The white butterfly was sitting on the front walk as we went out for an evening picnic in the park. It was an unusually bright Wednesday.
Immediately I was bending down and cooing over it. I stuck out my finger and we watched it climb aboard.
I made an uneasy comment about how some traditions hold that the visit of a white butterfly is the sign of a recently-departed soul.
Frenchman remarked that the undersides of the wings were a ghastly yellow-grey, which are also indicative of death.
Not very cheerful of us, with these odd observations.
Butterfly stayed on my hand for over an hour while we walked, dined, and conversed. It telegraphed its mysteries with its lively legs and crawled about a bit but otherwise was uncannily still on my hand, seeming not in the least interested in flight.
When we arrived home, Butterfly did not wish to part. I had to quite strongly coax it into the front window box, where it rested somewhat unwillingly beneath a leaf of Lady’s Mantle.
We three said goodnight.
The next morning, I opened the shades in the parlor to find Butterfly sitting underneath the same leaf. Except its posture was turned about so that it was staring into the house.
My neighbor caught me bending over the window box later that day and we talked about it and swapped theories. He agreed that maybe it was laying eggs and that perhaps explained the odd behavior of a creature so often restlessly in motion.
I checked on Butterfly every half an hour or so until 2pm, when it disappeared. The encounter faded.
On Friday morning I went outside to water the flowers in the window boxes. I had not done so the day before—despite the heat—as I hadn’t wanted to bother our friend.
I dropped my watering can when, midway through watering, I found Butterfly had returned to the same leaf and was again looking at me watchfully. I had been on the verge of inadvertently drowning it.
Later that afternoon, I received word that my grandfather had died—on Wednesday.
I remembered the uneasy discussion about the symbolism of the Butterfly as herald of a recently-departed soul.
I only met my grandfather once. I only learned after his death, from his obituary, that we had an awful lot in common; he ran a gardening nursery and later worked in hospitals as a nurse.
My good friend S. said that sometimes butterflies get parasites or diseases, which could account for our visitor’s odd behavior. Perhaps, she suggested, it had come into contact with pesticides.
True enough, but sometimes rationality cannot shear away the spiritual.
In the evening we inquired of Butterfly if it would like to walk with us: I stuck out my index finger and at once it broke its stillness to clamber over. With strain I told Frenchman that Butterfly seemed unbearably heavy. It clung with something that I can only describe as an intense heaviness, and I quite badly wanted to remove it from my finger.
Still we walked along the river and back and still it was with me.
When I put Butterfly back in the window box, I knew it wasn’t over but didn’t know quite what to do.
And on Saturday morning I raised the shades and found it staring into our parlor again, and felt it wanted to be let inside. I greeted Butterfly when we went out and when we returned that morning, but didn’t want to open the window…or perhaps open myself to what was coming.
Finally, around 3.15 while Frenchman was out, I couldn’t bear its watchfulness any longer, nor what I sensed as request becoming plea. I raised the window and stuck out my finger.
Slowly it came over and onto the finger, too light, altogether too light.
I took some pictures of Butterfly in the sunlight at this time and failed to capture it.
And suddenly I put down my camera in shame. For I felt what was unfolding.
Frenchman came home a few minutes later and found us together in the parlor. I told him I’d be upstairs in a moment to tend to his injured shoulder.
But I never went upstairs.
I heard him, far away, call my name. I tried to answer to him twice but could not. For I saw that Butterfly was dying as it suddenly flared out its wings, showing the pure white on the uppermost sides.
So I kneeled down on the floor with it in my palm and all I could say was bless you. Bless you. It’s ok. We’re going up and out.
One by one its six legs folded, like lights going out in some distant cottage that no one sees.
All along we stared into each other’s strange eyes without seeing. Or perhaps with a different sort of seeing.
And Butterfly could not stand on my hand any longer and gently fell onto its side, as if it were resting, as if I were going to read it a storybook tale before its bedtime.
Do butterflies sleep?
They go dormant, S. says.
How absurd to anthropomorphize the Butterfly. How far is its experience from mine!
I heard my Frenchman call my name from upstairs but could not answer and a tear escaped my right eye. I felt utterly intwined with this creature. You may laugh if you wish.
Bless you, bless you, what is it you are telling me? How do I hold space for you? It won’t last. Bless you.
Oh, how each moment is a precious one, each movement. Oh, how little we see when we rush through the world. Oh, how easy it is to forget the small things that are the greater.
And oh, how we deny death, thinking it will not come to us, hoping it will be easy, brushing it away as something others go through but not us, oh not us. Not Now. Later. Oh, until it is standing next to us! Butterfly, the symbol of Psyche, consort of Eros. The Soul, companion of Desire. And how like desire is death, carrying us away without warning, not knowing the time nor the method. And then the parting between body and soul.
Butterfly extended its proboscis suddenly and I thought—this is the last breath—and so far did it extend that it lost its coil and lashed the air like a whip. This attempt to depart must have gone on for three minutes or so when Frenchman finally appeared in the parlor, saying my name in consternation.
I can’t be with you! I cried out. I’m with—
And Butterfly shivered ever so slightly.
The proboscis recoiled into the eternal form of ammonite.
Another minute and stillness came.
We laid Butterfly upon a white saucer. It was so beautiful but it felt rude to photograph. After a few words that evening in its honor, we laid Butterfly to rest beneath some blue flowers I had planted. Forgetting the name of the flowers (Cornflowers) I went and looked for the seed packet. I smiled to read the label: Butterfly Mix.