The Tree and the Butterfly

Once there was a tree who loved being a tree. She loved to curl her toes in the earth and feel the sun on her leaves. She loved making oxygen. She loved being a home for birds and animals and insects. She loved the tickle of squirrels’ feet along her branches, and the excitement every spring when the chicks began to fledge.

Then, one day, there came a man with a flint axe. Blow by blow, the axe cut into her, until her body broke in two, and she fell.

When a tree falls, there is always a sound that no human hears: the sound of voiceless crying. The tree cried as the man cut off her branches, and stripped her bark, and hollowed out her trunk. She cried as he dragged her to the river, and set her afloat, and climbed into the hollowed husk of her body. Hardest of all she cried when she saw her reflection in the water. She was no longer herself. An unrecognisable thing looked back at her. You could hardly tell that it had once been a tree.

A butterfly flew past, and settled on her as she floated down the river. He was so small that he could hear her silent crying. ‘Beautiful boat,’ he said, ‘why are you crying?’

‘What’s a boat?’ she sobbed. ‘I’m not a boat. I’m a tree. At least, I was a tree, but now I’m dead.’

‘It was like death for me, too,’ he said, ‘when I changed. I was a caterpillar once. Then one day I woke up in a body I didn’t recognise. I wasn’t me. I couldn’t wriggle any more. I had to learn to fly. I had to learn to drink nectar instead of eating leaves. I cried and cried. But after a while, I realised that flying is fun, and nectar tastes better than leaves, and -’

‘And you’re beautiful,’ she said.

He fluttered shyly. ‘Thank you. So are you. Look at the way you curve, like a willow-leaf in the water. Look at the way you glide, and how the river foams in your wake. Doesn’t it feel good to be able to float? The sun’s shining on the ripples, and the fish are dancing all around you. Isn’t it exciting to be a boat?’

‘Oh, butterfly,’ she said. ‘If only I could be as brave as you.’

‘Give it time,’ he said, and he flew away.

And so the boat gave it time. She learned to love the sun on the ripples, and the fish and birds and animals of the river. She learned to love the feeling of speed and the splash of water as she raced through the rapids. She learned to love the quiet hours when she floated at her moorings, feeling the river flowing by. She even learned to love the man who rowed her, the way the moving strength of his body and the still strength of hers worked together.

Then, one day, the boat struck a rock in the river. Her body splintered and broke apart. Cursing in the water, the man dragged the broken boat to the shore, and cut her up for firewood. The man’s whole family came and carried off what was left of her, piece by piece. In their cave, they piled up pieces of her body with tinder and dry grass, and struck a spark from flint, and set her alight. And in a whispering, crackling voice, the fire cried.

The butterfly fluttered in and settled on the cave wall. ‘Beautiful fire,’ he said, ‘why are you crying?’

‘What’s a fire?’ she wept. ‘I’m not a fire. I’m a boat. At least, I was a boat, but now I’m dead.’

‘You’re so warm,’ said the butterfly. ‘You’re so bright. Look at the golden light you cast around you. Look at how you make the shadows dance. Look at how the humans stretch out their hands to you, and how you make their eyes shine. Doesn’t it feel good to be so loved? Dusk is falling, and the stars are coming out, and the old men and women are gathering the children around you to tell them stories. Isn’t it exciting to be a fire?’

‘Oh, butterfly,’ she said. ‘If only I could be as brave as you.’

‘Give it time,’ he said, and he flew away.

And so the fire gave it time. There was plenty of good wood to keep her alive for many nights. She learned to love dancing, and leaping, and scattering sparks. She learned to love the fierce heat that blazed up inside her, and the contentment of settling down in her soft ashes to sleep away the day. She learned to love cooking, and keeping people warm, and making pictures in her flames for the children. She learned to love the family, and the home whose heart she had become.

Then, one day, the last piece of wood burned down to its last ember, and the fire went out. The charred remains of her turned cold and black on the cave floor. A woman came and piled what was left of her into a clay dish, and mixed her with deer fat, and used her to paint the walls. Once a tree, once a boat, once a fire, now she was nothing but a smear of black dirt on stone. And she cried.

And for the third time, the butterfly heard her. His wings were tattered now, and he flew weakly, buffeted by the cold wind that whistled through the cave. ‘Beautiful painting,’ he said, ‘why are you crying?’

‘What’s a painting?’ she sniffed. ‘I’m not a painting. I’m a fire. At least, I was a fire, but now I’m dead.’

‘You’re a story,’ he said. ‘A story told in pictures. You’re figures of men with spears in their hands, and wolves running at their heels. You’re deer and bison galloping across the plains. You’re a wild chase, and a desperate throw. You’re meat for a hungry family. You’re hunters dancing in triumph. And you’re forever and ever. Long after the hunters are dead, they’ll be dancing here in you. Isn’t it exciting to be a painting?’

‘Oh, butterfly,’ she said. ‘I understand now. Thank you.’

‘You’re welcome,’ he said, and he fluttered to the floor.

‘Butterfly, what’s wrong with you?’

‘Nothing,’ he whispered, almost too quiet to hear. ‘Nothing is wrong. I’m just becoming something else. I wonder what I’m going to be next…’

‘I love you,’ said the painting to the butterfly; but the butterfly never spoke again.

The painting is still telling her story today; you can go to the cave, and she’ll tell it to you. She loves being a painting. But as for what the butterfly became, well, you’ll just have to wonder…

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