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Volume 17, Issue 3: Flotsam

Butterfly Lies

Nathan Wilson

Somebody has been cutting hay. The dusk is made of it. The world is made of it. The hay is made of the air, made by the sun splitting the C from the two Os. The sun and air made it, but the hay is not ungrateful. It gives back. It gives this smell.

The smell brings memories, memories of the Casebolts' barn, of hunting grasshoppers with bows and arrows, falling in the creek with Joe, the abandoned combine in the hollow hill across from his house, the two of us caught on the other side of a "No Trespassing" sign fishing in the bull pasture, and a border collie's mouth full of confused infant pheasants carried past the cat.
But this time, while I pull the scented world into my lungs and roll its vintage on my tongue, I am surprised. I wait for the childhood memories. I wait for the remembered sensation of Mr. Casebolt's lasso pulling my legs out from beneath me, the joy of a war we fought against a neighboring birthday party—our base a network of supported tunnels within a haystack. But I've graduated. I'm no longer simply thinking of my own childhood; I have begun remembering my son's, and he's still in it. He's barely even begun. This season's hay only takes me back a single year, to a hot day, a stumbling two-year-old, and a supportive mother.
I am in the park, watching a memory badly filed, nearly forgotten: my son and the butterfly.
He's got his socks pulled up and his white tennis shoes on. The turf is rough for him and even worse on this slight slope. Every lump here is an obstacle. He's plenty fast on level ground, but this is a new difficulty. The wife and then-baby are following behind, cheering him on. I've given him control of the expedition, the whole park and no guidance. He may lead as he chooses, and he leads down.
I know the look in his eyes. Dogs get it too, dogs and boys. The fences are down, the doors are open, the leash is unclipped. Magellan probably had that look, before the scurvy. I've assumed that we would stop, that there would be some distraction—grass that needed picking, a rock, a dandelion—but we plough on. A distraction does come, and it's past us almost before we notice. The blond head is twisting in the wrong direction. I help him.
"Over there, Rory." I crouch, turn him, and point. "There's the butterfly."
It's mostly black and almost the size of a monarch, but it doesn't move at all like one. This thing is fast. There's no flitting; it's sailing, paddling in time, keeping surprisingly level altitude, never opening its wings completely. There's red involved in there somewhere.
"I want to hold it," Rory says. This black-dusted flier is doing loops at the top of the hill thirty yards away. The whole park has disappeared for my son. The jet-ski butterfly is the only thing of interest. Simple freedom has lost its attraction.
"Hold it," he reiterates. I look at his mom and smile.
"Baby," she says to him, "butterflies don't like to be held." He's not listening, so I bend my philosophy down beside him. I am his father. I will explain the world to him.
"Buddy," I say, for I am wise, "Do you see how fast it is? It won't let you touch it. It will be scared of you and fly away so fast. When you grow up you'll be faster. We'll get you a net and then you can try and catch it."
His eyes are following the butterfly. It leaves its hill and crosses the park, passing by us, and then returns to its hilltop. My son is considering my words.
"I want to touch it," he says. He remains unconvinced.
And then the butterfly came. It came fast—it had no other speed— passing right over our heads. But it hesitated. It had not landed since we had first seen it. It landed now. Not in front of us, so we could see it and accuse it of being a large and strange moth, but closer, on a two-year-old chest, just up by the left shoulder. There it preened.
Rory froze. He did not need me to explain the situation. He knew how these things were done. His chin dropped and he stared at it. There were no flowers on his shirt, no bright colors, but he had been chosen, while a father, a mother, and a baby all stood around and stared. The divine joke stayed. The punchline came, rested, and then flew away.
Rory laughed, but quickly grew serious. We, his parents were both talking, congratulating him, informing him, as if he did not already know, that this had been a neat thing.
"Again," he said.
"Rory," my voice was rather cheerful. "I don't think the butterfly is going to come back. But it was right there on your shirt. Did you see it there?"
"Yeah," he said. "Touch it again."
What else did I say? I don't remember. I laid out the laws of reality. Butterflies and lightning do not strike twice. And then God spoke.
"Do you see this man?" He said. "He is your father. Do not believe a word he says."
The second time the butterfly landed on his arm.
How many lies have I told him? I and the world both. I have repented now. I no longer tell him that he can't touch the moon from my shoulders. I tell him to stretch, and I offer to run and jump. There may be a dragon in the mulberries. I make sure to check. And I look for the fish under the couch.
It hasn't happened again, at least not with butterflies. But tomorrow, when the scent of hay has been dew-pressed back to the earth and small lower-class butterflies are sunning themselves by the tire swing, then I will ask to hold one.

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