Nobody expected butterflies. Dense flocks appeared along the Atlantic Seaboard that August, radial bands stretching from Cape Canaveral to Mount Desert Island. Eyewitnesses snarled the phones at natural resource departments claiming aerial discoloration, impressionistic streaks, an ominous iridescence that induced vertigo when studied closely. Park rangers well versed in hyperbole greeted such reports with skepticism, only to pause mid-sentence when the slow-moving shadow inevitably arrived, darkening lighthouse balconies and watchtower windows, smearing the horizon like a shimmering stain.
On YouTube and Facebook, grainy videos offered little clarity, the phenomenon unfathomable in pixelated form. What to make of those oily smudges? Why the shaky footage? Did nobody own a zoom lens? Internet sleuths cried hoax before circulating end-times memes—arched feelers and thousand-chambered eyes, the grim reaper spreading rainbow wings, #bewarethebuttersky—but the winning take came from the Gloucester Nightly News, where, safely on shore, a first mate swaddled in Mylar recounted disorienting darkness, sudden waves and waterspouts, navigation needles unspinning screws. If the fluttering in his eyes suggested spiritual mediumship to some, others cited insurance fraud as the likelier explanation.
But daybreak bore him out. At Chatham and Ocracoke, whale pods ran aground, organs crushed by unbuoyed weight, blood running back on the tides. Good Samaritans told of high frequency whispers, a collective whine emanating not from the dying cetaceans but rather fibrous canopies collecting overhead. Further south, from Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head, dark swathes lured turtle hatchings into roadkill streets and motel parking lots, where seagulls feasted on easy pickings, their bloated bellies skimming asphalt. The first human injuries, it should be noted, the twisted knees, the pulled hamstrings, the whiplash, the broken arms and heart attacks, were not inflicted by the butterflies themselves, but rather panic accompanying their unexpected arrival.
“Do not be alarmed,” advised one Dr. Shell, entomologist-in-chief appointed days prior through a process criticized by her predominately male peers. But behind the briefing room podium, in a crisp lab coat and salmon slacks, she won their respect with shrewd answers and contagious enthusiasm, an unwillingness to indulge idle conjecture. And who could forget the big reveal, easel drapery swept aside as flash bulbs erupted. There, under glass, an entirely novel species—crucified on corkboard, book-sized and velvet black—stunned reporters into silence. Its wings glinted with violent luster, painful to scrutinize up close, at least according to those present. On screen, the butterfly presented as a glitch-void. “Initial observation suggests behavioral tendencies not unlike ornithoptera alexandrae,” Dr. Shell said, gazing into the camera, pupils dilated, speech suddenly slurred, “though we hope to better understand uniquely disruptive schooling behaviors in the near future.” Moments later, she collapsed.
Her death the following day (in the biocontainment unit at Johns Hopkins) birthed the Promethean Proxy, a theory championed by populist pundits and televangelists, among other more insidious influencers. God, the thinking went, had grown tired of genetic meddling and general ingratitude before exacting elaborate revenges on all those who dare decipher earth, scientists especially. In their view, the butterflies foretold final judgment, the storm before eternal calm (or damnation, depending on your rap sheet). By contrast, Shellites— cryptozoologists mainly, disavowed by the doctor’s family—suspected a false flag campaign, in which a predictable cast of autocratic powers but also Canada sought to undermine American hegemony. The truth, as the autopsy would later show, involved amino acid mutations and undiagnosed allergies, but in tumultuous times, few cared for technical explanations, least of all the butterflies.
Sooty veils descended upon Appalachia, shape-shifting smears some likened to the northern lights. Others proposed oil slicks as the more apt comparison, filmy swirls swamping the sky. Still others described a taut bedsheet, through which three-dimensional resemblances—of martyrs, politicians, infamous villains—could be discerned, familiar faces flickering across an evanescent screen. Onlookers detailed a glittering euphoria, a trance-like state commonly associated with hallucinogens. If such displays imbued hard luck mining hamlets with child-like wonder, if the butterflies awakened buckeye burgs to a thrilling new sublimity, then the casualties that followed would seem all the more unnerving, as if evolution had taught these delicate creatures to weaponize beauty.
The early bodies turned up in corn fields and apple orchards, backyards and parking decks, community gardens and roadside canals, eyes peeled open, bloodshot and bewildered. In extreme cases, disfigured victims—swollen capillaries, raised rashes, scars and stretchmarks—could only be identified with dental records. Signs of struggle included circular footprints and discharged firearms, but, as researchers later found, ammunition only abetted an unlikely defense mechanism—not poison or probisci but ferromagnetic organs akin to those found inside electric eels. Of fatalities in case study communities (Charleston, WV, Marion, OH, Paris, KY), the majority stemmed from blunt force trauma, submerged stones veined with nickel and cobalt; less commonly, in mineral-rich regions, high blood-iron content created a hemorrhagic condition colloquially known as metal brain. “A great many questions remain unanswered,” the paper concluded after sixty-seven pages, “though perhaps these phantoms, harbingers of gloom, have much to teach us about human hubris.”
Meteorologists tried to learn. Weather forecasts featured projected paths and evacuation routes, but Doppler hotspots across the Midwest failed to reflect erratic flight patterns, near-instantaneous maneuvers described by one Air Force colonel as “deliberately evasive.” In Des Moines, for example, a family barbecue turned tragic minutes after the sirens waned, at which point swirling updrafts snatched children from swing sets and see-saws, subsumed a bounce house into blackness before spewing its occupants across a forest clearing miles away. In one photograph, praised by professional guilds as singular and unflinching, a tween lay sunbathing on a riverbank, her golden swimsuit splotched with sand, ragged hair spilling towards water, seemingly at peace save for the beach umbrella staked through her heart.
Where most plains residents took heed, seeking sanctuary in storm cellars and basements, cautionary tales did little to dissuade tornado chasers and suicidal teenagers, cowboys on the cusp of anachronism, self-appointed prophets butting up against doomsday deadlines. But when the butterflies swept through Lincoln, Sioux Falls, Bismarck and Pierre, eerie silence set in. Steady rain gushed from the flocks, lukewarm after freefall, colorless but suffused with a scent not unlike cherry pie, an odor associated with hepatoxic heliotropes from Aegean lore. For years afterwards, those exposed suffered bulbous swelling, boils and bunions, an endless internal itch, a dull, persistent longing for something unnamable. Sadly, urine samples proved elusive, as the substance dissolved upon contact, leaving no signature in the bloodstream—a fact Shellites found all too convenient.
On that note, many wondered: What did the butterflies eat? How could they fly so long without the fortifying effects of sap or nectar? If not the ancient cedar stands dotting eastern Idaho, or the rock pillars rising above geothermal basins, or the lush alpine meadows straddling the Great Divide, where did they rest? Was it possible the very same photosynthetic reactions observed in sea slugs and salamanders sustained a wholly organic form of solar-powered flight? Might further magnetic manipulation be afoot? More importantly, considering volatile behaviors exhibited thus far, how much longer would they live?
Holding patterns over four corners—brief departure from an otherwise Northwesterly route—provided few answers. Excluding run-ins with hot air balloons and gyrocopters, the butterflies drifted harmless above saguaro stands, plunging the blistered landscape into perpetual twilight. Phoenicians welcomed the shade, though vitamin D deficiencies sparked a supplement run, surges in Ambien and Prozac prescriptions among already over-medicated populations. Psychotropic dreams, disclosed by clinicians and astrologists alike, involved tarantula inhalation, with patients waking to dry, pulsing throats, an uptick in pathologic phagophobia. “If you’re close to tragedy, the mind overcompensates,” one Sedona schoolteacher was quoted after a sweat lodge catharsis, “I guess we got lucky in the grander scheme.”
Not so for Sierra Nevada ski towns, dude ranch retreats and hot spring spas, wineries overlooking whitewater runs, where low-lying accumulations postponed multiple weddings, the inky ceiling hovering just beyond reach. Unguarded vacationers spoke of listless flight, wings flapping in slow-motion, scales somehow flaking despite lush, temperate climes. Over time, adverse effects more typically associated with radiation exposure emerged across many demographics, including construction workers, airstrip marshals, animal rights activists, tree trimmers, and unsupervised children, whose price-gouged nets had scared up a fine, silvery silk. Even in decline, the insects proved elusive, their fragile bodies reforming, flowing like cephalopods through the finest filaments.
Were the butterflies even real, some wondered. Were they specters sent from a higher power, as the Prometheans had posited, remanence of bygone eras born back through time? While ghost hunters weighed the evidence on paranormal podcasts, thinning flocks ascended over the Pacific, their wrath unvisited on coastal California. Yet even at considerable distance, the scourge now a speck on the horizon, the butterflies performed one last trick. At farewell and fuckoff parties, held predominately at beaches, balconies, hotel rooftops and state park promontories, roughly 10% of attendees experienced enchantment, flapping their arms and zigzagging in dizzy spells, or cocooning in comforters, or plummeting down jagged slopes into unforgiving chop. Alcohol, one beleaguered sheriff explained when pressed on the mortality spike, is a very dangerous drug.
By September’s end, the butterflies had disappeared over the Bering straits, though sightings from Kamchatka to Madagascar persisted for years to come. Experts across disciplines would spend decades unraveling the visitation, coined by one popular historian as the Black Brood Anomaly. Biologists sought clues in the lone remaining specimen, stolen from the US Capitol before resurfacing in Sweden, held under thermoregulated lock and key at Stockholm’s Museum of Unnatural Science; psychologists published papers on mass hysteria and hallucinations, collective paranoia in relation to the preternatural; astrobiologists posited antimatter morphology at flagship conferences, interplanetary invasive species; philosophers debated new dimensions and social simulacrum, while literary critics and classicists—all but forgotten by the public discourse, writing from foreign cafes or cramped home offices or spartan cabins or moldy recesses in crumbling campus haunts—wondered if the whole ordeal was merely a metaphor, not an end but rather, like the plagues of Athens and Agamemnon, the beginning of a dark and difficult future.
Edward Helfers writes short fiction, essays, and music. His work appears in Michigan Quarterly Review, Puerto Del Sol, Epiphany, The Rupture, DIAGRAM, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. He teaches critical and creative writing for the Literature Department at American University in Washington, D.C.