The Xerces Blue (Glaucopsyche xerces) disappeared in 1941 and is believed to be the first American butterfly to become extinct due to loss of habitat.
At the end of the road sits her mother’s house, yellow paint peeling and foundation slowly settling into the dried riverbed on which it was built. A rusting weathervane with a rooster frozen mid-crow arches its neck in the middle of the front yard. Madeline pauses by the gate to examine it, and eyes little more than two dents in the reddish-brown metal gaze impassively back up at her, silently judging.
Her mother bought it on a whim at a country fair from a half-senile old lady who charged at least twice what the sloppily painted bird was worth -- but her mother had always been kind (a little too kind), and had paid up without complaint. Attempts were made, at one point or another, to scale the roof and attach it, invariably ending in disaster. She remembers the last, one of the few times she ever saw her mother get frustrated (or visibly emotional, for that matter): an unsteady ladder, a sprained ankle, and the finality with which Susanna Abbing limped across the yard to stick the rooster into the earth right by the mailbox. And there it remained for a decade and a half, slowly rusting away like some ancient stone monolith, losing all identifiable features, becoming blank and expressionless.
I, Susanna Abbing, of Whitebridge, ——, being of sound mind, do hereby make, publish, and declare the following to be my Last Will and Testament...
She hasn’t actually read the entire will yet. Maybe the rooster will go to some distant cousin in Berlin.
The house smells like it always has: dust and a faint overtone of sharp chemicals. She closes the front door behind her, noting how soundlessly it moves—even with her health steadily declining, her mother made sure the hinges were oiled. Of course.
Susanna Abbing was, if nothing else, precise. She had never been late to a class at her university—the same university that kicked her daughter out for failing most of her classes sophomore year. Madeline’s childhood had been the kind where every trip to the park ended in a science lesson. Caterpillar genera and Darwin’s evolutionary charts. Madeline was supposed to be special. She’d been told it every day of her life—it didn’t matter how the other kids in class did, Madeline was smarter than them. It didn’t matter if other kids got to stay out late, got to go to parties, got to slack off in school. Madeline had been born with talent, had been raised exceptional, so she had to be better.
She wasn’t supposed to be like other people.
Now, she kicks open the door to the kitchen, taking savage pleasure in the scuff mark her dirty sneaker leaves on the white paint. Pots and pans and the cat-shaped paper towel dispenser. Half a bottle of lavender hand soap. She strides to the pantry and yanks the door open—quinoa and lentils, assorted dried fruits, everything organic for a long and healthy life.
Sure, that went real well for you, didn’t it, Mom?
Her mother had been healthy, yeah. Right up until the cervical cancer diagnosis that she neglected to tell her only daughter about.
The Karner Blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) is a federally endangered species in the United States, found in only six states.
Whitebridge, aka the middle of nowhere.
Population: 560 humans plus double that in dogs; area in square miles: way too big; geographical convenience to any major thoroughfares: zero. There is also a mountain in the middle of it (go figure). It’s grown since the last time Madeline was here (ten years ago, right after failing out of the state school where her mother taught): a shiny new bank on Main Street, a funeral parlor in the old abandoned house all the kids used to say was haunted, a modern-looking coffeehouse parked underneath the one apartment complex in the whole town.
The latter is the kind of place pretentious artists like to go (she would know, she’d been in the art department), and so she walks in.
The girl at the counter has long dark hair that waterfalls down her back and wide, kind eyes like burnished metal. She looks up when Madeline enters and smiles, brief and professional.
“What can I get for you today?” Her voice is smooth, precise.
“Um,” Madeline replies, demonstrating once again her impeccable knack for being articulate. She realizes that she entered this shop without the slightest intention of actually getting anything, and pretends to squint at the hand-written chalkboard menu to buy time.
“I’m Jacinta, by the way,” the girl supplies helpfully when it’s clear that Madeline is taking a bit longer than normal.
“You new around here?”
“Iced hazelnut latte,” she blurts out, eyes settling on the first menu item she finds. “Uh. Sorry. Yeah, I’m—I mean technically not? I grew up here, actually.”
“Huh, that’s funny, I don’t remember seeing you around.” She pops a clear plastic cup off the top of a teetering stack. “Large or small?”
“Small. I’ve been... away for awhile, I guess.” This is straying dangerously close to things she’d really rather not think about, so she casts around for something—anything—else to say. “Is it always this quiet around here?”
Jacinta upends a clear bottle of amber syrup over the crushed ice and shakes it. Madeline remembers that she hates hazelnut. “You’re the first customer I’ve seen all day, so my apologies if I’m being too overbearing. I can back off if you want, I’ve been told that being overbearing is one of my faults.”
“N-no, it’s fine!” Not your fault I haven’t had a conversation with someone close to my age for about a year.
“Okay.” Madeline’s drink slides across the counter, coming to a halt next to her hand. Jacinta props her chin on her hands and her elbows on the counter. “Three seventy-five for that. Honestly, if my boss wasn’t such a stickler for the rules I’d be doing my summer coursework right now.”
“Yeah?” Madeline prompts, because it’s only polite.
She learns a lot about Jacinta in the space of five minutes—she’s a poli sci major at a fairly prestigious private university halfway across the state, but she’s come back to her hometown to get a bit of money at this summer job. She has her own apartment, three floors above the shop, and it’s the first time she’s lived on her own. She has two fish and a parakeet. Her voice sounds like falling water, smooth and sure and nearly tripping over itself to get the words out when she’s excited.
The sun slanting through the plate glass windows catches floating dust motes, burning them golden as the clock turns towards afternoon. Madeline’s feet ache from standing on the cold tile for so long, but she doesn’t mind.
“It’s all mine?”
Her mother’s lawyer sounds irritated over the three hundred miles and one time zone between them. “Have you read the will yet, Maddie?”
“Madeline,” she corrects automatically. “I skimmed it.” To tell the truth, reading legal documents sends her right back to Lit 101 and Shakespeare’s incomprehensible wordplay, a world she’s happy to have left behind.
“Well.” A sigh. Madeline imagines Elizabeth Parkman, attorney at law, leaning back in her office chair in Manhattan and rubbing her temple with her free hand to ward off an oncoming headache. “Long story short, yes. It all goes to you, minus two trust funds that will go to the university and her foundation respectively, as well as anything you’ll need to use to cover funeral expenses and the like. Your mother was very thorough in providing for that. But all the property—yes, it’s yours.”
“But I don’t want it.”
“Not even the house?”
She’d been thinking of the hundreds of glass cases stacked in closets and spare rooms, preserved insects pinned against white cardboard with her mother’s precise cursive denoting the species and location found. She hadn’t even considered the fact that the kitchen she stood in, warped linoleum floor and wheezing refrigerator and all, is hers, along with the rest of the house.
“Oh. I guess—whatever.”
“Regardless.” A brisk note enters Parkman’s voice, making it clear that the hour allotted in her schedule for Madeline was almost up. “If you want to sell it, that’s your prerogative. You have my number if you need to contact me between now and Tuesday, when I should have the insurance forms in.”
“Fine.” She hangs up without waiting for the lawyer to say goodbye.
The Western Pygmy Blue (Brephidium exilis), found in Africa, is the smallest butterfly in the world, with a wingspan of half an inch.
She enters the shop, and the jangling ring of the bell over the door is nearly drowned out by the deafening noise coming from some contraption behind the counter.
“Sorry!” Jacinta shouts over the noise, popping up from behind the pastry case. “Just—give me a second—”
She turns to the coffee machine, flipping switches and fiddling with the cord. The rattling dies down. As Jacinta turns back towards her, frazzled smile on her face, Madeline notices with a start the bright purple plastic adorning her ear.
“You’re deaf?” she blurts out before she can think better of it. Jacinta looks briefly surprised, then—unexpectedly—grins.
"Yeah." She taps the hearing aid. "This one’s new, actually. My old ones were a bit more subtle, but this time I figured... why not go for something more eye-catching?”Madeline’s awkward pause must have said enough, because Jacinta turns to her fully and meets her eyes. “It’s not so bad, really. Anytime I want, pop this baby out and—the world leaves me alone."
"Oh. That must be—" Nice doesn't seem like the right word, somehow. "Convenient," she finishes lamely. Her face still burns with embarrassment--what kind of complete idiot--
Jacinta shrugs. “Sure. You’ll have the same as last time?”
She almost says no, almost says surprise me. But that’s the sort of thing she’s never had much practice doing, and she’s sure she’ll mess it up somehow. Stutter, or overstep some social boundary, and make a complete fool of herself. She’s done enough of that today.
The attic is next. Her mother lived in this house for fifty years, and anything that didn’t fit with her vision of the perfectly ordered house got sent upstairs to gather dust under cobwebs and one blurred skylight.
The stairs creak alarmingly under her feet as she ascends, one hand cupped over her nose to shield from the dust and a thick yellow flashlight in the other. Up here, the air smells duller, absent of the sharp smells of preservatives that dominate her mother’s work spaces.
Cases on cases of dead insects fill the spaces between stacked cardboard boxes, the nearest of which reads Maddie - 2nd grade. Her mother obsessively saved things. If she hadn’t been so organized, she would’ve ended up on one of those reality tv shows about hoarders.
The light from the flashlight reflects off the glass as she edges towards the nearest insect case, still not sure she wants to trust the integrity of the floorboards.
Thin beetle legs cast jagged shadows against the yellowing paper backgrounds. When she was younger, Madeline would have nightmares about gigantic insects hunting her down with clicking pincers and scuttling legs, opaque black eyes freezing her in place with fear as they readied long silver pins and jars of chemicals.
Her mother would laugh a little at those. Maddie, they’re tiny. They can’t hurt you. She’d show her all her equipment in what must’ve been an attempt to calm her—a killing jar, mouth stuffed with cotton to keep the ethyl acetate inside; miniature forceps for delicate specimens; a relaxing jar to ready the brittle bodies for pinning.
Now, Madeline nudges one of the cases with her foot. A dead moth comes loose from its pins and falls to the bottom, translucent grey wings crumbling to dust.
The Queen Alexandra Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), found in New Guinea, has a wingspan of almost a foot across and is the largest living butterfly.
“A butterfly?” Jacinta asks, eyes on the blue and purple wings stretching across Madeline’s wrist. Madeline resists the urge to curl her hand away to hide the tattoo.
“Yeah,” she says, forcing nonchalance as she counts out the three dollars and seventy five cents for her drink.
“Is it because of your mom?”
“Wh-what?” Madeline stutters before remembering, right. Small town.
“She was the entomology teacher over at the state university, right? My older sister goes there, she never took a class from her but she heard all about her—she was in the running for a Nobel Prize a while back, right?”
Normally, Madeline responds to mentions of her mother with monosyllabic terseness, but something— “Yeah, she was. Something about the larval development of some parasite, I never really understood her when she went all science on me.” The longest sentence she’d spoken about the dear departed Susanna Abbing since—well, since a long time.
“Must’ve been tough.”
“You know.” Jacinta’s hands blur as she mixes ice and coffee. “Being the daughter of someone so prestigious. I never went there, but even I’ve heard about her work.”
“It’s fine,” Madeline says, and somehow it’s true here, enveloped in the warm smells of coffee and hazelnut (which, it turns out, she doesn’t hate as much as she thought she did). “I turned out a disappointment early in life, so there’s not much to live up to.”
“I’m sure you weren’t all that bad.”
Madeline coughs a short laugh. “You didn’t see me drop out of college after a year and a half because I couldn’t manage the workload for my art history major, of all things.”
“Hey, college is tough.”
Everyone else manages it, Madeline almost says. “I guess.” And in a sudden burst of courage, she adds, “Anyway, if I’d stuck with it, I’d have never met you. So it’s not all that bad.”
Jacinta blinks, clearly startled, and for a second Madeline worries she went to far. Then a smile breaks across her face, bright and pleased.
“That’s so sweet of you to say.”
The courage, it seems, was also fleeting. “A-anyway.” She grabs her drink off the counter. “I’ll—just be going now, I’ve got stuff to do—” She almost trips over her own feet in her haste to flee her own embarrassment.
“See you tomorrow, Maddie,” Jacinta calls after her. Madeline waves without turning back and steps out into blinding sunlight.
After three weeks without washing her clothes, she ventures into the basement.
Her mother rearranged down here at some point, she notes, balancing the laundry basket on one hip as she edges around a hefty piece of exercise equipment that was definitely not there ten years ago. The machines got upgraded, too. Washing machine, dryer, neat little shelf to hold the detergent. There’s a large jar of bleach that she only spares a brief glance before dumping all her clothing into the washing machine and slamming the lid shut.
At least she knows how to do her laundry. She’s not a complete failure.
She trudges back upstairs. Halfway up, she realizes her phone is ringing. She runs through a quick mental checklist—no friends, her mother’s lawyer always calls the house, there isn’t—
She sprints the last five steps, stubbing her toe hard on the doorsill. Hopping on one foot, grimacing, she lunges for her phone, cutting off the last ring.
“A-are you okay?” Jacinta sounds alarmed. “You sound a bit—”
“Yeah, I’m fine!” She gingerly sits down on the kitchen floor, massaging her throbbing toe with her free hand. “What’s up?”
“Oh. Well, I was just wondering—I’ve got work off tomorrow, and they’re showing some artsy film at the festival up north—do you want to go with me?”
It takes a second for the words to sink in. “Of course I do!”
“Awesome. And I’m sorry about the late notice.” Jacinta sounds almost—nervous. But that can’t be right. Madeline dismisses it as a trick of the bad reception. “I’ll come pick you up, if that’s okay with you.”
“That’s perfectly fine.” Outside, a moth batters frantically at the window, drawn by the fluorescent kitchen light. Its pale, fluttering wings shine in the dark. She hangs up, and feels a smile tugging at her mouth, insistent and unfamiliar.