Edition 27: Butterfly Pie by Rue Karney
Anna loves her garden, and the little tasty treats that are gratis for her lovely fresh herbs. The discovery of a purple spot on her finger leads her down a path where her two loves drop her in deep trouble. Rue Karney’s dark little fantasy will have us all questioning what’s in a name. SY
Anna squatted in the herb garden, secateurs in hand, and snipped off the head of each grasshopper she spied. Among the glossy leaves of basil and parsley, she cut off small green heads with tiny black eyes. Between the pale sage and dark, woody thyme, she chopped through green necks and sliced off plump-winged bodies until, through the shades of green, a bright purple spot caught her eye. She spread the secateurs’ curved blades open. She peered closer. The purple spot did not move or squirm or wriggle. It did not sprout wings and fly away. It did not belong to a garden predator.
It belonged to her.
The purple spot was small and perfectly round. It sat on her finger like a faceted jewel, perched in the centre of the flesh of her middle finger, between the knuckle and the joint. Anna twisted her hand, turning it this way and that, and contemplated drawing a line around her finger, circling the purple spot in gold felt-tip pen. Perhaps she’d flash it around like an antique heirloom at work, give the other nurses a giggle.
She picked a caterpillar off the underside of a half-chewed basil leaf. ‘Bloody pests.’
She squished the grub. Pale green caterpillar flesh oozed out between her fingertips. She wiped it on her gardening apron and searched for more.
The next day the purple spot had grown as plump and round as a ladybug. Anna fluttered her fingers over the ripe red cherry tomatoes, the glossy teardrop globes of the eggplants and the yellow pumpkin flowers opening their hearts to the sun. On her finger, the purple lump glittered and pulsed.
‘Be-beat, be-beat, be-beat,’ Anna whispered. She caught a moth between her fingers and crumbled it into dust. ‘Be-beat, be-beat.’
A few days later, when Anna set out in the morning sunshine for her walk, the purple mound flashed on her finger like a tiny beacon. Anna glanced at it and smiled. She hummed a boppy tune as she swung her arms and strolled down the hill, past the school and over the bridge to Papillion, the French bakery.
Papillion was a neighbourhood institution. Yvette, the plump, red-faced baker, was renowned for the lightness of her pastry. And every Saturday, people drove from suburbs across the river to line up from six AM for a slice of her specialty, butterfly pie.
Butterfly pie was only made on Saturdays. In good weather and in bad, people lined up outside the shop hoping they would not be the ones to miss out. Adults chatted, dogs on leads sniffed, and small children hid their mouths behind their hands and whispered to their parents, There aren’t really butterflies in the pie, are there?
The parents would laugh and Yvette the baker would throw her floury hands in the air and say, Of course not, and smile and wink at her assistant Therese, who stood straight-backed and grim-mouthed behind the counter.
Therese never smiled back.
Sometimes, if Anna had a bumper crop of herbs, she’d run down to the bakery early on a Saturday and barter her fresh basil, sage, thyme and parsley for an extra-large slice of butterfly pie.
She’d done so the previous weekend. Yvette had wafted the fresh herbs under her nose and called out to Therese, ‘An extra-large slice of butterfly pie for Mademoiselle Anna,’ and then hurried out the back to her ovens as she always did. And, as usual, Therese cut a slice of pie, placed it in a white cardboard box and tied it with string. But as she passed the white cardboard box across the counter, she’d pressed her palm against the back of Anna’s hand, and gripped it with bony fingers.
‘Don’t you ever wonder where the butterflies come from?’ Therese asked.
‘No.’ Anna drew her hand away and picked up the pie box. ‘Every great baker has their secrets.’ She’d forced a smile and turned her back on Therese’s pale grey eyes.
As Anna turned the corner and Papillion came into view, those grey eyes hovered in her memory. For just a moment, less than a second, her heart skipped to a double-beat. She slowed, stopped, looked around her. She smiled at her silliness as she pushed open the bakery door.
The doorbells tinkled, sweet as a child’s giggle.
‘Bonjour Therese. A coffee and chocolate croissant, please.’
Therese, tall and pale with her hair drawn back in a silver and grey bun, nodded. She picked out a fresh, warm chocolate croissant with her tongs. She popped it in a paper bag and pushed it across the counter.
‘Your finger.’ Therese stepped back, and pressed her palms against her heart.
Anna glanced down at the glittering purple jewel that pulsed on her middle finger. ‘Pretty, isn’t it?’ She curved her hand like a magician’s assistant.
Therese’s grey eyes widened. The small lines around her mouth furrowed.
‘Don’t you think it’s pretty?’ Anna smiled.
Therese crossed herself, muttered in French.
‘Pardon?’ Anna leant across the counter a little.
Therese shoved Anna’s coffee towards her. ‘Leave,’ she hissed. ‘Do not come back.’
She hurried into the back of the store.
Anna shrugged. She picked up her coffee and croissant and went outside into the sunshine. She sat at one of the tables under the shade of a giant fig tree and stretched out her legs, watching the patterns of the leaves shadow-play on her bare skin.
The cool breeze swirled around her ankles and eddied in a spiral up onto the table, fluttering the edges of the paper bag. Anna took out the warm chocolate croissant and bit into it. The buttery pastry flaked against her lips. The chocolate oozed soft and gooey into her mouth, sweet at first with a touch of bitterness. Then bitter became sour and filled her mouth like bile. She spat the croissant onto the ground and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She stood, ready to storm back into the bakery and demand a refund.
The wind stilled. A mynah bird flew down from the shadowed branches of the fig tree and pecked at the pastry splattered on the ground. The bird squawked, tilted its small grey head and fixed its yellow ringed eye up at Anna. It tapped its beak on the ground three times.
From behind the bakery window, Therese pressed her palms against her cheeks, her mouth a twisted O.
The mynah bird flew at Anna and scraped its claws across her hand.
‘Ugh!’ Anna batted the bird away. She checked the back of her hand. There was no scratch across her skin but on her middle finger the purple mound now sat in the centre of a small, fleshy emerald-green lump.
She looked up at the tree, imagining somehow green gunk had fallen from its branches onto her skin. She shook her fingers; the clump of emerald-green clung to her. She slashed her hand through the air; she thwacked it on the silver table; she whipped it like a scarecrow in a cyclone but the green stuff did not budge.
Anna stopped. She drew a deep breath into her belly, held her knuckle in front of her face and squeezed her fist. The fleshy emerald-green lump puffed up from the skin and bone of her middle finger and raised a single purple tipped horn towards her.
Anna screamed. She thrashed her hand around in the air as the caterpillar’s purple horn waved in triumph and its feelers clawed their way out of her skin and the emerald flesh grew fatter and fatter and fatter.
‘Help me!’ Anna rushed towards the bakery. She banged her forearms on the door. ‘Help me!’
Therese stepped back from the window. She stared out at Anna with a blank face but Yvette the baker ran to the door. She yanked it open and dragged Anna inside.
‘Quickly, Therese!’ Yvette locked the door behind her. ‘Quickly!’
The caterpillar waved its purple-crowned horn through and out of Anna’s flesh and her eyes danced with green and purple dots that flashed and swirled in a black swathe.
‘Therese! Hurry!’ Yvette swore as Anna’s body collapsed against hers.
Together the women dragged Anna out the back into the heat of the bakery ovens and laid her out on the bare concrete floor.
Anna flinched at the splash of cold water across her face. She squeezed her eyes shut as the water dribbled onto her cheek.
‘I don’t want to see.’
Anna screwed up her nostrils against the garlic odour of Therese’s breath.
‘Yes. You must.’
Sharp nails pinched at Anna’s cheek. She opened her eyes and stared up at Therese’s face, at her mouth that had shrunk into a pale grey-pink pucker.
‘I am sorry.’ Therese shook her head.
She crouched next to Anna, and pressed a cool, pale hand to her forehead, and a glass of red wine to her lips.
‘Drink up,’ whispered Therese. ‘It will help.’
Behind them, Yvette stood at her workbench, singing in a low voice as she sharpened a knife. The knife blade squealed against the sharpening block.
Yvette inspected the edge of the blade. She pressed its gleaming tip into the centre of her palm and watched the dark red blood well up and drip down the long groove of her life line. ‘Bring the girl here.’
Therese bit her lip.
Therese grabbed Anna under her arms and pulled her to her feet. She pushed Anna onto the long timber workbench and positioned her inflamed right hand at a 180 degree angle to her body.
‘Don’t look.’ Therese whispered.
Anna twisted her head away from her hand that throbbed and ached, fever hot and heavy as a tumour. Her flesh crawled with infinite tiny hairs that slowly turned the caterpillar’s body, pricking at her veins and scratching her bones as it pushed its way millimetre by millimetre through the flesh of her arm. She closed her eyes over hot tears that seemed to swim with tiny, coarse caterpillar hairs. Every centimetre of her body stung as if swollen with insect flesh. Panic scuttled up her throat on beetle legs.
Yvette’s hand gripped Anna’s chin. ‘You are lucky.’ The red veins glowed through the baker’s floured cheeks. ‘Few are chosen as you are.’
‘Chosen?’ The bitterness of the chocolate flooded back into Anna’s mouth. Her lips drew back in a grimace.
‘Chosen.’ Yvette’s yellow teeth smiled. ‘For the greatest delicacy of all.’ She leant across Anna’s body and pushed and pulled at her swollen arm. ‘Almost ready. Therese, prepare the pan.’
Anna closed her eyes and thought of her garden, of the deep glossy aubergine of the eggplants; the rich, ripe red of the tomatoes; the sunny yellow of the pumpkin flowers. She imagined the orange ladybugs with their tiny black dots. And then the green of the grasshoppers, their heads and bodies chopped in two. And the bodies of the caterpillars she plucked from the leaves and squashed between her bare fingers, their green flesh oozing, their tiny hairs needling into her fingertips.
A rash of heat prickled up Anna’s spine and spread through her veins. She opened her eyes and stared up at Yvette. In the baker’s hand, an ivory handle merged into the distinct waved pattern of a fine Japanese cutting blade.
The knife blade sliced into Anna’s flesh in a sharp sear of pain. Bright droplets of blood spattered across the workbench, staining buttery yellow sheets of rolled pastry with cherry red stars. A caterpillar, its single purple-tipped horn protruding from its fat green face, crawled out of Anna’s split flesh, across the timber workbench and towards the warmth of the oven. The caterpillar was followed by another, and another, and another, until a train of emerald green caterpillars, each wagging their bright purple horns this way and that in the kitchen’s steaming heat, shimmied across the workbench.
Therese stood at the edge of the bench with a large round pie dish lined with a rich buttery pastry crust. The caterpillars’ purple horns twitched, sniffing the air as they lumbered towards her.
Anna lifted her head. She forced herself to watch the march of the caterpillars as they muscled out of the wide slash in her forearm. As the last caterpillar crawled off her flesh and onto the floor, she snatched at it and gripped its purple horn between her index finger and thumb.
The captive grub squealed as it dangled from her fingers. The other caterpillars turned back towards their mate, their bodies swaying in a slow dance. They raised their heads and thoraxes off the bench and waggled their purple horns in the air as they swarmed around Anna’s body. A chorus of squeaks and whistles sang through the kitchen.
Yvette dropped her knife to the floor. It clattered and spun on its ivory handle, throwing reflected diamonds of green across the stainless steel ovens and benches. Beside her, Therese clasped her hands against her heart.
‘Mon Dieu,’ she whispered.
Anna lowered her captive caterpillar to the bench. She pushed herself upright. She drew in a deep breath and waited for a wave of dizziness to pass.
Yvette curled her lip. ‘It is no use to—’
Anna smashed her fist into the grub.
The caterpillar squealed. Its pulpy green flesh splattered across the workbench, across the pastry, across the other caterpillars. They waggled their purple horns in the air and screeched.
‘Foolish girl!’ Yvette dragged on oven mitts. ‘I’ll deal with you later.’ She turned her back on Anna and shoved the caterpillars off the bench and into the pie dish.
Anna rolled to the edge of the workbench. She fell to her knees on the floor and crawled towards the knife. Pain throbbed up her arm. She gritted her teeth and inched forward. Her fingertips scrabbled towards the knife handle.
‘Pah!’ Yvette kicked the knife away.
Therese hurried towards the knife, and picked it up. She felt the weight of it in her hand. Her eyes followed the length of the blade up to its fine, sharp tip.
Anna edged closer towards her, her belly scraping across the concrete.
‘Therese,’ she whispered, ‘please help, please.’
A softness, rich as melted chocolate, filled Therese’s eyes. She looked across at Yvette, at her huffing red face, at the muscles moving in her arms as she pressed her thumbs around the edge of the pastry to seal the caterpillars inside the crust. She looked down at Anna, at her face flecked with red blood and green caterpillar flesh.
‘Please,’ Anna mouthed. She stretched her arms forward. The thick gash in her arm had already started to knit together, her flesh healing itself towards the thin red line of Yvette’s clean cut. Alongside the wound, faint grey streaks in the shape of butterfly wings had begun to emerge.
Therese’s grey eyes widened. A rose blush coloured her sallow cheeks. She gripped her fist around the knife handle and stepped across the kitchen on soft feet while the baker trimmed the pastry from around the pie’s edges.
‘Therese!’ Yvette turned around. ‘What are—’
Therese plunged the knife into Yvette’s belly.
She slumped, her mouth agape, as blood seeped onto her baker’s jacket.
Anna stood on shaky legs. ‘Therese?’
Therese slipped off her jacket and stretched her arms out towards Anna. Fine silver scars tracked down the older women’s creping skin. Butterfly wings, delicate and light, fluttered around the scars, up the length of her arms and down inside her sleeve-hole. Tears slid from her eyes, traversing the wrinkles of her cheeks.
‘Now, it is our choice.’ Therese took Anna’s hands and gripped them tight, while behind them Yvette gasped for air. ‘Now, we will decide where our butterflies go.’
Anna listened to the chatter of customers from Papillion Bakery’s new garden cafe while she unhooked the waste bags and deposited them in a container. Adult voices—some cooing, some tight with warning—and the high lilt of children’s voices mingled with the early morning chorus of magpie song. There were giggles and squeals, too.
‘Hear that?’ She glanced down at Yvette. ‘The kids adore the butterflies. They’re everywhere now, you know.’
Anna preferred to keep the conversation light as she tended to her patient. Attention to detail was vital. She shone a torch into the baker’s eyes to assess the size of her pupils. Yvette’s short black lashes fluttered against the light.
‘Looking good, Yvette.’
Anna flicked off the torch. Too much medication and the amount of bodily fluids produced for her fertiliser dropped to unacceptable levels. Too little sedation had its own dangers.
Yvette was still a strong woman. Menace gleamed behind the veil of stupefaction that glazed her dark brown eyes.
‘You’ll be pleased to know some customers still ask after you,’ Anna continued as she checked Yvette’s restraints. ‘They’ve stopped asking for butterfly pie; Therese’s garden herb quiche is the most popular now. And the tomato basil salad sells out every day.’
Anna peeled off her surgical gloves and dropped them in the bin. ‘Sounds like a busy morning. I’d better get back out there and give Therese a hand.’
She smoothed her hair, shut the converted shed door behind her and walked out into the garden.
A cloud of butterflies descended. Anna stretched out her arms and they hovered around her head and shoulders in a halo of shimmering colours, tickling her skin with delicate wings. The creatures murmured their secrets in her ears as she walked the path that cut through the beds of ripe red cherry tomatoes, glossy eggplants globes and yellow pumpkin flowers opening their hearts to the sun.
‘Look at the pretty butterfly lady, Mummy!’
Anna waved her hand. A purple spot, small and perfectly round, graced the flesh on each of her fingers like a faceted jewel.
She greeted her customers with a smile.
Rue Karney is a horror writer and amateur neuroscientist with a love of the bizarre and gruesome. Karney’s stories have appeared in the anthologies Hauntings (Hic Dragones Press), In Sunshine Bright and Darkness Deep (Black Beacon Press) and her short story, Brother, won the 2016 Australian Horror Writers Association short story competition. When not creating malicious characters and evil scenarios, Karney enjoys learning French and reading about psychopaths.