The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Butterfly Blood

(©Thomas Bachmann)

In the middle of a wide, snowy field, beneath a solitary tree, two nuns stood, side by side. Their black habitsblacker than the treeflapped about their ankles. Their white wimpleswhiter than the groundframed their faces. Their sensible shoes, patent-leather and pointy-toed, shone dully in the winter light.

The nuns did not move a muscle.

A man was approaching them from far across the barren field, tramping steadily through the frost and the silence. The man’s head was far too small. Or perhaps his body was simply too large; it was difficult to say. At any rate, he had a freakish set about him, like an ogre, and his skin had a pale, greenish tinge, a slimy-wet sheen.

The nuns regarded him as he approached, their expressions inscrutable. One of them, the smaller one, had her eyes opened very wide, but whether it was out of surprise or simply the permanent state of her face, it was impossible to say.

As the man approached, it became apparent that he had no fingers on either hand, only stumps, stopping at the first knuckles. When he ducked his tiny head, one could see he had no ears either, only holes on either side of his face.

The smaller nun didn’t say a word, but her eyes grew a fraction wider.

The man stopped several paces away, just outside the spreading reach of the tree. He bowed heavily and stood waiting, shifting from foot to foot.

The two nuns turned slowly and looked at each other. Then they looked back at the man, and the taller of the two held out a hand, as if to say, Have you got it? We have walked many miles. We have waited in the cold. Give it to us.

The man with the too-small head looked up at the tall nun. Then he grinned gapingly, and the nuns gasped in unison because he had no tongue. No ears. No fingers. No tongue. Eyes, he had, but those are not nearly as useful as most assume.

He was the perfect messenger, of course. The nuns should not have been surprised.

The taller one regained her composure, and held out her hand again, more insistently this time.

The man nodded his tiny head, and his eyes lit up, and he slipped something from his sleeve.

It was not a bottle or packet, or anything like that, as one might have expected. It was a butterfly, sapphire-winged and veined with black, and it emerged out of his sleeve and came to rest delicately on the end of one of his poor old stumps, flapping slowly, feelers curled against the wind.

The nuns looked at each other again. The younger nun’s eyes were very near to rolling down her cheeks. The man with the too-small head simply smiled down at the butterfly in his palm, a look of wonder on his face.

Finally the tall nun nodded and inclined her head formally toward him. Then she put the butterfly in a small cage made of wire, and the two nuns went away across the field.

 

***

 

The man with the too-small-head watched them go, and watched the glimmer of the blue butterfly-wings in the cage.

When they were gone, he shook his head and grinned again, and he didn’t exactly disappear so much as simply move someplace else, someplace that was not the snowy field, but was very close by.

 

***

 

The nuns came back to their nunnery very late. Before going inside, they made sure to pat some wet earth on the knees of their habits and clump a bit around the frosty heels of their sensible shoes, before finally letting themselves in through the great door.

They had herbs under their arms, but they had collected them the day before, so as to have some time free to seek out the man with the too-small head.

They looked around stealthily as they entered the nunnery, stood still and nodded as other nuns passed by. The cage with the butterfly was hidden tightly behind their backs. When the Mother Superior saw them, she twinkled at them, her eyes very bright and kind, and they both inclined their heads as she passed, but their faces remained stone.

And as the Mother Superior went on down the corridor, they watched her, their eyes following her back, and the younger nun’s mouth may have even twitched a bit, just a tiny, tiny bit; but in that flat, empty face it was like a bomb blowing up.

 

***

 

The nuns took the wire cage to the taller one’s cell and simply sat a while, admiring the butterfly through the mesh. The nunnery was a somewhat austere place, busy and soft, echoing songs and shadows and whispers. The music was often rather sad, and the colors were either dark or white, and so it was something of a marvel, this blue-winged butterfly in the gray cell.

The younger nun, finally, looked at the taller one in a questioning way as if to say, Do you think it will do the trick?

And the taller one looked back, eyebrows raised, as if to say, Who can know? They promised it would. Those wild things in the fields and moors, they promised, and I know they lie, but it should. It should do the trick.

Then she undid the latch of the cage with two long fingers, and the butterfly crept out, blue wings flickering tentatively.

It was about to fly away, about to beat those wings once, twice, and then flutter toward the ceiling.

Then the younger nun took out a wooden mallet from the folds of her dress and smashed the butterfly onto the table top.

 

***

 

The nuns let the butterfly sit, squashed to the table-top, overnight, exactly as they had been instructed. Then they scraped the blue from its wings and the clear, watery blood from its veins into a tiny thimble-sized bowl and set it out on the windowsill, in the cold, fresh air.

The younger one looked at the taller one, and her eyes said, I hope it works. We haven’t much time left. And what if someone starts to suspect?

And the taller one nodded in a way that meant, It will work.

 

***

 

The moon came out, half-full like a sleepy eye and squinted down at the bowl, and at the nuns, who looked away quickly and closed the casement.

In the bowl, the blue and the blood sat and drank in the moonlight, but also the night and the shadows and the cold, and then nuns went down to the evening mass and tried to forget about it until it was ready.

The Mother Superior was there at mass of course, and though her back was toward the two nuns, anyone raising her head from the hymn-book might have noticed the younger nun staring at the Mother Superior, her eyes so wide and still.

 

***

 

Five weeks earlier, the nuns had gone to the Mother Superior and asked her a question.

“Please,” the taller one had asked, and her voice was surprisingly soft and regular-sounding, papery and cool, and much quieter than her eyes. “Might we have the third Saturday of next month off?”

And the Mother Superior had twinkled at them, and said, “Of course you may have a day off! But not that Saturday. We’ll need you here for the weeding and the churning. You may have the fourth Saturday off. I will mark it down.”

 

***

 

You never would have guessed the nuns’ disappointment. They had looked at each other briefly, had nodded at the Mother Superior, and had slipped away without another word. But it was not the end of the matter.

Few people can plot quite as well as the ones you’d never suspect.

 

***

 

Here was the situation: a great violinist, a Master Garibaldi, was on a tour across the continent, and the nuns were determined to go. Master Garibaldi was playing Bach, all the Chaconnes and Voluntairs, and the nuns pined to hear it, and pined to see it, too.

And it was not that the mother superior was unkind. She simply didn’t know how lovely Maestro Garibaldi was, and how his hair shook like a lion’s mane when he played his violin and how his music felt like a lamp, glowing behind your ribs. And so when the tall nun and the short nun had been told they could not go to the City the day of the concert, that was when they began to plot.

They read great grimoires in the library and went on long walks across the moors, and came upon the creatures of stone and moss in the wild hills, and all the while Maestro Garibaldi crept closer and closer across the continent toward the City, and the nuns became more and more serious, and at last they had it all, everything needed to escape that day, everything but the last bit, the most important bit.

What is stronger than storms, yet weeps like a child, one of the old crusty books in the library had whispered to them. Colder than snow and softer than hair?

The nuns had thought about it very long. And of course they found out.

It was the wind.

 

***

 

So when they were sure their mixture had ripened well on the windowsill, and turned into a good thick paste, silver-gray and speckled with flecks of iridescent blue, the nuns brought it out into the early morning, in an open place where the wind blew strongly.

The nuns set the bowl on the ground and the wind dipped into it at once, picked up its contents and blew it into the air, straight up out of the bowl. The flakes whirled a moment and then began to form a shape. A human-shape. A nun in a black habitblacker than the stone walls of the nunnery. A white wimplewhiter than the nun’s teeth as they smiled and watched.

The wind swept over again, and the last of the mixture grew into the second nun, small and stout, with eyes like marbles.

The two sets of nuns stood looking at each other, one pair smiling, the other not. Then they nodded to each other, and one pair set off into the nunnery and the other took off its sensible shoes and put on ones with bows and went to the city where it heard the great Garibaldi on his violin and fairly well swooned.

 

***

 

That night, the wind came and reclaimed its breath from the delicate shell of butterfly blood and moonlight, and the false nuns fell to nothing. But by that time their namesakes where comfortably in their beds and fast asleep.

They weeded twice as many beds the next morning, those two nuns, and churned three times the butter, and perhaps, if one had watched them very, very closely, one might have seen them wink to each other over their baskets.

(Postscript: the butterflies of the area were less pleased by it all, and there was an infestation the next year in the nunnery’s dining hall, small onyx-winged insects all up the rafters and under the edges of the plates. No one could understand why it happened, not even the two who had caused it.)

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