This actually isn’t a mini post, it’s a rather long one. For the first time I thought I’d put on my blog one of my pieces of writing. One: because I thought, heck, why not. And two: because I’m always telling readers that I’m a writer and with the exception of This is a Book (new chapter coming out Thursday), I haven’t actually posted a piece of legitimate writing. So, here goes nothing.
This is a short story I wrote for my fiction class. Sorry it’s a bit morbid (which is not at all like my usual writing style) but this is where I took the prompt so…yeah, enjoy 🙂
The Butterfly Grave
I have always hated butterflies.
There’s something so vulgar about a butterfly’s delicate body—the thin veins of its wings—lying still, immobile, on the unforgiving earth.
It sits there, a small corpse, voluminous in color, until a gust of wind lifts it from the ground—an old friend at once turned enemy—and wrenches the body this way and that. I shudder to think of the wings tearing, so delicate like tissue paper, until they are severed and no longer beautiful.
I try to push the thought away.
A breeze lifts sticky strands of hair off my forehead and I run my fingers through the tall tufts of grass at my feet. The green tickles my skin, sending goose bumps up my arm despite the warm sun that litters the ground through the canopy of leaves above me.
My white, lace dress is hot, and the collar tugs against my throat, choking me. I almost wish it would because then I wouldn’t have to go into the house at the top of the hill. I could stay down here where it’s still peaceful and I don’t have to think about him—or rather—I don’t have to think about how I lied to him.
The faded note in my purse leaps into the air with another gust of wind, threatening to fly away, and I grab it, pinning it between my hands. It’s a letter, handwritten on paper the color of damp wheat. The black ink has faded to a dull brown from exposure to the sun, and the words all blur together; a trick of the eye perhaps, or maybe it is only me trying to change the past. Either way, it continues to say the same thing: dead.
I try not to think about that as I refold the page along its familiar creases, but I don’t put it back in my purse where its weight can burn against my hand. Instead, I begin to dig.
The dirt is rough and cool beneath my fingertips, and the heavy scent of earth fills my nose like a perfume. I don’t care if I’m muddying my dress. I think of what my mother will say when I walk into the dining room dirty and grime-ridden.
She’ll say, “Oh, Charlotte, do you know how hard lace is to clean?”
But I don’t care. I don’t.
I nearly gag when the tip of my littlest finger brushes up against a worm, but I grit my teeth and continue to shove the soil aside until there is a hole deep enough.
Inside, I place the letter. I don’t need it anymore; I memorized its words a long time ago. Next I slip the locket from around my neck, letting the tarnished chain dangle between my fingers. It is warm from where it has pressed against my chest for years. I gingerly lay it beside the note, admiring the detailed brass of its face.
The photo inside is old; a memory of two people who have disappeared into history. The girl, although we share the same curly auburn hair and cautious smile, is one from another life, and the boy… He no longer exists either. But he is dead and I am not, so perhaps he has an excuse.
I refill the hole, packing in the dirt with a firm hand until I am certain even a typhoon-sized wind could not unsettle the grave.
I rock back on my heels and push myself up into a standing position. A butterfly passes by my left temple and I wince. It is a pointless fear to have but I cannot help the burning that stings the back of my eyes.
The small creature is a magnificent sapphire, but wrong somehow. One wing dips lower than the other, twitching faster, deformed.
Before I am sure what is happening, my hand juts out and snatches it from the air. In my hand its wings tremble violently, desperate for freedom.
Butterfly kisses, isn’t that what he always said? There is nothing more powerful than a butterfly’s kiss. Even the smallest stroke here can cause a roaring storm somewhere else in the world. And yet, their wing tips are so gentle, it is like being grazed by the tip of a paintbrush. No one could ever question the love behind a butterfly’s kiss.
I question it now.
Suddenly the motion in my hand ceases and I know it is dead. I have killed it. Perhaps its little heart gave out in panic, or perhaps it knew instinctively who I am. What I’ve done.
I quickly make a place on my freshly made grave, setting the small body on top of it as a marker. Beware, it might say, here lies the tomb of lost promises. Yet the fragile body is still beautiful, its wings such a magnificent blue it could be a painted still-life.
I rub my hands against my legs, scraping the dirt off my fingers. Horses call to one another in a neighboring pasture, reminding me that there is somewhere I need to be.
I glance up at the house on top of the hill and my nails dig into my thighs. There’s something so wrong about its stillness, completely ignorant of the world around it. The gray-green siding and ugly burnt-orange flower pots are like hideous beacons set into the hillside for no other reason than to remind me of them.
They are waiting up there—the ones who told me that love was impossible at fourteen, that being friends with a sick boy was only a waste of my time—they’re waiting for my memories.
I look at the grave one more time and a feeling of relief settles over me, like a weight lifting off my shoulders. I can feel it pulling away, inch-by-inch, until it is nothing more than a breath. But slowly, and with complete clarity, the weight settles into my chest; a combination of grief and remorse that makes it hard to swallow.
The past is dead, it says, and I know it is right. But it doesn’t stop his words from weaving their way through my mind. One memory in specific pushes its way to the front, and as I tread slowly through the grass on my way up to the house, I let it flood my thoughts until it is all I can see.
“Do you remember what I told you, Charlotte?” he asks, pushing a strand of light brown hair away from his eyes. He’s sixteen, two years older than me, but sometimes I think it could be centuries more. He’s always seemed so wise. “About butterflies?”
I shrug, enjoying the annoyed look he shoots me from across the sliver of grassy field that separates us, but he cannot hide the smile that is slowly pulling up the corners of his mouth. He doesn’t mind repeating himself. I think he likes to hear the stories as much as I like to hear him.
“Some butterflies will migrate long distances—”
“Like birds,” I interject, and he nods slowly. He’s pale, so pale that I can see the veins beneath his skin. I know I should be worried, I should be asking if he’s taken his medicine, if he feels well enough to be outside, but it’s warm and I don’t want to leave here. Not now.
“Yes, but it’s even greater than that. The lifespan of a butterfly is much shorter than a bird’s, a year at most, and yet some are willing to travel up to three thousand miles to find a place where they fit.”
A comfortable silence drifts over us and I lay with my head very close to his, letting the sun’s warm rays trail over my skin.
We won’t be able to stay like this for long. Soon his mother will find us, realize we’re not the safety of his house like we’re supposed to be, and she’ll shoo me away with angry fluttering—like an unsettled hen.
“You’re no good for him,” she’ll say, sounding just like my own mother. “He overexerts himself when he’s with you. He needs rest. He’ll be fine after some rest.”
You’re no good for him. He’s no good for you. It seems to be the only thing our mothers are able to say these days—the one thing they have in common—and maybe they’re right, but I refuse to listen. I refuse to believe that’s true.
“Charlie, do you ever think of flying like the butterflies?”
The question startles me and I’m not sure how to answer. “I don’t know,” I say eventually, “how do you mean?”
He frowns. “It’s hard to explain.”
Again we are silent, but this time it is less comfortable, like he’s wrestling with an idea in his head. “Charlie…” he starts again slowly, “do you ever wonder what it feels like to die? Do you think it hurts?”
My mouth goes dry. “I hope not.” And it’s the most honest thing I can think of, because, no, I don’t think about death a lot. In fact, I try to forget about it if I can. But I know he thinks about it all the time.
“Do you think it will hurt when I—?”
“Stop.” My voice is louder than I intended, and I slide my hand along the grass until it nudges up against his. Silently, I lock our pinkies together. “Stop,” I say more gently. “It won’t hurt, I promise.”
This is a lie and I know it. He knows it too, but I think he’s grateful I said it anyway.
“If you had to fly three thousand miles to find your place, a place where you fit, would you do it?” His voice is really quiet, and he’s turned away from me. He’s crying, I know. I can see it in the way his shoulders shake, up and down.
“We fit, don’t we?” My question hangs in the air, unanswered. It doesn’t need to be. “I would go if you were there.”
“Do you swear it?”
I nod but he cannot see me. “Yes,” I finally manage, and it feels as if my throat is stuck. “But you have to promise too.”
He rolls onto his side so that I can see his face once again. His eyes are puffy but there are no more tears, and a smile is once again pulling at his lips.
“I promise.” He stares at me with those warm, gray eyes, and I believe him. His expression is so sincere, so hopeful, that I don’t want to ruin this moment. I don’t want to say that three thousand miles is a long distance for a fourteen year old. I don’t want to tell him that where he’s going I cannot follow.
So instead, I turn my face up toward the expanse of blue that stretches out above us and say, “Tell me more about the butterflies.”
I wasn’t there when they dug the grave for his body. I wasn’t there when they sprinkled dirt over his coffin and whispered prayers for a safe voyage to the other side.
I wasn’t there.
I was in my bedroom, forced to watch the parade of funeral cars trail pass solemnly by my house. The orange flags attached to the front of the hearse whipped violently in the wind, and I told myself that if I focused hard enough, I could almost make out the black outline of the oak-wood coffin nestled in the back. My mother had thought it best if I didn’t go. After all, I wasn’t family, and I had only known him for a little while.
It wasn’t until later that I learned I hadn’t been invited.
I wrote him a letter afterward. I knew he would never read it, but I felt I had to write it anyway. I told him how much I was going to miss him. I told him I would never forget him. I told him so many things in that letter but never the one thing I really wanted to say.
That I was sorry.
I was sorry I wasn’t there. I was sorry I couldn’t go with him, and above all else, I was sorry that I made a promise I couldn’t keep.
The wind breathes against my face, awakening the memory of dried tears: hot droplets of salty water that burn against my cheeks. Tears I cried ten years ago to the day.
I am on the doorstep of the house on top of the hill, the brass doorknob hugged in my palm. It’s cool against my sweltering skin, and I take a deep breath, pushing the door aside.
The entry room is full of strangers. I know who they are supposed to be, though the faces are older and slightly more world-worn. Wrinkles are deeper, frowns are tighter, and eyes are sunken deeper into faces.
I have barely spoken to my mother in the last ten years. In my mind I have an entire speech prepared, lecturing her on making decisions that weren’t hers to make, but I know it will never be said.
His mother is here too, staring at me with wide gray eyes that look just like her son’s. There’s something desperate about the way she’s watching me, and she steps forward, taking my elbow with a hesitant smile.
“It’s so good to see you, Charlotte,” she says, and my skepticism grows. After ten years, she’s finally glad to see me. And then it hits me: after all this time, she’s willing to cling to whatever memories are left—the happy ones. And those just happen to be mine.
Maybe that is why we’re having this dinner. Maybe it isn’t about him at all. But then she says, “I’m sorry.”
Her eyes are shiny and tears pool in the corners. I want to be angry with her, with my mother, with him for leaving me behind. I want so many things that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say. Maybe it’s because I’m weak, a coward, but every time I try to open my mouth against them, all that comes out is silence.
My mother approaches me when the meal is over. There were fewer people than I’d expected; his parents and mine, and a few family friends—people whom I’d never met and whose names will disappear into my memory when this is over. I sidle off to one corner of living room, decorated in Tuscan theme, and my fingers prod at a batch of plastic grapes.
I can sense my mother before her hand gently grazes over my shoulder, but I jump anyway.
Her eyes, too, are wrinkled and her lipstick—she must have applied a new layer after the meal—is smudged against her teeth. We have the same color eyes, deep brown, and it makes me uncomfortable to look at them.
“I’m glad you came,” she says, and I nod stiffly. “It’s good to remember…and move on.”
I know that last part is directed at me, and I tense further, trying to hold back the violent scream that is building in my throat. Once I’m sure I can speak clearly, I open my mouth, and the words that come out are hard, riddled with anger.
“Why didn’t you let me go?”
She knows I’m talking about the funeral. It’s the same question I asked her over and over in the days that followed; it’s the same question that eventually steadily cut away at whatever bond we had, until I left her without regret at eighteen.
Her face falls and she drops quickly into a tan leather chair that sits only a few feet away. Its center has been crushed down from repeated use and the material sighs as my mother slowly sinks into it. I move to join her, half-sitting on the armrest of the matching couch.
“When you first started seeing him, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. He was dying, surely you had to have known that, and yet you spent all of your time here—” She gestures to the house and I nod, although it hardly resembles its past self.
“I was worried. Worried that he would die and you would have your heart broken. It’s so easy at that age—hearts are so fragile—and I only wanted you to be happy.”
I groan inwardly. “He was my friend and you didn’t let me go to his funeral. I promised him I would be there for him.”
“Charlotte, please!” she snaps, and the sudden anger startles me. “You were fourteen years old. I know what it is like to be fourteen, give me some credit. I know what it is like to have the capability of fully centering yourself around someone else. And I knew exactly what would happen if I let it go too far.” She takes a deep breath. “His mother and I spoke on occasion and we each thought that the best thing for the two of you would be some time apart.”
“Except we didn’t have time,” I hiss and this time she’s the one to flinch. “He died and you kept me from saying goodbye to my friend.”
“And I have regretted it ever since.”
If I was expecting anything, it wasn’t for her to say this. I don’t know why it surprises me, I know I should be glad that she’s said at least this much, but I can’t.
“I have to go, Mom,” I say quietly, standing and brushing the wrinkles out of my skirt. There are still mud stains along the hemline and the skin under my nails is caked with dirt, but I don’t care. All I can think is that the weight on my chest just grew a little heavier, and I’m not sure if it is my fault.
She nods as if she knows exactly what is going through my mind, but how could she?
I wave goodbye to His parents, passing through the entry hall toward the door. His mom looks like she wants to say something to me but at the last minute she turns away and walks into the dining room.
I’m glad she didn’t try to speak to me, I’m not sure what I would have said. Maybe the same thing I would say to my mother if I was brave enough, less of a coward. Maybe I would say: I forgive you.
Outside, the air has begun to cool with the setting sun, and I run my fingers along the wood banister of the porch. From the pasture comes a whinny, and I turn my head as one of the horses gallops around a beautiful, yellow butterfly, its wings extended in a graceful dance to music I cannot hear.
I can see it now, fluttering nearer and nearer to the large oak tree with the small grave at its feet. It disappears behind a branch, gliding daintily above its fallen comrade, before sailing away with the wind. As it departs, I wonder how many miles it will travel in its short life.
I secretly hope it is three thousand and one.