In Pursuit of Butterflies
My dog Maggie chases butterflies. And eats them, if she can. The prettier the better.
It started one summer during a butterfly plague: surely the nicest kind of plague there is. Anywhere you looked, thousands of wings were flapping, colours blinking. A kaleidoscopic sparkle if you took it as a whole, but I liked to track a single creature instead, to watch it rise and fall, zagging in and out through the masses. It was a challenge, because they all looked similar and moved in haphazard ways, and it only took a glint of sunlight through the foliage and I’d lose my mark in the crowd. But then I’d choose another one and start again.
Maggie met all this beauty with an energetic rage, barking and leaping and snapping for hours, until I locked her inside, where she’d push her snout to the glass door and yap miserably. If I tried to drag her away she’d breathe a sinister growl that sounded like distant thunder. It was strange behaviour, from such a good-natured dog. I wanted to ask her why she was so worked up, but of course dogs can’t understand questions like that, or any questions for that matter. But I asked her anyway. She stared through the glass and barked. I looked out too, and tried to put myself in her mind, tried to imagine such fanatic feelings about these fluttery confetti-looking things. It was an interesting exercise, but I couldn’t identify with her viewpoint.
In the process, though, recollections of my own obsessions came to mind — some sexual and romantic fixations of my youth, in particular, skidded into view. They were monomaniacal too, and though I never leapt around barking, I went just as mad in other ways. At age fourteen I tried to impress my first love by striding around school as fast as I could. I thought fast-walking was a key to her heart. I assumed it showed my physical prowess or something, I suppose. So I zipped between classes, saying hi to her as I blew past; I imagined her heart set vibrating in my wake. That went on for a year. It may not surprise you that we never got together. And I can joke about it now — but she was all I thought of until the end of high school.
There were other cases too, other madnesses which are stories for another time, and the thread of the persistent ones was that I never got what I wanted. Each time, the object stayed in view but out of reach. When I applied this insight to Maggie’s predicament — at this point I’d never seen her catch a butterfly — I reckoned that if she could just taste success she’d realise she didn’t like its flavour or texture, and her lunacy would be cured.
So, with a net made of pillowcase and broken badminton racquet, I ventured to the yard feeling childlike and old. I swung my contraption at the swarm. They were harder to catch than they seemed; now it was me leaping and twisting in pursuit, while Maggie paced waggly behind the glass, barking support. By the time I caught one I was sweaty and annoyed. As I brought it inside, trapped in the pillowcase, Maggie went crazy, yelping and lunging with her forepaws as if she wanted to run right up my front. One such lunge struck my groin, and in doubling over I released the neck of the pillowcase. The butterfly flapped out, and at that point a real commotion started.
Maggie’s some kind of spaniel cross, and her long hair and ears project a sense of ineffectual floppiness that I knew was unearned — but I was still surprised by the force of destruction she wrought on my living room that day. The tower speakers went down, as did a lamp; the computer screen fell on the console and smashed, I heard the lounge tear, and the TV was knocked askew. With little left to wreck in that room, the butterfly saw that the kitchen needed attention and fluttered drunkenly in there. But as it right-turned at the sink, it was intercepted by another flying animal — namely, Maggie, who had taken an astonishing running bound from the floor to a dining chair to the kitchen bench and then airborne — and with an audible snap of teeth the butterfly vanished. Back on the ground, Maggie was bent over, making moist cha cha cha sounds, chewing with her lips retracted in a way that suggested considerable distaste. I was confident my ploy had worked. She looked like throwing up. She was done with butterflies now, surely. But after swallowing, with a sick, concentrated look of forcing it down, she gave only the briefest grin of satisfaction before trotting back to the glass door, where she gave a few eager parps and turned to beseech me with hanging eyes.
For a while I glared back at her, twisting my face into shapes of frustration. When finally I pulled the door open she bolted out and jumped around, snapping and barking with more passion than ever, as if the havoc indoors had been a kind of training session. I slid the door closed behind her and sighed a deep one. While I picked glass shards out of the carpet, twice drawing blood, I thought of my first time with a girl — my first catch. We kissed, we clashed teeth; we rubbed against each other and I came in my jeans, and she cried nonsensically that I had put her at risk of pregnancy. I departed feeling shaken and ashamed, and she avoided me the rest of semester. It was a bitter first taste — and there was plenty more bitterness to come — but despite all the failures, the empty successes, the post-coital malaise and coupled-up loneliness, I never quite stopped being mad about girls.
On my knees, sucking blood from my thumb, I gazed out at Maggie and smiled. The next week the plague was gone, but before then her mania had showed signs of abating: she could sometimes be caught dozing on the porch as butterflies swarmed overhead, and even while in pursuit her twisting leaps betrayed a faint sense of routine. Still, she seemed lost and aimless when they disappeared; and now whenever a lone one appears she becomes tortured, impotently wild, because the chance of a single butterfly coming within range of her teeth is low; but she’ll watch as it flitters through the open air, through the foliage, perhaps alighting on a flower to pulse its wings and suck the nectar, beautifully indifferent to the hairy predator pacing and whimpering and salivating below.
About the Author: Brendan Zietsch has stories in Beechwood Review, Bookends Review, Jellyfish Review, and The Writer’s Bloc, and has published articles about aspects of sex and romance in various international academic and media outlets. He lives alone in Brisbane, Australia. Favourite film: Lost in Translation. Favourite music: Mark Kozelek.