In Captivity

Eleonora Balsano

It takes three or four minutes for the butterflies to fall asleep in the cold chamber. They slow down their movements, gently fold their wings behind their bodies. I scoop each one of them in my palm, lay it down at the center of the pink silk paper. Sometimes I move them around a bit, make sure they’re asleep, because once a Painted Lady tried to stretch her wings as I folded the origami envelope and the noise it made, the desperate rustling of life against the onionskin, still haunts me. 

There isn’t a night I don’t lie awake in bed thinking of that butterfly, imagining how it must be, not knowing if she’d ever fly again. I have been told butterflies feel no pain. People used to say babies didn’t feel pain either, that they couldn’t remember any harm done to them. I know that’s a lie. I like to think my baby knew she was taken away, that it wasn’t me rocking her to sleep at night. 

The bride called yesterday to change her order. She only wants monarchs, to match her orange sash and the marigolds in her bouquet. Her mother chimed in on the video call, insisted I do my job properly, because a friend of hers received moths by mistake. Instead of gracefully spinning above the guests, they’d flown low, ungainly, before landing on heads, clinging to hairdos and hats. I said don’t worry ma’am and froze inside. I hope the adoptive parents like their monarch, so different from her moth-mother. 

Our clients never ask about the butterflies. How long will be they dormant for, whether they will find their way home once released miles and miles from the routes carved in their genes. If they will be able to feed themselves, adapt to their environment without anyone teaching them. 

I fill the shipping box with the first hundred. They look like triangular paper ravioli. Butterflies lay their eggs in the most unusual places, leave the caterpillars to fend for themselves. If they’re lucky, ants will take care of them until they’re ready to fly away. The lawyer said a closed adoption was healthier for the baby, so that she could have a chance at a new life. I was too young to object.

I think of my butterflies, grown in the man-controlled humidity of this farm, raised to stretch their wings just enough to show they are fit to fly, so they can perform on cue, twirl and dance above human heads. I wish I could teach them how to be free. 

Eleonora Balsano is an Italian-born, polyglot writer based in Brussels, Belgium. Her short fiction has won or has been placed in several international competitions and is featured in Portland Review, JMWW Journal, Reflex Fiction and elsewhere. Eleonora’s stories often originate from dreams and she’s often afraid one day they will stop. Twitter @norami Instagram @ebalwriter

This story was a runner-up in the December 2022 Quarterly Flash Competition.