Don’t Die, Butterfly

By Kenji Marshall


I squatted on the sand, drawn to a glint of emerald poking up beneath my feet. The dry heat was making its way through the bottom of my sandals and gently tickled my soles. I would have to move soon, but for now, there was emerald in the sand, which both pleased and disturbed me in equal parts. There was something beautiful about homogeneity that the emerald disrupted. The desert is a sea of individual granules, equal in size and dignity, unashamed to meld together as one undulating fluid. The sand wasn’t a society, but a single organism, stretched out as far as the eye can see. The emerald disrupted this—a stark, self-absorbed anachronism. Between my fingers, it was thin and crisp, beautifully complex, peppered with miniature black spots in valleys of lush verdure. Its magnificence didn’t please me—it was the fact that it would be destroyed soon that gave me joy; its complexity and beauty would be decimated into sand. I wondered how a butterfly found its way here, but I didn’t really care. It didn’t matter in the end, anyway.


My feet burned and my scabbed toes wailed. I kept moving. It wasn’t time yet. I walked for three more hours without another disturbance until I came across a wilted, despairing tree. The sun was setting. I sat down and aligned my neck with a sliver of shade cutting through the sand. I tried to sip from my bottle but it was a sandy sludge and my throat convulsed in displeasure, dredging up a guttural groan from deep within my stomach. I collapsed in a pool of hot, yellow, gastric bile, and passed out through the night. I dreamed of a delirious display of colors crawling through the cosmos like worms and maggots.


I woke to a thick pain rippling through my body in rhythm with my shivers and moans. The sand had piled up an inch high across my entire body, creeping into my ears, eyes, nostrils, and mouth. I spat, wasting precious saliva, and causing white, smoldering pain to flash behind my eyes like the crack of a whip. I forced my caked eyelids open, letting brilliant rays of sun pierce my eyes. I saw the blurred outline of a rock resting an inch from my face. I reached out and let my hand collapse around it. It was stiff and fibrous, and in response to my touch, it started to move, igniting terror within me. I started to moan and twist my body away.


“Why are you here,” a scratchy voice with a thick Arabic accent demanded. It sounded like sand.


I summoned whatever strength I had left, contorted my body to look up, and was startled by the mans brilliance. He was draped in a lush velvet robe of glimmering green, with a silk, violet sash bejeweled with rubies. His head was hidden by a turban of obsidian black that that made his sapphire eyes glow with intense vitality. He wore an immaculate silver brooch in the shape of a butterfly. I swallowed a mouthful of sand in order to push open my parched, sticky throat.


“Searching,” was all I could muster, coming out garbled and distorted.


“Maybe! But that’s not what you’re doing anymore,” he exclaimed with a thunderous laugh.  He turned abruptly, his robe sweeping around with him. He seemed to glide through the desert, the sand molding to his movements. I watched until I couldn’t see him anymore.


He was right, of course. I had initially come here on a pilgrimage toward revelation. And now, when there was nothing to be found, I was waiting to die. I raised my hand and let the sand seep through my fingers, intoxicated by its grace. The way it moved was mesmerizing. Individual properties were lost as the sand twisted, bent, and writhed together, like a river through a purgatory between solid and liquid. The desert existed on the shadowed boundaries between definition, an idea which scratched an itch in my heart that had been sheltered my entire life. I let the sand slip to the ground, then got up and kept moving.


The desert wasn’t how I remembered. The world seemed dimmed; sounds seemed muted. I stumbled across the dunes. The sand seemed to be moving towards me, trying to wrap itself around my ankles and feet. Electric crests demarcated one dune from the next. Black spots blossomed before my eyes, opening and closing like the mouths of fish. Shivers rushed up and down my scalp. Suddenly, in the distance, a monumental structure formed on the horizon, sprouting up from the sand. It was a prism sculpted from a dazzling rainbow of colored glass, refracting the white sun rays into a spectral display of color, painting my body. I moved straight towards it, through the black spots and over the electric crests.


As I got closer, the ground became littered with objects. I saw a red stiletto, a bright porcelain doll, a dead tropical frog, and more, all dissolving into the sand–one after the other crumbled down into nothing, only to get swept up by the desert winds. As I ran, I felt sand biting at my fingertips, causing a warm, tingling sensation—static electricity dipped in honey. I was close now, only a few strides away. The sand seemed to get thicker, preventing me from developing the traction I needed to run. I started sinking down, which only caused me to scramble, using the last few drops of adrenaline my body could pump out. I scratched and clawed, kicking my feet downwards trying to find some friction. With one final burst of energy, I forced myself forward, and dove toward the structure. As soon as my hand came near, the entire thing turned to sand.


The sand was all around me. The tingling that had started in my fingers was rapidly spreading through my entire body. I opened my mouth for air, but it was only sand. I felt it creeping into my body, clogging my nostrils. My body felt like it was dipped in syrup. It reached the chambers of my heart, filling them up. Tranquility throbbed through me. My vision was starting to go dim. I glanced at the blurred silhouette of my hand, and imagined the flesh turning to sand. I thought of the butterfly wing. Sugar-water pumped through my veins. I felt good.


Maybe this was what I had been searching for when I came here–the sand could make me one of its own. I opened up everything and let the sand flow through me. It started at my feet and filled up my entire body like a sack of potatoes, eroding away what was within. It soon reached my throat, and began piling up around my brain. I felt heavy, and the sand pulled me deeper and deeper, like getting pulled to the bottom of the ocean by a weight around your foot. As I moved, I was shaved down into a pulp until there was nothing left, just a tremulous mite of humanity.


Everything went quiet, and the sand was still. I tried to move my hands and feet but there was only sand. I tried to open my mouth but there wasn’t a mouth to move. Suddenly, from the depths of the impenetrable darkness, the neon worms and maggots were back. They filled up my vision, intertwining like a living, breathing tapestry. I saw scenes from my childhood; decisions and reactions recalled in vibrant hues. All these vignettes came together to form a tessellated depiction of my face, bubbling with energy. I felt it trying to suck me out of the sand but it was too late; the sand had won.


Just as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone. I lost myself in the blackness that remained, never to be found again.