It's mid-September, and in the Magic Wing Butterfly Conservancy
in Deerfield, Massachusetts, the woman at the register
is ringing up the items of a small girl and her mother.
There are pencils and postcards and a paperweight--
all with butterflies--and, chilly but alive,
three monarch caterpillars--in small white boxes
with cellophane tops, and holes punched in their sides.
The girl keeps rearranging them like a shell game
while the cashier chats with her mother: "They have to
feed on milkweed--you can buy it in the nursery outside."
"We've got a field behind our house," the mother answers.
The cashier smiles to show she didn't need the sale:
"And in no time, they'll be on their way to Brazil or Argentina--
or wherever they go--" ("to Mexico," says the girl,
though she's ignored) "and you can watch them
do their thing till they're ready to fly."
I remember the monarchs my son and I brought in one summer
on bright pink flowers we'd picked along the swamp
on Yetter's farm. We were "city folks," eager for nature
and ignorant--we left our TV home--and left the flowers
in a jar on the dry sink in the trailer. We never noticed the
till we puzzled out the mystery of the small black things
on the marble top--which turned out to be their droppings.
And soon, three pale green dollops hung from the carved-out leaves,
each studded with four gold beads--so gold they looked to be
mineral--not animal--a miracle that kept us amazed
as the walls grew clear and the transformed things broke through,
pumped fluid in their wings, dried off--and flew.
I gauge from that memory that it will be next month
before the girls are "ready." I wonder how they'll "fly"
when there's been frost. "And they'll come back next summer,"
the cashier says, "to the very same field--they always do."
I'm sure that isn't true. But why punch holes
in our little hopes when we have so few?
Next month, my mother will have a hole put in her skull
to drain the fluid that's been weighing on her brain.
All summer, she's lain in one hospital or another--
yet the old complainer's never complained.
In Mather, the woman beside her spent a week in a coma,
wrapped like a white cocoon with an open mouth
(a nurse came now and then to dab the drool).
My mother claimed the woman's husband was there too--
"doing what they do"--though it didn't annoy her.
Now she's in Stony Brook--on the eighteenth floor.
I realize I don't know her anymore. When she beat against
the window to break through, they had to strap her down
--and yet how happy and how likeable she's become.
When I visit, I spend my nights in her empty house--
in the bed she and my father used to share. Perhaps they're
there. Perhaps we do come back year after year
to do what we've always done--if we can't make
our way to kingdom come, or lose ourselves altogether.