The Enchantress’s Gift
By Paige Duke
I was a child when my mother first took me to the Midnight Masquerade. So enthralled was I with the women’s finery and the men’s charms, that I sensed nothing morbid in their masks. Innocence blinded me, for I didn’t yet know that my people bought the Master’s favor with their silence. No, I trembled with delight when my mother put my own mask in place, “The Master has found a bride,” she said, with something strange upon her face. I know now it was a smile tinged with regret.
The Master’s ballroom was a whirlwind of color and light. Feathers and lace, bangles and ribbon, whiskers and claws and fangs bobbed and jostled to the music. In my delight and terror, I lost my mother and sought a safe place to hide.
I crawled into a corner occupied by only one other soul, an old woman. I could see she was shrunken and shrewd, for she wore no costume or mask. She smiled and bid me sit beside her, studying me. “We two are alike, I think. Only here for the Master’s bride?” she guessed.
I nodded, too shy yet to speak. So we sat for a time until my curiosity won out. “Why don’t you wear the mask?”
She patted my hand, “I have no one to charm and nothing to hide,” she said gently.
I pondered her words and looked out across the frolicking crowd. Charm abounded, that was plain to me, but my eyes knew not how to see hidden things. “What do my kinsmen hide behind their masks?” I ventured.
The woman’s eyes grew round and steely, “The guilt of the terrible price they pay for their luxury.”
All around me was merriment and revelry, nothing that spoke to me of dishonor. Perhaps this old woman was mad. She must have seen my doubt, for she sneered, “What has your mother told you of the Master’s bride?”
“Only that she is beautiful and fortunate to have caught the Master’s attention.”
“Fortunate,” she spat. “If only you knew, as do your kin. They all conspire to deny the truth. Judge for yourself this day, dear child, before they draw you into their deception. Do you know the tale of the lovers of the forest?”
I laughed, “Of course! Every child knows the story.” I stood tall and cleared my throat. “There were two lovers who sought out an enchantress. They paid her all their gold to gain everlasting life. ‘No man may be immortal,’ she told the young lovers, but gave them instead a second life upon their deaths. The man grew ill in time and died, only to transform into the most regal of birds, the mighty peacock. And thus, the woman and beast lived in loyal love.”
The old woman’s eyes burned me, “They’ve taught you well, my pet. But they shroud the truth in children’s tales. I tell you, your Master slew the mighty peacock and made a bride of his poor lover.”
Now I knew she must be mad, I tried to laugh, “But it’s only a fairy tale. There are no ill-fated lovers. There is no old enchantress, no second life beyond first death.”
Suddenly the sound of a bell, clear and deafening, rang above the raucous crowd. The band halted their merry tune, the dancers froze in their turns, and every eye looked to the front of the room as the Master stepped into view. The old woman whispered fiercely in my ear, “See for yourself then, dear one.”
A gasp rose from the assembly and from my own lips. The Master’s form was regal and commanding, and he wore his mask with pride. His face was hidden behind the bluest peacock’s crown and his words rumbled from beneath the bird’s beak. “Behold, the bride I have won.” My faith wavered and I felt a stirring of fear at the sight, could the old crone’s words be true?
I stood on tiptoe to see the woman emerging from a darkened hallway. Her steps were slow and deliberate as they bore her through the sea of guests. She was pale as moonlight with obsidian eyes and cornflower hair. She wore not the color of a bride but the deepest shade of mourning. From her collar rose the jet-black feathers of a peacock’s pelt and she carried no flowers, but a fan with the sign of a mighty peacock in flight. Were these a token of her loyal lover? On her face, the bride wore a delicate mask, the lustrous wings of a dark butterfly.
What if the old woman’s claim was true? I half hoped a brave soul would come forward to oppose the Master, but not a man or woman stirred. They were all a sea of veiled faces, obediently still before their lord.
The bride strode stoically up the aisle to face her groom. As she gazed into the vacant eyes of the glorious bird, a single tear slid down her cheek. The Master started forward to claim her. But far too quickly, there was a swish of lace and a flash of silver as a thin blade sliced the air.
The Master froze. Cries rent the silence. For the woman had pierced her own pale breast.
As a plume of bright blood welled from the wound, the Master recovered and reached for his bride. But she slipped through his grasp in the flurry of a butterfly’s wings.
The crowd erupted at once into chaos. The feathered and bejeweled guests wailed and staggered, every soul trying at once to flee. In my panic, I turned to my companion. But I was alone. The old woman had gone.
The Gate of Second Chances
by Dani Nicole
He counted the minutes in butterflies, and she had sixty-one.
The Butterfly Collector turned these fluttered things into fleeting moments–moments that Agatha purchased for a second chance.
She caught each one with the Jar of New Hope. And he bowed when she presented them, one at a time, until at last he gave her the key.
She hesitated for a moment, then took it, feeling the pain of old age in her joints. Soon she would be young again.
“Sixty-one minutes are yours, my sweet,” said the Butterfly Collector.
Agatha bowed back and turned toward the iron gate barricading the garden she had never entered.
“Your time will end at exactly sixty-one,” the Butterfly Collector called after her.
She nodded and twisted the key in the Gate of Second Chances. Agatha stepped through the shimmering translucent veil that linked the present and past.
She was young again. She felt it in her hips. In the way her spine stood tall as her black evening gown spiraled up her neck. The paint on her face was sticking, the corset over her ribs, stifling. But Agatha had only felt so alive once before, on this very night sixty-one years ago. And this time she had a secret.
She heard a flapping near her ear–a butterfly, blue as the afternoon sky. And another. And more. There were sixty-one. A minute later, there was a pop and a butterfly disappeared.
The Butterfly Collector does not lose track of time.
“You wear his mark,” said a man’s voice behind her–the voice which she had come for.
“Then you should know my intentions,” she said, turning toward him.
“He always costumes his collection in his finest dresses, his finest masks,” the man glanced up, “and of course accompanied by his precious butterflies.”
As the man spoke another butterfly disappeared.
“I am not something to be collected,” Agatha replied, feeling the fire of youth in her voice.
“Are you not? Tell me, what did he take from you in return for your second chance?”
Agatha did not answer.
The man pulled a gun from his belt and pointed it at Agatha. “Should we start where we left off, then?”
Agatha smiled at him, her butterfly mask shimmering under the moonlight. “I hoped we could.”
Agatha moved quicker than she thought she could, quicker than she remembered. She swerved as the first bullet fired and ran behind the man who held the gun. She escaped down an alleyway and took a sharp left, then right, praying she could remember the way.
And after several turns, and several dodged gunshots, Agatha saw the house at the end of the cobblestone street.
She knew she was not allowed to be seen.
The Butterfly Collector does not forget the rules.
Agatha stopped on the doorstep of the cottage and looked behind her for the man with the gun, the one who had prevented her from opening this door sixty-one years ago. He was farther behind, so she had just enough time to twist the doorknob.
Another butterfly disappeared.
Agatha heard her high-pitched cry coming from upstairs. She took the stairs two at a time to the room at the end of the hall with the door slightly ajar.
Another butterfly disappeared.
Her minutes were fading and the baby’s cries swelled within the house, grating at Agatha’s heart. She thrust open the door and saw the baby’s father standing over the crib with a malicious smile on his face.
“Leave her alone,” Agatha said, reaching for the fan clipped onto her dress, the one she had hidden from the Butterfly Collector.
The man was surprised to see Agatha, and his surprise was matched with Agatha’s when several butterflies popped at once.
“Agatha? What… how…?”
She did not let him speak.
The butterflies were fading faster than minutes.
She spread the fan and wafted the air with it, which began to emit a purple mist. The mist filled the room as the butterfly popping crescendoed. She did not have much time left, and she had to kill the man who had killed her daughter sixty-one years ago, while his friend held her hostage in the alleyway.
The mist coiled across the room and circled the father’s neck. He began to suffocate as the purple mist grew hands and began to strangle him. Agatha did not want to watch. She had once loved that man who traded his family for crime, who traded his own daughter for a significant sum of money. But she could not love him anymore.
The father fell to the floor and stopped breathing.
Three butterflies popped, then five more.
Agatha braced herself for the unknown. She had broken the rules.
The Butterfly Collector does not forget the rules.
As the last butterfly popped, Agatha’s daughter cried, “mommy,” and Agatha faded towards that blissful strip of oblivion she had avoided all these sixty-one years, carried in a flurry of butterflies.