By C. S. E. Cooney with illustrations by Rebecca Huston
15 July 2013
1.) First, for food: salt of birth, sugars of the dead.
The birth of Alberto Gomez was a festive affair. Six sisters had preceded him. They ran around the house, feral in bright skirts and all their beads. Rosa, not yet five, disdained any offers of a shirt.
While everyone was busy kissing Baby 'Berto, Maya, the eldest, snuck her sisters outside.
"Look! I stole it from Tio's pocket."
Long, cylindrical, gray, it smelled heavenly—if heaven was a forest fire.
Careful Angela did the matches.
They solemnly passed the cigar around, sucking the non-lit end and exhaling deeply. Only Rosa got it right. She coughed up ten butterflies right away.
2.) They sought acknowledgement, too. Accolades. Not so different from us.
"Not much is known of Danaus Incendiarius, family Nymphaidae, order Lepidoptera," writes popular entomologist Aurora Bismarck. "Mentions crop up through history, usually signifying the birth of a great statesman or the ratification of a peace treaty. They are dark gray, with a wingspan of six to eight inches, and black markings that look like roses in bloom. Once, on vacation in Edinburgh, I was privileged to see a swarm. Director Amy Riedel had just won Audience Choice Award at the film festival. Her friends were laughing, passing around champagne and cigars. Suddenly the room was full of rare Incendiarius butterflies . . . .
3.) They spread appetite. They knew what it was to covet.
Isaac Giuseppe grinned at the girl in red. "You're holding that stick like you mean business."
She rolled her eyes. "It's called a cue."
"Yeah? I think you're cute too."
She laughed; Isaac was notorious. He'd pretend to be one of those hopeless, boastful boys, all talk and no skill. He'd challenge her to a game. If she lost, she'd have to kiss him. If she won, he'd give her a magical cigar purchased in Rome last summer. He'd seem to lose right up until he won.
Not tonight, thought the girl in red. Cigar's mine.
"Up for a game?"
4.) Some grew fastidious, choosing their hosts for boldness, stubbornness, cunning.
"I'll pay you ten dollars to smoke that whole cigar."
Her roommate was chronically broke and probably wouldn't pony up, but Shveta Primlani took the dare. She knew what it was. The casing had markings like a blooming rose.
She made it last two weeks; the dare didn't specify she had to smoke it all in one sitting. She'd smoke until she felt ecstatically sick, then stop. She'd clutch the sick inside until she could find somewhere quiet—out back by the dorm dumpsters usually.
Then she'd open her mouth, let the sick crawl off her tongue and take flight.
5.) They were not without a sense of humor. Or revenge.
"How can we play poker with all these damned butterflies all over the damned place?"
Vince stared, stony-eyed, until Sean anted up. Vince's poker face was formidable. He practiced in the shower, turning the water from freezing to scalding. His wife complained—she never knew anymore if he liked his dinner, if he really wanted to stream the latest vampire porn from BBC America or was just humoring her, if he found her sexy.
A gray butterfly landed on Vince's nose. His face screwed up. The cigar he'd been chewing dropped. He sneezed.
Five butterflies blew out of his mouth.
6.) Human children were curiosities, to be kept in their place.
Moonchild and Wesley were the children of nerdy Gen-Xers who took their love of 1980s fantasy too far—at least, in Moonchild and Wesley's opinion. Moonchild couldn't even go by "Anne" or "Jane," plain enough names until Mom went all googly-eyed about Lucy Maude and the Brontës. She figured she was safe with Jo. She called Wesley, Wes. They liked playing outside better than TV.
They found the papery gray cigars strung up by silvery webbing and furled like bats in the back of the shed.
Moonchild said, "Let's burn them." Wesley got his magnifying glass.
7.) Observing we were hardwired for faith, they courted our clergy.
Her disciples called her "Her Serene High Holiness, Modern Day Mystic, New Century Saint," but she still thought of herself as Kendall Andrews, blogger.
She used to blog about all sorts of things—boys, groceries, work drama, etc. But her "spiritual" filter had gotten the most attention. Over the years, she'd accumulated a following. Trolls, too. Fucking scary stuff. Last year, they'd posted her address in a public forum. The things people sent in the mail.
But when she opened the package and found the cigar, she knew it was a gift.
It whispered under her fingertips, warm with promise.
8.) They stole the most beautiful. Perhaps a kind of mercy.
Nathan Michaels was lonely like a Paul Simon song. He went to the Emperor's Club for the cure: Blues, booze, and boobs. Cigar smoke purpled the air.
Nathan's favorite dancer was Lady Dax. He never could look her straight in the face. By G&T number three, he was able to perceive her outline in gyration.
Tonight, the more she removed, the more she seemed covered. She ended her act in a gown of gray velvet, black roses.
Her gown took wing. Lifted her, gently. Wafted her through the club, out the open double doors. Away.
She was smiling.
9.) But with the elders they were gentle. Age, they understood.
People left things on his porch ever since Millie died. His grief was sharp, but he looked forward to opening his front door every morning. He could guess who left what by the contents—Mrs. Stafford's plum butter, Mrs. Doherty's tuna casseroles, Mrs. Bayer's woolen scarves.
The pack of cigars stumped him. None of those nice church ladies smoked; all their husbands had died of cancer.
The butterflies stumped him too, but they brought that old rose tree of Millie's back from the dead. Strange blooms. Deep, velvety black.
He made a wreath for Millie's grave. She would've liked it.
10.) And so, they came to Earth and found it good.
The storm was mighty. "Perfect," some newscasters called it. "Monstrous," said others. An amateur meteorologist made a joke on his Stormpocalypse podcast about Terry Pratchett's Papilio Tempestae, the "quantum weather butterfly," which makes hurricanes on Discworld.
"A waterspout was spotted in East Texas," he said, deadpan, his face pimpled, earnest, droll. "It's pouring frogs in South Carolina. And oh, yes, in Westerly, Rhode Island, about a thousand cigars rained down from the sky. Smokin'!"
That was October.
By May, Westerly's own Wilcox Park had several new rosebushes, each pollinated assiduously by gray butterflies, each branch covered in small black roses.