GREEN surrounds me as I enter the butterfly pavilion. The leaves of the trees and flowers create an oasis in the Sonoran desert. All seems still inside, protected from the dry winds, until I notice the undulant motion of butterflies winging above me, swooping down to sip at the nectar of the blossoms. The guide warns visitors to watch where we step, what we touch. Fragile life whirls around us. After all these years, I think I understand how they feel. One has to go through so many changes to get to full flower. Now is not yet the time to die.
BROWN fur nestles under the leaf. I’m here anew, peeling the caterpillar off the green veins and stem which define the underside. I curl up my fingers, cupping the bug in my palm. It tickles me and then plays dead inside the tent of my hand, as I run toward the back door. My mother pulls an empty Mason jar off the top shelf. She tells me to make holes in the lid. In the garage, I pound a carpenter’s nail into the soft metal, making six air holes. I keep the jar on my nightstand. I spend a lot of time in my room because when Daddy gets mad, I am locked inside until he forgets why he was angry. Now I’m not alone in here.
ROSE streaks the shards of rolled glass I piece together into the shape of a butterfly. My husband says it’s like every butterfly he’s ever seen and yet not quite like any other. I know what he means. There isn’t a scientific name for this one. The grain of each piece of glass is matched, the left side to the right, but some parallel and some angled just so. I wrap each piece in fragile copper foil, then solder the foils together, add in ruby eyes. It’s the only complex piece I’ve ever finished, and I give it away immediately.
GRAY fog muddles my waking mind. I think of the Zhuangzi: “A while ago I, Zhuang Zhou, dreamed I was a butterfly. Happily absorbed in being a butterfly, I was thrilled to fly around and do what butterflies do. I didn’t even know I was Zhou. When I woke up, I suddenly found that I was Zhou. I didn’t know if I was Zhou dreaming I was a butterfly, or if I was a butterfly dreaming I was Zhou. There must be something that separates Zhou from the butterfly. It’s called metamorphosis.” This reading comes to my mind as I struggle to open my unwilling eyes.
TAN straw on the bottom, some grass, a dandelion stalk for climbing and eating. I’m still here with the caterpillar. I add three drops of water in case it’s thirsty. Now it spins its cocoon with silken bunting. I take it to school for Show and Tell. The caterpillar is invisible, sleeping and unaware of how far it travels on the bus, how many children pass around the jar and peer in, holding the glass up to the light of the overhead fluorescent. I am aware of all this, but only barely. When we put our heads on our desks in the afternoon, I fall asleep to the merriment of the class.
RED-faced, I’d hold my tummy, and Mom would say, “Butterflies in your stomach?” I would either nod in acquiescence or disagree, depending on whether I trusted her or not at that moment. If she had any culpability in what was causing my anxiety, I would disavow any such butterflies. I didn’t understand that the feeling of something penned up and brushing softly and wildly under my rib cage was nerves. Or that a thick rope of anxiety threaded its way through every day of my life. Once I asked Mom why they called it butterflies in the stomach, and she said, “It’s better than bats in your belfry.”
ORANGE scales mark the wing of the butterfly when you look closely. If peeled off they leave the color behind, themselves translucent as isinglass, the color of a fingernail. The wing seems feathered as an angel wing. Like fish skin or snake pelt, the markings camouflage the insect. Sometimes these markings are impudent copies of venomous insects, used as protection from predatory birds. Most butterflies are vegetarians. They cling to sweaters and hats, hitching their way through the world, then flutter as if carefree. To avoid predators, they don’t fly in straight lines. They don’t keep to themselves, but interweave themselves with all of nature.
BLACK bands the Woolly Bear caterpillar. It eats dandelions, hibernates all winter, and turns into an almost butterfly, an Isabella Tiger moth. For years I am in an almost chrysalis, a stage in between, but hiding from the storms. When I am a butterfly, I will want to be a swallow on strong wings and fly high above the city. That won’t happen. I will be a butterfly like the rest.
GOLD splatters my windshield as I drive to campus in the spring. It isn’t possible to get to work without harming butterflies. For a week a torrent of butterflies passes across the 215 freeway, and I have no choice, my car a heavy torpedo slaughtering them and me. To live is to kill and to die.
COUPLE-COLOUR skies fill with butterflies in yellow and black. The finch’s wing mimics the pattern of butterfly wings. Is it their beauty that makes us love them so? Primo Levi said, “We would not think them so beautiful if they did not fly, or if they flew straight and briskly like bees, or if they stung, or above all if they did not enact the perturbing mystery of metamorphosis: the latter assumes in our eyes the value of a badly decoded message, a symbol, a sign.” The metamorphosis is a message we can’t quite figure out, even when we live through it ourselves. Having made it through mine, I’ve tried to transform my abandoned chrysalis, and sometimes I see the ghosts like light floating on air out of the shadowed apertures.
Luanne Castle’s Kin Types (Finishing Line) was a finalist for the 2018 Eric Hoffer Award. Her first book, Doll God, winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, was published by Aldrich. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Copper Nickel, Verse Daily, Grist, River Teeth, The Review Review, Phoebe, and more.
Show Luanne some love via PayPal at luanne.castle(at)gmail(dot)com.
[Photo by author.]