* — April 2, 2017
Dead Butterflies
Aman lived with his wife and two children on the top of a mountain overlooking a pine forest. One night, the man killed his wife and children, then himself. He used a single knife. The knife thickened with each death. Four bodies were carried down the mountain, but everything else was left.

Almost as soon as the news of the murder reached down the mountain and beyond the pine forest, people began ascending the mountain, breaking into the house, taking pictures off walls, clothes out of closets, jewelry out of drawers, lamps, tables, teacups. Then glass was removed from the windows. The walls and floors were stained with blood and the house began falling apart. The wooden stairs leading to the front and back doors slid away from the house, so the house seemed to float.
The beds, the pillows and blankets and sheets, however, were left untouched.
People told stories about sneaking into the house at night and being harassed, not by a ghost, exactly, but a force. People tried to sleep in the beds, as if to reclaim the sleep of the dead. The first story I heard was about a young woman and man who were dared, by their friends, to spend a night in the house. The man fell asleep but the woman, giddy with fear, stayed awake, and watched as the man was dragged, by an unseen hand, off the end of the bed onto the floor. A man from the south said he got drunk and climbed into one of the beds. He was lifted up to the ceiling where he was, in his words, floated. He hobbled down the mountain and did not sleep, he said, for one week. The stories made the force sound like a succubus, though more like a muscle of wind. The man from the south described it in a way that made the violence sound almost gentle.
No one seemed bothered by the murder. Maybe there had not been a murder. Maybe the murder existed in story only, not even as a means to explain paranormal phenomena, or the projection of the desire to be intrepid, brave, and a little insane.
Just because people like to believe in ghosts does not mean they believe in ghosts.

 

    I walked, with two friends, up the mountain. The sun had just set. We brought a flashlight. Weeds grew out of wide cracks in the road, which was cut, like a spiral, around the side of the mountain. We were surprised to find more than one house at the top. A neighborhood. Were any neighbors awake when the man killed his family? All the houses were empty.
We were told the house was white with green trim. It was the house at the end of the road, before the mountain ended in a cliff of trees. Eaves hung long over the windows. The house was in a deep sleep. We climbed the detached, floating steps. An index card was nailed to the side of the house near the doorway. It said only, MALARIA.
The inside of the house was mostly bare. There were chairs and tables and picture frames on the walls, but the glass was too moldy to see what was showing. The kitchen smelled of ammonia. A wind blew through the glass, broken glass, window screens.
The family was home in the bedrooms. They had just stepped out. Or evaporated, leaving everything, as they say, as it was. Despite hearing the house had been ransacked, the closets were full of clothes; there were lamps and books and papers and small, unidentifiable objects, folded, eyes like seeds, whiskers and shavings, on the bedside tables, clothes on the floor, and photographs and drawings on the walls. Drawers were open, but not all the way. Everything belonged. Everything still had an owner.
The moon had come out, but must have been low, below the mountain, or in the grass, because its light shone only high up on the walls and the ceiling.
There was an armoire. It stood, a solemn door, against the furthest wall. It was the most reclusive thing in all the rooms. A door that opened only onto itself; its solemnity was the scar of having been sole witness to a violent act, and yet, immobile, without recourse to intervene or extend safe passage through. It looked like its thoughts, its guilt, had gone on forever.
But there was no blood. There was no blood in the beds.
Where did the murders take place?
There was no water in the toilet.
It was strange that the bedrooms had not been emptied, that they had been left more or less intact. More or less: as if the family never left their rooms, never used the bathroom, never cooked food, never sat together in the living room. Maybe the wooden stairs outside had slid away long before they did.
There was a creased, discolored photograph of a young woman on the vanity in the largest of the bedrooms. It caught the flashlight then followed us down the hallway, back into the open. I imagined it accompanying the murders, unwittingly, though the young woman, however she might have been related to the wife, or the husband, the children, was disarmed, unable to arrest time on the other side of her portrait. I imagined she was also dead, while also the lone survivor, the witness.
Maybe it is easy to say:
Hers is the only face we saw.
We attributed life and death on the mountain to her.
There was no summoning the faces of the man or the children.
Maybe it was the face of a sister or aunt. Or mother. A mistress. It was creased and discolored, but cared for. It had been brought out.
There was a tree in the photograph, the trunk of a tree, but the atmosphere was of a city.
How did she get to the top of the mountain?
Wherever the young woman was now, there was the impression that she was still aging, still living her life. She was threatening the sovereignty of the future, in which she might be liberated from witnessing murder.

 

    We had not noticed, coming in, that the hallway was two inches thick with dead butterflies. The later it got, the more voluminous they became. The moon was now on the ceiling. Our steps through the house were traced in the butterflies.
We sat on the floor. We were hoping the fear would knock us out, but dogs started barking around the edges of the house. Then there were dogs underneath the house. The butterflies heaved, as if the dogs had their noses pressed to the floor and were breathing through the cracks. We heard voices. Men were fighting in the tall grass outside. Someone was urinating in a bush. The leaves crackled. You go, we whispered loudly to each other. There was nothing. When a wind blew, the wings parted, giving the appearance of a ghost walking through without lifting its feet, gliding from one room to another. We did not last the night.

 

    At the bottom of the mountain, the pine forest was dotted with small fires. The moonlight, filtered through the pine trees, was blue. Mennonite families were gathered around the fires. It was the middle of the night. Everyone turned, except the women. We could only make out the women by the bright blue of their caps, nodding slowly. The children stared up at us like we were the shadows of very large animals growing out of the earth. Their eyes were large, some very small. Their noses were high. They were fully dressed. They were not eating or drinking, but standing, keeping the fires. Shadows moved across their bodies. Large waves, or like we had something of the house, the murder, on us, and they could smell it, we were trailing it through the trees. Maybe they had visited the house, too. Maybe they even lasted the night.
It occurred to me that the Mennonites might have been standing in the very same spot, however many years earlier, keeping identical fires, when the murders took place. They might have seen four bodies being carried through the pine forest.
Where were the bodies taken? I could almost read the route of the procession on their faces.
The only ones among the Mennonites who were asleep were the babies, floating in the shadows of their mothers’ nodding heads. They looked unreal. But they also looked in control, as if all the expressions and movements, the motionlessness, the aspirations of the fires, climbing up the bodies, were connected, directly, to the babies’ primitive dreams. Blue moonlight curved around the ends of their ears, which stood, like small wings, straight out from their heads.
The moonlight moves, but the ears stay. Until the ears move.
Originally published in No Tokens Issue No. 6. View full issue & more.
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Brandon Shimoda is the author of several books, most recently Evening Oracle (Letter Machine Editions). He has lived the past year in Marfa (TX), Kaohsiung (Taiwan), Kure (Japan), and Portland (OR), though lives, most presently, nowhere.