This may turn into something more, but since it may not I want to get it out there, in my ongoing project to make available everything I've ever written. Begun in 2015 or so, I've revisited it sporadically ever since, turning its potentials over in my mind, touching up a line or two. I do enjoy the process. Note that Running, my early novelette centered around a mystery in Los Gatos, California, is almost ready to go. I don't have time or energy or inclination to do the marketing thing for book publication, so I'm going to serialize it here. Lucky you. I may do the Lulu print-on-demand thing, but that is not likely during these upcoming days of online teaching. If you want something of mine you can hold in your hand and read, go get Lives or Speculativity at Lulu. For now, sink into:
It was early July of 2015. Our days were numbered, though I knew that not.
My abused memory marks the beginning at when I realized I had been greeting butterflies out loud for a good while. My greeting was always the same: “Hello. Beautiful.” Not “Hello, beautiful,” as if I were greeting and complimenting my wife or daughter or son; but two words, standing alone. Sometimes I spoke them quietly, almost under my breath. Occasionally, when free from the constraints of public scrutiny, I spoke them clearly and loudly.
Now, the first word is a greeting, clearly. It can actually stand as a sentence. True? True.
The second word, languishing as it does without sentence construction, might be taken several ways. It could be a comment, an adjective lacking a noun or a verb--but a comment upon…what? Perhaps it is a simple observation. Beautiful. Understanding as I do that perception resides in the mind of the beholder, or in this case, the reader, I will not expound further. That is simply what I said. Always. From the beginning. I don’t know why. Perhaps it will become clear.
The butterflies at first simply ignored the sound. They fluttered about just as they had before I disturbed them. Did I disturb them? Can butterflies “hear” anyway? No, of course not, but the thousands of tiny hairs that comprise the scales on their wings surely can sense vibrations. How sensitively, I wonder? What can that feel like? Is it understanding?
This verbal reaction to each and every butterfly I encountered evolved into a bit of a habit. Not that I ran into our winged lovelies on a daily basis, but when walking the two mongrels, strolling around the sidewalk outside the school building to get my blood pumping after sitting or standing at a computer for hours at a time, or paddling my inflatable kayak on my favorite little fishing lake, I would encounter them with some regularity.
“Hello. Beautiful,” I would say.
Lapidoptera. Lapidoptera. Lapidoptera. Mellifluous as can be, is Lapidoptera. It can be pronounced any way. Try emphasizing its different syllables. If meanings are nuanced by emphasis, as they sometimes are for me, my own subconscious understandings run along a trail along which reside a dog’s tongue in water, consciousness, vision, and the planet earth. How distracting. The traditional emphasis falls on the third syllable, “dop,” which brings to mind the small bag which gentlemen carry on their travels, a bag containing perhaps a toothbrush, deodorant, and, just perhaps, an electric nose-hair trimmer. But I digress.
The first encounter was unsudden. It transitioned into itself ever so gradually from disacknowledgement to contact.
Unspectacularly, I was walking Watson and MacGuyver, and, well into our early evening, almost sunset neighborhood walk, they had finally stopped pulling at their choker leashes and we were working our way up steep Ellwood Drive. MacG had paused to hunker down and relieve his canine bowels, haunches shaking, as he had done for the past 12 years nearly every day, at some point, when we walked. Watson strained characteristically at the end of his leash, his bold head perked attentively. Watson--of the thick short white hair, irregular brown eye-patch, and eternally black-browed querulous expression, darker markings over one eye always seeming to display a raised eyebrow--stood taut and ready at the end of his leash. It was a warm and humid blue-sky Saturday evening, and we were in no hurry.
A tiny blue butterfly, wings rimmed with dark borders, fluttered over MacGuyver’s black wooly head. Of course I said, “Hello. Beautiful."
The big black Flat-Coated Retriever looked up at me sadly, as if he were about to ask, “Are you talking to me?” He always looked sad. His big brown eyes passive-aggressively accused me of mocking him. I was not. I never did, though I knew I would never convince him of my innocence.
MacGuyver stood fully up, took one step, and back-scratched. Five times his alternating wooly back paws flung uprooted weedy grass and earth at the refuse he had just deposited. I bent down stiffly to pick it up, cradling the plastic grocery bag over my hand and getting most of it. I tied the handles to stifle the stench, Watson pulled on his leash again, and we started back up the wooded hillside road.
I heard a raspy little incredibly high-pitched voice behind me. “Hello.” Then, “Beautiful.”
Goosebumps now as I recall. How much longer will I be able to recall anything? Do dogs have souls? If they do, where are my buddies’ souls now?
The Eastern-Tailed Blue Cupido comyntus (is there a synonym for “fluttered?”) flapped and floated along approximately three feet ahead of me, almost as if he were leading us upon this little walking exercise. I say “he” only because those tiny two words had sounded in some way male. Who knows? What I do know is that the yard-long distance he maintained from us varied very slightly until we reached the top of the hill, where, when Watson stopped to energetically sniff something, likely deer urine—how poetic—the diminutive creature lifted another three feet up into the air and then floated down to light on my shoulder.
In my peripheral vision I could see it if I turned my head slightly. It was, in fact, repeating that second word of my greeting. I uttered both words again. I felt it was staring at me, and I wondered what it saw. I remembered from college, or maybe it was from high school, that butterflies had in common with houseflies complex vision, with hundreds of tiny hexagonal lenses. Still, they do not see hundreds of images of their field of view, as Hollywood would have one believe. Each eye has a lens, which has its own dedicated nerve, and images travel with all the others to the brain where sense is made of it. The butterfly sees the ultraviolet spectrum, so the resulting perception must be “poor resolution,” a pixelly kind of image, like one might see viewing a computer photograph with a magnifying glass.
In that context, this fellow must be taking in a 66-year-old white male, gray hair disheveled from bedhead, just the side of its face. Huge. White facial hair that has been called a “Three Musketeers look,” trimmed neatly. Small but clear hazel eyes over prominent brow. My head must have looked like a small house to the butterfly. The one eye he saw was canted toward him, the man’s bushy eyebrow raised slightly, and he heard…what? He felt the two sensations he had felt before, twice along nearby asphalt rivers lined with trees and grassy ground, just one dark away. It felt like two heavy grating changes of wind and vibration. It felt good. It was beginning to feel…familiar. “Hello. Beautiful.”
Could he mimic that again? He summoned up the sensation and from the brain deep within his abdomen, he began vibrating. A low surge built into the first two beats of the five-beat pattern. The air shook.
“Hello,” I heard again. The same small, high pitched raspy voice. In the corner of my field of vision, I thought I saw the colorful creature vibrate almost imperceptibly as I heard, “Hello.” And after a long pause, “Beautiful.” The butterfly took flight and hovered, it seemed unsteadily, in the air directly above me, and as Watson leapt off to continue his walk, nearly ripping my arm out of its socket, jarringly pulling me along, with MacG in tow, the Blue soared away.
Shaken? Can I describe my state that way? It fails to do my feelings justice. For the remainder of our walk my head swam. I could swear that I’d just heard a blue butterfly speak to me. I saw it, empirically demonstrated, and I heard it, audibly. I was a witness. Was I losing it? Likely.
For the rest of the night, tucked away in my geodesic dome house, nestled in the far reaches of urban Tennessee cul-de-sac heaven, glued to my Alienware laptop, I obsessed over butterflies. Google was my friend. When I finally came up for air, Ruby was singing the song of her feline people, clearly hungry, and it was just beginning to crack dawn. Yes, sometimes I don’t sleep. I subscribe to Warren Zevon’s credo: “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” Cue the song…https://youtu.be/70qrVlOncSY
There are some advantages to living alone and being a teacher off work for the summers, but sole responsibility for feeding the hungry livestock is not one of them.
I made the rounds, first giving treats to MacG and Watson then feeding Ruby, then filling up the dog dishes with water and dry food. Once everyone had chowed down, I made a Guy Kibbee for myself and wolfed it down. For the unitiated, this is a fried egg cooked in the center of a piece of bread, butter its main ingredient after egg and bread. I also always sprinkle dried or thinly sliced fresh basil on either side with a little salt, and sometimes I pull a deep green leaf or three from the lush basil plant in the blue pot outside my back door to quick fry under the toast after the flip. It’s a quick breakfast, relatively healthy as long as the butter is not overwhelmingly applied, and easy to clean up afterward. (To understand why it is named “Guy Kibbee,” you have to watch the 1935 film, Mary Jane’s Pa. I dare you.) I do not have this more than twice a week or so, most often preferring my Nutri-bullet veggie and fruit protein shake. I have made it this far and I hope to live long enough to be a burden to someone.
Who that might be I do not know. I have been alone as long as I can remember. No wife, no children, and my siblings have passed before me, joining our parents on the other side, wherever that is. I’m sometimes lucky enough to couple up with a woman met in a brewpub or bar, but that’s few and far between and (as a matter of personal policy) never turns into anything more. Since my early days, when I was most usually left for hours alone in a playpen, I am, and I remain, alone.
This aloneness was most enveloping over the summertime, as for 9 months out of every year I spent my weekdays with classrooms full of middle schoolers, having done so with elementary school students for a decade and a half previously. I was a computer teacher in a public school, and I loved doing that. It allowed me to learn new things all the time, and to do so along with young people who would inherit our world. At least that had long been my motivation in teaching. Now? What’s to inherit?
Now the menagerie, that’s another thing. They were my family. After opening the back door onto the fenced back yard that led up into the steep wooded ridge above the fence, I cleaned up my dinner mess, stripped off my clothes, and took a long shower—washing my unkempt gray mop and goatee, stretching in the shower—and then I slipped into new underwear, carefully ironed cargo shorts, and loose red tee-shirt. I pulled on an old and worn black belt, slipped into low black socks and my Nike Air tennies, shut the pups in the back yard, and stepped out onto my front balcony.
The air was less humid this morning than it had been the previous night, and I leaned into the railing, inhaling deeply. The air smelled like summer, gloriously rich with the odors of the ripe earth on the hillside, the algae draped upon the stones leading up to the ridge behind the house, the elms, hackberries, oaks, maples and even the occasional birch trees all contributing to the wealth of olfactory sensations.
A Red Admiral alighted on the railing beside my left hand.
I never saw it coming, but the Vanessa Atalanta must have come around from behind me. It landed silently, then hopped up to light on my hand, perhaps tasting my skin with its feet to see if there were any nectar. I now knew that they prefer carrion and bird droppings, but there were none of those handy. Just my hand.
I stared at him for several seconds, a little taken by his golf club shaped antennae, and then I greeted him. Several more seconds passed in what felt like an eternity. A thin, bright, trebly but neither male nor female sounding voice spoke quietly, “Hello.” Then, “Beautiful.”
Then, “Thank you for taking notice. We thought we would never break through.”
My head felt light and my knees went weak. I almost collapsed.
“Come now, Friend. Don’t be a wuss. This is going to be just fine.”
I did collapse. Well, at least I sat down rather heavily on the deck. The dogs took up a chorus of barking from the back yard. I heard Watson hitting the glass back door. One day, I thought to myself, not for the first time, he is going to come crashing through it. Now, of course, he won’t. The door is not there. Nor is he. Nothing is here but me and this talking butterfly.
“So.” said the Admiral, now perched gingerly on the decking in front of me, “so. You are the One we will be working with.”
Out of nowhere, I answered, “Well.” Long pause. “ I guess that’s the case.”
“You seem all right. I’ve had my eyes on you for several of my very few days on this planet. I think we can get done what we need to get done.”
The butterfly turned away, its antennae trembling, and we were joined by a dozen or so more of similar appearance. This fellow was the largest, maybe three inches of wingspan, but the others varied in sizes from just under two inches to almost his size. They landed, surrounding their leader on the deck surface. The breeze swarmed warmly. It was going to be a hot one, and a long one, if my intuition was correct. All at once they rose into the air as a group, I heard the word “Later,” and they flew away up into the woods. I passed out.
I had not been all the way up into the woods, to the top of the nature conservancy ridge, in a month or so. That was a bit unusual for me, as I did enjoy the quiet solitude of strolling the paths that deer had carved into the woods over centuries. There was a joke that Nashville streets and roadways had been laid out according to those natural thoroughfares.
But on this day, I was led there.
I left the pooches inside my house, the inner door open with the storm door into, which was set a dog door, locked so they had access to the little fenced in back yard. I stepped out on the front porch knowing that Cupid, as I had now dubbed him, would be there waiting, He was.
I followed him like an automaton, after having the wherewithal to pick up my walking staff from the antique milk can on the porch by the door. Cupid flew straight out toward the little crosshatch trail, but of course I had to descend the steps to the street and walk up to the trail head. I couldn’t fly, at least not yet.
He was easy to follow.
Butterflies sleep, hanging from leaves or in crevices in rocks
Antennae differ from moths – golf club tips
Smell with antennae taste with their feet
Breathe through spiracles in sides. Trachea take oxygen to blood. No lungs
Life span 2 days to 14 weeks, species-connected.
Queen Alexandra's Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), with a wing span of 11-1/8 inches (280 mm), is found only in the rain forest of New Guinea. Destruction of its habitat is threatening this beautiful creature with extinction.
The smallest butterfly, the Pygmy Blue (Brephidium exilis), is found in the southern United States. Its wingspan is 1/2 inch (15 mm).
The most common butterfly is the Cabbage White.
Moth species outnumber butterfly species by 16-to-1.
Butterflies communicate mostly through chemical signals. Males produce 'pheromones' to attract females. A few species communicate with sound. For example, the male Cracker Butterfly can produce noises with its wings.
It's not really known if caterpillars can hear. They make no noise other than chewing.
Farzana Khan Perveen and Anzela Khan (December 6th 2017). Introductory Chapter: Lepidoptera, Lepidoptera, Farzana Khan Perveen, IntechOpen, DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.70452. Available from: https://www.intechopen.com/books/lepidoptera/introductory-chapter-lepidoptera
Kasey Yturralde. (2009, September 30). Hollywood Misconception. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/content/bugvision-hollywood-misconception
https://youtu.be/u7SSt0hqu6Y -- The SOUND of a Million Monarch Butterflies!
https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/10/butterflies-hear-their-wings/573193/ - The Butterflies That Hear With Their Wings
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026689/ --Mary Jane’s Pa