The Black Swallowtail by William Kitcher

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After dining with my friend Gustav on our scheduled Friday evening at The Radish Café, we returned to his apartment to continue our discussion over glasses of excellent brandy. As usual, the conversation turned to books; Gustav taught World Literature at the local university. My tastes weren’t as highbrow as Gustav’s; I enjoyed Raymond Chandler, James Tiptree Jr., and Terry Southern. Gustav, of course, read widely, and was always giving me books of Egyptian mythology, Italian Renaissance poetry, and 20th century Russian SF, all of which baffled me.
Gustav told me about what he called the “relativism” of art. Maybe it was the brandy but I don’t think I completely comprehended what he was talking about. He said that the appreciation of a piece of art – a book or a film, for instance – was dependent on the reader or the moviegoer. “Everyone sees movies differently, reads books differently, right? That’s because they’re actually different. Ever heard someone say that your favourite movie is terrible? They saw a different movie. Same with books. How can anyone not love ‘Cannery Row’?”
            When I asked him if he meant that the perception of a book depended on changing tastes or mood or personal growth over time, he said no. He said that the book itself changed, that the reader changed the book.
            I was confused. “Do you mean that the book physically changes? That’s nonsense.”
            He took a swig of brandy and looked at me. “Are you aware of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle?”
            “Yes,” I replied, “but that happens at an atomic level.”
            “Are you sure?”
            I certainly wasn’t.
            Gustav then talked about time displacement and quantum theory and Schrodinger’s cat and metaphysics and a number of other things of which I had only basic knowledge. Despite several more questions from me and his thorough answers (which to me were just convoluted and confusing), I still didn’t understand.
            He re-filled his glass. “You like Raymond Chandler, yes? And you’ve read ‘The Big Sleep’ more than once?”
            “Several times.”
            “And it’s different each time.”
            “It’s a very complicated story, a very complex plot. I still don’t understand what happened.”
            “But it’s different each time you read it, right?”
            “I have a different experience each time. Sometimes I understand more of it. Or something else gets my attention. Or it’s different because, at a particular point, I remember what’s going to happen.”
            “Do you remember what’s going to happen? You said you didn’t understand the plot.”
            “No, I suppose I don’t.”
            He asked me if I’d read any Roberto Suarez, which of course I hadn’t, never having heard of him. He took a large beautifully-bound volume from his bookshelf, dusted it off, and handed it to me before re-filling my glass. The book was over a thousand pages long. It was called “The Black Swallowtail Butterfly.”
            “I don’t know if you’ll like this,” said Gustav, “but it’ll give you some idea of what I’m talking about. What Chandler does a little, Suarez does a lot.”
            The following Friday, I told Gustav that I’d read the first two hundred pages and started to talk about it, but he told me to wait until I’d finished the entire thing. This would take a while, and I wasn’t able to talk about the book until three Fridays later.
            “Ah, you’ve read it. Very good,” he said. “Now I want you to read it again.”
            “Read it again? That’ll take ages!”
            “Then read just the last hundred pages again. That’s what’s important.”
            So I slogged through the last part over the following week and met up again with Gustav, none the wiser about what the book was trying to say.
            “Well?” he asked. “Was the book different the second time?”
            “I’m not sure. I don’t think I really understand it. But I’ll tell you one thing. Do you remember our talking about Raymond Chandler and ‘The Big Sleep’?”
            “I read it again when I got bogged down by Suarez. I couldn’t find my copy so I went to the library and borrowed another one. Funny thing. It seemed quite different this time. It must have been a different edition or something.”
            “Yes, a different edition. A different book.”
            “What are you getting at?”
            “Imagine a stage actor,” said Gustav. “And his line is ‘I’m going to have a drink.’ He has to make the decision how to say that line, what word to accentuate. Does he say ‘I’m going to have a drink’ or ‘I’m going to have a drink’ or ‘I’m going to have a drink’ or ‘I’m going to have a drink’ or ‘I’m going to have a drink’? The actor can change the emphasis each performance. That’s what Suarez does in writing, and more.”
            “What are you talking about?”
            “Open the Suarez. Anywhere you like. Find a sentence. Read it out loud.”
            “Let’s see. OK. ‘The sun streams through the tree branches and illuminates the moss to which the black swallowtail butterfly is falling.’ How’s that?”
            “OK. Good. Here’s a bookmark. Now mark the place and close the book.”
            I did so, and looked at him with bewilderment.
            He smiled. “Are you still engaged to Marie?”
            “Yes, of course.”
            “She’s very beautiful, isn’t she?”
            “I think so.”
            “Yes, you do. So do I. But others don’t.”
            “That’s just a matter of taste.”
            “No, it isn’t. We see her differently because she is different. We see the lines around her eyes and that mark on her upper lip that give her that imperfection that is so beautiful. Other people don’t see them.”
            “They just don’t notice that.”
            “Are you sure?”
            No, I wasn’t…
            He continued. “Are you ever sure of what you see? Eyewitnesses to crimes sometimes have different stories. Have you ever seen that experiment they set up in a park? They gather people together and tell them that something’s going to happen, and they just have to watch. And they have actors walk through the scene, and they stage a purse snatching. The eyewitnesses are then asked to describe what happened. And right after it happens, the eyewitnesses have different accounts of it: the purse snatcher’s hair colour changes, he grows or shrinks, his clothes change, sometimes there’s a child with a balloon, sometimes there isn’t.”
            “Yes, the mind is a strange thing.”
            “But I maintain that what those people saw was true. The event was different because of them. Read that Suarez line to me again.”
            I opened the book and removed the bookmark. “‘The sun streams through the tree branches and illuminates the moss to which the black swallowtail butterfly’s falling.’”
            “Well?” he asked.
            “Well what?”
            “It’s different.”
            “How is it different?”
            “The first time you said ‘the butterfly is falling’ and the second time you said ‘the butterfly’s falling.’”
            “That’s just my pronunciation,” I said. “I read it wrong the first time.”
            “Read it again.”
            “‘The sun streams through the branches of the trees—’. Oh my…” I said.
            Gustav laughed and took the book from me. “Chandler does it a little bit. Suarez does it all the time! You can read the book repeatedly and it’s never the same. You can never step into the same river twice.”
            “That’s amazing,” I said. “How does he do it?”
            “Trade secret, I guess.”
            “You know, Gustav, when I was at the library, I tried to find something by Suarez. And there was nothing. I looked on the internet, couldn’t find anything about him. I wonder what else he wrote. I’m guessing he wrote other things that were completely different from this book.”
            Gustav waved the volume at me and grinned. “He already did.”
            “Do you have any idea who he is?”
            “Can’t you guess?”
            “Ah! You are Roberto Suarez. Cheers!”

Bill Kitcher’s stories, plays, and comedy sketches (and one poem!) have been published, produced, and/or broadcast in Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Czechia, England, Guernsey, Holland, India, Ireland, Nigeria, Singapore, South Africa, and the U.S. His novel, “Farewell And Goodbye, My Maltese Sleep,” will be published in 2023 by Close To The Bone Publishing.


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