Grieving of the Butterflies
Spencer Pardew whistled as he paced along the picturesque and tranquil harbour road. The morning sun heralded another fine July day, and the thirty-five year old teacher was a content man indeed. He and his wife, Jill had recently purchased a cottage in Whitby, after agreeing to sell their home in Loftus. The two teachers had found employment in a local primary school; the circumstances prompting their decision.
Whist Jill was in the process of decorating the riverside cottage, Spencer had opted to visit the local market, which was situated at the foot of the abbey steps. He breathed in deeply, and the bracing sea air filled his lungs. The squawking seagulls foraged for food and titbits that had been left by the early morning fishermen.
Spencer mingled with the locals and holidaymakers, who had risen early to search for a bargain. After purchasing fresh fruit and vegetables, Spencer was attracted towards a bric-a-brac stall. His unblinking eyes focused on two oil paintings. The first was of a young, unsmiling medieval boy, who wore a brown floral gown, black hose, and pointed shoes. His hair was cut in a pudding basin style. The second was of a girl, who bore a striking resemblance to the boy. She wore a green, laced-up gown. Her hair was worn loose and was covered by a black French hood. She too showed no sign of merriment.
“Lovely portraits, aren’t they, mate?” insisted the stall holder.
Spencer examined them closely, but was unable to see a signature. “They’re prints I gather?”
“I bleeding hope so, mate, or I wouldn’t be letting them go for forty quid each.”
The teacher tried to imagine them on the walls of his cottage. Even though he could not afford to purchase them both, he deemed it sacrilege to split them; after all, the children surely were brother and sister.
“I’ll give you twenty each for them.”
The stallholder chuckled. “You having a laugh, mate?”
Spencer removed forty pounds from his wallet. “Prints, you said. Take it or leave it.”
Jill was sitting out on the balcony and sipping a cup of tea when Spencer arrived home. The odour of paint compelled him to join his wife. He kissed her, before he gazed out onto the river.
“I’ve a surprise for you,” he gloated.
“Not more flowers. We’ve enough blooms to…”
“No, not flowers. Close your eyes, Jill.” Spencer returned indoors to fetch the paintings. He placed them against the railings of the balcony and smiled. “Okay, you can look.”
Jill did not seem too impressed. She cocked her head to one side and then to the other. “Paintings? You’ve been on one of your bargain hunts I see.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“Honestly? I think they’re grotesque and have no place in our modern new home.”
Spencer shrugged. “I’d hardly call it modern. They’ll look great either side of the fireplace.”
Jill moved towards the prints and picked one up. She examined it closely, but still she was not convinced. “So, who are they?”
“How should I know. They’re obviously French though, and if I’m not mistaken, they’re posing in some palace. When I see old Keller, I’ll ask him if he recognises them.”
“Miserable pair, aren’t they?” moaned Jill. “I just don’t see the charm in them. Whatever attracted you to them?”
Spencer did not respond. He was unsure why he had been fascinated by the prints. It was as if they demanded he gave them a new home.
The couple had retired to bed, leaving open the windows and the patio doors, in order to circulate some much-needed ventilation into the cottage. The fumes from the painted walls and the incessant humidity of the night ensured that Spencer’s slumber would be intermittent. He looked across at his wife and was envious that she could sleep so soundly. He glanced at the clock to see it was three-fifteen.
After leaving the bedroom, Spencer strolled towards the balcony. He lit a cigarette and slouched in a wicker chair, gazing out onto the moonlit, serene town. The vibrant lights and the moonlight reflected off the calm surface of the river and seemed to pacify Spencer.
A butterfly landed on the railing of the balcony. Spencer was curious. Never before had he seen a butterfly during the night. He edged closer, believing the creature was probably a moth. Another landed close by, and then another. Spencer stepped back, and watched as hundreds of butterflies massed on his balcony; most of the colourful creatures fluttering aimlessly.
He stepped inside and immediately closed the patio doors. He was not afraid of the harmless insects, but the incredible phenomena prompted his departure. He had heard before of unusual acts concerning creatures. He recalled reading the story of fish and frogs falling from the sky, and strong gusts of winds were offered as a possible cause. This however defied explanation. Could global warning have prompted such an unusual occurrence?
Several of the butterflies slammed against his glass door, before hovering towards the ground. Spencer noticed the sudden drop in temperature. In fact, it was so cold that his breath was visible. He proceeded to hastily close all of his windows, his hands numbed by the coldness of the room. He could still hear the butterflies crashing against the patio doors, but felt so helpless.
He strode towards the carnage and hesitated. Silhouetted against the patio door was a dark shape. Spencer rubbed his eyes in disbelief, his teeth chattering uncontrollably.
“Jill? Is that you, darling?”
He realised whoever was now looking out at the butterflies was not a woman, but a child. The girl, who must have been about ten years old turned to face Spencer. He smiled insecurely, and noticed that the small, unsmiling girl wore identical clothing to the mite in the print. Spencer was sceptical about ghosts and spirits, but now he was certain he had encountered one for real. He rubbed his freezing hands together, wondering if he was indeed dreaming.
The sad-looking girl advanced towards him; her feet invisible beneath her long, green gown. Her black hood gave the appearance she was in mourning. He could now see her chalk-white face clearly. Her eyes were black and her lips purple.
Spencer felt a movement within his bowels, and fought to retain his dignity. “Who are you?” he whispered, his words accompanied by a cloud of vapour.
The girl, who was now weeping, opened her mouth to speak. “Pouvez-vous aider mes papillons?”
Spencer had a fair understanding of French, but this girl’s dialect was strange. “You want me to help your butterflies?” He realised how absurd he was being, given that the girl could not probably understand him.
The girl did not respond. She turned and pointed towards the patio doors.
“How? I mean, what can I do?”
The girl moved even closer. Spencer could now detect the aroma of jasmine. He was tempted to hold the girl, but her fragile body seemed translucent.
The girl looked up to Spencer and spoke once more. “Mon frere va nuire a mes papillions.”
Spencer picked up on the words brother and butterflies, but was unable to understand her fully.
The girl bypassed Spencer and advanced towards the lounge, where the prints were. As she left, she raised her voice. “Svp, vous devez l`arreter!”
The startled teacher now noticed that the butterflies had ceased hammering against the patio door. He approached it to see they had gone. He looked down and noticed no evidence of the dead insects, which had perished in their quest to breach the fortified glass. Spencer reluctantly walked towards the lounge, and noticed the temperature was back to normal. He gazed at the prints nestled on the coffee table and picked up the one that portrayed the girl. He squinted, noticing a butterfly fluttering at her shoulder. Why had he not noticed this before?
Spencer, when he retired to his bedroom, could not help but feel despondency after his haunting experience. Tomorrow, he would investigate the mysterious prints.
As arranged, Spencer, clad in a tee shirt and shorts, arrived at the Shambles public house at noon. He ordered his beer and spotted his colleague, who was sat outside on the balcony. Barry Keller was an art teacher and an authority on past masters and old paintings. The sixty-three year old man donned a scruffy corduroy jacket, complete with elbow patches, even though the sun outside was blazing. The art master rose to greet his colleague, his wavy grey hair dishevelled and his spectacles resting on his red bulbous nose. The two exchanged handshakes before they took their seats.
Every seat outside the pub had been taken; the revellers looking out onto the port of Whitby, viewing the pleasure cruise ships, fishing boats and the Goths, who would often converge on the historic town. The aroma of fresh fish that wafted from the boats was evident, yet not unpleasant. A calm breeze refreshed the afternoon drinkers, the hot sun bronzing their faces.
“So, Spencer; why have you beckoned me here on this fine day? Without trying to sound disrespectful, you don’t usually request my company unless you’re after something… How is that lovely wife of yours?”
“Jill, she’s fine. She’s obsessed with decorating our cottage… You’re right, Barry; I require your knowledge.” Spencer removed the photographs from his pocket. “Do you recognise these portraits?”
The veteran teacher adjusted his age-old spectacles and examined the snapshots. “You’ve acquired these paintings?”
“Prints, yes… Well, do you recognise them?”
Keller swallowed a mouthful of his cider and pondered. “Yes, I recognise them. Fifteenth century painting by a mostly unknown artist, Jules Legrand. The paintings as far as we can determine, were of his son and daughter. Legrand was believed to be a nobleman, but nobody as yet has been able to learn much about him.”
“So, how do you know he was a nobleman?”
“Look at the pictures, man. If that was his home, then he most have been a very wealthy man indeed. Anyway, what I’m about to tell you is not pleasant… In the seventies, there was a horrendous house fire somewhere in Surrey. The family, a woman and her two sons perished. The husband, who was at work survived. When the fire had been extinguished, one of the firemen discovered the paintings, hanging on the wall and untouched. Everything else around them was burnt to cinders. Within a five-year period, there were several more fires. In total, I believe there were eight. There were similar circumstances, in which each household owned copies of the paintings. Twenty-six people were burnt to death, and the paintings were found to be intact.”
Spencer was in a state of shock. His eyes focused on the soaring seagulls, which reminded him of the butterflies. He was about to confide in his friend about his experience, when Keller continued.
“One of the main tabloids ran a story about the supposed cursed portraits. One of the journalists, I forget his name, invited everyone who possessed copies of the paintings to meet at a location in Stonehenge. There, a mass bonfire was built and the copies of the paintings burnt. Since then, I’ve not heard of any occurrences. It was believed that every print was destroyed.”
“Barry; what is the significance of the butterfly above the girl’s shoulder?”
“I was coming to that. After hearing about the supposed curse, a French historian contacted the newspaper and told them the girl in the painting, Mary, collected butterflies and kept hundreds of them in a room. Her brother, Louis detested them, and allegedly set fire to the room. Of course, nobody believed the historian, for he was unable to give locations, dates, or even anything about the artist… Spencer, you must get rid of the prints. Even though I’m not a superstitious man, it is better to be careful when it comes to loved ones.”
Spencer pondered. The pleading girl now made sense. Was she asking him to stop her brother from burning her butterflies? He was tempted now to confide in Keller, but felt that to tell about Mary would be an act of betrayal. A colourful butterfly landed on the rim of Spencer’s glass, and that event made up his mind. Perhaps burning the prints would release Mary from her torment.
“Barry, did any of these survivors mention anything unusual before the fire?”
Keller noticed the butterfly and smiled. “Unusual? Such as?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Spencer strode along the cobblestone road towards his cottage, his mind in turmoil. To destroy the prints would surely allow Mary to rest in peace. But why had nobody else seen the ghostly girl? Spencer suspected he already knew the answer.
His heart skipped a beat when he heard the sound of sirens approaching. He sniffed that air, and the odour of burning reached his nostrils. The sight of black smoke spiralling from his cottage confirmed his fears. He sprinted towards the blaze and barged past the bystanders, who were watching the spectacle. On attempting to go inside the cottage, a policeman seized him and manoeuvred him away from the danger.
“Jill! My wife, Jill! She’s inside.”
Spencer slumped on a nearby bench, ignorant of the fact that Barry Keller had joined him. A butterfly rested on the arm of the bench and Spencer angrily swatted it away.
“Spencer, I’m sorry.”
The distraught schoolteacher turned towards Keller. “Sorry. For what? I was the one who brought those cursed prints into our home. Jill pleaded with me to get rid of them, but no. I ignored her pleas and now she’s…”
“You don’t know that yet,” said Keller, placing a consoling hand on his friend’s shoulder.
The firemen battled the blaze for around thirty minutes, before they overcame it. The cottage was completely gutted. One of the firemen emerged from the cottage with something under his arm. Spencer left the bench and strode swiftly towards him.
“I think they belong to me.”
The fireman passed the prints over. “This was your cottage?”
“I’m sorry, sir. We tried all we could, but the fire was too fierce. Nobody could have survived such an inferno.”
“But they did,” moaned Spencer, pointing to the prints that were now being examined by Keller.
Spencer watched as his wife’s body was removed from the ashes. He wept openly, his anger great. He turned towards Keller, who was still studying the prints. The grieving man removed his lighter from his pocket, and ignored the policewoman who attempted to comfort him. “Burn them, Barry! Burn the evil things!”
Keller seemed stunned when he faced his colleague. “Spencer, these are no copies. These are original oil paintings. I know this is an inappropriate moment, but these could be worth a fortune.”
“I know. I knew all along it was the original.”
“But how? I mean…”
Spencer strode towards his car, oblivious to the medics and police officers who were insisting that he went to hospital. He tossed the paintings into his boot and clambered into the driver’s seat. He drove away speedily, , his haste apparent.
He crossed the swing bridge and noticed that several of the tourists were pointing towards him. Spencer eyed the multitude of colourful butterflies shrouding his car. How could such beautiful creatures be associated with evil?
After reaching a garage, Spencer left his vehicle and fought his way through the swarm of butterflies. He went inside the kiosk and made his purchase before he drove towards the moors. Still accompanied by the butterflies, Spencer steered his vehicle across an isolated field. He braked and rushed towards the boot of his car, his newly purchased can of petrol in his hand. He opened up the boot and sneered at the valuable paintings. He placed them on the arid turf and focused on the face of Mary. Perhaps it was an optical illusion, but she seemed to smile at him.
He again ignored the fluttering butterflies and proceeded to soak the paintings with petrol. He flicked his lighter and held the flame above the paintings. "I'm so sorry, Mary, he sobbed. He ignited the petrol and the paintings burnt fiercly, sending a spiral of dense smoke into atmosphere. He fell to his knees and cried, unsure if the tears were for his wife, or for the lost soul, Mary.
Spencer looked towards the sky to see the butterflies soaring higher and higher, as if they were escorting their mistress to the gates of heaven. Mary was free at last.