The butterfly eater stared at me, indignation and disdain oozing from her delicate face.
“Yes, I actually eat them,” she huffed. “How else am I to consume all that hope and yearning?”
I’d caught her in the act. Three dead butterflies lay on the smooth marble before her and a linen sack to her right bustled with tiny movements from within.
“This is wrong,” I whispered. “They’re still alive.”
The butterfly eater sighed theatrically.
“Well yes, they have to be fresh or it’s so much harder to extract the hope, and almost impossible to access the longing—that’s the most delicious part. Otherwise it’s just crunchy protein, which, to be honest, is tasty too, but so not worth the effort of all the hunting and capturing when I could just as easily have some beef jerky. There’s slow food and then there’s the hours it’s taken me to capture all these bad boys.” She gestured at the bag.
When my eyes remained frozen on the moving linen, one corner of her mouth lifted, along with an eyebrow.
“You can try one if you’d like.”
“No!” I gasped, taking a step back. “This is grotesque. Sacrilege! And only a few hours after the Moon Souls festival!”
Almost three decades haven’t faded the memory of my first festival even a shade, each bright and fresh stroke etched into my being. I was nine when my parents told me that the Moon Goddess was coming for the first time in five years, and that I could join them. We ate a late dinner of venison and whortleberry wine, and my mother prayed before the icon of the Goddess that hung above the living room altar. My father dressed me in green ceremonial robes he’d worn himself when he was younger. They were far too loose, but I didn’t care. I felt like a man standing next to my father, who was wearing his own navy robes with embroidered golden wings: one for each year he’d released a butterfly.
My mother’s were my favorite, though. They were pale blue silk with silver wings and golden moons that reflected the moons in the sky as we walked to the center of the town square to join the hundreds of others.
“Be brave. Be true. Be you,” my mother whispered in my ear as we came to a stop. “It’s time.”
The midnight sky filled with tiny, twinkling lights and the crowd gasped. Even those that had witnessed it many times held their breath.
“It’s so beautiful,” I exhaled.
My mother’s hands squeezed my shoulders and her lips lowered to my ear.
“Focus, my son. Let the Goddess in. Let her find you.”
I closed my eyes and held out my hands. I felt a comforting warmth move over my body and a small, damp bundle gently plopped into my hands. The chrysalis felt rough and reminded me of the healing gash on my right knee. When I touched it, it felt like I was running my fingers over my knee.
It was mine.
“Go ahead, Theodore. Just like we taught you.” My mother’s voice sounded far away; she was captured by her own chrysalis now.
I brought the tiny bundle to my lips and exhaled the essence of my being: my loves, my hopes, desires and fears. Not holding anything back.
“I hope my mum and dad and I can be together forever,” I said into the animate surface.
The chrysalis began to hum, and warm vibrations spread through my hands and down each finger. My heart had never felt so full and true.
The resonance formed tiny cracks and I opened my eyes to glistening wings peeking out, breaking through the fragile shell with their fluttering.
When my butterfly emerged, my chest ached as though my heart had escaped and was now contained in the gold and blue creature in the palm of my hand.
“Let it go, my love,” my mother coaxed.
The butterfly fluttered a few more times in my hand, then floated, and suddenly I was aware of other tiny specks of gold and silver flitting around us.
It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
A gentle breeze blew and caught my butterfly, pulling her away.
At my sharp intake of breath, my mother clasped my arms from behind, pulling me to her.
“It’s okay, my love. You have to let her go.”
We stood, holding each other and watching the shimmering heartbeats disappear into the beam of the full moon.
“Ah yes, your first time,” said the butterfly eater, bringing me back into the small room at the back of the cavernous temple. Had she read my mind? “First times can be so trite in substance but so very delectable in their purity.”
“How could you?” I sputtered. “The butterflies are sacred. They are our hopes, dreams, and fears. Our souls. If anyone–”
“They have been released,” she cut me off. “They no longer serve you. They were yours for only one moment in time, which you know perfectly well.”
I paused, unable to deny the truth of this. Every time I’d held a butterfly—four times the Moon Goddess had come since that first time—I knew that as soon as the tiny creature left my palm, it was free.
“But we release them to the universe,” I begged. “To the blessed Moon Goddess.”
The butterfly eater rolled her eyes. “And what do you think I am?”
I gasped. It couldn’t be.
“No, I’m not the Goddess, you dribbleweed. Honestly! I thought they still required at least a quarter of a brain cell before they made you an officer.” She let out an exasperated sigh. “What I am, is part of the universe. Just like the trees outside, and the crow I saw escaping with a butterfly in her mouth. Even you, unfortunately.”
She picked up one of the butterflies from the table. It twitched! Good Goddess, I’d thought it was dead.
Closing her eyes, she brought it to her lips and inhaled deeply.
“Not much scent, unfortunately. Oh well.” And with that, she popped it into her mouth.
I shrank back even further against the wall but couldn’t take my eyes off her, no matter how barbaric the sight.
She chewed slowly, closing her eyes once more and breathing deeply through her nose. Eventually, she swallowed and sat in stillness. I could hear my heart pumping and the slight raspiness of my own breath.
“This one was a lonely man,” she said finally, eyes still closed. “All he wants is to find a wife, so convinced is he that this will cure what ails him. It won’t, alas. What ails him is his tedious finance job, at which he is remarkably atrocious. That and a great imbalance of gut flora—though that one he’ll never figure out and the ongoing flatulence it causes will impede his already pitiful wife hunting.”
She opened her eyes and looked at me, one eyebrow raised. “That wasn’t yours, was it?”
“No!” I exclaimed.
She smiled. “Indeed. Your desperation would have a more… rigid texture on the tongue.”
I stiffened. How dare she speak to me like that, whoever she was.
“Oh hush,” she drawled. “I jest. Come, sit with me if you’re going to watch. Which clearly you are.” She motioned to the bench on the far side of the marble table.
I wasn’t intending to sit. I’d left my surveillance post when I noticed her skirting around the procession then disappearing through an alleyway. I didn’t know why I followed her.
I should’ve probably been arresting or reporting her. Instead, I found my legs taking me away from the wall and toward the table.
“Good,” she said when I sat down. “Shall we continue?”
She picked up the second butterfly and brought it to her mouth, letting a wing settle on her bottom lip.
“Mmm. A child.” She breathed and took the rest of the creature with her tongue. “Oh, how sweet! This little one just wants her sick grandma to get better.” A frown spread across her forehead as she chewed. “If only she was brave enough to release the much larger demon. The father I mean. Oh, the traumas that poor child is collecting! They’ll find their way into future butterflies, no doubt. Today, the only pain she can accept is her grandmother’s.”
I felt my eyes filling with tears and turned my face away from the butterfly eater.
“Ah yes, human suffering—and cruelty—know no bounds. Let’s see what else we have here.”
She continued like this for hours or minutes. Time had left the building. She would eat a butterfly then tell me how it tasted and what she could glean about the person who had impregnated it.
There were mothers consumed by love and fear for their children, older men asking for signs that they’d a lived a life of value or significance. There were more children whose innocence she seemed to find the most appetizing, regardless of their wishes or circumstances.
“You see, young officer,” she said after some hours or days. “Each of these butterflies has served its purpose. Despite all the torments and tribulations these poor fuckers have faced, they came out tonight, vulnerable and exposed, just to release even a little of that heavy guilty goo that lingers around our organs.” She paused, fluttering her fingers in front of her solar plexus. “Do you know why that tastes so good?”
It wasn’t a rhetorical question, I realized when her eyes locked on mine and her lips set in a solid line.
“I don’t know why they taste good! I can’t believe that’s all you care about; not their suffering, not their belief in the Goddess herself or their sacrifice. I pity those poor souls you are degrading!”
She looked at me for another moment before continuing as if I hadn’t spoken.
“What tastes so good, young Ted, is hope.” She made the word sound edible. “Each one of these people believe that despite all the suffering in the world, or even in their own petty lives, there is still hope. There is something worth releasing for, dreaming of, or wishing into existence. The poor souls that I pity, Teddy boy, are the ones that stayed home tonight. You never think about them, do you? The ones who didn’t have enough left in them to give to the Goddess, or even to accept her offering. The ones for whom suffering has drained all hope, and for whom there is no future to imagine filling with those wishes and dreams.”
The butterfly eater reached into the linen sack and pulled out the last butterfly. A small, light blue one with silver wings.
“So take your pity where it belongs. The Goddess blessed me with a few extra taste budsand I plan on honoring all of her offerings tonight.” Her teeth tore into the delicate foil of the wing. “Every last crunchy morsel.”