- Lao Tzu
We had already walked past it before I realized that what the corner of my eye had accidentally observed on a wet cobblestone in the alleyway was a black and white butterfly. I turned to see that indeed it was, right there, in the middle of the passageway, where, at any moment, a foot might crush her, or the tyre of a bicycle might... Oh!
I picked her up carefully. The underside of her wings was the colour of saffron. Immobile, she was hunched within herself like a tulip that had closed up for the night. It had been raining. Perhaps her wings had gotten wet. I recalled my father telling me when I was a child, as young as my son, Kasimir, who was now watching over me with wide blue-eyed interest, that butterflies have an imperceptible mantel of fine dust on their frail wings, which, if tampered with, might cause them such damage that they would no longer be able to fly. Oh!
"Can I kiss her very gently?" asked my almost six-year-old boy.
Philip laughed - his laugh is a mixture of mirth and cynicism - youthful folly and steel.
We had come from Rome to visit Philip who had recently embarked on a French adventure by setting up house in Paris. He was taking us to lunch at his favourite bistro - Le Napoleon. He loved it there, he said, because of the décor: pictures, images, posters, drawings, murals, silhouettes, caricatures, prints and studies of Napoleon lined the restaurant's walls. This tickled his sense of the bizarre ("Imagine there being a restaurant in Munich called Das Hitler whose walls are lined with images of Hitler?"), as, at the same time, his sense of good taste was stimulated by the family-type cooking which he promised would be excellent. And last, but by no means least (to a man obliged to keep a shrewd eye on his budget) a three course Menù (café et vin compris) was offered for only twenty-two francs. Practically a miracle in this day and age - which was the summer of 1980.
I'd meant to put the butterfly down on some greenery before reaching the restaurant, but not a plant had been sighted en route, so, greeted by a human-size portrait of the Little Emperor with protruding stomach painted in bright lacquer (deep greens and Chinese reds as favoured by the Parisian eye) on the bevelled, thick glass door, we went in with her.
Diners picked up their heads to see who entered. They glanced without passion at the angelic child's golden beauty; the man's carefully chosen, simply cut outfit; and the striking, blue-eyed woman with an exaggerated mass of hennaed hair, a butterfly nestling on her open palm.
The bistro was crowded: couples, threesomes, a family group; men in grey suits eating with gusto; neatly turned out efficient looking women; lovers at the corner table lost in each other; someone's fat granny. Most had serious expressions - as the French are given to - while conversing in low, secretive tones.
"In Rome everyone talks very loudly to remind one and all of their existence," I said to Philip. "Involving each other, grabbing at the nearest excuse for a possible encounter - preferably sexual. Italians always have to approach a woman sexually. I don't think they even mean it - they simply have to do it. It's the custom," I sighed, and concluded: "That's probably why they are such lousy lovers."
I laid the butterfly on the white table cloth - laid out on a cold white table, my baby there she lay...
"Lousy lovers?" Philip quizzed wide-eyed.
"Yes. Don't you know that Latins are lousy lovers?"
We didn't, however, get to pursue my sweeping statement as, at that moment, a sweet looking young waiter came over to brush away the crumbs left by the previous clients on the linen tablecloth. I picked up the butterfly as he swept vigorously with his miniature broom, avoiding eye contact with us and not acknowledging the butterfly - not even with a discreet smile. In Rome the waiter would have certainly gotten into a conversation about butterflies.
Philip said wasn't he cute, the waiter, and that he had wanted to bring his niece here to meet him. His niece, a young American woman with the fair, romantic look of an English rose, a gentile lass, a Henry James heroine, was staying with him on an extended visit to learn French and further herself culturally. "But," he added, "I don't really think my niece would go for him - she likes peculiar looking men and besides she is a vegetarian so there isn't much point in bringing her here."
Kasimir and I shared a Menù. He didn't like the mixed hors-d'oeuvre we were served for starters, so, agreeable as always, he nibbled at a crunchy baguette smeared with creamy French butter, and enjoyed the dreaded (by me) coke (oh his poor teeth!), while Philip and I spoke of his preoccupation - twenty-seven, and still not published!
It had taken him ten years to write the book - a theoretical work whose details he only secretly hinted at - something about a philosophy offering the possibility of happiness to the ordinary folk. The manuscript had been in the manicured hands of a well-known Manhattan literary agent for the last six months now, and so far, not a single publisher had come through. Although it was a trifle too soon to actually despair, this was nevertheless depressing him. Having experienced rejection by publishers myself, I tried to console him. "Geniuses have always been victimized by those of lesser talent; you'll overcome, you'll see; you'll be published... Of course you might have to die first." We both laughed.
The humorous light that met my eyes from the pale irises behind the owlish spectacles of the princely looking young man, whose soft blonde hair fell on an intelligent forehead, indicated that he was not totally of an unhappy nature - after all there was the philosophy...
Outside it was pouring. Sheets of city-grey water slid down the imposing painting of Napoleon Bonaparte who had greeted us at the bistro's entrance. Season-wise, this had been a schizophrenic summer in Northern Europe. Unreliable, eclectic weather - one moment a hot sun in a clear sky, and just as one began to feel secure that the heat had really set in (ah, finally!), heavy winds brought in a mass of threatening clouds that wrapped the atmosphere into a chilly parcel, followed by intense rains.
"They say this rotten weather is the result of the volcano that erupted some months ago in Washington State," stated Philip.
To this I responded: "Very likely. They say that when a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo there's a cyclone in Chicago."
"Very unlikely," retorted Philip.
The next course, a tenderly grilled entrecote - much to Kasimir's taste (which means he gets most of it, which suits me fine as I feel a bit like Philip's niece about meat), brought us to the subject of money matters. Having studied it at Berkeley, Philip is an expert in economics; and, being a bohemian unwed-mum, songwriter and a mostly out-of-work actress with a somewhat unruly life, I am an expert in economising. Our joint experiences brought us to the point of assessing that this was an excellent meal, much better than one could get at the price in either London or Rome nowadays. Philip declared that New York was now the cheapest Western capital and soon we would be taking our vacations in America because that would be the inexpensive place to go to.
"It all spins round nonsensically - only a few years ago Rome was the cheapest place to live and now all they talk about over there is inflation - when they're not speaking about food or sex."
"And London has been taken over by the Arabs, so you can imagine what's happening to the prices there," commented Philip, shaking his head sadly.
Money, I concluded, would be the big concern of the 80's.
"Money's always the big concern - it's my big concern," remarked Phil, philosophically.
"I wish it wasn't such a hassle to survive," I moaned.
"What's 'survive'?" queried Kasimir.
"Being able to pay the dues," answered Philip.
Choosing a delicate pale green leaf, as transparent as the butterfly herself, out of the smooth round rosewood salad bowl, I placed the still butterfly on it, and said, "If she's going to leave her body at Le Napoleon's she might as well have an organic grave."
The butterfly shook herself - a brief shudder before reassuming her passive repose.
"This is good! We should eat it in Rome too," suggested Kas, attacking the entrecote with gusto.
"It's very expensive," I explained, as though this would make any sense to my little son, who, some time ago, had sagaciously informed me that we would never be poor because our souls were rich.
The sea was outside: a rhythmic pitter-patter of huge drops drumming on window sills, streaming down grey edifice walls, splashing on cobbled pavements, frothing like dirty spume in gutters. The sonorous purr filtered in in watery waves, to mingle with the energy of our moment.
Indoors, enchanted by the cosy atmosphere and inhaling the mouth-watering aroma of food cooked with love that scented the dining room, we were warm in the intimacy of our close friendship which dated back to the nineteen-seventies. That's when we both lived in a lively household in London - he, in the penumbra of the sprawling, dim basement, working the night through on his writing, and me, at the top of the house in the spacious white attic.
That was one of the happiest times in my life - when I was pregnant with Kasimir.
Did I hear the butterfly sigh...?
"You know Kas, your dad says that in his next life he wants to be a butterfly."
"Why?" He turned his radiant face to mine and in an instant awoke in me an overwhelming ocean of love - waves of love as blue as his sky-eyes.
"So he can flutter from flower to flower..." I said.
"I thought he already did that," whispered Philip. I tried not to think about that and continued: "No, just joking. He says it's because butterflies have such an incredible life cycle - they start as worms, you know Kas. A worm hatches out of a butterfly's egg..."
"What's wrong with worms?" I asked.
"I don't know..." He obviously wasn't interested in discussing worms when now there was this pineapple cake to deal with. Pineapple-yellow cake crumbs framed his cherub's lips.
"Come to think of it, some of my best friends are worms," mused Phil.
"Ah, okay," I continued. "Anyway the worm weaves a cocoon around itself and lives in that furry state for awhile... it sleeps... and then slowly begins to change."
Transformation - Process
Transfigurment - Reformation
Transmutation - Innovation
Alteration - Variation
Mutation - Transubstantiation
Permutation - Transmigration
Modulation - Modification
"And in the spring, OUT pops the butterfly, stretching herself from her deep sleep, slowly uncrumpling her new-found wings... Imagine, from crawling under the ground, in the dark mud, and suddenly the exhilaration of flight..."
"Butterflies only live a day or two..." declared Philip gloomily.
"A day or two!" echoed an amazed Kasimir.
"Yes, butterflies are fast fading rainbows - but perhaps they don't mind," I said.
"How can anyone not mind?" questioned Philip.
"They don't know - they think it's forever," I said.
"Icì l'addition," interrupted the cute looking waiter obviously trying to get rid of us.
We collected ourselves; the butterfly, again crouching softly in my left palm, seemed sad. "This butterfly is a manic depressive." I said.
"I don't blame her," replied Philip, hooking his stylish, green umbrella under his arm and ushering us out of Le Napoleon's. He had business affairs to take care of at his bank and would see us later at the house.
The rain had stopped. We walked back up the alleyway where we had found the exquisitely sad butterfly. A little way ahead of me Kasimir was gaily skipping on the filthy sidewalk. "Don't jump in the shit, Kas!" I shouted. Ah, the French and their poodles!
"I won't jump in the shit, Hanja," he called back, bouncing like an Indian rubber ball. "I'll jump in the air... but," he concluded with a chuckle, "I might land in the shit!"
"Oh shit! I stepped in some doggie doodoo," I cried.
"Was that a joke?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"I thought so," he laughed.
The clouds were parting, allowing crisp patches of silky-blue to break through the silver-grey curtain. Like the weather, the butterfly too seemed to cheer up. She began at first a slow crawling up my hand, then with more energy, she pushed her tiny legs up the gabardine sleeve of the cream hued Armani jacket I had picked up for practically nothing at a jumble sale years ago. Carefully I brought her back into my palm. She passed from one hand to the other with swift little ticklish furry movements.
We arrived at the main drag. The butterfly now crawled right up my sleeve onto the collar of my jacket, settling like a fashionable onyx pin on my lapel.
Happiness is like a
butterfly which, when
pursued, is always
beyond our grasp, but,
if you will sit down
quietly, may alight
I pulled her off gently. She clung quite forcefully, this delicate creature. She had gained some strength now, seeming to be waking from a long dream.
My son beamed: "She wants to live!"
"Look Kas, there's a park there on the other side of the road. Why don't we put her in some flowers? It's no good taking her with us on the underground. She might get squashed there."
"Let's keep her, I'll hold on to her carefully," suggested Kasimir, but I did not heed his warning.
"No, let's put her in the flowers."
Hanging lightly over us, the damp air was still. The butterfly crawled back onto my sleeve and softly stretched her wings...
"Careful!" I shouted to Kasimir. A great big truck with tyres as tall as he, tyres that made me feel fragile, as fragile as the butterfly on my sleeve, was racing down the avenue towards us. And, at that same split moment, the butterfly took to the sky gliding soundlessly away... But instead of making for the chestnut trees or the trimmed bushes or the flowers planted in elegant, colourful circles in the park, the butterfly, finding her wings not strong enough for any lengthy distance, hovered-spun-looped several times in the air. She then gently dropped on the wet macadam of the boulevard just as the threatening tyre engulfed the same spot with an angry roar. Oh!
As the truck rolled on, leaving behind it the fumes of its fury and the pastel gossamer threads of a crumpled butterfly on a joyless road, I thought to myself, "And this just goes to show that the rendezvous with fate cannot be avoided whether it be in Samara or in Paris."
Kasimir pulled his mouth down expressing the mask of tragedy: "You shouldn't have let her go," he accused.
"I couldn't keep her, it was her destiny." But my heart was sad that I had allowed her her flight to death. You didn't take care for her well enough, mocked the voice of my guilt, and now she is dead.
Down in the Metrò (underground like the worms), I recited for Kasimir one of R.D. Laing's poems:
I dreamt I was a butterfly
Dreaming it was me
It looked into a mirror
There was nothing there to see
"You lie!"I cried
It woke. I died