We rode our bicycle after the butterflies. Granny in front, pedalling so hectically I worried her flimsy scarf would get caught in the spokes. ‘Not the purple ones,’ she yelled above the noise of the soft soil under the wheels, the wind in my ears, and the lambs gambolling in the fields. I looked past the flock of purple and gold butterflies that gulped up the summer sun, and I saw the nettle patch by the ditch. A butterfly the colour of moonshine on marble rested on the stinging leaves.
‘The pale butterflies will bring us home,’ she had always said to me while she knitted blankets, her needles clacking like a blundering clock. And what a home it had been, so she said: turrets so tall you could pluck feathers from gliding condors, windows so wide whole sagas shone in a single stained-glass pane. I curled under a knitted blanket beside her and sank into her smell of wool and peppermint. Glass jars crammed our shelves in place of books, blocked our windows in place of views, filled our cupboards in place of food. And in the jars, pale butterflies shone. Every evening, after our supper of carrots baked until they seeped caramel, we counted the butterflies. Then we shook daffodils, collected the pollen in a chipped china bowl, and dropped a pinch into each jar.
‘Careful,’ Granny said as we propped the tandem against the hedgerow. She hitched up the waistband of her skirt, unbuckled her satchel, and pulled out a glass jar. ‘The last one,’ she said as she handed it to me. I inched forward. ‘Hurry.’ Everything smelled of green warmth. Nettles stung my wrist, but I didn’t flinch. I lowered the jar over the butterfly. Its wings beat against the glass. ‘Now, we wait for the full moon,’ Granny said. And as we cycled back, she said, her voice as low as field mist, ‘my bedroom ceiling was a golden map and I read the names of hills and ports until I fell asleep.’
On the day of the full moon, Granny tethered a cart to our bicycle, and I filled it with the butterfly jars. ‘Careful,’ she barked. We cycled on the smoothest paths, the jars rattling in the cart, the lowering sun soft on our faces. We cycled in a silence that felt like peacefulness. And when the horizon was copper and gold and the silhouettes of geese were fast shapes in the sky, we stopped in a vast field. The hedgerows were so far away they merged into the blue dusk. I picked up one of the jars, but Granny shook her head. ‘Wait,’ she said. And when the full moon flushed the sky in fat light, we unscrewed the jars and let out the butterflies.
They flitted and swooped, the moonglow weighting them, the night brushing their wings. And then they were settling one atop each other. And they made the shape of a great castle, towers tall as winds, windows wide as seas. In the moonshine, Granny’s face was all crags and shadows, her eyes tear bright. ‘What did I tell you?’ she said, hitching up the waistband of her skirt. There was a sound like hounds chasing through autumn leaves, and then a stilted shiver passed through the butterflies, and then they were gone, and in their place, marble stretched, smooth and cool. Granny pushed the great door open and we stepped inside.
The halls smelled of crowns and legends. I could hardly feel my feet, hardly feel myself moving. Ceilings glided over us, golden and high as clouds, and I felt as if I might float up and bump my head. ‘Didn’t I tell you it was like this?’ Granny said as she wiped away my tears. I could only nod. And her laugh was soft in the gilded spaces and in the moonlight that turned red and purple and blue as it filtered through the stained glass.
I didn’t feel tired, I only felt swoopy and far away, so I didn’t feel the night passing, or the moon fading. And then there was a sound like wild poppies in summer gusts, and a ripple passed through the walls, the ceilings, the windows coloured by myths. And then the castle was just butterflies again, pale and flickering, and then they flew up into the morning skies and away across the fields. I sat on the damp grass, Granny’s arm around me, and watched them until they were gone.
Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and her best friend is a dog who can count.