Box of Butterflies

I’ve had this box of butterflies for years. I’ve been waiting for a rainy day. What can I do with a box full of butterflies? Anything! But what specifically? I don’t know.  Maybe you know.

I bought the box of butterflies on eBay, back when eBay was the one-stop shop for cool cheap things. Before Amazon. A guy in California was selling them. He worked the night shift at a conservatory– I assume it was a butterfly conservatory, otherwise the story doesn’t make much sense–and his job was to clean up. Sometimes that meant sweeping up the dead butterflies in the conservatory (see why it has to be a butterfly conservatory? If it was a music conservatory….). He would collect and preserve the butterflies and sell them on eBay to supplement his income. His English wasn’t very good via email. I bought the butterflies.

While the butterflies are beautiful themselves, I think the way the conservatory custodian wrapped them in wax paper is more stirring. It’s part of why I’ve kept the box so long. Each butterfly, or pair of butterflies, is in a dainty paper sleeve with a double origami fold to make sure the envelope doesn’t come undone. The wraps are more delicate than the butterflies. If I were an alien artist, I would mount the wax paper and throw out the butterflies.

But now that’s up to you. Enjoy.

— hand delivered in New York City

Exchange Story

I woke up at three A.M. haunted by the box of butterflies. I felt those butterflies – in their sandwich-wrapper waxy shrouds – calling out to me, wanting me to honor them in some way.  A house? A branch? A lovely box?  (I don’t know what to make for them yet; I have to see them and feel them first). But they kept me up, thinking about them. I didn’t know why. Perhaps because butterflies are, by their nature, such evocative creatures: symbols of a transient, transcendent and fragile beauty and of the brevity of life. Their existence precarious and precious. In the dark, I recalled the poem by Liesel Mueller :

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness

and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:

as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious

Then I thought, maybe it’s something about the way they’ve been wrapped: trapped, frozen closed, but also treasured by an act of wrapping that acknowledges their fragility and value. Not simply dead insects, but carefully collected and cloaked in paper.

I remembered the butterflies the children of Terezin concentration camp drew on the walls  and how butterflies are often symbols of the spirit. Then it hit me me why those that box of butterflies was keeping me up.

Butterflies it seems, are inevitably connected in the networks of my neurons to my son, Zack, who died of AIDS (contracted from a transfusion) in 1987 when he was five and half. He had adored the book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and even had a cloth caterpillar toy that could be turned inside out to transform into a butterfly as we read the book together.

When Zack was dying I didn’t know how to discuss death with a small child.  I knew I must prepare him, but what could I say about a subject with which I had no experience, nor even beliefs?  So I called the expert: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She  mailed me a booklet reprint of a  letter she had written to a small boy named Dougy. In it, she described how, when you no longer need your body, you shed it and your spirit flies away. She illustrated this with her own drawings of butterflies which Zack closely examined. At first he was quiet, in pain, processing the information. Then, imagining being one of those butterflies, his old impish grin spread across his face and Zack turned to me,”Mama, after I die, we’ll go to Grandmas’. You’ll take the car and I will fly and I’ll get there first!”

The December day after his body had been taken away, I was sitting  on Zack’s bed, gazing out the window at the gathering darkness.  Just outside the window, under the porch eaves   a fluttering caught my attention. There was a butterfly, a monarch, flying in circles and figure eights, around and around and around, it’s orange-paned wings glowing and flickering in the bluish light. It flew like this for half an hour or more, as if it were trying to get my attention, until it finally came to rest on the low eave outside closest to Zack’s bed. The butterfly remained there into the night but when I awoke in the morning and looked for it, it was gone.

No wonder I feel such a strong tug from an object with barely any physical weight.

I don’t know  what I’ll do with the collection of butterflies, exactly, but they will have a different kind of resting place than their current generic post office carton. Perhaps it might be a small burial tomb , a substitute for the one that my butterfly Zack, whose ashes were scattered, never had.

— mailed to California

July 2012

“Thought you’d like to see what I made out of the butterflies. The inside of the house has hanging chrysalises that were discarded by someone who raises butterflies. I call the piece “Transient Quarters”.



  1. […] This box of butterflies was exchanged by someone who was inextricably drawn to the box and felt haunted by it until they realized that it reminded them of their son. Read the stories and see how the exchanger repurposes the objects into a beautiful work of art at th… […]

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