The First Butterfly - A Short Story
One day, early spring, my 10-year-old son and I were sitting on the front steps of our house, enjoying the sunshine and the melting of the snow. It was quiet and we were both just observing the world around us when he pointed and yelled, "Butterfly!". The first one of the season. We both watched it in silence as it bobbed up and down, finding its way around the yard. In that moment, if felt like a tingle of magic sprinkled down on us and we both smiled.
It was then that this short story was born...within ten minutes I'd made an outline and later than night got to work on the body of the story.
* * *
The family reunion was a somber one that year. At least for the adults and teenagers who were aware of more than their devices in hand.
All the younger kids played without a care in the world, kicking balls in the expansive yard between the log cabin home our family had built and the lake. Some of them dipped their little toes into the water but screamed when they touched. It was still much to cold to swim.
The adults made small talk and caught up on whatever had happened during the past year since the last reunion...but all of us felt that pang inside. Even if it wasn't the conversation topic.
I stood alone in the corner on the old deck outside the large, sliding glass door that overlooked the lake. A big glass of chilled red wine in my hand. It was my third.
For some reason, I remember the feeling of the cool, thin glass against my palm so well, the condensation forming and dripping onto my fingers. The bitter taste of the alcohol as it passed over my tongue and slid down my throat, leaving behind that awful dryness that we love to hate.
It should have been a perfect day...the sun was bright in the clear blue sky, it was warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt, the bugs weren't ruining the experience and all the plants were green with their flowers in full bloom. The air smelled fresh and the light breeze took the sting away when the sun got too hot.
To the left of me, mom burst out in laughter, so I turned. She put a hand on great aunt Millie's shoulder and tossed her greying, shoulder-length red hair. They shared smiles as they talked in an animated way at each other. In a minute, a distant cousin made his way to their side, a beer in hand, and joined them.
My eyes followed the edge of the deck, finding two 15-year-old girls scrolling on one of their devices giggling at the screen...then down to the end of the steps at the side of the deck where two dogs played tug of war with an old piece of rope they'd found near the boathouse.
One of the grandma's narrowly missed an accident when one of the dogs whipped his back end around and bumped her knee. She lunged forward and grabbed the railing on the stairs and had a good chuckle when the beer in her other hand sloshed enough to spill a few splatters on the cedar steps. Uncle Jack rushed to her aid and she assured him she was just fine...especially with a few cans in her already.
Around the front side of the deck a pile of children, ages 3 thru 12, suddenly formed in the middle of the freshly cut grass below, all of them screaming and laughing as they buried my husband Ed in their bodies.
He had the ball.
And I guess he broke a rule because they started chanting, "Cheater! Cheater! Cheater!" at him. I had wanted to smile, but I couldn't. None of them were our kids. And Ed was damn good with kids.
I remember, on our first date, he'd said, "I just want to get this out of the way. I want kids. Lots of them. So if that's not your thing, now is the time to get out before anything starts with us."
I'd thought he was joking. I mean, we'd only briefly met a few times at the gym for fuck's sake and he wanted to talk kids? Good thing for him I had always imagined myself with a handful as well.
But somehow the cards we'd been dealt were complete shit. At that point, neither of us had used birth control since we'd been married. Ever. We were healthy. We did all the right stuff. It was me. A broken womb. Doctors didn't know where it was broken.
I can recall Ed taking my chin in his hand on our honeymoon and saying to me, "Ginny, let's make some babies" like we were writing a grocery list and would be home with a bun in the oven in no time.
That was eight years before.
Two miscarriages early on. Then nothing. I'd given up. Ed hadn't. We had been in the process of adoption the year before when the teen mother had a change of heart. They'd told us it was risky. But we took the risk anyway.
Ed had been so full of hope it made me want to vomit. I was angry that he wasn't angry at me. Why couldn't he just be mad that I couldn't produce a child? Then at least my guilt would have a place to land.
But it wasn't my broken womb creating the somber atmosphere at the reunion that year.
I put another bitter gulp of wine down the hatch and let my eyes wander away from the kids and Ed, down the gently sloping hill further where the big rocks started to pop up through the grass and the grass gave way to a short, sandy path that ended at the dock's edge. I couldn't believe it was still standing. Intact. Actually, looking nice.
It was dad's doing.
Good ol' dad.
Meticulous Martin, mom used to call him. Especially when he was late for dinner because he was still tinkering away with the tiny details of whatever project he was working on. "No one will notice that Martin." Mom would say, rolling her eyes playfully.
That cedar dock he'd built with mostly his own two hands and me and my sisters barely helpful, adolescent hands. Mom's hands were always in dishwater or makeing food.
The dock was grey and worn from the weather of three decades, but sturdy and straight.
"I always noticed your details dad." I mumbled towards the sky. Of course, he wasn't there. He's probably all around us, watching, laughing, not taking any of this so seriously.
His ashes were over there under the apple tree that they planted when I was born. My placenta was under that tree. So were Allie's and Lindy's. Mom birthed us all right here at the cabin.
Just vaguely I remember seeing mom pull Allie out from between her legs, the midwife wrap her in a soft towel and hand her to mom where she lay curled up, silent and beautiful on mom's chest. Lindy was only two then, I was five.
All of us had made a pact to be cremated and sprinkled under that tree with dad.
Funny, there were four other apple trees in that area, same kind, same age. Given the same care. But that one, the one that grew from birth and death, was never infested with bugs or worms. The year a late frost killed the apple blossoms on all the other trees. But not that one.
So much death.
My unborn babies. My dad.
It wasn't dad's memory that caused us all to be somber that reunion year.
It was Allie.
She sat next to Lindy at the end of that dock, wrapped in a quilt made by all the grandma's in the family. It had been a gift to Allie on her wedding night. Each of her and her husband's four children had patches on it now, their names all hand embroidered on them. I had one too. But not extra patches. Lindy didn't have one yet. She probably never would. Her heart was in her work. And she liked being single. I always felt like she should have a quilt anyway.
I found myself setting down the wine glass somewhere, and letting my feet follow my eyes through the mingling extended family scattered around the property, past Ed who winked at me with a smile...to that short sandy path where my bare feet dug into the warmth, unearthing memories that had been made there.
My walk slowed as I set my right foot on the first cedar plank of the dock. It was almost as if I'd stepped through a porthole. Back to that spring when we'd finished the dock...
...the last board had been laid that day. I was 11. Lindy was 8. Allie was 6. The five of us celebrated by lighting sparklers and roasting marshmallows. Dad had dared us to jump in the lake off the end of the dock and whoever did first got the last marshmallow. As much as the three of us girls wanted that last marshmallow, we knew how cold that water was in the spring and the sauna hadn't been fired at all that day. So, there would be a long, cold, run back to fire pit and shivering till bedtime.
We weren't brave enough so dad ended up chasing mom around until they kissed and then jumped off the dock together, gasps and laughter to follow. Mom and dad shared the last marshmallow.
We all said "ew" because they kissed, but were secretly glad they were still in love.
They went to get warm by the fire and we sat on the wood bench at the end of the dock. Our faces and fingers were sticky with marshmallow and we licked them and teased each other that we would throw the other in to get clean.
"Butterfly!" Allie had yelled, pointing her chubby finger at a pretty yellow and black one dipping and rising near the wildflowers on shore. We all looked. Mom and dad looked too. The air felt charged with electricity. None of us said anything about it, but we all felt it.
"Whoever sees the first butterfly of the spring gets to make a wish." Lindy had said, smiling so wide I thought her face would disappear.
"Like a birthday candle?" Allie said.
"Yes!" I agreed.
"Except that instead of keeping the wish a secret, we all have to tell each other." Lindy said. Allie giggled.
"What's your wish, Allie?" I asked. I remember her bouncy red curls shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight, her freckles popping like individual beauty marks.
People said we looked like triplets and I never understood them because we were two and three years apart. But now, when I look at pictures, I can see it. Almost like nesting dolls, equally spaced in height but looking so similar. Until we all hit puberty.
Allie was always a version of that sweet porcelain doll, except she got curvy. Lindy shot up four inches taller than either of us. And I put on muscle for sports.
"I don't know what to wish for." Allie said, looking around as if she might find a wish to grab.
"Anything." Lindy said.
"I wish we had more marshmallows!" She threw her hands up into the air and spun around. We all giggled and completely forgot about the wishing as we played on and around the dock, only stopping to eat hot dogs for dinner cooked over the fire.
Later, as the sun was just about to sink below the tall pine trees on the other side of the lake, we were all surrounding the dwindling fire in the pit when mom came out of the cabin with a bag in her hand.
"Stoke up that fire," she said. "I found some more marshmallows!" In that instant my sisters and I looked at each other deeply, our jaws hanging to the ground. We didn't care that mom was telling us the marshmallows were hard from being shoved to the back of the cupboard since last year.
They were marshmallows.
That's all that mattered.
"The first butterfly did it!" Allie whispered as if was our secret.
"This is amazing!" Lindy squealed. I nodded.
We ate our stale marshmallows with the greatest delight. And I'm pretty sure that they were the best ever.
Every year from then on, during the spring, we kept an eye out for butterflies. And whoever saw the first one and was able to show the other two, got the wish. But if all three of us weren't able to see it, there would be no wish. So, no claiming to have seen a butterfly unless there were two witnesses.
One year Lindy saw the first butterfly and she wished that Jennifer Bradley, a bully from 6th grade, would disappear. On returning to school that fall, we found out Jennifer and her family had moved out of state.
Another time Allie got the wish and used it to get good grades on a test. She did. And I once used my wish to get a bike for my birthday. I did.
During our teenage years, we slowly lost interest. Me first since I was the oldest. Allie was mad because she was still a believer in the magical first butterfly and I was spending more time with friends rather than my sisters so she had less chance to have two witnesses.
By the time we were all out of the house the first butterfly wasn't a thing anymore.
Over the years during family reunions at our cabin, we'd mention it with fondness and debate about whether or not the wishes-come-true were just coincidence or not...
...My left foot followed my right onto the dock, the porthole of the past fading away into reality. I made my way, board by board, down the dock to the bench, taking my place on the bench at the end, next to Lindy. Somehow we always ended up sitting in age order.
I reached across Lindy and put my hand over hers as it clutched Allies. Allie's skin felt cold under Lindy's. But she smiled, her face still as pretty as ever. But, she'd gotten thinner and weaker since I'd seen her just two weeks before.
I didn't want to look at her. Not because she'd lost all her hair from the treatments. Not because her eyes had sunk deep into her face. Not because her skin had lost its color. But because I felt guilty.
Up on the deck near the cabin, I'd been so mentally absorbed in my childless life that I forgot my sister wouldn't live to see another spring at the cabin with our family. My nieces and nephews would grow up without solid memories of their mama. And my brother-in-law would be left to take care of four kids while trying to grieve and figure life out.
It shouldn't be Allie.
If anyone, it should be uncle Brent. Creepy, lazy eye Brent who went through women like toilet paper...actually, he probably used women more than toilet paper and he always smelled like shit too.
I turned back towards the house for just a moment to see if he was lurking anywhere. Maybe he wasn't coming.
I faced the lake again, starring at the glints of light reflecting off the water.
There was nothing left to say. We'd said it all in the past 10 months.
We just sat, licking up the moment like it was the last, sticky marshmallow bits on our fingers. That moment is etched into my memory like a diamond-cut mirror.
My peripheral vision caught it.
Deep orange and black with flecks of yellow...bobbing up and down near that patch of wildflowers that grew by the shore. I turned to face the magical winged creature, knowing exactly what my wish would be.
"Butterfly!" I shouted and pointed quickly so I could get the wish. The children making sandcastles on the beach would be jealous, because they all knew about the butterfly game and none of them had seen one yet.
I reached out towards the butterfly as if to absorb its magic, then closed my palm and brought it back to my chest where I cradled it next to my heart.
The three of us watched it flutter by and make its way to the apple tree where it landed on a blossom. The birth and death tree. I had a strange thought that the butterfly was dad.
"What will you wish for?" Allie had said softly. Her voice cracked. Though tired looking, she still had that bright smile of anticipation.
"I'm not telling." My lips may not have moved. I don't even know if I actually spoke. Neither of my sisters protested that I wouldn't share. 20 years ago they would have threatened to send me headfirst off the dock into the chilly water.
But not that year.
I knew it would ruin my wish if I spoke it out loud. It was different than all the other times. There was an unspoken sacredness surrounding us all. A strange, restful peace as we all held hands, our bodies side by side, our memories of dad and childhood and everything that we had lived at that beautiful place.
* * *
Spring the following year was the warmest on record. The lake was still cool but the kids didn't care, they were splashing about in their life jackets, tossing water in the air feeling the freedom and joy that only childhood seems to bring.
I sat on the end of the dock, legs dangling, bottoms of my swollen feet skimming the top of the refreshing water. I was careful not to swing my legs too far under the spooky darkness where spiders hung out like monsters waiting to pounce.
The shiver went up my spine.
"Cold water?" Lindy said from the bench behind me. She sat alone on the bench.
"Not too bad. It's the hairy, nasty monsters I don't want to touch." I lifted my legs up. "Help me up." I said to Lindy, reaching back for her hand and putting my other under my tight, growing belly.
Just two more months!
Lindy pulled me towards her and held my hand while I wobbled with my achy hips a few steps to the bench.
"Remember the time dad was fixing the rock crib under the dock and he came up with a wolf spider on his head?" She shook her head, eyes focused on the memory.
"And all of us screaming, almost knocking him into the lake again, running back to the house to hide." I laughed.
"Poor dad." Lindy laughed too. "The things he had to put up with having four women in the house."
The long dock wiggled from the weight of someone walking on it behind us. My heart smiled a million smiles and I moved over to the right. Lindy moved in next to me. She was grinning too.
"Poor dad? What are we talking about?" Allie's strong voice carried ahead of her, filling my ears with thankfulness and wonder.
"Surrounded by the female species," Lindy said.
Allie came around the bench and plopped her body next to Lindy in her usual spot. Her red curls were sprouting out the top of her head just a few inches, looking unruly but perfect. Her skin glowed brilliantly. I don't think I'd seen her look so healthy and vibrant in all her life.
"Ah, yes." Allie giggled. "I think he liked it though."
"I think so too." I said.
We sat there, basking in the grand warmth of the sun, feeling whole. Feeling right. And somehow, all the stars collided. It appeared directly in front of all three of us, seemingly out of nowhere. The large glorious wings flapped quickly...that year it was shades of black and blue.
Allie yelled it.
Lindy whispered it.
I laughed as I spoke it.
An eruption of giggles and gasps followed. We didn't care that all the other adults had stopped talking to make sure everything was alright. Or that the teenagers rolled their eyes when they realized we were still playing the childhood game that they'd given up years ago.
But the younger kids jumped in on the glee, pointing and yelling "butterfly", splashing and filling their little bodies with as much happiness as they possibly could.
As the ruckus died down, we wiped the happy tears off our faces.
"That's never happened before, all of us at the same time." I said. My sisters nodded in the silence of wonder. We all looked far off into the lake, or the sky, or wherever, pulling the best wish of all from the nooks and crannies of space.
"More of this." Lindy said, grabbing my left hand and Allies right. "All is well."
We nodded, sealing the wish deep in our souls. It was quiet for quite some time and then Lindy turned to me with a question.
"What did you wish for last year Ginny?"
"For Allie to be healthy and cancer free." And then the tears came again. They rolled down our cheeks, grateful little drips leaving trails of wet saltiness on our skin.
"You know," Allie started. "I saw that butterfly at the same time you did. But I wanted you to have the wish too."
"What? Why?" I turned to Allie. So did Lindy.
"I had no regrets in life. I still don't." A lovely, peaceful smile spread across Allie's face.
"No regrets?" Lindy said.
"I made peace with death. It's just part of life. Everything will always be okay...even if it's not."
In that instant, I felt so young. So out of my league sitting on the same bench with Allie. Her eyes pierced deep into mine. "I made a wish that day too though." She'd said.
"And?" Lindy promoted.
"I wished for you to have babies, Ginny."
More and more quiet tears from all of us.
"Now you're healthy and strong," Lindy squeezed Allie's hand. "And you have two babies about to be born!" she lifted her other hand and placed it warmly on the top of my belly."
Maybe all those other wishes had come true, maybe they hadn't. But the three of us knew that the first butterfly had flown in with quite a bit of magic the year before. No one could tell us otherwise.
There were more first butterflies as the years went on. Most of the time we let the kids take the wishes and find their own magic each spring reunion.
A group full of our own hopeful grandchildren sits in front of us at the end of the dock this year while we tell this story. Without the swearing and the intimate details, but with enough evidence to convince them that they too should keep an eye out for butterflies today.
Our hair shines with silver and white now, our skin wrinkled and lined from pain and laughter, spotted with age. There are children and grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren that carry our names. One day we will all see our last butterfly. But not quite yet. We still need time to see the legacy of the first butterflies making their magic.