Read an Excerpt
The Order Of Things
By Lynne Hinton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Lynne Hinton
All rights reserved.
I lost and found the order of things the year the butterflies didn't migrate down from the mountains. Low sky and hot, it was a parched summer, and the days dragged on like the smell of smoke after a fire.
The weatherman on Channel 10 claimed that the absence of the butterflies had to do with the virus that killed the carpenter bees the year before; that it had spread to the larvae of other insects or settled upon the milkweed that the winged creatures ingested. But I think it was just the heat.
I think the heavy wet air hung like a thick curtain, stretching from the foothills to the sand hills, a barricade of weather, and would not open for swallowtails or skippers, monarchs or sulphurs, or the faint whisper of hope that might have saved me from my decline.
To a casual observer, butterflies appear wispy and undetermined, but really they are just as hardworking as the hummingbird or the dirt dauber. They glide maybe instead of dart, like the dragonfly and mosquito, but they are not idle. They understand that they have places to go. They stretch out those long curved bit of wings as if they enjoy showing off for the wind and the eye of the beholder, but they always realize their destination. They flap and hover, sometimes going more than seventy miles a day.
I've seen streaks of magenta on a butterfly that would make my eyes burn, small smooth spots of black dancing upon yellow wings, and I have been dazed by the sleepy parachuting way they float. But I know better than to be fooled by a butterfly; she's more than just a pretty face. She is engineered to be efficient and beautiful.
They burst forth from egg to caterpillar and eat as quickly and as much as they can digest, growing as large as is possible while shedding several layers of skin. Then they make themselves a hollow place to lie, a safe and protected chrysalis where they wait patiently for the spinning and changing of the caterpillars with which they began. And after a death of what is hard and tight and miserable, they fight their way through webs of silk and dust, a tangle of what they used to be, emerging as something different, something extraordinary, to set sail to the sight of endless sun.
The North American butterflies start their descent to Mexico from roosts high in bat caves and along ridges of green hills thousands of miles away. Gliding toward the cool mountains, they are met with predators, pesticides, and fatigue. But millions of butterflies manage a migration and millions make it back. They are brawny and plucky and they will not light in a place or season that is unwelcoming.
I knew then, when the earth turned brown and the air stifled any pleasure from the coming together and breaking apart of clouds, when the warmth rose and swelled like tides in the sea, that heat was holding back my resolve and forcing the detour of the bright and brilliant insects upon which, for me, summer is marked. Without much of a fight, I sank into the place I had fought to hide and felt no remorse or sadness at my loss, only a tinge of disappointment that I had missed the butterflies.
Once fallen, however, I decided in the days of reflection of that colorless season, that if it must be done, summer is a good arrangement of days in which to lose oneself. Not because the Earth with its revolutions and its increased daylight is as welcoming of it as it is in the opposite season, but rather because you're rarely noticed and thereby given a reprieve from cheerful well-meaning friends who call you or drop by just to make sure you've haven't bought a gun or hoarded medications. Most people assume you're on some extended vacation or appear absentminded only because you're inclined toward leisure. Everybody's out of touch anyway, so days can pass and no one even misses you; they just figure you're hiking at the state park or that you took a day trip to the coast.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, May to September, people seem to put their anxious caregiving on hold, their temptations to worry stored away for winter, while supposing that distant friends and family members are enjoying the long sun and the invitation to go outside. They couldn't possibly imagine that anybody they know could be strangled by darkness in such a fair time as this.
In the colder seasons it's different because, unlike in summer, everybody suffers some depression in the winter. It's just a common reaction to gray days and unfulfilled holidays. We're sympathetic with the mentally ill during that frozen time because everybody understands how sadness might win out in the hours of darkness.
This sense of despondency was not my first experience of falling away from myself. It has happened to me before, and since it does not always fall upon my spirit in one particular period of time, I cannot claim to have some seasonal disorder or light sensitivity. I guess one would say that I am simply prone to this kind of thing. Like Mama and her gout or Jane Mackay, one of the other librarians, and her cold sores, I just have a bent toward the shadows.
Usually, the sorrow is manageable. I move through it the way a person moves through a sprained joint or pulled muscle. I simply find another way to step or climb. It hurts, smarts really, but it's something that can be done. I just try and put the sadness aside, shelve it like a book no longer useful. I know it's there. It slows me down, but I just choose not to let it stop me. Most of the time that system works. A couple of times it has not.
I lost myself the first time when I was only four. I do not recall exactly what happened or how I coped. I only remember feeling very small, arms and legs pulled inside myself, a turtle in its shell, and being passed from one adult's lap to another, from one set of arms to a broad chest, slung across a hip and thrown across a back. It was as if I were an infant or a sack of wheat.
My mother says I stopped participating in life, arrested the progress, just after I learned to speak, something that already arrived very late in my development, and she always thought my fall into despondency was because I was afraid of the power of words. She told me once that when I was a child I had never seemed comfortable in conversation, that the nature of my play had always been quiet. She claimed that it concerned her at first, especially when I was silent for so long and then so completely after saying my first words, but that later she simply accepted that I would talk when it was necessary. She decided not to see it as a disability and not to pull me into meaningless speech just to assuage her fears.
I cannot say if she was right about the cause of the early fit of sadness, but I do remember thinking that hearing the sound of my own voice was frightening in a way that paralyzed me. Once I heard the sounds of words coming from my lips and recognized the power of being understood by others, it was as if I suddenly knew I was, because of the privilege of communication, somehow different from everything else in creation. The words I spoke, the ways I could name and organize my thoughts, suddenly set me apart from the trees and the river, insects and birds, the animals to which I had always felt connected. Once I heard them, felt the sounds being created from the combination of my tongue and brain, the power of such a thing saddened me.
I did not want to speak because somehow I believed it changed the very nature of who I was in the world. The thought of being separate simply weighted me down and bottled me up. I did not like, nor did I want to own, my voice.
I stayed that way, wrapped into myself, for months and I do not recall what finally loosened the words, stretched my limbs, or settled my spirit. I just know that somehow a conversation began with my mother, something about a neighbor, a man who died alone in a fishing boat far in the middle of the ocean. Since she had never stopped talking to me, just abstained from trying to pull me in the discussion, she brought the news of the man's death the way she reported all of the day's events to me. And somehow, I just recall being struck by how alone he was when he died. I asked a question — I don't even know what it was — and heard an answer. My mother didn't seem to be alarmed or relieved at hearing my voice, just continued in the conversation. And afterward, I did not need to be carried any longer.
There was another time of silence and sadness tangled together in my life that I remember. I became disordered and lost when I was sixteen and had been recently pregnant. I miscarried at seven months in the autumn season and I simply fell away from myself again. Unlike the first time, however, my adolescent descent didn't come quick and furious. My spirit was not suddenly lifeless like my distended womb. I did not suddenly feel frozen and still and small, broken by the disappointment of being separate. This loss felt more like a slow pulling of threads, like a tear in fabric, a loosening and widening along the sharp edges of my mind. Just like this time, this last time, at sixteen I hardly even noticed as it happened.
Once all the pieces had finally come undone and I was not able to carry on my usual responsibilities, I was taken out of school, kept at home. I didn't go to a doctor or a counselor. Mama didn't have the money or the insurance to cover such a thing. And I figure no one intervened, no one came to the house to try and pull me out or away from my loss, because they all just assumed it was because of the baby and its dying inside me, the sorrow of motherhood and adolescence knotting up. I think they expected that I'd soon snap out of it, so they just left me alone.
I misspent about a year that time; try as I may, I cannot recall one major event from any of those months as I lay in my bed coloring pictures in children's coloring books. Not Christmas or birthdays, mine or my mother's, or New Year's Eve. I do not remember wide shoulders or fleshy arms or being held or wrapped. That event of brokenness is managed in my memory only by a series of manila pages with pictures of oversized bears and frogs, elephants and fairies, a collage of big smiling fantasies lumbering from drawing to drawing.
My mother, not knowing what else to do for me, not able to lift me and walk with me slung about her hip, bought new coloring books from the dime store every week. "Here you go, babe," she'd say, placing them near my head on the pillow, and I filled them up and threw them away. I drew until the sticks of wax were pounded down to mere stubs of deep clear color, until every page was filled in, every picture painted.
Attentive as a nurse, Mama would come into the room, lean across my bed, and wipe off the shards of crayons and the tiny pieces of paper that clung to my blanket and the heel of my hand.
"I found a book with fairies and angels," she said one day, having spent her lunch hour in dime stores downtown, trying to find something, anything, that might lift me away from the sadness.
She bought box after box of crayons, book after book of nursery rhymes and storybook pictures, and she would hand them to me with a reassuring hand and a tense shaky smile. And this is the way it went month after month. It became a satisfactory life.
Then finally one day — a Thursday, I remember — I got out of the bed, went to my closet, and pulled out a yellow dress, put it on with my hiking boots, and walked to school. No one was more surprised than I since I had made no plans to recover. But something about the angle of light from the morning sun, the little wax flakes of yellow and green spread all around me, and my mother's steady chin, lifted me out of my despair and ushered me back into the world.
I was thirty-five-pounds lighter, fingertips stained with primary colors, and more than two semesters behind, but it didn't take long before I gained weight, returned to my natural pigmentation, caught up with the other students, and graduated on time. And as I reflect upon my teenage misfortune, I realize it unfolded and stretched away in a manner that is similar to my early childhood event, I still don't know exactly how it happened or how I overcame it.
This last time, the summer time, the time the butterflies stayed away, I was not distracted by pregnancy or the loss of a baby. I was not fretful about being a single mother or missing my senior year of school. I was not suddenly frightened by the sound of my voice or the strength of my words, I simply felt bits and pieces of myself fall aside, like the layers of clothes I shed with the coming of such a hot season.
The symptoms at age thirty-three were slow to show themselves. I, along with those who know me best, went weeks without realizing anything was wrong. At first, it was as simple as losing my sense of direction. I couldn't remember which way I was going. I couldn't place a location in my mind or get a clear picture of a park or building that everyone knew I had been to a million times. I would hear a name or be driving somewhere and suddenly feel as if I were in a town I had never been in, a life that was nothing like mine.
"You okay?" the security guard asked me once as I stood at the edge of the parking lot trying to recall the color and make of the car I was driving. I felt him watch me closely.
"Do you know who I am?" I asked, not quite sure what I expected to hear.
"You work at the library," he answered. "I don't think I've ever learned your name," he added.
I nodded. "And my car," I noted, "do you know my car?" He scratched his head and considered the question. "Blue Toyota," he replied. "An old one, muffler is a bit too loud."
And then, without hesitation or judgment, he nodded in the direction where I had parked just eight hours earlier. "Third row, about halfway down." He paused. "It happens a lot," he said, smiling.
But I knew it didn't happen a lot with me. And I began to notice soon that after forgetting directions and the make of my car, I forgot places and events, tiny pieces of information I had long carried in my mind, I quit caring about things, like knowing where I was, being worried that I was lost, or even the basics like if I brushed my hair or matched my earrings. I didn't care if I talked too loud or answered a person's questions. I wasn't concerned if I ate dinner or if I watered the African violets that lined the windowsill in my upstairs bathroom. It didn't matter if I kept my appointments or changed the litter in the cat box. And then eventually, I didn't even care if I ever left my bed.
May unfolded into June. The seniors graduated. The freshmen matriculated. The sophomores and juniors went on international study tours. The professors went on their exotic summer vacations. The cafeteria and fitness center slowed. The campus fell quiet and I just wanted to sleep.
Beginning around the middle of the month of June, a few people, coworkers at the library, my mother, a neighbor — Mrs. Bishop, who watched me through her kitchen window — did begin to show signs that they suspected that something was not quite right with me. There were an increased number of phone calls from Mama and a few unexpected visits from my attentive neighbor. And yet, for weeks, even though I appeared disheveled and bore no signs of a physical ailment, I managed to convince them I had a virus or was tired from the heat, and for the beginning weeks of that long, hot summer, they mostly left me alone.
At work, however, when it soon got around that I was not taking vacation time or had discovered some new summer sport that kept me distracted, when it was common knowledge that I wasn't sick with cancer or some other horrible disease, a few of the other staff started to wonder where I was and what I was doing. Having always been a very dedicated and hardworking reference librarian on the university campus, one about whom the others had never complained, it took a while, but not that long, before my colleagues were tired of picking up my slack.
After a number of grievances, the director of library services at the school, my boss, Charles Hyde, Charlie, looked at me with a keen eye, watching me in the mornings when I got out of my car, at my desk when I answered the phones, when I walked into the stacks and returned the books that were left on the table. He didn't say anything for the longest time, but after Mary Simpson, the library manager, threatened to quit if he didn't do something about his reference librarian who was no longer doing her job, he waited until late in the afternoon on a Wednesday and called me to his office.
I had a bit of time to prepare myself because Jane told me that I had been reported. She walked over to my desk that morning after I had arrived a couple of hours late, fingers covering her mouth as she tried to hide her cold sore, and told me.
"Mary's turned you in," she said, her voice just above a whisper. She glanced around to see if anyone was watching. She dropped her hand away from her lips. "She said that you're taking advantage of the library." Jane paused, glancing around again. "She said you're taking advantage of Mr. Hyde. What are you going to do?" she asked.
Excerpted from The Order Of Things by Lynne Hinton. Copyright © 2009 Lynne Hinton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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