Dust dances in the shaft of sunlight that slices the room full of dead things. A floorboard groans under well-worn loafers, snapping the sullen teenager out of his trance. Iris watches his top lip twitch, his father’s movement at the bookcase deemed unworthy of even a scowl. He focuses on his phone again, ignoring his mother, who peers at the cases above the mahogany desk. Iris inches over to her, twenty-five years of practice informing her approach.
“Fascinating, aren’t they? Sir Edward’s collection. His pride and joy.”
“Creepy.” The woman pulls her cardigan around her. “Insects on the wall.”
“Perhaps.” Iris’s reply is dip-dyed with amusement. “Although collecting them was a perfectly acceptable pursuit in the nineteenth century.”
“Did he actually…?” A wrinkle of her nose completes her question, the meaning all too clear.
“Yes, they— “
A beep punctures Iris’s words, too shrill, too modern for the surroundings. The woman flinches.
“Brandon! Stop that!” She bustles him out of the room, dismissing Iris with a half-hearted apology. Her husband follows, the commotion an instantly recognized command.
Iris straightens the badge that announces her tourist guide status and surveys the butterflies. She rewinds the last few moments in her mind and presses play, imagining the conversation as if the interruption had not occurred.
“Yes, they died at his hand. He anesthetized them in chloroform-filled jars, then squeezed the life from them.”
Intolerable now, Iris thinks, but times change. The world spins, hurtling us forward. Just look back, see how far we have come, how fast we have moved, without even noticing.
Nostalgia nudges her, tugs at her sleeve, clamors for attention.
Lipstick red, daffodil yellow, sunset orange, tree-bark brown. A kaleidoscope of color beneath glass. The Purple Emperor’s black-tipped wings are lapis blue in the late afternoon light, betraying its title. His Majesty. Apatura Iris. The most sought after of British butterflies, coveted by every Victorian lepidopterist. The treasure after which she was named.
At least, her mother had been. Violet Iris Huntingdon-Ward then passed Sir Edward’s christening gift, one that spoke of beauty snuffed out and crucified, on to her only child. Yet, Iris thinks, as she pads out of the room, despite its murderous associations, she prefers it to her other name.
She retrieves her handbag from the stuffy office and locks the door. Calling goodnight to the estate manager as he hunts for lollygagging visitors, she steps into the sunshine.
The crunching gravel, the hum of bees and the honeyed scent from the buddleia bushes are familiar companions as she makes her way along the drive and through the butterfly garden, towards the cottage. She pauses by the lavender, inhales its heady fragrance.
She unlatches the wooden gate and extracts the brass key from the side pocket of her handbag as she steps onto the pathway, the metal warming as she clasps it in her hand. She unlocks the cottage door and heads inside, through the shadowy hall, into the kitchen. It is cool in there, despite the weather, thanks to the bare stone walls and tiled floor. She fishes a bottle of lemonade out of the fridge and pours herself a glass, the chilled liquid crackling in her throat like water seeping into a sun-baked riverbed.
Hanging her handbag on the plastic hook fixed to the kitchen door, she hobbles into the living room. Her hips ache at this time of day, the joints seizing like hinges in need of oil. It is the only way in which her body falters, despite its age.
She sinks into the armchair and switches the radio on. Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C-Sharp Minor. Each note is a reminder of her father, his delicate touch on the keys the delight of audiences around the world. His piano is long gone, sold months after his passing, before her mother admitted to herself that the main house could no longer be their home.
She remembers tears glistening in Violet’s eyes as they said goodbye to the piano and, later, to the house. Iris remembers every last goodbye with perfect clarity. The harshness of the thorns on the rose she dropped upon her father’s coffin, her wistful looks at the boxes of ornaments and beloved toys as they were sent to auction.
And she remembers saying goodbye to every shred of love she had for her mother on the day death squeezed them into this cramped cottage. The crack of wood as she opened the packing crate, her pounding heart as she pulled out its contents, the echoes of her scream as she realized what Violet had done. On that day, Iris saw her mother’s true nature and finally recognized her own.
Iris recalls her mother’s last words frequently. She still sees the hatred in Violet’s eyes, her stone-grey hair plastered against her face with sweat as she forces her cracked lips apart, licking them between every rasped word.
“You! You destroyed me!”
“No,” Iris whispers to the dead. “You destroyed yourself.”
Violet’s essence lingers. The tarnished trinkets, scarlet ribbons, and musty lace no longer contaminate the shelves and drawers. The corner of the bedroom that housed the butterfly net stands empty. Yet the paintings remain in place, each one a blur of color, a haze of shimmering wings, the product of an ever-intensifying mania.
Wild eyes, a tangle of dark hair, paint-flecked skin. Violet would work with a fury from sunrise to sunset and through the night. Splattering oil on canvas, she’d scrape away, hour after hour, day after day, until exhaustion claimed her, her frenzied art the antithesis of her precise childhood renderings of the specimens in her collection.
Iris would stand in the doorway, impassive in the face of her mother’s distress, never offering a calming word, never reacting until Violet put her brushes down and vowed to ruin her creations.
Silent, Iris would curl her lip to reveal needle-sharp teeth, move a hand to show a razor-tipped nail, shift to display a glimmer of gossamer wing. Her mother would freeze at the thought of the scratching, biting thing from the shadows, her tormentor since the first night spent within those walls, its ethereal beauty transformed into spite with a flash of emerald eyes. Violet’s threats would turn to petitions for forgiveness as she returned to the canvas to paint.
Cruelty, thinks Iris, runs in the family. It is inescapable.
She rises and walks to the fireplace, where her mother’s collection is propped on the mantel. Iris keeps the paintings as proof of vengeance exacted to perfection, but displays the case and its nauseating contents as a symbol of who she is, of what Violet was, of things that have yet to pass.
She keeps it in memory of the other Iris, the original Iris. The Iris responsible for Violet’s screams of pain as she entered the world, the one christened Iris Mab as the ultimate insult after all Violet had done. The Iris stolen from her cradle in the dead of night and replaced with an elemental Iris, an Iris from another realm, an Iris of their own.
The empty boxes in the corner of the room nag at her with their neediness. Tomorrow. She will begin tomorrow. She will strip the cottage of everything, stack it all away until it reaches its new city home, with its fresh paintwork and pristine carpets. She will say another goodbye in her long history of goodbyes, as the estate and her cottage fall into the clutches of the insatiable developers.
Tonight, instead, she will prise the back from the display case, remove the board from beneath the glass. She will pick up her tweezers and pull the pins from the exhibits, careful not to damage their fragile torsos. She will try not to examine their limp and useless limbs, or study their diminutive fingers and exquisite toes. She will steel herself not to cry at the sight of their so-nearly human faces, some contorted in agony, others childlike and serene.
She will take them into the garden, lay them on the grass, and wait. As the moon crests the yew trees, she will call to those of her kind that stay close, hear their tinkling voices as they descend, feel the air ripple from the beating of their wings as they surround her.
The world spins, hurtling us forward. Iris knows she must move on. She has things to do. She will dance with strangers, sip coffee with new friends, spend evenings at the theater. She will kiss lovers under the light of the stars. She is not ready for her kin to reclaim her, but it is time for them to collect their dead.
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