Early Butterfly

The train was headed to the Lake Uvs Nuur with a sense of longing; the days of travel were multiplying like grasshoppers and the windows were covered in an icy lace. Snow banks, broken lights in a red-washed waiting room, where the water came to a boil for tea.

She would like to see him.

She had heard about him in many places: in Alma-Ata in Istanbul, in Riga they’d spoken about him in a special way. As if he would still come yet. As if he were already on the way. They hadn’t seen him yet, Early Butterfly, though he set women’s hearts afire all across the plains.

They spoke about how generous, fairy-like, he was.

She would like to see him.

Crazy Timothy had told her about him the same moment he beheaded the rooster. He had told her where to look for him, Early Butterfly, putting his fingers to his lips:

–Shh, the land sleeps.

She nodded.

–Thank you, Timothy. I will go. I will go.

The sleeping land swallowed her; the land embraced her and together they breathed the scalding winter air,

they slept and slept.

They slept in the white embroidery of women’s dreams.

She would like to see him.

She had heard that in one single, clear, starry night he’d flown from Kiev to Moscow even though his wing was frayed, such was his strength. In cards, he always pulls the red queen, he sings, he plays piano, he understands everything because he found eternity in Amsterdam three years ago.

He knows what there is.

Behind the vinyl of an enclosed balcony, under a bee’s wings, in the glow of a curved street lamp.

And he is early, always first, Early Butterfly. That’s how they spoke of him. The dawn under his wing is as dangerous as an ascent to a mountain.

She yearned for mercy, for his mercy, for a wordless gesture.

For intoxicating compassion.

The train was as crowded as the market; a man with a long beard behind Besa’s seat turned on a transistor radio, and love songs came flowing out of it. He slurped schnapps from a flask, leaning against a shovel and happily singing:

–Green were my eyes…

A young Chinese man with a ponytail at the nape of his neck began bowing.

Fish in the bowl on the lap of a girl from Kyrgyzstan twitched.

–They only eat, they don’t make my wishes come true…?

–A wish that has come true is no longer a wish. Beware of longings that have been fulfilled. The pain of common knowledge follows. And one could scream: Give me back my unrequited love!

The Kyrgyzstani girl gave a half-smile and offered Besa a knitted shawl.

–Cover yourself, you’re not wearing very much, it’s cold as hell.

Roses of frost came into bloom on the window.

When Besa was a young girl, she used to hide kittens in the hayloft. The grasses were always friendly to her; when she wandered through them in lonely reflection, when she tried so hard to roll her hoop.

And she became entangled in a juniper bush.

In her long skirt, a nice little basket in her hands, an embroidered handkerchief inside.

A jackdaw crow came; Besa didn’t move. The bird paused; it smelled like mushrooms, and then stole her handkerchief.

–You wipe away my tear from your face.

The tear was big and hot. In the tear a small, enduring, turquoise flame twinkled.

On the table was a puddle of milk; the snowy whiteness twinkled, the puddle slowly grew, it dripped over the edge, and then in it, a leak of red, blue, yellow, colors crept into each other like hungry amoebas.

A firework of colors.

She would like to see him.

A giant hand grabbed the tousled paintbrush. It dipped the brush in an oily liquid and painted, as if driven by powerful desire;

an antenna with a tear on its tip, a frayed skirt and hands hidden in a muff of silver fox fur.

–Somebody, help! Help! Help!

People were escaping the derailed train in a panic, screaming in horror, the cold was a cruel friend.


the Kyrgyzstani girl shook Besa from sleep.

–Please say that you’re just sleeping, ma’am!

She covered her lovingly with the shawl once again.

–It’s so warm.

–Ma’am, you fell asleep… Come, the rescue workers are already coming… It’s not safe to sleep in a sleeping land…come!

She would like to see him.

Across the lake, she journeyed.

She would like to see him.

Through the forest, she rode.

She would like to see him.

The sleeping land was carrying swift fish in the creeks, deer were grunting in icy solitude.

In the window of the lodge, a round face.
–Good day, babka.
–Every day is good, if only the heart is in the right place.
–Have I come to the right spot?
–Where else would you be, my dear girl, do you see any other pitiful old babka?
–You are alone.
–Loneliness is like an animal. You get used to it. Come toward me, come in, let down your hair.

Chicks are cheeping.

On the floor, woven rugs. In the corner of the room, a bucket. From the ceiling, animal pelts were suspended like hanged persons.

–Siberian tiger…

–Young lady, for happiness in marriage nothing is better than a fur cap.
The pelt swung.

–There were three of them, tigers, three winters we hunted them.
–They say that…
–Yes. Words are lost like goose feathers in the wind. The truth, but…
–What is truth, babka?
–Uvs Nuur.

The two of them went there.

The mist was like humid bedsheets.

Dry, salty fish were a shimmering silver.

–He was giant, the tiger. It wounded him, my husband, on the fifty-third day of our
–Did he die?
–Death is kind.
–You think…
–We waited for the butterfly, we waited for help for my husband, for the rustling sound of a frayed wing.
–It wasn’t meant to be.

Babka busied herself with dried twigs.

–What is it, young lady?
–I would like to see him.

Babka started into the distance:

–Look in the lodge, in the last room. It’s unlocked.

Besa ran.

In the frame, a picture.

An antenna with a tear on its tip, a frayed skirt and hands hidden in a muff of silver fox fur.

Besa was overcome with sweet horror.

–Yes, child. It’s him, Early Butterfly.
–Also here. When doaiva becomes certain, then it happens.
I would like to see him.
He would like to see you.

She beckoned to Besa; with a fleeting glance at the stairs, which led to the attic.

–You think…
He would like to see you.
–You didn’t come in vain, though you will leave alone.

The wooden attic gave off a scent of tea.

He sat on a small trunk; an antenna with a tear on its end, a frayed skirt and hands hidden in a muff of silver fox fur.

He wept.

She burst into tears.


Nina Kokelj

Nina Kokelj (b. 1972) is a writer, publicist, and performer. In 1998, Študentska založba Publishing House published her novel Milovanje (Caressing) as part of the Beletrina collection, which earned her the Finest Debut Novel Award and a nomination for the Kresnik Award for Best Novel of the Year. Her subsequent novels are Sviloprejka (Silkworm), Poletje s klovnom (Summer with a Clown), and Slamnata dežela (Straw Land). She also writes for children; her picture book Deček na belem oblaku (Boy on a White Cloud) was put on the renowned White Raven list of noteworthy literature at the International Children's Book Fair in Bologna. Additionally, Kokelj writes for theater and television and enacts her works through a variety of shows for children and performance events.

Aleksandra Velise and Kristina Zdravič Reardon

Aleksandra Velise is a freelance interpreter and translator of Slovene, Italian, and English. She is finishing an M.A. in translation and conference interpreting at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and is in her final year in the multidisciplinary postgraduate program at the Slovene Educational Consortium in Gorizia, Italy. She earned a B.A., cum laude, from the University of Trieste, Italy. She has lived in Austria on an Erasmus exchange and interned at the Directorate-General for Translation at the European Commission in Luxembourg and at Danieli Studios in Australia.


Kristina Zdravič Reardon is a PhD candidate in Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at the University of Connecticut. After earning an MFA in creative writing from the University of New Hampshire in 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright grant and spent a year in Ljubljana translating fiction. She is the recipient of several grants, prizes, and fellowships in writing and translation from Spanish and Slovenian into English. Her work has been published in World Literature Today, Words Without Borders, and Slovene Studies, and is forthcoming in Norton's international flash fiction anthology. She is grateful to Nina, Aleksandra, and the translation faculty at the University of Ljubjlana for their guidance on the translation of this story in particular.

Early Butterfly. Copyright (c) Beletrina Academic Press, 2009. English translation copyright (c) Aleksandra Velise and Kristina Zdravič Reardon, 2014.