Raphael wonders what butterflies eat, but he is only seven, and there is no one obvious to ask. His older brother, Ortiz, says everyone knows in the fifth grade. A swollen-faced teacher with moles on her neck carries a wooden case from room to room, showing the few monarchs that the supply-closet roaches have not eaten. The teacher is heavy, and she carries her chest on the flat glass of the lid, white-coated arms out in front and the scarred wood frame of the box beneath her, balanced on the roll of her stomach. She stands unconsidered and comfortable. “Today, children, we are going to talk about the things I really love.” Laughter peals through the room as twenty-five fifth graders think about female anatomy. Shy students blush and try not to laugh.
Raphael has heard of this from other boys. They tell it not to him but near him, between themselves at the cafeteria as they drink juice from his thermos and take his lunch box away. A teacher comes later and asks, “What boys?” but by then he cannot remember or does not want to, and his white T-shirt is dirty where he has wiped his face with the sleeve. Later, there is a wrapped present in his locker, gold lions on red paper that has been balled and then smoothed. He tears away long strips of masking tape, and there is the lunch box, flattened, he thinks run over. Pieces of gravel are embedded in the lid. What is left is crushed as thin as his hand. He walks to the wire mesh glass of the classroom window, turns the box in the daylight, the battered handle creaking from the weight of the damaged metal.
At home in his apartment, he tells his friend Mrs. DeAngelo, whose kitchen window is across an air shaft from his. The shaft is only fifteen feet wide, so they can talk across the space, occasionally looking past the windows beneath them to the small cement courtyard below. She waits for him to come home after school, reading magazines from a stack she keeps on a table below the sill. She keeps the window empty because she is tremulous, “clumsy,” and she is afraid she will push something out. She is a grandmother to children whose photos are hard to see, even when she presses the wallet-sized squares to the pane of the window. Someday, she says, she will come to his apartment, and he will be able to see even her crow’s-feet and the shock of gray at her forehead. In fact, he can see these things already. He is not supposed to open the door for anyone, but he does not tell her because it is nice to talk about visitors, even if she will never come. She hates the city more than he does, and it scares her besides. She has everything she needs delivered. Their conversations are interrupted by a door buzzer that sounds like it is slowly shorting out.
The air shaft is long. It goes on for another twenty stories above them. During the day there is no direct light, and the air has a cool, metallic taste. He can lean through the window and look up to see shadows across the thick tar edge of the roof, but Mrs. DeAngelo points to the powdery mortar and broken bricks below. She reminds him that the walls are collapsing, and that someday the window could fall out entirely. She bakes cookies that she wraps in wax paper and throws to him across the space, but she makes him stand well back from the sill so that he will not lean dangerously into the shaft if she misses. He waits at the door to the long, thin corridor of his kitchen, and the warm cookies fly through the open window, breaking in their packages as they land on the white tile of the floor.
His father would not allow him to walk to her apartment, even if he knew Mrs. DeAngelo. They live in separate buildings, and Raphael would have to go outside and around two corners. No one knows he and the woman are friends. There are reasons. There is a long list of rules, printed in English on a liquor-0store bag, attached to the refrigerator with a magnet shaped like a beer can. Each rule begins with Raphael’s name, and though they do not mention Mrs. DeAngelo, they mention everything else. Raphael will walk directly from the bus stop to the apartment, with no screwing around in between. Raphael will clean up the kitchen from breakfast before he watches TV. Raphael had better not go outside after school. The handwriting is hard to read. His brother helps by yelling rules out loud on the days he does not go to the park with other fifth graders.
Mrs. DeAngelo stays busy while she talks to Raphael. She works with papers on the table below the window. She squints at a calculator and asks Raphael jokingly about widow’s pensions and taxes and other things he does not understand. He smiles weakly and apologizes in a way that makes her laugh. “My accountant,” she calls him.
When he tells her there are bullies at school, her forehead creases. He is at the sink in his kitchen, eating a cookie, and she comes to the window and leans out in the way that is dangerous, and she puts on a pair of glasses he has never seen before, pearl colored frames, the lenses glimmering in the half light from sky far above them. “Well,” she says, “you are small.”
“Were your sons ever small? Maybe just for a while?”
She laughs. “It was all I could do to lift them as babies. You see this stoop,” and she points to the first signs of kyphosis in her upper back, her other hand still on the window, “this came from carrying them. If I put them down . . .” She lists the broken bones and black eyes of her children, her face flushed with remembered frustration, the corners of her mouth barely turned in the contradictory smile. “And their father, the firefighter, as if he would have helped.” She takes another look at Raphael. “Is your face really as delicate as it looks?”
He gets a chair from the card table where he eats, checking the rusted metal legs and the board beneath the vinyl seat but mostly just hoping that everything will hold. He brings it beneath the window and pulls himself up, with his cheek and shoulder against the frame for balance and pieces of his cookie on the other side of the sill, so he can reach them when he gets into place. He throws his leg over, and she says, “Are you crazy?”
He does not answer. He keeps his back against the window frame. He reaches inside with one arm and grips the edge of the refrigerator door. He keeps the sash at his forehead, to keep him from leaning out. He presses his head against it, so that flakes of white paint break off and get into his hair.
“Listen,” she says. She talks quickly, telling him about emergency rooms and quoting scripture. There are more stories about her children, about how she had learned to do sutures by the time the oldest was nine. She talks about the different salves she made for her husband, one with mayonnaise for chemical burns, the rest using aloe. She leans further out, warming to her stories, taking off the glasses and using them to point across the space between them. “You’re going to be just like them,” and she smiles in exasperation.
When it is six he says good-bye before his brother comes home from the park and catches him in the window, but Raphael forgets to brush the paint out of his hair. Ortiz sees it and says nothing. He thinks Raphael is dirty. But their father comes home from work at ten and checks to see that the boys are in bed. Even with only the light from the TV in the other room he sees the flakes. He shakes Raphael awake. “Hey, hey, what have you been doing?” he says, the Spanish words heavy and tired.
Raphael sits up, barely awake, with the fear that he has done something wrong that he cannot remember. The room is dark because his father is between him and the TV, and the air smells of lukewarm beer, and his father sits on the bed, running his fingers through Raphael’s hair and saying, “What is this?” and Raphael does not know.
What he remembers instead is the lunch box, flattened, thrown into an orange mesh trashcan on the street between the bus stop and his building. He is convinced his father found it. He remembers another rule--Raphael will be punished at home when he is punished at school.
The trash can had been in front of a store, and the men who sat on milk crates inside came out when they saw him standing on his toes to shove the box down. They were young men who wore dirty aprons and black pants, and they kicked through the newspaper that blew down the street and the plastic Coke bottles that had just missed the can, and they pulled aside the plastic bag he had pressed over the top of everything, and then they started to laugh. “Bad day at school, boy?” They held the box up between them.
Ortiz sleeps in the same bed as Raphael, moved to the other side of the mattress so he will not feel his brother sweat during the night. The room is small and has no windows and though it is spring and warm, the superintendent runs the radiators, which are built into the wall and cannot be shut off, even if their father pries open the metal panel with a screwdriver and takes a towel and wraps it around the steam-wet knob before he tries to turn it. Ortiz sleeps on the edge of the mattress with one leg hung over and the sheet stuck to his back. He can sleep through Raphael moving, but his father talking wakes him. “What’s this?” he says. Their father does not know and says nothing. Raphael starts crying. “What’s this crap? What’s he done? If he’s done something bad make him sleep in the kitchen.”
Their father, now half turned to the evening news so there is light enough to see, is still finding chips of paint in Raphael’s hair. His face is drawn. Without thinking, he coughs into the hand holding the flakes, scattering them over himself and the sheets. Then he takes a drink from a bottle on the floor. Raphael brings his chin up to get ready for the beating Ortiz has told him has been coming for years. Ortiz has told him he will cry and not face it as a man, so Raphael tries to stop crying and to stop feeling the flutter of hands in his hair since the hands will hit him this day or some other. He looks at his father, who has not shaven but means to, whose chin and nose are fine boned and webbed with purple veins that have risen to the surface. He is not a large man, five six or five seven and thin. He is still in his coveralls, with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, and his arms are dirty and smell of the tires he pulls from salvaged cars at the yard where he works. He drinks there, too, and his arms are covered with the mistakes he has made being drunk, screwdriver punctures and gashes from the sharp edge of the jack. He is tired and watching TV. His hands have stopped moving, and Raphael guesses that once again what Ortiz has predicted will be delayed, and he wonders what it will feel like to be beaten.
His father gave him the lunch box, not as part of a shopping basket full of supplies bought at the beginning of the school year but as a special thing, an unusual gift that no one expected or thought they could afford, and that made Ortiz look around and ask where was his. It was square and cheap metal, covered with the cartoon characters that were popular that year. Their father, home late from work, was beaming when he woke Raphael up to give it to him. “Wake me in the morning,” he said, “and I’ll help you make lunch.” Then he went to watch TV and Ortiz said, “He probably found it in one of the cars, but now you got the responsibility.”
“You don’t take care of it, tell Dad how you love it all the time, he’s gonna beat the crap out of you for being ungrateful.”
Raphael was quiet. In the morning, he could not shake his father hard enough to wake him.
His father kisses his forehead, most of the paint now gone. He pulls Raphael out of the sheets and points him toward the bathroom with the hand not holding the bottle. He shakes Ortiz, too. “Go help your brother clean up.” Ortiz grumbles back in the same Spanish. “Ortiz, help your brother.”
The bathroom is dim, lit only by a forty-watt bulb. Ortiz checks himself in the mirror, brushing his thumb against his upper lip to feel for the start of a mustache. He is wearing only underwear, which he readjusts absentmindedly. He has fist-sized bruises along his left arm. He takes a handful of toilet paper and wets it, then wipes a swath of dirt and hair from the top of the counter around the sink. “Come here,” he says, holding the tissue forward, “let’s wipe off that face.” Raphael ducks underneath his arm and jumps into the tub. He squats low, hands on the faucets, ready to turn on the shower if Ortiz tries to come in after him. Ortiz smirks. “You’d get wet, too.” He drops the paper to the floor, then sits on the edge of the toilet. One foot kicks lazily against the side of the tub between them.
“They give me shit over you at the park. ‘Look how quiet he is, like his brother.’ ‘The teachers love his brother.’ ‘Do the teachers love you, Ortiz?’ ‘That faggot Mr. Pena wants to love Ortiz.’ I stuck up for you. I got shoved around for you. You better get shit straight.” He looks at the ragged band of bruises along his arm. “What would Papa say?”
Raphael does not know. “Did Papa do that?”
“Who else? You’re lucky it’s me that knows this stuff because this would push him right over. You ever seen a kid that’s been hit with a bottle?”
He leans and pulls a towel off the rack opposite him, then wets one corner of it in the sink. “It’s a lot more cleaning than this.”
There is a fluttering sound above them, and they look up for what they guess will be a roach or a large moth. Ortiz plays a good length of towel through his hand, ready to kill the bug when he sees it. They can hear it against the ceiling, but it is not near the speckled glass of the ceiling light. Raphael looks toward the shower curtain and sees that it is a butterfly, black winged near the body, then banded yellow and orange, flying down the length of a crease. The outside edge of the wing is patterned with pale blue dots that are luminous against the mold of the curtain. “Look,” he says.
The butterfly drifts toward the mirror, flying just in front of it. Ortiz turns the towel over his hand, wrapping his fist, and punches the butterfly into the glass. There is a snapping sound, and the mirror cracks on a diagonal, from just above the sink to the right side of a broken fluorescent light. When Ortiz pulls the towel away, the wings are broken against the cloth, the rest of the butterfly a yellow smear along the glass. “That’s the first of them,” he says, but Raphael is already running past him and out the door. Ortiz watches him climb into bed and shrugs. He stays in front of the mirror, running his finger along the crack and flexing the arm with the bruises.
The next day, in the shaft, there are hundreds of butterflies. They spiral in sudden, uneven movements, pooling in the light from other kitchens. They look like the black orange embers of paper grocery bags that Ortiz would soak in oil, then set on fire and drop from the sill. The hollow roar of incineration would make neighbors look out their windows. Raphael has to find a paper bag for lunch, and he looks quickly because he does not want his father to ask him what happened to the lunch box. He opens cabinets and looks through drawers filled with things he does not need--matchbooks and bent forks and broken pencils. Everything is done quietly because his father is asleep on the couch in the front room. Finally, Raphael takes a plastic bag from around a six-pack of beer in the refrigerator.
At lunchtime, he eats in less than ten minutes, hurrying through a stale peanut-butter sandwich and some crackers he found in one of the drawers. From the pocket of his jacket, he takes what is left of the butterfly Ortiz killed--the torn wings, a bit of the yellow from the mirror. He thinks he can find the breast lady’s classroom, somewhere on a hall where all the classrooms are fifth grade. He makes his way up stairwells he usually avoids, to more hallways crowded with bigger bodies and louder voices. He thinks she might be able to explain why these butterflies came every year to the air shaft. He asks the students who sit on the floor in the hallway which room is her room, but no one will tell him.
Ortiz’s friends from the park are in the hall. There are two of them, walking in the way Ortiz practiced in front of the mirror, with his hips held forward and his arms bowed out from his sides. One has on a T-shirt that is too small and that has pulled above his jeans. The other is a held-back, for at least two years straight. He stands a foot taller than anyone else in the hall. Even with the warm weather, he wears a ring-stitched down jacket.
Raphael does not recognize them at first. Things usually start this way--he does his best to forget the boys each time his lunch is taken or his book bag is thrown on top of a bus. He concentrates instead on getting free sandwiches from the old white woman behind the counter at the cafeteria who pinches his face and calls him “bambino,” or on running along the sidewalk until a pothole or a sudden stop rocks the bus and throws his book bag from the roof to the street. He forgets them one way or another every time, so that each time there is no immediate recognition, only a blood-draining feeling that he has made some kind of mistake.
“Did you like your gift?” the smaller one says, leaning down to his level. The toilet paper is still in Raphael’s hand, held forward.
“I don’t know who’s around more, this one or his brother.”
“At least this one’s quiet.”
“But he’s not as funny.”
“He’s not as stupid, either. He doesn’t come around when he knows we don’t like him.”
“Then why is he here?”
Raphael looks at the paper.
“Chico, we thought you were trained.”
“Daddy’s been busy.”
“Papa’s got a rough schedule.”
“You think Raphie’s wearing diapers?”
The one in the coat picks him up beneath the shoulders, holding him at arm’s length. “I’m not changing him if he’s dirty.”
They start walking. Raphael twists, trying to pry loose the hands and looking for a teacher, but there is no one taller than the boy who has him. He makes a fist and swings at the boy’s face, but his arms are too short. He can only hit the elbows. They walk to a door at the end of the hall--just rusted screw holes where the plastic room number should have been, black scuff marks on the kick plate, a transparent hand panel that someone had tagged with a scrawl of magic marker. Other kids are watching, so Raphael yells, “Help! Help!” The one who is holding him shakes him. “Now he sounds like Ortiz.”
The boy pushes Raphael against the door to open it, letting his arms bend at the elbows as he takes on the weight of the door and the child. Raphael feels the wood at his back, and he swings his legs up, kicking with both feet toward the boy’s nose. He closes his eyes, not wanting to watch. “Shit,” the boy says, and Raphael drops to the floor. He starts running, pushing past fifth graders who have gathered around. He hears the boy fall hard against the door, then the sound of the down jacket picking up splinters as it slides down the frame.
“Swirly?” someone says.
“I don’t know.”
Then Raphael is in the echo of the stairwell.
Mrs. DeAngelo wants him to climb into the window frame immediately. “I didn’t bake cookies,” she says. “I’ll make extras tomorrow.” She checks her camera, and even though Raphael is still inside the kitchen, what she wants to see has already started to happen. Two butterflies fly through the open window, jagging nervously, and come to rest on the front of his T-shirt. “This is wonderful,” she says. “It’s just like last year.” Raphael stares at the insects uneasily. He gets a chair and brings it to the window, then looks up glumly to the sky at the top of the shaft.
“I thought butterflies were supposed to need sunlight.”
Mrs. DeAngelo shrugs. “I want at least six pictures, for my boys and my sister and me . . .” More butterflies come inside, lining themselves along his arms and in his hair. “Oh,” she coos. “Wonderful.” She bends slowly into a crouch, one hand on the table and the other on her lower back. She winces, then looks through the Polaroid to make sure her window will not be in the photographs.
Raphael can feel the butterflies on his skin, a slight tickling, sometimes the brush of a wing. “It’s alright,” he tells himself. He climbs into the window slowly, trying not to disturb the ones that have already landed, brushing the back of his pants with his hand to make sure he will not crush any by sitting. The space in the air shaft is thick with them. The banded wings are bright even without the sun. He wonders what they would look like if the light came down this far. He pictures a smoky line of shadow from each butterfly to the brick below.
Mrs. DeAngelo starts taking pictures, saying, “It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful.” He squints in the light of the flash.
“Do you think they like sweat?” he says.
“Who knows?” She stacks the pictures on the table and shoots across the still empty space of her windowsill. “I just want proof.”
To keep busy, he guesses the number of butterflies between them--twenty-five, fifty, one hundred, until there are too many to guess at. By then he cannot see her, only the halo of the flash through the wings. His body is covered in black orange wedges, one every few inches. They stay away from his face, but every other surface is animated, fluttering. He holds up an arm to look closely; the wings fan and shut like complex and delicate traps. From what he can tell, the butterflies are not doing anything, just sitting.
“Do you think insect spray would keep them off?”
“Raphael,” she says in a tone of disapproval.
When he hears the front door open, the snap of the lock and the creak of spring-loaded hinges, he is out of the window in seconds, pulling it closed as he drops to the floor. Through the glass he can hear Mrs. DeAngelo--“Raphie, what’s wrong?”--and he wishes there were some way to tell her to be quiet. It does not matter much. The butterflies alone are proof he was sitting in the window. He cannot hide in the bathroom because there is no way for him to get there. The floor and the counters are covered with butterflies. He tries brushing them off his arm, but they only land again. Ortiz runs past the kitchen into their bedroom, eyes straight ahead, and for a moment Raphael thinks he is safe, it is not his father, but then he realizes Ortiz is screaming. “You’re dead, Raphie. Dead.” There is nothing to do. He watches a butterfly climb out of the toaster.
Then Ortiz is back, arms spread to either side of the door, half blocking the way, half holding himself up. His face is bruised and scratched. One eye is swollen shut, his bottom lip is split open, and his jaw hangs loosely to show he is now gap-toothed. “What the fuck did you say to my friends?” Raphael stands with his head down and shoulders dropped. The butterflies flutter mournfully in his hair.
“And now this bug crap again?” Ortiz runs across the floor, stepping hard on the largest clusters of wings. “Dressed up roaches,” he says. He gets to Raphael and starts slapping him, breaking wings and leaving sticky yellow smears in his hair. The third hit knocks Raphael against the refrigerator. The fourth knocks him to the ground. Ortiz stands over him, panting, touching his closed eye with his fingers. A woman in the apartment beneath them yells something they cannot make out.
“Okay, brother,” he says. “New rules.” He pulls out a pen and starts writing on the list. “Raphael will not open any windows. Raphael will do what my friends tell him to do. Raphael will answer my questions when I ask them.” Raphael gets up and starts running, stepping where Ortiz has already stepped. He runs to the bathroom and locks the door.
“Raphael will not leave until I’m done talking!”
Raphael turns on the sink and starts to clean off what is left of the butterflies.
The first year he was afraid they would bite him, but then he was only six. After one day he kept the window closed, watched TV in the other room, and waited two weeks for them to die. Then they were gone except for a carpet of wings, maybe bodies, over everything at the bottom of the shaft. He stopped looking down, and after a week all that was gone, too. He could see broken bottles again, and the black-and-white TV someone had dropped from the fifth floor, and things went back to normal.
He wants things to be normal now. Ortiz is outside the bathroom, leaning against the door. Raphael puts his head against the bathmat and can see Ortiz’s shoes in the light from the bedroom. There is no light in the bathroom because Ortiz has thrown the breaker. He has done other things, too, or he says that he has. He has nailed the kitchen window shut, “so that’s that for your friend, Raphie.” He has written three more liquor-store bags worth of rules. He has left all the dead butterflies in the kitchen “so Dad can see that someone needs to be in charge.” Ortiz plans to be home in the afternoons from now on.
“And guess what else, Raphie?” He pushes something halfway under the door, where it rattles against the tiles. “The guys at the market still like me. What do you think Dad will say about this?”
He does not know. He finds a towel that is not wet and balls it into a pillow. He climbs into the tub and lies down to try and sleep. It takes a few hours. Until then he listens to Ortiz read rules through the door.
When he wakes it is late, though he does not know how late. The light in the bathroom is on, and there is no light beneath the door from the room outside. There is no noise, no TV. Even his father must be asleep.
Okay, he thinks. I’ll leave now. He wants to find the entrance to Mrs. DeAngelo’s building. There is also the idea that the breast lady must have a place somewhere. He could sit in her window. She could net butterflies from his hair and drop them in her bell jar of ether. He puts his toothbrush in his pocket, turns off the light, and opens the door.
His father is in the dark kitchen, sitting in the window, yawning. He does not hear Raphael reach around the door for his jacket on the counter. He is distracted. He is covered in butterflies, their wings shut so that only the muted undersides show--dark orange, blue green. They appear to be sleeping. He moves as if they are. He reaches slowly for the beer bottle opposite him, his elbow high to keep from brushing them off his knee.
He looks into the shaft, where he is holding up the lunch box. He squints and turns it in what light there is, the handle creaking as it shifts in his hand. He puts the box on the sill, then reaches behind him to take out his wallet. He opens it one handed, thumbing through the bills, counting what is there.
Raphael sighs. He can hear Ortiz sleeping in the bedroom, full of predictions. He drops his jacket to the floor, closes his eyes, and waits to see what will happen.
Andrew Peery is a graduate of the fiction program at New York University. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife Anne. He works as a fellow in pediatric anesthesiology at Duke Hospital. “Imago” is his first published story.
“Imago” appears in our Summer 2010 issue.