The Big Butterfly


The geese travelled alongside the coast of the long island, which lay distinctly visible under them. The boy felt happy and light of heart during the trip. He was just as pleased and well satisfied as he had been glum and depressed the day before, when he roamed around down on the island, and hunted for the goosey-gander.

He saw now that the interior of the island consisted of a barren high plain, with a wreath of fertile land along the coast; and he began to comprehend the meaning of something which he had heard the other evening.

He had just seated himself to rest a bit by one of the many windmills on the highland, when a couple of shepherds came along with the dogs beside them, and a large herd of sheep in their train. The boy had not been afraid because he was well concealed under the windmill stairs. But as it turned out, the shepherds came and seated themselves on the same stairway, and then there was nothing for him to do but to keep perfectly still.

One of the shepherds was young, and looked about as folks do mostly; the other was an old queer one. His body was large and knotty, but the head was small, and the face had sensitive and delicate features. It appeared as though the body and head didn’t want to fit together at all.

One moment he sat silent and gazed into the mist, with an unutterably weary expression. Then he began to talk to his companion. Then the other one took out some bread and cheese from his knapsack, to eat his evening meal. He answered scarcely anything, but listened very patiently, just as if he were thinking: “I might as well give you the pleasure of letting you chatter a while.”

“Now I shall tell you something, Eric,” said the old shepherd. “I have figured out that in former days, when both human beings and animals were much larger than they are now, that the butterflies, too, must have been uncommonly large. And once there was a butterfly that was many miles long, and had wings as wide as seas. Those wings were blue, and shone like silver, and so gorgeous that, when the butterfly was out flying, all the other animals stood still and stared at it. It had this drawback, however, that it was too large. The wings had hard work to carry it. But probably all would have gone very well, if the butterfly had been wise enough to remain on the hillside. But it wasn’t; it ventured out over the East sea. And it hadn’t gotten very far before the storm came along and began to tear at its wings. Well, it’s easy to understand, Eric, how things would go when the East sea storm commenced to wrestle with frail butterfly-wings. It wasn’t long before they were torn away and scattered; and then, of course, the poor butterfly fell into the sea. At first it was tossed backward and forward on the billows, and then it was stranded upon a few cliff-foundations outside of Småland. And there it lay⁠—as large and long as it was.

“Now I think, Eric, that if the butterfly had dropped on land, it would soon have rotted and fallen apart. But since it fell into the sea, it was soaked through and through with lime, and became as hard as a stone. You know, of course, that we have found stones on the shore which were nothing but petrified worms. Now I believe that it went the same way with the big butterfly-body. I believe that it turned where it lay into a long, narrow mountain out in the East sea. Don’t you?”

He paused for a reply, and the other one nodded to him. “Go on, so I may hear what you are driving at,” said he.

“And mark you, Eric, that this very Öland, upon which you and I live, is nothing else than the old butterfly-body. If one only thinks about it, one can observe that the island is a butterfly. Toward the north, the slender fore-body and the round head can be seen, and toward the south, one sees the back-body⁠—which first broadens out, and then narrows to a sharp point.”

Here he paused once more and looked at his companion rather anxiously to see how he would take this assertion. But the young man kept on eating with the utmost calm, and nodded to him to continue.

“As soon as the butterfly had been changed into a limestone rock, many different kinds of seeds of herbs and trees came travelling with the winds, and wanted to take root on it. It was a long time before anything but sedge could grow there. Then came sheep sorrel, and the rockrose and thorn-brush. But even today there is not so much growth on Alvaret, that the mountain is well covered, but it shines through here and there. And no one can think of ploughing and sowing up here, where the earth-crust is so thin. But if you will admit that Alvaret and the strongholds around it, are made of the butterfly-body, then you may well have the right to question where that land which lies beneath the strongholds came from.”

“Yes, it is just that,” said he who was eating. “That I should indeed like to know.”

“Well, you must remember that Öland has lain in the sea for a good many years, and in the course of time all the things which tumble around with the waves⁠—seaweed and sand and clams⁠—have gathered around it, and remained lying there. And then, stone and gravel have fallen down from both the eastern and western strongholds. In this way the island has acquired broad shores, where grain and flowers and trees can grow.

“Up here, on the hard butterfly-back, only sheep and cows and little horses go about. Only lapwings and plover live here, and there are no buildings except windmills and a few stone huts, where we shepherds crawl in. But down on the coast lie big villages and churches and parishes and fishing hamlets and a whole city.”

He looked questioningly at the other one. This one had finished his meal, and was tying the food-sack together. “I wonder where you will end with all this,” said he.

“It is only this that I want to know,” said the shepherd, as he lowered his voice so that he almost whispered the words, and looked into the mist with his small eyes, which appeared to be worn out from spying after all that which does not exist. “Only this I want to know: if the peasants who live on the built-up farms beneath the strongholds, or the fishermen who take the small herring from the sea, or the merchants in Borgholm, or the bathing guests who come here every summer, or the tourists who wander around in Borgholm’s old castle ruin, or the sportsmen who come here in the fall to hunt partridges, or the painters who sit here on Alvaret and paint the sheep and windmills⁠—I should like to know if any of them understand that this island has been a butterfly which flew about with great shimmery wings.”

“Ah!” said the young shepherd, suddenly. “It should have occurred to some of them, as they sat on the edge of the stronghold of an evening, and heard the nightingales trill in the groves below them, and looked over Kalmar Sound, that this island could not have come into existence in the same way as the others.”

“I want to ask,” said the old one, “if no one has had the desire to give wings to the windmills⁠—so large that they could reach to heaven, so large that they could lift the whole island out of the sea and let it fly like a butterfly among butterflies.”

“It may be possible that there is something in what you say,” said the young one; “for on summer nights, when the heavens widen and open over the island, I have sometimes thought that it was as if it wanted to raise itself from the sea, and fly away.”

But when the old one had finally gotten the young one to talk, he didn’t listen to him very much. “I would like to know,” the old one said in a low tone, “if anyone can explain why one feels such a longing up here on Alvaret. I have felt it every day of my life; and I think it preys upon each and every one who must go about here. I want to know if no one else has understood that all this wistfulness is caused by the fact that the whole island is a butterfly that longs for its wings.”