The Small White17 min read
For Michael Haulică and
his colored butterflies
While the city was asleep … It first happened on a night when the city was asleep. Butterflies painted on the walls of apartment buildings. Hundreds of colored butterflies, big and small, as big as a fingernail or a car. Butterflies with orange, green, red and yellow wings. Butterflies.
When he told us about this, Gelu had a huge smile on his face, and his eyes had a particular glimmer. He was talking so excitedly about the butterflies painted on his apartment building that we went to see the wonder for ourselves, after classes.
It was fall and it had rained a lot during the past few days. Leaves had fallen and there were puddles and mud everywhere. But Gelu was right. When I saw the colors on his building, through the tree branches, we started running through all the puddles, without caring, staining our uniforms in the process.
Gelu lived at E2, and on his street tens of police officers were milling about. People in grey overalls were measuring the paintings hastily, on ladders, and then yelling the sizes to those who were waiting for them on the ground. We all stared in disbelief at the color explosion before our eyes.
“There are more of them on the buildings in the back, near the kindergarten, and at E1, the wing of a butterfly goes up to the fourth floor,” repeated Gelu for the sixth time, I think, being so enthusiastic about the whole deal that he had stopped caring about anything.
We had a test in geography, but he hadn’t written anything, although he was to go to the Olympiad as well. All day, he had only waited for the classes to finish and to go back to his neighborhood, to show us the paintings.
For hours, we roamed the streets and stared open-mouthed at the walls. Actually, people from all over the town seemed to have come to Gelu’s neighborhood and were walking the alleys around his building like in a museum. They were all talking about it. And we were all wondering who, and how, had managed this in just one night, without being seen, to climb so many buildings and paint. Paint butterflies.
“Mind you, they will catch them!” my mother told my father while making dinner.
My mother had not seen the butterflies. She had come home late from the factory. She hadn’t seen them, and she didn’t want to. To her, it looked like some great nonsense.
“They will catch them and then you’ll see … What were they thinking? Go figure! They painted on the windows as well? That would be just too much. I know how I toil to scrub them. And nobody has painted on ours, but you know how they get … From the dust and the rain, the plant … ”
My father wasn’t paying attention. He had his own matters to think of.
My mother was talking about her issues; my father was considering his.
And I could mind my own.
The ruler, which I was using to line my notebooks, had a dent in it. And if I wasn’t paying attention, I would slip the tip of my pen into the small chip at 14.6 cm. The math teacher was asking us to draw two lines, perfectly parallel, half a millimeter apart, on each page, and exactly two centimeters away from the binding of the notebook. We had to do the same with the homework notebook and the class one, the one for drafts. The calculation notepad did not require lining, but we were supposed to always have it with us and write every new formula that was taught. And the math teacher was not someone to disobey. It was very important to know what type of notebooks you need. Under no circumstances were you to have collegiate notebooks. And God forbid your parents bought you that kind, with sheets that come off if you pull them a little harder. “Numbnuts, you must have stapled notebooks!” the teacher told us on the first day of fifth grade. And this year, in September, right after practice, Toni had come to school with glued notebooks. When checking his homework, the teacher grabbed the sheet with Toni’s exercises and pulled it. It came off like the glue wasn’t even there. Then he took the notebook and threw it towards the back of the classroom, and tens of sheets flew out of it, like enormous feathers. Or like butterflies. Like white butterflies. And then he caught Toni by his sideburns and lifted him up. Toni was on his toes and tears were slowly streaming from his eyes. “Numbnuts, I told you not to come to my class with glued sheets …”—and then he slapped him, and the trace of his wedding ring was on Toni’s cheek for four to five days— “… or I’ll glue another palm to your face!”
So, I was very careful not to do anything wrong when drawing a line on the math notebook. A stapled one, of course, with the multiplication table printed on the back, but wrapped in a blue plastic cover. I was concentrating on not making any mistakes with those lines, so I didn’t hear the doorbell. Instead, I was startled by my mother sticking her head in my bedroom, grinning, with the door ajar:
“Someone is looking for you!”
And just like that, a girl was in my room.
Nobody really looked for me at home. Gelu used to come sometimes, when we went to the Workshop together, or, in the summer, to take a bath with the whole gang in the Danube, beyond the House Factory. I used to see the rest of them at school or in front of my building.
My mother pushed that girl in my bedroom, and then clack! She closed the door and was nowhere to be seen. And, damn it, I didn’t even manage to realize if I knew her because the power went out. Boom! All of the apartment building, the neighborhood, the town. Darkness covered all.
“Goddammit!” I heard my father cursing and tearing up a newspaper in the kitchen.
Then my mother shouted that she would bring us a candle.
And I was alone with a girl, in the dark, in my room, for the first time in my life.
If you grew wings, would you have the courage to show them to anyone?
“If you grew wings, would you have the courage to show them to anyone?”
In the dark, before my mother came in and brought the candle, the girl next to me started talking.
“If I grew wings? What kind of wings?” I asked while rubbing a thin string between my fingers, one that I had blindly picked off the desk.
There, on the desk, I had a robot made out of cigarette packs. I had glued them together with adhesive, and the robot had two lights that came on alternatively for eyes. In one of the cigarette packs that made up the head, I had hidden the cables on which I mounted resistors, transistors and condensers, based on a sketch in Electronica magazine. Right on the top of its head, almost invisible, there was a photosensitive diode, which, in the dark, would start up the circuit and make the lights work. Red and green. Red and green. Two triangular stupid lights. A robot made out of thirty-four Cleopatra cigarette packs, brought by my uncle who had worked in Iraq. Or Iran. Or Libya, I can’t remember.
“I don’t know. Wings like all the others … Or another hand on your back. If you grew another hand, would you tell anybody?”
“It’s not the same thing. If I grew wings, I could fly … What would I do with another hand? Scratch the back of my head while riding my bike?”
The girl beside me was laughing.
I laughed as well.
“I am Teo. I don’t know if you know me. Teodora, to be precise. I am Liviu’s sister. The second born. Me and Gelu live in the same building,” she told me.
Then my mother came in and we became really quiet and serious.
She had brought with her a large, white candle, and while its flame was moving, our shadows danced on the walls.
Teodora was wearing glasses.
“I also brought you some crackers” she said, then left a plate piled with fried dough ribbons, covered with powdered sugar, on the desk.
Glasses with thick rims, of a dark shade.
“And what did she ask you, Four-Eyes?” asked Gelu the next day, on our way to school.
“I can’t tell you. It’s stupid, anyway …”
“You’re a jerk. If you don’t tell me, I’ll tell Fats you’re hitting on his sister.”
“You’re the jerk. And I can’t tell you because I swore I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“No, you’re the jerk! I’ll tell Fats, you’ll see.”
“Why are you being like this? I could have told you nothing. I could have told you she didn’t drop by last night … And in fact, she didn’t. Her mother sent her to my mother to get a cup of oil, since they’re colleagues at the factory. And she came in for some crackers.”
“Do you still have some?”
“Yeah, I brought you some. I have them in my bag. But if you tell Fats, I won’t give you any.”
“Don’t! I don’t want them. If you don’t tell me, I’ll give you away!”
“Do what you want! But if we have a math test, I won’t let you cheat off me!”
“I won’t let you cheat off me in geography!”
“We had the geography test yesterday, stupid!”
“Oh, yeah, right. And I wrote nothing! I only thought of those butterflies. I think I even drew one on the paper.”
“Were they still there?”
“The butterflies! Were they still there?”
For a while, we walked without saying a thing. We were a few steps away from the school gate when Gelu stopped:
“I know what she told you, Four-Eyes!”
“I know what Teo told you!”
“The hell you do! What did she say to me?”
I was not asked anything by the teacher during math class. We had no test, either, and he didn’t even check the homework. He came from the teachers’ lounge late, saying it was because of a meeting, and then he started lecturing. During the second class, he had us do exercises from “Petrică,” and he went back to the teachers’ lounge. He made Liviu write the names of the noisy ones on the blackboard while he was gone.
“Those who don’t behave will shave their heads bald by tomorrow!” the teacher said, and then went out of the classroom.
Liviu was at his desk, looking closely at us. We called him Liviu only when talking to him. In other circumstances, when talking about him, we called him Fats. And those in the seventh grade, in the neighboring classroom, called him Donut. Well, they had called him that until a few days ago, before Liviu “Fats Donut” went berserk.
“Fats! Hey! Hey, Donut! Aren’t you paying any attention?” one of the older boys had yelled at him, while he was walking home, through the single room, blocks behind the school, where the punks would gather to smoke.
Fats didn’t mind them and kept walking, looking in the opposite direction.
“Donut! Hey, Donut, if I give you a knife, will you cut your mom with it?”
“Donut!!!” they kept shouting.
“Your mom’s a whore and your dad’s a faggot! Donut! Heeey!”
The boys who had seen this said that, suddenly, Fats threw away his backpack and turned to them. He started towards the punks.
“Do you have any matches?” he asked.
“It’s matcheses, Donut! Matcheses, not matches!”
“Do you have any?”
“Come on, Donut, scram!”
But Donut, instead of leaving, went for them. He got to the tallest one and punched him in the mouth—BAM!—with such force, you wouldn’t have thought he had it in him. The tall guy fell, but before he hit the ground, Fatso kicked another one in the shin and punched him several times in the head. The other two ran for the school, while their colleagues were rolling on the ground in pain.
“Now give me all your matches!” Liviu demanded, and the older boys obeyed with tears in their eyes.
Fats looked at the matchboxes closely and then threw one on the ground.
“This one ain’t good! It has no butterflies!” he said, then picked up his backpack from where he had left it and went home.
In school, the event spread fast, and while even the janitors were laughing at the kids in the seventh grade, Gelu was looked upon with more respect even by the teachers.
And now Fats stared at us with authority from the teacher’s desk, and although he wore no glasses, it seemed like he was gazing at us over the rims, just like the biology teacher. He kept his chin to his chest and was scouting the whole classroom. With his right hand, he was clicking on a Chinese pen, with a 0.5 pencil lead. He clicked on it until the graphite was nearly out of the metallic cylinder, and then he carefully slid it back in. And then again click-click-click!
When Gelu lifted two fingers, as if he wanted to answer a question, Fats didn’t know what to do. He stopped clicking his pencil, but he looked towards the window. He was pretending not to see him. But Gelu was waving his hand all around, as if desperately wanting an A, so I slapped his leg as hard as I could.
“Jerk, I’ll tell on you” Gelu whispered and kept waving his hand.
Fats had the best stamp collection. Ten albums alone were brought to school just to boast. He was registered in the philately club and made exchanges with collectors from Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and even the USSR. He sent them Romanian stamps, and they sent him envelopes with their own. He had large sheets, whole series from all over the world. During a break, a teacher, who had somehow wandered into our classroom, told Liviu that, if he sold his stamps, he could buy a car. Fats looked at her, then gathered all his albums and put them in his desk without saying a thing.
Teodora had told me that Liviu was gathering stamps for Anita, their younger sister. Anita suffered from an odd disease. She doesn’t really talk, play, go out, laugh, or do anything children her age do. At eight, she still doesn’t go to school, Teo told me, and sits all day long with a Rubik cube in front of her, flipping it on all sides. She only smiles when Liviu shows her the stamps or his matchbox collection. She touches him lightly on the hand when she wants him to turn the album page. And yes, the kid likes butterfly stamps the most. And Teo made me swear I wouldn’t tell anyone that her sister’s dreams come true on the walls. And that, yes, she surely is the author of the gigantic butterflies in the neighborhood.
“In our home, and especially in our bedroom” —Teo had whispered the previous night in my room, while our shadows were dancing— “all walls are covered with butterflies. But not only butterflies. Her Rubik cube is stretched in thousands of positions, from the hallway to the bathroom, and in the kitchen, tens of cubes seem to fall from the ceiling among clouds, birds, porcelain dogs, peacock feathers and colored balloons.
“Dad would like it if Anita stopped dreaming,” Teo also said.
“Liviu, can I go to the bathroom?” Gelu said when Fats finally allowed him to speak.
“Wait ten more minutes, until the break,” Liviu muttered from his desk and showed him, with his mechanical pencil, the list he would put him on if he talked again.
I met Teo again in the beginning of the winter. It hadn’t snowed at all; in fact, it was still very warm and the leafless trees seemed to be ready to bloom. Teo had a bandaged finger, on which she had drawn two eyes, a nose, and a mouth.
“I gave Anita her food and she bit me,” she complained, and then explained to me that only Liviu could feed her, that she only accepted him because he knew how to talk to her, that she let him touch her and she had nothing against it.
“I would like to meet your sister,” I told Teodora, uncertain.
I admit to being curious to see a freak and that, in fact, no pure feeling was driving me. I wanted to see the dream-colored walls for myself, I wanted to see the quiet little girl, hidden in her home like an ugly animal in a cage at the back of the yard. Going to Teo’s home would have felt like going to a zoo.
I had been recently paying a lot of attention to my parents’ conversations, when they mentioned Liviu’s parents, and had a pretty good impression of the struggle they were going through. For example, I knew they were on the brink of divorce because of Anita, because her father had insisted on putting her in a home when he had seen that the small one was mentally challenged, and her mother had threatened that she would throw herself in the Danube if he took her child away. My parents said that it was like a madhouse and soon they’d kill each other.
“You can come tomorrow, around noon,” Teo told me, “but before Liviu comes back from school. I have an excuse note for tomorrow and I’m alone with Anita until my brother gets home.”
“Aren’t your parents at home?”
“They’re working,” Teo muttered, and then she smiled, kissed me on the cheek and left.
Her bandaged finger also smiled to me when Teo waved goodbye.
The winter holidays were one week away, but it was so warm on the balcony that I was wearing a T-shirt.
It was then that I saw it. It wasn’t very colored. White-beige, with a few black spots on each wing. It was resting on the balcony railing and left traces of white dust on my fingers when I caught it and put it in a jar. A small white. An ordinary cabbage butterfly. Through the jar glass, I looked at its face with a magnifying glass. Its wide eyes with purple reflections, antennas like sticks, wings, and legs covered with fuzz. I placed it near the robot on my desk and wondered for a long time whether I should give it something to eat.
Anita looked like any other child.
For the first time in my life, I had skipped classes. I skipped the last one and went to Teo’s. On my way to her, the punks yelled at me to give them five lei, but I acted like I didn’t hear them. I quickened my pace and got to one of the colored alleys. It had rained a few times since the first butterflies had appeared on the walls, but the colors had not lost their freshness. Here and there, chunks of mortar were missing from where the men in overalls had taken their samples.
Teo opened the door for me and gestured that I shouldn’t make any noise. I slowly walked towards the girls’ bedroom.
Anita looked like any other child. She was dressed in butterfly pajamas and there were butterflies painted on all the walls. Thousands of overlapping butterflies, stretched like dampness from the corners all the way to the ceiling, with wings spread out like in the pictures on stamps or matchboxes. The girl was holding her Rubik’s cube and muttering something so softly that the sudden wind from outside was making it difficult to hear her. She was slowly moving her lips, while turning the cube’s sides. I sat in front of her, but she didn’t look at me. As if I was invisible.
“Leave her alone,” Teo whispered. “Let me show you the TV. It’s a color one”.
“Really?” I said, pretending to be interested. In fact, I had not taken my eyes off Anita. Then, while Teo slowly started for the living room, where the TV was supposed to be, I took the jar with the white butterfly from my bag. I slowly placed it in front of Anita. The small white moved its wings slightly, and then was motionless, with its antennas pointed at Teodora’s sister. Her hands stopped spinning the colored cube. In fact, all sides seem to match their colors, and Anita slowly turned her gaze towards me.
Then she screamed. No, she wasn’t scared. She was more like angry. She looked at the butterfly and screamed. So loud, I thought my eardrums would pop and the jar glass would break. I don’t know … Maybe she hit it with something, but I didn’t see. I only saw the butterfly fly away, through the glass shards, and place itself among the thousands of butterflies on the room’s walls. It seemed to lose itself among them. And when Anita stopped screaming and smiled in the direction the insect had flown, I felt a hand grabbing my hair and throwing me down. I got a kick in the stomach. Again and again and again, until I felt I couldn’t breathe. And all the butterflies were lost in the web of my tears.
“You’re hitting on my sister, you piece of shit!” Fats was hissing above me, still kicking. “Gelu was right! You’re hitting on my sister, you piece of shit!”
“Leave him alone!” Teo cried beside him.
“You shut up!” Fats bellowed. “Shut up! You’re a whore like Mom! The two of you are whores! Dad’s right. Shut up!”
Fats ceased hitting me only when Anita started singing. She sang something in another language, and Liviu sat on the bed beside her. I took my bag and ran for the door, then the stairs, in a rush to get home. Behind me, Teo was crying and Anita was singing. It’s like a madhouse, my mother’s words kept ringing in my head.
Locked in my room, I looked at the bruises left by Liviu’s boots on my hands, my legs and my ribs, all over my body. I was shaking with anger and spite and dreading the explanations I would have to give to my parents, including the one for skipping the final class. At the same time, I was thinking of how to smack Gelu for telling Liviu I was hitting on his sister.
Until my father came, the power was out. My mother cooked for us by the light of a carbide lamp. We ate in silence and darkness. Then I lied to my parents about doing my homework and went to bed.
A few days passed before I understood something. The police took me from my bed. They also took my parents, but not in the same car. I probably was in another town, judging by how long we drove. They asked me why my face was on the walls of the apartment building. They showed me photos of my face stretched between floors three and four, surrounded by white butterflies.
A man in a white robe beat me up and I finally told him about Liviu, Teo, and Anita, the little girl that uses dreams to paint. He didn’t believe me and beat me up again. And they did it until they probably decided to check what I was saying.
But they were too late.
Liviu’s mother had thrown herself into the Danube. This happened after his father tied all of his children to the radiator, drenched the house in gasoline, and set it on fire. The four of them burned like rats, people in the neighborhood said. But they didn’t talk about it too long. It was that warm winter when they started waving pierced flags like butterflies. Downtown, shots were heard, and on TV, there were non-stop images with protests in Bucharest. Nobody cared about the tragedy at E2, and from the military unit nearby, a few bullets bit the butterflies painted on the building walls.
I only went down that street once more, when I had some matters to attend to in the town, a few years ago. The blackness caused by the smoke is not gone from the walls of the building. But somehow, I can still see my face under it. There also are a few colored wings and the shape of a glass bowl containing a white-beige butterfly, with a few black spots on each wing. A small white. An ordinary cabbage butterfly.