Patty Somlo, “If She Were A Butterfly”

On a bright, warm afternoon in late October, Miriam Larson, Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley, stood surrounded by turquoise, yellow and chartreuse green one-story buildings in the central plaza of Anguenguero. High in the Mexican mountains, bordered by once-thick forests that had come dangerously close to disappearing, Dr. Larson waited. The previous year, she had stood in this very same place, and every year before that, going back a good three decades.

She had on a large, floppy canvas hat with an overdeveloped brim, knotted under her chin as a precaution against an excessively forceful burst of wind. The beige khaki hat was frayed, and what hat wouldn’t have been after three decades?  Dr. Larson had worn the broken umbrella-shaped hat for every one of the more than thirty butterfly migrations she had witnessed. Never in a million years would Miriam Larson have revealed this fact to her department colleagues or experts tenured in other universities. But she fervently believed that the velvety black, yellow and white butterflies strained their tiny eyes in search of her hat, the last thirty minutes of their remarkable journey.

The hat normally sat centered on Miriam’s head. Today, though, the cotton khaki material tipped ever so slightly to the left. The brim was crumpled, like a sheet of paper headed for the trash. If this didn’t indicate that life was not as it should be for Dr. Larson, she also had on two left-foot sandals. The pink flesh of her right foot was leaking over the outer edge of one. Both sandals were brown, since the professor tended to buy shoes of the same color and style, for no reason other than that it made life’s choices a great deal more simple. Equally revealing, she had neglected the last hole when buttoning her blouse. As a result, the light blue cotton sleeveless blouse hung diagonally across her torso.

Until this past spring, butterflies had been Miriam Larson’s all-consuming passion. She had researched every aspect of their annual journey – the remarkable fifty-mile-per-day rate during their thousand-plus mile flight from Canada to Mexico; the internal compass that kept them on course, even on days when clouds hid their normal guide, the orbit of the sun; their winter hibernation in the Mexican mountains and mating pressed softly against warm tree bark; not to mention the births and deaths of several generations on their return flight north. When the first evidence surfaced that, like so many species, Dr. Larson’s beloved butterflies were becoming endangered, she found it hard to concentrate. Some days, she had to remind herself to eat.

But it was an event in Dr. Larson’s immediate life that rattled her equilibrium and sent a crack squirreling through her once solidly work-obsessed life. Dr. Miriam Larson, whose butterfly studies and field trips comprised the passion and purpose of her life, had tragically begun to lose her eyesight.

Like her increasingly waning vision, the die-off of the butterflies had not happened overnight. For years, the forests surrounding Anguenguero had been cut, leaving bare swathes with little protection from the cold and wind for those heavenly creatures, whose wings looked as if they’d been brushed by a master Japanese painter. More butterflies died. Only three years before, limp, dark wings had fallen from the trees into hopeless, frigid clumps. The sight forced Miriam to crouch down and vomit, right there on the ground.

Of course, her beloved butterflies and her eyesight weren’t the only things that had quietly begun to expire in Miriam Larson’s life. So too had her ability to sit long hours in the lab, peering through a microscope, or to stand on her feet presenting papers at academic conferences. From the bunions on her big toes to the fallen arches, her feet ached at night. Her eyesight failed her in low light.

It was at night when she’d first noticed a darkening around the outer edges of her eyes. The doctor performed a quick laser surgery that seemed to help for a time. But the darkening returned and now affected Miriam’s vision even in the daytime.

She began to appear in the hallways of the science building wearing an oversized pair of oval tortoiseshell glasses. Whenever students spoke to her in class, they felt as if they were looking through a series of prisms sitting on top of her eyes.

 

Miriam stood in the plaza shielding her eyes. This was the moment for which she waited. She turned her gaze from right to left. The little turquoise tienda where she bought cold lemon-lime sodas, the bottles thick and heavy in her hand, sat to her right, which meant she was facing north. The questions arose. Would they arrive?  How many would come? And, once here, would they survive?

Dark walls circled the outer edges of her eyes. To see better, she needed to swivel her entire body from left to right.

The sky was a deep blue, empty of clouds. Empty too of butterflies, so far.

She chewed on her bottom lip, a habit she’d tried to cure but which lately had begun to resurface. She searched the sky another time. In that moment, she let herself imagine things were as they had been the year she first came to Anguenguero. She pretended that she suddenly saw a darkening, not caused by her narrowing sight, but by the butterflies eclipsing the sun and the bright clear sky.

Her breath caught and she felt the lump that had started to appear too often in her throat. She dropped her head down, as she fought back the tears. What bothered her most was that all these years she had been fine, perfectly fine. Of course, it had been hard to watch the trees surrounding this village disappear. She had gone with the scientists and young environmentalists as they met with villagers in the neighboring towns. They had told stories of poor peasants like themselves being murdered, their mutilated bodies hung from the few remaining trees, as a warning from those who came in the night and illegally chopped down and hauled out the trees. She had watched, year after year, as the ranks of butterflies returning to Anguenguero thinned. She had even let the thought enter her mind that one day not a single butterfly might return.

Yes, Miriam Larson had had her moments of grief and despair. She had wrestled with a fierce hopelessness that everything beautiful and mysterious was on the verge of disappearing. Perhaps, if her beloved butterflies had still been cheerfully mating and reproducing, her heart might have been able to accept her shrinking sight.

But then she managed to straighten her back and lift her eyes to the sky.

 

Miriam had never been a religious woman but those silken wings propelling infinitely millions of fragile creatures down the North American continent caused her to believe in a force that could only be described as holy. She, herself, migrated to Mexico like a homing pigeon, because those fluttering wings made her spirit flush with a hopefulness she couldn’t construct sentences to adequately describe.

In some recent years, the bright blue mountain sky had refused to darken with clouds of black, yellow and white wings. Butterflies eventually sputtered in, but only in sparse, bedraggled groups who came to die.

Miriam studied the sky with a cautious optimism but knew something in her heart at the same time. Even if the butterflies returned in clouds so black and huge they blocked out the sun, the ecstasy she had felt every year for the past thirty would never return to light up Miriam’s life.

 

Moments after the sun set, light was instantly swallowed by a startlingly dark sky. Miriam twisted her neck, to relieve the stiffness from leaning back too long. Scattered street lights were flicked on. Miriam took slow careful steps, her fading eyes fixed on the ground.

She had waited for three days, surveying the sky. Not one single butterfly had arrived. She refused to believe this might be the end. If it was, whatever would she do with her life?

Even though she’d eaten only a handful of sunflower seeds and a small box of raisins for lunch, Miriam had no appetite. Her room in the hospedaje had such low light, she found it impossible to read, even though the print in her book was several inches larger than normal. Better to walk carefully in the dark, than to return to close her eyes and wait for sleep that wouldn’t come.

Miriam raised her head for a moment, just as a terrible wave of self-pity washed over her. Why had she made so little of her life? Yes, she had produced a few unimportant books and articles. But no great discoveries. No groundbreaking research that would live on, once Miriam completely lost her sight or, eventually, when she was gone. Worst of all, there had been little she’d contributed to save her beloved butterflies.

As if that wasn’t distressing enough, Miriam began to wonder what she’d missed by never falling in love. And would her life have been more fulfilled if she’d had a child?  Why, until these last few months with her ever-shrinking field of vision growing narrower, none of this had entered her mind. Her father, a busy cardiologist, had raised Miriam after her mother died. Miriam had grown up assuming that being occupied day and night with her own thoughts was a perfectly normal life.

Miriam suddenly looked up and noticed the lights. She walked closer, for some reason drawn to that spot. The cemetery was lit with flickering candles and the white glare of flashlights. People were gathered in small groups around the gravesites.

Sprigs of purple and pink bougainvillea spilled from vases set atop colorful tablecloths on the ground. One young man strummed a battered guitar and sang a mournful tune about butterflies and lost love. Children ran laughing amongst the graves and people smiled. The air smelled of corn tortillas and burnt wood.

Señora,” a voice said, and Miriam turned in that direction.
It was the owner of the little tienda where Miriam bought bottled water and sodas. “Come, sit with us and have something to eat,” he said.

Miriam stepped over to where the man was standing surrounded by plates of food. Several women wrapped in blue, red and yellow blankets sat on the ground with the children. One of the women nodded to Miriam, then piled some chicken smothered in a dark sauce, rice and beans on a plate and handed it to the professor, who was still standing off to the side.

The food was heavenly and Miriam realized that she was starving. For the first time in days, she felt all right. Every so often, the store owner, Gilberto, smiled at her, then looked at his children tumbling on the tablecloth.

“The butterflies,” Gilberto suddenly said.

“Not yet,” Miriam answered, though the question hadn’t been raised.

“I believe they will come,” Gilberto said. “They are our ancestors. We have food for them and are here, all of us, waiting. Any moment now, they will arrive.”

Miriam didn’t respond but thought, I wish I could feel so hopeful.

Gilberto looked at Miriam and nodded.

“They have always come back to us. Yes, some bad people have taken advantage but we are guarding the trees now. What would we do, we say to one another, without the visits from our loved ones? They help us to be brave and strong, to fight those who only look out for themselves.”

Miriam smiled and nodded, glad to be in such warm company. If she were a butterfly, she thought, she would certainly want to come and be here with these kind people.

The guitar player stopped strumming and the chatter in the cemetery suddenly quieted. Children quit giggling and wrestling each other to the ground.

The first butterfly dropped onto the gravestone of Gilberto’s grandmother. A second came down on the head of a small child. In moments, the cemetery was filled with wings, fluttering so fast, a person watching couldn’t glimpse more than a blur of yellow and black.

Miriam stayed very still, while bathing in the fleeting rapture of the butterflies’ return. Then she felt the wings dust her eyelashes. She, of course, could not see, as they brushed her nose and cheeks, her chin and finally her lips. Eventually, the little creatures settled themselves, in the narrow crevasses, to the left and right of her eyes.

 

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