Butterflies

 

Christopher Lovelace had only one ambition.

Older and wiser heads knew that he was being unrealistic, but saw no sense in discouraging a worthy aspiration in one so young.

And where could be the harm in growing a meadow full of wild flowers to attract butterflies?

His Great Uncle Frank was quite happy to let the eight-year-old have that small patch of land impossible to cultivate because of its poor soil and lack of access due to some ancient oak trees. The Victorian owner of the estate had used it to build an ice house. That had been reduced to rubble over the years. Removing it would probably be beyond the strength of the delicate Christopher, but if the boy wanted to attract the butterflies, who was Great Uncle Frank to argue. During the time the old man had been farming the land, their numbers had dwindled and it was now unusual to see just one.

It was also much healthier for his great-nephew to be outdoors rather than tapping away at a computer or smartphone, chatting to others of his age with no ambitions. Christopher’s parents may have lived in a cottage on the farm, but they had no interest in the land. They had dwindled into technology’s children, working from home on the infernal devices their Uncle Frank had only contempt for, even if they did bring in more income than the farm could ever hope to. They never seemed to have time for their clever little son. The child needed to be outside, building up his strength to help the ancient Cuthbert when he could no longer lift the buckets of feed for the pigs or muck out their pens. Christopher could already cope with the farmyard smell that made that stuck-up mother of his feel faint. His genes came from Great Uncle Frank’s side of the family and the old man was going to be damned before the farm was passed on to a nephew whose idea of an honest day’s work was gazing at a laptop screen.

Christopher’s mother suspected that Great Uncle Frank had put the idea of the butterfly meadow into her son’s head. Six months before he had been a quiet seven-year-old too timid to weed the flowerboxes for fear of finding worms. Now the child who used to shriek at the sight of a caterpillar wanted to plant a meadow to encourage butterflies. As far as she knew none of Christopher's friends had any interest in insects; one or two probably didn't even know what they were. His obsession had started after the twins from a nearby farm stopped playing near the old outhouses with him. They had soon lost interest in chasing each other through the dilapidated buildings, unable to deal with the mud and stench of manure that pervaded the yard. The twins came from a clinically clean, controlled farm where machinery milked the cows and cleaned up the slurry in the huge sheds that housed them. Eight-year-olds were certainly not allowed inside those.

Great Uncle Frank had wondered if Christopher’s fascination with butterflies had been encouraged at school where nature study was just as important as reading and writing, but then began to wonder if there was another reason. One day he saw Christopher talking to a slightly built girl in the rubble strewn piece of land he intended to transform into a wild meadow. The farmer’s first impulse was to demand who the older girl was, then thought again. Christopher was a sensible young boy, and there would have been no point in breaking up what was, quite probably, an innocent exchange. The girl, dressed in a frock of delicate pastel shades which fluttered like butterfly wings, looked far too inoffensive to harm a child anyway. Great Uncle Frank stood and watched to be on the safe side until Christopher’s companion appeared to dissolve away into the overhanging leafy branches of an oak tree. That told him he should really get his eyes tested again.

Christopher saw his great uncle and waved happily. The eight-year-old was obviously delighted after meeting the girl, and the farmer could only wonder what they had been discussing. Then, as usual, the small boy busied himself pulling loose bricks from the ground and carrying them, one by one, to the border of the meadow to construct a rough wall. Uncle Frank could see that it would take forever, but his great nephew was very independent and might be offended if he sent one of the farm hands over to help. No, the family came from the school of hard knocks and decided it would help toughen up the boy.

Christopher carried on working until dusk when his mother came over to take him home. He had to go to school the next day and needed to get to bed early.

In the morning, as the sun rose the, girl Christopher had been talking to appeared in the meadow. She waved to Cuthbert, the elderly farm hand, on his early morning rounds to feed the pigs. Dog walkers were not unusual at that time of day, so he waved back.

As he reached the pig pens Cuthbert turned to see a vibrant rainbow flickering over the butterfly meadow. He put down the bucket of swill to stand and gaze. That was no rainbow; it was light being reflected off thousands of fluttering wings. At their centre, Christopher’s friend became infused with iridescent colours and opened huge wings as frail as tissue paper.

Cuthbert fainted.

When the farmhand came round he was gazing up at a sky filled with shimmering wings. Christopher was dancing through the meadow in the early sun, swirls of the bright insects looping about him like chiffon streamers.

Cuthbert convinced himself he was dreaming, closed his eyes and fell asleep where he had fallen. He was still snoring on the ground when the cows were driven back from the pasture to be milked. Until then everyone believed he had done his rounds and left for the pub. It was assumed that he had suffered one of his turns. The medicine he washed down with a pint of ale meant that it was a regular occurrence; one of the reasons he was not allowed to drive a tractor.

The doctor declared that there was nothing wrong with Cuthbert a few weeks holiday couldn’t cure and, considering his age of 86, he had probably been overdoing it. Great Uncle Frank had known him all his life and knew Cuthbert had never overdone anything unless it involved a bribe of ale or prod with a sharp stick.

The old farm hand didn’t mention what he had seen in the meadow that morning: hallucinating at his age meant being assessed for dementia. For all he knew, he might fail the tests.

 

Several years passed. The butterflies swarmed to Christopher’s meadow and the government schemes for farmers to set aside land for wildlife encouraged other dwindling species to reclaim their natural habitats.

The child who loved butterflies grew into a delicate young man, too frail to attend college. He had still been at school when the doctor sent him for tests to find out why the son of a farming family was not growing into a sturdy young man. The specialist explained that it was a condition of the blood when Christopher was within earshot. When he wasn’t, she used the word leukaemia, believing it would be better explained to him by his parents.

Christopher took the news well, as though he had not expected to spend long in this world, and it meant that he could to spend all his time in the meadow his late Great Uncle Frank had bequeathed him in his will and watch the butterflies feeding from the buddleia, scabious and knapweed. As the caterpillars of the previous year emerged from their chrysalises with jewelled wings, it was a delight to see such unlikely insects being transformed into something so wonderful.

 

One afternoon Christopher did not return home. There was panic amongst family and friends who feared the worse. Surely he would have phoned if unable to walk back by himself. But when they searched, all that they found in the meadow was his mobile phone and sketchpad. It was unlike Christopher to disappear this way. He had never wandered off before without telling someone.

Given his weak condition, the young man couldn’t have gone far, yet no trace of him was ever found.

Summer turned to autumn and autumn turned to winter. It was only then his family accepted that they would probably never see him again. Although Christopher’s illness was terminal, it was still hard to have no remains to bury or ashes to scatter over his beloved butterfly meadow.

So family and friends gathered there on the anniversary of his disappearance to unveil a plaque to his memory.

As they formed a circle about it something large pushed its way up through the spring flowers. It was an iridescent chrysalis filled with a radiant glow. As it began to dissolve, a slender girl with huge, gossamer wings appeared directly above the gathering.

A marvellous butterfly burst from the chrysalis.

With one downbeat of shimmering wings, it joined its companion in the sky.

The huge butterflies briefly circled above the watching group in farewell, and then faded into the dappled sunlight.

“That was the young woman I saw Christopher with that day!” exclaimed Cuthbert.

As he was now well into his nineties and ale dependent, he would not have been believed if someone else had not declared,

“And that was Christopher with her!”