“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
― Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
Boca Diablo (part 3, Lepidopterist)
After Dwayne returned to the mission group from working at the volcano with Chaix he felt he had come back from an alien planet – a different world… and he felt that he never fully returned. Everything had a surreal aura around it. Colors were sharper, smells were stronger, yet his fellow travelers seemed unsubstantial and blurred – their speech almost unintelligible and completely uninteresting. He began to worry, would the rest of his life be like this?
He felt that he was living a half-life, that something had been revealed to him that he not only didn’t understand – he couldn’t even comprehend what it was.
At night, beside his hammock in their last few days on the mission trip, he tried to explain how he felt to Suzanna.
“But I don’t understand,” she said, “You climbed a volcano, you saw some butterflies. What’s the big deal?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to explain, I don’t know. Something’s changed and I can’t figure out what it is, or what I should do about it.”
“I think that maybe you breathed a few too many fumes from that volcano,” Suzanna said.
Of course, these feelings faded over time, especially after they returned home. Still, it was always there, the small knot of surrealistic doubt that remained like a stone in the pit of Dwayne’s stomach.
He graduated and went off to school like everyone had always expected him to. He floundered around, changing majors every semester or two, until he ended up in biology. It felt like an accident, someplace random, until he sneaked away from a particularly boring lecture and, following some little-used dim passageway, ended up in a storage area in the bowels of the Natural History Museum, where his class had been held.
He wandered into a large, open room, lined with what looked like miles of identical shallow metal cases with hinged glass lids.. These were filled with specimens of butterflies. Thousands of them, dead, dried, pinned and labeled. Rank upon ran of bright fluorescent tubes burned down overhead. The walls of the room were mirrored, which gave the illusion that the room was endless.
He looked down at the specimens in the cases and their little tags perched on thin steel pins next to the specimens. There was the mysterious latin name in bold lettering – Colias eurytheme, Phyciodes campestris montana, Polygonia satyrus, Vanessa virginiensis… on and one. Under the Latin Name was the common, or English name: Crown Fritillary, Nevada Silverspot, Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, Queen Alexandra’s Sulphur, Boisduval’s Marble.
Beneath the name there was a date, a country of origin (and there were lots of these) and finally a person’s name – next to the word collector. These too were widely varied, but as he moved down the row he noticed that one name kept reappearing with regularity, one person seemed to be primarily responsible for the collection – Haiden Flynn.
He wasn’t sure why, but he felt a kinship with this Flynn.
Dwayne thought he was alone in that vast and strange place, until he was gazing at the mirrored end of the room, trying to figure out exactly where the boundaries were, when he caught a glimpse of motion down at the other end. Turning, he followed his eyes to where the movement must have been and noticed a man in a white lab coat, bending over a case. In total silence, the man’s arms worked at something and then Dwayne saw the case’s lid rise. He immediately moved to where the man was.
It was an old, old man. He was completely bald on the top of his head, the smooth skin reflecting the light from the fluorescents overhead in curved lines. On the side of his head were thick knots of pure white hair, extending out in on each side.
“Excuse me,” Dwayne said, “I didn’t realize anyone was here.”
The old man hesitated for a second, then raised his head and looked at Dwayne. He was wearing some sort of complex compound glasses and had swung a magnifier over each eye, which made his deep blue irises loom large and buglike in the glass. The old man was holding a gigantic iridescent blue butterfly specimen. He moved it slightly in the bright light, and the wings shed a shower of colors. Dwayne noticed the label on the man’s lab coat, it said Prof. Flynn.
Flynn flicked the magnifier lenses off to the side and his eyes shrank down to small beads of blue. He barely seemed to notice Dwayne until he realized that Dwayne was staring at the iridescence of the specimen’s wings.
“Aha!” Flynn cried in a surprising loud and melodic voice, “Morpho didius, commonly named Giant Blue Morpho.”
“You,” Dwayne stammered, “This is your collection?”
“But of course it is,” Flynn said, “Who else would it belong to? Now this magnificent Morpho here… I collected it on a small village farm in the high Andes of Peru. I love all my… little friends here.” Flynn waved across the room in a sweeping gesture, “of course, but I do have my favorites. And this would be one… one of many.”
Dwayne realized at that time that he had no choice but to become a Lepidopterist.
Flynn was such an odd bird that rarely would an undergraduate stoop to work for him, let alone a graduate assistant, that it was easy for Dwayne to transfer, take as many classes under Flynn as he could, and work for research credit in the dark catacombs of Flynn’s collections.
His parents were concerned, especially as he laid out his plans for continuing his studies in graduate school.
“Now, these butterflies are all nice and good,” his mother told him as they sat around the kitchen table, drinking coffee over spring break. “But we’re concerned for your future.”
“We’re not rich, you know,” his father continued. “We want you to be happy, but you’re going to have to earn a living sometime.”
“I can always teach,” Dwayne said.
The only reply from his parents were to compress their lips into a tighter line.
Back at school, he sat down with Suzanna – who had followed Dwayne to the university.
“Don’t worry about it Dwayne,” she said. “I’m about to graduate with an Engineering Degree, I’ll make enough for both of us.”
Dwayne wanted to ask some questions – he didn’t quite understand what she was talking about. Still, if this was a way he could pull it off…
They were married three months after graduation and settled into a nice but spartan apartment a mile off campus. Suzanna, true to her word, found a research position with a petrochemical firm that paid enough for them to live and for Dwayne to continue his work under Professor Flynn.
Dwayne began to settle down, but there was one big problem that continued to bother him, enough to keep him awake at night.
It took almost two years, but finally Dwayne sat down with Flynn and told him the story of the trip to the Boca Diablo volcano and the orange butterflies. Talking about it for the first time in half a decade felt like a giant weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
As the story went on, he became more and more excited, animated, and the memories came flooding back, the details sharp and clear.
Finally he finished, let out a deep breath, and sat back to see what Flynn would say.
“Well, son, that’s quite a tale.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s completely impossible.”
“You see, son, I know every genus and species of butterfly in the world. Nobody else knows half what I know and while there may be something out there I’ve never seen, there is always more to learn, there couldn’t be something like that.”
“What do you mean ‘Something like that;?”
“Something like a bright orange butterfly living in a volcanic crater. Species of that color are very rare and there are none that size, none close to that size. And, especially, none in that country, or even that part of the world.”
“But… but I saw them, I really did.”
“Maybe what you saw is more related to how long ago it was and the smoke from that crater.”
“That’s what Suzanna said?”
“Suzanna, my wife.”
Dwayne realized that over the years he had worked with Flynn, the old professor had never met his wife, and he had mentioned her so little that Flynn didn’t even remember who she was. And he didn’t seem to care.
“So you are completely sure that there are no bright orange butterflies in that part of the world.”
And Dwayne immediately knew where he had to go and what he had to do.