The Black Butterfly
Freckle awoke to the night sirens of the cars racing around the ring road. Round and round they sped at least once every night. Freckle didn’t know why. The blue light penetrated the chinks and rips in the damask curtains that lopped down towards the floor from the recesses of a ceiling she would never quite see. The faded nicotine yellow of the wallpaper tracked the movement of the blue light across the room, across the deep brown wardrobes, across the chipped white-gloss dresser and across her freckled face. Her dandelion head lifted from the scratchy goose-feather and dust laden pillow. It was time to get up.
Freckle sat up in the bed. Three of the four posters had been broken in some unknown accident and stretched abortively up towards the cobwebs and rose centre that bore a solitary bare bulb. She wiped her face with her hand, looked down at the once-white cotton vest she wore and wiped her face again. Sleep used to be her only solace. Her world was becoming increasingly like the place she dreamed of. Rats moved in the corners of the room, she knew the shadows, heard their movements but never actually saw one in the flesh. These days she never saw daylight for more than an hour before she went to sleep. Her life was a perpetual night, a perpetual avoidance of what the day and what reality could bring.
She placed what were her feet on the cold, wooden floor. Stavros, her landlord had never sanded it down, like he promised on her first inspection of the room. They had become unendingly nipped and bitten by splinters of wood that were unseen to the bleary eyed. They had hardened into hooves and she walked around the room, horse footed, clomping, much to the annoyance of Esmeralda. She felt bad. She could never buy shoes that fit. Her feet were secretly shod once a month by the blacksmith in the carnival. All the rest of the time covered by ankle boots which were useless in the snowy months.
Freckle stood up. She stretched right up towards Venus, one of her goddesses. Venus was deaf to her prayers and pleas for a long time now; often she had tried on the baby blue telephone to contact her. She looked in the book under Aphrodite, but knew there was no chance she could get anything other than the operators dial for that call either. Freckle trotted to the mirror, the mirror was made from glass and sand and framed with driftwood. There was the odd seashell carved onto it, the odd tiny crab. She looked at her worn, tired reflection and figured there was more to life than the carnival and drinking. She just didn’t know what it was yet. Her dandelion hair was beginning to fade and show the real her. Stavros seemed to think it contributed to her beauty and he and his army of high-trouserd, moustached waiters pursued her about the kitchens making cow-eyes and wolf whistles in her direction.
Freckle was beautiful, her face characterised by hundreds of brown-ginger dots, her dandelion hair. She wore her jeans tight, her t-shirts ripped, her jackets leather and her jewellery occult. She wore her make up dark and painted with elaborate brushes, she swept corners of her eyes up, and she dressed her mouth in scarlet. Esmeralda was not beautiful. She had faded, no, Freckle knew. She had never blossomed. Esmeralda was the woman in the other room; the one Freckle shared a bathroom and a kitchen with. Esmeralda was not much older than Freckle, instead of going to the carnival she sat in the kitchen with coffee, cakes and garibaldi biscuits. She would eat for hours, gorging herself on sweet, sugary snacks. It didn’t stop there. She would eat and eat and eat and eat. She consumed vast portions of chicken from Stavros’s restaurant, chips, rice, tins of fish, soups, vegetables, cheeses. For Esmeralda it was routine, ritual. She would come home with snacks, consume them then eat any tins in her cupboard, move onto any food in Freckles cupboard and then downstairs into the kitchen, either begging for scraps or unlocking the pantry doors with her skeleton key. Stavros would find out in a few hours and scream in Italian, accuse the waiters of not locking up properly, accuse the kitchen staff of pilfering, lament with his fingers upwards and outstretched at what the world was coming to, chop mice in two with his carving knife and eventually, shout and Freckle and Esmeralda. Freckle often wondered if he knew all along that the food was pinched by his fat, moustached lodger. If he did he would always act surprised if he caught Esmeralda down there before breakfast with half a can of cold baked beans stuffed in her podgy mouth, tomato sauce trickling down her chin like a trail of orange blood. Esmeralda often wept. She would throw herself onto Freckle’s curly legged sofa, creating a venomous cloud of dust, a buckling of wooden legs, and weep long and hard about her fat ankles, her unrestricted waist, her compulsive eating or her bulimia as she often called it. A name Esmeralda secretly thought was exotic and glamorous to her disease. Freckle was pretty sure that if you had bulimia you had to sick up the food, after scoffing it down.
Freckle put on a t-shirt and jeans. She placed the boots over her cloven hooves and opened the velveteen, plum draped curtains with a flourish. A thousand black butterflies flew out of the moth bitten fabric and settled all over the bedroom. When she returned all but one would be dead and would hide in the damp, dusty cloth again. Freckle inspected the back of the mirror. Taped there was a stainless steal razor blade, just in case. She looked at the words written on the damp, cold side
The black butterfly exists!
Every day it said something different and every day Freckle thought she was misunderstanding something that the world, the universe communicated to her. She would walk out of the apartment, through the busy restaurant and whatever words would swirl around her head as she clumsily clomped towards the carnival. Eventually the words would vanish from her brain. One by one they would die like the butterflies in her apartment, falling back down towards earth, back down into the abyss of nothingness. She suspected they vanished from the back of the mirror at the exact moment. Freckle began to paint her face. She was not a Warrior Maiden who battle-danced for respect. Battle-dancing was an extreme version of what Freckle did. She danced, she took her clothes off, and she was adored for five minutes in the carnival. If she kept her boots on nobody saw the horse shoes and she got away with it again for another night. Warrior Maiden’s battle-danced, they were virgins belonging to the highest Cults. Extreme temptresses and existed in every city, every backwater bar along every road. They defied gravity with their dancing, swung on lampshades, dressed as exotic shellfish, performed in circuses with clowns and only sometimes won the right to be one of The Top Magicians Assistants. They rarely stripped any item off. They didn’t need to.
Freckle was once a battle-dancer. Sensuous and aloof from her clientele. She made less money then, but she was a better dancer. Most strippers these days were former Warrior Maidens from Cults. Soon they tired from the daily duties and rituals performed by them, for their sect leader. Soon they grew exhausted from battle-dancing all night in the carnival, the bars, the circuses. Soon they lost faith in the Cultish Gods with their mighty Viking beards, swords of fire, saris of the purest night. Soon they found a sympathetic male and their virginities were gone in a whisper, a push, a pop. All but the latter had happened to Freckle. She had danced on bamboo trapezes, swung on crystal chandeliers, levitated up vast, vast ropes made of the finest satin. Occasionally she liked to practice her old trade in the apartment, but this was only when the restaurant was closed and Esmeralda had gone out. She would close her eyes and move her body the way it instinctively wanted to when she worked in the carnival. She would float, twirl and create vast, intricate patterns, hoof marks imprinted in the dust of impossible places. Her dance would be fiery, fury filled and ready for battle; her dandelion would glow into a burning bright red. Blue firework sparks replaced her eyes. Last time Freckle battle-danced Esmeralda had returned home, poked just the very top of her chubby head around the door and Freckle fell, down, down and landed on the dusty wooden floor boards with a bump, drained, naked and exhausted. By the time Esmeralda’s fat eyes had followed her fat head, Freckle lay on the floor, breathing heavily, painted brightly and sweating. Esmeralda put it down to some strange and exotic sexual practice on her housemate’s part, swiftly apologised for the first and only time for intruding on Freckle’s privacy and declined to ask or speculate on what had happened.
Esmeralda was in. By the time Freckle’s hair was big enough to look dishevelled, her eyes painted large enough to be cute and her handbag full enough to contain everything needed for any emergency. Esmeralda walked into Freckle’s room. She wore a huge, Indian patterned dressing gown, a dusky-plum fez which exactly matched the curtains and smoked a cigarette in a short, stubby, black holder reminiscent of a tiny magician’s wand. She smiled
“I have a date.” Freckle just ignored her. It annoyed her that Esmeralda often appeared out of nowhere in her room, in a puff of fat, pale pink smoke. For someone so large she could move swiftly and silently. Freckle found her privacy infested by the overweight lodger. Occasionally she would appear by the damask curtains, on the curly legged sofa, to the right of the vast, ornate door, left slightly ajar and the hard, bright light from the hallway streaming in, invading. Freckle was often annoyed about living with Esmeralda, but there was nowhere else for her to go.
“Can I use this?” asked Esmeralda. She was holding an antique perfume bottle that had a mesh poof spray on its side. Freckle shrugged. Esmeralda would come and take it anyway if she said no. There was no use in protesting. Esmeralda had the idea of what was hers was hers, and what belonged to Freckle was hers also. Esmeralda doused the air in far too much of the perfume that erupted from the mesh and danced a fat, waddling, faintly repellent dance in it. Her hips rotated from side to side and the flat of her hands stroked the air. Freckle found the smell of the perfume slightly repugnant, slightly repelling. She did not remember buying something so florally sickly nor ever using it.
“Take it,” said Freckle, not looking around. She concentrated on searching for her jacket on the chase lounge. Freckle remembered it existing. It was dark and cracked brown leather, the type associated with RAF pilots in days gone by. It was double breasted and three quarters in all its lengths. It came to the beginning of her midriff, to just below her elbows. It would have looked exceedingly good with goggles, but Freckle was not a pilot. As it stood, she was a dancer and she needed her jacket to go to work.
“Esme,” she began “have you seen my jacket? The brown one. The pilot one?”
“Yes.” Esmeralda interrupted “I tried it on for my date,” she giggled “I wanted him to think I was a dashing widow. I was going to tell him my first husband had died in the war and left me this fabulous jacket... I was going to tell him that I was still heartbroken, still haunted by the ghost of my poor, late husband and that it would take a lot of care and comfort to resurrect my love for someone new.”
“Esme,” began Freckle again, more tiredness creeping into her voice this time “If you tell him lies like that he may think that you are not worth bothering with.”
“Ah, but you see,” began Esmeralda, her eyes shining like black, polished coal “if he abandons me then he will forever be labelled in the wrong. Forever vindicated in the knowledge that he had let me slip through his fingers.” Freckle laughed loudly and mockingly and the shine in Esmeralda’s eyes faded slightly. Fat Esmeralda slipping through grasping fingers, arms and crashing through floorboards, killing several of Stavros’s moustached, thin-hipped waiters below.
“Why do you laugh?” asked Esmeralda, breaking the teasing spell. Freckle shook her dandelion head and sighed.
“No reason, no reason. Can I have my jacket back please?” Esmeralda seemed ready to go into a full bottomed, thick crossed armed sulk. The type that was accompanied with wailing and tears, but obediently she trundled off out of Freckle’s room across the yellow-lit hallway, one hand clutched so tightly around the antique perfume bottle it could almost break. She called back “It’s not as if it would fit me anyway.” In a flash she returned and threw the dusty, brown leather at Freckle’s cloven feet, “it’s far too small. They don’t make clothes in adult’s sizes these days.”
“Thanks,” Said Freckle throwing the jacket on and forcing the chunky buttons through the old, cracked leather button holes “but you know it’s a vintage, so chances are they didn’t make clothes in “adult sizes” back then either.” In one graceful, dancers move she manoeuvred out her room and round the corner into the electric, yellow hallway. She glided down the stairs and almost, for a moment, she felt like the hooves had gone, her feet had grown back, her ten toes had reformed. Just as good, no. Better than new. But as her soles touched the last step she knew. It was all a dream, all a feeling of something lost. Never to be returned and her dandelion head dropped a notch. She would never be the same again. Like the Black Butterfly all she did was exist.