Sex and death


The cabbage-white butterfly dances provocatively above the purple-sprouting broccoli plants in the hot July sunlight. The butterfly doesn’t know it but the broccoli plants are mine.

I’m sitting on the patio and watching this display of intent with growing anxiety and alarm. Soon the butterfly will alight on one of the defenceless turquoise leaves of the broccoli plant and lay one of its tiny grenades of destruction. I have my usual reflex urge to jump up, rush at the butterfly and wave it away from the garden but the two glasses of red wine I’ve just enjoyed has ambushed that reflex midway between my brain and my legs and detained it with inane conversation about how wonderful it is to be alive and how some things just aren’t worth the candle…

So instead, I observe proceedings from my seat with a resigned inevitability.

And then, out of the infinite blue sky, another butterfly appears and doubles my anxiety but almost immediately a third butterfly joins the dance and my alarm switches to curiosity– such a grouping means more than just the routine laying of eggs, is the new arrival going to cut in on the dance?

Such is the hard-wired sex drive of many species that it doesn’t take me long to recognise the primitive, timeless moves of a courtship dance and the posturing displays of males vying for the sexual favours of a female.

The female butterfly settles on the green lawn immediately adjacent to the broccoli plants and disports herself invitingly for the males. One of them attempts to land on her back to mate but the other male interferes and the two take to the air to do battle.

My curiosity aroused, I stand up and walk the few paces into the lawn to get a closer look. The female is only slightly perturbed by my appearance and flies a couple of feet further along the lawn before settling on the grass again. I shadow her move and step closer to her but this time she is content to lay on the grass, such is the abandoned urgency of sex.

One of the males has clearly won the effeminate duel of wing slapping and descends on her open and welcoming back. As they mate I watch their intimacy.

The progeny of these insects will eat my food that is undeniable. As beautiful as they are in their design and movement I can’t get rid of the selfish idea that I should kill them.

I continue to watch their mating, my feet only inches from their copulating bodies. If I stepped on them now during the very sex act they would know death as well – how perfect and tragic.

A sober me would no doubt have let them perform their ritual and then shooed them away afterwards in a delusional belief that they would not return to my garden but the wine had done its damage and in the long, sad history of that drug it momentarily facilitates my base instincts. Taking me by surprise—my moral considerations suddenly swept aside like a wooden beach hut in a tsunami—I witness my foot, armoured in scarred leather, shoot forward and land firmly on the copulating pair.

With a pang of guilt I instantly withdraw my foot but the two white butterflies lie inert among the leaves of grass, dead as petals. The third butterfly sees its chance and returns, dancing to within a few inches of the female, but then must get a sharp scent of death because it quickly departs for good.

Sex and death under a careless sun – the enormity of the incident makes me return to my seat on the patio and ponder my actions.

Several minutes later, I awake from my reverie to see two wasps hover like malevolent angels over the carcasses of the butterflies. They set down on their victims and immediately begin to butcher them.

Again, curiosity gets the better of me and I step forward to witness this new act. With ruthless efficiency they neatly saw off the wings, then the denuded bodies are carried aloft and away like freshly harvested souls for the hell that is the wasps’ nest.

Nothing is wasted in nature. The circle is renewed: the bodies of the butterflies will give birth to new life only not in the shape of caterpillars. Another species will flourish instead.

Then, whilst still standing at the scene of the slaughter on my lawn, I hear a faint but powerful droning sound. It is as if a swarm of monstrous bees is slowly filling the air. I jerk my head up in panic and wildly scan the heavens. And there in the distance I see them. I keep my eyes fixed on the rough black line getting nearer and wider. The droning sound grows louder and louder until it is an all-consuming roar – my empty wine glass, stained red, trembles faintly on the patio table.

The sky darkens and a primitive fear grips my intestines, as I look directly overhead at the heavy layer of bombers sweeping across the sky like a swiftly moving stain of fresh blood. Collectively, they look like the underside of a giant boot poised to crush an unsuspecting town where the inhabitants might be dancing, courting, making love…

I think of the pilots, drunk on their own insane power.

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