The Butterfly Merchant

By Sean Williams
Aug 12, 2018 · 3,752 words · 14 minutes

There is a story from the times before the Change about a man who sells butterflies.  His name is Polain, and his home is a metal and glass city larger than any built before or since.  There are many things to do and see in the city, but the butterflies he breeds are counted among the most beautiful.  Buyers come from all around the world to purchase them, confident in the knowledge that every one is unique.  For that is Polain's Guarantee: never once will any of his creatures repeat a pattern.  No two sold by him will ever be alike.

At the time of the story, his butterflies inhabit vast glasshouses, with temperature and humidity kept constant by machines the like of which we have long lost.  Unnumbered eggs are laid, caterpillars hatch, pupae are woven and butterflies emerge, limp and fragile, into their new world.  Yet, for all this activity, Polain's output has dropped steadily as his fame has grown.  The more butterflies he sells, the more difficult it becomes to be absolutely certain that each is a true individual.  In order to maintain his guarantee, he keeps a record of every one--detailing the number of spots, the shading and hue of colours, the precise shape of the wings and antennae, and the total mass at maturity.  The records are voluminous.  After beginning with a humble stall and a small stack of notebooks, he now has three separate rooms full of records next door to the glasshouses, and he employs five clerks to maintain and conduct searches through them.  Sometimes it takes more than a day to ascertain that a single promising butterfly is indeed one of a kind.  Literally one in a million.

His output may have dropped, but demand has only increased.  Butterflies live far shorter lives than their fanciers, and in their world of glass and steel little else of true colour remains.  As word spreads that Polain's handiwork is scarce, it increasingly becomes a sign of prestige that one should possess an example of it.  Polain can ask more and more for each creation and people will still buy.  As his clientele have become richer and more discerning, his sales have dropped to a handful a month, then a handful a year.  Long gone are the days when he would sell butterflies by the jarful on a street corner to anyone who passed.

Yet, strangely, he misses those days.  He is as proud of his success as he is tired of the endless checking and re-checking.  When the time is right, he plans to retire and go back to breeding butterflies for enjoyment, not profit.  One of his competitors can take his place--and good luck to them.  No-one will ever be as great as he has been; no butterflies will ever equal his.

The opportunity to retire comes in the form of the queen of a distant and powerful country, due to visit the city in a matter of weeks.  He publicly announces his plans with a promise to present her with the last truly unique Polain butterfly in the world.  It will be his final masterpiece, and he will devote all his efforts to its creation.  The queen will take it home confident in the knowledge that she is carrying a piece of history.  Nothing like it will have existed before.  That, after all, is his Guarantee.

And so he sets to work, mingling strains in time-proven ways in some glasshouses and cross-breeding new strains in others.  Hungry caterpillars devour leaves by the million, swarming in green and brown tides across veritable forests.  Thousands of butterflies are born and die with a shiver of wings, their individually inaudible rustlings adding up to a cacophony, deafening the feeders who tend them and the clerks who study them, seeking uniqueness.  It is a symphony to Polain's ears.  He will make a butterfly fit for a queen, no matter what it takes.  All he needs is one to go in the special bell-shaped jar he had constructed for it.

Just one more.

Yet that simple task turns out not be as simple as he thought.  From all the millions he breeds, beautiful though they are, the last unique one eludes him.  Too many have matches in the catalogues.  Some are beautiful in ways that excite the casual glance, yet are subtly flawed, or do not mate well, or die too young, sickly and weak from in-breeding.  As time passes, Polain stays longer and longer in the glasshouses with the feeders and clerks, pacing up and down through the feather-soft fluttering and seeking, always seeking, for the one he knows must come.  If it doesn't, he will be humiliated in front of everyone--the queen, the people of the city, his competitors.  He can't have that.

The deadline approaches, and the fear of failure mounts in him.  What if the right butterfly doesn't come in time?  What if he has exhausted every possible variety and no new ones remain?  What will he do?  He cannot use the Change to make the one he wants, since that hasn't come into the world yet, and he wouldn't dream of substituting a fake--a butterfly modified in order to present a unique coloration.  No matter how clever a forgery it was, it would be revealed under the eager gaze of his competitors.  He would be ruined in his finest hour.

All too quickly the appointed time looms.  His sleep is filled with nightmares: he is mocked, taunted, jeered at as he arrives at the queen's reception holding in his hands nothing but a dry and dusty moth.

Then, with just two days to spare, Polain is inspecting the butterflies in one of his auxiliary glasshouses when he spies an empty cocoon with unfamiliar spiral markings.  The cocoon is paper-thin and grey in colour, except for the spirals which are soft pink.  Polain raises it to his nose and sniffs: it has only recently been vacated.  The butterfly that crawled from it can't be far away.

He searches the branches and ground nearby.  If he finds it in time, it will still be hardening its wings, anchoring itself against a stone or a twig to practise fluttering before joining the great throng above.  Polain creeps carefully through the enclosure, wary of stepping before he has made absolutely certain that nothing is underfoot.  His heart beats a little faster as he thinks: Maybe this is the one.  Maybe at last, at the last minute, my search is over.

When he sees it, perched on a branch with its wings upraised, still soft from birth but beating the air with increasingly sure strokes, he knows.  Its colouring is pale green across its abdomen and thorax.  Its antennae have an orange hue with yellow highlights and are curled in a tight spiral.  Its wings are black, deepening to blue around the edges, with a subtle cross-hatch pattern in silver visible only as the light reflects off them.  In the centre of each wing is a single, pure white circle.

Polain has never seen its equal.  Backing away, wary of startling it, he calls hoarsely for the butterfly feeders.  Sensing his excitement, they come running.  One of them has the forethought to bring a silk net.  Polain snatches it from her and swoops up the butterfly with a swing more delicate than a gentle breeze.

He cradles the captured butterfly in both hands and takes it to the main enclosure, where a special habitat has been prepared and kept ready.  There, the specimen is examined for flaws and signs of ill-health.  None are found.  It is weighed and its markings are recorded.  The clerks dive into the vast bookcases of catalogues, following themes of shape and hue in search of a match.  This is the most nerve-wracking time for Polain.  All he can do is wait impatiently for word to come that his venture has been in vain.  It is too late to breed another with it in the hope that a similar but unique creature will result.  And the chances are vanishingly small that another will be born in the one day remaining.  It is either this butterfly or none at all.

The night passes sleeplessly.  Still no word comes.  He joins the clerks at dawn to supervise their work and promises them substantial bonuses if they work without rest until they are satisfied.  Midday comes, and the queen's departure is only hours away.  One of the clerks declares in exhaustion that he is sure that, judging by the shape of its wings, the butterfly is unique.  Polain sends him home, relieved to a small degree but still anxious.  Two hours pass, and another clerk, specialising in abdominal markings, similarly declares satisfaction.  She too is dismissed with thanks.  The third and fourth clerks--wing markings and head/limb composition--are certain by five o'clock that their work is done.  Only then does Polain begin to feel anything like joy.  These two clerks are sent home with smiles and a shot of liquor burning in their bellies.  Just one remains, an elderly man specialising in the relatively small field of antennae.

With just two hours left, Polain hurries about the business of preparing the butterfly in its presentation jar, dressing himself in his finest suit and composing a short speech of thanks--to the queen, for accepting the gift, and to the people of the city, for buying his butterflies in the past and permitting him the indulgence of his vocation.  Without them, he might have been a street-sweeper or postman or something as insignificant.  Instead, his name will be known forever as the greatest butterfly breeder who ever lived.

As he puts the finishing touches to his bow-tie and his speech, a soft knock comes from the entrance to his chambers.  When he opens the door, he finds the elderly clerk waiting in the hallway outside.

"What?" Polain snaps, angered by the interruption to his train of thought.

"I'm sorry to bother you, Master Polain," says the clerk, "but I thought you should know immediately.  I've found a match."

Polain's heart freezes.  "No, that's impossible.  The others are satisfied, and I myself don't recall another butterfly like it.  How can it be?"

The elderly clerk holds a large book open in both hands.  He raises it as he explains: "I too thought I was certain until I happened across an obscure morphology in an old record--one of your own, sir, made before I joined you.  A tight, clockwise spiral not dissimilar to the one we have before us."  He indicates the glass-bound butterfly, which flaps its wings innocently.  "I followed the record backward, through several generations.  The chances were slim that I would find one with not just the same antennae but the same colouring, shape, legs and features--but I did, sir.  Here.  I'm sorry."

Polain looks down at the open book with something approaching horror.  There, sure enough, is a picture of a butterfly identical in every respect to the one in the jar.  A note in his own handwriting refers to its purchaser, a banker from a neighbouring province who had paid a fraction of its true worth many years ago, before Polain's name had become known.  The butterfly may have only lived a day or to in the hands of such an ignorant carer, but it had lived.  That is the important--and tragic--thing.  There is no escaping the fact.

"I'm sorry, sir," repeats the clerk.  "I can't imagine how you must feel."

"No," says Polain.  "You can't."  He takes the book from him and considers smashing it down upon the glass jar and its fragile occupant.  Such has his life become.  One hour remains until the presentation--until failure and ruin, public humiliation and mockery.  Despair fills him.

Or . . . need it be so?  Polain's mind seizes a possible solution.  Yes, an identical specimen had once existed, but who knew of it?  Its owner had been no-one in the butterfly world; such a man would never remember a token bought for a lover or mother so long ago--and even if he did, who would believe him?  The chances are exceeding slim that the butterfly itself has been preserved--and if it hasn't been, there is no evidence at all.  The remains would be nothing but dust, worn down by time.

Polain decides to present the second butterfly to the queen anyway--and accept the accolades of the crowd--confident in the knowledge that his deception will go undiscovered.

There is only one problem.

"What are you going to do now, sir?" asks the clerk.

Polain looks at him with cold calculation.  The record he can destroy as easily as tearing it from the book and throwing it in the fire.  But the clerk knows the truth, and he will not be easily bribed.  Money and prestige are not important to him.  A man obsessed with antennae associates only with those like him, when he associates at all.  He will let the secret out before long.  It is inevitable.  And who would miss a man with such an obscure fascination?

Polain resolves himself.  He has to get rid of the clerk, otherwise his plan, and his life, will come to ruination.  It is the only way.

So he does.  Polain kills the clerk and goes to the presentation.  The queen accepts the butterfly with a gracious smile and the crowd farewells him with a loud cheer--although neither matches his expectation.  The queen smiles far wider at the thought of going home, and the crowd cheers more for the fireworks and streamers than him.  Even his own heart, he must confess to himself, isn't really in it.  He is already planning how to dispose of the old clerk's body by burying it in the soil of the various glasshouses.

He leaves behind the gaily-coloured pennants and goes home to finish his work.  He dismisses the other clerks and the feeders to prevent his grisly deed being discovered.  He burns the treacherous record and catches up on his sleep.  Soon, he promises himself, he will be alone with his butterflies.  He will be content then.  Breeding has always been his first love, not the endless competition and cataloguing.  With no need of money, he will be happy for the rest of his life, once the unpleasantness is forgotten.

Life, however, is never so simple--then and now.  First, the clerk's body putrefies in the soil and emits a powerful stench.  No amount of perfume will hide it.  It fades only with time, and leaves behind an unexpected boon: patches of explosive growth, where the plants in the glasshouses have taken sustenance from the old man's decaying flesh.  The flowers are beautiful and large, and the butterflies seem to favour them over the others, so Polain is pleased enough.  But their association with his crime is not so easy to expunge, and he is ill at ease around the flowers.

Then the police call to ask him questions about the dead man.  The clerk's absence was noted after all, by a grand-daughter whose birthday he had never before missed.  Polain feigns innocence.  Yes, the last time he had seen the clerk was just before the queen's departure.  He had worked all his staff hard in the days leading up to the presentation.  Perhaps the clerk had worked too hard and had a heart-attack on the way home.  Is it so unlikely that the body of an unidentified old man might go unnoticed by the medical system?

His evasion doesn't entirely satisfy the police, but they leave him alone; they have after all no firm evidence to suspect him, and no motive.  Still, Polain's conscience is troubled, and will not let him rest.  That night he dreams that the queen has rejected his gift and returns it to him with a disgusted expression on her face.  He looks down into the crystal jar and sees a spider swimming in a puddle of blood, trying to escape.

He wakes screaming and goes down to the glasshouses, seeking solace.  A new generation of butterflies is being born, slipping from their pupae and inflating like balloons.  He watches in awe: their colourings are striking, their patterns unique.  All of them have the same corkscrew, orange-yellow antennae of the butterfly the dead clerk identified.  It seems almost like a tribute to the clerk, as though somehow his essence has been leeched into the soil from his body, fed the plants upon which the caterpillars ate, and reached a strange expression in the resulting insects.

Polain shivers, unnerved by the thought, and tells himself not to be a fool.  He has never been superstitious.  Why start now?  It is just a coincidence.

He watches them for hours, hypnotised by their seemingly aimless motion.  They are very beautiful creatures, with their angular markings of silver on blue that hint at familiarity but never reveal themselves.  Every glimpse of every wing trembles on the brink of recognition, but never allows itself to be known.

A bell rings late in the afternoon, and he stirs himself to answer the door.  The police are back with more inquiries.  They want to inspect the grounds, and even though they do not have a warrant, Polain lets them.  To deny them access would only make them suspicious, and the chances of them uncovering anything are slim.  The stench of decay is long gone.  Without digging, they will find nothing but flowers and butterflies.

Only as he shows the policemen the glasshouses does he realise what the patterns on the new breed remind him of.  Before he was too close to them.  From a distance he can see that each marking is a letter, drawn in the minuscule, reflective scales of the butterfly's wing.  As they fly by, they spell gibberish through the air, meaningless jumbles of consonants and vowels that distract him from what a policeman is asking him.

The policeman repeats his question, and Polain snaps himself out of his reverie to answer.  What does he care that none of his neighbours saw the elderly clerk leave that fateful evening?  He had more important things to worry about--and besides, they were all jealous of his success, or spies for his competitors.  He would expect them to incriminate him whenever possible.  And why would he lie?  He has a reputation, and a very successful business to maintain.

Even as he says this, though, a swarm of butterflies lands in a line on a branch behind the policemen and spells out the words: "NEMDO.  CONFESS."

Polain stammers to a halt.  "Nemdo" was the name of the dead clerk.  Noticing his fixed stare over their shoulders, the policemen turn to see, but their motion startles the butterflies.  They fly away to another branch, where this time they just spell "CONFESS", once again out of sight of the policemen.

Polain suppresses an angry snarl.  He knows what the butterflies are trying to do.  They want him to own up for the crime.  But he won't.  He has no reason to.  It is over, finished.  The clerk was old, anyway, and near the end of his life.  What had he to live for?  The policemen are only tying up loose ends, and can't seriously be concerned for a lost geriatric.

Still, "CONFESS" say the butterflies, waving their wings at him and twitching their antennae.

He picks up a rock from the dirt floor and throws it at them.  The rock scatters them, and sails through the glass behind them with a loud smash.

If the policemen are unnerved by that, there's worse to come.  As a cloud of butterflies sail out through the hole, the policemen press Polain for an explanation of his bizarre behaviour.  It's nothing, he stammers.  Nothing but reasonable distress at being interrogated in such an unseemly fashion.  Who are they to insinuate that he is lying, that he knows something about this absent octogenarian?  It's none of his business, or theirs, and they should leave immediately.

But even as he speaks, the cloud of butterflies that escaped through the hole have not flown away to freedom.  Instead, they settle on the roof of the glasshouse and proceed to spell out a simgle word in shadows against the sunlight.

"CONFESS!" they cry.

Polain staggers backward, shielding his eyes from the sight.  Alarmed, the policemen back away as the deranged butterfly breeder trips over a protruding stem and falls into a patch of enormous flowers.  Butterflies go everywhere in a panic, filling the air with dark blue and silver flashes.

Polain sees them all around him, in clumps and flocks, tormenting him.  "NEMDO" exclaims one group; "CONFESS" yet another.  His guilt presses in upon him, suffocating him.  Keening, he clutches at the soil for a stick to arm himself with and swings at his tormentors.  Swarms of butterflies part before him, sending fragmentary "EMD"s and "ONF"s and other syllables in all directions.  But they always regroup, no matter how he batters them.  Broken wings fall out of the air and soft bodies squash against stiff branches.  His hair becomes entangled with broken antennae and legs.  His eyes sting with butterfly blood until he can no longer see--and the fight goes out of him like air from a punctured ball.

And so the police find him, clutching the trunk of tree, bespattered with the crushed carcasses of his former wards, his mind broken and his life in tatters.

And so his story comes to an end, more or less.  The world has moved on by the time the disgraced butterfly merchant sees trial before a judge.  His sentence is not recorded, although it is told that his beloved city forgot him and his butterflies in short order, finding new heroes to glorify and new villains to condemn, new fads to fancy.

But for some, the story of Polain never ends.  It echoes through time even now, in our very different world, as a warning against greed and obsession.  And it leaves us with a lesser story buried in its midst, that of the unintended victim: not Polain, who loses everything in pursuit of one final triumph, or Nemdo, whose life holds only his beloved butterfly antenna and whose reward for diligence is nothing but a violent death--but Nemdo's grand-daughter, the girl whose birthday the elderly clerk missed.  Thrust into the spotlight of grief by another man's greed, caught up in tale of deception and self-destruction, she cares little for butterflies.

All she wants is her grandfather back.


This story originally appeared in Agog! Terrific Tales.