The first time I saw him I sensed there might be something
wrong with him.
Like a kid playing, he had a sheet of drawing paper spread
out before him, about the size of a newspaper. On the paper was
a grid, with a word in each square. The man’s right hand held a
chopstick, from which an origami butterfly hung by a thread.
He closed his eyes and started murmuring; then his right hand,
suspended above the page, began trembling. I couldn’t see the
He seemed to be a most peculiar old man. So many oddballs
and oddities in this metropolis!—that’s what I thought that
first time I saw him amusing himself with a paper butterfly in
the third-floor hallway of our apartment.
The second time I saw him he was crouching in the same place doing the same thing. This time, I couldn’t help wondering—
what if he’s “mental”?
I wanted to inquire about him with a neighbor, but now
there wasn’t any opportunity. Besides, the people in this apartment
were all of a philosophical demeanor, not the sort to be
lightly disturbed. I was new to the building, had already
knocked on two strangers’ doors. I’d nearly been mistaken for a
thief and wasn’t keen on asking further questions.
The third time I saw him, his manner was disturbing. I
halted on the landing above when I realized he was talking to the
paper butterfly suspended from his chopstick. “C’mon, c’mon
papillon, c’mon, c’mon, come papillon, come.”
The skin on my scalp went numb. I was stunned . . . but
determined to see what was going on. When he looked up and
gave me this toothy grin, though, he caught me unaware. My
heart constricted, for at that moment if he went berserk I would
be in serious trouble: he was blocking the way down, and I
didn’t know if anyone would come to my rescue if I called, and
there was no way down from the roof, and by his foot was a
His smile soon hardened. Had my expression baffled him
as well? Or maybe this was a sign he was going to try something?
The moments slipped by without him making any move to
rise. Instead he started waving the paper butterfly in his hand
and working his mouth at me:
“Hail, O spirit of the papillon,” he said in a thick accent.
“Huh? What?” I said.
He beckoned me over; I came down the stairs warily and
stopped a few feet away. For the first time I got a close look at
him: his eyes were clear, his clothes neat, his hair kempt . . . he seemed perfectly normal. He had better be normal, I thought.
And if he’s abnormal, he’d better be “eccentric” and not “ballistic.”
As I was turning the possibilities around in my head, he
smiled and said:
“You live here?”
“Yes, I’m on my way to work.”
“Wait a bit and watch me summon the spirit of the papillon.”
“What? Summon the spirit of the what?”
I didn’t get it and just stood there. There still seemed to be
no good reason for the staff by his side, and when he reached
and grasped it I thought, enough was enough! Without a second
thought, I burned a trail past him, down the stairs and out the
The fourth time I again had the “high ground.” I’d seen
him but he’d not seen me. I crept back up to my fifth-floor flat,
got out my wooden sword, and went back down to the landing
above the third floor to spy on him.
The paper butterfly was quivering above the paper. It
seemed to hover over one square, then flutter over to another
square, and then on to a third square. Now I could make out
some of the symbols in the squares: arrive, come, return, China,
well, son, outside, not, 7, 2, 3, 8, 5, gold, safe, born, girl, etc.
I must have watched him for a couple of minutes, when he
took a deep breath and opened his eyes, setting the paper butterfly
down on one of the squares. He pressed the butterfly with
his hand and pondered the word inside the square.
Finally, he noticed my presence. I held the sword in front
of me, as a deterrence measure. A look of apprehension appearing
on his face: I’d preempted him. Calm and collected, I asked:
“What are you doing?”
“You again! Young man, last time. . . .”
“Exactly what are you doing?”
“I already told you: summoning the spirit of the papillon.
What was wrong with you last time?”
“It looks like a butterfly. What’s a papillon?”
“This is! Papillon means butterfly. You could say I’m
summoning the spirit of the butterfly. You can ask it questions
and it will answer unto you.”
“Why do you always have that staff with you? Were you
going to hit me with it last time?”
“Hit you! What are you talking about? This is a cane . . .