Butterflies in Manhattan

by Chad Gayle ~ New York City, New York, USA

They arrived on a September evening that made the sultry, steamy 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 peppered dresses and suits and blouses with unwelcome blots of orange.

They were a beautiful menace, visitors with chalk wings that gummed up air conditioners, shuttered 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.

Weeks after the mass migration of Lepidoptera, there was some talk of a recession, but then the bubbles began to appear: transparent structural containment systems that were suddenly installed at key points in the city to create butterfly-free zones.

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.

New Yorkers imprisoned in their apartments went back outside. Sidewalk cafes reopened, 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 insect-free environments. As the city embraced its bubbles, tourists flocked to the island once more; in Central Park, a giant bubble was raised above the Meadow, where a three day butterfly-themed concert was expected to attract fifty-thousand spectators and butterfly enthusiasts.

Manhattan’s mood brightened. Retail sales rebounded as the shops that had been forced to shut their doors started doing brisk business. With the stock market soaring, nearly everyone in Manhattan was pleased, as pleased as people dashing from one clear plastic bubble to the next can be.

The butterflies, unfortunately, were not nearly as happy.

Entomologists 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 the city’s butterfly swarm.

Windows hazy with butterflies became transparent. The pasty mush of butterfly bodies that had lathered the sidewalks thinned to a series of streaks that blended into the round gum stains dotting the concrete. Citizens who’d subsisted in a cloud of organic insect repellent realized that their insect problem was no longer a problem.

And then, on a cloudy, dreary Sunday at the end of September, what remained of the slender horde drifted away from the city, settling 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 across the streets while sanitation workers pushed brooms, cleaning up the mess the butterflies had left behind. The bubbles were deflated; sheets of plexiglass were loaded on 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 entered 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. ■