Memories are like butterflies. They intrude upon your innermost thoughts, taunting you as they flit in and out of your peripheral vision.
While they seem so hauntingly surreal, as you beckon for them, call them, beg them to stay just a little longer, they dance gracefully away from your outstretched hands, close enough to touch, and yet far enough to be nothing more than a distant daydream… Dahlia was three when she first saw a butterfly. She could still remember that magical afternoon—the endless azure sky, the gentle undulating of the autumn wheat grasses, the coruscating wings of those delicate, oh-so-beautiful creatures as they passed overhead. Her mother had been back at the studio in San Francisco, working on another one of her painting projects, so it was just her father with her in the backyard. “Can I keep one?” she’d murmured to him, clapping her hands with awestruck delight.
There was something about the butterflies that fascinated Dahlia—the mystery that surrounded them, perhaps, or maybe their sheer, unadulterated courage, courage in pursuit of the unknown. No wonder she was downright ecstatic when a pretty speckled one landed on Mr. Bissett’s arm.
“Don’t move, Daddy! Don’t move!” She ran back inside the house and emerged moments later with the camera. That evening, her father tucked her into bed, a decidedly rare display of affection. “Night-night, Daddy,” she whispered drowsily. “Mommy’ll be back in the morning” was the hushed reply.Dahlia had watched as he shuffled slowly out of the room.
He paused, turned back, green eyes glistening with something almost like regret. The door slid softly shut.She’d woken up to find her mother gently shaking her awake. A look of calm resolve was affixed upon her face, but her voice, rough and startlingly unfamiliar, betrayed her inner turmoil. “Honey, I want to talk to you about something that your father has asked that we go through.” She took a shaky breath. “It’s called divorce.
” Fourteen-year-old Dahlia lay motionless on her bed. All the lights in the house were out, but she didn’t mind the blackness, let it soothe her reeling emotions with its darkly clandestine touch. She needed some time to think. Just this evening, her mother had broken monumental news over dinner; after ten years of estrangement, her now-Canadian father was coming back to visit the twosome he’d left behind.
In less than a week. Dahlia had choked on a mouthful of broccoli and almost fallen off her chair. Oh, yes, she definitely needed some time to think. He’d moved to Vancouver after essentially abandoning his family. The monthly child support checks were the only things he’d ever sent; no letters, no birthday cards, nothing. She had few memories of her father but could still remember how he looked like.
Though maybe he looked different now… It wasn’t until the first feeble rays of early morning light penetrated Dahlia’s gauzy window curtains that sleep finally overcame her.As the sun rose steadily over the distant treetops, Dahlia slumbered on. It was the first day of winter break, but her mother, accustomed to the demandings of her eight-to-four shift at the local pharmacy, was long awake. Careful not to disturb her resting daughter, Ms. Bissett began to rummage through an old trunk sitting in a corner of the room. With a muffled “Aha,” she pulled out a scrapbook from somewhere deep inside of it.
Handling the bulging creation as she would fine porcelain, Ms. Bissett examined its worn, photo-plastered front cover. It was dated 2008—she hadn’t made one since. She tiptoed over to the faded sofa and sat, staring at the scrapbook the entire time. There was sheepish curiosity written all over the sharp angles of her face yet also an inexplicable fear. And with one last wary glance around as if to make sure no one was looking, she gingerly cracked it open. It was the first time in a decade.Dahlia lumbered out of her bedroom just then and her mother was forced to close the scrapbook and hastily shove it under her thighs.
But it was enough for her to have locked eyes with the smiling photograph of her ex-husband. Enough to make her remember.It was all too much for Ms. Bissett to bear. Dahlia, halfway to the refrigerator, turned on her heel and rushed over to a weeping Ms.
Bissett’s side in alarm. “Mom, what’s wrong?” Dahlia snatched the poorly hidden scrapbook and held it the with the back cover forward. She flipped it open to the “first” page.Her father, a speckled butterfly perched on his arm.
Moments later, mother and daughter were collapsed on the couch, quietly sobbing in each other’s arms. The offending scrapbook went back in the trunk with a satisfying thud, and for the rest of the week, an unspoken agreement seemed to have formed within the little household—to forgo mentioning Mr. Bissett. The days were almost startlingly ordinary; the neighbor’s Yorkshire terrier still barked, the chores still needed to be done, and the heater still shut down at random hours of the day. Ms. Bissett painted ceaselessly, every color-loaded brushstroke bringing her a little bit of peace.
Dahlia almost forgot. Almost. Six days of ignorance passed, and reality came rushing back with the moon. “Dahlia, I’ll need you to prepare with me for the…” Ms. Bissett paused. “big thing.
Will you help cook lunch tomorrow?” Dahlia, up until that moment staring doggedly out the window (there was nothing to see except the overwhelming blackness of a windy winter’s night), smothered a protest already forming on her lips. Her mother depended on her these days, and besides, they could not postpone the inevitable. Her father would be here the very next day. Dahlia woke up to the smell of savory food wafting from the kitchen. She got up to take a look and was immediately greeted by her apron-clad mother.
“There you are, honey, why don’t you help me toss?” Dahlia obediently took the salad bowl from Ms. Bissett’s outstretched hands, picked up the oversized wooden spoon lying inside among the lettuce, and began to mix. Her mother went back to stirring a pot of bubbling soup at the stove. A whole platter of turkey sandwiches had already been placed on the dining table—Dahlia couldn’t believe her mother had done all this before she’d even gotten out of bed! “I’ve already eaten breakfast. You go and get some after you’re done with the salad,” Ms.
Bissett said, reading her mind. Dahlia tossed the now-dressed greens one last time and poured herself some milk and cereal before running out the patio door. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she sidestepped the row of her mother’s potted blooms and leaned forward against the patio gate, two stories above the parking lot.Car after car after car pulled in, but none of the people who emerged were the person Dahlia was looking for. So she waited.And waited.And waited.As the clock struck eleven thirty, a silver sedan pulled into a parking space.
A middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair came out. Dahlia’s heart skipped a beat. A gossamer butterfly fluttered around the potted flowers, breaking her intense concentration.
It picked its way among the marigolds and sunflowers and yellow zinnias and then began a lopsided waltz around Dahlia’s head. She batted it away, annoyed, turning her attention back to the man below. He was helping someone out of the car.A woman.The butterfly fluttered jeeringly out of the corner of her eye. Dahlia lunged for it, snarling, propelled by a savage energy that seemed to clog her nostrils and stifle her breath.
She kicked and clawed at the perfect golden blooms in her frenzied state, eyes only for the butterfly as the plants bent to her will. Ms. Bissett came running out of the apartment just as Dahlia made one last grab at the fluttering thing… She tentatively opened her fist. It was empty. Meanwhile, Ms. Bissett watched over the railing as the man below craned his neck upwards; his clear green eyes sparkled in the light. The two locked gazes for a long moment. She turned away and walked back into the apartment without looking back.
“Mom,” Dahlia whispered. “Mom.” Ms. Bissett turned around gradually—she was smiling.
“The butterfly flew… flew away.” She was smiling, too.A car engine started somewhere down below.And then Dahlia and her mother were collapsed on the couch, quietly laughing in each other’s arms. Slowly taking flight.