By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Illustration by David Tenorio
The clear acrylic display case, as tall as a human casket and as wide as six, housed Leonard Clegg’s expertly preserved, rod-secured, one-of-a-kind specimen: the body of a young woman from whose gaunt sides blossomed enormous butterfly wings and from whose meager head sprouted two segmented antennae.
Leonard had applied his habitual painstaking preservation technique to this specimen, just as he had to thousands of regular-sized ones during his years of collecting. First, he had “relaxed” the young woman’s body just as he would have a butterfly’s, by depriving her of oxygen and draping her unconscious, but still living, body on moistened sheets. Then, with great care, he had applied pressure to her thorax so that her wings would separate. Next, he proceeded to insert a ruler-sized stainless steel rod through her abdomen, careful not to puncture any vital organs, and allowed the entry and exit wounds to heal, suturing as needed. He slid her up and down the rod until her wings were aligned with the edge of his massive spreading board. Wax strips were used to hold the wings in place, and with a finesse born of practice, he inserted an ice pick (normally he would have used a pin) between the veins on the front edge of the left forewing, pulling it firmly into place; the same operation he then performed on the right forewing, and finally the hindwings. Helping himself with additional rods, he set her head’s antennae, with their gorgeously thick tips, into the classical “V” position. He allowed her to dry for four days before removing the rods and strips, and during that time ensured she remained alive by observing her breathing. Tentatively testing the hardness of her body with his fingers, he transferred her to the display case in which she was currently confined.
Now, admiring the fruits of his labors, Leonard stroked his punctiliously clipped iron-grey beard, examined the specimen one last time, and let out a sigh. Miranda was ready to be shown.
Leonard’s guests arrived a week later. Frederick Heiter showed up first, bearing mediocre wine. He was followed by Ian Lake, who gifted Leonard a contemporary political biography Leonard would never read. Half an hour later the Bradellos sauntered in, with a rather sorry bouquet of flowers.
Under normal circumstances, Leonard’s disposition would have been soured by the Bradellos’ tardiness. But he reminded himself that they had only visited him here once before, years ago, and that his house was indeed remote, perched as it was on El Sagrado Obispo’s highest mountain. So he quietly forgave them their infraction and drew his lips back into what he hoped would pass for a pleasant expression. Then he served wine and cheese and regaled his four guests with tales true and false of his recent doings, while Telemann’s Taffelmusik accompanied him in the background. All throughout, he hid the stains of excitement under his arms and the sweetness in his breath that derived from over-indulgence in his favorite Pedro Ximénez sherry.
At last, after he deemed his guests’ appetites suitably whetted, he tantalized them with some clues about his objet d’art. “But you will see for yourselves soon enough,” he promised seductively, and informed them that after a short break on the home’s seaward balcony, where he would get some fresh air, he would unveil the piece. He left the room just as the speculative murmurs became audible.
When he returned his skin tingled with cologne under a fresh, stain-free shirt. He noted each of his guests’ expressions: Frederick’s look of expectant consternation; Ian’s rictus of disdainful skepticism; and Dan and Rachael’s stares of anticipation.
With slow, deliberate steps, he led them to his darkened study, and one by one ushered them in using only the glow of the moonlight that spilled in through open windows, momentarily transforming their faces into alabaster masks. Leonard was thankful for the cool ocean breeze snaking into the study, which at once evaporated his renewed perspiration. His guests, on the other hand, appeared chilled by it. In the penumbra Leonard thought he saw Rachael’s arm wrap around Dan’s. They stood quietly, squinting, waiting for the moment when Leonard would turn on the lights.
And so he did. With a clap, a single bright beam strategically mounted four feet above the display case came to life.
“Behold Miranda,” he said.
Leonard, unsure how his guests would react, made an effort to refrain from any concrete expectations. And so their gasps and moans and shudders upon seeing Miranda neither pleased nor disappointed him, though they did mildly chafe against his sense of propriety.
He stepped forward, positioned himself near the display case, and turned around to face his guests. With a bemused glance he took in Rachael’s pallor, almost as acute as the vermillion that had flushed Ian’s cheeks.
Leonard’s guests seemed at a loss. It was clear Frederick wanted a closer look, but since no one else stepped toward the case, he remained in place. Ian was scratching his forehead. Rachael looked away. Dan somewhat feebly tried to console her, while stealing furtive glances back at the case. Leonard noticed that when Rachael freed her arm from Dan’s he made no effort to regain it.
“Please, please,” Leonard said, a pained expression on his face, “do not be distressed. I assure you, this entire setup was nothing more than an elaborate ruse. I have recently taken up painting, you see, and wished to dazzle you in a most unusual way — observe the handiwork on the female dummy’s wings. For better or worse, those flash colorations, white spots, and wing fringes are all my doing. I thought you might appreciate this experimental commingling of my love of butterflies with my new interest in painting, but I see now that it was a severe miscalculation. Please accept my apologies. Let us leave this room at once.”
As the four guests shuffled out, Rachael stopped and turned to face Leonard with a kind of bitter intensity. “Why didn’t you just paint some wings?” she demanded.
Leonard put his hands inside his pant pockets, shrugged, and repeated her question, as though inspecting it for traps. “Why didn’t I just paint some wings?”
She looked at him, horrified. Dan put his hand on Rachael’s shoulder. “Honey, it was just….”
Leonard met her gaze evenly and held it there. He smiled. “I suppose I had larger ambitions,” he said, lowering his voice. “I was struck by the ridiculous notion of creating an interesting piece of art. I had a dream that involved a woman-butterfly chimera. Presumptuous, I know. Forgive me.”
Rachael shook her head. “But the anatomical precision … and the grimace of pain on her face … it all looks so real.” Dan brushed up against her, almost prodding her. “Hollywood effects, I’m sure.” He shrugged. “Don’t forget where Leonard got his start. Let’s go home,” he whispered in her ear, just loudly enough for Leonard to hear.
“It is late,” Leonard said.
Rachael stumbled away, trailing behind Frederick and Ian, who, once in the foyer, made some vague excuses so that they could linger and ask Leonard questions about his creation, about his thought process, as they curiously kept calling it. The Bradellos, last to arrive and first to leave, put on their coats and said goodnight.
After they departed, Frederick and Ian complained that it was cold in the house. Leonard, ignoring the implied criticism of his hosting skills, agreed. The large house he had acquired was outfitted with an old-fashioned heating system. It consisted of several wood-burning brick fireplaces (currently unlit), cast iron stoves and radiators (tepid), and a coal-fired boiler (at present burning at minimal intensity) in the basement. He excused himself and raised the boiler temperature. When he returned, Ian yawned in a somewhat exaggerated manner, thanked him for an “interesting time” and bid him and Frederick a good night.
A few awkward moments later, Frederick finally broke down and asked, in an impressive concatenation of over-polite circumlocutions “—if it’s not too much trouble, I mean, I realize what time it is, and I certainly wouldn’t want to keep you up or impose, but since you already showed us the … ah … piece … once, perhaps you don’t mind, as the group was not particularly open-minded, which is not intended as an insult, you understand, if I…,” and so on — whether it might be possible to see Miranda one more time, a request to which Leonard acquiesced on the condition that Frederick leave his cell phone in the foyer, as all guests had been previously instructed to do.
When Leonard and Frederick re-entered the study, Leonard’s interest in the other man’s reactions competed with Miranda for his attention. Frederick walked right up to the display case, so close that his nose rubbed against the acrylic and his exhalations fogged it.
Leonard grinned. “In my dream,” he said, “the woman-butterfly chimera was utterly realistic. Every skin pore, every wing vein, was revealed to me. And so I labored to materialize my vision as best I could. Each element of the piece — the black and orange-red wing borders, the white spotting — is exactly as I saw it. Even the gentle curvature of the wing-tips.”
“What material did you use to make the wings?”
Leonard looked at the wings, then at Frederick, trying to see whatever it was that Frederick saw. The wings seemed to float freely in place, reflecting the display case light in cascades of iridescent coruscation.
“I can’t share all my secrets,” Leonard said.
Frederick swallowed. “And what about the more … human parts of her body?” He waved vaguely in the direction of her torso, avoiding explicit reference to Miranda’s small breasts and unusual face.
Leonard felt a pang of irritation and snuffed it out before it had a chance to ruin his mood. “They were necessary, but of secondary importance,” he said. “You see, it wouldn’t do just to make the wings. We all know a butterfly could never be this size. So I needed a conceit of sorts, something to hold it all together and complete the illusion, as it were.”
Frederick studied Miranda from one angle, then another. “Really, it’s quite unsettling.”
“My dreams often are,” Leonard said.
Frederick turned to look at him.
Just then, a barely audible sound, as though of a wing whispering against glass, emanated from the case.
Frederick twisted sharply, nearly knocking Leonard over.
“Steady,” Leonard said.
“Did you hear that?” Frederick wiped his brow, retreated a few steps. “Jesus H. Christ. What the fuck is this?”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I didn’t hear anything.”
Frederick reached automatically in his pocket for his cell phone, then remembered he didn’t have it. “I swear … it sounded….”
“Your imagination must be getting the better of you. The case is airtight.” Frederick seemed to be somewhere else. His eyes had glazed over with a peculiar sheen. “It looks like the right wing has moved slightly….” He pointed. “How is that possible?”
“Nonsense,” Leonard said. “Just looks that way because you’re standing farther away.”
“This thing’s freaking me out,” Frederick said.
“Evidently,” Leonard muttered. “Come, my friend. We’re both tired. If you have any additional … technical … questions, we can discuss them in my study.” Frederick nodded absently. On their way out of the room, as Leonard clapped off the light, the display case whispered once more, the same susurration of soft fabric against acrylic. This time Frederick was out of earshot.
After Frederick finally left (Leonard didn’t want him to drive in his state of agitation, and so he helped calm his nerves with herbal tea and inane conversation), Leonard cleaned up after his guests. Then he went back to the basement boiler, raised the temperature again, and retired to his library, as he often did before going to sleep. There he attempted to read.
Leonard’s reading tastes ranged far and wide, and though he was not a book collector, he did appreciate the tactile experience that accompanied the consumption of the now nearly extinct physical book. Tonight, however, he found it difficult to concentrate on his chosen tome, a ribald selection of seventeenth-century poetry, despite the volume’s handsome qualities. He permitted himself two small breaks, in which he simply sat and dozed, hoping to improve his concentration. But after each respite, upon returning to the text he felt more scattered and more disquieted than before. With reluctance — was he losing his stamina? emotionally affected by his guests’ unpleasant behavior? — he set the book down and paced in his library, typically a soothing activity.
As he neared the room’s door, he thought he heard a distant high-pitched whine. He ignored it and continued to walk to and fro. Again, upon reaching the door, the unsettling sound returned. He stood very still and listened to what he could only describe as a faint whimper. It lasted a few seconds, then stopped.
Leonard opened the door of his library and waited. When the whimper returned he followed the source of the sound toward his study. Just a few feet shy of the entrance he decided to turn around and walk away. As though sensing this reversal, the whimper resumed, more insistent.
Leonard held his hands up to his ears and headed to bed. His bedroom was on the upstairs floor, on the wing opposite the study, and possessed a thick oak door. Convinced the distance and additional physical barrier would shield his sensitive hearing — the smallest night sound could rouse him and provoke a fit of irritability — he stopped pressing his hands against his ears and completed his nighttime ablutions. He slipped under his organza-trimmed, green-tea silk duvet, closed his eyes and eased himself into a placid drifting state.
He was poised to dissolve into total relaxation when he heard the whimper once again, louder, more raw than before. Brusquely he grabbed the earplugs that rested on his night table (he used these whenever the weather turned stormy, which was often in El Sagrado Obispo), closed his eyes and focused on his breathing. Soon he began to drift anew. And was shoved back into reality by the whimper.
“You little whore.”
He yanked his ear-plugs out and stomped down the stairs.
Inside the study, all was quiet.
“Well, I’m here! Happy now?” Leonard turned on the regular lights as well as the display case beam. The study’s potent bulbs revealed tears on the cheeks of Miranda’s ill-proportioned face, fast-drying droplets born in her black slits-for-eyes, sliding down her rotund cheeks and falling from her minuscule chin.
Miranda’s lips moved.
“What, what, what, what do you want??” Leonard was tempted to grab a hammer and smash the front of the case, just so that he could observe the acrylic fragments shimmer and shower and cut into Miranda’s skin. But it wouldn’t be wise to risk damaging her wings.
Miranda whimpered again.
“You’re tired, is that it?” he yelled. “You’ve had enough? STOP THAT GODDAMNED SOUND AND I’LL TAKE YOU DOWN!”
The lips stilled. The tears stopped.
Leonard waited for his heart to quiet down so he could think again.
He walked to the rear of the display case and inspected the two discrete holes he had drilled so that Miranda wouldn’t suffocate. Good, they were unobstructed. Nimbly he removed one of the case’s rear panels (Miranda was pinned to the middle one) and was instantly assailed by a powerful briny odor.
Leonard had noticed the smell before, right after he had captured Miranda and before he had “relaxed” her. He had chalked it up to fear, some sort of desperate fight-or-flight chemical response. Now he breathed through his mouth to avoid the worst of it. “You messy thing …”
As he delicately set Miranda, and the rear panel to which she was pinned, down on the floor, he noticed her wings had subtly started to change color.
“What’s this?” he asked.
Miranda’s eyes were so small it was hard to tell whether they were open or closed. He wondered why she had human eyes at all, rather than compound eyes and other features like labial palpi. Leonard wasn’t sure how much of her human physiognomy was vestigial and how much functional. He didn’t care.
He studied the wing pattern changes. The white spotting in the forewings was starting to fade, replaced by a dark yellowish brown that made them resemble a dead leaf. And the hindwings were becoming darker too, losing their distinctive luster.
He shook his head. “This has to stop.” He leaned down so that his mouth was inches above Miranda’s face. The face was still stuck in the same grimace that had so offended Rachael, one cheek twisted and pulled up higher than the other. “You must return your wings to how they were before. These new colors … simply will not do.”
Miranda gave no indication that she had understood.
“I see what you’re doing,” Leonard continued. He fought down the impulse to wrap his hands around her neck and wring it as hard as he could. “You’re trying to bully me, aren’t you? If I don’t take you out of the display case, your wings are going to continue to go to hell, is that it? WELL I DON’T LIKE BEING BULLIED.” At this last emphatic declaration, spittle flew from his mouth, spattering her motionless face and neck.
Again, there was no response.
Leonard’s breathing became labored. He forgot to breathe through his mouth, and now, so close to Miranda’s body, her briny stench overpowered him, so that he nearly retched all over her. He staggered back and stood upright. It took a few moments for the blood to return to his head.
Then he realized what was probably happening.
He inspected her.
“You’re getting sick and dying, aren’t you?”
Butterflies consumed mostly nectar, some water, through a proboscis; they had no need for any other sustenance. Miranda had no proboscis, nothing approaching one, except for a stubby nose. Leonard, upon first capturing her, had attempted to feed her a variety of semi-solid foods — vegetable puree, honey, porridges, even baby pap — through her human mouth. She had rejected them all. In the end she had accepted small quantities of a home-prepared sodium bicarbonate and vinegar solution, which she ingested through a straw. Obviously, the solution hadn’t been enough to see her through the rigors of her display pose.
“You need to start eating more,” Leonard said, surprised at the defeatism that had crept into his voice.
Miranda’s wings made as if to flutter, but pinned as they were to the spreading board this sudden movement only served to rip gashes and slice wing-veins.
“Stop, stop, stop! You’re going to hurt yourself!” Leonard looked at the damage already done. It would take days to heal, maybe weeks.
“Look, I’ll unpin you,” he said. “And there’ll be no more visitors. But you have to understand that I can’t free you completely. You’d just fly away. You’re going to live in a cage. It’s the best I can do.”
He’d been prepared for this transition, though he hadn’t expected it so soon. Building the mesh cage had taken him two hours, and transferring her into it now consumed half that time again. By the end of it, Leonard’s forehead gleamed with sweat and his arms, hands and legs quivered with exhaustion.
Inside the cage, Miranda lay perfectly still, as though still fastened by pins and rods. But after forcing her to imbibe more solution, she moved her wings several times, and eventually fluttered them with enough vigor to become airborne for seconds at a time. The graceful sound of those wings, beating as they were intended to, brought tears to Leonard’s eyes. He closed the window — the ocean breezes were now simply too cold to bear — and lit the small fireplace in the study, which seemed to bring Miranda a modicum of comfort. “I’ll be back first thing tomorrow morning,” Leonard said, returned to his bed and surrendered to a dreamless slumber.
On his birthday Leonard received no cards or phone calls or felicitations of any kind from Frederick, Ian or the Bradellos.
He had Miranda now.
Three weeks after transplanting her to the cage, Leonard had established a routine in which he permitted Miranda, tied by a kite-like harness and cord, to fly about, always within the confines of his study, for ten, fifteen, thirty minutes a day.
And yet her wings continued to change color, overrun by a deep, metallic violet-blue that tarnished every one of her petite wingscales.
April gave way to May, May dissolved into June, and by the time July announced itself with its shimmering white heat, the decrepit colors in Miranda’s wings had completely transformed them into something vile and unseemly.
Leonard could no longer bear it.
He forced Miranda to adhere to a regular schedule for sucking in the enhanced solution, and was eventually successful in getting her to swallow and retain other liquids too. For a time her improved dietary habits, combined with the absence of the briny smell he had experienced in those early uncertain days, made him hopeful that the wings would revert to their previous configuration.
They did not.
As he spent more and more time with Miranda, he was taken aback by a strange thought that seemed to arise fully-formed. What if the fault lay not with Miranda’s wings, but with the way Miranda treated them? At first the notion reeked of the absurd. After all, Leonard reasoned, a woman cannot treat her arms or legs in such-and-such a manner — they are part of the woman, without them she is not whole. And yet, given Miranda’s chimerical nature, why should this be true of her? However she had come to exist (and this question preoccupied Leonard only in an abstract sort of way: had she gone through the traditional egg/caterpillar/pupa phase common to butterflies, or had she somehow been engineered from modified human and butterfly bodies? Had she been fashioned by inhuman forces?), her humanity, if it could be called such, seemed to exist in a state of conflict with her butterfly nature. Leonard noticed this tension more and more once he started looking for it. Her torso, her face, indicated one disposition, while her wings and antenna appeared to signal a different desire. At times, when she wanted to rest and her breathing slowed, her wings threshed restlessly, until exhaustion set in; on other occasions, when her wings seemed to droop, she seemed eager to fly, and so on. Even during sleep did Miranda’s wings occasionally come to life. One time she remained asleep — sleep-flying, if that’s what it could be called — while her wings carried her to the top of the cage. There she repeatedly bumped her head against the cage ceiling until her antenna became bent, crumpled, and her scalp bled, so that Leonard had to anesthetize her to get her back down. Surely, he thought, this was all symptomatic of a deeper struggle. And so Leonard became increasingly resentful at Miranda’s human body parts, convinced that they were the true cause of her wings’ newfound ugliness.
Attempting to be reasonable, he tried to classify what type of butterfly her new colors had turned her into. But despite exhaustive searches he could find no record of such a butterfly species.
For the next three months, he meditated long and hard on the best course of action, and then made preparations. One cold September morning he entered the study and stood in silence before Miranda’s cage. She could tell something had changed in him. She began to flutter her wings frantically, flying back and forth, smashing into the cage with so much force she practically keeled it over.
“Calm down,” Leonard said. But his voice only made things worse.
If she kept this up he was going to have use the nets to bring her down. He hated the nets. They were such a hassle.
“Let me make you more comfortable.” He walked up to the study’s fireplace, remembering the effect it had had on Miranda during previous episodes of overexcitement, and lit it. He rubbed his hands together as the heat soaked into his bones. She, in turn, ceased her thrashing about, and began swaying instead, as if hypnotized by patterns of movement inside the flames only she could discern.
While she was thus distracted, Leonard approached her from behind and, reaching through the cage, injected her with a sedative.
At once her body became limp, and with a dull thud she fell on the sepia blanket that carpeted the cage’s floor.
Leonard opened up the cage and applied a generous dose of anesthetic.
He then proceeded with the surgery.
When Miranda awoke, she turned her head to her sides to find that her wings had been removed from her body. The resulting stalk-like stumps had been bandaged and sewed shut, though residual fluid from her insides, a greenish liquid more viscous than blood, continued to seep through.
Miranda whimpered until the whimpering became an ululation. Never had Leonard heard such desperate howling. He found it simultaneously blood-curdling and fascinating.
He stood before her cage and smiled proudly. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “But you simply weren’t doing them justice.” He leered at the operating table, on which lay Miranda’s wings, covered in damp rags designed to keep them soft and pliant. “And now, I’m afraid I no longer have any use for you. We’re going to take a little drive down to the same gorgeous forest in which I found you, the Bosque de las Ardillas Matutinas, to which you — or, more precisely, what’s left of you — shall now return.”
But by now Miranda’s ululation had ceased. Her slits-for-eyes were motionless. Her antennae had curled in on themselves.
The night was preternaturally cold. When Leonard returned home, the first thing he did was to turn up the heat on all the radiators as high as it would go and to fan the fireplaces until they couldn’t burn more brightly.
Still shivering — he feared that his immune system might have been over-taxed by carrying Miranda deep into the forest on such an unforgiving night, and that as his sweat had cooled he’d caught a cold — he decided to relocate the wings, as well as his ensemble of surgical tools, to the basement, so he could be closer to the boiler.
Once there, he relaxed.
Ah. Much better.
He stroked his beard and sighed.
This was the moment he had been waiting for. For now he truly pursued a vision that had come to him in a dream, and felt that he was on the cusp of something extraordinary, the fulfillment of a unique, visionary destiny.
With swift, steady hands, he applied local anesthesia to each side of his chest and began the lengthy re-grafting procedure.
Soon after completing it, he was overwhelmed by pain, and fainted.
When he awoke he noticed his skin was clammy and his heart was racing. The boiler had been left on its highest setting for hours, and he was soaked in sweat. He reached forward with his arms and stroked the forewings and their tips. They quivered in response, triggering a weird feedback loop of outer and inner sensation that momentarily paralyzed him. When it passed, he let his arms hang limply by his sides and fluttered the wings. The effect made him delirious. He was cautious at first, but soon grew more sure of himself, until he was several feet above the ground.
Strangely, despite the exertion, he was freezing again. He flew closer to the boiler, immediately soothed by its exquisite heat.
Relief. So good. He reached forward and opened the boiler door. Sheets of fiery flame, orange and yellow peels of fire, blasted and rippled inside it.
Much better. He hovered there for a moment, bathing in the heat. His wings seemed to possess boundless energy. They pushed him closer to the boiler door.
Then his conscious brain kicked in and advised him to back up. Enough was enough. He was literally hot enough to burn off a fever.
He reached forward to close the boiler door—
And then his arm snapped back, no longer responding to his commands.
His wings thrust with increasing force, pushing him closer to the inferno.
Something twisted in Leonard’s gut as he finally understood.
Of course! He hadn’t been able to classify what type of butterfly Miranda was because she wasn’t a butterfly at all.
She was a fucking moth. A diva moth, from the Castniidae family, which he had mistaken for—
Leonard could no longer fight it. He closed his eyes and gave in to the deliquescent desire.