The Grieving of the Butterflies by Anthony Hulse

Spencer Pardew whistled as he paced along the picturesque and tranquil harbour road. The morning sun heralded another fine July day, adding to the contentment of the thirty-five year old teacher. He and his wife, Jill, recently purchased a cottage in Whitby, after agreeing to sell their home in Loftus. The two teachers found employment in a local primary school; the circumstances prompting their decision.

 

Whist Jill was in the process of decorating the riverside cottage, Spencer opted to visit the local market, situated at the foot of the abbey steps. He breathed in deeply, the bracing sea air filling his lungs. The squawking seagulls foraged for food and tidbits, left by the early morning fishermen.

 

Spencer mingled with the locals and holidaymakers, who had risen early to search for a bargain. After purchasing fresh fruit and vegetables, Spencer headed towards a bric-a-brac stall. His unblinking eyes focused on two oil paintings. The first was of a young, unsmiling, medieval boy. He wore a brown, floral gown, black hose, and pointed shoes; his hair cut in a pudding basin style. The girl, who bore a striking resemblance to the boy, wore a green, laced-up gown. A black French hood covered her loose hair. She too showed no sign of merriment.

“Lovely paintings, aren’t they, mate?” enthushed the stall holder.

 

Spencer examined them closely, unable to see a signature. “They’re prints, I gather?”

 

“I bleeding hope so, mate, or I wouldn’t be letting them go for forty quid each.”

 

The teacher tried to imagine them on the walls of his cottage. Even though he could not afford to purchase them both, he deemed it sacrilege to split them; after all, the children surely were brother and sister.

 

“I’ll give you twenty each for them.”

 

The stallholder chuckled. “You having a laugh, mate?”

 

Spencer removed forty pounds from his wallet. “Prints, you said. Take it or leave it.”

 

******

 

Jill sat out on the balcony, sipping a cup of tea when Spencer arrived home. The odour of paint compelled him to join his wife. He kissed her, before gazing out onto the river.

 

“I’ve a surprise for you,” he gloated.

 

“Not more flowers. We’ve enough blooms to…”

 

“No, not flowers… Close your eyes, Jill.” Spencer returned indoors to fetch the paintings. He placed them against the railings of the balcony and smiled. “Okay, you can look.”

 

Jill did not seem too impressed. She cocked her head to one side and then to the other. “Paintings? You’ve been on one of your bargain hunts, I see.”

 

“Well, what do you think?”

 

“Honestly? I think they’re grotesque and have no place in our modern new home.”

 

Spencer shrugged. “I’d hardly call it modern. They’ll look great either side of the fireplace.”

 

Jill moved towards the prints and picked one up. She examined it closely, but still she seemed unconvinced. “Who are they?”

 

“How should I know? They’re obviously French though, and if I‘m not mistaken, they‘re posing in some palace. When I see old Keller, I’ll ask him if he recognises them.”

 

“Miserable pair, aren’t they?” moaned Jill. “I just don’t see the charm in them. Whatever attracted you to them?”

 

Spencer failed to respond, unsure why he had been fascinated by the prints. It was as if they demanded he gave them a new home.

 

******

 

The couple retired to bed, leaving the windows and patio doors open in order to circulate some much-needed ventilation into the cottage. The fumes from the painted walls and the incessant humidity of the night ensured Spencer’s slumber would be intermittent. He looked across at his wife, envious that she could sleep so soundly. He glanced at the clock to see it was three-fifteen.

 

After leaving the bedroom, Spencer strolled towards the balcony. He lit a cigarette and slouched in a wicker chair, gazing out onto the moonlit, serene town. The vibrant lights and the moonlight reflected off the calm surface of the river, and seemed to pacify Spencer.

 

A butterfly landed on the railing of the balcony. Spencer appeared curious. Never before had he seen a butterfly during the night. He edged closer, believing the creature to be a moth. Another landed close by, and then another. Spencer stepped back, watching as hundreds of butterflies massed on his balcony; most of the colourful creatures fluttering aimlessly.

 

He stepped inside and immediately closed the patio doors. The harmless insects did not scare him, but the incredible phenomena prompted his departure. He had heard before of unusual acts concerning creatures. He recalled reading the story of fish and frogs falling from the sky; strong gusts of winds offered as a possible cause. This however defied explanation. Could global warning have prompted such an unusual occurrence?

 

Several of the butterflies slammed against his glass door, before hovering towards the ground. Spencer noticed the sudden drop in temperature. In fact, the coldness rendered his breath visible. He proceeded to close all of his windows, his hands numbed by the chill of the room. He heard the butterflies crashing against the patio doors, but felt so helpless.

 

Spencer strode towards the carnage and hesitated. Silhouetted against the patio door was a dark shape. Spencer rubbed his eyes in disbelief, his teeth chattering uncontrollably.

 

“Jill? Is that you, darling?”

 

He realised that whoever looked out at the butterflies was not a woman, but a child. The girl, who must have been about ten years old, turned to face Spencer. He smiled insecurely, noticing the small, unsmiling girl wore identical clothing to the mite in the print. Spencer, sceptical about ghosts and spirits, seemed certain he had encountered one for real. He rubbed his freezing hands together, wondering if this was a dream.

 

The sad-looking girl advanced towards him; her feet invisible beneath her long, green gown. Her black hood gave the appearance she was in mourning. He could now see her chalk-white face clearly. Her eyes were black, and her lips purple.

 

Spencer felt a movement within his bowels, and fought to retain his dignity. “Who are you?” he whispered, his words accompanied by a cloud of vapour.

 

The girl wept and opened her mouth to speak. “Pouvez-vous aider mes papillons?”

 

Spencer had a fair understanding of French, but this girl’s dialect seemed strange. “You want me to help your butterflies?” He realised how absurd he must sound, given that the girl probably could not understand him.

 

The girl failed to respond. She turned and pointed towards the patio doors.

 

“How? I mean, what can I do?”

 

The girl moved even closer. Spencer could now detect the aroma of jasmine. He was tempted to hold the girl, but her fragile body seemed translucent.

 

The girl looked up to Spencer and spoke once more. “Mon frere va nuire a mes papillions.”

 

Spencer picked up the words brother and butterflies, but failed to understand her fully.

 

The girl bypassed Spencer and advanced towards the lounge, where the prints were located. As she left, she raised her voice. “Svp, vous devez l`arreter!”

 

The startled teacher noticed the butterflies had ceased hammering against the patio door. He approached it to see they had vanished. He looked down and noticed no evidence of the dead insects, which had perished in their quest to breach the fortified glass. Spencer reluctantly walked towards the lounge, noticing the temperature had risen. He gazed at the prints that nestled on the coffee table and picked up the one portraying the girl. He squinted, noticing a butterfly fluttering at her shoulder. Why had he not noticed this before?

 

Spencer, when he retired to his bedroom, could not help but feel despondency after his haunting experience. Tomorrow, he would investigate the mysterious prints.

 

******

 

As arranged, Spencer, clad in a tee shirt and shorts, arrived at the Shambles public house at noon. He ordered his beer and spotted his colleague, sitting outside on the balcony. Barry Keller was an art teacher and an authority on past masters and old paintings. The sixty-three year old man wore a scruffy corduroy jacket, complete with elbow patches, even though the sun outside blazed. The art master rose to greet his colleague, his wavy grey hair dishevelled and his spectacles resting on his red bulbous nose. The two exchanged handshakes before taking their seats.

 

Every seat outside the pub had been taken. The revellers looked out onto the port of Whitby, viewing the pleasure cruise ships, fishing boats, and the Goths, who often converged on the historic town. The aroma of fresh fish wafted in from the boats. A calm breeze refreshed the afternoon drinkers, and the hot sun bronzed their faces.

 

“So, Spencer; why have you beckoned me here on this fine day? Without trying to sound disrespectful, you don’t usually request my company unless you’re after something… How is that lovely wife of yours?”

 

“Jill, she’s fine. She’s obsessed with decorating our cottage… You’re right, Barry; I require your knowledge.” Spencer removed the photographs from his pocket. “Do you recognise these paintings?”

 

The veteran teacher adjusted his age-old spectacles and examined the snapshots. “You’ve acquired these paintings?”

 

“Prints, yes. Well, do you recognise them?”

 

Keller swallowed a mouthful of his cider and pondered. “Yes, I recognise them. Fifteenth century painting by a mostly unknown artist, Jules Legrand. The paintings as far as we can determine, were of his son and daughter. Legrand was believed to be a nobleman, but nobody as yet has been able to determine much about him.”

 

“So, how do you know he was a nobleman?”

 

“Look at the pictures, man. If that was his home, then he must have been a very wealthy man indeed. Anyway, what I’m about to tell you is not pleasant. In the seventies, there was a horrendous house fire somewhere in Surrey. The family, a woman and her two sons perished. The husband, who was at work survived. When the fire had been extinguished, one of the firemen discovered the paintings, hanging on the wall and untouched. Everything else around them was burnt to cinders… Within a five-year period, there were several more fires. In total, I believe there were eight. There were similar circumstances, in which each household owned copies of the paintings. Twenty-six people were burnt to death, and the paintings were found to be intact.”

 

Spencer appeared in a state of shock. His eyes focused on the soaring seagulls, reminding him of the butterflies. He was about to confide in his friend about his experience, when Keller continued.

 

“One of the main tabloids ran a story about the supposed cursed paintings. One of the journalists, I forget his name, invited everyone who possessed copies of the paintings to meet at a location in Stonehenge. There, they erected a mass bonfire, and the copies of the paintings were burnt. Since then, I’ve not heard of any occurrences. It was believed that every print was destroyed.”

 

“Barry; what is the significance of the butterfly above the girl’s shoulder?”

 

“I was coming to that… After hearing about the supposed curse, a French historian contacted the newspaper and told them the girl in the painting, Mary, collected butterflies and kept hundreds of them in a room. Her brother, Louis detested them and allegedly set fire to the room. Of course, nobody believed the historian, for he was unable to give locations, dates, or even anything about the artist… Spencer, you must get rid of the prints. Even though I’m not a superstitious man, it is better to be careful when it comes to loved ones.”

 

Spencer pondered. The pleading girl now made sense. Was she asking him to stop her brother from burning her butterflies? Tempted to confide in Keller, he felt that to tell about Mary would be an act of betrayal. A colourful butterfly landed on the rim of Spencer’s glass, and that event made up his mind. Perhaps burning the prints would release Mary from her torment.

 

“Barry, did any of these survivors mention anything unusual before the fire?”

 

Keller noticed the butterfly and smiled. “Unusual? Such as?”

 

“It doesn’t matter.”

 

******

 

Spencer strode along the cobblestone road towards his cottage, his mind in turmoil. To destroy the prints would surely allow Mary to rest in peace. But why had nobody else seen the ghostly girl? Spencer suspected he already knew the answer.

 

His heart skipped a beat when he heard the sound of sirens approach. He sniffed the air, the odour of burning reaching his nostrils. The sight of black smoke spiraling from his cottage confirmed his fears. He sprinted towards the blaze, barging past the bystanders who watched the spectacle. On attempting to go inside the cottage, a policeman seized him and manoeuvred him away from the danger.

 

“Jill! My wife, Jill! She’s inside.”

 

Spencer slumped on a nearby bench, ignorant of the fact that Barry Keller joined him. A butterfly rested on the arm of the bench and Spencer angrily swatted it away.

 

“Spencer, I’m sorry.”

 

The distraught schoolteacher turned towards Keller. “Sorry. For what? I was the one who brought that cursed print into our home. Jill pleaded with me to get rid of it, but no… I ignored her pleas and now she’s…”

 

“You don’t know that yet,” said Keller, placing a consoling hand on his friend’s shoulder.

 

******

 

The firemen battled the blaze for around thirty minutes, before they overcome it. One of the firemen emerged from the gutted cottage with something under his arm.

 

Spencer left the bench and paced swiftly towards him. “I think they belong to me.”

 

The fireman passed the prints over. “This was your cottage?”

 

Spencer nodded.

 

“I’m sorry, sir. We tried all we could, but the fire was too fierce. Nobody could have survived such an inferno.”

 

“But they did,” moaned Spencer, pointing to the prints now being examined by Keller.

 

Spencer watched his wife’s body removed from the ashes. He wept openly, his anger great. He turned towards Keller, who continued to study the prints.

 

The grieving man removed his lighter from his pocket, ignoring the policewoman who attempted to comfort him. “Burn them, Barry! Burn the evil things!”

 

Keller seemed stunned when he faced his colleague. “Spencer, this is no copy. This is an original oil painting… I know this is an inappropriate moment, but this could be worth a fortune.”

 

“I know! I knew all along it was the original!”

 

“But, how? I mean…”

 

Spencer strode towards his car, oblivious to the medics and police officers who insisted he went to hospital. He tossed the paintings into his boot and clambered into the driver’s seat. He drove away speedily, his haste apparent.

 

He crossed the swing bridge and noticed several of the tourists pointing towards him. Spencer eyed the multitude of colourful butterflies shrouding his car. How could such beautiful creatures be associated with evil?  

 

After reaching a garage, Spencer left his vehicle and fought his way through the swarm of butterflies. He went inside the kiosk and made his purchase, before driving towards the moors. Still accompanied by the butterflies, Spencer steered his vehicle across an isolated field. He braked and rushed towards the boot of his car, his newly purchased can of petrol in his hand. He opened up the boot and sneered at the valuable paintings. He placed them on the arid turf and focused on the face of Mary. Perhaps it was an optical illusion, but she seemed to smile at him.

 

He again ignored the fluttering butterflies and proceeded to douse the paintings with petrol. He flicked his lighter and held the flame above the paintings. “I’m so sorry, Mary,” he sobbed. He ignited the petrol and the paintings burnt fiercely, sending a spiral of dense smoke into the atmosphere. He fell to his knees and cried, unsure if the tears were for his wife, or for the lost soul, Mary.

 

Spencer looked towards the sky to see the butterflies soar higher and higher, as if they escorted their mistress to the gates of heaven. Mary was free at last.

 

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