The girl fidgeted in the heat of the afternoon. She was at her grandmother’s house for lunch with her parents and some other guests and she was bored. Grown-up shop talk didn’t interest her. She yawned, staring at the slow moving blades of the fan, trying to hang her vision on one and count how many rounds it made in a minute. She found she could never keep track of the one blade and after a while, she gave up.
Her eyes strayed towards the garden. It was massive – unusual of a house in the heart of Colombo. She had always loved it – loved running down the rolling hill which cut the garden in half, her hair streaming behind her; loved the pretty little arch off to the left, where she dreamed of getting married; loved the pepper plants whose black seeds she’d spend hours picking to throw in the two big ponds on either end of the grounds.
Most of all, she loved the huge old bow-tree that spread its branches like protective arms over almost the whole expanse of the garden. Its trunk was on the other side of the boundary wall, so it didn’t belong to them. She liked to think that it did, though. That it favoured their garden to the one in which it was planted and so leaned ever closer in their direction, arms holding out for what it could never really possess. She felt a funny kind of love for that tree and had spent countless moments staring at it from the balcony of her grandmother’s house, watching it as it presided over the garden, carpeting the grass with beautiful dried leaves. In a country with no seasons, she felt that it was always fall in her grandmother’s garden. On many an afternoon, she had been lulled by its rustled whispers and had slipped off to sleep, wishing she could understand what was being said.
* * *
Her mother looked at her daughter’s upturned little face and worried secretly for her. Her little one had always been a dreamer. Never content to see life as anything but fantastical – everything, no matter what it was, was larger than life, awash with hyper-colour and holding an infinite number of possibilities. Even now she sat staring at the garden with eyes that saw so much more than a lawn, some trees and a couple of ponds. The little girl seemed to pulse with the magic she was absorbing from everything around her. Her mother both envied the sweet naiveté and pitied her for it, knowing that there would come a defining moment when it would be stripped away. The world would at once be laid bare and her little one would be forced to see things as they really were. Her mother sighed inwardly. At least for now let her dream, she thought.
The little girl turned to look at her and smiled, her eyes still half-glazed with thoughts her mother would never know or understand.
“You can play in the garden if you want” she said.
Her daughter was a blur of wild hair and ribbons as she flew off into the green of the garden. Her mother looked on and smiled in spite of herself. Her daughter looked so tiny standing there in the middle of the lawn, staring up at the big bow tree.
* * *
The air was full of them. She spun around with them, her arms flung out, laughing giddily. She could almost hear those delicate white wings sashaying around her and felt like they were urging her upwards. The brilliant clear blue of the sky set off the wings and as she watched them fly away, she thought they looked like clouds being buffeted restlessly about by the breeze of the afternoon.
When they were gone, she felt her arms droop to her sides, suddenly aching. She looked around, feeling oddly alone and caught sight of a lone butterfly still hovering nearby. Impulsively, she stretched out her arms in one swift, sure movement and trapped the creature within her cupped hands.
What a thrill! To hold this tiny, frail piece of magic in her hands! It was hers, all hers.
She ran to the steps of the porch and sat down. She was vaguely aware that her mother would scold if her dress got dirty but she brushed aside the nagging worry. This was far more important. Her mother would understand.
She squinted and dipped her head towards her hands, opening them slightly so that she could peep through the cracks of her two thumbs. The butterfly fluttered erratically inside and she could feel the tips of the wings batting against her fingers, soft but agitated.
She realized she was holding her breath and felt as if she was witnessing a great secret of nature.
She didn’t know how long she sat there. When her mother called her to eat she cried out feverishly that she wasn’t hungry and for once her parents were too busy with the guests to really pay much attention.
Time passed and the garden darkened as the afternoon aged. The bow tree swished and swashed in rhythm to the evening breeze and the little girl closed her hands again and looked up, listening to the sounds, her eyes dreamy again. The wind played with her hair and she giggled as stray strands tickled her neck.
It was a while before she remembered the butterfly. With a renewed thrill of the secret she held, she opened up her fingers again to take a peek.
She hadn’t noticed that the fluttering had stopped. But now the butterfly lay still in her hands and she found that even when she flattened out her palms, it still didn’t move. She looked closely at it and saw her fingers were covered in a thin mist of shiny dust, from the creature’s wings. She thrust out her arms into the wind, hoping to nudge the creature back to life but the breeze only ruffled its feathers a little and then left it alone.
She stared at it in shock. She knew what death was. Her grandfather had died the year before. She knew what it was, how sad it made her grandmother and her mother.
The butterfly was dead.
She killed it.
She hadn’t meant to. She’d only wanted to catch it for a little while, observe its magic, and set it free. She’d wanted only to be a part of its beauty and had ended up destroying it instead.
It wasn’t beautiful anymore. It was dead. Lying there, unmoving, it didn’t look anything like the glorious creatures she had played with earlier in the afternoon.
It was dead.
* * *
Her mother ran out to call her into the house. They were leaving, it was getting late. Her daughter was sitting out on the porch steps, crouched over something she was holding in her lap. She felt a prick of annoyance, knowing the dress would need washing, but her irritation faded when she saw the little girl’s shoulders shake with soundless sobs.
She stood behind her and bent to see what the child was holding, saw the dead butterfly and guessed what had happened.
She put a hand on the girl’s back and knelt down beside her.
“I killed it” her daughter said, grief stricken.
Tearful, guilty eyes searched hers. “Am I a bad person?”
Her heart broke for the child. “You made a mistake baby” she soothed. “It’ll be ok. It wasn’t your fault. Life is like that”
* * *
The child allowed her mother to comfort her. But something had changed. She knew she would take a long time to forgiver herself for what she had done. She had ruined something beautiful. Killed something that was so alive it made her heart beat faster, just being a part of it.
Life is like that, her mother had said.
It shouldn’t be, she thought fiercely. It’s not fair.
It was time to leave. Her mother gave her one last squeeze and walked inside, calling her to follow.
The girl laid the butterfly gently on a leaf and felt her heart ache. “I’m sorry”, she whispered but her words were snatched away by the wind and lost to the noise of the bow-leaves which annoyed rather than fascinated her for the first time.
As she turned to leave she saw a few more butterflies, venturing around the garden. But their magic was gone.
Lost in a dream-land of her own creation, she had played too long, until it was too late to say goodbye or apologize to the one that mattered.