The Purple Butterfly

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Tell A Tale
The Purple Butterfly is R J Dent's short story about finding subjects for poetry in times of uncertainty.

Submitted: April 16, 2016

A A A | A A A

Submitted: April 16, 2016



The Purple Butterfly

by R J Dent



The whole class looked at the diagram drawn on the board.

"Do you recognise it?" Mr Knott asked.

A few hands shot up. A few stragglers followed.

"Yes, Katrina?"

At the mention of a name, the other hands went down, ready to spring up again should Katrina answer such an easy question wrongly.

"It's a butterfly, sir," said Katrina.

"Yes, it is. Well done." From behind his desk, Mr Knott helped the class make the connection with the previous lesson.

"How many of you remembered to bring your butterfly-catching equipment with you?"

About two thirds of the class put their hands up. It was approximately the number Mr Knott had expected – and had prepared for.

"The reason I asked is because it's a beautiful day and I think we should all go out and try to find some butterflies, don't you?"

There was a chorus of unrestrained approval. At the back of the classroom, Marvin and his four cronies – Ralph, John, Nigel and Nabil – exchanged glances. Going outside meant an easy lesson. Going outside meant no work. Going outside meant a crafty cigarette. Going outside meant a chance to beat up any boffs.

"Those of you who remembered to bring your equipment..." Mr Knott said loudly, which quelled the surge of noise. Immediately he started again, this time in a quieter tone.

"Those of you who remembered to bring your equipment, please get it ready, then leave the classroom in single file and stand just inside the school entrance. The rest of you without equipment, come with me."

The class complied immediately. Those with equipment got it ready and filed out reasonably quietly – there was however a definite buzzing undercurrent of excitement which meant that they were noisier than usual.

Marvin was one of the students who had remembered to bring his 'equipment'. It was in a sportsbag under his desk. He'd taken the trouble to bring it – and to remind his four cronies to remember theirs – because he'd seen a golden opportunity to wreak some havoc. At Mr Knott's words, he picked up the sportsbag, motioned for his cronies to follow his example, and quietly walked out of the classroom. The four Marvin acolytes followed, carrying their own sportsbags.

Outside the classroom, they huddled together, making plans for mayhem. Marvin unzipped his bag and showed the other four the contents. They whistled appreciatively.

The classroom door opened and they separated quickly, pasting innocent expressions onto their faces as Mr Knott passed them, followed by a line of students, which he lead to a store cupboard in the corridor. He unlocked the door and instructed the students to enter one at a time, select two items of equipment each, then join the line of students at the school entrance. Within minutes, all of the students were equipped with nets, notebooks, swatters, jars, or butterfly books, depending on their personalities.

Once the line was complete, Mr Knott locked the store cupboard, placed the key in his trouser pocket and walked to the head of the line of students. He opened the huge school door and walked outside into the sunshine.

"Follow me," he told his class. They moved forward eagerly. "No pushing," Mr Knott warned, without looking around. The pushing abated before it had gained any real momentum. He led the student crocodile across the playground, out of the school gates, along the pavement, around the corner, along a narrow pathway, and onto the school playing field. Then he stopped.

"As you can see," he said when all of the students had gathered around him, "the playing field has just been mowed, so how are butterflies going to find plants to land on?"

Rose put her hand up.

"Yes, Rose?"

"They'll land on the flowers around the edge of the field, sir."

"Yes they will. Well done." He looked around at the other students. "So, if you go to the edges of the playing field, you'll find hundreds of flowers, all of which attract butterflies. That's where you'll find them."

The class nodded as one, then turned, ready to move to the edges of the field.

"Before you go," Mr Knott said, stopping them in mid-dash, "I'm sure I don't have to remind you that if you do catch any, don't harm them. Just put them in your containers or nets and bring them back to the class with you. You have half an hour. Good luck."

He watched the class disperse in different directions, Marvin and friends heading for the furthest corner of the field, already passing cigarettes to each other. Mr Knott sighed softly, then dug into his jacket pocket and fished out his butterfly book. He flicked it open onto the British butterfly’s section and began his circumnavigation of the playing field, deliberately choosing to start in a corner that would leave Marvin and his merry men's corner until last. He knew it was a tacit form of encouraging them to continue smoking, but to do otherwise would involve them being deceptive to him, probably lying, and he'd rather have a few minutes of peace. Besides, if he caught them it would mean a visit to the principal for them, followed by detentions which he'd have to monitor – if they attended, that was.

Instead, he leafed through his book and walked slowly to the flower-infested corner of the field. There were six students spread out along the edge of the field; Sarah was moving clumsily towards a Large White, net at the ready; Gavin was swiping at the air, trying to net a Small Tortoiseshell. A Dark Green Fritillary was running – or rather flying – rings around Declan, and a Speckled Wood was dozing on a nettle, not yet seen by Callum.  Rose was alternating between studying her butterfly book and peering at a clump of Gypsywort, a favourite of the Brimstone, one of which was under a leaf near her chin. Yolanda was sure she had an Orange Tip in her net, which she'd just whacked onto the ground, so Mr Knott decided to let her find out for herself – and in her own time – that it was a discarded sweet wrapper. He murmured a few words of advice, designed to nudge the students towards success, and then moved on to the next group of students.

They were further up the field, grouped around several blackberry bushes. Kane was almost the proud netter of a Large Heath; Janet was very nearly treading on a slumbering Common Blue; Katrina had spotted a Comma; Teresa and her twin brother Michael were in joint hot pursuit of a very acrobatic Clouded Yellow. At the side of an overgrown Houndstongue, Maya was creeping up on a Green Hairstreak, net at the ready, eyes fixed intently on the unsuspecting butterfly. A few metres to her left, Steven was trying to coax a Swallowtail into his lunchbox, which still had half a sandwich in it.

"Come on, butterfly," he was saying in his most beguiling tone. "Have some of my sandwich."

Just behind him, staring at a nettle, was Nimisha, who was trying to identify the Wall Brown that was stretching its wings out, prior to taking to the air. Mr Knott offered them all a few quiet words of encouragement, and then moved on.

In the far corner, Marvin's friend Nigel saw Mr Knott approaching.

"Quick! Here he comes."

The five students dimped their cigarettes and stowed them in their pockets for relighting later. They got their notebooks out and made the pretence at looking for butterflies. Marvin unzipped his bag, ready to use his butterfly equipment.

Mr Knott gave them a little time to prepare then wandered over to them. Had they but known it, a Monarch was within thirty centimetres of Ralph; a Camberwell Beauty was resting on John's sportsbag, blending in with the bag's colour, perfectly camouflaged; Nigel could have turned his head and touched a Forester with his nose, and if he'd bothered to look, Marvin could have seen a Chalkhill Blue resting on the twig above his head. To his credit, Nabil had almost spotted a Grayling, but it was immobile, so would probably remain undetected.

As with the other students, Mr Knott offered them some words of advice, then gave encouragement. They murmured in response, deep in fake concentration, so he moved on.

There was one student left – Adam. He was on his own as usual. He was standing near to a clump of Saxifrage, writing something – probably a poem – in his notebook. Mr Knott had noticed in the classroom that Adam didn't have a net, and so had offered him one from the store cupboard. But Adam had politely refused, letting Mr Knott know that he, Adam, would learn a great deal from the nature lesson, as long as he didn't have to capture anything.

"Found anything, Adam?" Mr Knott asked softly. Adam still jumped.

"Not yet, sir," he said.

"Well, don't give up the good work, will you?"

Adam glanced down at his notebook, and then shook his head. "No sir."

Mr Knott smiled and moved on.

At that moment, on the other side of the playing field, a rare Purple Emperor, the Apatura iris, as it was known to lepidopterists everywhere, awoke from a morning of sun-drenched sleep. It stretched lazily, drank from a few droplets of water gathered on a nearby leaf, and then took to the warm air.

On the far side of the field, Marvin had just taken his loaded air pistol from his sportsbag and was showing it to his four followers.

"If I see anything flying towards me, I'm going to shoot it out of the air," he told his awed listeners. They nodded with alacrity.

"Some butterflies bite," Ralph said. "Better to shoot them than be bitten."

"Do they bite?" John asked.

"Some," Nabil said, uncertainly.

"Most do," Nigel added with conviction.

Back over the other side of the playing field, the Purple Emperor flew over the heads of Sarah, Gavin, Declan, Callum, Yolanda and Rose. Rose saw it and thought how beautiful and watched it fly gracefully by, too far up to catch. When it was a small speck in the distance, she wrote down its details; colour, size and markings, in her notebook, then opened her butterfly book to identify it. She found it quickly and copied the name Purple Emperor down in her notebook, above its details.

The rare butterfly continued its flight, flitting over the heads of Kane, Janet, the twins, Teresa and Michael, Steven and Nimisha. Katrina saw it and smiled at its grace. Maya saw it fly above her head and whispered "Hello, purple butterfly," as it flew on. She thought it was beautiful. That night she would dream about it.

The purple butterfly veered to one side, making its way across the open field. Marvin saw it coming. He pointed at it. His followers saw it.

"Here's one!" he hissed. He lifted his pistol and took aim. "It's as good as dead," he murmured.

"DON'T YOU DARE SHOOT IT!" a huge voice bellowed.

Marvin jumped in fright, scared he'd been caught out. He looked around, ready to lie to Mr Knott. The teacher was over on the other side of the field. Marvin turned his head and saw Adam staring at him. He relaxed. It was only the weirdo, upset about the little butterfly. He raised the pistol again.

"I mean it," Adam warned. "If you squeeze that trigger, I'll stick that pistol up your arse."

Ralph and John sniggered. Marvin flushed angrily. He turned the pistol on Adam.

"Oh yeah?"

Adam carefully put his notebook in his pocket and took a step forward.

"Yeah," he said confidently. He stared into Marvin's eyes.

Marvin was suddenly uncertain. He'd never had a confrontation with Adam before. This was unknown territory. Adam was never around to bully, so he was – for Marvin – an unknown element. He obviously wasn't afraid of Marvin, like some of the others in the class. Even now, with the pistol pointing at him, he didn't seem at all worried. It was as though he had something in reserve – some hidden ability that Marvin knew nothing about. Marvin decided not to risk finding out what it was, but couldn't resist a bluff.

"Going to do it to all of us, are you?" he asked evenly, keeping his doubts out of his voice. He felt his four followers group around him, and he grew a little more confident.

Adam's gaze had bothered him a little; suddenly it scared him, for it blazed with a harsh burning light he'd never seen in another human being. It was a light of totally unafraid and fast-raging rightness. It emanated out of Adam's eyes like a metal spear, stabbing Marvin in the heart, the brain, the stomach and the genitals.

"No," Adam said softly. "Not all of you – just you, Marvin. Just you."

Marvin felt his sphincter tighten with fear. He'd told – and been told – enough lies in his life to know the truth when he heard it for the first time – and it scared him. He turned, bumped into Nigel, pushed him out the way angrily, dropped the useless pistol into his bag, picked up the bag and charged across the field, looking for someone on whom to vent his anger. The others followed uncertainly.

Mr Knott, who'd seen the stand-off, but had known with certainty that Adam could handle it, moved forward to head Marvin and his not-so-merry men off at the pass. Giving them a harmless task, like a stint of note-taking would defuse the situation for now.

Back over the other side of the playing field, Adam turned and went back to his standing place by the Yellow Saxifrage. He had been writing a poem about its rock-breaking abilities. It was really a poem about the power of poetry. He had nearly finished. He would have finished if he hadn't been interupted. He took his notebook out of his pocket and opened it onto the page he'd been writing on. He took his pencil out of his shirt pocket and held it ready to write the coda – the final line that would contain the logical conclusion to the rest of the poem.

Something landed lightly on the poem.

This time he didn't jump; this time he stood perfectly still, looking in wonder at the Apatura iris as it raised and lowered its wings in readiness for its continued flight.

Adam examined the nearly-stationary butterfly carefully. Delicate yet strong; fragile yet indestructible; carefree yet careful. It's just like a poem, he thought.

As he thought this thought, the Purple Emperor took to the air, flying up and up and up, higher than it had ever flown before, making its way to somewhere new.

Adam watched it go. It had told him so much. It had also given him his last line. Very carefully, he wrote


Sometimes butterflies land on them


– then he closed his notebook and made his way across the field towards his teacher and his fellow students.





The Purple Butterfly (2520 words)

Copyright © R J Dent (2007 & 2016)


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