The man waved a hand to brush her away, but she tickled at his eyes, and buzzed his ear. Against a human, she had little power. Caleb struggled, finally righting himself, and flew higher, and higher, landing on the roof of his father’s destroyed conservatory, safely out of arm’s reach. He turned back just in time to hear a sickening smack.
Caleb saw the horror on his father’s face as the lady monarch’s body lay smeared on the greenhouse wall. His father stood frozen, one hand out where he had knocked the butterfly to the wall. “Marie!” he cried out, and fell to his knees.
Gently, his father lifted the butterfly from the wall, and let out a sob. When he finally saw his son, there were tears in the man’s eyes. “I never meant to hurt her,” he said. “I only wanted to keep her safe from this curse. To find a cure.”
His stood, cradling the butterfly body in his cupped hands. He looked up at Caleb. “You can’t stay up there forever,” he said, his usually stern voice cracking with sorrow. “You’ve got to come down sometime. I can make you my son again. I can still find a cure.”
The thought made Caleb faint with fear.
“You can’t fly,” his father said. “You know you can’t. You’ll try, and fall, and get hurt. It took your mother years to learn. Come down now and I won’t hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you.”
His whole life, all the love Caleb knew came from his father. Caleb remembered the father who let his son sit in his lap while he rode the horses across endless fields. He remembered the smell of roots and wet dirt that seemed to permeate the man’s pores. He remembered his father frying bacon for Sunday morning breakfast.
But Caleb also remembered the dark times. The sting of his father’s leather belt against his bare butt. Angry words after a poor harvest, or found at the bottom of a whisky bottle. He thought of the greenhouse, and the butterflies held captive there, against their will. He saw the gruesome streak of white and red down the side of fractured glass. He remembered the lady monarch’s warning: “You have your father’s rage.”
Caleb spread his wings, and leapt from the greenhouse, thrusting as hard as he could. He bounced, and swayed, but stayed aloft.
He flapped harder, thrust more. He flew up, higher, and higher, until he could see the tops of the trees.
Caleb, who loved the butterflies, learned to fly himself.
He flew toward the darkening horizon in the distance, following the other butterflies. He had news to tell them, that his mother, the lady monarch, died saving his life.
Caleb flew. When he finally looked back, he could no longer see his father’s greenhouse.