蛻變冊  tuì biàn cè (a guide to metamorphosis)

Mina Chao | Art by Natalie Yang

  1. 孵化 fū huà 

on his fourth birthday, the boy receives two presents. the first is a brand new art case, filled with cheap watercolors and under-pigmented crayons. the second is a glass box. it’s a foot tall and two feet wide, and the top is covered by a screen of metal mesh. there’s a tiny thing inside of it. when the boy brings it to his face, he finds a butterfly with wings of powdery blue. 

in the next thirteen days, the boy makes it known that he has a new best friend. some days, he sits on the steps of the front porch, glass box beside him, and counts the cars that pass by. other days, he lays in the grass outside of pre-school and carefully colors in pages in his coloring book with his new crayons. he talks to the butterfly while he colors, oftentimes an incoherent jumble of words and phrases. as the other children walk by, they snicker to each other and taunt the little boy and his peculiar new friend.

“just who are you talking to?” a little girl asks him one day, lifting the glass box from the ground and shaking it with great force. “are you really that sad?”

“give that back!” the boy snarls, snatching the box back in a swift motion. “they’re my best friend, and they listen to me! leave us alone!”

when the girl leaves, he pulls the box a little closer to his body.

“don’t worry about her,” he huffs, “you and i will be best friends forever.”

but the life of a butterfly is short, and fourteen days after its arrival, it falls to the floor of the glass box and flies no more. the boy thinks nothing of it; he knows it is just taking a light nap for an evening. he kisses the glass box goodnight and tucks himself under the covers.

the next morning, the boy lifts the empty glass box with a smile.

“good morning, mister butterfly!”

a single butterfly, wings ghostly pale, whispers in return.

II. 生長 shēng zhǎng

it seems that the butterflies have been talking to him. he hears them everywhere. their tiny, shrill voices nag and gripe, ringing in his ears even when he’s away. at first, they only speak in gibberish. now, they speak in words the boy can understand. but he keeps them close anyway because there’s no one else to converse with.

today, he sits outside his mother’s lab, back against the wall. he holds an unfinished painting in hand, and watches the watercolor dance freely across the pages of his sketchbook, bleeding into the fibers of the paper. the butterflies dance around him, chattering away. 

“what are we doing outside this ratty lab?” one asks innocently.

“mother wanted to show us something. a surprise, she said,” the boy tiredly replies.

“a surprise?” says another. “why aren’t we looking for her?”

the boy shrugs. “nothing is a surprise these days. besides, surprises are for children, and i’m no longer a child. maybe if i stay away for long enough, she’ll stop bothering me with her nonsense. ”

“nonsense?” the butterflies cry, and at the same time the boy hears the muffled echo of his name being shouted from the other side of the door. “you shouldn’t keep her waiting. you don’t have much time left, after all.”

he doesn’t need to keep her waiting, because the door beside him squeaks open and his mother’s head pokes outside. the butterflies silence themselves upon her arrival.

“there you are!” she says, sighing with relief. “i was getting worried that you weren’t going to come!”

she takes his hand and leads him down the winding hallways of the laboratory and pulls him into the room and spins him around, her hands placed lightly on his shoulders.

before him stands four walls of glass and a kaleidoscope of butterflies at its center. a single strip of fluorescent light stretches across the ceiling, and a few butterflies gather around to bask in its bright glow.

“what do you think?” his mother asks from behind him, squeezing his shoulders lightly.

“beautiful,” the boy says and presses his hands to the glass.

III. 化蛹 huà yǒng

today is day four of the man observing the butterflies in the glass room. he holds the edges of a 

canvas. a single stroke of blue paint stretches across it. 

it has been four days since he touched a paintbrush.

the butterflies sing to him as he rocks back and forth on the floor of the room. he stares blankly at the walls before him. they’re singing the song of the ten rabbits today. in his youth, they’d sing songs like this, too. songs about love, songs about life, songs about grand adventures, songs of every sort. but most of all, they loved songs about death. the man was somewhat accustomed to the morbid tunes, yet on occasion, their wild remarks catch him off guard.

“oh, just listen to the little rabbits rip each other apart! the silly little things,” giggles a butterfly as the song comes to a close.

the man shuts his eyes. what disgusting creatures these things are, he thinks to himself. he was not sure what his younger self saw in these vile things, with their ugly words and their ugly little bodies, their horrifying songs and cruel jokes. he has the urge to rip their wings off and pull their little legs off one by one. if he could, perhaps they would finally be silent again.

in his frustration, he reaches for the doorknob beside him, but as his fingers close around the cool metal, he can hear the voices of the creatures yelling out to him.

“don’t leave, boy,” they say. they screech like forks dragging across porcelain. “what out there is not here? the world is temporary, but we are forever.”

the man should know better than to listen to them. he presses his palms against his ears and squeezes tight, but the screaming only rings louder. they’re ugly, lying creatures, he reminds himself, i cannot lose myself to them.

“but you already have,” they cackle at him, and his grip on the doorknob loosens and falls. their laughter grows upon his defeat.

– 🦋 –

he sits at the center of the room now, fingers clutching at the corners of his canvas again. the door remains tightly shut; the boy knows better than to escape the prison of his own making.

a single butterfly perches on his left shoulder, whispering softly into his ear, a voice that reminds him a little of his mother. “paint, my dear. paint, as you always have.”

his hands move automatically, lifting the brush and letting it dance across the paper. the color roams free, but his wrists are stiff and move like a machine’s. he had illustrated its twisted beauty many times before, and he remembers how he once found great joy in detailing its figure. but this time, he was not in control of his body. his brush was full of water, and the colors dripped down the sides of the canvas. the painting became a muddled swirl of sky blues and amethyst purples, its bright galaxy spilling into the room of nothingness. 

the butterflies notice before him; they always do. the watercolors in the tray become scarce, and the man reaches to load his brush and paints a line of dripping water. before he can react, the butterflies fly into a frenzy, their voices fill the room. with hands over his ears, the man watches in horror as they rip each other to pieces, their limbs littering the floor below.

“take them,” they screech among the ruckus, “take our wings, take our scales, take our souls and finish your pretty little picture.”

he hesitates. the butterflies latch onto him, their tiny legs digging into his skin. his breathing becomes shallow, and he collapses before his painting. 

suddenly, the screeching comes to a stop, and the world is quiet once more.

IV. 飛行 fēi xíng

with his powdery blue wings, he flew, as they all do, to the light.