Vanishing Point

By ANYA VENTURA

We all dreaded the Butterfly Haven, a greenhouse whose thermostat was set to an oppressive eighty degrees. We were tasked with ensuring the museum’s collection of exotic butterflies did not escape into other exhibits—Mysteries of the Marsh, Birds of Chicago, Wild Music—or suffer at the hands of visitors. The Butterfly Haven was a new addition, a garden under glass, the wild and fruit-bearing world reassembled. It was nature trimmed and mail-ordered, the gestation of life contained in a laboratory and maintained through ongoing shipments from Australia, Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. Butterflies died and were replaced in equal number.

I would watch Celeste, our Director of Living Collections, speak softly to the birds inside the Haven on her morning rounds. Tapping a finger to the feeders of nectar, she murmured at the red-legged honeycreeper as though it were an old friend, and I envied the assurance with which she spoke the secret language of flora and fauna. The sound of the artificial waterfall in the Butterfly Haven made it hard to hear what she might be saying to these birds, her head lost in the leaves. She seldom spoke to me. Her face was the shape of a scallop shell, eyes the color of sea glass. Her name itself seemed to suggest a divine geography. Celeste had worked in Africa for many years as a safari guide, in a place where marijuana grew more bountifully than weeds and was cheaper than cigarettes. The local men would secretly tear out the thin pages of her reference book for rolling paper, the spidery diagrams of flowers and plants curling up in ash.

When the nature museum hired me, my first job out of college, the prairie grass outside was dead and a thin layer of ice had hardened on Lake Michigan. I had spent my life moving, each place provisional, unfinished. I was restless and always looking for the more perfect place. Masaccio’s fresco of the expulsion from Eden, when I first saw it stretched across the page of my art history textbook, dislodged something in me—the howling, scuttled Eve clutching at herself. Now I was living in a basement apartment in Pilsen with a girl I had known in college, but we kept different schedules and I rarely saw her. My roommate had grown up in Little Italy, and slowly domestic objects from her mother’s house appeared, which I treated as invasions. Outside, on abandoned brick storefronts, near dollar stores and taquerias, gangs graffitied their claims and threats. Everyone seemed to have somebody else’s name lassoed around their forearm, cursive decorating the breastplate, wrists of hearts and thorns. The apartment faced a shuttered bar with its name still etched on a small frosted window: My Mistake.

In those days, only the most basic necessities preoccupied me: shelter, warmth, food. I’d applied to every job I found, walking for hours to save money on bus fare and hand-delivering résumés dampened by the elements. Winter had made a poor, chipped candidate of me. What interviews I managed to get, I arrived at frostbitten, spreading cold to the hands I shook, my nose running and eyes watering. I did not have proper boots. In offices and storerooms and shopfronts across Chicago, I stood ravaged in pools of my own melt. The city stilled, contracted, held itself in, the streets dusted with frost. For weeks on end, the sky was white.

Before my interview at the museum in Lincoln Park, I huddled in the deserted boathouse across the street, listening to the ice crack on the lake. When I walked over to the museum and sat down with the manager in the café, she asked, “Are you good with people?,” and, without waiting for an answer, offered me the job.

The next morning, I left the house early and walked south to Blue Island Avenue, a long street that cut a diagonal through a city otherwise neatly gridded. To the south were factories, cold and ugly and purposeful.

I was unhappy in a way I could not diagnose then, but I found brief peace in the emptiness of the bus, searching through the want ads in the local paper, the missed connections, hoping to recognize myself. I hoped that someone, a stranger, had found and caught me in my movements through the city. I saw you…, they all began.

On my first full day at the museum, I walked from the lobby, with its glass walls, up the stairs and through the scenes of stilled animals to the forbidding entrance of the garden. The doors were heavy, two ponderous palms pressed together, which, when cracked, opened up onto another world. In the Haven, sound became lonely, tropical, and dense. It echoed through the room, muffled and sourceless, as distant and diffuse as the mist that sprayed down from huge jets above.

The museum had evolved from a group of nineteenth-century gentlemen naturalists. Outside the Butterfly Haven hung a sepia photograph of Victorian men and women slogging through Midwestern sand dunes, wide-brimmed hats and petticoats black as crows. Those early pioneers had picked, plucked, caught, shot, and stolen, loading the museum with the fruits of their expeditions. There were drawerfuls of tiny stuffed birds, their feet tagged and bound with ancient twine; a crest of bleached animal skulls arranged from smallest to largest, from deer mouse to badger; speckled eggs and seashells emptied of the sea.

The head biologist was already waiting in the Haven, ready to explain it all to me. The butterflies were lousy, extravagant creatures. Over a thousand lived in the Haven. There was the Scarlet Peacock, the Common Morpho, and the Small Postman. The Zebra Longwing, the Painted Lady, the Pale Owl. The Butterfly Haven housed only one moth—the Atlas moth—the largest kind in the world. The Atlas moth would flatten itself against a window, letting the sun burn through the translucent diamonds in its wings, lording over everything with Godlike omniscience. It lived only ten days.

The Butterfly Haven smuggled into winter the warmth of other seasons, gathering up all the hot wonder of the world in a single room. Everything here was consciously distributed, prearranged and ordained, the mad elements of chance diminished. A place of labored stasis. One whole wall was a wash of eggshell blue, smeared with the thin ruffles of clouds, in imitation of the sky. Labels explained the names of butterflies, the countries they came from, the Latin nomenclature. Exotic plants, the odalisques of flowers, were curated and harmonized like paintings in a salon. My favorite, I learned from a small placard, was called the Flame of the Forest, a flower whose orange-red petals curled upwards like tiny prows. Unlike an ordinary garden, the Butterfly Haven had a frame—a tidy composition that, because it was absent from other parts of my life, I found seductive. Maybe what I desired was simply a discernible shape, a container to hold life, its edges pronounceable.

My function was one of silent surveillance. I’d be fired, the biologist promised, if I ever left the Butterfly Haven unattended. If the nonnative butterflies were to escape, they posed a serious threat to the local environment. The head biologist briefed me on the importance of securing the containment zone, his words muffled by the sound of the waterfall in the center of the room. His warning was so dire that to abandon the Butterfly Haven—an askew glance, one wayward blink—seemed unthinkable. It was as if, unwatched, the garden would simply disappear.

“Sign here,” the biologist said.

We sat on the bench facing the small trickle of the waterfall. Short and bearded, always in tweed, he reeked of mothballs. He had the soft, musted look of a man who spent his time scything the air of insects, wading knee-deep in brush, crouched and hunched in tall grasses. His nose seemed only the sketch of a nose, just partly there, the tip sloping into his face too early and the nostrils barely formed. He commuted every day, my manager had mentioned, from Elgin, and I envied him for it. It seemed a comfort to imagine his suburban home, the coddling light of the train as he came into the city, reading a newspaper and drinking coffee from a thermos his wife had prepared for him as the blind intervals of the woods flew past. I also feared him, so strictly had he issued the rules of this house.

Outside the twenty-eight-foot glass windows were the gray shapes of the city, the colorless lake. The silhouettes of predatory birds painted above the exit discouraged the butterflies’ escape. And then there were the punishing fans—giant ones humming above the doors, releasing shocks of air that would blow any butterflies back into the safety of the haven with all the stark force of fate.

I had studied art history, and thought of myself as a minor figure in a grand landscape painting, or a still-life tableau, camouflaged in my dun-colored uniform, obscured by fronds. I was the repoussoir, the small figure in the foreground inviting viewers into the frame. We, the attendants, used to joke about being swept up in the Living Collection: There’s an Atlas moth! There’s a button quail! There’s a person! I had my identification card, my badge and uniform, a new description of myself.

I took into my lap the open three-ring binder the biologist offered. Written on a sheet of paper was the list of the names of other watchers, the attendants who had been trained as I had, to which I added my own signature, my lumpen pledge to paradise, as proof I had understood everything, the method and arrangement, the proper scheme of it all.

The Butterfly Haven was often dull. The hours went by without end, and I had not yet learned the art of loneliness. While Celeste fed the animals, I sat on a bench drawing birds on a piece of scrap paper, or studying the names of the butterflies on a laminated sheet: Great Egg Fly, Pink Spotted Cattleheart, Ulysses.

The only part of the job I enjoyed were the mornings, before the heat became too great, and before the visitors arrived. I sat on a bench in a thick slab of sun, a novel undisguised beside me, Celeste feeding the birds. Everything still. From the glass windows I could see the park below, where pools of water formed between maples and froze in hard pendants. I breathed the Haven’s sweet rot as I watched the snow settle on bare branches outside. In the quiet I would dream about the person I would become, fleshy, solid, settled.

When a yellow DHL package arrived marked Fragile, we phoned the biologist right away. These packages contained young pupae, wrapped in cotton and packed in Styrofoam boxes, shipped from tropical butterfly farms. The museum captured butterflies on the brink of metamorphosis, hatching them in temperature-controlled glass cases just outside the Haven’s doors. In a darkened vestibule, visitors peered into the case to see the papery sheaths of chrysalises pinned up in rows. The caterpillar was not, as I once thought, sleeping in its sheath, but rather dissolving, digesting its old body so a new one could take flight. From the soup of itself it created new parts: the eyes and antennae, wings and suckling mouth. What other creature could transform so dramatically?

Beside me, at the bottom of the pond, lay a dull sediment of coins, a thin sheet of wishes. When no visitors were around, I would scramble on top of the ersatz rock to steal the quarters, and then buy myself a Coke from the vending machine in the cafeteria as school groups ate their lunches.

“He knows,” the gardener said to me one morning in deep winter. I was a little bit in love with the gardener, not owing to any particular qualities of his but simply because he was there. On the weekends, I knew, he played the mandolin in a country band. In the mornings, he would spray down the green or reorganize the soil, and in this empty time my desire—general and undifferentiated—would attach and arrange itself around him.

“Who?”

“The biologist.”

It turned out the biologist, seeing the pond skimmed of its silver, had dropped a quarter in the pond as a test. Now that the quarter had disappeared, he was on to my little fraud, and the fishing would have to stop.

For long hours, I could only sit and contemplate my life—what I was going to do with it after years of schooling, now that it had been handed back to me. I had come to the city to find myself, as if a self could somehow be discovered in hiding, as whole and intact as a salamander beneath a stone. How would I be known? In front of the exit was a wide mirror. My pants, the ones I wore every day, were a dull brownish-yellow and sagged at the knees. I’d cut my hair myself after having drunk too much wine one night. Gazing at my reflection in the mirror, I’d stare so long my own face became unrecognizable.

In the mornings before the museum opened, we would walk through the exhibits to make sure everything was in working order, turning on all the lights and instructional videos, tapping fingers to the glass terrariums, bringing the museum back to life. I found the photograph one morning during these rounds. It clung to the wall of a room where children often played, and I could not imagine how it had gotten there. It was a strange picture of irregular size, slightly larger than a passport photo, depicting a winter scene. In it, a woman walked along a thin path bounded on either side by snow. She was far enough along the path that the finer aspects of her figure were indiscernible, reduced to a pleasant vagueness, a haziness of form I found appealing. She was walking toward what in art is called the vanishing point, that distant flyspeck in the horizon toward which the world of the picture recedes, where the eye meets the end of its illusion. On our rounds, we were required to remove any slag that might have accumulated in the museum: crumpled napkins, baby bottles, a woman’s scarf, and, once, a pack of playing cards. And so I took the picture and, without saying anything to anyone, slipped it into my pocket.

In the Haven, I inspected the picture more fully. Who was that woman walking to the point of invisibility, beyond the pale of sense? What a feral pleasure to be imperfectly described! A self-portrait, I thought, and stuck it on my identification badge over my own photograph. To cover the image of my face with another picture seemed an act of minor sabotage, one small way, in my surreptitious, private manner, to escape.

The morning’s silence never lasted. Within an hour, the first nanny would tow in children, or an older couple would shuffle in, the first interruption in the dream, and by noon the noisy school groups began their occasional assault. I watched as the heavy door edged open and a child appeared, then another, trailed by a parent or teacher, voices bursting over the still room.

Every afternoon at exactly two o’clock, someone from Education carried a clear plastic cube of the newborn butterflies into the Haven. The person working admissions announced the Butterfly Release over the intercom, and crowds, mostly families with young children, filled the horseshoe-shaped garden as I receded to the edge, watching from afar as the bodies further warmed the room, and with the heat came the excitement, a growing hysteria. At regular intervals, a fine mist would spray down from the ceiling vents to balance the rising temperature, thin blooms of water shrouding the plants.

In the clear, rehearsed tones of the tour guide, educators incanted the stages of a butterfly’s life while plucking the insects from the cube’s corners with bare hands. The educators explained everything one needed to know about the grand pageant of rebirth: the period of long gestation, the slow emergence, the wetness of new wings. How ceremonial it seemed to me from along the periphery, the way the educator locked the wings between the furrow of two cinched fingers, and, with a flick of the wrist, released the new animal into the heat. Such a wet, barbarous process was the act of becoming alive. The butterfly wavered at first, soused and searching. At first, it seemed as if the educator shook colored leaves onto the ground, but instead of falling, the leaf was carried aloft, up into the air. The crowds moved closer, transfixed, moving toward mania, and I felt myself growing fainter, my forehead moist with sweat.

These young butterflies traced blind, zigzagging paths through the air, or else they wafted a little before alighting on a leaf. As they grew accustomed to their new home, the butterflies wended their way to the putrefying fruit that Celeste had placed that morning on two silver dishes: black bananas, the half-moons of mango, orange slices whose rims she’d cut down into toothy triangles.

Mistaking bright clothes for the rotting fruit, newborn butterflies would sometimes descend upon the crowd. I saw a new butterfly attach itself to a young boy this way, its little tongue uncurling against the fabric of his shirt.

“It must be something in his skin,” his mother said.

“It’s so hard to capture them,” a man was saying, pointing his camera toward a butterfly on the edge of flight. I wondered if the visitors caught me in their pictures, if in some photo album were lodged pieces of me, fragments in the background, my turned head, a hand, and if all these excerpts were somehow brought together, a whole portrait might emerge. Or perhaps what they did was simply close in on the butterflies, exempting all traces of me from the image.

“He loves me!” the child shouted.

But from my seat at the edge of this scene, I believed such a love story impossible. If narrative is the mechanism by which feeling is wrangled into shape, it seemed to me, then, that the butterflies’ world was without story. Instead theirs was the search for uncivilized sensation, for color and warmth, the most basic and primitive cloth of the world. When a butterfly landed on a visitor, I slid the insect onto my finger, its abdomen beneath my forefinger, and deposited it upon whatever plant grew nearest, as quickly as a worker might pass a part to the next man in the assembly line. We were vigilant about “hitchhikers,” the butterflies that cleaved to the backs of unknowing visitors and slipped into other parts of the museum.

I longed then for the familiar enclosures of my old life, the soft brick of my dormitory, the classrooms’ white walls, the familiar roads that marked where the town began and ended. And I feared that, just beyond the thick green doors, having slid past my watch, an iridescent flock might be gently flapping in place like smokers mingling on the periphery of a party. They would have wings big as sails, all methodically beating back and forth in unison, silently defeating me.

Sometimes, even under my vigilant watch, the butterflies did escape, and in the off hours, in the emptiest part of night, the custodians would find corpses in strange corners of the museum.

But only once did I see a live butterfly caught in the vestibule between the Haven and the rest of the museum, batting around madly in the darkened half-room. Seized by panic, I held my radio to my lips and repeated Help, help, help, and Celeste appeared to shoo the creature back inside.

Spring in Chicago was an ugly time of year, the city ungainly in its moment of transformation. Sprouts of things had begun to emerge, and hordes of geese congregated beneath the skeletons of trees. Their feet were dark and webbed, necks bent like black hoses as they nosed roots and tender grasses from the earth. The great wandering packs of geese seemed bigger than they should be—too many, too big—the gray-brown bulk of them, their expansive white breasts. They were like prehistoric animals, ancient and drab, seemingly too wild to be roaming amongst the tall buildings of the city.

One morning, when I was getting off the bus outside the nature museum, I saw a goose lying on the side of the road near a patch of melting snow. I knelt to the curb and stared, but its eye, a black empty marble, revealed nothing back. A few feathers spotted the ground. As I looked closer, I expected there to be a tear of some sort, the flesh unstitched, but the body appeared whole and imperforate. Lightly, I brushed my finger against a portion of wing. With the thought that something might be salvaged, I swelled with ecstatic purpose. I thought that before decay set in, this bird could be evacuated, stuffed, and stilled for scientific contemplation, no longer a body but a specimen. This was not without precedent. People sometimes wandered into the museum and implored the staff to intervene in the complications of the urban wild, the vulgar spectacles of love and death, to save the animals from each other and themselves—to apply the museum’s deep sense of order to the sloppy affairs that lay beyond its borders.

I carried the dead goose into the museum in what must have appeared an avian pietà, the struck bird splayed against my chest, a heavy dampness in my arms. I knew there was a place in one of the labs where animals were stuffed. The part-time volunteer who manned the taxidermy station knew little about taxidermy, but he was learning: the way muscle hews to bone, how to sunder skin from flesh with the slender and precise draw of the knife. He was learning of the smallness of a sparrow’s heart; the bare, unfinished quality of pink skin without a pelt; how to use the molds to prop lifeless bodies back into shape. But the animals he practiced on, like everything else at the museum, were preselected, perhaps shipped frozen to the museum for this very purpose, based on what qualities in their anatomies I cannot say.

“It isn’t moving,” I told my manager when I arrived with the goose, still folding to my chest the wet of the bird, my arms full of its expiration. Many times I have stopped to stare at dead animals, a bird or a rabbit splayed cold across a sidewalk, a wide-eyed fish open-mouthed on the shore, and from these inscrutable vanitas scenes have attempted to glean some knowledge, but have found none. Over my manager’s face came an expression of harshness and surprise, her eyes narrowed, and at once I realized I had done something I shouldn’t have.

“This is weird,” she said.

And then it seemed the goose too, no longer blank, had assumed in its aftermath a dim look of reproach.

The museum was about to open for the day; my place in the Haven was waiting; she told me to go, go, and the custodian would take care of the rest. By the time I broke for lunch, there was no sign of the goose.

After the goose, I began to have more and more dreams of escape. Butterflies, beautiful vagabonds, patched on the walls of other exhibits, flitting through the hallways and pasted to the ceiling. Alone in the Haven, amid the mute wonderings of plants, I’d think about a story I’d heard about a button quail that nested in the bramble of the Haven. Once, a little boy had secreted the plump bird, about the size of a fist, into his sleeve, where it remained until flying out in the lobby. Even though the button quail is a terrestrial bird, I liked to imagine the grand arc of freedom its flight sliced in the air at that moment. I liked to imagine the crowd of heads drawn toward the sky as the small bird flew for the first time outside the Haven, obscure and unnumbered, shrinking to a distant speck before finally disappearing.

Warm weather brought more children to the museum. As the days thawed, the school groups descended, busloads we directed into the museum with military precision, swiping our solemn hands in the direction of the Haven while issuing the same speech every time: Do not touch the butterflies. The children came from schools all over the city, from Jefferson Park to the Back of the Yards, their voices bouncing off the windows and floor of the Haven. We always treated the arrival of the schoolchildren with trepidation and dread. The children would try to clap the butterflies in their hands midflight, or else hover as close to one as possible without making contact, waiting for it to land. “I’m not touching the butterfly—it’s touching me!” they would say. Once, we received an apology letter in the mail from a kindergartener, transcribed by the teacher in both English and the child’s native Spanish:

 

Dear butterflies of the world

I am sorry for hurting you

I only wanted to play

 

With repeated touch, the tiny scales of a butterfly’s wings begin to disintegrate into a fine ashy powder. The oldest butterflies in the greenhouse had wings chipped as craggy rock faces. In the wild, these weathered butterflies would be eaten before their wings fell into such disrepair, but here in the artificial refuge of the greenhouse, the butterflies had no natural predators. These butterflies flew along, broken and oblivious, until they eventually collapsed.

“The average lifespan is only two weeks,” I told all the visitors, a phrase that I repeated in my dreams.

Most guests were disheartened by this fact, though it did not seem particularly sad to me—or to the butterfly, who had no way of knowing its life was brief by human standards. I often had to inform visitors they couldn’t keep the butterfly corpses they sometimes found on the floor. Instead, I would collect these dead bodies in a large plastic container that smelled like rotten eggs, and they would later be steamed sterile and incinerated.

“Better live it up, then,” a woman told me boozily one night, her cleavage erupting from her tight dress, a forbidden cup of white wine in her hand. Drinks were not allowed in the Haven. The guests had to set them outside if they wanted to see the butterflies, and near the entrance was collected a small line of plastic cups. In the summer evenings, for some extra money, I stayed late for the weddings the museum hosted after hours. The city had blossomed fully now: a revolution of violets and wild garlic growing in the fields outside the museum. I was already looking for a new apartment by then. I had never even unpacked, fishing up my clothes from cardboard boxes with softened corners. The apartment, its shadows, felt once again too narrow for me.

The visitors moved through the garden murmuring, exclaiming, pointing and taking photographs, a flurry of motion, until they were swept through the heavy doors to the other side and the room hushed again, silent except for the ripple of the waterfall. I feared again the garden would cease to exist once I shut the doors for the night. Unobserved, it might dissolve into the darkness, disappearing into nothing at all—the way your life disappears each night in bed after you close your eyes. And not only in sleep, I thought: even in waking life, with each blink, pieces of the world slip away. But then the floodlights batted on, soaking everything in a temporary, electric light. Button quails scurried along the pavement, mounting each other in quick staccato as the vapor sluiced down and graced the plants with dew.

I had forgotten about the furtive nature of things, the secret growth that happens so slowly as to be imperceptible. Throughout all those months, the ice was breaking and melting on the lake, turning to water again, losing its shape. Matter was always dissolving and rearranging—in perpetual motion. The Longwing butterflies flew, as they did every evening, toward the white eaves of the trellis to roost. They flew one by one, disturbing and resettling the congregation, collecting themselves until at last they resembled something whole. From afar, one might assume this was not many bodies, a fleeting pattern of color, rippling and shimmering in a state of constant motion, but a much larger solid animal. To watch the Longwings was to see the steady disintegration of form, a taking apart and putting back together, wing by wing, scale by scale. And then, at some irretrievable moment, the last Longwing arrived, and a calm glazed over the flock for the night. This was the journey, those endless states of becoming, of becoming together, of falling apart.

There is a liberation in disappearing, like the quails who hid during the day beneath the bramble, but also terror and sadness. There are certain times at the interstices between one period of life and the next, before we become fully habituated, when our senses are heightened and inflamed. In these times, small details take on new meaning: the sound of running water, the name of an acquaintance, a piece of rotting fruit. A freedom emerges when the self empties, waiting to be filled with the world: the divine sense of being emptied out, not a self but a presence, before the world sharpens into sense, before it becomes a story with words and pictures. But, then again, I wonder if the world ever sharpens, if we ever wholly find ourselves, if such definition would, in fact, be death. I don’t know what happened to the photograph in the end, though in the years since leaving I have looked for it among my old drawings, the marginalia from the time I spent in the museum. Even during my time there, the color of the picture, its bright skin, began to flake off, the photograph revealing itself as something rudimentary, yet another brute material, and it became hard to distinguish these absences, patches of nothing where the picture failed, from those haunches of white, the snow.

ANYA VENTURA is a visiting assistant professor at The University of Iowa, currently working on a collection of essays. 

Purchase Issue 14 here.

Debbie WenVanishing Point

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