I met her three times before she vanished from my life. Not only from my life, but from the face of the earth itself. I know I sound nonsensical, but listen to what I’ve to say and things will start making sense to you.
She and I went to the same school and had a fling, which only lasted for a short while. I have no recollection of the days that we spent together. I don’t remember why we hadn’t continued with our relationship.
We never saw each other after graduation. She never showed up in any of the reunions. But I came across the news of the tragedy that had befallen her. Again, I don’t remember where I heard that from.
The first time I met her was out of sheer coincidence. It had been 10 years since graduation. I was at the peak of my career. I don’t want to boast about it, but I was the most sought lawyer in the city.
I bumped into her at the court. She had gotten divorced recently and was there to collect some documents. We recognized each other and there followed some usual formalities.
She looked disheveled. She hadn’t taken much effort to keep herself kempt when going to the court. Her eyes were dim as if she hadn’t slept for days. What I had heard about her seemed to be true – her one-year-old child had died.
“What brings you here?” I asked.
“Collecting divorce papers,” she said, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.
“I’m sorry!” I expressed my sympathy.
She looked down to her feet. It felt as if she would start crying any second.
“Why don’t we grab a cup of coffee?” I asked. That might cheer her up, I thought. “My next hearing is in an hour and I don’t have much to do. So if it’s okay with you.”
Over coffee, we mostly checked on our lives following graduation. None of us mentioned our brief fling from high school. Perhaps, like me, she had forgotten about it. There was nothing special to remember in the first place.
She had attended a fashion designing school and graduated with good grades, she said. Then she worked for a renowned fashion brand until she quit recently. I didn’t ask her why. “I heard about your child,” I said. “I can only imagine what you’re going through right now.”
Her eyes turned moist. I wished she wouldn’t break into tears. I had no idea how I was going to console her if she cried.
“People keep saying that to me,” she said. “It’s true. People will never know what it’s like to lose your child and then see your marriage failing each day.”
“What good is it to talk about it now?” she said, wiping her eyes. “Tell me about yourself. How long have you been married?”
“It has been three years.”
“Do you have any children?”
“No. We’ve been planning on having a child. But my wife thinks that we should have a house of our own first. So we are focusing on our jobs and saving money.”
She kept nodding. She had no interest in hearing all this.
I got a call from my client. He wanted to meet me before the hearing urgently. I had to excuse myself. We exchanged numbers and decided to meet again for drinks.
I didn’t hear from her for weeks. I had been so busy with my work that it completely slipped my mind that we had agreed to meet for drinks.
One night, I was driving back home when she called. She asked me if I could meet her at a bar. I had no plans for the night and so I agreed. There was no point in telling my wife as we usually got home very late. My absence would only mean that it was another busy day for me.
I drove to the address she had sent and found her sitting alone at a table. She had already started drinking.
“Wow, you really came?” she said. Her speech was a bit slurred. She was drunk already. “I thought you would just stand me up.”
I smiled and sat down. She had lost a considerable amount of weight since the last time I saw her. I was taken aback by her transformation. She mustn’t be eating, I thought.
“You started a bit early,” I said and poured myself a drink.
She chuckled. She stared at me for a long while, with her head resting on her hands. It wasn’t admiration, more of an assessment of some sort.
“I remembered something about us,” she said.
“What? I asked.
“We hit it off in high school,” she said.
“Yeah. But I don’t remember much about those days.”
“We hit it off and then broke up,’ she said. “Although I don’t remember why we did that.”
I nodded. “No use bringing up the past,” I said to steer the conversation in a comfortable direction.
“I wish we had continued,” she said. I almost coughed my drink. Was it the alcohol speaking? It seemed to be. But she had a fair bit of control over herself.
She grabbed a tissue and started folding it carefully.
“Then at least I wouldn’t have married that jerk and birthed a child who was destined to die.”
She folded the tissue, forming a triangle. She was careful not to tear the tissue paper.
“Do you blame your husband for your child’s death?” I asked.
“I blame myself for bringing it into this world,” she said.
Her origami had now started to take a comprehensible shape. She uncreased the paper from one side and it formed a wing. She did the same to the other side.
“I understand how you’re feeling right now,” I consoled her. “Grief of losing your child is the worst. But you’re young and you’ve your whole life ahead of you.”
She was too focused on her origami to listen to me speaking. She twirled a part of the tissue. Now it was noticeable what she had been making. It was a butterfly. I wondered where she had learned this incredible art.
“You know what else is written in my destiny?” she asked, showing me the paper butterfly. “That I’ll turn into a butterfly.”
She was completely drunk yet her expressions remained stern.
“What makes you think that?” I played along.
“It’s my destiny and this is what I want to become. I want to turn into a butterfly and rid myself of this terrible pain.”
She was too drunk and I was afraid of letting her go on her own. So I decided to drive her home.
She cried silently all the way. I didn’t console her. Crying would make her feel better, I thought and passed her a box of tissues.
She lived in a small apartment, but it was big enough for a person living alone. I guessed that she had to settle here after she quit her job.
Her apartment was a chaotic jumble. There was no bed or furniture to speak of. There was a mattress in the corner of the room and a chair, which was occupied by a heap of clothes.
“I know it’s a complete mess,” she said and went to the kitchen to fetch a cup of coffee.
I looked around the apartment. One of the rooms was unoccupied. She hadn’t been using it. That was when my eyes fell on the wall.
An entire wall of her apartment was covered with pictures and posters of butterflies. Someone could’ve mistaken her for a scientist studying butterflies.
In the middle of the wall, there was a huge poster featuring the anatomy of a butterfly with each body part labeled – proboscis, hindwings, forewings, labial palp, and whatnot. She indeed is obsessed with butterflies, I thought.
Just then I got a call from my wife. I checked my watch. It was late. I must’ve lost track of time. I told my wife that I was out drinking with an important client and was on my way home.
She came out of the kitchen, carrying a cup of hot coffee.
“I got a call from my wife,” I said. “I think I should head back home.”
She looked at the cup of coffee.
“I’ll drop by for a cup of coffee sometime,” I said. I didn’t want to disappoint her when she was already in too much pain. “Take care of yourself.”
Following the second meeting, she never left my mind, even for a second. I kept thinking about her all the time. I kept thinking about the pain she was in. I kept thinking about her obsession with butterflies. Our past became lucid to me as well. I recalled every detail. I realized why we had broken up. I had cheated on her. Even though she was serious about our relationship, I had shown no interest.
I became too absent-minded. I remember an instance when I ripped a paper and fumbled to turn it into a butterfly. Though I didn’t succeed, I later realized that the paper I had ripped was part of an important presentation for the court.
Things were the same when I was at home. It didn’t take long for my wife to notice my unusual behavior. Though, she didn’t bring it up, initially. She must’ve thought that things weren’t good at work.
But her patience ran out when this continued for a fortnight. She finally confronted me. She began by asking in a gentle tone. Then her voice grew stern and soon the confrontation turned into a fight. We screamed at each other, hurtling one abuse after another.
I got fed up with her and left the house to get some fresh air. It was raining and thus I decided to drive around in my car.
I kept driving aimlessly and never noticed when I ended up in front of her place. Something inside me prompted me to go up to her apartment. It wasn’t an urge. I’m sure of that. In retrospect, it seems to me that I was guided by an invisible thread.
I was soaked completely when I knocked at her door. She opened it and stared at me blankly, not surprised at all by my sudden visit as if she had been expecting me. I held her face in my hands and kissed her.
I was no longer aware of my actions. For a moment, I felt as if she would slap me for kissing her. Instead, she went along, without protesting or showing any interest.
I stripped off my wet clothes and did the same with hers. She was emaciated to the bone. Her eyes had sunken deep into her skull. There was something unusual about her body too. It gave me an impression that she had shrunk in size. I took her in my arms and carried her to the mattress.
“Do it the way butterflies do,” she said, looking deep into my eyes.
“I don’t know how they do it,” I said.
“I’ll teach you.”
Then I gave myself to her. She guided me and I followed like an obedient disciple. We made love in positions bizarre to human beings. We made love the way butterflies make. I had slept with many women before I married my wife. But never had I ever enjoyed sex this much.
“Can you see a protrusion on my back?” she asked when we were lying in each other’s arms. I inspected her back closely. “What protrusion?”
“You won’t be able to see them for now. They’re growing out gradually.”
“What’s growing out of your back?” I asked.
“The wings,” she answered.
That was the last time I saw her. When I returned home my wife had been crying. She apologized for her rash behavior. That’s when I regretted what I had done. I gave her a warm hug and apologized too.
“I wanted to talk to you about having a child,” she said. “But you’ve been absent-minded for the past few days.”
“I’m sorry,” I said and hugged my wife. My heart sank. The shameful act of the previous hour stung me like a pang.
“I think we’re ready for it now,” she looked into my eyes. “I think we should fill the gap.”
In the days that followed, we revitalized our love—the love that had gone stale, tethered by our stringent lifestyle. We made a rule of clearing our schedules every weekend to spend more time with each other. Though our jobs didn’t permit us to take a long vacation, we never missed a chance to take a brief retreat around and outside the city. It had been three years since our wedding, but we began to feel as if we were newlyweds.
Occasionally, I felt guilty about what I had done. But the guilt was never overwhelming. I never felt like returning back to her nor was my mind preoccupied with her thoughts. Yet the sense of deep empathy never wavered. It was impossible not to worry about her for what she had been going through. Though, I didn’t go out of my way to contact her. I didn’t want to do anything that could jeopardize the love that my wife and I had rediscovered.
A month passed. She never called or texted. It was relieving, in a sense, to lose touch with her. At least that way I was never compelled, out of empathy or otherwise, to be unfaithful to my wife again.
The night before my wife broke the news, I dreamed of her. She had shrunk to the size of a little girl. My wife appeared in the dream too. Though a considerable part of the dream remains vague, I clearly remember I saw her playing with my wife. They had been running around what seemed like a playground until she fell down and began to cry. My wife laid her down on her lap and started to console her. When I woke up in the morning, I was filled with concern.
As I dunked a spoon in the bowl of porridge my wife had prepared for breakfast, I wondered if she had been eating properly. For a moment, I felt the urge to pack some porridge and drop by her house before heading to work.
That’s when my wife broke the news. She did it in a sly way. But it didn’t come as a surprise. For the past month, that’s where we had been spending most of our energies. Nevertheless, a man is always taken off-guard when he gets the news. Such was the case with me. I danced with joy, hummed songs on my way to work, and treated my colleagues to a delicious lunch.
On my way back home, I decided to drop by her house to check on her. I packed some fruit and groceries for her. Any prospect of acting impulsively this time was out of the window, I told myself as I took the elevator to her floor.
I rang the doorbell a few times. There was no response. Her phone was still dead. I decided to wait in front of her door for a few minutes. She could’ve gone out and might be on her way back home, I thought.
An old woman passed by her place, giving me a scornful look. She was walking with a cane in her hand. What’s with the look? I thought. She must’ve taken me for some loafer loitering around a woman’s place. Or was her face always scornful? Most old people I had known had, at some point in their elderly lives, acquired a peculiar look on their faces – a look of scorn and angst.
“Do you know the woman who lived there?” asked the old woman. She was waiting for the elevator, resting the weight of her body on the cane.
“Yes. Why do you ask?” I said.
“You should move her things. This apartment is on sale now. That woman disappeared without taking her things.”
“Disappeared! What do you mean?”
“You said you know her.”
“We haven’t been in touch for a while.”
“She hasn’t been home for a month. She didn’t even lock her door before moving out. God knows what happened to her?”
The elevator opened with a ding and the old woman went in. She squinted her eyes and fumbled with the buttons. Before I could inquire anything further, the elevator door had closed.
I turned the doorknob. She really had forgotten to lock her apartment. I walked in and met with the same sight as my previous visit – things lay scattered all over the place, and posters of butterflies covered the wall; the mattress on which we had had sex lay in its place – in the corner. Nothing had changed.
I found her phone. Nobody would go out without taking their phone or locking their house, I thought. The old woman did have a point. It looked as if she had disappeared into thin air.
I began having wild thoughts – what if she had gotten into an accident? I used my contacts and looked into the death certificates issued in the past month. There happened to be three cases where the bodies remained unidentified or unclaimed by anyone. But all three of them were men.
I contacted her ex-husband and asked if somehow they had reconciled and gotten together again. He laughed when he heard this. I told him she had gone missing. He remained indifferent and didn’t even ask who I was or what business I had with his ex-wife.” I don’t care,” he said and hung up.
I continued with my futile search for a few weeks until I got overburdened by work and my duties as an expecting father. My wife gave birth to a beautiful daughter. I guess that was the time when I stopped looking for her, or say I began to forget about her, once again.
Ten years have passed since I last saw her. Last evening, I was strolling in the garden when I spotted a butterfly. It seemed to me that I was seeing a butterfly for the first time in ten years, or perhaps I had never paid close attention to them. The sight of the butterfly brought back memories. It reminded me of her obsession. Then an absurd thought struck me. Let me write it here and forget about it once and for all as it has been bothering me quite a lot lately: I have strong reasons to believe that she turned into a butterfly, just the way she was destined.
Nonsensical as it may sound, that’s what I want to believe. It fills me with a sense of contentment to know that she could transform herself into a butterfly and finally rid herself of her human pain.
I look at the sky. I imagine her soaring there, leaping from flower to flower, in peace.
Dhruv studies English literature. His book A Scrapyard for Dreams, a collection of poems and flash fiction, was published in 2020.