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The Butterfly House
The first guided tour of the butterfly house is at eleven every morning. And, of course, you’re already waiting in line. There’s not much else to do on the island nowadays, so you’ll probably take the tour again before the holiday ends. From the outside, the butterfly house appears to be carved from one large block of white chalk, with a wooden roof blown in by the hurricane, so the whole thing looks like a squashed can. There’s no glass or window frames in the windows – just a couple of rounded squares cut out of the walls.
Above the door is a plaque that reads “The butterfly house stands perfectly preserved, as it was left by its last resident, Doctor Herschel Pherson, known on the island as the Butterfly man. All the butterflies inside are real and were killed by the hurricane of 1995.”
The last part is a lie, but we’ll get to that later.
A tour guide in an orange tabard appears and ushers you, with the rest of the group, into the house. As the tourists look awkwardly around the one room while the tour guide talks about how the island used to be filled with butterflies such as these, and travellers came from far and wide to see them, and Doctor Herschel Pherson lived with an studied the butterflies, and look, that old rotten orange there would have been food for them.
You don’t know what you were expecting – perfect specimens in display cases, with printed paragraphs about species and origin, maybe. But this isn’t that kind of butterfly house. For one thing, there are no paragraphs describing species and origin, because all the butterflies are of the same species, which the tour guide says is native to the island, believed to be extinct, and known only as the Snow Butterfly. There are no display cases to be seen.
The butterflies are everywhere – spread over the dirty tile floor like spilled icing sugar, floating like soap suds in the stagnant washing-up water, some perfectly preserved in cobwebs, some with wings saturated by globs of mud. Butterflies cover every square foot of the floor, so you have to walk on the specially constructed wooden platform to cross the room. As you do, the tour guide says more about the hurricane, and how the whole island banded together to rebuild their neighbours’ houses and re-plant crops and how, unfortunately, they couldn’t save the butterflies, none of which is true. Then the tour ends, because even though it’s tragic and bizarre, all the tragedy and bizarreness is confined to one room, and you’ve seen it all.
After the tour ends, the smartest people in your group will spend the day idly wondering how a hurricane can kill butterflies inside a house, and will probably draw the conclusion that Doctor Herschel Pherson is fictional, and the already-dead butterflies were planted in the house by the tourist board. They’re wrong on all counts, of course, but that’s understandable, because the truth is considerably stranger than the story. Doctor Herschel Pherson is entirely non-fictional, but he didn’t die in the hurricane, as you might assume. He lives in the care home on the other side of the island. The hurricane was real, but it didn’t kill the butterflies.
The story of the hurricane and the butterflies is not the best kept secret on the island. Still, the Butterfly Story is very hard to come by. If you want to hear it from an eyewitness, you can trek through the dense forest, then climb up a sheer rock face to a fast-flowing stream, which, if you survive the swim, will lead you to a cave where one man lives entirely on bugs and water and peace of mind. He tells the story best, but I’ll save you the trek.
Before the island was a Place of Interest, and after it was a thriving fishing community, it was a place where travellers, and their money, came to from all over the world. They didn’t come for the sun, or the delicious fruit or the tranquillity - there are places with more sun and fruit and tranquillity. They came for the butterflies - butterflies in their thousands, or millions, like a dense, living mist above the town. In winter they perched like blossoms in dead trees, and in summer they covered the tin roofs and fishing boats like confetti. The butterflies were what the town survived on.
Doctor Pherson was an entomologist who’d settled in town with his ten year old son. He built a house on the edge of town with no windows so the butterflies could fly freely in and out. He put out half oranges so he could watch the butterflies feeding through their long, straw-like noses, and made copious notes about flight patterns, wingspan and life expectancy. His son went to the local school, so the Butterfly Man, as he got nicknamed, made friends with the other parents.
The trouble started with the hurricane. The wind tore down the trees, and then uprooted whole houses while water rolled in from all sides to engulf the entire town as quickly as a whale swallows plankton. It was quick and ruthless and ended as suddenly as it had started. To the surrounding tourist islands, it was a strong storm, but to the unprepared little island, it was apocalyptic.
Afterwards, when people were still missing and every floor in town was flooded, the town marched, as one, to the Mayor’s office. The Mayor, whose most serious responsibility was organising the fête that marked the start of the tourist season, opened his door to a terrified, irrational mob.
“How could you let this happen?”
“... and just before opening season!”
“My wife’s been missing all night!”
“...No food supplies...”
“...Roof blown in...”
It was the worst day the town had ever seen, and worst-days-ever have a bad habit of throwing the parameters of acceptable sanity wide open. Suddenly, the oldest fisherman in town was also the most loud and violent. The nursery school teacher hurled a fallen branch at the Mayor.
“This is all your fault!” she screeched. “If you weren’t such a lousy Mayor...”
“My fault?” said the Mayor, losing all attempts at diplomacy. “If our houses were a little stronger... I’m looking at you, builders!”
“Now now,” said one old man, “this is clearly punishment for the people in the jail. I say we make ‘em pay for this mess!”
“It was the fisherman with their seawater!”
“Someone needs to own up!”
“Call the police!”
“This is all the police’s fault!”
And so it went on for a while, until one man raised his hand quietly, and everyone looked around. He was the wisest man in town, and he’d arrived in the midst of the argument.
The wise man (we’ll call him Balthasar) said, in an even voice “Friends, friends. Listen. The hurricane is nobody’s fault. Let’s all help each other rebuild and replant and get the boats back on the water, and stop blaming each other. You can’t carry on looking for vengeance. I mean, consider the butterfly.” It sounded wise, but that was the stupidest thing Balthasar ever said. “In times of disaster, you can’t blame the butterfly.”
“What?” The townspeople looked nonplussed.
“Oh you know...” ventured Balthasar, “Because butterflies... well, some people say if they flap their wings... it can cause a hurricane.”
There was murmuring among the crowd.
“Never did like bugs...”
“Kill the butterflies!”
“But that doesn’t mean,” interjected the wise man quickly, “that we have to blame them. After all, that’s just an old saying, and we shouldn’t jump to rash concl...”
But the townspeople weren’t listening. They were running, roaring, away from the mayor’s house in search of torches and pitchforks and bug poison.
Herschel Pherson didn’t join the mob. While the town’s butterflies were being poisoned and crushed, the Butterfly House was a safe haven, until the townspeople rushed like a landslide right up to the entomologist’s front door.
“Pherson! get out here!”
But Pherson was out. He was looking for his son, who hadn’t come home. So the town, as one, decided to sit and wait until he returned.
The thing is, no matter how bad the circumstances, it’s almost impossible to maintain such acute anger for a long period of time, so by the time Doctor Pherson returned home, muddy, and streaky-faced, and alone, the town told him their story with hollow voices. Doctor Pherson didn’t say anything. He just walked into his house, and shut the door.
Snow Butterflies live for about a week, and it is estimated that the butterfly house contains some three thousand five hundred dead specimens. In total, that’s seventy years’ worth of butterflies– about how long you’d be expected to live if you were ten, and not on an island where butterflies cause hurricanes.