As everyone at your Zoom meeting begins the odd goodbyes of isolation, Denise says, “Would you like to see our butterfly collection?”
None of the eight face-filled panels blacks out. Denise tilts her laptop so the camera shows the dining room wall behind her is nearly covered with hung boxes of butterflies. You count twelve, nine in each box. 108 butterflies that look identical to you.
“It’s our best wall,” Denise says. “They come dry in the mail, then Harry moistens them and fixes them in place. He builds all the boxes himself.”
She has never mentioned the butterflies at the meetings before the lock-down. You search the faces in the panels, looking for a match to your wonder. Two panels go dark.
“We’re just getting started,” Denise says. She stands, the room swaying through her camera. She carries the laptop closer to the wall. All of the butterflies seem to have the same deep blue with golden specks in a simple, consistent pattern. “They have names,” Denise says, beginning a slow pan across the boxes. “If I turned these frames over, you’d see them on the back. They’re all the same species, but more like cousins than brothers and sisters.”
Four panels are dark.
“Harry is in self-quarantine,” Denise says, “but so far, he’s fine. He has a new set to keep him occupied. He is so incredible with the tweezers and pins and the syringe.”
She moves her laptop closer to the wall, holds it steady. You think of an atlas you once owned, how the biggest cities were enlarged in panels. “We have so many walls,” Denise says. “The butterflies are raised on farms. They are plentiful. Eventually, we’ll be surrounded. Don’t these look well-cared for? Don’t they look as if they could fly?”
The rest of the panels are dark. You are alone with Denise.
This virus will bring you back to her dining room for months, more walls sprouting ivies of boxes. What she will show and call beauty’s still life while those others who meet with you go quickly dark into their ordinary, private lives.
You vow to look up the species. To ask now seems taboo, an interruption of worship. You imagine Harry busy with a new specimen, carefully restoring something dry and fragile under a brilliant light. While you stare and stare, all that is left of Denise is breathing.