The sound of the butterfly wings against the sides of the Nalgene bottle is stronger than he’d expected. For an animal that looks like a crumpled tissue caught in an updraft, it makes a noise like really large raindrops hitting the tent. Soft, but heavy, slightly resonant.
The ground underneath is uneven, so he knows that if he takes his hand away the water bottle will topple over and the butterfly escape. He wants something flat, like a sheet of paper, like the magazine he can see just a few paces away, to slip between the soil and the bottle’s lip.
“Carol.” He needs her help.
“Can you bring me that magazine over there?”
She approaches, because it naturally occurs to her that he has a reason for asking. “Why can’t you get it yourself?” hasn’t entered their lexicon yet.
“What do you have?”
“Why do you have it in your water bottle?”
Plain as it may be, this is not a question he’d anticipated.
The afternoon before, she’d first commented on the butterflies. There were a lot of them. Not a swarming, biblical-plague lot, but an abnormal frequency that suggested hatching or mating or something. The butterflies had deep blue wings and neither of them knew either genus or species. In fact, after her prompting, they both determined that neither could name a single type of butterfly other than Monarch.
He’s got the scientific name for the study of butterflies on the tip of his tongue, not quite materializing, though it starts with L — Nabokov was into it.
It was mid-afternoon, and they were both lovely tipsy on bottled beer out of a cooler. They spied five or six of the butterflies on the side of tent, and others alighting on the low brush surrounding the campsite. Probably because it was a relatively new relationship, and because the beer validated a bit of navel gazing, they’d personified the insects, romanticizing a fleeting life.
“What are you planning on doing with that?” she asks.
Now, she hadn’t struck him as the animals rights type; she eats meat and all. So it wasn’t like he expected her to challenge him on the basis of capturing/killing an animal.
“I just think it’s cool-looking and want to keep it,” he mutters, though he has a better answer which he doesn’t want to give. He thought it would make a touching gift for her. He isn’t sure exactly what yet, but he thought he could make something with a shadowbox, or maybe a little jar, that he could make artistic in some way. It would be a keepsake of their first weekend trip as a couple. And he thought that the butterfly, beauty and fragility, would make a pretty metaphor for that stage of their relationship. He a little bit thought it might be something they would stare at fondly when they were old. He’d had a girlfriend who had given him a necklace that featured an acorn pendant that she’d collected after they had sex in the woods. He was shooting for something like that.
It would all have to be a surprise to work right. He would need to give her the shadowbox or jar or whatever months down the line, like on Sweetest Day or her birthday (he still needs to find that out).
But the way she looks as he holds the bottle over the confused butterfly, not exactly disgusted but perhaps disappointed — like a parent who realizes her child isn’t bright, can’t read yet, was just parroting — tells him there is no real reason to keep it any longer.
Martin Brick is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Ohio Dominican University. Recent publications include stories in The Cortland Review, Vestal Review, Sou’wester, RE:AL, Pindeldyboz, Beloit Fiction Journal, The Shore, The Orphan Leaf Review, and other places. He is a former editor of Wisconsin Review and a past Pushcart Prize nominee.