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The Butterfly Children

by Nancy Stohlman

 

I’d never heard of the butterfly children before I had one. Sometimes the angels descend with trumpets and announce the fruit of your womb and such. Sometimes it’s far more subtle.

The baby arrived too early, a tiny larva so delicate you could hold her in your hand, skin like a September peach inside a glass chrysalis, half in the dream world, always. Thank you for saving me she said when she was old enough to speak. But she must have known what was coming: a pupa with so many legs eating to satiate a pain that would never subside. At the time I called it moody. At the time I called it a phase.

People think of a cocoon as something peaceful, a sweet little bag of silk, a quiet transformation behind closed doors. Maybe that’s how it is for some, but the winds whipped to hurricane level, garbage cans flying around like cannons, and all I could do was take cover, grab my non-butterfly children and hide them behind a parked car to shield them. I tried to watch your transformation, I wanted to bear witness so you wouldn’t have to be alone again, but I had to look away—your face ransacked, wings ripping through that delicate peach skin. If I told you spears of light stabbed the sky would you believe me? Don’t look I yelled! For fuck’s sake don’t look!

Once when my child was little we traveled high into the mountains of Mexico to see the seventh generation of monarch butterflies complete their migration. Inside the forest temple, millions of wings fluttered open and closed in strange rhythm. Open. Close. Open. Close. Every trunk coated with a living, velvet bark, the forest floor thick with soft, dead bodies and tissue paper wings. In the silence, as the butterflies alighted on my child’s nose and ears with their strange legs and eyelash kisses—I should have known then, shouldn’t I?

And after the hurricane winds died down I found her wet, tired. Crying. Her delicate skin had become diaphanous wings like the most intricate stained glass, her eyes were spun sugar. I thought I would be beautiful, she said. Who will love me like this?

The butterfly children are born twice. Once to you, and once away from you. The butterfly children come to break our hearts, break them open. You cannot stop metamorphosis. You can only get out of the way.

The butterfly becomes a butterfly only after crisis, after a transformation both violent and profound. You are forced to watch your baby, dragged away. You do not get to say goodbye. What remains is beautiful and strange. The butterfly child finds its way into glorious adulthood, lands like good luck on the noses of babies and puppies. It never speaks of what happened before. But you know. You stop yourself from saying: you stole my baby! to this glorious creature. Because sometimes you can still see the larva’s face in there, smiling, now always smiling.

 

Nancy Stohlman is an award-winning author, performer, and all-around rabble-rouser. Her book Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction (2020), won a 2021 Reader Views Gold Award and is releasing as an audiobook 2022. Her other books include After the Rapture (March 2023), Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, and The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, among others. Her work has been anthologized widely, appearing in the Norton anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction and The Best Small Fictions 2019, as well as adapted for both the stage and screen. She teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder and around the world. www.nancystohlman.com

 

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This story came to me while on a solo road trip from Arizona to Colorado. Muse visitations are not always convenient! I was forced to keep repeating the story out loud over and over for nearly an hour until I finally pulled over at a rest stop and wrote it all down.

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