Note: This is the first chapter of a longer work. Content warnings for intrusive thoughts and self harm.
I’ve collected three butterflies in a jar for Olive this year, but I don’t know how long they will last. I’d tempted them in by coating my fingertips with honey. This proved more efficient than last year’s jam.
They flutter around, apparitions of prismatic satin, gently bumping the sides of their crystalline prison. One manages to gain some footing and rests its spindly legs against the side of the jar. I’m surprised it doesn’t slip. I put a finger against the dark pinpricks of pressure where bug meets knobbly glass. Their strained elegance is forced to erode by an unfamiliar lack of space. It’s like carriages in bridge traffic. Or the lord’s Remembrance Ball last spring – too-tight cravats and fumbling, clammy hands and the tailcoat my father forced upon me, passed down Fang men for three generations. Dancing with Helena, her insults and willowy arms cornering me against that dreadful curtain until I spilled my rosebud tonic down her sleeve.
I’ve stabbed slits into the top of the jar — three thin, serrated sinkholes I pray aren’t wide enough for a butterfly to attempt to crawl through or tear its wing on. I won’t look at the other jars when I get there. I start humming the song Helena’s been choreographing to. It’s a mainland number, about the princesses and such. I don’t remember the words, so I sing her name.
The grass is lush and soaked through with dew, coating my shoes and ankles with water as I begin my walk. My summer cottage is conveniently located at the edge of the main township. I turn onto a well-trodden path lined with wildflowers. I pick one up, turning the stem over in my hand until it falls apart. Helena, Helena, I sing. I need to buy her an anniversary present for tomorrow sometime today. I dig the nail of my index finger into the side of my thumb. Helena, Helena. Maybe perfume, or a watch. I hope that will be right. I should’ve asked Walt at work yesterday – he seems romantic. This is fine. I will go to the market later and ask for their suggestions.
Olive first, though. And they lie nowhere near the market or even the town. I arrive at a patch of overgrown sunflowers down near the pine forest. The sunflowers in Calypse Springs arch and bend at strange angles, the bigger ones taking the shape of rainbows or bottlenecks and the smaller ones struggling out of the shadows like the necks of featherless baby birds. The tallest ones have flowers bigger than my head and seeds with a blackness that becomes a tinted oily sheen in direct light. A broken-down sign next to the patch reads CALYPSE CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL, and then underneath, an abridged Springs motto: LET US BE SAVED. The sign correlates to a decrepit building crouching behind the flowers. The flowers cast malformed shadows over its moss-covered stone remains and threaten to swallow it up. Some irregular splashes of paint on the stone read Remember Holly. I don’t, although we must’ve been a similar age.
I no longer believe repeating Helena’s name will help me remember my task so I stick my index finger out. I will keep it out and look at it later and remember I kept it out because I need to buy her a present.
I tuck the jar into the leather bag I’ve slung over my shoulder. Helena bought it for me last year because she thought it looked manly and rugged, like a pioneer’s. I clamber over the flowers and hoist myself onto the ledge of one of the windows. It lets out a dusty sigh as I tilt it open. I cough. I grab a small bottle of lemonwater I’ve tucked into my bag, down it, and use it to prop the window up as I struggle through.
This window doesn’t lead me into any of the seven wards, but the playroom. As opposed to the wards, it understandably seems to have fallen out of use during the last few years of this institution. Nowadays, fewer teens egged on by friends, substances, and nebulous darkness tend to stumble and crash onto its wooden floors, so it’s more intact than the wards. More private. The walls are a cloudy pink with faded fairies and trees and ivy has started to creep down the edges of the windows. An owl built a nest on one of the rafters two years ago. When I visit in the evening, its soft hoos bounce off the high ceiling. It’s quiet today, probably sleeping.
Olive isn’t buried here. The mass graves were cast out to sea. I simply thought it’d be a good place to commemorate my friend. My memorial to them, marked by a thinner layer of dust and concentric circles of jars past, sits in the rightmost corner of the room. A forlorn wooden horse lies in the center, crowned with labyrinthine cobwebs that extend to every corner of the space. Swampflies and stray bits of litter have been peppered throughout the foggy strands. My second time here, I’d tried to clean up the space, grabbing at handfuls of cobweb and insect corpse until I’d collapsed onto my knees, crying. I remember then seeing afternoon sunlight hit the lustrous shells I hadn’t torn down. Through my tears, the room began to dance with color.
I dig the jar out of my bag and set it on the floor. I catch a glimpse of a motionless wing in last year’s jar like a discarded candy wrapper and divert my gaze too late.
A clumsy portrait I’d painted of Olive hunches on the wall. Their eyes are crooked and their hair is the wrong kind of brown. “Happy birthday,” I tell them.
I am about to exit when I hear the hurried rhythmic soft sounds of something scurrying. It’s a foxlike thing, lithe and unforgivingly golden, framed by the doorless entrance at the other end of the playroom. The scruff on the underside of its jaw is tinged red, and it has something long in its mouth. It tilts its head — the long thing is a human arm. Milk-skinned and wrapped in a linen sleeve. Gold-entombed fingers. I feel bile creep towards the edges of my molars.
The animal doesn’t see me, instead continuing to disappear down the unseen hallway with its prize. I wonder if the original owner of the arm is alive. Taking shallow breaths. Dragging themselves in weak motions across a floor.
I count to eighty in my head. Then I run towards the door.
It’s not hard to follow the trail the animal has left — a train of speckled and blotchy redness down the hallway like a too-long wine spill or the scraps of fabric Helena leaves on the floor when she’s tailoring a costume. I run alongside it, careful not to catch any of the blood on my shoes. The trail turns and ends in one of the wards — judging by the small bed frames and alphabet pattern on the walls, probably one for babies.
On the floor lies the body of a man. A merchant, by the looks of the various jewels and trinkets hanging from his bulky leather belt. Light hair, gaudy malachite-green pants with slits at the bottom, three tattoos down his remaining arm — the kind of man Father would shield me from as a child when we passed the markets on our way to the docks. Someone Walt would barter with to get vintage books from or Helena would tease me for fearing. I do not recognize him. Perhaps I would if he were more intact. What remains of his face has been shrouded by a clump of vegetation, seemingly sprouted out from either the ground or his orifices — it’s too overgrown to tell. Tiny sunflowers with starling-black centers have pried their way out into bloom above the arcs of his cheekbones and what might be the bridge of his nose, surrounded by lush bundles of grass like a forest god’s beard.
I’ve seen stranger things in this area, but I’m mesmerized by how beautiful this is. It is so beautiful that I don’t notice how his milky skin sags and bloats until it’s too late. Then it is like remembering the bitter aftertaste of a childhood medicine and I throw up onto one of the nearby bed frames. This is unbecoming. I wipe my mouth and apologize to him.
In the man’s remaining hand, he holds an empty sealskin bag. I could hide his face with it — I think it’s wide enough. That would be closer to an apology he’d be able to understand.
As I lift it up, numerous objects begin to spill out. A stuffed rabbit without any one recognizable color, a small jeweled book, and two blocks of stone — perhaps dislocated chunks of wall — that propel clouds of debris onto my pants. I let go of the bag immediately, something small and burning coalescing into an ember and sinking under my chest. The seams of my shirt feel heavy on my skin. They’re treasures. Stolen things to be smuggled across the sea and sold on the mainland.
Correcting my posture, I nudge the stuffed rabbit with my foot. What I mistook for its nose was a smudge of blood between its button eyes. A tap and a smudge of greyish dirt left on the sole of my shoe reveals the fur was a light purple. I kneel down and inspect the book next. Tiny opals scutter down its side. I turn to the first page. Untarnished golden ruling lines the page, and the next. It’s an empty notebook.
Helena likes opals and the macabre. I put down my index finger.
As I walk out, I mentally run through everyone I could tell about the situation. Helena, obviously. The anniversary present would be incomplete without the context. Not my father, or any other adult — the hospital ruins are private property. Walt? He is a soldier, so some part of me is scared he’d arrest me. Another part of me wants nothing more than for him to grab my wrists.
After I am back outside, I sit down next to the sunflowers. As I land onto the grass, a cloud of gnats and swampflies rise up from the grass, but I bat them away. They do not like the way my blood tastes, so I’m fine. I stroke a petal of a nearby sunflower. It’s small, thick and almost velvety, like a puppy’s ear. Maybe the petals of the tiny ones in the man would feel like fuzzy pebbles. My arm gives a shake. Walt tells me this texture is unique to Calypse Springs sunflowers. A couple years ago, he was stationed in the palace at Iridellia, where he felt sunflower petals as thin as gauze. It was a decorative variety they sell for the nobles’ gardens.
People say the curse lies more heavily here, which is why it makes for a good spot to be alone. Everything smells faintly sweet. Not chokingly so, like Helena’s perfume, but in a way that tints all my senses a soft yellow and makes my breath flutter out of my mouth.
Helena likes to say she cares for the morning air, but I doubt she’s ever woken up early enough to smell it. We like to sleep back to back. Well, I go to sleep four hours ahead of her and I sleep on my side facing the wall. She climbs in sometime later – she’s good at doing it silently – and I think she likes to sleep on her side too. We both are unforgivably warm people (Walt says we have coals under our skin) and the Springs in the late summer months are an unforgiving place, so it’s understandable that she does not sleep facing me. Though I suppose she has a tendency to roll over. It’s not very pleasant and I have to wrestle her arm aside in the morning. This morning, however, I wake up with my heart pounding and my mouth dry and the feeling of her skin on mine makes me want to tear out her veins. I want nothing more than to move it and nothing less than to touch it. I end up hoisting her bony wrist up between the pads of my index finger and my thumb and toss her arm aside like a fish carcass. I take a second to catch my breath. I don’t remember — and don’t particularly care to remember — the dream.
The wetness in the air has coated my skin, hair, and eyelashes like a third linen sheet. I run a hand through my hair, wincing as I feel how close it lies to my scalp. This is the third reason why I like to wake up before Helena. Sweat and heat and a broken window make me look like a wet cat. (Reasons one and two are (1) I am terrified of subjecting her to my morning breath and (2) the sunrise is lovely.)
I shuffle over to our mirror. Walt stole it from the soldiers’ bunks last spring, along with one for himself, and gifted it to us at the small welcome party he held. As his only employee, I was the only one invited, so I brought along Helena. Walt had strung up a selection of his favorite pages from books, cut out and garishly highlighted like war prizes. I was horrified. Helena was politely charmed. Walt had wrapped up the mirror in more of them. Despite its presentation, the thoughtfulness of the gift had made me smile. I’d complained to him about the lack of a mirror in my summer cottage a few days before and then immediately regretted complaining to my boss. My father says the way I shuffle my feet as I stand in place and my occasional twitches give people a bad first impression. I didn’t want to give someone as honest and robust as Walt a bad first impression.
The mirror now hangs against the wall next to Helena’s desk. I have framed it in dried flowers, gold paint, and my embroidery. Helena asked me to hang it up, which means Helena cannot see the top of her head unless she leans to one side.
I go for a walk around the valley and come back to find Helena still asleep. I dust the floors, rearrange the stack of papers she has cast across the dining table, and boil myself a small pot of tea. There’s an inn Helena likes to visit for brunch before her rehearsals, so I like to treat myself to breakfast alone. Sometimes eggs, syrupy and glistening and framed with tiny bubbles as I poach them in my pot. Sometimes fruit from the tree in our yard, or a pastry from the town center that collapses under the ridge behind your teeth like a sandcastle. The tea is made of dried illisflowers and their tangy scent rises into the air as it steeps. It threatens to coat everything around it in another layer of moisture. I move away.
“Vinnie?” Helena calls. She’s in the doorway now, lounging against the doorframe. Her dark curls conceal half of her face, spiraling downwards drunkenly. She wipes at her eyes, before stretching a drowsy arm forward to grab my shoulder. “Happy anniversary.”
“Happy anniversary,” I say. “Would you like tea?”
“No,” she says, and lifts a leg to rest her foot on the kitchen counter. She is wearing a sky-colored fabric that stretches under pressure like the interwoven shells of a thousand dead swampflies. A jolt of this iridescence runs under the crook of her leg as she stretches. Helena is a dancer in the Apocalypse Performer’s Troupe. She jokes that Calypse Springs is the only place in all of Sosku where you can make a living as an entertainer, since anything coming out of this place is automatically regarded as a freakshow. She flashes a triumphant grin when her ear touches her leg, and I notice that she’s threaded winterbug wings into her hair. The long strands of gossamer catch and spit out the light like tiny rainbow-made trains.
“What’s the occasion?” I ask. I pull out a coaster for my cup and try to sneak it onto the table. Helena complains about the rings of moisture.
“We have our run today. Lord Caternant’s coming to see it before the weekend.”
“Ah,” I say. “That’s fun. Be saved.”
“And you a thousand pieces.” She switches out her leg for the other, throwing her hair out of her face before bending down towards it. “You know, I wish we could spend more time together in bed.”
“It’s already obscene enough that we share a bed,” I say.
“One of these days I’ll cheat on you.”
That is a foolish thought – and, if she could, she would’ve done so long ago. “We have no time for that,” I say.
She cackles, before bounding over to the table and pulling out one of the wooden chairs. The chair squeaks, which makes her cackle more, tossing her head back like a hawk snatching a fish from a waterfall. Every time she laughs, I’m surprised by the fluidity in the way her face stretches. Her features are sharp and rigid, with a prominent nose and protruding cheekbones, but her mouth expands like a blooming wound. Flag-pink lipstick — patriotism for the lord. When her laughter dies down, she cocks her head to look over my features like a seagull observing a forgotten piece of bread.
“You’re not handsome, you know,” she says. And then, “I love you.”
“I love you,” I say, quiet. I pour her some tea.
“I need to paint my nails,” Helena says, and gets up to get her polish. I take this as the opportunity to give her my present. As she kneels down, long fingers scrambling for the handle on a cupboard, I duck behind the counter and grab the book.
“Gift for you,” I say. I am heading out.
“Where’d you get it?” she asks.
“Oh, yes! I saw a corpse yesterday,” I say.
She hums, and I mistake it for acknowledgement. Then she says, “Is pink too much? My lips are already pink.”
I shake my head. She doesn’t see this. “Well?” she asks.
“No,” I say.
She pulls out three small bottles — two clear, one pink — and settles down at the table again. “Well, I saw the lord’s carriage yesterday,” she says. “In front of the grocer’s. The really fancy carriage with the purple trim.”
“The corpse was a smuggler. He had this notebook.” I toss it over to her. “Happy anniversary.”
I turn and leave. She calls after me. “Cursed goods! Thanks, thief boy.”
I go to the bathroom to wash my face. Helena’s makeup is still in front of the mirror — colored powder spilling out of their containers and gathering into sludge around the rim of the basin. I grip the edge of the counter underneath with both palms and try to quell the growing nausea in my chest. I stare at the ring of water my toothbrush makes on the counter and where it has begun to rust until it starts to blur. I yell at myself in the mirror, at the place where my eyebrows grow uneven, at the place where my jaw grows soft. I hit myself in the head — a light, too-scared punch — and things rattle around for a brief moment. Too much.
Helena says a lover is someone she can see herself spending the rest of her life with. If that is the case, I cannot tell if I’d prefer a lover or a good insurance plan. I touch my cheekbone and find that it’s damp. I let it grow wetter, let my nose grow red, let my eyes swell. There is nothing to lose in growing uglier. I could leave and run or scream at her until she cries or find out if the coat rack is sharp enough to pierce a person’s forehead. No! That’s silly. Stop! A relationship is a million sacrifices one gives for the title of lover. An important title to hold.
“Helena, Helena, Helena.” If I talk out loud, I will stop thinking. Louder! All right.
I create a little evil caricature in my mind of myself, give him a silver crown like the villains in Helena’s shows, and assign the sillier thoughts to him. Then I bash him in the head until it begins to cave in like an ill-risen loaf of bread.