White Butterflies

“She was dressed in white, white,
that shade of white no one wears any more,
but her soul was iridescent.”

♫ Do ♫ 

She had arrived recently in the village of Kamenica on the brink of her thirtieth birthday. She lived alone in a cottage on the mountain, facing the church, surrounded by an air of the Medieval past that modernity had not yet touched with its fiery hands. The village was small and tranquil, with its illustrious two hundred and three residents. She gave piano lessons to children and was always joyous and loving; her anise-blue clothes and rosy smile signaled the cheerful spirits she radiated ever since the first day.

In Kamenica, the fields were green and resplendent. She called herself Ravenna and wore perfume of orange and vanilla, which arose daringly from between her firm, freckled breasts. She spent her days among children, recordings of her compatriot Ivan Ilić, and afternoon teas brightened with colorful flowers and good-natured smiles. With a professorial air, she used large glasses with black arms that bordered her pretty red hair, which burned like the flames of a fire. Like so many redheads, she bore a childlike air, with her freckles, sky-blue eyes, and long reddish eyelashes, the appearance of someone who needed protection. 

This was the image that made him fall in love, never leaving her side for a single moment, even though he was never noticed, a meager shadow in his shabby uniform.

♫ Re ♫ 

Kamenica holds the largest clandestine grave of all times. It is located in Serbia in the municipality of Bojnik, on the border with Yugoslavia, where almost one thousand five hundred bodies are buried, the result of the most horrific war crimes of Bosnia. The entire village is surrounded by bodies; the number of clandestine dead bodies is far greater than the number of living bodies walking incessantly around the village, like a living tomb.

The dead bodies nourished Ravenna’s plants and flowers, those that dared to grow. She constantly walked through the green fields on her way to the market or even during strolls she liked to take when the night was dark and gloomy. She radiated light like someone who, out of timidity, tried to hide her beauty and splendor, but without success. Her steps were long and lovely, enchanting all the residents in this peaceful but phantasmagorical town.

♫ Mi ♫ 

One afternoon, Ravenna was on her way to town when she ran into a pupil of hers, Mika. The little girl slipped out of her mother’s hand and ran up to give her teacher a kiss on the forehead.

“Auntie! Let’s make believe!”

Ravenna gave her a big smile, then timidly greeted the girl’s mother, who watched her impassively, and asked her permission.

“Certainly,” the mother responded, smiling. “Make believe what?”

The girl, with the imagination that only children have, began to tell an intricate story, insisting it be enacted on the spot, like an impromptu theatrical piece. The teacher was a princess lost in the woods, while the little girl was a fairy godmother who would free her from the magic castle ruled by an evil witch. 

In the middle of the make-believe, a lovely white butterfly alighted on Ravenna’s shoulder and stayed there decisively and solemnly. The little girl incorporated the butterfly into the imagined scene, saying it was actually an enchanted magician who had come to protect her teacher. At precisely this moment, at the height of the make-believe, the mother called Mika back, who, after protesting, had to obey and say good-bye, although not without directing a frown at the matronly figure.

The young professor continued to amuse herself with the story her pupil had made up. Overcome with the child’s spirit, Ravenna imagined that the white butterfly was whispering something in her ear, calling her on a journey deep into the woods. As soon as it flew off, she followed it, enjoying the gambol.

♫ Fa ♫ 

It seemed unbelievable—even Ravenna could not believe what she saw. Deep in the woods, she came upon a path through some bushes, like a corridor, and followed it to a strange place. Strange, no: bizarre—it was a ghost town. It seemed like a twin version of Kamenica, but without a living soul roaming the streets. The resonant winds sounded like Gothic chants, the doors were ajar with no one around, a tattered flag waved above an abandoned lot, and a ferris wheel lay rusting. It was a scene like something from a dream.

Ravenna’s body became immobilized, her breathing grew labored, and her eyes narrowed as she looked around. Finding herself swallowed up by destiny, which had brought her, a young woman alone in the world, to this place, she suddenly thought she saw figures. She decided she must be asleep—this was all a dream; nothing else made sense. Gazing keenly about, she thought the town was fascinating, with its macabre sounds, as if its solitude were intonating a sad tune composed of inexplicable chords.

All of a sudden, she felt something press against her shoulders: a man’s hand, which pulled her back forcibly. She could not see who it was, nor could she contain her fright. She fainted, as if drunk with madness.

♫ So ♫ 

It was morning and the sun was already rising. Ravenna rubbed her eyes and, seeing that she was at home in her bed, breathed a sigh of relief. Music wafted in from the living room, sad and melancholy but hypnotizing. She hurried to see where it came from and was startled to see it arose from the hands of a stranger at the piano. He smiled at her from across the room as he calmly continued to play music. She thought she might faint again, but controlled her fear, hypnotized by the music. When he finished, she awoke from her chimera and walked toward him, ready to demand he leave the house. Before she could say anything, he exclaimed,

“I know that you don’t know who I am, but I’ve known you ever since the first day you set foot in this town and I’ve never left your side for one moment.”

Hearing this, she stared intently at his face, frightened. How could this man have known her already? What was he doing in her house without her consent? Standing close by, she looked over his face: it was tranquil, with gray eyes, thick eyebrows, and a calm smile, as if he had nothing to lose. He had smooth, swarthy skin and brown, wavy hair down to his shoulders; he had not yet shaved that day, which gave him an informal touch, in contrast to the uniform he wore. Without question, he was an attractive man, perhaps the most attractive one Ravenna had come across in Kamenica.

“But, but...” she stammered, unable to say more.

“Ravenna, I don’t want to deceive you; it’s best that you know the truth right from the start.” With this, he took out a little metal tag from inside his jacket and put it in the pale, cold hands of the redhead, giving them a gentle squeeze. “My name is Matija Sandsa and I am a soul, someone who left this world long ago. What used to be my body lies under your house. Before you arrived, I had lost all hope that the world could ever know grace again, but then you came and everything changed. I was the white butterfly that showed up and led your soul here to the world of the dead, to my Kamenica, so you could spend just one day here with me. That’s all I ask of you.”

All this information coming all at once overwhelmed Ravenna. How could this be happening to her? How could she be with a living ghost, here in a ghost town? Without thinking, she blurted out,

“Matija, all I have is your name and your request. So I’ll keep your name and accept your request.” She put his tag inside her dress and took his hand.

♫ La ♫ 

They strolled for a while in dead silence. They headed toward the church, where sacred music could be heard. Now, however, the town was full of people, who stared at her in alarm. The hushed voices did not seem to bother Matija, who clung to Ravenna’s hand and paid no attention to the others.

He told her that he was killed in the slaughter of Srebrenica, having been a soldier in the Bosnian army in Serbia. Son of a Serbian aristocrat and a Muslim mother, he witnessed the largest and most brutal massacre, ordered by General Ratko Mladić, against those who were blood of his blood, Muslims like himself. When he saw children being killed in front of their parents, his peers raping mothers and mutilating fathers, something rose up inside him, turning him against the very army to which he belonged.  He let prisoners escape and saved families, but his heroism did not last long. When his acts were discovered, he was killed in the most vicious way by his former leader, torn limb from limb so he could witness his own death and contemplate his blood pouring out, until at last his soul departed. His body was thrown in a ditch in Kamenica in the spot where, years later, a house was built where Ravenna came to live. His soul wandered without rest, without peace, until he saw the enchanting figure of the red-headed piano teacher.

He told her about the land of the death and about the secrets that only the renegade Bosnians knew. Ravenna had little to tell Matija, since he already knew everything about her. She mostly talked about her pupils, her world, and her music. For the moment, they were together but separated by the most terrible of torturers: death. Death, which allowed no room for a possible union, even in life.

By nightfall, the moon shone opaque and Ravenna’s body felt as light as a feather. The moonlight illuminated her white dress, which glowed with beauty. It was as if all the bitterness that life brought had fallen away, leaving everything sleek and limpid. She mused about this town, filled with the dead, and wondered how many other ghost towns might also be hidden throughout the world. She felt blessed by the stars at that unique, singular moment and for the exceptional secret revealed to her. She realized that, up to now, she had not actually lived a single moment of her existence, but had merely passed through it. It was as clear as crystal: there was no end, only a new beginning.

She felt a sense of completeness conveyed by the stars, as if the gods had sighed a deep breath of understanding. It made her body seem to fly, although still linked to the earth from which she came and to which she would eventually return. She didn’t know when and, in fact, didn’t even want to know. Death, her new-found friend, was the only certainty to be found in an uncertain world. It was as if she were enveloped in an insatiable melody, an inexhaustible spring, which meant belonging to the world or, perhaps, to a continuation of it. Matija had the answer she’d been searching for but had not found until now. Nonetheless, any union between them was impossible. She remembered what her elderly aunt used to say, “God moves in mysterious ways.”

She gave him a single, long kiss as the day drew to a close. He told her that she had to return or else he would stay forever in that spot beneath her house. “Together, perhaps, in another life,” she said as she left. Although something in his heart wanted Ravenna to stay, he insisted that she leave, since he could not wish death on the one he loved the most. Not when her time had not yet come.

He asked her to return to where she left, where her wandering soul would reconnect to her body and she would awaken. Matija explained to her that they would not soon meet again, since this would end up taking her life away by disconnecting her soul.  Going to another dimension was something serious, which could not happen twice in one person’s life. But, he said, he would continue to wait for her.

♫ Ti ♫

Ravenna returned to where she had come from and came upon her own body, limp and prostrate on the ground. She closed her eyes and shortly felt herself pulled back into the fabric of her earthly envelope. She awoke with a start, not knowing whether she had been dreaming, but if she had, it was a sweet dream indeed. When she turned to look at the bushes through which she had come, she saw nothing but leaves fading into endless shadows.

♫ Do ♫

Echoes of vivid memories constantly come back, recollections of good times keep knocking at our doors, and nagging doubts return over and over, as if all were dancing in circles. The universe is made up of circles, like musical notes in an endless reprise. Life turns into death, death turns into life, sunshine turns into rain, the rain leads to new sunshine, all forming a single melody in which the do always returns to do.

Ravenna’s hair, once fiery red, turned white, but it was a shade of white that still glistened as she arranged it in a bun—the whiteness that kept reappearing in her life. One Sunday, while she was knitting and the sun was setting, she felt a fresh breeze blow across her face. She had never told anyone about her encounter with a ghost, not even to her own children or deceased husband. Surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who played happily at her feet as she sat in her rocking chair, she saw a white butterfly alight on one of her flowers. It was a harbinger of something about to happen. Love waits patiently.

She still kept nestled in her dress the metal tag identifying Matija Sandsa. The breeze that blew over her face was like a kiss, a phantasmagorical, icy, and deceitful kiss. It was the preface to a book, a new beginning. “Together, perhaps in another life.” On the piano, her daughter was playing an old tune, “Roma Ecnev a Etrom.” She breathed deeply and closed her eyes for the last time. Light.

ANA PAULA LEMES was born in 1989 in Três Corações, state of Minas Gerais. She is a public servant and attorney, and also advocates for social causes.

She started writing at a very early age, as soon as she was able to read. She first made her work public on a Fotolog under the pseudonym “Alana das Fadas” [Alana of the Fairies], where she posted essays and narratives.

Ana Paula published her first collection, O vento me soprou [The Wind Has Blown Me”], with Editora Livro Novo in 2010, and has a novel ready, which is called O desencontro [Lost Encounter].

She won several literary contests―the first one when she was only eight. More recently, she finished 3rd place at an Entre Contos challenge with Borboletas brancas [White Butterflies].

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