3:5: “The Girl Who Ate Butterflies”, by M. Rickert

3:5: “The Girl Who Ate Butterflies”, by M. Rickert

——— I ———

Her mother carved angels in the backyard. The largest was six feet tall and had the face of her mother’s first lover, killed in a car accident when they were still in their teens. It took eighteen months to sway the purple and blue webbed stone into wings and skin, to release the wisp of feathers from the metallic clasp. She carved through the seasons, the easy spring, the heat of summer. In autumn she moved closer to the garage and plugged in the space heater, and in winter she wiped the white ash, that was what she called it, from his broad shoulders and unformed brow and in fingerless gloves carved him with a heat that flushed her cheeks and brightened her eyes.

The smallest angel was no larger than Lantanna’s pinky and it was for the memory of an aborted fetus. Lantanna had heard the woman whisper her request through the closed door on a dark and moonless night. “I know I made the right decision,” she said, “but still, I feel empty. I want something to mark the absence. A little angel for the one I sent past. Can you carve it a girl? Can you make her face at peace?” Lantanna stood shivering in the kitchen doorway, unnoticed by her mother who listened with a passive expression to the stranger behind the door. “And one last thing?” whispered the voice. “As you carve will you say a prayer, or whatever, for me. Though I’m sure I made the right choice.”

Lantanna turned and walked back to bed. She shivered into her blankets and wrapped them around herself, tight as a cocoon, and fell asleep again without her mother even noticing she had awakened. In her home, as in her life, Lantanna, like a shadow was rarely noticed.

She was the sort of girl who did not know she was pretty. A pale face with the lightest scattering of freckles on her nose and cheeks. Pale blue eyes the color of dreams. Hair the color of corn.

She wore summer dresses of the nineteen-forties (regardless of the season) thirty years after that time, but unmended and clean as if they had never been worn before. She also wore a slip, which was also not the fashion. The dresses were airy as wings, so thin that the slip straps with paper clip-looking adjusters could be seen through them, as well as the flower at her chest, a squashed tiny pink or white or yellow rose. In the winter she wore little sweaters, the kind with three-quarter length sleeves and pearl buttons, while the other students at Oakdale High were ripping their jeans and rubbing their new sneakers in dirt. She was pretty but not fashionably so. Hardly anyone noticed. Really, only one.

Quetzl lived in Oakdale in the summer with his father who worked in the city and provided little supervision or restraint. A rare, dark-skinned creature in the town of apple-white, he spent the summers playing his guitar and smoking pot. He watched Lantanna from a distance, first as something vaguely noticed, a blur of color in a vision of black and white, then, with more focus, as she took her daily stroll early each morning past his house, always and mysteriously (in that age when most moved in packs) alone. “She’s a space cadet,” his friend Emma told him once when she saw him watching Lantanna. But he watched with growing fascination because in the dull, same-paced world of Oakdale, Lantanna was different, and because he was different too, he recognized her as one of his kind.

The day it began Lantanna went to her mother with blood-stained panties. Her mother looked up from the dusty chiseling to say, “This is the blood of a broken heart all women suffer. It is inevitable. Wounds must bleed.” Then, when Lantanna began to cry, scolded, “You should be happy. This is good. You will have a long, pain-filled life.”

She showed Lantanna the box of tampons and demonstrated how to use them, watching as she did, tapping her fingers to get back to her work. Lantanna inserted the thin white cardboard-sheathed cotton with a stab of discomfort and in a tremulous voice asked if she was still a virgin. Yes, yes, her mother nodded. “Though it doesn’t matter. Time is relative. After all,” she said, “you already have the wound.”

Following her mother’s instructions, Lantanna washed the blood from her fingers and panties with cold water and yellow soap. By the time she left for her morning walk, her mother was back in the yard absorbed with angel and stone. Lantanna walked past in silence, absorbed in her own study of astral realities. What, she wondered, made true angel wings? Were they gossamer and thinner than glass like butterflies’ wings, or were they heavy with flesh and feathers, coursed with veins and blood?

She did not notice Quetzl following her. And he, so absorbed in the swing of her pale pink dress, the arch of her long legs to the drop of short white slip, did not realize Emma followed him, her eyes glinting with fire.

When Lantanna got to the meadow she walked into the tall grass and lay down. Quetzl stopped at the edge of the meadow and lay down too. At some distance, Emma stood in the shadow of trees that bordered the meadow.

Lantanna lay still. Her arms raised. Her hands like little white stars fallen into the grass. He could only see moments of her face. A small butterfly flitted in the bush nearby, but she did not turn her head or move, only lay there as still and disinterested as a flower. More butterflies flitted nearby. A small orange one lit on her wrist. A tiny blue hovered at her lips but he blinked and in that moment it was gone. Passion rose in him like Jesus’ winged heart in the picture over his grandmother’s bed.

From her distance it is as if Emma is suddenly sainted, a person who sees spirits and changes in the soul. Seeing nothing that can be described like this, she knows Quetzl has fallen in love with Lantanna. She feels a particular response in her own chest. An explosion of desire, the way flame swells to explode.

Lantanna, in the meadow, knows nothing of those who watch. Lying in the grass, her white arms extended like stems her hands flower, her little mouth open with one small lilac bloom on her tongue, parched to swallow, dry in the hot sun, her heart beats like the quick wings of the sleepy orange that flits about her and finally lights on her wrist. A small blue hovers at her lips, darts in and out, in a maddening tease before it rests on the lilac bloom. Quickly, she closes her mouth, tastes the fluttering wings. She chews and hears the vaguest crunch of its small body and, treasuring its quick flavor minced with the lilac, swallows. Sighing, she lets her tired arms fall. Eyes closed, she feels the hot sun, the vague itch of meadow grass, hears the insect hum. But the pulse of her heart is the loudest and most vibrant sensation, as if it is filled with all the butterflies she’s swallowed since she was a little girl. Wings beating in a blood cocoon. Bursting to be free.

When Lantanna rises from the meadow grass and turns to walk home, Quetzl follows. But Emma does not follow them. She waits until they are out of sight and then walks to the meadow, which is bright at the edge of summer with wild flowers and butterflies, alive with an energy she can describe with only one metaphor. Emmma stands at the edge of the meadow, at just about the spot, she estimates, Quetzl lay in. Where the grass looks flattened she bends to touch it, as if it is a holy space, as if by placing her palm where he lay she can touch him. She closes her eyes. Yes, she thinks, she can feel his heat. Then, she lies there too, turns her head to see his vision through the grass, the spear of blades at crosshatch, the flitting of colors, wings and petals. Here, she knows, he lay and watched Lantanna. Lantanna! Emma rises quickly when she realizes she has been laying in the meadow just like that space cadet. She forgives Quetzl for this. He is bewitched, it is obvious. Everyone knows Lantanna comes from a family of witches.

Emma comes from a family of fire fighters. Her father was a volunteer fireman for the Oakdale Fire Department before he mysteriously disappeared on his way to work two years ago. Almost exactly two years ago, Emma thinks. She remembers the hot tears, the new pain in her mother’s eyes. She remembers the first realization of the woman’s disappearance that same morning. She wished, for a long time after, that she had paid her more attention. She remembers a vague slash of red lips, dark hair, heavy perfume in church. But she cannot remember more than this. At this point, she can barely remember him.

Emma reaches in her pocket. She pulls out the lighter. She flicks the top with her thumb, expertly. Emma has a secret. She is the girl who loves fire. She used to start fires to make her father come. No matter what time of day or night, how impossible it was for him to be home for supper, how terribly too tired he was for her or her mother, if there was a fire, he was there. Vibrant. Heroic. She used to watch in awe this strange aspect of him, the strength of his stance, the sternness of his face, his power. Now Emma reaches down. With a quick movement she brushes the flame across the grass in front of her. It sizzles, small as a stitch, but she watches it grow in the tangle of grass. She runs quickly to the edge of woods as the smoke and flame rise behind her, like phantom snakes and devils’ tongues.

She runs to the trees at the edge of the meadow and climbs one. The bark scratches her fingers and she tears a pant leg in her rush. But she barely notices such minor pain. Though it has been two years since he left them, it is at moments like these that she feels closest to her father. There is the same rush of excitement, the same heat of anticipation that used to bring him. Now she can relish the feeling. It is almost like having him back again. The meadow burns. A late afternoon breeze pushes it farther. Emma feels the sting of smoke in her eyes. Strains to hear the sound of sirens. Emma climbs higher. She can see the dirt street, the distant houses. Fire snakes through the grass below. Her eyes sting. Her throat tightens. Even the tree is hot. She feels the pores of her skin open and tears weep out. Her hands tighten to hold the limb, her fingers strain like bird claws, the bones pressed against the skin. Smoke fills her lungs with pain. The flames reach for her. She screams. She feels she screams but she hears no sound other than fire.

Suddenly. He is there, in his suspenders and baggy yellow fire pants. He stands at the edge of the limb. Graceful as a star balanced on its point. He is saying her name over and over again. Emma, Emma, Emma. He extends one hand to her; with the other, he parts the sky. She can see just past him a blue and gentle day at the edge of summer. Emma, Emma, he says, Come. She stands. She stretches her hand to touch his. The limb creaks. Come, he says. He parts the smoke and flame with one hand. Reaches for her with the other. She strains to touch him. She hears a sound like a branch breaking and suddenly she is falling. Falling. On fire. Where? In the blur of heat and pain she forms this final thought. Where? Where are you now?

——— II ———

It is a long winter. It snows every day and the air is brittle. When the sun shines, it sharpens the points of ice that hang from the eaves like daggered teeth.

Lantanna’s mother carves a graveyard angel for the girl who died in the fire. She thinks Emma and Lantanna were friends because of the way Lantanna cried and cried. She wept for days and nights. She would eat nothing but tears.

Lantanna’s mother tried to comfort her. “You have to stop crying. You have to make the decision. Death is inevitable,” she said, “joy is not. You have to choose.”

Of course there had been other winters. Long months when the meadow was frozen and the butterflies gone. Lantanna suffered through those other winters but only by counting the full moons until summer. Now, she cannot count, for she does not know when the meadow will be alive again.

Quetzl sends her letters. Many, many letters. He writes of beauty, desire, and loss. He wrote, “The lesson of the fire is that we must accept we all burn. I burn for you. I go to sleep with the memory of your eyes. Do they remember me?”

Only vaguely. She had been surprised when, on that last summer day, he had come up from somewhere behind her on the path and introduced himself. He had begun speaking strangely almost immediately. He told her he had been watching her. Then he said he would make her a light lunch of butterfly pasta.

But of course, it wasn’t butterflies at all, only bow-shaped pasta sprinkled with parmesan and melted butter, and she did not even taste it, because the fire engines screamed past and she looked down the road in the direction they traveled and saw that the sky was a bright orange of fluttering blues and wings and she knew that the meadow was on fire. Of course they wouldn’t let her near it. She heard them talking about a body, whom she later learned was the girl, Emma. Whenever Lantanna tried to picture Emma, even after she saw her face in the newspaper, she could only hold the image for a fleeting moment. It was true, she was haunted. But not by the death of Emma.

At night she dreamt the fluttering of wings brushed her cheeks and teased her lips.

And it was strange, in the way that strange things happen, that just when she was at her worst, suffering the despair of what was lost from her life forever (some things should be certain, an appetite fed, for instance) that, though she had not answered a single letter, Quetzl came to her, knocking at the door in the midst of another winter storm. He found her wan and pale, shivering in her too thin dress. She invited him in and brought him to warm by the fire but he could see that she was suffering, and of course his love sank to the depths of her despair, and he felt it within him, in the place where Emma died, a greater widening of the emptiness. He implored her to eat and removed from his knapsack a bruised peach, a flattened sandwich, a brown spotted banana, but she wanted none of it. In desperation he moved her closer to the flame where he discovered he could see, not just through the thin fabric of her pale yellow dress to the wisp of shape beneath, but through her skin to the blue course of veins and delicate bones.

He found Lantanna’s mother in the garage, huddled near the space heater, carving an angel who looked vaguely familiar. He watched for a long time her intense carving, before he approached, saying, “You give more attention to this statue than you do your own daughter.” At which she did not pause but continued to carve, the scrape of metal against stone shrill to his ears. “Did you hear me?”

“I heard you.”

“Well? What kind of mother are you? Can’t you see what’s happening?” At this the woman laughed. “I see what’s happening,” she said. “You’re happening. And if she can survive you, perhaps she’ll live.”

“Survive me? I love her.”

“You destroy her.”

“I save her,” he said, and then turned on his heels, muttering, “Standing here talking to a crazy old witch,” he walked out of the garage into the storm.

That night he returned with a car and took Lantanna and a suitcase he directed her to pack and drove through the white snow sifting the sky, soft as petals. “Where are we going?” she asked, suddenly aware that she was confused.

“Mexico.”

“But why?”

She slept. When she woke, it was light. He offered her a hamburger and this she refused but she ate some of the lettuce and the tomato so he was pleased. The stars were white-bright, intense. She slept. When she woke again a hot sun followed them. Her cheeks were wet, and she sniffed at her own scent, salty, musty. He drove with a grim resolve, stopping to piss, to kiss her mouth that she was embarrassed tasted of her own bad breath. “Mexico?” she said and he shrugged his shoulders and nodded as if, yes, it was strange, but somehow inevitable. “Why, we’re driving into summer,” she said. At night they slept in rest stops where she washed her armpits, and feet, and crotch, and wet a comb through her hair, and still she felt wild somehow and could not wash or neaten the feeling away. She’d squint into the dimpled mysterious rest stop mirrors and try to see the change reflected there, the strange strength that grew inside her, and she looked at his face and came to believe she saw it in his profile too. Wild. Free.

When they got to the border there was a wait of traffic and it was the first time she entered another country and she did not know it would be so much like an amusement park. Tijuana was strange, bright with color and cheap, but he kept driving past chain link fences with holes cut out of them that marked the border, past cardboard-and-tire shacks with the blue light of a TV inside, past the fish stands, and women with babies begging. He stopped only to look at the map and she began to think that this was not love, not love at all, but some sort of obsession and then he said, “We’re here. I think.” But it was dark and so they slept until morning showed them the edge of the jungle and they followed the strange trail she could not object to because it was inevitable until at last they stood at the top of the hill and he waved his hand across the expanse of valley below. “Here,” he said, “I give you this.” She had to squint and not really look at all before she saw that the spotted trees quivered with red and black wings, thousands and thousands, so what could she do but walk into them? They lit on her, in her hair, on her hands. They fluttered against her skin. “Monarchs,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “For you.”

“Monarchs,” she said again.

“Because you love them.”

Monarchs flitted against her skin and hair. Each touch reminded her of the loss.

“Now you see how I love you,” he said. “I left home. I stole the car. I did everything for you. Because I know you miss the butterflies. I would do anything for you. I would die for you.”

“But” She could not continue. She saw the bright light in his eyes and could not cast it out with the venomous truth. He saw the tears in her eyes and mistook them for joy. He broke the distance between them and kissed her with the passion of a thousand wings, of an exile, of an appetite starved.

She returned the kiss with her own pain. Poisonous. All these butterflies, she thought, and not one of them edible. His tongue fluttered in her mouth. She had to concentrate not to bite down. He pressed against her. His hot hands on her thighs, her panties stretched tight as his fingers wiggled inside, eager, one tip, wet, there. She groaned. His other hand pushed the panties down. Yes, why not? she thought. Anything, anything to stop the sound of wings.

“Oh, Lantanna,” he said. “I will love you forever.”

But this she could not believe. Even as she lay on the jungle ground, monarchs fluttering against her skin and brushing her hands, even as she arched to meet the stab of pleasure, even later in the car where it happened again, and at the rest stops, beneath the desert stars, even as he risked arrest to drive her home because she missed her mother, even though she knew he meant to, she also knew he could not love her forever, for he did not love her now, not really. Not knowing her secret, not understanding her appetite, how could she believe he loved her at all?

——— III ———

When they returned to Oakdale, Quetzl was arrested. They talked of arresting Lantanna but Quetzl said she did not know he’d stolen the car. Lantanna did not want to go to prison so she did not argue for truth.

Winter melted. Queetzl wrote to Lantanna every day. Every day she read his mysterious, passionate letters and wept.

Finally, she took the bus and hitchhiked to the county jail.

“How did you get here?”

“I took the bus and hitchhiked.”

“I don’t want you hitchhiking, it’s dangerous.”

“Anyway,” she said to change the subject.

“No. Not anyway. I’ll end this visit,” he said, “if you don’t promise. Promise me you will not hitchhike again.”

“Quetzl.”

“Promise.”

“You’re not understanding.”

“What am I not understanding? I love you. I want you safe.”

“No,” Lantanna said. “That’s not what I mean. What you don’t understand is I won’t promise you anything. I am not the one. You need me. Let’s just be clear about this. You need me. And I don’t need you. So don’t make threats that hurt only yourself.”

Quetzl waved for the guard.

Dear Lantanna,

Yes. I need you. Beautiful, beautiful girl. I love you. I need you for your beauty. Your love of beauty. Come visit. Tell me you love me. I live to hear you say it. I would do anything for you. I would die for you. But I don’t want you to die for me. I just want you to be safe. Come back to me. I love you. I love you. I love you. Say it.

The second visit.

“How did you get here?”

“I took the bus and hitchhiked.”

“I just want you to be safe.”

“How can you love me,” she says, “if you don’t believe I want the same thing for myself?”

“Lantanna, I love you. Tell me what you want. Tell me what will make you love me.”

“Well,” she says, “that’s a start. Finally, you ask. There are things about me. Things you do not even guess. I have many secrets and there is one that really matters. I’ve never shared it with anyone. I’ve never known anyone who would understand.”

“Yes. Me. I love you. You can tell me anything.”

“This I have to show you.”

“Then show me.”

“I can’t show you here.”

“Will you wait for me?”

“How can I answer? How can I know?”

Several nights later she is awakened. “Quetzl?”

“I escaped,” he says. “But they’ll find me. They’ll come here. We have to go.”

“What?” she says. “Is this your gift to me? I don’t want to go to prison for helping you to escape.”

“No, no. Didn’t I tell you?” He sits beside her on the bed. He grabs her arm and she feels the pulse and weight of his passion. “You never wrote, you only visited twice, and when you came we fought. I have this all planned. You tell them I kidnapped you. If we’re caught you tell them that. See, I have this rope. Let me tie you up.”

“You must think I am really stupid.”

“Lantanna,” he begs. “Trust me. All I’ve ever done is love you. I escaped so you could show me your secret.”

“It’s not here,” Lantanna says. “It’s not in this room.” She sees that he is sweating. She sees fear in his eyes.

“Lantanna, please.”

It isn’t that she really believes he loves her but because she hopes he does, that she agrees. He ties her wrists to the bedposts. She watches his profile as he does. So serious in his work he does not seem to notice her. With the final knot he kisses her. “I won’t do this, if you don’t want me to,” he says as he lifts her thin nightgown.

When he kisses her, she kisses back. It is wonderful, she thinks, to only lie there. He is hungry. It has been a long time and she knows about appetites. He is touching her everywhere. As if his hands had wings. She closes her eyes and tries to feel only these feelings and forget, for a while, the longing, the empty hunger, her own appetite.

Afterward, he takes the silver scissors shaped like a bird from her dresser and saws through the rope. It dangles on the posts and the loops bracelet her wrists. When they stand up together there is a wet spot exposed on the bed. “That’s good,” he says, “it looks like I raped you.”

It is getting light. They sneak down the stairs together as if Lanatanna lived in a house with the sort of parent who would interfere.

She takes him down the path, past his father’s house, past the burnt trees of last summer’s fire, to the meadow, which is stubby as a bad haircut but sprite with flowers.

“I didn’t know it would grow back so quickly,” he says.

She lies down. She ignores him. He finds this moving, that she has let him in so close now that he can see what she is alone. She picks a bud and puts it in her mouth. He is fascinated. This small gesture he had not seen before. She raises her arms, the knotted rope bracelets her wrists, her hands are like little white stars fallen into the meadow grass. The early morning strengthens with heat. He is restless. But she is still and he has learned patience from her stillness.

Finally, a very small yellow butterfly begins to flit about. It lands on the rope.

He thinks, This beautiful girl.

It flits around her lips.

Beautiful, beautiful.

It lands on the bud in her mouth.

Beauti—

She snaps her mouth shut. Chews. Swallows. She looks at him.

He looks at her.

She covers her face with her hands, like a child, as if by not seeing him she disappears. When she removes them, he is still watching her. She cannot bear what she sees. She closes her eyes.

“Go away,” she says.

“I can help you.”

“No. Go away.”

“But I love you,” he says.

She looks at him.

“Really,” he says.

“And this?” she gestures toward her mouth.

“I’ll help you,” he says. “I’ll stick by you while you work it out.”

“This is not a problem,” she says. “This is my appetite.”

He bends to kiss her, but just above her mouth, hesitates.

“Don’t worry,” she says, “they don’t fly back out.”

She closes her eyes. For a long time the only sound is the scrying of bugs. Then she hears the sound of his feet like a scythe, cutting through the meadow grass.

Now, everything is different. She does what she has never done before. She picks another bud. Places it in her mouth. Today she will eat until she has enough. A small blue flits about. She waits. Waits. Waits. It lands on her tongue. Wings fluttering. She bites. In the distance, she hears sirens. Chews. Yes, everything is different now. Swallows. It even tastes different. It tastes better.

—THE END—



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