The Day the Painted Ladies Came to Town

4,700 words
March 16, 2022

Eric spied her tromping through his meadow. Actually, it wasn't his meadow. It wasn't really a meadow. Big abandoned lots were scarce in this part of Los Angeles. Even in these residential areas, most unoccupied land was in the process of being bulldozed flat for condominiums. This lot had little hills. If you stood just so, you could forget you were in the middle of a city. The land had been left to go to weeds, but they weren't just any weeds. It was full of thistles. And that's why Eric was here.

He had been walking to this place every day after school for a month, checking for the butterflies he knew would come. Spring had warmed the city for a week now and his cousin in Orange County, a fellow amateur lepidopterist, had told him over the weekend the butterflies were in her neighborhood.

Eric had never seen anyone else in the meadow before. The teenager was in the middle of the thickest concentration of thistle plants, crouched down in front of a purple spiky blossom, madly sketching with charcoal on a pad of paper. He guessed they were about the same age, but she looked different than most of the girls he knew at school. She was dressed in jeans and a red T-shirt. Eric wondered if she accidentally happened to pick a red shirt or if she knew red attracted butterflies.

Her makeup made her look different. She had rouged her cheeks so the reddish color shone out of her dark brown skin. Her lips were the color of dark wine, her eyelashes ebony. Her glossy black hair was pulled back in a bun, except for stray wisps that escaped and blew in the breeze.

Eric coughed to get her attention.

She looked up at him and grinned. "Butterflies," she mouthed, her dark lips opening to show flashes of white teeth.

She was exactly where he had planned to be. He had spent weeks scoping out the best spot to watch the butterflies. And he expected to be by himself. What business did she have being here, acting like she owned the place?

After all, this was the big day in L.A. The big day for butterfly fans, that is. Finally, the Painted Lady butterflies had arrived. The migratory insects were moving north up the California coast. The weren't as pretty as the Monarch butterflies. The orange and black Monarchs, Danaus plexippus, were the kings of the butterfly kingdom as far as Eric was concerned. Painted ladies were a distant second. They were smaller, duller orange, with brown around their bodies and dabs of white around the tips of the upper wings. But they were here, now, congregating in droves on the thistle.

The girl motioned Eric to come closer. The thistle plants surrounding her came up to her waist. Eric tried to move slowly toward her, but his movements caused the butterflies to soar up from the flowers between them.

She laughed.

The rest of the butterflies took off.

"Who are you? What are you doing here?" Eric asked. He slung off his backpack and put it on the ground between them.

She ignored his first question. "Sketching," she replied. She turned the pad over so he couldn't see what she had done, making it obvious she didn't trust him. "How about you?"

"Looking for Painted Ladies." Eric took a net and a jar out of the backpack.

"Seems you've found them."

A butterfly landed on the flower right in front of Eric. He lunged at the insect with a net, caught it, and popped it in a jar, clapping the lid on.

"What are you doing?" she cried. She tugged at his wrist, turning it over so she could see the top of the lid. "There aren't any holes. The poor thing will die!"

"I study butterflies," Eric said. "I can't study them on the wing." Surely she was smart enough to know that fluttering wings wouldn't work under a microscope.

"There are plenty of butterflies in a museum," she said. "Let it go."

"What are you, some kind of environmentalist?" Eric wrenched his arm away from her. Who was she to tell him what to do? He had staked out this area for his study and now she was messing with him.

When she spoke again, she had changed her tune. "Let me see it."

He looked at her more closely. "I know you. You're in Ms. Swanson's Biology class."

"I know you, too. You're Eric. So what if I'm in Ms. Swanson's Biology class?"

"I didn't recognize you with all that stuff on your face."

She blushed, making her forehead, chin and nose turn as crimson as the rouge on her cheeks. In spite of her embarrassment, she held out her hand for the jar. "I'll show you something magical."

Eric hesitated.

"Trust me."

He heard a muted pleading in her tone. Why should he trust her with his butterfly when she didn't trust him to look at her sketch?

"Come on. You can always catch another one. There are plenty around today."

He handed her the jar.

She took the lid off and reached in with her forefinger, mumbling something Eric couldn't hear clearly. The words didn't sound like English. The butterfly fluttered around the bottom of the jar, but then, rather than flying away, it climbed onto the girl's finger. She lifted the butterfly out and held it in front of Eric's eyes.

The butterfly marched up and down her finger like a model parading on a runway. Eric pulled his cellphone out of the pocket of his jeans and took photos of the insect. At first, it had it's wings closed, then it stopped and gently opened and closed them as if waving a greeting to him.

All the time, the girl mumbled to the butterfly. When the insect stopped on the tip of her finger, she turned to Eric. "Seen enough?" she asked him.

He nodded.

She turned back to the butterfly and whispered. It sounded like a prayer. The Painted Lady flew off, taking to the sky, fighting against a breeze from the north.

Together they watched the butterfly go. It tacked right in the wind, then left, like a tiny airborne sailboat. The girl turned back to him. "Did you get enough pictures?"


"Your phone takes digital pictures. Something John James Audubon didn't have."

Eric heard the rebuke in her voice. John James Audubon, the 19th century naturalist, had to bring back dead animals from his explorations to study them, although he also drew and painted the animals he saw in the wilds of America. The implication was Eric didn't need to kill a butterfly to add to his collection.

It was a mild rebuke, but it stung Eric just the same. "Yes. You're right. I can study the photographs. But it isn't the same as having a specimen." He pressed his lips together in a thin line.

"One less specimen means there's one more live butterfly." She looked pleased she had gotten him to agree with her, in part at least. Instead of pressing the point, she seemed genuinely concerned that he see her point of view.

"Yeah. I get the idea." Eric put down the jar. "How did you get it to do what you wanted?"

She smiled. "Trade secret."

"No, really. I'm serious."

"Me, too."

"Did you talk to it in butterfly language?"

She laughed. The sound was deep and earthy, coming out from the core of her being. "No."

Eric wanted to hear her laugh again. "C'mon. Tell me." He smiled at her. "I'll tell you my secrets if you tell me yours."

She shook her head, but smiled back.

Eric said, "Trust isn't just one way, you know."

"I know. But some things are sacred." They stared at each other for a moment. Then she giggled, as if flustered she had been caught acting too seriously or giving away too much information.

He could have walked away, but he was too curious. He really wanted to know how she charmed the butterfly. Maybe if he talked to her, convinced her he knew something about butterflies, she would share her secret. "You know, the scientific name of the Painted Lady butterfly is Vanessa cardui. Sometimes they are called Cosmopolitans because they are found all over the world except for the polar regions. This migration started in Mexico a month ago and . . . ." Eric realized he was babbling, so he shut his mouth.

"Go on."

"No, it's just stuff."

"It's important to you."

Eric half-stifled a rueful laugh. "I've been told more than once I'm too much of a nerd."

"Is that what you think of yourself?"

"No, but pretty girls do. The popular ones, you know."

"And . . . ." She smiled, encouraging him to continue.

He shook his head.

"So you don't want to share secrets after all."

"It's too personal."

She raised her eyebrows. "You have to go first."

Eric realized she would never open up to him if he didn't open to her. "Then will you tell me about talking to the butterfly?"

"Maybe." A smile played on her lips.

"I see. It's a challenge." Eric considered how to say something without giving too much of himself away. "The hard part is getting a pretty girl to notice me. That can take months of effort. Then, even if I get as far as a first date, that's it. I'm too boring to her. I don't know how to make scintillating conversation. I just like to talk about science."

"So, what kind of girl do you find attractive?"

Eric stared off in the distance, as if imagining a vision. "Tall . . . blonde. . . built." He looked at her. It was his turn to blush when he realized she was none of those.

"With lots of makeup?"

He shrugged. "I guess."

"A cheerleader type."

He coughed. "Maybe."

"The kind of girl all the football players want."

He didn't like the way the conversation was going. "Why shouldn't I?"

"Yes. Why shouldn't you?" Her eyes narrowed as if she were annoyed with him. She turned over her sketch pad. From her backpack, she pulled out a box of pastels and flipped off the cover. Choosing orange, she applied the color to the paper with short, gentle strokes.

Eric glowered as he walked away. So what if he liked blondes? It wasn't a crime. Because there weren't that many blondes in his grade at public school, it was easy to memorize their names: Diana Scofield, Elizabeth Bartonville, Victoria Forrester. It was the same way he memorized Latin names of butterflies: Danaus plexippus, the Monarch; Vanessa cardui, the Painted Lady; Pterourus rutulus, the Western Tiger Swallowtail. He had a knack for memorizing facts important to him.

He ran the names of the butterflies over in his mind, calming himself. The girl had upset him more than he cared to admit. Scientific facts were so much easier to deal with than humans, who were terribly unpredictable. Understanding human behavior was not trivial. Why couldn't types of people be categorized like butterflies? Instead of only Homo sapiens, wise humans, we could have Homo stupidus, stupid humans. Or Homo traditorus, traitor humans. They could be made to wear special badges so you would know which type they were by looking at them. That would be awesome.

Eric walked behind a hill so the girl couldn't see him and he couldn't see her. He pulled more facts from his memory. Butterflies are from the Order Lepidoptera, meaning scaly wings. Actually, butterflies had tiny scales all over their bodies. Thinking about the scales reminded him he wanted to see them under a microscope. He caught another butterfly with the net, popped it in the jar, and screwed on the lid. He'd forgotten the chloroform. No matter. There were other ways to get what he wanted.

Examining the butterfly though the glass of the jar, he could see one of the wings was ragged, possibly from a narrow escape with a bird. Eric opened the lid and shook it out. The butterfly hopped onto a thistle plant and happily sucked nectar from the flower. It's lack of symmetry didn't keep it from acting like a butterfly.

Several attempts later, he found the butterfly he was looking for. It had perfectly shaped wings and good strong colors. It was probably a male. Male butterflies generally had more vibrant coloring.

He screwed down the lid of the jar tightly. It wouldn't take very long for the butterfly to die. The sun's rays would penetrate the glass but they couldn't get out. No air would get in. Eric busied himself by trying to deduce whether the high temperature would kill the butterfly before the lack of oxygen caused it to succumb. Most likely the temperature would be the cause of death, he decided.

Eric watched the butterfly flutter its wings against the glass. The girl's words prickled at his conscious. He should be allowed to obtain a sample Vanessa cardui, he argued to himself. What difference would one butterfly make? It wasn't like he hadn't done it before. Not that he had a huge collection. Just a few perfect specimens. Honest.

The butterfly's flutterings slowed. It's wings drooped. He wished he hadn't forgotten the chloroform. Chemicals would have worked better and faster.

Eric swore. He took the lid off the jar. The Painted Lady climbed to the lip of the glass, hesitated a moment, then flew off to the north, fighting the wind that came off the mountains. Eric didn't blame it for going. He would have gotten as far away as possible from a jailer, too.

Her other words pricked at him, the ones about the type of girls he liked. He'd struck out with blondes. Three blondes, three strikes. Elizabeth Bartonville was the only one who would go out with him. He had taken her to the most expensive restaurant he could afford. It was French, with a snooty waiter who ogled Elizabeth and treated Eric like crap. Elizabeth spent the evening talking to him about Robert, a guy Eric was tutoring in math. Robert wasn't that much better looking than Eric. Robert was on the basketball team, though. Girls thought Robert had charisma. Eric figured that meant Robert knew how to flatter them into believing they were the most important creatures on Earth,

Eric couldn't be that deceitful. It wasn't in him. He knew he would have been more likable to girls if he pretended to make them feel they were as important as the sun, the moon and the stars. That seemed like such a sham. He wanted a special girl in his life, but he couldn't act like she was more important to him than the scientific universe. That wouldn't be true.

Eric had fumed while Elizabeth chewed her lobster tail. She was eating the money he'd earned tutoring the clod she was really interested in. Maybe Elizabeth decided Eric could be a tool to get to someone else, someone infinitely more desirable. And apparently Robert was extremely desirable. At least he was to Elizabeth.

Eric tried to keep his temper, but when Elizabeth wouldn't even kiss him at the door of her house, he snapped, "What does Robert have that I don't?"

"Eric, you're really sweet. But I'm just not into you."

"No kidding. You made that quite clear. Every other word out of your mouth is Robert."

"You knew that before you asked me out. I haven't changed."

"I thought maybe I could persuade you to be interested in someone else. May I could make you see that I am somebody."

"Of course, you're somebody. You're just not the right one for me."

"And Robert is? Haven't you noticed every other word out of his mouth isn't Elizabeth?"

Elizabeth blushed. "And maybe it never will be." She sighed. "But, I don't know . . . ." She covered her mouth with her hand and giggled in a way that made Eric hate her. "There's something about him. I can't explain it. I know that somehow I have to get his attention."

Was that any different than what Eric had wanted from Elizabeth? Not really. But, stilll, he would have preferred to have his way. Apparently, Elizabeth was not going to cooperate.

Eric took pity on her. She was like a Sphinx moth drawn to a lamp, bashing herself against the glass. "Try talking basketball. Get him Lakers tickets and be sympathetic if they lose."

Elizabeth kissed him on the cheek. "You're great."

"Sure," he muttered, walking away. "I'm the greatest idiot that ever lived."

That evening he went home and memorized the Sphinx moth's biological classification: Kingdom Animalia (Animals), Phylum Arthropoda (Arthropods), Class Insecta (Insects), Order Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths), Family Sphingidae (Sphinx Moths). It was more information for the collection of facts he stored in his brain, but it didn't make him feel much better.

First Elizabeth and now this girl. Eric wondered why the girl asked about the kinds of girls he liked. He puzzled over this for awhile as he sat on a rock, butterflies forgotten. A flicker of hope burned within him. Maybe Elizabeth had struck out with Robert and was trying to connect with Eric using the girl as an intermediary.

Eric jumped up and sauntered back around the hill to the girl. She was still working on her drawing. He walked straight up to her and asked, "Did Elizabeth send you to talk to me?"

She frowned. "Elizabeth?"

"You know, Elizabeth Bartonville. The blonde."

"Oh, her." She scowled at him. "I don't run errands for Elizabeth."

"I didn't mean — "

She cut him off. "I thought you were smart, but I can see I was mistaken. You don't get it, even when it's in front of your nose."

Eric fumed. The only thing in front of his nose was her. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Yeah, well. . . ." She pulled out a red pastel. That color was not appropriate to either the thistles or the Painted Ladies. She couldn't be trying to duplicate them. Intrigued, Eric moved around so he could see her artwork. This time she didn't try to shield her drawing from him.

She added bits of red to the wings of a giant butterfly. The body of the butterfly was the torso of a young woman with long black hair. Instead of arms and legs, there were wings.

Was it the drawing of a girl poised to fly away? A butterfly princess, perhaps? Eric could only guess.

Ignoring him, the girl added blue, then green, yellow and purple. With each color, her strokes got shorter and faster. The girl's butterfly-woman creation now trapped all the rainbow colors in the wings.

Eric observed the girl had made her butterfly with four wings. She hadn't made the usual mistake, common to artists, of drawing one wing on each side. Most people who didn't look closely at butterflies thought they had two wings, but there were actually four, two hind wings and two forewings. The girl was at least careful enough to draw with an eye to scientific accuracy. Eric liked that. He liked it a lot.

She replaced the purple in the pastel box and smiled at the finished creation, ignoring him.

"Who is the princess?"

She scowled. "She's not a princess, she's a goddess. The Goddess of Change."


"What are butterflies best known for?" The girl waited for his reply.

Eric sensed a strictly scientific explanation wouldn't fly with this girl. He finally came up with, "Short lives spent drinking nectar?"

"Make that fermented nectar and you've turned them into alcoholics."

Eric laughed and thought again. He shook his head.

"Metamorphosis, dummy."

"Well, yeah, when they change from caterpillars. I knew that. But you asked what butterflies are best known for, and butterflies aren't butterflies until they've changed."

The girl frowned. "Do you want to argue semantics or do you want to have a conversation?"

"Can't we do both?"

Suddenly, she laughed. "That's what I like about you, Eric. You don't concede to one choice, you try to expand your possibilities."

"There's no reason not to expand your possibilites."

"True." She nodded at her artwork. "The Goddess of Change tries to show you different possibilities, too. She wants to shake you out of your boring way of thinking to challenge you to view your life differently."

"Is this some sort of New Age thing?"

"No. Not New Age. I made her up."

"Just like that?"

"Just like that." She repeated his words, sounding a bit smug. She smacked her hands together to shake off the pastel dust. "Creativity has its uses, doesn't it?"

"Yes, it does," he admitted. "You're full of surprises."

"You bet. Full of surprises. That's what I am."

Eric didn't know what else to say. He floundered for a moment, then asked, "Did you know butterflies don't have blood? They have hemolymph. That's what their body fluid is called. When they emerge from the cocoon, they pump the hemolymph through their veins to get the wings to expand. They have to wait an hour before the wings are sturdy enough to support them in flight. That's when they are most vulnerable to being eaten by birds."

The girl smiled. "Yes, I know."

Eric decided no matter what kind of fact he came up with, the girl would claim to have prior knowledge. He tried another tack. "Tell me why you're wearing makeup. What's that all about? I know I would have remembered you if you'd worn makeup before during class."

She scowled. "Yeah, I'm sure."

"No, really."

"Hello — I'm not a blonde."

"No. You wouldn't look good as a blonde. It wouldn't look right with your skin color."

"Do you always talk to girls like they are some kind of specimen?"

"I'm a nerd. Nerds speak like nerds."

"And act like nerds."

Eric shrugged. "It's my nature."

"Noticing someone works two ways. I first paid attention to you when you played that trick on Robert. The mechanical frog in the paper bag."

Eric chuckled. "Oh, that was sweet. I never saw a guy jump like that."

"The frog jumped first."

"I know! I cranked up the mechanism and then taped it so the frog wouldn't jump right away. Lucky for me the frog didn't do anything until Robert tried to move the bag off his desk. Then when it started to move, I got him good. . . . But how did you know I did it?"

"You laughed the loudest when he stepped on it, then realized he'd been had by a toy. Besides, I knew Elizabeth was interested in Robert and you were interested in her. It made sense you had to be involved, even though you denied it."

"Yeah, it was me. But don't tell anybody."

She laughed. "Your secret is safe. She tucked her drawing away into a small portfolio, then glanced up at him. "That's how I knew you weren't just a nerd."


"You weren't acting in a strictly scientific way. You wanted to get back at Robert, to be one-up on him. I liked that."


"It didn't seem like some macho thing to me. You only wanted to get some of your pride back, I think. The pride Elizabeth took away when she went out with you only to pump you for information about Robert."

"How did you know about that?"

"She talked."

"She talked to you about it?"

"No. I overheard her talking to someone else. But I knew she was interested in Robert. And realistically, you should have known, too."

Eric shrugged his shoulders. "A guy has to have hope."

The girl smiled. "A girl does, too."

Eric tilted his head to one side. She obviously didn't mean Elizabeth. But who did she mean?

"I'll tell you a story, if you're interested."

Eric nodded. Maybe she had more information about Elizabeth. "Okay."

"My grandmother was a Papago Indian. She told me the legend of the butterfly."

A legend. . . . Somehow Eric doubted Elizabeth would be in that story. Well, he was willing to play along. "And the legend of the butterfly would be . . .?" He waited for her response.

"One day, the Creator watched the People in the village. She saw children playing and laughing. She saw the way the sunlight shone on women's hair as they ground cornmeal, She smelled the fragrance of flowers and saw the beauty of leaves on the trees. And She thought about how wonderful these things were."

Eric watched the sunlight play on the girl's hair. It struck him silent. He smiled to encourage her to continue.

"But the Creator, in Her wisdom, knew all these things would change. The children would grow old, the women's hair would turn gray and their skin would wrinkle. The arms of the hunters would fail. The leaves on the trees would dry up and fall off and the flowers would wither and die.

"This made the Creator sad. She decided to make something beautiful that everyone could enjoy. Something that would never grow old. She gathered some sunlight, some blue from the sky, some whiteness of the cornmeal, the blackness of a young woman's hair, the shadow of playing children, the yellow of falling leaves, the green of pine needles and the colors of the flowers around Her."

Eric imagined the scene as if it were happening as the girl spoke. A whole different world opened up to him. He saw the beauty of spring in all its splendor and promise.

"The Creator put all these things in the Bag of Creation. The She called the children together and told them to open the bag for a surprise. Out fluttered hundreds and hundreds of beautifully colored butterflies. The butterflies danced among the children. Some landed on their hair, some flew to the flowers to sip nectar. The hearts of the People were happy because they had never before seen such wonderful things.

"And that's the legend of the butterfly." She stared at Eric, waiting for his response.

Eric looked about him, seeing each butterfly anew as a magical manifestation of hope in the future. "So that's how we got Vanessa cardui, the Painted Ladies, and all the other kinds."

"That's the story."

"It's beautiful," Eric said. "But do you think it's really true?"

"As true as anything."

Eric wondered how manhy other legends she knew. He wanted to know all about her, her thoughts, her dreams, her charms. "You said something to that butterfly before it took off. What did you say?"

"There's another legend that tells us because butterflies do not speak, they can carry a wish up to heaven."

Eric smiled. "And what was your wish?"

"If I tell you, it won't come true," she responded simply. There was no subterfuge in her voice, merely a statement of fact.

While they were talking, more Painted Lady butterflies flew to the thistle grove where they stood. The girl was so beautiful. How had he never seen it before? He gazed at her ebony hair, wishing she would loosen it so he could see how long it was.

As if she had read his mind, she reached up and pulled the clasp off her hair. It tumbled down past her waist. Butterflies circled around her. One landed on the crown of her head.

Eric gasped. Everything was perfect: The meadow of thistle, the girl, the sun, the breeze, the promise of spring, the butterflies. Finally, he realized what was happening. Maybe it was just the moment, but he was caught up in it, feeling a warmth toward this girl like he had not known before. This moment was for him and for her. Nothing else mattered. He leaned forward to kiss her.

An electric shock went through him as their lips met. He pulled away from her and she laughed, a deep earthy laugh full of joy.

"I know we're in the same Biology class, but I can't remember your name," he admitted.

"Vanessa," she said. "My name is Vanessa."

Copyright March 16, 2022

© Copyright 2021, Bonnie Ferron