(all photos by Tom Little)
Nathalie’s father had always told her that she was surely the smallest and quickest seven year-old girl in France. And if not the whole of the country, he would add with a smile, then surely in the Départment? She had certainly run fast that morning, she knew that; along the low wall to the shadow of the great pot which held a small olive tree. She crouched there, on her haunches, waiting patiently for the man to leave the fence. It was the same place she always fled to when she thought he would see her watching through the cracks, but this was the first time he had really noticed her. Her heart beat soundly, slowly losing its rapidity, and she breathed quietly in the silence.
The olive tree was down along the side of the wooden fence, and she could reach it without disturbing the gravel that lay in great tracts about the rest of her home’s little corner of Provence. She knew the man would have heard little to give away her whereabouts, and as the moments passed she gradually regained her composure. As she did so she thought about the butterfly she had watched the man photograph with his enormous camera. She was certain she had never seen a camera like that before, not close up.
Another minute passed, and hearing nothing untoward, she slowly raised her head until she could peer over the rim of the pot, her face obscured by low branches. The fence was clear, there was no one there, and she stood up a little ungainly as blood eased back into her joints. Then, watching carefully for any sign of the man from the fence, she flitted from pot to pot, bush to bush, back up the slight incline towards the steps of the terrace of her home. Reaching the door, she slipped inside and then quietly made her way upstairs to her room where she crossed quickly to her window which looked out on the gravelled garden and down to the fence. Over the other side she could see the man’s lawn and the back of his house, a view she had been carefully watching now for four months since he had arrived in the spring. She stood there quietly, half hidden in the shadow the summer sun threw across the window frame, and wondered about that huge camera a little more.
It was the flash of colour in the late afternoon light that attracted Tom’s attention. He was working at the little island unit in his kitchen, a small slab of marble on wooden legs with castors that he chased the sun with each day, moving it each evening next to the west window for a view of something other than the road that appeared through the window’s twin at the east end of the house. He was re-building the gear-train for his bicycle on a bed of absorbent paper, his fingers deft as a surgeon amongst the cogs and ball-races when a glimpse of metallic blue fluttering across the lawn instantly drew his attention.
Startled, his fingers stopped in mid air, a hex-nut in one hand and a hex-driver in the other, and his mouth opened in surprise as he saw clearly the visitor to his garden that had flitted over the fence from the gravelled garden of his neighbour. Instinctively he noted the size of it, a butterfly with a wingspan of perhaps six inches, and then he realised what he was looking at. Throwing down the tool and the nut, he ran for his camera in the bag in the hallway by the door, where it was always ready for action. It is a practice many macro photographers around the world share, for opportunity never lingers long. His bare feet slapped on the floor as he moved, and his brain was racing, eliminating species he knew, leaving a sole candidate for the insect that was now scribing a flight pattern over his lawn.
“Morpho helenor,” he muttered to himself as he grappled with the bag and withdrew the big Canon camera. “It has to be a blue morpho – it cannot be anything else, but what on earth is it doing here?”
And as he attached the big Sigma macro lens to the camera he was already listing the details he could remember of the species, a butterfly endemic to central and South America. It was a species he had last seen in Mexico, four years previously. Moving easily for a tall man, he ran quickly to the back door and gently slid it open, turning on the camera as he did so. He scanned the garden for the splash of blue, but also well aware that if the butterfly was now perched it would be a figure of brown.
There was no sign of it, and he went down a step onto the burnt summer grass, aware of the feel of it between his toes. Drawn towards the buddleia bush he headed in its direction, but already his brain was reminding him that the morpho was not a nectar feeder. He tried to remember something as he moved cautiously across the grass his eyes scanning all the plants he could see. There was a detail pricking at his consciousness, even as his eyes searched in vain for the intruder.
“Come on, Tom,” he urged himself, knowing he was forgetting a detail that was important. “Come on,” and he clenched his fist in annoyance, still looking in every direction. At that moment he saw the bird-feeder in the short flowerbed, a purchase he had put up when he had first arrived, a wooden roofed perch with a floor on a pole that attracted all manner of birds for his camera. Even though he had cut back the food he put on the perch as winter waned, there were still some seeds and fruit on the wood, and instantly he yelped inwardly with joy, for on the rotten banana that lay there was a brown shape, arched in outline. The morpho is a fruit-feeder, and as Tom slowly came closer, one step at a time, the shadow of the butterfly tilted into sunlight and he saw the unmistakable line of ‘eyes’ along the rim of the wings. He gasped in delight and closing in, put the camera to his eye and started to take photographs at that distance before going any further, his long legs shaking a little with excitement as they inched him closer.
Across the burnt grass, past the buddleia, over the fence and at the end of the gravelled garden of the white house next door, the blind at the corner of an upstairs window twitched, as though someone was watching.
“Probably an escapee, Tom,” said a nasal voice at the other end of the Facebook chat. It was his brother, Alex Little, a Doctor of Biology at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, and the distant brother continued, “Which is why it did not survive the night, I assume,” and Tom remembered how he had felt the next morning when he had found the morpho quite dead, lying gracefully on the wooden floor of the feeder, with not a scale on its wings out of place. Its corpse was still in the house, perched on the mantel of the fireplace. Tom had never mounted an insect in his life and so had simply arranged the beast so it seemed to be alive, standing on a piece of cork in which he had pinned two wooden tooth-picks to keep it upright. Happily, it had provided some extremely detailed close-up photographs which had proved a talking point on several Internet forums Tom liked to visit, and even before he talked with Alex he knew that the insect had most likely been an escapee, perhaps from some butterfly fanatic in the neighbourhood, or even the zoo to the south east of Issac. There had never been a morpho record in Europe, and it was a one in a billion chance that Tom could have seen the first one. An escapee seemed to be the only solution, but Tom was happy to have had the chance to record the species with his Canon.
“Have you still got the specimen, Tom?” asked his brother, and Tom replied down the internet, his voice across the ethernet but one star amid a twinkling twilight of trans-Atlantic callers.
“I’ll keep it for you, Alex, don’t worry. I’ll be home for Christmas, I hope, so I’ll bring it then unless you want it posted?” and the two brothers talked into the evening, maintaining the close contact they had always enjoyed, even when separated by the distance of their different disciplines. From the mantelpiece, the dead morpho seemed to listen, its lifeless eyes unaware that its future was under discussion.
(PART III will follow next week)