WELL THIS IS a strange one to start for sure, as it involves a secret, and as I know nothing about you, I will simply give you my trust.
It is not a bad secret. Not like a dark, dirty secret. Not something you’d be ashamed to hear or burdened with – I wouldn’t do that, just not that type of person. As secrets go, it’s something rather beautiful, like a quiet meditation, an extraordinary revelation, it just exists there by itself, just so. Isn’t this the land of your Just So stories?
I’m an American you know, that kind of literature is foreign to me, lost in translation. Perhaps in that sense it’s not really a secret at all. What to call it then? You have to be patient with me, I’m quite a hardened writer, part journalist but really a photographer, that’s what turns me on, and during the war, a bit of both. I did dispatches. Europe, Malay. Back then I wasn’t looking for feel-good stories, I looked for ones instead that made me want to quietly die or vomit.
So this non-secret secret – what I’m about to give you – it changed my life but not perceptibly. Its heart-centre is love – I suppose in a way it is a sort-of love story. A love secret perhaps, though no one ever kisses in it. Love comes in many ways, has many veils. This has the beauty of silk. I can’t describe it another way but I need to set you up, I need you to know this what I’m giving you is precious. Like I say, a piece of silk. And there’s nothing you can do around a piece of silk. Silk is beautiful.
So. I hope you can keep a secret.
I first heard the silk when I went to Ceylon, to the green, green South where the sea is diamond-blue and the hills rise up like they do in sleep-dreams, with a soft-tilt and a green-spill. Ceylon is cleaner than India, in fact it’s a beautiful clear-cut gem compared to that vast dust-cake. I was so glad of the break – was on vacation – said I’d do a story out there if I found one, but really I just wanted to get away. War cliché – I was burned out. Problem with clichés they arise from some kernel of truth.
This was 1947, after the war when bits of Asia and Europe were still burning – I mean metaphorically as well as literally. A war may end but it takes long time for it to vanish. I landed at Kandy from Madras (from Malay, through Burma) and went straight to the south where the beaches had a reputation for beauty. My paper knew I needed resting – like a racehorse. Take a few weeks, they said, forget what you’ve seen. Send us some good news – something anthropological, botanical. Native villages, native flora, fauna. Find colour that’s not been singed at the edge. Neutral, beautiful where the word war dissolves without effort. So I went south to the beaches but I soon bored of sand and the local fisherman. For someone who had covered the Normandy invasions, it’s not really surprising. I don’t want to talk about that here. It’s not your business, and I don’t want to give you a shitty-tale about my life – which believe me would be called rag not silk if so.
Beaches – beaches. I couldn’t melt the two easily in my mind. I was never a top journalist you know but I was a superb photographer and life through that war lens – you are never the same. So I went into a landscape I wasn’t so familiar with, visually, try give my poor burned mind a rest – the lens of my mind – the immaculate tea hills, the extraordinary jungle. Clean like I say, not filthy like I’d seen in India, people cleaner, brighter. How can people be bright? I asked myself that question again and again. I’m telling you they were like a cinematic psychedelic Powell film.
So I suppose what I’m trying to say is that place was magical. It had a purity, a magic. You know when the Brits were there in their tea and empire it was never a priority. It was massively overlooked, allowed to drift on in its own magical isle pace. I went up into the hills and stayed among kind strong clean bright people. My eyes rested. I bathed them in colour. I settled in a village fairly remote. I took walks, and as much as I could had talks with the local people. Stayed with a local family who fed me, I took their photographs, paid them, they showed me around. I saw no tea planters, no civil servants, no diplomats, we were too remote for that. It wasn’t quite like the time land forgot, but it was getting there. Sunshine, temples, white saris, quiet Buddhas in the sun. Psychedelic forests. But I noticed repeatedly that children particularly would point at me and talking in their own tongue, talk about Kist, or Kiss. I began to become familiar with the local jungle and it was then that I noticed – this after a few weeks – that so strangely for a country filled with so many flowers there were so few butterflies. It wasn’t like the rest of Asia I’d visited. One night particularly I pondered this when I noticed huge moths about my light – that moment just before you drop to deep-sleep and your thoughts seem particularly god-given and lucid. That’s the god I don’t know I believe in. Moths at night – nothing so strange in that but I suddenly realised during the day – no butterflies. Almost none, not in this area. Not in the hills.
I slept. The next morning I mentioned this in my pidgin local language to the woman whose house I was staying in. She was cooking the family breakfast and she glanced quickly at her husband, an awkward nervous look. I thought to cover my tracks, that I had offended them and so said:
‘My camera – I’d just like to take some butterflies with my camera. For an animal magazine back home. National Geographic?’ A lie, though I’d worked with them a few times.
She spoke to her husband and I thought again I heard the word ‘Kist’ or was it ‘Kits’ or even ‘Kiss.’ Her husband was quiet for a moment then turned. ‘Tomorrow at dawn. You come. But you ask no questions.’
Sunrise in that part of the world is exquisite, you feel you are up with god. That’s the god I don’t know I believe in. It is still, the air, the breathe feels still – quiet, hope – there is hope around. A vast access to energy. The smells quietly pour through you. Like water, like air. Maybe that whole country was meditating at that time in the morning I don’t know. But at 5am it felt special. I felt special. The husband woke me, and we took tea then left the house and he walked me for half an hour or so through a path in the jungle I had never seen or noticed, with children and other children coming along and joining us all the while.
It was very slight but we were definitely going up all the time, on one of the hills surrounding the village. We came to what looked like a wall but it was so over grown with jungle vine that if you didn’t know, you would not have seen it. He paused – as if in prayer – I kid you not – and I thought suddenly we were going to enter a temple.
Through a little gap in the vine on the wall – like a door but there was barely any wood left – the children pushing first, they had done this many times before.
I bent my tall frame and through I went. The dawn light was just coming up and believe me I was not prepared for what I saw. I thought at first it was a painting or some form of outdoor sculpture. Or a frieze. A mosaic. There was a little lead-in path then a kooky area filled with speckled mirror glass on the walls and then a garden – a large garden filled with what looked like floating gems, bits of chiffon, glittery rainbows, fairies.
Angels? My eyes were just getting used to the light. The children had run in without hesitation and these gems, rainbows – fairies? – well they flew up around the garden. They fluttered. Flew, fluttered. Soft, soft, soft. Coloured breath.
They were butterflies. Thousands and thousands of butterflies.
I walked into the garden and just stood a while. They flew around – me, the children. No fear. They landed on us, flew away again. I was dimly aware that the butterfly in some cultures is the soul – that soft fluttering of wings, that beauty. It wasn’t particularly my conscious thought there in the garden. I was too much in awe of what I saw. I raised my cameras several times and several times lowered it. I still don’t know why. I’d only done that once before when I had seen a dying child in a bomb attack.
Death, like Beauty moved me – or froze me. But there was more going on than just that standard response though. I turned and saw what I had not seen before or noticed – an old house with decking or verandah on which this large garden opened out. These butterflies on the wood, on the table and wicker chairs laid out. And then – I had not noticed he was so still on that deck – an old, old man just sitting still looking at me. A white man, with a thin beard, thick white hair, blue eyes and a blanket draped round his shoulders. In local costume, for want of a better word. It was evident he knew all the children and the husband who had brought me. He had staff – they were just rising, I could hear the sound of breakfast being prepared – and my guide and staff greeted one another. I stood like an idiot in the middle of the grass, occasionally butterflies landing on me, then off again. I was scared to walk unless I hurt them.
‘It’s all right, they’re much swifter than you think,’ he said. Then, ‘Would you like to sit?’
‘I don’t know.’ I said. ‘No. Yes.’
He laughed. ‘An American. Usually always so full of conviction.’
‘Well congratulations. You’ve silenced me.’ I looked around not sure what to say or do next. ‘I am not going to take any shots,’ I said. I felt I had to say it. It – everything –would have made a rollicking story but I wasn’t the one to write it.
‘Why ever not? The first white man to see me in twenty-five years. Not worth a picture?’
‘No. I don’t know why but no. I guess there are a lot of don’t knows this morning.’
I looked around the butterflies again and the old man just shrugged. ‘They won’t leave,’ he said simply. ‘They won’t leave me.’ He called to one of the servants. ‘We’ve tried haven’t we? We’ve tried everything. Prayer. Song – a local pied-piper shaman with a bamboo flute. Tried flinging our arms about. Here take tea. When it was clear they were here to stay, I insisted the children come. They have such fun.’
‘Do you have a name?’
‘Ah…’ I said.
‘Yes very informal isn’t it? I’m no longer your average English man.’
‘No, it’s not that. I’ve been hearing this word Kits or Kist since I arrived…’
‘’Kit Sir!’’ I am a work of local evolution in progress: Kit Sir, Kitsr, Kits, Kist, Kiss. Rather sweet isn’t it? It wasn’t long after I asked them to call me Kit that my wife left for England.’
‘Can I ask Sir – ‘
‘Kit please – ’
‘How old are you?’ I couldn’t call him Kit or Kist or any variation. He had the aura of a god on that verandah.
‘Well I was born in 1858. That makes me…’
‘Yes it does rather, doesn’t it? Tell me, why do some people live on and some not? Sometimes I feel this is my punishment. To live this long and in such good health.’
I didn’t, couldn’t answer. My tea arrived and I sipped. I had sat half on the decking and half in the garden on the steps. Butterflies everywhere. Green, blue, white, yellow. Fluttering gem stones.
‘They’re beginning to notice you know. Down in the towns, just around. Where have they gone? Soon they will say the butterflies of Ceylon are an endangered species. The Ceylon Rose, the Birdwing, the Ceylon Tiger and Cerulean, the Indigo Royal, the Silverline and the Decorated Ace. I could go on. We’ve tried everything, haven’t we?’ Again he looked around for re-assurance. ‘I wouldn’t want to be the one keeping them here.’
He looked distracted. His servant spoke up. ‘They love you Kist. You are their Father.’
Huge tears suddenly began to roll down his cheek. I was torn between looking away and going to him. What had caused this? Surely not some amateur botanist in remorse. I feared the story was far blacker.
‘My children – my boys – they used to love going to net the butterflies in our house in Sussex. They were beautiful children.’
I didn’t want to get into the children. I could see something coming. I deferred the story.
‘How long have you been here?’
He wiped his tears. In good clean voice. ‘I came out in 1913. I was the Governor of Ceylon.’
Amazed I looked at the man servant but he made no response.
‘We moved here with the usual English pomp. My wife in her lace and linen cloths and straw hats. Bodice and boots. All very smart. We were so tight in those days. Born in England see. I’ve spent a lifetime unfurling. Both our boys in their last years at school. Very charming boys. They were both so full of adventure. Too young for the war of course or should have been. Ceylon in those days was Imperial but quietly so. It was an easy job. Required little intelligence. I have stripped myself bare from all that now, see? My wife couldn’t take that. Without the protocols of behaviour and response, she couldn’t function. We agreed to pretend I had died of a fever, dengue perhaps I’m not sure what she said in the end. She could return to England with all honour intact. After all a dead husband is better than a mad one.’
He paused, gently brushed a butterfly away. ‘Shoo…’
He looked at me directly. ‘My sons both died at Mons in the same week. They shouldn’t have been there at all. They were 17 and 16 years old. It was my fault you see. I got them in as a special favour. It wasn’t that hard. They were always so lively, I thought they’d enjoy it. When they told us by telegram, they told us on the same telegram. I thought that was rather hard.’
I had no children, at least that I knew of, but I didn’t need to imagine his guilt or his pain. He drank some tea.
‘But the butterflies?’
‘Well that’s the funny thing. The night of the telegram a Ceylon Rose – the black and white one and a Ceylon Tiger – blue stripes – came to sit just on my desk. Through the open shutter and just stayed. It was rather curious and then extraordinary because they wouldn’t leave. I took it as an omen. I was interested in superstitions as invariably one is living in the East. But I couldn’t work out good or bad you know. I didn’t think of sons when they came. I didn’t think of my sons at all. Should I?’
‘Then the news came. I forgot about the butterflies. I didn’t sleep. I stayed awake in my study. But the butterflies came again that night. And for every night after that. Returning and multiplying, like my tears. I loved my children.’
He had paused. ‘I’m so sorry.’ I said. It was all I could think of saying.
‘During the war they kept coming. Hundreds, then thousands. And again, in the next war, this one. Hundreds and hundreds.
A punishment, a reward, a communication… Still I live on through wars, I hide here in my little house in the jungle – still they come. The priests here are very matter-of-fact about it. The butterfly is a soul. Everything that has happened since then is a consequence. My life is transformed. Pupa to chrysalis. I am lighter, brighter. Tell me do you find as a visitor it very – bright around here?’
‘It was the first thing I noticed when I arrived.’
‘Ah. Good. I have never been back to Europe. Peaceful here isn’t it?’
I looked around. The sun was coming up. Gold, blue, green, white – when you slant your eyes fairies, rainbows, angels.
He stirred himself. ‘You look like a travelled man. What is your explanation?’
‘Magic. God. You. Me. Your boys. And others.’
He smiled a soft peaceful smile.
I stayed for a little while longer, took more tea then left and I have never been back. I took photographs of other wildlife and natives, lizards, birds, some beasts. Sent some schlock back to the magazine. Now years later they say in Sri Lanka that the butterfly is endangered, wild-life societies clamour around, research is being done. I have no idea what happened to him – how long he lived, or if he still lives.
Now I’ve told you my beautiful, queer little secret.
Will you keep it?
Sophie James MONK