Issue 7

Momma Killed Butterflies

 · Fiction

Charmaine had always likened her mother Adeline to some saintly being, never thinking that she possessed a shadow side, a place where human weaknesses and misdemeanors were secretly covered in darkness. With the aid of the weekly Catholic confessional, Charmaine already knew her own shadow side. She discovered it by the age of seven — stealing pennies from her sister, calling her younger brother Howard bad names, making fun of Molly Hayes when she wet her panties on the corner of Jefferson and Division streets while waiting for the sign to change from “Don’t Walk” to “Walk.” But it seemed impossible that her mother might harbor one.

Adeline was too good for that, too sweet, always on call, ready to serve, to help. She was their neighborhood’s own little Red Cross. She was not only a wife, mother of seven, and home maker, she was also one of the best known resident artists in their tiny town, creating what she called Weed Sculptures, odd preservations of the natural world. The summer day that Adeline decided her Weed Sculptures needed an added twist, something more, some new element of focus, was the day that Charmaine learned even the best people fail at goodness at times.

As Adeline drove toward the outskirts of town to the old less-traveled country roads — skirted by vast fields on both sides, where waves of grasshoppers bobbed amid the weeds and dragon flies blazed by, their iridescent colors leaving rainbow streaks in the air — Charmaine assumed they were going on another weed foraging expedition, which her mother always referred to as play.

“Let’s go play together today, honey!”

Adeline pulled over on the side of the road, churning up a cloud of dust around them, and Charmaine tumbled out of the car, skipping toward the ocean of field before them. When Adeline called her, the muggy breeze suspending her words in the air, Charmaine returned to the car to help her mother unload the tools of her trade. This time, though, different tools emerged from the trunk. Charmaine stood puzzled when Adeline handed her a butterfly net that her father had fashioned the night before after Charmaine went to bed. The net consisted of a long, heavy stick with a white flowing cheesecloth net suspended from a wire hoop attached to one end.

Charmaine looked across the field, at the tall grasses rippling and swaying, the net waving in the wind like a weather-sock. She was still clueless as to what the net was for, what Adeline had intended for that day of play. The net was twice Charmaine’s size, and she worked carefully to balance the added appendage with her arms.

“What’s it for?” she asked Adeline.

“I’m trying something new with the sculptures,” Adeline answered. “Butterflies! I’m adding butterflies!”

“Butterflies?” Charmaine looked at her mother with questioning eyes. “How will you get them to stay?”

“I figured all that out,” Adeline said proudly, continuing to remove tools from the trunk. “Devised a little system that should work just fine.”

“So, what do I do?” Charmaine asked.

“Your job is to catch the butterflies.” Adeline smiled at her and gestured toward the field. “Your father made the net just for you.”

Charmaine examined the net in her hands. She still didn’t know how her mother was going to get butterflies to stay on her pictures, but she knew that if she said she had it figured out, well, then she did. She watched as Adeline removed clear glass jars from the trunk and lined them up in the grass. Adeline then took a brown bottle from a bag, removed the lids from the jars, and into each one she poured a splatter of liquid from the brown bottle, and then quickly twisted the jar lids back on.

“What’s that?” Charmaine asked, sniffing the liquid that reminded her of her father’s turpentine.

“Formaldehyde,” Adeline answered.

The formaldehyde settled into the grayish circles of plaster on each jar’s bottom, and Adeline stood up and looked out over the field.

“Look at all of them,” she said grandly, gazing at the floating butterflies as she lightly placed a hand on Charmaine’s back. “Go on, honey, get your momma some butterflies.”

Balancing the net in her hands, Charmaine trotted off into the wide green field of wheat grass, milkweed, and wild flowers. Whenever she looked behind her, she saw Adeline, further and further away, crouching on the ground with her jars. Once her mother signaled that she had gone far enough, she turned to face the field again — green, gold, violet, orange, blue, a kaleidoscope of colors shaking in the breeze.

Butterflies rose from the high grasses and weeds. They hovered and flittered. Charmaine watched them and laughed and began the race to chase them down — oh, tiny flying flowers — and deliver them to Adeline and her jars. Butterflies, grasshoppers, beetle bugs, and dragon flies scattered in the midst of her sudden rush, each giving their own call of warning, and all silence was broken by the clamor of the chase.

Charmaine followed only the butterflies. Most of them she knew by name — cabbage, monarch, fritillary. The day was perfect, with a brilliant sun and steady winds that stirred the sky into an even deeper blue. She wondered how many butterflies her mother would want. She stopped running, standing still for a moment, watching. The monarchs were the easiest to sight, much larger than the others. In their Halloween orange and black, they clung to the milkweed pods as if stuck to the velvety sage. Charmaine pursued a monarch that kept crossing her path, and a bouquet of pastel-yellow cabbage butterflies gathered and sailed over the green. She continued to gallop behind the fleeing monarch, seeing flowers that she thought were butterflies, butterflies that she thought were flowers. She ran on and on. She chased the butterflies, caught them, and ran back to deliver them to Adeline, one by one.

Charmaine watched as Adeline’s jars slowly filled with flapping colors. It wasn’t until she delivered the last one, a sweet fritillary with lacey black lines and dots draped over striking tangerine orange, that she realized the other butterflies in the jars were no longer moving. She gasped, picked up a jar, and shook it. She looked from the jar to Adeline.

“They’re dead,” she said. “They’re all dead!”

“Well, that was the plan, sweetie,” Adeline said. “What did you think?”

Charmaine wondered if her mother noticed that the butterflies had lost their true colors, had paled in their jars. She watched as Adeline started to pack up the jars, and she looked at her own hands, the hands that had delivered those butterflies to their deaths, wondering if she could ever trust her mother again. On their way back home, Adeline talked excitedly, on and on over the hum of the motor, about how she couldn’t wait to experiment with her new creations. She just knew they were going to be a smash, and think of the commissions she’d be getting from her new display at McCain’s Clothing Store.

Charmaine stared straight ahead at the highway that in the sun’s glare looked like a tar pool before them, ready to suck the air out of car tires. She didn’t want to risk looking into the fields they passed, seeing the butterflies that were still alive and flying. Her guilt tasted like bitterness in her mouth. Her nose carried the nagging acid smell of the formaldehyde.

Charmaine knew then that everyone had a bad side, sometimes hidden right before your eyes, in the crease of an apron, or the tuck of a sleeve. She would try to cleanse her soul the next day, in the confessional, whispering in the sudden dark, “Momma killed butterflies.” Then sobbing, “I helped.”

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