I have a butterfly in me.
It’s only been there for a few months now.
I found it in an enormous insect display in the natural history museum and took it. We had quite a time resuscitating it and figuring out how to get it to into me, but after some tricky fantasy work, we both seem to be doing OK. You know, getting on with our lives.
The butterfly stays inside my chest. Its wings are always open. They trace the insides of my ribs. I can sense it there but I can’t really feel it. It doesn’t tickle or hurt or anything like that. It’s just there, delicate and beautiful.
It’s not a cabbage white or purple emperor or orange sulphur or adonis blue or red glider or bog copper or brown elfin or orange mapwing or purple hairstreak or red rim or sara orangetip or blue metalmark.
It is a black veined white.
I met this particular black veined white when I was messing around in the grassy place down by the swamp. We owned a big plot of land which included a pine forest on a hill, some fields and a swamp which was good for skating in the winter but not very useful for kids when it wasn’t frozen over. There were other wild plants and flowers around but right where I liked to be there was mostly just long green grass.
Black veined white was not the most stunning butterfly I had ever met but I still liked to watch it. It was all alone but not lonely and its wings were usually in action. They were creamy white with a few simple black lines that ran through them. As far I could tell it spent most of its time flying around and paused only once in a while to enjoy its beauty. When I first spotted it, it was flying back and forth between a clover blossom and a thistle.
During those summer afternoons the tall swamp reeds, the grass, the clover, the thistles, the black veined white and I felt like we were altogether infinite.
We were always in motion; focusing our strength, seeing, floating, capturing, suspending time and place, remaining totally innocent about greater things in the world.
Our conversations were made of breath, a sort of flow in air pressure. It was easiest to understand one another when the wind was calm; otherwise some of that extra blowing wrought miscommunications that had to be cleared up the next day. What we experienced on a good day was completely outside of the realm of words. If I think back on those afternoons in the grassy place I really can’t remember any words that passed through my head.
One super calm sunny day when our conversation had found a nice hassle-free rhythm we promised each other that from then on, we would meet up every summer. In the same place. The grassy spot near the swamp.
We did it too. Every summer. Even the grass and flowers showed up.
Then I moved to town.
After that I occasionally wore a bra, had a boyfriend, shaved my legs.
And my memories of the long grass, the clover, the thistles, the swamp and the black veined white got so quiet and inconspicuous that I thought they were probably something I was embarrassed about. Without even trying to sort them out I put them away.
I went on to build a career, meet my husband, raise our child.
Forty years later I saw it again, the black veined white. I found it by surprise. In a room.
I was just killing some time when I wandered into a darkly lit room upstairs where all the walls were covered with dead butterflies on display in glass cases. Each case held about fifty butterflies and I bet there must have been, in total, at least a thousand of them.
They had labels glued above them with names like:
pieris rapae apatura iris colias eurytheme lysandra bellargus cymothoe coccinata lycaena epixanthe callophrys augustinus hypanartia lethe atlides halesus biblis hyperia anthocharis sara lasaia sula
Each butterfly was speared in the heart by a little pin that held it in place forever. It was terrible. It was a room full of crucified butterflies. Yet another collection of civilization’s misconceived icons.
I felt pretty vague and numb, standing there in front of the glass case that caged the black veined white. I was tempted to hate all butterflies. Probably because I could only think about the awful things that had been done to them and I knew for sure I that had done some of those things too. And as I stood there, I had no idea what I could ever do for this dead butterfly.
I would never be able to erase the image of it pinned up for display like that. Plus, my memories about the black veined white forty years ago were awfully old and quiet and I had never really been able to sort them out anyway. But, on some level, I was still attached to those old fantasies we had when we were at the grassy spot together. Especially when we were altogether infinite.
I thought that I could find a way to get that black veined white inside my own body. Internalize it. Have it live inside of me. Otherwise it would have to stay dead as a pinup in that creepy glass case.
It’s not real clear to me how we did it but using more imagination than experience we found a way to be together. The details of our unification process remain a bit vague. All I know is that we steered away from trying to fulfill any kind of profound cosmic or personal destiny. We simply united voluntarily like old friends.
Our friendship was made of breath. Our communication was outside of the realm of ideas.
Ideas were perishable and facts unreliable.
We focused on what we shared. We shared breath and heart and a friendship born from a single recollection that ran the risk of dying if it hadn’t been remembered. Our quiet, old memory woke up in us, came back to life. Quite simply, the long grass, the clover, the thistles, the swamp, the black veined white and I wanted ourselves back in whatever form we could have it.
This time we are finite. We have a history and we have our future. We have these things until I die.