One morning, the bug lady asked us to go out with our nets to practice catching butterflies. She made us stand in a circle with our catch, their wings folded back, bodies pressed between our finger and thumb. Don’t ask me why, but that put them out cold. Didn’t quite kill them, which was a pain, because we had to put them in used mayonnaise jars with cotton balls soaked in rubbing alcohol, which finished them off.
I thought I was the only one disgusted by the task until I saw the others’ faces screwed up like mine, and I thought, we’re supposed to be hardened criminals? I suppose that’s why we’re in this “model” penal farm instead of the infamous Bilibid Prison, and why we’re out here with all the trappings of freedom, unlike those hopeless cases locked up in medium and high security.
The week before, the superintendent announced they needed volunteers for a new work team to catch rare butterflies, and I surprised myself by raising my hand.
The tittering around me died down.
The superintendent was suspicious. “This a joke, Bosun?”
“I don’t see nobody else with his hand up, Kapitan.”
That softened him up, as expected. I had given him that nickname and the other inmates had been quick to take it up.
“Some of you better step forward or I’m gonna have to press-gang people into this.”
Now that I’d crossed the line, other hands slowly went up.
“That’s more like it. Bosun, Dodong, Sarge, Ador, Bitoy…Tatang?” The superintendent scratched his ear, looking at the old man, a lifer, with his hand up. “What the hell, I don’t suppose there’s a rule that says senior citizens can’t catch butterflies. All right, Tatang! That rounds up the gang. The rest of you can feel sorry for yourselves once these guys start cashing in their catch.”
We came to be known as the Mariposa Gang. And though I’d rather have been done with ranks and all that, the others treated me as their unelected leader simply because I’d been the first to volunteer. People want to be led; I’d learned that much. Even criminals. It had been the same on the ship, and I sometimes wondered if I hadn’t simply stepped off one boat and boarded another, so much did my old existence resemble my life in Iwahig. I’d even brought my old title, bosun, even though I had no seamen to order around this time, so it simply became my alias.
And as on the ship, I felt a sense of responsibility for my men that stopped me from bolting the circle that morning, even though I nearly threw up seeing Tatang next to me open his fingers to reveal the crushed body of his butterfly. He’d pressed too hard and gazed at his hands like a child who’d broken something and knew he’d get a hiding for it. How could I leave when I got them into this? It seemed like some perverse game the prison chaplain would contrive to remind us of the terrible things we were capable of doing, as if we didn’t know it already.
The harbinger of my ruin had also been a chaplain. I knew something was wrong when I saw him, Father Carlos, waiting for me in the Captain’s quarters. I was not religious, and after years of trying to get me to come to the masses he held for the crew, the port chaplain had learned to make do with giving me a pat on the back and a gruff, “I’m praying for you, bosun,” whenever we ran into each other on his ship visits. His presence in the cabin put me on guard. As if I wasn’t worried enough already that the Captain had asked to see me in his quarters instead of the bridge.
“You wanted me, Captain?”
“Have a seat, bosun,” he said without looking at me.
“I’m needed up on the deck.”
“Do you think I don’t know that, Bosun Gonzales? You suppose I called you here for some chitchat?”
Father Carlos cleared his throat.
“Excuse me, Father. Sorry, bosun. You can’t imagine how hard this is for me… I have a daughter too—”
Something went off in my head when he said ‘daughter’ and I lunged at the Captain, angered by his preambles. Father Carlos held me back together with a couple of OS who’d materialized from nowhere. I was sure now something was wrong, terribly wrong, or they wouldn’t have thought it necessary to have those guys around to restrain me.
“Just tell me, damn it, what happened to my daughter!”
“Calm down, bosun,” Father Carlos said. “That won’t help.”
I fell on my knees and buried my face in my hands, sobbing. “Just tell me, please…”
“She died last night, I’m sorry.”
The OS knew what to do when I sprang up and tried to bolt out the door.
The last thing I remember before they gave me something that knocked me out was the violent tremor that seized my insides and forced its way out of me in an animal cry.
The sedative lasted as long as it took them to process my landing permit. They gave me another dose before Father Carlos and an agent whisked me off the boat to the airport, where we waited four hours for the first flight to Manila. I broke into manic laughter when I found myself and the agent in business class. “So a man’s got to lose her daughter to be able to fly business class around here. What a fucking consolation prize, huh? Maybe they’d put me in first class if I lose my wife.” A woman seated nearby called a stewardess, and the purser came over to talk to the agent. A third dose shut me up.
We flagged a taxi when we arrived at NAIA. For the first time, I thanked Manila: her blessed chaos, her hopeless traffic. And when we finally reached the house in Batangas, the first thing I noticed was that my wife had the living room repainted again, and how its pink was the shade of the calamine lotion I used to rub on mosquito bites on the arms and legs of my daughter, who, they’d have me believe, was lying in the white box that stood against the wall, flanked by tall candelabra lights.
My mother saw me before my wife did, and fell off her seat trying to get to her feet. My wife turned to where I was propped against the door; drunk again, I could tell she was thinking from those cold swollen eyes of hers. She made no move towards me, and I saw some of the people in our living room—strangers to me, most of them—whisper among themselves.
I could have gone to her then, but I didn’t. Let them talk, if they wanted. Might as well let everyone see the true state of our marriage now that our daughter was no longer there to hold its tattered bits together. True, I’d imagined a different scene: she running to me and sobbing into my chest, our love rekindled by mutual loss. But if not, so be it; all I wanted was to be left alone with my little girl, sleeping in her coffin.
They’d told me only that it was an accident, denying me the details, and now I saw why. You were beautiful, my daughter, an angel in a light blue dress, but what was that beneath the makeup—you’d always wanted to wear makeup—a purple shadow, coiled like an asp around your neck?
They could have fooled another man, but years before, before I became bosun, one of my crew mates hanged himself. We’d been drinking and were being our usual vulgar selves. One of the officers made a joke about how this guy’s wife was sleeping with a small-town politician, a town councillor or something. He said he’d heard it on the grapevine since they were from the same province, although the truth was, the guy himself had told a few of us about it in an earlier drunken binge. It was below the belt, and normally, we wouldn’t have laughed. But laugh we did, because it was an officer who told it, a high-strung one at that, and he could make our lives on the ship hell if we didn’t. We woke up the next morning and found the guy with the cheating wife dangling from a gantry crane, a dark gash against the shrouded sky. The officer lost his job, which was a good thing, and the rest of us got off with a reprimand, which wasn’t, because the harm was done and we would never forget.
I sat in a haze, a stranger in my own living room, as people came and embraced my wife, limply held my hand, and stood in front of Danica’s coffin with averted eyes. I overheard her classmates talking that night. I’d gone outside to smoke and was standing behind the house, beneath her bedroom window. Voices drifted toward me.
“That must be where she hanged herself. They say they found her hanging from a window.”
I dropped my cigarette butt and leaned against the wall.
“That’s stupid. Can’t you see how low it is?”
“That’s what makes it terrible, they found her kneeling, imagine? She must have wanted to die so bad.”
“Moron, you can’t commit suicide like that. I bet they caught her trying to elope with Randy.”
“You mean, like, they killed her? But that coward broke up with her two weeks ago, didn’t you hear? Ana says Danica feared she was pregnant and he couldn’t face up to it. I’d probably kill myself too if Armand left me.”
“Armand, you always have to mention Armand. Randy’s a nice guy, he wouldn’t do that.”
“Why hasn’t he shown his face around here if he’s such a nice guy, huh? It’s the least he could do—“
“Stop bickering, you two, or Danica’s ghost might sneak up on us.”
There were shrieks and a rush of footsteps. The cigarette butt still glowed at my feet. I picked it up and stubbed it between my trembling lips.
They were praying the rosary when I returned to the living room after getting myself to calm down. Her classmates were gone, which was a shame as I had a mind to beat the truth out of them about this Randy and where I could find him. When they finished the litany, my wife got up and I followed her to the kitchen. She drank straight from a liter-bottle of Coca-Cola without closing the fridge door, and looked surprised when she turned and saw me standing there.
“Why did she do it?”
“Go ahead, I knew you’d blame me.” She tugged the collar of her dress and used it to wipe some drops of the cola that had trickled down her chin.
“I’m not blaming anyone, I just want to know why.”
“Who knows why, Dante? Do you think she knew what she was doing? She was just a child.”
“Did the coroner say if she was… if she was pregnant?”
“You really want to know? Yes, she was pregnant. My God, what sort of parents were we that she was less afraid of dying than of us?”
“Who did this to her, who’s Randy?”
“What do you mean? We did this to her, you and I.” She was sobbing and I was torn between punching and embracing her, but she was gone with her bottle of cola before I could do either.
He came on the last night of vigil, the father of my dead daughter’s unborn child. A dark, wiry guy in a black polo shirt, dark denims, bearing a bouquet of half-wilted white roses. It was the roses that alerted me. He walked up to the coffin, placed them there and looked at my daughter. My wife stood up and went to him and he took her hand, touching it to his forehead. He asked her something and she turned, nodding in my direction. A look of surprise crossed his face as I approached him and offered my hand. He reached for my hand and as he bowed to touch it to his forehead, I pulled the butterfly knife from my back pocket and plunged it in his side.
The police asked me later what the knife was doing in my pocket, though you could see they’d made up their minds that it meant I’d planned to kill him. I wanted to ask them what that son of a bitch was doing at the wake of the girl he’d abandoned and driven to her own death. Was it sheer perversity or genuine remorse? Or could it perhaps be fate—or God or divine justice if those are the names they go by in your chosen opiate—that placed them both, the knife and the bastard, at my disposal?
Didn’t it even occur to anyone that I might have had the knife ready so I could follow my daughter to her grave? Would that be too much of an anticlimax, too much to expect of a coward? People say suicide is cowardly, but in Bilibid, it served me as a kind of talisman. The other inmates, even the toughest ones who lorded it over their own gangs, left me alone when they learned what my crime was, and what drove me to it. They thought nothing of killing other people but couldn’t fathom the idea of taking their own lives. There’s that guy, Dante Gonzales, whose daughter hanged herself, they whispered. Men you wouldn’t think capable of whispering. Her boyfriend knocked her up and left her, so he stabbed him seventeen times. Serves him right, if you ask me, running away like that. Shame she killed herself and wasn’t around to see it.
I could have survived Bilibid. But a few months later, I found myself with some other inmates in a C-130 bound for Palawan. I only learned later that the father of that bastard I’d killed, and would kill again a hundred times if I could, had tried to have me taken out. One of the inmates reported that somebody offered to pay him to do me in and make it look like I’d been killed in a fight. That was when I realized that there was still decency among those lowlifes. I’d like to think it’s that, though I suppose it could just as well be that the bastard had simply picked the wrong guy to ask, or offered him the wrong price.
Iwahig was a fresh start. They put me in high security for six months, before moving me to medium and finally minimum security. I was offered the chance to be a colonist, with my own hut and plot of land, but I declined, telling the prison officers someone with a family would have better use for them. I spent my days working in the coconut farm and slept in a dorm at night. I became known as a hard worker and good climber—my years on the boat had given me a sturdy pair of legs and good balance.
I must have climbed thousands of coconut trees by the time the superintendent announced that they were recruiting butterfly catchers. Maybe I’d grown sick of heights, although there were times that I’d linger up there and gaze at the hard ground, two, perhaps three stories down. I’d have done it too, let go and jumped, if the coconuts hitting the ground whole didn’t make me think that I too might survive the fall.
I thought it would be simple, catching butterflies. It seemed like child’s play, putting up baits to lure the butterflies and waiting with our nets, flicking them just so at the right moment, and we could be richer by anywhere between thirty pesos and three thousand per catch. My companions elbowed each other, thinking what luck they’d taken my cue, see if the other inmates taunted us now. It turned out to be much harder. The bug lady reminded us we weren’t after common, garden-variety specimens. What we wanted were rare butterflies that would grace the glass cabinets of museums and private collections worldwide. She also said we didn’t have to feel guilty about killing butterflies because they’d die within weeks anyway, if we didn’t.
I suppose that’s what she told herself when we came back from our first hunt and presented her with our catch. She examined what we’d brought back folded inside triangles of wax paper and told us which ones were good, and which were ordinary specimens we’d wasted our time catching. She pointed out rare markings, checked under the wings, measured their wing spans. “This one’s a beauty,” she’d say, or, “This could have fetched you a lot if you hadn’t torn its wings.”
She noted down what each of us caught, and how many, and she counted out dirty bills into our sweaty palms.
Afterwards, when she left on her motorbike to return to her office at the local university, we opened cans of sardines and cooked rice over a fire. We opened a bottle of gin and sat in a circle, counting our bills. Most of us hadn’t made that much money since we came to Iwahig, but I saw more exhaustion than happiness in the others’ eyes, especially Tatang, who’d caught a mere twelve butterflies. “Damned butterflies,” he said, clicking his tongue. “Beautiful but hard as hell to get, just like women.”
Truth was, none of us knew what we’d bargained for. Five days before, we’d set out at dawn, six men in orange carrying butterfly nets, and two in khakis toting rifles. We trudged along dirt paths, dewdrops from the buffalo grass drenching our legs. We cadged smokes from the guards, promising them cuts on our takings from the butterflies we had yet to catch.
But by the time we reached the jungle’s edge, even Dodong, the most talkative among us, had fallen silent. It wasn’t just tiredness but being out there, far from the settlement and farms. It was being someplace where escape was suddenly possible—what could two guards with rusty rifles do if the six of us bolted in different directions—but, also, robbed of its lustre.
Until then I’d thought there was something abnormal in my complete lack of interest in exploring the rest of Iwahig, a side effect of years of living at sea. You learned to make yourself smaller on a ship. You were constantly walking sideways, spooning the walls. You had to duck through doorways and keep your legs steepled as you slept in your cot. You learned to stand with your legs braced, to make your body a fulcrum around which the pitching boat and the rest of the world turned. I’d done the same since arriving in Iwahig, carried myself in a way that would displace as little air around me as possible.
It was only that afternoon on our first hunt that I realized my reaction wasn’t as odd as I’d imagined and the others also lived in their own invisible cells, outwardly free though we were. That, for all our talk of fleeing from Iwahig, we would, in the end, rather stay. That indeed, Iwahig, sprawling and without walls, was designed to rein in people. True, it was vast, but broad swathes were jungle thick with rare butterflies, yes, but also murderous mosquitoes. It had no walls, but what was the need when you couldn’t even scale your own fear of being back in the real world? That was what I saw in my companions’ faces as we entered the jungle: fear, and also shame, knowing we’d been found out, and that for all our bravado, we were, at heart, like sheep, content to live out our days in the enforced peace of this limbo.
It was dark by then so we didn’t get to use our nets on butterflies, although they came in handy catching our dinner. Dusk fell quickly inside the jungle, and we set up camp near a river, lighting campfires, grilling fish snagged in our nets.
Somebody said we should have brought a guitar and palm toddy, but I was glad we hadn’t. There was something in the silence of the jungle, a silence filled by the trilling of cicadas that reminded me of the ship gliding through the vast surface of the ocean, its engines humming. You missed that silence when you’re on shore leave, but at sea, it’s enough to drive you mad, especially when you don’t dock for days on end. It did strange things to your mind, seeing nothing but water, not seeing your wife and kids for months at a time. Whenever you got homesick, you’d have a drink with the gang, and you ended up saying something stupid you’d have forgotten the next morning except that there’s a body hanging on a chain from the gantry crane that wouldn’t let you forget.
Soon there was snoring around me in the jungle. I heard someone jerking off and my hand went to my crotch, but I couldn’t go further. I thought of my wife and I wondered if she’d found someone else to have sex with. That aroused me and I masturbated as quietly as I could, crawling to the river’s edge to wash my hand after I came.
We spent the next three days catching butterflies. The guards let us fan out so we wouldn’t get in each other’s way, so long as we stayed within shouting distance and called back at intervals. I caught twenty-one butterflies on that first hunt, though I could probably have brought in twice that number if the guards had thought of a less noisy way of keeping tabs on us. Some of the others caught more than I did, but I ended up getting paid the most because I managed to catch several rare specimens, including a Papilio (Chilasa) paradoxa I’d found almost too beautiful to kill.
The bug lady was delighted and said it would go to a collector in Japan who’d been waiting a year for just such a specimen. I shrugged, not really interested whether it ended up in Tokyo or Timbuktu. I was about to turn away from her, pocketing my bills, when she said, “You’re good at this, you know. What’s your secret?”
I looked at her, scratching the souvenirs left by hundreds of mosquitoes on my legs and arms from our nights in the jungle. These bloodsuckers, we would grumble every night, slapping ourselves in the darkness. If only the bug lady would pay us to catch them.
“Of course, you’re not telling,” she said, turning back to her ledger. She called Tatang, and seemed surprised to find me still standing there.
“It’s—it’s like…” I stuttered.
I was back in the jungle, standing knee-deep in the river, watching with bated breath as a Palawan Birdwing danced in a shaft of sunlight.
When my daughter was born, I got shore leave for a couple of months. The night before I was due back on the ship, I stood all night by her crib watching her sleep, willing my wildly beating heart to be quiet lest I wake her. It’s like that, I wanted to tell the bug lady, but found I couldn’t speak.
She was looking at me, and I saw in the mirror of her eyes how she saw me: a common criminal.
“Never mind,” I said, shaking my head. As I turned away, I found Tatang standing behind me, palms outstretched, holding his butterflies like an offering.