Butterflies in Manhattan by Chad Gayle

[“Butterflies in Manhattan” was originally published in The Absurdist in October 2017.]


They arrived on a September evening that made the sultry, steaming days of summer seem like a distant memory, settling silently on buildings large and small, on signs and awnings, on lights and lamp posts, on phone booths and garbage cans, a monochromatic blanket of monarch butterflies.

They arose at dawn, a magical cloud of colored confetti, and they were everywhere, circling rooftops, mottling the glass and steel of skyscrapers, and stuttering through intersections in waves that wouldn’t stop for red or yellow lights. They hovered and dipped and climbed and dropped; they rested on doorknobs, clung to coffee cups, and became trapped in revolving doors. Colliding with New Yorkers who staggered, stupefied, through the butterfly fog, the monarchs lit on hats and in hairdos, danced about the faces of the city’s shocked inhabitants, and wound up underfoot, where they were crushed under rubber soles and pierced by the points of stiletto heels.

They were a beautiful menace, visitors with chalk wings that gummed up air conditioners, shuttered hundreds of food carts and sidewalk cafes, and snarled traffic. Buses inched along at a pace even more sluggish than normal; distracted drivers struck slipping cyclists and ran their cars onto sidewalks. Dazzled entomologists carrying nets and notebooks gawked in crosswalks, hurriedly plucking specimens from the sky.

Enterprising New Yorkers set up sidewalk tables where they hawked insect repellant, goggles, and gas masks while commuters called in sick or took their vacations early or simply failed to show up for work. Restaurant owners complained of the rising costs of doing business in Manhattan, as their wait staff were now required to remove tiny butterfly carcasses from stove hoods and ovens and bowls of soup. With so many tourists reluctant to do their shopping in the city, the stores along Fifth Avenue began to close their doors, and Wall Street sounded the alarm, warning investors of a precipitous decline in profits. Suddenly there was talk of a Recession.

Each night, a torpid pall of doom seemed to settle over the city as its twinkling lights were snuffed out by invisible wings. The Big Apple was withering, smothered by a colorful infestation that couldn’t be combatted with a cloud of pesticide; condos and co-ops were put up for sale, and coddled kids were yanked out of their exclusive, A-rated schools. Shanty towns sprang up along the Brooklyn shore, ramshackle domains that represented the last stand of those hardy souls who were willing to wait for winter’s grip to descend upon the island they couldn’t leave behind.

Weeks after the migration of lepidoptera, an engineering start-up proposed a solution to the problem that plagued the city: they would manufacture and then install transparent polymer-based structural containment systems around key landmarks and urban utility points to create butterfly-free zones.

And so the bubbles began to appear.

They covered the tops of tour buses. They wreathed the observation deck of the Empire State Building and the roofs of fashionable skyline bars. The best of them were made of clear polyethylene, but knockoffs constructed from sheets of plexiglass were available within days, and they were inflated and erected in every part of Manhattan, in public spaces downtown and in Times Square and in parks large and small.

Sheltered from the spectacle that they could view safely from beneath a plastic film, New Yorkers imprisoned in their apartments began to go outside again. Retail sales started to rebound, and Manhattan’s mood brightened.

A giant bubble was raised above the Meadow in Central Park, where a three day butterfly-themed concert was expected to attract fifty-thousand spectators and butterfly enthusiasts. Sidewalk cafes reappeared, protected by bubbles that were painted with spotted monarch wings, and specially designed rolling bubbles took over the city’s bike lanes, allowing young and old to exercise outdoors in their own private butterfly-free environments.

As the city embraced its bubbles, tourists flocked to the island again, outnumbering the insects they’d come to see. The remaining residents turned their apartments into temporary hotels; the shops that had been forced to shut their doors were doing brisk business again. As the stock market started to soar, nearly everyone in Manhattan was happy, or at least as close to happy as they could be, dashing from one clear plastic bubble to the next.

But the butterflies, unfortunately, were not nearly as pleased.

Entomologists who had been consulted at the beginning of the migration reported alarming declines in the overall butterfly density in Manhattan, particularly around the city’s major landmarks. The Mayor proposed that a butterfly census be taken, and New Yorkers were urged not to swat or step on the city’s butterflies if they could help it. There were calls in the papers for a pro-butterfly march down Broadway; a monarch conservation group occupied a public space downtown and made a series of demands connected to the protection of butterflies and the correlated problem of income inequality.

Windows that had been blocked by butterflies became transparent again. The pasty mush of butterfly bodies that once lathered the sidewalks thinned, becoming a series of streaks that blended with the round gum stains along the concrete. Citizens who’d subsisted in a cloud of organic insect repellant realized that their insect problem was no longer a real problem.

And then, on a cloudy, dreary Sunday at the end of September, what remained of the slender swarm finally drifted away from the city, settling itself over the harbor and a small part of Staten Island, where the tiny wings of its many monarchs fluttered for the last time.

The skyscrapers stood naked beneath the empty bowl of heaven. Strips of clear plastic drifted down alleys, driven by the wind while sanitation workers pushed brooms and shovels to clean up the mess that remained. The bubbles were deflated; sheets of plexiglass were loaded on giant cargo ships bound for China.

There was some talk, by a vocal minority of butterfly haters, of raising huge nets along the shores of Manhattan to protect the borough from future swarming events tied to butterflies, moths, or even fireflies, but ideas like these were largely ignored. For the most part, the city’s citizens simply went back to the lives they’d lived before the monarchs had descended from the sky.

But for the children of New York, everything had changed. They’d been transplanted to a new world, a world where the ordinary could become extraordinary at any moment, and they began to dream dreams that were strange and bright and full of wonder, dreams that would bind them together for years to come.