A cloud of yellow butterflies swarms around Mauricio Babilonia’s head in One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of the novel’s deeply evocative images. The insects are so devoted to him that they herald his arrival to his lover Meme. Initially, I thought if this character has his own host of ethereal beauties reminiscent of fragrant flowers and sweet nectar, he must be special.
When we moved to our farm, we let wild grasses and weeds blanket the ground. After rains, a multitude of yellow, white, and orange butterflies flitted in the sun. When I set up a garden, I paid the price for having these beautiful creatures. Voracious caterpillars advanced like blight. I concocted all kinds of herbal juices to deter them, but my spells didn’t work.
We planted trees that shaded out the grass and weeds, and those butterflies were replaced by larger ones like crimson rose, common crow, and blue tiger. They swarmed around the flowers of one tree in particular: the divi-divi.
The flowers of the attractive native of the Caribbean have a heady fragrance, and butterflies hang from them in clusters like fruits. By this time, I had abandoned gardening altogether and gave the caterpillars free run of the garden. Now, when large blue mormons flash their startling bluish-white wings, our eyes glaze over from wonderment.
Years after I read Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s tale, I had my own Mauricio moment. Rom and I were following a dry streambed through a rainforest on a hot, sunny morning. A bevy of common bluebottle butterflies and assorted other species hovered around me, resting on my head and shoulders when I paused to catch my breath.
Some settled along the length of my bare arms. Even though cicadas sang loud enough to drown any other sound, I could hear the paper-like wings beating above my head. Some butterflies were so anxious to get close, they brushed softly against my face. I didn’t want to leave the moving halo, even though a steaming meal awaited us at camp.
Our visit coincided with the first monsoon that triggered the simultaneous hatching of many species of butterflies from their chrysalises.
Smelly sweat seems to attract butterflies more than sweet-smelling flowers. In the tropical humidity, my clothes were soaked and my skin was covered in salty sweat.
I was just a butterfly feeder on the move, not the Chosen One.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the butterflies don’t leave Mauricio alone. Fluttering about in a scorpion-overrun bathroom where he makes love to Meme, they give away his presence. An armed sentry posted by Fernanda, Meme’s mother, shoots Mauricio, paralysing him. Instead of representing all things sunny, sweet, and colourful, in the book, a host of these ethereal creatures are a harbinger of tragedy.
For one of our films, Rom and I wanted to do a butterfly sequence. No matter how much I stank, I couldn’t attract clouds of them. To go looking for butterflies would be like chasing will-o’-the-wisps. One knowledgeable friend suggested baiting butterflies with overripe fruit. We split open a jackfruit that was on the verge of fermenting and placed it in a clearing and waited. Nothing happened.
Someone else suggested we pour rum on the fruit. Hours passed and the fruit stank.
But no butterflies came. By mid-afternoon, with few daylight hours left, we began to get desperate.
Another suggested urinating on the fruit. Even that failed to lure the insects. At sunset, we gave up and turned our attention to other shots.
The next afternoon, one of the trackers said butterflies were swarming on the fruit. We ran down to the clearing and found moths, butterflies, and flies jostling for space on the fermenting fetid fruit.
Here’s my question to Márquez: To have all those butterflies flutter about Mauricio, how did he smell?