Forgot your password?

We just sent you an email, containing instructions for how to reset your password.

Sign in

  • "Jessica," my mother was looking at me across the breakfast table. "How about you go out by yourself?"

    I was twelve and we were sitting in her apartment on the Upper West Side- the one in the complex on Central Park West. She and I shared a mattress on the floor and a cardboard box for a bedside table. It was the early 90's and I was not the denizen I am now. I hated the city: it smelled and I was terrified of getting lost. Even in upper Manhattan where the streets form a perfect grid I imagined getting absorbed by a mass of filthy and hostile adults, lost in an endless cyclone of newspapers and Fairway bags.

    "Where would I go?" I asked, feeling panic in my throat. I was a clingy kid for a number of reasons, but it didn't help that I didn't get to see much of my mother in those days and our weekends together were generally a marathon of "quality time".

    "I don't know. Go to The Park. Take a walk down Columbus. Go to The Museum."

    "Which museum?" I asked.

    "The Met?"

    "Are you crazy? I don't even know where that is!" Why is she trying to get rid of me?, I wondered.

    "Go to the Museum of Natural History, then!"

    "I don't know where that is either!" I was nearing hysteria at the mere thought of being so completely out of my element.

    "Jessica!" My mother- who grew up in the Bronx and went away to college when she was 16 - gave me a very hard look. "I lived across the street from it for almost a year. What do you mean you don't know where it is?"

    "I don't know where it is in relation to here!" I - who grew up in a semi-rural suburbia and counted deer among my closest friends - shouted.

    We argued for a bit and, after much cajoling, we decided I would take a (tense) stroll down Columbus toward the Museum of Natural History.

    With directions (right, then left, then straight) and 3 quarters stuffed into my pocket I exited the building. The Mitchell-Lama buildings loomed giant and monotonous; the avenue was wide and bleak. I watched the street signs furtively to make sure I hadn't somehow drifted to another avenue or skipped a numbered street. After a while, though, I started to get the hang of walking in a straight line and when I saw the museum's towers cresting the treetops I relaxed enough to look into shop windows. Antiques, hardware, flowers, linens (why dedicate a whole store to sheets?), frames, restaurants and bars, Alice Underground, a card shop. I was nearly to the museum when I was startled to see an alligator skeleton hanging in a window.

    The narrow storefront was packed with all kinds of treasures: a cross-section of a nautilus shell, the frail, impish skeleton of a capuchin monkey, medical charts, magnifying glasses both decorative and clinical, and most alluring: gems. I had a rock collection to rival any museum's with dozens of specimens collected from gift shops and the dirt roads around my dad's house. There was a huge hunk of chalcopyrite which, for that particular five minutes, was my favorite mineral in the whole world. Greed is often a reasonable substitute for courage: so armed, I entered the store.

    It was dark inside with glass fronted cases and things to break at every turn. I didn't touch anything: what price tags I could see had astronomical numbers on them. Even when I found the completely affordable box of bat penis bones (only 99 cents!) I didn't touch those because they seemed both gross and suspect.

    I spent nearly an hour looking at gems and minerals: geodes taller than me, hunks of maze-like bismuth, pure stakes of amethyst that promised another, much more magical, world, and my beloved chalcopyrite.

    My eyes finally shifted away from the rocks and I found myself looking at a wall of butterflies. They were bright and intricate, their furry bodies pierced with mounting pins, dutifully numbered and labeled with their Latin names. En masse they had lost their charm but they were still beautiful, and I was surprised to find that many had bodies as artful as their wings .

    "You like the butterflies, eh?" said a thick Brooklyn accent. I jumped. I had noticed a man in the back of the store busy behind a counter, but neither of us had said anything and the suddenness of his voice startled me.

    "You like the butterflies?" He repeated.

    "Yes." I whispered... who doesn't? I thought.

    "You gotta favorite?"

    "No." I said, edging toward the door.

    "What? Are you scared?"

    "No," I repeated and fled.

    I walked in that fast, awkward way that kids have, all the way back to 97th St. When I finally got back to the apartment I told my mother about the store and everything in it but I didn't tell her I had been afraid.


    The store was called Maxilla and Mandible and I became a regular. Sometimes my mother gave me $5 to buy a mineral or gem but really I was there to look at the butterflies. The man behind the counter, to my relief, let me ogle in silence. Every few weeks, the wings on the fairies I drew changed to reflect a new favorite butterfly: for a while it was all about false eyes and swallow tails; but these gave way to long, dragonfly-like wings. I made a shallow attempt to learn the Latin names, but soon realized I didn't really care about them.

    One afternoon the sun came into the store, golden and bright giving the place the feel of a library. It was quiet when the man behind the counter finally spoke again.

    "Hey kid," he said. "I wanna show ya somthin'." He beckoned me behind behind a black velvet curtain and without thinking, I followed him. We entered a store-room that resembled a wonder cabinet. Flat files in wood and old metal, boxes marked "monkey penis bones" (what the hell was up with all the penis bones?), jars and tins full of rocks. "Wait here," he said.

    He disappeared into another room and came out a moment later with a large cardboard box. He balanced it on a stool and opened it. "Here, pick whatcha want."

    Inside were dozens of broken butterflies. Collectively, they were grotesque. Some had a kind of mold or fungus growing on them. The man roughly raked his fingers through the fragile wings and dessicated bodies. Some were partially flattened, like road kill, coated with their own dried guts. Heads were missing, legs hard to come by. But some were nearly perfect: their proboscis elegantly curled beneath their bright eyes, their antennae fine and slender as foils.

    With every pass of his hand, more wings shattered, more bodies broke. I couldn't fathom why he was doing that.

    "Here," he said with a kind of satisfaction. At the bottom of the box were whole butterflies and intact wings. He held up his hand. It was covered in a brownish dust with an iridescent sheen, like an oil slick. The dust coated the hairs on the back of his hand making it look even hairier. He smiled at the effect.

    "Do they kill them all?" I asked.

    "Most of them they find dead," the man said.

    I didn't believe that for a second and he must have read that on my face. "Butterflies don't live very long, sweetheart. Either a bird eats 'em, a parasite gets 'em or they just die. Some of 'em they capture, but that takes more effort than just picking up the dead ones."

    This last part I believed. I began gingerly picking through the wings and legs. It was carnage, but I couldn't help myself.. they were so beautiful. I chose an assortment of wings and whole bodies; about ten in all.

    "Don't be shy," the man said sarcastically.

    "How much?" I asked, worried that the $5 in my pocket wouldn't be nearly enough.

    "Whadaya mean 'how much'? It's free!"

    This, for strange and boring reasons, was a foreign concept to me. Everything costs something and I insisted the man take $3. He took my money and handed me a small cardboard box. I placed the insects inside as gently as I could, thanked him and left.

    I didn't go straight home. I went to the park and sat on a bench, holding the wings up to the light. I watched to see if any of the whole butterflies would magically be restored to life by the fresh air and warm sun. None were, but a faint breeze picked up a bright green one, and for a moment it looked like it was flying with purpose as it glided, face first, into the cement.
    • Share

    Connected stories:


Collections let you gather your favorite stories into shareable groups.

To collect stories, please become a Citizen.

    Copy and paste this embed code into your web page:

    px wide
    px tall
    Send this story to a friend:
    Would you like to send another?

      To retell stories, please .

        Sprouting stories lets you respond with a story of your own — like telling stories ’round a campfire.

        To sprout stories, please .

            Better browser, please.

            To view Cowbird, please use the latest version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, or Internet Explorer.