Published on 2012/10/28

Butterfly Voice

Julia Warner

Cora understood animals the way you hear the ocean through a seashell. Their voices were muffled by wind and rain, their words scrambled by disbelief, but they were audible. Like a red balloon, they drifted up into Cora’s ears and became something tangible.

Cora was born silent and had been so her entire life. When her mother held her for the first time, she didn’t even open her mouth. This troubled the doctors, who were accustomed to screaming, kicking babies and noisy deliveries. They wanted to take her away. But her mother wrapped her arms around Cora and said, “That’s my baby. A listener.”

Sometimes, Cora liked to wiggle her tongue around the roof of her mouth, imagining the way her voice would sound if she spoke. In the deepest part of her chest, she’d feel a tiny vibration, like the tickle of butterfly feet. Would it spill from her lips like rapids of ice water? Would it crack like sun-dried clay? Would it drip like honey?

No one knew her butterfly voice existed. It was buried in the pit of her stomach, sometimes wandering into her throat and climbing to hide behind her teeth but never gracing her tongue. She was saving it for something special.

So she listened.

In the mornings, Cora would open the window and let the birds eat sunflower seeds from her hand. The sparrows were chatty creatures; they would ruffle their feathers and fill the air with gossip like a bunch of old ladies at a book club. The robins and blue jays were fewer; they were too proud to associate themselves with sparrows, but when they did come, they told long, exaggerated stories that lasted for hours. Rarer still were the bluebirds, mild creatures who always thanked Cora with sweet, quavering love songs.

As a token of their appreciation, the birds would lead Cora through the forest that grew behind her house. They were generous tour guides; they showed her the tallest trees, the richest berries, the coldest creeks. With their guidance, Cora ventured off the beaten dirt path and into the belly of a wood she had never seen. At its heart was a thick canopy of burgeoning growth and dynamic color. Here, she brushed her hands against dark, old trees and caressed the heads of bulbous flowers, memorizing their beauty with her gentle touch. Their textures became infused with the skin on her fingertips.

From time to time, Cora would trip over a bushy-tailed squirrel or a floppy-eared rabbit, and she would fall. Cora assumed her loud clumsiness would frighten the critters and send them scampering, but they always waited. Rumors were ricocheting through the forest, reaching every ear and spawning great curiosity. Who was this girl, the listener? Cautiously, they’d approach her; then, like bees to a flower, they’d jump into her arms and speak.

On these days in the forest, Cora’s ears would swell with stories. Her mind would fill with words of love, happiness, pain, loss, regret, wisdom—it struck Cora how oddly similar the animals’ lives were to her own. They had loved ones, memories, favorite foods and favorite trees. They shivered in the cold. They fussed over their children. They cried out in pain.

One day in particular, while Cora was following the birds, she stumbled across a honey-brown fawn curled up and sobbing in the grass. Moved, she bent down and scooped the fawn into her arms. There she sat, stroking his soft head until the creature’s sobs became tears and his tears became sniffles. When the fawn was calm enough to speak, it told Cora that earlier, he had seen his mother felled by a hunter. Horrified, Cora hugged the fawn and kissed its head and promised that she would look out for him. She didn’t speak a word, but the fawn understood all the same.

That night, Cora resolved never to eat another animal. It was hard to explain to her parents, who were angered when she didn’t touch the chicken on her plate. Cora could feel the butterfly voice bubbling up, threatening to spill out of her mouth at last. She wanted to explain, but she sat and chewed her bread in silence. Then she went to her bed and slept. Her mother feared Cora had fallen ill and spent the better part of the night pressing a damp cloth to her daughter’s forehead and taking her temperature. Cora was not ill, just heartsick.

Each day in the week that followed, Cora’s parents tried to serve her meat. They looked all over town for new recipes—roasted duck served with plum sauce, spicy chicken soup, beef stroganoff with onions and sour cream. Fragrant aromas wafted up the stairs into Cora’s bedroom, but she refused to eat a bite. Exasperated, her parents hired chef after chef, promising a huge sum of money to whomever could please their daughter, but each in turn gave up and left. News of the challenge spread all over the town and then across waters until it became quite famous around the world. Five-star chefs from Paris crowded the little house by the woods, taking up so much space that they set up tents outside and formed a long waiting list. Each wanted their chance to unravel the mystery of the silent girl who ate no meat.

No one could.

For four years, this carried on. Each day, Cora would follow the birds into the forest to visit her fawn, who was in actuality no longer a fawn, but a strapping young buck. Sometimes the chefs, growing more and more desperate, would follow her, eager to understand the workings of her mind. But they couldn’t hear the birds, or they just refused to listen, so the moment they stepped off the path they became lost. Cora would hug her fawn and feed him sugar cubes, listen to his new stories, and laugh inwardly when the chefs cried for help. Only when she tired of their ignorance would she return to lead the way.

Then one day, a young hunter by the name of Tarin was passing through the village. He was an attractive fellow with a lean build, and, like most of the travelers passing through, Cora’s peculiar story had piqued his interest. Tarin was by no means a five-star chef, but he was of the arrogant disposition that whatever he did could not fail, so, whistling a merry tune, he set off for her house. Upon arriving, he was met by a long line of chefs, some pleasant, some bored and grim-faced, but each one as impertinent and determined to succeed as the next.

Tarin reckoned that if he waited in this ludicrous line, it would be days—weeks even—before he got his chance to cook for Cora. He needed money, and his only source of income came from hunting. After speaking with Cora’s father to reserve a spot on the waiting list, Tarin strode off for the forest behind the house, intent on hunting some game.

Cora was following a cheerful woodpecker through the brush. She had traveled this part of the forest so often that she hardly needed a guide to lead her around anymore. She was eighteen now, a practical adult. Still, Cora liked the company, and the woodpecker’s memoirs were entertaining. She never passed up an opportunity to listen to the animals. Every so often, a squirrel or a chipmunk or a songbird would stop to say hello, and Cora would smile, wave, and toss some sunflower seeds.

Tarin followed the winding dirt path a little ways into the forest before abandoning it to follow a deer trail. He had his compass and his whistle; he was plenty prepared to find his way back to the house. Brushing aside an obdurate tree branch, he spied fresh hoof prints and laughed. The tracks went straight through the mud and over a hill; they outlined his path like giant, blinking arrows. It would be comically easy to catch the creature from this point on.

Cora reached into her pocket to pull out a sugar cube. Her fawn loved those. She wasn’t sure how she and the fawn always knew how to find each other, but she suspected it had something to do with the smell of sugar. Up ahead, she heard someone whistling. She stopped in confusion, hoping it wasn’t another lost chef.

Tarin climbed over the hill, wincing as his knee scraped against a thorn bush. He looked ahead to see the tracks and stopped, frozen. There, grazing ten feet away, was the buck he had been tracking. It was strong and muscular, with sweeping antlers that split like lightning bolts—those antlers alone would sell for a fine sum. Tarin smiled and crouched without a sound.

Cora heard the whistling stop. Still, she was intrigued. It had been there, right? She started walking up a hill, away from her guide.

Sweat gleamed on Tarin’s skin and stuck to his hair. He took up his rifle. He aimed it. He released the safety catch. But he didn’t shoot. Tarin sucked in a deep breath and tried to focus; a bad shot would send the animal running through the woods, and it would be lost.

Cora emerged over the hilltop panting. She scanned the area and was surprised to see a young man crouching among the thorn bushes. Who was he? She followed his gaze, and her face paled. A gun. A hunter! He was hunting her fawn!

Cora couldn’t let this happen. She waved her arms, hoping to get his attention, but she was too small, too quiet. Even still, she had to try. She started tearing down the hill as fast as possible, but it was covered in spindly autumn leaves, and sprinting risked falling or stepping in a hole and spraining her ankle. Plus, the boy was seconds away from pulling that monstrous trigger, and her fawn was grazing so peacefully; he’d never know what hit him…

On impulse, she acted.


Tarin jumped in surprise, lost his balance, and started tumbling down the hill. The buck snapped to attention, bellowed in anger, and dashed into the forest. Cora pressed a hand to her heart and sighed in relief. Then her eyes widened.

The butterfly voice had broken free.

She had spoken.

Cora’s hand drifted from her chest to her throat. Her heartbeat was a clap of thunder; it roared in her chest and buzzed in her ears. She didn’t know if she could speak again. She was afraid. Had her voice spilled like rapids or dripped like honey, like she had once wondered? No, it had done none of those things. It had rocketed from her mouth like a blast of fire; it had been angry.

Emotion consumed her. Never before had Cora wanted so badly to be loud, to be heard. Her eyes glittered wildly, and they must have frightened Tarin because he looked upon her as if she were a goddess, or maybe a demon.

Cora closed her eyes as a soft breeze tangled her hair. Animals peered at her curiously; they peeked their heads out of holes and fluttered down from the trees and inched towards her on the land. This was news indeed; no one had ever heard the Listener speak. Then something even stranger happened. Cora began to sing.

It was an angry song, loud and violent. The words shot from her tongue like sparks and electrified the damp air. Her voice was strong and fierce, the roar of a lioness. Then, verse by verse, it calmed until it was lullaby, soft as the roll of ocean waves. Tarin sat on his bum, bewildered and wide-eyed. He could only assume this strange girl was the one he had been sent to cure, but it seemed to him she was anything but silent and certainly not broken.

When her song ended, Cora fell to her knees, light-headed and yet conscious of her life in a way she never had been before. A feeling of joy emanated from her chest. Like a raindrop in a pond, it rippled and spread through her entire body. She heard the animals behind her shouting their cheers, but that wasn’t what fed her happiness. She had found her reason to speak, the purpose for her voice. It was a voice for those who have none.

Julia Warner is a junior in high school with a passion for science and reading. Her stories have appeared on young writer websites Figment and Teen Ink. She is an animal lover and a tree-hugger, and she lives with her family in Tennessee.