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The Dinard Butterfly

(Eugenio Montale — Farfalla di Dinard)

The little saffron-coloured butterfly which came to seek me every day at the café in the square at Dinard, and which brought me your news (so I thought): will it have returned, after my departure, to that cold and windy little square? It was unlikely that the freezing Breton summer could arouse from kitchen gardens, numb with cold, so many sparks of fire, all alike, all the same colour. Perhaps I had met, not the Dinard butterflies, but the Dinard butterfly, and the point at issue was whether my morning visitor came to see me, especially; whether she deliberately passed over the other cafés because I was in mine (‘Aux Cornouailles’), or whether the corner where I sat was merely a registered stop in her mechanical daily itinerary. In short, morning stroll or secret message? To resolve the doubt, I decided, the day before I left, to leave the waitress a good tip, together with my address in Italy. Her job would be to write me a yes or a no: had the visitor showed up after my departure, or was she no longer to be seen? So I waited until the little butterfly settled on a vase of flowers and, taking out a hundred-franc note, a bit of paper and a pencil, I called the girl. In more hesitant French than usual, stumbling over words, I explained the matter; not the whole matter, but a part. I was a dilettante entomologist; I wished to know whether the butterfly would return again, for as long as it could withstand that cold. Then I paused, sweating and frightened.

Un papillon? Un papillon jaune?’ replied my charming Phyllis, opening wide a pair of eyes which Greuze might have painted. ‘On that vase? But I see nothing. Look more closely. Merci bien, monsieur.

She pocketed the hundred-franc note and departed, carrying a cafetière. I bent my head, and when I raised it again I saw that the butterfly was on the vase of dahlias no longer.