Butterfly in a Jar

Sunlight seeps in through the open window.

Evangeline pads into the living room, clutching a pitcher of water, passed antique vases and paintings and shelves full of books. Her neighbor’s house is large and it takes time to water every bloom, but the exhaustion and pain in her muscles are a small price to pay to be among the old tomes and flowers.

The key turns in the lock, and she spins around to see the door open and her neighbor return from her holiday.

She’s never seen her before, despite having come to her house every day for the last three weeks. She is tall, with shiny black hair that is pinned up, her face like marble, white and smooth. But her eyes are deep and black, showing no warmth, no emotion.

“Are you Julia’s daughter?” she asks, dropping her bags by the couch. “Evangeline?”

Evangeline clutches the pitcher tightly. “Yes. I- I didn’t know you were coming back today.”

She smiles. “Nor did I. But Paris bored me. The monuments have not changed since the last time I was there, nor the time before, and they certainly were the same the time before that. I’ll have to go elsewhere for my next holiday.”

“Oh. I’m sorry you didn’t have fun.”

The woman waves her off. “Paris has been there for centuries. My plants, undoubtedly, will not last the month.” She removes her coat. “To tell the truth, I had expected them to be beyond salvation by the time you took them in hand. I’m a wretched gardener.”

“I guess I’ve just got a green thumb.”

“Yes, well, you certainly are talented, whatever it is. Do you think you would mind coming the rest of the week? I’ve a great deal of work to do, and a very poor memory.”

Evangeline smiles. “Well, I can’t let your plants die after all the hard work I’ve put in.”

“Good,” the woman says. “You may call me Dorianne.”

Her life had been simple as a child. She’d done her lessons and behaved like a lady, knowing she would marry and be a mother, giving her husband sons to ensure his family line. She had not wanted much, just a titled man who would be kind and provide her with the gowns and jewels and way of life she had become accustomed to. The husband she’d always known she would receive, she should have thought to ask for the child.

Evangeline goes to her neighbor’s house whenever she can. The books are fascinating, the plants lovely, and Dorianne is a new face among so many old ones. Dorianne doesn’t say anything, but Evangeline thinks she secretly likes the company. They adjust their routines, until it’s perfectly natural, habit even, for Evangeline to sit and read while Dorianne works.

One day, Evangeline doesn’t come.

Months pass, the plants wither, certain books accumulate dust. The sun rises and sets.

When Evangeline returns her skin is so ashen that it blends into the white of her dress. Deep purple shadows are under her eyelids; her lips are pale and cracked, her arms thin sticks, skin over bone, underweight from lack of appetite, nausea, brought on by sickness. The few wispy locks that still hang limply, half dead, from her head are covered by a scarf.

Evangeline doesn’t walk around the house anymore, and instead lies propped up on the couch, surrounded by plants and piles of books. Dorianne walks her home every day, slowly, with plenty of rests as they cross their two backyards.

She’d been young on her wedding day, practically a girl. Her father had chosen him, this lord, for his wealth and lands. She had known nothing of marriage, of the world even, taught only of how to be a wife and run her husband’s household. Her rooms and the gardens and rides in the dark woods had become havens. Her mother’s lessons had done little to prepare her for the looks she’d received as the years passed and she’d failed to produce an heir.

“Why don’t you ever use any of these?” Evangeline asks, as they sit on Dorianne’s bed, surrounded by beautiful ball gowns and jewels that glitter and shine.

“I’ve never really had a reason to.” Dorianne says. “Not anymore, at least. They’ve been lying in the backroom, forgotten.”

“I wonder what else you’re hiding in there,” Evangeline says, mischief twinkling in her eyes.

“Don’t go in there!”Dorianne snaps. “There’s nothing that could interest you. Just some old things, private.”

Evangeline swallows. Dorianne’s eyes are wild, frightened, like an animal that is prepared to fight to the very death, despite knowing there is no hope.

Evangeline turns away, her eyes falling on the brightest spot of color in the room. Sitting on the dresser is a butterfly in a jar. Its wings as blue as the evening sky; it flutters lightly in its prison, which sits unopened and untouched, a thick layer of dust on the stopper.

“Alright,” she says, “I just wanted to know if there was anything else in there, like these dresses and rings, like this tiara!”

Evangeline giggles, places the circlet on her head, and shakily moves towards the mirror. She sees a girl, skeletal, a thin wisp, who is swallowed by the great red gown with its golden stitching. She wears a ring on each finger, necklaces around her throat, and a tiara in her hair. The makeup that Dorianne has painstakingly applied looks garish on her wasted face. Evangeline turns away; she does not like to look at this girl, this ghost, of things to come.

“Anne, come look at yourself in the mirror! You look great!”

Dorianne lifts herself off the bed. “Don’t call me Anne.”

Evangeline makes room in front of the mirror. “Why not? You don’t like it?”

“Anne was a saint. Her story and mine are far too different for me to try to claim her name. It’s Dorianne, just Dorianne.”

The woman in the mirror is beautiful, wide eyes, red lips, and high cheekbones. She has long lashes and a healthy plumpness in her face and body that shows youth and life. She has long hair, thick curls that fall to her waist in great ringlets. Her black gown hangs off her shoulders gracefully. Dorianne touches the rubies, little drops of blood that hang at her neck, and leisurely traces the silver stitching and seed pearls embroidered into her dress.

“Goodness,” Dorianne says, as she smiles a sad, wistful, heartbreaking smile, “the reflection hasn’t changed a bit.”

Little pieces of her heart break off and crumble into dust as she feels babe after babe die inside of her and become nothing but a pool of blood on silken sheets.

Dorianne visits her in the hospital, though Evangeline can tell that it’s difficult for her, among the sick and dying. Dorianne’s voice is strained, her hands white and clenched in her lap, and she is half-distracted every time a patient goes by, her voice trailing off as she stares. Her mother, Julia, gives them time alone, grateful for the chance to go home, shower, and possibly nap for an hour or two. Dorianne holds her hair as she retches into a bowl, telling her stories, of times long gone, of faith and honor and courage through adversity. Redemption and betrayal, murder and sacrifice. Evangeline listens as she talks, soaking up the hope Dorianne tries to give her, in her own awkward way.

And when Evangeline feels despair choke her, as she cries for her lost childhood, as well as the future she can feel slipping away from her with the pass of each day, Dorianne embraces her, cradling Evangeline in her arms as if she were her own lost, broken child.

The weak cries of a newborn had filled her bedchambers. A girl, the midwife had said, and she’d smiled in relief, in joy, that finally, her child lived. She’d turned her head feebly and seen a tiny child, pink and small, her little, early, impatient child, flailing her minute limbs. The midwife had taken the child to be washed and wrapped in soft blankets, and she’d smiled and smiled and waited to see the daughter who had not come. The midwife had entered the room, ashen.

 “Too small,” the midwife had said, “Too weak, couldn’t breathe, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

She hadn’t understood. What did she mean her baby wasn’t coming? The only time the baby didn’t come was when the babe was dead. And her babe wasn’t dead. She’s seen her just now. Alive and screaming, screaming weakly. This baby wasn’t dead, not like her brothers and sisters. Not like the babes that became pools of blood on the sheets because she couldn’t save them. Like she couldn’t save this one. No, no, no. Just no. What? No, she didn’t want to see this baby, this pool of blood that couldn’t breathe anymore. What? No, take her away, take it away! Bury her, bury it! I don’t want to see! I don’t want to see.

Evangeline resists opening the door for two weeks, until the day comes when Dorianne has gone to buy groceries, and she makes her way up the stairs, clutching the railing like a lifeline.

Portraits adorn the dark paneled walls of the large room, and Evangeline sees Dorianne’s image, painted by masters’ hands, dressed in the garments of a gentlewoman, the centuries passing as she goes from frame to frame. Gowns and furs hang in the wardrobe, and a few clothes are so old that their color has faded, leaving behind a pale, drab imitation of the beauty that they’d once been. Newspapers, and accounts, and diary entries detail a life illustrated by jewels and trinkets she had seen in museums when very small.

She jumps when a hand grasps her shoulder, turning to see Dorianne, face pale, fury and despair in her eyes.

“Get out,” she pushes Evangeline towards the door. “Get out! Go!”

“Is it true?” Evangeline whispers. “Are you really-“

Dorianne stares at her, trembling. She looks younger than she is, and much younger than she really is. “Why couldn’t you leave well enough alone? Everything was fine.” She has an arm around her stomach, her eyes pleading. “Why did you have to? I didn’t want you to know, I didn’t! Everyone leaves when they find out. Go!” She pushes Evangeline again. “You know now. Leave!”

Evangeline touches Dorianne’s shoulder, and the woman shudders, before burying her face in her hands. She is shaking, though no tears fall. Evangeline grasps one of her hands, before slowly guiding her back to the library. They sit and read and talk as the afternoon sun warms them. And Dorianne calms, though she is surprised when days pass and Evangeline continues to return.

She’d taken to riding as a ways to forget. She’d had no wish to dance or sew or pretend she’d cared about the state of her husband’s lands. The cool air of the forest, the dark trees and river had calmed her more than any of the creature comforts she’d loved in the past. But the snake slithering through the grass had made her mare buck and scream in terror, and she’d been thrown from the saddle and into the treacherous river.

Cold had enveloped her, ice entering her very soul, the current driving her backwards, under the waves, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t hear, couldn’t see, a sharp pain in the back of her head, and then blackness.

When she had woken she’d been on a cot in a peasant hut, her fine clothes gone, a rough wool shift in their place. The small hut had been empty, and hearing a noise outside, she’d made her way past the merry fire burning in the hearth and the table with herbs and little jars and curiosities, and into the garden.

The old woman, wrinkled and small, had been digging up roots in her vegetable plot. The old woman had called her over, given her some bread. Told her two months had passed since she’d been rescued from the river, half-drowned, and sick with fever. The old woman had taken her hands, examined them, feeling the smoothness of the skin against the few calluses from holding the bridle.

“Not a gardener,” she’d said, shaking her head sadly, “best you work on your weaving, untangling your own knots and problems before you try to work on other living things.”

She’d been set to work on her unraveling and spinning. Two years had passed, spinning, spinning.

Evangeline laughs as Dorianne twirls around and around, showing off her new haircut. The long black locks, once reaching to her waist are now styled into a bob.

“I saw this cut in the twenties,” she says. “I always thought it dreadfully scandalous, having your hair this short! But still, part of me always liked it.”

“It looks fantastic!”

Dorianne fingers a curl thoughtfully. “I never really did anything on a whim before.” Her face darkens. “Having been taught to act like a lady for so long, it’s a little strange to do something that goes against that expectation.” She smiles. “I’d no idea how wonderful, how freeing it would feel.”

They’d gone to villages on occasion, trading the herbs and poultices that the old woman made. In a village near to her old home, as they healed the sick, her heart had gone cold, as she’d heard of her husband’s new wife, and their newborn son.

The old woman had sighed in resignation when she’d made plans to go see her old home and this substitute wife her husband had found. Before parting ways, the old woman had given her a jar which held a butterfly, its wings the color of the evening sky. She’d thanked her, taking the delicate creature with her, letting it out every now and again to watch it fly through the air.

She’d stayed near the forest when she’d reached her husband’s lands, and waited for a glimpse of this woman, this pretender lady. She’d been unprepared for the sight of the child, wandering away from his nursemaid.

He had been a lovely boy- as lovely as her daughter would have been- bright and cheery- she had only heard her daughter cry, she had scooped him up, laughing as mother’s kisses were bestowed on his plump cheeks- she had never held her child- he’d had his father’s hair- her daughter might have had her father’s hair, she’d never seen, never held her- her daughter was dead. Clutching herself tightly, trying to force away, shake away the pain. Buried. Dead. Far away, where she couldn’t reach, where she couldn’t hold, for the first time, it would be, she hadn’t held her child before, the child who was dead, a pool of blood, and dead, and laughing, why couldn’t the child stop laughing, and screaming, the boy, the girl, the boy needed to stop screaming, the mother needed to stop screaming, there needed to be…

Silence. There’d been silence as she’d come back to herself, and a boy, lying dead, cradled in her arms. Perhaps squeezed too tightly or shaken until the crying, the screaming stopped. She’d stared, not understanding.

There’d been a boy, she’d told herself, and a noise, and- and- no.


Oh, dear god, no.

She’d laid the boy, so tiny, so small, onto the flower-strewn grass. Closed his eyes, wide and staring, and tears falling down her face; she’d gathered her belongings and run.

Returned to the forest, now sinister and unwelcoming, and raced towards the river, where she’d collapsed against the bank, sobbing. She’d taken a step, so simple, was that all it would have taken to be reunited with her daughter, and now this boy, who looked at her with wide, staring eyes.

The raging stream had thrown her about, she’d swallowed water, gasping, choking. And when death had not come, she’d dragged herself, soaked onto the grass, and gazed at the moon, the stars that looked down on her in condemnation.

She’d smiled softly, upon seeing the little jar, with its tiny blue butterfly, still in her pocket. But the stopper would not come out. She’d tried again and again, before throwing it to the rocks in a fit of rage at this stolen comfort. The glass had not broken. She’d tried once more, gaping. It would not break.

Pocketing it, she’d steeled herself, hardening her heart, deciding she would never let herself be so vulnerable, so confused over anyone again.

 “Evangeline,” Dorianne calls, looking through the shelves of her library, “which book did you want again?”

“I’ll show you.” She hears the girl get up.

“No, Evangeline, stay-“

There’s a crash, and Dorianne races back into the room.

The butterfly jar has fallen to the floor and shattered, shards of crystal scattered across the floor. Evangeline is kneeling, apologizing, attempting to pick up the pieces of broken glass and only succeeding in cutting her palms with the shards.

Dorianne stares at Evangeline, at the jar, at the butterfly whose wings are fluttering gently as it rests on the remains of its prison. Dorianne breathes in deeply, her mind racing, her heart beating wildly.

She makes to move towards Evangeline, when she feels something break inside of her. Her heart, so old, and before now, frozen, withers, time having taken its toll. Her lungs drown in river water as Death from time past comes to claim what is his. Her skin is numb and she barely hears Evangeline screaming. She reaches toward her, this girl, her daughter, with her limbs as delicate and her life as frail as the one she’d lost so long ago.

And as Dorianne falls to the floor, her flesh cold, her heart still, and Evangeline screams for her return, cradling her body, the butterfly with wings the blue of the evening sky, pushes off from the broken glass and flies into the brilliant sunshine.

Lena Benenstein
Age 16, Grade 11
Trevor Day School
Gold Key

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