The Butterfly


The Butterfly

By Rachel Luria

Translated from Yiddish by Rachel Mines


The young couple stood leaning against the boardwalk’s railing, gazing out over the beach. The sea was calm, its dull green waves sluggish. The tide was coming in. Breaking waves sprayed, foamed, flowed up the damp sand, and attempted to carry away the seashells and other flotsam washed up on the shore. An October sun shed warmth and October breezes blew.
The man was tall and thin, with broad, stooped shoulders, curly auburn hair, and a shy, self-effacing look in his eyes. The woman – slight, with pale blonde hair and small hands and feet – looked somewhere between an overgrown child and an adolescent girl.
 “Chayale, look, way out there – can you see the masts? I wish I was on one of those ships!” the young man sighed.
“Look, Tsemekh! See the pretty white shell next to that post? I want it so much!” The fair-haired girl tugged at her husband’s sleeve, pointing at a pile of shells with her thin finger. “I could use it as a soapdish.”
But Tsemekh’s eye was caught by a butterfly that had fluttered weakly onto the damp sand where it sat struggling, unable to fly, laboriously opening and closing its red-brown wings. Clearly they had gotten wet. A breaker advanced relentlessly, foaming closer and closer.
Chayale gave a little scream. Before the sound could die away, Tsemekh was in motion. He leaped over the railing, hung for an instant like an orangutan, dropped down to the sand, snatched up the butterfly, and ran up the staircase to the boardwalk, his shoes soaked through.
Chayale was thrilled. “It’s my butterfly… all mine,” she said to herself.
She ran over to Tsemekh and carefully plucked the butterfly out of his hands, holding the tips of its closed wings between her thumb and forefinger. Then she turned and trotted homeward. Every now and then the butterfly’s long, silky legs would wrap around her fingers as it struggled to free itself and fly away. Chayale held it carefully, though she felt a thrill of fear every time the butterfly’s thin, hairlike legs clutched at her. She was a timid girl, but she couldn’t really be afraid as long as Tsemekh was with her.
Daydreaming, Tsemekh sauntered along behind his wife with long, lazy strides. A strange fantasy was running through his mind: What if he pinned Chayale’s arms behind her back and hoisted her into the air, just as she was holding the butterfly? How strange it would look! All the people passing by would stop and stare. But nothing like that was really happening, of course — everything was just as usual. Then Tsemekh wondered if the little creature was ashamed. It probably thought its worm-like body was ugly. All its beauty and pride were in its wings, and now Chayale had seized them, exposing its body, and this must be embarrassing. The butterfly was probably a male, and what if a female were to happen by and see him with his wings tightly gripped in this strange creature’s (that is, Chayale’s) hands?
“Chayale, let the butterfly go. Its wings must be dry now and it can fly away.”
“That’s not true! It’ll die no matter what, and then I’ll press it in a book.”
They arrived home. Chayale went inside and put the butterfly on the table. It sat there motionless, as still as death, wings folded closed. But Chayale wanted it to die with them open. She warmed the insect with her breath. The edges of its wings rippled as if the little creature sensed a breeze. It crawled over the white tablecloth to a spot of sunlight where it spread open its wings, which were a soft red-brown with two velvety black stripes along the borders, the remaining surface randomly spattered with innumerable little black stripes and round blotches. The front edges bore eyes of a sunny topaz. The softness of velvet, the shimmer of silk, the luster of gold glowed from those wings.
“Oh, it’s so beautiful!” Chayale was captivated. “Tsemekh, come inside and look – it’s still alive!”
Tsemekh grumbled. He didn’t want to come inside and look. He stayed out on the porch, slouched in a rocking chair, his  feet propped up on the railing.
Chayale’s little sister had come into the room to see what was going on. “Stick a pin through its head. Or put it inside a book with a stack of other books on top of it, and it’ll die soon enough,” she advised.
“It’ll die soon anyway. Its wings will stay more beautiful like this.”
“No they won’t. It’ll get weak and the colors will fade. Listen to me – stick a pin through its head,” her sister insisted. “If you don’t want to, ask Tsemekh.”
“Tsemekh is mad because I won’t let it go free in the garden. He caught it for me himself,” Chayale said.
As if some miracle were taking place, the house filled up with curious observers. Everyone wanted to look at the butterfly — you’d think they’d never seen one before. Then, one by one, they all got bored and left.
Chayale went outside and complained to Tsemekh, “It’s not dying.”
“So what? Let it live!” he retorted.
“No. It’s going to die soon. I want to keep it as a souvenir of the time you jumped over the railing – a whole twenty-five feet down, maybe! You saved it before the wave came. I’ll never forget what you did!”
Tsemekh gave her a strange, embarrassed, sidelong look.
“I didn’t jump down just to give you the butterfly. Or so it could live a few more days until fall comes. Really, I didn’t think about it at all. I just didn’t want the wave to get it.”
“That’s just what you’re saying now,” Chayale teased. “You did it for me – you jumped down there for me.”
Tsemekh didn’t answer and Chayale fluttered away as if she were a butterfly herself: a pale yellow, bright, sunny, lively human butterfly, but one without wings and therefore not quite as beautiful.
Tsemekh fell into a reverie. Flying creatures, he thought, should never come down to earth – once they fold up their wings, it’s all over. Now the two of them – he as much as the butterfly – belonged to Chayale. Why? Because she was Chayale, sweet little Chayale. Everyone called her sweet little Chayale because everyone belonged to her: her father, her mother, her sister, and he himself, Tsemekh. And now the butterfly.
Once upon a time he’d known a world full of women: beautiful Gentile girls from the Tyrol, German Gretchens, Parisian dancers, brown-skinned and black-eyed women of Arabia, daughters of Jerusalem, Spanish women with their dusky skin and arched eyebrows. He’d seen them all, enjoyed their love, and travelled onward. And now here he was with Chayale. He, Tsemekh – this tall, red-haired, untamed man – had put an end to his wandering and stayed here with Chayale. And because he could blow her away as easily as he could blow a fly off his sleeve, he couldn’t go back to his travels and leave her behind.
And why had he stopped to look at her in the first place? Because she laced up her shoes so neatly – smooth and even, not one wrinkle on her entire leg. She made everyone look at her beautifully tied-up shoelaces. In the same way she made people hear out all her silly nonsense, and while they were listening they’d look at her clear blue eyes, her finely shaped, delicate little nose – and they’d understand who Chayale was.
“Tsemekh, come eat lunch,” Chayale called from inside. Tsemekh stayed where he was on the porch. She came outside and curled up in his lap. Tsemekh sat there indifferently, as if a fly had landed on his knee. Chayale knew why. “It doesn’t matter. It’ll die anyway,” she consoled him.
Tsemekh refused to eat. He felt too unhappy, too full of longing. He knew he could open the window and let out the butterfly. But when Chayale cried, she got such dark circles under her eyes. She cried like a whipped puppy. And then her whole family would glare at him.
Chayale agonized over the butterfly for the rest of the afternoon. She wanted it to die as quickly as possible and for Tsemekh to forget all about it. At the latest, it would die during the night, she thought, so she waited.
Morning. The butterfly was alive – barely alive, true. But still it beat its wings, and still it lived. Tsemekh walked through the house as if it were a person, not a butterfly, lying near death in the room.
That afternoon the sun was bright, and Chayale was eager to see if the butterfly would like the warm, bright outdoors. She carried it outside and laid it in the sunshine on the grass. It began to quiver and flutter its wings. Tsemekh stood nearby, and they both watched.
The butterfly flew away and Chayale ran after it.
“Chayale, are you going to let it go?”
“Yes – see for yourself!”
“That’s why I love you.”
Tsemekh went happily inside to work on his writing.
A little while later, Tsemekh and Chayale were sitting on the porch, forgiving each other. A red-brown butterfly flew by.
“Maybe it’s the same one… our butterfly,” Tsemekh suggested.
“Maybe,” Chayale answered and cuddled up to him.
“Does it make you happy, watching it flying around in the sunshine?”
“Yes,” Chayale answered, and Tsemekh kissed her small hand.
That night, Tsemekh was sitting at his desk. Chayale was asleep. Her pale face was peaceful, like the face of a dead child. Tsemekh had to look hard to make sure the blanket was moving with her breath and that she was still alive.
Tsemekh thought he would open his Bible. He’d read whatever his eye happened to see first. He glanced around for it, unwilling to rouse Chayale from her sleep. There was his Bible, at the bottom of a pile of thick books. Something in Tsemekh’s heart pried itself loose.
Between the pages lay a stiffly-pressed, red-brown butterfly with little spots and velvety black stripes along the edges of its wings. 


Tsemekh glanced over at Chayale. Her face was the face of a dead child.


Translation copyright © Rachel Mines 2023
This story first appeared in Modne Mentshn (New York, 1918), pp. 182-188.

Rachel Luria (the author) (1882 or 1886-1927) was born in Veiviržėnai, Lithuania, and emigrated to the United States at the age of twelve. While studying on her own, she worked in a factory and later in a hospital as a nurse. In 1909 she published her first story, “White Lilies,” followed by publications in various Yiddish journals. Luria was a regular contributor to Varhayt, Der Tog, Der Tsayt, and Morgn Zhurnal. The anthology Modne Mentshn (Strange People), in which the Yiddish original of “The Butterfly” appeared, was published in 1918.

Rachel Mines (the translator) taught in the English Department of Langara College, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Her translations from Yiddish have appeared in Pakn Treger, In geveb, and the anthology Have I Got a Story For You: More Than a Century of Fiction from the Forward (W.W. Norton, 2017). Her collection The Rivals and Other Stories by Jonah Rosenfeld was published by Syracuse University Press in 2020. She has also contributed translations to Isaac Bashevis Singer, In the World of Chaos: Early Writings, edited by Jan Schwarz (forthcoming, Academic Studies Press).


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