The cloud of butterflies descended upon the small town in the early afternoon. When the swarm struck its roofs like an exploding rainbow it scattering into delicate shards of colour. They fluttered into windows, perched on rooftops and flowers; they followed cars, bicycles, children. The butterflies were crushed underfoot, sucked under lorries, caught by cats and pulled apart by cruel fingers. Those unlucky ones were just a fraction of the painted horde.
Adults and children rushed into the streets to witness and marvel at the dainty creatures. Hundreds of photographs documented the remarkable phenomenon, newspapers and TV shows raced to include the bright and beautiful images. They gave the day a carnival air and everyone felt obscurely happier with returning to their jobs and schools.
Later in the day people’s interest waned as the sun slowly fell. In the evening they withdrew into their homes and the banality of their lives, the vivid shimmer of gossamer wings already a fading memory. Some few were pinned to boards or trapped in poison jars, awaiting examination and cataloguing on another day.
No one noticed where the butterflies went at night. No one noticed that the birds who had swooped into the cloud during the day to feed their hungry chicks had fallen to the ground, dead: these butterflies were not an easy meal.
Adam Smith was putting his seven year old daughter to bed when he found one of the butterflies roosting on her bedside lamp’s shade. He was a gentle man and blew the insect off it and towards the open window. The butterfly promptly wheeled about and returned to the bedside. Little Helen didn’t like things fluttering around her face at night so he redoubled his efforts. He cupped his hands over the insect and carried it back to the window. As he was about to release it into the night he gave a cry.
“Ow, it bit me.”
“Butterflies don’t have teeth Daddy,”
“Stung me, then.” He sucked at his palm and sat heavily on the edge of his daughter’s bed.
“They don’t have stingers Daddy. That’s bees. Daddy?”
Adam keeled over, trapping Helen in an awkward hug.
The open window flooded with butterflies. They covered Adam and Helen in a thickening patchwork blanket of Lepidoptera until Helen stopped calling for her father. When Maria, Adam’s wife and Helen’s mother came up to check on them she found the bed utterly covered in the gaudy twitching wings. She barely spoke before they leaped into the air and bore her to the carpet.
At nine o’clock precisely the next morning the first of a long convoy rolled into the centre of town. The streets were silent. No cars raced to work, no children rushed to school. Four men in thick suits and masks climbed out of the van and unloaded basket after basket into the road. They climbed back into the van and waited.
A vast sheet of colour roared into the air and funnelled down into the baskets. Eventually the last stragglers crawled through the hatches and they were sealed in and loaded back into the van. With the butterflies safely stowed, the van drove on to the next town.