The Power of the ButterflyThe great rambling house creaked and groaned with age, even on a calm day. On a windy day, it swayed, and made almost as much noise as the wind in the tall trees that surrounded it. Yet to Kiela, the last living member of the household, the noises of the ancient building spoke with a well-loved voice, and she felt no fear when the house rocked her to sleep. It was her home.
Her home, they said, for however much longer she could keep the wolf from the door and the door on the hinges. For forces of entropy and capitalism raced to steal from her the refuge she had kept so long, and which would win was not at all certain. A third force struggled against both and itself: the force of age, a great age that yet would not grow old and die, but instead grew weary of itself.
For Kiela had been an old woman in the house for longer than any could remember, and yet none thought to wonder at her life. The young might call her “witch,” but the old kept silent on what they knew, or thought they knew.
Only a few knew that Kiela had been a slave in that house, a century and more back when slavery was still permitted in the province. A slave accorded rights no other, slave or master, might wield, for she had a gift that would not be gainsaid, and so she outlived everything.
Most thought her gift was healing, and so she wielded it. Many a woman survived a difficult birth because Kiela attended her, and many a child failed to die of a dreaded illness. Only Kiela herself knew what power she bore: the power of the butterfly, a power that went far beyond healing.
And what might be the power of the butterfly? Kiela herself could not answer that question exactly, though it was a power that had left her alive beyond count of years, and beyond the reach of the family that had once believed they owned her, body and soul. Time had shown what that owning amounted to: nothing. They were dust and ashes, and she lived on in the house that spoke to her with the wind.
And now, when Kiela and the house alike might with a sigh of rest and relief have gone down to dust themselves, the power of the butterfly would not allow it. And so the doors clung to rusted hinges, and Kiela peered from windows but would not emerge into the sunlight. And the wealthy landholders waited for both to die, unaware that they were not the first generation of wealth to so wait.
For many years now, Kiela had found she could not leave the house in the day. Only at night, when butterflies slept, could she slip out, to roam the forest for edible herbs, or to lay the snares that captured small animals to clean and cook. At first it hadn’t been much of a burden. She had long since lost the desire to go about among people who knew nothing of her or her time. And they had their own medicine folk now, and no need of her healing.
And, just perhaps, she felt that she no longer had the strength of that healing in her.
In fact, Kiela knew that if she were to simply walk on into the darkness, far enough from the house, she would be free. Free at last to lie down and die. Yet such is the human desire for life, that always, before dawn, before the limits of the forest, she turned back, and reentered the womb. The house.
For was that not the secret of the butterfly? That it spun itself a cocoon as a crawling thing, and emerged with wings? And in the cocoon, died and was reborn.
As Kiela believed she was. She slept, and awoke no older, and the house held her, nursemaid and prison-guard. And the weight of those unfelt years began to crumple her.
A time came when Kiela did not venture forth in the night. She ceased to eat. And yet the Power held her to life. She looked out the windows at the new houses being built nearly to the bounds of her garden, long since taken by weeds and fast-growing scrubby trees, and wrung her hands. Those hands which had aged to a fine mass of veins and parchment-skin, and then aged no further.
And she said in a whisper only the flies on the window might hear, “I have existed too long. I must go.” And still the power of the butterflies held her, and she could not open the front door nor go out. That day she did not settle to her lace-making—hundreds, thousands of yards of lace of all widths filled basket on basket in neat rolls—but wandered the house, seeking within and without her escape. And finally in the late afternoon, she found herself in the conservatory.
This garden she had tended all these years, after the gardens had gone. The plants were watered and pruned, and bowls of sweet water placed about for the bright-winged creatures that she served in return for their power. And now, in a moment of loathing, she wished to smash the plants, the bowls, the rippled glass of the ancient windows that warmed the room.
She did none of that. But as the sun sank below the horizon and a frozen wind began to blow icy flakes across the glass, she moved as though against a strong stream to the door that led into the outdoor gardens, forced it open, and lay down across the threshold.
A young worker on the houses found her in the morning, but soon all the townsfolk crowded about, to marvel at the ancient corpse, and at the butterflies, frozen to death, as was Kiela.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015