“I am well versed in fairy tales where centuries skitter past in less than a sentence, but in reality, when one is lying all dressed up in one’s finest garments with whalebone corsetry digging deep in the spaces between one’s ribs, each day stretches out like a possible lifetime and all one can do is to listen, and discretely fidget.”
TIRED OF THE IMPOSSIBILITIES of my life, I made a dinner date with the Devil.
Station Hotel, seven o’clock.
I wanted to exchange what I had for a new world in which I might satisfy my thirst for independence, my love of lepidopterology, and my aversion to complications.
I dislike arriving early and entered the dining room as the chime sounded a quarter past the hour. The Devil was already engrossed in the menu and did not rise from his chair as I was seated. He was surprisingly conservative in his dress: fashionable enough, but not quite clean. His dark hair was slicked back from his forehead, his moustache was waxed, and the pallor of his face had been enhanced through the judicious application of face paint. A light smattering of dandruff covered the narrow shoulders of his black frock coat.
Even the most cursory reading of the Bible suggests the Devil must have some good stories to tell and I had hoped for an entertaining evening, but silence sweltered between us until I spoke some of the words I had practiced at home.
“It is kind of you to make time for us to meet,” I began, but he interrupted me to tell me he placed no value on time.
“At least you have time,” I said. “My life fails to afford me even a moment I might claim as my own.” The dull sound of my finger rubbing circles around the rim of my wine glass provided a backdrop to my woes. “My life is intolerable: charitable endeavors on a Monday morning, social engagements with my mother’s friends each afternoon after two; visits to the dressmaker on the second Tuesday of each month. High tea at half past three, dressing for dinner at seven. Endless evenings spent with people dull as paper and everyone’s eyes upon me as I walk down the aisle for Communion on a Sunday morning.”
The Devil refilled his glass and yawned without covering his mouth; his tongue was red as the tightly curled proboscis of an Asian swallowtail.
“I am forced to live among people who probe me with words and pin me down with expectations. I am trapped! I need to escape! I want freedom!” At the next table, an elderly lady lifted her head at the volume of my voice and I pressed my napkin to my lips until she looked away.
“Freedom?” In the Devil’s mouth the word sounded cold, empty.
We dined in silence. The Devil had ordered steak and ate with enthusiasm, smacking his lips and licking grease from his chin. He washed down each mouthful of food with wine until several empty bottles littered our table, then he licked his knife, fork and plate clean. I moved small pieces of wild duck from one side of my plate to the other, but found my appetite to be lacking.
“You enjoyed your meal?” I asked, and he pushed back his chair, stretched out his legs and belched loudly.
“I make it a principle to enjoy all things,” he answered. “The only experience I have not yet enjoyed is death—not the death of other people,” he grinned at me and saliva sizzled across his lips, “but the experience of my own death.”
A short burst of laughter caught in my throat. “You want to die and I am trapped in the net of a living death.”
He looked at me as though seeing me for the first time. “Perhaps there is a deal to be made after all,” he murmured. “An exchange of your death for the freedom you crave.”
Taking a pen and a sheet of paper from his frock coat pocket, he wrote hastily, wisps of smoke rising from the places where his pen scratched the page. Then he crumpled his napkin, pushed back his chair, and left without any words of farewell.
After some time the waiters, with pitying glances, presented me with the bill.
THE DEVIL’S NOTE WAS A LIST of instructions: I was to journey to the museum and hide inside the large black japanned box my father had bequeathed to that institution. I should wait until I heard only silence, then I should join him on the steps to the Butterfly house.
I knew both places well: when I was a child my father and I would spend days catching butterflies in the large glass house. I would run between the plant pots, stretching out my arms and imagining I, too, could fly; afterwards, I would watch as he prised their wings open and pierced their hearts with his pin.
My mother disliked our outings and forbade me from going with him on the day I was old enough to wear long skirts. A few years later my father died and his butterfly collection was given to the museum; sometimes I was allowed to visit and I would walk slowly between the glass cases where each specimen was pinned to a green baize board with the precision of regret.
I thought it only reasonable, given the circumstances, that the Devil should have arranged my transport—I imagined a grand departure in a coach pulled by four plunging black horses, perhaps, who would strike sparks from the cobbles and fear into bystanders’ hearts—but on leaving the hotel I found I must walk. The gas lamps provided a tawdry light and I stumbled twice, my toes raw and complaining in my best pair of boots.
Arriving at the museum, I crept through an unlocked door at the building’s rear and up the stairs. I clambered inside my father’s black box and pulled down the lid. Darkness gathered in the corners of my eyes.
THE PASSAGE OF TIME is a torturous affair. I am well versed in fairy tales where centuries skitter past in less than a sentence, but in reality, when one is lying all dressed up in one’s finest garments with whalebone corsetry digging deep in the spaces between one’s ribs, each day stretches out like a possible lifetime and all one can do is to listen, and discretely fidget.
I listened to a progression of hushed voices, whispered skirts, stampeding hobnailed boots, passing laughter and shouted jubilation. I listened to the tap of high heeled shoes and girlish giggles; to the stretch of silence between the wail of the siren and the drone of overhead engines; to a confusing new music of tinny beeps and ringing bells and obscenities lightly spoken. I listened to the sounds of women’s voices growing louder.
And then there was nothing. A nothing that shattered thought and pressed upon my eyes like the red-tinged blacks which creep from beyond the womb. And, although I had hoped to be rescued, I knew I must effect my own escape. Exhaling a lungful of air stolen from the previous century, I braced myself against the black box sides and felt the wood splinter and break.
The room was lighter than I remembered, sun streaming through a broken roof light, and dust motes dancing in the air. My shoes had rotted, beetles were nested in my bonnet, and my father’s beloved butterfly collection was nothing more than the dust of half-remembered affairs. Bareheaded, barefoot, and without a backward glance, I left the museum.
Butterflies wear their skeletons on the outside of their bodies and the structure acts as a shield and protects them from their enemies. My corsets, skirts and silks had always done the same: a protection against accusations of impropriety, a disguise to cover my difference. But now the heat was heavy upon me and I shed my dress, the silk frayed thin and yielding to my fingers’ touch. Without grace, I struggled from my corset’s clutches.
I walked through the museum’s once-manicured lawns where the skeletons of trees no longer provided shade from a sun which seemed too angry for the sky, and sweat darkened my cotton vest. Birdsong was a memory and broken glass shone like blossom on the ground.
True to his word in that much at least, the Devil was waiting. He leant with affected nonchalance against a broken park bench, but he was no longer the same man I had met so many years before. It was as though something had dried inside of him. When he raised his eyebrows at my approach, the skin around them flaked like dust, and his black moustache was littered with white hairs. He wore torn denim pants, which sagged low from bony hips. A bright red cap with ‘Boston Red Sox’ written across its front cast shadows over his face.
“Here at last,” he said, and his voice was the sound of ashes.
“I had assumed you would send someone to release me.” My voice creaked through lack of use. “Why did no one come?”
“There is no one left to come.” He lifted his hands as though to reveal some marvel, but then his arms dropped heavily to his sides. “I have been tremendously busy,” he sighed.
Stretching away on each side of the hill was a panorama of windowless buildings, deserted roads and dry red earth. The only sound was the drumbeat of his fingers against the warped wood of the broken bench.
“You promised me freedom.”
Again the Devil lifted his hands, as though this empty world was his gift to me.
“And, as payment, you suggested you would take my death.”
The Devil stared at his feet. “You have had time to give our little arrangement some thought?”
I assured him I had.
“Perhaps you have concerns over what this might mean?” He stuttered slightly.
I assured him I had no concerns. His voice became quieter and more tentative as he asked whether I could imagine what eternity meant, if I could anticipate the ramifications of going ahead with our exchange.
For many years after she forbade my visits to the butterfly house, my mother would make promises that I would be allowed to visit soon—next week, next month, at some undetermined point in the future when my behavior had improved and I was capable of a greater degree of self-control. I had not seen the butterfly house again until now. Beyond the Devil’s shoulder it was alive with the beating of wings.
I searched the ground until I found the perfect shard of glass—a long diamond-shaped piece whose tip made many colors from the white light of the sun—and I presented it to the Devil on bended knee, as though I was waiting at the altar rail to receive Christ’s blood. His hands trembled slightly as he took it from me.
“How do you think death will feel?” he asked, and my laughter echoed across the empty town.
“You must have seen enough deaths to know,” I answered.
He turned the piece of glass around in his hand so that colors cartwheeled around us, and stroked his thumb along one edge until his blood dripped to the floor. “I don’t feel anything anymore,” he said. “There is no joy to be had in eating, killing, dreaming, punishing, plotting. I have done all this,” the sweep of his arm was an empty horizon, “and I find myself unable to take joy in what I have achieved.”
“My mother used to say a change was as good as a rest,” I lied. “Perhaps you’ll find that death will make you feel better.”
His sigh was the sound of a thousand years of sadness, and he pressed the glass against his throat until a death rattle sounded in his chest and his legs buckled. His blood splashed onto my arms with the heat of flames and I stepped backward as he fell to the floor. I had meant to remind him to enjoy the experience, but he was dead before I found the words.
MEXICAN LEGEND CLAIMS the soul escapes a person’s mouth in the form of a butterfly, and for several days I watched the Devil’s mouth. I imagined something imperious would hatch—a Queen Alexandra Birdwing, perhaps, with its over-sized iridescent blue wings smudged black, or something as deceptive as the African moon moth, its pale green eyes forever watching from their place on its back—but there was nothing. I prised open the Devil’s mouth, pulled the cold forked mass of his tongue to one side and searched within, looking into every cavity of every yellowed tooth and poking at his tonsils with a stick. There was nothing.
When I walked to the butterfly house, my shadow, scattered and shattered by the uneven ground, grabbed at my feet. I pulled open the butterfly house doors and they left in ones and twos: a swallowtail, a painted lady, a pair of meadow browns spiraling outwards; then they gathered into a mass exodus, their colors filling the heat-bleached sky while their shadows flew free across the ground. For a moment, a female ringlet rested on the Devil’s lips, small and brown and modest. I watched her bask in the sun then fly upwards until she was lost among the others.
I have been sitting here ever since. Watching the silence and waiting for no one. Time is mine for the chasing. Sometimes I regret I did not ask for more.
© Zoe Fowler, 2015
Zoe Fowler has spent her adult life on the move, both physically and professionally. After a childhood in the North of England, she left home at sixteen to work with horses in West Wales. Since then, she has pursued careers as an English teacher, an academic researcher, and a policy consultant; she has also worked in factories, bars and horse-riding stables. She now lives in Vermont where she fosters children and writes. “Butterflies” won honorable mention in See the Elephant’s New Voices contest.