The Business of Dead Butterflies

by Alexandra Hubbell

Puberty by Imogen Bylinsky

The day you became a beetle certainly affected the course of our relationship. I remember your blonde hair swaying in the wind as we watched ants marching up a tree. You, my sister, were radiant and innocent, shining in a panel of sunlight.

“Isn’t it easy?” you said. “They all know exactly what to do.” 

I nodded in agreement as I took notes. I snapped pictures of the ants. I watched them under a magnifying glass for a moment and then reached into my bag for a jar. 

“No,” you said. “Please don’t take them. Look, they belong here. They have a job to do. What a simple, beautiful job.” I put the jar back in my bag, and we walked back to the shed.  

The building was a sloppy, makeshift lab, smelling of soggy cedar and animal droppings. You wrinkled your nose as we walked to the microscopes. They stood like tin soldiers across the steel table, sterile and modern against the rustic, rotting wood floor. You twirled around looking at the cases lining the walls. Butterflies, moths, and other insects were tacked inside the frames, painstakingly preserved like little glass figurines.  

“They almost look like they could still fly away,” you said wistfully, but I could sense the accusation behind your voice. You were transfixed by the butterflies. You giggled in disgust at the centipedes. 

“You know, the average lifespan of these insects is very short, some as little as 4 weeks,” I said, trying to reassure your faith in my ethics. “They die of natural causes, then I save them here. It’s all for the sake of research, but I don’t kill them.” 

“I know, I know,” you said. “It’s still morbid though. Like a stained-glass morgue. It just seems unnatural.” You pressed a finger to the glass encasing a neon grass better. Your voice sounded hypnotic, dreamlike. “So naturally unnatural.”

“I can see why you’d think that,” I said, forcing myself not to sound defensive, trying to break your trance. “But look.” 

I pulled a laptop from my bag and opened a browser window. I searched for my journals, pulling up one on the cithaerias pireta aurora butterfly’s use of transparency as camouflage. I read to you. I explained how this research has helped us in war.  I showed you the pictures of their delicate wings, blush pink at the base and clear at the tips. I scanned the walls for the species, finally pulling down a cherry wood frame containing the sample. I wiped the glass with my sleeve and handed you a magnifying glass. You inspected the butterfly closely. 

“She’s beautiful,” you said. “I understand why you do this, I just couldn’t do it myself. I mean, it’s a strange science, the business of dead butterflies, but you clearly love it. Sometimes, I wish I were as passionate as you. You know your purpose.”

“You’ll find your thing one day,” I smiled at you as though I were wise. I brushed off your compliments because I knew they were rooted in your own insecurity. I was uncomfortable. “You’re still so young, just give it time. You could love this, you know? Research. You’ll see. I can help you.” 

You continued to shadow me that summer. You followed me into the woods, watching the patterns of cicadas. We collected their molted shells from the bark of the tall pine trees as they tipped drunkenly in the wind. You joined me in the research lab, where you gained special access with my blessing to review a top-secret project we were initiating.  

We were creating formulas that could change human DNA at the species level. We were only working on cadavers at that point, not living bodies, but we’d consistently turned ten dead humans into ten dead insects. So far, the most successful transitions had been into beetles. Chrysochroa fulgidissima, the “Tamamushi” beetle, ended up being the easiest. Mortuary coolers bordered the walls of the lab, their steel drawers stocked with donated humans. They’d opted to give their bodies to science, just as I had. The humans we’d transformed into beetles rested in mason jars on a donated embalming table that had come with the cooler. The carcasses of the insects were starkly more beautiful than their human counterparts. Most of the human bodies were ugly with illness or age, but their new form was spectacular.  Their new beetle bodies shone like emeralds under the research lamps, their wings glistening from an iridescent blue to a deep green as we turned them to inspect them closer.   

I explained to you that we wanted to study other species without disrupting them. If we could make humans into insects while maintaining their human consciousness, we would be able to go where we’d never gone before—even with drones and microscopic cameras. Like anthropologists immerse themselves into a human culture, we’d be able to live among other species. We’d eat what they ate, communicate in their language, watch their relationships, all without interrupting them with foreign technology. After insects, we’d learn how to become sharks, apes, reptiles. It was going to be a revolution in science and conservation.

We’d accomplished a physical phenomenon, but at this stage the mental implications were severe. We needed to turn humans into insects while maintaining their homo sapien consciousness. We needed human thought to make this worth something. We also needed a way to transition the subjects back into humans after the research concluded. So far, none of the test subjects had been reverted to a full human form. I didn’t show you the failed experiments. I wanted to think it was to protect you from the gruesome bodies, but if I’m honest with myself it was to protect my pride. I felt like a failure. I was a perfectionist, you know. No one wants to see a beetle with opposable thumbs anyway. 

Instead, I only showed you the successful test subjects. At first, you didn’t believe me. You thought I was joking when I showed you Thomas Robeson, the 55-year-old now-beetle who died from a sudden heart-attack while sitting at his desk. He’d been the CEO of a rather prominent business. Thomas’s new shell shone metallic green and orange, toxic-looking under the fluorescent lights. You couldn’t believe he was once human. Frustrated with your doubt, I brought you to another lab on the campus. You signed non-disclosure papers and received a new badge. We stood behind a thick pane of glass and watched as a fellow entomologist in a hazmat suit administered the serum into the vein of a cadaver. You looked on in horror and fascination as the body popped and dissolved and regenerated. The dead woman’s breasts deflated then dissolved, and her joints skewed until—in record time, I might add—a beetle lay belly-up on the metal table in place of the woman. You cried, and you didn’t know why. The woman was dead. The woman as a beetle was dead. She’d given her body to science, denoted it on her identification.  

You often looked sad that summer. I asked if it were the bodies. I asked if it were the shock of the process, the popping bones and gelatinous sinew. You said those things didn’t bother you. You said it was nothing. I’d secretly, selfishly hoped you would love my work. That you’d want to follow in my footsteps. Though, deep down I knew you weren’t passionate about the research. You were merely fascinated by the grotesque experiments we conducted that summer, hiding from the heat of the day in chilled labs cold enough for the dead. You were obsessed with the simplicity of the insects’ lives. You were envious of the run-down human bodies that were metamorphosized into opalescent beings. You said they reminded you of faeries. I thought it was sweet. 

The last time I asked you to help, you told me that this wasn’t your thing. It was mine. That you were here for company. You were here out of boredom. You got angry, defiant. You apologized. You told me you loved me. You came back to the lab. You watched the insects we captured together, alive in their jars and terrariums. You continued to comment on their simplicity, their faery beauty, their luck of not having so many choices. They lived with a predetermined purpose.

Ultimately, I believe that’s why you returned with me weekly. I would sit, my eye glued to the microscope inspecting the dead, while you observed the living. You noticed the improvement of the quality of the soil. You watched them die on their own time and fertilize the ground. You watched female mantises rip the heads from males who tried to dominate them. You told me time and time again that you wanted to release them all into the woods. I laughed at your innocence. I worried at your ignorance. Didn’t you see we were trying to change the world?

We went out one last time that summer to collect samples. A storm was coming in off the coast, and the pine trees bent low with the wind. The clouds were swirling above us, and an irrational panic rose in my chest. I remember watching your hair whip wildly around you. You looked like a force, and yet you were so unsure of yourself. You didn’t say a word. Your fingers shook as you helped me lead samples into jars. I grabbed your hand in mine and kissed it, and told you we’d go inside before the rain started.

Branches snapped sharply in the distance as I coaxed ants from the damp earth into a jar.  Lightning cracked like a vein through the clouds, a rumble of thunder following it. I counted to five between the light and the sound—only a mile away. You looked uneasy too, and I reassured you that we wouldn’t be out there for long. You touched my shoulder. You told me you loved me. You told me that you just wanted things to be easy. I told you that I heard you, that I’d heard you all summer. I knew what you wanted. I would help you. We would find internships and pursue hobbies. I ignored the fear in your eyes. You said all you wanted was to be free from it all. You said you didn’t want to choose, you just wanted to be. I continued to work, annoyed with your romanticizing. We could be such different people, you and I. Without looking up from the soil, I reached back to hand you a jar filled with ants. You didn’t take it. I turned to you just as you were pushing a needle into your vein.  

I watched your blue eyes swell. Your nose turned upward and your hair collapsed into brilliant wings. You dissolved and contracted, then expanded—growing new legs, antennae, a glistening shell. And like that, you were no longer you. I noticed my mouth was hanging open, a noise I’d never heard before creaking from my throat. I fell with you, in shock at your overturned body. I watched your tiny legs twitch, and I sobbed. I flipped you gently with a single finger, running my skin along your candy shell. You marched toward an exposed root. I couldn’t catch my breath, and for a moment I thought my own lungs were collapsing. I ran my hands down my body, along my face, confirming I was still human. I clumsily opened a jar just as you opened your wings. I observed you a moment, hovering in front of me. You stalled, staring at me eye-to-eye. I said your name, and you moved closer. You flew in a circle, flipping your armored body. I laughed until it caught on another sob. I lifted the jar, and gently closed you inside.  

I raced to the lab, hoping to find a reversal. We would just have to expedite our work. This would be good. It would give us an incentive to work harder. I would get you back to normal, and you would see that this human life isn’t so terrifying after all. I told you this the entire way back, whispering into my bag.  

When we got back, I called in the entire team. I set your jar on the table. I began explaining the plan, but one of the interns lifted a shaking hand. She asked me if I’d ever studied this kind of behavior in beetles. Her eyes were wide, and I followed her gaze. You were flying full-speed into the side of the jar, so hard that you were moving it, centimeter by centimeter, across the table. I lifted you, screaming for you to stop. I would fix this. I would make you better. You slammed a final time against the glass, leaving a glimmering trail of guts as you sank to the bottom of the jar.  

You were in there. Your consciousness, your brain. You showed us that it was possible, and you’re helping us save the world. We even successfully turned your lifeless body back into your full, complete human form. Your left side was damaged, but your hair fell like gold around your bruised little shoulders. You were opalescent, iridescent. I couldn’t cry in the hazmat suit, and I pretended you were someone else.

This was all a huge win for the team, and another step closer to our goal. I spoke at your funeral, explaining that this life was too much for you to bear. I didn’t talk about beetles. I didn’t talk about the project. I talked about life, and choices, and human expectations. Your time at the lab is off our records. I left the lab for good after that summer, and they gave me a prize for my contributions to science and conservation. I signed paperwork. We never told the public the entire story of your suicide. I’m no longer sure that it was suicide after all. 

There is only one thing of which I am certain: I am no longer in the business of dead butterflies. 


Alexandra Hubbell is a writer based in Charleston, SC. You can find her poems and short stories through Allegory Ridge, High Shelf Press, and the Charleston Poets site. She has a degree in English from North Carolina State University, and is working on her first novel and book of poetry. Read more of her work at awhubbell.com

Imogen Bylinsky is a Sophmore in high school from Brooklyn, New York. She loves creating art because she believes it is medicine. Her photos below are focused on the holistic beauty of mixed children. Here her sister is pictured who is part Chinese, Russian, Italian, and Hispanic. She wanted to create a piece that ignored the fetishization and nitpicking of mixed-race children by society.