We stood around the bonfire, warming our hands at its glow. I could tell Samantha was fretting about something, but I didn’t ask, trusting her to tell us in her own time. I guessed it had something to do with the ropes Raj was handing out. “Pretend you’ve got to reach a drowning man,” Raj said as he gave each of us one heavy coil of coir. The roughness of the rope against my palms awoke butterflies in my stomach. I knew something that transpired tonight would involve digging.

When Raj turned away, Samantha dug an elbow into my side. The flickering light of the bonfire accentuated the concern on her face. “We were supposed to be hunting nocturnal butterflies,” she whispered. I fingered the rope’s coils like frets on a guitar. I was afraid of drowning in mistrust if I looked into her eyes. “He’s got to have some reason for the ropes,” I told her.

She glanced down at her rope. “I’m not digging this,” she said. “Better than drowning,” I said with a smile. She looked away from me, turning back toward the bonfire as Raj called for our attention once more. “Those of you who are wondering what this is all about,” he announced, “don’t fret. Tonight is indeed about hunting butterflies—but not as you thought.”

“Nocturnal butterflies have long been a scourge in our city,” he continued, striding back and forth in front of our group like a general. “These ropes have been donated by the city council, who send their regards for your courage tonight.” Courage? I wondered, beginning to fret. But I waited to hear more, nervously digging the outside edge of my boot into the dirt. I scanned the nervous faces around the bonfire. Everyone looked like they were drowning on dry land.

Raj tried to drown out our worry with visions of valor. “Tonight we will beat these butterflies into submission!” he roared. The bonfire danced as though activated by his courage. Samantha bravely raised her voice to ask, “But why ropes; why not nets?” Raj glared at her with eyes that could dig graves. “We don’t need that kind of fretting in our ranks.”

My fingers fretted the rope, but I gathered the courage to speak up. “What was that about the drowning man, then?” I asked. Apprehension dug away at my gut. “The butterflies,” Raj said, leveling his death gaze at me, “have metamorphosized again.” The rope jittered in my hands. The bonfire crackled.

And now we’re digging the trap, fretting it won’t be large enough. And now we’re setting more bonfires to lure the prey, drowning the darkness in light. And now the butterflies are coming, wind from their wings whipping the flames, and we can only hope the ropes will hold.

Tara Campbell

Tara Campbell is an award-winning writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse, and graduate of American University's MFA in Creative Writing. She teaches creative writing at venues such as American University, Johns Hopkins University, Clarion West, The Writer's Center, Hugo House, and the National Gallery of Art. Her publication credits include Masters Review, Wigleaf, Electric Literature, CRAFT Literary, Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and Escape Pod/Artemis Rising. She's the author of a novel, two hybrid collections of poetry and prose, and two short story collections from feminist sci-fi publisher Aqueduct Press. Her sixth book, a novel featuring sentient gargoyles in the 22nd century American West, is forthcoming from SFWP in fall 2024. Find her at www.taracampbell.com

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