Butterfly House

Issue #157, Sixth Anniversary Double-Issue

The Scarlet Longwing will always be Yinghua’s favorite. This was the one that selected her from among the many hopeful children to be the old keeper’s apprentice. It alighted on her shoulder, fanning her cheek with velvety red wings, and the other candidates were ushered away. The Scarlet Longwing wrote for her a destiny within the steamy glass-walled gardens of Empress Jiaxen’s butterfly house, and to this day she can hardly step inside without a Longwing or two claiming a perch upon her shoulders, her hair, the backs of her raised hands.

The imperial corpsetakers arrived at the edge of the battlefield with less pomp and ceremony than Yinghua had expected. They made camp a fair distance away, leaving their horses and oxen where the smell of blood could not spook them, and they tossed the tools of their trade over their shoulders and went forth on foot. They were a sight to see, all clad in flowing black cloth with lanterns fastened to long poles, and thick black gloves, and shovels. They stayed quiet, though Yinghua—who had spent days traversing the mountain pass in their company—knew they were simply the taciturn sort, and not silent out of respect.

She’d expected offerings and prayers, sandalwood incense perhaps, not this grim procession of only the most practical tools. Would-be corpsetakers underwent rigorous training at the shrine of the Shadow Goddess, nothing like her own serene apprenticeship among the butterflies. Should they not at least carry prayer scrolls tucked under their arms, or wear some symbol of their hard-won status? But, she supposed, the digging of mass graves was not glamorous work.

Tall yellowed savanna grass swished against her shins as she followed in their wake. The reek of the battlefield reached her nose long before she could see the source—cleaved viscera, blood baking in the sun, rot already setting in despite the dry heat. The corpsetakers met the smell stoically, but Yinghua’s stomach roiled, and she bent over and emptied it into the grass. She must do as she was ordered, no matter how unpleasant, lest she bring shame upon her master and the butterfly house.

She would return with Corpsewing butterflies, or not at all.

One of the corpsetakers, by the name of Gangbo, paused at the top of a ridge to wait for her. “Will the enemy’s dead be enough for you? We should begin our work immediately if we can, but our orders are to give you precedence.”

Yinghua crested the ridge to stand beside him. A sea of bodies stretched away to the next hilltop and, she guessed, beyond. Blood stained the trampled earth, and the dark silhouettes of a hundred vultures spun lazy circles against a lapis-blue sky. She wanted to shrink away from the vastness of the carnage. How could he look upon this and wonder if the quantity of death was insufficient?

Unbidden came the thought, I should not do this. She was an artisan, living creatures her clay, not a purveyor of destruction. And yet, what choice was there except to steel her resolve and proceed?

“Yinghua?” Gangbo pressed, when she did not give him an answer.

“Yes, it should be enough,” she said, “if you leave the enemy’s dead to me.”

The Indigo Swallowtail is the oldest species in the royal collection, brought across the sea from the Pengkar homeland in the early days of the empire. When they hatch, they crawl eagerly toward the warmth of Yinghua’s palm and cling to her fingers with their tiny barbed feet, pins and needles walking up her skin. She blows gently across their damp rumpled wings, coaxing life into the delicate veins. Each one must be handled just so—skin warmth and breath wind—or it withers and dies.

In a secret, blasphemous corner of her heart, Yinghua believes it must be a kind of magic to hold such a fragile life in one’s hands. To her, each Swallowtail’s quiet metamorphosis seems as powerful as a midnight prayer.

Yinghua picked her way cautiously among the dead. Pengkar warriors, with their long black plaits and bright-painted armor. Badlander warriors with their dreadlocks and narrow angular faces. There were women among the Badlanders, weapons still clutched in their death-stiff hands—Yinghua had heard the stories of fierce female warriors, but she had not believed them until now.

The vultures, brazen in their ownership of the dead, stood their ground when she approached. If one felt threatened, it would splay its wings and hiss at her, but more often they simply gave her a wary stare and went back to their feasting. Now and again, a shovel would flash in the bright sunlight, catching Yinghua’s eye from afar as a corpsetaker took a swing at a particularly stubborn vulture atop some fallen Pengkar comrade.

The first dozen or so corpses Yinghua paused to examine yielded nothing. By then her nostrils were so full of the death-stench that proximity to any particular corpse hardly mattered, and her nausea began to settle, as if her body were reluctantly coming to terms with the situation. She tried not to look at the faces of the corpses, not to think of them as once-people. She saw the carnage in the abstract—this was not a severed limb or a split skull before her, it was simply part of the structure of a butterfly habitat.

Yinghua would do her duty and bring honor to the butterfly house. Nothing else mattered, she told herself. If her master were here he would tell her, Breathe in, breath out, calm as a butterfly, and so she schooled herself to embody tranquility.

She had wandered quite a distance south and west, deeper into the battlefield and away from the corpsetakers’ work site, before movement tugged at her from the corner of her eye. Not the sweeping gestures of a man or a vulture but the subtle, crawling-insect movement she had grown so attuned to over the years of her apprenticeship.

Yinghua approached the corpse. It was a Badlander man, hardly out of boyhood, with a lanky frame that had not yet filled out—and now never would. The fatal blow had been a stomach wound, slashed so wide and deep that spilt viscera trailed in the dirt where he had fallen. The exposed intestines writhed with pale-pink caterpillars, Corpsewing larvae, a sight Yinghua found at once repulsive and fascinating.

Corpsewings were the only species of butterfly known to feed on flesh. Yinghua froze where she stood, struck by the dissonance of seeing the harmless creatures she loved so well swarming through gore.

After a moment, she managed to crouch for a closer examination. Yinghua had never seen this species before, but the reports claimed they would be broad of wing with thick sturdy bodies, and these caterpillars were still small. Not yet close to metamorphosis, then. Standing, she looked around for something she could use to mark the spot, in case the Corpsewings proved rare. She retrieved a fallen spear and jammed it point-down in the hard-packed earth beside the body before moving on.

As the afternoon progressed, she found more nests of caterpillars, on Badlander and Pengkar alike, but none approaching maturity. Not rare, then, but she would have to wait for them to finish their gruesome feasting.

When the sun dropped low in the west, painting the sparse wisps of cloud peach-pink, Yinghua headed back toward the camp. Gangbo, being as he was the most talkative among the corpsetakers, chose to accompany her. The jackals would be out soon, he explained, and they should build a fire to keep them away from the horses. The rest of the corpsetakers would light their lanterns and keep digging through the night.

#

Over the campfire that evening, Gangbo relayed to her the Badlanders’ tale of the origin of the Corpsewings. This is the story he told:

Tapua the Two-faced God was in the mood to make trouble, so under the cover of night, he snuck across the lands of the goddess Zhoache and crept into her oldest temple. From there he stole the gold-handled knife that her high priest used to make sacrifices of goat kids and jackrabbits, and he left behind three pearlescent green scales from a dragon-god’s hide as a false clue.

But Zhoache had the eyes of a savanna cat, so the darkness did not cloak Tapua from her sight. She saw him sneak away from her temple, and when she found the knife gone and the green scales scattered across the floor, she was not deceived. She knew Tapua would want to brag to the other gods of his trickery, so she snuck into his lands while he was away. From his oldest temple, she stole the brass style and face-plate of his favorite sundial, and she left behind a sheath shed from a savanna cat’s claw, so he would know this was her retaliation.

Now Tapua was as furious as Zhoache, and neither would return what they had taken. So Tapua told his people, Go forth to battle and reclaim that which Zhoache the Nefarious has stolen from me. And Zhoache told her people, Tapua the Intemperate has stolen my knife and our pride—go forth to battle and do not return without it.

The clan of Tapua was reluctant to make war with their neighbors, but they knew well the inconstant moods of their patron god, and so they sharpened their blades. The clan of Zhoache was, too, reluctant to make war, but they had felt the rage of their patron goddess, and so they prepared their mounts to ride east. When the two clans clashed, both sides witnessed the insensible deaths of their clansmen, and both began to thirst for bloody-red vengeance.

The clans kept fighting until each had ruined the other and there were no warriors left to hold the weapons. Tapua and Zhoache looked upon the carnage with dismay. It was the duty of a patron god to collect the souls of their clan’s dead and carry them off to Sky-Without-Stars, the spirit world from which they could be reincarnated into the body of a newborn clansman. But there were so many dead on the battlefield, one clan all mingled together with the other, that Tapua and Zhoache did not know how to sort their souls.

Tapua sat in the mud and wept, for without those souls there would be no one left to worship him. But Zhoache was determined to set this right, so she did not let him wallow for long.

Together they went to Sister New Moon, who was known by the name Filperegh, and pleaded for her help. But Filperegh shook her head and said, You reap only what you have sown through your own foolishness. She had observed their conflict from her lofty vantage and found no sympathy in her heart for those who did not consider the outcome of their actions.

Despairing, they went next to Sister Full Moon, who was known by the name Siregh, and pleaded their case once more. Siregh, soft-hearted, took pity on Tapua and Zhoache and on the lost souls of the dead mortals. She had not seen their conflict, but she imagined how any war might leave souls lost in the mortal realm, and this thought troubled her.

She said, I will make a creature to sort the souls of dead warriors and carry them up to Sky-Without-Stars. And so she created the Corpsewings, and whispered to them their mission, and sent them down to the Badlands in search of souls.

Gangbo was up before dawn, coaxing the coals back to life and preparing a large pot of rice porridge. His movements roused Yinghua from her bedroll, so she joined him at the fire and made herself useful grating fresh ginger.

The eastern sky was paling from indigo to lotus-blue when the corpsetakers came trudging back to camp for the meal. Yinghua thought they might have come for sleep, too, but they rested only long enough to finish their food. One by one they stood and began to trudge back to the battlefield, neither reluctant nor harried but grimly resolute.

Yinghua decided she, too, had better return to work now that day was breaking. The skin across her cheeks still felt warm from the glare of yesterday’s sun, so today she would be sensible and carry her rice-paper parasol. What a sight she would make, moving daintily among the corpses as if she were a lady out for a stroll along the beach—of course there would be no one to see but the corpsetakers, and she doubted they would find humor in it.

She spent the morning walking the battlefield, with Gangbo’s story from the night before lingering in her mind. Yinghua realized she didn’t know enough about the Badlanders to tell which clan this was that had come to their deaths to slow the westward progression of the Pengkar Empire. Tapua’s or Zhoache’s, or some other god’s people? How strange to walk among their dead and not know such a fundamental thing.

She wandered far, watching for Corpsewing caterpillars and checking their size, before she circled back around to the corpsetakers’ work site. Everywhere she looked, the caterpillars were too young, and Yinghua had to face that the whole life cycle of the Corpsewing could not fit within the count of days since the battle. While she was not usually given to impatience, neither did she relish the thought of lingering here. But as the master keeper was fond of saying, one cannot rush a butterfly. She would have to accept the wait.

There was a short scraggly tree with a swollen trunk standing alone near the work site, and Yinghua made a seat for herself between its buttressed roots. The corpsetakers had finished their enormous excavation and were now heaving Pengkar bodies, one atop the others, into the hole. It was not the dignified burial the warriors deserved, but it was better than leaving them out for the vultures and the jackals, and there were so very many dead to bury. If the bodies were not consigned to the dark beneath the earth, the souls might wander lost, never finding their way home to the bosom of the Shadow Goddess.

Watching the corpsetakers work, Yinghua idly wondered if they would have buried the Badlander corpses, too, had the battle been a smaller one. Were they in the business of stealing enemy souls? Perhaps the Shadow Goddess was fighting a different kind of war from the one Yinghua could see before her eyes.

The idea bothered her. The Empress had a war to run and more important concerns than the collection of new specimens for the palace glasshouses. In Yinghua’s memory, the Empress had never before deigned to issue a direct command to the butterfly keepers. So why now? And why had the Empress assigned priority to Yinghua’s mission, when the corpsetakers’ work was so essential to the war effort?

Yinghua tried to push the thought aside. It was her place to fulfill the Empress’s wishes, not to wonder at their hidden motivations.

She hunched lower against the rough bole of the tree, disquieted.

The Speckled Fritillary gives her trouble every time—the only temperamental butterfly. Yinghua often wonders if they enjoy acting contrary simply for the sake of spiting her. The older caterpillars always, unfailingly, seek out the least convenient spot to hang their chrysalises. On a branch that needs to be pruned, or a cage lid that must be opened. One particularly clever Fritillary caterpillar has snuck out of the gardens and anchored its chrysalis from the peg where Yinghua is supposed to hang her coat. Once formed, a chrysalis cannot be detached without risking damage to the pupa, so Yinghua grits her teeth and carefully works around the Fritillaries.

Maybe they believe her daily annoyance is better than no attention at all. Maybe they are jealous that she loves the Scarlet Longwings so well, and that everyone else comes second in her heart. In truth their antics amuse her and she would never wish them to change, but Yinghua is careful never to let them see her smile.

By the time the corpsetakers had commenced digging their fourth mass grave, the caterpillars were looking fat and slow, lethargic from their constant gorging and ready for metamorphosis. Yinghua recommenced her long walks among the corpses, searching every day for a cohort of caterpillars ready to shed their skin and pupate. She carried a tight-woven collection basket propped against one hip and her parasol in her opposite hand.

She could think of no finer relief than to accomplish her mission and leave behind the stench of death, and the sound of shovels scraping against dry dirt, and all her unaskable questions.

The next morning, she came across the corpse of a Badlander woman who had bled from an assortment of lesser wounds before the fatal blow—Yinghua could not tell which it had been that had felled her. But what truly caught Yinghua’s eye was the almost metallic shine of newly formed chrysalises, dangling from every edge of blood-stiff fabric. A few were attached to the bared teeth of the corpse’s open jaw and the hollowed sockets where the eyes used to reside. One hand was picked clean of flesh, the fingerbones forming an ideal scaffold where perhaps two dozen chrysalises hung—they reminded Yinghua of the strings of paper lanterns that lit the plaza near the butterfly house at festival time.

If this were any other species, she would not hesitate to clip the branch and lift all those perfect chrysalises into her collection basket. She would not find a better cohort than this—the perfect age for transport, and clustered so densely together. But the chrysalises could not be detached from the hand without risking damage to the pupae inside. This left her only one option.

Yinghua took a deep breath to steel her nerves and set aside her parasol. Then she took her small, practical knife from her belt and, carefully, began to saw at the cartilage between the tiny bones of the wrist.

It was tougher than she’d thought it would be, but soon she had the skeleton hand severed from the corpse, and she gently lowered her precious cargo into the bottom of the collection basket. She fastened the lid and turned back toward camp.

Gangbo must have spotted her because he followed from the work site. “You can’t ride alone,” he said. “There could be bandits.”

Yinghua’s first, and unbidden, thought was that the Badlander woman whose skeleton hand was in her basket would not have needed an escort through the mountains. She shook her head to clear it. “For the best chance of success, I must leave immediately.”

The corpsetakers’ work was a sacred duty, but Yinghua’s errand had been ordered by the Empress herself. And so it was decided that Gangbo would accompany her back to the Pengkar Empire. They packed their possessions quickly and unhobbled a pair of horses.

The mountain pass was a journey of several hard days on horseback, passable only by virtue of the season, and Yinghua was unaccustomed to such travel. She wanted to get the chrysalises back to the butterfly house before they hatched, so each day she pushed harder than she would have otherwise. Gangbo let her set the pace, except for reminding her when they needed to stop to water the horses. Mostly he kept quiet and watched for bandits, though they met no one on the road.

They were nearly through the pass and into the foothills by the time Gangbo finally decided to voice his thoughts. It was after sunset, their camp already made for the night, when he said, “I don’t know if this is wise.”

Yinghua looked up from her supper. The campfire lit his pensive frown with its shifting, mottled orange glow. “If what is wise?”

“Collecting the Corpsewings,” he said. “How will you breed them, when their young must dine on dead human flesh?”

Yinghua looked away. She could not deny that this question had been troubling her. What manner of horrific accommodations was the Empress prepared to make to keep Corpsewings in her butterfly house? Worse, what if these chrysalises were not meant for the butterfly house at all, and the Empress wanted them for a more nefarious purpose?

Yinghua simply said, “The Empress has given her command.”

That night Yinghua dreamed the chrysalises were hatching.

In her dream, a full moon hung at the zenith of a clear night sky, and the chrysalises twitched and swung from the fingerbones on their silk attachments. The butterflies within began to hum to each other, slipping in and out of minor harmonies—a slow, lilting tune that seemed somehow familiar yet just beyond the grasp of her memory. The song rose to a crescendo, then faded to silence, and all the chrysalises split open at once. (This was not how butterflies hatched, Yinghua thought.)

They emerged together, crinkled wings damp and glistening in the moonlight. Each one clung, shivering with the thrill of rebirth, to the translucent husk of its chrysalis. Unfolded, their wide wings were a pale yellow-green, the color of lemongrass stalks; their bodies were the velvety black of night. They began to let off a soft glow, as if Sister Full Moon had shared a tuft of her luminescence with her creations.

Yinghua realized the lid of the collection basket was in her hands. She should not let the butterflies escape. She moved the lid over the open basket, intent on trapping them.

We must go free, they said, their silvery-soft voices all blending together.

“I cannot let you go,” said Yinghua. “It would anger the Empress.”

They fanned their lambent wings, implacable. We carry the soul of the great warrior Tharoshe. We must lift her up to Sky-Without-Stars, so she may watch over her two young sons.

“I’m sorry,” said Yinghua. “I must do my duty, for the honor of my master and the butterfly house.” She tried again to close the lid, but her arms felt suddenly too tired to hold themselves up.

A single Corpsewing fluttered out of the basket, swaying on its new wings, and landed on the tip of Yinghua’s nose. Is it not enough that her life was taken? Will you take her soul, too?

Yinghua woke up.

She did not dare let herself return to sleep, so she sat by the cooling coals of the fire and watched the pale light of dawn creep over the jagged terrain. She felt an itching need to check on the chrysalises, but after that too-vivid dream she also wanted some distance from them. She feared she would find them hatched and gone, as if the dream could somehow have summoned the butterflies from the basket as easily as it had summoned her from sleep.

Finally, her desperate urge to know won out over her reluctance, and Yinghua crouched beside the collection basket. Her hands felt unsteady as she fumbled open the lid, but she muttered a prayer to the goddess of gardens and flowers and regained her calm.

The butterflies were all present, and still nestled safely inside their chrysalises. She tried to ignore the tiny grain of disappointment inside her that not a single one had hatched. What if they truly did carry a warrior’s soul? No, she had come this far and could not allow her resolve to slip now.

She closed the basket and stood, deciding she should wake Gangbo. The sooner they returned to the empire, the better.

That night the dream came again.

This time the butterflies used her as a perch, bathing her bare arms with their soft light. Their pinprick feet wandered in slow patterns across her skin, almost painful, but Yinghua held herself still.

You must release us, they said, their gentle voices chiming like a dancer’s bells.

Yinghua wanted to promise them their freedom, but she did not. “If I disobey her command, the Empress could execute me for treason.”

If you follow her command, you may claim ignorance but not innocence. (Ignorance of what? Did the butterflies know what the Empress truly wanted: not the Corpsewings themselves, but the soul they carried?)

“I have no choice,” she pleaded.

There is always a choice.

The butterflies took flight and spiraled up through the night sky. Their radiant wings shone brighter and brighter with distance, and the separate points of light melded together into a sphere and became the moon.

She slept fitfully the rest of the night. In the morning, the sun seemed to take a very long time to crest the easternmost ridge of the mountains, and when it did it pained her eyes as it burned away the last shreds of dawn mist. Once again, Yinghua longed to check on the chrysalises but also dreaded the thought. Breakfast was prepared and eaten and their saddlebags packed before she finally gave in to the desire.

Yinghua cast a glance over her shoulder before kneeling beside the collection basket. Gangbo was occupied with his stubborn mare, who did not fancy taking a bit today, and he did not notice her. Why she felt this required stealth, she didn’t know—she was, after all, an imperial butterfly keeper, and it was her duty to care for them. Still, her fingers shook as she fumbled with the lid fastenings, guilty as a thief.

She felt a strange comingling of panic and relief when she saw a single hatched butterfly inside. The wings were a too-familiar lemongrass green, though they did not seem luminous under the light of the sun. The rest of the chrysalises were starting to hatch, too—emerging one or two at a time, haphazardly as butterflies should, not all at once. She held one hand out over the top of the basket, fingers splayed, to keep the Corpsewings from escaping. Silently, the first butterfly fanned its wings to dry them. Yinghua half-expected it to sing to her, but that had been only a dream, hadn’t it?

This was a war fought with bodies and blood, a war fought over the lands of the mortal realm. Even if the Shadow Goddess had tasked the Empress to steal souls from the Badlanders’ old gods, such a thing wasn’t possible. Was it? Yinghua stared down at the fine, silk-soft scales of the butterfly wings. Was her mission truly about expanding the butterfly house’s collection, or had she been sent to test a different theory altogether—a theory of souls? Her thoughts raced, the dreams blending with the present until she doubted her own sense of the truth. Perhaps her fears were the foolish concoctions of an impressionable mind, but perhaps the fulfillment of her mission came with a hidden, irreparable cost.

The Corpsewings could escape. There could be a problem with the lid, or the fastener, and when her attention was elsewhere they could find their way out. She could still be faulted for carelessness, of course, and would return to the butterfly house in shame, but better that than to openly thwart the Empress’s wish and return a traitor.

Her hand still hovered uncertainly over the basket, blocking their passage. If they were only insects, mindless and beautiful, at least some would remain within. But if they carried the soul of a fallen warrior, they would yearn for freedom and seek the narrow crack that led to the wide blue sky.

This much she could do. Breathe in, breath out, calm as a butterfly, as the master keeper would say.

Yinghua replaced the lid, not quite properly closed, and turned away, blinking against the harsh eastern sun. She combed her fingers through her gelding’s chestnut mane, working out the tangles while humming the butterflies’ hatching song.


Read Comments on this Story (1 Comment)

ShareThis with Friends

Gwendolyn Clare resides in North Carolina, where she tends a vegetable garden and a flock of backyard ducks and wonders why she ever lived in the frozen northlands. She has a PhD in mycology, which is useful for identifying wild mushrooms but not for much else. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Clarkesworld, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. She can be found online at gwendolynclare.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Seeing” by Stephen V. Ramey
“And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” by Rosamund Hodge

Return to Issue #157, Sixth Anniversary Double-Issue

Comments & Scrivenings
1 Comment on “Butterfly House”

One Response to “Butterfly House”

  1. […] technological solutions/mitigations including nuclear power, solar, batteries, desalination plants. Gwendolyn Clare brought up geoengineering: ejecting coolant chemicals or particulates into the atmosphere to dim […]

Leave a Comment on “Butterfly House”