Does the Butterfly Dream of Manhood?

by Jéromè Jéromè

A Strange Encounter in a Strange Land
The guy at the bar is a Swiss national, he’s jumpy, and puffy-eyed, like he’s been drunk for ten years, and he’s talking to me as if he and I go way back.

“What is it pal?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know, it’s like I have something to do, all of this energy, butterflies in the stomach, conversation, light, I want to turn the heat off, certainly I want to listen to good music and have a nice coffee. Is there nice coffee here?”

“I don’t know.”

It’s late and still really muggy. I don’t really have the wit for this crazed little man. But I don’t care. He can blather all he wants. I’ll just sit here, full of nothing. Thinking of nothing. Smiling nothing. Noting nothing. It’s not like I’m supposed to think or say anything.

A ceiling fan with wooden blades creaks and wobbles in unhurried revolutions above us while a soldier with his shirt unbuttoned tips his chair back and rolls his head side to side against the wall. The girl at the table with him props her head by her cheek, eyes alternating dim focus between the soldier and a withered lime wedge stuffed glumly into the bottom of a tequila shot. I smack two coins onto the bar, “I got his too,” and push out the swinging doors into the street.

In the daytime the place is gratifyingly busy, but at night everyone is shut inside their rooms sweating. Considerable parts of Wascarmagalpa, the village some twenty miles to the south, have burnt to the ground. Farmers driving cattle up the path have seen the Mata rebels. Apparently hostages are being taken. Funds from one account are being wired to another. Diplomats have to speak quietly into fat black telephones.

I’m here to cover a revolution but it seems to be happening elsewhere.

I move under a street lamp and turn over my shoulder. The guy at the bar has followed me.

“Do you want to see something?” he asks conspiratorially.

I glance toward a parked red truck as we step off the street and he opens a briefcase.

“What am I looking at?”

“These are swallowtails. They’re the rarest down here. I’ve got a guy on the island and a team of people ...” he wipes his forehead with a white hanky then stuffs it back into the breastpocket of his jacket. The Swiss is a bit of a dandy.

“You understand, right?” he asks.

“Sure,” I say.

I’m looking at framed glass cases of butterflies, iridescent, big—beautiful. But they mean nothing to me.

“The world recreates itself within patterns and designs. It’s a code. For the transformative act of the world. It’s not just the madman finding a tree and system of roots in the vascular network of the human lung. It’s a microchip in the wing of a butterfly, a whole way of processing and shifting data. The Miao people—do you know them? In Southeast Guizhou, were hatched out of large eggs deposited by the Butterfly Mother. The butterfly moves, you see, and the sheen of its wings change color. This is the entire world, right here. But when uncertainties are finite, such dynamics do not apply. There are no valid conclusions. What can be drawn about the dynamics of finite uncertainties are the eyes of a grand pattern of smaller, adjustable dynamics, the infinitesimal uncertainties of a being undergoing constant change. Certainly we feel confined to some attractor (strange attractor in this case) but all this energy is lost across the surface. Where we think we know. Do you follow me?” It sounds like he’s pleading. Like he’s asking me to help him.

“I feel like I’ve lost my mind, it’s so beautiful,” he says, finally.

I offer him a cigarette. He shakes his head.

His name is Hans—or that is the name he tells me. He began in the 1990s, capturing butterflies from U.S. national parks, then south, into Latin America, searching for rare subspecies of the toxic Heliconius. From then on, always migrating north. Now he’s got a network of collectors and connects down here so he can use the cheap labor to gather rare specimens. Only the locals know where to get the good ones. He pays the guys in the field a little and then turns around and sells butterflies like these for thousands of dollars apiece. It’s almost like drugs, but the market is a little slower moving. But unlike drugs, the thing is, nobody really gives a fuck. Especially when a country is in unrest. There’s less work for the men, more chaos at the airport. Nobody thinks about butterflies. Not even among the people. He goes to bug fairs and he sells them over the Internet. It really doesn’t matter. His market is entirely niche.

Think about it, he says. The illegal butterfly trade generates about $200 million per year, a fraction of the estimated $10 to $15 billion industry of illegal animal trading. How many people do you know that are obsessed by the butterfly? One? If that. There’s no one! The resources simply don’t exist to combat all of the wildlife traffickers, and then narrow it down by species! It would take a special agent more time to track and investigate him than the sentence he’d serve if he were caught. And the maximum fine could hardly dent the profits he’s already made. He seems to lament this.

“And all I want is something to happen.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think about the caterpillar. It inches along a branch and because something inside of it flips a switch, it stops, and spins itself into a cocoon, its pupa. Do you know what happens inside the pupa? No? The caterpillar, from within, begins to melt, to turn into protoplasm, like a junky in Burroughs. Have you read Burroughs? Imagine your liver turning into goo right now, right now as you stand there, but as it is melting, the cells are rearranging themselves, getting ready, to release another being, seeded, and coded from within. Think of a scientific revolution, a wave of new information, generated out of the dead husks of religious thought? This, this is what I want to happen to us.”

He shuts his briefcase and thumbs the locks. “You’re not the police are you?”

“No.” I tell him I’m a journalist. I’m working on a different story, and we both turn to watch the girl and the solder stumble into the street, the streetlight shines on the soldier’s collar.

“What did Zhuangzi ask when he woke up from his dream? Do you ever feel like you’re waking up? But it’s not fear or anything, it’s just that there’s nothing, nothing, and still so much to do? And you can’t get any better to do any of it?”

It’s too late for this. I tell Hans goodnight. But he doesn’t leave me alone.

“We need to embark together, into the Alps. Picture it now. There stands the young Nabokov, his gaze fixed on distant valleys, hidden nooks, dens of transformation. He wears a silly looking cap, shorts, knee high socks, and pinched between his side and arm, a butterfly net. He seeks in the Alpine distance a rare species of butterfly, but our object of interest dwells more inwardly, beneath the lepidopterist’s cap, and further, well inside his head—wherefrom this obsession? There we find the six-year-old Nabokov, his almond shaped head and clear blue eyes. Our scene is clear, as though preserved in a mason jar with a copper band. The young Nabokov greets his father’s hand through the bars of his cell. At the ends of the young Nabokov’s slender fingers perches the gift of a recently caught butterfly. Father gently touches son’s fingers, shifting the insect’s perch from younger to older index. Here are the origins of Nabokov’s fascination with the winged insect. Can you guess mine? No? Certainly you want to hear music. But there’s no music—the wings flap over the ocean and the ocean spills forward. You know this, this little worm that turns into a big beautiful butterfly that causes the buildings in Asia to crumble?”

Hans follows me into my room and climbs into bed beside me and begins to stroke the side of my face. “Tomorrow, we will eat breakfast, then I will show you the field where I have the men capturing the butterflies. Imagine all of them, with their nets, in unison, capturing these poor delicate creatures. It is like a massive wave of insomnia. It will turn your stomach.”

I roll over. A warm breeze has picked up the curtain on the window, turning it this and that way. For a second, I am able to mistake it for something else—a skirt, a woman’s skirt. Something my mother wore when she was younger, when I was younger, and I would stand at her leg and let the fabric wrap around me, and I would feel, for a second, like I was home, or returned home, and that I would never get older, or sad. I would always stay like that, for years, forever.

“Hans, what are you doing?”

“Oh you know,” he says, as though he’s already far away. “Stop thinking of nonsense,” he tells me.

There is a shadow of the curtain on the far wall, painted back and forth, swaying. Hans wraps his arms and legs around me and slowly, slowly melts. After all, it is probably only a rearrangement of proteins. That is what we are anyway.

In the morning, I turn over and look at the ceiling. It is covered with a thousand butterflies. I miss my mother. But I don’t have any money left to call her.