Iron Butterfly

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At 52, Wilson, a butterfly hunter, is feeling the weight of a past rich in errors and false starts. At the same time, he is obsessed with Gloria, a Chinese girl with a patch on one eye, he met in Hong Kong five years earlier. Gloria had led him into a "garden" - if that's what really happened. It's from this garden that Wilson feels he must now escape. He returns to Hong Kong in the summer of 2000, to collect butterflies and help fight a plan to turn the city's Centipede island into a landfill. But Wilson can only think of Gloria. With the summer ending, he knows he must confront his obsession and maybe save his own life.
First 10 Pages

Chapter One:

The Butterfly’s Body

The Chinese philosopher Shooing Chou used the butterfly to illustrate more than one of his teachings. For example, in one story to describe the happiness which goes with marriage, he tells of a young student who, while pursuing a butterfly, unwittingly entered the garden of a retired magistrate. There he saw the daughter of the house. So enchanted was he by her grace and beauty that he left, determined to make good and marry her. His zeal and hard work were rewarded, for not only did he obtain everlasting happiness, he rose to a high position.


Summer 2000

Did I knowingly choose to enter Gloria’s garden and the warm, dark, hollow spaces she offers? Or is it something else that draws me? She dances by my fingertips, free to swirl against the wind like a fragile butterfly. If I sit quietly, as it were holding out my hand, she may come and perch, hover, dip down and light, with a flutter of wings. I imagine I have finally caught her, body quivering between my fingers, her silent screams disappear into the late day shadows of bamboo. I must take her with me as I find my way back to the moment of entry, to discover the path where everything went wrong, if that is what really happened.

I am no longer sure of these words and the shifting memories that are the record of my soul and my time on Centipede Island.


The first time I came to Centipede Island, five years ago, was late at night from the detention center dock on the neighboring island of Lantau. The last of the ferries had stopped running for the night and other arrangements had been made for me to be met and taken to the island.

The taxi driver didn’t want to bring me to the center because he was afraid that one of the prisoners might escape and attack him. I gave him an extra twenty U.S. dollars, which satisfied him. The lights were on in the stark white buildings, but I didn’t see anyone in the rooms. The main road was empty, very clean and well lighted. The driver dropped me off at the last building by a small sandy cove, quickly unloaded my bags and sped off as I made my way to the long cement pier that jutted out into the dark shimmer of water. I heard the throb of an engine and saw a boat, silhouetted by the center’s lights, glide toward me. A figure ran forward and tossed a line around a piling, then hurriedly motioned for me to board. A shadow grabbed my bags. I jumped on, nearly losing my balance. No one said anything. I found a place to stand near the stern.

The man in the bow pushed , and the water churned as the boat backed gracefully away. Plankton glowed and flashed like tiny jewels on the surface of the night sea as they tumbled eerily in the wake of the launch.

Leaning over the side, it seemed to me I was looking down into an endless pit. I stepped back into the shadows and felt my stomach knot. I wondered what lay ahead of me on the island I had never heard of before, and about Leighton its overseer.

The launch picked up speed and passed several island villages, their lights reflecting off the flat black sea. Moths and stray butterflies, all doomed because they had strayed too far from land, flickered across the deck and battered themselves against the launch’s lights.

One of the crewmen pointed, and I saw the dark irregular mass of Centipede Island looming ahead where both my future and my past would merge. Whether I’d consciously meant for this to happen, this would be the place where I’d make my stand. Perhaps I could save the island and myself from a lifetime filled with failures and disappointments. I hadn’t realized until now as the boat thrust away from the pier how much was to be pinned on the wings of butterflies.

The launch slowed as it passed the marble statue of a Chinese woman in flowing robes that guarded the entrance of the small, rocky harbor. A large white porcelain vase full of joss sticks had been placed at the statue’s feet. In an island legend, the statue was heard singing in a March fog to warn a passing fishing boat of the rocks ahead. One night after I’d arrived, Leighton, the island’s overseer, told me he tried to record the strange moaning sounds that came from the harbor, but the tape machine jammed. He never attempted the taping again.

The launch made a long, slow curve and thumped against the tires on the pier. Two men jumped out and secured it as the engine stopped.

A man stood by a yellow Land Rover, watching me as I stepped onto the dock. He was lean and tanned in his sixties, wore dark glasses and leather sandals. His tan shorts and light-colored shirt were crisply pressed, like that of a military officer.

“I’m Leighton,” he said. “Did you have a good ride?” “Uneventful.”

“That’s the best way. I apologize for the unusual way you were met. But, at least you are here now.”

He firmly shook my hand.

“I’ve heard of your father. Forensics is a new field for me, not exactly my cup of tea, but sounds like something I should know more about. You must tell me more about him. He never said much in his correspondence. You will be staying in the hill bungalow. It’s used for our special guests who like their privacy. I hope it will be all right.”

“I’m sure it will be just fine.”

“There are lots of butterflies here. Your father said you will sort them out. It’s important, you see. The bloody Hong Kong government has designated this as one of the islands to be destroyed and used as landfill. The records of the butterflies that you catch here will be very helpful. More evidence about the history of the island and why it should be left alone. I hope you are up to the task.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Come by for a drink later if you feel like it.” “Thank you.”

In the darkness above the bungalow, I heard crickets and the growls of dogs.

Summer 2000


When I first sat at the large white table against the back wall of the bungalow’s main room, I thought about the summers I’d spend on this island. Yet after five years of collecting, all that mattered was Gloria and the image of her that haunted me wherever I went. My dreams of catching a butterfly no one else had and saving the island seemed far away. I felt the weight of my existence. I had failed at life, failed with the butterflies I no longer felt like cataloging, and failed with Gloria because I couldn’t let her go.

Alone in the Vermont winters, I had searched the internet for the Asian correspondence organizations.

“Anchee. Twenty-one. Catholic. College educated. Likes music. Am loving and caring. Seek correspondence with man over twenty-five.”

In the picture, she was smiling.

“Aimee. Eighteen. Studies composition. Wants Christian gentleman.”

“Li An. Twenty-four. Divorced. Catholic. One child.”


What would their love be like? Would they wash my feet before I took to the island’s trails and give me sticky rice to take with me? What will their fingers be like across my skin? Do they have her laugh? Her eyes? Her skin?

The Filipino I looked at had her head tilted, hair covering one eye.

“Marli. Eighteen.”

“Vivi. Twenty-three. College graduate. Hairdresser.”

The stagnant perfume of the island rose like her ghost. How many times had I called out her name from the depths of my sleep? Only the darkness knew. I closed my eyes.

For a moment she was there, hair spread fragrant across the pillow. I reached out my hands for her like someone in quicksand. She knelt, arms outstretched, the words she said lost to me as I sank into the sandy depths.

Gloria. Gloria. Gloria.

Lover, friend, or enemy, nothing was special or unique when it came to love. Yet we would do it all again for that certain attraction a woman had. For each, the attraction was different. For some it was laughter, the voice, the smell of cigarettes, or the way a woman’s perfume mingled pungent and sour sweet with her sweat. For others, it was the eyes, the hair, or the portent of a shape leaning from a darkened doorway. Such simple things to stake one’s soul on.

For me, it had been Gloria’s high cheekbones, her long black hair, the patch over her right eye, and the way she always stood or sat erect with that half a smile on her red lips as if hinting of something she wanted to tell me, but never would. Or perhaps it was her small silky hands seeking me out across the bed, or her smell, like a rich and redolent decay that made me drunk. Leighton knew how she lost the eye, but refused to tell me. Perhaps it was the only way for him to stay connected to her. I knew they had slept together, perhaps more than once. What happened between them was none of my business. Gloria made that clear.

I first met her in 1995 when she was fifteen and I was forty-seven. I’d been on the island less than a day when she burst into the bungalow unannounced, her dark hair swinging wearing a white T-shirt, jeans, sneakers, smelling like a freshly broken stalk.

“I bring this,” she had said.

She opened her hands and a Grassy Yellow shot upwards, then bounced off the tall screen doors.

She stood looking at me with a gentle curiosity, her head tilted. “American?”

“Yes,” I said. “New York?” “Vermont.” She frowned.

I tore a page from my journal and drew two Xs, one near the top of the page, the other in the middle.

“Vermont. New York,” I said, pointing at the marks I’d made. “Vermon’.” She shook her head. “Disneyland?”

I put another X on the paper below the first two. She studied the paper.

Then, satisfied, she turned back to me.

“Gloria,” she said, extending her hand. “You are Wilson. Wife?”

“My wife left me.”

“You beat?” “No,” I said.

“Why leave?”

“I don’t know. It was one of those things that happens.”

“Stupid. Girlfriend?”


“That good. Maybe I be girlfriend. Show off. You feel good. Gloria know.”

“You look like a pirate,” I said.

She laughed.

“Very bad pirate,” she said. “Kill and rob.”

I smiled.

“I kill and rob you, too.” “I’d like that,” I said. “You stupid.”

“Do you live here?” I said. “Too many snakes.”

“Thank you for the butterfly.”

“Leeton said to give you butterfly. Maybe much alone. I bring more. Leeton say it OK. OK bring much butterfly. Save island. Be famous man.”

She turned and rushed out the door.

The room felt empty. That night I’d dreamt the scene over and over.

The next morning her traces were still there, and I knew that I had fallen in love. For the first time in years, I felt numbing stabs of excitement when I thought about her. I would open my heart for whatever she offered, not caring about what might happen.

Gloria’s family first came to the New Territories to escape the Communist regime. After that, her family moved frequently until they settled in Sai Kung. That much, Leighton told me.

Every Wednesday, Han, a gold merchant from Hong Kong, sent them a bag of rice and some sugar sticks. She first met Han when she was thirteen.

Gloria had been sent to the Catholic school on a nearby island where she was teased mercilessly about her dead eye. She left after one month. I’d been there four years ago. After Gloria disappeared one morning and didn’t come back the next day, I was desperate without her and decided to go to a place I knew she had been. Perhaps she had left more of her traces.

The yellow church next to her school, visible from the main pathway through the mangrove swamps, seemed out of place in the nearly deserted village, where for two weeks every summer the Girl Guides camped in the brick barracks half a mile away. During bad weather, the inlet was full of colored junks seeking shelter. At low tide, old women scurried like crabs across the rippled flats to gather shellfish.

The peaks of the mountains to the west seemed to be forever covered in a thick gray mist. Dogs on the nearby fish farm barked and fought incessantly. How their screams must have shattered the quiet of the classrooms.

a fat white rope on the glassy slopes of the waves. South toward the Soko islands, a black kite hovered tentatively over the surface as if undecided whether to break the crust for the pale and bloated carrion that floated just underneath.

Like so many of the other islands I knew, the thick, tangled foliage of Centipede Island stopped abruptly just above the steep and gnarled granite cliffs. The island’s two main roads twisted past small valleys and steep ravines. A small radar installation had been built just below the island’s highest point. The island’s peculiar festering greenhouse heat reached me, and I felt my strength ebb. For a moment I wanted to return to Middle Island behind me where I could lose myself in its bustling stalls, restaurants, bicycles and narrow criss-crossing streets, not having to face her.

Each time I saw her again was like the first time we’d met in the bungalow. Only this year I felt differently. After the excitement I became tired of the way she would disappear for a few days at a time, then reappear as if nothing had happened. I was tiring of her secrets that had once made her so mysterious and desirable.

summer the Girl Guides camped in the brick barracks half a mile away. During bad weather, the inlet was full of colored junks seeking shelter. At low tide, old women scurried like crabs across the rippled flats to gather shellfish.

The peaks of the mountains to the west seemed to be forever covered in a thick gray mist. Dogs on the nearby fish farm barked and fought incessantly. How their screams must have shattered the quiet of the classrooms.