Le Papillon

BTSB - Le Papillon Cover

 

Autumn leaves waltz on the melancholic floor while I straighten Veronique’s hat. I give her a kiss on the forehead and tighten my grip on her tiny fingers that always radiate intense heat for the whole world to feel. She responds with a content smile; and off we go, losing ourselves into the crowd of busy eyes that are quietly searching for something unpronounced.

We get through the stamping of the shoes and sit on a grey-painted bench, next to a grey stone wall. The red letters scream, 7 minutes. Just enough time for Veronique to get bored, so I start to gently rock her on my lap, humming a song from my childhood — kilometres of sundried grass, serpentine streams of clear water, and never-ending sunflower fields.

C’était un’ petit’ fille

Qui s’appellait Suzon

Qui allait à l’école

Tout près de sa maison

sol la si do do

do si la sol ré ré ré

ré mi ré do si la si do.

My voice suddenly turns cold, out of some strange, unknown longing. I let Veronique sing louder when we get to the second verse. It’s her favourite song, and has been since she learnt to speak. How has it already been four years…

Qui allait à l’école

Tout près de sa maison;

Dans son chemin rencontre

Un joli papillon

”Maman, I want to see a butterfly, too!” she cries interrupting our singing. Smiling, I tell her that it’s not possible to see one before the spring arrives.

”How long will it take, maman?”

I pause briefly and then go on about how soon it’ll all be green and happy. ”Close your eyes and you’ll see. Let’s go!”

We imagine a cloud of colourful butterflies flying above a verdant meadow; we imagine the first flowers of the spring peeking from the trenches of promesse; we imagine dance steps here and there, bright lipsticks, first touches of the spring sun, final exams, moving ceremonies, excitement on school girls’ faces.

”But maman, when can I see it myself?!”

I force a smile and make empty promises once again. It’s only October, but I’m too afraid myself to admit that it takes about half a year until she can see those oh, so important butterflies.

”Vero, we’ve got to go now, take my hand.”

I’m already rushing toward the metro that would be arriving soon when I realize that the extension of my arm isn’t following me. When I turn around, I see my little girl standing still, weakly pulling my hand toward herself.

”Stop.”

”Vero, what’s wrong now? We’re in a hurry!”

”Non, non, maman, look, on the floor… you could’ve tripped on that paper and hit your head. You’ve said it yourself, you’ve said that we always have to watch where we step.”

I feel guilty, culpable of all these everyday injustices I let happen to my only child, blaming lack of time, tiredness, or hastiness. In the middle of endless quotidian responsibilities and tasks to carry out, I sometimes come to question my motherly abilities.

”My little life guard, you’re right. Thank you.”

She throws a mesmerizing smile and off we hurry, escaping the darkness that’s chasing me and my girl who is loyally following her infallible guardian.

Dans son chemin rencontre

Un joli papillon

Ell’ le prit par la patte

Et lui dit : mon mignon

sol la si do do

do si la sol ré ré ré

ré mi ré do si la si do.

 

Ell’ le prit par la patte

Et lui dit : mon mignon

Que tu es donc heureux !

Tu n’as pas de leçons.

Someone knocks on my shoulder and I turn around telling Veronique to wait a moment. A ragged stranger grabs my arm and pulls me aside. I become aware of the arriving metro; it’s already shaking the grey ground. I have just the time to open my mouth intending to complain about our hurry, when the man starts to proclaim in a thick Parisian accent:

”Madame, you must listen to me for just a moment! I am sure you have time for this, because my announcement is very important!”

He doesn’t even breathe before he goes on for a few more words, until I interrupt him, rudely, in a way so very unusual of me. When rushing toward the metro that is now slowing down only about a hundred metres away from the platform, I keep thinking about my nature that I’m sure has changed into identical with the busy city people, who don’t care about anyone else surrounding them. They know how to dispirit a childishly enthusiastic tourist, the likes of whom I once served in the countryside. In my past life, I would happily bake them cakes and pies, pour perfectly steamed milk into espresso, and decorate chocolates, with a wide smile complementing my features; but when they would return to the melancholy tango of car lights on buzzing yet depressingly grey streets, they would forget all about the texture of my divine dark chocolate truffles.

There’s the crowd again, swirling and moving toward the metro. I fake a smile once more, preparing to take Veronique on her first metro trip to a whole new part of Paris. ”Vero, are you ready for an adventure?”

Que tu es donc heureux !

Tu n’as pas de leçons

Tous deux de compagnie

Nous nous envolerons.

Suddenly, there is no answer.

Everything is fine, I must be overreacting, I tell myself — the girl stood next to me a second ago, I’m being paranoid, surely she just wandered a few feet away from me, and now all these people are just covering her tiny figure; she’s so easy to lose if you let her hand go for a single second… It really is about seconds.

The seconds I wandered around the metro station felt like hours. When it finally struck my mind, the one thing no one should ever have to experience, which eventually ended up being the truth, everything went silent.

Like in a movie, people start to scream here and there, pointing toward the metro tunnel, staring and marvelling. It felt like a disgrace — as if there wasn’t enough pain to get through in the accident itself. From that day on, I started to dislike people.

Tous deux de compagnie

Nous nous envolerons

La clochette m’appelle

Adieu, cher papillon.

I make my way through the crowd of faceless Parisians now in disarray, to see what is going on.

There lies an angel on the rails, and she is smiling; her smile is cruel and beautiful. A left foot’s shoe has flown metres away and a right arm bent unnaturally. I stare at this sight without any understanding, thinking that the angel looks relieved, happy even.

But it’s not spring yet.

I jump down not noticing the tears falling down my cheeks. ”Oh my God, she’s breathing, what are you all looking at, the angel is breathing and she’s happy, she’s enjoying the spring sun, she’s smiling, can’t you see…”

La clochette m’appelle

Adieu, cher papillon.

Slowly, my senses begin to work again, and a clear comprehension strikes my mind. My bones start to ache, my lungs shut down. I can’t hear any noise of breathing, the body next to me is ice-cold, the smile is gone.

Suddenly, I am being dragged away from the last scene of her I ever get to witness again. I lift my head and notice a painted butterfly on the concrete wall behind her.

It’s smiling.

The World’s End 1998

Retro boombox

1998. March. Maine.

 The rain started falling heavier and Fay decided to risk it.

“Oh, what the hell”, she said and started jogging down the hill towards the house. The others followed her suit and the four of them slipped and slid down the muddy road. Before reaching the house, however, they slowed down. When there was no sign of life, Fay stepped onto the porch and out from the now pouring rain. The others joined her and stood there shivering, giving the door wary looks.

“Okay”, Fay said and breathed in. “Okay.” She reached for the handle and pulled carefully. The door opened easily as she had expected. The lock wasn’t broken, however, but that didn’t mean much in the end. She and Daniel took off their backpacks and set them down quietly. Nicole mouthed ‘be careful’ and Minh nodded with the nervous smile the boy always wore. Fay pulled the door open enough for her and Daniel to slip in.

The air was stuffy and there was a strong smell of mould. Fay fingered the gun in her coat pocket. The cold metal felt comforting in all the wet and stale and soft. She and Daniel moved further into the house, their footsteps muffled by the decaying carpets. They walked through the first floor together and saw nothing. Most of the furniture looked as if they hadn’t been touched at all and none of the windows were broken. In a way this serenity was more unnerving than the typically overturned tables and smashed glass over the floor. But here there was nothing.

“Up or down, big guy?” Fay whispered, giving a hopeful glance at the stairs leading to the second floor. Daniel motioned towards the door behind him and Fay nodded. She started walking up the stairs while Daniel descended to the basement.

Ah. Here was something at last. Unmistakable, rust-coloured stains on the white floorboards, leading to one of the two doors. Fay kept her hand on the gun and stepped inside. A bathroom. Some more stains on the floor, a shower curtain with pale yellow ducks, and mouldy hand towels. Nothing else. Fay tried the other door and found a nursery. Nothing. She let out a long breath. It was shaky and shallow. She tried again, breathing in and out slowly until her heart had calmed down and her shoulders relaxed.

“Clear”, she said as she walked down the stairs to find Daniel waiting. The man nodded with a very tight smile, his face pale in the dim light. “You?” Fay asked, her hand quickly back on the gun.

“Safe”, Daniel said with his low, gentle voice. “But don’t let the others go down there.” Fay shuddered.

***

“Ooh, make-up!” Nicole said and limped to the vanity table with her cane. She picked up a lipstick and tried it on the back of her hand. The surface was dried but after rolling it on her skin for a while, Nicole managed to get some colour out of it and brought the stick to her lips, dabbing at them with the bright red. Fay watched with amusement as the women tried out the other products as well.

“Let an old woman have her fun”, Nicole said as she caught Fay’s grin from the mirror

 “48 isn’t that old”, Fay said.

 “It is in this world”, Nicole said. Fay shook her head with the grin still on her face and left the other woman to her business.

Daniel and Minh were in the kitchen, checking the closets in silence the way they always did. Daniel was quiet either by nature or trauma and Minh too shy. Fay hadn’t figured out yet how much the boy understood English, but assumed it was more than he showed. He and Daniel had piled canned food on the table and Fay set to checking out the best before dates. It didn’t matter much, of course, but Fay wanted their first meal at the house to actually taste like something.

“Beans and tomato soup, boys? We’ve still got that bread, too”, she said. “SpaghettiOs for Nicole, I think. She only eats beans when there’s no choice. Cherries for dessert.”

Daniel started preparing the food while Fay and Minh picked a few buckets and took them outside and placed them on the soft grass. The rain was still pouring and the buckets filled steadily. The two of them carried these back inside and into the kitchen. By this, they were dripping wet themselves and went to put on fresh clothes.

“O ho!” Fay shouted as her eyes caught a whisky bottle in the bedroom where she had been changing. “O ho!” she cried again to annoy Nicole.

“What now?” Nicole, still at the vanity table, snapped.

“It’s going to be a right feast tonight, grandma!” Fay said and got hit in the face with a lipstick.

***

A feast they did have. The still soft bread was heavenly and the beans and soup were better than most of what they had been living on lately. The whisky was saved for dessert. Fay dropped a couple of canned cherries into her glass to get a laugh out of Minh. The boy complied with that same small smile of his. Everyone raised their glasses.

 “Anyone know a good toast?” Nicole asked.

 “’Alcohol may be man’s worst enemy, but the bible says love your enemy’”, Fay tried.

 “Nice”, Nicole said. “’Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker’?”

“’Here’s to staying positive and testing negative.’”

“Fay, don’t ruin this.”

“’May we be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows we’re dead.’”

 “’May we get what we want, may we get what we need, but may we never get what we deserve.’”

 “To absent friends.”

The laughter died and everyone cast their eyes downward. A moment passed during which the only sound was Nicole murmuring a prayer under her breath. Then they raised their glasses one more time and drank in silence.

***

The sun was setting and the four of them moved to the living room with the backpacks and sleeping bags. There was a large sofa and mismatched armchairs with a low coffee table between them. The small tv was in one piece as was the stereo set by it. Fay inspected these and made her second great discovery of the day: a small cassette player that worked on batteries.

“Hand me some AAs”, Fay said eagerly to Daniel who dug into his backpack, bringing out a handful of assorted batteries. Fay picked out the right ones and set them into the player.

Golden Oldies”, Fay read the name of the cassette inside the player. The others gathered around her and they sat down on the moist carpet. Fay fiddled with the thing, her hands shaking with excitement. It wasn’t often they found a piece of working technology.

“Got it!” she cried out when the tape started rolling. Suddenly the room was filled with a clapping sound, soon joined by music and then female voices singing in harmony.

    Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream

    Make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen

 

Fay felt something tighten around her chest.

“I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard music”, Nicole whispered from somewhere far away. “Must be two years. Ever since the first attack.” Fay nodded absent-mindedly, barely registering that the older woman was speaking.

    Sandman, I’m so alone

    Don’t have nobody to call my own

    Please turn on your magic beam

    Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream

The song ended far too quickly. Fay made a move towards the player, but a new song followed.

    So darling, darling

    Stand by me, oh stand by me

    Oh stand, stand by me

    Stand by me

When a string instrument started playing, Fay’s breath was taken away. Like Nicole, she couldn’t remember the last time she had heard music. She raised her eyes from the little player and looked at the others. This group of complete strangers clinging to each other as their one and only anchor in the shattered world. She watched Nicole sway and quietly sing along, Minh with his small smile, Daniel with his eyes closed. They were all crying and when Fay felt something cold drop on her cheeks, she realised she was crying too. The tears were welling in the corners of her eyes where they pooled, cooled down, and then rolled down her face, cold as ice.

    I see trees of green, red roses too

    I see them bloom for me and you

    And I think to myself

    What a wonderful world

Fay felt a sob build up, but it never made its way out. Instead the cold tears kept on rolling down her cheeks. She reached her hand to Minh’s and grasped it tightly. The boy’s hand was small and warm. Fay gave it a squeeze and Minh stroked hers with his thumb. She wanted to say something. Something to convey the feelings that were swirling around inside of her, but she found no words nor voice and as she glanced around she could tell she didn’t need to explain.

    I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do

    They’re really saying I love you

Fay didn’t want the music to ever end. She wouldn’t be able to bear it if it did. But it did. For a moment, there was nothing but the sound of rain outside. Then Fay silently reached for the cassette player, rewinded the tape, and the songs began anew. Fay kept on holding Minh’s hand while Nicole rested her greying head on Daniel’s shoulder. Fay closed her eyes.

    And I think to myself what a wonderful world

    Yes, I think to myself what a wonderful world

No Trespassing

no_trespassing_

YOU ARE ENTERING A RESTRICTED AREA.

I’m not sure where I am. If this sign is any indication, I must be close to the test fields, but I have no idea how I got here. To be quite honest I’m not even sure who I am, but that one I think I’d like to keep to myself. The dog tags around my neck aren’t much help really. They change the name every time I’m sent to reconditioning. My identification serial at least is something constant. M24-62. Male, black skin, brown eyes, six foot two. These days that feels more like a name than anything else they carve on my tags. These days. What do those words mean in this place? My brain seems to get more and more scrambled after each reconditioning session. And now that Pixie is gone, I have no one to remind me.

Pixie. Oh sweet, sweet Pixie, this is all your fault. I was happy where I was before you came along. With you, I started questioning this operation and then got into all kinds of trouble. Pixie. Why do I remember her name, but not my own? F34-54. Female, Asian, brown eyes, five foot four. Why do I remember her face, but not my dead wife’s? Oh Pixie and her endless laugh and smiles. And then the secret tears she hid from everyone but me. How you trusted me and made me trust you, only to turn my world upside down. So carefree you didn’t even realise how you ruined me. I wonder if she really escaped as she said she would. She never believed in our cause anyway and missed home too much. Did you escape or did they finally catch you?

The sign is hung on a concrete wall that’s too high for even me to climb over. I start walking, running my hand along the wall. The afternoon sun burns my neck, but the concrete stays cold. I stop to rest my body against it. I close my eyes and think about my wife. She didn’t agree with this place either. Idealist to the end, bless her soul. I would like to say we’ll meet again, but I hold no illusions of being admitted to where she is. I do what I must for our country. She never understood and I loved her for it. As I loved Pixie. Christopher, I’d tell myself however, as long as you believe in what you do, you must do it.

Oh. Christopher. Yes, I was lying earlier when I said I can’t remember my name. I just prefer not to. It makes all this easier.

I may have lied about some other stuff as well. Pixie’s real identification serial was M34-54. Oh Pixie, who loved his name as he loved himself. No amount of brainwashing could steal it from him. Sweet Pixie who would sneak into my bunk bed and curl up next to me. He would rest his beautiful head on my broad chest and listen to my heartbeat. And I let him even though we both knew I could never love him the way he loved me. Idealist as my late wife. A dreamer. People like them aren’t meant for this world. We don’t deserve them.

I start walking again. The sun moves its position so that the wall is offering me more and more shadow. Still the heat is too much to bear with my heavy uniform on and so I take the jacket off. I walk on until I decide to peel off my trousers as well, leaving me with only the regulation undershirt and leggings. I carry the uniform in my arms for some time, but eventually I stop to first neatly fold the clothes and then gently set them down. I continue walking until I come upon a new sign.

WARNING. RADIOACTIVE CONTENT. KEEP OUT.

Curious.

I keep on walking to the next sign.

PRIVATE PROPERTY.

Whatever is on the other side of the wall, it appears to be many things. Strange. I can’t tell if the wall is enclosing us or whatever lies on the other side. It runs on straight as far as my eyes can see. Finally, however, I arrive to a large steel door.

NO TRESPASSING.

I sit down on the sand and lean my back against the cold steel. I wait. I wait. I wait. An hour passes, but then I hear faint knocking from the other side. I reply. Two shorts, one long, two shorts. They reply. One long, three shorts. One long. I stand up.

There’s one more thing I lied about Pixie. I know exactly where he is. And so will you. In. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

The first explosions start.

I’m sorry. I had to keep on talking. Had to keep you distracted, you see. I’m sorry. I’m not sorry. I’m sorry. I want to protect my country. I want to save the world. I want to go home. I turn to the security camera and give you one last salute while tears run down my face. I smile.