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“Look at that!” said Rosemary.

Douglas looked. He saw what seemed to be a scrap of white silk fluttering among the bushes in their garden.

“It’s dancing,” marvelled Rosemary, who’d always wanted to be a ballerina.

“You know what,” said Douglas, suddenly alert, “I think it’s a butterfly!”

Rosemary frowned. “But that's impossible. Butterflies vanished from the earth ages ago."

“Nevertheless,” said Douglas, who was ten years old and known to be precocious, “I believe it really is a butterfly. I can’t imagine where this fellow sprang from.”

“Maybe it’s a girl,” protested Rosemary.

“Maybe,” Douglas said. He didn’t feel like arguing about gender. “We ought to follow it. Perhaps somewhere nearby there’s a hidden colony of butterflies. The last of their kind.”

“Do you really think so? Shall we tell Mom and Dad?”

Douglas considered. “Let’s not.” he decided. “I’d rather surprise them.”

The butterfly drifted into a dense forest behind the children’s home. It wove between the trees, pausing now and then to rest on a cool leaf. Rosemary was enchanted by the creature, so fragile yet so determined in its flight. Douglas was also enthralled, but, being older and more reserved, he didn’t reveal how deeply stirred he felt.

Lifting and dropping, the butterfly flew on, the children close behind. After a while, Douglas began to worry. Shadows were growing longer. With the approach of night the air was cooler. The forest seemed larger than he remembered, and more mysterious. He and Rose should start the journey back. But it seemed a pity to have come so far for nothing. Only a little longer, Douglas thought.

Soon night enveloped the woods. Pretending for each other’s sake that they weren’t frightened, the children decided to sleep where they found themselves rather than go forward and risk a fall.

“What’s that?” Rosemary whispered.

Douglas started awake. It wasn’t morning yet. The sky was dark. Why was Rosemary up? And what was she staring at? Then he saw it: a faint glow filtering through the trees. Perhaps the lights of their house, thought Douglas sleepily. Perhaps they’d been walking in circles and hadn’t known it.

Holding hands and treading carefully, the children went towards the light. After a short time, they came to a clearing, and there they stopped, astonished. For the space was filled with a horde of fluttering wings. Butterflies! But these butterflies weren’t white.

Rosemary exclaimed, “Douglas, these are the colours that used to be. Red, purple, orange, yellow, turquoise.”

Mesmerized, Douglas nodded. Something was stretching, almost tearing, in his chest. He wanted to shout from pain, or perhaps from elation, he wasn’t sure which. He turned to his sister. Iridescence played on her skin and clothes, making her look strange, a little frightening.

“Well,” said Rosemary in a satisfied voice, “so butterflies haven’t vanished after all. Won’t everyone be pleased?”

“I wonder,” Douglas said, closing his eyes, for the splendor was beginning to make his head ache.

Just then, something tickled his nose. His eyes sprang open. An enormous butterfly flapped just beyond his lashes, its long antennae delicately twitching. Douglas saw tiny versions of himself endlessly reflected in dark facets.

“Welcome, children,” said a melodious voice.

Douglas opened his mouth then shut it again without making a sound. No one had said that butterflies could talk.

“Welcome, Douglas and Rose.”

This shocked Rosemary into speech. “You know our names?”

“Of course I do. I always try to know the names of guests.”

“Were we expected, then?”

“Well, yes and no. We had planned to send Belinda eventually - a white butterfly, so as not to startle you too much - but Belinda is young and impatient. She flew off on her own.”

“Why did you want to send her?” asked the children.

“I’m not certain,” admitted the large and splendid creature. “I suppose it might be time.”

“Time for what?” asked Douglas impulsively.

“Time to reveal the fact that we exist, in spite of everything.”

Douglas had no idea what the butterfly meant, so he kept silent.

Timidly, Rosemary said, “I’m glad you’re here. I wish I had new dresses for my dolls in all your lovely colours. They’re so much prettier than the flowers in our garden.”

The butterfly laughed, a tinkling sound like wind chimes. He fluttered towards a space between the trees.

“May I invite you children to see our kingdom?”

Shyly, the children nodded. Nearby they saw the opening of a cave, encrusted, they thought, with thousands of brilliant jewels. But as they approached, they saw the jewels were butterflies. They passed through a tunnel and came to a great hall lighted by luminous wings. In its center stood a table and two small chairs. The children sat. By each place was a portion of frosted cake and a glass of liquid that looked like melted colours but tasted like lemonade. Rosemary and Douglas ate and drank.

“Does our domain please you?” asked their host, fluttering to the middle of the table.

The children nodded, licking remnants of icing from their fingers.

The butterfly cleared its throat. “Once we were very numerous, you know. We lived all over the world. We displayed every colour of the rainbow.”

Rosemary looked puzzled. “What’s a rainbow?”

Their host blinked rapidly. He seemed at a loss for words. Then he rallied. “A rainbow is a glowing band of colours that stretches across the sky.”

“I guess I can imagine,” Rosemary murmured, embarrassed to admit she really couldn’t.

The butterfly went on. “Now what was the use of butterflies do you think?”

The use of butterflies? Try as they might, the children couldn’t think of a single one.

Sensing their distress, the butterfly said in a gentle voice, “Our beauty nourished souls.”

“What’s…souls?” asked Douglas.

Their host heaved a rustling sigh. “Just so,” he said.

“What are they?” Douglas persisted.

“It’s difficult to explain. They’re part of you, and all of you, and none of you. They see, but can’t be seen.”

Douglas was sure the butterfly was teasing. “That makes no sense,” he said. “Besides, if souls are gone, why are there butterflies?”

The butterfly quivered. It seemed to glow more brightly than before.

“Sometimes, there is a dry tree in the forest, a dry, dead tree. But, one fine day, it may burst into leaf again and stretch its branches out for water and sunlight.”

“Yes, I know what you mean,” said Douglas, pleased to have understood, “I’ve seen that too.”

Rosemary stifled a yawn. The children felt sleepy and their eyes hurt. The butterfly beckoned them and, led by luminous wings, they returned to the clearing.

Morning had come. The pale green grass was damp. A pale ivory sun shone in a pale gray sky. Pale pink flowers in the clearing glistened with dew. The children were glad to be back in the world they knew. They felt they’d had a queer, not altogether pleasant dream.

Summer vacation continued as before. Sometimes, recalling their adventure, Douglas hoped he'd never see another butterfly. He still felt dizzy and a little anxious whenever he remembered their dazzling colours.

But as time passed, Rosemary wasn’t sure that she was happy. She felt bored with her dolls and restless with her friends. At night, in vivid dreams, she sometimes saw a throng of butterflies. She hurried towards them, calling, arms outstretched.


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