Devin Murphy


Devin Murphy’s recent work appears in The Cimarron Review, The Greensboro Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, and Shenandoah among others. He has recently completed his PhD at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln and is finishing a story collection and a novel.

The Butterfly Man

Conway Catholic Elementary School is the last of seven school visits Wayne has in the central part of the state. The building is a four-story rectangle with the blinds drawn differently in each classroom. He sits in his van and watches the first hazy gray-blue of morning working its way up over the parking lot. Soon after the sun is up, a steady stream of teachers’ cars fills the parking lot. Then the school buses come. He waits for it to finally be nine and imagines being in South America again.

He shuts his eyes on the schoolyard and is in a remote pocket of Venezuelan jungle two days travel by boat down the Orinoco River. His hired guide shuttles him along the shore and helps string a giant net made across a small tributary. When it’s fully spread, the fibers are so fine it looks like a damp spider web framing the light. He explores the banks for the day and returns to find the net fluttering orange and black with hundreds of Monarch butterflies. The guide rows the boat beneath the net as he carefully removes each butterfly, cupping it in his hands, slowly loosening his grip and letting it fly off if it isn’t worth keeping. It’s the perfect specimens that slow time, make the air around him visible as a fog bank.

A short blast of the school’s bell brings him back. He pulls the van up to the front doors and walks inside to check in with the principal’s office. After checking in, he brings his cases in one at a time to the school’s library on the fourth floor where he’ll meet the students. On his first trip, the hallway is full of boys marching down the hall. Wayne tucks the case in his arms tighter against his chest as he watches them pass. Their school shoes slip over the dust on the tile floors. Laces and sleeves trail behind them from sneakers and gym clothes held under their arms. They smell like a shifting animal, and their smell with the bleach in the hall makes him tighten his grip on the case and shut his eyes.

“Can I help you, sir?” Opening his eyes he sees a middle-aged woman wearing a maroon dress standing in front of him.

“Yes, please. I forgot which way the library was,” he says.

“Just down the hall.” She points over her shoulder. “Connor,” she says to the last boy in the crowd that just passed, “walk this man down to the library, please.” The boy spins around and looks up at Wayne with a flushed face and stands there waiting for him to start walking.

“Well, go on then,” the woman says to Connor.

“What do you have in that box?” Connor asks as they walk down the hall.

“Can you keep a secret?”

“Yeah,” the boy says, pushing back the doors to the small library. There are a dozen folding tables set up in a half circle against the windows. Inside the circle are rows of small folding chairs. “Wow, what’s all this for?” Connor asks.

“Hello there,” an older woman with an argyle cardigan says, “You must be Mr. Denny.”

“I am, but you can call me Wayne,” he says to the librarian.

“You may set the room up any way you’d like.” She looks at the boy waiting next to him and says, “Thank you, Connor. You can go back to your classroom now.” Connor looks up and Wayne feels the boy’s gaze searching for a promised secret. He looks closer at the boy to see how the hair just over his ear is streaked back in dark fingers from a poor attempt at combing it. The boy’s shirt hangs off his shoulders, and the fine line of his collar bones stick out through the cotton. Wayne turns from him just as he feels the urge to run his finger over those bones.

“Inside the box, Connor,” Wayne says, seeing how curious the boy is, “I’ve got proof of how much magic there is in the world. But keep that to yourself for now.”


Wayne hauls each of his cases up the stairs and places them on the tables in the library. Each of the cases has a silk slip to protect the mahogany wood and glass windowpanes from being scratched. He uses Windex on each windowpane to remove fingerprints, then drapes the slips over the cases so he can reveal them one by one.

A woman in a yellow cotton dress with an auburn ponytail leads a group of children into the library, and the kids begin filling the seats .

“Okay, kids, listen up front here,” the librarian says, trying to get the attention of the first group of students. “Today we have a special guest for you.” The woman looks at Wayne with her stern, tired face when she finishes talking, and he walks in front of the rows of chairs. This part he does from habit, knowing the mystery of the covered cases behind him already has the kids’ attention.

“Hello, everyone, my name is Wayne, and I’m The Butterfly Man,” he tells them. Then he describes what such a life entails—traveling all over the world in search of butterflies so he can bring them back and share them with school kids. He lets them know how special these insects are, worth protecting, and how he’s trained his eyes to the slightest twitch and lift of moths in the jungle.

“Some of you may have seen something like these in your neighborhood,” he says pulling back the silk slip from the first case, and holding it up for them to see. Inside the red mahogany case he made are Monarchs, varying stages of caterpillars, yellow butterflies the size of quarters, and several moths, all with wings fanned out and pinned for preservation into the cork. With this, the children are already leaning towards him. The kids in the back rows are moving their heads around for a better view.

“Now these are amazing insects, and I’m going to tell you all about them and some other insects I’ve found all over the world, such as this one.” He pulls a sheet off a smaller box and holds it up. Inside, there’s only one butterfly pinned to the cork with its wings stretched out—a Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, the size of a dinner plate and the color of cobalt chips in the sun.

Looking at the kids' faces, he knows he has them all now. Their eyes are wide. They are all silent. He holds a pair of binoculars up to his eyes and scans the library, then swings his net over their heads for effect. “The world’s out there for you,” he tells them, “and you’ll be amazed at some of the things you find.”

He takes off another slip and lifts a new case. “Not all of them are beautiful.” He holds up a case of large cockroaches, beetles, and spiders splayed out on the cork. The thin pins through their body cavities make some of the kids squeal.

A red-haired girl in the front can’t sit still after looking at the odd bugs and spiders, “Did you have to touch all of those?” she asks.

“Most of them I used my net for, but I had to touch them all eventually.”

“How long did it take you to catch all those bugs?” someone calls out.

“Oh, I’ve been at this for almost twenty years,” he tells them, “which is a lot longer than you’ve been alive.”

“Do you go out looking for one bug at a time, or do you just catch what you find?” another asks.

“That’s a good question,” he tells the kids. “I go to a place where I hope to find certain insects but I’m always surprised by what I find.”

The children keep asking questions after he finishes telling them about the caterpillars and butterflies.

“Do you fly from school to school?” the redheaded girl asks.

“In my private jet, you mean? I’m afraid the butterfly business isn’t that good. I have a van I travel in with a portion of my collection.” In truth, it has been twenty years of constant motion, always searching for something and finding something completely different. Once he had his van towed and impounded in Reno, Nevada. His life’s work sat behind a chain-link fence surrounded by stolen Buicks and rusting pickup trucks that would go to scrap before ever getting claimed.

He gives the same talk for two more classes in the morning and takes a break for lunch, which he eats in the library.

The library windows facing west look down on the parking lot and playground where a class is having recess. He watches the children playing below as if he is stalking them with a gigantic butterfly net. He sees himself lower the long boom of his net so the clear white webbing on the basket lowers over one of the boys. The boy, indistinct now in the mesh and sunlight, is pushing out against the encasement. There are only sections of him forcing through the net. First, the side of a small face, the ear and part of the nose. Then there’s a small hand, fingers spread out and flat until the fingertips bend outward and claw for freedom.


He watches the sixth graders, who are the last group of the day, file into the chairs. From the back of the line Connor hurries around his classmates and gets a chair in front of Wayne. “I didn’t tell anyone,” Connor whispers.

“That’s good. Let’s get the rest of your class seated and I’ll show you what I’ve got.”

He holds up cases of bugs and tells the sixth graders about all the little things in the ground, things that know the cool damp earth and how good it is to be buried. He shows them the smaller and intricate side of life, the tiny larva that run the world in trillions. Larva, cracking open into small proofs of god, and that there is no god, the great dilemma lying in all things ugly and slimy and thoraxed, wound in cocoons, trembling with possibility. That’s the real appeal for him, the envy of the ability to wrap up until you come out something new and better, stunning and pure.

The teacher is in the back of the room when he finishes talking and the kids come up for a closer look at his collection. Connor stands next to him, leaning over the cases.

“What’s this one called?” Connor asks.

“That’s a Western Pigmy Blue,” he tells him as he looks up and sees the teacher thumbing through the books on the back shelf.

“And this one?”

“That’s a Violet Marpho.”

“These are really great. That big one you showed us,” Connor says, pointing to the small case that holds the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, the largest butterfly in the world, “this one here. This is my favorite. Where’d you get him?”

“I got that in Papua New Guinea.” Each butterfly represents a different trip, a corner of the world, where, for one moment, Wayne found something that he wanted, held close, and then preserved. He kneels down next to Connor, with several other kids standing around him and working their way down the tables, looking at the cases. He tosses out the insects’ Latin names as well. “Can you spell Ornithoptera Alexandrae?” he jokes with the boy. Connor’s white polo shirt is untucked in the back. It hangs just over his waistline. Wayne puts his hand on Connor’s back and continues pointing out the bugs. He touches the boy’s spine and feels the width between the shoulder blades, the spot where he’d pin-stick him to a corkboard for display. The glass window of the case just under his chest is covered in small fingerprints, smudge marks shining dully in the fluorescent lighting. He’d put his own fingers over the greasy spots several times over the years, those being the only human touch he’d been able to find.

Connor grips both hands on the side of the case and leans over to see the details of each butterfly. His shirt lifts in the back, and seeing that, Wayne drops his hand further down, hooking the shirt away from the boy’s back by the hem with his thumb and slips his fingers underneath.

This is the first time he has touched anyone beyond a handshake in what feels like his whole life. The boy’s skin makes Wayne feel like he’s falling into a hole. He feels the downy hairs at the base of the Connor’s back, and for a moment, before he feels the boy’s discomfort, he felt like he could see all the air in the library—it was clear but he still saw it, like it was a rolling fog bank. He breathed in and for a brief moment felt whole and alive.

Connor glances up from the case. He looks confused, and the look sickens Wayne.

“Excuse me, Mr. Denny!” the librarian says behind him. Her face is cold, wrinkled severely, and knowing. He can’t bring himself to move his hand which is still up the back of the boy’s shirt. Connor’s look and the old woman’s voice have frozen him.

“Mr. Franklin,” she says, looking towards the young teacher in the back of the room, “You’d better take your class to get ready for the busses.”

Wayne feels Connor’s shirt slip over the back of his hand as the boy walks away from him, but his hand stays where it is, like he’s waving goodbye or taking an oath.

“This is highly inappropriate! Most inappropriate. You need to come with me.” The librarian demands Wayne follow her down the stairs to the principal’s office, without saying a word.

“We can’t let people be touchy-feely with students, Mr. Denny,” the librarian hisses at him before they walk into the school’s main office.

Touchy-feely. The word runs through Wayne’s head and pings off an exposed nerve. “Touchy-feely” would go out on some email and it would travel faster than he ever could. The phrase would get forwarded to the booking agents, and the schools’ guest lecture programmers, and that phrase would be the end of his bookings. They’d all cancel. Touchy-feely. The phrase would stain his skin so that people could see it all over him.

The librarian tells him to have a seat in foyer as she marches inside. There’s an announcement about buses being ready, and from his chair he watches the kids empty out the main doors. He wonders where they’ll all go, how some will go home, or to a friend’s home, to parks, or clubs, or to games. They run out the doors like a pod of locusts emerging from the earth, and watching them he feels like a monster working its way out of a tight embryonic sac, and he realizes that not all insects make it out of their casings.

Wayne thinks of those fingerprint smudges from children excited about what he had to say, forgetting themselves and leaning into the mystery he’d found for them. That’s the only good thing he does with his life, and the feeling that it’s all been ruined by one graze of his fingertips pounds through his chest. For all his love of butterflies, the feeling of being a bat blooms inside of him—flittering through the dark, pulling back just at the moment of contact with the world by some instinctual twitch before ever touching anything solid.

The librarian walks out with a short older man with two tufts of gray hair on the sides of his head. “Mr. Denny, this is our Principal, Mr. Marcheson,” the librarian says, then leaves the room.

“Why don’t you come in my office, Mr. Denny,” the principal says, and quickly sits at his desk. “Look, this is a bit awkward.” His fingers were playing invisible piano keys against the top of his desk.

Wayne sits in front of Mr. Marcheson and feels an odd sense of relief at being caught just in time, just before some dormant want dragged him inward to who he may really be.

“I’m sorry about all this,” Mr. Marcheson says. “I think our librarian means well, but she has a dark imagination.”

Wayne isn’t sure he heard what the principal has said. He looks at him closely and realizes how embarrassed the man is.

“I see,” Wayne says. “I was showing the boy how I find the right place to mount my insects into their casings. So, I can see how she misunderstood.” The words seem to come from someone else. They just come out smooth and easy—almost understanding.

“There you have it,” the principal says, standing up as if to clap his hands and be done with the whole matter. “I knew it was just a misunderstanding. I really am sorry. I mean, we really loved having you here today. I can’t imagine a better break in the routine for our students.” Mr. Marcheson wipes the palms of his hands on his pant legs as he stands in front of Wayne.

Wayne walks to the door with the principal next to him. “Oh, and now that you’re here, I might as well give you this, and save some postage.” Mr. Marcheson turns back towards his desk and grabs a school district paycheck envelope with Wayne’s name on it. “You’re welcome back any time Mr. Denney, and please forgive us for this mix up.”

Wayne goes to the library to gather his collection. The school is empty now, and not even the librarian is in the room. He stands in front of the tables, looking at the cases. He learned how to steam and bend wood, getting the mahogany sideboards wrapped into ninety degree angles to form squares. He took great care in making each of his butterfly cases, buying real cork and laying it out on the inside, then sanding the inner lip of wood which would hold the glass window once he fitted it with hinges.

Then he looks at the smudge marks on the glass cases and feels deeply ill.

Touchy Feely. He promised himself years ago to never cross a line—never touch anyone, and it had become a habit—not touching anyone—something he no longer had to think about until today when he went far enough to be too far.

He walks around the room opening the small brass latches on each case, lifting the glass up so there’s nothing covering his collection. He pulls a Dung Beetle out of the cork by the pin and spins the pin in front of his face. The dark bug orbits on its metal axis. The details of its legs alone are intricate beyond anything he can comprehend. He takes the pin out and places the beetle softly into a silk slip. He knows how gentle you have to be to touch a butterfly, so he’s careful pulling the pins of all of them, even though they now feel deeply tainted. He pulls pins until his entire collection is hanging Waltzing Matilda style in the slip over his shoulder.

He opens one of the large east-facing windows that pull back like a mailbox lid. Warm air comes into the air-conditioned room. He looks at the surrounding houses beyond the school’s playground and watches trees shift with the breeze. Those sedate homes make him think of all the roadside meals he’s eaten alone. On the sidewalk he sees Connor and an older boy that looks just like him.

He lifts the silk bag gently to the lip of the open window, and shakes the contents into the air.

Rare butterflies drift over the street. Their brittle wings scrape apart on the coarse pavement when they touch. The fine flakes lift and fall with the breeze. Some stick in the grass below, and others clutter over a sewer grate and sink in. He watches a Calico cat dart out from a front porch and pinch its teeth into the body of an African Butterfly, carrying it to the doorstep of its own home, where it has probably left bits of mice and birds before. Tonight, it will leave one fully spread and preserved Swallowtail Butterfly’s wing, bright blue with yellow rings working their way outward from the middle like a large eye staring into a light at nighttime.

Like much of my writing, The Butterfly Man is an amalgamation of many different scraps of story material I sewed together. This story developed from a childhood memory of a man who visited my own school with a butterfly collection. Remembering nothing about the man but finding that profession interesting and odd, I wondered what type of life that was he led and what challenges arose for him. But for the longest time I had no story to tell about him. Then I read Dorothy Allison’s novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, which chilled me with a graphic molestation scene. That book left me with the cold sweats as a reader, yet as a writer, I had to reread it to see how she manipulated my sensibilities and feelings in order to learn how to do that in my own writing. What I ended up doing was asking what if this butterfly man I could not find a story for had these horrible urges, and BAM! That was it; the story found its major conflict and Allison’s novel gave me the blueprint and courage to write about something so dark and taboo.