in empty fields beneath neon lights
my grandmother used to have the walls of her house covered in insect wings, pinned against cork boards and kept safe behind a wall of glass. hundreds of brown moth wings, put up for display. in the sitting room, the prettiest wings were left for guests to peer at; vibrant blues and reds and oranges, stripes and stained glass patterns.
i don’t know what happened to all those insect wings. the house seemed to dim and darken, then crumble after she died. the glass-like dragonfly wings vanished; those were the ones that captivated me most in my early years.
i wonder what it means that i can only think of the dead when i see a dragonfly pass by.
the cemetery where my grandmother is buried is old; like everything else in small towns, it has a history we’ve all forgotten. but i don’t visit for my grandmother most days. no, it’s the weather-worn angel that always catches my attention. i know it stands guard over an empty grave; they never found her body, and after twenty years, it’s clear she will always be a case that cannot be solved.
its wings are chipped and grey, hands clasped and the stone veil over its head gives only the faintest hint of a face.
the name on the headstone it stands over reads:
Myra Victoria Ksapre
July 15, 1981 - 2009
Lost, but never Forgotten
i wonder about her sometimes. leave flowers at my grandmother’s grave, then sit before the memory of myra and quietly tell her about the butterflies that often rest on her angel’s shoulders.
there is something enchanting about watching a butterfly flutter its wings, gently moving them to keep the wind from blowing it over. i think of my grandmother teaching me how to pull apart a butterfly without damaging the wings, of her hands cradling the tiny corpse, of those hands on my shoulder as she instructs me on how to pin it up.
i leave, and the butterflies keep their wings.
they’ve added more lights since i was last here. like everyone else my age, i had longed to leave the slow, tired life a our small town behind. unlike most of them, i managed to find my way out into the world and tried to leave the past behind me.
it’s an old story: running away and becoming someone else. and it always ends the same.
i come back, and my ghosts remain with me.
i haven’t told my mother that i’m back yet. i haven’t spoken to my father in six years. so i leave my suitcase against the wall of this small hotel room and look out over the once familiar streets. it’s near midnight, and the neon green sign for the next door bar illuminates the street and transforms the groups of stumbling, laughing people into something more magical.
a moth flies by, moving sporadically, up and down but forwards nonetheless. i watch it fly towards the neon sign that spells the hotel’s name. it’s too small for me to keep sight of as it moves away from my window, but i can clearly imagine the little moth hitting the light and the heat ending its life quickly and painfully.
a memory returns to me suddenly: a humid summer night, laughing as i chased after fireflies in a grassy field, my grandmother cradling a moth in her hands and my grandfather speaking to someone in hushed tones near their old car.
it’s been a long time since i last thought of them. been a long time since they were buried.
though it’s past midnight, i doubted that i would get any sleep soon, so i head down to the bar across the street in the hopes that a drink would get my mind off of things. the neon lights feel nostalgic in a strange way and i am suddenly struck with the realization that my youth is gone, escaped me years ago and i was too focused on running away to notice.
on a cork board stuck outside the old movie theater that closed down when i was in middle school, i see myra’s face suddenly, half hidden in shadow. the missing sign is weathered and worn, but her smile hasn’t changed.
the only people who can keep their youth are the ones who die young.
the house has fallen apart. faded graffiti decorates the walls both inside and outside. the yard my grandmother once cared for is overgrown and wild.
on the edge of the town, with the nearest neighbor being a mile down the dirt road, it’s clear that this house has been forgotten. no one wants to buy it, so no one wants to fix it up. abandoned, my grandparent’s house is slowly being reclaimed by nature.
the rose bushes my mother helped plant have grown large and unruly. they cling to the chain-link fence that surrounds the house. i have to wrestle with the branches just to open the gate, and thorns cut through my skin as i make my way up the barely visible path to the front door.
the lock on the door has been broken. i’m sure the bolder teenagers must have broken in, telling each other ghost stories and scaring each other as they looked through the aging rooms of the house.
with the early afternoon light coming in through broken and dusty windows, the house is filled with golden light. the floorboards creak under my feet as i walk around, looking at how a place once so familiar has changed. though the frames filled with insect wings and bodies have disappeared, couches and tables have been left behind. the dining table still has the marks made by a seven year old me trying to saw through it with a butter knife.
i wander aimlessly. i don’t try to go upstairs; the wood is old and decayed and though i may not care much for my own health, i still don’t want to fall through the steps.
there’s a door in the hallway i don’t remember. it opens easily, the hinges loud in the silent house, and any light that makes it through the windows disappears here. there’s a staircase that goes down into darkness.
i would have remembered this. why don’t i?
with my phone as a flashlight, i descend.
it smells like mold and dust, so strong it feels like it coats the inside of my mouth. i put a hand over my mouth and nose and force myself forward.
there are no windows. there’s not much of anything. but against the walls, i find a few frames, glass cracked, holding the dusty remains of insects. the dragonflies are among them. i want to take them back up, pack them beneath the clothes in my suitcase, but my eyes keep going back to the far corner of the basement.
i can’t see anything, but i know something is there.
heart in my throat, i make my way deeper; the walls seem to press down on me, a part of me screams to run away and never come back, but i force myself to put one foot in front of the other. i accidentally kick something, and when i look down, i see green chalk slowly rolling away from me.
distantly i remember my mother talking to my grandmother: ‘i never did find my chalk after that summer. and you never bought me any again. did you ever tell me why?’ my grandmother’s elusive smiles, her apple cakes, her insects. the old photographs in the family albums of my mother as a child, drawing colorful illustrations on the concrete of the garage.
when i look up, the light of my phone illuminates the bones peeking out of old clothes, the type my mother wore when she was younger.
“it was my father you know,” says a girl emerging from the shadows. her features are blurry. “asked your father to hide me down here and never speak a word of it. what do you think of that, sophie? your best friend beneath you and you never noticed.”
this girl mistook me for my mother. a dreadful understanding dawned on me.
“sophie is my mother. she never told me that she knew you.”
“your mother? how long has it been?”
she steps closer. it’s easier to see her now. see that same face, the same eyes as those missing posters, just without the smile.
“very long. we’re a small town. your disappearance turned you into a legend, myra.”
“they did the same thing to johann when i was still alive.” she stops just a few feet away from me. “i need you to do something for me,” she says.
i stare at her, the girl whose empty grave i sat near, whose face haunted my entire life in this town, whose memory was only shared in whispers and tears.
“anything,” i promise.
i wonder if my grandmother knew. she must have; the missing chalk she kept from my mother means she must have seen the body. the questions i asked as a child about myra had been answered with the words found in the news about her disappearance. i wonder if her hands that pulled apart insects were red with the blood of others.
my mother must never know. no one can ever know.
myra’s father and my grandfather are dead. who would take on the consequences of a murder over twenty years old?
i go back to my hotel room. i text my mother and promise to visit her in two days. i shower and get a drink. i go through the slow ritual of getting ready for bed, thoughts a thousand miles away. i dream of myra, young and alive, and wonder why?
these are answers i will never have. this is a secret i will carry to my grave. the sins of my grandfather are the ones i must bear. my grandmother had me well acquainted with death before i ever entered school. i can carry another ghost.
i leave at one in the morning. i let the rose bushes take their share of my blood, then put myra’s bones in a large trash bag. when i leave, i pluck off a rose for her, then another just to rip off the petals. i sneak into the cemetery, where nearly every light is as dead as the people inside. it takes me another hour to dig up her empty grave and lay her bones to rest.
“thank you,” she whispers from behind me. i don’t turn around. i fill in the grave.
when the sun begins to rise, i toss the trash bag and shovel into a dumpster down the street. when i come back, the sunlight falls upon the stone angel like a halo. the dead are at rest. her case will never be solved. i alone will know where she was hidden.
at the feet of the angel is a dead butterfly. i reach out and tear off its wings.
the apple never falls too far from the tree after all.