Now it was the winding mountain path that took their breath and prevented conversation, rather than the lack of mutual interest as had forced the silence that morning. The two men hiked strenuously on, the vivid beauty of a June day in the Alps glaring on them as brilliantly as the two o’clock sun above. They had seen no other hikers since the morning, and the silent hum of bugs and wind fell like cool water on their ears.
Brett Hanson walked in front. He was a muscular man of twenty with a scathing, boyish face made rugged with doubt and defense. Black hair plastered his head, but he strode easily, despite the bulky pack on his back. The older gentleman who followed was the respected professor of entomology, James Whitehall. He differed extremely from his vigorous companion in his lean build, fair British hair, and sensitive blue eyes. His cultured face had the delicately reserved air of an aristocrat. His hands were long and white and clean.
His brow, though only lightly dewed in sweat, was furrowed in apprehension. This day seemed so akin to one four years previous, yet how completely had time wrought her change. James Whitehall wondered what impulse had seized him to bring Michael Hanson’s son Brett as an aid, after what had happened.
Erebia pluto. How odd a tiny, cinder-dark butterfly should have brought Michael and himself together. Though both passionate butterfly collectors, they had moved in different circles, until a chance party conversation had sparked their partnership. Michael had poured out his dream of finding the rare and elusive Erebia pluto, a mysterious butterfly found high in the mountains. Michael’s burning energy had engulfed James, as well as James’s wife Margaret, and Michael became a frequent houseguest as the collectors planned an expedition in pursuit of Erebia pluto.
But then Margaret had died. James slipped off the mountainside into the ghastly whirlpool of that time—the automobile crash, testifying the mangled body to be his beautiful young wife, the funeral. And then the dark cloud which still hovered over him had descended as he tried to comprehend how his perfect Margaret could have been so gruesomely snatched away. In that darkness, Erebia pluto became a holy grail, his only remaining purpose. Michael, too, had been shocked by the death of his charming hostess, but after the funeral, they never discussed her. They planned and talked and dreamed of Erebia pluto.
And the trip had come, freeing James from some of the grief he had endured for thirteen months. The glittering sky and soft June breeze had been so perfect, so like today until… All he could remember was the screaming image of a black form tumbling over the cliff. And then with surreal clarity, the unmistakable patterns of a butterfly, Erebia pluto, spinning through the air before the chasm…
James pulled himself out of the grim well of memories and set his jaw. He would tell young Brett the truth, and together they would find an Erebia pluto to fulfill Michael’s dream. A finch whizzed by James’s head, chattering madly as if to denounce the lunacy of this trip. HIs jaw slackened. Why was he, a celebrated academic, acting like a character from a dime romance?
Once dusk began to purple the mountains, they stopped in a rocky hollow. Brett built a fire as James recorded the day in a leather bound journal. Soon, the sweet savor of canned beans wafted on the breeze as the men ate their dinner in silence. It—the silence—was growing oppressive.
“Did your father ever talk about Erebia pluto?” James asked, looking up from his writing.
Brett lit a cigarette. “Bloody little else, it seemed sometimes. Or other butterflies. ”
James persisted. “Did he ever tell you about the name? Erebia pluto?”
Brett shook his head and breathed out a cloud of smoke.
“Erebia, that’s simply the genus; you know that. But the species is more interesting: Pluto. He was the Roman god of the underworld. A shadowy figure, powerful and wise, but also cruel and rapacious. He kidnapped the maiden Persephone, set eternal punishments on the dead, lured the living to the underworld. Quite a heavy name for such a gossamer creature to carry,” James mused.
“Butterfly of hell, is that what you’re saying?”
James tightened his lips. Young people did not understand the classics.
The men searched three days for the butterfly, finding its favorite plants, watching quiet, sunny places, tramping for miles, but with no success. James was used to, even enjoyed, such fruitless hunts, but Brett grew restless and more preoccupied as the trip wore on.
They camped in a different hollow that night. The shadowy pines and narrow stream were eerily similar to the last place James had stopped with Michael. James resolved to finish his business that night, though he had originally wanted to wait until they found the butterfly.
“Brett, you know why I brought you on this trip?”
“Yeah, you needed someone young to haul your equipment.”
“Yes, but I thought it was fitting for you to help finish your...your father’s quest.”
“I know that.” Brett pulled out a cigarette. “That’s not why I came.”
James was silent.
Brett continued on, haltingly, almost grudgingly. “Mr. Whitehall, I want to….thank you for being so kind, and looking after me, after my father died.”
James interrupted. “I owed it to my partner’s son, especially when he was killed on our trip.” He paused, then added softly, “That’s what I want to talk about.”
Brett stiffened. “Yeah that’s what I want to talk about. That’s why I came. You see, my father...was a funny man.” Brett almost burst out laughing at the utter inadequacy of his statement.
James, however, leapt on it. “I know, Brett. He was peculiar in some ways. Even his passion for Erebia pluto.”
“You mean obsession?”
“Well, I don’t know if I would call it that.”
“I would. It was. He was obsessed.”
“Listen, you’ve no idea. I was his kid. God, he was a character. Moody, he drank, he chased women. The only thing respectable about him was his face and his damn butterfly collection.”
James stared in surprise, before forcing words out of his mouth. “I-I’m sorry. I had no idea. That must have been difficult.”
“My dad and I weren’t close, if that’s what you’re saying,” Brett replied tersely.
James hesitated, then sighed and spoke. “Brett, when I told you your dad died by slipping off a cliff face, I didn’t tell you everything. I thought you were too young. But now you’re a man. Listen, these things happen. After my wife died, I would have--”
“My dad took it hard too, yeah, I know,” Brett interrupted impatiently. He puffed ferociously at the cigarette. “What did you think of your wife?” he demanded.
James felt frustrated by this tangent, but he began hesitatingly, “Margaret…she was an angel. She was clever and charming, and so...so accomplished in everything. She was much younger than I was, and I always wondered a little that should marry me. We were only married a four years, before she died.”
Brett laughed hoarsely. “Yeah, your wife was sure something. Pretty as hell, too.”
James paled. “Keep respect for the dead.”
Brett threw his cigarette to the ground where it smoldered. “I’ve been meaning to tell you something. I watched you after she died, coming every day to my father to talk Erebia pluto. I thought you would get over her death, but you didn’t; you couldn’t, because she wasn’t real. You worshiped her like a saint and refused to let her be dead.”
“My wife was brutally killed in an accident that should never have happened! Of course I’ve mourned!” James said angrily, a vein starting to throb in his long neck.
“Listen, you didn’t mourn her. You mourned a fantasy. Do you know why my father was so broken up after the death of his friend’s wife?”
James interjected, desperate to get away from the traumatic memories that pulsed through his body. “Brett, look, your father was an unstable man. He couldn’t handle--”
“There’s nothing you can tell me that I don’t know!” Brett cried. “It’s you who needs to wise up to his character! While you were planning a scholarly trip in pursuit of this pluto underworld butterfly, he--
“Brett, listen, your father didn’t fall off the cliff--
“was having an affair--
“He committed suicide.
“With your wife!”
These last words echoed excruciatingly in the throbbing silence, as the men stared at each other, stricken, the other’s words slowly forming into ugly realization.
A sickening wave of heat filled James’s body. “What did you say?” His voice was taught as a strung bow.
The words repeated themselves, lifeless, out of Brett’s slack mouth. “My father had an affair with your wife. She was driving from his house when she had the accident.”
“That’s a lie! She...she,” James’s sobs broke off and he buried his face in his hands, his whole being shaking with the brutal truth, for he somehow he knew it was true. His blindness had shattered.
Brett took no notice of the shaking man before him, absorbed in his own grief. “He left me,” Brett muttered vacantly. “He left and killed himself and didn’t tell me. He didn’t say goodbye. How could he?”
James’s livid face whipped up. “That dog!” he screamed. “The bottom of a cliff is where he belongs! How could he!”
Brett leapt to his feet. “How dare you! If he hadn’t been going on some butterfly hunt with you! Erebia pluto! If you had kept that tart of a wife under lock and key!”
“Don’t speak against Mar-her,” James choked on her name.
Both men stood facing each other for an eternal second, bristling with rage, two pulsing red bodies in the Alpine dusk.
Between their glaring faces suddenly fluttered a dark specter. The men’s eyes caught on the sight and broke their riveted stare. The dark form hovered between them, a shining ebony body sprouting sooty wings through which glowed eerie bars of orange light. The wings were fringed by frosty scales, and a chain of white spots blinked and flashed in the gloom. Erebia pluto.
They both recognized it, instantly, and something akin to horror flooded their minds, as if having seen the ghost of all their fears. The butterfly fluttered in a dizzying loop to the ground, and lighted like a grotesque bat upon a pink clover blossom, twitching its wings. Both men slowly sank to the ground in a trance. The insect did not stir.
The creature seemed to possess them both, blocking out every other vision from their minds with its delicately morbid beauty. They had found it at last.
James Whitehall’s white fist suddenly flew in the air, trembled in space for a millisecond, then crashed down upon the creature. He pressed hard until every fiber of his being pushed into the earth. He very slowly raised his hand. It was covered in a smeared black liquid and a dark powdering of scales. His eyes raised slowly, slowly to those of Brett. Their eyes locked.
“Damn,” Brett whispered hoarsely. “I was going to do that.”
They watched the remains for a long time, as if fearing they should reanimate. But the air was Alpine clear again and Erebia pluto moved no more.