Here’s my first official short story ‘Butterfly Powder’ I wrote in about 2200 words. I had written one or two earlier, but they were just scriblles. This one is for your enjoyment. Have fun!
Zohair held the dead butterfly with his fingertips and gazed at it with a slight smile of satisfaction. He had picked it up from the ground with hope. He had never seen a dead butterfly that looked so beautiful.
Blue-coloured powder from the lifeless, silent wing was sticking to his finger. The wings were tinged with black and iridescent blue colour at the edges with golden-orange coloured patches occupying the central part of the wings.
He placed the butterfly on the palm of his left hand and looked at the dark blue wing powder clinging to his forefinger and thumb of his right hand. Then he brushed his finger against his hair.
‘Blue Butterfly in his hair’, thought Salim, Zohair’s younger brother, when he saw that his brother’s finger was clean now. “What are you going to do with it?” Salim asked innocently, when he already knew the answer.
Zohair would take out his empty matchbox from his pocket and carefully transfer the butterfly from the palm of his hand into the matchbox. And this matchbox would add to his growing collection of matchboxes filled with dramatic and often shocking curios.
Salim did not have the stomach to open Zohair’s matchboxes. He had slotted his elder brother as an eccentric character, who was loveable and interesting, but unpredictable. Definitely not fit to be introduced to his friends. He had quite a temper you see. Any outburst in front of them by Zohair and his friends would need a lot of convincing that Zohair was sane and harmless.
Zohair was a collector. Stones, leaves, a baby lizard, a piece of broken painted toe nail (no idea where he got it from), a bee, a fly, a mosquito, a purple moth (ones that weren’t squashed, but somehow he had got them whole). All of them small enough, had landed in his precious matchboxes. And all these matchboxes found pride of place on the top shelf of the common almirah, that both brothers shared at home.
I understand my brother better than Amma and Abba. Even though I am 10 years younger than Zohair, there is much that I can teach him. I know a lot about mobile phones and computers and how to operate them. But Zohair, all of 26 years old, wasn’t much interested in either. He was just comfortable using them minimally. I couldn’t get him interested in gadgets and he couldn’t get me interested in his lifeless specimens. I barely gave a second glance at his curios.
Even though Amma would often come into our room and do the occasional inspection and cleaning of our almirah, she had never really got to the top shelf. Whenever I thought about it, I would smile and shake my head. I am sure the wonders atop the almirah sealed from prying eyes in matchboxes, would be met with shrieks not of delight, but horror and disgust. A mighty scolding wouldn’t be far behind. This would be followed by a violent cleaning of the haloed shelf, amid Zohair’s fiery tantrum. I would just stand quietly in a corner, allowing Amma and Zohair to sort out in a shouting match, this existential question: ‘Why are these matchboxes in the almirah?’
But nothing of the sort happened. Our parents didn’t know and their sons acted as if they too didn’t know. Sometimes I am surprised by Zohair’s confidence. He can act and he is better than me at lying. I don’t know, but curiously I respect him for this quality. I am not very impressionable and have quite an independent streak about me. But Zohair’s point of view about life did have an influence on me. I won’t deny it.
I have met many elder brothers of my friends. And I found them to be unlike my elder brother. My friends would always be told what was best for them by their brothers and why they should grow up and learn. My brother was more interested in his own growing up and learning. He had left me to myself and would rarely interfere in what I was doing. At the most, if he found me engrossed in reading something on a website on our laptop, he would glance at the page for ten seconds, our eyes would connect, he would smile, pat me on the shoulder and go back to his table.
It didn’t matter whether I was reading the web page about ‘The top ten sniper guns’ in the world, or ‘What is Victoria’s secret’. I don’t know why, but recently I have been quite interested about the ability to kill from a kilometre in a single gunshot and the connection between barely dressed FTV ladies who may definitely know something about Victoria’s Secret. Extremes are beginning to define me at such a young age, I think philosophically.
I also think Zohair knows this contrast in me and I know that he knows. He smiles at me and says nothing. My friend’s brothers? They say a lot and then smile at themselves appreciatively for having accomplished another challenge of drilling worldly guidance into their stupid younger brothers. Thank you Zohair!
‘Why don’t you go out and play sometimes?’ Zohair had brought out his collection of matchboxes and spread them on his table next to the window. He was opening each box and checking its contents.
I looked up at him from the laptop. I peeled my eyes away from the website page topic ‘How to learn telepathy’. This was unlike Zohair Bhai. He had never directly suggested anything to me.
‘What is it Bhai? Why do you want me out of the house?’ I asked him with a smile.
I didn’t need to beat around the bush with my brother. He liked to talk straight with me and I returned the sentiment.
‘Two reasons. I really want you to get some fresh air in your lungs, instead of the AC air that you fill yourself with sitting in this room, with your laptop. Secondly, I am working on a project. Kind of secret. I can’t tell you right now.’
I raised my eyebrows.
‘It’s all right. I will, as soon as I am ready. You don’t have to look so surprised.’ He smiled at me.
Still, I find it strange. The brother I have known for 26 years has never worked on anything secret, as far as I know. And I am sure he has never kept anything hidden from me. But here, Bhai was doing something in secret and he had openly told me that he had to keep it hidden from me. Well, the only thing to do right now was to take a walk outside. Evening light was going away and I wanted to remain on the right side of my brother by quickly agreeing to his suggestion of going outside. I closed the laptop, put on my sandals and started walking out.
‘What? You are going out already? I meant you should go out more often, not that you go out now,’ said Zohair with an amused look.
‘It’s ok, Bhai. I was getting tired and your suggestion seemed interesting, so I thought, why not. I’ll be back in half an hour.’
‘Amma I am going out for some time. Taking a walk till the pond,’ I called out.
‘Ok. While coming back, get some chocolates, lollipops and chewing gum from Chakku’s shop. Zohair wants it. I’ll pay Chakku tomorrow,’ Amma replied.
Salim stopped mid-way and went back to the kitchen where his mother was cooking tandoori chicken.
The smell is good, but what Amma had just said, it didn’t sound right. It smelt fishy, thought Salim.
‘Bhai wants lollipop?’ Salim looked at his mother.
‘…And chocolates and chewing gum,’ completed Amma. ‘He likes it now I think, so he wants it. Why are you so surprised?’
‘But Amma, I don’t remember Bhai ever having any of these things before. Not in school, not in his room, not with any of his friends. I don’t even remember if he has offered any such thing to anyone.’
‘Ok, fine. Now let me finish my work and you go take your walk.’
Salim shrugged and left the kitchen. ‘So, my grown-up Bhai is now into lollipops and chewing gums and chocolates, besides keeping a secret from me. What’s going on Bhai?’ wondered Salim.
‘Listen, you already know that a butterfly’s wings is made of powder. Touch it and see.’ Zohair told his group of followers standing in the garden shed at 6 pm.
Seven of his friends came closer to the table. For a moment they even forgot to munch their chocolates, chewing gums and lollipops that Zohair had just offered them. Even Salim was there and he had raised his eyebrows at Zohair’s generosity of sharing sweets. By the time, it was his turn to take something to munch from the packet, there was none left. Zohair had shrugged and smiled.
Turn by turn, all of them touched the butterfly’s wings lightly, as it lay inert on the table. When they saw the tips of their fingers, a piece of the butterfly clung to it in the form of powder. They smiled hesitantly at each other. All of them had only one question in their mind, ‘What is going on in Zohair’s mind?’
‘Yes, I know. You’re thinking – ‘what’s Zohair thinking?’. I can sense it easily by the look on your faces. What you have on your finger tip is butterfly powder. Do you know what it tastes like?’
Each of Zohair’s followers shrieked internally: ‘Gawd no! And I hope I never know’. Externally, they just shook their head quickly, almost willing Zohair not to tell them. If he did tell them, they would again know that Zohair never asks such questions, before already personally verifying and knowing the answer.
‘So, what does butterfly powder taste like?’ asked Haya hesitantly.
‘I don’t know what it tastes like,’ said Zohair with a shrug.
Everyone looked at each other surprised. This was unlike Zohair. This sounded incomplete. It was like a defeat of some kind, not worthy of the guy, who had captured their attention for the past two months.
They started questioning him and telling him instances where Zohair had explained them patiently about so many things that he had collected and even conducted his personal experiments on. They were weird all right. But, they reminded Zohair about each of those contents of his matchboxes and how he always had an answer for them.
Haya couldn’t stop herself, ‘This is the first time Zo, that you have said ‘I don’t know’ to our question. You’ve always had answers to every question we’ve asked. Even though we may not have been satisfied by your answers, they were always there to be of some use to us. What happened here?’
Zohair looked at Haya. She was the vocal one. She was not awed by him. Though she maintained her distance, but she always managed to comment on anything he did. He wasn’t irritated.
‘Every butterfly carries the dust of heaven on its wings. Mere mortals touch it and label it ‘butterfly powder’. Zohair said this in a quiet, audible voice. ‘This is our seventh meeting in your garden shed Haya. I don’t think there is going to be an eighth one.’
Quiet murmurs sprang up in different voices as Zohair’s friends talked about this new development. They could detect a sense of sadness in Zohair’s voice.
Even Salim spoke up. He had been invited to this seventh meeting by his brother and he was pleasantly surprised. He knew that Zohair was meeting his friends in Haya baji’s place for the past two months. He was very curious, but didn’t say anything. He also knew that when the time was right, his brother would take him too to the meeting. He had met all his brother’s friends. They were more like followers, than friends. They found his brother’s eccentric personality attractive.
‘Haya baji is right bhai. Why no more meetings? There has to be a reason for this – a good one,’ said Salim.
Zohair looked at everyone and tears welled up in his eyes and started falling down his cheeks.
‘Its getting late Salim. We had promised amma that will be back home by 7 pm. 5 minutes left. We have to go now,’ said Zohair. Saying this he took Salim’s hand and started walking out of the garden shed.
‘Zo…Zohair…Zo… come back. What happened?’ Everyone started calling him.
Salim looked at his brother and then looked back at the shed. Everyone was looking at them from the window and calling out incessantly. Then suddenly all voices became silent and he saw nobody near the window.
Surprised, he saw his brother reading a small scrap of paper as he walked on. He then crushed this paper in his hand and dropped it. Salim picked it up and began reading it. It was bhai’s handwriting.
Pipevine Swallowtail is a very beautiful butterfly. Handle this specimen with care, as its powdered wings that look so beautiful carry a unique poison. Tasteless and highly soluble. A defense mechanism. If the powder is ingested, it can cause unconsciousness in one hour and total memory loss of the past 48 hours before unconsciousness.
So, what did you think of this story? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below. And do vote your opinion too in the poll below.