The Butterfly Conspiracy

Jolie Hale: The Butterfly Conspiracy

The following is an excerpt from The Butterfly Conspiracy by Patrice Lanoy, translated by Jolie Hale, a 2011 PEN World Voices Festival participant.




That was before. In the evening, we’d perch at the top of the cliff to watch the sun drown itself. Way off in the distance, it screamed out its red hues as it plunged into the waves. Terrifying. But I didn’t look away. Patricia couldn’t care less, while I stared on and on.

“Don’t look, you idiot, you want to end up blind?”

I watched the sun until it started to hurt, until it was caught in my eyes. Then it obeyed me. I shone it onto her skin. I made it dance at our feet. And if I closed my eyelids, it floated inside, a prisoner. I held Patricia and told her that she had to understand. That with the sun I was a bit of a pyromaniac, and that if it would make her feel better, she could kiss me. She did, pressing her lips against my eyes and laughing. That was what I wanted. Her laugh. Her laugh that carried off my nightmares and chased away the monsters. That silken laugh which, at the time, seemed like it could sweep away our desires, our souls, and our secrets all at once. But it didn’t. Patricia vanished. It’s been two years since she left. Two suffocating years.

It’s been three days and three nights since we left port, and I’ve just begun to fill Morpho’s logbook. They say life gives new beginnings with a crack of her whip. I don’t think so. True voyages make no noise, give no warning. They sneak up on you silently. They take you away with caresses so that you don’t resist. And when they go badly, it’s already too late. Maybe that’s what’s happening to me with these kids. It’s only now that I realize we’ve been abducted. It wasn’t my choice. I see that absolutely nothing, not even time, anchors us.

Three days ago. If I had stayed buried in my work, imprisoned by my regrets, nothing would have happened. The kids would never have accosted me.

But instead I drop my paintbrush and raise my eyes, because of a noise: the clamor of gulls and terns swarming above the port. Of course: it’s mealtime. It’s chaos, a battle in midair. The blows of their beaks, their outstretched claws, determine who will eat first. It’s a show every afternoon, when the fishermen throw out what humans won’t consume.

The rust-stained fishing trawlers make their entrance into the harbor. The first hull, already docking, foams the water with a final twist of its propeller. Overhead, the cries stop. The greedy scavengers descend on the fish heads that spill over the sides to form a carpet on the water’s surface. The cadets, leaning their elbows on the ship’s rail, applaud the scramble for pickings. They snicker and nudge each other as they watch a hapless boy throw pebbles at the water, an attempt to feel he has more liberty than the feathered beggars overhead. A ship swain berates him.

“Hey, retard, go swab the bridge!”

There was a time when terns navigated by the stars, endured hunger, flew through hailstorms, to migrate from one end of the earth to the other. From Bear Island to Cape Horn. Who else remembers such things? I believe I’m the only one who recognizes this harbor as a shortcut. Here, past worlds emerge with the impotence of washed-up actors. What’s become of the schooners, the multitudes of sailors? They linger in rare outbursts of voices, shouted orders, the smothered respiration of a motor. Illusions. Fog. Frayed rigging.

Morpho and I are dockside, moored for repairs that I should have begun ages ago. The work comes down to steel wool, brushes, and bloody fingers. My little teak companion, baked by the sun and split almost to her keel by rocks, is far more decrepit than I, myopic with love, have wanted to admit.

Morpho: the butterfly of the forest. As a kid, in Guyana, I decided it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever set eyes on. Later I found out that its wings aren’t really blue. They don’t have any pigment at all. Under a magnifying glass, if you get them wet, you discover the scales are transparent. That’s the secret. The Morpho bends light, reflecting an imitation of the sky’s brilliance—shades of blue that don’t exist—back into the eye. It’s a beautiful scam.

“Sky blue paint. That’s hard to find, huh?”

I didn’t see her coming down the end of the pier. It’s the light but serious timbre of her voice that strikes my heart. Hearing that kind of voice is like being strangled with lace. A too-thick green sweater, artfully ripped jeans, a headband in her unruly hair. She stands poised at the edge, her bare toes hanging off the pier. Don’t, you’ll fall, her mother would say. No mother in sight. Just this gangly fifteen-year-old kid—seventeen at most, it’s hard to say. Her features are shadowed by her hedgehog-like hair. A hedgehog in both appearance and temperament.

“Aren’t you finished with your boat yet?”

I look her up and down as I wipe my hands. Her pale face is marked by a few red spots of adolescence. Eyes dancing like jellyfish; a yellow-green gaze that speaks silently. The kind of look that sees beyond what’s there. This is my downfall.

“Hello, miss.”

“You’ve been working on this thing like a maniac for weeks. I’ve seen you. Y’know, everything has an endpoint—except maybe your paint job, I’d say.”

She finishes her phrases with an upward lilt, like someone from the city, and punctuates them with a little click of her tongue. A piercing?

“You’ve been watching me?”

“Mm-hm. Anyway,” she continues, “everything has an endpoint except for a sausage, ‘cause it’s got two.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Just a bad joke. Don’t seem like you ever talk to anybody. That’s what I hear around the harbor. That you’re paranoid.”

“I’ve got one, too, if you want.”

“One what?”

“A joke.”

“It’s okay, you don’t have to.”

“Just to break the ice?”

“Well, go ahead.”

“It’s a prison joke. A new guy comes in, goes to his cell, and his cellmates turn to him, wanting to know what he’s in for. He tells them: ‘Because I told a story that made everyone die laughing. You wanna hear it?’”

“Hm,” she says, not smiling. “You really think that’s what it’s like in the slammer? Well, I guess everybody collects something weird. For you it’s bad jokes, for me it’s good ones.”

The jellyfish dance in my direction. She probably doesn’t have trouble getting boys to notice her, with those eyes.

“Y’know, I like this sort of boat,” she continues after a long chorus of cries from the seagulls.

“Boat? What do you mean, boat? My boat? This is a sailboat, a cutter, thank you very much.”

“Well, excuse me.”

“Granted, she doesn’t have a mast at the moment,” I say, with a nod toward the hole where the spar should be.

“No mast! That’s practically what makes it a boat. Can it go a long way, like a ship?”

“Pretty far, yes.”

“Really? Around the world?”

“If you wanted to badly enough.”

I feel the tide of my anxiety going out as our aimless conversation lifts the oppressive mood of the day. But where can she be going with this?

“So you’re like a captain.”

“Yes,” I say, laughing. “Sort of.”

“So, Cap’n, why don’t you take us out for a spin on this bee-yoo-tiful cutter?”

I’m trapped. From the beginning, the black hedgehog and the dancing jellyfish have been scheming for a joyride.

“What’s your name, miss?”

“Klara.”

“All right, Klara. I’m sorry, but it’s impossible. You can see for yourself, there’s no stuff on my boat. Stuff that’s kind of useful when you want to go sailing.”

“Why do you talk to me like a little kid?” she says, eyes dimming. “I’m not an idiot. You already said there’s no mast. So we’ll just have to row, won’t we?”

She looks over her shoulder, toward the quay, then back at me, unconcerned. Wrapping her arms around her knees, she drops onto a pile of the mooring line that trails haphazardly over the pier.

“So what’s your name, Cap’n?”

“Loïc. And no, I don’t mind if you call me Cap’n.”

“Ha. Hey, maybe you can tell me something, Cap’n. I hear there’s a place on the water where people go swimming. It’s rocky, and weird stuff happens at night.”

“Whitestone. Yes, it’s on the beach not far from here, to your left as you leave the harbor. The cadets go there on Sundays. If you asked them—a girl like you, I’m sure they’d take you along.”

“A girl like me?”

“I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Good, because if you think I’m like other girls, I should introduce you to my cousin Sol,” she says, flipping her black mop toward a part of the dock I can’t see from here.

I pick up on a scratching noise, like gravel, and beyond my line of sight, a movement of retreat. Somebody dodging away.

“That’s Victor, but everyone calls him Sol. He thinks the sun is a ball, so he’s always trying to catch it with his hands.”

“We’re all trying to catch something.”

“I really do like your boat. It’s old, not like the others around here, those ugly fiberglass things.”

“She’s over fifty years old. But that’s not very old at all, for a boat.”

The girl pauses to let the gulls punctuate our conversation with another volley of cries. Then she resumes pretending to be interested in Morpho.

“So why is it sky blue? That’s a weird shade for a boat, kind of metallic-looking.”

“Because of her name. See it there on the side?”

“I see … Morpho?”

“It’s a kind of butterfly.”

“Yeah?”

“In the rainforest.”

“Oh.”

From the way she’s tearing apart a blade of grass with her teeth, I can see that my explanation captivates her about as much as the mysterious origin of zebra stripes.

At the edge of my vision, Sol has unobtrusively inched himself onto the scene. I smile, thinking these brats have come up with a hell of an act: Klara gives me the spiel, waving her arms and distracting me with shiny objects, while the other waits silently in her magician’s hat until he can pop out when I’m not expecting it. He’s a funny little stick of a boy. Skinny, almost as tall as his cousin, and more underdressed. The triangle of his bathing suit makes his legs seem as long as a grasshopper’s, and the fine, colorless hair that nearly hides his black eyes reminds me of old, washed-out vacation photos. He’s holding a shrimping net.

An alarm bell has begun to throb in my head. The boy has Patricia’s eyes. And Klara’s hair is the same inky color. I gulp for breath. When will I stop seeing her everywhere?

“If you like butterflies, I have a riddle for you.” The girl tosses out this remark like a handful of dice.

“Wonderful.”

“You might not think so when you hear it. ‘We are two sisters, as light as butterfly wings. Between us we can make the world disappear.’”

I pretend to search for the answer.

“You’ve heard that one!”

“No.”

“Liar, it’s obvious you know the answer.”

“Is it … a pair of eyelids?”

“Y’know, it’s not nice to make fun of poor naïve children, isn’t that right, Sol?”

“Naïve, naïve,” Sol repeats.

He’s kneeling beside Klara, his long arms wrapped like octopus tentacles around her shoulders. With their bodies arranged like that, they look like a gargoyle sitting on the pier. A chimera, a gently mocking monster, has come to talk to me.


Excerpted from The Butterfly Conspiracy (Le Complot des papillons) by Patrice Lanoy, translated by Jolie Hale. Copyright © 2007 by Editions du Seuil. All rights reserved.

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