Delma Gil Wilson, the winner of the 2012 edition of the nuestra palabra short story competition, was born in Álamos, Mexico in 1980. She completed a bachelor’s degree in Hispanic Literatures at Universidad de Sonora en México, and a Master’s in Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Alberta. She has written for newspapers and magazines in both Mexico and Canada, including Cambio Sonora, Correo Canadiense, El Hispano and The Apostles Review. She has worked as both a translator and proofreader and currently teaches Spanish at the University of Alberta.
The Butterfly Cage
“…except on rainy nights when the house would get flooded
or on some extra-special occasion,
we would go through our collection of butterflies,
the mystery of their wings penetrating deep inside us,
the wings charged with portents of what lay on the other side of the iron lances,
outside the wall whose top bristled with bottles…”
– “Buried Statues”, Antonio Benítez Rojo
How greatly blessed, and how cursed as well, is the fate of the man who can recognize himself without fright in the relentless twists and turns of history, thought Fausto as he limped through the garden strewn with torn-up vines towards the gate of his nineteenth-century mansion. The sweet, humid smell that had been left by the previous night’s storm filled him with a sense of assuredness, of order. The gentle babbling of the Almendares River, however, reminded him now and then, and without the slightest twinge of pity, of the days when his home was more than a place of shadows and a graveyard for so many butterflies. The rain had been so fierce that it had caked the paving stones of the garden path in mutlicoloured wings, like flowers torn up by the brutishness of a wild hand.
That morning when he’d opened his eyes, which for hours had been disturbed by the ray of sun that had slipped through the barrier of the curtain, the first thing Fausto did when he saw that he still had his clothes on was try to recall the night before. But what he remembered was only a smell, the grimace of a face out of context, the subtle fluttering of an insect’s wings, the rain, a foot blackened by the mud. In spite of the momentary confusion, he felt the same crushing, unmistakeable certainty that had oppressed him from within every day for some time: nothing would ever be the same again. Many had left; for a time, they’d said, just until everything got back to normal, scared off by the confusion and fear that reigned in the country. The Corbalás had departed, and then the Ovandos, even taking their parrot, which they surely would have had to toss into the sea because it was already on the point of dying of old age.
After washing his face he went outside, as he did every morning, to walk in the garden. The storm had almost completely changed the harmonious arrangement of the plants, to such an extent that he had a hard time recognizing anything familiar about them. On his walk he came to a huge puddle in which toads would soon begin to breed. So as not to get his shoes dirty, he circled around to the fountain shaped like a slimy angel with fallen wings that marked the centre of the garden, but as he did he accidentally stepped on the butterfly cage that had fallen to the ground and a sharp wire from the cage door carved a deep scratch into his leg.
Fausto stopped a moment and looked at the cage apprehensively. It was a shame. Amalia and Silvita had forgotten to bring it inside and the wind and rain had destroyed it completely. They had taken so long to fill it with beautiful butterflies only to leave it outside carelessly for the storm to kill them all.
It had all started with the Ovandos’ parrot. It was a likeable creature and could speak a few words, and although it was nothing special, from the moment they saw it the girls could think of nothing else but getting a caged parrot for their own house as well. For Fausto, the satisfaction of their whim would eventually become a torture. The parrot would wake up at the break of dawn to ruin their last hours of sleep with its infernal alphabet practice, and unlike most birds it stayed up until late into the night tormenting their ears with its screeches. One fine day, refusing to be persuaded by the weeping and begging of the girls, he decided to set the parrot free, and since then peace had reigned once again in the house. Until a few weeks ago, of course, when peace ceased to reign anywhere in the country.
The cage was empty for a time, but Silvita, who at a very young age had taken up the hobby of catching butterflies and fossilizing them under the weight of books taken from the library, had the inspired idea of putting them in the cage instead, and since then all her time and energy was devoted to nothing else. A couple of times a week the girls would toss rotten guavas into the cage, and watching the butterflies eat turned into a ritual for them.
That evening they were all together in the garden when they heard the news. Alejo Corbalá had arrived at the house with his eyes popping out of his head and his forehead shining with a cold sweat as he recounted the latest events. Fausto didn’t say a word, but Ángela, who at that moment was knitting a cloth for the little table in the parlour, let out a scream as if she had just seen a rat. The only ones who greeted the events with indifference, shouting happily as they tried a catch a tiny red butterfly, were the girls. It was a little later, when they were all sitting on the whitewashed benches in the garden, that they saw the Corbalás leave for good, followed by the Ovandos.
One night at dinner, Ángela said she wanted to leave too. Fausto held his fork suspended halfway up to his mouth and stared at her, as if trying to scrutinize every last detail of the head of the woman to whom he had been married for fifteen years and who now, all of a sudden, seemed a stranger to him. There was no bitter resentment, no bells ringing in mourning for a familiar world which at that moment had suddenly fallen under a shadow; merely a gloomy resignation that gave him the clarity necessary to look her in the eye for a long moment into which seemed to be condensed the other fifteen years that they might have been able to spend together in relative peace.
On the morning of the argument, Ángela said that her parents were going somewhere with an unpronounceable name, and that she wanted them all to go too. In response to the mute inflexibility of Fausto, who did not even turn to look at her, Ángela screamed hysterically and threatened that she would leave anyway.
Although he would suffer the consequences, Fausto never attempted to put up a fight against the inevitable. Ángela naively thought she could flee from what she feared was to come, but he, after so much time watching the ivies and moss grow over the house next door, had consciously accepted his fate. He had lived long enough to know that there are things that cannot be controlled and others that can, things over which we have no power and others over which we do, as attested by the suitcases filled with clothes that Ángela, in her lack of understanding and her blindness, had secretly prepared for the journey. Fausto could not imagine the place where his parents had been born and died, and where he also planned to spend his last days, being devoured by the implacable ferocity of nature and oblivion while his bones sailed away to some no man’s land. An expected solitude began to transform him from within while his wife secretly concocted some pretext, some reason that would be convincing enough to tear him once and for all from that past that was so clearly threatening the future of their beloved daughters.
The rain had come down in torrents, as if in the higher, inscrutable order of the elements something was announcing the impending doom. The violence of the water was visible in the mud that mercilessly covered the grass and the beaten plants in the garden. Fausto calmly observed the blood stains that began to seep softly through the thick cloth of his trousers, and little by little he remembered. The night before he had collapsed onto the soaked bed, and thus he had slept until well into the morning, wrapped up in the strange silence that reigned in the house. It wasn’t until the blood became more visible and the wound began to ache sharply that he recalled, ordered in a macabre chain of coherence and clarity, everything that until that moment had come to him only in fragments.
He stopped for a few seconds. He turned his gaze once again back to the butterfly cage a few steps behind him, before marching on towards the gate, without once looking at the pile of mud and garbage that the rain had left at the bottom of the garden, from where, every now and then, came sailing on the wind a broken wing and a barely audible moan that melted into the morning babble of the waters of the Almendares.
Translated by Martin Boyd