His Butterfly ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the United States Navy had seen the world and known many woman. In 1902, while stationed in Nagasaki, Japan, he took unto himself a Japanese wife. She went by the name of Butterfly and she was young, innocent, untried and untested. Any objective observer might have said the marriage between Lieutenant Pierce and his Butterfly was a misalliance and doomed to failure.
Butterfly believed that Lieutenant Pinkerton would take her back to America with him—what American husband wouldn’t?—and she would be happy for the rest of her days. Happy knowing she was the perfect wife for her perfect American husband.
Forward-looking—and impelled by her desire to be a good American wife—Butterfly abandoned the religion of her Nipponese ancestors and converted to Christianity. Her family, never too keen on her marriage to an American in the first place, disowned and abandoned her. She believed, however, that her all-consuming love for Lieutenant Pinkerton would see her though any of life’s tribulations.
Lieutenant Pinkerton rented a pretty little house with sliding doors on a hillside in Nagasaki. He and Butterfly were blissfully happy for a few days, but then he was called away again. Such is the life of the navy man. Not to worry, though. He would be back and get his Butterfly and take her back to America with him and all would be well.
Butterfly waited. Days became weeks and weeks months. Every day she went to the top of the hill overlooking Nagasaki harbor and watched for signs of the return of Lieutenant Pinkerton’s ship, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. Every day she returned to the little house with the sliding doors with a lump of disappointment in her throat, but with the belief and the hope that the next day would be the day of his glorious return.
Suzuki, Butterfly’s faithful servant, wanted to write to Lieutenant Pinkerton, wherever he was, and tell him he had a son, but Butterfly wouldn’t let her; she would tell him herself, whenever the time was right, and that would be upon his return to Nagasaki. (The boy, conceived on the wedding night, was called Sorrow. When his papa returned to claim him, he would be called Joy.)
Time passed, more time than Butterfly ever imagined, and still the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln did not reappear in Nagasaki harbor. A wealthy man of Butterfly’s own race, having heard the talk of her erstwhile American husband, proposed marriage to her, but she turned him down. She already had a husband, she said, and she didn’t want another.
And then the day came, as Butterfly knew it would!
The American consul sent word that Lieutenant Pinkerton was back in Nagasaki! Her joy knew no limits. When she thought about the moment when she would lay eyes on him again, she felt that she would not be able to continue breathing. Her chest would not contain her wildly beating heart. She would die of happiness.
With Suzuki’s help and the help of her tiny son, Butterfly gathered flowers to adorn the house. The three of them put flowers everywhere, making the indoors seem like an extension of the garden.
Finally, after these hurried preparations, the moment arrived. Pinkerton was on his way up the hill. When she saw him far away out the window, she drew in her breath and covered her mouth with her hand. She asked the Christian God to give her strength.
When the knock came, Suzuki opened the door. There stood Lieutenant Pinkerton, much the same as the last time she saw him, his face a little thinner and graying at the temples.
He took a few steps inside the door, smiling and uncertain. Butterfly wanted to run to him, but that was not the way of her people. As she watched him remove his hat and walk nearer, her face clouded when she saw he was not alone. Coming through the door behind him was a stylish American lady in a beautiful white dress. In about three beats of her heart, Butterfly understood all.
“Everything looks lovely,” Lieutenant Pinkerton said, seeing the flowers. “This is the most beautiful place on earth.”
He was going to take Butterfly’s hands in his, but she bowed in front of him.
“I am honored,” she said.
“I want you to meet someone,” Lieutenant Pinkerton said. “This is Laura. My wife.”
The stylish American lady in the white dress stepped forward smiling. “How do you do?” she said. “I’m so happy to meet you!”
“I am honored,” Butterfly said, bowing again.
“I hope you have been well,” Lieutenant Pinkerton said formally.
“Yes. Well,” Butterfly said.
“I wasn’t sure if you would remember me after all this time.”
Butterfly turned away and Suzuki helped her out of the room.
When Suzuki came back a few minutes later, alone, Lieutenant Pinkerton was waiting.
“Butterfly asks to be excused at this time,” Suzuki said. “She extends every apology.”
“I’ve come for the child,” Lieutenant Pinkerton said.
“Yes, my son. I mean to take him back to America and give him the upbringing he deserves.”
“You don’t think he belongs with his mother?”
“He will have a mother. My wife.”
“Butterfly begs your forgiveness. She asks that you return tomorrow at this time, when she will be better able to converse with you.”
“Well, all right,” Lieutenant Pinkerton said. “I guess I can do that. But tell her I won’t tolerate any monkey business of any kind from her or any of her family. I’ll come back tomorrow at the same time to collect the child. Tell her to say her goodbyes and have his suitcase all packed. I won’t brook any further delay.”
After Lieutenant Pinkerton left, Suzuki went to the room at the back of the house where Butterfly was. She was standing at the window looking out at the trees.
“Japanese wife is a not real wife for American husband,” Butterfly said.
“He will come back tomorrow at the same time to take the boy,” Suzuki said.
“He will not take my son from me.”
“What will you do?”
“I know I can’t beat him in a court of law, so I will beat him another way.”
“After we dine, you will take the boy into the hills to the home of your mother and father. Don’t tell anybody where you are going. Stay there until I send word that it is safe to come back.”
“My family will be happy for me to pay visit with delightful boy,” Suzuki said.
During the unhurried meal that they took on the terrace, Butterfly informed the boy that he was going away for a few days to the country with Suzuki.
“Aren’t you coming, too?” he asked.
“Not this time,” Butterfly said. “I have to stay home and tend the flowers.”
“After we get to the river, we’ll take the boat the rest of the way,” Suzuki said. “You’ll like the boat.”
Suzuki put the things she would need and the things the boy would need into a bag, changed her shoes, and she was ready to go. Butterfly walked to the road with them, carrying the boy. At the point of departure, Butterfly handed him over to Suzuki.
“Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye!” Butterfly said. She kissed the boy on his forehead and on each cheek and he began to cry.
“Soon you will be back home again,” she said. “You will not be lonely.”
“Don’t worry about us,” Suzuki said. “There is a full moon tonight and we have friends all along the way.”
When Lieutenant Pinkerton returned the next day with his American wife and the American consul, Sharpless, Butterfly greeted them graciously, as she would any old friend. She served them tea and poppyseed cakes and asked them questions about America and about their sea voyage. After an hour or so of small talk, Lieutenant Pinkerton, who had been squirming impatiently the whole time, asked where his son was.
Butterfly looked at him and smiled her sweet smile. “He is not here,” she said.
“Not here?” Lieutenant Pinkerton said. “Didn’t you hear what I said yesterday? I mean to take the boy with me and our boat leaves at four o’clock.”
“He is not here,” Butterfly said.
“Where is he?”
“He is not here and the time of his return has not been decided.”
Lieutenant Pinkerton stood up abruptly and glared at Butterfly. “I don’t know what you are playing at here, but whatever it is it’s not going to work. If you think you can defy me, you will feel the full force of American jurisprudence.”
“Have another cup of tea,” Butterfly said.
Lieutenant Pinkerton was not accustomed to having his desires thwarted, as Butterfly well knew. He would threaten or intimidate as he saw fit. She would stand against him like a small boat in a big storm. The Christian God stood beside her.
“If you stand in the way of my taking my son with me today,” he said. “I want you to know I will be back with a team of American lawyers trained in Japanese law. We Americans are very determined in all things.”
“I hope you have a most safe and pleasant journey back to America. I will tell my son upon his return that his father paid us a visit and inquired after his health.”
Sharpless and Lieutenant Pinkerton’s wife gave Butterfly sympathetic smiles. The wife approached Butterfly and wanted to shake her hand but Butterfly retreated to the far side of the room with downcast eyes.
Butterfly expected more raging from Lieutenant Pinkerton that day or the next, but she heard nothing. When she went to the top of the hill overlooking Nagasaki harbor, she was relieved to see the American ship had departed.
Suzuki and the boy returned home after four days in the country and it was a most joyous reunion. The boy had many stories to relate to his mother about boats on the river and about the farm animals he had seen.
He grew up to be a decent young man with the beauty of two races. Butterfly gave him the name Benjamin Pink, so he would never forget his American father. He got a job at the American hospital as an orderly and hoped to train as a doctor’s assistant. He married a comely Nagasaki girl and within five years they had three children, two boys and a girl. No matter how large the family became, he would always insist that Butterfly live with them. He couldn’t envision them ever living apart.
Butterfly heard many years later that Lieutenant Pinkerton was dead. She wrote his American wife, whose kind face she remembered, a letter of condolence. A month later she received a reply, telling her that Lieutenant Pinkerton had never stopped thinking about his little Japanese Butterfly and the little son he never laid eyes on. He hoped they might all of them meet together in heaven one day so he could beg their forgiveness.
After reading the letter, Butterfly wiped away her tears, the last she would ever shed for Lieutenant Pinkerton, and put the letter in a drawer where it wouldn’t be disturbed. Someday, when the time was right, she would get the letter out again and, as they all sat around the table, she would tell them what a fine American man he was and how lucky she was to have known him.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp