Yellow butterflies

Fictional worlds don’t need to adhere to the laws of nature and logic. The sky can send down a rain of flowers when a beloved character dies. A person can develop a friendship with the ghost of the man he killed. Time can go in a circle. One Hundred Years of Solitude is filled with many such pieces of magical realism that are powerfully poetic when read in their respective contexts. I’ll attempt to share one: the episode of the yellow butterflies.

Meme Buendia is a young girl who features briefly in the novel. She is infatuated with a mechanic apprentice named Mauricio Babilonia. Meme’s mother, Fernanda, is against their union because of Mauricio’s low status.

One day Meme notices the yellow butterflies that are always present in Mauricio’s garage. Initially, she thinks they are being attracted by the smell of paint but realizes later that the butterflies accompany Mauricio wherever he goes. Meme only needs to look for the butterflies to know if he is nearby.

One thing leads to another and they start a relationship. They try their best to keep it a secret but Fernanda finds out soon and places Meme under house-arrest. A prisoner in her own home, Meme starts acting strangely:

Meme did not take a bath in the morning like everyone else, but at seven in the evening (when the bathroom would be full of scorpions). The yellow butterflies would invade the house at dusk. Every night on her way back from her bath Meme would find a desperate Fernanda killing butterflies with an insecticide bomb.

“This is terrible,” she would say. “All my life they told me that butterflies at night bring bad luck.”

One night, while Meme was in the bathroom, Fernanda went into her bedroom by chance and there were so many butterflies that she could scarcely breathe. She grabbed for the nearest piece of cloth to shoo them away and her heart froze with terror as she connected her daughter’s evening baths with the mustard plasters that rolled onto the floor.

On the following day she invited the new mayor to lunch and she asked him to station a guard in the backyard because she had the impression that hens were being stolen. That night the guard brought down Mauricio Babilonia as he was lifting up the tiles to get into the bathroom where Meme was waiting for him, naked and trembling with love among the scorpions and butterflies as she had done almost every night for the past few months. A bullet lodged in his spinal column reduced him to his bed for the rest of his life.

Meme never speaks another word to anyone again. Fernanda takes her away from the town to avoid a public scandal and puts her in a convent.

When her mother ordered her out of the bedroom she did not comb her hair or wash her face and she got into the train as if she were walking in her sleep, not even noticing the yellow butterflies that were still accompanying her. Fernanda never found out, nor did she take the trouble to, whether that stony silence was a determination of her will or whether she had become mute because of the impact of the tragedy.

There’s a little more written on Meme before she disappears from the book.

Meme shut herself up in her cabin. Twice a day someone left a plate of food by her bed and twice a day she took it away intact, not because Meme had resolved to die of hunger, but because even the smell of food was repugnant to her and her stomach rejected even water. Not even she herself knew that her fertility had outwitted the mustard vapors, just as Fernanda did not know until almost a year later, when they brought the child. In the suffocating cabin, maddened by the vibration of the metal plates and the unbearable stench of the mud stirred up by the paddle wheel, Meme lost track of the days. Much time had passed when she saw the last yellow butterfly destroyed in the blades of the fan and she admitted as an irremediable truth that Mauricio Babilonia had died.

She would keep on thinking about him for all the days of her life until the remote autumn morning when she died of old age, with her name changed and her head shaved and without ever having spoken a word, in a gloomy hospital in Cracow.

Things like these make One Hundred Years of Solitude stand out. Simple elements of fantasy can get the message across much more effectively when dealing with complex emotions that cannot be spelled out. The yellow butterflies remind me why the written word continues to be such a powerful medium of storytelling.

Cover art by Biblioteca Virtual

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