The first sign of disturbance in Cecilia O’Connell’s life arrived as a dream.
Like many of her dreams, her remembrance of it was faulty—a hazy series of images—several parts of it lost to the waking world. But she did remember the most arresting fragments of it: seeing herself walking through a heavy mist, the tiny droplets falling on her bare arms while wisps of darkness and light swirled before her. She knew something lay beyond the mist, hidden by its thick white curtain, evoking a familiar anxiety in her body which quickly blossomed into dread. She felt compelled to keep moving blindly through the droplets, through the haze, until she was certain she saw a shape in the mist, the grotesque silhouette of an immense insect—
She woke in her bed breathing heavily, her heart excited by the experience, then lay pulling pieces of her dream from uncertain memories. She told herself that it was only a dream, bordering on frightfulness, but not altogether horrifying. The most affecting detail was the sensation of the mist touching her arms, her face—it felt more like the fabric of an opaque white shroud than a mist. But perhaps she was only embellishing a dubious recollection.
After her dream, Cecilia’s life returned to normal. She continued executing the habits of her solitary existence, peering from time to time through the curtains of the windows and nervously anticipating her weekly visit to the market. The rest of her life could be conducted from within the walls of her house where the outside world rarely intruded.
Cecilia had been a bookkeeper for a large manufacturer before retiring, surviving the effects of her agoraphobia by hiding in a cubicle most of the day and then hurrying home when her workday concluded. Therapy and prescription medication helped her complete her professional career, but by the time she had accumulated enough years to earn a pension, therapy and drugs were no longer useful. She sold her car because driving mortified her as much as walking out of doors did, and she retreated to her house to live vicariously through her television, books, and computer, surrendering any hope of living a typical life.
She’d never married: marrying meant courtship, and courtship meant an endless series of debilitating social exercises. Her appearance often left her unnoticed by most people. Now she was sixty years old, gray hair undyed and plain; she had resigned herself to a friendless existence. People observing her from a distance might have seen her as a pathetic case, but from inside of herself Cecilia knew—with perfect clarity—that this was the only existence possible for her.
The next disturbance in Cecilia’s life, which seemed only an annoyance at the time, was a plague of webs that had begun to settle in the eaves of her house.
She noticed them hanging in the corners of the woodwork, beneath window boxes; they even blanketed the soffits. She turned to right the stubborn wire cart she always rolled with her to the corner market and, once she’d righted the cart, she gazed up at the webs in surprise. They had seemed to materialize from air and were beautiful in their own way, shining with a soft white sheen in the sunlight. But curiously, she couldn’t see any webworms in their silk. Would she have to call someone to clean the woodwork? Cecilia shuddered at the thought of speaking over the telephone. The neighbors might complain if she left the webs unattended to, but never mind. She would address the problem in time.
When she returned from her shopping—dragging the full cart behind herself and wishing it held more so she could wait longer between trips to the market—the webs seemed to have increased in number. At least, she now noticed webs in places that she hadn’t before.
She would have to call someone to brush the webs away and apply pesticide.
But now she only wanted to hurry inside her home. Visiting the market always unnerved her, left her hyperventilating. She hated being affected this way, but she’d been suffering from this throughout her life. And, throughout her life, she’d never found a treatment or approach that might cure her condition.
She’d wanted love, a husband, children. But she felt that having a family would bring a paralyzing amount of apprehension into her life, and so remained alone. Her parents were dead. She had a younger brother, Stephen, but he lived a thousand miles away, and they hadn’t spoken for years. She wondered why she didn’t call him more often. He used to call her regularly, but he likely became weary of being the only one of the two to make an effort to keep in touch. She didn’t blame her brother for ignoring her now.
Cecilia never did call anyone to treat the webs disfiguring her house. Every time she began researching exterminators on her computer, the necessity of having to speak to an actual human being motivated her to quit. She wasn’t irresponsible—only irrationally afraid.
No one complained, however. Perhaps her neighbors knew she wouldn’t answer the door if they had knocked.
A week later, as she sat in her favorite chair in the living room reading a book of old poetry, Cecilia heard a strange noise, as if a soft patter were reverberating from every part of the house. She laid the book on her knee, pulled down her reading glasses to hang on their chain, and listened. Yes, the noise mimicked the sound of snowflakes blowing against a window. But in August, in Springfield, no snowstorms ever blew.
She rose from her chair and walked to the front window, parting the heavy red curtains. To her surprise, small orange butterflies bounced from the glass haphazardly, tapping softly with every collision. Her mouth open in wonder, she studied the neighborhood beyond her window and saw impossible clouds of orange butterflies flowing between the houses like eddying currents of rust-colored water. The insects rained on the window, on the roof, against the walls of her house, against every house in her neighborhood. She smiled then because she found the sight sublime—extraordinarily beautiful. She’d read about butterfly migrations and knew they could appear in massive numbers over selected routes, but she couldn’t identify the species. They weren’t monarchs or swallowtails. An expert could surely identify their species, but she knew no experts.
Cecilia stood watching the magnificent display for nearly an hour before the mysterious population of butterflies dwindled until they ceased haunting the neighborhood altogether. When she opened her front door to look outside, she found a multitude of butterflies covering her lawn like orange snow, their wings twitching in deathly exhaustion. A boy came to mow the lawn every two weeks—she always handed him money through a half-closed door—so they wouldn’t remain on the grass for long. When he came again, the insects would disappear into piles of cut grass.
The sight of the dying butterflies caused a great wave of sorrow to wash over her. She held her arms against her breast to ward away the pain. She knew a million butterflies had survived their journey through the neighborhood, on their way to whatever destination gave their existence meaning. But the butterflies on her lawn—their tiny orange wings twitching like a dying breath—seemed more important to her, if only because they would never fulfill their life’s purpose.
Cecilia closed the front door, sat in her chair again, and cried. She felt foolish for crying, recognizing the paradox, but refused to guard any tears dedicated to the fallen butterflies. Their failure was her failure, too.