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The Butterfly Collector
By Fred McGavran
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 2010 Fred McGavran
All rights reserved.
THE BUTTERFLY COLLECTOR
The link between butterflies and dreams is poorly understood. I had accompanied my wife Lillian and her Mother to the butterfly exhibit at the conservatory more out of a sense of duty than any interest in butterflies or in them. After thirty-seven years of marriage, we spent Sunday afternoons seeking some diversion that Lillian and Mother's feet and nerves and bladders could endure. While they were distracted by the orchids, I slipped away on a concrete path through the imitation rain forest, steamy with drizzle from overhead pipes. We had been there so often that I recognized the overfed goldfish in the jungle pool and many of the family groups pretending to share grandma's interest in exotic flowers. Just another three hours, I thought, and Lillian will think of dinner, I can open a bottle of wine, and the evening will merge with all the others in the soft gauze of forgetfulness and boredom.
I don't remember entering the exhibit itself. High school girls in khaki shorts and bright green polo shirts were passing out a brochure called "How to Identify Butterflies," and children were staring at the trees. It was strangely quiet. According to the brochure, ants tended one family, the Lycaenids, until they emerged from their cocoons a beautiful silvery blue. Perhaps that's why they wobbled so unsteadily when they finally escaped; the sun came upon them too quickly.
Then a boy started to run, and a girl shouted, "You're not allowed to catch them!"
I saw something flutter, and my chest froze. Brighter than strobe lights, more brilliant than fireworks, the butterflies flickered among the palms. Slivers of orange and silver and blue opened and closed like slits into eternity. I felt my way to a bench and sat down. Inside the silent bursts, saints and angels appeared and beckoned only to vanish when I focused on them.
Around me children held out their hands, and mothers said, "Be careful." Like aerial sprites, butterflies reeled through the foliage and hovered just above the grasping fingers. A silver butterfly wavered over me, opening the firmament to the reign of Elizabeth the First. The old lady trotted through the crowd on an enormous white horse. I reached out to touch her skirt.
"Where have you been?" Lillian demanded. "Mother's absolutely exhausted. I had to take her to the car."
Always before, this was Lillian's welcome signal to disengage. But who can move so abruptly from cheering the Queen's lancers to the long drive home with Mother?
"Can't we stay another few minutes?" I begged.
Like a mother with a recalcitrant five-year-old, she took my arm and led me to the gate. An old man in a pith helmet sat beside the screen door.
"Just one at a time," he cautioned. "We don't want any of our guests to escape."
"Mother is waiting," Lillian snapped, pushing me through the door into a screened enclosure. In the corner of my eye I saw something silver.
"Be careful!" the guardian cried. "He's getting away!"
Lillian kept going through the next door, and that gave me my chance. Like a naughty child, I reached out and cupped the butterfly in my hand. Looking back, I saw the old man wag his finger at me. When we reached the car, Mother was sitting in the front seat, fanning herself with the service leaflet from church.
"Where were you?" she greeted me.
"Banbury Cross," I replied.
"Don't be ridiculous," she snapped.
The butterfly tickled my hand. Lillian had to buckle my seat belt because I was holding the butterfly in one hand and the brochure in the other. In the evening, after she had driven Mother back to the retirement center, I would hear more about this exchange.
As we crept along the parkway, Lillian and Mother discussed the low quality of the cleaning service at the center. Cupping my hand like a telescope, I peered out the window to see what the butterfly was doing. Nothing. What had happened? Breathless, I started to open my fingers, and saw a blackness deeper than the blackness beyond the last galaxies. Then a tiny light appeared, rising from the depths of space and splitting and swirling until the Milky Way turned slowly in my hand. Who had ever seen this but God? If I opened my hand, our universe would dissolve; if I closed my fist, all creation would be crushed. It trembled in my hand, wanting so much to stay alive. I was weeping when Lillian opened the door to unfasten my seat belt and say that we were home.
I slipped into my study while Lillian and Mother fussed over who would use the bathroom first. Carefully opening my fingers, I watched the butterfly stretch its wings like a child yawning and rise effortlessly to the top of the bookshelf. Then I went to the kitchen to pour the sherry. I don't like sherry, but Lillian won't allow us anything stronger. Sometimes, on Sundays, she and Mother spread cream cheese on Ritz crackers as an hors d'oeuvre. They do not expect me to join them in conversation.
Dinner began uneventfully. Lillian had boiled something that my regular Chardonnay could not quite overcome. She and Mother were exchanging ideas about basting, when I saw it wavering over the highboy. The butterfly had slipped in from the den and was sitting at the edge of the scroll, where only I could see it. I raised my glass to it, as I once had to Lillian at the cotillion that last summer before our engagement.
"Did you say something, dear?" she asked.
The air was soft, the orchestra restrained, and the only name on my dance card was hers. Her hair smelled clean, and her eyes were soft and blue. How could I know that the decades would strain the life out of them, and her hands would turn hard and cold? But now we were young and the windows were open to the soft night, and none of this could ever happen to us.
"It's the wine," Mother said. "With all his medicines, you shouldn't let him drink like that."
I don't take that many medicines. Like everyone else, I'm on Lipitor and something for my blood pressure and allergies, and the doctor recently added Aricept as a stimulant. I was going to ask about dessert, but the butterfly had separated from the highboy and was struggling through the air conditioning to the living room. If I did anything to divert their attention from me, they might see it, and out would come the fly swatters and the Raid.
"He hasn't even asked about dessert," Lillian said.
I went to bed as soon as she left to drive Mother back to Bright Acres. When you have seen the Queen, the creation of the universe, and revisited your youth in an afternoon, you have a lot to think about before going to sleep. I was just closing my eyes, when I realized the butterfly had followed me to the bedroom and alighted on the ceiling light fixture. Then Santa Sophia was lit again with a thousand candles, and I was staring into the enormous eyes of Christos Pantocrator on the glittering dome. Darker than the second before creation, indifferent to prayer and incense, they stared through the terrified worshippers, until they started to turn to me.
"No!" I cried, holding my hands over my face. "Don't look at me!"
For if those eyes met mine, they would see my sins and pinion me in hell.
"What on earth is the matter?" Lillian said.
For the first time in thirty years, I was glad to hear her voice.
"You have to stop drinking so much wine," she scolded and went into the bathroom.
The mosaic disappeared beneath the Turkish conqueror's whitewash. Lillian flushed the toilet twice, then rattled the handle to stop it from running. When she finally came to bed, she pulled on the sheet and told me to stop talking to myself.
The next ten days, before Lillian took me to the doctor, were the happiest in my life. After breakfast the butterfly followed me when I took my coffee and the newspaper to the screen porch. Sometimes I could see the events of the day compressed between its wings; sometimes we would fly together to Florence, or Jerusalem, or the Islands of the Blest. By lunchtime I was ready for a glass of milk and my sandwich and nap. Then in the afternoons we would sit together smelling the rain through the screens and watch wooden ships lumber with the trade winds across blue-black seas. After dinner we retired to my study to see the lives of the saints emblazoned in a moving book of hours, or witness terrifying martyrdoms during the reign of Diocletian.
"He hasn't spoken for a week," Lillian said to Dr. Morris. "Mother and I are beside ourselves."
"The same thing happened to her father," Mother added to demonstrate her competence in geriatrics. "Do you think it's genetic?"
Dr. Morris was not interested in genetics. He was moving a finger in front of my eyes to see if I could follow it. I stared at his forehead; he wasn't wearing the round reflector doctors are supposed to wear to see your tonsils when you say "Aaaa". He didn't even have one of those wooden tongue depressors, twice as thick as Popsicles ticks that they stick down your throat until you gag.
"Aaaa," I said to see if he was a real doctor. That was a mistake. The doctor leaned back and smiled professionally.
"Thank you, Walter," he said.
"You shouldn't be encouraging him, should you, doctor?" Lillian asked.
"Many times they remember things that happened when they were children, and forget what happened in the waiting room."
"I don't know how that nurse will ever forgive us," Mother said.
There was nothing to forgive. If she didn't want men stuffing bank notes in her garter, she should not be in the chorus at the Moulin Rouge.
"The worst times are when he is afraid," Lillian continued.
I knew where this was going: an institution, furtive consultations with bank officers, then Lillian and Mother would be off for a month on the QE 3 to regain their composure. Like Lear I had made many mistakes, and like Lear I would not go quietly.
"Where are you going?" Dr. Morris cried, but I was too quick for him.
Unlike Lear, however, I had no Fool to guide me. I got through the waiting room and into the corridor, but where should I go next? They caught me in the elevator staring at the buttons, unable to decide whether to go up or down to escape.
"I'm sure he'll be fine at home, until a bed opens up in the Alzheimer's unit," Dr. Morris said as we parted. "They're much more comfortable among familiar things."
"And no more alcohol," Mother added.
The nurse from the Moulin Rouge held my hand until I was safely belted in the car.
"Tonight, after the second show?" I whispered.
"Oh, no, they probably won't have anything for several days," she replied.
After so many years with Lillian and her Mother, I was used to people talking about me as if I didn't exist. The next two days, however, they didn't talk at all. I was blissfully happy. The butterfly and I sat together in the den; they wouldn't let me out on the porch anymore. Sometimes I just held it on my finger and watched its feelers tremble. Other times it perched on the bookshelves and showed me mysteries that only angels can comprehend.
"If he doesn't eat something, he's going to make himself sick," Mother said.
"Would you like a nice turkey sandwich?" Lillian tempted me.
I did not reply. It's so hard to find the right wine for turkey and mayonnaise, and if we did, it would only lead to another argument. So much better to cup the butterfly in my fingers and find sustenance in its thoughts. After all, butterflies live on sugar water and sunshine.
"What's he holding?" Mother asked.
I closed my fist so they could not see it.
"Walter, what is that?" Lillian demanded.
"I'll bet it's his medicine," Mother said. "He hasn't been taking his medicine."
If only I hadn't been taking my medicine, my reflexes might have been better.
"Here," Lillian said, grabbing my hand. "Let me see."
Like an angry mother searching for chewing gum, she started to pry my fingers apart.
"Give it to me!"
Wings beating like the heart of a little animal, the butterfly quivered inside my hand. I tried to keep it closed, but Lillian pulled harder and harder until my fingers ached like the time I shinnied up the swing set and fell to the ground from exhaustion.
"No!" was the last word I ever spoke.
Its silver wings were streaked against my palm like mercury from a broken thermometer. In one last second, I saw the mosaics shattered by the hammers of the infidels and women fleeing from the ruined city. And then my world went blank.
I don't know how long I will stay here. At first they said it was just until my medication was adjusted, or until Lillian returned, or until the doctor did some more tests. Don, my caretaker, helps me dress and go to the bathroom and brings food on cafeteria trays. Sometimes we go to crafts or to the community room for ice cream and balloons. My favorite time is computer time, when they let me write whatever I want.
"Would you like to share that with doctor?" Don always asks.
I shake my head and smile, so Don will not be hurt. At the end of the session, I delete every word.
Whom can I talk to, after witnessing creation? To whom can I confess, now that I have seen through the eyes of God?
So I made a vow of silence to the butterfly, but not out of devotion. Like some illicit intoxicant, it brought unimaginable joy, then died and left me alone. If Alzheimer's were only a disease of the memory, I could forget. Can anyone who visited Ravenna when Justinian's mosaics were new or saw Vienna besieged by Suleiman the Magnificent ever forget? We do not mutter to ourselves and shamble through the halls because we don't remember, but because we have seen too much. So I don't mind them keeping me here, where you can tell the staff by their white tennis shoes, and the inmates by their expressions of unimaginable loss.CHAPTER 2
Some people can only confide in their beautician. I never talk after a session. That's why I get so many calls from the big hotels when a last minute pimple threatens a bride or one of the dais guests at a fundraiser. So it wasn't any surprise when the hospital called and asked me to make up a patient in intensive care, although I'd never heard the name before.
"Cookie, that's just weird," my Mother said when I told her about my hospital clients.
I don't even argue with her about it anymore. Dying people are very conscious of their appearance. I have sometimes been with them at the end and sometimes afterwards. For many of my clients, the pain on their faces is not from their passing but at how they will look at the visitation. If a woman has taken care of herself, closed casket is just not an option.
"I'm Cookie from the Gloria Feinman Salon," I said to the girl at the nursing station. "For Marion Devorest."
I always try to be pleasant. When they see somebody new coming down the hall with a makeup case, they might think you're a specialist with some weird therapy.
"Is anything special going on with her today?" I asked.
"It's Room 3321," she replied.
I used to leave my card at the desk, but I never got any new clients that way. Nurses never care much about their appearance.
"Thank you," I said.
She had that look like she wanted to tell somebody something, but it wasn't me.
A man in hospital greens was coming out of the room.
"I'm the beautician," I said. "For Marion."
"All ready for you," he said. "And you don't have to worry. It's nothing contagious."
It's nice when they say things to put you at ease.
"Thank you, Doctor," I smiled at him.
"Oh, no, I'm not the doctor," he said quickly. "I'm the nurse."
He held the door. Little things count with me. You never know whom you might meet on a job. When you're over thirty, you have to look around.
It was a private room, so dark I could barely see the patient under the twisted sheets. The side of the bed toward me was crowded with machines and hanging tubes.
"Can I help with anything?" the nurse asked from the door.
"Sometimes they have a picture I can use," I replied.
"Over here, dear," the patient said.
If trees could talk, they would whisper to each other in voices like that. It happens a lot to people who smoked unfiltered cigarettes in the 40s and 50s. I went around the bed away from the door. The tubes beside her rustled; she was trying to point with her IV hand. Pictures in old frames were neatly arranged on the bedside table. I found an empty space for my make up bag and drew up the guest chair. The door clicked shut as I sat down.
"You're so beautiful," I said, looking at the bride beside the man in uniform in a black and white photograph.
I always say something nice to make them feel comfortable with me.
"And here you are with the children."
Excerpted from The Butterfly Collector by Fred McGavran. Copyright © 2010 Fred McGavran. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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