The Satanic Verses; butterflies

The commonplace eventually becomes invisible, and Mirza Saeed had not really noticed the butterflies for a number of years. On the morning of his fortieth birthday, however, as the first light of dawn touched the house and the butterflies began instantly to glow, the beauty of the moment took his breath away. He ran at once to the bedroom in the zenana wing in which his wife Mishal lay sleeping, veiled in a mosquito-net. The magic butterflies were resting on her exposed toes, and a mosquito had evidently found its way inside as well, because there was a line of little bites along the raised edge of her collar-bone. He wanted to lift the net, crawl inside and kiss the bites until they faded away. How inflamed they looked! How, when she awoke, they would itch! But he held himself back, preferring to enjoy the innocence of her sleeping form. She had soft, red-brown hair, white white skin, and her eyes, behind the closed lids, were silky grey. Her father was a director of the state bank, so it had been an irresistable match, an arranged marriage which restored the fortunes of Mirza’s ancient, decaying family and then ripened, over time and in spite of their failure to have children, into a union of real love. Full of emotion, Mirza Saeed watched Mishal sleep and chased the last shreds of his nightmare from his mind. ‘How can the world be done for,’ he reasoned contentedly to himself, ‘if it can offer up such instances of perfection as this lovely dawn?’

Continuing down the line of these happy thoughts, he formulated a silent speech to his resting wife. ‘Mishal, I’m forty years old and as contended as a forty-day babe. I see now that I’ve been falling deeper and deeper into our love over the years, and now I swim, like some fish, in that warm sea.’ How much she gave him, he marvelled; how much he needed her! Their marriage transcended mere sensuality, was so intimate that a separation was unthinkable. ‘Growing old beside you,’ he told her while she slept, ‘will be, Mishal, a privilege.’ He permitted himself the sentimentality of blowing a kiss in her direction and then tiptoeing from the room. Out once more on the main veranda of his private quarters on the mansion’s upper storey, he glanced across to the gardens, which were coming into view as the dawn lifted the mist, and saw the sight that would destroy his peace of mind forever, smashing it beyond hope of repair at the very instant in which he had become certain of its invulnerability to the ravages of fate.

A young woman was squatting on the lawn, holding out her left palm. Butterflies were settling on this surface while, with her right hand, she picked them up and put them in her mouth. Slowly, methodically, she breakfasted on the acquiescent wings.

Her lips, cheeks, chin were heavily stained by the many different colours that had rubbed off the dying butterflies.

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, p. 224-5.

Paul Villinski, butterflies


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