Summer Fiction: If You Step On A Butterfly...

GRACE TONG
Last updated 16:08 18/01/2014

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Her hair was orange like the van that hit her. As she lay dying on the road the blood from her head dyed her hair a deeper red, then dried brown, causing the man who gave her initial description to call her brunette, which had her mother convinced, for several miraculous minutes, that it was someone else's daughter in the morgue.

She'd been carrying several shopping bags that scattered across the street. A silk scarf flew away for someone else to find, trampled in the gutter with the tags still on. A floral skirt became entwined with a pair of men's jeans like the evidence of a secret love affair.

The closet in her room, her mother discovered, was full of unopened shopping bags, canned food and crockery and shoes and clothes, so many clothes.

The afterlife was nothing special. A man, in a room, with a machine.

His skin was a rich ebony and he had an Eastern European accent. She didn't care about things making sense. She didn't care, she found, about anything any more really.

The machine was a time machine. She didn't know how she knew, perhaps he had told her. It was odd, that she knew what his accent was and that this was a time machine but she'd only been here for a moment and no one had spoken yet.

Or perhaps she'd been here for an age already and they'd spent the whole time talking.

"It's a time machine," he would've said at some point, "and it gives you the chance to save yourself."

She would have asked, in a perfectly scripted pause "save myself?" with an appropriate upwards inflection to indicate a question, like a poorly trained actor.

"You go back," he might have said, "and you find yourself in the consciousness of another being. If you're lucky, if you persist enough, you will be in the right being at the right time, and you can save yourself."

"How do I know who I will be?" she probably asked. "Is it completely random?"

"If you focus on your death as you sit in the machine then you are more likely to end up near your original self," he hypothetically would have explained, "so that is the only way to increase your chance of saving yourself."

He may also have said "you are lucky that you have a preventable death" but he probably didn't, and he definitely didn't say "you have to beat the careless feeling you have right now, to prove that your life is worth living."

The first time she gets in the machine she is a young boy called Ben.

The young boy slowly speared a piece of sausage with his fork and dragged it through the tomato chutney. It was always chutney at his aunt's, not proper tomato sauce like at home. Chutney, a deep red speckled with black dots.

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"Come on Ben, eat up," said his mum, "quick, before it gets cold."

Ben pushed the sausage into his mouth and chewed, the chutney thick and spicy and wrong. The grown-ups chatted and Ben's aunt took his plate, his mum not noticing the pile of mashed potato and half a sausage left uneaten. Ben climbed off his chair and slipped round to his mum. Not glancing down, wrapped up in conversation, she gently pulled Ben onto her lap. Ben rested his head on his mum's chest, feeling the rumble of her voice and the jiggle of her head nodding, the occasional eruption of laughter that went right down to her stomach.

Finally after another glass of wine, which Ben had tasted and rejected, his mum stood up still holding Ben and said: "Right, let's get you off to bed, mister." Ben shook his head but already they were halfway down the hall. He was gently lowered onto his aunt's waterbed where he wriggled for a moment, feeling the water slosh beneath him, until his mum pulled the blankets over him and kissed him goodnight. Ben could smell the wine on her breath.

He dozed, the light from the hall streaming through the slightly ajar door, along with voices, music and laughter. After what seemed like an age his dad came in and scooped him up, blankets and all, in his safe strong arms. Ben settled back into his doze in the car while his parents said goodbye. His mum slid into the driver's seat. This was unusual. She started the car and they drove off into the night. The streetlights made patterns through the window. An orange van overtook them on the highway.

A few blocks down Ben was faintly aware, through the barricade of sleep, of the car stopping. The burst of cold air that entered the car with her mother's unwound window forced Ben to snuggle further into his nest of blankets. He opened an eye and saw flashing lights and a policeman by the window. His mother and the policeman talked briefly then he waved her on.

As Ben drifted in and out of sleep he heard his parents talking in the front seat. The words washed over him and he didn't understand.

At some point she finds that she is no longer Ben and she is back in the room, the afterlife room.

The man was sitting cross-legged on the ground. He pointed at the machine.

"You can try again, if you like," he suggested. "Make sure you concentrate on your death."

The fifth time she was a bird. By the time she figured out how to fly, the self she was trying to save was already dead.

The tenth and eleventh times she didn't concentrate and ended up in Hong Kong and Tahiti respectively.

At least in Hong Kong she was a human.

In Tahiti she was a turtle. When she got back to the room she had to sit and cry. It was so slow and warm being a turtle in the sun. She had never felt slowness as a mood before but as the turtle it was the inherent nature of her being. As the turtle she sought slowness like a man seeks happiness. The sand was hot beneath her belly and she had just finished burying her eggs, but she had finished burying them an age ago. Everything around her was so fast and impatient. She could feel the fastness building in her belly and she pushed it aside. Like a man fighting anger she breathed deeply, taking the air through her salt- encrusted nostrils. She pulled her limbs inside her shell, letting the darkness wash over her and instil the slowness in her mind. The speed that had rushed into her heart gently faded. She thought about returning to the ocean. She thought about each movement it would take to return to the water and delighted in the way she would drag it out. One small step at a time. The heat of the sun beating on her shell but she felt no need to escape it. She was content in her slowness.

Back in the room, for her twelfth try, she didn't want to go. She was sitting on the floor crying about being a turtle when the man took her arm and pulled her to the machine.

"It is too soon for you to give up," he said. "You can be a turtle when you live."

The machine was a dentist's chair. It was a whitish leather covered with a paper towel, slightly reclining. The man would tilt her head back and pull the light over her face. He would shine it into her mouth but still it would blind her. It would blind her but also shine down her throat up her nostrils, stinging her sinuses, eating into her brain.

When her vision cleared, she would be someone else.

On the sixtieth try she woke up hungry.

She was a 15-year-old girl called Jessie who had not eaten for five days. She was in the orange van.

The problem with waking in another's body was which consciousness would dominate. With the bird, it had been easy. The bird was weak-minded so her human mind took control. The turtle's strong emotions had ruled but she had kept her human sentience. The little boy had been sleepy; easily dominated.

The hungry Jessie was a different story. She wasn't prepared for the hunger and it overtook all her other intentions. Hunger pushed everything else to the side; even her physical survival in her original body was less important than feeding this current body. Food was her number one priority and nothing else mattered. She was going to die, again, for the fifth time because Jessie had chosen not to eat for five days.

Jessie had the hunger under control. After the second day, she was able to concentrate on other things and ignore it. The trick was to drink lots of water, cups of tea when it got really bad (black or herbal). The hunger made her mind sharper, more aware. She was alert to every change in circumstances. The slightest drop in temperature. The briefest touch of wind. Any new smell.

A new presence in her mind went almost completely unnoticed, however. Jessie's father was driving the van.

The new presence in Jessie's mind went almost, but not entirely unnoticed. Jessie's father was driving the van and he was talking on the phone.

The new presence in Jessie's mind had one effect that made it unable to slip entirely under the radar.

Jessie's father was driving the van and he was talking on the phone to her mother, his ex-wife, and they were talking about Jessie and he was trying not to let her overhear.

The new presence in Jessie's mind was so taken by the hunger that it became instantly a forethought again, for Jessie.

Jessie's father was driving the van and her mother, his ex-wife, was telling him that she didn't think Jessie had been eating. As she was telling him this Jessie suddenly became overwhelmingly hungry, and the new presence in her mind overwhelmed her urge to control the hunger with an urge to satisfy the hunger.

So as Jessie's father looked over at his daughter (as her mother told him that his daughter no longer ate) he watched as she suddenly sat up straight, scrambled around the car, first tearing open a bag of mints she found in the glove box and eating six at once before grabbing the half- eaten hamburger that had been sitting on the dashboard for over an hour (it had gone cold and now been re-heated by the sun) and shovelling it into her mouth as fast as she could.

The same Jessie who had not eaten meat since she saw the movie Babe aged 8, who had always picked at her food and apparently (according to her mother, his ex- wife) did not eat any more.

Her father was so shocked by her actions that he stopped talking on the phone, stopped paying attention to the road (his foot may even have pressed harder on the accelerator).

He ran a red light and didn't see the girl with orange hair.

- Grace Tong has just finished her third year of an LLB/BA in English Literature at Victoria University. 

- © Fairfax NZ News

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