Imogen Clarke’s short story ‘The Butterfly Man’ focuses on a nameless protagonist who comes to learn about the nature of freedom from the limitations which beautiful caged butterflies face. Clarke’s detailed descriptions and her imaginative exploration of what we believe freedom to be is definitely worth a read. We hope to receive more short stories and insightful pieces such as this from Imogen throughout the year.
The Butterfly Man
I met the butterfly man when I was twelve years old. He was my savior. He is our enlightenment.
In a world that was crumbling from the inside with a future only of rubble, we clung to the past and walked the halls of history. Our eyes would pop at the enormity of our ancestors’ optimism and ambition. They had an eye for detail, taking the time to form intricate masterpieces from stone, wood, cloth, canvas, ivory and priceless minerals. The end products were unrivaled, but I still saw the bloodstains on their fruition.
So I turned my mind to the ambivalent Creator. I won’t call him God. The name is irrelevant. To me he was just the Artist. I believed in him then. The idea was appealing; it was one to last a millennium. I liked to look on his showpieces – the giant reptiles, the fearless mammals, the towering foliage, but power does not impress me. We know what power can do.
It was those beautiful white cages that drew my heart. They were the kind we would envy then, to be enclosed in a gilded prison. For we were all dreaming of gilded prisons, to be tied in financial webs to banks and millionaires while we thought we were free in our luxury of silk and champagne.
The cages swung on their silk and chiffon ropes from the glass ceiling at different levels. Between those tiny glinting bars there flew the most beautiful creatures. They spread their wings and soared within their confinement. Occasionally one tried to make a bid for freedom, unsuccessfully. To my surprise, most were content to be enclosed. Either they did not want to leave the gilded prison, or they had tried once, failed, and had become content to remain an ornament. I was sad. He saw my sadness. The butterfly man saw my sadness.
I have never told this story before. The butterfly man was our symbol, but we are not satisfied with just a symbol any more. Symbols are too shrouded in myth, too much of a reminder of the old world crumbling from the inside. We wanted solidarity. We wanted the new truth. I shall tell you the truth.
His name was Liang. He was named for the butterflies. I heard the story that bred his namesake. I shook my head at the ignorance of the boy for not realizing his best friend was a girl. I laughed at the girl’s cunning plan to win the boy she loved. I wept when they could not be together, when the boy died and she prepared to enter her gilded cage. Our hearts leap with hope like a fresh spring when the lovers are united in their death and their souls rise from the wasted Earth as two butterflies, up, up, up.
Yet, the butterfly man was sad like me. The butterflies were a part of his soul and his soul was caged for viewing pleasure. I felt respect in that moment. He did what we could not – he bore his soul before the world.
I told the butterfly man the reason for my sadness – to spend years within a beautiful cage is still to be incarcerated. Those poor butterflies. He told me that most would only live for a month. Whether a month or a year or even a century, they only know containment, and so he asked whether I would be sad if I knew no other life. I said yes. We can still dream of difference. We can ask ourselves like the one before us: was I a person who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a person?
I visited the butterfly man every other day. We know the names and the species. We recognize the markings that separate one from the other, they tell us the characteristics and the habits, but we know that markings can be deceptive. I know that I shall not assume until I have every morsel of empirical evidence. I ask that from all of us.
I once asked where the butterflies go when they are dead. We bury and burn and nature eats away. We will diminish back to our home and then grow and blossom as the next stage of life comes forth. I am built from the ashes of ancestors and as butterflies live and breathe they must be t00. I asked what they give life to next. The butterfly man was sad again. Those deep eyes were sorry. I followed him.
He led me to a place of more glass. Behind the transparent mirrors, the beautiful creatures lay stretched out, pinned down, exposed. Insipid breath from provincial collectors had tainted their beauty. I saw that even when they had lost their radiance, they were still deemed exhibition worthy, exemplified. We know that the most beautiful people in this world will shine brightest and burn quickest. We should not be paraded naked before glaring lights and curiosity.
The butterfly man died when I was fifteen. In his honour I raced among the white cages on their silk and chiffon ropes and opened all of the doors. The butterflies danced and flitted about the shining room, their vibrant colours dancing in the reflected light. But they still were not free. The glass ceiling, the translucent windows forbade their emergence into real sunlight. I had released them from their tiny gilded prisons, only for them to be contained in a larger crystal box. We had yet to know freedom. We had only imagined the liberation of the eagles across deserts and mountains as insurmountable.