The World Ends After the Butterfly Circus by Amy O'Neill
Once a year in California, Monarch butterflies travel together and form clouds, eclipsing the sky and taking the shapes of sheep against the blue. This became an attraction, one that I called the Butterfly Circus as a child. People would empty the suburbs and drive for the hills in reverent hordes to watch. My parents walked, I sat on my father’s shoulders, and my barely older brothers ran ahead. In a long snaking line, everybody agreed to be late to doctor’s appointments and soccer games and to shade their eyes and listen. I watched heads and skinny little arms hang out of backseat windows and I craned my neck like everyone else, waiting for stragglers to rest on fingers. Orange overtook the roads, and everything was still until the driver of the last car in line would honk his horn. The procession would begin moving and then every vehicle was a weapon. Those in front would try to swerve in their fifteen-miles-per-hour way, but by the time that the cars at the bottom of the hill started rolling, they were a row of snowplows driven by sad clowns, squishing these beasts underneath their wheels. This was done without malice, but the ground grumbled with the weight of the whole affair. “So beautiful,” they would all still say. The corpses dried to the hot asphalt and would stay there until the next rain. It has been years since I have been in California. Perhaps they are there still.
I have always said that there would be one day on Earth when everything was normal and fine, and that would be the last day of its kind. Certainly, there were gradual shifts, almost unnoticeable, that made things a little less fine, but overall, there was nothing to worry about. There was the plastic-versus-paper debate and the gas prices and a thick, low humming in the air all the time, and I was suspicious of all these things, but they became normal too. Despite the fact that everything was, in fact, fine, all of these things gave me a very unsettled feeling which never really went away. I felt, though, on the day of the Butterfly Circus, that the world was really over. It turns out that this was just one more shift, but I didn’t know this for sure until the world’s most beautiful places began swallowing themselves whole.
For weeks after the Butterfly Circus, this feeling of dread filled my belly like cold soup and so my father would tell me about his days as a hippie. These stories gave me some semblance of peace. He wasn’t the kind of hippie who went to Woodstock or that lived in a Volkswagen, he always said with an air of superiority. He did wear his hair long and he had camped in every national park by the time that he was twenty-one. “When you don’t go to college,” he would say when my mother was not around, “you can do whatever you want.” He embarked on months-long hikes and on them, he saw sand and snow within the same week. He never branded these as being among the most impressive things that he accomplished in his youth –he got more of a kick out of the times that he ran out of money in strange countries or that he was pretty sure he was an accidental drug mule – but they were the very things that I wanted more than anything to do.
“The Sierras are the most beautiful place that I have ever been to,” he told me more than once. We only ever had the money to go camping at local sites, but the mountains were the first place I wanted to go. But everybody knows that the mountains are now trenches and there is no going to them anymore.
I have learned to live with the fact that the world is ending, but there is a walking trail that cuddles up to the stream separating fast food restaurants from my apartment building that lets me feel like my father. The trees on all sides make me forget that civilization exists, as long as I ignore the whopping sign for the car wash, which spies on me from between the branches and leaves. The pavement makes the walk feel less off-the-grid, but it also keeps those with weak ankles from toppling over upon encountering shallow ditches or fist-sized rocks. This is where I go when I need some green. I only ever come here with Caroline. It was on this trail two weeks ago that I told her that I was in love with her. She said she used to be in love with me too and left it at that. She found this place a long time ago and would come every day by herself. She says that it used to make her feel like she was somewhere else, that bringing anyone would ruin that illusion. I still have not figured out what it means for me to be lying next to her here.
The first time she took me, we discussed whether our sitting there–staring at the shore, looking for red or purple pebbles along it, and looking at the foliage, whose lowest leaves we could see were eaten by slugs or caterpillars–was an exercise of supreme attention or extraordinary inattention. On the one hand, Caroline argued, our being there was taking us away from something that was likely more productive and that wouldn’t burn the tips of my ears. She never mentioned what was on the other hand, which was fine. It used to be that it wasn’t much of a debate, as I too used to bite my nails while I sat with her. But as the spring days warmed up, I began to look at the other side of things, because there, I realized that I resented having anything to do at all. I still felt, though, like I was wasting my time by the stream. Maybe it was just that I wanted to be anywhere else. I had a list.
Inefficiency is new to her. In Caroline’s house, other things were meant to be done while kettles boiled, or oven timers chattered away at the potted plants that sat in the window over the sink. My father, however, insisted that we not have too much to do. This gave me time to dig holes in the backyard and race half-deflated soccer balls down steep hills. I would never call myself bored, especially to my dad, but it’s true that by the time I was twelve or thirteen, I wanted to do more. In our separate spheres, Caroline and I would compile lists of places that we would rather be. The piece of paper with three smooth edges, at one point so full that it seemed as if she was inventing new hybrid cities to visit, existing simultaneously in both hemispheres or on two different continents, is lost now. Our definitions of productivity diverged before we even met.
After the Circus, there were two weeks when I could not sleep because I was certain that butterflies were swarming my room. I would look into the dark near the ceiling and then into the darker dark of my half-open closet and it all looked prickly. There was no buzzing, but there was dimension to the blackness, a fuzziness that looked like television static or like a wool blanket from a consignment store being held against the light. At first, my mother wouldn’t stir when I shook her, wanting to make sure that someone was dying or at least bleeding before she committed to sitting up. “I can’t sleep” didn’t work because I am the third child and sending me back to bed became as easy as saying “Well, just try.” I thought that butterflies would be more pressing to her. When she did wake, it was, as usual, only halfway. She listened to what I had to say, I think, about the butterflies and the fuzz with her eyes still closed.
“There are no butterflies,” she said. “Go to sleep.” And so, I went back to my room and sat up with my pillow and hid under my blanket and the dark in there was darker than the dark even in my closet, and I felt safe.
I know now that there were no butterflies, but I still believe that I was being haunted. Perhaps it was the case that I was just trying too hard to find sleep, when, if I had just closed my eyes a little less tightly and stopped looking for it, it would have found me soon enough. Butterflies, I learned, have a circadian rhythm that is very close to ours. If there were butterflies in my room, or even ghosts of them, they would have been sleeping. This is really just to say that I was an anxious child. I still worry about butterflies, but I worry about them in a more adult way, and the pit in my stomach that makes me want to call and wake up my mother has less to do with the butterflies, exactly, and more to do with my awful feeling that everything is dead.
I don’t really read the paper, but the last time I did, it said that the butterflies were, in fact, dying off. I know what that means for the rest of us. They said that what is happening to them is an interruption in migration patterns. The weather is no longer stable enough for them to travel back north without freezing to death. They migrate as an entire population, so they all die on the same day. It feels like the whole world is on the brink.
It was on the bank of this stream on the sunniest day of this spring so far when I decided that I wanted to be a hippie, influenced mostly by my sudden urge to swim in the shallow water (but also partially because I could not think of a thing that I wanted to do less than leave that place and have nowhere else to go besides my apartment that always smelled like something rotten had drifted up out of the windows of our downstairs neighbors and through our own). I already had dipped my toes in. I had known for a very long time that I liked the idea of owning nothing but a pair of shoes. Hippies have begun cropping up everywhere again, though they call themselves “dirtbags” or claim that they were bitten by the “travel bug.” Whoever they are, they are everywhere. I want to be one of them. They are all going to the same places and everybody knows why.
The fear that I have always had of never doing the things I want to do, never going to the places I want to go, is all the more paralyzing now that I know that everyone else seems to have already crossed all of these things off of their own lists and that I am running out of time to catch up. Since the earth began swallowing places whole, travel has become more expensive. Desperation eats away at me and I am confounded by the fact that people want to sit and eat croissants at cafes and go out to drink in their hometown bars as if nothing is happening. Maybe I’m the only desperate one.
I often think about leaving everything and everyone behind. I really think that I will walk through the Italian Dolomites or the jungles in the Congo river basin while everyone else takes their brisk morning stomps around the block. I just don’t want to be sucked in; I don’t want a swivel chair. But then, I am filled with that same cold soup fear again and I think about the off chance that the world doesn’t end, and I picture myself as an old woman in a cardboard box. Sitting on a rock in the sun, downwind of somebody else’s smoke, I am surprised to find that this is the first time in many weeks that my anxiety has been quelled. It lasts only for a little while.
The inefficiency that Caroline and I used to debate has recently declined on her part. She is busy all the time now. We end up seeing each other so infrequently that the time we do spend together rarely prioritizes existential crises or matters of wastefulness. We replaced those entire conversations with a much more compact acknowledgement that saves time and still carries the same sentiment: life is short. It’s trite but it works for us. And so we say that a lot now.
Four years after the Butterfly Circus, Victoria Falls collapsed in on itself, leaving behind a sink of lukewarm water that was slowly draining into the center of the earth. No one paid this much mind, at the time. Politicians from every country that you could name in under thirty seconds took to their podiums to reassure the masses that there was nothing to worry about. Scientists, however, began sounding alarms. There was a brief and mild panic among the public which spanned a few days but almost every news outlet seemed to agree to ignore this. Instead, they spun the story that this was just the natural cycle of things, this had happened before, things like this are inexplicable and nobody’s fault. Everyone was more than inclined to believe this, because it meant that they didn’t have to do anything about it. Plus, it seemed, with the state of things, that there were more important things to be worrying about. It was pretty unanimously decided that no one cared about the conflict over the remaining water that broke out between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Here’s the gist: the Zambezi River, which acts as a border between the two countries, feeds into Victoria Falls and then continues on its way from there. Now, it was simply swirling into an abyss, and everyone wanted their fair share of what was left. Among the people who did know about this, “they’ll be fine” was the general sentiment.
My dad has shown me pictures of himself standing in front of Victoria Falls back before it turned into a crater. It was supposed to inspire awe or something like it, but instead I felt sick, knowing that I had missed my chance. But there was nothing that we could do about it, so everyone laughed along when every once in a while, we heard a new variation of the same conspiracy theory that the British invasion one continent over had something to do with the catastrophe. People don’t joke about it much anymore.
I don’t know when Caroline lost her list. I have begun to suspect that her losing it looked more like tearing it up or burying it or tossing it into her dad’s lighted barbeque grill. I don’t know exactly when she stopped caring about whether she would cross anything off of it before she died. There was one day when everything with Caroline was normal and fine and that was the last day of its kind. I’m sure there were small things that I missed–things like the way that she felt about the fact that the world was ending–that would have made this less of a surprise. On our way to the stream today, I didn’t try to touch her, knowing that if I reached out, all I would feel was empty air. I didn’t want to measure how far away from me she was walking.
I asked my dad once if hippies felt as free as they appeared to. They must have, he said. They had been free in the formal sense; in that they were not imprisoned by the state or the federal government. They were also free in the sense that they had people in their lives who they knew but were not obligated to. They were not unsettled, and in fact seemed to be very much at peace. But primarily, and most importantly, I think, they had a lot of money. Maybe not a lot, but enough. Sometimes, this money came from their parents. They weren’t going to college so could they please have the money that they wouldn’t be spending on a formal education? Their parents would have said that no child of theirs would go into the world without a diploma and their child would have argued that experiences are more important. They would’ve gone back and forth and the father would’ve never been able to grasp what had taken over his child, leaving that kid with few options besides saving some money, selling the things that they had accumulated from Christmases and birthdays, and sneaking out of the house while their parents slept, leaving behind a note that didn’t explain where they had gone, that didn’t even say I love you, see you soon. Besides knowing that their parents were worrying about their long hair and the music that they listened to and now, their whereabouts, these people were free. This is the kind of free that I want to be, and I think my dad would understand if this is what I do.
I heard once that there is something about how sharing your plans with people forces you to hold yourself accountable. I want to tell the other people sitting on the bank–this spot is not nearly as secret as we like to think–just to make it so that I couldn’t back out. Even if this wasn’t the case, they have to know about these people, about this freedom. I’m sure they already do, and if they don’t, I’m sure they wouldn’t care enough for me to feel like they were going to hold me to it. Besides, they were just out of earshot. Maybe they weren't. If I try, I can hear them over the stream. They clearly know about what’s going on these days, even if they aren’t aware of the hippies. From what I can see, I would guess that they were drinking to the end of the world. This is confirmed when they raise their cigarette butts and dented cans and cheer, “To the end of the world!” Fine. My stomach is tight as a fist.
Everyone assumed that what had happened to Victoria Falls was an isolated incident. It became quickly evident, however, that it was more of a warning. In the last decade, a great many more natural wonders have been eaten by the Earth’s crust. Seven years ago, it was Machu Picchu that sunk in on itself, as if someone lit dynamite in its basement. Sad, but there are plenty of ruins of ancient civilizations left, lifestyle magazines promised. People were grateful that it happened during the off-season. I crossed Peru off my list of places that I was planning to go someday. Three years ago, it was Huashan, a mountain in Central China, taking with it everyone on their ascents and in the buses below. Only they would be able to say where everything went. Eight months ago, it was about half of the Amazon all at once. I had been planning a trip to Brazil to see the rainforest, but my school schedule had gotten in the way. The air feels thinner since then.
“Let’s do it together,” I say to Caroline after a long bout of silence. She had her eyes closed and I had been looking at her and the line between her brows. “We could get on a bus or a train and go anywhere.” I want to see Africa and Asia and South America but I don’t think I am brave enough to do it alone. “Or we can just get a plane ticket. One way. And we can figure it out from there.” I recognize that the excitement in my voice sounds a little like desperation. She doesn’t respond right away, and I wonder if she heard me.
When she opens them, Caroline has the same dreamy look in her eyes that she gets when she smokes and watches When Sharks Attack or documentaries about East Asian cuisine. I thought at first that this look meant that she was going to say yes, let’s do it, let’s leave right now and take my hand like somebody about to make a promise, but instead she closes her lids again and starts talking about the next few years of school and the LSATs. I lay down with my back against the rock with my head next to her leg. The sun is right overhead and there aren’t nearly enough clouds to provide any relief, so I close my eyes too. The backs of my eyelids are a bright orange, but there is a fuzziness, and I am reminded of the butterflies. Cold soup.
“We really could do it, I think.” There is definitely desperation now. The warmth feels better through my shirt than it had on just my bare feet, but it’s still too much. I sit up again.
“I know we could,” she says, “Logistically, yeah. But I can’t. Not any time soon.”
“Life is short.” I hope for a reaction.
“Not that short.”
She really did used to have a list and it looked a lot like mine. I think that once the Cliffs of Moher became sledding hills and the Galapagos Islands became barren, she stopped adding things. I think she wonders why I haven’t yet.
My dad would always tell me stories about the people he met who were in search of a higher truth. Since he began telling me these stories, I have been obsessed with them, have loved them with the same vigor with which little children love horses and playgrounds with wood chips instead of gravel. The stories and the people in them contain something purpley and mystic and they refuse to waste time. The notion that hippies were lazy or that they were moochers didn’t sit well with me, but I know that’s what most business or lawyer types thought. I hope Caroline wouldn’t think that of me.
“Besides,” she continues, after a prolonged quiet that she knows neither of us were particularly comfortable with, “do you really want to live in a car?”
“Did you ever go to Amsterdam?” I ask.
“That would technically make you homeless, I think.”
“Did you?” I press.
“I had a layover once in Amsterdam, but that doesn’t count. I want to really, actually go there. That’s where the Hippie Trail used to start.” I had already told her all about the Magic Bus and every place you got to go between Turkey and Nepal. The trail was marked by magical pudding and psychedelics and impossibly cheap bus tickets. She knows this already but doesn’t feel the same awe that I do. I stop myself too from bringing up the capitalist machine and asking why we all as individuals are expected to contribute to a system that doesn’t work for us and what was wrong with hunter-gatherer societies anyways. She has already heard it all before. My mind hikes instead towards a plot of a few acres and a giant vegetable garden, a chicken coop, solar panels, a tank for collecting rainwater. She has already said that she likes this plan. I don’t remember if this was before or after she lost her list.
“You’ll get there, I’m sure,” she says. I want her to want to come with me. There was a time when she would have. There is too much violence in Afghanistan these days to be able to take the original Hippie Trail route. But we could still go somewhere.
“I mean I want to go now.” I try to ignore the whining in my own voice.
“Have you seen what’s been happening all over?” she asks, her tone feigning concern about my safety.
“Of course.” She can tell that I wasn’t really listening anymore, I am sure. I don’t think she’s really listening either. “That’s why I want to go so bad. Time is running out. I just–”
“Have some.” Her first syllable is clogged from the sip she just swallowed. Bottle beneath my nose, half-emptied of tea. I take it, hold it by its cap, roll its body around, watch the little leaves sink to the bottom. The one time I went to a psychic, she read my tea leaves and told me that they said I worry too much. Will I ever get out of here? I asked. Well, your appointment time is almost up, so yes, she said. I didn’t tip her.
“I think I would like living in a van. It sounds simple. People do it all the time,” I say, knowing that I couldn’t name a single person I know or know of who has done such a thing. She sighs in her forceful way, to make sure that I hear her. I hope she won’t bring up the issue of bathing again.
“I don’t think that I’d be able to sleep like that.”
“Who needs sleep, anyways?” There is a pebble digging into the very center of my palm, threatening crucifixion. “What about a hammock?”
It has become increasingly apparent that I am going to outlive every place that I want to visit. Just last week, some sacred caves in Belize collapsed. Yesterday, El Capitan in Yosemite was cleaved down the middle, making gravel of it. Caroline agreed to come with me to the stream today to grieve.
My voice is raw as I tell her, “I want to be in nature.”
“You know,” she says, “that nature is really all around us. It’s in the grass, the leaves.” Ah yes, the leaves that were concealing the leering eyes of Mr. Buff-N-Shine. “I mean, everything on Earth is made from everything else, isn’t it?”
Such a bullshit way to look at it. If everything was the same, no one would ever go anywhere. I look at her again and want to be angry. I succeed as much as I can.
I imagine that there is someone in the sky just waiting for me to stand up and put on my shoes and leave her sitting here. Perhaps the secret to life that everyone is so hung up on is acceptance. Caroline can tell herself that she’s happy and believe it.
“Life is short,” is all I can say. I want air that is fresher than this. The pounding of the stream begins to sound like a store full of clocks and the feeling that I am wasting my time takes over me again.
“Have you seen any butterflies lately?” I ask. I start to put on my shoe.
She pauses. I appreciate it when she considers my questions. “I don’t think so.”
On the way here, we saw the news that Northern California had broken off into the ocean. Everything from the snowy parts of the Sierras to the foam of the West Coast splintered and cracked and turned the water a terrible brown color. The most beautiful places in the world are soup. The feeling that everything is dead begins to take over me again when the ground starts to grumble. I am only wearing one of my shoes. I close my eyes and face the sun until I see orange.