The bedroom was illuminated only by a clouded Apollo in a silver cage. At a glance, Anja could identify a number of unusual things about this creature. For one, the fact that it was glowing at all, a flame of blue indignation licking at the dusty darkness. Not only that, the colour of its light was all wrong. While its wings were translucent, as all Parnassius mnemosyne are supposed to be, their bright cerulean colour had no right to exist in the taxonomical order of things. The butterfly had an unusually large wingspan of four inches or so, and its every movement sounded like dry skin being caressed by a steel grater. Anja was no lepidopterologist, but the sight and the sound of this insect made her feel sick to her stomach.
Beside the cage, a girl slept, her limbs strapped tightly into the bedframe. Her smooth face was devoid of any discernible emotion.
‘Do you think she is dreaming?’ Elena whispered.
‘I doubt it’, Anja said. ‘It seems that Dr. Sian was correct. This butterfly is a dream-parasite, latching onto your sister as she sleeps.’ She tried to keep her eyes trained on the cerulean butterfly but couldn’t help glancing at Elena, whose beauty was an entirely unneeded distraction. She was an aristocrat and looked the part, but in place of the haughtiness Anja had often observed in her peers, there was an endearing vulnerability to her manner. Perhaps it was simply because Anja had met her in a time of distress. In any case, sympathy for rich clients was never a welcome feeling. Anja tried very hard to not think about grabbing Elena by her chignon bun and shoving her up against the wall. She wanted to taste blue blood. ‘I will know more when the night is over. You should go get some rest, Miss’.
Elena was expressionless. She was either unable to read the hunger flickering in Anja’s eyes, or too distracted by concern for her sister. She nodded tightly and said: ‘I will see you in the morning. Please be careful.’
The door clicked shut, and Anja felt she was sharing the room with one other entity. The sleeping girl had no presence of her own, completely dispossessed of her body. Under the thick blankets and the white fabric of her nightdress, her ribcage rose and fell in a steady pace, but her face remained unnaturally blank.
As Anja took a step closer to the bed and the cage, she was met by a frantic rustle of gossamer wings, a sigh lamenting her approach.
What are you feeding off her?
Lydia’s face provided no clues. She looked perfectly unharmed, just like any nine-year-old huddled under the cover of soft blankets and the night, save for the leather straps peeking through the four corners of the bed. The straps seemed excessively sturdy for securing such a small frame; at least they were not bound particularly tightly, or Anja would have worried the older sister must be a sadist. This must be the bedtime routine she learned from Dr. Sian. Of her predecessor’s time in the manor, she only had images half-formed from the ink of Elena’s long rambling letter.
‘Dear Miss Sang
I have read in the newspaper that you are one of the best healers in the whole country & I am desperate to find specialist assistance for my little sister Lydia. You are the second person I am begging for help. The first person was a spirit doctor of excellent repute. Thanks to her I know that some kind of a malevolent spell has been cast on my sister – but last night they disappeared, for ever, I fear.
Forgive me: I may have started from the wrong place. The problem is a butterfly.
Soon after the autumn equinox I went into Lydia’s room to read her a bedtime story like I do every night, and I could see something was strange the moment I opened the door. Lydia is not a heavy sleeper. On the contrary, she is always tossing and turning and refusing to keep her head down on the pillow at any sensible hour. I have been like a mother to her for years, so I must have spent months of my life trying to convince her to stay in bed. Never have I ever gone into her room at nine in the evening to see her already deep asleep. I was more shocked by that than the sight of the butterfly. In that moment, I still innocently thought it was a harmless little creature.
The room was dark, save from the single candle I was holding, but there was a strange blue light reflecting off Lydia’s face. I took another look and saw it was a large blue butterfly that kept hovering over my sister’s forehead. I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was the end of summer, and lots of insects big and small seek shelter inside people’s houses. We live in an old drafty manor, which is paradise for spiders and centipedes and all sorts of creatures.
I was more concerned by Lydia’s face, because it was smooth like the surface of a papirovka apple, when usually she’d always be frowning or smiling or twitching in some way or another. Suddenly she looked empty. I thought she must have went down with a cold or something, so I didn’t even try to wake her up for another reading of the Metamorphoses. In the morning she seemed fine, getting marmalade and toast crumbs all over her school books. There was nothing strange about her.
Only in the evening I went to her room and the butterfly was there again, swaying close to her face as though it were trying to kiss her eyelids. Perhaps it was trying to suck her eyes away through the thin skin, better see what’s on her mind. I tried to swat it away. At that moment Lydia’s mouth opened and it was very, very black. There were thousands of small moths spilling out, a great silent cloud filling the room with a new kind of darkness. I thought I must be seeing a nightmare, but I dug my nails into my arm blindly – I couldn’t even see down my own body from the mass of moths – and pinched again and again and it did nothing. I was sure we were both going to be suffocated by the creatures, but just as suddenly their shadows disintegrated on the wall and they were gone, as if they had never existed.
That night I went back to my room and didn’t sleep a wink. I wrote to Dr. Lucille Sian (I am certain you know of her), the famous spiritualist who exorcised the Empress’ youngest daughter during the war. She agreed to come help us and arrived after three more sleepless nights. Lydia kept having seizures spitting out these deafening moths. Dr. Sian taught me to strap her down to the bed to keep her from thrashing so much. She trapped the butterfly in a spell-bound cage and verified the nature of the curse. Now she is gone and it’s night again. If you are able to travel please come soon I am waiting sleeplessly
Anja did know of Dr. Sian. They had spent a white night together, long ago, before the war. She was a magical genius and a maddening lover. Traces of her black lipstick and the jagged edges of her teeth had remained beneath Anja’s collarbone for a fortnight, but she never responded to her letters. During the war years, Dr. Sian became something of a household name, celebrated even in families that had nothing to do with magic. She’d made a scene wherever she went, dressed in technicolour, utterly defiant in the face of state efforts to coerce spell-casters underground. It seemed absurd that she would have been extinguished by a little parasite like this.
‘I entered Lydia’s room and there was something on the floor – a puddle of matter that seemed out of place. It was glowing in the darkness, and I could feel something fading away’, Elena had told her that afternoon, low and hushed in the empty dining hall. ‘There were moths crawling all over the floor, moving in a way I’ve never seen moths move before. The stain went ink-black and lightless.’
The demise of a more experienced predecessor was hardly a good omen. Even so, as she stood in the waiting-room stillness observing the butterfly, Anja felt light. This was more beautiful than most of the cases she had worked on after the war, and much less depressing. The month before, she had watched ninety children burn to death in a rundown boarding school.
After a fortnight of minor hauntings, the ghost – a soldier, executed without trial, in love with his own indignation – had abruptly closed off all entrances to the school and filled its labyrinthine corridors with fire. Only then did the drunk headmistress send her secretary running down to the magistrate to telephone Anja. It had been much too late. Children are fragile against fire and anger. They should have invited her at the first sign of something being awry, the strange clicking sounds within the walls, the unplaceable smells of putrefaction wafting through the pipes. Military ghosts are infamous for blowing up fast when they do. In the end, only three scrawny children who had managed to cram themselves into a blocked-off chimney had survived. All the times she had felt powerless during the war had not been enough to prepare Anja for what she saw as she entered the grounds. A mirage of yellow skies rippling with heat, a charred carcass of black ash collapsing in on itself, an overwhelming certainty of loss. She had tumbled down and scraped her knees on hard gravel, transfixed by the glowing flames and the presence of so much death. It had been nothing but a clean-up job, really. After using up all his anger, the soldier had faded away as effortlessly as a receding tide. Anja might have spent her whole life practicing incantations and exorcisions, but all there was for her to do was to bury heaps of small bones and purify whatever tatters were left of their weak souls.
The bitterness of that memory still clouded her mind in idle moments. Yet standing in this bedroom with its lace curtains and floral tapestries, possibly in the very spot where someone she once made love to had met her demise, she felt inexplicably indifferent. As Anja had entered the wrought-iron gates of the manor that afternoon, she had been struck by how tranquil it all was, a self-contained little paradise these two siblings shared.
‘Our father was a baron’, Elena had mentioned, matter-of-fact, while serving her afternoon tea. ‘He passed away when we were very young. I can only remember shiny shoes and the tingle of his beard against my cheek. I think he used to be quite strict, but after he was gone, we were always roaming the grounds and making a racket like a pair of willow warblers. Mother looked after us, but she didn’t really care what we were up to.’
‘Is she not here?’
‘She sort of withered away last summer. She was always ill, in some way or another. Had bad nerves.’
‘That must have been difficult.’
‘We were used to her being only half here. It turned out not to be a vast difference, really, her being fully there. Wherever that is. I don’t know if I believe in heavens. Do you, miss?’
‘The boundary between here and there is much more porous than people these days tend to think. In my profession, it would be difficult not to arrive at that conclusion.’
‘I suppose so’, Elena had conceded, sucking on her index finger in deep thought that lasted only for a heartbeat or so. There was no light of understanding in her pretty eyes.
Save for some noteworthy misfortunes, the siblings’ lives had been impossibly sweet. As Anja looked down at Lydia’s soft sleeping face, she couldn’t stop memories of torn-apart children from floating up, forming an almost perfect contrast. Only half a dozen of the children who burned to death in August had any relatives left to inform, as the school had been taking in war orphans with nothing to their name. Even if this girl were to perish of her curse, she has already absorbed so much love and care, like a plump little sunflower.
If I were to die, would anyone grieve for me? Would I want them to?
Suddenly there was a sound – the creak of a jawbone pushed near the point of dislodgement. Lydia’s eyes were closed, but her mouth had opened impossibly wide, the bow of her lips stretched thin and white. For a heartbeat, nothing happened, but Anja knew what was coming. She might have been something of a fatalist, but she didn’t have a death wish. There was a neatly drawn talisman in the pocket of her skirt, ready to be pulled out as soon as she heard that peculiar sound.
Anja watched a flurry of black moths pour out of the sleeping girl’s mouth, flitting noiselessly across the room. She held the spell close to her chest, and the insects avoided her. Contrary to her expectations, there was no malevolence within the moths. They seemed to be simply existing in the air, not consuming or emanating anything at all. If there was no hunger in them, why the killing?
On an impulse, Anja stuck her right hand into the teeming mass of moths. It was like pointing a flashlight into a cluster of shadows. With no resistance, the insects dissipated into nothingness. It was wrong; the curse should not have been this weak. She had been prepared to fight tooth and nail against curse proxies, not observe a dance of formless beings.
Still holding on to the talisman strip, Anja placed her fingers on the clasp of the cage. The butterfly was completely still, frozen in air. There was only one way to find out what it would do with liberty. Anja undid the latch and pulled the tiny door open. At first, the butterfly hesitated, retreating further into its prison. Anja held her breath, and eventually the blue Apollo crossed the threshold into the room. Lydia choked on her breath, but only for a fraction of a second; she did not wake up. Instead of hovering over her face, the butterfly flitted straight to the door. Anja was closely behind, letting it out into the dark corridor. She shadowed the odd little will o’wisp that kept waiting for her at every turn. They ended up at the heavy outer door of the manor, illustrated with grandiose woodcut patterns. The night outside was heaving with the expectation of something that was inevitable, now. All Anja could do was to follow.
The blue light cut a path through the garden, leading Anja to a weeping willow she had noticed earlier in the day. It was an enormous tree with ashy, disease-ridden bark. In the darkness, it looked beautiful, radiating a light that echoed that of the butterfly.
Anja knew what she had to do. The faint glow of the tree was enough for her to draw a matter-displacing talisman. She stuck it on to the bark and watched the soil beneath carve a deep pit unto itself.
The smell was horrid, yet there was something almost pleasant in its familiarity. Anja did not have to lower her gaze to know there were corpses under the tree, their putrefaction feeding its roots with disease. Her sense of smell wasn’t refined enough to know whose bodies these were, however. As she looked at their faces, she couldn’t stop her stomach from falling painfully. There were two bodies propped against each other in a sitting position, shoulder to shoulder. One was much smaller than the other, and it wore Lydia’s face – or half of it, as the left cheek had already rotted away. The dead woman beside her was much older. The arcs of their eyebrows and noses were identical.
The door of the manor opened with a bellowing sound, and a procession of black butterflies flew out into the garden. Anja stood frozen in place, watching them approach and encircle the weeping willow. She pulled a paper knife out of her pocket and etched a spell of protection on the bark, but the butterflies only drew closer. Unlike the moths, they were not quiet. Their song was the low drone of a funeral march. In the blink of an eye, they formed a tight cluster around the blue Apollo, blocking out its light and, with a wet lurching sound, swallowing it whole.
Anja turned around to see Elena standing at the top of the stairs. Her eyes were lakes of mercury, glowing with a translucent danger. She was beautiful.
‘Could you at least kill me with a kiss?’ Anja asked, burning with the twin shames of deception and desire.
— K.S. is a researcher and writer currently based in London. Her work is published or forthcoming in The Hungry Ghost, Sledgehammer, Babel Tower Noticeboard, and elsewhere. Her debut book of prose and poetry is forthcoming from Feral Dove.