The Man Who Loved Butterflies
. . . Then, except for the boy shoving and scraping at the window sill, there was silence in the hut. Johnson shut his eyes, trying to evaluate his position. He hoped Romeo would be able to take care of himself. Romeo would know that something must have happened to Johnson. Romeo would be thinking that Johnson might be a bit whacko, but he was reliable. He wouldn't leave Romeo stranded unless he was in deeper trouble himself. If Romeo could get a car, he might come looking for Johnson. And if the Mourabitoun would give Johnson a chance to impress them with his connections and influence, he might be able to save himself. He might even be able to save the Dane and the boy, unless they realized the boy was a phalangist from Damour. He had to do something for the boy! Why was he still in Lebanon if he couldn't even save someone like Millad?
He thought of Millad on the golf course: a bright, cheerful lad, always eager to search for one of Johnson's errant drives, always remorseful when he couldn't find the ball. It had made Johnson feel guilty to watch the boy's small frame bravely struggle with the heavy bag of clubs, so Johnson had always over-tipped him. And the boy had always tried to outrun the other caddies for the privilege of carrying "Mr. Eric's" bag. Now the boy claimed to have become a hardened angry killer. Was he just boasting, or had the war accomplished that, too? Johnson opened his eyes to banish his thoughts. He wiped the sweat from his face. His shirt was sticking to his aching ribs.
Suddenly, outside in the distance, there was the chatter of automatic weapons. A brief silence. Then the pop and crackle of small-arms fire. This was followed by the crump of mortar and artillery. The Mourabitoun didn't have artillery yet. Others were now involved.
"The truce is over," Johnson said to no one in particular.
"Perhaps they will forget about us," the Dane said. He might have been making an abstract proposition as the basis for a philosophical treatise. He did not seem to be afraid of dying. What was he afraid of?
"Perhaps," Johnson agreed, but his instincts and experience told him they were in for a bad time, that the fighting could only diminish their chances.
The heat and the kerosene fumes were becoming unbearable.
"Millad," Johnson said, "take my shoe. Break the window with my shoe."
The boy was barefoot. Perhaps they had stolen his shoes. That did not bode well for the boy's future. However, to ask him about his missing shoes might only add to his humiliation.
The boy hesitated, contemplating the shoe in Johnson's outstretched hand. Then: "Mr. Eric, they will kill you when they see it is your shoe that breaks the window."
"Take my shoe, Millad, or I'll have to get up and break it myself. And maybe with the gunfire they won't hear the window break."
"The guard has big ears, Mr. Eric."
"The guard may be watching his mother with the goats," Johnson said.
The boy laughed and came over to get Johnson's shoe.
"Is it all right with you if he breaks the window, Dane?" Johnson asked.
"Yes. We need fresh air and it's a lovely day outside." The man smiled.
"A perfect day," Johnson said.
The boy tapped lightly at the window glass, but it didn't break. Finally, he swung hard and the glass shattered. He lost control of the shoe and it slipped out of his hand, out the window. The boy rushed over and sat beside them along the wall, the three of them facing the door expectantly.
Outside, there were several shouts and the door was jerked open. An overweight gunman stood there with his machine gun in one hand and the offending shoe in the other. He glowered.
"Too hot," Johnson said. "I threw the shoe. I needed air."
The gunman pointed his gun at Johnson, then he tossed the shoe on the floor and shot the shoe. The gunman stared at the shoe to make sure it was dead. It had been a fine brown Italian loafer, but now it lay torn and dusty against the wall where the bullets had driven it. The gunman smiled in satisfaction, scratched the folds of his belly, glowered one last time and shut the door.
"Ya haram!" Millad said.
"Ya haram!" Johnson echoed.
And the three captives burst out laughing.
"The shoe was brave," Millad said.
"It died well," Johnson said.
"It no longer cares about being a shoe," the Dane said, getting in the spirit.
All three laughed again, and then they fell silent. The silence weighed heavily, perhaps because of the laughter that had preceded it. For a long time they sat there, listening to the sounds of gun and shell fire, as the light lengthened through the broken window, with the sun dropping on the sea.
It was the Dane who broke their silence. "What is the word for 'butterfly' in Arabic?" he asked Millad.
"What is this 'flutterby'?" Millad asked.
"Butterfly," the Dane said. "It is a pretty insect that flies like this." The Dane's small delicate hands did a fair imitation of a butterfly flying, then landing.
Millad puzzled a moment, then said, "Farashah. It is a farashah."
"Farashah," the Dane repeated, savoring the word. "Thank you." He leaned back and closed his eyes momentarily as if he were storing the word. Then: "In Tunis they call it fatatah. It sounds like the movement of the butterfly's wings."
Again there was silence in the hut as they listened to the intensified fighting outside. Suddenly a cricket began chirping in the hovel. Millad got up. The noise seemed to come from all directions. It was a particularly loud cricket. Johnson watched Millad methodically search for it, walking along the wall, tracing the circumference of the room.
"Don't hurt it," Johnson said.
"Why, Mr. Eric?" Millad asked, without interrupting his search.
"It is a small thing. It does you no harm."
"It is a bug," Millad said. "It is too loud."
"It's not necessary to kill it," Johnson said. "Just catch it and throw it out the window."
Millad stopped, stepped down hard and ground his bare foot back and forth in the dirt. The sound of the cricket was gone.
"Malesh!" Millad said.
"Mish malesh! It does matter!" Johnson said, angry now at the boy, beginning to get angry at everything.
"It was of no good to anyone. Malesh!" Millad shrugged and went to stare out the window.
Johnson suddenly felt queasy. Perhaps it was the heat or lack of food. He hadn't eaten anything all day. He stared at Millad's dirty brown feet, thinking of the cricket's remains stuck to the bottom of one of them. He grew angrier at his queasiness.
"What do you say, Dane? Malesh or mish malesh? You're the philosophy professor. Does it matter or doesn't it?"
The Dane opened his eyes. "It depends on your frame of reference. The Japanese would..."
"Screw the Japanese! Screw your frame of reference! I hate the damn word. The Arabs abuse it to cover their misdeeds, to excuse their incompetence or their indifference. If they're going to shoot you or me or him, one of them might just shrug his shoulders and say 'malesh'!"
Johnson had gotten up, forgetting the chair, which toppled over onto the Dane. Johnson paced back and forth, becoming consumed with rage. "Or how about bukra? There's another great word! 'Tomorrow.' The indefinite tomorrow. A word that would make the Mexican's mañana sound more like 'pronto.' Bukra! The tomorrow that will never come if you want something delivered or repaired. The eternal lie to alibi their laziness. Are you hungry, Professor? You want food? Bukra! How about you, Millad? You want somebody to help you stay alive? Bukra! Well, there just might not be any bukras left for any of us! Malesh!"
Suddenly, Johnson grabbed Millad and began shaking him and then he slapped him. The boy looked at him in fear and humiliation. Then Johnson found himself at the door, beating at it with his fists. "Let us out of here!" he shouted. "We've done nothing. I'm a diplomat! United Nations! Nations unies!"
He checked himself in the middle of his rage. He had completely lost control. It was dangerous. It was foolish. He stood facing the door, too embarrassed for the moment to turn around. He expected the door to be jerked open and he would be shot. He should be shot for such an outburst. He waited.
The door did not open. He stood there until he was calm again. Then he turned and faced the Dane and the boy. The Dane had dealt with the chair and was again leaning against the wall with his eyes closed. The boy had not moved from the window.
Johnson went back and sat in the chair. "It's not fear," he said to no one in particular. "I'm just tired of the madness. I'm sick of this country."
Again there was silence. After a while, the Dane opened his eyes. The slate grey eyes were gentle, understanding, accepting. What gives a stranger the right to understand or forgive or accept? Why couldn't he, Eric Johnson, feel those same things?
"You don't really know this country, Professor," Johnson said.
"True. But my wife loved Beirut," the Dane said. "We came here several times on vacation, many years ago. She loved to look at the sea and feel the heat of the sun, then to turn around and be able to see snow on the mountains... in the summer. It entranced her. She thought it was paradise."
The shooting tapered off, then died altogether. The three captives listened to the silence, waiting for something to shatter it. They could hear nothing but the sea.
After a while, the Dane spoke again. "Paradise. When my wife died last year, I took our savings and decided to revisit all the places my wife and I had gone together. I wanted to share them with her one last time. I had promised her I would take her back to her favorite spots. And, once we were there, I would say the same silly things to her I had said before, and she would say the same things to me. What I could remember. And we would hold each other and laugh at the funny things people did, the way we had always laughed."
The Dane smiled in recollection. "This was my last place. I saved the best for last. Yesterday I pretended we ate fish together in El Bahri, down at the port. Then we went swimming in St. George's Bay. And I stood with her one last time on the Corniche and felt the sea-spray splash our faces. And I watched as she turned to look at the mountains. You see, American, this is the last place."
The Dane smiled at him and Johnson nodded in recognition of the Dane's sorrow. He was a stranger to the Dane and he wanted to feel his sorrow, but he didn't have time. He had to do something about the boy.
"I'm sorry for hitting you, Millad."
The boy turned to him. His face was red where Johnson had slapped him. There were tears in his eyes, but he was fighting against crying. "Malesh," the boy said.
"No, Millad," Johnson said, gently. "Mish malesh."
"You are not very brave, Mr. Eric."
"No, I am not, Millad."
"If you are brave, you help me."
"We kill the Mourabitoun. Together. Forget the old man. You and me, Mr. Eric. Like on the golf course. Together."
"And how would we do that, Millad?"
Flies had found their way into the hut and were buzzing about Johnson's head. He tried to swat them away, but they kept coming back. One fly was walking on the back of the Dane's hand and the Dane was watching it with what seemed like a detached curiosity. Arriving early to eat the dead, Johnson thought.
Millad came over from the window and stood near Johnson. "You stay next to the door. I call the Mourabitoun. I run to the door and am lying on the floor. He opens the door and sees me and bends down. You hit him with the chair. You break his head. Then you choke him to make sure."
"You want me to murder him? With my bare hands?"
"Yes. You have no knife. You have no gun. You kill him."
Johnson shook his head. He had never killed anyone. He had always believed somehow that civilized men should talk things out. He swatted at a fly on his arm and managed to kill it.
"Like the fly, Mr. Eric."
"And suppose I mess up, Millad? Suppose I miss him or don't hit him hard enough. Then he will certainly kill you."
"No matter. I am truly dead if you do not help. You do not care if I am dead, Mr. Eric."
Johnson got up and pawed at the air, at the swirling flies. "Yes, dammit, I care. And if more of your people cared, you wouldn't be tearing your country apart and creating so much grief!"
"You know too many words, Mr. Eric." The boy turned away in disgust and dejection. He moved back toward the window.
The boy was right, Johnson thought. Sometimes words were pointless. Sometimes words were just an excuse. If it were his own son, he wouldn't think twice about doing whatever it took to save him. "All right, Millad. I'll do it. I'll kill him."
The boy looked at him curiously, suspecting something. "Now you are joking, Mr. Eric."
"Oh, no. You call the guard. I'm going to kill him." He thought maybe he could hit him just hard enough to knock him out. But if he miscalculated....
Johnson grabbed the chair and carried it over to the door. He raised the chair over his head and felt a stabbing pain in his ribs.
"Now, Millad! Call the guard!"
The chair was wavering in his hands. The pain was becoming unbearable.
"Now! What are you waiting for?"
Millad was watching the chair waver.
"Perhaps it is not a good plan, Mr. Eric."
"Why not? What's wrong with it?"
"You will not hit him to kill. You are too afraid. It is like the sixth hole. You will not hit him well."
Johnson lowered the chair. He was gasping for breath, but he tried not to show the pain.
"For God's sakes, Millad, what do you want from me?"
Millad came over and took the chair from him and carried it over to where the Dane was still sitting. The Dane had been watching them intently through all of this.
The boy sat in the chair. "You do not have it in your heart to kill this way. There is too much talk in you, Mr. Eric. Talking does not make good killing. You are not a man the way the Arab is a man...even when the Arab is but a boy."
"I would have done it for you, Millad. I..." Maybe. No one, not even yourself, can know what you will do until you actually do it...until it's too late to snatch back the act. That's the terrible part about being able to think. Johnson went over to the window and tried to breathe some fresh air. He tried to spot the guard, but all he could see were waves breaking along the coast. "Hey!" he shouted.
A bullet slammed into the outside wall near his head. Johnson jerked back from the window. Millad laughed. Then the Dane laughed. And, finally, Johnson laughed, although that hurt his ribs, too. Johnson went to his gun-blasted shoe and started to try to put it on. He seemed not to be able to bend over. So he kicked off his other shoe and left the two of them there in the corner.
"Maybe you have pain, Mr. Eric. Maybe you sit down." Millad got up from the chair.
But Johnson did not sit down. To sit down would confirm his weakness in the boy's eyes.
For a moment Millad looked like the impish boy who had carried Johnson's golf clubs. Johnson thought back to a time when the war had not yet begun.
"Remember the sixth hole, Millad? You mentioned the sixth hole. Remember it? The day I lost all my golf balls?"
Millad laughed. "Too many balls."
"You'll enjoy this, Professor. The sixth hole, you see, went across this ravine."
The Dane shook his head. "I do not understand this game of golf, men hitting at a little white ball and chasing after it."
"You don't have to understand it, Professor. It's really a tale of human spirit, or folly, depending on your point of view. You see, from the point where you tee off...uh...first hit the ball, to the green...the place where the ball must get to...there is only a large ravine in between. One day, as I'm getting ready to hit the ball over this ravine, Millad says that he will bet me one Lebanese pound that I can't make it. Well, usually I had no trouble with this hole, so naturally I take him up on it. And I swing my club and the ball disappears down into the ravine. And Millad starts laughing. Well, I laugh, too. So he says he will bet me again on the next ball. And I agree. And sure enough, the next ball goes down into the ravine. And he is laughing harder, but I am not laughing as much. It goes on this way until I have put every one of my golf balls into the ravine. And Millad has won sixty-three pounds from me."
Millad laughed. "Seventy-three pounds, Mr. Eric."
"Was it seventy-three pounds? What difference does it make? The fact is that Millad had secretly greased the head of my golf club." Johnson waggled an accusing finger at him.
Millad shrugged. "It was a big joke, Mr. Eric."
"Yes, and I made you go down into the ravine and find every one of those seventy-three balls."
Millad shook his head. "La! It was only sixty-three, Mr. Eric."
"Perhaps you're right, Millad. And when we get out of here, I'm going to watch you very carefully on the golf course."
Suddenly the door was flung open and two Mourabitoun entered. Millad went over to the window. Neither one was the fat man who had shot the shoe. Johnson was sorry it wasn't the fat man. They looked at Johnson and the Dane, then at Millad who had turned his back to them. While one of the gunmen stood guard by the door, the other headed towards Millad. Johnson ran to shield Millad, but the Mourabitoun knocked Johnson to the floor with his gun butt, hitting him in the back and shoulders. Then the gunman grabbed Millad from behind, with his arm around Millad's throat.
"No more golf, Mr. Eric," the boy said, as the gunman dragged him from the hut. The other gunman spit and slammed the door.
The Dane tried to help Johnson up, but Johnson just waved him away and stared at the dirt floor.
"Will they kill him?" the Dane asked.
Johnson hesitated, then said, "If he's lucky." People did not seem to be having much luck that day.
"That is a bad thing to say," the Dane reproached him. He walked over to the window and looked out.
Johnson sat in the middle of the floor, unable to move for the moment. He seemed to ache all over.
"The way they dragged him from the hut, they'll not let him go. It's better if he dies quickly...with little pain. I hope they shoot him."
"You have seen too much," the Dane observed, not unkindly.
Johnson started to shrug, but the movement of his shoulder made him wince. "Millad was a good boy. He used to make me laugh. He used to..."
Then they heard the first of Millad's screams. It was a scream louder than a mortar or a rifle shot. It seemed to silence the sea.
There was a pause in which both men held their breath and then the second scream came and they both knew that Millad would not die quickly.
Johnson wanted to cover his ears, but he did not. He felt it would not do justice to Millad's pain to try to ignore it.
The third scream came, and then there were long moments of silence in which Johnson could hear his own breath rasping in his throat.
"Do you think they have finished?" the Dane asked. He had moved away from the window and was standing in a corner, facing the wall. Johnson could not find words. The Dane turned and saw the answer in Johnson's eyes. The Dane nodded. He walked over and sat down with his back against the wall, near Johnson.
After a while, to cover the waiting silence, the Dane said, "My wife and I loved butterflies. It is the reason I collect words for 'butterfly' in various languages. It is more humane than catching butterflies and killing them and pinning them to a board. This way we only catch them in the mind and they flutter there forever."
Millad screamed again. The scream became a grenade exploding in Johnson's chest.
As if he had heard nothing, the Dane said, "I know the word for butterfly in fifty-three languages. Whenever I meet someone who has a language other than my own, I ask him the word for 'butterfly.' It is better than looking it up in the dictionary. That way I acquire a feeling for the meaning of 'butterfly' for that person in his language."
"Please don't talk," Johnson said.
"No," said the Dane, over the sound of a scream. "It is better to talk. You must talk." He was surprisingly firm.
Johnson nodded. "I don't...I can't...uh...."
"Do you know the word for 'butterfly' in French?" the Dane asked.
Johnson could not think. A scream erupted in his head. Johnson shook his head as if trying to get the scream out.
"You must. I heard you speak French."
"Papillon," Johnson said. "Papillon." It seemed to take all his strength to release the word.
"Yes," said the Dane. "That's better. Now, the German?"
Johnson struggled. At last he said, "Schmetterling."
"Correct," said the Dane. "Japanese?"
"No," Johnson said. "That's all I know."
"Surely you know the name of Madame Butterfly from the opera?"
All he knew was that Millad's scream was becoming a blinding white light in the gathering dusk.
"Madame Butterfly," the Dane coaxed.
"Cho..." Johnson muttered. "Cho-cho!"
The Dane nodded. "Italian!" he commanded.
"Farfalla," said the Dane gently.
"Farfalla," Johnson shouted in defiance.
Then the screaming stopped. The two men sat listening, hoping that Millad was dead. At last Johnson whispered, "Farashah," in memory of Millad.
After a silence that lasted as long as a scream echoing in their minds, the Dane asked, "Do you have a cigarette, American?"