The Butterfly's Predator
I read once that even after losing most of its wing, a butterfly can still stay in the air. It can even navigate, because its antennae compensate for the lack of symmetry.
So this ugly, fat caterpillar gluts itself all summer, curls up in a silk cocoon, and emerges the following season as a stunning Daggerwing or a Tithian Sailor. Beautiful, right?
But then, off it goes, up into the sky looking for a mate. Suddenly – bang. Out of nowhere, this spectre appears – wings of death – and takes a swipe out of the side of that butterfly.
Suddenly, half its wing is gone.
Does the butterfly even notice? It’s not as if you or me just had an arm ripped off. Chances are it don’t even feel pain. All it knows is that this gust of wind came out of nowhere, it wobbled for a moment, lost a bit of altitude – then carried on as normal. No big deal.
No big deal, right?
No big deal.
Just a moment in time when something happened, then life carried on.
We’ve all had those moments. They happen every day, to everyone. Like, you step out into the street only to hear the blare of a car horn. You didn’t see it coming, but now you know, and you step back just in time.
Wind tugs at the leg of your pants as it passes, but you still have both your feet. Maybe you look a little silly, lose some altitude, but soon enough you’ve crossed the goddamn street and you made it to the other side. By the time you’re home, you’ve forgotten all about it.
One time, my ma’s friend Joella freaked out at the grocery store. She had this minor memory blip or whatever you want to call it. She placed her basket down on the counter and went into a full-blown panic.
“My baby! My baby!” she starts screaming. “Oh, God! My baby!”
It took ten whole minutes to calm her down enough to explain. All that time she’d been carrying her basket around, she’d got it into her head that it was the baby carrier. When she put it down on the counter and realized it was just a basket, she thought she’d lost her kid. Turns out she just left him in the car, on the back seat. That was the kind of woman she was after they put her on post-natal meds or whatever. Slow as molasses.
Anyway, you get what I’m saying, right? At the end of the day, it was no big deal. Just like the butterfly, or the road crossing – life went on as normal. Joella did it again two weeks later, but her kid grew up just fine. Didn’t affect his schooling or nothing. Maybe for a moment he let out a cry from his baby seat – knew his moma weren’t around – but it hardly fucked with his developmental learning.
I’d say, if you were going to look at it proportionately, we, as human beings, can sustain a whole lot of damage before our antennae fail. Just like the butterfly, we’re capable of real adaptation. And sure, we maybe notice more than an insect – but we still recover. We still fly straight in the end.
I guess, now and then, there’s one that’s too fragile. Encased in glass, with a pin through its back. Tattered wings spread and useless.
That’s my sister.
“Hey, Mindy,” I say, flicking a piece of lint from my lap.
She doesn’t even turn. Just sits there in her white cotton nightie, the one she wears from morning till night and back up the other side of dawn. It’s starting to go a little yellow beneath her arms. All her night sweat and dried dust getting in between the fibers.
“Mindy,” I say again, reaching down for the rolled up paper and throwing it past her, over the porch banister. She flinches. “You hungry yet?”
She shakes her head, just a fraction.
“Is that a yes or a no?”
“Uh-uh,” she replies, shaking her head real quick like she’s trying to shake off her hair. A thirteen-year-old acting like a toddler. Always one extreme or the other with her – silent and still, or shaking like Presley’s left leg.
“Well, I’m heating up a bowl. You can either have some now or you can wait till Ma gets home.”
We’re back to silence again. I slope indoors, navigating by antennae as my eyes adjust from the bright sunlight to the gloomy interior. Butterfly to a moth.
I’m not really supposed to leave her out there on her own, on account of sometimes she wanders off by herself. But how else am I s’posed to eat, right? I’m a growing man, twenty-five next spring. I have to keep my strength up, and lord knows she drains it.
You have no idea how tough it can get having a backwards sister. She came along real late in life for my parents. Pa left for that reason, even before she went funny. He was just about ready to retire, couldn’t deal with another screaming brat waking him at daybreak. His old bones needed resting. And it’s not because Ma was getting on that Mindy turned out the way she did. Right up until six years old she was perfectly normal.
Something happened then. Like them parasitic wasps that go and lay their larvae inside other creatures. One day all her self-confidence just hatched out of her and crawled away into the undergrowth. Left this shell behind.
I ladle some of Ma’s beef stew into a bowl, then place it in the microwave. While it counts down the seconds, I strain my neck to glance out of the window. She’s still sitting there, motionless like a doll.
Christ, it got embarrassing. I’ll never forget that first year. All those trips to the shrink, and Social Services getting involved. Ma crying most nights because she had to take her out of school. She’d shake her by the shoulders sometimes – scream at her to talk, to say something, anything. Never worked though.
I tried myself one time. Went into her room at night and sat down on her bed. Put my hand over hers and just sat with her a while. I guess I thought if screaming didn’t do it, perhaps the older brother routine might. You know, someone to confide in an’ all.
Did it work? Did it fuck.
Doctors tried to figure out if it was autism or something. They all agreed it wasn’t. ‘Psychosomatic’ was all they kept saying. Which sounds like a mighty big word for ‘don’t know.’ Sad thing is that my mom never was that educated. She would walk around the neighborhood, telling all the teachers and the learned people that she had a ‘psychosomatic daughter,’ as though it was a special badge of exemption.
“My daughter’s psychosomatic,” she’d say.
“How’s little Mindy today?” Mrs. Fletcher would ask.
“Is she showing any signs of improvement?”
“Not really. She’s psychosomatic, don’t you know?”
Nobody ever had the heart to tell her that she was calling her own daughter a retard. By association, that’s what I felt like. The guys on the team used to rip me all the time. Eventually I quit, got a job at the burger bar with all that spare time I had not playing football.
Fuck it, Mindy, why couldn’t you just flap a little fucking harder?
The microwave pings and I wait for the tingle to wear off. You know, like when toast pops? You stand there waiting for it, yet somehow it always takes you by surprise. Some half-forgotten animal instinct. When a loud noise happens, or an unexpected movement, you get this jolt through your heart.
It’s going to be a long, warm evening again. Sitting on the porch, I start to wish I was holding a bowl of ice-cream. A drizzle of sweat runs down the back of my neck and I reach behind to scratch it. Saltwater ant trail. Once one droplet forms, it’s like a nest empties down your back.
A red Ford pulls up outside the house. It’s Uncle Clete.
“Your moma back yet?” he hollers, as he walks up to the gate and leans over.
“Nah, she’s still working.”
“When’s she due?”
“Another hour, maybe.”
He shields his eyes with one hand and squints up the road. She ain’t gonna come any faster if he waits.
“I’ll come back then,” he nods, and retreats back to his air-conditioned auto.
A solitary, dark cloud tumbles in front of the sun, providing a moment’s respite.
“I’m turning into you, Mind,” I say, realising that I’ve been staring across the empty street for the past half hour. “Thinkin’ my fuckin’ life away.”
I have to go inside to piss. When I come out, she’s gone.
That toast-popping feeling of surprise I mentioned? That pales into pig shit in comparison. My balls disappear up into my throat as I realize what’s happened.
“Mind!” I shout. “Mindy!”
The curtain across the road twitches, and I know that Mrs. Peterson’s watching me. Typical of her though, no way she’d come out and help me look.
“Mindy!” My voice is rising as I reach the end of the path. I can go right or I can go left, but I have no idea which way she went. If I get it wrong…
I can’t even think about that now.
Sweat erupts from my face. Human waterfall.
I hear thunder overhead. It’s going to break any moment. I have to find her before Ma gets home.
“You lookin’ for your sister?”
It’s Jake Marconi. Black hair oiled back like the slick Italian he is. Mobster of Mexico they called his grandfather, before they gave him the chair.
“You seen her?”
He doesn’t bother to reply, just jerks his chin towards the woods.
“I owe you,” I say, slapping his arm as I take off.
The path is still damp from rainfall yesterday. I spot bare footprints at the edge and follow them in. Tracking my own baby sister like a wild animal.
“For fuck’s sake, Mindy, where are you?”
I don’t get home till dark. Uncle Clete’s sitting in the front room, arm around my mother.
“Where have you been!” she cries, getting to her feet and coming to press her hands against my face.
“Oh, Ma.” I can’t think what to tell her, so I go to the phone in the corner and lift the receiver. As she listens to me asking Officer Grayhelm to come by, I can tell that she understands. Her breathing tightens to a stand-still. I can hardly meet her eyes.
“You were supposed to be watching her, Ben,” she says quietly.
“I was, Ma. Only I had to use the bathroom. I was only gone one minute, I swear.”
“Which way did she go?” Clete interrupts.
“Towards the woods, I think.”
Ma lets out a strangled sound. I know what’s going through her mind. Her little baby girl, all alone out there in the forest. In the dark.
“You got a flashlight?” He turns to my mother, prompting her into action. The flashlight’s in the kitchen draw, so she goes to fetch it. “You’d better stay here and wait for the police,” he tells me.
“Why, where are you going?”
“You dumb, kid? To the woods. I’m gonna go find her.”
“I’d better go. She’s my kid sister. She knows my voice.”
“Son, if she knew your voice she’d have come back by now.”
“Maybe she didn’t hear me.”
“Maybe she doesn’t want you to find her.”
We stand, staring at one another.
Ma returns with the flashlight and hands it to Clete. Just at that moment, I hear the sound of rubber on the street outside. The edges of the curtain hold back the onslaught of blue and red.
“Thank God, that was fast,” she breathes, pushing past me to open the door.
Within twenty minutes we’ve gathered a bunch of our neighbors together. There’s twelve divided into three teams, including two officers and Clete. My mother insists on going too, so I’m left to hold back – in case she comes home.
I watch them hand out flashlights and whistles before disappearing into the dark, towards the woods.
I know they’re right. If she comes back, someone ought to be here.
But I know what else I’ve done.
And because of what I’ve done, she ain’t never coming home again. Not really.
I feel each minute tick past like a century. The blood in my veins pools to a thick, liquid lake. The phone rings, causing shockwaves to ripple across it.
Microwave, times ten.
Instinctively I know that it’s Mrs. Peterson across the way. She can see the light on and wants to know if everything’s okay. Of course she knows it isn’t. She’s seen them all head out with their lights. She’s just being nosey.
I ignore it, but the shrill sound perks me into action.
Grabbing my jacket from the peg by the door, I step out into a world doused in evergreen – that mildew scent that accompanies rain. That smell, like a basement full of mushrooms, thick and fungal. I can’t leave her out beneath that composted earth. However much I want to, for all the trouble she’s caused me.
Thankfully the clouds are blowing over, and it’s nearly a full moon. Between that and the light from my cell phone, I can almost see where I’m going. As I get closer to the edge of the woods, I can hear the search teams whistling to one another. Just so’s they know where people are. No one has given off that short, sharp shrill of a find.
I trip over a tree root and cuss. “Christ’s sake, Mindy – where are you?”
Picking myself up, I listen hard for a moment until I know where the groups are searching. One whistle over there, another slightly north. I choose the direction nobody else seems to have covered.
“Mindy!” is the only word I manage for the next half mile.
Panic starts to rise. I’m never going to find her. Though it’s worse than that. He might.
I quicken my pace until I stumble again, this time bad. Tripping over my own two feet, I go head-first down a deep ditch.
I land in glorious sunlight. As the autumn leaves spring to cushion my fall, a thousand butterflies float up into the air. Mint green, lavender pink, fat-winged, thin-winged, swallow-tailed and golden-tipped. Thousands upon thousands of butterflies. Beautiful. Complete. Whole.
And then there is my sister.
Moonlight reasserts itself. She appears in the dark beside me like some spectral waif. All skin and bones and cotton nightie.
She places her hand over mine. A comforting gesture I must have taught her once, when I still cared enough to try. I guess I still do, otherwise what am I doing here on my ass in the middle of the night?
Slowly, she lifts one skeletal finger to her lips.
Pulling myself up on my elbows, I peer around, expecting to see someone else. But we are alone.
My eyes drift back to hers, hollow in the half-light. Such a deliberate gesture. A real communication. Is this my sister, or am I imagining it? Perhaps I hit my head harder than I thought.
“Shit sis, we’ve been looking all over for you. Come on, let’s get you back—”
She places her hand over my mouth. That single act causes the back of my throat to close.
I place my hand around her wrist and try to pull this fleshy clamp away, but she holds tight until I struggle backwards, swallowing a chill fist of air.
Our eyes lock.
“I’m not leaving you,” I tell her.
I’m sure I’m dreaming. I pinch myself hard and wince.
“Melinda,” I whisper.
I hear a whistle blow close by.
Holding out my hand, I wait for her to take it.
Come on, sis. Prove to me you’re here. Prove I’m not concussed.
Instead, she climbs to her feet and turns her back on me. She strides almost proudly into the center of the clearing. Head raised, shoulders back. As I watch, she reaches down and pulls her night gown over her head, exposing her naked flesh. Moonlight glitters across her skin like a thousand blinking eyes. As she stands there, glimmering, I sense the earth beneath me shift. The smell of moldy leaves returns like chloroform, suffocating the breath from my lungs, pushing with funerary force up into my brain.
I roll over, choking into the forest floor. A twig scrapes the inside of my nostril.
As I blink the grit out of my eyes, I see her, there, in the clearing. Illuminated.
Crawling towards her on my hands and knees, a toaster pops inside my stomach.
I realise that she is still dressed; wrapped in her filthy white gown. She lies at a funny angle, with her head to one side. As I reach out and gently loll her face towards mine, a Black Witch moth lands for a moment on her nose, obscuring both her eyes with its vast wingspan. A feathered disguise at the masquerade ball of my own nightmare.
It takes flight, leaving only her glassy orbs staring into mine.
“Oh, God,” I choke, burying my face against her neck.
A twig cracks behind me. I turn.
At first I see no one. Branches knit like laced fingers, clutching their secrets close.
“Who’s there?” I ask the darkness.
“Just me, son.” Clete steps forward.
I can smell toast burning in my gut.
It’s harder to close a dead person’s eyes than it looks in the movies. Actors always make it seem so smooth. Just place your palm over their face like a visor, flick down, job done.
Only one of her eyes closes the first time. She looks drunk, passed out, rather than…
Rather than what she is.
I hear him come up behind me, casting a shadow across the moon.
Finally we are here, at this inevitable point. I can think of nothing to say. No way to begin.
“That’s sad,” he says, starting for us. “How’d you know where she was?”
“I didn’t. It was an accident.”
I meant finding her was an accident. But all of it was, really. Our whole lives.
“Give me your whistle.”
“No,” he replies, soft as a serpent.
I didn’t think he would.
I lace my fingers between hers. She’s still warm. I wonder whether she can see me. Is she watching us now? I hope not. Her disappointment would drown me. I couldn’t do it seven years ago. I can’t do it now.
“Let’s go, son,” he says, offering his hand.
I can’t move.
A whistle blows, closer this time.
“Come on. There’s nothing you can do for her.”
“You ripped off her wings.”
“I get it now. I understand.”
“Fucking hell, don’t start this. Get up.”
I do as he says, but under my own steam, without any help. It’s a strange sensation to find myself at eye-level with him. Whenever I think of Uncle Clete, he’s always a foot taller than me. A trick of my adolescent mind, encased in frozen memory as someone all-powerful.
“Butterflies can still fly, even with one wing half gone.”
“Shit boy, you cracking up?”
“You pinned her down with your hand across her mouth, and you tore her wings clean off.”
His eyes narrow. He chews the inside of his cheek, thoughtfully.
“I’m gone,” he says, turning.
I reach out and pull him back to face me.
“You took one wing, and she gave the other to me. Her silence was my flight.”
“Justify it to the shrink.”
“I was afraid.”
“You got off on it.”
“I was a boy.”
“You’re a witness. A participant.”
A slow smile spreads across his lips. A lazy smile. Someone who no longer needs to flap, because he glides on the warm thermals of his own sociopathic self.
Me – I’m grounded.
“Did you kill her?” I ask.
“No. Looks like she tried to fly out of that tree over there. Must have been right about those wings.”
A third whistle comes, just beyond the ditch.
I’ve lived with Clete like poison. My mother’s brother, who stepped in to fill the shoes of our father when he left. Good ol’ Uncle Clete. Wholesome, all-American, baseball lovin’, barbeque grillin’ Uncle Clete. Always there to ruffle my hair, knuckle me on the chin, and tell me that my father was a good man.
Fucking my sister behind closed doors.
Suddenly a thousand moths fill the clearing. Witches big as bats, Owls as bright as silver, green and black Uranias as vivid as a bad acid trip.
The night air swims alive with them.
“What the hell!” I hear Clete shout.
Seventeen years old – a virgin. Exams loomed. I walked home early one afternoon to study. Home, and right in on the act. I knew something was wrong the moment I entered the house. Clete’s car was out front, but there was something about the air inside. It smelled clammy, of sweat. Of all the years of guilt I was yet to carry.
I was seventeen, and I should have known better.
I should have told someone.
A million moths fill the sky – one for each regret. One for every time I kept my mouth shut. For every day I watched her vocabulary shrink. For every psych’s couch we sat on. For every time I winced to hear my mother utter the word ‘psychosomatic’. For every ounce of shame I burned with every time his car pulled up our drive.
It only happened once, I think. He knew I knew. He promised. That was it, see – he promised. That was her protection. If I didn’t say anything, nobody would ever know except for me and him. Somehow it seemed safer – better – to label her insane. In time, perhaps she would come back.
I was seventeen.
As every day, week, month and year went by, complicity sealed my silence and hers. She fell from the sky and I hovered above her, watching, waiting, losing faith, flailing on one tattered wing.
Look how he suffocates for it.
I watch him gasping in those insect wings. Muffling through a haze of silk. Unable to breathe. Unable to speak. Eyes red and engorged.
A thousand, million moths.
And one butterfly.
There! Just the one.
One solitary Mourning Cloak, drifting amidst the swarming chaos.
My eyes fix on her, as I fall to my knees, hands wrapped around my uncle’s neck.
The last whistle sounds. The moths disperse.
All the world is silent and still.
In the light of the setting moon, I watch the butterfly dance for a moment – all its companions gone.
It comes to rest on my sister’s chest.
Just above her heart.
“Arthur, over here! I’ve found something!”
A chorus of whistles rise, sharp and shrill.
I close my eyes and await the inevitable.
A soft voice.
A butterfly’s voice.
Toast pops in my soul.