Today, we are proud to present “Lepidomancy,” the second-place winner of our Fall Fiction Contest judged by Brian Evenson. This story blew us away from the start. In “Lepidomancy,” there exists a conservatory full of butterflies who can foretell people’s future. Hannah and her husband Steven have a daughter with a rare chromosomal disorder, and they must decide whether or not to take her to see the butterflies.
“The butterflies don’t seem to care for questions about the future of humanity, the outcomes of wars, the meaning of life. They won’t reveal winning lottery numbers, name which horse to bet your retirement fund on, or proclaim the outcome of an election. You can’t ask questions about someone else, either—only the personal is under their purview.”
The fortune-telling butterfly conservatory first opened in Beijing two years ago, in the refurbished Olympics velodrome, and when it became clear this wasn’t a stunt or a hoax, people waited in line for days to glimpse their destinies. A couple of months later the conservatory moved on to a stadium-sized complex erected in place of an abandoned Soviet-era village near Moscow, and people traveled from as far as Magadan to ask their questions. Cape Town, Oslo, Dubai, Adelaide followed. It’s the oldest human desire, to attempt some measure of control over the vagaries of fate. The butterflies arrived in their first North American location a month ago—a gleaming glass dome near Dead Horse Bay in south Brooklyn. The feverish buzz is that the butterflies haven’t been wrong once yet. Sitting up in bed at night, a pillow bunched behind her lower back, the laptop screen dimmed almost to black so as not to wake up Steven beside her, Hannah tracks the butterfly news stories, eyewitness reports, forums, with a hunger that won’t let her sleep. The steady hiss of their daughter’s ventilator from the next room fills the night.
* * *
When Hannah comes into the University of Pittsburgh Department of Biology office Monday morning, everyone is clustered around Beth’s desk with the kind of strained, zealot attention that can only mean one thing.
“I went!” Beth calls to her from the middle of the congregation.
There are five people in the office who have visited the butterflies already. Antoine—Dr. Siegal—was shown that he’ll meet his future spouse on a dog sledding trip, so he immediately booked a week-long excursion to the Yukon during winter break. They told the facilities services manager, Inna, that she’ll die at ninety-two, so she started smoking again after a decade on the wagon, sometimes sucking on two cigarettes at once. Arslan the grants administrator wouldn’t share what he asked or how the butterflies replied, but he was off for a week afterward and came back quiet, withdrawn, his gaze failing to find purchase on anything.
“I’m going to have three grandbabies!” Beth says. Her office is decorated with photos of her family clothespinned to a length of twine zigzagging across the wall, a progression of her only daughter featured in baby photos, graduation portraits, sun-lit vacation snaps, interspersed with evil eye charms and origami cranes dangling from strings.
“How did they show you?” asks Lee, the international student liaison, who went to the conservatory a week ago with her whole extended family as though it was Disneyland.
“Drew it—there I was, a toddler in my lap and two older children, a boy and a girl, sitting crosslegged beside me, looking up at me. I seem to be telling them a story.” Beth holds up her palms as though the image is still there, a fragile daguerreotype of her future progeny.